Herbert West in Love, by Molly Tanzer

Click to enlarge.  "Herbert West in Love" -- illustration by Miko: http://mikosart.webs.com/

Click to enlarge. “Herbert West in Love” — illustration by Miko: http://mikosart.webs.com/

It was the last day of the last week of the fall semester. Outside the smudged panes of the classroom’s high rectangular windows snowflakes were slowly accumulating in the boughs and hollows of the trees; drifting down from the leaden sky to carpet the quad. Inside the classroom, most of the students dandled their pencils over their notebooks as they ignored the lecture, choosing instead to watch the slow transformation of the bland, institutional buildings of Miskatonic University into a Christmas picture-postcard.

Most, but not all.

A boy called West sat in the back row, hand aloft, arm quivering with tension. Behind his thick spectacles his eyes were firmly fixed upon the professor as the man scrawled “voluntas aegroti suprema lex” across the board. When the chalk squeaked halfway through suprema, West was the only student who did not flinch.

“I know we covered this fundamental of medical ethics—respecting the supremacy of the patient’s will—in our very first unit,” said Dr. Masheck Quinley, his tweed-swathed back still turned to the class, “but since you will be essaying on this idea as part of your final exam, I feel it would behoove us to review it.” Without turning around, he sighed as he scraped the final hatch-mark of the x in lex and said, “Yes, Mr. West?”

The classroom momentarily transformed into a viper pit as sighs hissed out of many, many mouths. West, undeterred, lowered his hand, cleared his throat, and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his aquiline nose before speaking.

“Will we also be asked to essay on salus aegroti suprema lex?” he asked.

Dr. Quinley’s voice was clipped and precise when he answered. “Of course, Mr. West. We covered ‘beneficence,’ or acting in our patients’ best interest, in that same unit.” He smiled unpleasantly. “Don’t you remember? How surprising; all semester long we’ve heard so much about your amazing powers of recollection.”

“It’s not that I don’t remember,” snapped West, “it’s that we never resolved how to negotiate the intersection of these, as you put it, fundamental concepts. I still don’t understand why a patient’s opinion is considered more important than his physician’s! How can we, as doctors, possibly be expected to accept the idea that any random, uneducated person is more qualified to make decisions about his health than someone with an advanced degree in medicine? How could letting a patient make those decisions be acting in his best interest?”

“Don’t let him get started, please,” said a boy off to West’s left. It was Reginald Gurganus, another first-year medical student. Physically the reverse of West, he was tall and placidly handsome, just the sort of fellow who would put a sick person at ease. West openly despised him, and the feeling had become mutual over the course of the semester. “He’ll take over the whole class if you let him, and a bunch of us want to review that human experimentation case where—”

“I have the floor!” West’s voice, never deeper than a tenor, rose into a girlish alto as he spoke over his colleague. “I shall not be interrupted by the likes of you, Gurganus. Your father might have donated enough to secure your acceptance to this university, but not all of us are so … lucky.”

“What the hell are you saying, pencil-neck?” shouted Gurganus, his normally bovine appearance becoming bullish as he turned around in his chair to glare at West.

“I’m simply saying that unlike you, I cannot depend on hobnobbing my way into a position at a hospital. I will be forced to get one the old-fashioned way: Earning it. Thus, I must pass this class—and I cannot do that if I am not properly acquainted with the material.”

“Silence!” Dr. Quinley held up his hands. “I concede that the field of medical ethics can be tricky to navigate, Mr. West, but before you say another word, remember that your insistence that there is some … irreconcilability between these ideas has already been noted during class-time.”

“Noted, perhaps—but never addressed.” West sneered as he spoke, no mean feat. “While I was able to discern what you obviously considered the ‘correct’ answers on the midterm, there’s a difference between circling a number on a multiple-choice test and forcing one’s hand to parrot those ideas at length in essay form.”

Dr. Quinley’s face was crimson with anger. “That is enough!” He withdrew a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at his forehead. “Mr. West, throughout the semester you have disrupted class with your pedantry and casuistic reasoning. I can see I hoped in vain that you would absorb some of the wisdom I believe can be found in the lectures and texts I have provided for your consideration.”

West sniffed. “And I see Thomas Paine was right when he said that to argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Nary an eye lingered upon the winter afternoon beyond the windows; a boring review session had suddenly become a battle of wills. All through the classroom excited whispers slithered from ear to ear as incredulous looks were passed like notes.

West sat behind it all, above it all. He had the look of a man who knows he has won an argument … until Dr. Quinley recovered enough to clear his throat.

“You say you must pass this class if you wish to become a doctor,” he said, so quietly that the classroom instantly followed suit. “Well, Mr. West,” Dr. Quinley continued, his voice rising like the winter wind, “you shall not pass this class. As of now, you have failed it.” West tried to protest, but Dr. Quinley shouted him down. “I shall be speaking to the dean about your performance, and advising him that you repeat this course in the spring. And if Dr. Hallsey has any reservations about this course of action, why, there are plenty of witnesses to verify your statement that your answers on the exams in this class were mere parroting, not true learning. That alone should be sufficient to prove you have need of further instruction.”

While West, shocked, opened and closed his mouth like a hooked fish gasping out his last, a pleasant voice came somewhere off to West’s right.

It was Tristan Langbroek, a sweet-faced divinity student who had played peacemaker between West and Gurganus before, on the few occasions they’d really gotten into it during class. “Dr. Quinley,” he said, “please, I’m sure Mr. West is simply overburdened by the strain of studying. The end of the semester puts enormous pressure on medical students, so I’m told, and—”

“I should have read my horoscope this morning,” said Dr. Quinley. “There is no other way I could possibly have anticipated that today I would be insulted to my face by a student—something that has never happened to me in twenty years of teaching—and then be reprimanded, in my own classroom, by a member of the clergy.” He mopped his brow again. “I suggest, Mr. Langbroek, that you close your mouth if you do not also wish to be failed.”

The classroom went completely, utterly silent following Dr. Quinley’s pronouncement. Tristan looked studiously down at his notebook, eyes shining with tears. West, on the other hand, sat up straight in his chair, his gaze fixed upon Dr. Quinley. He did not look like a reprimanded undergraduate. Chin held high, jaw set, shoulders back, he looked triumphant.

