For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great

By Jennifer Pelland

December 1, 2010: World AIDS Day

Kathleen Murphy gripped her can of Mace tightly as she rode the Red Line to work, hands sweating inside the latex of her surgical gloves. All around her, her fellow T riders were openly clutching Mace or pepper spray as well, all glancing around the car from behind safety goggles and surgical masks. Technically, it was still illegal to carry chemical sprays without a license, but no one enforced those laws anymore. It was safer not to.

The T pulled into Harvard Station, the end of the line, and she rose to get off the train. She remembered the days when people would crowd around the doors and bustle off in a mass of closely-packed bodies. No one touched anyone anymore. They wouldn't even come close. She never thought she'd miss that.

She made her way up the escalator, not touching the handrails, crossed Mass. Ave., and headed towards the gates of Harvard Yard. At least the university was still open, even though enrollment had been dropping precipitously over the past four years. No one wanted to send their children away to school anymore. Not unless they lived in a country with even higher infection rates than the U.S. The only schools that were still doing well were Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health. They even offered scholarship money. That was unheard-of.

At the gates, she flashed her employee ID to the armed guards, waited for them to scan it, and was let in. Still, she remained vigilant as she dashed through the Yard. The crazies had gotten into plenty of secure areas, armed guards notwithstanding. She didn't feel safe until she'd sprinted up the stairs to Widener Library, flashed her ID again, and then heard the doors close behind her. She realized her safety was illusory, but she'd take it.

"And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God."

Tessa Spirko mouthed the words of the morning sermon along with Father Moran while picking absentmindedly at the fungal infection on the back of her hand. Next to her, Ben repeated the words under his breath, his lungs gurgling faintly. Tessa tried to smile. He'd be with God soon. And thanks to his hard work, so many others would be with God soon as well.

"And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth forever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled." Father Moran stretched his arms out, then curled in on himself and coughed hard, bringing one hand to his mouth as his brow tightened with pain. When the fit passed, he put his arms out again, his hand now stained with blood, and said, "We are the seventh angel. No man will be able to enter into the temple until our plague is fulfilled."

A chorus of "Amen!" rose up from the crowd, clustered tightly in the now-closed Porter Square T station, illuminated by one trash can fire and the twinkling of old Christmas lights hooked up to a chugging, smelly generator. A year ago, Tessa could still have hopped the T and gone out to Davis Square to watch old movies. But a year ago, she wasn't sick. And a year ago, Boston could still afford to run the trains out to Somerville.

She reminded herself that none of that mattered anymore. She was one of the saved now. She should be happy.

Kathleen headed directly to the women's locker room, knocked to make sure it was empty, and began her morning routine. First, she put her bag in her locker. Second, she sprayed the metal counter down with disinfectant. Third, she pulled a sealed hygiene pack from the dispenser and tore it open, careful not to touch the contents. Fourth, she removed her gloves, goggles, and mask, putting them in the medical waste receptacle. Fifth, she ran her hands under the automatic faucet, covering them with a fine spray of disinfectant. Finally, she put on the contents of the hygiene pack: first the hair net, then the mask, then the safety goggles, then the gloves. She always counted the steps. She never let herself autopilot through them. Familiarity bred slipups.

She took one look at herself in the mirror and sighed, ignoring the "Even doorknobs can transmit HIV-6 and HIV-7!" sign above it. Her mother hadn't had this many gray hairs when she was thirty-seven. Kathleen wondered how much longer she'd be able to live with this constant fear before the stress completely destroyed her. Her gaze traveled down to the lump under her shirt, and she pressed it against her chest, the warm metal of the ring stinging tears from her eyes. She took a tissue from a dispenser, carefully shifted her goggles and dabbed her eyes dry, then tossed the tissue in the medical waste receptacle.

Kathleen palmed the door to circulation open, the squeak of the hinges echoing through the large, mostly-empty space. At the circulation desk near the back of the room, a similarly protected Anna waved and smiled, although Kathleen had to glean the smile from the way Anna's eyes crinkled up behind the goggles. "HIV testing today," Anna said.

"Oh good," Kathleen said, resisting the urge to sag against the desk.

"The pay here may be awful, but no one can say that Harvard has poor benefits," Anna said. "Although I wish they'd do it weekly instead of biweekly."

"If they did that, they'd have to fire some of us to pay for it," Kathleen said. "I can't afford to be unemployed."

"None of us can," Anna said. "We're closing the library and postponing stack duties until the testing is over. They should be here in ten or fifteen minutes, so we've got a little time to kill."

Kathleen nodded and bit her lip, but not too hard. She didn't want to open a break in her skin. "I think I'll do some reading," she said.

