Vankara (Book 1), page 1
S. J. West
I don’t remember what my face used to look like. Every time I try to visualize how I looked before becoming Sarah Harker, the image never truly comes into focus. It’s like looking at yourself in a pool of water, distorted to the point you can’t clearly make out any of your features in the murky reflection staring back at you.
At the tender age of six months, I was adopted by a well respected couple and christened April Pew. Mrs. Pew’s womb was barren and so the couple had no other recourse but to adopt. Perhaps my adopted mother’s inability to birth a child of her own should have been a clue to the couple they weren’t fit to be parents. My adoptive father was a well respected physician in Iron City whose only saving grace, at least in my eyes, was his apprentice, Gabriel.
Gabriel was tall with short cropped black hair which never seemed to meet the bristles of a brush. He always looked like he had just gotten out of bed and run his fingers hastily through his hair as an afterthought. As a child growing up in a loveless home filled with a myriad of restrictions, Gabriel was my knight in shining armor whose sole purpose in life seemed to be finding ways to make me laugh and ease the burden of my loneliness and despair.
In the winter of 1852, the first plague to hit our island nation of Vankara came on the wind of the first snowfall. Dr. Pew was called upon quite frequently during those days and eventually decided we would all have to pitch in to help those who had fallen victim to the mortal disease. So, at the age of seven, I became Gabriel’s assistant. Some thought it odd to have a child so close to the dying, but Dr. Pew theorized the plague was not contagious between people. The plague seemed to choose its victims randomly and once chosen doomed them to death.
The night the real Sarah Harker died started out as any other during those days. Gabriel and I were making our rounds through the slums of Iron City, saving the Harker’s home for last because Mrs. Harker always prepared a special supper in trade for the medicine and care Gabriel provided Sarah.
It seemed like Gabriel hadn’t even put flesh to wood before Mrs. Harker opened the door.
Though most people considered Mrs. Harker past her prime at almost fifty-years of age, her inner beauty showed that not even wrinkles and graying hair could camouflage a pure heart.
“I spotted the two of you walking down the street,” Mrs. Harker wiped water from her hands onto the white apron she wore over her plain blue cotton dress. “I hope you both came hungry,” she told us with a wistful smile, bravely trying to hide the sadness in her heart over her ailing daughter.
Gabriel took off his black top hat and held it against his chest as he bowed at the waist, “Good evening, Mrs. Harker.”
I always liked that about Gabriel, the consummate gentleman no matter how low someone might be considered in the social pecking order.
“I know April has been looking forward to your supper this fine evening.”
Gabriel winked at me from behind his monocle as I looked down at my feet in embarrassment, having been so transparent in my desire to visit the Harker home almost as soon as we started on our rounds.
“Come child,” Mrs. Harker extended her hand out to me. “I won’t have you going hungry when there’s plenty of food to eat in this house.”
I quickly slid my hand into her warm inviting hold and followed her inside.
There wasn’t much in the way of furnishings in the common room which served as both kitchen and living area in the Harker home. In the far left corner of the room was the kitchen area which had a small wood burning stove, kitchen counter, cabinets and white porcelain sink. A worn pinewood table with four un-matching chairs completed the setting. Unlike many homes in the slums, the Harker home always smelled of fresh pine from the cleaning solution Mrs. Harker was fond of using.
Mrs. Harker instructed me to take a seat at the table while she prepared a bowl of soup for me.
“How is Sarah doing this evening?” Gabriel asked, setting his black leather medicine bag on the table while opening it to rummage around in its depths for something in particular.
Mrs. Harker kept her back to us as she ladled out my soup into a small white porcelain bowl.
“Not well,” she sighed. “I can hear a rattling in her chest now when she breathes.”
I saw Gabriel’s hands stop moving in his bag as worry inched his eyebrows closer together. I had heard the labored rattle breathing in a dozen or more patients we visited that day and knew what it meant, death was eminent. Poor Sarah Harker would probably be dead by morning, if she made it that long.
“I’ll try to make her as comfortable as possible,” Gabriel promised. It was all the solace he had to offer.
Mrs. Harker turned back around and sat the bowl of soup in front of me with two corn muffins on a small side dish.
“I have some tea made,” she told me. “Would you like some, dear?”
“Yes, please,” I said while picking up one of the corn muffins, inhaling its heady aroma and cherishing the feel of being in a home filled with love.
Mrs. Harker looked to Gabriel. “Would you like to eat first or see Sarah? She was sleeping when I last checked on her a few minutes ago. I didn’t want to wake her up just yet since she’s been having such a terrible time getting any rest lately.”
“Then we should let her sleep,” Gabriel said, closing his medicine bag and setting it on the floor beside his chair. “I have to confess the smell of your cooking has brought out my appetite, Mrs. Harker.”
As we finished our meal, Mr. Harker came home covered from head to toe in soot, the trademark of his profession. Only the flesh around his eyes, where his goggles had been, was spared the black tarnish from cleaning chimneys all day. Liam Harker was a lanky man with straight jet black hair which was just beginning to grey along the edge of his temples. He was one of those rare souls who always looked like he was smiling even when he wasn’t, cradling a love for life in his eyes which almost nothing ever dampened.