After a few more deep breaths, Dr. Quinley smiled. “My apologies to the rest of you for that momentary unpleasantness. Let us now continue to discuss the idea of respecting the will of one’s patient. Mr. Gurganus,” he said, startling the strapping stripling who’d been grinning at West, “you mentioned wishing to further discuss a case of human experimentation. I believe we covered two such incidents in depth this semester.” Dr. Quinley then canted his head to the right, uttering an incredulous tchah when he noticed a hand raised aloft, hanging above the heads of the students like a crescent moon. “Mr. West, lower your hand—and remove yourself from my classroom. You are no longer a student, so you have no further right to disrupt our discussion.”

“But—”

“But nothing! You have failed, and—”

“I have not failed!” West was on his feet, all ten fingertips tented on the desk in front of him. “You are the one who has failed! You have failed to consider any number of relevant ethical quandaries posed by your students, you have failed to acknowledge the possibility that—”

“Mr. Gurganus, will you please assist me by showing Mr. West the door?” interrupted Dr. Quinley.

West drew himself up. “I can see where it is,” he said with dignity. “Unlike you, Dr. Quinley, I have a brain capable of processing the sensory input my eyes provide. I shall leave, but I assure you, I am not through with you.”

“Indeed you are not,” said Dr. Quinley sweetly, as he turned back to the chalkboard. “You shall be repeating this class next semester. Have a merry Christmas, Mr. West.”

Tristan Langbroek felt just awful about what had happened in Dr. Quinley’s class. Not that it had been entirely his fault. He knew that, of course he did. West had made his own bed, had been making all semester, really. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that his attempt to speak on West’s behalf had further enraged the professor, causing Dr. Quinley to really dig in his heels. If only he’d kept his mouth shut! Then, perhaps, they might have settled things more amicably.

He sighed, and his breath steamed out of his mouth as he hurried carefully along the frozen sidewalk toward the cafeteria, head down against the light but persistent snowfall. Usually weather like this, at this time of year, raised his spirits. There really was nothing like a white Christmas to enkindle the spirit of love and charity in people.

But that afternoon, Tristan paid little heed to the weather or the season. He was preoccupied with thoughts about how his father had been right about him. There was no doubt about it, he was, as dear old Dad had always said, a busybody. And now his urge to be helpful had harmed someone.

Come to think of it, that was something his father had always said would happen, too.

The road to hell, thought Tristan, hugging his schoolbooks so tightly he could feel the buttons of his pea coat pressing into his chest. His intentions had been good, but what did that matter?

Maybe he shouldn’t have signed up for that medical ethics seminar. He’d had reservations, but his advisor had strongly recommended it, for Tristan had wanted to become a hospital chaplain ever since the one at St. Mary’s had refused hear his mother’s final confession on the grounds that she was Anglican. The injustice of a clergyman turning away someone who needed comfort had disturbed Tristan deeply at the time. More than it might an ordinary man, as Tristan had always felt God calling to him from an early age, telling him to go forth and help people understand Christ’s eternal love. And now, when it was very nearly Christmas, he’d gone and injured a fellow man.

Tristan eyed the holly-wreath adorning the cafeteria door with despair as he pushed it open, but when the tip of his nose began to unthaw in the warm cafeteria, his spirits rose a little. Winter weather was always more enjoyable when you were warm and dry, and problems seemed less problematic, too. What he needed was to relax, get a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee, and watch the snow until it was time to don his front-of-house Riverside Catering uniform so he could go serve champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the faculty Christmas party.

Then he spied West eating by himself in the darkest corner of the cafeteria. Tristan’s spirits rose even more, and he thanked God for giving him the opportunity to apologize for his part in the disastrous review session. And better to do it sooner rather than later, so he padded over to where West was alternating between taking tidy little bites of his ham sandwich and wiping his nose with a handkerchief.

“Ah, hello, excuse me,” Tristan mumbled, as he nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. West looked annoyed by the disturbance, which made Tristan self-conscious. “I just, I wanted to say I was sorry.”

“For what?”

“For …”

West made an irritated sound in the back of his throat. “Say what you want, and then leave me be. I’m very busy.”

“Busy eating a sandwich?”

West’s spectacles glinted as he looked up. He seemed to really see Tristan for the first time. Tristan felt something very like an electric shock when their eyes met, and found himself blushing.

“Oh, it’s the preacher,” said West, bringing Tristan back to himself. “No pamphlets, please. I hate seeing paper wasted.”

“I’m not trying to give you a pamphlet,” said Tristan. “I’m trying to apologize.” He gripped his books tighter with his left arm as he extended his right hand to shake West’s.

West made no move to return the handshake. “For what?”

“I further antagonized Dr. Quinley,” said Tristan, awkwardly lowering his hand. “I only meant to help. You know that, don’t you, West?”

West’s smile unsettled Tristan, the way he pinched his lips together in the center and lifted only the corners of his mouth. “Herbert,” he said, in a clipped but friendlier tone. “Sit down, will you? And don’t trouble yourself further about Quinley. It was my fault. That ratfink’s been looking for an opportunity to destroy me all semester; today, foolishly, I gave him one.” He shrugged irritably. “You meant to help, and I’ve never believed all that rot about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.”

It startled Tristan to hear his recent thoughts repeated by another. “No?” he asked, setting his books down and sitting across from West.

“No. It’s not paved at all. It doesn’t exist.” West smiled that heinous smile again. “I believe neither in heaven nor hell, Mister …?”

“Langbroek. But call me Tristan.”

“Well, Tristan, that’s why I said your pamphlets would be wasted. To my mind, only what can be proved empirically is worthy of consideration. A boogeyman below the earth’s crust and another above the clouds fighting over my soul, whatever that is … I have never seen any evidence of it.” He looked Tristan right in the eye. “Does that shock you?”

Tristan shrugged. “Do you want it to?”

West shrugged back at him. “Not particularly, though I do enjoy seeing the various ways surprise manifests on the human face. Right now, all I want is to figure out how to persuade Quinley that I should be allowed to take the final and progress in my coursework. Spending another semester with that insufferable man is too much for anyone to endure.”