"Sounds good."

She walked behind the circulation desk, pulled a sanitary keyboard guard from the dispenser, and called up on the computer. There were no books in the circulation office anymore. Even if there had been, she wouldn't have looked through them for something interesting to read. Library books were too dangerous to just leave lying around. Yes, patrons were always required to wear gloves and masks and be supervised by a librarian. But gloves could tear, and masks weren't foolproof. Books went from patrons, to 24-hour quarantine, to the stacks.

Kathleen had gotten a degree in library science because she loved books. Now she was afraid of them.

Father Moran doubled over with wet, wracking coughs, and Tessa could hear the blood and sputum splatter on the floor. She turned and ran up the frozen escalator to the turnstiles so she wouldn't have to smell the diarrhea that she knew would follow. "I'm saved, I'm saved, I'm saved," she mumbled to herself, scrubbing a hand across her breastbone to try and calm the wild stuttering of her heart. She wasn't ready to watch. She wasn't strong enough to watch. Oh God, that would be her in a few months.

Tessa jumped as a voice came from directly behind her. She whirled to face Maureen, who said, "And men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great." Maureen gave a half smile, her lip cracking and bleeding from the herpes lesions that had spread over most of the left half of her face. "You'll get used to it. As you get sicker, it'll be easier to bear."

"I know," Tessa whispered. In the background, she could hear someone having a seizure. David? That would be his second one today.

Maureen took Tessa's hand and squeezed it, and Tessa started to jerk back reflexively before stopping herself. Maureen smiled and said, "One of the joys of being saved is being able to touch people again, isn't it?"

"I've missed that," Tessa said. Her old priest hadn't touched anyone with bare hands in years, but what did he know? He wasn't saved.

"So, today's your big day."

Tessa nodded and wrapped her arms tightly around herself.

Maureen laid a gentle hand on Tessa's forearm. "The first time's always the hardest, but remember, you're bringing them to God."

"What if they run, or fight?" Tessa asked. "What if I fail?"

"Then you'll try again another time," Maureen said. "There is no failure here. You simply have to try your best. God will know if you do."

And if I don't, Tessa thought. Aloud, she repeated, "And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done."

"Those verses are a great comfort to you, aren't they?" Maureen said.

"They're all I've got. You're all I've got."

"Then bring more to us," Maureen said. "Make the family bigger."

Tessa nodded and tried to ignore the panicked voices screaming in the back of her head. God wouldn't have made her sick for nothing. God wouldn't have made her watch her family die for nothing. She had to believe. She had to.

Kathleen looked up from a news story on the Pittsburgh school system shutting down for lack of students, and glanced at the countdown clock in the top right corner of the web page. "The moment of silence is coming up."

Anna rolled her eyes. "Great."

"Don't you want to--"

"No," Anna snapped. "I don't need a moment of silence to remember how awful things are."

Tim and Reyna walked in from the stacks and glanced up at the clock.

"That's not what it's for," Kathleen said.

"I don't care! A third of the country's dead, and half of the rest of us are going to join them in a few months. I'm sick to death of thinking about this!"

"Anna!" Tim snapped. He shushed her sternly with a finger to his lips, then added, "Show a little respect."

Anna shot him a glare and marched into the hallway.

Kathleen looked up at the clock on the wall as it ticked over to 9:15. She pressed the ring against her chest again. The ring was all she had left of Kevin. He'd left her a year ago, right after he'd buried his sister and his nephew. Kevin's brother-in-law had brought the disease home to his wife and child. He'd taken every precaution, but he'd still managed to bring the disease home. And that had scared Kevin so much that he'd run off to live alone.

It hadn't saved him. Kathleen had gone to his funeral just this past July.

God, she missed him. Missed having someone to come home to, to talk to, curl up with, make love to. Missed being touched by someone she loved and trusted. Missed being touched at all.

She'd never have someone to hold again. They'd never find a vaccine in time.

The clock ticked over to 9:16. She blinked hard, fighting back the tears that were too unsafe to shed here.

"I need the locker room," a tearful Reyna said, marching out into the hallway.

Kathleen let out a shaky sigh. She peeled one surgical glove back from her wrist, pushed up her goggles, dabbed her eyes dry on the newly-exposed skin, then carefully covered the tear-stained skin back up with the glove.

She startled back as the doors banged open and several nurses in full biohazard suits wheeled the HIV testing cart into the circulation office. They began setting up their testing station in the empty space where the reading tables and card catalogs had once been.

Anna walked back in, her eyes puffy and red behind her safety goggles. "I wish they'd do this every week."

