By Joy Kennedy-O'Neill
6 February 2012
Part 1 of 2
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.
- Albert Camus, The Plague
I'm driving to Houston when Def Leppard's "Love Bites" comes on the radio. I have to pull over and watch my hands shake; it's been years since anyone aired anything like that—no "Reality Bites," no "Once Bitten Twice Shy"—although I suppose that playing the song is a sign that the nation is moving on. I sit in the car and tremble, feeling angry and nauseous. Love bites, love bleeds, love lives, love dies . . .
After the epidemic, when a few radio stations had finally come back online, it was just news updates, dead lists, and static interrupted by the long silences of power outages. Then when some of the grids got stabilized it was "all Gershwin, all the time," and then last year, when everyone was digging victory gardens to supplement rations, it was big band tunes. Swing, baby, swing. Pull ourselves up by bootstraps, brother. Moving on and moving up. I can hum "Jump, Jive, and Wail" in my sleep now. When you wake up, will you walk out? It can't be love if you throw it about . . .
I'm so shaky that I think about turning around for home, but the car has its entire gas ration in the tank and I really need to see an optometrist. I'm starting to squint and tear up when I teach, so my prescription has probably changed. The headaches are awful. They started soon after last year's Tres de Julio celebration and feel like an elastic band is wrapping around my forehead, squeezing with every heartbeat. Cal has been kissing each eye when I get home. There are no more eye doctors in Lake Jackson but he said there are a few in the city who are taking appointments as best they can around the rolling blackouts. He even heard that Bausch and Lomb's Argentina plant might be going online again, so there may be contact lenses soon.
I have to pull myself together. An hour's drive is a luxury that I should be savoring; my calves have grown thick from bicycling to work. H-town's skyline ahead of me is lovely under the blue summer sky. Of course, the Chase Tower's top is still left ragged by an airliner's crash; seeing its scarred bone-beams reminds me of 9-11 and a more innocent time. Back then we thought that three thousand Americans dying by terrorists' hands was the most horrific thing we'd ever witnessed. We thought HIV and cancer and SARS were the big bogeymen in the closet. But now, with a planet missing nearly one-third of its population, our fears from the last decade seem glamorously bittersweet. When you're alone, do you let go?
A yellow butterfly is perched on top of a bullet-dented road sign. Things seem almost back to normal—there is no smoke on the horizon, the barricades have been removed, and grass and bluebonnets grow on the side of the road. There are birds singing, red-tailed hawks catching the thermals, and the buzzards are only devouring roadkill. It's just a possum. Everything is fine.
So I pull back into the near empty lanes as the song ends and a Britney Spears tune comes on—whatever happened to her? Did she make it?—and I know I can't handle these voices from the past, my past, so soon. I still need baby steps with Benny Goodman. And I'm thinking that I must be the last person in the world who is still having a problem getting over it, but when I walk into the optometrist's dingy waiting room there are two cases of hysterical blindness waiting patiently for their names to be called.
They now say that the first person who got sick was a sheep herder in Bhutan, which upends everyone's theory of a terrorist's biolab accidental release. The man got flu-like symptoms but still felt well enough to attend a national festival and grand opening of a new railway going over the Black Mountains. Later, hundreds of other people in Bhutan, Nepal, and India got sick with the same bug and recovered. It was what they then called the ovis flu, which was supposed to be just a weak cousin of the swine and bird flu. I remember reading about it in Newsweek's science section while sipping coffee at the kitchen table . . . two years ago that feel like two thousand.
Then it mutated. Patient Zero was a grandmother in New Delhi whose lungs filled up with fluid from trying to fight the flu. She succumbed after forty-eight hours and was placed inside the hospital's morgue, but the next day there was pounding from within the cooler. An unnerved hospital worker opened the door and there she was—naked, pale, blank-eyed and blinking . . . and hungry. She had unzipped her body bag and was half out of it. Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw the YouTube video of her attacking the nurses. A security camera captured the grainy image of her staggering down the hospital hallway; one foot was still caught in the body bag and she dragged it behind her like a wrinkled cocoon. Her breasts were long and dangled like fleshy pendulums as she lunged for the first nurse. There were sprays of blood as she bit into the woman's hospital scrubs, and when the second nurse—a man—tried to intervene, the old woman leaped and threw her whole body on him. She sat on his chest as he shouted in surprise and tried to flip her over. She actually ate half of his neck and one cheek—we could see her swallowing. Her face was devoid of expression.
