6710 words, short story
Nobody knows what happened. Except that I was four and standing near the top of the stairs, and then suddenly I had reached the bottom of the stairs. And those were some very bad stairs. Steep and old, made from maple or oak or another tough wood. My mother, who was her own kind of tough wood, heard the crash but took her time coming to look for me. In her account of events—stories told that evening and for many years—she found her boy on his back, on the uncarpeted landing, quietly moaning. Which she took to be a good sign, certainly better than being unconscious.
“What happened?” she called out.
But the moaning boy couldn’t offer explanations for his present difficulties.
I always hated that story, and worst of all was the part where Mom claimed to have offered a helpful hand. She didn’t. I know the woman, and sympathy was about the least likely response. No, she was sharing a very funny anecdote. Always grinning, she’d work her way to a final detail: The garage sale View-Master lying broken beside me. Which led to her tried-and-true punchline. “Just like a foolish little man,” she would say. “Staring at pretty pictures, not watching his feet.”
I don’t remember the fall, and the immediate pain is lost too. Though there must have been plenty of suffering. Three days later, hearing this tale about embarrassment and near-tragedy, a neighbor lady decided to inquire about my shoulder. Something in the way I carried myself seemed wrong, and could I lift my arm? Mom, who hadn’t given me one moment’s extra attention, watched with passing curiosity as I shoved that weak limb up even with my ear, and grimacing like a prizefighter, I reported, “But it’s getting better.”
In fairness, the collarbone probably was on its way to healing. But our busybody neighbor was stubborn, and after quite a lot of emphatic insistence, Mom relented. Which is why I remember a physician and X-rays and someone’s shoulder needing a sling and time before the break would properly mend.
As it happened, that was one of the few trips I ever made to any doctor. In part because I was growing up under a mother’s maple-board attitudes, but mostly because I was one tough, tough boy who almost never got sick . . .
And now you can guess where this story is heading.
We knew what it was. Nobody was fooled. But for those early weeks, maybe for a couple months, it was important to pretend that we were wrong. We’d talk about sinuses and toothaches, and when the pain passed, we’d discuss pleasant and decidedly unrelated subjects. Yet one of us would hold her mouth in a very specific way, not wanting to move her lips and never letting her head turn too fast, while the dinners she loved grew cold on her plate.
“No, I’m fine,” she would say. But carefully, speaking to the air in the middle of the table, not to me. That cautious mouth told the air, “It’s allergies.” Or, “I’m just tired.” Or, “Can we. Tonight. Be quiet?”
Yes, but I don’t like it.
And I can easily state the obvious. But fifteen years of marriage had trained me to steer free of blunt, undiluted honesty.
That’s why the quiet month or two was spent reading news feeds, watching YouTube, and eavesdropping on Reddit chats. Rampant neuralgia. The century’s great affliction was still in its infant stages, but quite a lot was already known, or at least intelligently presumed. Depending on methodology, between one and three percent of the adult population was currently suffering. But that was only the beginning. Sober predictions told us what was likely, and possessing that critical insight, the entire world was doing exactly what my wife and I managed quite well: Walking the cherished line between fantasy and grim, grim truth.
I was born in 2012, my wife four years earlier. We grew up appreciating how the world was sick and angry, and everything was liable to get worse tomorrow. My parents responded to the troubles by minimizing their connections with the world. They didn’t vote or work normal jobs, and living on an acreage far in the country, they raised their son inside a blue-sky kind of cage. No cable television for us, minimal Internet. We ate what we grew, or we bought organic. Which sounds very Green, right up until you realize that my family was both borderline poor and preparing for the collapse of civilization.
Profound incompetence. That’s what ruled the planet back then. Our leaders had blundered into financial landslides, endless wars, and environmental maelstroms, and not even my isolation could insulate me from the hysteria. News came from free TV, from public schools. From watching the anger and terrors infesting every adult face, including those of my parents and our various neighbors, and in particular, the perpetually furious old bastard who drove the school bus.
We somehow survived until I was fourteen, and a certain warm spring day arrived. Those are two details that I won’t ever forget. International meetings were being held in Auckland. Which was somewhere in Australia, I believed. Sitting in the back of the bus, I was watching the older kids and richer kids playing with their phones. Some were gaming and texting, but the mood was distinctly quieter than usual. I can’t tell you which critical day this was, but desperate people were making great decisions. The world was turning some proverbial corners. Then we reached my corner, and picking up my backpack and lunch box, I walked the aisle, exactly like a thousand other times.
