Six Degrees of Separation
According to the
theory of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, every person in the world is only six
steps removed from every other person in the world.
“Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?”
“Eh, bien. Et toi?”
“Je vais bien, aussi, merci. Pluis-je vous aider?”
“Uhh… Oui. Je veux-”
Laughter. “D’óu venez-vous?”
“Ou…? Eh…Je viens des Etats-Unis.”
“Americaine!” He clapped his hands.
“Oui, oui, je suis Americaine.”
He patted his big, white dusted hand on the shoulder of the young man next to him. Once he looked up, the man pointed at me and stated excitedly: “Americaine.”
“Oui,” replied the help, embarrassed by his employer’s overzealousness.
Resorting to the first French phrase I had ever been taught, I inquired: “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
He snickered. “Un petit peu- oh, excusez moi. Yes, I speak little bit English.”
“Great. Thanks.” I dug the list from my jacket pocket and started: “I’d like to order-”
“Are you on vacation in France?” he probed.
I looked up from my list suspiciously. It was like this every time I met someone new, but I still hadn’t figured out an efficient way to deal with the unwanted interest. “Work,” was my curt reply. I diverted my gaze back down to my list, the words were barely legible, the ink had become splotchy and faded as the rain had trailed down my oversized raincoat and into my pocket, soaking the paper. “Two whole-wheat-”
“What kind of work, eh?”
Taking a deep breath was about all I could do. The people meant well, but their curiosity was bothersome, especially since I wasn’t even supposed to be here, so I didn’t want to make any friends or allude to why I was here. This is why we had been instructed to study French to the point of native fluency before we were supposed to come here, I thought grumblingly. Unfortunately we had been more focused on our actual work than learning a foreign language. It didn’t help that we didn’t get the briefing until two months before we were flown out here. The mission coordinator had assured us repeatedly during the fifteen hour flight that we would pick up French ‘like that’ – he had snapped his fingers to illustrate his point – once we were stationed in Orleans, a city south of Paris. Of course, we didn’t quite immerse ourselves in the language once we arrived either, working sixteen-hour-days, seven days a week, leaving us lacking all necessary energy to mingle with the locals and improve our lingual skills. What did they expect, honestly?
“C’est ne pas importante,” I said definitively, hoping it would register with him if spoken in his own tongue – or at least something that resembled it.
The baker laughed again and turned to his young help when he repeated my words, mockingly but not offensively. “C’est ne pas importante…” He could not imitate my admittedly horrible accent, but his repetition served to further amuse him.
Finally he acknowledged the urgency of my tone and he took my order, working at a slow pace that I had come to associate with the people of this city. Maybe it was a French thing, or a European thing. I wouldn’t know, I hadn’t left the States before this deployment. There was nothing inherently wrong with their unhurriedness, but I just couldn’t stand it, being a born and raised New Yorker. I was always in a state of flux, always rushing, running, changing, working. Even at home I felt like I fast-forwarded through life compared to other people, who were functioning at normal speed. Nowadays everyone around me seemed to be going in slow-motion. Or maybe I was just going even faster than before. The coffee was especially delicious here.
The baker handed me a paper bag with the items from my list. I thanked him and wished him a good day – in French, to the best of my abilities – and exited the bakery, stepping back into the pouring rain. I clutched the bag against my chest and hunched over to shield the material from the excessive downpour.
I quickened my pace even as I was aware I was the ‘mademoiselle’ being called after, seeing as the streets were otherwise wisely abandoned, the locals were hiding inside where it was warm and the rain wouldn’t soak their clothes and chill them to the bones.
“Mademoiselle!” He, whoever he was, was closer now.
Annoyed, I spun around and watched the young baker boy catch up with me. Now, when I say young, I mean to say he was in his early twenties, which didn’t make him that much younger than me, but at the speed in which I was living my life I had seen, heard and experienced enough to feel ancient and everyone was a bothersome fledgling in comparison.
He handed a piece of paper out to me.
Cautiously, I accepted it.
“A coupon,” he clarified and he smiled, even though he was getting drenched, wearing nothing but a shirt, an apron and loose trousers. “For next time. Ten percent off.”
“Thank you,” I said dryly, eager to hurry along.
“I wrote my phone number on it too. I thought we could hang out, non?”
Shaking my head I swiftly disillusioned him. “Non.”
He smiled again, in spite of the rejection. “It was worth a shot.”
I pursed my lips into a taut line, it was all I could do to keep myself from smiling, which would have only unfairly encouraged him.
He was cute, attractive in a simple, early-man way. Black, curly hair, thick stubble on his jaw, heavy eyebrows hanging low over dark eyes. His wet shirt clung to broad shoulders. If the circumstances were different, I would have indulged myself. He had every appearance of being a great adventure; passionate and primal. But I couldn’t risk getting attached, my stay here was of a temporary nature. More importantly, I couldn’t risk running my mouth. I never quite knew when I had said too much, not untill it was too late. I couldn’t afford to say too much this time around, I had been entrusted with very delicate and very dangerous information. My job had precedence over dreamy, dark eyes. “Is it worth pneumonia?”
He had been shivering, but he replied optimistically: “Maybe.” He raised his hand, waved goodbye and sprinted back to the bakery.
I turned and continued along my way. “Keep it in your pants, Stef.” After a short walk I arrived at the apartment complex. A simple key was all that was necessary to get into the building, but more locked doors were ahead of me. I took the stairs down into the underground parking garage, looking over my shoulder as I approached a narrow, metal door that read ‘AVIS! Personnel Authorisé Seulement’. No one lived in the building, but caution had been instilled in us. I slipped inside the tiny space and got out my key card to unlock the door in front of me. I could hear the heavy locks opening with a thud that echoed down the dark staircase that appeared before me as the door swung open automatically. When I stepped forward the motion-sensitive lights came on, illuminating my way down the steps, but I was so familiar with the trail before me, I could have found my way in the dark. At the bottom of the stairs was another door that required an eight digit code. I knew it by heart, as I should after all this time. I followed the corridor to the final door that I unlocked with a different eight digit code. This code changed every twelve hours, so I checked the note in my wallet, hidden in the inconspicuous postcode and cellphone number was the entry code. I punched it in and the door opened with a hiss.
