“The doctor will see you now,” the receptionist said.
I put down the magazine, levered myself from the sofa and moseyed through the heavy door into the doctor’s office. I plopped down in my usual chair and looked around. The room was empty. Where was the Doc? My stomach churned. I didn’t like change.
Seconds later, a young, very curvy woman in a dark business suit and heels entered the room. She had very light skin and black hair fixed in a bun. My immediate impression, not unfavorable, was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, conservatively dressed and without the big 80’s hair and makeup.
She stood across from me. “Hello, Mr. Pulver,” she said, her voice a bit hoarse, “I’m Dr. Cummings.” She extended her hand. I rose to shake it and sat again. “Dr. Grant feels that at this point in his relationship with you, he can’t help you any further, so I’ll be taking over for him, unless you object.”
Old Dr. Grant had been my therapist for the last ten years. In all that time we had managed to do almost nothing. That was the way I liked it. Immediately an objection lodged itself in my mind, but stuck in my throat.
She lifted a business card from a stack on the table and extended it to me. I put it in my shirt pocket. She sat down opposite me and crossed her shapely legs at the ankles. She put on a pair of half-frame reading glasses and got busy flipping through a file on a clipboard. When she started the recorder on the table between us I saw that her hands were accented by a nifty French manicure. Maybe change was good. I swallowed my objection.
“So you’re 32 years old,” she said, ticking off a list. “You don’t have a job. You live in your grandmother’s basement—”
I was busy checking her out but the word ‘basement’ caught my attention. “Actually it’s my basement now,” I said.
She glanced up at me over her glasses, a question in her beautiful brown eyes.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, she’s dead.”
She grimaced. “Sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”
I wondered what Dr. Grant had told her. Probably not much. I waved my hand. “No problem, it was months ago and not unexpected.”
She put the clipboard and the glasses on the table. “So, how’s it going with the diabetes?”
So she knew about that. I absolutely hated my diabetes. I tried to ignore it. I wished it would go away.
“It’s only been a month since I was diagnosed and it’s a pain in the ass.”
“Going to the support group?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“No, why not?”
“It’s not required,” I said.
“So you only do what’s required?”
“More or less. You’re aware of my situation, my Uncle Carl’s will?”
“A bit, tell me about it,” she said.
“Well, my uncle was a mad scientist. Alzheimers put him in an institution about twenty years ago.
“That’s too bad, but really,” she said, “a mad scientist?”
“Maybe not crazy, but definitely a sociopath,” I said. “I don’t hate him exactly, but I never saw him. He was a poor substitute for my parents. Before he lost it he made a bundle of money with patents, something to do with genetics, I think. He said he couldn’t associate with inferiors. He shut himself off from the world, from everyone, even me and Grandma.”
“Doesn’t he provide for you and your grandmother even now?” she asked.
“Yes, money, okay,” I said. “He took me in when I was a kid and my folks were killed. He supports me now. I’m grateful for that but he and Grandma were two of a kind. Both cold, emotionless.”
“So what’s required?” she asked.
“In order to stay on the gravy train after I reached eighteen I’ve had to visit him at least three days a week, take care of Grandma, although not so much anymore, and I have to go to therapy until I’m thirty-five or until he dies, when I’ll inherit everything. Oh, and I have to keep out of trouble.”
“And are you happy, Mr. Pulver,” she asked, “doing only what’s required?”
I wasn’t happy. Who’s happy anyway? I stared at her legs. I felt like I was being captured somehow but I didn’t care.
“Are you attracted to me, Mr. Pulver?” she asked.
I felt a blush rise up my neck. How did she know what I was feeling? “Please call me Frank,” I stammered like a love-struck teenager.
“Well, Frank, acting on an attraction would be inappropriate given our expected relationship but it’s not inappropriate to be attracted. At least you’re interested in relationships. That’s a big deal. It says something about your worldview and self worth.”
I looked up into her eyes. “I’ve talked with a lot of therapists over the years, Dr. Cummings. They all told me they were being honest with me. How can I be sure of you?”
She uncrossed her legs, leaned forward and flipped off the recorder. “Would you like me to say something honest to you?”
I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest. “Very much, say something honest to me.”
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear, oh, and you stink of pot.”