Tristan had rather liked Dr. Quinley, but he decided against mentioning that. “Have you gone to his office and apologized?”

West chuckled with his lips closed. “I went to his office to reason with him. I owe him no apologies.”

“And how did that go?”

“He wasn’t there; I expect he’s gone home for the day already.” He snorted. “Tenure. Must be nice.”

“I’m sure it’s just he’s gone home to dress for the faculty Christmas party tonight.”

West looked at Tristan keenly. “Are you sure of that? How do you know?”

Tristan felt a chill at that moment, as if death had just kissed him upon the nape of his neck. He shivered, and turned around just to make sure no one was there. It reassured him to see the door to the cafeteria slamming shut; just a draft, of course.

“Tristan?”

“Oh,” he said sheepishly. “Sorry. I—ah, what? Oh, the party. I work as a server for the catering company that’s providing everything.”

West looked thoughtful. “Indeed? Where’s it being held?”

“The Pornelles Room, in Lemmington-Jekyll.”

“Hmm. Good to know. Were I to crash the party, I could get Quinley alone and convince him that we actually agree on a very important matter.”

“What’s that?”

“That we’d rather see less of one another than more.”

Tristan laughed. “It’ll be hard. They always post a guard at the door.”

“Why?”

“Free hooch,” said Tristan. “Can’t have the riff-raff drinking up all the wine. The professors would revolt if the sauce ran out before they did.”

West considered this for a moment. “I bet you could help me, if you were willing.”

“How? It’s against the rules for us servers to talk to the guests about personal matters, and I can’t risk losing my job. My scholarship barely covers tuition, much less books and—”

“You misunderstand me.” West popped the last of his sandwich into his mouth, chewed it quickly, and swallowed. Tristan saw his Adam’s apple bob as it went down his slender throat. “I’m proposing you take me along.” He chuckled again. “You know, as your date.”

Tristan blushed again, and he was just opening his lips to protest that servers obviously couldn’t bring along dates when someone shouted “Faggots!”

The cafeteria went quiet. Tristan turned around, surprised and horrified to find Reginald Gurganus standing there behind him, looking mighty pleased with himself.

“Knew you faggots were faggots,” he said smugly. “Going on a date? To a party? I’m not surprised you suck dick by choice, West, but you, Langbroek? You might actually get a girl to look at you! That is, if you weren’t so busy sucking dick. By choice,” he added, and then laughed loudly, hurr hurr hurr.

“Jealous, Gurganus?” said West. Tristan was amazed by his coolness under fire. “Funny, I thought your sort never tired of date-raping coeds. Well, they say you learn something new every day.”

“Whatever, faggot,” said Gurganus. “Never thought your sort ever left your dorm room. Too busy jerking it to pictures of Errol Flynn.”

“Are you speaking from experience?” West took a sip of coffee. “Takes one to know one, Reggie. And anyways, you can have Tristan if you fancy him. I go for brains over brawn; when I jerk it to a picture, it’s—”

But Tristan never found out who West jerked it too. Red-faced, he fled the cafeteria before West—or anyone else—spoke more of boys being aroused by boys.

He was halfway across the snowy quad before he realized he’d forgotten his books. What to do? He couldn’t go back in there. He couldn’t go anywhere, come to think of it. Oh, sure, boys like Gurganus threw around epithets like “faggot” and “queer” all the time, sometimes even as a term of endearment, but it always left him wondering, worrying really, if everyone could tell.

He sat down on a convenient bench, heedless of the snow chilling his bottom through his trousers, and hung his head. He knew it was always a possibility somebody—or many somebodies, for that matter—might guess his secret shame; figure out that it wasn’t just a feeling of godliness that had prompted his wish to become a chaplain. Ministering was the sort of job where one could always put off marriage, being too busy with the flock and all that. Of course people would wonder, but he’d learned from an early age that people accepted uncomplicated answers. Or would pretend to, and gossip quietly elsewhere. He could live with that.

“Tristan.”

Tristan looked up and saw West standing there, in a black overcoat a size or two too big for him. He was holding Tristan’s abandoned books under his left arm, and when their eyes met, he reached out with his right hand to where Tristan slouched on his frozen bench.

“Get up, you’ll catch your death,” he said lightly.

“What do you care?”

“I need your help to get into that party tonight,” said West. “At this point, you’re my best shot at not having to repeat Medical Ethics 101 next semester. I’m sure Dean Hallsey is going to this party, and he doesn’t much care for me either, if you must know. If he and Quinley have a chance to drink wine and celebrate the prospect of hindering my academic progress, I’m done for. Thus, I need you alive.” He shrugged and lowered his hand, shoving it into his pocket. “You can go ahead and freeze to death, feeling sorry for yourself because of whatever stupid reason, after you help me gate-crash.”

Tristan discovered that, oddly enough, he appreciated West’s frankness. He got to his feet and brushed the snow from his rear end before accepting his books.

“It’s not a stupid reason,” said Tristan, as they walked towards the dorms. “It’s—”

“I don’t care one bit,” said West. “It doesn’t matter to me if it was that lout Gurganus calling you a faggot who hurt your feelings, or if was my remark about preferring smarter fellows than you on the rare occasion that I allow my baser passions to take possession of my attention. Perhaps it was something else entirely. But I’m sure you have more important things to worry about than who you are, or what others think of you. And even if you don’t, well, the first you cannot help, and the second is irrelevant. Don’t let it bother you.”

“You say that, but …”

“I say it because I mean it. You want to serve your god? Then devote yourself to serving him. Letting yourself become distracted by … irrelevancies … is the first step along the road to failure.” West looked at Tristan keenly, his spectacles glinting. “If you’re going to fret about roads paved with good intentions, my friend, that’s the truly dangerous one.”

Tristan was surprised that he found weird little Herbert West’s pep-talk comforting, but he did. He smiled, and nodded, and the conversation moved on to just how they’d smuggle West into the faculty party.

By the time they finished planning out the details and West had left Tristan to prepare for work, Tristan felt positively chipper. He caught himself whistling as he drew his bath. His day may have begun badly, but it was ending well. And he owed it all to West. He was glad he could help West with his problems, after West had so generously helped him with his own.

