Chapter 2 – Sleepless Night
(2044, January through June)
Gale force winds and thunder, garbage cans crashing over, objects slamming into walls and fences, and Ira slept through all of it like a kitten cuddling at his mother’s breast. But not me. My mind and heart were on fire.
Chi followed me, meowing for treats. It was cold downstairs. The angry wind forced its way between door and window cracks. I grabbed Ira’s ratty old sweater. The first present I had given him. It was the only thing left from that period of his life, perhaps a small reminder of how far he’d come since the penitentiary. I barely knew him then. We had dated about a year. He told me he worked for an internet research corporation, a consumer watch dog group that kept an eye on the defense department, it had some crazy name I forcibly forgot.
There was never any question. I was instantly in love and hopelessly naive about human nature. Turned out he was part of a watch dog group of hackers who stole classified information and sold it to reporters for a premium. To him it was noble, the people had a right to know and he had a right to make a living. Really, it was closest to intellectual prostitution although he saw himself as a twenty first century Robyn Hood. He could have been building something great instead of hunting down and exploiting government weakness. But who was I to judge? I knew his heart was good and his intentions were pure. And I loved him. He loved me. So I waited.
We avoided talking about it. And if we had to refer to that period there was a code, words that lessened the pain or importance for both of us. Anything to make it less real than it was. Usually if I referred to it, I said, “when you lived in the country.” He usually said, “during that time.”
When I was hired at Digibio, they ran a background check. Nothing came up in the preliminary. A month later they revoked access to anything but the chlorophyll research lab and the cafeteria. But it didn’t really bother me.
The tea kettle was singing. Only one bag of Chamomile left, hopefully it would help put me in a coma. And I could wake tomorrow discovering it had all been just a horrible nightmare.
The lights browned. The drawer had only three emergency candles left from the previous storm which ended two weeks prior. It had lasted thirty five days straight and the power had consistently gone out during peak hours. According to the weather man another hurricane was due to hit North Carolina. But other than historic value there was nothing there. Both Carolinas were dead, the states didn’t have money for scrims and except for folklore about people surviving off the land in the forest, there wasn’t a soul within a hundred miles of New York or D.C. And now all that was left was D.C. There were reports of a smattering of survivors in Seattle but the numbers were low.
I walked to the sofa and stared out the window, drinking tea. Chi sat on my lap. The rain was fierce and reminded me of New York, in my mother’s old brownstone. There had been a very bad storm when I was ten. We had both woken for different reasons. The thunder and lightening had cast shadows of monsters on the wall scaring me out of the room. While Mom contended with a real beast. She was setting out buckets all over the living room to catch the water oozing out of the fissures and cracks in the ceiling. Later I found out she had been afraid the whole damn roof was going to cave in on us, but at the time she pretended it was a game. A fun thing to do together. She had me searching for bowls, buckets, and hats until each little fissure was represented by its counterpart on the worn hardwood floor. And when a bucket would fill, she would grab one of the mongrel cups or bowls from my loot while pouring the buckets contents into the kitchen sink and then dutifully replacing them.
But even though she presented a calm rational exterior I knew something was very wrong. And I remember admiring her. She was fearless, capable and godlike. Nothing could harm me with her protection. She was able to keep the world away with her brilliant mind and convert anyone in her circle of influence to her point of view.
But that night I saw panic when she didn’t know I was watching. It was complicated seeing it and not wanting to see it. So I chose to believe the buckets were a game, knowing it was a protective lie. A lie affirming her love for me.
The street lights flickered in the rain. Some of the UV scrims down the block looked as though they had been sliced by a colossal box cutter. They flapped in the wind like serpent shaped kites.
D.C. was tolerable. It was cleaner than New York and had a much more reliable and quick acting body pick up service unlike the Corner Hut Drop Off Centers of New York, which were always teeming with mutant flies and reeked of decaying flesh no matter how often the workers cleaned them out. It was an ineffectual system and a health hazard. But you hardly ever saw the dead on the streets like you did here in D.C., even if they didn’t stay long on the walk ways you were still confronted with them daily. Maybe it was a bit healthier but I preferred New York. It felt more like an old city, with people doing all different sorts of things besides just working for the government or on some government related project. More than anything it was my connection to a personal history I missed. Even if New York barely resembled the one of my youth. Even if it never snowed anymore and the winters felt like warm fall days from childhood. I knew it. Somewhere under its fading, wilting petals the stem was the same.
And despite the elaborate scrim maze providing the best UV protection in the world (or so we were told by our government) I had preferred shabby New York. If only I could have gotten my mother to move. But that was like asking lead to turn into gold. And even though it got tiresome always wearing a protection suit or carry a UV umbrella or coating my skin with titanium dioxide which made me and my mom break out like hormonal teenagers if we so much as looked at the stuff, she would hear nothing of the virtues of my new city. She desperately loved all that was left of New York.
On the steps of the apartment building across the street a black shape moved. It was big enough to be a person but could have been a box or a piece of furniture left out for trash pick-up which had caught in the gale force wind, but most likely it was one of the infected. A crack of lightening lit the street clearly and I saw the woman. Skeleton Plague. Aptly named for the visual state it left its victims in – their skin and fat tissues were literally cannibalized by their bodies immune system and the results were a horrifying sight – skin turned paper white, taught and veiny, held up by the jagged tent poles of their bones.