Wow, that took the polish off the romance. The honeymoon was over.
“Although I notice that you don’t appear to be stoned,” she said. “Thanks for that.” She paused again for few beats and looked at her watch. “Shall we give therapy a try Frank?”
After the session I got in my car and looked in the rearview mirror. I saw something odd, a smiling face. I said to myself, “You’re in love Frank.” I agreed to see her again in a few days and was actually looking forward to it. I took her card out. First name Karen. I liked it.
I cracked a window and lit up a nice joint. This was my reward and antidote for therapy. I broke out my blood sugar meter and took a sample. I was a newbie, still not used to the importance of checking, constantly checking, a complete pain in the butt. My sugar was low so I fished around and found a smashed honey bun that I knew was rolling around in the car. I finished it and the joint and went to see Uncle Carl.
“How is he today, Doris?” I asked the receptionist at the desk as I signed the visitor’s register.
“Not so good, Frank,” Doris said, not looking up from her monitor.
I tapped the pen on the book. “So the log says Tony James was here yesterday,” I said, “for almost an hour.”
Doris just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. Tony had been a protégé of Uncle Carl’s more than thirty years ago. He visited more than I did. It was hard for me to believe someone would volunteer for this. We crossed paths once in a while but I tried to avoid him because he always wanted to tell me what a genius my uncle had been.
“Your uncle’s really not here this week,” Doris said.
I continued down the hall. “This week!” I snorted. “He hasn’t been here for decades. Elvis has left the building!”
“Frank, wake up man!”
“Who. . .what?” I mumbled, turning over on the couch. It was Billy, my sole friend from high school and constant slacker companion. He leaned over me. I smelled beer and pot.
“What’s up?” I said with one eye open. “Did you get the prescription filled?”
Billy sat in a chair next to me and pulled his stringy beard. “Yeah, but they said it’s the last one unless Grandma comes in.”
“Shit,” I moaned. We knew this would happen. Grandma had a marijuana prescription for glaucoma for the past five years. She was never interested in it so we had a nice supply. I guessed the bureaucracy was catching up. We’d have to find a different supplier.
“We’ll have to ration it,” I said in vain as Billy rolled a fat one.
“So Frank,” said Dr. Cummings, “what should we talk about today?”
Nothing. I’m only here because I wanted to see you again. “How about the weather?” I offered.
She countered with one raised eyebrow. “How about something you mentioned in passing at our last session?”
I knew exactly what she meant. Therapists had been trying to get me to talk about it since the beginning. My parents were murdered when I was five years old. Some deranged people broke into our house one night and killed them. I survived only because I was hiding in their closet, like I did most nights when I had bad dreams. I didn’t see it happen but I heard it. Their screams haunted me to this day. Sometimes I wish I’d died with them.
I got up and paced the room. I crossed my hands in front of me. “I don’t want to talk about that. Ever.”
“Frank, I’m sorry for you, I really am,” she said. “But I’m not sorry I brought it up. You were a kid and something really bad happened. I think it’s affecting your life in a negative way. It’s time to grow up and let it go.”
At this point in therapy I usually found a way to act like I was cooperating, because I had to continue. But I liked her. I wanted to trust her. “How?” I said in a small voice.
“Hypnosis, Frank. I’m very good at it. You can remember things but we can go very slowly, very carefully.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Okay, okay, I’m comin’,” I shouted as someone pounded on the front door. It was the mailman with a registered letter. I signed for it and closed the door.
I flopped down in a chair. Billy was watching a ball game on the TV, eating chips and smoking a joint.
I opened the envelope and pulled out a letter from the Sheriff. Across the top of the letter was the word ‘summons’ in bold type. “Billy, holy shit, this is serious! This letter says I have to appear in court next Wednesday to determine if criminal charges will be assessed for fraud, larceny and possession of an illegal substance. If I get arrested I violate my uncle’s will and all this goes away!” I flapped my arms around for emphasis.
Billy looked at me waving my arms. He laughed and slapped his leg. “You’re a fuckin’ bird, man!”
“Dammit Billy pass me that joint.” I grabbed it and took a deep drag. I wished it would all somehow go away.
