March 11, 2002
What are you thinking?
That this is unreal. I feel like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale.
A wise man once said, ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.’
How reassuring. And who was this genius?
He said something else, something I think you might appreciate.
Go ahead. I promised an open mind, and I intend to keep that promise, whatever it takes.
So, what else did Einstein say?
‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’
“Doctor, are you busy?”
I looked up from the stack of discouraging reports on my desk and leaned back in my uncomfortable ergonomic chair, rubbing at the cramped muscles in my neck. Susan, one of the younger nurses in the pediatric wing, stood in the doorway. She had arrived two years ago with no medical experience, but a driving desire to help out in any way she could. Quickly deciding that I was not being treated with the proper respect, she had set herself up as my personal secretary and assistant and had since proved herself invaluable.
“Not any more than usual, Susan. What have you got for me?”
Susan glided from the doorway to stand in front of my desk, her long black braid swinging behind her. Though it was only a few steps to cross, she still managed to move with the effortless grace of a dancer. She handed me a manila file and I skimmed it while she answered.
“A new patient, or possibly not. The roundup picked him up in East District, and the two interns that found him insist he was suffering from advanced stages of The Virus. He apparently had to be carried to the ambulance, fighting them in his fevered delirium, and they feared he would be dead before they reached the hospital. However, the boy currently sitting in your waiting room looks perfectly healthy to me, if a bit pale. I normally wouldn’t bother you with this, but since he was reported as a Virus carrier regulations require that he be checked by an expert. Do you want me to just send him home?”
“If he has a home to go back to,” I replied absently, perusing the initial report from the ambulance team. Too many kids found in the weekly roundups turned out to be orphans, especially from the East District. “This report certainly indicates all the symptoms. Fast heart rate, irregular breathing, high fever, hallucinations.” I flipped through the thin stack of papers. “Did they take a blood sample?” I asked, unable to find the usual readout of a blood test result. Blood, after all, was where The Virus lived and thrived, slowly breaking down and replacing the hosts cells until the victim could no longer maintain a high enough oxygen level to survive. Blood tests were a standard procedure of any roundup operation. Without that test, the initial symptoms could just indicate a bad flu or allergy, a similarity that had cost countless numbers their lives.
“It’s not in there?” Susan leaned over the desk to look through the file. She frowned. “I think I had better have a talk with those two. Misdiagnosing The Virus is one thing, but not following through with procedure? Sorry I bothered you with this, Doctor, I’ll just go tell the boy he can go before giving…” – she glanced at the file – “Ramon and Teri a little talking-to.”
She started to leave, the look on her face making me feel a little sorry for Ramon and Teri – I had seen that look directed at me after more than one missed meal – but I called her to stop a moment. I needed a break from this monotonously unrevealing research, and the boy had obviously been ill from something when he was picked up.
“Go ahead and send the boy in, I want to be sure he’s okay before we let him go. And Susan, go easy on the interns, would you? For me?”
She harrumphed at me, but winked to indicate that she was only kidding. She sighed dramatically, “Yes Doctor, if you insist.”
“My name. It’s Kate, remember? You don’t have to stand on formality when we’re alone in my office.”
“Whatever you say, Doctor,” she replied, swishing out the door. I smiled, wondering how I would have survived the last few months without Susan’s constant breath of fresh air. She had just passed out of view around the doorframe when I realized I didn’t know the boy’s name. Before I could ask, however, Susan’s voice reached me from down the corridor.
“His name is Jason, by the way.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but the boy who walked through my door a minute later was not it. For one thing, Jason was older than I had imagined, maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I noticed immediately in the way that people of my diminutive stature often do that he was already considerably taller than my own five feet and two inches. He was pale to the point of whiteness, causing his crimson lips and dark eyelashes to stand out against his skin. The contrast was so striking that it was a few moments before I discerned that his short wavy hair was not in fact dusty brown, but pure gray.
Belatedly aware that I was staring, I smiled at him and asked him to take a seat. Jason smiled back warily. I was used to talking with younger patients, though pediatrics technically covered through age 18, and I swiftly switched mental gears to a more mature introduction.
“Hello Jason,” I said, holding out my hand, “My name is Dr. Katherine Morales, but all my patients just call me Dr. Kate. First, let me apologize for any hassle you might have been put through today. I assure you the roundup team only did what they felt was necessary for your health and safety.”
He seemed to relax a bit, probably thankful to be treated his age. I loved Susan dearly, but she tended to coo like a mother hen over every child that walked through the door, and Jason struck me as very mature for his age.
“It’s okay,” he shrugged, “It’s happened before.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Allergy,” he said, and shrugged again. Apparently not much of a talker. Thinking of some of the doctors I knew, I decided I liked him.
“How are you feeling now? Any pain? Shortness of breath?”
“No, I’m fine.” I finished the visual examination I had been performing and sat back in my chair with a quiet sigh, once again rubbing at the knot in the right side of my neck.
“Jason, I believe you, and though I must admit you look perfectly healthy I’d like to make absolutely certain before you leave. It’s our policy to screen every patient for The Virus, even those brought in with a broken leg or concussion, just as a precautionary measure. I’m sure you can understand our reasoning. I’m going to recommend that you go down for a blood sample and that you remain at the hospital until the results come back clean. That might mean spending the night, as our labs are currently pressed to their limits. Would that be okay with you?”
While I was talking, Jason’s eyes had been canvassing my small office, his gaze lingering alternately on the single antique desk lamp, the curtain-less window letting in the last few rays of indirect light from the reflective face of the building across the street, the watercolor prints of Yosemite that my sister had painted on her last hiking trip, and finally settling on the poster I had tacked up next to the overflowing bookcase. It depicted a blown up photo of an indistinct UFO hovering over a blurry green forest with the words “I WANT TO BELIEVE” printed in bold white letters at the bottom. It was battered and worn, one corner torn off, the only souvenir I had kept from college. I’d been considering taking it down now for months, but I never seemed to get around to it.
