A Fatal Moment
by A. D. Barncord Doerr
Copyright © 1998
I left my computer running its structural stress analysis and answered the ringing phone. While talking with another colleague about an upcoming Materials Conference in Albuquerque, I rolled a ball, made of my latest designer alloy, absent-mindedly between my fingers. Hanging up the phone, I realized my two children had been way too quiet for the past fifteen minutes.
I went into playroom to check on them. Joshua was helping Kelly to climb up a stack of toys to the shelf where their father had placed a remote control car out of their reach. Leaving my ball of metal on the bookshelf, I lifted my three-year-old daughter off of the precarious tower of toys and set her down next to her five-year-old brother.
"Toys are not for climbing on," I admonished both of them. "Someone might fall and get hurt. Now, let's put these toys away and get ready for lunch, okay?"
The two wide-eyed and angelic faces nodded, and all three of us picked the toys up. There was only a few stuff animals left, when the computer signalled from the next room that its task was finished.
"Why don't you two put these away, while Mommy checks on her computer and makes lunch?" I suggested.
The stress report was better than what I could ever hope for. My alloy wasn't only light weight and strong, but it withstood high pressures and extreme temperatures without becoming brittle. I hummed happily as I went into our kitchen to fix lunch.
With three steaming bowls of macaroni and cheese on the table, I went back to get my two toy climbers. Entering the playroom, I noticed that each of my children had a half donut and pink frosting on their faces.
"Where did the donut come from?" I asked.
"The man in the window gave it to me," said Joshua pointing at the window. "I shared it with my sister, Mommy!" he added proudly.
My speech on not taking things from strangers died on my lips as I stared at the sealed window. From our fifteenth floor apartment, I looked down at the grimy city streets as they shimmered in the summer heat. I check the edges of window, but I found no sign that its integrity had been breached.
Could Joshua be lying? I didn't think so. He seemed too pleased with himself for remembering to share. Besides, where could he have gotten the donut from? I know I didn't buy it and Mike abhorred strawberry frosting.
I patted the two golden heads and gently took the donut pieces from them.
"There's macaroni and cheese in the kitchen for you," I told them.
"Macaroni and cheese!" they cheered as they ran for the kitchen table.
I bought the donut pieces with me as I followed them. Before sitting at my own lunch, I sealed the pieces in a plastic container and washed my hands.
I told Mike about the strange incident when he returned from his work. He had a long talk with Joshua about it.
"I don't understand it, Sal," Mike said later. "Josh definitely believes what he says about a dark haired man handing him the donut from the window, but I can't see how it could've happen. Nor can I figure out where the donut came from."
"I think I should do most of my work in the playroom for the next couple of weeks - just in case," I suggested.
"I agree with you," he replied, changing the channel he was watching. "I'm just glad the kids are alright."
But they weren't.
Two days later, after I returned from teaching my Materials class at the university, the day care worker informed me that Joshua had developed a fever and Kelly seemed sort of listless. I called the pediatrician on my cellular phone and set up an appointment for both of them after lunch.
Dr. Chua was perplexed by the yellow lesions that had formed around Joshua's mouth during lunch. Pale splotches were appearing on his hands and around his eyes. Kelly had pale splotches around her mouth also. Dr. Chua washed his hands a little longer than normal and told us to wait a few minutes.
It was over thirty minutes when he returned. He shook his head in disbelief as he sadly regarded my children.
"I've called a pathologist friend of mine," he stated. "He's going to be here in an hour to examine your children."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I'm not sure yet, Professor Phillips. I have a suspicion, but let's pray that I'm wrong."
He wasn't wrong and by the time Dr. Raney arrived, pale splotches were forming on my hands, also. My children and I had contracted a rare and deadly disease, which until now had only been found in a remote area of Indonesia. It was a variety of flesh-eating bacteria and to make things worse, our particular strain was resistant all known antibiotics, including the potentially dangerous and rarely used vancomycin.
Of course, by the time the test results were in, Mike had also came down with the disease along with eleven other people, who had been in contact with our family. The mysterious donut had tested positive for the bacteria, too.
In the quarantine wing of the county hospital, I watched surgeons try to out fox the bacteria eating my children. It was to no avail. Eight hours after we arrived, Kelly died. Joshua died forty-five minutes later. Mike died two days after that.
But I didn't die. I wanted to. I wanted to end the physical and emotional torture I was experiencing. If I had not been robbed of the ability to move by the disease, I would have ended my own life, myself. But I couldn't. Of all of the victims, I was the only one who had any resistance to the hungry microbes. As one by one the others died, I went into recovery.
Recovery - there's a joke! Three months later, I was a twisted and scarred individual, with a voice that sounded like two pieces of coarse sandpaper rubbing together. I could barely move my own wheelchair with the contorted claws that were once my hands.
