The world would not remember my name. It would never have the chance to stop and catch its breath, collect its thoughts and figure out with which patient it had all begun. Cara Lindley. Thirty-one years old. Born in Kern County, California. Daughter of Meredith Lindley. Granddaughter of Meryem Nurzhan. Editor at the Valley Weekly. Aspiring novelist. Typhoid Fucking Mary.
But this is not the beginning. In hindsight the past comes into greater focus. And the events that led to the horror in which I now find myself are made inescapably clear.
It had been a day with no sunrise, the kind where the sky turns from black to simply a lighter shade of gray, and the rain falls in a gentle drizzle that leaves you dry just after it’s touched you.
There had been a red light at Wilshire and 17th. I stepped on my brakes, but didn’t slow down. And it was only a split second before I entered the intersection that I realized my foot had in fact never moved to the brake pedal.
The Lexus smashed into my passenger side before I could even register what was happening. We skidded together across the intersection and I was hit by a Beemer going the opposite direction. My head split the window as my car spun counter-clockwise like that bone from the beginning of 2001 and came to a swerving halt alongside the crumpled nose of the Lexus.
Flashbulbs popped, and the last thought through my head before I blacked out was that in a couple weeks I’d be getting a ticket in the mail for running a red light.
“Ground control to major bummer,” I laughed, and the world went dark.
I came to at Santa Monica hospital. Well shit, I thought to myself. I’d been on my way here anyway for my weekly tests.
It was a large room with a window built into the domed ceiling behind which a chorus of observers looked on. Some took notes, others merely watched, hands cupped over their mouths.
If I focused I could see myself multiplied in the arched windows. Reflected copies, each with its own eggnog skin and sandy blonde hair, gazing out from the rectangular panels as if looking up at me from within glass caskets.
I could make out my boyfriend Simon looking in through the large window to my right, his black hair a nest of bedhead and the kraken tattoo on his arm disappearing beneath the sleeves of a Buckaroo Banzai t-shirt.
Beautiful Simon, faithful to a girl he could never even sleep with. Too scared of catching her virus even to use protection. I never understood why he didn’t leave.
I smiled, but he made no indication that he saw. So I waved at him, but my hand remained at my side. That’s odd, I thought, and called Simon’s name.
My voice didn’t leave my throat. And it sank in. As it had in the car, when my foot hadn’t moved to the brake, my body was failing me.
A machine beeped at my left. And I was overcome with terror. So was this how it would be? Would I be completely aware yet unable to move or speak? Was it the same with my organs? My brain telling my lungs to work, my lungs unresponsive? My heart? They would think me gone, and they would pull the plug.
Panic overwhelmed me. And I wanted so badly to have Simon in that room beside me. All I could think was how much I needed to be held. That, and I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. At Simon’s side stood Dr. Piotr Arutyunyan, a seventy-five-year-old Russian man with a wedged nose like a doorstop and hair gone white from age and stress. I watched through the glass as he explained the situation to Simon. I knew exactly what he was saying. I’d heard it myself a month earlier as I looked in at my mother on this very bed.
“Is my mother in pain?” I had asked him then.
“You’ve known me my whole life, Piotr. Call me Cara.”
“Cara, I can’t say for certain,” he’d said, his Russian accent making a d of every r.
“You can’t say? Aren’t you an expert? You were my grandmother’s partner for how long?”
There was sadness in his smile. “Since long before you were born. Miss Lindl- Cara, it is precisely because of your grandmother’s work on this disease that you should know better than most what it does. Imagine your body essentially dead, its most basic autonomic functions controlled by machines fooling the disease into thinking you are still alive, keeping it at bay. Imagine what that must be like for your mother. She may not know who she is, or who you are. She may not be able to express her pain, Cara. But it is my belief that at this moment she can feel it as much as you or I.”
He’d been right, if not about physical pain then about the other kind. Physically, there was only numbness now. But inside, in the spaces between the guts, where the real feeling happens, I hurt.
Piotr had looked at me on that day with fatherly concern. “It will not take long for your mother’s disease to take full hold of her entire body once she… once she passes.”
I’d felt my face redden at his calling it my mother’s disease. Fuck you, I thought. Like it’s hers alone. Like this fucking thing hasn’t already killed thousands. Like thousands – hell, maybe tens of thousands – aren’t infected at this very moment. In a few months will you call this my disease?
“… in her brain within fifteen seconds of death, swiftly and with precision so to stop its spread and prevent the rest of the body from being corrupted,” Piotr continued. He’d been talking even as I’d had my mental freakout. I let his words sink in.
“So,” I said, “We pull the plug… and then we pull the trigger?”
People came and went. Checked vitals. Took notes. The doctors looked like astronauts in their Hazmat suits.
I saw my best friend Zooey stand at the window and look in at me. She must have postponed her ticket to India. That’s friendship, I thought, and hoped she didn’t have to pay too much to change her flight.