Jason slowly smiled as he looked at the poster, and when he finally turned his attention back to me I had the strangest feeling that I was looking at a different person. He seemed older, assured, with a strength and vitality it didn’t seem I could have missed earlier. I rubbed my eyes, telling myself I needed to get more sleep, and sure enough when I opened them again he was once again a relatively normal teenage boy. Unfortunately, his eyes had discovered and latched onto the small medal hanging on the wall behind my desk, the one Susan insisted that I keep up in a place of honor. To my surprise and embarrassment, he read the inscription out loud.
“Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes. ‘And they who bettered life on earth by new-found mastery.’ Dr. Morales? The Dr. Morales, who four years ago, fresh out of med school, developed the only known anti-Virus currently in existence, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine?” His eyes were wide with admiration and I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair, acknowledging his questions with a nod. His eyes danced back to the poster.
“As a doctor, I would have though you’d go more for Scully’s point of view rather than Mulder’s,” he said, apparently expecting an answer. Grateful for the distraction, I answered honestly.
“A doctor, yes, but I was raised to keep an open mind. It’s one thing to disbelieve in things you can’t see, but Scully had a habit of ignoring evidence that was right in front of her face.”
“So what is it that you want to believe in, Dr. Kate Morales?”
I don’t know why I answered the way I did. His question caught me off guard, and it was too close to the fears that had been plaguing me for months, ever since it had become apparent that the Virus was mutating and all our efforts to contain it continued to fail. I was working day and night, testing and analyzing blood sample after blood sample. When I did sleep, it was only to wake sweating from nightmares in which I was drowning in a sea of blood, alive with the floundering bodies of children I couldn’t reach, as one by one they sank out of sight. What could I say? I wanted to believe that my work was not in vain. That I and my colleagues hadn’t kept back The Virus for four years only to have it consume us after all. That the children I watched die on the pediatrics’ third floor would find a better place, one without terrorists and biological weapons and wars that destroyed continents for the sake of a single line in a single ancient book they had probably never read. I even wanted to believe in Mulder’s aliens, or the ghosts in Mamma Rosa’s stories, or the God my mother had trusted to keep her family safe, if believing meant that there was more to live for than the senseless suffering I witnessed every day. But I couldn’t say any of that. Not yet. So I said the only thing I could, not really sure what it meant, but knowing it sounded right.
“I want to believe in life.”
If I was confused by my willingness to open up to a fifteen-year-old stranger, I was even more intrigued by his response.
“You already do,” he said softly, his gaze steady, “You’ve only forgotten.”
Do you try to be mysterious on purpose, or does it just come out that way?
I suppose it’s a part of who I am.
And who are you, exactly?
Patience, child, we’re getting there.
Child? I don’t care how old you say you really are, I am not a child. You’re laughing at me.
To my immense relief, we returned to lighter subjects. He agreed to go with Susan for a blood test and I asked her to arrange to find him a room for the evening. After they left, I tried to return to the report I had been reviewing, but I had trouble concentrating. The report had been sent to me from a colleague in Russia and detailed their newest effort to battle The Virus. Since The Virus had originally been genetically engineered to target a specific gene pattern found only in a few races, Dr. Kostov was proposing an anti-Virus engineered to protect those specific gene pairs. I could tell half way through the paper that it wouldn’t work. I had tried a similar approach four years ago, but the Virus had already learned to attack three new gene sequences as it spread inexorably across the globe. We needed to find a solution that could attack the entire Virus at once, or it would simply adapt again. Disgusted and angry at our lack of progress, I kept thinking about Jason and our strangely revealing conversation. Revealing on my side, anyway. I realized that I wanted to see him again. Something about him, his unusual mix of innocence and understanding, had piqued my curiosity.
Looking at the clock, I realized that I had once again worked past ten. Leaving Kostov’s disappointing paper on my desk, I switched off the lamp and headed out to make my rounds, gratefully accepting the sandwich Susan held out to me with a motherly glare as I passed her desk.
“That’s why I have you, Susan, so I don’t have to remember these things.”
“And don’t you forget it,” she replied with a tired grin. “If you hurry, you might get to see a few of them before they fall asleep.”
“Thanks, Susan,” I said, my mouth full of turkey and white bread, “See you tomorrow.”
I took the stairs up to the third floor of pediatrics, the area reserved for Virus patients, and began my nightly ritual of checking on each of the children under my supervision. Most of them were asleep, but I spent at least five minutes at each bedside, checking the monitors, tucking in tossed blankets, brushing limp bangs off of damp foreheads. Little Colleen was crying for her mother so I held her and read her favorite story about the cat in the hat until she was able to sleep. Red-haired Brian, who had been in the hospital for a year now but continued to hold on with freckled resilience, did a magic trick for me with the pack of cards his uncle had left on his last visit. Twenty rooms, thirty innocent lives waiting for me to tell them they would be okay.
I finished as usual with Robbie. Only five years old, he was all I had left of my sister, who by some twist of fate had inherited the fatal genes which characterized my mother’s side of the family while I was left untouched. His hair was dark like mine, but along with her fair skin and blue eyes Lisa had passed on to her only son one of the gene codes the Virus had learned to devour. I watched him as he slept, his thumb in his mouth, looking so much like his mother at that age that I wanted to cry. But I had cried myself out years ago, and there were no tears left.
That night, I dreamed I went to visit Robbie’s room and there was a vampire bent over his bed, fangs sunk into his neck. I screamed and pulled the beast away, but when I did blood began to spill from the wounds and soak the white sheets. Sobbing I tried to staunch the flow, but I couldn’t remember any of my medical training and the blood continued to pour, covering my hands like caramel. I heard a voice behind me say, “I want to believe in life,” but when I turned there was no one there.
