“The Existential Cure,” a new short story by Will McIntosh, is now available.
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The Existential Cure
by Will McIntosh
I stood on the edge of the curb, out of the flow of pedestrians, and watched for my son and my ex-wife. A blonde man with a twisted face and raging skin ulcers brushed against my shoulder as he lurched past. He was laughing like a loon. I tried not to flinch.
I spotted Caroline’s van and flagged it to the curb.
She stared at me through the window as Matt got out on the passenger side, her fat red lips set in an adolescent pout, cheeks streaked with too much blush, her big boobs spilling out of a low-cut blouse. I tried to recall a time when those boobs had made my head spin, but my revulsion was bone-deep and set like concrete.
Her window glided down. “He’s all yours,” she said.
“Mm-hm,” I said, not meeting her eyes.
Matthew waddled around the front of the van wheeling a suitcase, puffing from the exertion. Jesus, he’d gotten huge. How could Caroline let him get so big?
“Are you sure about this?” She said. “You know, having him around every day isn’t the same as taking him for a weekend once in a while.”
I ignored her. “You ready, buddy?” I wrapped my arm around his doughy shoulders.
“Yeah,” he said. He waved to Caroline; she forced a smile and drove off.
Matt went right to the computer in the room I’d set up for him in my new apartment. He didn’t even unpack first. He brought up his fantasy sim game and started clicking. His every exhale made a whoosh.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Medicine causing any side-effects?”
“How are you doing with that kid who’s bothering you?”
“Bad,” he said not taking his eyes off the screen.
“What’s he doing?”
He sighed. “Him and his friends stuffed the bottom of my locker with food from the cafeteria trash can. They told a bunch of other kids about it,” he said, his throat clenching up.
“Everyone was watching when I opened it.” He stabbed the keys viciously.
“Oh, jeeze Matt,” I said. “That’s awful.” I went over to him, patted his shoulder. “I’ll help you. We’ll figure this out.”
Matt wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said. He didn’t sound convinced.
Christ, I had to stop this. The bastard was killing him, stressing his immune system. He needed to stay relaxed and well-rested or the virus would go active.
I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t have much experience being a dad, wasn’t sure how it was done. How do you help your son with a bully, for example? I had no idea.
I left him to his game, sat on the couch and flipped open the “homework” from my first day on the PreCort Virus task force. It was hard to concentrate; my heart was hammering.
Viruses are parasites. They invade a host, then replicate within the host, commandeering much of the host’s materials to carry out the replication.
I was relieved to see it really was written in lay language, just as the team leaders had said. Despite a philosophy Ph.D., I was an obtuse reader. Jargon lost me in a hurry.
That is why it is difficult to eradicate them. Antiviral compounds must be selective. They must inhibit the virus without harming the host.
Sort of like guerilla fighters who hide among innocent civilians. You have to distinguish the enemy from the villagers.
Caroline’s face popped into my mind. How could I ever have married her? How could I have been that stupid, even at twenty-one?
Well, probably because no girls in college would go out with me because I was a desperate, insecure loser. Along comes this cute blonde with big boobs, and she wants me. She’s even willing to sleep with me. I guess I figured no one else ever would, certainly no one as good looking as her. So what if she was dumb as dirt? Grab her before she realizes what a loser I am and changes her mind. I think it was that simple.
I forced my attention back to the primer.
Viruses spread through the body by invading cells—breaching the cell wall and taking over the cell. Once there, the virus begins replicating, or reproducing, until its numbers are so great the cell bursts, spreading the virus to nearby cells and into the bloodstream.
How much of my own lack of self-esteem in college had been caused by the bully who’d tormented me in junior high? After thirty years I could still picture Ed Reich’s sneering face as he whacked the back of my hand with the steel edge of a ruler while the teacher wasn’t looking.
Oh, I knew what my son was going through.
The Prefrontal Cortex virus (PreCort) takes things a step further. It hijacks not only individual cells, but entire neurological systems and, ultimately, the entire human nervous system. It is not like any other virus, does not behave like a virus at all in many respects. The advanced symptoms of PreCort resemble a cross between multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer. Death by PreCort is unpleasant…
I closed the report and tossed it on the coffee table. I had to do something about this bully.
I went out on the veranda, closed the sliding glass door, and called the principal at Matt’s school.
