Authors: Deirdre Gould
The phone. It always started with the phone. Ruth tried to ignore the ringing.
Am I on call?
Something about the thought seemed off and she let it drift away into the dark. But the ringing went on. Over and over.
Is Mrs. Williams in labor?
She half shook her head. Mrs. Williams had given birth to her son Toby more than six years ago. That one wasn’t even recent. The ringing began to jar. Ruth tried to focus.
It’s not the clinic. Clinic’s gone.
It had started this way though, with the phone.
She couldn’t even remember who was first. It was a long, blurred streak from the first call until the end. She’d woken up like this, in the dark, and held the receiver to her ear.
Was it the brothers?
It didn’t matter, not even as her brain tried to organize the memory, but she thought it was the brothers. One had bitten the other so hard he’d needed stitches. She rubbed her eyes and told them to go to the hospital. But it wasn’t the stitches they’d been worried about. It was the kid that had done the biting. He couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop. Screaming and flailing and biting.
“You mean a tantrum?” Ruth asked, still drowsy.
“Listen, lady, I’m a competent adult,” growled the father through the phone, “I know when my kid’s having a tantrum. This is no tantrum. This is— is
. It doesn’t stop. He won’t even slow down when he’s out of breath. Cripes, he should have worn himself out by now, it’s been hours.”
“Some kids can go—”
“Dr. Socorro, I
my kid. This isn’t normal. Something’s
damn it! I don’t know who else to call.”
“Okay,” Ruth nodded sleepily, though the man couldn’t see it, “I’ll meet you at the hospital in half an hour.”
She could remember stitching up the younger brother because the emergency room was strangely packed for the wee hours of a Wednesday. She’d admitted the biting brother with a sedative and called psychiatric services to follow up. She’d been unsure what else to do. The little boy had thrashed and snapped as the father strained to hold him. The boy growled or screamed when she’d tried to talk to him. It had just seemed like a ferocious tantrum to her and she wasn’t trained for that. She’d gone from there straight to the clinic where her partners were already moving through a waiting line of patients, though it was too early to open. The waiting room was full, tired mothers flipping through colorful magazines meant for children. Most of the kids looked listless or slept. It was strangely silent for a pediatrician’s office. No one running around, nobody scolding in hissed whispers. It ought to have unnerved her, but after the morning’s loud start, she was relieved rather than nervous.
“Better get ready,” said her nurse as Ruth picked up a file, “looks like a flu or something going around. We have almost thirty more we couldn’t fit in today.”
“Thirty? Didn’t know we had that many patients.”
“You’re telling me. No serious symptoms yet though. Small fever, listlessness, a little bit of a scratchy throat, that’s about it. I think it’s mostly first-time parents calling. I’ve told most of them just to stay home and keep their kiddos hydrated. If it gets worse, give us another call.”
Ruth glanced back into the waiting room. “Doesn’t seem like they are listening,” she said.
“Well, every clinic has it’s nervous patients.”
“Have we received any alerts?”
The nurse shook her head. “A fax from Sam, doesn’t make much sense though. He sent me a bunch of clippings and some patient reports from down his way. A huge collision in France, a riot in New Delhi and it looks like a mild strep epidemic in Venezuela. I don’t know what he’s trying to get at. And you know his handwriting—”
“Let me see, I always typed his notes for him in school, I’ll decipher it,” said Ruth. The nurse handed her the packet of papers with a shrug.
“That’s why you get the big bucks. I’ll give you a few minutes and send the first patient through. Sarah Parvey, mom says she’s really out of it, stumbling, listless, slurring like she’s been drinking. No recent falls or bumps to the head that mom can remember …” the nurse’s voice trailed off as Ruth frowned over the fax. She nodded and wandered toward her office still untangling the letters on the page. There were over a dozen names on the front page, most she knew from school or conventions, but some she didn’t. How many people did he send it to? The articles still had ragged, torn edges on their fax pages. That must have been why he hadn’t emailed.
No time, hospital slammed. Very important. For elevated temps with accompanying violence test for strep. Note the strain and contact New Delhi. Fax number enclosed. Also CDC?
That’s all it said.
She thought, and focused immediately on the little boy from that morning. She shook her head. Sam was a long way away. Besides, the CDC would have said something. She picked up the phone anyway and ordered a strep test on the brother she’d admitted. She didn’t have time to read the articles so she flung them onto her desk for later and walked into the little patient room with Sarah Parvey and her mom.
Ruth watched as Sarah swayed and stumbled trying to walk the straight, bright line taped onto the carpet. She checked the girl’s eyes, but they seemed to be focusing correctly. Her ears were clear and the girl said she didn’t feel dizzy when asked. Ruth gently tapped Sarah’s knee to check her reflexes but glanced up as the mother said sharply, “Stop that!” and grabbed her daughter’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” blushed the mother, “she won’t stop biting her nails. She never did this before. But in the past few days, she’s gnawed down to the quick. Oh! There— now you’re bleeding.”
The girl grabbed her hand back and began sucking on her bleeding finger.
“Sarah, I have a bandaid for that,” said Ruth calmly. She pulled open a nearby drawer and grabbed a piece of gauze and a bandage. “Here, let me see. I used to bite my nails too. It got so bad, my mom used to put hot sauce on them so I’d remember.” She laughed lightly and held her hand out to take the little girl’s.