I stepped into the brightly-lit space and placed the bag with our lunch on the table by the small kitchen, past the row of five desks stacked with folders. I rapped my knuckles on the glass pane of the door leading into a separate area. Three heads appeared from behind equipment, looking tired and wary from work. They got up and put away their work and then moved to join me in the front office.
“Took you long enough,” my supervisor noted, holding the door open for the other two.
“I told you, I have to go someplace else from now on.”
“Right, right. Fucking health inspection. I loved that place!” He let go of the door and it fell shut.
“Apparently so did rats.”
“Ah, but they were French rats. French rats don’t mean a deli is filthy. French rats just have good taste.”
I retrieved some things from the refrigerator, so we could make our own sandwiches. “French rats have better taste than you,” I remarked, pushing the container with his curry egg-salad across the table towards him with a foul expression.
Three of us groaned in dismay as he popped the lid and the strong odor filled the space.
“Stef, you only got me one croissant?” asked Freddy in a confused and frantic state as he turned the paper bag upside down. We had started calling each other by our first names shortly after we arrived, foregoing the formality of surnames and titles, like doctor and professor.
“Didn’t you tell me yesterday that you were going to cut back?”
“You think I was being serious?” He grabbed his big belly. “Why would I want to change anything about this body? I’m practically an insufferable Adonis as is.”
“Well, you are some kind of insufferable,” interjected Mansa.
After working halfway through our lunch, the unintellectual banter was exchanged for a discussion of our research. It always circled back to work.
“Subject SO12 through SO39 made it through the night.”
They sighed in defeat.
“I really thought piggybacking the strain on a retrovirus would facilitate the spread in the organism,” continued Mansa, “But while the incubation period of 5-58 is considerably faster, the time between the first observable symptoms and time of death is still at least twelve hours, and counting.”
“Maybe these French rats just won’t fucking die,” observed Fredddy grimly.
“This is not a joking matter, Fred,” Mansa replied sternly. “It’s been three months of this now. Three months of reporting failure after failure. I’m not used to failure. I don’t like failure.”
“I think we should revisit 4-53.”
“Are you serious?”
“The initial results-”
“Oh, don’t tell me…”
“I feel like we have neglected to explore all options with 4-53. I think there was potential in that strain that we failed to optimize. I can feel it in my gut.”
“Impressive as that gut is,” Mansa acknowledged it with a judgmental glance, “I would prefer you base these decisions on one of your three PhD’s, as opposed to a funny feeling in your digestive system. Honestly, the stupidity of intelligent people astonishes me.”
“Did we or did we not cancel work on that strain only after getting the order to do so from the higher ups?” Freddy challenged.
“Well, that’s what happens when at best we were able to lower the survival rate to thirty-eight percent.”
“But it was fast and it got exponentially faster the further we developed it!”
“A bio-medical weapon with a thirty-eight percent survival rate doesn’t make sense, Fred.”
I quietly chewed my food and stayed out of it. My purpose during this mission was more administrative than anything else; the organization and the logistics of the operation were my responsibility, as well as communicating our progress with our mission chief back in Washington. Still, it wasn’t the kind of function I would proudly announce to my parents, even if the non-disclosure agreement I signed didn’t explicitly prohibit me from telling anybody what my purpose in France was.
Three years ago the former president of the United States, along with many world leaders, signed a treaty to immediately cease the development of bio-medical weapons and shut down all facilities storing contagious and dangerous viruses and bacteria; destroying everything. The recently elected president thought of this agreement as naïve and kick-started a program under a heavy cloak of secrecy. Satellite laboratories like our own were established with the purpose of developing biological weapons, not to use these on our enemies, but rather to beat our enemies to the punch and develop vaccines to every weaponized virus we could imagine. If our country would ever be under attack, we would already have laid down the groundwork, enabling us to respond with the development and production of a suitable cure and vaccine that much quicker. The research performed in our lab would save millions of lives.
Our laboratory was assigned to work with strains of the rabies virus, altering the virus to suit our needs. We had already succeeded in creating incurable strands – unaffected by the known rabies vaccine - with shorter incubation periods, proving that there was potential. Following a break-through we would upgrade to primate subjects. Once we would perfect our strain of rabies into something suitable to be weaponized, our real work would start: namely to find a cure. However, after months of exhaustive work we have failed to alter the virus in a way that it would make sense to deploy it as a weapon, stagnating our research in the probing phase.
Five generations of doctored strains, going through dozens of developmental stages, yielded widely varying results. Ranging from very short to very long incubation periods and covering a whole spectrum of symptoms and effects. Some strains didn’t even prove to be lethal, but left subjects in a state of violent rage alike the excitative stage that occurs when animals are infected with the regular rabies virus. This was a predominant problem of the fourth generation strains and, in spite of Freddy's objections, we had to abandon them. Every single virus we had created was stored and archived in our tiny, illegal, off-shore operation.
If we were ever to be exposed, the government would deny authorizing this mission. If the arresting officers ran our fingerprints, or searched databases for our names, they would come up with nothing. Stephanie Alpo does not exist. I would be charged as a terrorist.
Some days I felt like we were no better than terrorists. I signed up for the job believing in the cause and eager for the adventure, hungry for the thrill, but so far all we have done is torture hundreds of rats with vicious diseases. Some days I wondered if finding a cure was the real objective, or if our purpose was only to create biological weapons for our president to use at his discretion. Tensions were high nowadays. That’s the thing with keeping secrets, you start to suspect everyone else of being as dishonest as you are.
Signing that treaty three years ago was supposed to make the world a safer place, but it seemed to only have led to more fear and distrust.