First off, forget everything that you have heard or read. For one thing, I’m not dead, nor do I sleep in a coffin or turn into a bat. I am flesh and blood, human, with all the same hopes and fears and desires and doubts. I eat, I sleep, I live a normal life. Normal, except that I will never be any older than I am now.
What about crosses? Sunlight?
Crosses and holy water are obviously harmless, rumors devised by the Church to explain things they couldn’t understand. My eyes are a little sensitive to sunlight and my skin is naturally pale, but death by sunlight is another legend born out of fear. I learned quickly that it is safer to remain in the shadows.
Because people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and quick to kill what they are afraid of.
‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.’
Einstein again? I would have loved to meet that man. So I guess garlic is out as well?
Garlic repels vampires?
No, just me. Can’t stand it.
After the third cup of coffee, I started to feel more like myself again. Susan had noticed my mood was even darker than usual this morning and stayed out of my way, only venturing into my office to deliver refills on the reviving cups of java. Displaying her usual knack for knowing exactly what I want ten seconds before I do, she popped in as I was taking my last sip of coffee, watching the morning sun reflected in the windows of the office building across the street. I knew from word of mouth that half the offices were now empty, but from this angle, unable to see through the glistening mirrored surface, I could imaging it alive with the sound of beeping fax machines and whirring computers.
“Doctor? I’ve brought your messages from this morning. Alan in ER wants you to look at a patient that came in last night – he’s afraid it might be a new strain of the Virus.”
“Alan thinks that of anyone with a fever over 99,” I scoffed, but took the message dutifully, already planning where I could fit a trip to ER into my schedule.
“Dr. Kostov sent another email requesting a response to his proposal, Dr. Finch sent an email complaining about Dr. Kostov’s incessant emails, and…” Susan hesitated, then continued in a more subdued tone, “And your brother-in-law asked me to tell you hello when I bumped into him this morning. He said the only way he can bear to be away from Robbie all day is knowing you’re watching over him. Robbie is so lucky to have the two of you.”
I closed my eyes on the vision of last night’s dream. “Yes, Eric is a wonderful father.”
Susan placed the messages, a few reports, and paperwork for the day’s appointments and meetings on my desk and started to leave the room.
“Susan, did we get the results back from Jason’s blood test?” Susan looked at me in surprise.
“No, actually, now that you mention it. I had completely forgotten.” Susan, who prided herself on never forgetting anything, was visibly upset by this pronouncement, and, while I was annoyed at the delay with Jason’s test, I chuckled at her discomfiture.
“We all forget things once in a while,” I ribbed her, wishing I wasn’t so tired so I could better enjoy what was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hearing the teasing tone of my voice, Susan wiped the confusion off of her face and replaced it with determination.
“I’ll go and get it right away,” she said, gliding away majestically. I sighed, looking down forlornly at the pile of paper on my desk. I reached for my cup to take another sip of coffee, but it had turned cold.
The day went by in a blur of tests, correspondences, and frustrated attempts to procure much-needed equipment from the beleaguered city fund. As the resident Nobel Prize winner of the hospital, the board seemed to feel I was best suited for the task, which meant they figured I had more pull as a national hero. Such meetings only served to make me feel more hypocritical and impotent, and were, quite frankly, a waste of my time. By the time I made it to the third floor of pediatrics, it was past midnight, and even the ever-wakeful Brian was fast asleep. I sat down in the plastic chair by Robbie’s bed and rested my head next to his on the thin pillow, running his soft curly hair through my fingers. He took his thumb out of his mouth and sighed in his sleep.
Gradually, I became aware that I was no longer alone in the dark room. Figuring Eric had come back for an unexpected visit, I sat up and opened my mouth to say thank you for his kind words that morning. When I looked up, however, the only sound that escaped my parted lips was a strangled gasp. A disembodied face hovered in the shadows by the door, white as a skull, and I thought immediately of the vampire in my dream. Then the figure took a step further into the room and the muted lights of the monitors illuminated Jason’s pale form. I started breathing again, silently chastising myself for letting my imagination get the better of me. I hadn’t thought of Mamma Rosa’s fairy tales in years, and now they were not only invading my dreams, but overflowing them.
“I’m sorry, I startled you.” Jason’s voice was soft and conciliatory.
“Yes, you did,” I replied a bit snappishly, still recovering. He smiled, raising an eyebrow at my tone, and I chuckled wryly, finally releasing the tension of my irrational fears. I glanced down at Robbie, still asleep, just to assure myself of his safety.
“He knows you come to visit. It makes him feel safe.” I looked at Jason, wondering at the certainty in his voice, and for that matter wondering why he was here in the first place. Apparently seeing the question in my eyes he started to speak, then stopped when Robbie stirred. He put his finger to his lips and gestured toward the door, and after tucking Robbie’s sheets firmly in place I followed. I was curious when he didn’t just stop outside Robbie’s door, but trailing him bemusedly down the hall I was soon incredibly grateful when he opened the door to the stairwell and led me up to the observatory on the roof. I took a deep breath of the cool night air, letting a breeze wash over me as I walked across the platform to lean on the railing, looking out over the moonlit city. When was the last time I had been outside? Too long. Jason came up to stand next to me, elbows paralleling mine as we took in the miles of city lights flowing out around us, no longer so plentiful that they drowned out the stars, but instead reflecting the twinkling sky like a giant, calm lake.
“I found this spot during my explorations earlier this evening,” he said, watching a taxi make a right turn at the corner below. “You should see the sunset from up here.”
I had, once, long ago. My mother had brought me up after school one day. She was a nurse in ICU. I remember I was still in my plaid uniform, chestnut hair newly cut, as Mom held me to her side and pointed out famous buildings and landmarks, and our own house far in the distance. It was in a valley and therefore blocked from view, but I was convinced I could see it anyway. We had stayed to watch the sun set rather dismally into the haze that covered the city, but I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Where does the sun go when it sets, Mommy?
To a quiet land where he can rest in peace and darkness, rejuvenating himself. It’s hard work bringing light to so many living things.