The video went viral. Most everyone thought it was a hoax but it was hard to dismiss. Her white haunches and her black pubic hair . . . and the way the first nurse fell so hard on the floor that we could see her arm breaking and her pager go flying. . . . None of it seemed staged. We supposed it could be CGI'ed but every time Cal and I watched it together the hair had risen on my arms. The video had been soundless but I imagined the sound of that body bag shuffing on the linoleum as she took each step, like a needle off the track of a turntable. Ssh. Ssh. Ssh. The same sound I would later make to Lindy when she had nightmares about the "sick people" outside our boarded up windows. Ssh, ssh, ssh. Go to sleep.
More incidents like the one in the New Delhi hospital followed: Mumbai, Singapore, Tokyo, Bangkok. Doctors backpedalled, saying it was physically impossible for the dead to rise and what we were seeing were patients who had been prematurely declared dead. Calming sound clips included "Determining death can be difficult. . . ." "The puffer fish, for example, emits a powerful neurotoxin which can induce a death-like paralysis. . . ."
But one beleaguered doctor was adamant. "The patient's heart had stopped. There was no brain activity. Forty-eight hours later there was still no brain activity, and her tissues had actually started to decay and putrefy." (I remember his Indian accent and emphasis on putrify.) "And then the patient rose." This was the sound bite played round the world.
"What did the optometrist say?" Cal asks when I get home.
I present my new black rimmed glasses with lenses as thick as coke bottles, and wrinkle my nose. "I need a new prescription, but these are the only ones he had close to it."
He laughs. "Sexy librarian look. How is Houston?"
"Good. Less traffic, that's for sure. Someone in the waiting room said that the museums might reopen for one day a week." I don't tell him about the cases of hysterical blindness, or the new "old" songs playing on the radio.
"I'd love to see the Menil collection again," he smiles hopefully. "How much were the glasses?"
"Eighteen ration points. I'll put in more overtime."
"No worries. I'll do more." Our candles are lit because the power is off again and we share a can of chili that only expired two months ago, along with some sliced cucumbers from our victory garden. I can smell the shadows of the house, dusty and waiting. Their silences press on me as firm as a hand. In the back of the house is Lindy's room, and I suppose her stuffed animals are covered in dust and her plastic fairies all have cobwebbed wings.
The first time I saw a Turner, in real life, was on campus. Cal was teaching his college algebra class in the A-wing and I was downstairs teaching English lit. The black, beetle-like phone mounted on the classroom wall began to ring and I stopped my lecture to stare at it stupidly. I had never heard the classroom phones ring before. Before I could reach for the receiver all the students' cell phones started buzzing and vibrating, and an alarm in the hallway went off and a speaker crackled: "Emergency alert. Please lock all classroom doors and wait for instructions. Do not use emergency exits. Repeat . . ."
I rushed to the back of the room and locked the door. The college had installed the phones, alert systems, and the new door locks soon after the Virginia Tech shootings. I told the students to move away from the windows. I thought we had a shooter, or that maybe there had been an accidental release at the nearby petrochemical plants. But a shadow passed by the window.
A girl shrieked and we saw a man's gaunt face and hollowed eyes. He was shuffling past our classroom to the pavilion outside. There were crusts of blood around his mouth and fingers. A campus security guard cornered him but the man, moving surprisingly fast, rushed towards the guard and bit into his jugular. Both tumbled to the ground and then the man . . . god it's hard to write this . . . the man bit straight down into the guard's belly and shook his head, like a dog does, as he ripped out portions of entrails. The guard's white shirt became blood soaked but it wasn't like the horror movies, not all red and monochromatic; it was red and maroon and dark brown and then bile green when the bowels were pierced. My students were screaming, hysterical.
I was frozen.
