Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 27): The Wheat and the Chaff
The woman startles, sending a tray of specimen tubes crashing to the floor. She whirls to face me, one hand pressed to her chest. “I told you to wait out there.”
I glare at her. “And I asked what the hell you people are doing.” A small cloud of vapor appears in front of my mouth, reminding me we're in a refrigerator.
I walk toward her, maintaining eye contact. She's at the back of an icebox with nowhere to go, and I have no problem employing a bit of intimidation. Her eyes widen with fear above the surgical mask.
“Listen, Ms. Merlo, I don't know—”
I raise an arm to interrupt her. “Let me guess—you don't know any details about what's going on here. You're simply a lab tech running tests, and anything further is beyond your pay grade. How am I doing?”
She takes a step to one side and slides a gloved hand along the edge of the table behind her. “Accurate. I can't tell you anything.”
“Can't or won't?”
Her panic morphs into something resembling relief. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters! What's wrong with you? Have you seen what happens to the immune that are brought here?”
A flash of guilt passes over her face. “I don't work with the immune. We should go back to the lab.”
“No.” The knowledge I could easily take her down gives me added confidence. “I'm tired of getting the runaround.” I move closer to the table. There are stacks of specimen tubes, solutions, and logbooks. The chart affixed to the wall catches my attention, and I try to make sense of the symbols and notations.
“You called, Ms Bender?” A man's voice comes from behind us.
“Yes. Ms. Merlo seems to have a problem respecting her position here.”
I face the newcomer and realize there are two of them—two burly guards, armed with guns and tasers. I shoot Miss Bender a look. “My position? I have a problem respecting people who suck survivors in with promises of safety only to treat them like lab rats!”
She gasps, managing to look stricken. “We're saving lives here! The work is vital to our survival!”
“Whatever you have to tell yourself so you can sleep at night.”
“That's enough.” The guard to my right steps forward, one hand resting on his taser. “Dr. Kasabian wants to speak with you, Ms. Merlo.”
“That's great because I'd like to talk to him, too.” I glare at Miss Bender and mutter, “Lemming.”
A spark of amusement lights in the guard's eyes. I see it just before he turns around and walks out with his partner, obviously expecting me to follow. And I do because I want answers.
The guards escort me to Garth's office, shutting the door and leaving once I'm inside. Classical music permeates the room from hidden speakers. With his Montblanc, Garth scrawls on papers in a folder and hums along to the music. By all appearances, it could just be another day.
Anger starts to bubble beneath the surface.
Garth holds a hand up. “Wait . . . this is the best part.” With eyes closed, he sways his head, moves a hand in the air, and sounds out parts of the piece as it swells to a crescendo then softens. He finally glances up at me. “Do you like Rachmaninoff?”
My mouth gapes. “You’re asking if I like your taste in music?”
“One must appreciate many things, especially when the world ends.”
“Your world isn’t ending though, is it? Just the poor suckers you people draw in with promises of food, water, and safety.”
Garth tsks, annoyance and challenge in the depths of his sharp gaze. “I always thought you were the smart, docile one, but you remind me very much of your sister—always bucking authority and reducing things to the most simplistic terms.”
I stalk forward and slam my palms on the top of the desk, maintaining eye contact. “Maybe some things are best kept simplistic. It’s a great honor that you think I’m like Katie—she knew what really mattered in life.” I watch him closely, eager to see his reaction to what I’m about to ask. “Does my mother know the true nature of the treatment that’s saving her life? How about the rest of the Kool-Aid-drinking sheeple?”
Garth rises, towering over me, a sudden hot anger radiating from him. His face twists into an ugly mask of rage for a split second before reverting back to his typical benevolent façade. “Why don’t you sit so we can have a civilized conversation?”
I smile benignly. “You want to pretend everything’s all right, that the monster’s in the closet where it belongs? Okay.” Pulling a chair over, I sit facing him across the desk.
Garth sighs, shaking his head and muttering to himself, but he sits and smooths a hand over the front of his dress shirt. There’s a pronounced weariness in his tired-looking eyes I haven’t noticed before. “Marie, ask your questions. I’ll answer what I can, but there are limits to what I’m able to share with you.”
“Does Mom know about the treatments?”
Garth passes a palm over his cropped hair. “No, and please . . . don’t tell her.”
“You’re in luck—Mom and I don’t talk much, and it’s not likely that will change.” My leg bounces up and down, and I take a deep breath before coming out with my next question. “How did this happen?”
“Stick with the easy ones, why don’t you?” He grunts out a humorless laugh and looks to the ceiling.
“Nothing’s easy any more. It probably won’t be for a long, long time.”
His dark eyes meet mine again. “You’re right. Okay . . . well . . . the short answer is we did this to ourselves—not directly or on purpose, of course, but it’s all semantics. I was on the team tasked with creating a biological weapon. We also worked on a cure, but some industrious asshole sold the virus to a terrorist organization before the vaccine was fully tested. The cretins had no idea how to properly handle such a weapon, and it ended up released on foreign soil. Before the CDC and WHO realized what happened, the virus had already reached the United States.