But if where he goes is so peaceful, why does he come back here every day where he has to work?
Because, little Kate, he loves you and all people, and he knows that he is the only one who can give you the light you need to survive. The thousands of fairies that take his place in the sky each night do their best, but tire easily. His light is his gift to the world.
Does he love Lisa too? I had put my hand on Mom’s bulging stomach.
Yes, Kate, he loves Lisa too.
I wiped a tear from my eye, surprised that the memory was still so strong. Jason didn’t say anything, continuing to watch the skyline as I regained my composure. It was almost as if he had known how I would react and was giving me the time I needed to recover, but that was impossible. I took a deep breath. “Jason, why are you still here? Has the lab still not returned your blood test?” I had not been back to my office all day, and therefore I didn’t know if Susan’s pilgrimage to the bio lab had been successful. Jason only shrugged, a gesture I was beginning to realize meant that that was all I would get from him on the subject. I was also beginning to realize that as long as he didn’t mind, I was happy to have him here. Contrary to all reason and common sense, I felt more comfortable around this enigmatic boy than friends I had known for years. A feeling of calm assurance seemed to emanate from him, and I basked like a kitten in his glow. Uncomfortable with the direction of my thoughts, I decided to be blunt.
“Why did you say that about Robbie? What were you doing in his room?”
“I listen,” Jason replied, not quite answering. He half turned to look at me, “It’s easy to see that Robbie loves you very much. You don’t have to be afraid to show him you care.”
“Are you sure you’re only fifteen?” I asked, only half joking. He smiled, his rose-red lips quirking to one side, and the sparkle in his eye was more than just reflected starlight.
“Why do you ask?” With the full force of his gaze upon me, I found I didn’t know quite what to say.
“You just seem so mature, so knowledgeable, yet with the unwavering faith of only the very young or the very old…” I waved my hand in the air, unable to continue, “Never mind, I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I turned back to the railing, slightly embarrassed that I was stumbling over my words like an inexperienced teenager while Jason was the one giving me sage advice on my life. I was therefore surprised by Jason’s next words.
“Thank you,” he said, his tone serious.
“For what, falling apart every time you ask me a question?”
“For being honest.” We stood together in silence, watching a few more late-night cars as they passed us by, soon to disappear into the sprawling glass and cement maze. He hadn’t told me why he had been in Robbie’s room and I thought of asking again, but I didn’t. While the realist in me argued that this quiet boy could actually be some sort of zealous psychopath, my heart told me that he meant no harm, and Mamma Rosa had always told me to trust my feelings. I could almost see her smiling.
Can you die?
I don’t really know. I heal easily. I have survived being stabbed and shot, but if someone decided to take off my head I suspect that would be the end of me.
You say that as if it doesn’t bother you. Aren’t you afraid?
Of death? No, I’m not afraid. I have come to view death as another mystery to explore. ‘Perchance to dream,’ another genius.
So you’re ready to die then? Just give up on the whole sordid mess?
No, not ready, just not afraid. There’s a very big difference.
The next morning I grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchenette and stopped at Susan’s desk on my way to my office. She was staring into space, fidgeting with the small diamond ring on her left hand, something she only did when she was nervous or sad. Her fiancé had been one of the first victims, before most of the world even knew The Virus existed. I put down my coffee.
“Susan? Is everything okay?” I watched her visibly pull herself together.
“Yes, Doctor, of course,” she said briskly, “I must have been daydreaming. Can I get you anything?”
“I wanted to pick up Jason’s blood test from yesterday. After all this fuss I’m starting to get really curious…” I trailed off at the expression of stunned horror on Susan’s face. I sighed. “You didn’t get a blood sample, did you?” Susan shook her head, obviously confused.
“I went straight to the lab after I talked to you, but they had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently no one had taken a sample, even after I’d left Jason with a technician down there the previous evening. I went to find Jason to do it myself, but he said he was afraid of needles so I stopped to chat for a while. You know, to calm him down, like we’re supposed to. It’s true that we talked about some personal things, but I was holding the needle in my hand. How I could have forgotten to actually use it?” She was once again twisting the ring around her finger. I knew how she felt.
“He has a way with words, doesn’t he?” I asked.
Susan nodded, “I told him about Joe, about my decision to give up dancing to come work here, things I haven’t talked about since…since...” I could see that she was struggling not to cry.
“Susan, take the day off. Spend some time away from all this.” I spread my arms, taking in all the bustle and noise and pain of the hospital surrounding us. She started to shake her head no, then stopped.
“I haven’t walked on the beach since the day Joe proposed.”
“Then you should go,” I said quietly. Susan gave a sharp nod, causing her thick braid to flip over her shoulder, and I knew she would be okay. She gathered her purse and sweater and headed for the door.
“I’ll be back for the night shift,” she called out before I could argue, leaving me to watch the door swing shut behind her. I felt good about telling Susan to go, knowing it was the right thing to do, but it became quickly apparent how much I had relied upon her. I stared down at the pile of messages on her desk, slips of pink and yellow and green indicating a need for my attention with various levels of urgency. As I stared, they started to blur together in my vision like melting crayons. Before I could change my mind, I finished off my coffee in a single gulp and turned, grabbing the nearest scrub-clad intern as he hurried by.
“Excuse me, when are the children’s recreation hours today?”
The intern blinked at me with bloodshot eyes, his tired brain apparently having difficulty switching directions from whatever errand I had just interrupted. To his credit, he truly made an effort.
“Um, is today Tuesday? I think they’re in the play room from seven to eight, and then twelve ‘til one. Or is it eight to nine?”
I thanked him and he hurried on his way. I was chagrined that I’d even had to ask, but I hadn’t had time to see the children in daylight for weeks, and the schedule was always changing. According to the clock on the wall it was now 8:15. Hoping the intern’s second guess was the right one, I headed up to the third floor play room. I could hear them as I stepped out of the stairwell, their laughter traveling down the corridor to greet me. My steps slowed as I approached the open door, not quite sure of the reaction I could expect. A part of me acknowledged that it wasn’t only work that had kept me away, but fear. Fear that when they looked at me with eyes full of such hope and faith, that I would let them down.
