by Belinda Roddie
Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile.
- Bernard Beckett, Genesis
I don't care much for music these days. Or paintings, or dancing, or even stories. The sound of pages turning upsets me now. It creates a visceral reaction that can only be described as, "It's like my guts are being turned inside out with a fork."
My colleagues tell me that my apathy toward all things creative is a side effect of the medication I'm taking, which is a supplement to the initial inoculation I received. They've informed me that they are working on a booster that could potentially open my mind back up to more poetic endeavors again. I don't know. It certainly wouldn't help the trauma, or the flashbacks. Or the noises that trigger both.
Fortunately, the bad dreams have stopped for now. Over the past four months, I've felt a level of peace that I haven't experienced in a long time. It allows me to focus, dwell less on the physical and more on the mental. That does wonders for me at my job, which I'm supposed to arrive at in an hour.
I use my right hand to open the front door, while I balance my coffee against the crook of my left elbow. The wrist on that arm is a broken wire that leads to nowhere; it's covered, though, by an adhesive with the color and consistency of duct tape. I'm supposed to reapply this protective shield every six months with the help of a doctor, in order to prevent exposure to the elements. There should be no risk of further decomposition, but in the end, my colleagues want to be cautious, considering that they couldn't stitch the stump closed for fear of infecting it.
Today is a special day, in my mind, mostly because I expected to be dead exactly three years ago.
Nancy, my neighbor of sixteen years, is cleaning out leaves in her front yard when I make my way toward the sidewalk. Her rake makes sinister scratching noises across the artificial turf, a replacement for water-sucking grass that still can't avoid the droppings from the trees nearby. She takes a break from her mundane chore to wave at me, and I exhale in both relief and envy at the sight of all five fingers remaining intact on her hand.
That doesn't mean she was unscathed, though. Despite the lukewarm temperatures, and the winking face of the sun emerging and heating up the roof shingles, and the slight breeze causing the neon pink buds on the nearby azalea bushes to quiver in mild excitement, Nancy continues to wear her headscarf. She wraps it tightly around her face and conceals everything from the nose down, her bright eyes watering above the black fabric. She ignores the beads of sweat that collect like unwanted jewelry on her forehead; she knows that, like me, she cannot expose her disease-ridden flesh to the elements.
The Brittle virus hit her harder than most people I know - at least, those who hadn't died from it. It took away everything below her upper lip. Her bottom teeth, her tongue, the lower half of her jaw - gone. Eroded. Flesh reduced to the dexterity and fragility of burned paper. Thank God it didn't have the same smell.
I know for a fact that Nancy has a standby nurse to administer IVs to her arms three times a day, so she is hydrated and nourished frequently. Obviously, she can't eat on her own; that'd be more than just a Herculean task. It's a shame because before she caught the virus, she had had one of the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen. Her blue eyes now do the work for her, creasing along the edges to show happiness. If she's actually expressing happiness, which is, understandably, rare.
As I maneuver toward the corner of my residential street to catch the turbo bus to my office, I remember the day that Nancy's husband left her. He was considered, "immune" - not even inoculated. In fact, they almost used his antibodies in the creation of the vaccine. But he couldn't stay with a woman who had lost approximately half of her face. She couldn't cry when he packed his bags and said goodbye because it would have been too hard for her to breathe. Even worse was the idea that, despite her vocal cords being unaffected, she couldn't scream in justifiable anguish.
It has been much, much, much easier for me than it has been for her. The Brittle virus only took away my hand; I can cope with that. I can manage without a prosthetic, since my body will reject anything attached to my sad, mangled appendage. But not being able to speak, or sing, or masticate, or even respire properly - I imagine that I would have killed myself by now.
Then again, Nancy hasn't resorted to that, either. Perhaps she's unwilling to - for now. Or perhaps, in the end, she just feels fortunate to have avoided the worst of it.
Which is, by the way, a terrible and excruciating death.
The turbo bus is three minutes late, like it always is, and I board without so much as a grunt to the driver. This one's new - young, unseasoned. She wears her hair up in a tight, blue bun. The remaining strands that she didn't tie up are purple and red, so I guess she's had some fun with hair dyes lately. Her muscles are tense as she grips the steering wheel. I see the asterisk-shaped scar above her right elbow.
Proof of inoculation. Most likely, she received it during school.
I make note of this, as I do with every single stranger I pass by or briefly fraternize with. In the end, it's actually part of my job. The research facility I work at expects me to keep track of those who were given the needle during the peak months of the Brittle epidemic, as well as the children and teenagers who have gotten it since. They tell me just to look, to observe. No interviews, no questions at all. It's not worth interrogating someone over the vaccination process; we all know how it works. It's painful, upsetting, almost paralyzing once the stuff makes it into your veins. But it does its job.
