By Nathan Lamb-Ockerman
I pull the hammer back on the gun. I never thought that I’d come to this. Never wanted to have all these people looking at me, scared about what I’m going to do next. Begging me to stop. I never wanted people to look at me like I’m the crazy one.
But I don’t see any other way of this working.
I’ll say this a few times, but it’s true. I don’t mean to kill anyone.
I’m no murderer.
Everyone around me is screaming. Screaming for me to put the gun down, for me to think about what I’m doing, telling me everything is going to be okay, just don’t hurt anybody, to just turn myself in. Give up.
Telling me to do anything except what I came here to do.
What they don’t know, what they don’t see, is that nothing else will help me right now. Nothing else can. It’s the end of the story for everybody here, and it’s not even my fault. None of this is.
Where I am now is a diner in the middle of nowhere, Nevada with nothing but desert around for miles. Among a scatter of other dusty rusted cars outside is a newish Toyota Rav4, registered to the name A.B. Powell.
The only way to get to this diner is to turn off of Highway 395 a few miles outside of Carson City onto a set of shallow trenches that bump you around until you get to a gravel patch parking lot.
I wouldn’t have stopped here, except that I needed a place to tell my story. I feel bad about what’s going to happen to these people. Unlucky as it is, I don’t mean to hurt them. Oh, well.
I set a little pocket tape recorder I have onto one of the tables and say to everyone still shaking and crying around me, “Listen to all I have to say. Stay quiet. Keep the cops out of this, and you only might die.”
I turn on the voice recorder.
Eyes and plastic.
That’s what the last six years of my life has been reduced to. All different colors of eyes: brown, green, hazel, blue, and even all white in one case. Only one color of plastic: orange.
Not one of the “patients” at the facility is allowed out of his or her separate presidential suite without wearing one of these orange plastic suits. The suits themselves are three-layered rubber containment uniforms made special for this hospital: first a layer of skin-tight rubber, next what looks like a colorless space suit, and last a thick orange rubber shell that zips from your feet to the top of your head. After you’re safely contained inside, someone will hook an oxygen tank up to the suit so you can breathe. Ten hours of oxygen per tank. Your eyes, framed by a small window, are the only part of your body revealed through the sanitary outfit.
Everyone’s voice is that intercom buzz of astronauts from the moon landing footage. Darth Vader comes to mind.
There are no fences or guard dogs here, just miles of water and no certainty of what direction you’re facing. The “facility” as everyone here has come to call it, is an island.
The place is a medical center the same size as any other, on a rock two miles off the Oregon coast. It doesn’t have a name, or at least anything official. Giving something a name implies ownership. And no one wants to be responsible for this hospital. So it sits, out there in the open for no one to see.
Staff at the facility is a combination of doctors, medical researchers, and military personnel. Who they work for is anybody’s guess.
They are “They,” the ever present They that have dirty little hands in everything that goes on. All the stuff that you and I are not supposed to know about. They are the ones with no apparent name, and could be anyone.
Always referred to, but never explained.
Every day in the facility is the same. I wake up whenever I want, and within five minutes someone brings me a breakfast plate that’s slid through an airlock seal in the center of the door. Then I do whatever I wish while in my room until lunch. Wait until dinner, you get the point.
One thing you can do to pass the time, one thing most of us did. Weigh the pros and cons of killing yourself. Gives perspective.
Twice a week we’re allowed out of the rooms to go out on the lawn and exercise with other patients. Not until after my blood’s drawn—which I do myself with a small syringe and beaker that’s left in the airlock with my lunch—and I’ve pissed in a little plastic cup. After I put on my suit and put the blood and piss in the little airlock, a solid steel door in the wall is opened to the outside.
Were anyone to see all of the patients out playing clumsy forms of Frisbee and basketball, I’m sure we would look like a bunch of stupid cuddly stuffed bears. But this far out, no one can see.
Personal embarrassment isn’t out of the question though. Trying to play these games like a normal person would, knowing that you never can. Often someone passes you the basketball outside your field of vision and pop, the ball hits you in the head with your arms spread wide ready to catch.
The Frisbee’s never caught either, just smacks and ricochets off of people throats. Again, and again, and again.
After six years of observing and feeling all of Mother Nature through a rubber suit, you lose your memory of what it feels like. Flowers, grass, rain, it all feels the same. Feels like latex.
Other than the four hours outside, everything through the week is white walls on white carpets.
During the day, a normal way to pass the time is to watch the news. It’s the only connection with the outside world we’re allowed to have. As far as any of you are concerned, the people still there in the hospital all died years ago.
