A sad mistake, p.1
A Sad Mistake, p.1R. L. Stine
A Sad Mistake
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Copyright © 2009 by R.L. Stine
Used by permission of the author
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Originally published in The Strand Magazine, 2009
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A Sad Mistake
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A Sad Mistake
When the stranger arrived at Dr. Frankenstein’s house, I did my best to send him away. Strangers aren’t normally drawn to Giron, our village, so distant from Geneva and unknown but to the farmers who have worked the hills for generations.
The man didn’t appear threatening. Far from it, with his slender face, damp straw-colored hair falling over square spectacles, his cheeks pale and pinched, his overcoat open and dust-covered from the journey, and his boots…I noted his boots especially—small for a man and caked with dirt.
The horse, a scrawny brown mare bathed in sweat, uttered a cough. Behind her, the canvas tarp over the man’s wagon rattled in the strong breeze that never stops blowing through our valley.
He looked down at me from the wagon seat. “My name is Nathaniel Borne. I believe this is the house of Dr. Victor Frankenstein,” he said formally. His voice was high, his diction clipped. Like a schoolteacher, I thought.
“You believe incorrectly,” I told him. “There is no one by that name in this house.”
He grunted. An unpleasant sound. He raised his eyes to the cabin door. “He is in there,” he said. “He must see me. He will avoid me at his peril.”
I saw his gaze and could read his thoughts: How could Victor Frankenstein be reduced to living in this lower-than-humble cabin?
A question I asked myself when I first found him. Living in this tin-roofed cabin with the wallboards peeling and splintering and no furniture save his cot, which sat beside the stove. When I found him he was huddled by that stove, shoulders hunched, gripping the knees of his worn trousers with his long bonelike hands murmuring her name—
I found the great doctor nearly by accident during one of my travels through the picturesque villages south of Geneva. I like to paint, and the red roofs and white walls of the rustic houses caught my eye. I don’t have the skill to capture the billowing greens and browns of the rolling hills, but I have pleased myself with my canvases of stark farmhouses jutting up from flat, green fields.
I think my brush has captured the loneliness of these places.
I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness and degradation of Victor Frankenstein when I stumbled upon the cabin during what I thought would be my last day in Giron. I knew immediately that I had a mission here, and so I stayed. I took it upon myself—invited myself, actually—to nurse him back to health…to rehabilitate the man.
And he hadn’t the strength to send me away. As he realized my good intentions, he began to talk, to relate the tragedies of his life to me, tragedies all self-created, as he put it.
Whenever his guilt subsided, it was replaced by shivering fear. “He’s still out there. The monster still walks this earth. I must find him and kill him. I cannot think or work or breathe while my monstrous creation still lives.”
The good doctor was obsessed, and this unhealthy obsession had loosened his mind from all rational thought. Tortured he was, by the name Elizabeth, the bride he lost, and tortured he was by the monster, his creation, who murdered her.
As the weeks passed, I could see my caring efforts having a positive effect on the man. The spots of color on his sallow cheeks…his full voice restored, no longer a hoarse whisper…the eyes occasionally focused on the present and not the past.
I thought I was making progress. But what took place last week told me that perhaps my optimism played me for a fool.
I was returning from market day in Giron, when, from a distance, I saw the white smoke. The sky over the hill was gray, the air heavy, and the smoke, spread by the steady wind, at first appeared to be a cloud descending to earth.
Then as I came closer and the cabin came into view, I could see the flames dancing beside it. The white smoke floating up to the low sky. And Victor standing there, encouraging the fire, adding to it, making the flames leap.
All of his books. His only worldly possessions. His texts of science and history. All of them into the fire. That’s how he used his renewed strength. I could see the flames flickering in his wild eyes. He’s mad, I thought. He’s still mad.
He tossed the last of the volumes into the heart of the flames. Then he saw me. “Why, Victor?” I demanded, shouting over the roar of the fire. “Why?”
He didn’t hesitate in his answer. “My search for knowledge destroyed my life.” His voice trembled with excitement. “Never again! Never again!”
I grabbed his bone-hard shoulders and held tight. I stopped him from walking into the flames.
Less than a week later, the stranger pulled up in his wagon. I knew Victor was not ready for company. I tried to send the man away. But he made his shrill threat: “He will avoid me at his peril.”
Nathaniel Borne, he said he was. He climbed down and pulled a wooden crutch from the wagon. That’s when I noticed his withered leg. Leaning heavily on the crutch, he turned his back on me to struggle with the horse’s reins. I blinked when I saw why he struggled. Mr. Borne had only one hand. The left sleeve of his overcoat revealed a soft, pinkish stump, cleft like a rabbit’s foot.
