Tag Archives: fictional diseases

A Case of Grey

While standing on a shore of the lake near my home, I caught the grey. It blew in on the night breeze like a fog, curling its tendrils into my hair and fingers, sinking down into the fibers of my coat. I could have run. I didn’t. Perhaps that was why it came for me.

I thought nothing of it at first. If you are walking at night, in the solitude of your own thoughts, there is nothing that can tell you what state you’re really in. It took the dawn breaking in like an irate lover to show the color had drained out of me. The grey had sunk in and I was insubstantial as a piece of smoke.

At first I panicked. As much panic was allowed me, at least. It was a terrible thought that I might go through life like this. My priorities were still very much skewed. I imagined going to parties, attempting to shake people’s hands with my insubstantial self. How would I avoid social embarrassment? Perhaps a wide-brimmed hat and a scarf to muffle my grey face?

Too long it took me to realize: there would be no parties, no shaking hands. I was already halfway nothing. Not invisible, but not “there” enough to be bothered with. Friends did not avoid me, they simply did not see me.

Food had no taste. All the things I took joy in were now bland as chewed paper. I thought idly of suicide, but ruled it too much effort. My body was done trying. My grey shoulders and chest could lift nothing heavier than a match. My grey eyes were so dulled that I no longer braved full daylight, choosing instead to lurk in the times when the sun hovered just above the horizon.

For a while I took a sort of perverse pleasure in it. I would act in a way that would get me noticed in any other state, pushing as much as I dared. A fruit seller didn’t look up from his paper as I took a lime in my hand and let the grey chase away its green. Cars did not stop for me, so I began jaywalking. I ignored hours of business, coming and going as I pleased. Well, wished. It brought me no pleasure. Nothing did anymore.

It became effort to simply exist. I would find myself in a chair, wondering how long I had been conscious, trying to piece together a simple chain of events. It was as monumental as scaling a mountain, too often I gave up and sank back into oblivion.

What would be the end of my state? I could not see myself dying, not from such a strange condition. Would I dissipate like smoke? Perhaps I would flatten into a wall and become an ownerless shadow, or a patch of dust to be swept away.

I must have taken up walking, for I would find myself sometimes on that lake shore where I had first fallen grey. Now the fog really did creep in, embracing me like a long-lost child. My footsteps made no sound nor shape.

I found an unexpected sight in my perambulations, a man sitting on a rotten cypress log. He had a hand-rolled cigarette pinched in his lips, though I could not tell whether it was lit or not. With a jolt almost pleasurable, I noticed that he too was grey. I opened my mouth and made effort to speak.

“Salutations, brother,” I managed.

He spared me no glance. “Why call me brother? Do I know you?”

I gestured at us, our ash clothing, our smoke pallor. “We are afflicted with the same malady. Surely that makes us something.

He looked at me with filmed eyes. Taking the cigarette from his lips, he shrugged.

“I see nothing in common between us.”

“We are grey, my friend. Can you not see this with your own eyes?”

He rolled his gaze over me, shallowly ticking it up and down across my body. “Friend, everything is grey out here.”

He was not wrong. The fog silvered the sand, bleached the wood a dark charcoal. I felt irritation at this rejection of kinship. If I was not grey, I was not anything.

“Well, if everything is grey here, perhaps I should remove myself and shed this condition.”

The man shrugged with barely a whisper of his shoulders. He put the cigarette back. “As you will. I can’t force you one way or the other.”

My steps were short and agitated as I retreated from the shore. I had just one thing left to me and to have it passed over—

My hand in the yellow streetlight as I grasped the rail of the stairs that led away from the shore was a pale peach. I stepped further into that light and found my color returned. I was not grey now, merely numb. A condition curable by a hot drink and a footbath.

I spared one glance back the way I came, where the fog walled off the sight, the smell, even the sound of the lake water teething on the sand. Too timid to look a gift miracle in the mouth, I fled homeward.

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The End of the World

Haruk spread his arms wide as his wives dressed him. They strapped on his ceremonial penis-gourd, the one decorated with parrot feathers. They draped him in heavy beads of turquoise, so many that his chest looked like a river.  They wiped white clay down his arms, white in welcoming and solidarity with their visitor. They tied the plaited grass skirt about his waist. And last, they set his teak sandals before him, so that he could step into the shoes of his forefathers.

The tribe amassed at the beach. Though Haruk was the only one allowed to speak with the visitor, everyone loved the spectacle. Children chased each other through the legs of their elders. Old men and women sat in the shade, fanning themselves with broad leaves. The story-weaver was ready with her bag of fibers and her beads of power. She had a red bead of courage in her hand and she turned it over and over in anticipation.

Haruk’s chief wife Shalay laid out the speaking mat. Like all other adult women, she had blue curled lines like tusks tattooed on her chin. She lowered her eyes demurely as her husband stepped onto the mat.

Far away, there was a silver flash as the visitor departed for the shore. A few of the men had seen it up close, once. A great silver canoe, one that could hold the whole village and still spare room. Haruk had known that any people who could make metal float on water were powerful people, and had met them in peace. His predecessors had not been so kind. Farud, his second cousin, had met the long ships with arrows. This brought a wave that swamped the village, ruining farmland as far inland as the burial grounds. Haruk himself had deposed him.

The speck born from the boat grew into a sickle-moon shape. This boat was plain wood, but a fascinating color. Haruk had been unable to glean how the colors did not wash off in the waves. Once a shy distance from the shore, the figure in the boat stood up and waved. The whole tribe waved back.

The white friend was a man like them. He had taken off the white skin once, far enough from shore that no harm would come to them. His skin was pink with heat, his hair fine and brown and his eyes an ugly green like the Perch they fished for. The skin kept bad spirits in, white friend explained, spirits that rode upon his back from his home.

“Wecome, Jess-up,” Haruk boomed as the white friend drew into the waves. The men caught the mooring rope he threw and dragged him up on the sand.