My eighty-six-year-old grandmother came too, a nurse from the home at her handlebars, her canyoned skin still as olive as on the day she’d left Kazakhstan as a child.
She gazed through the glass and reached up to touch the red feather she wore braided into her gray hair. She shook her head and her lips moved. It sure as hell looked to me like she said, “it never ends.” It had been mere weeks since she’d looked through that same glass at her only child.
Then the nurse wheeled her away past Piotr, who watched soberly as my grandmother turned a corner and slipped from view without ever acknowledging him. I could have sworn I saw him sigh.
I slept and dreamed I was soaring over forests and wide-open fields with a sleeping child in my arms. All my life I’d had these dreams, every couple years. Dreams that I had wings, that I had a son.
Now the boy opened his eyes and smiled, and my heart was filled with a love I’d never known in my waking life. Then some machine beeped and I snapped awake to find that nope, I was still in that fucking hospital bed.
My heart ached at the thought of the world I was losing. My mind shook with fear, knowing that any day I would know the unknowable.
My thoughts dwelled on my regrets. Thirty-one years old and I had so many. All the books I’d never read. The movies I’d never seen. I knew nothing about Rodin. I’d never been to Greece or seen the colossal works of human ingenuity. The pyramids. Stonehenge. The Moai. I was going to die without having learned to play an instrument. My time on this planet had been wasted. I would never be a mother.
In my next life, I thought, I won’t make the same mistakes. In my next life things will be different.
I heard the muffled voices of protesters outside. “Euthanize them!” they cried. “Sacrifice thousands to save billions! Kill them! Kill them all!”
My body did the job for them. It died a piece at a time until there was no longer any delusion that my hands were waving, that my toes were wiggling, that my lungs were breathing. Catheters and tubes sucked waste from my body. The whir and pumping of machines was a constant sound in the room, so that after so long that too faded into the background. All I could taste was the acrid flavor of earwax.
I’d told Piotr that I didn’t want to be vegetative, so it came to this. The bearing of the bad news. It broke my heart to see Simon fall apart, to see him stumble against the wall of the hallway, to see him cry. He raised his hand to the glass, and I reached out to him. My arm stayed put.
It was a matter of minutes, maybe hours. The whole scene had an immensity to it, a theatricality. The spacemen walked into the room in what felt like slow motion. Someone could have been playing opera on the soundtrack and it wouldn’t have been out of place.
I saw the arc of an arm to the console, the movement of a hand over the controls. I thought there’d be more to it than that. More to operate, maybe two keys turned at once. Instead there was the gentle flipping open of a small Plexiglas shield, the downward snap of a red power switch, and the wheeling away of the oxygen tank. The flight of a white sheet above the bed, held on either side by an astronaut, and its descent to just below my collarbone as my heart rate softly slowed.
Simon never left. Even as the switch was flipped. Even as the plug was pulled. Even as the sound of a gun cocking rang out.
The sudden absence of whirring and pumping felt like I’d instantly gone deaf. It was a silence so deep, so pure, that I shivered. And that shiver must have been real. It must have been visible because Simon began pounding on the glass and shouting that I’d moved.
“We can’t unplug her!” he cried. “She’s not in pain! Look! She sees me! She knows what we’re doing!”
The nurses held him back from the door to the operating room. Piotr too put his arm on Simon’s with a clearly unexpected strength.
Overhead the audience in the observation room scribbled in their notepads. I was a specimen in a jar. The sucking of the catheters stopped, and it was as though with their final suction they took whatever remained of me.
The sensation was inexplicably familiar. Wooden, musty, as if my body were some forgotten antique in an attic. I could feel the lack of operation, the lack of internal movement.
This is it, I thought. This is the moment I die.
Memories came over me then with such speed and significance that one could say my life flashed before my eyes: my mother’s voice, the smell of my grandmother’s cigarette smoke. My schoolmates, the crunch of tanbark beneath my feet, the taste of straciatella, camping on the beach, watching movies in the dark, dressing for prom.
The fluorescents above me grew dark around the edges, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. At the far end, against a backdrop of milky white vapor, I could make out a shape, abstract and in motion. Was I dreaming? Was this really happening?
I felt my body arc upward as if pulled by a sharp hook. I had the distinct impression that I was lifting up off the bed. This is weird, I thought.
The lights above me drew closer, brighter. The walls around me seemed shorter. I then saw below me and became lightheaded at the sight of my own body on the hospital bed.
No way! I thought. Was this an out-of-body experience? Beams of distorted light seemed to shoot from the tops of everyone’s heads. Each person had one, thin and translucent like a vertical ribbon of heat above a summer blacktop, or the wake of a bullet shot through gas. And each beam seemed to connect its respective person to something unseen through the walls or beyond the ceiling of the hospital. Even my body on the bed had one, though hers seemed aimed right at me like the beam of a flashlight.