Ah, but I was a celebrity - a savoir - scientific oddity, and I hated it. I didn't mind the fact that my blood provided the means to create a vaccine, not unlike the one for pneumococcal pneumonia. But I hated the well meaning scientists, who thought I should be proud of my genetic uniqueness. I hated the clueless jerks, who thought I wanted to say something to the world. I even began to hate the people who blessed me for saving their love ones, when I had to watch mine die.
While the scientific community congratulated itself for saving the world while only losing a handful of people, I wept bitter tears. That handful was my whole world and I had lost them.
Of course, since it was such a rare disease, only visitors to Indonesia received the Phillips' Vaccine. Nice touch - naming it after me. And after ten years went by without another reported outbreak, the disease, itself, was practically forgotten and the vaccinations were considered unnecessary.
Through all this, I watched the outside world via satellite technology from my little room in the nursing home someone had put me in. I had became so apathetic that I didn't bother to find out who was footing the bill. As for my own research, I didn't even blink when a couple of young men apologized for accidentally destroying my computer and files while sterilizing the apartment. It meant absolutely nothing to me. After awhile, even my former colleagues stopped trying to get me interested in designing alloys again.
Twenty years after the mockery of my life had began, economic disaster struck across the world. Oh, I could give you a list of all the events that lead to it, but all it really boiled down to was arrogance and stupidity.
As the unemployment rate rose, so did domestic violence, riots, wars, etc. Soon most major cites resembled my own scarred frame. This gave me a warp sense of enjoyment, as if the world had finally joined me in my misery. From a dusty corner of my consciousness, a small voice suggested I should think of getting some psychological help, but I shrugged it off. Who listens to small voices, anyway?
While humanity tried to destroy itself, mano a mano, nature decided to join the effort. Famines and natural disasters were abundant. As animals and humans relocated to survive, exotic microbes started to rack up frequent-flyer miles. The merciless bacteria that destroyed my life made another appearance. Miami and Los Angeles lost hundreds of citizens before someone remembered we had a vaccine for it.
Not that the epidemic was as bad as it could have been. The current strain wasn't quite as drug resistant as the one that had struck my family. But it wasn't going to stay that way for long. In Third World, people continued popping older antibiotics like candy without any physician supervision at all and children still hawked the stuff in marketplaces likes cheap souvenirs. Even in countries where the newer antibiotics were available and the medical community should have known better, physicians were pressured by fear and helplessness into over-prescribing them. The make things worse, many people still insisted on discontinuing their treatments as soon as they felt better, thinking that hoarding a few pills would more be more helpful in the long run.
"Fools," I would chuckle to myself as the media bemoaned the current rash of deadly epidemics, rendered uncontrollable by several decades of antibiotic abuse. "Most of you did it to yourselves."
With the non-drug resistant microbes out of the fierce competition for sustenance, the drug resistant microbes prospered and swapped R-plasmids amongst themselves, becoming resistant to even more drugs. Within a decade, physicians were as helpless as their early twentieth century colleagues, as the death rate from infections rose to pre-penicillin levels. Pharmaceutical laboratories toiled to find new drugs to combat the bacterial hordes.
Vaccines became humanity's surest bet. Thirty years after the world's markets fell, most countries had rebuilt themselves and their citizens became vaccinated for hundreds of microbes. I viewed it all with a mild disinterest.
About the same time, someone, reading through some old scientific journals, decided that the alloy I was developing when my family died, could be a great help to humanity. Unfortunately for him, what research notes hadn't be destroyed in disinfecting my apartment, had been burned to ashes, decades ago, during a particularly violent riot at the university.
But this young pup wasn't about to be stymied. He did some detective work and found me in my little room with it cyclopean electronic eye on the world. He was as bright as a newly minted penny when he greeted me.
"Dr. Phillips!" he gushed. "I am Dr. Curtis Veldt. It is such a pleasure to finally meet you! I have long been an admirer of your work."
I nodded and eyed the young, dark haired man with a total lack of interest. He nervously cleared his throat.
"I am especially awed by the last alloy you were working on. Do you realize what such a metal could do for everyone?"
I ignored the rhetorical question and let the list of the alloy's possible benefits to humanity go in one ear and out the other. Finally, Dr. Veldt got to his request.
"I know that it's been a long time and all your notes are gone, Dr. Phillips, but I was hoping that you would be willing to give me any information you could remember about that last alloy."
I regarded him again. Perhaps I had mellowed over the last couple decades. For what ever reason, I decided to humor the young man.
"So, you want to recreate my research?" My voice was soft and raspy.
"If you don't mind."
I shrugged. "What the hell? It could be interesting."
