We all have our own ways of patching up the holes in the world. Seth and I have slightly different approaches to this kind of thing. I don’t think he’ll approve of my approach today, but I tell myself it doesn’t matter as I speed up to take the ramp off of the freeway. Sometimes, being a good sister is its own kind of twisted hell.
I kind of knew this was coming the day that I saw the first headline drift across the Wayland Post’s Daily Top Five. I skimmed it, and let the ugly details secure their hooks in me: “unnamed illness increases sensitivity to light…third degree burns result from normally innocuous exposure…exposed flesh begins to break down and take on infection within hours…five Wayland residents hospitalized…ICU.”
The first name that came to me was Seth’s. I knew he would have seen it by then; would have already pulled out stacks of Mom’s old medical journals and his own books about Black Plague physicians who were just a little too committed to their study of the disease. He would be mapping out his next bright idea. My phone rang before I could pick it up to call, and I sat and listened to Seth on the other end of line. Seth, breathless with the force of his Plan. Seth, telling me all about how he would save the world. How he would help stop this new Plague before it started.
Nothing I said after that could change his feverish mind.
Seth leaves the map tucked into the crack on the lower edge of my doorframe: a ripped section of California Highway One, with a faded red line running through it. I tape the scrap of map to my dashboard, securing it just within line of vision, and spend the day following that red line until it reaches beyond the end of the freeway. It runs ahead of me off the pavement, through a wide, worn stretch of dirt road. I brush the map with my fingertips like a blessing bauble over a doorway, and I follow the red line onto the road between two endless sheets of barley.
It takes me longer than it should to find the little motel on the side of the dirt road. I guess maps can only do so much; especially when you don’t really want to go where they’re taking you. It’s full dark by the time I make it to the door of Room 10. Inside, everything is a faded blue, glowing in a dusty -feeling yellow light. The air in the room smells synthetically clean, like standard hotel air conditioning has just been running.
Seth is lying on the bed. He turns toward me at the squeal of the opening door.
“Ivy,” I can feel the effort it takes him to speak. I can see the hot, dark red of the flesh beneath his skin. Uneven borders of skin retreat from islands of exposed flesh on his face, his hands, his arms. I wonder how long I have until I will be watching the infection set in. He swallows, and I can see the effort of it in the muscles of his neck. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous.”
I step inside and shut the door. No need to scare the other guests. If we’re quiet, I might be able to get him out of here without anyone seeing.
“It’s been seven hours since I last heard from you. This is why you left me the map, wasn’t it?” Seven hours since he stole a sample vile from Mom’s lab, and drove it out here. The camera capturing the progress of his “experiment” is still set up in one corner of the room. “I’m taking you to a hospital.”
“We’ll get there quick. I drive like the dead, when I have to.”
He tries to push himself up by the heels of his hands. A sharp gasp of pain pushes him onto his back.
“No hospital.” He takes a deep breath. “It’s too soon–”
“No one’s going to find the vile,” I snap. Acidic bile rises into my mouth. “I’ll get rid of it.” He blinks at me for a long, agonizing minute, and then looks back at the camera.
“That’s coming with us.” I speak before he can argue. I won’t waste any more time arguing about his precious research. “But we’re going.”
“It’s not enough,” his throat sounds dry. “This is only the beginning of the process. The next stage–“
“–won’t be on camera.” My voice is cold, clinical. I realize all at once that I spent the drive convincing myself that this stupid plan wouldn’t work. I had expected to find him pacing the room, frustrated about the failed experiment, but fine. Safe. I realize now that I had been feeding myself fairytales. Of course it worked. Of course he would succeed in doing harm, while he was trying to do good.
He opens his mouth to argue–probably to tell me that I’ll waste his research if we leave now, that he needs just fifteen minutes more, just thirty minutes, and then he’ll go –and I pull a narrow glass bottle from my jacket pocket.
“You can come with me willingly, leaning on my shoulder, or I can carry you out in my arms. Either way, you’re coming with me, right now.”
He starts to say something–something about contributions to history, and helping mankind, and being worth the risk–but I’m getting the Latex gloves out of my inside pocket. Taking a napkin from the side table and adding a line of homemade chloroform to its center (Seth isn’t the only one who can do research). I slip one hand behind his head. I kneel there and pray that he doesn’t breathe too deep, that my proportions were right, that I’m doing this right, as my will wraps itself around his.