The white friend Jessup was not much taller than Haruk himself. The bulbous mouth of his mask made his words even harder to to understand.

“Greetings, Lord of the Mountain,” Jessup said in his clumsy, thick-tongued way. He had come a long way since the first meeting, even if he still chewed the people’s words like coconut pulp.

Haruk gave him a greeting gesture. Jessup repeated it clumsily. He had been so eager to learn from the very first that they excused his missteps, even when he tried following the women to the lagoon to watch them do woman things.

“How is Great Island,” Haruk said politely, “have you changed chiefs?”

Jessup squirmed a bit. The heat made the white skin uncomfortable. It squeaked when he moved.

“Not well,” he managed. “Chief. I must impart something of you.”

The chief dug his toes into the speaking mat. “Please speak, friend. Let us two make tragedy into fortune.”

Jessup struggled with his words. The skin was chafing at him, anyone could see. The tribe had not dispersed down the beach as they did in the past, they drew in closer.

“You know that I wear this skin to keep my spirits from…escaping you?” Jessup sneezed. Haruk immediately stuffed his soul back in his body.

Jessup paused, looking at hauk’s actions, then went on.

“There is a bad spirit,” he said, “huge bad. It sickens our people. It dangers our island. I come to tell you this may be our last visit.”

“Jess-up,” Haruk said sadly, “I know you. You do not wish evil on anyone. Please let our story-weaver cast protection on you so you may visit again?”

The story weaver stepped forward, albatross feather in her hand like a sword. Jessup waved her down.

“Not understand. Big bad spirit. We…greet other people. Small people like you. Before, on other island. No white skin, then. Other people die. All die. My people want to spare you that.”

Haruk took it all in. “I see you speak from the heart, Jess-up. We shall miss you.”

“I miss you.” Jessup was struggling, wavering on his feet. “I want to spare you red-spot curse. Terrible, terrible spirit.”

Haruk laughed out loud. “Oh, the red-spot sickness? Is that all?”

Jessup swayed. “You know this?” His words sounded congested.

“Oh yes. It struck in my father’s time. Very bad, many children die. But the ones that grew were stronger. It comes back once in awhile, but never kills. We are strong against it now.”

It was many words, complex words, that Haruk had to repeat a few times before Jessup understood.

Jessup stepped closer. “But this spirit bad. Blood comes in urine and tears. Flesh rots.”

“Yes, quite terrible, I know.” Haruk reached out to steady Jessup. “A terrible thing to behold. I myself caught it as a boy. But now you see me, fit and strong.” Haruk rapped his own chest with a thud.

Jessup sank to his knees. “Im-yoon,” he said, clawing at his mask. He repeated the word over and over. Im-yoon. Im-yoon. Haruk wondered if it was a protection word. Muttering his own secret protection word, he helped crack the faceplate of the mask.

Beneath it, Jessup had the look of a frightened boy. The red spots covered his face, some swollen boils that had burst. Red crust gathered at the corners of his eyes. He was more pitiful than ugly now.

Despite his ugliness, Haruk gathered him up.

“Do not be sad, Jess-up,” he told the white friend, “you will rest next to my father and his father before him. You will sleep like a warrior, and wake at the world’s end. I will even have Shalay put an extra travel stone in your bag.”

Jessup looked up mawkishly. “Already world-end for me.”

Haruk gave him a pat on the back and signaled to the men to pick him up. Jessup lasted until nightfall, when the last of his fluids ran out. They buried him in a plain straw mat, for he had no house-emblem to distinguish him. Haruk himself put a stone into Jessup’s bag.

The men set out to the great silver canoe, where it sat pinned by some unknown means to a single spot in the bay. The top of it was too high to climb, but they could see from a distance that the other Great Islanders were in the same state as Jessup, lying prone where they had fallen. Eventually a storm uprooted the ship, and they watched it drift away to the horizon. The white friend and his silver ships became a story Haruk told his grandchildren.

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Gladis Root

arum-drakontia

The Gladis root (Geminus clavapoda) is the only living member of the valliscidae family of rhizomal plants. Its only known habitat is a dry valley in the  northern part of Namibia. A German pharmaceutical company brought it to western attention in 1896, when a specimen of dried root was brought back to the country in a material-finding expedition. The root was named, rudimentary tests performed, and promptly left in a drawer in the company’s archives.

Rediscovered in 1963, subsequent tests showed the rhizome contained an anticonvulsant agent and led to another expedition to its homeland. The anticonvulsant was present in greater proportions within the fresh plant, so several cuttings were taken and propagated in Germany. By 1977 the pharmaceutical company had developed Glaxis, an antiepileptic, from the root.  

Unlike its notorious cousin Thalidomide, Glaxis passed the placental-barrier test with flying colors. But it was during the long-term clinical trials that Glaxis’s most defining feature came into the fore. After six months of testing, all of the patients taking the drug began to develop teratomas. The varying ages and genetic backgrounds seemed to have little effect on tumor growth or development: the two largest growths were harvested from a young woman(26) and an older man (72). These weighed in at a whopping six pounds and showed unusual tissue variety, the male patient’s growth alone showed traces of bone, neuron, and adipose tissue. After the trial met an unceremonious end, the pharmaceutical company quashed further mention of the drug and discontinued research, escaping the bad publicity Chemie Grünenthal had faced.

The Gladis root grows in the historic domain of the Twombi people, who referred to it as the “punishment root.” The root was reserved for only the most grievous offenders: those who committed acts of rape, incest, or murder. The offender would be made to ingest the root until they had developed their own “bad twin” who would then mete out punishment. These sparse details were collected by an anthropologist in 1957. The Twombi tribe has since disseminated into the larger Bantu culture, making correlation of such details now impossible.

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The Owl

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The owl, pictured center

This is the owl. The owl can appear anywhere, at any time. A stain. A smear on your glasses. You might pass it many times without noticing it. But you will notice.