My colleagues seemed less worried about the possible repercussions and moral questionability of our mission. They were preoccupied with the matter of ‘could they?’ as opposed to ‘should they?'
I brushed my damp, blond hair with my fingers and pinned the curls out of my face before joining my colleagues in the other room. Morbid curiosity drew me to the wall of plastic cages in the back. Most of the little creatures that inhabited the cages were furiously active. Others appeared sickly. One of them was dead. “SO18 is dead,” I announced, reading the label.
“Finally.” Mansa looked at the clock. “A little less than thirteen hours.”
“It’s useless,” concluded our supervisor.
“Should we put the others out of their misery?” I suggested, feeling kind of sorry, even though I thought the critters were frightening and disgusting.
“No, let’s establish a time frame, from minimum time to expiration to maximum time.”
I nodded and stepped away. I swiped my clipboard off a desk and made some notes. As communication liaison it was my job to relate the results back to the home front and to translate the scientific ‘mumbo jumbo’ – which I spoke better than French.
With only one PhD to my name, I was a peasant as far as my colleagues were concerned. They treated me well enough, if a little patronizing and with an unpalatable aftertaste of pity. I knew better than to take it personally, and secretly I pitied them right back. The only thing to ever excite them was the beeping of the mass spectrometer or the death of another rattus norvegicus, whereas I – the 'peasant' – could still have my day uplifted by the simple things: the smell of paper and the way the cover of a leather-bound journal wrinkled, the rustle of a new dress, the attention of a dark-haired baker’s boy. If I owed this distinction in living to my intellectual limitations, than I preferred my handicap over their genius.
“Has anyone tried calling Mark again?”
Mark left the apartment early in the morning for his daily run, but hadn’t returned by the time the four of us had decided to head down to the lab. With our boss thousands of miles away we weren’t always exactly… punctual, but to be late several hours was rather extreme, even for Mark, who was the least motivated of us all.
“Forget about him.”
I took a seat across from Freddy, who had retrieved a tray of test tubes with generation four strains, hoping to find a solution in our previous mistakes. I was always a bit nervous seeing those ominous vials, even though I had nothing to worry about. The strains had been engineered to be harmless when inhaled or even at direct skin contact. Some of the viruses had been developed to spread as easily as the common cold after naturally mutating in the initial host, but only introduction into the blood stream could lead to the initial infection. Not even the rats could infect us, good thing because a couple of the little bastards managed to draw blood from Mansa’s fingers. Zoonosis – cross-species infection – was not possible. The virus adapted to its initial host, specializing itself to the system of the specific genus, leaving itself incapable to jump to other species. So as long as we took the necessary precautions, it was deemed safe.
Work was uneventful, as it always had been, honestly. More of the infected rats finally died and I purposefully kept my back to Mansa as she cleared away the deceased subjects, gathering them in white bags labeled ‘Toxic waste’. We had a connection in Paris that arranged for the incineration of our waste. The rats were frozen until the Parisian company would come pick them up, every three days.
A monitor beeped to indicate someone was unlocking the doors and coming down the stairs.
“Finally!” exclaimed Mansa. “Someone should report his tardy-”
She was unable to finish her complaint. The door into the basement burst open and men in black apparel stormed in, aiming automatic weapons at us through the windows separating the two spaces of the laboratory. They were yelling at us as they came through the second door, but our limited French and the protective masks covering their mouths made it impossible for us to understand them. As the crew of big men forced their way into the narrow aisles of our lab I felt my heart stop as their cumbersome gear bumped into the steel tables and I could see the equipment and the tray of vials vibrating.
One of them came up to me, as I was closest to their point of entry. His gun came closer and closer and it was all I could see. It took me a long while to become aware of the white lettering on his black vest.
He was still screaming at me, and more so than ever in my life did things seem like they were happening in slow motion.
We all had our hands up in the air instinctively. Until more officers pushed into the cramped space and bumped against the table in the middle of the room and the tray inched towards the edge. Freddy brought his hands down, in fear of the tray falling. Technically, nothing bad would have happened if the glass tubes had broken at his feet, unless a shard happened to cut his leg through his trousers, but it was an instinct. It was instinct that cost him his life. Not knowing what he was reaching for, the officer in front of him gave only one warning, a warning Freddy didn’t understand, much less paid heed to, so he shot him, in the chest.
One… Two… Three times.
The pops of the rifle were deafening as the sound echoed off the concrete, steel and glass materials in the confinement of the basement. With my hearing damaged, Mansa’s screams at Freddy collapsing lifeless to the floor were distorted. I kept my eyes on the tray. The vials were safe. Freddy’s fat arm narrowly missed them as he flung his hands outward before he fell to the ground.
Dazed by the commotion I started lowering my hands, not entirely present anymore, but being prodded in the ribs by the business end of an automatic rifle jostled me awake and I threw my hands back up.
Another officer grabbed my supervisor who, at over six feet tall and the only surviving male subject, must have appeared as a threat to them. They pushed him against the table and brought his hands behind his back to cuff his wrists.
They were so coarse I feared for a terrible accident.
Finally getting my senses back I pleaded: “Arrêtez! Arrêtez!”
Mansa, who was only slightly better at French than me, screamed as she was forcefully escorted out of the room: “C’est une maladie contagieuse! C’est dangereux!”
I repeated her warnings as they carried me off too, but no one was listening to me.
“Ophélie Avignon,” I introduced myself to the officer stationed at the entry to the parking garage, holding my badge out for him.
Wordlessly he picked up the crime-tape that spanned the entrance and gestured for me to step inside.
I put my badge away and ducked to pass under the tape. As a rookie I wasn’t given much respect, but as the daughter of the captain they had no choice but to quietly suffer my presence.
However, contrary to what my peers believed, I was probably having a harder time than the rest of them. Not only was my every action criticized while I was on the job, my father took it upon himself to review my every mistake and pick apart my every success at Sunday dinner as well. If anything, I would have to work even harder to rise in the ranks.