“Gabriel and April!” He greeted us taking his blackened shoes off just inside the door, presumably so he wouldn’t make track marks across Mrs. Harker’s clean wooden floor. “How are ya both today?”
“Doing fine, Mr. Harker,” Gabriel replied, standing from his seat. “And yourself?”
Mr. Harker made his way to the kitchen sink to wash up. He looked to his wife with an unasked question in his eyes. I saw Mrs. Harker shake her head slightly, casting her eyes to the floor.
Mr. Harker’s shoulders sagged an inch lower, imperceptible if you weren’t paying attention. Sadness cast a shadow over his expression and his gate seemed heavier as he made his way to the sink.
“I should go in and check on Sarah,” Gabriel announced, giving us an excuse to leave the room and provide Mr. Harker some needed privacy. “Come along, April.”
I followed Gabriel into Sarah’s room desperately wishing there was something I could do for the Harkers to release them from their pain.
The wheeze and rattle of Sarah’s breathing was audibly noticeable as soon as we entered the room. Gabriel knelt next to her bedside and put a hand to her forehead to gauge her fever. Even in the faint light given off by the solitary candle on her nightstand, I could see beads of sweat dotting Sarah’s brow. Her eyes fluttered open momentarily.
“Gabriel,” she whimpered in a raspy voice. She took in a slow, rattling breath which seemed almost not worth the effort considering the lines of agony it etched across her face.
Gabriel motioned with a hand for me to come forward. He opened his medicine bag and pulled out a small glass vial with clear liquid. It was one I had never seen him use before. I assumed it was a special type of laudanum since it was one of the
“Hold her hand,” Gabriel instructed me as he lifted Sarah’s head from her pillow and brought the vial of medicine to her lips. He gently coaxed Sarah to swallow the clear liquid even though I could tell it pained her to do even that small of an action. Gabriel seemed to be giving her more laudanum than he regularly did, but I didn’t question him. He was the doctor, not me.
Gabriel stood and brought the small wooden chair near Sarah’s bed closer to her bedside.
“Sit with her, April. I need to speak with the Harkers. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Is she dying, Gabriel?”
“I’m afraid so.”
We had both been witness to the death of many, but I knew this death would affect us more than any of the others. Each of us had come to care deeply for the Harker family in the past couple of weeks. I felt certain the loss of their daughter would devastate the couple to a point where they might never find true happiness again.
“Stay with her,” Gabriel ordered. “And don’t let go of her hand. Whatever may happen, I need you to keep holding her hand. Do you understand me, April?”
I nodded even though I didn’t understand why he was being so adamant about my holding Sarah’s hand.
Once Gabriel was gone, the silence of the room was only broken by the labored rattle of Sarah’s breathing. I started to hum a tune hoping it would help relieve some of the tension on Sarah’s pain stricken face. I guess she heard me because her eyes opened and she turned her head to look straight at me.
I’ll never forget those eyes, filled with so much pain, both physical and emotional.
Sarah’s grip tightened around my hand to the point where I could almost feel bone touching bone. I was about to rip my hand out of her deathly grasp when I felt a jolt, like I was holding a lightening bolt instead of a dying girl’s hand. The sensation quickly shot up my arm and spread through out my body, setting every nerve ending on fire. I wanted to scream out in pain but was unable to find my voice. It was like something had lodged itself in my throat making it impossible for me to make any type of sound.
I felt Sarah’s hand go limp, finally releasing me from her grasp. I fell to my knees and onto my side crumpled into a ball of debilitating agony. I faintly heard the door to Sarah’s room open and close.
“Don’t fight it,” Gabriel said, though his voice sounded distant and slightly distorted, like it was underwater. “The pain will ease in a few minutes, April. Just let it happen.”
I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing something to help me. The torturous ache I felt was bone deep. Every inch of my body felt like it had been lit on fire from the inside out. I felt bones break and shift from their natural position underneath my skin, muscles twitched, skin stretched. I’m not sure how long I lay there on the floor. It felt like a lifetime, but in reality it was only a few minutes. Eventually the pain eased to the point where I could open my eyes again. Gabriel was crouched down beside me, a worried look on his face. Once the last of the pain subsided, I tried to lift myself off the floor, but Gabriel was there to help me sit back on the chair at Sarah’s bedside.
“How do you feel?” he asked, studying my face like it was the first time he had ever seen me.
“Tired,” all I wanted to do was sleep. The experience left me completely bereft of energy.
“You can sleep in a minute,” he said pulling off Sarah’s bed covers and quickly undressing the now lifeless form of Sarah Harker.
“What are you doing?” I didn’t understand why he was desecrating the poor dead girl’s body. I wanted to stop him but simply couldn’t find the strength.
“You need to change clothes with her,” he answered. “Quickly! Get out of your dress and put her night gown on.”
“We don’t have much time, April. Do as I say,” he quietly barked.