The government said Skeleton Plague was communicable, but it was an auto immune disease. The scientific community was still debating its genesis and treat-ability, but that was it. We knew something was turning white blood cells into cannibalistic machines, whether it was UV-B, UV-A rays or some other solar radiation mixed with pollution was the only question. There was always a new outbreak during solar flares and there had never been any evidence of it being contagious, but people were afraid and the CDC had decided early on it was best to treat it like all the other plagues that had come down the pike and keep its victims quarantined. Those that got it generally spent a lot of time outside and didn’t alter their behavior during solar flare warnings or relied only on the city scrims to protect them. The woman had probably escaped from quarantine in a vein attempt to see her family one last time, but they wouldn’t open the door for her.
In the next crack of lightening I saw her convulsing. She was in the last throws of life. I called the health department and a few minutes later I saw a hazmat team take her body away. No fanfare, no ceremony. Life reduced to inconvenient garbage. It hadn’t always been like that. I could almost remember a different time. Mom told me crazy stories about her childhood and what seemed like an Edenic period at the turn of the century. I never really believed her until I was in college and studied history.
When I first started dating Ira I brought him to Columbia to meet my mom for lunch. We decided to stay afterward to see a documentary she was showing for her sociology class. Ira and I both burst into laughter after just a few minutes of the film. It looked so ridiculously naive, there biggest worry was crime. What was it? A thousand people dying a year from gun violence? Something remarkable like that. I couldn’t believe it was real and mom nearly kicked us out because some of the supposedly “shocking” statistics being thrown out about the death rate and natural disaster escalation seemed like a statistic seen on one good day in 2040. A year? It was so shocking I was surprised the rest of the class wasn’t rolling on the floor in stitches. But mom didn’t agree and it took a while for Ira to live down the incident and make up for his “insensitive behavior.” I had been the one making all the noise but, being her daughter, it was OK for me.
His saving grave was his Jewishness. No way mother would have forgiven him if he were a gentile. Not that she was religious. Try the exact opposite. She passionately hated any and all organized religions and poo-pooed all forms of spirituality. So the emphasis on being Jewish always struck me as bizarre. She explained her obsession as a desire to keep the genetic lineage alive. Why that was important in my case was silly since I couldn’t bare children, nor could more than half of all New Yorkers due to our parents and our own, radiation or UV exposure, but she kept her hopes up.
When I was a teenager my rebellious phase included going to temple with my orthodox friend Rachael. You’d think I was found plotting to kill the Pope. Even then she probably wouldn’t have been so angry because she hated the Pope as much as all religious leaders, to her they were devils poisoning minds and using fear to enslave the masses. I got a six hour lecture on the first day about the evils of organized religion and a history lesson about the estimated quarter of the women’s population of Europe who were brutally murdered by the Catholic church during the Dark Ages. The next day was a four-hour lecture on the raping, killing and pillaging of the matriarchal temples of the original Jewish people (the temples were dedicated to Astarte and later, in an obvious political move, she was turned into the demon Astoreth in the bible) by the followers of Jehovah who later became modern Jews. Then came the lecture about the slaughter of Christians and Jews by Muslims and the rise of terrorism in the Middle East at the turn of the century where tens of thousands were murdered in God’s name. She was sure to point out the irony that they were all fighting over the same God, Jehovah simply called a different name by each of the three major western religions.
The next week was devoted to, the Hindus and other “Pagan” religions who didn’t fight over the politics or names of Gods because to them, “all Gods are one,” so she told me if I was going to study any religion the only kind in her opinion worth its salt were the shamanistic traditions of either old Europe or the Americas. But as far as she knew all those teachings had been wiped out by genocide and political warfare. So being a shaman was a dangerous business and she didn’t condone that either. Best to stay with science, the functional universe and the now. Religion was too messy, spirituality too dodgy and philosophy too abstract to be useful. These feelings Miriam claimed came from studying sociology. But I don’t think the cause of religion was helped when her father the Rabbi walked out on her orthodox mother who later denounced Jehovah as a God who only cared for selfish men.
So in my family God was a dirty word used to divide families and punish mothers. I couldn’t help picking up a distaste for Him after watching my favorite biology professor’s research project shut down by the university because of pressure from Jessie and Sandy Applegates, Wrath of God, inc. Biological waste was used in some of the experiments and this meant there was some fetal tissue. Hordes of Fundamentalist Christian zealots picketed and screamed for months on Campus. The University had been pretty good about ignoring them until one of them strapped a bomb to his back and blew up the lab.
The Wrath of God, inc. denounced the suicide bomber once the University slapped a lawsuit on them and of course they weaseled out of it because they practically owned the U.S. They were the biggest religion in the world, what was left of it anyway. My mother called them, “a twisted Hip-Hop carnival of Christ.” They made me sick and if mom wasn’t enough to turn me against religion, their very existence, shut, locked and buried any religious curiosity in me.