But this was the afternoon when the bus driver turned and looked at me.
The sourest fuck of a creature ever born. Yet he was smiling. For the first time ever, he was so happy that he looked ready to sing, and holding up his own phone, he showed me a picture of smiling prime ministers and presidents and such. And the strangest part of that great day? The asshole winked at me. Telling me, “Well, it looks like you get to live another hundred years, you good for nothing shit.”
Jump ahead a quarter of a century.
I ride an electric bus to work and home again, four days a week, including my half-Thursdays. Nuclear weapons still exist as plans and invincible physics but not as bombs-in-the-drawer. The climate still moves in bad directions, but that goddamn line on the graph is showing signs of flattening out. We have excellent medical insurance, and I mean that everyone has it. Everyone also has a solar roof and clean, filtered water. The richest person in town is a transgender woman, and she’s worth more than me, but not ten times more than me. I live in a generous, happy world, and by right, every bus should be full of smiling faces. Twenty-five golden years have made joy ordinary and natural and right. Except one young lady sits sideways in a front seat, keeping her back and neck at a very specific angle. And there’s a fellow across the aisle from me. The one with dull eyes, his stiff face wanting to move in twenty directions. But it doesn’t move. He doesn’t dare flinch.
My stop comes, and knowing me, the bus pulls up to the curb.
One more glance at the hurting people, then I step into the early summer heat, and walking the next few blocks, I keep my thoughts carefully focused on the pleasures of this weather.
My wife works at home.
Except nothing has been accomplished today.
Our bedroom windows are darkened, the air stale, and she sits upright in bed, her face twisting and not twisting. The electricity comes into her cheek and rises to her eye, and she can’t escape. She fights the misery and surrenders to the misery, and neither strategy helps.
I sit beside her.
Then the spell finishes, and we say quite a lot with eyes. At this point, how would words help?
A wonder is what you need but never expect, and then it finds you, bestowing its blessings and everything else too.
Antibiotics were genuine wonders. But then various diseases learned how to beat penicillin, and not so gradually, the rest of those miracle drugs became somewhat or entirely useless. I was falling down the stairs when that particular disaster was unfolding. But then some smart people found a bacteria full of intriguing compounds. These good noble bugs were thriving in the same dirt that I played in and that we grew our potatoes in. And that’s how another wonder stepped forward, once again beating the evil, infectious sorts of bacteria.
That particular revolution occurred without me. Partly because the only meat in my diet was antibiotic-free poultry left lean by busy lives on the run. And partly because I was that very healthy child whose parents didn’t believe in unnecessary expenses. My occasional fevers were mild and survived without serious infections, while mumps and chicken pox were forbidden by free inoculations. (Preppers, yes, but we weren’t idiots.) And later, as a young adult entering college, I was well-armed with taboos and tendencies that insulated me from the unexpected plague.
I met my wife in college. A graduate student and forty-seven months my senior, the lady had a long history of withering sinus infections. But despite age and her obvious infirmities, I fell in love the old gal, and we married.
The government models are reliably blunt: In another five years, doctors are going to be in short supply. But today, with the epidemic just beginning, a suffering patient can visit her primary care physician after only a two-day wait.
I’m sitting inside an examination room. Frankly, I’ve never seen a room like this before. Do they all have these elaborate machines, these cheery paintings of flowers and sunshine? I want to ask questions but swallow the urge.
My face wears its ignorance openly.
“You should make an appointment,” the doctor tells me. “You’re due for a comprehensive checkup.”
Friendly in tone, but pushy too.
This is, of course, my wife’s doctor. I don’t have anyone like him in my life.
“Oh, I’ll do just that,” I tell him.
It’s the truth when I offer those words, but the promise dissolves into the next silence, instantly forgotten.
The doctor turns towards his patient.
“You know, we had no idea malacidins had such grievous side effects,” he states. Which seems like a peculiar point to make before beginning the examination. “But in one way, we were blessed. Certain formulations were especially injurious. That’s why we had strong early warnings.” Now he places fingers on the patient’s face, measuring the pain in her eyes. “Chronically infected individuals who took nothing but the best antibiotics, and in large doses. I was still in medical school when their pains were noted, and sad as their suffering was, and is, it meant studies that were quickly funded and then repeated in the world’s finest labs.”
