BLACK ROSE

Fallon was brought home on a bitter cold Valentine's Day by his strict father, Mr. Sylvester. A teenage girl was sobbing in the street over a crushed and maimed golden cat. she cried so loud that one would think she wished she were dead too. It was not yet snowing but ice had already begun to form on the road, saving the miserable girl the macabre affront of viewing her pet's exposed entrails being devoured by maggots.

Mr. Sylvester paid no attention to the girls's agony. He turned to Fallon and grunted, "We're nearly home, son. Get some rest, or else."

Without another word spoken they arrived at their destination. Fallon was an eighteen year old student of philosophy who had recently succumbed to a current pandemic that had seized the world at large. He quivered and gasped and had already begun to hallucinate due to such high fever. But since he was not a life threatening case, an and just overwhelmed hospital decided to send him home for self-quarantine.

At the mansion Fallon overheard his father immediately tell their live-in maid - an ancient Indian woman by the name of Aashla - to avoid all interaction with his sick son and just provide him meals with minimal contact. "I don't want you to get infected by whatever hideous anomaly my son has been so unlucky to contract!"

"Yes, sir," Aashla replied.

"Very good, and thanks," Mr. Sylvester uttered.

By this time poor Fallon had already collapsed into his bed in his assigned room of the large house. As he drifted off to deep sleep, his father intruded the room and gave Fallon his instructions. "Stay put here, son." Mr. Sylvester began. "If your condition worsens, call for someone at once. Don't take any chances. Unfortunately, I must venture out to collect rent money and capitalize on a new land deal. I'll be back tomorrow evening."

"Where's mom?" Fallon asked.

"Don't be frivolous, my boy." Mr. Sylvester declared, "Your mother has been gone for years!"

"But, father, I just wanted to..."

"Oh, lie still, young man. You'll do fine! Take your medicine and rest! I'll be back home soon."

"Yes, sir," Fallon responded.

Despite his malady Fallon felt little duress. He had few university acquaintances and was accostumed to studying and spending time alone. Comfortable in his own introspection and misanthropy Fallon relaxed in his bed and permitted himself to slip in and out of consciousness. He pondered Descartes' Meditations on the First Philosopy and how that there is no distinction between wakefulness and dreaming. A random thought of his mother assailed Fallon's trembling mind. His mother had left his father when Fallon was only two years old; she was at least thirty years junior to his stern patriarch. She had only met or contacted Fallon a handful of times over the years like a prodigal older sister. In truth, Fallon barely knew her at all.

Lighting in Fallon's chamber was already dim, yet it seemed to flicker and grow darker. As his bookshelves became more difficult to see, Fallon's heart palpitated along with a pain in his chest and asphyxia. Fallon gasped, clutched his chest, and made a feeble attempt to call for Aashla. All he could manage was an inaudible, "Help, help!"

Minutes passed as Fallon breathed deeply in and out, reciting in his mind passages from Nietzche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Yet still he shook and shivered as portraits of his influences flashed before his mind's eye: Sartre, Heidegger, Husserl, and a host of other existential geniuses . Maybe Bertrand Russell and Hobbs faded in and out also. Just before Fallon swooned a tender knock sounded at his chamber door.

"Master Fallon," Aashla called out, "Would you care for any hot soup for dinner?"

"Yes, please, come in," Fallon croaked.

"I can't hear you, young man!" Aashla exclaimed.

Fallon breathed something inaudible and then let himself roll out of bed. With what little sinew he still had he crawled to the door and mumbled up, "Yes, open the door."

Decrepit Aashla swung the door and nearly collapsed herself in horror. "My dear young Fallon! We must get you back to bed, sir! Why did you get up?"

"I couldn't talk. You would never have heard me," he said.

The elderly Aashla was now vitalized. She helped up the shivering Fallon and walked him back to the ash colored sheets of his mattress. "There, there, my young, sir," Aashla said, "Shall I call a Physician?"

"No, ma'am," Fallon coughed uncontrollably. "Could I please just have some of that hot soup you suggested?"

"Certainly, sir," Aashla averred.

Disobeying Mr. Sylvester's directives Aashla left Fallon's bedroom door open for easier access. She quickly returned with a rolling tray carrying a large bowl of steaming beef broth with a serving of hot tea. Fallon phased out of another hallucination. The bowl of broth resembled a witch's cauldron before he snapped back into the present.

Fallon slurped up the soup and drank the tea as if he had never known such simple luxuries. Quite immediately he felt rejuvenated and actually did a very rare act for him...he smiled.

"Are you okay, Master Fallon?" Aashla inquired.

"Indeed so, Madame Aashla!" You are quite the kind nurse! I deeply thank you!"

Aashla glowed. "Good! Great to see you on the mend! Your father has entrusted me to look after you!"

In his almost hypnagogic state Aashla then left. Fallon did feel energized, though. In his mounting glow he deliberately walked to his bookshelf and pulled one of his favorite novellas, the turn of the screw by henry james to read and entertain himself before he lost consciousness again.

A false awakening must have then duped Fallon. He sat up in bed, rubbed his crusty eyes and saw his mother standing in his room. A petite, blonde apparition looking down on him with a vexed expression. "Mom! You came to see me!" Fallon beamed.

The spectre of his mother shook her head and groaned. "Yes, little boy, your father said you were asking for me. Fallon, Fallon, you're a real spoiled brat."

Appauled, Fallon cried out, "Mom! Come hug me!"

The preternatural vision retreated and held up her hands in a defensive stance. "No, you're sick. See that, just like your father. You never think of anyone but yourself!"

Fallon coughed hard. His throat was very sore as he floundered to recover his breath.

"That is if you really are ill at all," his mother accused. "We all know that you're just looking for attention!"

Fighting the urge to retch or have an involuntary bowel movement Fallon slumped in the bed and pleaded, "Mom, I just wanted to see you and talk to you for a little while."

"Well, you've seen me," his mother's disgruntled, wraith-like voice returned. "Can I please go now? I have places to go and things to do!"

Fallon forced himself to sit up again. With a scowl, standing arms akimbo, his mother waited at the far end of his room. at this point he noticed he could see objects in his room throug her grim, gossamer form. "Yes, mom. Nice to see you again."

"Good! Don't pester me again!" his mother's voice echoed through his room before her figure became more grainy and then dissipated like a cobweb in the wind.

Some unknown time in the morning Fallon stirred again. This time it was because his record player had decided to turn on by itself and play the 45 rpm vinyl of "gloomy Sunday" - the English version by Hal Kemp with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis. Fallon giggled out stupidly at this cruel joke, even though it was directed toward him.

Suddenly a voice sounded out at Fallon's open door. Aashla stood in his doorway with a fallen visage. "Master Fallon, let's get this ghastly song turned off on the phonograph." She readily moved to silence the air. "My dear, sir, you don't look well at all. I'm calling a physician!"

"My mother visited me last night," Fallon announced with an almost hopeful tone.

"There, there, my young man," Aashla gently comforted, "you were just dreaming. No one came here last night."

"No?" Fallon asked.

"Now you just hush," Aashla assured and again, disobeying all rules regarding this plague, she embraced Fallon in a loving squeeze. Fallon hugged her back firmly, tears welling up in his unfocused eyes. The two of them remained locked in arms for a short time before Aashla let go and recommended, "So, no more horrific tunes then, eh?"

"Correct," Fallon agreed as another seldom smile widened on his cheeks.

"Splendid! No physician, then? Just more broth and tea, right?"

"Yes, please," Fallon responded still grinning.

But there was a lapse in time. Fallon expected Aashla back within ten minutes or so. After what may have been two or three hours, Aashla finally returned with the same rolling tray as before. Something about her was amiss. Her recent vigor had declined as she trudged up to Fallon's bed with the hot food. When she assisted Fallon situate the tray at his bed his hand brushed against her arm, affording him an icy sensation. Aashla did not utter a syllable. She merely stood over him with her ashen hair disheveled.

"Thank you, ma'am," Fallon muttered, not knowing quite what to make of her mannerisms.