“Billy, check out the TV,” I said, waking him up. “Check out the news. Something weird is going on in Europe and Africa. People are dying of this strange brain thing. They talk about seeing floaters in their eyes, then they get these massive headaches and die. People are dying Billy.”
Billy listened but he seemed unconcerned and rolled over. Moments later he rolled back and said, ‘If I die Frank, I want a Viking funeral.’
I was focused on the TV but I heard him. “Sure thing,” I said.
“Frank, don’t forget the register,” said Doris as I passed her desk.
I’d been smoking in my car for the last hour. I was so stoned I could hardly walk, let alone sign in.
I weaved down the hall. “On the way out,” I slurred.
As I entered my uncle’s room, I wondered if I was hallucinating. His eyes were bulging open. This struck me as hilarious and I started to giggle.
Then he spoke. His voice was a rasp. “Frank?” he said, “you?”
This can’t be. I hadn’t heard his voice in almost twenty years. I barely stifled my laughter. “Yeh, yes,” I managed to say.
“Year?” he croaked.
He twitched involuntarily. “Too late., come,” he whispered.
I sat on his bed. He could barely move his withered body. He spoke to me and said a lot of things, most of it garbled, something about a key. I wasn’t paying attention. Then he blinked his eyes in a way that was so funny I laughed in his face. I laughed so hard I slid off the bed as my uncle collapsed. I had tears running down my face as a nurse came in to check the monitor. I sat in a corner as a number of people tried to resuscitate him. Finally, a doctor approached me.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Pulver, your uncle is dead,” he said.
I ran out of there. I got to my car and laughed all the way home.
There was no one at the funeral except for Billy, me, and Mr. Barlow, my uncle’s executor.
We stood at the gravesite eyeing the gleaming casket. “Well Frank,“ Mr. Barlow said, “you’ve managed to stay within the limitations of your uncle’s will, so as of his death, you are officially free of any requirements of the will, and all of the assets are yours.”
I smiled and Billy high-fived me. I had a brief moment of sadness when I realized I didn’t have to go to therapy anymore, now that I wanted to go.
“Here, take these,” Mr. Barlow continued as he handed me the keys to my uncle’s house. “Come see me in a week and I’ll have the papers prepared for you to sign.” With that he shook my hand and walked away.
Billy and I decided to check out the house and on the way to the car we were approached by Tony James. I was surprised he wasn’t here earlier. He expressed his sorrow for my loss. I told him about going to the house.
“You should come,” I offered.
He looked like I had granted his most important wish. “I’d love to,” he said.
As we walked into my uncle’s house, a small mansion really, I got a kind of creepy feeling like my uncle had just left. This was only the second time I had been in this house, the first time when I was five. My uncle liked things just so. I knew he paid to have the house kept up. I was sure if I checked the refrigerator I would find it stocked with fresh food. He expected to be back.
Billy and Tony had wandered off as I recollected in the foyer.
“Frank!” Tony shouted from down a long hall. “I’m in his office. Take a look at this.”
I made my way down the hall to the office. Tony was hunched over a desk looking over some papers.
“Your uncle was a respected researcher until something happened that drove him underground thirty years ago,” he said, looking down at the desk. “I always thought it was related to his Aspergers, his inability to relate to people. In any case, he was a brilliant man.”
He picked up an old VHS tape, looked up, and handed it to me. It was labeled, ‘To the Scientific Community’.
“I’d like to review this tape. Would you mind if I also took some of his papers?” he asked. “I’d be thrilled to look through his work. You know he never published anything after 1989. A real tragedy, I’m sure.”
He looked at me expectantly. I thought he would cry if I said no.
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Why not?”
Just then Billy showed up with a chicken leg and a beer.
I laughed. “Found the kitchen, huh?” Billy smiled and slurped the beer.
I handed Tony the tape and helped him gather a stack of papers into a box. Then we all cleared out. It felt like we were intruding.
I sat across from Karen. She tried bravely to have a regular session but was too distracted by the news. They were calling it a plague now. People were dying all over the globe at an alarming and accelerated rate. There were even a few people in town that had died.
“Are you going anywhere?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so. There’s nowhere safe.”
“Can I do anything for you?”
She wiped a small tear from the corner of her eye. “Promise to come see me again?”
“I will,” I said and I meant it.