I stood up from the chair and did what Gabriel wanted me to do, still not understanding what was going on. After swapping clothes, Gabriel took Sarah out of her bed and ordered me to get underneath the covers and pretend to be asleep.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” he told me, wrapping an extra blanket Mrs. Harker kept on the edge of Sarah’s bed around the dead girl’s limp form. “Just act like you’re sleeping when the Harkers come in here.”
“Gabriel, what’s going on? Why are you asking me to do this?”
“I don’t have time to explain things to you right now.” I could tell he desperately wanted to tell me more but couldn’t. “I’ll be back first thing in the morning to help you but right now you need to pretend you’re Sarah Harker.”
“But they’ll know…” I began to argue.
“No, they won’t. Not unless you tell them. Please, just go to sleep. I’m sure your tired enough from your transformation to do that. Everything will be clearer in the morning. I promise you.”
Gabriel cradled Sarah to his chest, like you would a sleeping child. As he walked out of the room, I heard him say, “April fell asleep. I need to get her home. I hope you don’t mind me borrowing this blanket.”
“Oh poor little thing,” Mrs. Harker said. “I’m sure tending to sick people all day takes it out of her. I don’t know why her parents force her to do such hard work.”
“I’ll be back first thing in the morning,” Gabriel promised them, quickly making his departure out of the house.
The scuffling of feet on hardwood warned me the Harkers were making their way towards Sarah’s bedroom. I didn’t understand why the Harkers would think I was their daughter. Physically, Sarah and I were complete opposites. While she had straight brown hair, my head was adorned with perfectly shaped blonde ringlets. That difference in itself was sure to give me away, but I did what Gabriel instructed and pretended to be asleep.
“She looks so peaceful,” I heard Mr. Harker say.
“That’s odd,” Mrs. Harker came to stand closer to the bed and laid a hand across my brow. “Her fever’s gone and I don’t hear the rattling in her chest anymore. Do you think that means something?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Harker replied. “But don’t get your hopes up, love. I haven’t heard of anyone surviving this sickness.”
Mrs. Harker sighed. “Don’t take away my dream, Liam. It’s the only thing that has been keeping me going lately.”
“I’m sorry, love.”
I could hear Mr. Harker move closer to his wife. There was a slight rustle of clothing. I assumed he had probably taken her into his arms for comfort.
“Well, you spend some time with her,” Mrs. Harker said, pulling away from her husband. “I still have clothes to iron for my deliveries in the morning.”
“All right, love. I think I’ll try to finish the book I’ve been reading to her.”
“I’m sure she likes hearing your voice, even when she’s asleep.”
Mrs. Harker kissed her husband and walked out of the room.
I heard Mr. Harker drag the wooden chair I had sat in earlier closer to the bed. He picked up a book sitting on the nightstand and found his place within its pages.
I laid there with my eyes closed. The soft timbre and cadence of Mr. Harker’s voice lulled my tired mind and body. I was completely asleep within a few short minutes.
I heard the name but didn’t recognize it as my own. When I opened my eyes, I saw Gabriel sitting beside me on the bed.
“How are you feeling this morning, Sarah?” He asked me, emphasizing the name as if to remind me of the ruse we were playing.
“Sarah?” I asked, trying to drag my mind out of an exhausted dream filled slumber.
“Is the sickness affecting her mind now?” I heard Mrs. Harker ask anxiously from somewhere in the room.
“I’m sure she’s still just trying to wake up,” Gabriel answered soothingly. “Why don’t you bring her some milk, Mrs. Harker? The medicine I brought for her today dissolves better in it.”
“We don’t have any i
“Take your time,” Gabriel encouraged.
After we heard the distinct click of the front door closing, Gabriel helped me sit up in the bed. I was wiping the crust of sleep from the corners of my eyes as he started to explain how my life was forever changed.
“You are now Sarah Harker,” he told me.
“But Sarah Harker’s dead,” I reminded him.
I may have only been seven years old but even I knew dead was dead, or so I naively thought at the time.
Gabriel reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out a small round mirror. He hesitated for a moment, almost as if he were reluctant to show me the truth of what I was. When he finally did hold the mirror in front of my face, I thought I had gone mad. Staring back at me was the face of Sarah Harker. Her broad forehead, high cheekbones, slim nose and chocolate brown eyes were now mine. She wasn’t beautiful in the classical sense of the word but she did have a certain impish quality about her .
“I don’t understand.”
I raised a hesitant hand to my new face to make sure it was real and not an illusion before running my fingers through the long brown hair to confirm the strands were not that of a wig.
“You’re a shifter, April, just like me.”
I looked at Gabriel with what had to be a completely blank expression.
“What’s a shifter?”
“You have the ability to change your appearance into that of other people, but only if they die while you’re touching them. That’s why I had you hold onto Sarah’s hand last night. I knew she was about to die.”
“But why? Why would you want me to become her?”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” He asked.
It was the first time I ever saw Gabriel look uncertain, almost frightened.
“I thought you would rather live here as Sarah than return to the mercy of that woman who tries to pass herself off as your mother.”
It was only then I understood the full impact of my new situation. I would never have to go back to the savage hands of Mrs. Pew. The Harkers were my parents now. I could stay here with Sarah’s parents and finally be granted my hearts desire, a loving family of my own.
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