Through the news, I found out I made my little town famous. History book material. I watched and listened to the news anchor squawk out the details of the quarantine. She called it the Twin Falls Epidemic. Every day she came on the TV and listed off the growing death toll, and what steps the National Guard were taking to contain the outspread and the newly infected.
Military’s golden rule: containment.
All I can do from the hospital is sit on a puffy couch and watch as my Idaho town slowly disappears off of the map. Anymore, I eat popcorn in an air conditioned room. They all die.
The people that monitor me, study me, always try to tell me that it isn’t my fault. That I’m not being held responsible. Just held.
Everyone at the facility is there because they’re Patient Zero, or Super Spreader, their own special addition to the list of contagious diseases.
A girl in the suite next to mine was put in the facility for causing her entire school to go blind and lose muscle control in their neck and bowels. She makes them, at best, spend the rest of their lives in a neck brace and diaper.
Another guy I ran into a few times on the lawn told me that he incubated a disease that made people’s blood so thin and their heart pump so fast that blood pours out of every orifice and a good deal of their skin sloughs away as they die.
My great plague is called Type-2 T.F. Griffin virus. Fourteen years ago, in a normal yearly check up, my doctor, Dr. Hammel Griffin, found that I had a small virus in my circulatory and lymphatic systems. He said there were no problems and nothing to worry about. He said that there’s not much doctors could do for a virus except let it run its course. He also said, “I don’t really know what it is though.”
He told me that he was going to document the virus, and that if it made any changes, I’d be the first to know.
For eight years nothing happened. Eight years of a normal everybody life. I fought with my parents, attacked birds with airsoft rifles. All that stuff. And for eight years I had Anna Belle.
This was before my six-year stint in the facility, back when we’re both seventeen and living next door to each other.
Everyone already knows the story after that. Anna and I, fast as a magic trick, went from two neighbor kids who threw dirt clods at each other to the couple that’s fallen into a regular pattern. The kind of relationship that, years later, has become a series of fragmented memories, all the concrete problems and day-to-day stuff forgotten.
We stare at the stars while sitting on the hood of a car. The first awkward kiss outside of her house. I play a thoughtless tune on the piano while she and I sit back to back on the stool. Her slender feet hanging out of the passenger side window. I watch her chase a squirrel around a tree at the park down the road. She and I track the first sets of footprints across a snow covered bridge.
Years of memories.
With her curled sun-color hair and robin-egg eyes, she’s the beauty that everyone wishes they knew. When she smiles or clenches her teeth, her high cheek bones pull her cheeks concave; it gives her face a seamless angular feel. And if she closes her eyes and tilts her head down slightly, then you’d swear you were looking at an angel. Statuesque and flawless. The definition of gorgeous.
Everyone makes fun of us, to our faces and behind our backs. We couldn’t care less. Having something that others around you envy always opens you up to being mocked. We take it as a compliment.
Then one day, she and I, we go out on a day trip to a lake for a scenic lunch-type situation. And when we get home, my dad’s in the hospital. A stroke, my mother tells me.
The next day a schoolmate has a stroke. Then my mother. Five more.
I have become contagious.
Later that week, Anna Belle’s dad has a stroke. He’s sent to the hospital and Anna gets on a bus to go stay with her mother in Nevada. Her dad dies in the hospital and Anna has no reason to come back.
I just thank God that she was never infected.
Type-1 was what the doctors called sudden onset thrombosis in an otherwise healthy person, the clotting of an artery of the brain that leads to a stroke. CT scans and MRIs showed that the arteries were blocked by significantly larger blood cells, pumped up by calcium deposits given off by an unknown virus.
Over the next few weeks, two hundred people have strokes and I’m blamed. Doctors think it a good idea to help everyone by intentionally giving me a bacterial infection to try to build up my white blood cells and counter the virus that’s been lying wait in my system like a bomb this whole time.
And that pushes the virus to mutate into Type-2 T.F. Griffin.
Here and now in this diner, the police show up outside. I can hear orders being shouted into walkie-talkies, who needs to take what positions and where. Faintly, I can hear the chuck of guns being loaded and cocked. Then over a loud speaker I hear:
“Trevor Redding.” Posed more as a question than a statement, “This is Kevin Noals with the Carson County Sheriff’s Department. Trevor, I need you to let everyone go and come on out. Don’t make us come in there and get you.”
To the people in the diner I ask, “Didn’t I say no police?” And all of them, still quivering and sobbing in a heap on the floor and under tables, start mumbling are begging for me to not kill them.
I roll my eyes.