I explained the situation, and his tone was reassuring. I watched a cute woman in neon workout garb with matching mask and gloves walk her Golden Retriever in the park below as we discussed the situation like adults. “We’ll handle this,” he said at one point, “we do not tolerate bullying here.” By the time I hung up, I felt better.
“Hey Matt,” I called. “Why don’t we watch a movie? Your choice.” Just saying it gave me a warm, comfortable feeling. Watching a movie with my son, just him and me. I was so glad I’d landed a job close to him, even if it was only for two years. With thirty percent unemployment, I was lucky to have a job.
The desk chair squealed on the wood floor in Matt’s room. “Okay,” he called. There was a little life in his voice, a little enthusiasm. Good.
New York has such a distinct feel. The checkerboard grid of numbered streets, antique traffic lights, brilliant silver solar panels, huge billboards staring down on the flowing crowds like postmodern gods. Newsstands, hot dog carts, sidewalk cafes. The sidewalks overflowed with people, many with PreCort. Even those without mid-stage lesions were identifiable by cartoonish expressions—impossibly wide grins, brow-knotted frowns, jaw-clenched terror. The expressions were the external reflection of whatever the PreCort virus happened to be raping and pillaging in their victims’ brains at the moment. They struggled past in alarming numbers—as if the undead had been added to the city’s stew of diversity.
The ailing people on the streets didn’t tell half the story, though; most people with full-blown PreCort were in makeshift hospitals, or back alleys, or tucked up under highway overpasses, dying. And then there were the infected who hadn’t gone full-blown yet. Like Matt.
I think there are two very different types of dying. There is unexpected death: massive heart attack, auto accident, murder; and there is expected death: cancer, Alzheimer’s, AIDS, PreCort. Unexpected death, in my mind, is like winning the lottery. The physical pain of dying is a paper cut compared to the raw existential terror that accompanies the awareness that death is coming soon. Everyone dies, but knowing how, and approximately when, is an awful curse. Matthew was living that curse, and I was living it with him, and could just barely stand it.
A twelve or thirteen year old kid cool-walked past me, a can of spray paint dangling from his fingertips.
I imagined this kid standing over Matt’s cafeteria table making pig noises while Matt choked down his lunch. I could almost hear the snickers drifting from nearby tables. Even semi-decent kids appreciate the humor of tormenting a fat kid while he eats.
I passed the giant garage door in the side of the stone giant that was my place of employment for the next year. The Kingsbridge Armory, built in 1858—a red brick monolith that took up an entire city block. It seemed an unlikely place to find a cure for the most modern of afflictions.
Through the door I could see the drill floor, big as a football field, capped with a semicircular dome crisscrossed inside with steel girders. The floor was an ocean of white-sheeted cots, every one filled with someone dying horribly. The cots came right up to the door; a girl about fifteen turned her empty, dying eyes to look at me as I passed. Her spastically clenched hand was trembling violently under her chin.
I continued to the arched front door of the armory, down the wide, high-ceilinged hallway to the “genius room,” which was once the armory’s officer’s club and ballroom. I spotted the other members of my “spoke,” standing at a folding table drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Yesterday had been orientation. We’d learned from a silver-haired military-looking guy (whose slick speech had been completely devoid of “um’s”) that PreCort infection had gone from zero to over eleven percent of the U.S. population in the thirty-eight months since it had been identified. He laid out the repercussions with cool efficiency: collapsing economy, social unrest, rising crime, coming apocalypse.
Then he’d shifted into cheerleader mode, calling us the best and brightest the world had to offer. We were psychologists, philosophers, novelists, artists—not a medical person among us. According to him, that was the point.
“It has often been the amateur, the newcomer, who makes the big breakthrough in a field,” he’d said, “because the newcomer isn’t locked into the existing paradigm. Medical researchers have been trained to think along specific tracks. When it comes to this virus, those tracks haven’t worked.”
Well sure, amateurs with telescopes sometimes blundered on new comets on their back porches, but typically they didn’t make discoveries about the nature of black holes, or quarks. I had serious doubts about this gig. But at least I was close to my son, and doing something to help find a cure for him.
I joined my spoke. We were the spokes of the wheel. The hub was a crack biological research team, housed in another part of the armory so they didn’t contaminate us with their existing-paradigm thinking.