Not living with my father was probably the only advantage of my recent decision to accept my boyfriend’s invitation to come move in with him. In the mere two weeks that we had lived together he had revealed himself to be too clingy for my liking. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him. We had our ups and downs – and we're definitely down right now. I had to focus on my career, on my future. I wanted to make someone of myself, be somebody, I didn’t yet know who it was that I aspired to be, but I knew it wasn’t limited to ‘daughter of-’, ‘girlfriend of -’ or ‘wife of -’.
I was directed through an inconspicuous maintenance door and followed concrete steps into a brightly lit basement filled with steel appliances.
“Oh la la,” I mumbled as I observed the surroundings. When I had been called in they spoke only of a ‘drug lab’, which I had interpreted as the kind of drug lab I had investigated before, all shady operations. This looked like a proper laboratory.
Flashes of a camera blinded me as I stepped into the back room. A big man lay prone on the floor, his face white, his chest red.
“Ophélie!” Detective Eustis waved me over.
I was the only one he called by the first name. Others had figured because I shared my surname with the captain, which could lead to confusion in some situations. But I knew that was not the case. It was because he had tried to kiss me. And because I had been willing to let him. It was the fortunate timing of a co-worker that had prevented us from making that mistake.
“Why did you call me here?”
“You dropped out of medical school, did you not?”
I scrunched up my face. I didn’t really like having that particular failure pointed out to me.
“I thought you could be of help to me during this investigation.”
“Surely there is someone more qualified…”
“Aren’t you grateful for this opportunity?”
I stupidly nodded but when the detective stepped away to talk to the forensic supervisor as he arrived on the scene, I was left clueless as to what was expected of me.
I looked down at the deceased male, noting he was even wearing a proper lab-coat. I looked at the table, at what had been his work station. There was a lot of equipment that I didn’t even recognize, but I did recognize the microscope and a spectrometer – that I was able to identify thanks to episodes of CSI. A tray of test tubes stood at the very edge of the table, some more test tubes lay scattered on the surface. I picked one up, wanting to read the label.
The forensic photographer cleared his throat.
I looked down at him.
“Sorry…” I put the vial back down and accepted a pair of gloves he begrudgingly handed out to me. After struggling to put them on, I knelt down at the head of the dead man. “Who is he?”
“That is a stupid question, even for a rookie.”
He got up to make room for his colleagues who rolled a gurney alongside the body.
I put my hand up on the table to help myself up to my feet, but my careless action caused one of the tubes to roll to the edge of the table. With wide eyes I saw it fall and hastily I reached my left hand out to catch it. I was sure it was going to hit the ground and I was going to get reprimanded, but, to my amazement, luck was on my side and I caught the tiny glass tube before it could impact with the concrete floor.
“Nice catch,” said one of the guys from forensics, before he and his coworker lifted the unidentified man onto the gurney.
I smiled sheepishly in return. “Thanks.” It was probably the first time anyone had ever complimented me on the job, even if it was just a forensics tech.
It wasn’t until they rolled the gurney out of there that I felt the sharp sting in my palm. I had been so ecstatic at my catch, it took a while for me to register that my nervous hand had gripped the vial so tightly as it reached to catch it, that the glass had been broken. Turning away from the other investigators in the lab, I opened my hand. “Damn,” I whispered to myself, looking at the glass shards and the clear liquid mixing with a small amount of blood that oozed from the tiny cut in my latex glove. I poked a finger at it to turn over the label so I could read it. The combination of numbers and letters meant nothing to me.
Behind me I could hear someone say respectfully: “Captain Avignon!”
I was more worried about my father’s biting disproval than the slight sting of the wound. I squeezed my fist shut and turned to face my father as he walked in.
“Ophélie? What are you doing here?” He sounded more concerned than judgmental.
“Given my medical background detective Eustis thought I might be of service in this investigation.”
“Get out of here.”
With my head ducked between my shoulders I was quick to obey his orders. As I left I heard him say to the detective: “Get everyone out of here. If the American is telling the truth…”
I got rid of the gloves and the shards in the bin just outside the door and hoped no one would notice. I was mortified at my mistake. Back at the station the rest of my day consisted of paper work. A small band-aid covered the cut on my hand, no one asked me about it because no one took interest in me. I didn’t see my father, nor the detective, all day. Something big was going on, but no one told me anything.
I was dead-tired at the end of the day and longed for my bed. I looked forward to having two months for myself. In a few weeks Marcel was leaving for the United States for a summer program at the university of Washington. My boyfriend was an aspiring political journalist. I couldn’t think of anything more boring.
He was waiting for me when I got home, he had made dinner, even though I had texted him to let him know I was dying for a pastrami pizza. Pizza wasn’t ‘special’ enough and Marcel wanted everything we did together to be ‘special’, not recognizing nothing was special if you did it every day. Still, I remembered better times, times when he hadn’t been like that and I held out hope that those times would return. Until then, it was better than moving back in with my parents. And at least the sex was still good. In those moments he didn’t insist on discussing our relationship and revealing his insecurities at leaving me behind for the duration of the summer.
Needless to say, we had sex a lot those three weeks before Marcel left. He made no objections.
The cut on my hand healed and never bothered me, so my lasting shame at my mistake outweighed the importance of confessing to anyone what had happened. Everything seemed fine.
I moped around at the airport, killing time in the tax-free shops. I had to suppress the urge to call Ophélie. I knew I would miss her, but I also knew she would miss me less if I revealed myself to be ‘that guy’; the guy that calls every day, tells his girl he loves her and misses her, even though he notices she never says it back.
Ophélie was headstrong and independent, if a little ditzy, but I liked both the good and the bad. She was the only girl I had ever been with, we met in middle school, started dating our junior year of high school. My friends pitied me because of my limited sexual experience but I pitied them because I knew I had found the one on my first try and they would spend many years chasing a similar sense of satisfaction and happiness – some of them might even fail to find it.