The Brittle vaccine has a 99.99998% success rate. There hasn't been anything better. Naysayers, of course, always demand perfection over near-perfection.
I take my seat in the very back of the bus and nurse my coffee, as the turbo bus lurches down the road toward New Ignacio Square. From the window, I watch rows upon rows of uniform white-walled, red-roofed houses turn into pink blurs. The six or so passengers in front of me either read from their tablets, drink their own beverages, or sleep. They have longer journeys than I do; they have jobs outside New Ignacio. I was lucky to make enough to stay in the suburb just north of it. But then again, it was also because my office needed me. My colleagues needed me.
When they first learned I had contracted the Brittle virus, they were horrified. They thought they were losing their best. I'm known in New Ignacio as one of the most detail-oriented analysts and archivists in the medical industry. Internationally, I'm a bit of an odd phenomenon, talked about in tightly-knit circles among the scientific and clinical elite. I'm rather good at picking up the slightest inconsistencies, capable of predicting symptoms before they barely start happening. I'm not officially a doctor, but when I enter a hospital room, physicians expect me to find oddities that they've already used machines to scour for. I can't help it; it's in my nature to behave like a human microscope.
In fact, I thank myself for being at least partially responsible for saving my own life. Normally, the first symptom of Brittle is nerve pain. Not so much a pinched sensation, but more like you're suffering an inner sunburn. You can't see it, but tiny fires have started to grow beneath your epidermis, and they're ready to eat away at everything that composes your body. There's no aloe or soother to help you; the process has already begun.
The necrosis starts shortly after the pain begins, and it spreads rapidly. Toes and fingertips are usually the first parts affected. Some less fortunate notice their flesh growing black and crisp like chicken skin on their elbows or knees, close to the joints, where it's difficult to prevent its progress. The worst is when it's on your face. That was what happened to Nancy. It crept up her chin like angry ivy, invasive and unrelenting, reducing both bone and blood vessels to wafer-thin ribbons and ash-like flakes. Had the doctors not gotten to her sooner, it would have spread to the point where her brain was not worth saving.
The pain is supposed to be unimaginable, but I figured out what was wrong with my hand before the initial twinge of ache even started. I noticed because the index finger and thumb on my left hand suddenly grew numb overnight three years ago. It was nothing that would have set off alarm bells in anyone else's head; after all, pinched nerves always happen, or you sleep on your hand funny, or alcohol messes with your senses. But for me, pins and needles were an exception, not a rule.
So I got it checked with my colleagues, and mere hours later, the necrosis process began. It was faster than I ever thought possible. It had spread from my digits to my palm before the door even closed to the operating room. In a panic, I told them to amputate. Then, after the sedatives kicked in and I calmed down, I told them to amputate, anyway.
The inoculation was in its final stages at that point. I couldn't afford to lose more than just a hand. In the end, it was far from salvageable.
I decided to take the medication along with my vaccine in order to stave off some of the trauma. To me, the nightmares I endured on a regular basis were worse than the side effect of simply losing interest in the finer things in life. I have never been a poet. I can do without some jaunty tunes. I do miss enjoying stories, though I can handle anecdotes over a pint at the local bar. But I don't read - at least, not unless I have to, or I'm at my job. Even electronic books set me on edge.
Again, it's the sound of paper. Rustling, crackling paper. It's hardly used anymore in this modern society, but books and flyers remain a charming, if not antiquated, part of New Ignacio. The crinkling is the worst. The scrunching of a graphing sheet, or the crumpling of an envelope, or the whisper of loose leaf caught against a garbage can. All the same sounds that my body made when the knuckles and fingers on my left hand turned to ebony and lost all form and function. Cartilage became no better than flat rubber, shrunken down to useless pulp beneath the irredeemable tissue.
I work in a paperless office intentionally. I refuse to take any handwritten notes.
Hopefully, at the meeting today, things remain paperless.
The Brittle virus didn't use to be called that. When it was first discovered in Patient Zero in 2061, it was named after the doctor that diagnosed it: Ella Dain, a woman who had revolutionized multiple areas of the medical field, including studies in infectious diseases. She christened the condition a, "rapid-fire version of flesh-eating bacteria - only not bacteria. Viral?" At that point, no one knew if the disease was transmissible or simply caused by a gene mutation or an anomalous inner breakdown of the body. When she asked where Patient Zero may have contracted it, he says it must have been something he ate while traveling in the jungles of Southeast Asia, near Laos.