I unwrapped my cup (seemed so long ago that it was safe to just grab a cup from a stack…), got some coffee, and stood next to Kerrie Calloway, a MacArthur Award-winning political analyst. She was less than five feet tall, and cute as the proverbial dickens. She was chatting with Evan Rank, an entrepreneur and amateur comedian who wasn’t particularly funny. I hovered on the edge of their conversation, my usual awkward self, until work started.
Why do schools always look like prisons? Matt’s was a white concrete monolith with steel-framed windows, separated from the street by a cyclone fence and a dirt yard with a few patches of struggling grass.
The kids burst through the front doors, their expressions covered by surgical masks. All of them wore masks, even the ones who were obviously infected. A girl who looked like she’d fallen down a staircase while carrying a tackle box walked alongside a guy with his hair dyed grey. When had grey hair gotten popular? Shit, he could have some of mine.
I spotted Matt, backpack slung over one shoulder, staring at his tennis shoes. He didn’t look happy. Of course, I couldn’t remember the last time he had.
“Hey guy,” I said as he struggled his big self into the passenger seat. He didn’t answer, just looked straight ahead. I pulled away from the curb.
“How did things go today?” I prodded.
“Why didn’t you ask me first?” he shouted. “How could you call the school?”
“Jeeze Matt, I’m sorry. I was trying to help.”
Matt pulled off his mask, threw it on the floor. We drove in silence for a moment.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Finny got called to the principal’s office in the middle of health class. He comes back and announces in front of the whole class that my daddy called the school and said I couldn’t concentrate on my schoolwork because Finny was tormenting me.”
I glanced over at him. His puffy chin was quivering and his cheeks were scarlet.
“You made things worse. I wanted to die right there.”
“Don’t say that,” I said. “Say anything else, but not that.”
“Did you remember to take your medicine?” I asked.
“I already took it. You think I really want to die?”
“I know you don’t. And you won’t. Everyone’s looking for the cure now. Even me.”
Matt sniffled, looked out his window at a fire blazing in a trash can.
“I’m really sorry. I won’t do anything else without asking you first.”
We passed a group of people roasting something on a makeshift spit in an empty lot. I realized with a jolt that it was a dog.
On a cellular level, PreCort causes illness and death by a variety of actions: by killing neurons, by stifling the transmission of neurotransmitters between neurons, by triggering events that weaken the brain’s ability to produce neurotransmitters.
I jotted a note in the margin:
The war metaphor is obvious. They’re invaders. The medical model seeks to combat the invaders—it’s focused on developing weapons and carrying out counter-attacks. If I’m going to come up with anything novel, I’ll have to think beyond weapons and battles.
Although neurotransmitters are PreCorts’s main target, other cells are infected as well. Long-lived cells called monocytes and macrophages can hold large quantities of the virus without dying, and they are used as holding areas for PreCort reserves.
Concentration camps. They take hostages and force them to work. They don’t kill the cells they can use, at least not right away.
I took a bite of my hot dog, washed it down with a swig of Yoo Hoo. A pigeon was pecking aimlessly near my feet. I pinched off a ball of roll and tossed it to him. He raced over to it, head bobbing comically, and ate it. I should take Matt to the park to feed the pigeons some time. It was relaxing, gave you an uncomplicated good feeling. Another pigeon was hurrying over to get in on the action. I pinched off another piece.
Finny, Matt’s tormenter, had gone underground for a few weeks—a thumb tack on Matt’s chair, names scrawled on his locker. Now Finny was back to the frontal assault. He’d shoved Matt into the bushes, leaving him with angry red scrapes on his forearm and belly.
“So, you gonna go home and tell daddy?” he’d asked as he walked away.
This bully was just a kid, not a virus with an incredibly sophisticated plan of conquest. I had to at least be able to stop him. Maybe I needed to attack Finny at the source, like the virus did?
On impulse I looked up Finny’s home number with my phone. It was listed. I dialed. While it rang I thought about my promise to Matt, not to do anything without asking him first.
“Yeah?” A sandpaper voice answered.
“Hi,” I said, consciously keeping my voice low and even. My voice tends to get high when I’m nervous or agitated. “Is this Finny Ward’s dad?”
“Yeaup,” he said.
I explained the situation to him, trying not to make his kid sound like the evil bastard he clearly was.
“Kids need to sort this stuff out on their own,” Finny’s dad said dismissively. “If Finny’s bothering your kid, why don’t he defend himself? He breaks Finny’s nose, Finny ain’t gonna bother him any more, is he?
