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Flu: Sequel o Fever
Author's note: I wrote this as an assignment for English class.
It has been exactly one year since the yellow fever swept the country, killing off a big chunk of the Philadelphia population. I, Mattie Cook, am now 15 years old. I live in 1794 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and run Cook’s Coffeehouse, my family’s business, with our cook and close family friend, Eliza. Eliza is like a second mother to me. She’s kind and caring and a fabulous cook. Eliza, her brother, and her twin nephews, Robert and William, live with Mother and me. Mother was one of the unfortunate ones that were affected by the Fever, as were the twins and I. We all survived, thank goodness, but Grandfather and many others did not.
“Mattie! Oh, Mattie!” a voice called.
“Nathaniel,” I hissed. “Quiet down. Do you want to wake the whole household?”
“Why, Mattie! I’m hurt!” he pouted, then grinned. “How about some food to make up for it?” he asked and walked into the kitchen. I rolled my eyes.
“I swear Nathaniel, not a day goes by when you aren’t starving. I’m surprised you haven’t become the food yet,” I joked.
Nathaniel Benson was, actually is, my best friend. We’ve known each other since we were toddlers and we’ve been through a lot together. Mother and Eliza believe he intends to court me in a few years.
“Your mother thinks you two would make a fine couple and I believe you have a slight crush on him. Don’t think I don’t notice you staring,” Eliza always teased.
True, maybe I did like Nathaniel a little bit, but I never believed he liked me. It’s impossible, right? Suddenly, I felt someone pulling on my skirts. I looked down and saw Robert sitting on the hardwood floor with William crawling around beside him. I picked the boys up, balancing them on my hips.
“I take it you two are hungry, too?” I asked ambling into the kitchen.
I was greeted by the sight of Nathaniel stuffing his face with bread rolls.
“Nathaniel! Save some for the rest of us,” I scolded playfully.
“Trff fbenff ef myf flace,” he said.
“Swallow first, Nathaniel,” I laughed. He gulped down the roll before speaking again.
“I said, try being in my place. When you’re stuck in a house for twelve hours on end you eat as much as you can,” he responded, wiping the crumbs of his vest.
“Well you’re the one that wanted to be a painter,” I said, setting Robert and William in their high chairs.
I was about to get them some food when I felt a pair of strong arms wrap around my waist. Nathaniel swiftly picked me up and began spinning me around.
“Nathaniel! Put me down!” I shrieked trying to contain my laughter.
“Not until you apologize for teasing me,” he said.
“Alright! Alright, I’m sorry!” I said, still laughing.
He stopped turning and softly put me down. The room finally stopped spinning and I looked up to find Nathaniel staring at me. I noticed we were extremely close and his arms were still wrapped around my waist. We stared into each other’s eyes and moved closer until we were about an inch away from each other.
We jumped apart as the kitchen door swung open and Eliza walked in. I could feel my face rapidly heating up as Nathaniel and I tried to pretend that nothing had happened and that we hadn’t just almost kissed.
“We almost kissed,” I thought, smiling to myself, but I quickly dropped it when I noticed Eliza staring at me questioningly.
“Was I interrupting something?” she asked, a smile tugging at her lips.
“No,” replied Nathaniel as the blush started to fade from his cheeks. “I was just heading off to work.”
He grabbed an apple, gave me a hug, and strode out the door. Eliza peeked around the corner to make sure he was gone then practically ran over to me. She smiled at me, more like smirked, and said,
“Care to explain Miss Mattie?”
“Explain what?” I asked, feigning innocence.
“Don’t you give me that ‘Explain what?’ nonsense,” Eliza scolded. “Were you two about to kiss?”
“No,” I scoffed and felt myself blushing again. “Eliza, Nathaniel and I are just friends. We’ve known each other since we were kids.”
“Just friends my butt. Almost everyone in town knows that he’s looking to be your suitor,” Eliza responded.
“I don’t like him,” I insisted.
“Don’t like him my-”
“Eliza!” I yelped, my face turning as red as a fire engine.
