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Stress Fracture

“I’m at my wit’s end, Doctor. I don’t know what to do.” The young woman pulled a handkerchief from beneath the cuff of her left sleeve and pressed it to her face. “There’s no doubt that poor Cyril is suffering and he’s getting worse and worse every day.” She sniffed, then shifted the white cloth to dab at the tears welling in her eyes. “I barely sleep and Cyril, why I don’t think he sleeps at all.” She looked over at her husband, slumped in the chair next to her, a weary, dazed expression on his face as he leaned against her, his face frantically contorted in a never-ending series of tics and twitches.

Cyril’s eyes narrowed as if he were concentrating on controlling the jerky movements of his face, and occasionally his arms and legs. He pursed his lips together. “M-M-M-Martha Hilt-t-t-tunen,” he mumbled, spit spraying out of his mouth as the twitches of his face caused him to stutter.

Dr. Flavius Beauchfort furrowed his brow. “Most curious. Most curious, indeed.” He leaned forward to study the man’s facial musculature as it continued to seize and heave convulsively. “What’s that he’s trying to say?”

The tears now flowed freely as Mrs. Evans looked away from both him and her husband, gazing forlornly out the window at the sunny day. “I think he said ‘Martha Hiltunen.’ Something like that.”

“I see. And, who is Miss Hiltunen?”

Mrs. Evans wailed. “I have no idea.”

“Hmmm. I see. I don’t want to be … indelicate … Mrs. Evans, but nervous tics can be associated in some cases with extreme stress. Is it possible that your husband has … well … strayed from the path of marital fidelity with this Martha Hiltunen and his guilt is fueling these twitches and guttural admissions?”

“Ha!” exclaimed the woman, a tinge of hysteria in her tone. “If only it were so simple, so straightforward.”

The doctor simply waited until the patient’s wife continued.

“He calls out names all the time. Laying in bed, sitting on the divan in the parlor, in the midst of eating, sometimes flinging food out of his mouth with the name.” The woman shook her head. “They’re always different … and I can’t say that I’ve recognized a single one of them.”

The doctor stroked his well-groomed beard, then fixed Mrs. Evans with a steely gaze. “All women’s names?”

“No. More men’s names than women’s, by a fair proportion.” She furrowed her brow. “Is that important?”

“Hmmmph. Apparently not.”

The patient’s most recent outburst of tics and twitches fell silent for a moment. “S-S-Sander N-N-Niklas-s-s-sen.”

The doctor looked over at Mrs. Evans and raised one eyebrow.

“I have no clue,” she answered. “He just blurts these names out between the most violent bursts of his involuntary movements.”

“Unvoluntary,” muttered the doctor.

“What?”

“Tics are unvoluntary, not involuntary, movements.” He waved a hand in dismissal as the woman stared at him. “It is a minor medical distinction of no import at the moment, I fear. It’s the names that make this case most curious and engaging.”

“I did not bring my ailing husband in tow across the town to entertain you,” Mrs. Evans replied, her face taut with tension. “I came for help. Is there nothing in your experience that is relevant to his condition … that might lead to a cure?”

“My apologies, Mrs. Evans. I am, of course, most eager to treat your husband’s affliction. Tell me. Are the twitches and tics repetitive?”

“Not that I can discern. Does that mean something?”

“Repetitive tics are more common, most especially if the cause is an underlying muscle or nerve problem.”

“What else could it be?”

“Difficult to say. I’ve read of a French physician, Tourette is the name I think, who has made a study of patients, mostly men of your husband’s age or a bit younger, who are plagued by random and severe body twitches and muscle movements, accompanied by sudden involuntary vocalizations.”

“Names? Do they say names, like Cyril?”

“No, not to my recollection. Yips and shouts, mostly, as I recall. Sometimes …” he felt his face blush “… interlocutory derogatory proclamations.”

“Inter …?”

“Curses. Obscene words and phrases.”

“How very odd.”

“Has you husband uttered …”

Now it was the woman’s turn to blush. “No, no. Not at all. Not that he doesn’t know such words, mind you. They’re commonplace in his profession.”

“Ah,” said the doctor. “Perhaps it would behoove us to dig further into that topic. What does your husband do to earn your daily bread? Is it very stressful?”

“He’s in the merchant marine. By his accounts, more boring than stressful. He’s gone for months at a stretch and has little to do much of the time.”

The doctor looked over at his patient. The wiry young man looked nothing like the men he saw on the docks when he traveled by ship. “And, what exactly is your husband’s job on these ships? He doesn’t have the look of a stevedore or one of the burly firemen who stoke the boilers with coal. A waiter? Purser?”