I took a seat by the appropriate gate, an hour before boarding would start. If I lingered in the shops any longer, I would purchase my body-weight in candy.
I dug the book I had brought in my carry-on out of my bag and started on the first page. It was a book I had read many times, but never grew tired of. I was like that, it annoyed some people – Ophélie being one of them – I could do things over and over, without getting bored with it. I played the same game, went to see last summer’s blockbuster seven times in theater, reread three books on annual basis, always ordered the same dessert at every restaurant and I’ve worn the same lime green sneakers for the past three years – not exactly the same pair, I've repurchased twice. I knew what I liked, nothing more to it, I supposed.
Ophélie was more fickle, more restless than that, so I understood and accepted these hot-and-cold spells we went through. This recent cold spell seemed to have been dragging on for a while, but I told myself not to worry. She had started something new in her life, a new career, it was only logical that she wanted to focus on that. It was the same way her first year at med school. It was the same way that summer when she was convinced she was going to start a band. She reinvented herself every now and then and every time she thought this new version of her didn’t match with this same-old version of me, but the relationship lasted regardless and eventually the heat came again.
I was the first person in line to board the plane. I sneezed into my hand when the dry air irritated my nose.
The American flight attendant was nice as she pointed me to my seat.
I installed myself in seat 24C, the window seat, placing my bag under my chair and keeping my book, mp3-player and phone in my lap. I watched as the plane started to fill. Within half an hour nearly every seat was taken except the seat right next to mine.
Ten minutes after we were scheduled to depart a young woman came rushing down the aisle, looking flustered, mumbling to no one in particular: “Sorry, sorry, sorry…” Her genuine remorse was disarming.
She stopped and pointed at 24B. “That’s my seat.”
The big man in 24A got up so she could scoot into her chair. “Hi,” she breathed after plopping down next to me. “Sorry.”
During the flight I tried to focus on my reading but I was distracted by the attractive woman sitting next to me. Her dark, glossy curls reminded me of Ophélie, before she decided to cut off her beautiful hair for practical reasons when she was accepted into the police academy.
Maybe she noticed I was stealing looks, or maybe she had been paying attention to me of her own volition, because she suddenly asked: “What are you reading?”
“Uhm, Balzac. Le Père Goriot.”
“Really?” she exclaimed excitedly.
“That is one of my favorite books!”
I smiled. “Really?”
She grinned and shook her head. “No, not really.” Her giggle was endearing.
“What do you like to read?”
She held up her finger, instructing me to wait. She reached into her carry-on luggage and produced a magazine, holding it up for me.
“I study fashion,” she explained. She wasn’t ashamed about her less than intellectual reading material and she wasn’t impressed in the least by my literary choice, but she seemed interested in me regardless. She held out her hand to me for a formal introduction.
I took her hand and shook it. “Marcel Renaud.”
“Renée,” she said with a smile.
We shared a pleasant conversation but it was doomed to grow silent between us. It was a long flight after all. And she seemed much less interested in me when I couldn’t refrain myself from talking about Ophélie. She pulled out the table in front of her and placed the issue of Vogue on the surface. She leafed through the glossy pages, occasionally wetting her finger with her pink tongue to aid the process.
My carry-on luggage was a bit heavy since I had decided it was all I was going to take with me for this trip, so it had everything in there. It was bulging, with the abused copy of Vogue half sticking out of the front zipper; it wouldn’t fit any further.
It was hot, incredibly hot. It didn’t help that the crowd surrounding me seemed to be sucking all the oxygen out of the air, leaving the atmosphere stifling. It was a relief to step outside, even though I landed in the violence of tired travelers fighting each other for the next taxicab. I moved to lean against the wall, away from most of the activity and I peeled off my sweater. Why did flying always leave me feeling so disgusting?
Left in my skinny jeans and a thin, silk tank top I drew the attention of a number of people. It wasn’t unwelcome attention, if I didn’t like people looking at me that way I would have worn a bra. I was aware of the effect I had on both genders; men were drawn to me, women judged me. Whether I was a 'natural beauty' or a 'slut' was in the eye of the beholder. I liked this polarizing effect I had, it eliminated a lot of bullshit: when people liked me it was obvious and when people disliked me it was obvious.
I lit up when I saw a banged-up red pick-up truck pulling up. The driver leaned forward and waved excitedly out of the passenger window. I picked up my luggage and ran over. My bag was propelled into the back and I climbed into the passenger seat.
Annika squealed at the sight of me and leaned over for a tight embrace. I returned the enthusiasm.
We had met online four years ago, through a mutual friend’s Facebook page. We had a lot in common, most importantly: our hunger for traveling. She lived in Stuttgart, Germany, at the time. I in Chartres, France. We first met in London, England, our first of many trips, after we discovered we got along in person as well. We visited all the major European cities together and backpacked through Asia. When her family had to move across the Atlantic for her father’s new job and she decided to come with – even though she was old enough to live independently -, I thought my adventures with her had come to an end. Until she invited me to join her in the USA for a few weeks. The plane ticket was expensive, but we saved money on hotels because we could simply sleep at her apartment.
“How was your flight?” she asked. Her English had greatly improved since she moved here.
I released a telling sigh.
She laughed and shifted gears, steering the old truck away from the jam of cars picking up arrivals, and onto the road.
“Met a cute guy though,” I started. I was a little embarrassed, my French accent was still as bad as it had always been.
“Ohhh…” She winked at me. “Don't worry, you will meet another cute guy. I like these American boys. And more importantly, these American boys love European girls.”
“Still, I feel it is the same way everywhere in the world. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you can find a prince,” I noted wistfully. I knew who liked me and I knew who disliked me, but I hadn't yet figured out who would love me. Until then, I was 'just Renée'.
“Well, then let’s make sure we thoroughly explore the pond.”