Jesus, no wonder the kid was a thug.
“Hey, your son is assaulting mine without provocation. Don’t try to tell me it’s my son’s fault because he’s not violent enough.”
“It’s a dog eat dog world out there, mister. You should stop coddling your kid, let him learn how to sort things out himself.”
“Well maybe I should come over there and break your nose. How would that be, sorting-out wise?”
And I could break his nose. I’d studied karate in grad school. I told everyone, including myself, that I was learning it because of the ties to Eastern philosophy—the whole mind/body/spirit unification thing.
“You set foot on my property, you better be armed to the teeth, my friend,” he answered. “And you better know how to use what you’re packing.”
“What, you’re not man enough to face me without a weapon?” I said. My voice had crawled up to that high pitch. “You want my son to fight your son with his fists, but you’re afraid to do the same?”
“The game’s different when you’re men. You come on over here, I’ll show you how it’s played, asshole.”
“Well maybe I’ll give my son a gun, and he can resolve his problem like a man.” I slapped my cell phone closed.
I slammed the rest of my hot dog into a trash can, headed back to the armory.
My father tried to teach me how to defend myself against my bully. He accidentally kneed me too hard on the chin, and I saw stars and dropped to my knees. I always suspected my dad had done it on purpose, to show me I could take a hit, that it wasn’t the end of the world. My dad was a good guy, he meant well, but he just didn’t understand. It wasn’t Eddie’s fists I was most afraid of, it was the crowd; it was getting beat up in front of an audience of laughing, jeering kids. I would have cried, I wouldn’t have been able to help it. And at thirteen, that was one small step short of pissing in your pants.
During this early phase of the life cycle, the virus is not yet infectious.
They’re sort of like children—they can’t reproduce until maturation. Can the children be threatened?
I considered crossing that out, in case someone else saw it. Sure, and maybe we could design little bullies to pick on them, and the adult viruses would get angry and do something rash. I left it.
Another defense the body has are FDCs. They go to hot spots of virus activity and act like flypaper—trapping invaders and holding them until other cells can kill them.
The body tries all sorts of strategies, but it’s a losing battle.
Uninfected cells may die in an innocent bystander scenario: PreCort particles may bind to the cell surface, giving them the appearance of an infected cell and marking them for destruction by killer T cells.
You’ve got to be kidding! I swear I’ve seen this in war films. These things are smart. I had assumed the viral infection was a simple, one-pronged assault on the body. No—viruses attack different defenders in different ways; they dress up innocents in their uniforms and get the enemy to kill their own. Why? To demoralize them?
How do they coordinate their attacks? Is there a leader? Clearly they communicate. How?
Tentatively, I added a final line.
Maybe we can talk to them.
I stared at that last sentence. They’d laugh me off the team if I suggested it.
“Okay, brainstorming time. Who’s got fresh ideas to toss around? Anybody?”
My heart was racing. What an idiot…I was a 38 year-old man, I had a Ph.D. in philosophy, and still I was nervous to speak up. People were flipping through notes, looking around expectantly for someone else to get the ball rolling.
“Doesn’t have to be a good idea,” Jake, our team leader, prodded. “Even if you think it’s dumb…”
I raised my pencil.
“These virus attacks look like they’re coordinated. Each virus seems to know what to do, where to go. They must be communicating somehow.” My mouth was dry, my tongue making a clicking sound. I took a swig from my water bottle. “Can we figure out some way to talk to them?” I finished.
Silence. No one laughed, but no one shouted ’Eureka!’ either.
“What do you mean?” Kerrie asked.
“Well, given the sophistication of their attacks, they must communicate with each other. Can we figure out their language and communicate with them?”
“What sort of a language would it be?” Kerrie asked.
“It would have to be chemical,” Albert responded. His area was communication.
“They’re microscopic organisms,” Evan interjected. “They’re very simple. We might as well try conversing with electrons.”
“Okay, let’s assume for the moment it is possible to communicate with the virus,” Jack said, sounding as if he wasn’t all that happy making that assumption. “What would we say? What would it gain us? We can’t just tell them to stop—they’re reproducing, pursuing their species’ survival. It would be like telling lions to stop eating zebras because they’re endangered.”
“Could we feed them bad intelligence?” Albert suggested.
“Negotiate. Threaten. Terrorize,” I read from my margin notes. “Pretend to be god.” I added.
Now everyone laughed.