I gathered my courage and stepped into the doorway, swiftly taking in the scene that lay before me. Jason sat in the middle of the floor, children sprawled around him like a giant litter of calico puppies. Even those in the later stages of infection had made their way to the middle of the room, finding pillows and cushions on which to rest while they listened. Muted sunlight streamed through the high tinted windows, bathing the children in warmth and glinting off Jason’s silvery hair like a halo. He was telling them the story of Beauty and the Beast, and the children, riveted to his words, had not yet noticed me. Jason did, however. Without interrupting his story he winked at me, and I leaned against the door jam to listen. He was an excellent storyteller, and had the children alternately laughing and clutching each other in exaggerated fear as the story unfolded.
“And then the princess and her prince lived happily ever after. Isn’t that right, Kate?” Jason looked up at me with a mischievous smile and I was caught off guard, having become wrapped up in his story along with the children. I gave a little wave as thirty young faces turned to me in surprise, and then calls of “Dr. Kate!” filled the air. I was suddenly surrounded by joyous smiles and a dozen little hands pulling me towards the center of their haphazard circle. Everyone had to be hugged at least once before I was instructed to sit down, at which point Jason picked up Robbie from his spot in a bean-bag chair and placed him in my lap. I couldn’t stop smiling. “Are you going to tell us a story too, Auntie Kate?” Robbie asked, prompting a chorus of “Story! Story!” from the other kids. I shook my head, a bit overwhelmed, but when I looked to Jason for support he only smiled his usual smile and said, “go ahead, tell us a story,” and sat back down, Brian quickly claiming a spot in his arms.
“Okay, okay, I know when I’m outnumbered,” I said, and they cheered, settling down around me. I thought back to my childhood, sitting by the fire with Mamma Rosa, Mom and Dad, and little Lisa curled by my side. I settled back against the chair I was leaning on and felt Stacy start to twirl my hair in her fingers from her perch behind my head. It was hard at first, remembering the cadence of the lines, the order of the words, but it all came back quickly. I could almost hear Mamma Rosa’s soft voice and see her browned and wrinkled hands rise and fall with the momentum of her words, a gypsy weaving her spell. An enchanted silence fell upon the room as I began, “Once upon a time…”
I was sound asleep, for once undisturbed by nightmares, when the phone rang by my bed. Jumping groggily to reach for the receiver, I pushed back sudden panic. Middle of the night calls only meant one thing.
“Doctor, you’ve got to get up here.” Susan’s voice sounded strange to my foggy brain, but her urgency was clear, “It’s Brian…”
I leaped out of bed, reaching for my clothes before I realized I was still dressed from the previous day. After visiting with the kids, I’d had to work extra late in the lab. Thankful for small blessings, I grabbed my shoes from where I’d dropped them by the bed.
“What’s his status? Is he still breathing?” My mind flashed through possible scenarios as I tied the laces one handed.
“No, nothing is wrong. Absolutely nothing. That’s just it, Doctor, he’s perfectly healthy!” I froze, shoe strings hanging limp in my fingers.
“Susan, what are you talking about? You know as well as I do that Brian is in the last stages. You don’t just recover from that out of the blue. As much as it hurts me to say it, you don’t recover from that at all.”
“I know, Doctor, believe me, I know. But it’s true. I came in to check on him only five minutes ago and there he was, laughing and joking with Jason like a normal, healthy little boy. It brought tears to my eyes to watch them. I’m starting again just thinking about it.” I now recognized what I’d heard in Susan’s voice when I first picked up the phone, something I’d never heard there before – it was hope.
“I’ll be right there.”
It wasn’t until I was halfway down the stairs that something Susan had said finally registered. What was Jason doing there?
I arrived at Brian’s room slightly out of breath. Susan greeted me at the door with a brilliant smile, here eyes still moist from the tears I had heard her shedding over the phone. She handed me Brian’s file, clasping my hands briefly before heading off down the corridor. I opened the file, reading with growing incredulity the most recent records. Impossible. I wanted more than anything for Brian to be well, but there was simply no way for these numbers to be true. According to his chart, no trace of The Virus remained in Brian’s system. It had simply vanished. I rubbed the last remnants of sleep out of my eyes and pushed open the door, fully determined to get to the bottom of this and dreading the thought of watching Susan’s face fall when I told her the readings were wrong or belonged to someone else. However, I only took two steps into the room before I stopped, almost dropping the file as the world seemed to fall out from under me. Brian was sitting up in his bed, his cheeks rosy and glowing with health rather than fever, his eyes clear of the constant pain that had lurked there for months. The change was more than physical, and a feeling of peace and renewal seemed to pulse through the room. Brian looked up from the game of thumb-war he was playing with Jason and beamed at me over the bed. The file finally slipped from my numb fingers and onto the floor.
“Dr. Kate, look!” He threw off his blankets and started to get out of bed, but in sudden alarm I finally regained control of my shocked limbs and ran to hold him in the bed. I didn’t know what had caused his sudden recovery, but I wasn’t about to risk a relapse.
“No Brian, you’re too weak, you’ll hurt yourself.” Still unable to believe the facts the monitors and my own eyes were telling me, I placed my hand on his forehead, but his brow was blessedly cool.
“But Dr. Kate, I’m not too weak. Just let me show you!” He pouted, and I frowned back.
“It’s okay, Kate, let him try.” I turned to look at Jason for the first time, and our eyes met. In my amazement at Brian’s transformation I had completely forgotten he was in the room, but now the questions came flooding back. I desperately wanted to ask him why he was there, what he knew. I had a nagging suspicion that his presence was no coincidence, and in his penetrating gaze I saw once again the man I had glimpsed briefly that first day in my office. Unable to deal with so many mysteries at once, I tore my eyes away from Jason’s, focusing again on Brian, and I had to smile. Brian was still pouting at me, his arms now crossed in defiance.