It was only then, as Tristan shrugged on his white tuxedo jacket, that he realized that, come to think of it, he’d never actually agreed to help West. Well, no matter. He was happy enough to do it.

The Pornelles Room, where the faculty Christmas party was being held, ran the entire length of the top floor of the Lemmington-Jekyll Administration Building, which stood at the northeastern part of campus, near the intersection of Garrison and Lich. John Pornelles, one of Miskatonic’s more recent benefactors, had several years prior earmarked quite a bit of money to convert the outdated faculty lounge and adjacent attics into a space for formal receptions.

This had required some architectural creativity, as there were kitchen facilities in Lemmington-Jekyll, but they were located in the basement. A large dumbwaiter, therefore, had been installed in a newly-constructed alcove along the northern wall. This worked well enough … except that the electrical light intended to alert kitchen-staff and servers to when dirty dishes needed to be taken down or hot food sent up had never worked right. Therefore, a system had been established where waves of food and drink would be sent up on the even tens (on the hour, twenty-past, and forty-past) and dishes sent down on the odds.

But given that the only stairs were in full view of the reception hall (it had been impossible for the architects to install a staff stairwell and keep the project under budget), the dumbwaiter was also—unofficially—used to transport staff in the middle of events, when they were on break, or needed to change out a soiled jacket for a fresh one, or whatever else.

Tristan had worked at several of these functions, Riverside Catering being the go-to for fancy college events. And, as the servers—most of them being strapping Miskatonic University lads—were often called upon to aid the catering staff with the heavy lifting, he was well acquainted with the kitchen, too. Not as recently renovated, it was dark and narrow and hot in there, and it tended to get loud in the thick of things, when cooks and back-of-house help were working hard to get food out and dishes washed. Tristan despised it when he had to go down there in the middle of an event, but he and West had agreed that the confusion would aid them in their plan.

The plan, however, was not confusing, thank goodness for that. All Tristan really had to do was dress, show up on time, and do his job until his first break, an hour into the party. Then he was supposed to leave by the dumbwaiter, pass through the kitchen, and cross over Lich Street to get to a florist’s shop just out of sight of the kitchen exit. There, West would meet him, wearing Tristan’s spare front-of-house jacket over his own. They would then both return via the kitchen, where the steam and ruckus and sheer mass of bodies would hopefully obscure the presence of an imposter. West would go up in the dumbwaiter, sending down his jacket quickly after reaching the party, so Tristan could stash it, and then go up himself.

“You’re sure I can’t just walk in?” West had asked, when Tristan initially proposed impinging on his dignity by cramming himself into a freight elevator.

“Do you think they’d spring for a doorman if they weren’t serious about keeping out interlopers?” Tristan shook his head. “Trust me, this is the only way.”

What West’s plan was once he got into the party, Tristan didn’t know—and he preferred it that way. Personally, he felt West was being a bit hasty and paranoid; having seen how professors tended to let loose during event, Tristan was pretty sure Dr. Quinley and Dean Hallsey would be pouring so much wine down their throats they’d be hard-pressed to discuss anything. But West seemed resolved upon settling the matter as quickly as possible, and it was his neck on the line. So Tristan put the matter from his mind during the first hour of the party, except for noting when Dean Hallsey appeared, and keeping an eye out for Dr. Quinley, who walked through the garland-bedecked door just as Tristan was beginning to despair of the professor arriving before he had to meet West.

“Ah, Mr. Langbroek,” said Quinley, as he snatched a glass of champagne from a passing server’s tray and a miniature quiche off of Tristan’s platter of canapés. “Good to see you.”

“You as well, sir,” said Tristan, and then, unable to stop himself, blurted, “I know I shouldn’t say anything, not now, but I must apologize for my part in the incident in class this afternoon.”

“It is I who should apologize,” said Quinley. “I was in the wrong to chastise you. You were acting in good faith, on behalf of a fellow student. West’s behavior—well, we’ll say no more about it. I’m here to go a-wassailing, if you catch my drift.” He nodded at the four-piece band that was playing a jazz rendition of that very carol.

“Of course, sir.”

“Better get some more of these quiches, I seem to have eaten the last of them. Bring me some more? I’ll be over there, in that corner. I have something I want to talk to Hallsey about, do you see him? He’s standing with Dr. Armitage. My goodness, have they commandeered an entire tray of bacon-wrapped shrimp between them?”

“Dean Hallsey really loves those shrimp,” said Tristan.

“Oh, I know,” said Quinley. “I’ve watched him bolt down handfuls of them for decades. I don’t know if you were at Miskatonic when there was that scandal over whether Hallsey’s secretly a Jew, but as I said at the time, anyone who believed such a rumor had never seen him at a faculty shindig.”

“Enjoy yourself, sir, and merry Christmas,” said Tristan, and noting how late it had become, hurried off to get downstairs, through the kitchen, and outside.

West was waiting exactly where he said he’d be. He leaned casually against a lamppost, huddled in his coat, and was smoking a cigarette with short, almost mechanical inhalations. Ashes and butts littered the snow around his feet. He’d been there for a while. Well, West seemed like the sort who’d arrive early for something important even if it meant lingering outside in frigid weather.

He didn’t immediately seem to notice Tristan’s approach, so Tristan watched him for a moment, admiring the figure West cut in his black suit and black overcoat. It wasn’t that he found West attractive; West wasn’t exactly handsome, but the perpetual intensity of his eyes and facial expressions, paired with the delicacy of his features, made him … interesting to look at.

Well, that was all a bunch of hooey, mused Tristan, even as he shot a quick prayer skyward for thinking such sinful thoughts. He did find West attractive, damn it, and not for the first time he felt it unfair that he should have to hide his attraction, even from himself, just because Paul of Tarsus mouthed off about arsenokoitai being among those who would never inherit the kingdom of heaven.Tristan didn’t want to inherit anything, he just wanted to live his life and preach charity and kindness as Christ did. Long ago he’d decided to become one of those “eunuchs by choice” mentioned in Matthew, but looking at West’s lips contorting around his cigarette, the way the lamplight shone through his shell-delicate nostrils, how his coat hung on his slender shoulders, Tristan began to doubt his resolve. The way he moved, the sharpness of his profile highlighted by the lamplight … it made him want to brush the snowflakes from West’s lapels, snake his hand around his waist and—

West checked his wristwatch, and Tristan, realizing he was wasting precious time, hurried over.