Once he was satisfied that the animal was tethered to the wagon, Borne lowered his shoulder and used the crutch to brush me out of the way. I started to cry out in protest, but too late. He was already limping inside.
And when I followed him in, I saw Victor jump up from his cot and spill his teacup to the floor, his expression startled, mouth hanging open. The cup clattered on the plank floor but didn’t break. Victor raised his hands in the air as if surrendering.
“I tried to send him away,” I said. “But he insisted on seeing you.”
Victor and the stranger stared at each other for a long moment. I didn’t see recognition in eithe
Victor didn’t lower his hands. His shirt was ragged with wet tea stains down the front. “I can offer no help to myself or to others,” he murmured.
“I know who you are,” Borne said. “I know you can help me.” He scratched his stump with the fingers of his right hand, his unblinking eyes behind the spectacles fixed on the doctor.
Victor shrugged. “As you can see, I am but a farmer without a farm.”
“I know you are the only one who can help me,” Borne said. “My need is urgent.”
Victor didn’t reply. He sank onto his cot with a sigh. His hands dangled near the floor. He shook his head. “Show this man the door,” he said to me, voice barely above a whisper.
Borne crossed the arms of his overcoat in front of him. His voice became even more shrill. “I can expose you,” he told Victor. “Do you like it here in this pretty little farm village? Do you like your privacy, Dr. Frankenstein? I can end it. I can tell the farmers who you are. Do you think your quiet life would last for long?”
A pathetic sound escaped Victor’s throat. Almost an animal bleat. He couldn’t disguise his pain.
“I don’t wish to threaten you,” Borne said, leaning on his crutch. “But I am desperate. I will stop at nothing to obtain your help.” He eyed Victor coldly. “Nothing.”
Victor sighed. I could read his face. I could see defeat dull his eyes. Defeat and fear. Would Borne carry out his threat?
Victor rose to his feet. “What is it you wish me to do?” he whispered.
Borne motioned to the door with his good hand. We followed him outside. Pale sunlight had broken through the low clouds. The horse, chewing a clump of brown weeds, raised its head as we approached.
Borne limped to the canvas tarp that covered the flat wagon. He grabbed one corner with his good hand. “Help me,” he said to me. He untied the cord that held down the tarp.
I moved to the other side of the wagon. My eyes stopped on the wide mountain of ashes just a few feet from the path. All that was left of Dr. Frankenstein’s book collection. I glanced at him, hovering in the cabin doorway, and I knew he was a pile of ashes, too. How could he help this man?
Borne and I took corners of the tarp and slowly pulled it back. The canvas fell from my hand and I staggered back with a gasp as I stared at the corpse lying face-up in the wagon.
Victor didn’t move. Didn’t make a sound. Borne’s jaw clenched and unclenched. He glimpsed the body, then shut his eyes. “My brother,” he murmured.
Victor couldn’t hide his curiosity. Corpses held no terror for him. He had much experience with them. He stepped to the wagon, gripped the side rail, and leaned over the body to get a closer look.
The corpse was clothed in a loose-fitting, gray suit, wrinkled and stained. He was broad-shouldered, big-chested, powerful looking even in death. His round face was bruised, purple welts on both cheeks. His hair was black and oily, with curly sideburns down his cheeks. The eyes were wide open, only slightly sunken, clear as glass.
Everything about him was big. Even his lips, which were cut and swollen, set in a tight-mouthed scowl.
Victor gripped the corpse’s chin in one hand and tilted the head from side to side. He raised his fingers to the eyelids and slid the eyes shut. Then, still silent, he turned inquiringly to Nathaniel Borne.
“My brother,” Borne said softly. He lowered his glance to the dirt. “My dear, good brother.”
A sweet-sour smell rose up from the corpse. The smell of death. It made my eyes water.
Victor stepped back from the wagon. “Why did you bring him here?” he asked sharply.
Borne raised his eyes. He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. Were those tears trickling down his pinched cheeks? “My dear brother. He was everything to me.”
“What do you want?” Victor demanded.
“I want you to use your talents,” Borne said. “I want you to bring my brother back to life.”
Victor’s eyes flashed, then went dull again. “I can’t do that,” he said, returning Borne’s stare.
“Yes, you can.”
“You have made a sad mistake,” Victor said. “Someone has misguided you. I am not God. I cannot bring the dead to life.”
Borne stared down at the corpse. He patted the bulging chest tenderly with his good hand. “Perhaps you would like to discuss this with the villagers, your neighbors,” he said through his teeth.
Victor’s eyes flashed again. He uttered a choking sound from deep in his throat. The thought of being exposed held untold terror for him.
“I don’t like to threaten,” Borne said, scratching his cheek. “I see you are a man who wants to live quietly, away from prying eyes.”
“I…can’t do it,” Victor repeated, eyes on the body.