“Okay, Brian, but only to the door and back, and I’ll be beside you the whole time.” Ecstatic smile once more firmly in place, Brian slid his skinny legs onto the floor and stood up, shaky but proud. He crossed to the door and back without faltering, but I could tell the effort had exhausted him as he collapsed onto the bed. His sense of accomplishment was palpable, and I tucked him in with growing awe. Only yesterday he had needed Jason’s help to get from the floor into his lap.
“That was a very brave thing you just did, Brian. I’m very proud of you.” Tears of joy threatened to blur my vision as the reality of Brian’s health finally washed over me. As I reached out brush a lock of hair from his face, my hand was shaking. He smiled sleepily and closed his eyes. I stood up to go.
“Dr. Kate?” I looked down into Brian’s half-open eyes.
“The angel told me to tell you that he’s proud of you too.” I was suddenly very cold.
“The angel? What angel, Brian?”
“The angel who came in my sleep and told me it was time to get well. He was all white and he kissed me and made me better, and then he told me to tell you.” I stared ate him, not sure what to feel in the face of this announcement.
“Brian, what exactly did you see?” But he was already asleep, his breathing regular and steady, a smile still blessing his lips. I stood there watching him, my emotions swirling, until a hand touched my shoulder. Jason. Suddenly discovering a desperate need for human contact, I turned and leaned into his warmth. A part of my brain distantly noted that my head fit perfectly beneath his chin. His arms drew around me lightly and we stood in quiet companionship for a few long moments as I slowly came to grips with what had just occurred.
“Is he really going to be okay?”
“Yes, Kate, he’s going to be okay.”
As my mind settled, I became aware that the heartbeat beneath my ear was a bit too fast. I pulled back from Jason’s arms and really looked at him for the first time that night. As I took in his flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and moist brow, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed before. Did he have The Virus after all? I raised my hand to feel his brow as I had Brian’s, but Jason snagged my hand before it could get there.
“It’s okay,” he smiled, “It’ll pass. Allergy, remember? I just…” He looked a bit sheepish, once again just a boy, as he swayed and then steadied himself on my shoulder. “I could probably use some help getting to my room.”
I went to see Jason in his room the next day and, as he had assured me, no symptoms remained. I was curious to find out what kind of allergy he suffered from and tried once again to get his blood sample, but he evaded me on both accounts. Strangely willing to be persuaded, I let it slide.
“How’s Brian?” He asked, patting the side of his bed. Despite my annoyance with Jason’s evasions, I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of this morning’s visit and I sat down, relating to Jason how Brian had quickly used his new notoriety as The Third Floor Miracle to make himself the darling of the research group, charming every nurse and stumped doctor with jokes and magic tricks as they searched for an explanation.
“And did they find one?”
I looked down at the starched white sheets, my smile slowly fading as I wondered how much I should tell him. I started tracing an aimless pattern with my index finger, letting it slide over the crisp material as I pondered once again the two tiny puncture marks I had discovered on Brian’s neck while brushing his hair. The marks bothered me on several levels, scientifically because they were not created by any medical instrument I knew of, and psychologically as my mind leaped immediately to the image of the vampire from my dream. What scared me the most, however, was that I didn’t tell anyone about them. Here I had just found the evidence all my colleagues were looking for, the clue that might lead us to further cures, and I was keeping it a secret. And it all hinged on Jason. I had been mulling over the events of the past few days all morning, and there was no way around it. The connection was obvious. First, he is brought to the hospital exhibiting all the signs of The Virus, only to appear perfectly healthy upon arrival. Then he somehow manages to manipulate the lab staff and the indomitable Susan into “forgetting” to take his blood sample. Now, a patient miraculously recovers from an illness with no known cure, and Jason just happens to be there. Not only that, he is once again suffering from an apparently strong, but temporary case of the same Virus of which that patient had been cured only an hour before. It all made a horrible kind of sense, and at the same time, none at all.
I was jerked out of my reverie by a gentle touch on the back of my wandering hand, halting its random motion. I was startled and embarrassed to discover that my hand now rested on Jason’s chest, and that his own hand had picked up the random patterns and was occupied in tracing them on the back of my hand. I could feel his heart beating through the thin material of his nightshirt, pulsing against his thin ribcage as if trying to escape. As I continued to stare at my hand as if willing it to tell me how it had come to be there, the patterns Jason was tracing began to seem less irregular, their form hinting at a meaning hovering just out of reach. A tingling sensation began to form where we touched, traveling down my arm to activate sensations I hadn’t felt in years. I gasped, jerking my hand away and leaping awkwardly off the bed. I could feel myself blushing, and a part of me was pleased to note that Jason looked just as shaken as I felt, his usual calm assurance replaced by confusion, surprise, and another emotion I refused to analyze. I stood there for a moment, then I mumbled some excuse and fled.
Jason met me on the roof at sunset. I had been in a meeting with several members of the hospital board as they argued heatedly about Brian’s sudden health and what that could mean both for the hospital and for our research. A week ago I would have been in the thick of it, voice raised to advocate more research into Brian’s history and medical records to find any clues that science could offer. Instead, I had listened with half my attention as I watched the sun dip toward the horizon. Or, since I was watching its reflection in the windows of the high-rise next door, as it dipped below roof level. I knew with a strange certainty that the answers I sought would not be found in this room. Making a decision, I rose and walked to the door. All conversation had ceased.
“Dr. Morales, do you have something to add?”
“No, Dr. Choi, nothing at all. If you will excuse me.” Not giving anyone a chance to respond, I left.
Jason joined me at the balcony just as the sun dropped out of sight, leaving a rainbow sherbet sky in memory of its passing. We stood a moment, enjoying the silence we seemed to be so good at sharing, the awkwardness of this morning apparently forgotten. But that was not why we were here.