Three police officers ran into the pavilion and shot. One of the bullets pinged against a bronze sculpture of cranes, and I remember how dispassionate the regal birds looked. One bird had been sculpted with its foot tucked up against its body, and now it looked as if it was trying to gracefully avoid the bloodshed at its feet. More shots: once, twice . . . at the third we saw shards of pink pieces of bone explode from the man's kneecap but he crawled onward, always reaching for the police. He looked ravenous. He never said anything, just groaned, and his eyes were milky and dead-looking, like a shark's. It wasn't until they shot him right in the head that he stopped for good. I smelled the vomit from one of my students as it seeped into the classroom carpet.
The blood from the two dead men outside was pooling, running through the cobblestones, being funneled straight toward our classroom's baseboard. I stood up shakily and pulled the blinds down. We huddled under the tables in the classroom and listened to the squawk of the police radios outside until the alert system blatted, "Please proceed to emergency exits."
That was our last day at work. Cal and I raced to each other's offices and grabbed tests and papers to grade—isn't that funny? I suppose we were thinking that a few days at home and there would soon be a cure. A final alert was being sent out: "To minimize the threat of contagion, all local school districts will be closing. In the aftermath of today's tragedy . . ."
"Why is it always 'aftermath'?" Cal said as we raced to the car. "They never call it 'after English or after Science.'" It was his math teacher joke, and a really old one. But he was trying to comfort me. We were running so fast that we couldn't hold hands.
"We've got to get Lindy," I said. All I could think about was our daughter.
We saw real horrors on the road getting to her sitter's. I won't write about them . . . I can't; I'll make myself ill. When we got to the sitter's she didn't say anything except "Christ Lord almighty," and deposited our sleepy four-year-old in my arms. Then she slammed her door shut and locked it.
When we made it home, we ran inside and bolted our own door. And that was the last time Lindy and I were ever outside together.
This morning I watch Cal work his Sudoku puzzles and I wonder if it always took him this long to complete them. He doesn't seem as quick-witted. He used to be able to make me laugh with just one dry retort, or one silly pun. I haven't laughed in a long time. Does he have post-traumatic stress? Do I? Does he have permanent cerebral damage from the infection? I listen to him chew his cereal and I feel so grateful he's alive. And furious too.
"What?" he asks, noticing me looking at him.
"Mmm." He keeps chewing his cereal. He's stopped complaining about the watered-down milk because he knows we're lucky; places in Europe and South America haven't had milk supplies all year. He looks at his watch and pushes his bowl away. "I gotta run. I'll be in late tonight."
"No problem." I start clearing the dishes. "Me too."
There is a lot of work to be done when so many people are gone. We volunteer to deliver mail three times a week; the U.S. mail is starting to creep along but the international deliveries are still dicey. Citizens must mow their yards plus maintain any adjacent abandoned properties. We do pothole repair, trash collection, and food delivery.
There isn't enough demand at the college for Cal to teach algebra again, so he is working at the local airport doing helicopter maintenance. He complained bitterly when he received his Citizen's Orders. "I worked on helicopters twenty years ago! What will I remember?" But the U.S. Council for Recovery must have found his old Army records, and flying workers out to the Gulf's offshore rigs is a top priority.
As he works in the hangers I do street cleaning, dig in our victory garden, and teach basic English at the college. There are no more literature classes; the liberal arts may have gasped their last breath with the plague. English as a Second Language isn't really my field, but since half of the students are now Spanish-speaking, it's needed. Especially after the second Tres de Julio celebration and the borders declared open indefinitely. The hot jobs of the future will be elementary ed (for the upcoming baby boom), medical care, and industry. To add to my load, I also take a Spanish refresher course taught by one of my colleagues.
With teaching, volunteering, studying, and digging in the dirt, I'm tired all the time. I crave sleep but it's full of nightmares. Ever since Cal mentioned wanting to see the Menil collection in Houston, I dream of Greco-Roman statues, deathlike in their pale and marbled skin. In my dreams they are cold to the touch, as white as bones.
"You look tired," he says, as if reading my thoughts.
"I'm fine," I lie. "When will you get in?" I run water over the dishes as he gets his toolbox.