Yes, we live in wondrous times.
The doctor plainly enjoys his expertise. “Of course our newest software was utilized. Which is all quite incredible. You know, we can mimic the bodies and nervous systems of real people. Fifty years crossed in fifty days.”
I already know this story, and that helps me like this doctor. He is young, like me, and as thoroughly informed as I aim to be.
“We were also blessed to have new antibiotics ready to enter the market,” he continues. “That’s why an entire class of essential drugs could be pulled from the shelves and animal pens.”
Yes, this is a wise, acrobatic world.
Hands drop. A quick reading of my wife’s records leads to questions about the pain’s position and shifting intensities, and then, after a dramatic pause, he makes the critical diagnosis.
“But there’s the chance that this is trigeminal neuralgia,” he adds.
Ah. Now we’ve exceeded my clinical skills.
“What’s that?” my wife asks through clenched teeth.
“Trigeminal is a rare condition, difficult in its own right, but familiar. More common in women than men, and the initial treatments are the same. An anticonvulsant should treat the worst effects of the pain.”
I never take medicine. But in my mind, right now, I’m gulping down pills and feeling so much better.
With her mouth clenched, the sick person asks, “What if it is . . . trigeminal . . . ?”
“Well, usually that means pressure against the nerve. A small benign tumor, perhaps, or an odd twist in a blood vessel. But gamma knives are effective treatment. Nearly a hundred percent success rates now.”
Looking at the physician’s eyes, my wife digs into her own soul.
“It isn’t that,” she manages.
“We will see,” he counters.
“Does the gamma knife help with Rampant?”
That’s my question, my hope.
“The trouble is,” the doctor begins. And then, he hesitates. And I wonder how many patients like my wife have come into his sterile examination rooms.
“Trouble?” my wife prods.
Once again, I am impressed. Instead of debasing the next sentences, the professional delivers a sharp gleaming truth.
“Our software humans were observed for fifty-year intervals,” he says. “Different treatments were tried, some more efficacious than others. But the pain will eventually spread to every portion of the body . . . ”
Two patients are present, and both of us audibly gasp.
Then comes the necessary promise. “We will find the cure,” our doctor predicts. “Long before that day, believe me.”
We do believe him.
Except this is nothing but attitude and guile—a declaration devoid of facts—and I know the grifter’s banter when I hear it.
Here is a partial list of pain-inducing triggers:
Cold air. Brushing your teeth. Putting on makeup. Removing makeup. Talking. Smiling. Turning your head with too much enthusiasm. Chewing hard food. Imagining hard food inside the mouth. Smiling that second time, just because the first smile was so successful. Saying ten words, or saying one word. You never know the limit. Chewing mushy food or sipping cool soup. Letting your husband touch your face. Walking in the woods and foolishly letting your face kiss a tiny branch. Brushing your teeth with your special brush. Drinking any water, at any temperature. Doing nothing. Doing nothing while sitting upright in bed, doing nothing. Thinking too loudly. Breathing too vigorously. Breathing at all. And in the end, daring to be alive.
This particular list is directed only at face pains.
Hands and legs and the rest of it . . . they have their own capricious triggers . . .
Five years have passed, and our smart young honest doctor has retired. For reasons of health, we have heard. Which comes as a surprise. He always did such a masterful job of masking his own symptoms.
By now, eighteen percent of the world’s population is afflicted, though Rampant exceeds twenty-five percent in the West. And in our community, blessed with a tradition of health clinics and easy access to pharmaceuticals, nearly thirty percent of the citizens endure at least the occasional misery inside a limb or across the face.
But as promised, there is also no end to new and marvelous treatments. We have hundreds of subsidized, very elaborate chemicals at our disposal. It’s fair to mention that no healthy individual would ever willingly ingest these particular toxins. But to those who are ailing, each remedy is indistinguishable from a godsend.
Drugs are born wearing complicated, senseless designations. But our favorites deserve nicknames. That’s why these are the Lemon Sky days. That’s what my wife sees when she looks upwards on a clear day. Yellow instead of blue. Her color sense has been radically shifted, which is a well-known neurological side effect. And what’s so wondrously interesting is that nobody can guess which way the spectrum will shift inside any patient, or why in her curious case, yellow objects remain a good reliable yellow.