“You want answers,” he said. I waited, ready to hear whatever he had to tell me, or at least as ready as I could be.
“Kate, you see me in a way no one else ever has. Most people forget about me soon after they’ve met me. It’s a survival trait, and I cultivate it, but you’re different. You’re intelligent, imaginative, and I think you truly do want to believe. So I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else. Not in two-hundred years.”
I gripped the railing, but other than that showed no reaction. I had expected something like this, hadn’t I? Jason smiled at me, a little sadly.
“I don’t expect you to believe me, only to keep that open mind you told me of when we first met. This is the only truth I can give you.”
I nodded, and he turned back to look out over the lavender-tipped rooftops.
“I am what legend and myth have come to call a vampire.”
The true power of the blood that runs through my veins, the source of so many incorrect interpretations, is that it not only heals me, but it is how I can heal others.
What do you mean?
Though you cannot see them now, I do have what I must call fangs, for lack of a better word. They are hollow. When I insert them into a large vein, preferably the jugular, I can filter infected blood through my body, cleansing it. Blood cells that are sick or infected remain trapped within me, and clean blood is returned. The people I bite don’t die and don’t become vampires. They simply get a second chance at life.
But when a distraught husband enters his bedroom to find a stranger with bloody fangs in his sick wife’s neck, he sees not a savior, but an evil creature preying upon his wife.
When actually, you have become infected instead, and your body heals itself, killing the illness.
Does it hurt?
Jason left me in the observatory to assimilate all he had told me. If he was telling the truth, and vampires could really cleanse The Virus, what did that mean for me, for the rest of the children, for the world? How many other vampires were there? Could they save everyone? Were they willing to? I realized I was thinking as though everything Jason had told me was real, and when I shivered it had nothing to do with the cold wind that gusted across the roof. The thing was, it all made perfect sense. Though I had been raised half Romanian, half Irish Catholic, I was all scientist. I had trained myself to think and analyze logically, and everything Jason had said fit. The twists of myth and legend, the marks on Brian’s neck, the temporary illness he would suffer as his own body absorbed cells of The Virus from Brian’s blood. But what about the way people seemed to forget about him – was that just a way with words, or something more? What was it, exactly, that made his blood so different and rare? I wanted to believe him so badly it hurt, but until I had seen his blood under a microscope, tested it with every known method I had at my disposal, I simply couldn’t let go of the fundamental fact that vampires did not exist. Maybe I was a Scully after all. Looking down at my hands, I once again saw Mamma Rosa shaking her head at me, sadness lining the wizened wrinkles of her face as I told her fiercely that if Mom’s so-called-God refused to find a cure, then I would. It was after Mom’s funeral, and mourners in black still wandered quietly through the house. Lisa was upstairs, resting, the stress of the day having worn out her fragile health. The permeating smell of flowers was sickening.
My dearest Kate, so determined. Your mother was so proud of you, as am I. But I worry that you work too hard. You are not responsible for the fate of the world.
You’re right, but whoever is has obviously decided to quit the job. I can’t just sit by and watch the people I love die, not when there is a chance I might help them. You can’t ask me to.
I’m not telling you to stop your research, only to remember that there is more to life than science and facts. I know it is hard to understand right now, but life goes on.
Does it Mamma Rosa? I’m not so sure anymore. We sat a moment in silence, her small, brown hands resting on mine.
Kate, Lisa’s illness is not your fault.
I know, Mamma Rosa, I know.
I was just getting ready to head back inside when my pager went off. It was from Susan, and the message was a single word: Robbie. I ran.
When I arrived at Robbie’s room it was ablaze with sterile white light, orderlies in faded blue scrubs surrounding the bed so that I had to push through them to reach Robbie’s side. One started to complain at my rough handling, but stepped aside when she saw who I was.
“Status!” I yelled to the room at large, frantically holding Robbie’s violently tossing body to the soaked bed. I could easily see from Robbie’s glazed and unfocused eyes, and the red splotches beginning to appear under his skin, that he was succumbing to the final stage, but I wanted someone to tell me that I was seeing wrong, that it was not what it seemed.
“I’m here, Robbie,” I whispered to him, urging him to be strong. “I’m here.” His seizure subsided momentarily and I looked up to the unfamiliar faces surrounding the bed.
“Are you all deaf? Status!” They remained mute, identical expressions of grief and pity and weary hopelessness tattooed to their faces. I could almost smell the flowers in their empty hands. Susan appeared at the foot of the bed and my eyes pleaded with her to say something, but she only looked at me, her expression unreadable, and then looked toward the door. I followed her gaze, and there was Jason, pale and perfect in the harsh glare of the overhead lights. Our eyes met, and he nodded once. It was all I needed.
“Out! All of you, out!” I snapped, my eyes flashing to the scrubs around the bed. “There will be no mourning allowed in this room until there is something to mourn. Now, out!”
Susan herded the now grumbling orderlies efficiently out of the room as Jason walked to the other side of the bed. Before she left she looked back at me from the doorway, and this time her eyes held nothing but love, encouragement, and hope.
“Thank you,” I mouthed to her silently.
“Vaya con Dios,” she replied, and left.
Jason watched me from the other side of the bed.
“Are you sure?” He asked. I nodded vigorously and gulped back my lingering fears.
“It’s Robbie,” I said, and looked down at him, so small and innocent in the big bed, and took his hand. I watched as Jason brushed the damp hair from Robbie’s brow and traced a pattern on his forehead, murmuring a soothing lullaby in a language I didn’t recognize. Robbie’s tossing lessened and he lay almost still, his irregular and rapid breathing the only sign of life. Jason tipped his head back with an expression of acute pain, and I watched in amazement as two sharp fangs pressed out of his upper gums. As he leaned over Robbie’s still form, I watched as my nightmare replayed in front of my eyes, only this time it was under the bright lights of reality, and this time I wasn’t trying to stop it. I clutched Robbie’s unresponsive hand with desperate force, praying as I had never prayed before that I was doing the right thing. And then time seemed to shift, and it wasn’t Robbie’s hand that I was holding, but Lisa’s. Her beautiful blue eyes could no longer focus on my face, but her grip was strong. She spoke between labored breaths, the words so soft I had to strain to hear.