She pulled a piece of paper from a pocket and handed it to me. “I shouldn’t do this, but under the circumstances, here’s my address.”
“Are you alone there, where you live?” I asked.
“No, my aunt is with me. I can’t leave her.”
“If you’re alone,” she said, “find me.”
Ditto, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
The cops hadn’t come for me today so I expected that no one cared about court dates anymore. I was thinking be careful what you wish for when the phone rang.
I hoped it was Karen, but no, it was Tony, the last person I expected to ever hear from again. I wanted to hang up but he sounded agitated and angry.
“It’s an incomplete message, Frank,” he said. “It’s in everyone. Over the last two decades people have been growing optogenetic pathways that allow for control of processing mental state-specific brain waves to program the body. Your uncle designed a synthetic mind-controlled gene switch that enables human brain activities and mental states to wirelessly program the transgene expression in human cells. But after fully loading, it apparently needs to be reset somehow or it causes death. How do we reset it, Frank? There’s nothing in his papers. It could be biofeedback control, concentration, meditation. It’s killing everyone!”
My heart beat faster. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“Your uncle may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race!” he cried. “It looks like he engineered a virus that altered the genes of everyone on the planet over the last twenty years. The purpose of the alteration was to allow anyone to make changes in their bodies at will. But initially it needs to be rebooted or it goes off into a random action killing its host. It’s fantastically brilliant and according to the tape, he expected to be around to reset everyone at the right moment. But he’s dead and he didn’t leave the information we need to stop this. Did he ever say anything to you? We don’t even know how he spread the virus!”
I remembered my uncle took trips all over the world when I was small. He never brought me stuff. I didn’t want to tell Tony about my last meeting with my uncle so I shouted back. “He didn’t say anything to me!”
“That’s too bad, Frank,” Tony said in a defeated voice. “Without the key we’re all doomed.”
Before I could respond, the phone cut off, likely for good. The word ‘key’ had sparked something in my memory but I couldn’t place it.
I tried to forget about Tony. How could my crazy uncle be responsible for all this death? Billy and I smoked the penultimate joint and he went to bed early complaining of a headache. I rationalized it away as a hangover from too much beer. I didn’t want to consider the alternative.
Billy died last night and there was nothing I could do for him. I watched him swallow a full bottle of aspirin and squirm around on the kitchen floor until blood came out of every orifice he had. He screamed and begged me to kill him. I squatted in a corner and cried my eyes out with my hands covering my ears, a terrified five year old once more. Finally, mercifully, he shuddered and died. I fell to the floor and passed out.
Later I woke up and got a bottle of whiskey from a cupboard. I proceeded to drink. I had to get Billy outside. That meant I had to pick him up. It took me half a quart to find the courage to approach him. I picked him up, his head resting on my chest. He was lighter than I expected. Maybe he had had a heavy soul. I cried as I walked with him to the backyard. I set him down tenderly in a busted lounge chair. I walked unsteadily back inside, retrieved my bottle, went outside and sat with him.
After a lot more whiskey and a little thought I perfected my plan for a Viking funeral. I secured a number of wood pallets from the garage and set them in the mostly empty and abysmally putrid above-ground swimming pool. I got a nice bed sheet to cover the pallets and then I laid Billy on it. He looked comfortable as I posed him with his hands on his chest. I washed his face and combed his hair and beard. But something was missing. While I looked for gasoline in the garage I found an old plastic sword I had as a kid. I set it on Billy’s chest. Looking at him this way made me cry again. Here was another hole in my soul, another loss. As the sun began to set I doused everything with gas and set it on fire. I raised the bottle and toasted Billy the Viking.
I went inside and crashed around the dark living room until I managed to turn a light on. I was amazed that there was electricity. And the TV worked as well. Everyone dying reminded me of being abandoned. It was all very sobering so I smoked the last joint in Billy’s memory and ate some ice cream. My last thought that night was of Karen.
I woke to the smell of smoke. I was on the living room floor. The back door was open and I could see the garage burned to the ground, still smoking. I rolled over on the keys in my pocket and they dug into my leg. I pulled them out and tossed them across the room. I got up and sat on the couch. I tried the lights and TV. Nothing. Everything dead.