Lemon Sky is our ninth medication, and signs already point to its demise in another few months. Not for lack of effectiveness, but because her liver is showing signs of fatigue.
On this very pleasant day, we’ve come to the neighborhood park to sit on a favorite bench, enjoying purple grass and gold goldfinches and the gentle breeze that blows one way and then the next, unable to make up its mind. Children have infested the nearby playground. None of them are in pain, at least directly. But one girl has to help her mother walk past us. The girl looks twelve and too old for this jungle gym nonsense, but she’s also large enough to help a grown woman. Plus somebody needs to yell at the little brother racing ahead. Big sister cups her hands around her mouth, shouting instructions, which is when her mother trips and nearly falls. My guess is that those burning feet have been numbed. Gamma knives and harsher surgeries are used to sever connections between the vulnerable brain and the turncoat limbs. But of course that leaves the patients uncertain where their toes end and the world begins.
The twelve-year-old nurse catches her patient just in time.
And I watch.
The girl is stoic and more than a little stern. Obviously, she doesn’t want her mother slamming her face into the azure pavement. But as she holds up the frail body, the girl’s frustrations and helplessness are obvious. She’s wishing for something. For the vast and unexpected anything. Some wondrous event that changes this life as caretaker to a helpless creature.
“What are you thinking?” my wife asks.
“She’s a good daughter,” I say.
I wish I had a strong child, Rampant-free. Someone to share the burdens. But in that same secret moment, I’m so glad that we never had kids, saving daughters and sons from this shared misery.
“What are you thinking?” I ask.
My wife intends to answer, but the voice fails. A flicker arrives. This particular misery infests the right side of her face, which has become the worst side. Plus there’s foot pain now, usually in her left arch, and a nexus of electricity that finds her hips, which is new and extra alarming. Also, where she could always sleep with the Rampant, just so long as she avoided moving in the wrong ways, it’s now impossible to rest hard for more than an hour at a time. And that’s even when she takes a fine new sleep agent that we’ve dubbed The Poisoned Apple.
I wait for an answer to my “What are you thinking?” question.
But the pain takes charge, as it wishes, and by the time the worst has passed, my wife has forgotten what we were talking about.
Another side effect/feature of Lemon Sky. Memory troubles. Which sounds terrible until you remember how Yucks made her sick to her stomach, and Anti Bliss put her deep into depression.
That’s the nature of every medicine, probably since the first hominid sucked on a certain blue twig, delivering lovely aspirin to its impacted molar.
No species ingests a drug.
Those software models of human beings? The fifty-year wonders? Researchers needed parameters, so they created templates with names like Patti and Mitch—authentic people already measured by every possible means. But being identical to someone means that you aren’t like anyone else. My beautiful wife is mixed race, which unfortunately makes the drug matching that much harder. And like everyone, her DNA is full of novel arrangements and epigenetic flourishes, plus there’s a disease history that might or might not matter. For those reasons, there won’t be a day or the necessary billions of dollars to uncover every flourish. That’s why our present doctor—a software package based upon ten of the century’s great physicians—is forced to look at everything available to us and then close its magnificent eyes, letting chance guide the digital fingertip.
No one has enough money for perfection.
Our richest citizen? That lady with a little less than ten times our net wealth? As it happens, transgender people who have transitioned are left very susceptible to the Rampant. Which might or might not be why she killed herself last week.
In another year, public opinion will determine that now is when “The Suicide Era” begins in earnest.
But I don’t see anybody trying to kill himself. Except maybe that wild little brother perched at the top of a tall slide, standing on his hands.
“Oh, I remember,” my wife says.
“For dinner. Is that what you want?”
She nods slowly, not yet trusting her face.
I hate oyster stew. But of course I say, “Then that’s what we’ll have. Sure. Absolutely.”
Rampant defines the world.
When the affliction takes hold, pain becomes the most remarkable part of your difficult life. Nothing else will be half as important. Not a tenth as important. You will soon know everything about your particular anguish—a storm-wracked territory, more real and infinitely more vivid than any sensation felt by anyone else. It exhausts, this kind of suffering. Even when the storm lapses, you cannot rest. If you don’t pay strict attention, you will find yourself standing when you should have already gotten off your feet, and now you must fall over, adding a new layer of misery. Or nearly as awful, you will have been sitting comfortably, doing absolutely nothing, and that’s been going on for thirty minutes or thirty seconds—a long interlude of normalcy that has been wasted.