Evan rolled up a briefing and put it to his mouth. “Attention, HIV viruses. This is God, and I’m really, really angry. Cease and desist or I will smite you with implements of iron.”
More laughter, though it seemed forced. The guy had such a dorky sense of humor.
“I’ll pass this on to the bio team, let them kick it around,” Jack said. He scribbled a note, then looked around the room again. “What else?” So much for my brainstorm.
Six months, and countless sleepless nights worrying about Matt, later, my spoke and I were milling around the breakfast table munching danishes and shooting the shit when the silver-haired military guy walked in.
I felt a little guilty, like a kid in school caught goofing off by the teacher. It was 8:20; we were on the government’s dime.
“Which one of you is Dr. Ferdinand?” He asked.
“I am,” I said. He stepped up to me, held out his hand. I shook it reflexively.
“Congratulations. We’ve made contact,” he said. He grinned. “I wanted your group to be the first to hear.”
The room went silent.
“You mean, you’ve talked to the virus?” I asked.
“You have,” I parroted. I was having one of those moments where you feel like you’re watching yourself, like you’re just along for the ride and someone else is doing the talking and moving. “How did you do it?”
“Viruses pirate the human body’s resources, that we knew. The PreCort virus targets the brain, and it’s highly sophisticated, far more resourceful than any other virus. Now we understand why: while it’s wreaking havoc on the brain, it’s also using it. It bootstraps itself into human consciousness. It utilizes neurotransmitters to communicate.”
“The good news is, we understand the brain and neurotransmitters. That makes the virus’ crude language potentially decipherable.”
“What did they say?” Kerrie asked.
“We’re not sure yet; our best guess is confusion, or maybe a request for clarification. But we know they can hear us. In all likelihood they experience the message as originating from within their cohort. It’s all they know. They think they’re talking to themselves.”
“What did you ask them?” Albert said.
“We’re not sure. We were trying to tell them to stop.”
“Did they all answer? Or just one?”
“They communicate as a whole, and as subsystems. As individual viruses they’re dumb, like the cells of the human body. As groups, they’re more complex. Like the cells of the human body.”
“Are you saying the group comprises one entity?” Jack asked.
“It’s not quite that simple, but, yes.”
“Can we talk to them?” I asked.
“Eventually. We’ll become more confident about what’s being said as we analyze their responses to a systematic series of messages. We’re working on that now.”
He patted me on the shoulder.
“I’m assigning half of the spokes to this line of attack. Good work, Keegan.”
Six months later, we sat in silence around the table in the “genius room,” avoiding each other eyes. Ceiling fans wobbled and squeaked overhead.
“So where are we?” Jack said.
Nothing had fazed the virus. We’d tried confusing them with misguided directions, but it only worked short-term; within hours they made the necessary corrections to continue their assault on the brain. We chemically tagged specific viruses to specific neurons, then killed the virus when its matched neuron was killed by the virus. They responded by ratcheting up their replication efforts and killing neurons more quickly. We were limited in what we could say by the constraints of their crude language. It was much like the researchers who’d taught sign language to apes and dolphins—they figured out how to talk to them, but discovered that apes and dolphins didn’t have much to say.
“I think we’ve reached a dead end,” Evan said. “There isn’t much use in talking to a ruthless enemy. No one could talk to Hitler; he only understood force. This virus only understands force.”
“The virus isn’t angry—it doesn’t see what it does as aggressive,” Jack said. “They’re making babies, and bulldozing trees to provide comfortable homes for their kids.”
Nobody responded. Kerrie was doodling on her yellow pad.
As the weeks had gone by more and more people had begun voicing similar sentiments. It was remarkable that we could communicate with the virus, and it would likely lead to a far greater understanding of how the virus functioned. But as an immediate avenue to reducing mortality rates and controlling contagion, it was not bearing fruit.
Out in the world, the virus continued to spread, through kisses and syringes and ice cream cones. The country was under martial law; stock market trading had been halted.
I found Matt in bed when I got home.
“Matt? What’s wrong? Are you sick?” I squatted down beside him. He was trembling, his face to the wall. “Hey, c’mere, let me see you.” I gently rolled his shoulder toward me.
His eyes were puffed from crying, his cheeks beet red.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t want to go back to school. I want to stay here. Please let me stay here,” he wailed.
“Is it Finny?”