“Dr. Quinley’s inside,” he said, breath smoking like West’s cigarette. “When I left, he was going over to speak with Drs. Hallsey and Armitage.”

“Rats,” swore West, and stepped on his half-smoked cigarette. “Let’s get inside, then. There’s no time to lose.” He shrugged out of his overcoat and stashed it behind some bushes. He was already wearing Tristan’s spare jacket. It was far too large on him; Tristan hadn’t realized just how slight he was.

“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” asked Tristan, hoping against hope that he could talk West out of the plan even at this late stage. “I just think—”

“Tristan.” Tristan wasn’t sure if it was West’s tone or the breeze that made him shiver. “You can’t back out now. I need you.” West reached out and touched him on the shoulder, squeezing the muscle there ever so gently. “There’s no way this will hurt you,” he promised. “I don’t even know you, all right? If anyone asks, I acted alone.”

“I’m not worried about that,” protested Tristan, though it occurred to him only now that perhaps he should be. “I’m worried about …” he trailed off, unable to say the word.

“Don’t worry about me.” West seemed to interpret his meaning just fine. “I can take care of myself.”

Everything will be fine, Tristan told himself, as they elbowed their way through the crowded kitchen that smelled of melting cheese and human sweat. Relax, he reminded himself, as West casually folded himself into a crouch inside the dumbwaiter as though he’d done it a thousand times. Don’t worry, he repeated for the fiftieth time when his spare jacket was returned below a stack of trays and several dirty wineglasses.

It was with a not-insubstantial feeling of relief that Tristan, after tucking his jacket surreptitiously into a convenient cabinet, finally returned to the party. Studiously avoiding looking for West or Quinley, he offered around a platter of bite-sized mincemeat pies with more than his usual courtesy, and even hummed along with “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” when the band struck up that lively tune.

“Massive turnout this year,” commented another waiter, as they fumbled with the dumbwaiter door, attempting to send down another batch of dirty wineglasses. “Really keeping us running tonight.”

“You’re telling me,” said Tristan, glancing at the clock. “We should suggest they do punch next year. Less work for us.”

“Can you imagine?” replied the other boy. “It’s only our human frailties that keep them from guzzling every ounce of firewater within fifteen minutes of the doors opening. If they were pouring their own drinks…”

Tristan agreed with him absently. He hadn’t realized it had been almost half an hour since he’d returned. Where was West? What was he doing? Had he left already? He and Tristan had agreed to meet afterwards at the Black Goat, a bar frequented by Miskatonic students that stayed open late, but that seemed an awfully long time to wait.

But Tristan had more pressing concerns, like the fact that Professor Wilmarth had actually slunk around the side of the server’s alcove to enquire if there was more wine to be had. And as if that wasn’t annoying enough, while babbling about needing more of the legendary ambrosia of the gods to keep young, he gesticulated suddenly, spilling the dregs of his pinot noir all over Tristan’s jacket.

“It’s all right,” promised Tristan. Wilmarth looked close to tears over the mishap and wouldn’t stop apologizing. “I have a spare, I just need to get it. Don’t worry about anything, please—return to the party and go on enjoying yourself.”

Wilmarth staggered off at last, and Tristan shed his soiled uniform so the red wine wouldn’t soak onto his shirt. But just as he was thinking about how lucky he was to have a spare below, he heard, high and nasal above the party’s dull roar of human voices, “You’ve made an enemy tonight, Dr. Quinley, mark my words!”

Tristan broke into a cold sweat. Poking his head around the edge of the alcove, he peeked through the gaps in a clump of poinsettias and caught sight of West striding away from a pissed-off looking Dr. Quinley. Dear God above.

Without thinking, Tristan hopped into the dumbwaiter and, reaching though the open panel in the ceiling, lowered himself quickly back down to the kitchens. “Sorry!” he said, brandishing the stained part of his jacket when one of the cooks jumped back upon seeing him bolt out of the elevator, very nearly spilling a tray of pieces of marzipan shaped like fruits. “These professors! Gotta change quick!”

But after grabbing his clean jacket out of the cabinet, instead of returning to his job, Tristan fled the kitchen and headed back outside. The only thing in his mind was catching West before he left. He had to know what had happened. One of the conditions of Tristan agreeing to aid West’s gate-crashing had been him promising to be civil, and Tristan didn’t think West would go back on his word … at least, not without serious provocation.

“Herbert!” he cried, seeing the slender boy collecting his coat from behind the bushes in front of the florist’s shop. “What happened?”

West whirled around, an ugly, furious expression contorting his dainty face. “What—oh, it’s you, Tristan.” He gained control of himself and smiled thinly. “What are you doing? I thought we were to meet up after you were finished? I wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your job.”

“It’s all right,” said Tristan, wondering if it was. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay?”

West cocked an eyebrow at Tristan. “Spare me the hysterics. I thought I told you I went for brainier sorts than you.”

Tristan could not stop his lower lip from trembling. “Oh, I just,” was all he could manage. But then he felt anger rising in him, hot, pricking resentment at being treated shabbily by West—teased about the thing he was most sensitive about—and after doing everything he could to help! “I’m going back inside!” he cried. “I’ve never in my life met such a horrible, ungrateful … I can’t believe I helped you—I can’t believe I thought you were cool! I hope you do fail that stupid class, and I hope—”

Tristan almost slipped on a patch of ice when West grabbed him by the hand and pulled him down into a kiss, right there in the snowy brightness under the lamppost, but West’s grip was like iron, and it kept Tristan steady on his feet.

It wasn’t the only thing hard about West, either; the pressure of his lips on Tristan’s was so intense it was almost painful. Tristan didn’t pull away. It was his first kiss, after all, and while it startled him to discover that West’s tongue was as rough as a cat’s, and his breath tasted strangely of formaldehyde, Tristan thought it was pretty wonderful to be kissing someone, God help him.