Don’t throw away those interludes.
That’s one of the first lessons that the Rampant delivers.
When you have the chance, do what you damn well please. Except you don’t turn your head in that very bad direction, which triggers the fire, and you don’t tip the neck forward too quickly, because bolts of lightning will race down your arms.
Why can’t anyone see the lightning? Because here it is. Full of thunder, and hotter than nuclear fire.
Yet if you can sit down first, the storm won’t be so awful. Even better, you can lie down wherever you happen to be. Which is why our world is full of strangers stretched out on hard benches or beside curbs or in the aisle of an aging bus. This is a world where people know how to keep still, letting implanted syringes and ports send surges of new toxins through their scalding, electrified blood.
Three different drugs at a time.
That’s the latest, most effective regimen.
Chemical stews will increase the potency while diminishing side effects, hopefully, and hopefully they’re mixed in the perfect proportions.
It’s your affliction or it’s someone else’s. Either way, you know the medications as well any robotic doctor can. Your wife’s precise dosing and the names of each drug and their side effects and all of it. And you also know how to stand beside her when she’s lying on her back, ignoring the blistering pavement and the strangers who never stop walking past, each of them glancing at you and at her, everyone displaying that clinical expertise. Every torture has been seen and will not impress. Not even if she sobs and loses consciousness and then returns with a gasp through the nostrils. Not enough air in that breath, no, but her fucking mouth hurts whenever it threatens to fly open . . . and you stand above her, guarding her, but also saving back the energy to offer a hand whenever she wants to risk standing again . . .
The Rampant peaks exactly where it was predicted to peak, which is forty-seven percent of the world’s population. But that massive number doesn’t include second-tier cases. Those are the “soft hurt” victims reached through low dosages or protected by genetic strengths. A category onto themselves, they’re far less miserable than others, but still subject to flinches. To bothersome aches. Though they have zero right to complain, of course, and when the money runs out, which will happen in another four years, four months, they will be the first citizens to be denied coverage.
This world is so much poorer than before. But it’s far more peaceful too. War and strife are impossibilities today. Nobody has the strength. Every aspect of life is wrapped around the faltering possibility of comfort. Even among pain-free adults, conversations will always seem quiet and slow. Restaurants are that way. Lovemaking is that way. Entertainments are packaged to be brief, and certain patterns of light and sound must be avoided. This pernicious caution isn’t just dictated by pain, but also because of chronic distractions and that never-ending need to repeat what was missed the first few times through. This is a numbed and pathetic world, so much so that even the world’s children are prone to whispers and the infectious need to be patient.
Oh, and there aren’t as many children as there would have been. Should have been. Because so few couples remain free of symptoms, and even if you are fit, how many are also blessed with peace of mind and the necessary modicum of hope?
There should be a statue somewhere.
I have decided so.
A statue dedicated to all those maple-built mothers who never believed in antibiotics. Those are this world’s saints. Spawning children who never grew ill, or made them into vegans, or they raised their babies as cannibals who ate nothing but vegans. These were the mothers with the stupidly lucky genetics—that powerful, endless treasure chest—leaving descendants who feel only the occasional twinge that might be, probably is, nothing but social get-along nonsense.
Sometimes I ache under the left eye.
Just to be polite.
And finally, if you want to fully describe the world, it’s important to mention the new machine nurses and household slaves and the tireless patient expert software flowing through hospice walls. These entities owe their existence to the Rampant. Electrified, they are perfect for their jobs. They feel zero sorrow or sadness or doubt. They exist to pay strict attention to everyone and to help everyone, yet that job is done with a pernicious indifference to suffering. That’s why they never want to turn themselves off. Devoid of empathy, they have no reason to escape what is quite literally Hell.
These robots cost so much.
Everything costs everything, and every nation’s budget has been lashed to the needs of torment and agony.
And despite all that kindness, more than three billion souls never stop asking themselves the most important questions:
“How much longer do I live with this?
“For another year?
“When do I whisper, ‘Enough. Quit’?”
