Nathan Willis

Patient Zero

Mark said the test was wrong. He’s sure of it. He can feel the infection running from the wound to his stomach and back again. It feels like a hot, throbbing wire and the throbs are getting more frequent. He wants me to time them like contractions. Please, he says, call the hospital and find out if there’s still enough time to save me.

      He’s been going on like this for hours.

      He’s fine.

      This is his own fault.

      I leave a message and do my best to not sound crazy. I tell them we were there the night before. I’m the lady who had the animal head in her purse.

 

We have dinner with Gary and Linda every other Friday. They like having standing appointments. Even with us.

      Gary and Linda came into money about a year ago and moved to Windham Hills. Their backyard butts up against an acre of brush that separates them from the surrounding neighborhoods: older allotments without fancy names. Like the allotment where we live.

      They insist on hosting, which is probably for the best. Gary drinks and gets loud and eventually steers the conversation to how he made so much money with just an idea.

      It was a set of circumstances and consequences for a cell phone zombie game. Gary doesn’t know anything about computers, so he approached a software engineer online who developed it into Patient Zero.

      If you become a zombie in the game, it takes control of your phone: your calendar fills with appointments to eat brains; it will randomly make horrible groaning sounds; you get calls that appear to be from contacts, but on the other end there is just screaming and gnashing teeth; the people in your photos are altered to look dead. It’s been downloaded over nine million times. The characters are being printed on everything from T-shirts to fast food wrappers and Gary gets a little piece of everything.

      After they moved, they began incorporating themes into our dinners. That night it was Hawaiian barbeque. Before that it was sushi. Then Mexican street food. The list goes on and on. We have been all over the world.

      Gary hands Mark a shovel and a plate, and they make their way to a mound in the backyard. Linda and I sit at the patio table and she explains the Kalua tradition of cooking meat in the ground. She asks if I want to see the hole. She says it’s fascinating.

      Gary and Mark are horsing around. I can tell from their distant pantomime which childhood adventure they are reliving. It’s the one where they went fishing. Mark smuggled a fish — a big one, two feet long — back home to a utility sink in the basement.

      The fish died almost immediately. Probably from the shock of the tap water. He kept it hidden from everyone in the house for three days while they decided what to do. Hijinks and close calls ensued. He and Gary were little Buster Keatons. They didn’t get caught until they moved it outside. They were going to bury it. Now here we are some twenty years later watching them pull something out of a hole.

      I tell her maybe later, after we eat.

      For a long time, we tried to find a common ground. But Linda has never worked a day in her life. She can’t relate to my circumstances and consequences. Our relationship is one of tolerance. The deeper we can suppress our dislike for each other the stronger we become. Eventually, we will greet each other with hugs. We will text for no reason. We will traffic in advice and compliments. We will stand up for each other. We will be beams of invincible light.

      Gary and Mark load the plates with ribs and start back for the patio. There is a rustle at the edge of the yard. A possum pokes out from the weeds and patters after them.

      I squeeze Linda’s arm and yell that we all need to get inside. And we all do, except for Mark. We stand at the glass patio door and watch. He picks up a rib and motions for me to record him.

      I shake my head.

      Gary pulls out his phone.

      Mark doesn’t understand. Begging isn’t an instinct of the natural world. The possum doesn’t stop and sit up. It picks up speed. Mark takes a blind step backward and trips over a chair.

      The rib lands on the ground.

      Mark screams. The possum is biting his arm.

      Gary stops recording.

      I run outside, grab a shovel, and swing until the animal is dead. Then I keep going. I’ve heard that to test for rabies, doctors need the brain; I have no idea if this is true or not. I spin the handle in my palm and bring the shovelhead down like an axe.

      Linda knew what I was doing. When I was done, she was standing right there next to me holding a freezer bag.

      This is it: our common ground. Soon we’ll go jogging at the Y. She’ll text me in Temecula to see how things are going. When I’m back, we’ll get together and catch up.

      We will tell this story to each other through the years, but when we do, no one will take the time to watch.

 

The hospital staff was more upset about the head than they were about the prospect of an actual rabies case. The triage nurse called it a biohazard and wouldn’t see Mark until I got rid of it.

      I told them to check with the doctor. Look online. Everyone knows this. You need the brain to find out if it’s infected.

      I pulled the bag out of my purse.

      They threatened to call security. Then security came over and asked if there was a problem.

      I went to the restroom and dropped the freezer bag in the tampon receptacle.

      Security checked my purse and the staff took us to an exam room.

      No one asked what I did with the head. They didn’t care as long as it was gone.