"Patient is a self-described 'nomad,'" Dain documented in her journal. "Resorted to hunting and eating animals he found during his journey in the wilderness." Unfortunately, the man died a mere three days after consulting with Dain. After that, a few more people in Europe, Asia, and Africa showed similar symptoms, but there did not seem to be any wider impact on the general populace. At least, not in that short of a time window.
The disease was initially called Dain's syndrome, much to the poor woman's chagrin, and stayed that way for five years. It remained as rare as ALS or PAM, the latter caused by pesky little microbes in warm water. Sure, it was a brutal disease that killed or maimed quickly, and it had no cure besides amputation in reachable areas. But as it was, it was not considered contagious - at least, not by airborne transmission, though physical contact with infected body fluids was always considered an issue. Of course, any doctor with a medical degree and some common sense understands the term incubation period. And like variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease - the reason why beef is always well-done in England, even though it does nothing to actually stop the illness - Dain's syndrome takes a very, very long time to incubate.
Around 2066, Patient Zero's son was playing in the mud when he noticed two very dark spots on his knees. His mother first believed it was merely dirt, but the scrubbing only caused bleeding, pain, and spreading of the necrosis. When the boy was hauled off into the ambulance, with paramedics covering their mouths and averting their eyes, his mother's screams were documented by reporters and immortalized for the years to come:
"Don't hurt him. He's delicate. He's brittle!"
To this day, I wonder if she meant to say fragile, not brittle. But brittle stuck. Dain's syndrome was renamed the Brittle virus - transmissible in both droplet and aerosol form - and within months, over nine percent of the global population had contracted it. Over two thirds of them died before a treatment was found to slow down the progression of the disease - still not a cure, though. Millions more were deformed for life. Disfigured faces. Amputations. People like Nancy and me just trying to live. It was a bona fide epidemic. It nearly toppled the World Order. And it took Ella Dain's life, too; it spread just below her right ear, killing her in mere days.
Shortly after her death, Dain's colleague - Vincent Murphy, who also happens to be a close friend of mine - developed the Brittle vaccine.
I was not the first person he administered it to, but I was among the first thousand or so in my region. It left the identifiable asterisk-shaped scar above my elbow, pronounced and visible from a distance. By the time inoculations were completed in the United States alone in 2067, 800 million people worldwide had been affected by the disease. Out of that number, 600 million had died.
Look at the bubonic plague by comparison. It killed 50 million people in the 14th century. Sure, our population had skyrocketed since then, but 600 million was a heavy number. It was enough to cause small countries to crumble. It was enough to begin a worldwide economic contraction and recession that we still haven't recovered from. It was enough to reduce the entire Midwest of my nation to disruption and poverty. Government funds had been drained. Mass exoduses began. Where I was, on the west coast, we lived in our bubble. Sure, some of us had kicked the bucket from this; I had lost something precious to me. But we had our tech sector. We had our gentrification. We held our sense of entitlement close to our chests, like dirty playing cards drawn from a battered deck. And we still do. Hence the latest anti-Brittle vaccine movement.
It's like some of my fellow citizens are asking to die.
I wish I could say that I haven't been confronted before about being vaccinated, but I have. In coffee shops, at turbo stops, even in mega movie theaters. Usually, people will remove their projectile glasses just to stare at the shielded stump protruding from my sleeve, as I'm focusing on my mints and my soda. And they'll ask the same stupid questions.
"So you had it, huh?"
I'll blink, slowly. Like they've just roused me from a sleepy daze. "Had what?"
"Did you get vaccinated?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Even though you already had it?"
"Yep. It was a precaution."
Normally, they'll scoff then. Most likely, there'll be at least one child sitting next to them, still chewing on soggy popcorn. "I'm not letting them stick that needle in my kid," they always say. "What's the worry? Brittle's been eradicated."
True - it has, technically, from the country. Our country. But small outbreaks still happen in less developed third world nations. Just seven months ago, the entire population of a small village in the New Republic of Kenya had all succumbed to Brittle - all two hundred of them. In Russia, the president's rule had been destroyed by a rash of Brittle instances in Moscow, which he had once claimed could never be touched by the virus. And just north of us, in the rural parts of Canada, a junior high school was quarantined because a child showed up with a black patch of papery skin in the middle of her back. Herd immunity was still essential. There were many who had suffered because their children had damaging allergies or cancer treatment, and therefore, they couldn't take the vaccine.