Matt nodded, gasping. “And now he’s got other kids bothering me. I can’t stand it anymore. Please.” He started to sob hysterically, his eyes squeezed shut, tears bursting out of the corners.
I hugged him tight and rocked him. “You can stay home tomorrow,” I said. “You can stay home as much as you want to.”
I left work early the next day and waited for Finny in a little park area between two tenements. Finny lived in one of them. He wasn’t hard to spot, climbing the steps from the street into this little Shangri-La of shrubs, trees, and park benches, because Matt had described him to me in morbid detail. His head was shaved, except on top where a tangle of green hair sprouted like a neglected lawn. The sight of him swaggering along, alpha-male sneer on his face, filled me with hot rage. It felt good to have a target for it. I went toward him.
He looked up at me. “Yeah?”
I stuck my finger in his face. “You listen, you little shit. If you ever bother my son Matt again, I’ll take you apart! You get me? You like picking on—”
Finny pushed my hand aside.
“Fuck you,” he said. “What are you gonna do, beat me up?” He spread his palms. “Go ahead, you faggot. Maybe I’ll tell the judge you grabbed my dick, then the other prisoners will fuck you up the ass, and you can get AIDS.”
I shoved him hard against the graffiti-stricken brick wall of the tenement.
“Get the fuck off me,” he said. He shoved me back. His backpack slipped off his shoulder and fell to the pavement.
I smacked him across the face. He glared at me, then threw two quick punches with his short arms, missing with both. I grabbed him by the throat, pressing my thumb into the hollow under his adam’s apple. I pinned him against the wall, reveling in the sound of him choking, and reared back to punch him in the face. I was going to sort things out.
For a moment I was twelve again, and this was a fair fight, and I was going to kick the shit out of Ed Reich and even accounts that had been unbalanced for too long. Then I realized that I was a grown man, on the verge of beating up a twelve year old. He was five feet tall. He didn’t even shave yet—I could see the sun glinting off the light blonde baby-fuzz on his cheek. Suddenly I felt like such an asshole, such a jerk.
I let go of his throat, dropped my fist, gave his shoulder a light shove. “Leave him alone,” I muttered. I turned and walked away.
“Fuck you, asshole,” Finny called after me. “I do what I want.”
I kept walking.
When I was twelve, no kid, no matter how mean, would ever talk like that to an adult. Not even Ed Reich. The rules had changed since I was twelve. I broke into a trot, passing a group of teenage boys with tattooed eyes standing in a clump, watching me. They had evidently seen the whole thing.
“Ain’t he a little small?” One of them called after me. His friends laughed.
I laid my book, Inside the Minds of Bullies, on the glass tabletop, and lifted my fourth martini. The gin burned. It felt good. The park below my verandah was deep in shadows. In the distance, a dog barked.
At my ten year high school reunion I’d watched the door out of the corner of my eye, waiting for Ed. I wasn’t planning to hurt him with all the karate I’d learned. Just confront him, make it clear that I could kick his ass, and that if I wasn’t such a civil, reasonable person I would. I was hoping he’d make some crack, give me an excuse to break his nose yet remain a reasonable person.
Ed never showed.
I drained the glass, pulled out my phone.
“Yeah?” Caroline answered.
“So did you fuck the guy who was redesigning your closets during his first day on the job, or did you wait to get to know him a little first?”
“Go to hell Keegan. It could have been any of a hundred people! I could have gotten it in the fucking diner from an unwashed cup.” She stopped herself. “What do you want?”
“I just want to understand the sequence of events that led you to give my son a fatal disease.”
“I’ve got it too, you piece of shit! Did you ever think of that?” I pulled the phone away from my ear. On second thought, I hung it up.
That hadn’t been reasonable, but I wasn’t feeling reasonable at the moment. Maybe I should call up good old Ed Reich. Or maybe I should buy a gun and take Finny’s dad up on his invitation.
I stared at the book. In the chapter I was currently reading, the author suggested that the best way to stop a bully was to link his outcomes to the victim’s. Get them on the same team, if you will. She described a classic psychology study, the Robber’s Cave study. Boys were brought to a summer camp, divided into two groups, and pitted against each other for resources to see what would happen. Such animosity developed between the two groups that the researchers were afraid the boys would injure each other. There were apple fights in the orchard, then fist fights in the cafeteria. I imagine wedgies were running rampant. The researchers desperately sought a way to defuse the situation. They threw a joint party that nearly turned into a rumble. Finally, they hit on a solution. They took the boys on an outing and the bus “’stalled” out in the middle of nowhere. The only way to get the bus started was to push it and pop the clutch, but it was a heavy bus, so they had to work as a team, and all push as hard as they could. By the next day sworn enemies were swapping baseball cards.