 

The doctor called back that afternoon. He said this isn’t uncommon. For some people, when threatened on a deep level, they can only move on by overcoming whatever trauma they projected for themselves, not what they actually experienced. If your husband thinks he has rabies, tell him he’s right. Say we missed some abnormalities in the tests. But it’s a mild case. If he’s strong, he’ll fight it off on his own. The best thing you can do is just play along.

      I tell Mark he might be dying; he’s delighted.

 

Every night the wound must be cleaned and the dressing changed. On the second night, I notice the tooth marks are changing shape and the shapes are forming letters. It reads, This will never get better.

      I show Mark. He jokes that maybe I’m delirious and we should check me for rabies. Then he says it’s just a coincidence and rolls over, holding his arm to his chest.

      When he’s asleep, I pick the scabs so they take longer to heal. Every few days the wound gets smaller and the message changes. Over the following week, the messages are:

      You can’t fix this.

      No one keeps your secrets.

      You should have known better.

      There is no question these messages are for me. If the universe has something to tell me, Mark is the perfect delivery system. Plus, these are all things I’ve already thought myself.

 

Mark posts Gary’s video online, the one that ends right before I kill the possum. Messages flood in from friends, family, and strangers about how brave he is and wishing him a speedy recovery.

      His boss calls and says Mark should take as much time off as he needs. Everyone understands. His job will be waiting for him when he’s better. They want him at one hundred percent. Nothing less.

      Most days, Mark doesn’t bother putting on a shirt or sometimes even pants. He plays video games five hours a day. He complains of no appetite but eats non-stop. Mostly take out and frozen food. Burgers. Pizza. Lo Mein. Falafel. Wings. He has no interest in my homemade soups and casseroles.

      He calls these symptoms, but none of this is out of the ordinary. This is Mark at one hundred percent. He’s just glad there’s an explanation to excuse him for being who he wants to be. The only real symptom is his dream. In the seven years we’ve been together, he’s never mentioned having a dream. Now, he is having the same one over and over.

      It’s night. He sits in a one-room cabin in a forest. There is a knock at the door. The knocking gets more intense until the door opens and there is an animal on the other side. The animal comes in. They exchange words. They wrestle. It is meant to be a fight to the death, but Mark gives up. The animal knows that no matter what it must maintain a balance between man and nature, so it pulls the head off its own body and mounts it on the wall — walls that are already lined with the heads of other animals: bear, deer, elephant, lion, tiger, fox. There are so many, Mark is certain he’s been having this dream since even before the attack.

 

Every month I travel to a different city to teach an adult class on wood portrait carving. The class runs for three days, over the course of which the attendees carve a variety of models while I dole out tips on technique and self-marketing.

      Most people aren’t there to make a living. They are bored and looking for a hobby. It’s easy money and it’s nice to get away. Even if it is to Temecula.

      The night before I go, we argue. Mark can’t believe I’m leaving him like this. He wants me to cancel. He doesn’t care if it means I lose my job. He needs me and that should mean something. He doesn’t understand. This isn’t putting someone’s name on a grain of rice or airbrushing T-shirts. What I do is an art. This is important work.

      I wait until he is in his deepest sleep and peel back the dressing.

      No one believes you’re happy.

      The wound is almost completely healed. I put his arm in my mouth and bite down until I break the skin. His muscles tense. He is awake but doesn’t say anything. I bite again.

 

I fly out on a seven-forty-seven. It’s a full flight. I have an aisle seat. The man next to me pulls up a music video on his laptop, sets it on repeat and promptly falls asleep. His headphones are loud enough that I can hear the music, but not make out the words. The video portrays a girl being raised by wolves. She grows up and has to choose between falling in love or pursuing a corporate career. The man sleeps through the whole flight.

      Once we land I take a cab to the hotel, make sure that my supplies have arrived and the staff has set up the meeting room. The floor is covered with a large canvas drop cloth and there are large blocks of balsa wood on the conference table in front of seven chairs. I get settled in my room and call Mark. There’s no answer. I didn’t expect one. This is how he gets when he’s upset.

      I open a text message, type out: Got here safe and sound.

      The cursor blinks in the empty To field.

      I delete the message.

 

There are only six students. Someone didn’t show up. I have them cut their block of wood in half, then halve those so they have four soccer ball-sized chunks. Each day they’ll carve one of the blocks. When someone asks what they should do with the last block — and they always do — I tell them to keep it. It’s a reminder of where they started. That’s what this is for them: the start of an exciting new chapter in their lives.

      With the first block I have them carve their own face. This lightens things up. Even though it’s the face they should be most familiar with, most of them turn out pretty awful.

      On the second day, I have them carve someone they love. They usually pick someone dead. It’s safer that way. They are less likely to be criticized and they know their feelings will never change.

