Chicago wasn’t the first time it had happened and despite the public access commercials, we all knew it wouldn’t be the last.
My name is Esther Powell. Dr. Esther Powell.
I first witnessed it in Boston, six months ago. I was working skeleton crew at a free clinic when I saw it for the first time. She had complained about the sore to Berta, the intake receptionist. Upon arrival that night, Dr. Allen and I had initially thought it to be a fairly common staphylococcus infection. The back of her right hand had been more or less consumed by tiny red bumps. A few of them had grown a bit larger than the rest, but it appeared as though we had caught it early enough to contain it.
It was during her physical exam that I knew it wasn’t staph. I stood in the examination room with Dr. Allen. He requested her to disrobe. She followed his instruction without hesitation.
Under her clothing was where the true beast was hiding. Running the length of her back were small red wires just beneath the surface. In patches they swelled and swirled. They breathed and churned under her skin, moving her flesh up and down like an angry tide. Then I noticed her breathing; it had become short and quick as if the oxygen had been sucked from the room.
Dr. Allen used the Infra-Thermometer to measure her temperature from a distance; 113.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Her brain was already cooking.
It wasn’t long before she collapsed.
Dr. Allen checked her pulse. I remained against the far wall, clipboard gripped tightly in my hands. I was literally shaking in my boots. I had never seen anything like it before.
As Dr. Allen removed his fingers from the woman’s neck, I saw the small wire that connected them. I thought I was imagining it. I thought I had manifested some eerie connection, some nonexistent tendril that tied them together. But, as Dr. Allen screamed, I knew I wasn’t imagining anything.
It was only a minute before Dr. Allen freed himself from the small, red cable that tethered him to the dead woman on the floor. I could already see it under his skin. It had, somehow, climbed inside him.
It had only been 14 hours when the CDC arrived. It took them a full week before they discovered that the bacteria had come from our food; all of our food. They said it was a combination of nano-particles and genetic alterations to our food supply. They said it wasn’t something they could contain. They told us it wasn’t a virus, nor was it bacterial. Somehow it had become something new, something much more terrifying than either. It was a new species; a species that reproduced inside us in the moment just before death.
They told us all of this when it was already too late. They didn’t say anything until it reached Chicago, eight days after I witnessed patient zero in Boston. They did nothing to stop the tainted food supply. We knew, deep down inside, that there wasn’t anything they could do. We all faced starvation or infection. That was our choice.
I took my daughter, Brenda, and fled that night. Before the CDC made their conclusions, we left. I knew it was the right thing to do.
We are sitting in this dingy motel room right now watching the news.
“Some are immune,” the well groomed man on the television says, but I can already see the red wires twirling under his cheeks. Not you, Chuck Calvin, I thought.
Atop the stained comforter is the plastic grocery bag filled with apples that I stole this morning. They’re staring at us, mocking us, tempting us. They say some of us are immune to it but none of us are immune to the hunger.
We haven’t eaten anything since they announced it was in the food, but I’m so hungry; she’s so hungry. I don’t know how much longer we can go without eating. It hurts. My stomach is in knots and I can hear the painful cries and groans coming from Brenda.
We’re going to risk it. After all, I was in that examination room, maybe I’m immune. And if I’m immune, maybe Brenda’s immune, right? That seems reasonable. It would have to be genetic. And since I was there when Dr. Allen contracted it, I must be immune, right?
“Take a bite of apple, honey.”
As her lips wrap around the shiny, red apple skin and her teeth break its surface with a crisp snapping sound, she let’s out a loud “mmmmm.”
That’s when I see the red bumps on the knuckles of my right hand, but it’s too late. The apple and it are already inside her, so I say nothing and simply kiss my daughter on the forehead. Maybe she’s immune. If not, at least she won’t be hungry anymore.