So how could I put Finny in a situation where his well-being depended on Matt’s well-being? Matt sucked at sports, so he wasn’t going to win the big game for the team, even if Finny was into sports, which he probably wasn’t. And Finny wasn’t going to join a fantasy sim game and let Matt help him ward off evil dragons any time soon.
The woman in neon came into view, heading for the park, her dog anxiously tugging on the leash. It looked creepy in there, but I guess the dog made her feel safe. Their fates were linked, her’s and the dog’s. If she died, he didn’t get fed tonight. No one would refill his water dish.
She turned into the park and broke into a jog; Rover happily picked up his pace.
The stupid thought about the water dish niggled at me for a while. There was something about it that spun a loop in the back of my head.
An idea popped out: I could find the toughest kid in Matt’s school, and pay him to tell Finny that from then on, if anything happened to Matt, anything at all, even a skinned knee during gym class, Finny would be held responsible in a bodily way. It might work.
Except when I pictured it in my mind, the toughest kid in Matt’s school didn’t look like a kid at all—he looked like a virus, like a raw steak in the shape of a boy, all ripply at the edges.
The idea percolating in the back of my drunken mind was not about bullies, I realized. No, it was about viruses.
And then, suddenly, there it was. The viruses didn’t know that their fate was linked with ours. They didn’t realize that if they pushed too hard, there would be no one to refill the water dish.
My fingertips started tingling, and a warm rush broke over my face.
I didn’t sleep. I was the first person into the armory when it opened.
“I think I’ve got it,” I said as soon as the spoke was settled. “The virus doesn’t know that the cells of the body are not separate entities, but part of a larger organism.”
I got up and paced, my hands stuffed in my pockets.
“They don’t understand that there is a tipping point, when they kill the host. They can’t know that, because if they did, they wouldn’t do it, because they die too.”
“Oh my God,” Kerrie said.
“We have to make them aware that their fate is linked to the fate of the host,” I said.
Jack hurried out of the room to pass the idea on to the brass.
Kerrie slapped me on the back. “That’s fucking brilliant,” she said. “Create an existential bind. The philosopher strikes again.” I felt myself blush.
For the next three days my spoke mostly sat around, watching the door. I was in the middle of a game of Hearts when Mr. Silver Hair appeared.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for the past thirty-six hours we’ve been transmitting the message repeatedly.”
He paused. I wanted to scream “And?” but I kept my mouth shut.
“At first the viruses responded in typical fashion: confusion, requests for clarification. Then their reply rapidly evolved. Into terror. They completely stopped all replication activity. They’re frozen with terror.”
Everyone cheered. People leaped out of their chairs, hugged, gave each other high fives. Evan grabbed his coffee and flung it into the air; sending a brown pinwheel spray toward the ornate ceiling. I whooped, my fists raised over my head.
Suddenly Kerrie was in front of me. She wrapped me in a hug, whispered something in my ear that I couldn’t quite hear over the whooping, and kissed me on the jaw. It was almost a sisterly kiss on the cheek, but not quite. I hugged her fiercely. Jack joined our hug, then the others surrounded us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as close to a group of people in my life.
I heard the front door open and close. “I’m home!” Matt called.
“How was school?” I said, meeting him in the living room.
“Okay. My friend Cray likes this girl, Ginny Sclafani, and he asked me if I would ask her if she liked him. So at lunch I asked her, and she said she did, but just as friends. So I told Cray, and he said…”
I nodded at the appropriate points in the narrative, but mostly I just enjoyed watching the light in Matt’s eyes, and the shifting expressions on his chubby face.
So, how do you stop a bully from picking on your fat son? You discover a cure for the deadliest disease ever known. You get your face on the cover of Newsweek, and you get short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, even though you’re not a physician or a biologist. Picking on your son becomes akin to picking on Mickey Mantle’s son.
Matt was still PreCort positive; so were nearly a billion others. But the virus was practicing careful birth control. It was aware that winning too many battles meant losing the war, so it strove to fight to a draw. And for Matt and the rest, a draw was victory enough.
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