The owl will follow you. It will appear on things close you you. The rings in your bathtub. The grease congealing in the kitchen sink. It is a pattern you alone will recognize. It is only when the sightings increase in frequency that you will realize: the pattern is not on your world but your eyes themselves.

28.8% corruption

28.8% corruption

The owl will seep into everything you love. It will make the world dirty to you. Blink and rub it out, it will only swim back into your vision. Colors will molder. Light will dim. And with sight go the other senses. Soon you will be able to smell it, the smell of corruption. You will feel its outline on your eyelids, it is embossed into your pupils. It will send you down avenues you never knew existed.

It will change you.

image (4)

60% corruption

Love will curdle. Compassion will sour. The world around you will shrink as it rots, as pieces of you break away. You will not remember the smell of fresh air, the sun on your face. The owl will ferment you in the shelter of its wings until you are just, just right.

And when you are right, when you are ripe, it will eat everything. All that you are. And it is only then, in these last moments, that you will see its true form.

80% corrupTHEREISNOHOPE

80% corrupTHEREISNOHOPE

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Sipsey’s Hyperphobic Disorder

SHD is not formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Common symptoms involve an irrational, all-consuming fear of a mundane object or concept. The sufferer is both mentally and socially crippled by this fear, ascribing devastating attributes to the subject of their terror. In an attempt to persuade other people of these deadly properties, subjects may conjure images of loved ones killed in improbable ways by the substance. Such behavior is self-demonstrating in the following interview excerpt by Ms. A____, 34 years of age and suffering from advanced hydrophobia.

Interviewer: So you maintain that the water is responsible for your friend’s death?

A: Yes. *cries*

Interviewer: if you wouldn’t mind, please expand on that.

A: *sniffs, regains composure* She—she was going to sit down on a bus bench near me. I saw the water—I cried out that there was water, I said there was—but she sat down anyway.

Interviewer: How much water was it?

A: Three big drops. *begins sobbing* They soaked into her bag and the seat of her pants. I screamed for help *shouts* somebody help us! But n-nobody would come and she died. *dissolves into tears*

Interviewer: Okay, A____, at this point I would like to direct your attention to the window behind me.

A: *still crying* Why?

Interviewer: I would like you to see someone. Do you see her? It’s E____. *aside* Please wave, E______. *back to A* Would you please wave to her?

A: *sobs*

Interviewer: Good. Now, since E____is standing here in front of you, what does that tell you?

A: …that…that she died, and it’s so sad! *sobs to the point of hyperventilation*

Interviewer: A, will you please wave at E____ for me? Good. You see how she waves back? Does that in any way conflict with your judgement that she is dead?

A: Oh god, oh god—*hyperventilating*

Interviewer: Ms. A____, may I point out that your tears are also water?

*incoherent screams. A____ was restrained at this point to prevent her from clawing her eyes out*

Treatment of Sispey victims includes pharmaceutical intervention and therapeutic restraint. No one treatment has been completely successful. No sufferer has been able to return to a completely independant life, though few prove able to live outside of institutions, albeit with heavy familial support. The sufferers vary in age, social class, and ethnic background.

The syndrome is named after its originator, John Phillip Sipsey, who put forth the hypothesis that mental aberrations were merely affects with no biological precedent. He established a practice in 1958 for the sole express purpose of putting this to the test. He selected candidates from a group of individuals including but not limited to: manic-depressives(bipolar and general depression), nervous exhaustion(social anxiety and post-partum depression) and shell-shock(PTSD as well as soldiers discharged for various infractions.)

Culling from an initial group of 154, Sipsey ended up with 67 finalists whom he then interred in his clinic for an unspecified amount of time. For families inquiring after relatives submitted for what they believed to be a brief observation period, Sipsey coined the phrase “antisocial withdrawal” and barred any outside contact. Over the following months, nearly half the subjects would commit suicide. One extreme case involved a man eating over a pound of salt he had saved up in shaker-sized increments. The remaining 38 were held in the clinic in what were later deemed “unlivable” conditions by a committee formed to preside over the dissolution of the clinic.

Herman Gehry, 27, was a deputy responding to a noise complaint on June 5th, 1958. The front desk  of the clinic was found empty and sounds of distress issued from a nearby door. Gehry drew his sidearm and proceeded. He reported stumbling upon Sipsey force-feeding a severely emaciated man behind the door, while others were detained in cages “[the] size of…a dog’s, not built for fully-grown people.” [Gehry 3/19/59] Sipsey’s death was ruled as accidental, as Gehry reported the doctor struggling for his firearm and discharging it in his own forehead. The presence of multiple bullet wounds(and a lack of Sipsey’s fingerprints) notwithstanding, Gehry was suspended for five weeks but received no further discipline.

Sipsey’s subjects were retained in state custody as the doctor had gone to extensive lengths to destroy or otherwise obfuscate their records. Familial identification proved successful for most subjects, those who remained unidentified are kept in state custody today.

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The Plague of Lost Objects

Jerome was being followed. He ducked out of Mrs. Tan’s fourth-grade class and cut across the baseball diamond to avoid the other children. He took a different route home every day, but still, he knew he was being followed. There were no footsteps to betray his stalker, no shadow suddenly darting away from the corner, but he could feel it. He knew he would see it almost before he spotted the bottle at the crosswalk before his house.

Jerome hunched low, looked either way across the street. No one. No cars, no other pedestrians. The lights were timed, so the red at his stop was just a formality. He turned and glared at the bottle.

It was fancy and aerodynamic, probably a sports drink or one of those new macrobiotic teas. It was plastic; otherwise Jerome would have derived great pleasure from throwing it high up in the air and seeing it shatter. Instead he crept over to where it lay innocently on the cement.

“Go away!” he hissed, and beat a retreat. The bottle did not move.

They never moved, nothing they did betrayed their special properties. Not every object was alive, but the objects that were alive looked like any other object.

Jerome hitched his collar up as he walked home, keeping careful watch. No one lived in the houses near him, but he knew to look out for anyone who might follow him home.