So long had it been since I’d looked in a mirror, I was stunned to see my body now. Was that really me? The decay had spread to cover most of what flesh was visible. I wore my pale skin like a wet t-shirt. It clung translucent to my bones and left no detail of my inner workings to the imagination.
I watched as I lay slipping away, as the beeping of the monitor grew long and unbroken, as the flatline rang like a tuning fork in key with the aria in my mind and my corpus became a corpse. And at that moment the beam connecting us disappeared.
One of the astronauts approached my bed and lifted a heavy black object to my temple. A handgun. Simon turned away. He knew what was coming. So did I. Fifteen seconds now. It would take fifteen seconds, Piotr had said. What could I do?
At that moment I heard a voice. No, I felt it. Come back, it said. And before I knew it, I was being drawn back toward my body. Was this possible? Could I reenter my body? Would that bring it back to life?
I stopped myself. I don’t want this, I thought. I don’t want to be in my body when it gets a bullet in the head!
I suppose I floated backwards then, because my body pulled away. The spacesuited doctor beside it pulled away. The gun in his hand pulled away.
I could see Piotr in the next room, no, I could perceive him, watching through a window with his hand over his mouth. I could perceive Simon’s breathing, shallow and racked with pain.
And then something truly bizarre happened. Just like that, I saw a thirteen-year-old Simon take a rock to the chest intended for a girl he liked, saw the pitcher run off angrily back to her house up the road and sulk. Simon’s crush turned and walked away without a word and I saw him cry there on the grass, doubled over in pain, clutching his chest. This was weird. Why the hell was I seeing this? What was happening to me?
An instant later I was back in the hospital, hovering formlessly in the air. I turned my attention back to my lifeless body in the bed just as its eyes opened, black and furious, its face contorted into a misshapen prosthesis devoid of either light or life. This was the disease. This was the Fever.
The monstrous stranger tore out from its restraints with a speed and strength I’d never seen. A speed and strength I’d never had when that body was mine. The gun fired, and smoke rose from the muzzle in a long horizontal spiral as the weapon sailed across the length of the room with the spaceman’s arm hanging off of it, fingers still wrapped around the trigger, clicking wildly, absently. Bullets ricocheted off the walls. The fluorescents blew apart overhead. Glass and sparks fell to the floor like rain. The arm spun so that the final bullet punctured the glass wall and a second later the appendage itself hit the window, smashing it into a million pieces that split themselves like cells and flew out in all directions.
By then the creature’s bonds were no more, the Hazmat suits shredded and their occupants exposed, the arteries of their necks strung like a cat’s cradle between their bodies and the jaw of the undead. Blood covered Cara Lindley’s mouth as though she were a little girl playing with her mother’s lipstick. She howled like some mad animal, and in that moment I did feel some sort of recognition about her.
She galloped across the room, the blood vessels between her teeth snapping and recoiling back into the necks from which they came. The two Hazmat guys shrieked and clutched at the fountains erupting from atop their shoulders.
The body leapt gracefully through the destroyed glass wall into the hallway and lifted Simon with one hand. He froze in her grip. “Cara?” he said.
She brought his throat to her mouth. He grabbed her on either side of the head before she could bite and forced her back, dug his thumb into her left eye and pressed hard until the socket ran with thick black sludge. A loud shot was heard and Cara convulsed violently. She dropped Simon to the floor, where he crabwalked backwards and watched as stun probes pulsed and zapped in her chest.
Simon got to his feet and ran past Piotr, who dropped the Taser to the floor and followed. Security guards burst through the door to the hallway as Simon and Piotr escaped. Gunfire poured across my body’s chest and legs, punctured her breasts, her belly. She shivered, but moved like a marionette toward the guards, whose cartridges emptied and ejected to the floor. They reloaded in time to die.
And I, unsure of whether I was dead or alive, moved with the action, my perspective similar to floating, with the added awareness of things beyond me in all directions. I found I could pass through walls and windows, perceiving the materials that made up the hospital, the wood and insulation, concrete and rebar.
Down the corridor Cara moved. She ripped the Taser probes from her chest, let the bullet wounds bleed, slew everyone in her way. I watched as she threw a nurse through another glass wall into an OR where a man in a Hazmat suit looked up at the worst possible moment and was taken down by the corpse he’d been about to kill. His carotid shot blood across the room in quick ejaculatory spurts like a squirt gun filled with Pinot noir.
I watched as the dead rose up one by one from the tile floor and moved down the corridors as an army. A herd.
It went this way into the reception area, the stairwell, the lobby. Second and third waves of security aimed for the heads and managed to blow apart a handful, but still the decapitated bodies rushed forward blindly and these guards too were overwhelmed. Every man or woman down meant another corpse resurrected. By the time the monsters spilled out into the street there were dozens of them. And my body led the way.