“The CDC began systematically tracking down every known person exposed in order to administer the cure. Reports of confirmed cases over an ever-widening area continued to pour in. We thought it was simply a matter of creating massive amounts of vaccine to inoculate our citizens. We went into full production and finally seemed to be getting a handle on the outbreak . . . and then the first patients inoculated started to relapse. A cluster of them died before we realized what was happening.” He pauses, fiddling with his Montblanc.
My heart hammers. All of this was a terrorist plot gone wrong?
Garth watches the movement of the pen as he continues. “You can only imagine the panic that ensued. After all, we designed the weapon that was loosed upon us. The president and his top advisers went into seclusion, and plans were set in motion to sequester key people and their families in top-secret underground facilities around the country. My team was sent here, and we began working around the clock on a cure.” He shakes his head. “We started taking in immune citizens, offering shelter in exchange for permission to conduct research. Nobody refused. They were terrified by the conditions of our crumbling society.”
“Jesus.” I lean forward, hanging on Garth's every word, each muscle in my body strung tight. “How did it all go so wrong?”
“The research is promising, but time is not on our side. More of our people developed a resistance to the vaccine. Some died, and panic started to set in. Fewer immune were coming in on their own by that point, and search parties were formed to gather more. A colleague discovered an anomaly in the blood of the immune, heralding the creation of a new treatment.”
Though I want and need to know the details about the new treatment threatening the lives of the immune, part of me balks at asking the necessary questions. Familiar panic squeezes my chest. I draw long, deep breaths. Katie is gone, and Max isn't here to talk me down.
Garth sounds far away as my vision tunnels. I clench and unclench my fists and try to regain control. This is not the time for a panic attack. This is not the world for a panic attack.
It's okay, Ro. I'm with you, right here beside you. Always. Katie's voice, even if it only exists in my head, has an instant calming effect. I shake off the crushing fear and take more deep breaths.
“I'm good.” I blink until my sight clears.
Garth sits back in his chair and regards me carefully. “Panic disorder?”
“You handle yourself well.”
I laugh. “Not really, but sometimes there isn't much choice, you know?”
Garth taps a hand on the desk blotter. “I suppose not.”
“Does the president know . . . everything?” This is another question I dread the answer to. How high does the corruption go?
He stares at me for a long moment. “Of course he does. This would be treason otherwise.”
“Selective genocide, anyone?” I laugh humorlessly. “Who gets to decide which people deserve to survive and who has to die to pay for them?”
Garth blanches but recovers quickly, sidestepping my comment. “The sooner we have a cure, the sooner societal healing can begin.”
“’Societal healing’ . . . that has quite a ring to it. More palatable than collateral damage, isn't it?” I ignore his sour look. “How close are you to a cure?”
“Close. So close I'm haunted each day that goes by without a solution. Do you think I wanted to be part of this . . . that I'm not affected by every casualty? If I don't work on this, someone else will—someone who doesn't understand the virus the way I do.” Garth's expression is earnest, and his sorrow appears genuine through the small crack in his façade. “I had a hand in designing her and understand how she dances. I'm certain we can solve the puzzle.”
“God, I hope you're right.” I rub the heels of my hands over my burning eyes and steel myself for the next question. “What is this new treatment, Garth?” The words are spoken so softly, I'm not sure he'll hear me, but I can't bear to say them any louder. The suspicions swirling in my mind might be given life at any moment. I both need to know the truth and dread it in equal measure.
Something happens to Garth as he stares at me across the desk. Outwardly, nothing changes, but a part of him visible in the depths of his eyes goes dead. “Marie . . .” He shakes his head and grabs the Montblanc again, twirling it between his fingers. “Do you really want to know this?”
“No, but I need to.”
“I'm only doing this because you're Nina's daughter, but I don't need to tell you how imperative it is that you keep this to yourself, right?”
“The newest form of the vaccine seems to work in conjunction with blood transfusions from an immune donor. A type and cross-match is necessary beforehand to ensure compatibility. We then combine the appropriate blood with the corresponding version of the vaccine. So far, we've had great success with patients who no longer respond to the initial vaccine.”
I take in his words and replay them a few times. Nothing seems obviously awful. “Okay . . . you take blood from the immune and transfuse it into the sick patients along with the vaccine. Is that all there is to the treatment?”
“The recipient is given a phlebotomy to offset the additional pints of blood received.” Garth watches the ever-twirling pen.
“Is there anything else you need from the immune?”
“What aren't you telling me? Blood donation isn't so awful, is it? I'm sure most people would be happy to give.”
Garth shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Do you know anything about transfusions?”
“The human body contains approximately ten pints of blood. If you donated before the virus, they would extract one pint and the required recovery time between transfusions would be eight weeks.”