All his precautions were rendered null when uncle Odwin opened the door holding the bottle.

“Curious,” he said, “this one has come home to roost.”

Uncle Od was not mad. He was never mad that Jerome let things follow him home.

“After all,” he would say as he built a wall of old record sleeves, “if they were too smart for me in this house, how would you have hope?”

The plague of lost objects had struck the house long before Jerome was born. Uncle Od had lived most of his life in the house, but the plague had not begun until after Od’s parents died. First gramma from strep and then grampa from cirrhosis of the liver. Od had pictures of the house back when it had just been built. It was grand; parquet floors, embossed wallpaper and walnut trim. Now that Jerome lived in it, everything was the same dun color and anything of value was buried under the tide of objects.

The objects were insidious. They disguised themselves as trash, but Od would never let Jerome call them that.

“They’re too smart to be thrown away,” he’d say, “don’t they deserve their own title?”

They outsmarted Od, drowning the house in a tide of their bodies. Each day he’d try to stack them in some order, and when Jerome got home from school he would help too. But they kept coming, and it was only the two of them in the house.

Jerome had tried throwing them away by the time he was old enough to think of it. Od watched him with misty eyes. He didn’t stop Jerome.

The things were back in the house the next day.

“You see?” Od asked Jerome. “They are too smart to be thrown away.”

Jerome tried getting smart. He took bits and bobs in his backpack, to abandon in the school dumpster. But then the school put a padlock on it, and new objects replaced the old.

Od would just sigh, shrug, and go back about his work. Gramma and grampa had left enough money to live well on. Even so, Od and Jerome ate the same humble meals, slept on the same dingy sheets every day. Jerome did the shopping, since Od had to make sure the objects stayed in their right place. He tried to buy the same things every time, because whenever he bought something different, the boxes and bags that the food came in would wind up part of the plague.

Od cooked in the same saucepan every night, and they both ate with the same spoons to save on dishes. The third-floor parlor was packed with fancy china, but they never ate off it. Jerome never wanted to use a lost object. At sunset every night, Jerome would take the toilet bucket out to empty in the far corner of the yard, while Od cleaned out the old bedroom that served as the privy. Jerome had never seen the house’s proper bathroom, objects had eaten it all.

Od would tuck Jerome in bed every night and read him a story. They were all very old stories, Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers and all in a language Jerome could barely understand. But Od had read them when he was a boy, and Jerome liked hearing them.

The day they called him into the nurse’s office, Jerome knew that something horrible was coming. Change. The lost objects had found a new way to plague him: biting him in his sleep, leaving little red welts. He made sure to wear shirts and jeans that covered them up, but in PE he hadn’t been able to wear jeans, and coach Sam had seen. He’d made Jerome stick out his arm and sucked air over his teeth when he got a close-up look at the bumps. Even when Jerome told him they barely hurt anymore, Sam made him go to the office.

Jerome shut up like a mussel, ready to lie through his teeth to get them to leave him alone. But, unlike any other time Jerome had been in trouble, no one talked directly to him. The nurse whispered to the principle, the principle whispered to the phone. Jerome was given a headlice examination and asked if there were rats in his home. He bit his tongue to avoid saying, “no, I’ve got a plague of lost objects.”

No one told him to go home, but while the principle was out in the hall, Jerome slipped away. He left his jacket and bag and ran.

He could see litter everywhere, sneering from cracks in the sidewalk, overflowing from cans to him. He waved at them, ‘go away, go away,’ and breathlessly ran on.

 

Uncle Od was outside. That was new. There was another man with him.

The new man was dressed nice, in a suit and tie. He had uncle Od’s pudding nose and his dark eyebrows, but his cheeks were thin and cratered. He didn’t look as nice as uncle Od, though that may have been because he was very agitated.

“—can’t live like this,” he was saying, “you can’t keep a little boy in this! I don’t care—”

Uncle Od smiled patiently. “The boy was given to me. I’m the one that mommy and daddy gave the money to. You may not agree with that—”

“This has nothing to do with the money! I don’t care whether they loved you more or not, this isn’t—” the man spotted Jerome and swallowed.

“Hi Jerry,” he said. He did something surprising and knelt. “Hi there.” His voice was trembling. “you probably don’t remember me—”

“Jerome,” uncle Od said nice and crisp, “will you grace us with your presence? Your uncle Frank would like to measure you and find you wanting.”

Jerome edged past the other man and came to stand beside uncle Od. The man called Frank seemed slightly hurt.

“He looks just like her,” he whispered, “like Callie.” Now he spoke up to Od, and he sounded angry. “You should never have been considered for guardianship. You’re barely fit to care for yourself.”

“Says the man who only completed a secondary education,” Od said, squeezing Jerome’s shoulder with a pudgy hand. “if we need your assistance, we will call. Until then…” he waved loftily at the street.

Frank stood. “Od…you don’t get it. The authorities have been called.”

The color drained from Od’s face. “You told on me?”

Frank held his hands open. “The school called them, there was nothing I could do. Od, if you had come to me earlier…”

Od’s face was filling with red, it dripped down from his forehead to his cinnamon-roll cheeks and his protruding chin. He clenched his fists and made frothing noises.

“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” Frank said. He really did sound sorry. “Don’t you want help? You can’t be happy living this way.”

Od managed to get a word out. “Filthy,” he spat, and he made it sound like the other f-word Jerome was never allowed to say. “Filthy, filthy little beast.”

The words sounded ridiculous, almost silly. But Frank went white now, Frank’s face shifted between disgust and sorrow and he backed away.

Jerome tried to shake Od, tell him to stop it and run away. But Od would not look at him.

 

They came and picked apart the house. They made it look so easy, agents carrying away the doorposts of soup cans that had been there as long as Jerome could remember, tracking mud over the neat piles. Odwin withdrew into himself. He sat with his feet dangling from the hood of Frank’s car. Jerome watched, fascinated, ashamed with himself for feeling anything other than grief. They did not understand the plague, they thought Jerome wanted to live in a house like that!