Tessa pulled on gloves and a mask as she emerged from the Porter Square T station. She'd blend in better that way. And the gloves hid her rash. She fingered the sprayer in her pocket -- the "golden vial." It looked like a can of Mace, but it was filled with her own fresh piss and blood. Her HIV-7-laden piss and blood. Next to her, Adolfo was feigning confidence, but she could tell he was just as nervous as she was. Maureen seemed calm, but it was tough to tell behind the full gas mask she wore to cover her lesions.

"No one's going to be out on the streets now," Tessa said, digging her hands deep into her pockets to ward off the December chill. "They'll all be at work. We won't be able to infect anybody."

Maureen pulled her mask slightly away from her face. "Not infect. Save. And here." Maureen handed them each an ID card. "Congratulations. You're now Harvard students."

Tessa looked at the photo on the ID. It was her, all right: her old high school ID photo. "Will these really work?"

"They should," Maureen said. "They're gifts from a newly-saved member of the congregation. She worked in ID Services until yesterday."

"So what's the plan?" Adolfo asked.

"Once we get inside the Yard, we'll split up so we can save as many people as possible. Tessa, you take the library; Adolfo, you take the Memorial Church. They're having morning services right now. I'll go to the Science Center."

"We're going to save a lot of people!" Adolfo said, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he walked.

"Amen," Tessa mumbled underneath her mask. The voices in the back of her head started screaming louder, but she silenced them by mentally repeating, ". . . and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled." Father Moran preached the truth. She believed that. She had to.

Kathleen paced nervously in the cavernous hallway as she waited for her test results to come back. Her results had to be negative. She hadn't done anything stupid these past two weeks. Wait, there'd been someone coughing hard on the T last week. Oh God, what if she were positive?

She shook her head sternly and forced herself to abandon that line of thought. The coughing person had been wearing a surgical mask, and Kathleen had been wearing her goggles. True, they weren't as safe as a good gas mask, but she hated the way gas masks limited her peripheral vision. If the crazies came for her, she wanted to be able to see them coming and get a head start.

Kathleen let out a long breath and rubbed her gloved hands together. No, she probably wasn't positive. She'd worn protection outside her apartment at all times. Anything she'd brought into the house, she'd quarantined in the hall closet for twenty-four hours before moving it into her living space. Even food. She'd bought a second refrigerator just for that purpose. And she hadn't touched the skin of another human being in nearly a year, no matter how much she ached to.

She pressed the ring to her chest again.

One of the nurses popped his head out of the circulation office and said, "Congratulations, you're negative."

"Oh good," she said, the words coming out in a rush of air, and she closed her eyes and just let herself bask in the moment. Still negative. She'd beaten the odds.

A piercing scream came from circulation. "I can't be positive! I can't be!"

"Anna," Kathleen whispered, splaying her hand across her breastbone, across the ring. "Oh God, Anna."

She could hear voices speaking in soothing tones, but Anna keened and wailed, and Kathleen tried not to imagine the scene on the other side of the door. What had she seen Anna touch today? What was Anna touching now? Was she even still wearing her mask, her goggles, her gloves? Had she ripped them off in her despair, spreading tears and sweat all over the room? Kathleen belatedly realized she was inching backwards, slowly increasing the distance between herself and the circulation office's door.

The cries faded, then stopped.

The door opened, and two of the nurses carried Anna's unconscious body out, enveloped in a biohazard suit. The third nurse stepped into the hallway and beckoned the employees still in circulation to come out and join her. Reyna's normally warm brown skin was an eerie beige, and Tim had gone chalk white. "They had to sedate her," Reyna whispered.

"It's not safe to stay here," the nurse said. "Get your things and go home."

"Where are you taking her?" Kathleen asked.

"The Cambridge Hospice."

"But she'll die there!" Reyna cried. "The news said there's an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant staph there!"

"She'll die no matter where she goes. At the hospice, she'll be made comfortable, and she won't be able to infect anyone else. It's the best we can do."

Kathleen looked at Reyna and Tim and ached to hug them, to try and draw some comfort from their presence. But even though they'd all just tested negative, she couldn't bring herself to trust that they were truly safe, and instead clutched her fists to her chest, her skin growing cold.

Reyna mumbled, "I'm getting my things," and headed into the women's locker room.

Kathleen wordlessly watched the nurse go back into circulation, then emerge with her cart and head for the elevators. Anna was positive. The building was infected. Anna was going to die. They were never going to find a way to stop the spread of this disease. They were all going to die. Every person on Earth was going to die. Kathleen was going to die.

She had to get out of there. For once, she found herself wanting to break the "one person in the locker room at a time" rule.