“Okay . . .”
“Our needs far exceed those guidelines.”
My mind flies to the vivid image of Eric with a half-dead Andrea draped over his shoulder. He brought blood with him to give her transfusions. Her skin was pale, arms littered with bruises and needle marks.
Eric's words from that day whirl through my mind. These bastards keep taking blood from the immune until there's not enough left to sustain life.
“Dear God.” I rise from the chair, tears welling in my eyes. “You're sucking them dry so your people can have their blood.”
“Certain blood types are in great demand. We do our best.”
“Do your best? Do you hear yourself?” I drag clawed fingers through my hair, reveling in the pain when my nail snags a few strands. My heart pounds, pain radiating in the center of my chest as shock and anger wage war inside.
My mother lives because others were divested of their lifeblood.
“No!” The chair overturns as I rush past it toward the door.
Knowledge awakens inside me, ugly and bitter. Maybe I've been deluding myself or maybe I had too much faith in humanity, but there's no denying the truth any longer.
I'm not immune.
The only way to save my own life is to steal someone else's.
A light breeze stirs, and wheat fronds whisper around me. I strain to hear their music, praying there's a message, something, to direct me.
I'm all cried out. My eyes are red, raw, and burning.
“Marie . . .” James comes up behind me, his boots crunching over flattened stalks. He rests his hands on my shoulders. “You've been sitting here for hours.”
I'm curled in a ball in the middle of the wheat. It reminds me of hiding out in the sunflowers on my trek across Maine. I was searching for answers then, too—wondering what would become of the world. I'm still looking for answers though I'm not feeling very optimistic at the moment.
I ignore James.
“Marie.” He strokes my hair gently.
It's Max's hand, Max's touch I need.
“Will you at least tell me what's wrong? You flew out of Garth's office like a madwoman. I brought you here, gave you privacy . . . I just want to help. Let me.” His voice is earnest, pleading.
I lower my head, pressing my hands tight to my skull as if that might keep it from exploding. For the first time, I notice the stiffness in my limbs and numbness beneath my dampened backside. “You can't help.”
“Try me.” James plunks down beside me, more stems snapping to make way for his large frame. He places a hand on my knee. “Please.”
“I'm going to die.”
“We're all going to die someday.”
“I'm going to die sooner than most.”
I breathe deeply, the scent of damp earth reminding me of Mamie's garden. Soon, I'll be with the rest of my family where I should have been to begin with. “I'm not immune.”
“Perhaps not, but that no longer has to be a death sentence. The new treatment—”
I interrupt him. “I'm not having the treatment.”
James' hand tightens on my knee. There's a long pause during which the only sound is the wheat shifting and murmuring around us.
“May I ask why?”
“Garth told me how they’re curing people, and it doesn't even come close to passing my standard of ethics.”
“You'd rather perish?”
“Are you receiving the treatment?” I ask, snapping at him, a challenge in my tone.
I lift my head and stare at James, incredulous. “You're what?”
Redness blooms across his cheeks, and his gaze flicks away from mine. “Immune, Marie.”
“Why haven't they harvested you, then? Not the right blood type?” I can't hold back the snipe.
“There are others . . . in positions of importance.” He sounds embarrassed, as he should.
“Jesus Christ. This just keeps getting better.”
“You do realize the treatments will continue even if you refuse to receive them.”
“Of course I do! It's a matter of being able to live with myself. How could I go on—breathe, laugh, love, have fun, face myself in the mirror—knowing someone was put in the ground to make it happen?”
Now James regards me with fire. “You’re a remarkable woman. Brave and selfless. The world needs more of you.” He cups my cheek. “Promise you’ll think about it.”
I look into his eyes and see Max. When I die, I’ll be leaving him behind. The thought causes a jagged pain to split me in two, and I gasp from the sudden violence of it. Innocent faces float before me—Ali, Tek, Andrea, Grace, Max—and I know my sacrifice is justified even if they have to mourn me.
The immediate relief that comes over James’ face confirms I’ve done the right thing. If he fears I’ll tell others about the treatment or that there’s no chance of me receiving it myself, he might feel the need to intervene. I trace the metal collar around my neck with a finger, its cool hardness reminding me I’m a prisoner . . . for now.
“Good. I’ll try not to pressure you too much.” James stands and offers me his hand, helping me up. He slings an arm around my shoulders. “Beautiful here, isn’t it?”
I look out over the lush, green valley. Thick mists of fog obscure its middle, clinging close to the ground and creating a ghostly shroud around bushes and vegetation. Subtle watercolors stain the horizon in the palest blues, pinks, and yellows. The sky is often at its most breathtaking after a storm, and this one is no exception.
“Shall we head back?”
The wheat to my left rustles and snaps. James draws his gun and pushes me behind him. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
And just when I think this life and its choices can’t be any more painful or difficult, my knees go weak as a familiar figure emerges.
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook
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