2018 Annual Literary Contest
Jake stared out the train window at the river below; the lead-grey water mirrored his mood. He’d taken the train into the city center in the hope the energy and colored lights of the holiday season would help to lift his spirits. But they didn’t.
Sure, the clerks in the few stores he visited put on brave faces. Some greeted him more like a long-lost friend than just a customer. But the empty streets and boarded up storefronts told a different story – a story which drove him into deeper depression.
The story was simple: this year, the pox hit everyone hard.
It started that spring. In another city, workers tearing down an old hospital came across a forgotten storage room. On a bottom shelf in the darkest corner, sat a dust-covered box. This box should have been destroyed long ago. Or upon finding it, the workers should have followed protocol and called in the special team for handling medical waste. But they didn’t.
Louie found the box, but his buddy Sammy soon noticed it wasn’t going down the chute to the dumpster.
“What you got there?”
“Don’t know yet.”
He blew hard, raising a thick cloud of dust and revealing a faded label. Louie took the box over to the light so he could read the faint words.
“Look at this.” Sammy heard the excitement in his buddy’s voice. “It contains 99.99% ethyl alcohol. Awesome. This is going home for the weekend party. With the needles we found last week, we can inject it. We’ll get seriously wasted.”
Louie was right – his box made him the life of the party. It contained a hundred thirty-milliliter vials, making three litres of nearly pure alcohol. The party fell on the last day of exams at a nearby university, and many students showed up for one final celebration before summer. Demand was such that Louie quickly instituted a “one to a customer” policy; even so he quickly ran out.
The question no one asked is “what is the other .01%”? If they had – and someone made the effort to find the answer – then perhaps this could have been stopped. But no one did. In the following weeks the students scattered around the world, carrying that other ingredient in their bodies and sharing it with everyone who came into contact with them – in airplanes and trains; restaurants, hostels, and coffee shops; passing on the street.
They showed no symptoms; no one guessed they were ill and highly contagious. For what each vial contained – dormant for half a century but still viable – was the virus of a forgotten disease: small pox.
Within a month, everyone who sampled those vials was dead. So were hundreds of others; thousands more were ill. Health officials everywhere worked desperately to contain the outbreak. Schools closed. Hospitals were overwhelmed; isolation wards were opened in any available space. Countries instituted new quarantine requirements at their borders. But all was in vain. The cases skyrocketed among the young. Those over fifty were immune: the vaccinations they received during the push to eradicate this scourge did the job.
Jake was a researcher; his lab at the university still functioned unlike everything else. They were close: the team created a synthetic antibody which showed great promise. If caught early, it should stop the disease from progressing: and the fatalities. That’s what the computer models said. Since small pox only infects humans, animal testing wouldn’t work. They applied to go straight to human trials, but approval was months away.
So stores were empty. People were scared. And still dying.
Jake turned his head from the window, seeing his fellow travelers for the first time. The car was nearly empty in these days of fear. A girl a few seats down attracted his notice. He knew what she faced.
Alexa didn’t look out the window. She sat scrunched into a corner, trying to make herself as small as possible. The knapsack on her lap she hugged like it held all her possessions. Her coat was warm, but also worn and maybe a little big for her slight frame. Blonde hair peeked out from a knit cap pulled low over her face. Below the cap, the face displayed tell-tale red spots.
Jake spoke first. “You look scared. I can guess why.”
“Don’t come near. I might cough on you.”
“I’m old. I’m immune. You look alone.”
“My parents kicked me out. I heard there’s a clinic at the university. I thought maybe they’ll take me in.”
“They won’t. The place is overflowing. Even if it wasn’t, you’d need money. We asked the state for funding so people don’t wander the streets, spreading the disease. Other states have, ours hasn’t.”
“What will happen to me?”
“They’ll send you to the clinic on the east side. I’ve seen it. You don’t want to go there.”
“Where else can I go?”
“Come with me. My wife will pick us up at the lab. We have room.”
“Yes, the lab. We’re working to find a cure.”
“Is there anything?”
“We’re hopeful. It’ll be too late for you.”
“Meaning I’ll be scarred for life.”
“Yes. Or dead.”
“Is there any hope?”
“I can’t . . . I shouldn’t.”
Jake made his decision. “Let’s go into the lab. It’s too cold to wait outside anyway.”
Jake left Alexa in the lobby as he popped into the lab for a dose of the antibody; he returned just as a car pulled up outside the glass doors.
“Here’s our ride.”
Jake introduced the two women. Sheryl could make instant friendships, and Alexa quickly succumbed to her charms. By the time they arrived home all three were relaxed and laughing.
Once inside, they settled Alexa; then Jake pulled out the vial.
“The computer models predict this will work and won’t have any serious side-effects. But we don’t know for sure. And we can’t know until we try.”
Alexa rolled up her sleeve. “I have nothing to lose. Guinea Pig number one.”