When I am gone, will you… watch over Robbie… for me? Eric… will need your strength.
Lisa, don’t talk like that. You’re going to get better.
Hush, Kate, it’s okay. I… know it’s time… for me to go.
Lisa, please don’t leave me. I need you.
You were always… the strong one. Promise me, … you will be strong for… for Robbie.
I promise, Lisa. I promise.
I believe in you, Kate. I always… will.
Slowly, I noticed that Robbie’s breathing had grown steady and regular, the splotches on his skin receding to a pale, but healthy pink. I looked up at the monitors, their readings all confirming the miracle I was witnessing with my own eyes. Jason pulled back from Robbie’s neck and I instantly reached out to touch Robbie’s face, to feel his cool skin beneath my fingertips. The two red welts were already fading.
“He’s asleep. Asleep and well.” And with those words of benediction, Jason collapsed onto the floor.
It took his system two hours to combat The Virus, during which time he suffered every agony The Virus had to offer. Despite the knowledge that he would recover, I couldn’t help but be afraid that this time would be different, this time he wouldn’t make it through. I wanted to move him to a bed, but I also needed to keep Robbie in my sight and I knew Jason wouldn’t want to be seen like this. So I sat on the floor and held his head in my lap, bathing his burning skin with cold water. I finally understood what I had asked of him tonight in the doorway, how much harder it must be when the illness is so advanced. After about an hour, the fever subsided enough that he became coherent.
“If you die on me now, I’ll never forgive you.” I said lightly, masking the chaos of emotions bursting inside.
“I shall have to get better then. Forever is a very long time,” he replied, echoing my tone.
A few minutes of silence, and then my tears started to fall.
“Thank you.” I said. He reached up and caressed my face, a light touch from temple to chin, then lowered his hand to take mine.
And there we remained, hand in hand, sitting on the cold linoleum floor with Jason’s head in my lap, until a voice I had feared never to hear again spoke from the bed.
“Auntie Kate? What are you doin’ on the floor?” I laughed with joy until I had no more tears to shed.
If what you say is true, you have lived hundreds of years sacrificing yourself for a population who fears and reviles you. Whatever the legend, vampires are known as evil, abominations, creatures to be feared. How can you stand it? Don’t you want to tell people the truth?
As we spoke of before, revealing the nature of my blood would be too dangerous, and I don’t need or want the recognition anyway. My existence is not as bleak as it may seem. Those who I heal see me in an entirely different light, because they see from the inside. They never recognize me afterward, but while their life flows within me I can sense their gratitude and feel their joy. Sometimes I can even communicate with them, and the experience makes it worth the pain and fear and loathing. I often think of it as an exchange, that while I cleanse their bodies, they cleanse my spirit.
Wait, you communicate…? Oh, my God! You’re…I mean, no, you can’t be.
Angels? Vampires…are angels? This is too much.
I am no heavenly winged messenger, just as I am no evil blood-sucking fiend. I am only human. People see me how they will.
Jason left us that night, slipping out before dawn and the questioning hoards could find him. Too many people had seen him enter Robbie’s room, and he was no longer safe in anonymity. I assured him that I would be able to give the board an adequate explanation, my semi-revered status finally coming in handy as a way of making my half-truths believable.
By mutual consent we said our goodbyes on the roof, this time to the backdrop of a clear peach and citrus sunrise. We leaned side-by-side, shoulders touching, listening to the chirp of birds and the growing hum of morning traffic. As the disk of the sun edged out over the horizon, Jason turned to me, placed something cold and smooth into my hands, and held them closed around it with his own.
“Only when you are ready,” he said cryptically, and then he was gone.
In the darkness of my office, I looked once again at the poster on my wall, it’s message blazing like a beacon into the room, and back to the small glass vial in the palm of my hand. It was his blood, his power, his gift to me to do with as I chose. Only a few days ago I had thought this blood could hold the key to finding a cure for The Virus, but I knew now that to research and test it would be futile. The blood alone was not enough, just as science alone was not enough. As I tipped the vial back and forth, watching the sluggish liquid flow from side to side, the light from my desk lamp streaked across the glass like a flash of electricity. Searching within myself for the courage to do what I wanted to do, I thought about Brian and his jubilant smile, about Robbie and Eric and their tearful reunion, about Susan and her selfless goal to right the wrong that was done to her Joe. I thought about the circle of little faces on the third floor, their eyes looking up to me as a source of hope and dreams. I thought of Jason, the beautiful mystery who had reminded me what it was to live.
My hand shook as I pulled the stopper from the tube, but my heartbeat was steady. As I brought the vial to my lips, I imagined that Jason was there, his hand once again caressing my face. As the thick magma slid across my tongue and trailed a path of electric fire down my throat, causing me to gasp and double over in sudden pain, it seemed as if he caught me and helped me to breathe. And as I collapsed back into the uncomfortable chair, sweating, the fire in my body beginning to ease to a dull throb, for a second I was certain I heard a second heartbeat entwined with my own. I knew, someday, I would see him again.
Why have you told me all of this? Do you really expect me to believe?
What you believe does not matter. It’s what you are willing to believe that counts.
I don’t understand. I don’t know what I believe anymore.
Knowing that is the first step.
Yes, Kate, but why? Why me?
Because you remind me of someone I knew a long time ago, someone who needed to look beyond the things she could see, and to learn to trust in a different and better future. Because you remind me of me, and I think you will use the gift wisely.
Wait! What do I do?
You will know when you are ready.
But where are you going?
Home. It’s time to visit an old friend.