“You’re brainy enough,” whispered West, pulling away only enough to mouth the words under his breath. “I was just being mean because I was angry.”

“S’okay.” Tristan, eager for more, initiated the kiss this time, even if West’s diminutive stature put a serious crick in his neck. Surely God, in His wisdom, wouldn’t have made kissing another boy so fun, were it a sin? Because this was fun, innocently fun … well, except for the drum-like thrills shooting along the length of Tristan’s stiffening cock. That wasn’t so very innocent. Tristan was more aroused than he could ever remember feeling, things were getting almost painful down there. He dearly wished he could adjust himself, but feeling it would be indelicate, he let instinct take over and instead pressed his erection against West’s belly with a moan. The pleasure definitely helped him bear the discomfort. He might be lost in Heaven without a map, but clearly his directional sense was decent enough.

“Well, well, well.”

Tristan released West with a gasp and, horrified, turned around to see that Dr. Quinley had been standing behind him.

It was the worst possible thing. What could he possibly say to excuse what he’d been doing? There was no excuse for it. And all this after Dr. Quinley had been so nice to him … he felt a sudden pang over his betraying the professor. The man was all right.

Quinley, for his part, looked like Christmas had come early that year. Sick with nerves, Tristan turned back to West for guidance, but West had that weird, triumphal expression on his face again, the one he’d worn in class only a few short hours before. Was West … insane? If Quinley spread the word about them, the consequences would be dire, likely beginning—and ending—with Tristan being summarily expelled from the divinity school. And as for West…

“Dr. Quinley,” stammered Tristan, at last finding his voice, “I—what are you …”

“I was wondering how West managed to sneak into the party,” said Quinley. “It seems he had inside help, hmm? What a shame, I’d thought better of you, Mr. Langbroek. Helping a misfit like West doesn’t reflect well on your character, not at all. And that’s without the sodomy.”

“Sodomy!” West snorted, before Tristan could protest. “Oh come now, Dr. Quinley. Don’t be melodramatic. Tristan didn’t help me get into the party. I just walked in the door, and as for the other—”

“You didn’t just walk in the door.” A cold wind kicked up along the deserted side-street, and Quinley, shivering, popped the collar of his overcoat against the cutting breeze. “I asked the … bouncer, ticket-taker, whatever. He said the first time he saw you, you were storming off.”

“Well, however you think I got in there, surely you’ll accept it wasn’t with Tristan’s assistance. Look at him, he couldn’t help assemble a ham sandwich.”

“Nice boyfriend,” remarked Quinley, looking piercingly at Tristan. Tristan flushed, but said nothing, his power of speech as frozen as the ground.

West began anew his attempt to dissuade Quinley that Tristan had been involved in his crashing the party or that they were romantically involved, even going so far as to claim Tristan had been whispering something to him; that Quinley’s eyes had deceived him into thinking he’d seen a kiss. Tristan didn’t try to help defend West—or himself. He watched his ruin unfold in silence, without emotion. Quinley and West’s argument seemed to be happening somewhere very far away, like he was watching through the wrong end of a telescope.

It was all just too terrible. Tristan took a step back, hoping to put even more distance between himself and the altercation, which was growing more heated as Quinley laughed away West’s explanations. The less Tristan was involved the better. He wasn’t like West, he would wait, go in early to try to catch Dr. Quinley in his office, apologize for his error and beg for mercy. Surely if he explained the situation Quinley would see reason. It didn’t seem fair to punish him for such a momentary indiscretion as letting West gate-crash. And as for the other, this entire experience was enough to convince him that boys just weren’t worth the trouble.

West, however, was moving in the opposite direction, advancing on Quinley so angrily that the professor was starting to look nervous. Though short and slight, when he began shaking his finger and raising his voice, West was pretty scary. Quinley was casting about, clearly hoping to see someone else walking along the lonely stretch of sidewalk. But there was no one around, and the wind swallowed rather than blew away West’s words, even when he shrieked, “I will make you see logic if you refuse to do so on your own!”

“West!” cried Tristan, the peril of being implicated in his companion’s belligerent craziness too much to bear. He took a few, careful steps on the crusty, crunching ice toward where the quarrelers quarreled. “Stop this, let him go! There’s no sense in this, you’re going to—”

It happened so quickly Tristan wasn’t sure what he saw. As ginger as his own steps had been, West was not being careful, nor was Quinley in his haste to put some distance between himself and the two boys. And walking backwards on slick concrete freckled with patches of black ice was hardly a good idea under any circumstances. So it wasn’t that Tristan thought West had actually swiped out his foot under Quinley’s own in some horrifying, deliberate attempt to trip the professor—not really. It was just an accident when Dr. Quinley slipped.

The professor windmilled his arms in am attempt to regain his balance that proved futile, and it wasn’t that Tristan thought he saw West push him. He must have been trying to grab the man’s tie, or shirtfront perhaps, in an attempt to keep him on his feet. Yes, that’s what happened. An accident.

But an accident that resulted in them both kneeling over Dr. Quinley’s prostrate figure.

Laying on the sidewalk like a corpse on a slab, an upsetting pool of steaming black blood spreading out from under the back of Quinley’s head, Tristan, in something of a daze, reached out and touched the professor’s brow. It was still warm—and when he looked, he saw that a pulse yet beat at the man’s throat.

“I think he’s alive,” said Tristan softly.

“And a good thing, too,” said West, grinning ghoulishly. “We’d be in an awful lot of trouble if he died, don’t you think?”

Tristan gawped at West. “What?”

“There’s no time for stupid questions! We must, as he made the point in class earlier, act in our patient’s best interest, and that means getting him to my dorm room. I can help him there.” As Tristan wondered if this was truly what Quinley would want, West half-lay down on the sidewalk beside Quinley in his effort to get his arm around the professor’s neck, slumping the body—no, Dr. Quinley—into half of a fireman’s carry. “A little help, please? I can’t carry him by myself. He’s too heavy, the great oaf.”

“Shouldn’t we take him to the infirmary?”

“No! That’s the worst thing we could do!” West sighed as if it was the most obvious fact in the world. “We need to reason with him once he wakes up. So he doesn’t blab to the police.”