A bored young man with a clipboard approached where they stood in a clump; Jerome, Od, and Frank.

“Sir, are you the boy’s guardian?”

Od clamped his mouth shut, calculating.

Frank sighed. “Yes he is.”

The young man checked a box and nodded. “Sir, are you aware that your living conditions are unsanitary?”

Od’s eyes went sly. He didn’t answer.

“This is your place of residence, yes?”

Jerome silently urged uncle Od on. Go ahead, tell them about the plague.

Od said, “It was the boy.”

Frank stared at Od. Jerome stared at Od.

Od nodded vigorously. He pointed a finger straight at Jerome’s heart. “He brings everything home with him. I try to keep it clean, but he just won’t stop.”

Frank looked sick. He circled Jerome’s shoulder with his arm.

The young man betrayed no emotion. “Sir, you’re saying your ward filled the house with trash?”

Od nodded emphatically.

“Yet you made no attempt to hire help to take it away?”

“I have no money—”

“Liar!” Frank shouted. He drew up to full height. “Liar! Liar!”

“Filthy!” Od screamed up into Frank’s face. Jerome saw the young man motion a few officers closer.

“And you have been living here without working facilities?”

Od went sly again. “We have a well.”

“Sir, you have no electricity, no waste removal, and your house is incredibly unsanitary.”

Od was red again. “It’s my house,” he insisted, “you can’t take my house.”

Frank shook his head. “Can I take the boy with me?” he asked, “he’s my nephew too.”

The young man nodded.

Frank picked Jerome up and walked to his car. Behind them, the officers were taping up the doorway with yellow tape that said “condemned.” Od was still arguing with the officer, and didn’t even look after them. Jerome looked down at the objects. Their flickering shadows in the light of the police cars seemed to be laughing.

 

Frank’s house was small.

“You have to share a room with Toby,” he said, “I hope that’s not too much. He’s five.”

Toby was asleep when Jerome arrived. His sister Tracy was slumbering in her cot in the next room. Tracy was three, and she stayed home with Jerome the next day while Toby went to kindergarten. Jerome would be going to a new school, with new clothes and new shoes. Frank had bought him new clothes and put the old ones in the incinerator.

Jerome had a little bed and a shelf next to it. He and Toby shared a night table between their beds. There was a box for toys and a table for crafts, and the house was tidy.

Frank watched him those first few weeks. Jerome wanted to tell him not to worry.

He taught Tracy and Toby all about the objects. He taught them that they were alive, and they all had a proper place where they lived. Tracy’s shoes lived under her cot, and Toby’s books lived on Toby’s shelf. Sometimes when the house was asleep, Jerome would rise from bed and tiptoe around. He would peek in on the objects and see them resting on their sides, not disobediently moving, but finally tame.

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Anatomy of an Outbreak

It is 3:05 in the afternoon, somewhere in the indeterminate future. There is a Sitatunga antelope staggering down grasslands in what was formerly part of Cameroon but now comprises part of a private super-ranch owned by five US holderates. The antelope staggers because one week ago it caught a virus, possibly from infected waters, possibly from a mosquito bite. Fever has burned out most of its brain, it is barely mobile. There is a herd of Cape Buffalo/cattle hybrids in the field as well, they give the antelope a wide berth. The Sitatunga staggers forward, compelled by some unquantifiable memory, or perhaps just driven by inertia. The virus has made it hydrophilic, its body swollen so much its joints can no longer bend.

On the other end of the field, machinery starts up. The Cape Cattle recognize the noise and run. The antelope does not.

The massive harvester spans the breadth of the field, running on elevated tracks so as not to despoil the vegetation. The sensors go by mass and weight. The antelope, having swelled up three times its normal size, is picked up and stored by the machine. Soon, the cape cattle join it.

Our patient zero rises at eight am sharp the next day. He is Phillip Morisot, and he has two weeks of life left. He is a music producer and lives in a resort village on the super-ranch along with his girlfriend Bismuth. Bismuth sells native art from the dwindling Fulani population squatting on the edges of the super-ranch. Phillip signs minor artists and is the primary breadwinner for the household, once he dies Bismuth will have only their small savings to live off of. This will not be a problem as she will not live long enough to see it run out.

This morning he showers in a cubicle that gathers his soapy runoff for recycle, shaves with a dry powder, and puts on a linen suit. Bismuth remains in bed, purple hair peeking out from beneath the comforter.

Phillip rides in a jeep to work, because he likes having the ability to cut across small swaths of grasslands and spying flashes of the ever-thinning wildlife. He has never seen a Sitatunga antelope precisely because this area was not their usual habitat. The sick antelope had traveled a long way indeed, addled by fever.

Phillip’s mind was not on the coming weeks, or even the next day. A particular teen idol, a pop singer toying with her own clothing line, was teetering on the line between them and a rival recording studio in Rome. The other studio had wined and dined her, taking her to the coliseum museum where she could see actual chunks of the ruin, and gave her a pizza with Ostrich meat and cashews on it. Phillip’s department is under pressure to top that, pressure Phillip doesn’t think he can live up to when even toilet paper had to be flown in to the village.

“—maybe they can get away with that kind of opulence up at pizzaville,” he says to his immediate superior over the phone, “but we’re a more modest outfit over here. That’s what people like about us. What about whathisname, the actor? He liked that we made the jacket covers out of hemp fiber.”

“All ancient history, Phil. Princess Whitebread doesn’t go for that hippie shit. She’s the kind of person who likes more frosting than cupcake.”

Phillip hangs up the phone with little hope.

That afternoon, the antelope is taken from the pen where it had been crammed along with the Cape Cattle. The entire slaughter process is automated, hence there are no witnesses to the sick antelope being decapitated, and certainly no one to stop its blood being collected for use in animal feed. The body is skinned by suction and sectioned into various cuts. The machines here have no sensors, so the unusual amounts of fluids and other oddities go undetected.