The ID cards worked perfectly. Tessa found herself wishing they hadn't. She was saved, she knew that, but what if these people didn't want to be saved too? What if they wanted to stay healthy? What if they wanted to live? Oh God, Tessa wanted to live. She wanted to live so badly. She wanted to go to college, find a boyfriend, get married, have babies, see them grow up, and watch them have babies. She wanted to see her little brother grow taller than her, and her parents put their grandchildren on their knees and tell them stories. She wanted to have a big family reunion with all her aunts and uncles and cousins, and put the picture from it on her wall to have that moment frozen in time as she became an old woman.

Instead, she was going to die before she turned seventeen.

Maureen was suddenly standing in front of her, the thin December sunlight reflecting off of the lenses of her gas mask. "It's normal to have second thoughts," she said, her voice muffled through the mask. "But you're strong. You can do this."

"I can't," Tessa whispered.

"The sooner everyone is saved, the sooner the temple of God will be open to all of us. You have to have faith. God didn't bring this sickness down to punish us. He brought it down to save us."

Tessa didn't want to die. But she was going to. And there had to be a reason why. She took a deep breath, her misgivings quieting somewhat, and nodded.

"Good girl," Maureen said. "There's Widener Library. God be with you."

"And also with you," she replied.

She headed towards the tall stone steps, but one of the guards called down, "We're closing." She nodded, walked towards another building until she was out of his sight, then circled the library to see if there was another way to get in. She flattened herself against the wall as she saw a figure in a biohazard suit wheel a cart out of the back door. Once the figure's back was towards her, Tessa made a dash for the door, neatly catching it before it closed. No guards. Good.

This level of the building seemed abandoned, so she followed the arrows leading upwards and emerged into a cavernous marble hallway. There should have been people here. Why weren't there people here?

She heard a quiet shuffle of activity coming from a room off to the side of the hallway, so she took a deep breath, pulled off her gloves and mask, and, sprayer in hand, opened the door.

Kathleen heard the door open behind her just as she tossed her gloves, mask, hair net, and goggles into the dispenser. "Reyna!" she barked. "Whatever you forgot, can't it wait? I'm naked. . . ." She trailed off as she turned around and saw the unmasked, ungloved girl standing in front of the door, a spray can in her hand. "Oh God," Kathleen whispered, blood freezing in her veins. "Please don't kill me. Please don't."

"I . . . I'm here to save you," the girl said, voice quavering.

Kathleen was frozen, body and brain, her lips repeating the words over and over, as she stared helplessly at the girl with the can of death. "Please don't kill me. Please don't kill me. Please don't kill me."

"I have to do this," the girl said. "They said so."

A sliver of hyperawareness pierced through the haze in Kathleen's brain, and she started racing through her options in a blind panic. Should she scream? No, she'd just get sprayed. Try to startle the girl and make a run for it? No, she'd still get sprayed. She forced herself to look quickly over her shoulder. The window was no good. It was both barred and boarded over. Could she get to her Mace in time? She flicked her gaze at her locker and shuddered. She couldn't risk touching it bare-handed. Anna had been in here this morning.

Her life now depended on her ability to talk her way out.

"Look, I don't want to die," the woman said, her voice shaky, but measured. "I'm not like you. I don't want to be sick. Don't you understand?"

Tessa struggled to keep her can level. It suddenly felt like it weighed fifty pounds. "I have to do this," she said. "We all have to be saved. That's what Father Moran says."

"But I don't want to be saved," the woman said. "Please, just go. Let me live."

"But . . . but we all have to be saved, otherwise the temple won't be open to us."

The woman flung her arms out to her sides and cried, "What does that mean?"

Tessa opened her mouth, then blinked hard. "It means . . ." She struggled to find the words, but they weren't there. She didn't know what to say. When Father Moran described it, it made so much sense. She could see the angels and the throne and the beautiful colors. She could hear the singing, the laughter, the prayer. She could see her little brother healthy, running to meet her, arms wide, and she was hugging him without fear. But she couldn't form the words herself, couldn't make them come together in her brain. She swallowed hard, then said the only words she could find. "God wouldn't have made us sick if He didn't have a reason to."

The woman looked down at the floor, blinking hard, then looked back up and said, "Well then, shouldn't you let God make me sick? I mean, who are you to make decisions for God?"

Tessa knew the answer to that one. "Oh, we're doing the work of the angels."

"Did they tell you to do that work? Did the angels tell you personally?"

Tessa blinked hard. "No. . . . I . . ." The can's weight doubled, and she struggled to keep it from slipping from her fingers.

This was it. This was her opportunity. Kathleen looked over at the locker again. She would just tuck her hand inside her sleeve, Mace the girl, and then throw the sweater away as soon as she got home. She started inching slowly towards the locker.