Mrs. Evans tilted her head to one side. “Waiter? Purser? You must be thinking of the big passenger ships. No, nothing like that. My husband’s in the merchant marine. Cargo ships. Cotton mostly. No passengers, or at least not many on most voyages. Accommodations are spartan, to be sure, and used only by those without money to purchase better. Certainly no one demanding constant attention between ports. Basically, just open ocean, crew, and the cargo.”

“That’s a pity.”

“Pardon me?”

The doctor shook his head. “I don’t mean that it’s a pity he is in the merchant marine. It’s just that demanding passengers could account for a high level of stress. Not to mention the grisly business of the Titanic a while back. Thank goodness your husband had nothing to do with that.”

Mrs. Evans’ gaze shifted to the floor. “I didn’t quite say that.”

“I don’t understand. You said he worked cargo vessels. He wasn’t on the Titanic, was he?”

“No.”

“Did he have a close friend on the doomed ship?”

“Not that I know of. But he was nearby.”

“Nearby? How is one nearby the middle of the North Atlantic?”

“His ship’s course traversed the same waters on that same night.”

“Ah …,” said the doctor. “Perhaps his ship helped rescue the survivors and … recovered the bodies of the unfortunate souls who succumbed to the icy waters. Dreadful, soul-wrenching work, no doubt. Why didn’t you say so? That’s the kind of stress that can fracture the psyche of a kind-hearted man.”

“No. No, it’s not that. You’re thinking of the SS Carpathia. She was the first on the scene and, by all accounts, most involved in the grim work you describe. My husband, he was on the SS Californian.”

“Later on the scene? I don’t want to be graphic, my dear woman. But salt water and marine life can do hideous things to a body which has been floating for an extended time.”

“J-J-Jacob Wiklund!” shouted the patient.

Tears began falling from the woman’s eyes. “Not even that. The Californian was nearby when the Titanic first foundered. They say the lights were visible on the horizon from the Californian, but the Captain … Captain Lord … ignored several reports from his crew of rockets being fired, as well as the fact that the lights on the large vessel on the horizon looked unusual. The Captain went to sleep and did nothing all night, even when woken by the crew with reports of more rockets.”

“Dear heavens,” muttered the doctor.

“Yes,” she continued, “the next morning they heard what had happened and the Californian later encountered some wreckage and flotsam. They even recovered a few bodies, but Cyril had nothing to do with those recoveries. He … he was just the wireless operator.”

“Survivor’s guilt can be a heavy burden to bear.”

“He has no reason to feel guilty. Cyril said he sent a message more than an hour before when they say the collision occurred, warning of ice, but was rebuked by the Titanic’s wireless operator, who was busy ferrying messages for the passengers to Port Race, Newfoundland.” She shrugged. “So, he turned off the wireless at the end of his shift and went to bed.”

The doctor nodded toward Cyril, still alternating between bouts of twitching and short pauses of contorted trembling. “Guilt isn’t always rational. Still, I’d venture he’s been this way ever since he got home from that voyage.”

“Oh, no. He was fine for some time after. Well, not fine. It was sad, after all. No, his … condition … only began recently.”

“Ahh. Did something else occur recently that might be a trigger for your husband’s displaced guilt and stress?”

“The inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic concluded. Captain Lord was criticized, but not Cyril. He did nothing wrong. And, from what I heard from him, he learned nothing during the inquiry about the actions of the captain and crew of the SS Californian that he did not know long, long ago.”

“The papers seemed to imply there were startling revelations during the course of testimony.”

“To the public. Not to Cyril. At least not about the Californian.”

Cyril suddenly began a frantic, sustained burst of twitching. His face twisted left, then jerked quickly down and to the right, then twisted left, then quickly down and right, then left again. He stared straight ahead for a moment, his lips trembling. Then the sequence repeated, including the staring pause. Then again. And again.

“I thought you said his movements weren’t repetitive,” said the doctor.

“They’re not,” Mrs. Evans replied. “I mean, they mostly consist of those two movements. A slower twisting movement to the left and a quicker jerk down and to the right, but not in any particular sequence.”

The pattern repeated again.

Mrs. Evans gasped. “Start message. Start message.”

The doctor looked about the room. “What the bloody hell?”

“He’s signaling. It’s code. I think it’s code. The slower left twist is a dash. The shorter to the right is a dot. Dash-dot-dash-dot-dash. It’s the signal wireless operators send one another when they’re about to start a message.”