That afternoon Phillip takes the teen idol’s manager to Safariville, a popular restaurant made in the style of a chieftain’s hut, but much more spacious. It had been Phillip’s luck that the manager was already on-continent, doing a little publicity down in the Congo preserve. Phillip pretended to be impressed at snapshots of the man posing with heavily sedated elephants and hippos.

“It’s like this, Sammy,” Phillip says, “Princess might like luxury. Heck, we all like being spoiled. But this isn’t just about what she wants. It’s image, it’s about globalization. How’s it going to look if she busts out a magazine cover riding on the hood of a solid-gold Mercedes?”

“Well, we all know how that went down with the last guy,” the manager replies, and they shared a laugh.

The load of meat had been delivered to the restaurant still steaming. Now the chunks are sectioned into smaller slices by the kitchen staff. The chef who got the antelope meat is a local hire. They all are. Like the rest of the kitchen and wait staff, he cannot read English and as such does not follow the safety charts posted by law in every kitchen in the village. While the meat’s external temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius, enough to carmelize the surface, the internal temperature never rises enough to kill off regular bacteria, much less a virus. With a pair of tongs, the chef flips the meat onto a waiting platter of pasta and salad. He dings the bell and goes back to cooking another steak without washing his hands.

At promptly 1:15pm, Phillip Morisot takes a bite of his steak. Years of smoking have dulled his senses of taste and smell, so he only registers the fact that the meat is oddly chewy. The manager gets a soy assortment, and now spends the remainder of the lunch chewing through what looks like a series of building blocks.

Phillip’s stomach’s protests are dismissed as foreboding. The conversation does not go badly, but no satisfactory conclusion is reached. The manager does not outright agree to anything, but Phillip knows that willful spending could be the death-knell to anyone’s public image. He spends the rest of the afternoon chewing digestive tablets and swearing off cheese.

While Phillip’s stomach digests the meat, the virus makes acquaintance with his stomach cells. The viral symptoms that might have been recognized in the animal are not present in Phillip. He has no sudden thirst for water, he will not wander in circles as the antelope had for days before meeting with the harvester. However, Phillip’s mucous membranes begin secreting an abnormal amount, which Phillip attributes to the poor air quality predicted for the day. Tissues pile up in his garbage as he waits.

Finally, at sunset, his computer chimes a video call. He puts it on the projector, so the manager is confronted with the hopeful faces of Phillip’s assistants, secretaries, and general dogsbodies.

“Hey there, Phil.” The manager is clearly taken aback by the spectacle, a thing Phillip had counted on. “Been mulling over your words. It is a bear economy right now. Just the other day they attacked that senator for wearing Gucci pumps.”

Andie, his head secretary, laughed disbelievingly, Ferragamo wedges on her feet hidden beneath a desk.

“I know it, Sammy, I know. And we’re all big fans of what you did with those singing boys, you know? Those clean-cut kids from the Bronx?”

The office loyally burst into praise for the singing group that had disbanded five years previous. The manager still considered it a success, judging by the flush of his cheeks. He waved the praise away.

“I can’t keep lobbing no-hitters,” he said, suddenly grim, “I know I’ll have to step wrong sometime, and if I can find a way to minimize my losses, I will.”

Phillip, equally grim, grips the back of his chair and orates over it.

“Sammy I’ve seen the numbers,” he says, “this chickie is really popular with middle America. Can you say that about anyone else in your stable? What about that rocker, the guy with the hair?”

“He’s platinum in Europe.”

“Yeah, but what about the US? I’m not saying it’s all about staying power,” Phillip wheedles, “it’s about globalization. Everybody knows Italy, they know pizzas and Gucci and all that art crap. But look at us down here! We’re a grassroots organization, we’re small, we’re local, we have to send away for our garbage collection! You’ll be doing us all a favor, and Sammy, you know how Yanks like to help the underdog.”

There was a long pause, during which Phillip’s stomach wouldn’t stop gurgling.

“You’re right,” the manager said, and the office let out a resounding cheer.

That night Phillip recounts the coup to his girlfriend while she makes their dinner of sprouted quinoa and lentil-based loafs. They eat on their deck made from centuries-old teak and drink a cheap table wine. That night he and Bismuth make love. Like all other occasions they made love, the only birth control they utilize is Bismuth’s uterine implant.

In the weeks to come Bismuth will nurse Phillip as he grows progressively worse, becoming delirious and weak, thinking it merely a bout of McKillup’s Influenza, which they had both contracted earlier in their lives. Indeed, for the first few months the virus would be mistaken for Mickey’s Flu, meaning that thousands are inoculated with vaccines that provide no protection from the virus. Phillip will die from what he initially thought to be a minor upset, as would Bismuth and most of the white population of the super-ranch. Those that have the money to circumvent quarantine bring the virus with them back to America, to Europe, and summer homes in Caribbean islands. The Fulani, by some genetic lottery, would prove resistant to the virus, as would small enclaves in the Congo, Liberia, and various other marshy environments in Africa.

That night Phillip goes to sleep happy, dreaming of the days to come.

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Tara

Before Scott woke up on Wednesday morning, he dreamed of Tara. And, like most nights he dreamed of Tara, Scott woke half-hard. He stretched luxuriously, enjoying the gentle tension of the sheets, but he would not complete the indignity. Many followers of Tara preached that love of the body was as pure as any other worship, but Scott found it vulgar and uncouth. Love for Tara transcended the physical, it was a more pure form of love.

That morning he teased himself, browsing news sites with pretense of watching the weather and social climate. He was in fact playing a game with himself, seeing how many clicks it took to get to Tara. He went from weather to sports to a pop piece about a soccer player marrying a model, who had once starred in an avant-garde film by a certain director, whose latest film would be about whales. Tara had loved whales and papered her adolescent room with them. Scott spent the rest of the morning happily browsing the various Tara webrings, snapping up every scrap of news. Tara had ordered out recently, from a burger joint Scott decided to patronize that afternoon. Sifters of Tara’s garbage found the regular assortment of maxi pads, no more scares like the pregnancy test found last month. Scott scoffed at their clumsy prying, but acknowledged that he found their info useful.