"Better not travel, then," I'll say to them every time. "Or hang out with travelers. Because it ain't over 'til it's over."
They'll scratch their heads at that quotation every time - from Yogi Berra, an unmemorable name these days - and then return to their flick where a robot's head is blown off by a super buff white man in a leather jacket with a bad haircut and a weird accent. Some traditions never go away; Hollywood is not one to let go of the past.
And neither are some people living here. They all want a world without Brittle. They all desire a time in which all they worried about was measles, or mumps, or pertussis. Brittle is a whole new ball park. It's a different fucking game. But the anti-vaxxers are always consistent. Religious exemptions, personal exemptions, it doesn't matter - you can offer them a booster shot that will make their kids as strong as Superman, and they'll ask, "But is there thiomersal in it?"
Sure, and I'll take a little extra mercury in my system over necrotizing fasciitis on steroids. More fish?
Fortunately, given the size and scope of the epidemic, most anti-vaxxers live outside larger urban areas where contagions inflict the most casualties, keeping low profiles and not spreading much of their propaganda on social media. Sometimes, if they get more assertive or try to start a movement, they're typically met with fierce backlash, even ostracized and chased out of their homes by angry neighbors and residents. They're denounced by every mainstream politician from both sides of the political aisle, even labeled, "a danger to public health." Some call for anti-vax parents to lose their jobs and custody of their children. Others go further and push for their imprisonment. This current political climate is not kind to people who aren't willing to see the power of such a simple medical procedure that has saved countless lives.
There are only 100 to 200 new cases of Brittle a year now. A mere two trillionths of a percent of the current world population. Down from a whopping 600 million deaths before the vaccination became publicly available. No wonder there's anger toward skeptics. No wonder there's fear in regards to such a counter movement gaining traction. We're inoculated, yes - in fact, not being so can actually bar you from private venues and even public areas. But there's no federal law against refusing the Brittle vaccine. There's a Constitution to follow, after all.
I try not to pay attention. New Ignacio is full of hippies, vegans, and progressives, but they're not stupid. They know when to protect their families. They've seen too many friends, loved ones, and heroes die from Brittle. I will always remember when the Oscar-winning Johann Krause discovered that his legs were turning into paper on the set of his final movie. His beautiful curly hair matched his last name, his smile one of his main weapons. He was charming and charismatic onscreen. But disease does not discriminate. Only treatment does. And time. Dangerous, valuable time.
He didn't last three months, not even after they sawed his useless limbs off and stuck him in a wheelchair. Brittle spread to his kidneys and utterly annihilated everything below his stomach. He had all the best doctors that money could buy, but it wasn't enough. It was too late by then.
And nobody wants to hear, "It's too late," when they ask what options they have left.
As per our routine, Vincent is there to greet me at the main entrance of the Dain Research Facility, a smile plastered beneath his impressive red mustache. He's known to be outwardly chipper, especially when around me, though he looks a little wearier today. There are some muted shadows under his eyes that not even his silver-rimmed spectacles can hide from me, but he laughs as I thoroughly examine his face after he lets me in.
"I know, I know," he gripes, as he follows me to my corner office, where I will wait to be disturbed by doctors and medical experts alike concerning their patients in the ward next door. "I didn't get much sleep last night. Wife had me running up and down South Chester Street, looking for a soda she wanted."
I give him a reassuring grin, leaning my shoulder against the door frame of my personal space. "Still dealing with her cravings, huh?"
Vincent's wife Cindy is ten years younger than him and seven months pregnant. Last week, she wanted ice cream. Pistachio flavored. Nothing else.
"I'm not gonna lie," breathes Vincent. "I just want this damn baby to be born. She does, too. And Braeden."
"How's he doing, by the way?"
"Oh, you know." My colleague and friend runs his fingers through his graying hair; his facial scruff hasn't been affected by age yet, though. He's almost fifty, and he's having a second kid. "He's into lacrosse these days. Wants to make the high school team next year. Can I get you a drink? Coffee?"
I shake my head. I had thrown my empty cup away at the turbo stop before walking to work. I maneuver to my desk and drop my bag down on my swivel chair, and all the computers and wall displays surrounding me light up as if on command. Instantly, my room is washed in an intense, neon blue light. Code streaks across each screen as all of my work programs boot up.
"There's a meeting in five, by the way," Vincent suddenly announces, pulling me out of my technological reverie. Better to be disrupted now than later, I suppose. "Jordan wants to go over the latest. The Brittle booster, specifically."
"How's it coming along?"