Annika couldn't understand. We both had our hearts broken but dealt with it differently. I had pieced mine together and the seams gleamed gold like Kintsugi pottery. I was ready to entrust the next person with it. As a hopeless romantic, I saw beauty in every irregular crack. Annika had left her shards on the ground in complete disarray. She was too afraid to cut herself on the sharp edges - not before she had become so calloused that she wouldn't feel the pain, would she touch it - and she wouldn't let anyone else cut themselves either. As a friend who lived half a world away, I could do nothing but wait for her to be ready and then help her with the puzzle to the best of my abilities and to the extent that I was allowed.
I pointed at the bottle of water rolling on the seat between us. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all, go right ahead.”
We shared the bottle of water as we would share everything those few weeks.
“You are so beautiful.”
“Hmhm,” I silenced him with a demanding kiss, pressing my body firmly against his.
“I’ve never met a girl like you.”
I buried my face in the crook of his neck and rolled my eyes at him.
“I know you won’t believe me when I say this, but I really like you. I don’t want this to be just about sex.”
I grabbed his chin and made him look at me. “We’re in your car. I’m in your lap. There is really no need to sweet-talk me.” I was drunk, high and horny, I didn’t want this encounter to be about anything more than sex. Hell, I couldn’t even, for the life of me, remember his name, even though I had noted he politely introduced himself earlier that evening. “Let’s get this over with, Jüngling, my friend is waiting.” With determination I forced open his jeans.
I kissed him teasingly, encouraging him to take the lead. He kissed back, cupping the back of my head as he took control. That’s more like it, I thought. “You have a condom, right?”
“Uhh?” He wasn’t thinking straight anymore, partially my fault because I had been jerking him off ever since I had worked his manhood free from his pants.
“Never mind.” I reached for my tiny, glittery purse that I had dumped in the passenger seat. I popped it open and produced a condom.
“Wow, you’ve come prepared.”
“I told you. I know what I want.” I ripped the packet open and unceremoniously rolled the latex down the length of his erection.
Moaning in anticipation he hiked up my preposterously short dress which – I was sure – was the reason he had zeroed in on me at the club and he literally ripped off my lacy panties. “Sorry,” he mumbled, holding the flimsy fabric with a hint of regret, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” I berated him lustily. “You are a very naughty boy.”
With our lips locked I lowered myself onto him and we moaned into each other’s mouths.
It was over quickly – not his fault, it was the way I had engineered it.
Still straddling his lap I pushed my dress back down and fixed my hair as best I could. I had hit my head against the roof of the car a couple of times which had messed up my updo. I took out the pins and shook my long, blond hair free. I looked at him oddly when he reached out a hand and caressed my wavy locks.
“I want to see you again. Can I have your number?”
“I’m going back to Stuttgart in a few days,” I lied. My remaining accent made it believable that my stay here was only temporary. I opened the door and stumbled out of the car. I fixed my dress once more and stepped into my nude heels that I had kicked off and left on the pavement when we dove into the vehicle fifteen minutes ago. I walked away, but he followed me.
“When are you leaving? Maybe we could hang out again?”
I turned around and watched him shamelessly tuck his member back into his pants as he scampered after me. I sighed, I didn’t like this. I didn’t want to be a bitch. I was used to the guys being more than okay with the sex being purely casual and a one-time thing. I had been kissing a lot of frogs, giving the appearance that I might be looking for a Prince, but I wasn’t. In fact, I was frightened about ever accidentally running into one. I wasn’t ready for that.
I held up my hand, wordlessly ordering him to stop following me. I offered him a smile and said sweetly: “Auf Wiedersehen, meine Liebe.” I walked away and was relieved not to hear his footfalls trailing me. I headed back into the club to find Renée. She was the one actually leaving in a few days and then my summer of blissful madness would come to an end. She would go back to Europe and I would go back to the chore of finding a new job.
I ran through the streets but I couldn’t find any ammo for my assault rifle. Grumbling, I switched to my pistol, the thing looked pathetically tiny and ultimately unintimidating. Worse still, I only had six rounds left in that gun. I could always resort to my two kataras but the short blades weren’t ideal to protect myself against the blood-hungry undead; I couldn’t let them get too close to me. If they managed to scratch me or bite me, the timer would start – my time as one of the living would quickly be over – and if I didn’t complete my mission before my ‘change’, the entire world was doomed.
Just as that thought crossed my mind I heard that familiar moaning. One of them came stumbling around a corner and I fired my pistol at him, wasting three bullets to achieve a headshot. My situation was deteriorating quickly, only three rounds left and the sound of the shots I had fired would attract more of them. I needed to rendezvous with my team – it would be wasting time, but perhaps they could spare me a clip, or better still; a magazine for my assault rifle. I tried my radio, but it was dead.
Speaking of dead, a whole group of zombies approached me from behind. They were slow, but so was I after taking a round of friendly fire in the thigh earlier. Thanks for that one, Russell. I limped through the network of narrow streets with nowhere to go. I knew that with where I was heading, towards the town square, I would run into another herd. I had no choice but to seek shelter in one of the buildings and head for higher ground. If I remembered correctly I still had one emergency flare left, if the chopper was still in the air I could signal them.
I tried several doors before I found one that was unlocked. While I was in the process of switching to my night vision goggles an explosion suddenly filled my half of the screen and the last cries of my character blasted through the stereo.
Black letters blinked: GAME OVER
“Fuck!” I threw away the controller.
My roommate was laughing, even though my demise meant his failure as well, as we had partnered up for this mission. “Jeremy, come on! You got blown up by our own booby-trap!”
I waved my hand dismissively and pushed up from the floor, crawling into the seat of the plush couch I had been leaning back against. “I just have a lot on my mind.”
“I thought you aced your finals.”
“Life is not just about school, you know.”
“Ah, spoken by a man still hung up on some girl.” Russell rolled his eyes and joined me on the couch. “Still,” he emphasized.
“She wasn’t just some girl.”
“Right,” he drawled, unconvinced. “Explain to me how a girl you’ve known for like an hour can still be all you think about, nearly two weeks later.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Why? Because I’m gay?”