In the car to work, he switched on the scrambler that let him hear fellow Tarist’s stations. TRRA reported another police crackdown of a Tarist squat on Maple and Kilkenny, a block down from Tara’s current dwelling. Scott had played with the idea of joining other Tarists long ago, but realized he preferred to worship on his own. GRVS took callers describing their favorite Tara moments. An easy first was the press conference which had been Tara’s last public appearance. A construction worker shared Scott’s favorite moment, the time a photographer had caught her reading A Tale of Two Cities on the balcony. Scott had the photo and the book framed in his bedroom. One crank simply screamed “you’re sick!” into the phone until the host hung up. The guest host shot down caller theories that such calls came from Tara herself, there were plenty of young women jealous of Tara’s attention. TARA, the top rated station, called for a moment of silence for this day in history. Ten years ago, Tara had been revealed to them all.

Scott remembered blissfully the exact moment he’d opened the Times and the headline screamed back “ARE YOU THINKING OF THIS GIRL? THOUSANDS ARE.” The phrases “memetic virus” and “idée fixe” stuck out from the rest of the text, but the article rapidly diminished in importance as Scott found himself drawn back to the photo. He had never seen a more perfect photo. It captured the essence of Tara on flat paper, which was as close as most of them would get. The newspaper hastily issued a retraction later that day, but not before thousands of readers saw it and fell in love with Tara Grieves, Scott included.

Another crank caller snidely asked the host to describe Tara’s features.

“You see, it’s people like that,” the host explained, “that just don’t get it. Tara transcends simple physical form. Tara is beautiful, inside and out.”

Scott, like most people, only had a pleasant blur of her face inside his head. No matter how he tried, a few seconds after looking at a picture of Tara, he could no longer place her facial features.

The station led its listeners in the typical wellness prayer for Tara as Scott pulled into work.

Tim, the associate manager, blanched. “Scott. I-I thought you were on–religious leave?”

Scott palmed his back good-naturedly. “Just here to say ‘hi’ Timothy.” He handed Tim his collection of software and a pamphlet on Tara. To Janis he gave his audio books and another pamphlet. Garcia got his electric shaver, Frank his signed copy of a crime novel, Yulia his mother’s antique pins. Tucked within his gifts like little air fresheners were pamphlets and more pamphlets. He caught their worried, sorrowful gazes, knowing internally that they were still earthbound and couldn’t imagine the pleasure of Tarism.

Jeff the manager stopped him in the hall. “You know you’re not allowed to pass your shit out anymore, Scott.”

Scott held up his pile. “Yeah, it’s cool. I just had a few more things to give away.”

Jeff barred the way. “No, it is not, in fact, cool. Get the fuck out of here, moonie.”

Scott shrugged and let the pile drop from his arms. Whispers trailed out after him: “–sign of suicide? I mean, getting rid of all your possessions–” He didn’t hold it against them, it was an easy mistake to make. He wasn’t killing himself, he was shedding his old life.

Scott drove for hours. He stopped at the burger joint on the way. The fries were saltless and pasty, the burger tasted of nothing but the bun, but he was happy. When he finally made the turn onto Kilkenny, it was as if he had uncuffed a wrist. Some pressure he hadn’t even known was there eased up inside his skull, and Scott parked, blissfully uncaring of whether it was a parking space or not.

Yesterday, word had gotten out that security had changed shifts in Tara’s apartment block, which was empty except for her few rooms at the very top floor. The new guard was a transfer from Quantico, and had never been on containment detail before. All Tara’s guards worked with hour-long overlaps, so there would be a time in the afternoon where only the inexperienced would stand between the Tarists and she.

Scott was half-hard as he walked up to the building, but he brandished it with pride. These were his people, and many of them were in varying states of excitement. At least he still had on pants.

The crowd congregated around an obese man who wore Tara’s outfit from August 11, two years ago. His body had been wedged into a pink fitted t-shirt, jean shorts straining at his girth. With a megaphone fashioned from a Tara poster, he lead the group in an upbeat chant.

Scott clandestinely maneuvered around the back of the crowd and around the building. A Tarist had been killed some months ago trying to ascend the garbage chute, but Scott had it on good authority that the fire stairs accessed a window that did not latch. He found, with some frustration, that others had acted on the tip. The line was longer than Splash Mountain. Finally he ascended the fire escape, pulse pounding, in mind of the tale of Rapunzel. He would call Tara from her ivory tower, show her she was loved. The others didn’t matter, for surely she would see that he and he alone loved her correctly.

Once inside, it was only matter of following the press of bodies, letting himself be bobbed along on a stream of humanity. The crush of the crowd around the apartment door made getting to the front no easy task; he had to liberally apply his teeth and elbows to attain a front row seat. An immediate hush fell on the people when they heard that most promising of sounds: a deadbolt sliding back.

The young woman stepped out of the apartment, purse clutched under one arm. She was veiled with an opaque white cloth that draped all the way down to her skinny jeans. She froze, and a Tarist took the opportunity to slam the door shut behind her and bar it with his body. There was the sound of a summer wind as all Tarist took a deep intake of breath through their noses. Scott found vanilla and honeysuckle, as well as an underlying note of sebum and pesto sauce.

She struck out a hand. “Oh God, don’t! Don’t! What is wrong with you people?!”

There was a mixture of yells and murmurs as people assured her of love, their love, undying.

She flicked out a tiny pocket knife. “Get away! Please, just leave me alone! It’s not my fault!”

One intrepid soul snagged the veil from her face, and a vacuum formed as the Tarists breathed a disappointed sigh in unison. The girl with snub nose and hazel eyes staring back at them was not Tara. Disappointment ossified in the pit of Scott’s stomach. He turned and walked, unmoved by the wet crunches of the melee behind him. He stepped over a body wearing a security guard’s uniform and went back the way he came.