"Slowly. Stockholders are getting antsy." His fingers dance across his lower lip. "They just want comfort, is all. I don't think we need to get the booster out right away, but it makes people feel better. Plus, it deals with the side effects, if you're taking the emotional supplement."
Vincent smiles. This time, it's with a tinge of sadness - hopefully not pity, as I loathe that.
"You don't have to take the pills, you know, Zoe," he insists. "They're optional. Therapy can work just as well, if not better. I have names you can refer to, if you want."
"I'm not interested in therapy."
"And that is entirely your call," says Vincent, giving up the fight quicker than he started it. He knows he'll lose. "See you in five?"
"Three, now, actually."
"Hardy har har," is his response. He then leaves me to my devices - literally and figuratively, as I log in to my Main Base and open my e-mail. Nothing urgent, at least. That will make things easier.
The meeting is being held in Dr. Jordan Hunter's office, which is at least fairly spacious, and consists of her, me, Vincent, and Jordan's protégé, Caden. Caden is barely out of university; he's lean and wiry, his eyes glazed over like a space cadet's as he sits on the green stool provided at the round white table. Jordan keeps her eyes on her miniature tablet while Vincent and I get settled; her mouth is set in a way that looks like she's chewing on something tough or gristly. I notice two fine white hairs growing symmetrically on both sides of her chin: granny hairs, much to anyone's dismay. I'll politely remind her to pluck them when we're somewhere private.
Once I sit down, I look around for any signs of paper. Luckily, there is none. I rest my left arm on the table in front of me, and I pull my phone out of my pocket to take notes. Even while using just one hand, I'm one of the faster typers and texters I know.
Jordan starts the meeting off the way she always starts meetings; by cracking her knuckles. This is almost as bad to me as crinkling paper, but I manage to pull through. Then she nods to Caden, who starts swiping at his own tablet like he's a cat pawing at a window.
"Just got some updates," she states. "Apparently, the Brittle booster is almost ready for its first clinical trial. The recent round of animal testing is showing good signs."
"That's better news than I expected," Vincent replies, and I nod in agreement.
But Jordan isn't done. "There are some concerns that have been relayed to me from some of our stockholders," she tells us. "Under the pressure of special interest groups, no less. The New Ignacio Public Committee Of Health and Protection..."
"You mean, 'NIPCOHP?'" I interrupt, knowing I'm being anything but helpful to the conversation; I just find the acronym to be goofy. Luckily, both Vincent and Caden offer me a sympathetic laugh.
My superior presses on, undeterred. "They want to ensure that the booster causes no extra irritation or inconvenience to those who receive it. Vincent, I understand there is one such complaint being circulated?"
Vincent - calm, brilliant Vincent, the man who may as well have saved the world from Brittle - inhales sharply. His entire body seems to lift an inch or two from his chair as he does so. As his mustache quivers beneath his broad, ruddy nose, he then projects his voice toward the wall across from him, his tone stricken as if he has received the most tragic of news.
"Blisters!" he wails, slamming his palms down flat against the white plastic surface of the table and causing it to vibrate. He then finishes the dramatic display with a bitter, half-hearted chuckle.
"Yes," retorts Jordan dryly. "Blisters. According to recent test results, some contact dermatitis does occur when the Brittle booster is administered to primates and other related animals. On occasion, blisters equivalent to receiving a second degree burn have formed around the area of inoculation. Now, I've tried assuring the committee that such a reaction is temporary and easy to recover from - but as we all know, counterarguments based on pathos, rather than logos, have been gaining traction."
"Why don't you tell them to talk to me?" I abruptly opine, as I am liable to do. "I'll show them my arm and tell them I'd rather have a couple of blisters than no arm at all."
"Again," sighs Jordan, "pathos over logos. People who have not dealt with actual peril before tend to scare easily."
She proceeds to activate a large wall screen behind her, and the information on her miniature tablet pops up for all of us to see. For the average Joe, it's incoherent, incomprehensible - numbers and complex statistics and lots and lots of medical lingo. Not a single graphic can be found; our work can't be condensed into a picture book. But Vincent and I understand it, and Caden takes the floor from his teacher, breaking down the data.
"Once the Brittle booster shot is ready for clinical trials, we can begin administering it around New Ignacio over the course of a month," he explains. "We have plenty of smaller facilities, wards, and pharmacies who are equipped to prepare and provide the vaccines. The way we market it, of course, is up to people like Kent and Claire downstairs. I propose we remind citizens that it is better to be safe than sorry."