A do-gooder stands up and starts in on me, he’s some old guy that teeters to the left when he walks, hobbling and in need of a cane. This guy, he says all the things he can about how much of a crap person I am. And I already told him to be quiet.
I put the gun in the guy’s face. I say, “I told you to shut up. I told you not to freak out and this would be over soon.”
The guy takes a few more steps towards me.
I say, “Dammit.”
And waste one of my bullets through his eye. The old guy slides to the floor and lands with a plop.
I roll my eyes again. Pointing at a twenty something red-headed waitress, I tell her to go to the door and tell the cops that I have a bomb, and that if they try to come in…I make an explosion noise in my throat and wink at her.
She could be working her way through college, or maybe trying to support her young child on a limited education. I don’t know. I doesn’t matter, but I still feel bad.
This, though, isn’t about her. And now it looks like I only have the better part of five minutes to get this finished.
The infection that the doctors gave me to attack Type-1 was meningitis. And instead of the infection being attacked by my system, it’s attacked by the virus itself.
My T.F. virus kills all the bacteria and in doing so, gains a protein that lets it pass willfully in and out of all major organs and lymphatic systems. Similar to the Type-1, this new version deposits calcium into the cells of every part of the body it’s in. Then, not unlike cancer, the bad cells spread, overloading calcium into all the surrounding tissues. The calcification literally turns the organ into stone. Giving it the nickname “The Medusa Virus.”
Type-2, unlike Type-1 which swam aimlessly through the blood stream, has an almost uniform way of striking. It starts with one kidney, then goes up to the liver, slowly ascending up until it gets to the heart or lungs.
Physical symptoms start to show shortly after the liver goes. The body becomes much, much heavier, and the patient may not be able to move very well if the virus has attacked any muscle tissue in their arms or legs. Once the infected is completely bed-ridden, they’ll start to scream out in pain as their organs get too dense for the vessels holding them in place. They just break off. Now dead rocks of stomach or gall bladder float free around the body. Real quick after that, the patient dies. This whole process takes anywhere from three days to a few weeks.
Type-2 T.F. Griffin virus has a ninety-eight percent mortality rate, and is communicable through any means. This is my little plague; my little curse to the world.
Hip Hip Hurrah.
And when I don’t die, it’s my ticket for landing a presidential suite in the facility. Where I stay for six years, watching my disease on TV. Seeing it take out entire towns in less than seven months’ time. Every day, sitting on a big white couch staring at the news anchor’s mouth as it turns out the names of towns and people I’ve killed.
Until I decide to leave.
On the island, it wasn’t unheard of, people trying to just walk their way to the Oregon shore during their recreation time. Problem is that when they walk out into the water, they can’t see the coast. So no one knows whether they’re going in the right direction.
During my stay, nine orange suits washed back to the facility, all of them looking like miniature life rafts after a major ship disaster. All of them carrying only one plagued passenger, now blue and bloated from suffocation and the gasses of decay. The suit stretched tight around the body.
It’s just a guess, but I really doubt that any doctor ever opened those suits to do an autopsy. It’s not a guess that anytime a body was found, that night, the furnace was noticeably warmer for a few hours.
Needless to say, I have no directional problems. If you need to know, I wash up on shore near Astoria, then hop on the first bus to Las Vegas.
I want to find Anna.
To see my general route, just watch the news for the next few weeks and keep an eye out for a trail of dead statues, no doubt followed by my picture and a surgeon general-issued warning to avoid any contact with me. Oh, well.
I find Anna Belle’s address in a phone book hanging from a payphone. It’s an apartment somewhere in the city; no doubt a good-sized building with a doorman and gold-painted doors. She always talked about going to college for criminal justice and joining the FBI.
I wave down a cab and, pointing to the address in the torn out page of the phone book, I ask, “Can you take me to this place?”
The cabbie nods; I get in and he starts to drive.
A mile passes and I watch the lights go by. All the lavish, glistening girls and Armani-dressed guys walk in and out of casinos I’ve only ever seen on movies.
Another mile. I see cars that make a Porsche or Lexus look like a rusted Pinto. Yellow Ferraris, A sleek black Lotus Elise, and a snow pearl Aston Martin Vanquish, for a start. Cars that won’t be unveiled to the public for another year or two. The colors of these cars never have normal names: Mountain’s Majesty is purple, Midnight Sapphire is blue, Forest Emerald is green, Wondering Ebony is black, Dusk Crimson is red. You get the idea.
Another mile and the driver turns off the strip.
I tap the guy’s shoulder and say, “Hey, no. Not this way.” He just shrugs my hand away. Outside, garbage replaces the sexy cars. Shimmering dresses turn to torn pants and jackets.