His faith had been tested. Had he jumped too soon? Loved too cheaply? Was he no different than these nuts?

Scott’s car had been towed so he walked until dark. Tara had not been there, an implicit lie if not an outright lie. The house had been guarded as if she herself had been in there, a false flag.

Scott had a sudden revelation as he ducked into an alley to avoid the lights of a police car.

It had been a test. He had not passed, but he had not failed either, had he? He had not taken part in destroying the false Tara, as those of more superficial faith had done. Tara had tested his love, but had it been diminished? Scott realized it had only whet his hunger to see her. Now he knew that Tara called to him and him exclusively, testing his mettle above those of his brothers and sisters.

An old crone in Tara’s bathrobe (September, five years ago) opened the door of an abandoned brick factory to him.

Scott smiled at the rabble within. “Children.”

He knew the way forward. He loved Tara.

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Ketch Syndrome

 

ketch

Artist’s rendition, circa 1850

Ketch syndrome is a geographically isolated phenomena occurring in and around Tinder Valley, Colorado. The syndrome has not yet been determined to be completely psychological or physical in nature, as observation of a subject is difficult.

A common cause of the syndrome has not yet been determined, but most reported cases occur after a lengthy hike in Tinder’s Grant trail. Symptoms begin with the onset of complete Anosmia. Within an hour, the subject will be unable to detect even the most pernicious of odors. Later, more extreme symptoms include lost time, anemia, hyporeflexia, labored breathing, and finally skin lesions. Sufferers often complain of the feeling of a weight on their chest and nightmares of being scratched. The skin lesions are the last symptoms to occur and always appear when the patient is terminal. They have been found all over the body but occur most frequently on the scalp, forensic testing has determined that these injuries are not caused by the subject’s nails.

Ketch syndrome gets its name from the “Ketch” or “K’ch”, a word that has been attributed to various native tribes of the area, though both the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations have denied this allegation. The Ketch was depicted in popular illustrations as a polecat with the face of an owl, but with the usual features of thumbs and red eyes. The most commonly occurring variation of the tale is that the Ketch is a creature that lives on the many pines of the valley. The Ketch is said to be both envious and contemptuous of humankind, for it can mimic certain phrases but lacks a greater ability to speak. To avenge this, the Ketch lays in wait for a passerby in a likely tree, dropping onto their shoulders when they stop to rest in its shade. The scalp lesions were attributed to the creatures attempt to get a more comfortable grip with its claws, said to be the length of a human finger and retractable like a cat’s. If too much time has gone by, the Ketch will mimic a distress call and then drop on the unsuspecting rescuer.

The Ketch is invisible to human eyes, so its victims only perceive it as a persistent weight on various parts of the body. The only way to detect the creature was its incredibly foul odor, said to be like rotting flesh. The first symptom was interpreted as the Ketch ramming its tail in the victim’s nostrils to prevent discovery. Once sequestered in a sickbed, the victim becomes a smorgasbord for the Ketch, who will drink freely from the victim’s bodily fluids. Once the victim dies, the Ketch will nest on their corpse until the body is transported, whereing it will flee back to the pines.

Ketch syndrome has not shown any reaction to modern medicine, therapy, or surgical intervention. Ketch syndrome has 100% mortality rate.

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Sudden-onset Pattern Psychosis

Sudden Onset Pattern Psychosis is an extremely rare syndrome that shows no genetic, neurochemical, or physical links as of yet. Afflicted sufferers will contract relatively mild flulike symptoms. After a fever topping out at 110˚, the sufferer will fall into a heavy sleep, reporting unusually vivid dreams the next morning.

The next phase has been dubbed Unconscious Arrangement. The sufferer will attempt to arrange all incidental objects into fixed geometrical patterns without realizing it, one such case by a coworker held that the sufferer bent paperclips into flowers while in conversation.  When pointed out, suffers are often cheerfully dismissive of the habit. Every subsequent instance that they are reminded of their compulsion is met as if for the first time. This is garnished by a perceived lack of control in the logic processes of the brain. Any simple attempts to problem-solve or plan is met with bizarre logical fallacies, i.e. laying a sandwich out in a single layer, because if they stack the ingredients the stack would eventually hit the ceiling.

This leads into the Conscious-compulsive phase. Sufferers will begin a holistic “arrangement” of the world around them, putting a receipt in a certain trashcan, buying produce and then leaving it in a parked car, etc. Sufferers maintain that this is to keep the worldwide “pattern” going, which they perceive themselves as functioning objects within. In this stage sufferers are usually taken by family members or concerned citizens for psychiatric diagnoses. This can be disastrous as most antidepressant medication serves only to eliminate any unsurety on the sufferer’s part, outward symptoms may vanish to the relief of relatives but the subject’s prefrontal cortex shows diminished activity, along with the loss of reflexive control. Sufferers are often diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic depression, which a CAT scan quickly proves false.

The final phase has been dubbed the “mad artist” phase. If the suffer was artistically inclined, they may skip to this phase, forgoing any secondary symptoms. Those that do not show any predilection for artistry consequently develop talents far beyond any previous skill level. The “psycho-canvas”( usually walls in the sufferer’s house or some conveniently nearby flat surface) becomes the ground for their ultimate pattern. Sufferers will use any materials that come to hand: food, bodily fluids, charcoal from burning their personal belongings, etc., to construct an elaborate visual pattern. Thus begins a frenzied rush to write/draw/paint a large mural of the patient’s malaise, including but not limited to: geometric shapes, lines of nonsensical text, portraiture, psychadelia, and simple scribbling. During this phase, the artist attempts to attract as much attention as they can to their work, some have even gone so far as to attempt public installations. The sufferers are no longer subject to reason, brute force, or psychiatric drugs. Death has shown to be the only reliable cessation of the artist. Any suffers attempting public mural are summarily executed. Claims that viewing the mural creates more infectees of Sudden Onset Pattern Psychosis are so far unproven.

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