But Sarah shook her head and kept sucking on the finger.
“It won’t hurt, I promise, just a bandaid,” said Ruth, but Sarah shook her head again. The mother became flustered and turned red.
“Sarah, give her your hand, let her help you,” she said, half under her breath as if Ruth weren’t standing right there.
The girl pushed herself back on the table, the paper crinkling and bunching behind her. She growled as her mother reached for her hand.
“It’s okay,” said Ruth quickly.
“I’m sorry, doctor, but it’s not. She’s being rude and I don’t allow that—” She reached for Sarah’s hand and pulled it out of the girl’s mouth. The girl drooled a long string of blood and a deep roar burst from her open mouth. Ruth gasped as the little hand flashed in front of her, the skin from the upper end of the finger was gone, the light pink muscle tissue pulsing scarlet with flowing blood. And then the hand was gone, wrapped around Sarah’s mother’s shoulder as the child leapt up on the table and launched herself toward her mother. The mother caught her out of pure instinct, wrapped her in her arms before the girl could hit the floor. Sarah didn’t hesitate, lunging forward and biting down on her mother’s soft cheek. The woman screamed and Ruth pulled at the edges of Sarah’s mouth to make her let go. But the girl was locked on, dark blood bubbling down the places where their faces met.
thought Ruth perversely, but it made her realize what to do. She pushed the girl’s nose closed. Sarah choked and released the bite. She turned toward Ruth as her mother fell into a chair, moaning. Ruth slammed the emergency intercom button and turned quickly out of Sarah’s path. The kid’s reflexes were still slow, and Ruth was behind her before Sarah even realized she had missed. Ruth held the small arms behind her back forcing her to remain facing away. The nurses began streaming in to help. It took another half hour to sedate Sarah and treat her mother before sending them both to the hospital. Almost as an afterthought, Ruth ordered the strep test. She hadn’t even checked Sarah’s temperature yet.
There hadn’t been any more like that, not that day. Other kids who were listless and clumsy, but no biters. She had been nervous for a while, but began to relax as the day wore on. Every time she came out of the patient rooms, though, she could hear the phone ringing. It never seemed to stop. Not that day, or in the week to follow, not even when the authorities came in white plastic suits and shut the place down. It still rang. At work. At home. She’d wake up just to tell people there was nothing she could do. It kept ringing over and over. Until the power went out. She’d go to her grave believing the sound of the phone was what made Charlie finally snap. Even though she knew better, in her heart it was that hellish ringing that had pushed her son over the edge.
Like now. How was it ringing now? It was months since the lines went down. She opened her eyes at last. It was the tiny wind up alarm clock. It brought her back into herself. She switched it off. It meant the test was done. Time to check the lab. She scrubbed her face with her hands and slowly sat up. Bill turned over as she moved and fell back asleep.
How can he sleep through that?
She thought. But she knew how. If he could sleep through Charlie’s screams, then it wasn’t surprising that he could sleep through the little alarm. She got dressed in the half light of the window and headed downstairs.
Ruth flipped the light switch, but nothing happened.
I hope the incubator finished, or I’ll have to run it again.
She closed the basement door and threaded her way through the dark living room toward the mudroom. She hissed through her teeth as she slammed a hip into the side table in the hall. But there was no answering shriek. She hadn’t woken Charlie or Bill. Ruth let out a shaky sigh and moved on.
She found the shin guards by feel and strapped them on. The rifampin, especially, had been hard to find. It would be hard enough to get the correct dosage with the small stockpile she had. If the test had to be run again, they might have to go even further to find more. She adjusted the velcro on the lacrosse pad around her arm. She tried not to remind herself that this was the
test. The pull of knowing was terrible. Half of her hoped the generator failure would mean she had to run it again, just so she could pretend for one more day. The other half was wild to find a cure for Charlie. She pulled the umpire mask down and wriggled a little against the tight chest plate. She reached down, her fingers crawling over discarded boots and Bill’s set of armor until they found one of the gas cans. There were only two left. They’d have to go down to the station again today or tomorrow. Ruth hated that chore, but there was no choice. The lab wouldn’t run without electricity, and Charlie wouldn’t get better without the lab.
One crisis at a time,
she told herself, and carried the gas can to the door.
Lifting the edge of the cardboard that hung over the glass, she peered out into the bright street. It was quiet this morning, at least in front of the house. No fresh bodies, for which Ruth was grateful. She hated having to identify her neighbors, and the cremation pile always attracted more. It had snowed overnight, hiding the rusting tangle of cars and the more recent bloodstains. It would mean a more difficult trip for gas, but for now, she was thankful for the illusion of peace. The gas was getting heavy and she strained to see the sidewalk to the left and right as she always did. The door’s overhang was too deep, just as it always was. With a sigh, Ruth opened the front door just wide enough for her and the gas can to slide through. She leaned out of the overhang and darted a look in both directions. Nothing moved, not even the loose top snow. She shut the door and scuttled down the steps in her protective gear. Ducking into the lean-to that ate up her tiny grass lot, Ruth fumbled with the generator’s gas cap. She hated doing this, especially alone. Bill usually got the damn thing started again, while Ruth kept watch. It had just evolved that way. Probably because Bill would use weapons on the Infected, and Ruth preferred to just push them backward with an armored arm when she could. She didn’t like hurting them. It wasn’t their fault, it was the Plague. Bill was more practical.