I snorted. “No. Because you weren’t there. You didn’t see her. She was something special… The way she danced. The way she laughed…”
“The way she fucked you?” he mocked.
“Forget it.” I folded my arms across my chest. I had never felt like this before and I didn't appreciate him dismissing my feelings. “You know, I was never this mean to you when you went through one of your break-ups.”
“And when you break up with someone I will be totally understanding and sympathetic, but this wasn’t a relationship that came to an unfortunate, heart-breaking end. What happened was the natural, inevitable end to a one-night-stand. And I’m using the term ‘one-night-stand’ liberally because I’m pretty sure fifteen minutes in your Chevy don’t even qualify as that.”
“So you don’t believe in love at first sight?”
Russell chuckled. “Definitely not.”
“What do you believe in?”
He smirked. “I believe in this…” He jumped up from the couch, not finishing his sentence, leaving me hanging.
My curiosity piqued when I could hear him rummage through one of the drawers of his dresser. “You’re not going to show me like… a dildo or something, right? Because I accept your lifestyle and all, but I don’t want to see that.”
I flinched when suddenly he jumped over the back of the couch, landing next to me. I nearly went cross-eyed trying to focus on the small object he held up to my face. “A joint? You believe in a joint? That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“I believe in not worrying too much, not stressing out too much. I believe in enjoying life as it is presented to you, not expecting any more.” He put the joint between his lip and struggled to get his zippo lighter to work. “Hakuna matata,” he mumbled, his gaze focused on his task.
“Why should I take advise from someone who lives his life according to Disney-philosophy?”
He succeeded in lighting the joint and groaned appreciatively after the first drag. He jokingly started: “It means no worries, for the rest of your days…”
“Are you singing?”
“Just try it.” He held the joint out to me.
I accepted it, albeit reluctantly, and inhaled the smoke deeply. I coughed as I exhaled.
“Shut up.” I took another drag and managed not to embarrass myself further. Satisfied, I handed it back to him.
As we got stoned together we started singing the song that we remembered from our childhood, messing up the lyrics of course. Still, even as I laughed, I wondered what Annika was doing that very moment.
“The laboratory that was discovered in a city South of Paris six weeks ago is believed to be tied to a covert mission sanctioned by the United States government. While most officials are denying the allegations, others refuse to dignify the news with a response. Fact remains that the people arrested at the raid of what was believed to be a run of the mill drug lab appear to be of American nationality, even though no official identification could be made. French investigators have stated that the equipment found on the scene was far too sophisticated and not even entirely suited, for the production of recreational drugs. Rather, the laboratory is suspected of manufacturing biological weapons. The scientists appeared to be working on weaponizing an altered strain of rabies. While American officials speak of terrorist activity that worries them as much as the rest of the world, tension has been running high between the United States and various concerned nations, particularly Russia.”
“Why are you watching this shit?” I wondered. Personally, I actively avoided news reports that depressed me. But this story was hard to ignore, it was everywhere, every day.
Misha shushed me, focused on the television screen.
“Russian president Zverev accuses the United States of secretly manufacturing biological weapons in spite of the treaty that was signed by former president Kelly. The American embassy in Moscow has been forced to close and president Zverev threatens with military repercussions if the United States government isn’t forthcoming about the off-shore operation they seemed to have authorized.”
Misha nervously ran his hands through his hair. “If shit doesn’t calm down soon, my student visa could be revoked. I’d have to go back.”
“They can’t do that,” I argued dumbly.
He scoffed at my naiveté. “They can and they will, Russell. This has all the makings of a new cold war. If not a third world war.”
His words rendered me speechless. News about the supposedly American lab in France had been on TV non-stop. Governments had been coy, withholding from making severe accusations, but it seemed they could keep quiet no longer. Leave it to a silly little faggot like myself to be more concerned about losing my boyfriend who might be forced to return to his homeland, than WWIII. Of course I had good reason to worry about his return to Russia, given the increasingly restrictive, discriminatory anti-gay laws that the country had implemented over the past few years. I wished I hadn’t wasted my last joint on Jeremy and his ‘romantic woes’, I could have really used something to take the edge off. I wasn’t used to worrying; I wasn’t used to caring.
I protectively wrapped my arms around Misha and kissed him on his cheek. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Shhh!” He reached for the remote and turned up the volume. His concerns were of a more worldly nature than mine.
The pretty female news reporter continued, a picture of a young woman popping up next to her: “What is making everyone all the more on edge and enraged by the apparent betrayal, is the fact that during the raid of the laboratory one of the junior officers on the scene seems to have been infected with a strain of the disease the scientists were working on. Officer Ophélie Avignon was admitted to hospital last night, nine P.M. Central European Time. She was severely wounded in a fight with two men, who reported she was behaving erratically and aggressively and expressed they had no choice but to fight back in self-defense, claiming the young woman was clawing at them and trying to bite them. They are being treated with the rabies vaccine and held for further questioning. It is being investigated if she could have infected more people, but no other incidents of her attacking people have been reported. Unfortunately, miss Avignon succumbed to her injuries.”
“That sounds fucking creepy,” I said in disgust. “Like she turned into a zombie.”
“Poor girl. That’s not the way I would want to go.”
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know…”
“If you have to go back to Russia, will you forget about me?”
It appears Patient Zero (Ophélie Avignon) was infected with virus 4-27. This fourth generation rabies virus is a non-lethal strain. The development of the disease stagnates in the excitative stage, leaving the victims (I had observed this for myself in our rats) in the classic state of furious rage. Brain death fails to occur. Considering the ninety-seven percent survival rate and the slow incubation period of 4-27, we had abandoned it, and archived it with our other failed attempts. The vial containing 4-27 must have been in the tray Freddy had retrieved from cold storage. How Oph- Patient Zero managed to infect herself with the strain is still unclear. Even more mystifying is why she didn’t tell anyone she might have exposed herself (maybe she didn’t realize it?).