"How many years of antibodies does the booster provide?" I ask, knowing full well that I may not get a clear answer. Vincent was honest when he proclaimed, three months earlier, that he couldn't say what kind of duration the initial inoculation had until someone who had been vaccinated showed symptoms for the first time. He estimates at least ten years. Other doctors are more conservative, more anxious.
"According to our researchers?" answers Jordan. "Seven years."
I stare at her. "You get three more than that from a tetanus booster. And chicken pox vaccines can last twenty years, at least."
"It's a pretty virulent virus, Zoe," argues Caden. "You know that. Sure, other diseases are also pretty pernicious, but Brittle is permanently damaging. I wouldn't be surprised if perhaps the antibodies could stick around for longer than seven years, but at this point, given the data, why take the risk?"
He's right. And at this rate, if this is how effective the vaccine is, I may as well get another needle jabbed into me just to be safe. I know that, as a survivor of Brittle, I may have enough antibodies to last me four lifetimes. But I don't want to be careless, and again, getting some of my energy and artistic enthusiasm back would be fantastic. Maybe the booster will create the same shape of scar, and I can do it on my right arm to make it match my other one. Then, after seven more years, I'll get it on my leg. I'll be decorated like a war veteran in no time.
"Any way you cut it," Jordan somberly intones, "clinical trials for the booster need to be completed within the next nine months if we want to distribute it in a timely manner. Vincent, I know you're not the lead on this, but checking in with Oliver regularly would be beneficial. We want to make sure development remains on schedule from here on out."
Vincent nods and sends a smirk my way. So much for the idea of not needing the booster ready right away. He's always been more level-headed than the rest of our colleagues, more optimistic. After all, he's the one who made the damn vaccine in the first place. But urgency normally takes precedent over reason, and so he has to play the expediting game like everyone else. So within nine months it is.
The meeting ends with more technical updates - status checks on new equipment, progress on other laboratory research - and we disperse. I head back into my office just in time for a slew of emails to arrive on my Main Base. They're all pretty much the same: Confirmations of diagnoses from the ward. My job is to simply read the notes, go over the pictures, and either agree or disagree with the doctor's consensus. Most are on point except one, a doctor incorrectly diagnosing benign sarcoma instead of melanoma. I suggest another biopsy and send positive thoughts to the patient.
All around me, there is humming and buzzing and whining from all the computers and screens arranged in my office, a strange symphony of futuristic sound and performance. I don't mind it. It's a different type of melody than the average song I hear; it's more palatable to me. I remember to take my pill at exactly 11:00 AM, and as I wash it down with water from my personal cooler, I try to remember a story that Vincent once told me as I was recovering from my operation.
It's a basic enough tale, one that doesn't require much thought or dissection. About two years ago, when Vincent traveled to Africa to help deliver Brittle vaccines to children, he was confronted in Ghana by a father who knew enough English to try to scold him. He demanded to know how his son would cope without one of his feet, which had been devoured by the disease.
"He wanted to be a soccer player. He will never walk again," he growled. "What do you say to him now?
Vincent tends to spice up the story here, but he claims that he looked up from his work, as stoically as possible, and replied, "You tell him he's escaped the worst of it. That it could have spread to his organs and killed him."
I have escaped the worst of it. Most of us have.
The hope now is that we run a far enough distance away from Brittle so that it can never catch up.
The rest of the day moves by fluidly. I hardly leave my desk, save for lunch, and am grateful for it; no need to walk to the ward and scrutinize a patient personally. My social anxiety, though I wish otherwise, is not a side effect of anything, but a long-term reality. Apart from my colleagues in the New Ignacio facility, I have difficulty carrying on conversations with strangers. Hence why I tend to quietly observe and respond in writing when I can.
It's past 5:30 PM when I board the turbo bus again and head for home. The same bus driver from the morning commute is operating it, though she looks almost distracted, maybe a little bit worried. Her arms remain rigid as she barely moves the steering wheel, though the track that we travel on helps her navigate the vehicle smoothly. I sit in the back again and try to ignore the loud synth music wobbling out of a youngster's wireless earbuds. I expect him to be entirely deaf by the time he turns forty.
The evening remains as beautiful as the day was, with the sun disappearing behind stooped sycamores and sending thin, golden tendrils that coalesce with orange and purple undertones of sky. The same rows of white-walled, red-roofed houses begin to appear around the track, and I find myself, once again, feeling at ease. If all goes to plan, the Brittle booster will be offered to everyone by next year, thereby quashing any concerns of depleting antibodies and becoming a target of the disease again. If only the anti-vaxxers believed the same thing; while I'm not as severe as some of my colleagues in their reaction to them, I do pity them for their selfishness.
