Mike brought a pizza for lunch, and the crew piled into the back of his minivan to enjoy it. He disconnected the battery to keep the interior lights from eating up the juice and opened all of the doors to invite a breeze. Even so, the sun turned his car into an oven. At least the pizza was hot.
The sign on the Baptist church down the street flashed: "Pray for Rain."
"You feeling okay?" Mike asked. He had on a red plaid shirt that almost managed to hide the pizza-sauce stains. His collar was curled up in the cup holder in the front seat.
"Better," Sandie said. She bit off a string of cheese and helped herself to an orange soda from the cooler. "I mean, it's hard to stay freaked out when you're working the morning rush and you've got twelve caffeine addicts yelling at you over the counter. Would have been easier if Connie would stop bugging me, though."
Connie offered an angelic smile from her place on the bumper. "Not my fault you're loca, mama."
"I guess you guys don't listen to news radio in there, do you?"
"Not often. Brandon says politics is bad for business. Why?"
"Old lady in Castle Hills was out walking her dog this morning and found a body. She said it made a humming noise said it was like a microwave and then it crawled away."
"I told you! I so totally told you!"
"Yeah, so anyway, the cops are looking for the guy, now. They're afraid he's a leper or something contagious. Some flesh-rotting disease."
"Ew. Okay, I'm glad I let you scrub my porch down for me."
Mike wrinkled his nose and squinted up one eye. "I want you to go to the hospital. Just to make sure, you know? I went in to get some blood tests as soon as I heard. They said that was a damn good idea, so I want you to do the same."
"Oh, fuck it. Fine, I'll go. Can you cover for me, Connie?"
The emergency room was full of the machine-gun cadence of Spanish arguments arguments with staff, with spouses, with uncooperative children, with other patients who may or may not have been waiting longer. Underneath the surge of conflict, there was an occasional cough, a whimper. And underneath the sound of sickness, there was a paradoxical stillness, the hush of fear.
Sandie pulled her little notepad out of her purse and flipped to a clean page.
Black is not the color of death, she wrote.
It's sharp and acrid
a white smell
burning and blinding
condensing into white pills.
She put the notebook away and let her eyes drift out of focus on the television set hanging from the ceiling by the window.
A very pleasant, very old woman listened patiently while Sandie explained her concerns. No, there was no direct contact with it. No, I didn't touch the fluids. Yes, it smelled like rotting meat. And by the way, is it normal to hear voices?
"You've just been through a harrowing experience, honey," the nurse said as she packaged up an ampoule of blood. "Most people feel a bit odd after something like that. I wouldn't get worried unless it gets worse or keeps up for more than a week or two. Of course, if you want to talk to someone, I can make you a list of some good counselors
Sandie ended up with a list of some good counselors and a promise that she would get the results of her bloodwork soon.
"And I really wouldn't worry about it too much," the nurse said. "I heard that report on the news, and I can tell you right now that poor person isn't a leper. Not sure what, of course, but if you didn't touch, you're almost definitely fine."
Sandie bought herself a doughnut and a bottle of apple juice from the hospital cafeteria and consumed them thoughtfully on her way out to her car.
Dissociation, she decided. They're my own thoughts, but my id or whatever can't recognize them as such, because I'm in shock and under stress and stuff. She dropped the list of counselors into the passenger seat under her purse. She could afford to give it a couple of days, see whether the problem would fix itself. An ER visit by itself put enough of a dent in her rainy day fund without the added expense of a therapist's chair.
She went back to the motel and showered thoroughly to rid herself of the lingering smell of disinfectant, took two doses of cough syrup to kill any budding dreams, and crawled in bed.
It was waiting for her.
hungry. attempt repair fail too much calculate under memory damage.
There was a dizzy quality to the thought, something that Sandie found familiar. It was very similar to that feeling from earlier, woozy and slightly nauseated after watching part of herself drained into a clear tube.
What do you want? You can't have my brain.
help. tiny animals tiny minds too quiet too quiet too quiet. outside don't hear. only you hear.
But the word had very little to do with ears. It meant knowing, sensing, understanding, together-being.
But what do you want? And why me?
Then something shifted. Outside their little bubble of communication, there was fear. Sandie could hear lights flashing, red and blue, and a pair of snakeskin boots. Disgust, then reluctant pity. There were words, but they were garbled beyond understanding. And It soaked them up, the fear, revulsion, and compassion soaked them up eagerly like a vacuum.
All around, there was a hum, deep, curious, and penetrating. It shook Sandie to the bone, and it brought a flood of information. Blueprints. Frequencies. Like sonar.
Sandie woke up when her hip hit the floor.
"This isn't real," she said aloud while she unwound herself from the scratchy motel sheets. "It's not real. I'm not nuts. It'll go away in a few days."
She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and leaned against the side table, focusing on the labored huff of the air conditioner and the cigarette smell of the ancient carpet.
She could feel it, too. She could know/sense/understand/hear it, a vague emptiness that it would take more than a hamburger to fill. She could feel it like it was real. A nervous lump rose in her throat.
"Oh, God, I don't want to lose my mind
The anxiety siphoned away down that incomprehensible uplink, drained away and filled a small portion of the void.