What we had observed in the lab-rats infected with 4-27 was a period of four to six weeks during which the virus quietly festered inside, before the subject would show any symptoms. Decline occurred swiftly, following the first spike of fever. Following a spastic episode, the rats slipped into a coma, only to awake… different. Our rats were vicious little monsters within ten hours after we detected the rise in body temperature. There is no reason to assume the path to Patient Zero’s demise was any different. She attacked two men a little over five weeks following the exposure. She hadn’t contacted anyone to alert them to her health issues, obviously she didn’t realize what was happening to her. She must have gone to bed sick, passed out after the spastic episode and woke up… that way. The thought of how many people she alone infected by interacting with them in the five-week-window is staggering.
When I had access to computers and the internet was still online, I retraced the original path of the epidemic; discovering the initial spread. I have found many chilling obituaries (many names, and I wrote them all down), but no answers. I was tasked to find a cure, they didn't understand me when I tried to explain: I'm only a 'peasant'...
The one thing I was able to discern was that the virus no longer resembles what was fabricated in our secret laboratory: it is much more advanced and still evolves as it continues to spread. It is beyond anyone's control.
The virus transfers cleverly from host to host; whereas initially any kind of exchange of bodily fluid facilitated the transmission, we have observed that currently direct contact with an infected will lead to infection of the next subject.
With every case we hear of, the virus is getting faster and faster. We have limited access to empirical data, but the latest I was informed of was that a subject had been observed with an incubation period of sixteen hours; sixteen hours between infection and turning into a blood-thirsty animal.
Oddly, even as the virus is getting more effective, it remains non-lethal. To the host, that is. The infected attack others, oftentimes with deadly results. The ones they fail to kill will experience the turn within hours.
The process looks violent and painful. The fever spikes to an insufferable temperature. The body spasms. The eyes bulge and become bloodshot. They claw at themselves with their fingernails. They foam at the mouth. They scream. Some of them scream for hours. They lose consciousness and the body rests while the virus continues to replicate, mutating the brain cells. When they wake up they are silent, they never make another sound. In their state they don't feel pain, they don't feel anything. In that regard, they are enviable...
The chaos that ensued when the epidemic first became apparant to the masses was to be expected. Protests, raids, riots, murders and suicides. People fleeing their home-towns with no idea where to go; there was no escape. Entire cities were bombed in vain, ill-advised attempts to stop the spread. Aiding only our own extinction. The military platoons that had been deployed to keep the order took matters into their own hands when the governments fell, forming their own factions. They wage wars not only against the infected but against each other as well. We’ve heard tales of mass-executions.
The last issue of Times Magazine had the title ‘The Real Zombie Apocalypse?’, only furthering the panic. The infected aren’t zombies, they are not ‘undead’. They are still people of flesh and blood, with beating hearts. They just aren’t the people they used to be; aiming to kill everyone around them, even those they considered to be their loved-ones before their change. And to survive, the rest of us had to change as well.
Perhaps that is the most cunning thing about this virus; it turns us all into monsters, not just the people who get infected.
How many of us are left is unclear. Our group counts twenty individuals, half of what it was last month. We lost radio contact with the other company of survivors. The static crackle haunts us now. But we can't turn it off, we fear the silence more than anything else. We assume the entire group has been slaughtered. That’s what we do nowadays, in the absence of hope, we assume people are dead.
Think of anyone you’ve ever known, family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, random strangers you’ve passed in the streets… assume they are dead.
My mom, the girls from my sorority, Mansa, the handsome baker’s boy…
I do not consider my own survival a blessing, it is my atonement. At night I am kept awake by the shivers that violently rip through my body. The cold is in my bones. The days waste away while my body consumes itself. At first I was protected because they believed I might concoct them a cure and undo the harm that has been done, then they kept me alive solely to suffer alongside them and now they share the limited resources with me because the smaller the group gets, the quieter it gets and we can't stand the silence. I speak perfect French now, we talk to drown out the truth. In the quiet, the truth is defeaning: we are the undead. Stephanie Alpo doesn't exist anymore.
Every name I have collected in this notebook hurts me. I spend my time tracing my fingertips along my own jagged script, until I will finally be able to add my own name, with this pencil stub I've saved. That is the only cure.
Renée Le Galle
Josephe Avignon, Philomène Avignone, Pierre-Yves Lamarre, Jimmie Marsh, Mattie Peterson, Crissy Barkley, Holly Hayes, Eloise Kelly, Connie Hubbard, Perry Hubbard, Hector Hubbard, Raoul Guittard, Pamela Lloyd, Santiago Diaz, Shane Vasquez, Shiloh Simons, Leigh Simons, Marilyn Fernandez, Guillaume Rouselle, Ines Rouselle, Caleb Gutierrez, Jamie Perez, Kenyetta Hanley, Annamae Hulsey, Carissa Wynne, Krystina Gaines, Harro Nieuwenhuis, Jordy Kerks, Petra Kerks, Percy Richards, Eveline Richards, Denyse Le Galle, Laurette Le Galle, Timothéé Le Galle, Didier Auffret, Lucinde Auffret, Ehrhart Adenauer, Viveca Adenauer, Nathan Zimmerman, Amanda Black, Jennifer Horst, Simon Horst, Patrick Horst, Roosevelt Perry, Lydia Hawkins, Peter Hawkins, Danny Hawkins, Hattie Cross, Ben Cross, Herman Bennet, Missy Bennet, Yves LeFranc, Alfredine Barbe, Gabriel Barbe, Benoit Barbe, Rainier Barbe, Aurélie Sevestre, Marie-Dominique Serre, Pashkova Xcenko, Savenkov Xcenko, Viktoria Xcenko, Edgar Xcenko…
Thank you for reading.
Cover image is titled "Hands in Pettakere Cave" and copyright belongs to Cahyo Ramadhani. This work is allowed to be distributed.