I see a guy thrown against a dumpster. A knife gets pushed at his chest. The guy holding the knife is yelling something, he slaps the scared guy. The first guy, bleeding a little, pulls out his wallet. His eyes are buggy and freaked out. I see a hobo. Most of his hair and one of his hands are gone. Scattered in a rough circle around him are different brands of boxed wine. He’s sleeping under a layer of cardboard.
The taxi slips around a corner and I tap the guy again. “Seriously,” I say, “you’re going the wrong way.”
I see a woman in high boots and a short skirt, her hand is wrapped around the cigarette she breathes through. She smiles and waves at me, makes a motion to her hips and mouths, “Fifty bucks.”
Two more corners and the cab stops.
I say, “Dammit. I’m telling you this isn’t the right place.”
Say, “You must have read the address wrong or something.”
The driver turns halfway around in the driver’s seat and says, “Trip came to thirty-three bucks.”
“No, no, this is the wrong place. I told you that.”
“Thirty-three bucks, guy. You gave me an address and here we are.”
I drop a few crumpled bills in his hand and get out. He drives away down the street. I flip him off. Some people I’m almost glad will die.
The building in front of me is a brick dump on an equally dumpy street littered with trash, cigarette butts, and broken glass. Weeds poke up through the cracks in the sidewalk.
Through a window I see a woman on a greasy-looking brown couch, watching TV by herself in the dark. And kill me now, it’s Anna Belle. All I can do is stare.
This is not the same person I knew. She sits in the dark room, some cop detective drama on the television. Being the only light in the room, the flashing blue splashes bright over her face.
What used to be her face.
The small room has no doors other than the front and a bathroom. That one room is the entire apartment. No loft apartment with gold doorknobs and intercoms. No doorman waits outside to call a cab. Looks like it could just be a dingy hotel room.
Anna Belle’s hair is the same curly yellow, and when she turns her head, hiding her face, she’s the beautiful girl I remember.
Everything else. Kill me now. Whatever curve she once had to her cheeks is gone, replaced by a roadmap of stress wrinkles and frown lines, like she hasn’t smiled in years. While her right eye follows the action on the TV, the left stays straight forward at attention. Detached. Blind.
She turns her head and is beautiful again. For one second.
Facing front, she grabs a handful of popcorn from the bowl on her lap. When she opens her mouth to shovel the buttery mess inside, the right half opens first in a sneer. And slow, snail-slow, the left follows, being dragged open by the over-stretched muscles on the right side of her face, like heavy luggage.
Her entire left side, dead. A stroke.
I sit on the cold concrete outside her window. It’s not a plush lawn like it should be. Next to me is an old syringe, blood still staining the needle.
I thought she was the one person that I didn’t hurt. Thought she got out before she got infected. But I guess it makes sense.
Getting up off the ground, I take a scrap of paper out of a trash can and find a pen. On it I write:
I’m so sorry.
I stick the piece of paper into the crack of her door against the doorjamb, and leave to find a car.
The Rav4 on the street has a small gun in the glove compartment, wrapped in a green car registration that names the owner of the car: A.B. Powell. Anna Belle Powell.
Here and now in the diner, I turn off the recorder. Still listening to the cops outside, listening to them holler for me to give up and let the hostages go.
I laugh every time he says hostage. I can’t help it. Ridiculous.
I turn to the people cowering in the corner and say, “This is what I need from one or two of you.” I hold up the tape recorder, “this needs, needs, to get to Anna Belle Powell. Her car and address are outside, so it won’t be hard to find her. She must get this; and when you give it to her, whichever of you go, tell her that I truly am sorry.”
The gun; I still have it tucked under the shelf of my chin.
Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t see any other way of this working out. And I didn’t mean to kill anyone. I’m no murderer. I set my finger on the trigger.
The crowd calls out the same chants they’ve been reciting this whole time. You don’t have to do this. There are options for you. Blah blah blah.
No doubt, by now the staff or whoever it is that control the hospital is already racing down here to collect me and take me back to my stark white paradise. The police outside are already coming down to the worst case scenario that involves sending a wall of gunfire in my direction. I’ve destroyed my entire town, and everyone I know is dead. And I’ve ruined the person I most cared about. So no, there is no other way out. Thank you for trying. I give up.
Anna Belle, I still love you, and I’m sorry your life turned out like this. I’m sorry that I’ve killed everyone we knew. That I’m stuck with this disease.
Here I am, apologizing for who I am. It, the me in all of this, isn’t important anymore.
I close my eyes. And wait for the bang.
“Anna Belle” is Nathan Lamb-Ockerman’s first published story.