A fly landed on the corpse’s broad forehead. Another fly disappeared into the dead man’s right nostril.
Borne brushed them away with a wave of his hand. “Bring my poor brother back to life,” he said, “and I will let you keep your life of isolation. I will tell no one who you are and what I have found here.”
Victor didn’t move, but I could see the debate in his eyes. He wasn’t a man to respond to threats. Awash in sorrow and guilt, he cared about nothing of this earth. He responded not to sympathy or friendship or caring or encouragement. He felt no peace, even in his desolate outpost away from all society.
But I had worked so hard these weeks to nourish him and bring him back to whatever strength he possessed. I didn’t want to see it all end with an attack by frightened, ignorant villagers. And yes, to be completely truthful, I was curious about Victor’s unique powers.
I could see Victor falter. His face went pale, his lips colorless, and his thoughts were draining him. I grabbed his arm and led him to the side of the cabin.
Flies buzzed around our heads. The corpse was drawing an angry, winged army. Victor swept back his tangled hair and leaned against the cabin wall. “Perhaps I shall attempt it,” he said, eyes on the fields behind me.
I held onto his arm. “Yes,” I said. “It might be easier than defying this man.”
Victor shook his head. “Nothing could be more difficult,” he replied. “But perhaps, for once…for once…” The words caught in his throat. “For once, I can use my knowledge for good.”
I turned and saw Borne waiting impatiently at the wagon, leaning on the crutch, shifting his weight from foot to foot…those tiny unmanly boots. Who was this little cripple? How did he know where to find Dr. Frankenstein? My questions would have to wait.
“I know it isn’t atonement,” Victor continued, speaking low for my ears only. Or perhaps as he often did, he was speaking aloud to himself. “But perhaps for once I can bring back a life.” He shook his head. “I have destroyed so many.”
He strode back to Borne at the wagon, his hands balled into tight fists. “I make no guarantees,” he said.
A pleased smile spread quickly over Borne’s face. Behind the spectacles, his eyes lit up. “My brother deserves to live,” he said, patting the fly-ridden corpse again.
Victor sighed. “Does life always hand us what we deserve?”
Not another word was spoken. The two men weren’t much help as I hoisted the heavy corpse from the wagon. Again, the sweet-sour odor invaded my nose and watered my eyes. The man’s skin felt cold and rubbery. His head bumped the side of the wagon as I attempted to slide him onto my shoulders. It made a soft, unexpected sound, like a ripe tomato hitting the floor.
I half-carried, half-dragged the body into the cabin. It fell heavily onto its stomach on Victor’s low cot. A whoosh of air escaped the body as it landed, and the room filled with the odor of death.
By the time, I had rolled the corpse onto its back, my muscles throbbed, my heart pounded my chest, and sweat drenched my clothing. The eyes had opened again and stared blankly at the cabin rafters. The purple bruises on the man’s cheeks appeared to have darkened. Slender threads o
Victor knelt beside the cot and turned the man’s big head from side to side. Borne stood in the open doorway, blocking the dying sunlight. “My brother Percy didn’t deserve to die,” he repeated.
Victor didn’t reply. “I shall need to collect a fresh brain,” he said, speaking again to himself. “And a throbbing heart.”
“NO!” Borne bellowed. Leaning on his crutch, he limped heavily toward the cot. “There is no time, Doctor! The body is fresh enough. The heart is most likely still warm. Percy died only yesterday.”
Victor shook his head unhappily. He poked at the corpse’s chest, reached under the heavy suit jacket and squeezed an arm, again slid the head from side to side.
Borne stared down at his brother. “Frankenstein, you shall know my gratitude,” he said softly. “I hope you will forget my threats. I am a desperate man, as you can see. But I must have my brother back. I must, for he is the last of my family.”
I knew what Victor was thinking. For Victor had no family members still alive. None at all. I had come upon him the very next day. The day after his father had died, the last one of his family…the last.
“I make no guarantees,” Victor said again. I saw his hands tremble as he unfastened the corpse’s shirt.
I wiped my eyes with my shirtsleeve. The smell in the cabin was heavy and rank. I could feel the odor seeping into my clothing.
Borne dropped onto the edge of the cabin’s only chair, stiff-backed of hard wood. He set his crutch on the floor beside him. He sat upright and tense, and clasped his good hand tightly around his pink stump.
“In what way can I assist you?” I asked Victor.
“You cannot,” he replied tersely. He appeared to be massaging the corpse’s pulpy neck. “The animation of life is mine alone to give.” He raised his eyes to me. “Stand back, my friend, and allow me to work without interruption or conversation. The process is not long, but difficult, and will strain my nerves and body and mind—but do not step in to rescue me, for success requires more than human effort.”
A Sad Mistake by R. L. Stine / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes