Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Sunday Story

A Smile for the End of the World
Steven Torres

She smiled at me, and I knew I would do anything she asked. She flipped a lock of her soft brown hair behind an ear and smiled still more radiantly, more beautifully than I had imagined possible, and I knew that what she was about to ask would be, at the very least, distasteful. But how was I supposed to know that what she wanted from me was an act that would ultimately lead to this sickness I have and maybe to the end of my life and the entire world?

“What?” I asked innocently. We were sitting on her couch. I was there by her invitation, but when I had leaned in closer, she had leaned away and given me her smile instead of a kiss.

“Oh, I don’t know if I should ask…” she started.

“What?” I repeated. Looking back, I think my eagerness must have been plain enough. Could she have been innocent at that point?

“I need a favor, but we’ve only known each other this short time, and I…” Again she trailed off. I knew I was being led to declare that I would do anything for her, and I still couldn’t avoid telling her just that.

“Well,” was her response. “I inherited this cabin in the woods…They call it lakefront property, but really it’s just an overgrown pond. Anyway, the cabin is falling to pieces – I mean literally, there are pieces of it on the ground all around it – Anyway, the property is really nice, quiet; I guess I would call it serene. I had a contractor up there a week or two ago, and he said he could easily build a new cabin in the same spot.”

She stopped there, and I let myself think about living in a cabin by the lake with her surrounded by no neighbors and in the midst of only tranquility.

“But knocking over the old cabin – it would really be just knocking it over – would cost me thirteen thousand dollars extra, and I can’t afford that, not any time soon, at least…”

I tried to think what was being asked of me but the image of a cherubic girl toddler running towards us in a clearing of the lakeside forest clouded my mind for a moment.

She reached out a hand to tap my shoulder with her forefinger playfully.

“If you help me, I’m sure we can knock that cabin down in a weekend. We can save all that money,” she said.

Now the idea of saving money always sounds good, and there was no way I was going to pass up a weekend in the woods with her; she must have seen that already. Still, one does want to do things properly and so I felt compelled to ask some serious questions.

“How big is the place?”

She must have smelled the utter annihilation of my defenses because her smile and eyes widened, and she leaned forward to give me a peck on the cheek.

“It’s two small rooms. The whole thing is wood. It’s rotting. Really, I think we could use your pickup, tie the cabin up and tug it down, it’s that dilapidated. It’s a shame really. I remember going there every summer with my parents. In fact, I even stayed there – let me see – maybe two years ago. Grandpa had always kept it up nice. It was a great place to stay.”

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“Well, Grandpa died and part of the roof was caved in, and the last couple of winters the snow has fallen straight in, not to mention rain and such.”

“A tree fell?” I asked.


“And caved in the roof?”

“Oh, no not at all, well, I mean, kind of, but that’s not what caved in the roof. You’ll never guess what happened.” She paused and clapped her hands together as though actually waiting for me to play a guessing game. I shrugged.

“It got hit by a meteor. It crashed through some treetops and right into the roof – caved in most of it. One of the walls is leaning quite a bit too –”

At this point, the doctor, I forget his name, tapped me on the forehead with his pen.

“I’ve heard all of this already, Mr. Keegan. I heard about the smile, the cabin, the lake. What I asked you was whether you could remember her name. Her name, Mr. Keegan. This could be very important.”

I sneezed.

“I’m sorry, what were you asking about?”

“You remember the woman with the smile?”

“Yes. I’ll never forget that smile. She smiled at me and…”

“No, no. I need to know her name, Mr. Keegan.”

“Well it wasn’t Mrs. Keegan, I know that much. I wanted it to be, though. She had a smile on her. She smiled at me and…”

“Yes, I know the rest, excuse me Mr. Keegan. Stay right here. I’m just going to step out and get a nurse. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The doctor went out the door, and as it closed behind him, I could see he was headed down the hallway. My memory has been slipping on me for the past few days…I think. I do remember some things. There’s the smile, the most radiant smile you’ve ever seen. I could get lost in that smile for days, but I won’t.

I went to the cabin. I know that much. She didn’t. Instead, I got a phone call at six in the morning the day I was supposed to pick her up to go out to the cabin. I knew what she was going to say even before I picked up the phone. She was feeling under the weather and could I go on my own and tear down the cabin. As she said the words, I knew she was smiling and, of course, I said yes. What else could I have said? “No, I’m not man enough to do this alone. I need your help.” Besides, I was sure she was smiling, and I was not the man to resist that.

I remember being on the road that Saturday – I think it was last Saturday – alone. Not only was there no one in the passenger seat, there was no one else on the roads the full one hundred miles to the turnoff that led to the cabin. I remember that the way to the cabin quickly turned into a dirt road, which quickly became overgrown and narrow, and a minute or two after leaving the highway, my brand new SUV was scratched by branches on either side and dirt was kicking up each time I drove into a hole. I remember being angry at that and driving faster to get it over with. This made things worse.

Anyway, I remember finding the cabin. It was like she said. There was a huge hole in the roof and part of a wall had already come down. When I went in, there was an inch of dust on everything and a giant boulder sitting in the middle of the room, broken planks that used to be the flooring sticking every which way out from under it. The place was a bit bigger than I had thought it would be, but the main structural feature was a stone fireplace and between the planks levering it up and the timbers falling down from the roof on top of it, that was ready to give way. Piece of cake. I couldn’t figure out how a contractor could dare to charge anything for knocking the place down. It wouldn’t take me and my SUV more than a day.

Before demolishing anything, I took a look at the meteor. It looked like a rock. Nothing special. It didn’t glow, or hum, or speak to me. It wasn’t warm. I tried to move it, but it was as big as a sofa and it wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t think the SUV was going to have any luck, but then the smiling lady had told me, and this I remember, that I didn’t have to move anything, I just had to tear the house down and that was it. I took one of my gloves off and touched the rock. I guess I was thinking about how it had traveled millions of miles and maybe millions of years, and here it was where I could touch it. Serendipity.

I lassoed the chimney, tied it to the tow-knob of my SUV, put it in reverse and brought the whole thing down along with most of what was left of the roof and most of the wall it was attached to. The dust cloud that raised was enormous and hung in the air for about five minutes, but I sat in my vehicle with the windows up.

I pulled down another wall the same way. Two walls, the fireplace, and most of the roof took me less than an hour. The other two walls and the bit of roof that was left didn’t want to budge. They were locked in together snug. It was time for me to get out the sledgehammer I had brought with me. For the next hour or more I pounded on the walls at strategic spots. Then I roped them to the SUV and reversed. It did no good.

The bits of roof that remained held the walls together, so up I went. I climbed on top with the hammer and smashed away for fifteen minutes – I remember checking my watch. Then I heard the walls begin to creak and the part of the roof I was standing on became wobbly and I could tell I had a second or two to get off before I came down with the roof and walls and everything. That’s when – the man in the white lab coat (a doctor I think) is back. There’s a woman in white with him, but she’s not smiling.

“Mr. Keegan. We’ve spoken to Mary, Mary Henderson. That’s her name. Anyway, she told us all about what happened. If it’s any comfort to you, Mr. Keegan, she’s sorry she didn’t call you, and she’s sorry you got sick. She hopes you’re feeling better soon.”
The doctor put on a face mask and latex gloves as he spoke, then he started shining a little flashlight into my eyes and poked a q-tip into one of my nostrils.

“That’s when I jumped and fell next to the meteor and all the stuff fell on top of me,” I told him.

“When was this?” the doctor asked me, and I started to wonder who had the memory problem.

“When I was demolishing the cabin. I was on the roof a while, but I had to jump off and the roof and part of a wall fell on top of me, and I got this.” I held up my hand.

“You injured yourself with the meteor?” the doctor asked. He removed the bandaging I had put on my right hand.

“I got this gigantic splinter stuck in my hand, but I didn’t notice for ten minutes because I was sneezing so hard. The dust from everything collapsing. It was like I was in a dust storm. I don’t know how much of this stuff I inhaled. I…” The doctor put a thermometer in my mouth and started examining the place where I had used my pliers to take out the splinter. It was a six-inch piece of wood from a plank sticking out from under the meteor – I think.

“You have a very serious fever, Mr. Keegan. One hundred and four point six. That is very high,” the doctor said, but I don’t remember him taking the thermometer from my mouth.

“You also have what looks like a very severe rash around your nose, mouth and eyes. Infected, I would say. Probably from you rubbing your face during this dust storm you talked about. And you still have some bits of the splinter imbedded in your hand…” The doctor was looking at my hand with a magnifying glass that was on a mechanical arm attached to the wall.

“Yes. You definitely have an infection here. Pretty severe. And a rash.”

“And animals,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“And animals. Don’t forget the animals.”

“You came into contact with an animal?”

“You did too.” It was clear he had no idea what I was talking about.

“On my hand. Little red animals. They’re from the meteor – I think. Take a closer look.”

He looked again with the magnifying glass but looked up and shook his head.

“I don’t see any bugs or…”

“Look close and wait a second or two. You can’t see them individually. You can only see the fact that the red mark moves around a little.”

I didn’t know how else to explain this to him. After all, he’s the doctor. He looked again.

“You might be right,” the doctor said. Then he turned the magnifying glass on his own hand and studied the latex glove.

“You’re certainly correct about this infestation, Mr. Keegan.” He turned to the nurse. “Can you take this swab to the lab and… On second thought, let’s just step out for a minute.” The doctor snapped off his gloves and tossed them in a little wastebasket after putting the swab and the thermometer on an examination tray along with the stethoscope he had used. The two of them hurried out of the room like I had told them I had the cooties, or something. I guess I did.

I don’t remember how I got to the examining room. I remember calling the woman with the smile. I called her the next morning. I felt so bad – I couldn’t breathe, I had a ringing headache, every joint hurt – I would’ve wished I were dead, but I was too close to death to joke around like that. Still, I wanted to hear her voice. Her smile carries through on her voice. You can tell when she’s smiling even if she’s only talking to you on the phone. I called, but it wasn’t her that answered.

“Yes, Mr. Keegan, we know. It was her boyfriend, the one who’s a contractor. The one she will marry.”

I don’t know who this guy is. He’s not the guy I was talking to a minute ago. This one can read my mind.

“I’m not reading your mind, Mr. Keegan. You’re talking aloud. Mary Henderson and the contractor went to the woods to neck. They never went inside the cabin. They stayed in their car and went skinny dipping in the lake. The meteor was infested with some kind of microbe…”

“Are you my doctor?”

“I am now. Doctor Weeks was taken ill. So was Nurse Macmillan.”

“Where are they?”

“That’s not important, Mr. Keegan. Your co-workers have also gotten sick. You remember Thomas Kline? He brought you to the infirmary at work last Monday? Anyway, this is pointless.”

“Come closer.” I reached out my hand to touch my new doctor, and he took a step back. There was a plastic bubble around me. I touched it.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“You’re in the intensive care unit in Saint Elizabeth’s. Does that ring any bells?”

“No. Yes. Wait a minute. Ah, no. Sorry. Who are you?”

“I’m Clarence Reilly. I work for the Center for Disease Control. I’ll be staying with you for the next few hours.”

“Then what happens?”

“Well, I’ll be perfectly blunt with you, Mr. Keegan because I know you’ll forget what I say in a few minutes, probably as soon as you sneeze again. I’m here to do your autopsy and oversee the transport and incineration of your corpse.”

“Disease control?”

“Those little animals you brought back from the cabin have been a bit of trouble, Mr. Keegan.”

“Have other people gotten sick too?”

“Ah, yes. I guess that’s a fair assessment.”

“Who got sick?” I could tell I was bugging him, but nobody gives me information. You know how doctors are.

“Well, your co-workers, for starters. Then their families. Then the children and staff at about a dozen schools, Mr. Keegan. Then their families. Then the children and staff at several dozen other schools and some colleges locally.”

“Not too bad, though, right? I mean, they got the flu like me?”

“Well, they got whatever you have, but I can tell you it’s not the flu, Mr. Keegan.”

“I feel bad about all this. How many have gotten sick?”

“Over two thousand so far. It’s about as bad as a contamination can get. I heard an hour ago that even incineration might not be enough; that maybe the buggers are going airborne in the ash. They can’t even be studied – every researcher has come down with the things regardless of the precautions. I’m here on what might well be a suicide mission. But you won’t care about that. These microbes or whatever they are have eaten through your sinuses and the membrane surrounding your brain. They’ve chewed up part of your brain, Mr. Keegan, and a little bit dribbles out every time you sneeze. Contributes to the memory loss I suppose.”

“This sounds bad.” There comes a point when there isn’t all that much else one can say. “Is everyone else like this?”

“Not at all. Most of them are dead already.”

“Oh. And the others? What are you going to give them?”

“Well, Mr. Keegan, so far nothing has worked. Really it’s been a question of watching people die quickly. We’ll study you. Frankly, you’re a marvel. Everyone else has died within three days of contact; sometimes four. You’ve gone nine days and haven’t kicked off yet. I’m here to find out why, Mr. Keegan. Maybe something inside of you can be refined to help others.”

“So I might end up saving the world, right?”

“Or you might have doomed it.”

The doctor from… wherever he said he was from… smiled at me. Then I remembered everything, everything that was important at least. I remembered her smile and how she smiled at me, and I knew I would do anything she asked. She smiled and flipped a lock of her soft brown hair back over her left ear, and I knew I would do what she asked whether I wanted to or not.

The End.


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