Chapter 29

‘The tests confirm that your brother has rabies. He has entered the neurological phase of the disease and we’ve initiated the Milwaukee protocol. His initial response was encouraging. Last night, however, his vital signs dipped. We were able to stabilize them but only by interrupting the protocol. His condition is grave.’

The woman’s voice, with the tone of certainty common to computers and young adolescents, filled the interior of the SUV. I thumbed my phone to google search and asked, “prognosis for acute rabies infection.’ The same of-no-woman-born voice filled the car as I approached the Philadelphia city limits.

‘The acute period of disease typically ends after 2 to 10 days. Once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal, and treatment is typically supportive.

The SUV, ‘St Dominique’s Convent’ in gold-lettering on each side, shot down the highway at a speed that made prayer as necessary as oil in the crankcase. The dashboard claimed I was traveling at 84 miles per hour. My stomach disagreed with that assessment and with every medical fact crawling out of my phone, it seemed to lag a little farther behind. My grip on the steering wheel tightened, as if the parts of me not directly involved in keeping on the road were falling behind, like a weakened mountain climber pulling downwards on those connected by a safety line. I knew that I couldn’t think about how I felt, not even to encourage myself, that my only hope lay in going forward faster and faster.

As if to sabotage my resolve to focus on driving and only driving, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even thought about praying. The ‘me’ to whom I’d relinquished control was apparently too busy or, worse, not inclined to pray. Even this feeling, the fear that I was losing something very precious was relegated to the category of  ‘no time for anything other than get to the hospital and fight’. I felt a momentary resistance to having my recently acquired way of life shunted to the side, like a child wishing extra hard for the thunder to stop, it felt increasingly like an effort to hold onto a world that was in danger of disappearing.

***

“Hey, Alex! Over here.”  Alex Dumas heard the voice even before his eyes could make the adjustment from the cloudless October sunlight on the sidewalk to the pretend-night of the bar on E. Pratt St.

After six voice messages consisting entirely of, “We need to talk. You’ll be glad you did.”, Alex picked up his phone just as Phil Borastein was leaving his seventh. In what seemed to be a single breath, the man explained that he, among all literary agents in the world, was the only one qualified to turn, ‘The Nun and the Billionaire’ into a bestseller.

The ‘Nun and the Billionaire’ was the title of the series of articles the graduate student just completed for his college newspaper. A five-part chronicle of the efforts of a novitiate nun, one Sister Margaret Ryan, to stop the foreclosure of her elderly mother’s home by a predatory corporation, by the name of the Bernabau Company, it was, by all measures, a monster hit.  The article broke records for views on the university’s website; his personal website remained in an upward curve, as the article spread throughout the internet. It was on the edge of going viral.

The voice came from a booth far to the back of the half-lit bar; too far to allow its occupant to be visible.

The bar was of a tried-and-true layout:  a bar with stools on the left and a row of booths opposite, along windows that looked out over the Baltimore sidewalk. The effect was of a Hieronymus Bosch-paintingas-performance art. A world of light and a world of darkness, separated more by the nature of their respective inhabitants than by any physical barrier.

The last booth was backlit in reflected neon red and silver light that shimmered like the waters of a fountain of youth, (or failing that, a fountain of forgetfulness). The decidedly non-digital jukebox sat in the corner. Behind a broad glass display, a vertical stack of shiny black 45-rpm records, waiting for the machine’s mechanical tongue to find it and hold it spinning against its single diamond tooth. It sang songs and tunes that made one remember the past as they believe it should have been.

Alex sidestepped the few customers at the bar; supplicants to glass gods of forgetfulness and forgiveness that stood in silent rows overlooking all. Men, (and one girl-trapped-in-a-frightened-woman’s-body) perched on lonely stools, their heads bowed. They looked at their drinks in quietly desperate attempts to find their way out of a world they couldn’t remember seeking.

The owner of the voice that called his name became clearer, or at least more visible. It was as if, by demonstrating his willingness to come this far, the lighting surrounding the far booth increased. Alex’s first impression of the person was that of a toad. Not so much having a slimy skin, more of being an animated pile of compressed fat with a toxic smile, wearing a worn-out suit.

“Sid down…Sid down” The sibilance giving a shredded edge to the simple command. It also prompted a mental image of a frog’s tongue snatching a hapless fly out of the air. Alex looked around, a guilty reflex offering mute testimony to the vigor of the young man’s imagination. The man pointed to the bench on the opposite side of the booth, his hand smooth but crowded with jewelry. The effect was of glittering acne, rings on three of five fingers and a watch that, like the bucket on an old-fashioned well, hung below his shirt cuff and rested on the back of his hand.

“Hold on,” the man spoke with an implied courtesy despite Alex saying nothing, “Waiter, bring my friend…” at a loss for the specifics, the man’s brow bent in a spasm of mute anger, only to disappear as quickly,  “whatever it is he wants!” The bald man laughed the way a dog barks to convince their human to keep throwing the ball.

“Nothing, I’m good.” Looking down at the table, Alex saw: an ashtray, a half empty cup of coffee, a lighter that, for no reason, struck him as being very old and expensive and a small notebook. The man looked up at him and stared. “Alright…. a coffee.”

***

“No, Genevieve, I don’t mind holding.” Drusilla Renaude turned in her chair and faced the glass wall that created her office at the back of Renaude and Associates. She thought about how far from the streets of Baltimore she’d come. Desperate to make ends meet, she worked days and sang on weekends in the local clubs. Sitting in with the occasional rock band, singing with just a backing track. Weekends spent pretending to be someone she wanted to be, in a place where she’d rather be other than a smoky, badly lit bar.

As the on-hold music played, Drusilla was surprised to think that it might be fun to look up some old friends, those still active in the music scene in Baltimore. ‘Just for a change of pace’ she added to temper the excitement the idea seemed to generate. If it turned out that they invited her to come to the city and maybe join them for a set at the end of the night, how irresponsible would that make her? Her answer to herself was interrupted by a voice, “Drusilla! My favorite real estate broker! You know you’re the shining star of the Bernebau family.” Drusilla felt surprise turn to guilt as the charming good will of the man’s voice caressed her.

“What the fuck is this bullshit about you leaving us?”

***

Sister Catherine could not move. The more she tried, the more she realized that she wasn’t restrained by anything as mundane as shackles or duct tape. She could not move a muscle that is, as far as she could feel, she had no muscles. For that matter, her entire body seemed to be missing.

A sensation of sudden cold flashed through her scalp with such force that she was sure it was on fire. It was so overwhelming as to almost convince her to panic.

Panic, a response to threat so basic as to almost be a part of the autonomic nervous system, nevertheless required participation on the part of the panic-ee. A certain shutting of eyes when they should be open, the willingness to stop when go was the more effective action. In other words, practice.

Some people are pre-disposed to the panic response. Star Grace Duquette, (later named Eleanor McManus by the weekend shift nurse-in-charge at the Miami Children’s Center), was not.

Letting go of the voice that screamed that the uncontrollable needed to be controlled, she moved her eyes from one side to another. That she had eyes and could move them was not lost on the once very young and gifted, Star Grace. A smile rose within her mind and found expression somewhere below her eyes. With the realization that her physical body was still hers, although mostly asleep, she noticed that there was a section of black that stood out in the universe of darkness. A lighter black if you would. The every day world reformed, as the section of lighter black became a grey rectangle and, most importantly, moved down the wall.

Sister Catherine smiled a prayer of thanks.

 

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