He seemed bewildered at my answer.
"So, you don't mind if I bring a few colleagues and a tape recorder next time?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Go ahead," I assured him. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Thank you, Dr. Phillips. You are a saint."
I watched him as he got up and left my room. Poor fool. He actually thought I gave a damn.
After several interviews, all I could give them was a rough ratio of elements and a vague overview of the manufacturing process. Dr. Veldt visited every week and gave me updates on their research. He always spoke to me with a great deal of reverence. I, however, hardly ever spoke. If he wanted an idol to venerate, why should I waste my breath on educating him on reality? To be perfectly honest, I ignored most of what he say.
Eight months later, he began asking me rather strange questions on what I did, during my last days of research. For instant - what was the layout of my apartment? And what was my daily routine? Once, during one of these strange interviews, I mentioned I had a ball of the alloy, at one time. Dr. Veldt jumped on the information like a dog on a bone.
"What happened to the ball?" he asked.
"Don't know," I answered. "Last time I remember seeing it, I had set it on the bookshelf, in the playroom, a few days before we got sick."
He gave me a soft look and asked me one more question.
"If you could know anything about the past, what would it be?"
I didn't need time to contemplate my answer.
"To know where the bacteria that killed my family came from."
The next time he came, he brought a private nurse and some new clothes for me. After I was cleaned and dressed, Dr. Veldt brought in a new wheelchair. Then he sat behind me and gently brushed my hair.
"There," he said, "Now you look like the respected scientist you are."
"What is going on here?" I finally asked.
"We have a pleasant surprise for you, today, Dr. Phillips."
"Not reporters, I hope," I growled in a gravelly voice. "I hate reporters."
"No reporters, I promise you," he answered.
I was pushed out to a van. As I looked around, I realized I couldn't remember the last time I had been outside. The air was very sharp to my senses.
"Where are we going?" I asked when we were all inside the vehicle.
"To the university's Physics building," Dr. Veldt answered.
"Why?" I croaked.
At the university, I was wheeled down to a basement laboratory. Several men and women in white lab coats gingerly shook my deformed hand. An auburn haired lady in her fifties addressed the assembled crowd.
"Good afternoon," she started. "I am Dr. Valerie Gardner. I would like to thank all of you for coming today. I am especially glad that Dr. Phillips is here for this historic demonstration. It is a honor to have such an esteemed scientist among us."
I wasn't fooled for a moment. Esteemed scientist, my foot. It wasn't for my scientific work I was esteemed for, but my peculiar body chemistry. Keep your empty accolades to yourself, Dr. Gardner.
My attention drifted as she continued on about this and that time theory. It didn't look as if laboratories had changed too much during the last half-century. They were still basically cement walls, painted white, with masonite counter tops on top of metal cabinets. The light sources looked different, but I couldn't tilt my head back far enough to be sure.
Someone passed a box a donuts around as Dr. Gardner talked of viewing the past in different locales. As I took a bite of the cruller Dr. Veldt handed me, I thought again about his question. Could they really see where the bacteria came from? I looked down at my snack and chuckled to myself. This donut could easily be harboring as much of the bacteria as that mysterious strawberry one did. And after all these years, it was probably just as drug resistant.
After thirty-some minutes of theory explanation, Dr. Gardner directed our attention to a large metal unit to my left. Among the many monitors was something that reminded me of a ship's portal. A blond and freckled grad student sat down at the controls and started the machine. Dr. Veldt took a place next to the glowing portal.
Suddenly a gasp of surprise went through the crowd. I craned my head, but in my chair, I was at the wrong level to see what was going on. Dr. Veldt bent his dark head of hair closer to the portal and started to talk to someone. I wasn't sure who he was addressing.
"Do you see that metal ball up there? Could you bring it here?" he asked.
I looked around for the object he was referring to, but I was unable to locate it. A few more minutes went by, before he began speaking again.
"Yes, that's it. Would you give it to me?"
I couldn't make out the reply of the soft, high-pitched voice. Dr. Veldt glanced around and grabbed a donut with pink frosting from the nearby box.
"Would you like to trade it for this donut?" he asked.
My mind froze. Something was wrong here. I should be stopping this, but, for the life of me, I couldn't think of the reason why.
Then, when Dr. Veldt produced a metallic ball from the portal, it hit me.
"YOU FOOLS!" I screamed as loud as my damaged vocal cords would let me. "You arrogant, irresponsible, self-centered bastards! That donut had drug-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria on it! And you traded it for an alloy you could have reproduced yourselves, if you had the patience!"
My twisted body shook with rage as I glared accusingly at the assembled scientists.
"YOU KILLED MY FAMILY!!!"
Copyright © 1998, Amanda D. Barncord Doerr