After hours of running and hiding, here is what we know for sure: Dr. Camille is dead, and Billy is in a pretty bad way. His shoulder is bleeding again, and it just won’t seem to stop. We’re maybe two or three miles away from the truck, and I’m not sure if Billy’s got it in him to keep running.
Uh, yeah…this is bad.
We’ve been on our feet since the blighted took the bowling alley, and I think the plan is to catch some rest here if we can. There’s some bedding up here that actually hasn’t been completely ruined by all of the rain, and the roof is still mostly in tact over the bathroom and the little kitchenette. Billy’s already crashed out, and Dad’s pretty close. He’s holding Billy tight against his chest—holding him the way I imagine he must have when Bill was a baby and he and Mom kept him in their bed with them every night.
Dad keeps asking me to grab some rest, but I’m just too amped up. I’m too scared and too wired to do anything but get this down here, and I don’t have much time. I just dipped under the 50% mark on battery power, and I’m kind of doubtful of finding another plug-in. Might not ever happen again. It’s really sad to write that, but there’s no use in sugarcoating it. That’s kind of where we’re at…
We found this X-NET hotspot in the ruins of an old Red Lion. Something must still be working down in the guts of this place. It’s pretty creepy, hiding up here in one of the penthouse suites while the blighted scurry about below us, doing in Portland exactly what they did in Seattle. The eastern façade of the building is gone and there are hundreds of rooms exposed to a sheer drop down to the rubble below.
The sun is out, just now peeking above the edge of Mt. Hood. It’s darned beautiful and, if this is it for us, then at least we had that.
I’ve got to try to stay on task here. Sorry about the digressions. Mrs. Cranston would be seriously pulling her hair out reading this thing....
So here is the sad reality of it all—just a week ago we had it all and we didn’t even know it. Sure, we were a little hungry, but there was food and we had each other.
Well, that is we had everything but Mom.
And we changed that. I mean, I haven’t even gotten that far yet in talking about all of this, but the thing is that we found her. Dr. Camille’s team brought her back to the RZ, and we even spoke with her before things completely fell apart.
Now, I simply wish that we had never come. Billy’s got blood trickling out of his mouth. It’s not much, but it’s there all the same and it was like that with Dr. Camille just before he died. Which was just after he told us about the hormones.
The danged hormones!
Here’s my shot at spelling it—auxin. I’m pretty sure it’s not “oxen,” so there you have it. It’s a plant hormone that stimulates growth in foundational cells—stem cells and t-cells and stuff like that. Dr. Camille and his research team were using trace amounts to augment the reconstituted blood. Mr. Marshall said something before Camille died about an “immune system on steroids,” so it must have had a pretty big impact on the blighted.
The only problem was that it created a very specific set of side effects.
Behavioral side effects.
“They first manifested in cohort one nine days ago,” Camille said. He coughed, a fine crimson mist speckling his filthy smock. He’d been shot in the stomach and, despite the best efforts of Captains Ward and Perez, he was hurt really badly.
“What are we talking about here?” Dad said.
We had reunited with Marshall, Camille, and Perez (in addition to about a dozen soldiers and civilian survivors) in an alley behind the ruins of the old Donut Queen on East Burnside. Man, I’d once had donuts and chocolate milk there after playing soccer in Buckman Park!
“Aggression,” Camille said. “Diminished cognitive abilities. They…they attacked each other in their barracks. It was bad. The second cohort was beginning to exhibit some of the…some of the same behaviors when Owens opened the gates on us.” He fell into another coughing fit and emerged on the other side of it wearing a macabre smile. “It’s a fitting end for them, I suppose, given everything that has happened in the reclamation zone.”
“But is it total?” Dad said. “Are these…behavioral changes presenting in all of the treatment subjects?”
Marshall nodded solemnly. “Auxin has a history of triggering some pretty extreme genetic responses. We just…we didn’t know until after the fact. It was still a pretty experimental supplement when the blight came screaming out of Asia…”
Dr. Camille’s head lolled on his shoulders. He pulled Dad close and whispered something in his ear, and then he locked eyes with me and Billy and fell back on the concrete. Perez and a couple of the soldiers carried him inside what was left of the restaurant, and we learned an hour later that he was gone. Just like that, any hope we’d had for a treatment to the blight had vanished.
This was just…ah shoot, let me go back here for a minute and check my history.