"That is late."
"Well, I've got mail deliveries, street repair, then work at the hanger."
"But midnight? You're going to the Lazarus meetings, aren't you?" I hadn't planned to ask that, but it just came out and I can't pull the words back into my mouth.
"What? Of course not."
I stop washing the dishes and turn to him. "If you need a support group, I understand. I just want you to be honest with me about it."
"I'm not hanging around with a bunch of Jesus freaks. You know that."
"Do I?" My words can't stop themselves. I think to myself shut up, shut up, shut up but I still go on. "Yesterday you said that Revelation had predicted the rising of the dead. And that communion is a type of cannibalism."
"I don't have to go to a meeting to know that."
"But then you were talking about how Christians believe God forgives everything, no matter how horrible, and you seemed to be admiring the idea. Don't you remember how you used to laugh at that?"
"Can you blame people for wanting to hear some comforting words now?"
"But you've never believed in a god."
"I still don't! Christ, after everything that's happened you think I believe in some white-bearded grandpa in the sky? And just because I'm thinking about some things out loud, trying to wrap my head around what has happened, philosophically, you think I'm going to meetings?"
"Are you mad at me for something?" he asks. "Is there anything you want to talk about?"
His question is so big that my brain turns off.
"Look," he says. "The only thing that the Lazarus loo-loo's have right is that it's not the Turners' fault what happened. It was the virus' fault. Right?"
"Right." I stand with my arms crossed over my chest. I know he thinks that I'm self-righteous, just because I never turned. I was a NI. A Mole. A scared but healthy citizen hiding in the dark with my head between my knees. But even though I was a Non-Infected, I have just as much guilt as anyone else.
"We all have to stand together," he says.
He's echoing the President, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, who seems to channel Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, and even Winston Churchill on her good days. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
"I'll see you tonight," he says. I expect him to come over and hug me in reconciliation but he doesn't; he just leaves. The front door still has the deep drill bit holes in it left over from the two-by-four bracings. When it slams shut, it looks like it's been crucified.
The first thing Cal did was board up the house. We were lucky that we already had the hurricane plywood and boards in his garage shop; by this time there was already looting at the lumber stores. Then I heard grinding. When Cal came out of the garage he had made arrows for his recurve bow and sharpened an old Civil War sword he had found at a flea market years ago. I kept Lindy occupied and away from the TV, where live reports of outbreaks were showing horrific scenes. Cal said we needed food. I begged him not to go but he took the longest of the kitchen knives and the sword. He was gone for two days. I only allowed myself to be hysterical when Lindy was asleep. Cell phones weren't working and there were sounds of gunfire in the distance. When the car finally screeched back into the driveway, it was full of supplies.
"Cal!" I removed the bracings and let him in. I tried to hug him and Lindy was shouting "Daddy! Daddy!" but he pushed us back. "Stay inside. Let me unload."
He had parked the car as close to the front door as possible, as both a barricade and quick escape. He unpacked bags of cornmeal, rice, beans, flour, bottles of vitamins, cans of sterno, bags of dog food, and boxes of moist cat food.
"Are we going to eat pet food?" I asked.
"There's almost nothing left. But no one has thought of the pet stores yet."
"What's it like out there?"
"It's spreading very fast."
"But what took you so long?"
"The highways are clogged. People are getting trapped inside their cars. I had to go off-road just to get what I could and I got stuck in the baseball field. There were lots of . . . them, wandering around, looking for people. I had to hide in the back seat under a blanket until they were gone. Then I dug out the tires."
He had a stuffed toy for Lindy and she danced with it into her room.
"There are people jumping off overpasses," Cal whispered. "There's no place to go right now."
I had never seen my husband's hands shake before.
"We'll be okay here, right?"
"We'll be okay," he kissed me. "We'll hunker down. I'm glad I thought of the pet stores. The animals were locked up and thirsty. I opened the cages and let them go."
"Will they be okay?"
"They're fast; they have instincts. Hell, they probably have a better chance than most of us."
Later that night, I heard him working in the attic.