The turbo bus lurches to a stop in my neighborhood, and I'm about to disembark when the driver makes a slight whimpering sound behind closed lips. I recognize such a noise; it's consistent with when you're trying to fight back a groan of pain. I've heard it at gyms when tough guys try to pretend they're not in sheer agony, while lifting weights that are too heavy for them. I've caught it from children at the nearby park after they've skinned their knees, and they're trying very, very hard not to cry. So when I hear it from the bus driver, I feel my social anxiety lift and almost matronly worry replace it.
"You all right?"
The driver is silent at first; she stares expectantly at me, wanting me to get off the bus so she can make her next stop on time. But again, I'm stubborn.
"You sound like you're in pain. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she replies, gruffly. "Just some muscle soreness. Or nerve pain."
I look at her directly. "From what?"
"I dunno," she snaps. "Maybe it's tendonitis? What are you, a doctor?"
I reach into my pocket and pull out my Dain Research Facility identification card. The driver stares at at my photograph beneath the plastic covering. Her face goes white under her blue, red, and purple hair.
"Where does it hurt?"
There's no one else on the bus now but the two of us. Still, the driver scans the vicinity and replies to me in a low voice.
My expression must be apologetic, because she tenses up, seeming to understand what I'm going to ask next. "Could you let me look at it, please?"
Technically, I have no right to ask this. I have always examined people at a distance, only touching them when they are asked to be touched. I've been known to be bold, but not this audacious. And this young woman could very much rebuff me on the spot and say no without a single legal or personal consequence to her. However, she actually complies with my request. She winces as she reaches over to her collarbone, yanking her uniform shirt down so that the skin of her right shoulder is exposed to me.
I hear crackling before I even see anything. It sounds like paper. Thin, disintegrating paper.
"Cover it," I command, my voice sharpening. "Now!"
She complies, but not until I see the black mark that's only just begun to grow on her shoulder. It doesn't look like much for now - it's about the size of a quarter in diameter, irregularly shaped. But it's necrosis regardless. A perfect indication of Brittle.
My eyes burn as they dart over to her arm. She has the vaccine scar, all right. That vivid, taunting asterisk. It's not a tattoo; I know of a few crazed anti-vaxxers who have faked their own inoculations, trying to avoid criticism or getting ejected from their favorite restaurant or store. But this is the real deal. This is proof that she received the vaccine.
And yet, there she is, the victim of a disease that she thought she had been able to avoid. I know this. She now knows this. And we begin to dread the worst of it.
"Holy shit," I can't help mumbling. I step back instinctively.
"I didn't think..." Her mouth opens and closes, making it difficult for her to get words out. "I just thought..."
"When did you get the vaccine?"
"Three years ago. When it got bad."
By "it," she's referring to the actual epidemic, which means that she most likely got the shot mere months after I did. I feel my jaw stiffen. My left arm suddenly tingles. I'm trying to figure out a logical reason for all of this. Had her shot been botched? Contaminated? Had it really lost its potency so quickly? What the Hell had happened here?
"Did you leave the country recently?" I ask.
The driver stares at me. It's clear that she's barely registering what I'm saying, but I need answers. "What?"
"Have you traveled recently?"
"Yeah. To Vietnam."
She stutters. "I-I have family there."
"Have they been vaccinated?"
She says nothing. I prod further, against all conventions.
"Have they been vaccinated? Did any of your relatives receive the Brittle vaccine?"
"I don't know!"
I feel my tongue writhing against my teeth. I try to control my breathing. "Were you around anyone showing symptoms while you were there?"
I curse under my breath. Of course, that only scares her more. The veins in her arms are more pronounced now. She's squeezing the steering wheel so hard that her hands are turning gray.
"What do I do?" she asks, her voice laced with terror. "What do I do? What do I do?"
"Go to Dain Research Facility," I reply. "Immediately."
"But my shift - "
"I don't give a damn about your shift! You turn this bus around, and you go to Dain tonight! Not tomorrow, not in two days, tonight! Go!"
I stumble my way off the bus, and sure enough, the driver is able to shift to the appropriate track and hurtle back the way she came. She disappears off into the dusky haze toward New Ignacio, faster than I've ever seen a turbo bus go.
I have not seen Brittle up that close since the night before I lost my hand. Now, I find my fingers groping at the cohesive covering that separates my left wrist from the rest of the world. I walk back to my house like a zombie, ignoring the lights that glow from the windows of Nancy's house. Her nurse is most likely there, helping her attain her nightly nutrients. I do my best not to panic for her. For all of us.