She grinned at me evidently pleased with herself. Desperate to get past the awkward humiliation, I began grabbing pots and pans to make breakfast while attempting to change the subject.
“So have you heard what the ladies in market are talking about?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she grumbled as she started cooking eggs. “They’re all a bunch of filthy gossipers who should be buying necessities instead of talking a persons’ ear off.”
Ignoring her comment, I replied “They said that there’s a new disease roaming the country called the swine flu.”
“Well I don’t believe that garbage for one minute,” she answered. “Anyhow, if it is true, we’ll make it. We survived the yellow fever and we’ll survive this.”
“It’s supposed to be even more lethal than yellow fever,” I said, but it came out softer than I’d intended as I had suddenly begun to feel light-headed.
“It’s all rubbish. Those women are just looking to start something,” Eliza replied, her eyes still focused on the ingredients she was currently mixing.
I nodded weakly, clutching my head as my stomach lurched. I gripped the countertop and felt my knees buckle underneath me.
“They all talk like- Mattie? Mattie, child, are you alright? Mattie!”
I collapsed on the kitchen floor and heard feet rushing across the wood floor. The last thing I heard before I faded into darkness was Eliza screaming for Mother.
“Is she okay?”
“She should be. The doctor said it didn’t look like anything major.”
“What happened to her in the first place?”
“I’m not sure. We were just talking and then all of a sudden she fainted.”
“Mattie? Mattie, can you hear me?”
I slowly opened my eyes and found myself staring into Nathaniel’s brown ones. Behind him were Eliza, Joseph and the twins, and Mother. I groaned and foolishly sat up resulting in a sharp pain coursing through my head. Nathaniel gently pushed me back onto the bed. He was about to say something when Mother hastily shoved him out of the way. I couldn’t help myself and I broke into a fit of laughter at the sight of Nathaniel sprawled out on the floor.
“Matilda! Are you alright?” Mother screeched, frantically checking me for cuts or bruises. Did I mention that she’s been a bit overprotective since I caught the fever last year?
“Mother I’m fine,” I assured her, massaging my temples to ease the returning headache.
Suddenly, the door opened and a man clad in a brown suit holding a briefcase entered.
“Hello Matilda. I’m Doctor Smith,” he said.
“Hi,” I responded warily. “So what’s wrong with me?”
“Well Miss Cook. You have-”
He was cut off by Mother gripping his coat. “Please tell me she doesn’t have yellow fever again!” she said.
“No mam’. Matilda has-”
“-The swine flu!” Mother shrieked again.
“For goodness sakes Lucinda let the poor man speak!” Eliza scolded, storming over and yanking Mother away from the doctor.
He nodded his thanks to Eliza before continuing.
“As I was saying Miss Cook does not have the flu or the fever. She has only come down with the common stomach bug and her fainting was apparently from dehydration,” he said.
We all sighed in relief and Mother and Eliza hugged me tightly.
“Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for your other daughter,” Mr. Smith continued.
My head snapped up as we stared at him. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I knew something bad was about to happen.
“What other daughter?” Mother asked. “Matilda is my only child.”
“I was referring to the little girl. There was a small five-year old with blonde hair and blue eyes in the last room,” he replied.
“Nell,” I whispered.
Nell was like a little sister to me. In fact, she was my little sister. Nell became a part of our family last year, when the fever was still new. I had been living with Eliza and Joseph after Grandfather had been killed and Mother had fled the city, searching for us. I had found Nell cowering inside her wrecked home clutching a broken doll with her mother lying lifeless on the bed. After that, I had taken Nell in and she had come to stay with Eliza and me. I was tempted once to give her up to an orphanage because I didn’t think I was fit to take care of her and myself. Thankfully I had trusted my instincts, which I had previously been told was a mistake I was always making, and kept Nell. After the frost and the passing of the fever she had come to live with us and claimed Grandfathers’ old room. I looked up at the doctor putting all of my strength into keeping the tears from falling. Nathaniel must have seen me because not long after I felt a warm hand slip into mine.
“What’s wrong with Nell?” I choked out.
“It appears that Miss Nell has caught the swine flu. I heard her this morning after inspecting you. I went to check on her and found the girl coughing and vomiting. I ran a few tests and they all state the same thing. I’m so sorry my dear,” said Mr. Smith.
“I want to see her,” I said, holding back my tears.
He nodded and motioned for them to help me up. I had Mother on my right, Eliza on my left, and Nathaniel behind me while Joseph carried Robert and William. I steadily made my way down the hall to Nell’s room, ignoring the pain in my head. Once we reached the Nell’s room I shakily opened the door.
The sight was terrible. Nell was curled in ball under her blankets. Her pale hands were clutching her stomach, she was shaking, her face was red, and she was vomiting into a bucket at her bedside.
“Nell!” I cried.
I ran over to her carefully avoiding the bucket. I laid my hand on her rapidly heating forehead as tears threatened to spill out of my eyes. This time I didn’t fight them. I gripped her small hand as my vision blurred with salty tears. She stared at me, her once bright blue eyes now held sadness and fear. The last time I had seen her look like this was when I first found her, alone in her house. Before, Nell had always clung to me, refusing to leave my side. Now, I was the one clinging to her and praying that it was all just a bad dream. Yellow fever was one of the worst things I had experienced in my life and the swine flu is said to be worse. I closed my eyes as fresh tears poured down my cheeks. I heard someone coming over but didn’t bother to look up until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Nathaniel pulled me into his chest and that’s when I broke down, sobbing into his shirt.
“Maybe we should leave them alone. She’s in enough pain without us hovering around,” Eliza whispered.
I heard the door softly click shut, leaving me alone with Nathaniel and an ill baby sister. Once I had cried myself dry I crawled over to Nell’s bed and rubbed her arm. Her fever had gone down a bit but it hadn’t made much of a difference.
“I’m so sorry Nell,” I said. “I can’t believe I let this happen to you.”
She was looking at me again, not saying anything aside from the groans she emitted whenever she threw up. I wanted to hug her so much but I knew I couldn’t without the risk of catching the flu myself. Nell smiled at me weakly before closing her eyes. I panicked for a second until I realized that she was only sleeping. I squeezed her hand one last time before I walked out of the room with Nathaniel.
Later that day, I was helping Eliza and Mother with the customers in the coffeehouse. I had been everywhere today. I had to keep up with my chores around the house, help Mother and Eliza with the coffeehouse, run to the market twice, and take care of Nell. Nathaniel had persuaded Master Peale to give him the day off so he could help Joseph with the twins. I had just come back from checking on Nell and was serving a customer when the front door banged open. I saw Mr. Ellis, one of Grandfathers’ old friends. He looked frantic and worried, holding a piece of paper tightly in his hand.
“Oh my! Mr. Ellis, what’s wrong?” Mother asked.
She briskly walked over to the old man after putting down her coffee pot and tray. The old man took a few ragged breaths before answering.
“It’s the blacksmith, James. He’s dead and so are the butcher, a fisherman, and 13 others,” said Mr. Ellis.
Nearly everyone in the coffeehouse gasped and then the room went dead silent. It was so quiet you could hear a pen drop. Then, everybody began talking at once.
“Could it be-?”
“You don’t think-?”
I listened intently to the scattered conversations through ought the coffeehouse. Word of the swine flu was spreading quicker than yellow fever. I instantly flashed back to last year, when we had first heard about the fever. Mother had come home nearly in tears telling me that Polly was dead. She was the first one affected. I wondered who was first this time. Was it Nell or some other poor, unsuspecting, soul? Eliza must have noticed my expression because she promptly motioned me towards the kitchen. After making sure that all of the customers were taken care of she joined me.
“Matilda Cook! What in the world is wrong with you girl?”
She used my full name. The only time she calls me Matilda is when she gets really angry.
“Nothing’s wrong Eliza?” I answered, staring at the floor.
“Don’t start with me Mattie. I’ve known you since before you were born. I can tell that something’s wrong now out with it,” said Eliza.