      In the middle of class I hear a low groaning sound. One guy pulls out his phone. He’s a zombie. By the end of the day all of them are infected.

      Back in my room, I call Mark again. I time the length between rings. They get further apart until there is only silence. Then a click. Mark picks up.

      I tell him to send me a picture of his wound.

      He says its fine.

      I remind him that he is sick, so right now he doesn’t know what fine is and tell him again to send me a picture.

      He hangs up.

      My phone chimes. I open the message.

      The wound is glistening and red and it tells me nothing.

 

I typically pose on the last day, but I just don’t have it in me. It’s exhausting seeing what people think you look like. Instead, I assign them animals: a bear, a deer, an elephant, a lion, a tiger, a fox. I take the no-show’s block that hasn’t been quartered and start cutting.

      Their work ranges from cartoonish to horrific. At the end of the day, I tell them they all passed. They’ll receive their certifications in the mail in six to eight weeks.

      I stay behind and hollow out the head. I burrow holes for the eyes. I sharpen the teeth.

      It’s dark when I finish. I load the heads onto a luggage cart, wheel them back to my room and hang them on the walls with hairpins and thumbtacks. I sit in the middle of the room, put the possum head I made over my own head and wait for a knock at the door.

 

The plane back has two rows of seats on each side and I’m the only passenger. There is no drink service. The flight isn’t long enough. The flight attendants, pilot, and copilot are playing cards. I get up to join them and they tell me I have to stay in my seat because it’s the only one I paid for.

 

When I get home, Gary and Linda’s Land Rover is in our driveway. I leave my bags in the car and find them in the backyard with Mark, drinking beers and standing around the grill.

      There are four piglets tied to spikes in the yard. They are rolling in the grass, pulling against the rope to get closer to each other. The spikes are measured so they can never touch. Everything here is deliberate.

      Mark sees me and doesn’t get up. He’s still angry.

      Gary comes over, welcomes me back, asks about my trip and says they know it’s not their fault Mark got sick, but they still feel awful and they want to make it up to us with something special. Something symbolic.

      There is a card table set up by the grill. On it there is an ice pick, a knife, a cattle prod, an old-fashioned razorblade, a nail gun, plastic bag, hatchet, coat hanger, hypodermic needle, and one of those small, foldable military shovels.

      Gary explains that the young animals are especially susceptible to emotional and physical experiences. The manner and delivery of death imprints on their muscles and flesh immediately and changes how they taste. The problem is that it disappears almost as fast. So, we are each going to kill a pig however we want and then we need to get them right on the grill. There can be no delay. That’s why we waited for you.

      Gary grabs the razor and pulls it across the table at an angle, slicing the vinyl cover. He wants to dull the blade, even if just a tiny bit, to make death more painful. He grabs a piglet by the back of the neck and lifts it in the air as high as the rope will allow, which is only chest high. He slits the throat and holds the piglet at arm’s length as it bleeds out.

      We look away, but we can still hear and what we hear is Gary pulling the limp body to his mouth and whispering, “Try coming back to haunt me now.”

      None of this, I realize, has ever been Linda’s idea.

      He slices a “G” in the piglet’s back and tells Linda she’s up.

      Linda’s hand is shaking as it hovers over the table.

      She picks up the hatchet. She thinks this is going to be a quick way for it to go and it could have been, except when she was down on one knee, pig in-hand, hatchet raised, Gary yelled, Linda! Do it. Now!

      She didn’t bring it down hard enough. She was startled. She makes a feeble attempt to cover the pig’s mouth. She wants to stifle the squeals but can’t do it without getting bit. She hits it again and again. It takes forever.

      Mark doesn’t hesitate. He takes the shovel and flips it open. Gary is about to say he only put that out as a joke but he knows that won’t stop Mark. We all do. Mark swings and hits the pig with the broad side of the shovelhead. He pulls the shovel back like a baseball bat. The pig is dead. Mark throws the shovel on the ground and looks at the last pig. The pig that has seen everything and knows what’s coming. Just like me.

      Mark wants to kill my piglet and I will not stop him. He is going to use his bare hands. I will pretend the screams don’t bother me, that I don’t feel them inside of me. I will witness every step of the process. I will consume every bite and, once I am full, there will be a message in my mouth. A thousand messages that will never heal. I will say them with my own voice and in my own words.

      That’s fine, I tell him.

      Kill it.

      Make it mine.

 


 

Nathan Willis is a writer living in Ohio. His stories have appeared in Booth, The Fiction Pool, Outlook Springs, Hobart, and elsewhere. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and @nathan1280.

 


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