“The police!”

“Obviously we know it was just an unfortunate accident, his fall, but who knows what he might say about us? Do you want to risk him spilling the proverbial beans? Over our kiss? Your helping me get into the party? What if he gets confused and wakes up believing I tried to trip him? We’d both be ruined!”

Tristan felt a yawing in his stomach, as if he might be sick. “All … right,” he agreed. West was right, damn him. “How far is it to your dorm?”

“Not very.” West grunted as they both heaved at once and got the distressingly-floppy Dr. Quinley on his feet. Quinley moaned weakly, and Tristan’s stomach did a barrel roll. “If we see anyone, act intoxicated. Sing a Christmas carol loudly, shout, that kind of thing. That way they’ll think Quinley’s just drunk, too, and we’re helping him home.”

The walk back to West’s dorm could not have taken fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity to Tristan. Quinley’s body became increasingly burdensome as Tristan’s arms began to shake with the effort of holding him, and his head lolled when one of them failed to support it properly. And despite Tristan’s hopes, they did see a few people, but no one seemed to notice there was something strange happening, as West and Tristan pretended at making merry until any potential witnesses were out of sight.

Then there were the stairs. West’s room was on the second floor, so there were clanging doors to worry about, and also the brighter light inside that better illuminated their misdeeds—and revealed that the damage to the back of Dr. Quinley’s head was not so minor as Tristan had hoped. His skull looked almost caved in a little, though the man continued to breathe shallowly. Tristan hoped that meant he’d be okay.

“You’re doing great,” said West in soothing tones, when they finally reached his door. He pushed most of Quinley’s deadweight onto Tristan as he fumbled for his key. “It’s nice, having someone to help with this sort of thing—I’ll have to keep that in mind. But now we’re here, you can go home once we get him inside. I understand if medical matters make you nauseated.”

Tristan’s heart soared momentarily—the prospect of getting away from West, Quinley, and really everything about this night was a lovely one, a blessing—but then he realized he couldn’t leave Dr. Quinley alone with West, and certainly not in such a helpless state. He would have to see this thing through to the end.

“There must be some way I can assist you,” he said, trying to sound braver than he felt. “What are you planning to do?”

West turned the knob and his door swung open. “I have a few ideas,” he said, as Tristan’s jaw dropped.

The inside of West’s room was filled with more microscopes, test tubes, Bunsen burners, pipettes, clamps, forceps, and wire brushes than a chemistry department’s supply closet. Actually, given the labels on some of the items, perhaps the chemistry department’s supply closet was a little less than full these days. Tristan’s eyes began to water immediately, not just from the greenish steam or smoke produced by weird fluids bubbling away merrily in their beakers. He felt deeply creeped out, most of all because along with the scientific equipment, the place was absolutely decked out for Christmas. Garlands dripped from the ceiling, ornaments glistened everywhere, and there was even a tiny tree, listing slightly in its stand, on top of a stack of books with titles like Alternative Ideas On The Human Nervous System and Do I Not Bleed? A Concise History of Blood Transfusion.

“What the …” he said, catching himself before he swore. “West, what is all this?”

“My work,” said West absently. “Let’s get him settled, all right?”

As they finagled the limp Quinley into a metal chair beside a square table crowded with equipment, Tristan asked, “What sort of work?”

“Great work. Humanitarian work,” answered West. He had left Dr. Quinley to Tristan’s care, turning his attention to titrating some glowing greenish solution into a beaker. “Something that will change the world as we know it. I am on the brink of a great discovery, you see.”

Dear Lord. “Should we perform first aid?” asked Tristan. As fascinating as West’s discovery surely was, Dr. Quinley’s face had lost all its color, and he didn’t seem to be breathing any more.

“What for?”

Tristan made an incredulous noise in the back of his throat. “I think he’s dying, Herbert!”

“Well yes, of course he is.” West looked up from agitating whatever was in the beaker with a stirring rod. “He’s well beyond ordinary medicine at this point, I’d say. But I am not an ordinary doctor.”

“You’re not a doctor at all!” Tristan cried, his horror mounting as it occurred to him that perhaps West had never intended to save Dr. Quinley.

“Not yet,” West conceded. “But trust me, once I am able to publish my discoveries, the Nobel Prize shan’t be far behind.”

“I hope you enjoy it behind bars!” Tristan backed away from West, back towards the door. “He’s going to die, and that makes you a murderer!”

West sighed. “Really, Tristan, you must learn to control these outbursts! He’s not going to die. I’m going to save his life!”

“How?”

“With this—my reagent,” he said. He set the beaker down carefully. “It restores life to those on the brink of death.”

Tristan, despite himself, was impressed. He shouldn’t have doubted West, West wasn’t a psychopath or homicidal maniac, of course he wasn’t. He was just a medical student, if one with more than his fair share of ego. “Thank God,” he said with relief.

West smiled. “Get his coat off and roll up his sleeve while I prepare the syringe.”

Once Tristan had Dr. Quinley’s forearm free and bare, West swooped in like a falcon and jabbed the syringe into the professor’s most prominent vein. Depressing the plunger, West whimpered a little, as if experiencing a jolt of pain—or pleasure—and then withdrew the needle.

Tristan imagined the result would be instantaneous, like Lazarus rising from the dead or some other famous miracle. Instead, Dr. Quinley continued to slouch in the chair as he had been, looking, well, corpselike.

West set down the syringe, folded his arms, and watched Quinley clinically. After perhaps a minute of this Tristan cleared his throat.

“Ah, should he …”

West checked his watch. “Soon, if it works.”

Wait. “If?”

“Well … this will be my first time using it on a human.” West looked at Tristan in surprise when Tristan gasped. “What, do you think Miskatonic supplies its medical students—even its most brilliant ones—with an endless supply of near-death human specimens? I’ve had promising results with lab animals like rats and guinea pigs, but trust me, stealing anything with a more complex brain and circulatory system is nigh-impossible.”

Tristan sank to his knees. Dr. Quinley had yet to show any signs of life. As a perturbed expression crept across West’s face, Tristan began to doubt he would.

This was it for him, really and truly It. He might have been able to recover from a scandal like an illicit kiss, but murder? While God might forgive him, the legal system would surely require more penitence than a prayer. Perhaps if he demonstrated good behavior they’d let him work in the prison chapel…

“Damn it,” muttered West, checking his watch once again. “Perhaps I miscalculated the dosage … it’s possible Quinley’s even fatter than I thought.”

“Could we still get him to the infirmary?”

West raised both eyebrows. “If we get him anywhere it will be back to where he fell. That way we can make it look like an accident.”

“It was an accident!”

“Oh, Tristan. If you’re going to assist me in my work, you must dry off behind the ears!” West chuckled pityingly as he looked down at where Tristan yet knelt. “If what we learn from our failure with Quinley yields new insights that can help the sick, won’t it have been worth it?”

“The end doesn’t justi—”

“Oh, please. Come on, let’s get him on the dissecting table, all right? The fresher he is, the more I’ll be able to find out.”

Tristan didn’t move. He just shook his head and stared at the carpet. It was flecked with brownish stains.

“Well I can’t let your attitude stand in the way of science,” said West, with the air of a disappointed parent telling a child that no, they could not get ice cream, and it was all because he had cried while having a band-aid ripped off his skinned knee. “Get out of my way if you won’t help.”

Tristan’s legs felt like they belonged to someone else; he couldn’t make the muscles move. He heard West sigh again, somewhere above his head, and then West stepped over him, leaning down to pull open one of Quinley’s eyes. He shone a light onto the glassy pupil.

“Hmm,” he said.

Tristan didn’t ask what was worthy of comment, which is perhaps why they both heard the low moan that came from neither of their throats.

“Was that …” asked Tristan, but West didn’t answer, for Quinley’s hand had shot straight out and grabbed him by the neck.

“Dr. Quinley!” cried Tristan, suddenly on his feet. What on earth was the man doing? Trying to murder his murderer?

But at least he was alive!

Tristan watched in terror as Quinley threw West across the room. His body hit the cement block wall with a thump, and Tristan cried out when West fell to the floor, which made Quinley turn his head and look at the divinity student with bleary eyes.

“Urnnngh,” he said, and lurched toward Tristan.

“Dr. Quinley, I know you’re disoriented,” said Tristan, slowly backing away. What was wrong with the man? Why was he looking at him so queerly, like he wasn’t really seeing him—or recognizing him? “Please, if you’ll come with me, I’ll get you to the clinic, or the hospital, you need help, you need … Dr. Quinley? Dr. Quinley, can you hear me?”

West awoke to find Dr. Quinley choking Tristan, both hammy hands wrapped around the fair lad’s neck. Tristan’s head rolled from side to side as Quinley throttled him, moaning and groaning like a creature in a horror flick. West could tell at a glance that Tristan was not yet dead, but very close to that final state.

“Oh, Dr. Quinley,” said West pityingly, as he retrieved a bottle of powerful muscle relaxant from his private supplies. “The pressures of academia seem to have finally gotten to you. What a shame. But you can’t do that in here, no no no. You might get me in trouble, and then where would we be?”

Calmly, West drew an enormous dose of carisoprodol into the barrel of his syringe. Then, hands perfectly steady, he injected the whole of it into Dr. Quinley’s neck.

Quinley cried out and then fell atop Tristan’s prostrate form, the professor once again insensible if not now entirely dead. That could wait. What was important was Tristan being so close to death; West thought, after watching Quinley’s reaction to his reagent, that he had gained some insight into the proper dosage.

He pushed Quinley’s body off of Tristan’s, humming “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” as he did so. May nothing you dismay, indeed—there was always something to keep one from idleness and despair. Tristan’s lighter body would be fairly easy to get on the dissecting table, and West would strap him down in case he had the same rage-reaction to being called back from near-death. A resurrection more appropriate for Easter than Yuletide, West mused, but science follows no calendar but its own.

Molly Tanzer lives in Boulder, Colorado along the front range of the Mountains of Madness, or maybe just the Flatirons. She is a professional writer and editor, among other things. Her debut, A Pretty Mouth, was published by Lazy Fascist Press in September 2012, and her short fiction has appeared in The Book of Cthulhu (Vols. I and II), Future Lovecraft, and Fungi, and is forthcoming in Geek Love: An Anthology of Full Frontal Nerdery, and The Starry Wisdom Library. She blogs—infrequently—about writing, hiking, cocktail mixing, vegan cooking, movies, and other stuff at mollytanzer.com, and tweets as @molly_the_tanz.

If you enjoyed this story, let Molly know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Miko.

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35 responses to “Herbert West in Love, by Molly Tanzer

  1. Pingback: christmas miracles » paper fruit·

  2. I had the pleasure of doing the audio reading for this story Molly and did my best to do it justice. It was a fun and surprising read! Can’t wait until “A Pretty Mouth” becomes available in a Kindle edition, looking forward to reading it. Happy Holidays!

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  4. The great thing about this story is that it’s really believable on an emotional level, from both Tristan’s point of view, and West’s. But that also makes me a little sad in a pessimistic way. I’ve always thought love kinda makes people stupid sometimes. Further proof here.

  5. Herbert West has only one love and that’s the cold science he uses to bring reanimation to the dead. Fantastic story, provides the details micorscopically from Herbert West Re-animator. Also, I must confess I still see Herbert West as Jeffery Combs from the Re-animator movie adaption.

  6. Excellent, Molly!
    I had great fun reading some of the scenes to my husband (and his quizzical-expression-responses were priceless).

  7. Oh goodness this was wonderful. I’d been miserable all day and it cheered me right up 🙂 Herbert was so spot-on perfect ❤

  8. Hi Molly,
    A vividly fleshed-out version of Herbert here! It’s good to see another variation on him besides the Re-Animator movies. I see you’ve worked in some of HPL’s Miskatonians: Halsey, Armitage and Wilmarth.
    I recognized you from Goodreads, and since I’ve created my own version of Herbert, I had to compare.

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  10. This is very captivating writing. West is so organically fleshed out that it sat in my mind a good while after reading the story. Very memorable, definitely stands out from the crowd.

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