I sighed in defeat. She was right. Aside from Grandfather Eliza knew me better than anybody and I knew her just as well. She was extremely stubborn and when she wanted something, unless it got her in trouble, she wouldn’t budge until she got it.
“I’m just worried,” I said.
“Don’t tell me that you’re still bothered by that flu nonsense, are you?” she asked.
“That’s just it Eliza. It’s not nonsense. The flu is real,” I replied. “First Nell gets the flu, then the blacksmith and all of those other people, and everyone talking about it isn’t making things much better. People are dropping like flies and we don’t know who could be struck next. What if it’s the twins, or Nathaniel, or even Mother?”
I felt my throat close up as fought to hold back the tears pricking in the corners of my eyes. I hardly ever cried unless it was over something very big, like Grandfathers’ death or when Mother returned home after the frost. I guess after my dad died I stopped crying over everything that made me upset and only cried every once in a while. Eliza’s irritated manner softened and she pulled me into a hug. I hugged back, surprised, considering she’s not very affectionate and hasn’t hugged me in long time.
“Mattie, I know you’re nervous about what’s going to happen but I promise we’ll survive. I know that you’re a tough girl, strong enough and sharp enough to make anything happen. Nell is the only one that’s been affected so far. We just have to cure her and we’ll be as right as rain again. Alright?”
“Alright,” I said.
In a few hours, the last of the customers had paid and left. Nell had stopped vomiting for the time being and was now sound asleep. Her fever had gone down and I was desperately hoping that that meant that she was getting better. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to her. I had just finished washing and drying the laundry out back. Silas, our old, orange tabby, sat lazily under the shade of a tree licking his fur. I stared out at the cobblestone street. No matter where you lived, unless it was by the pier, you were surrounded on all sides by the streets of Philadelphia. It was mid-evening and the sun was just begging to set. The sky was painted beautiful yellows, oranges, and pinks. It looked like something Nathaniel would be painting if he was at Master Peals’ now. I was snapped out of my thoughts by the back door shutting and footsteps coming down the porch stairs. Nathaniel came and sat down in the grass beside me. I smiled at his slightly sweaty hair and dirty clothes, probably from hours of playing with the twins.
“Looks like someone had a fun day,” I teased.
He smirked at me.
“Sure, if you call chasing Eliza’s nephews and letting them tackle you and throw dirt at you fun,” Nathaniel answered.
I laughed imagining the two six-year olds knocking Nathaniel onto the mud covered ground.
“Remember when we were their age? We used to fool around here while you’re mom gardened or served the customers,” said Nathaniel.
“Yeah,” I replied, “we would always throw water on Silas and when our moms told us to stop-”
“We would throw water on each other,” Nathaniel laughed. I laughed, too.
“We always had a lot of fun out here. Playing hide-and-go-seek and painting. Well, you would paint I would just throw handfuls of paint at the canvas,” I said.
“I thought they looked pretty good for giant spots tossed together by a five-year old,” he grinned. I playfully shoved his shoulder and laughed.
“Liar,” I said.
“Bad artist,” he responded.
“You said it was good,” I said.
“I lied,” he said simply.
We both laughed again, remembering all of our antics as kids. Suddenly, he stopped laughing.
“Mattie?” he asked.
“Yes?” I answered.
“I overheard your mom and Eliza talking. They want to send you away” he told me.
“What?” I yelled. “They-they can’t send me away.”
“They might have too Mattie. They just want to protect you,” he said, trying to comfort me.
“I don’t want to be all alone with a huge disease again,” I cried.
“You won’t be alone. Nell will be with you, so will Eliza, Robert and William, and I will too,” said Nathaniel.
“You’ll be there, too?” I asked. He nodded.
“Mattie, you’re my best friend. I would never let anything happen to you,” he said.
I looked up and noticed that Nathaniel was unusually close to me. Again. His hand reached up and brushed a few strands of hair out of my face, tucking it behind my ear. He leaned forward a little and so did I. Our lips were less than an inch apart. He hesitated before closing the gap between us. I smiled into the kiss as the sun set and the stars rose into the dark blue sky.