I think about what Cal said as I bicycle to work. "We all have to stand together." I pedal around the broken-down tank that is left on Main Street. The morning sun glistens on the armor plating but the tank's shadow stretches long and cold. The main gun on the turret points like an accusing finger. How can things get back to normal when there are so many reminders? It's not fair that Turners don't have memories of what happened. It's not fair that they "died" and got to escape, drifting off to some numbing space while their bodies were puppets of the plague. It's too easy for them to say that we can stand together and move on. Clasp our hands in friendship. Hurrah.
I get to campus and lock my bike, right by the new hitching posts. A few saddled horses are here already, blithely munching on the grass and swishing their tails. With gas rations being what they are, the rodeo horses have new jobs as commuters. In Australia they are using camels and in India, elephants. I walk down the sidewalk that professors scrubbed clean, past the fields where we buried bodies, and enter through doors that I rinsed free of bloody handprints. The first jobs for returning faculty and staff were to help clean the campus, and I won't describe what we saw. Or smelled.
I walk past the computer lab where the "Campus Eight" held their last stand against Turners. Eight students holed up all winter, using the ceiling spaces to reach food in the bookstore and cafeteria. They nearly made it. But a pack of Turners was always pounding, pounding on the doors and they finally clawed their way in. The president of the college says that the students actually died of dehydration first, and then the Infected broke in and ate the remains. But I helped clear out the lab and I know the truth of the battle that took place in there. I found one of the student's journals and he named, specifically, who was pounding on the doors. Two of the Turners were deans and three were professors.
There will be no engraved memorial plaque for the "Campus Eight." Hell, there probably won't be memorials for anyone—that's not how things are done any more. People can't honor people they killed with their bare hands and devoured. There is no precedent—no historical, sociological, or psychological guidebook—for rabid cannibalization on a mass scale. Sure, there are horror films of zombies (a word we don't use) but those were what passed as entertainment and not real life.
In real life we're supposed to forget about it and move on. We're not supposed to use the expression "pack" of Turners, or "hoards," or "murder." It's "groups" and "causalities." The slang terms "Turners" and "Moles" should be the Infected (I) and Non-Infected (NI). As faculty, we can't ask which student was what during the epidemic, nor can we ask who is a legal citizen or not. Students can't wear t-shirts with logos about the plague, such as "Bite Me," "One Bullet—One Brain," "Turner = Turncoat," or "Moles have Souls." One logo has the Christian fish, the ichthys, with a bite taken out of it and the words "Fish is Brain Food." Those are worn by the unrepentant eaters. They are a minority, but they are loud. Most of them belong to the anti-Lazarus organizations that suggest the plague absolutely proves there is no God. These are the groups I thought Cal might have joined by now.
In class, I watch my students and I can't help but wonder who turned and who hid. Every closed-lipped smile I see makes me wonder if there are cracked teeth behind it, broken from biting on bones, buttons, and jewelry. I look at fingers, trying to find disfigurements left from clawing through barricades. I wonder who ate their sisters, their parents, their pets. I look at scars. But sometimes I teach an entire class not looking at them, simply rolling the chalk through my fingers and feeling the gritty dust on the old chalkboards that were wheeled into the classrooms. (The rolling blackouts often knock out the projectors.) The chalk is as smooth as the Grecian statues in my nightmares. Those marbled feet; those stony veins that I hold in my dreams . . . sometimes I think I'm losing my mind.
But there is one student. Maria. There is something different about her. She is defiant. Her eyes flash and she holds her chin high. Her brown hair is lustrous and her smile is dazzling with white, perfect teeth. There is something untouchable about her, as if she has weathered everything with a grace and haughty anger. When she enters the room and says "Hola, professora"—in a tone both icy and warm—it sounds as if she is saying "this is nothing to me."
I wish I were more like Maria.
After work I slide my ration card into the scanner at human resources and it adds my daily work points. I immediately type into the keyboard and remove four of the points, sending them directly to the National Institute for Parentless Children.
It is late afternoon when I pedal for home; the shadow of the tank still inks the asphalt on Main Street. I try to veer around it but I end up wheeling into its darkness, as if I'm rolling into a well.