I forgot my mother.
My sister turns away, kicking the gravel of the sun-baked parking lot in her heels, her lip curled in disgust. “You had one job”, she hisses.
“I think I had a little more than one job, Kristin!” I may be an idiot, but I’ve been doing way more than my share. Kristin glares and tosses her head in that ridiculous superior way of hers, but this is not the time or place to get into it.
We look over at the small crowd gathered on the grass as they mingle, chat, and slowly settle onto folding chairs.
“Do you realize how far some of these people drove to be here?” my sister snaps.
My brain spins as I try to figure out what to do. “There’s no time to go back and get her.”
“No, there isn’t,” Kristin mutters.
As the flautist begins her first piece, Don gets out of his car and ambles over. He pulls some paperwork from the inside of his suit jacket. “Good morning, ladies. I just have a couple of final details to review before –“
“We have a problem.” I hesitate, while Kristin scowls.
Don looks back and forth between us. He tilts his head to one side. “Oh my. Did you forget the urn?”
A pause. I nod, and feel the panic rising again.
Don reaches over and pats my arm. “Don’t worry about it. It happens more often than you’d imagine.”
“It’s no problem at all. I have a spare in the trunk that I keep handy just for times like this.” He notices Kristin’s dubious expression. “It’s one of our higher-end urns, don’t worry,” Don purrs in his soothing professional manner. “So. What’ll happen is, I’ll tell my guy not to seal the niche in the columbarium after the interment. Next week sometime, you bring me Mrs. Colvin’s urn, and we’ll switch it out. No biggie.”
Kristin purses her lips. I think she’s a little annoyed to have such a workable solution.
I of course am relieved. “Thank you so much,” I gush. “Do you think we can, uh, keep it between the three of us so that –“
“Yes, of course,” says Don. “Definitely our little secret, nobody will know.”
The melodies of my mother’s carefully crafted playlist, as arranged for flute, wafts our way. I look over and see my Aunt Sandy staggering towards us, with my Dad closing in behind her.
“You didn’t forget the urn, did you?” she blurts in her usual mildly inebriated manner. I reach out to steady her.
“Nope. We have everything ready,” Kristin replies confidently.
Sandy’s eyes grow wide. “Did I ever tell you they forgot it at Bob Mosteller’s funeral? One of his kids left it back at the cottage. Nobody could believe it. What a nightmare –”
Don tries to take charge. “We’re just finishing up a few details here, and we’ll get things under way shortly,” he says, as he tries to herd Aunt Sandy and Dad back toward the folding chairs.
Dad is having none of it. He’s clutching a plastic sour-cream container, and starts tapping on it with a metal spoon.
“Is that Mom’s wedding silver?” I ask. He’s got some nerve. Mom would have never let him leave the house with that.
“It’s my wedding silver,” he replies. He pauses for dramatic effect, and gestures with the spoon. “I’m not leaving until I get a piece of your Mother.”
His hands tremble slightly as he pries the lid off of the container. He pulls out a piece of paper and unfolds it, and begins to read. “Around four tablespoons. One tablespoon to be scattered at Outlet Beach. The water, not the dunes. One – “
“Oh yeah, the scatter list,” Kristin recalls.
“My mom was quite the organizer,” I tell Don.
“Absolutely,”, he croons. “Sir, we can definitely get what you need. But, not right here. We have to –“ he leans in and whispers, “keep it classy.” He takes Dad’s tub and nods. “Just leave it to me.”
“Of course, of course!” my father booms. He extends his elbow to Aunt Sandy, and they start to amble back towards the chairs. “I’m saving you girls front row seats,” he calls. “Hurry, don’t keep your mother waiting.”
Don waves over a cemetery worker who has been hovering at a respectful distance. He hands him the plastic tub and the spoon, and without a word the guy retreats. Don himself heads towards the gathering, turning to say “we’ll start in five, come on over once my guy finishes up. He’ll bring the urn.”
We wait. Kristin seems a little less tense now, and asks, “Do you remember where you left her?”
“I think so. I’m pretty sure she’s in the garage, on top of the snow tires.”
My sister snorts and cracks a smile. We both gaze over in the direction of the cemetery worker, and see him chiselling at some hardened dust under some cedar hedges with my Mom’s sterling silver spoon.
“Is that even ethical?” I muse.
“Mmmm … nope. But we’ll get it switched out long before any scattering happens.”
“Thanks to Don of the Dead.”
Kristin laughs. “You would be in such big trouble with Mom.”
“I know. I’m glad she’ll never know I lost her.”
Kristin pauses. “We all lost her.”
I roll my eyes. “Don’t try to play that mushy card with me.”
My sister laughs again. “Not yet. Anyway, we know where she is.”
“Right. She’ll be commanding a tighter ship than this one, wherever she is.”
The cemetery guy comes over, snaps the lid, and quietly hands us the tub and the spoon. We go to join our Dad.