Vincent is, of course, tranquil on the phone when I tell him. Too tranquil. His voice barely lifts above a monotone when I relay what I've seen.
"We'll quarantine her as soon as she gets here," he tells me. "We'll remove the dead tissue and try to prevent the spread. If it's on her shoulder, then it's more difficult to treat. We can't exactly..."
This time, his tone slightly cracks. He is giving himself away. "Did she have the scar?"
"From the vaccine? Yes."
"Did she maybe not develop immunity like she should have?"
"Zoe, I thought it'd last longer than this."
"I know. Me, too."
"That's...what? Three years of antibodies?"
"Maybe. I don't know."
He breathes shallowly, harshly. Like he's been swimming and has only just come up for air. I can't imagine all the fear, anger, and guilt - yes, guilt - that he's feeling right now. He created the solution. He didn't think it was so temporary.
"Get some rest. And don't freak out. I'll monitor you for potential re-exposure starting tomorrow. I think you'll be okay, since you already had Brittle. But I don't want to act cocky."
"I appreciate that." My voice is also strained now. I'm having a hard time keeping myself together. It's been years since I've had a panic attack.
"I'll check for any new symptoms," says my friend. "You just don't leave the country or go wandering off or anything."
"I'm not planning to."
"Good. And keep an eye on your arm, okay?"
"Sure. And everything else."
"Yes." Vincent swallows loudly. "Everything else."
Then I hear raised voices in the background, and he quickly hangs up. The second generation of Patient Zero has arrived.
I lower my phone so that it dangles almost limply from my remaining hand. Outside, it's already growing dark. The crickets have started to chirp, though sometimes, I wonder if I'm just hearing machines out there instead of living creatures, simulating the cacophony of insects. The automatic air conditioner suddenly bursts to life above my head, its rumbling adding percussion to the scene.
I walk to my living room and sit down on the couch, my legs stretched out in front of me as if I've lost the ability to walk. In front of me, an enormous flat screen TV lies dormant, dark and brooding. I haven't turned it on in years. The multiple tablets I've collected over time - some broken, some simply defunct or old - also are silent. Apart from the noises outside and the grumbling of the AC, it's strangely too quiet for me.
Pulling my shirt sleeve back, I gaze at the slick, black covering on the stump of my arm. Again, it's meant to protect me, as my limb is still a split human cable that leads to no man's land. The doctors didn't sew it back up because the infection could have killed me instantly, like toxic shock. But now, I'm wondering if that was a mistake. If leaving such a wound open could do more damage than anticipated.
In a sick way, I'm half-tempted to strip off the tape and see what it looks like underneath. I wonder how puckered the flesh is, how colorless and wilted it must be, like a seasonal flower surrendering to endless winter. I wonder what the atrophied muscle looks like, the frayed and cauterized capillaries, the now broken, dead end nerve synapses. But I don't do it. My curiosity is only so strong.
Instead, I recline on my couch and let my mind wander. I don't take my pill at 7:00 PM like I'm supposed to. I don't want to. The traumas and nightmares I have endured seem petty when confronted with my own mortality again.
The world I live in has faced countless threats like this: Grave, disastrous, nearly civilization-ending. Brittle is not the end all, but a reminder of how sinister external forces can be. How our own bodies reject our desire to live forever. I have seen human life flourish, and it is fragile. Our flesh, once so strong and reliable, can dwindle to nothing in mere fractions of an eon. Much like paper once it is burned to cinders in a fireplace.
I don't remember how long I've been sitting and ruminating until the digital clock on my coffee table lights up. 8:30 PM glows like a blue beacon in the dimly lit room; it always does this every half hour. Reaching for it, I remember that it still has the ability to connect to radio. It's a rather vintage thing, but there are still stations that play music. Normally classical.
Somehow, I feel like listening to a concerto. So I press a button on the side of the clock, and the first trill of a flute startles me. The orchestra follows soon after.
I don't recognize the piece. I have no idea who the composer might be. I still feel pretty apathetic to the sound; no emotions stirring in me. No goosebumps on my skin. No tears forming in my eyes. My left arm begins to ache. A phantom pain, I decide - not out of fear, but logic. Psychosomatic; I determine that myself. I'll have Vincent check on me tomorrow, just like he promised. He'll update me on the bus driver then. I wonder how old she really is. Or what her prognosis was.
Outside, the world presses on, its story written on more than stationary. But it remains as brittle as the bone that builds us.
I tilt my head back, and the music sweeps over me like fire.
This week's Storyteller was inspired by a dream I had, which I then adapted into this short story.