The doctor was flabbergasted. “You know Morse Code?”

“Not really. Not that much. But when we were courting, Cyril would sometimes send me coded messages … love letters. I’m not really very good.”

Cyril began twitching again, but not in the sequence of the earlier pattern.

“What’s he saying?” demanded the doctor.

“Uh … uh …” She threw up her hands. “I’m not a skilled translator. I think that was an M.”

“Mrs. Grimely!” shouted the doctor toward the door. “NOW. Bring your notebook. You, too, Freddy! Come quickly.”

“That was definitely an S,” mumbled Mrs. Evans.

The doctor’s secretary and his office boy appeared at the door, their eyes wide.

The doctor fixed Mrs. Grimely with a stare. “Take down what this woman says, word for word, including pauses.” He turned to Mrs. Evans. “Dots and dashes, my good woman. Translate what your Cyril is communicating. We can translate later.”

He turned to the young office boy, who was trembling in fear at the bizarre events. “You. Freddy. Go down to the hiring office at the corner of the next block south. Tell them I have an urgent need for their best wireless operator on the double. Two day’s wages for the rest of the afternoon. Bring him here. Quickly, my boy! Quickly!”

“Dash-dash-dot,” said Mrs. Evans. “I think that’s a G. M-S-G.”

“M-S-G?” replied the doctor. “That makes no sense. Is that some abbreviation for message?”

“I don’t know,” answered the woman, wringing her hands.

Mrs. Grimely took down even those words as she said them.

“We’ll figure it out later,” barked the doctor. “Dashes and dots. Concentrate on dashes and dots.”

The frenetic and bizarre spectacle continued on for more than an hour before Freddy returned, breathless and with a mustachioed young man rushing in behind him. The new fellow took a step backward upon encountering the scene before him. Cyril twitched and jerked, his wife standing before him and leaning in to watch his face closely, shouting dash and dot and dot and dash and pause, while Mrs. Grimely wrote each word down on a sheet of paper. Several other sheets were stacked upon the doctor’s desk.

The doctor grabbed the sheaf of papers and then grabbed the wireless operator before he could bolt in fear. He shoved the papers at the fellow. “Urgent message. Translate.”

The mustachioed man looked at the sheet. “You mean these dots and dashes after the M-S-G.?”

“Yes, the M-S-G, the message.”

“Uh, pardon me, but M-S-G doesn’t mean message. It’s an abbreviation for Master Service Gram.”

“What’s that?” asked the doctor as Mrs. Evans and Mrs. Grimely continued to track Cyril’s facial tics and twists.

“It means that it’s a communication that is to be taken immediately to immediately to the bridge. An urgent communication to the captain of the vessel.”

“Yes! Yes! What comes next?”

“Communication to Captain Stanley Lord, commander of the SS Californian.”

“Keep going,” urged the doctor.

The operator looked at the paper for a few moments. “Is this some kind of sick joke?”

“Just translate. That’s what you’re getting paid to do. Not ask question.”

“These are the names of the people you let die on the Titanic by your inaction. You ignored the lights. You ignored the rockets. You didn’t bother to wake the wireless operator to check for a distress call. But, trust me, he’ll never sleep again until he delivers this message to you. Revenge is cold, but not as cold as where we are now. Listen to the names of the souls you doomed to a watery hell, because you will join them one day in everlasting torment.”

Frederick Shellard

Razi Rabid

Frank D. Millet

Mary Mack

Reverend Thomas R.D. Byles

It took hours and hours and hours, but as dawn was breaking the next morning, the weary wireless operator called out one last name: “Jack Phillips, on-duty wireless operator of the Titanic.”

Mrs. Evans croaked out a final “Dot-dot-dot-dash-dot-dash.” Then Cyril stopped twitching and fell into a peaceful, but deep sleep.

“End of message,” reported the translator. “End of message.”

“What do we do now?” asked Mrs. Evans.

The doctor flopped wearily down into his desk chair. “We give the message to Captain Lord. Let his conscience experience during each restless, wakeful dark going forth the fear and dread he let flourish during that one fateful, cold night. May God have mercy on his soul.”

The wireless operator nodded at the doctor, then looked over at Cyril, calm and deep in slumber, his wife at his side. “Dot-dot-dot-dash-dot. Message received and understood.”

_ …. .

. _. _..

Recommended2 Simily SnapsPublished in Adventure, All Stories, Classic Literature, Contemporary Fiction, Culture and Current Events, Drama, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Paranormal, Romance, Sci Fi

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