Yeppers—did it again. Left out quite a bit, and now I’m backtracking. Sheesh, apologies…
Let’s go back to our first day in the RZ.
Our first day with her.
Dad wrote the letter and we took a long walk. It was a great way to spend our first day back in civilization. There was a commissary and a large cafeteria. There was a school (alas, only elementary, but it’s a start, right?) and a little make-shift library. There was a fitness facility where people inside were playing basketball and volleyball!
Ward showed us the medical district—four imposing square blocks quarantined behind thick coils of razor wire where people in clean suits (they looked like Earth astronauts—seriously) moved between the buildings.
We hiked up to the northern edge of the West Hills and found folks working together to clean out some of the nice old homes up there off 23rd. They were rebuilding, and we pitched in until a siren sounded at noon and everyone walked back down into the heart of the RZ for a lunch of hot potato soup and crunchy sourdough bread and even a bit of savory bacon and cheese. Criminy, it was so good to have seconds!
We were back in our room after lunch when Ward brought us the good news. I’d spent the time surfing the X-NET while Dad and Billy played chess.
“Your wife is here, Mr. Keane. She came in on the daily transport,” Ward said, smiling at my father. “If you and the kids are okay with suiting up, she’d like to see you all before taking the next step.”
Dad’s smile in that moment had been as bright as the sun over Mt. Hood was this morning. Man, it was just awesome to see that! We grabbed our coats and were on our way.
They doused us with that fogging chemical stuff and we shrugged into clean suits and then we were following a nurse through a warren of antiseptic hallways. Most of the doors were open and I saw patient after patient connected to machines. Most were sleeping, but some just lay there weakly in their beds, looking at the ceiling, or straight ahead at seemingly nothing at all.
“Room 319,” the nurse said. She opened the door, and there she was.
“You have ten minutes. I wish it was more, but her condition is pretty fragile. We need to get her on a platelet drip as soon as possible in order to get her prepped for her treatment.”
Mom smiled weakly as we piled into the room. Her eyes were wet, and she put her arms around me when I went to her. She was so thin. Her chest, when it rose, felt as brittle as parchment paper.
“Allie,” she whispered, the tears now sliding down her cheeks. “Allie bird, you’re so thin. What happened, sweet girl?”
“I’m okay, Mom,” I replied, my voice shaking. “I’m fine. Dad and Billy are taking good care of me. We…we came back for you, Mom. We’re going to bring you home—back to the cabin with us.”
“I know that, Allie bird,” Mom said. “I knew you’d come and find me.” I’d never seen someone so thin up close. Her eyes were threaded through with little red veins, her once-beautiful hair now incredibly thin. When she smiled, her cracked lips did nothing to pad the cheekbones that protruded from her skin.
Her collar bones, her arms, the tiny bones in her neck—I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Send your brother over here, Allie bird.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Allie. So much, bunches and bunches.”
I lost it then. She’d said that to me every single day for as long as I could remember. Careful not to hurt her, I gave her another hug and let Billy slip in for his own reunion. They spoke for three or four minutes, and then Dad went to her and he held her hand. He traced the curve of her jaw, tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear.
They just held hands, saying nothing and crying a little. When the nurse came back, Dad leaned in and told her he’d stay with her through the treatment. She wiped the tears away and nodded at him, and that was the last we saw of her.
That was three days ago. Three days ago, when things had seemed like they might actually work out.
We’d eaten dinner—tofu tacos and refried beans and honest-to-goodness pasteurized cow milk—with the rest of the community and then Billy and I had gone back to our room while Dad spent the night at Mom’s bedside.
“This is going to work,” Billy said. I’d been whooping his butt at chess again and he was going through the motions of falling on the sword. “I can feel it, Allie. We’re going to get her back, and then we’re getting the hell out of here.”
“I sure hope so,” I said. I remember now, just typing this out here, having this really dark feeling down deep inside that things wouldn’t be okay—that things, in fact, were going to get much, much worse before it was all said and done.
And I hate to say I told you so.
Oh, oh…there’s a yawn. Been up way too long yet, and there’s still such a long way to go. I’m going to (yawned again—can’t stop once you get started, right?) close my eyes for just a few minutes here. Got to rest up if we’re going to get back to the truck, after all.
It’s our only chance.
Who knows? Maybe things will go our way after all. Despite everything I’ve seen in the last few days, maybe everything will come out okay in the end, right?