The girl suddenly looked up, her eyes filled with tears, and raised the can. "I have to do this," she said through clenched teeth. "I have to."

Kathleen froze, throat tight, the locker within arm's reach. "No, you don't."

"Yes, I do."

"Why?" she asked, still clinging to the faint hope that she could talk some sense into the girl and make it out of here without a death sentence. "I mean, why do you believe them when they say you're saved?"

"Because . . . because God wouldn't have made us sick if He didn't have a reason to."

"You already said that."

"I . . . I know."

The girl's expression was troubled, but her gaze was locked on Kathleen. Damn it. She should have gone for the Mace more quickly. She swallowed hard, trying to calm her churning belly, as her brain raced through several different things to try and say next. Her instincts screamed for her to beg, but her rational mind reminded her that hadn't worked before. "Why . . ." She took a steadying breath. "Why do you think God is responsible?"

"Because He's all-powerful. He wouldn't let this happen without a reason. Don't you believe in God?"

Kathleen opened her mouth and closed it again. She hadn't thought about her faith in years. She wasn't sure if she'd lost it, or just forgotten it. "Maybe . . . maybe God brought this plague down to punish us, or test us. Or maybe the devil brought it to tempt people like you to kill people in the name of God."

"No!" the girl screamed, and Kathleen threw her arms protectively over her face, breath stopped in her throat, waiting for the hiss of the spray.

And then she heard the sobbing.

She slowly lowered her arms, gaping, as the girl unabashedly wept, her disease-laden tears and snot coursing down her face. "God did this," she hiccupped. "G-- God killed my parents and my little brother. They were good people. He was such a good little boy." She slid down the wall, knees tucked tightly against her chest, the spray can falling to the floor and rolling under the sink.

Suddenly, the girl looked so young. Younger than the students here. Younger than anyone Kathleen had seen in at least a year. About the same age as one of the nieces she'd buried. "I'm sorry about your family," she whispered.

"He had a reason," the girl said, turning her tear-streaked face to look up at Kathleen. "God wanted my little brother for a reason. He was such a good boy. There . . . there had to be a reason. There had to be. Oh God, I miss them!" She curled up on her side on the marble floor, sobs tearing from her throat, and she looked so young, so vulnerable.

Kathleen watched the girl and felt tired down to her bones. Tired of the constant fear. Tired of the distance people put between each other. Tired of the numbness that had replaced emotion. Tired of the bleak future she tried not to let herself imagine. Tired of waiting for her turn to come. She turned to look in the mirror, at the hair gone far too gray from the constant stress of her life. It wasn't worth living like this. This wasn't life.

She pulled the ring from inside her sweater, clutched it tightly in her bare hand, and cursed what she was about to do.

Tessa wanted to die. She wanted the earth to swallow her up. She wanted the virus to boil in her veins and bleed her out from the inside. Oh God, she couldn't live anymore. She couldn't bear it. She cried until her insides felt raw and then she cried some more, the void inside her filled with nothing but endless pain.

And then she felt gentle hands pulling her up, tucking her head in the crook of a neck, arms wrapping around her in a comforting embrace. She sank into it, grateful for the comfort, for the soft warm skin against her face, then a lightning jolt hit her belly and she reared back. "No! Oh God, I'm so sorry!"

"Shhh, come back," the woman said. "It's probably too late already." She held her arms out, and Tessa ached to fall back into them again.

"But why?" she whispered.

The woman shot her a wan smile. "Because you're right. I'm saved this way."

"But . . . but you're dead! What if Father Moran's wrong?"

"No, it's not about that. I'm saved from being afraid of getting sick." She laughed, a harsh, barking sound, and held her arms out again. "I don't have to be afraid of the virus anymore."

Tessa's voice cracked as she said, "No, now you need to be more afraid."

The woman sighed through her nose, looking down at the floor, then said, "But not for long." She looked back up at Tessa with a steady, calm gaze.

Tessa sniffed loudly, another sob building in her belly, and she finally accepted the invitation of the woman's arms, curling up into her, into her warmth, her comfort.

She was going to die before she turned seventeen, but at least she'd only be taking one person with her. And that was something she could live with.


Copyright © 2003 Jennifer Pelland

Reader Comments

Jennifer Pelland lives and works in the Boston area, where she makes web pages for an educational publishing company by day and is an aspiring writer by night. This story is her first pro sale, though her second pro sale was published earlier. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and in her spare time, she does voice work for a local radio play. For more about her, see her website.

Author's note: Thanks to Dr. Kristin Fiebelkorn for helping me with the medical details.