By R. J. Warner
This facility is under lockdown.
Those words blazed like searing cattle brands into my brain. The barrier that protects me from the outside world also now protects them from my antidotal treatment. When we first were commissioned by the state to discover one of either a vaccination, treatment or cure, little did we know this very process would cost us so many of our own–like poor Ed Dranner. In one way, I feel less sorry for him than the others, as he had no children, wife or lover. Ed was married to his job, and that eternal and oft duplicitous vow of matrimony—‘til death–would unabashedly claim her pound of flesh. That I would be the impounder, the angel of oblivion, made me feel profoundly more sorry for him.
From the very moment the beaker broke we knew it was a capital misdemeanor. The head scientist, our procurator, moderator and muse all rolled into one, laid strict instructions as to the steps to immediately take should a suit be compromised. Here, a nightmare of imaginary scenarios came true, as the cut was deep, the murky fluid spread throughout. The fluid of which one drop is the instant siphoning of the soul was helping coagulate the congealing blood. I saw the brilliant light of charitable humanity and basic social instinct leave Ed’s eyes. Or perhaps nothing had changed in his eyes. Perhaps it was merely the reflection of what he had seen in mine. It frightened him, this instantaneous turn from best friend to mortal enemy. He ran. He was fat and I was quicker. He did not make it to the safe room. He made it to the incinerator, which by some misfortune in engineering was located adjacent, and, for budgetary reasons, fitted with an identical handle. We looked at each other through the pane of glass–remorseless in its silence, turning earnest rationality into grotesque, muffled pantomime. This barrier numbed my humanity. I touched the button off before I could think about it twice. I turned away as he burned. That is how I lost our head scientist.
The first thing the soldiers taught me before they all left was to prepare myself for my enemy by reducing their humanity with constant affirmations. They are devils. They are not men. No sword can penetrate a shroud of compassion, no bullet escape a grip of empathy. But xenophobia, once heinous and the character flaw of hermits and schizophrenics, has no such untimely scruples. Now it is my greatest tool for survival. Nothing new must break my vigil. Even the old rituals must continually be reviewed for reduction. My circle grows smaller every day, and my filth waxes larger. It is little consolation to believe the cleaning crew may be feeling equally but oppositely the effects of this lockdown. I imagine them standing mops and dusters in hand, awaiting the end of the standoff and with loyal patience cleaning the outside foyer. I hate them too.
I used to visit the infected ward and our poor animals, if they can even be called that. There is some pity I feel yet for the dogs, maybe the rats, but none for the pigs or chinchillas. Yes, chinchillas. By some cross-department chicanery and incredibly pragmatic direction from state authorities with the center for animal control, we received no less than 73 confiscated chinchillas from the clutches of a spinstress hoarder. I didn’t know it was possible to hate an entire species so perfectly and completely. We have them in two consecutive bins with pine shavings and amenities. In one are the uninfected. They scurry about as innocent and domestic as care-bears, concerned with nourishment, grooming, mating and play. In the other is a doddering mass of mute cannibals pressed continually against the clear plastic sidewall in the continual and incorrigible effort to either initiate their brethren, or consume. The circumstances that lead them to initiate rather than consume are what I have been trying to replicate systematically with no success. As I hold one flailing but otherwise healthy chinchilla above the slobbering, matted throng, I observe the mindless clones gravitate in anticipation of their sacrifice like blind moths drawn to dim light, like hatchling robins before a mother bird, with gaping maws and red throats. The strangest observation is that, though they are cannibals, it seems they have pledged themselves to either mutual defense or non-competitive hunting. Though they eat their own breed, they have no interest in their own variant.
Now that one chinchilla bin is empty, I don’t go back. Not even for the dogs. I don’t want to know what has become of them. The pigs simply make me hungry. I haven’t had pork chops in what feels like a month of Sundays. Oh the succulent taste of pork chops. But who could eat a morsel of meat knowing what I know? Who could assuage the gall rising within them with the flesh of God’s creatures, subjugate the nausea with sinewy strands of the very muscle twice proven insufficient to make good the escape from the hunter’s snare? I too desire escape. The RMEs enervate me. There are only three flavors of them in the canteen. I hardly have touched them in a week’s time. I hope to never touch them again.
Far more than food I miss my Love. Oh to feel her moist kisses upon my lips, to caress her hair and indulge my weary eyes by peering into the endless fathoms of hers. But it can never be again. She too is lost forever. Her remains lie crumpled in front of the centrifuge counter. If only the centripetal, magnetic force of my love for her could turn back time, spinning the earth like Superman and also spinning her around in time to leap from the bites that took her flesh and, slowly, her life. I am wiser and more careful now.
A continual and frustrating thought is that the soldiers have not returned. A young sergeant with green eyes and a sallow face told me they wouldn’t be more than two days. Clearly either he had no authority to say or no power to keep this promise against the powerful forces at work outside. On leaving they took my keycard. Ed’s was incinerated, worthless. They took my Love’s, her placard, her dogtags, her gravestone. They took Danny Voort in his entirety, keycard, haz-mat suit, handlebar mustache, surprised look, everything. But before they took Danny, he had invented, or rather discovered something that may be the salvation of this place, this state, this world.
Danny found the antidote. When I told you we were commissioned to find a vaccine, treatment or cure, some distinction between these must be explained. The first prevents a condition, the last reverts it. The middle, the treatment, subverts most of the negative effects. Danny found formaldehyde. As a science lab, we are loaded to the gills with this stuff. Since we are not primarily a teaching institution, preserving anything for posterity is a worthless endeavor, or so we thought. But thanks to the miracle of state funding, we had three five-gallon drums. Most notably, through inhalation, injection and imbibing, the damaging effects on the brain of–well, let’s call it what it is—zombieism–are reduced to nil. Some symptoms and side effects remain, however, as is expected. The parkinsons-like effect, or more correctly, rigor mortis, cannot be entirely eradicated, but its stifling by this treatment is a veritable boon. Gait unhindered and void of the typical shamble or waddle, any given subject should be able to perform most tasks with ease and retain their dignity. From walking to eating to writing and reading, nothing is above the realm of possibility. The rabid desire to bite cannot be removed entirely, but I believe with a second team of scientists I could find a way to supplement the formaldehyde in the correct antipsychotic cocktail.
My one solace is that I know they have not forgotten me. I have complete trust in our government, in our state, and in the hope that springs eternal in the bosom of man. Life will find a way. It will even spring reassurances. Mine are on the observation deck above. From a window I see their shadows. The general, the governor, the second team of scientists, and Danny Voort, his mustache is unmistakable.
So it comes to this, as the doors finally open and my green eyed sergeant returns, with two fellows, his shotgun, and grim determination on his face. They mean to take my antidote but not me. They mean to leave me, as they left Ed and my Love and the dogs. They mean to end the experiment. But I will not back meekly into the incinerator. I am the survivor. I am the victor. I am the master. He has not accounted for my rats. From the vents they swarm him and one of his fellows, crawling up his camo’d legs as though a vacuum lured them. To his exposed, sallow face they climb and attach like leeches. His blasts of shot catch two, but twenty replace them. The fellow farthest from the vents fires, not at the rats, but at me.
I did not need that forearm, anyhow. I can still get you, you tasty, tasty brain bowl. Afterward, freedom is mine!
The world is my pork chop.