Remaining taciturn Aashla only nodded and then quit the chamber. Fallon speculated as to what time it was - perhaps mid-morning, brunch time? A clock was no longer in his room since he had moved out to the university's dormitory. The broth was still gratefully warm, soothing his throat while supplying his feeble body with sustenance. Fallon ruminated on why Aashla's demeanor had altered. He fetched his copy of The Turn of the Screw which he had tossed to the opposite side of his bed during one of his lapses into dreamland.

Abruptly Fallon heard his mother's voice chastising him from a non-local point, "Such a weak boy you are, Fallon. You just wait 'till your father comes back home and he'll straighten you out good!" The unnatural voice cackled and then swirled away.

"Mom?" Fallon called out desperately, peeking out from under his book.

Only abysmal silence.

Fallon tried to read but could not concentrate. Again, he attempted to pinpoint what time it could be. Early afternoon? His father would most likely return in three to four hours. Without warning Aashla materialized in Fallon's open doorway. She stood stock-still, hands clasped behind her back as if to check on the boy. Her posture was regal and motionless with a benevolent expression in her eyes.

"Aashla, thank goodness," Fallon began, "could you please tell me what time it is?"

Instead of answering she raised a hand to him as if in a wave. An eerie vision then became accessible to Fallon. It was like if Fallon could see through Aashla and into her body's organs. He could see partially digested food moving through her inards and noticed that her lungs were filled with a black, poisionous slime. Aashla gurgled and vomitted up a dark pungent substance. With that, her flesh and blood was pulverized by an unseen enemy, leaving only an oily slick of black mucus on Fallon's floor.

Fallon convulsed to regurgitate but nothing came up, only choking and shaking. He wheezed and now only wished to go to the lavatory to try to defecate. Just as he rolled out of bed the front door slammed brutally downstairs followed by the sound of an angry drop into a living room chair. "Son! Get your ass down here!" The voice of his father commanded.

Terror gripped Fallon as he caught himself on the floor and began to crawl through his threshold. "Yes, sir, I'm coming!"

After much suffering and dizziness Fallon finally made it down to where his father sat slumped over in a plush chair within the living area. "Papa, I'm here! What's wrong?"

"The plague, my son, the sickness has doomed me in a much more grotesque way than it has gotten a hold of you! Call for help before we both perish!"

"Father, Aashla died, most probably caused by this grisly plague too!" Fallon cried out.

"Who?" his father demanded.

"Aashla! My chambermaid!" Fallon insisted.

Fallon's father shook his head and rasped, "Fallon, for God's sake, go to the telephone and get us some help before we both pass on!"

"I'll check outside. Maybe I only dreamed she died. Maybe she's outside!" That said, Fallon burst through the front door into the frigid weather with what little he had on.

"Son!..." his father yelled out in panic.

Outside Fallon tried to run but only slipped on the snow now fallen, got up, tried to sprint, yet fell again on his face. Across the street he could see a teenage girl shoveling from her driveway. She wore a pink bandana over her mouth and nose; this was the same girl he had seen sobbing over her cat in the road when he was first hauled back home.

Fallon collapsed in the snow again. At the top of his lungs - which was not very loud - he screamed out, "Help! Help!"

By some miracle the girl heard him and rushed over to where he lay writhing.

"Please, please, miss help us! My father is having paroxysms back at our chateau due to the plague. My chambermaid has died and I think I infected my mother as well!" Fallon begged.

The girl stared at him with a perplexed gaping mouth. "Chateau? Chambermaid?" she asked. Disregarding all protocol out of kindness she placed a hand on Fallon's forehead and jerked back. "Sweetheart, you're hot like an oven, enough to melt all the snow around you."

"Please save my father in our chateau," Fallon petitioned.

Sympathy overpowered the girl's face. "So, you live at that cute little house at the cul-de-sack? Don't worry, baby, I'll call for help."

Pulling out her iPhone the girl called 911. "I need an ambulance. There's a sick boy fainting here on the street from the virus. He's so delirious he's talking funny, like he thinks he lives in a past era. He may have other sick relatives inside his...house."

The 911 dispatcher sent the medical unit to Fallon's address.

"You are most kind," Fallon managed to say.

Out of charity she took his hand and squeezed it. "I'll wait with you until help arrives," she ensured. "What's your name?"

"Fallon. What's yours?"

"Hope," she answered.