I checked my sugar and it was way low. I needed to eat so I walked to the kitchen holding my pounding head. On the way I kicked my keys into a corner. As I was eating some cookies, I had a sudden thought about keys, or the key.
I needed to get to Karen. I rushed around and found my camera and tripod. I stuck my insulin kit in my pocket along with some cookies. Then I grabbed my keys and left.
The town was empty as I sped through it. Would Karen still be alive?
I pounded on her door. She answered it, shielding her eyes from the light. She smoked a cigarette. I stared at it.
She stared right back. “We all have our vices, Frank,” she said as she let me in.
“I think I know how to stop this,” I said, sounding crazy even to me.
She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “My aunt is dead.”
“Sorry, but we can stop this!”
I told her the story of my last visit to see my uncle.
“He told me how to stop this but I didn’t listen,” I said. “I need you to hypnotize me so I can recall what he said!”
She was very alive but fading. I guessed she had taken a lot of pain medication to deal with the headache.
I shook her arms. “Karen, please!”
She lifted her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, what harm can it do?”
I put a loaded syringe on the end table thinking that I would need insulin after she woke me up. I set up and started the camera thinking that it would record anything I said or did that I couldn’t remember. I took off my watch and set it on the table as well. Then I was ready.
“Okay,” she said. “Sit down in front of the camera. I’ll wake you in an hour and a half.”
She sat on the coffee table directly in front of me. She started asking me questions.
“You want to be hypnotized, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“I want to recall what my uncle said to me at our last meeting.”
“Focus on my forehead Frank. Your eyes are feeling heavy and they want to close.”
“You have to relax,” she said. “It will happen if you relax.”
I took a deep breath and relaxed.
“Your eyes are growing heavy,” she said in a measured voice. “Each of your body parts are relaxing one by one. You’re sinking down into the couch. Your eyes are heavy and you close them. You’re taking deep, slow breaths. You’re totally relaxed. The deeper you go the deeper you want to go.”
I sat in a dark place on a hard bench. I recognized it. It was the bench my father kept his shoe polishing stuff in. It was in his closet. It was dark but I felt fine. I remembered making my bed before I crept in here. Then there was a noise, then yelling and screaming. There was a metallic tang in the air. I covered my ears and tried not to scream.
It got quiet. There was a bright light though the louvers. The door in front of me opened. I was terrified, but it was only my mom smiling at me.
She had tears in her eyes. “It’s not your fault. People don’t die because you love them, Frankie. They just die. It isn’t because you love someone that they die, they just die, not everyone you love dies.”
My father’s face intruded over her shoulder. He looked serious. “Frank,” he said, “listen to your Uncle Carl.”
Then I was at the bedside of my uncle. I was looking at myself at our final meeting. Stoned Frank was laughing. My uncle was trying to tell him something. Then I looked through the eyes of stoned Frank, it took some concentration to ignore him. What a fuckup!
My uncle spoke and I listened. “Everyone will die unless you do the following, this is the KEY!”
It was a simple series of eye blinks that made me laugh so hard when I was stoned. I heard stoned Frank laugh but I paid attention to what my uncle was doing. I did it along with him.
“You’ll feel a kind of click, a snap in your head,” my uncle said as he faded away.
I went through the blinking motions again. Jesus, I felt the snap in my head just like he said. My eyes filled with tears.
Then I was back at Karen’s house but on the floor beside the couch. Where was she? Did she wake me? It was still light out. Where should the shadows be? I felt confused, hungry and sleepy. My sugar must be high.
I raised myself up and grabbed the syringe and injected myself. I knocked over the table trying to get up. My watch fell in front of me. I looked at it, not believing what it was telling me. What, it’s four o’clock? I couldn’t believe that eight hours had passed. My sugar must have been low. Why didn’t she wake me? Now I desperately needed sugar. Got to get some juice. . . the kitchen.
“Dr. Cummings. . . Karen,” I bellowed breathlessly. “Help me! I know how to stop this!”
There was no answer. I couldn’t get up. I was too dizzy. I crawled toward the kitchen. There she was on the floor. I fell flat next to her, face to face, and looked at her. She looked beautiful.
I struggled to lift my arm and drape it over her. She was still warm. As I drifted away I remembered what she’d said at our first meeting.
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear.”
“I know,” I whispered.