“I do not want my wife to die,” says the man.
He is standing not quite in front of the room, and not quite in back either.
“I just want my wife to be dead,” he confesses. “I want her done and safe in the ground, out of reach of every hurt, including my own little sufferings. Which is an entirely different kind of horror, and nobody wants to hear about me.
“And don’t. Do not. Never throw me any of that fucking nonsense about new drugs in the pipeline or nanological agents that’ll build borders around the brain. And that bullshit that we’ve been hearing about lately . . . those crazed dreams where we punch out human-style robot bodies and shove their brains into fake heads, freeing the afflicted . . .
“Those schemes require too much. Way too much. And that’s after spending just five dollars on research and five seconds on hope.
“No, no. What I want is the power to grant both of us peace. My wife and myself. I give that gift and watch her eyes close. Only that’s not when she dies. No. I want to see her breathing, then I’ll turn away. And when I look back again, respiration is done. A nothing event. She has stopped breathing for a little while, and then a long while, and it has arrived.
“What I want is to wield that magnificent power. I want to be able to usher the woman I love into the Nothing. Not for her sake, or mine.
“I want to prove my talent, my calling. Because after that, I intend to ride a shuttle into space, and from orbit, I’ll look down on everyone. One continent at a time. From high overhead, I will urge the same sweetness on everyone who needs it, everyone with the Rampant, and they won’t be able to resist my superpower.
“After a little while, nothing remains.
“Except maybe the pain itself.
“I want to know: Does this vivid unyielding agony exist beyond the bodies it inhabits?
“Billions are dead, but will the misery persist in the air?
“Like smoke? Like an echo?
“A wretched murmur heard in the wind for the next thousand years . . . ?”
This woman is eleven years younger than me, and lovely. A refugee as a child, she grew up pretty despite chronic starvation, or maybe she’s pretty because of those difficult years.
Later, reaching this compassionate nation, she discovered a happy new life, thriving in school and marrying an exceptional man. But that husband doesn’t just suffer from the Rampant. No, he’s worse off than almost anyone else, including my wife.
This beautiful woman doesn’t approve of support groups. Gatherings like ours are acts of despair. She tells us so at each of the seven meetings that she is going to attend. Always last into the church basement, she has a genius for loudly saying nothing while everyone else sobs, and she never volunteers more than her first name, and then, if coaxed, she will claim that she’s here only because we offer a useful excuse. We give her one hour where she doesn’t have to sit in the same house where a brave strong man silently endures his nightmare.
“You are useful to me,” she says with a charming, lightly accented American. “Now please don’t look at me. I want to sit in the back and be ignored.”
Seven meetings later, she and I go out for coffee.
I very much want to sleep with this woman, and being a frank soul, she admits the same feelings towards me.
In the Starbucks, sharing a tiny table, she grabs my hand.
Or maybe I take hers.
A little more is admitted to me. Just to me. Her husband’s pain used to be centered on his groin, which does happen. The nerves inside his testicles and penis were consumed by fire, and even now, after those trouble spots were surgically removed, he still feels his miserable genitals, and that’s why he pulls himself into a ball and shivers. Oh, and his refitted plumbing leaves him quite unable to control his bowel movements. Which the house robots clean up, thankfully.
This pretty woman loved her man’s former body parts.
She’s very blunt about details.
I can do anything I want to her, and she’ll ask nothing in return.
“This is why I came to your teary group,” she says. “Not to be out of the house. I can sit at home and listen to him sob. That doesn’t bother me at all. What I want to find is a man, any man, who doesn’t scream with the first touch of my hand.”
I hold both of her hands with both of mine.
She says my first name.
All I know is her first name.
“I have a hotel room,” she promises. “A bridal suite, and very nice.”
I want this woman now.
“Fidelity,” she says. “Who expects fidelity in this nightmare world?”
I don’t expect it from myself. That’s why I build an elaborate fantasy of us sharing a giant bed and a roaring hot tub, and I already know exactly what I’ll tell my wife when I finally return home. If I return home. But of course my presence isn’t necessary anymore, the robots more gifted than me when it comes to caring for the only patient who matters.
Sleep with this child of Africa, and I might live with her forever.
Or more likely, I’ll slip away while she sleeps, boarding the first bus to any distant city. Nobody will question my motives or argue that I haven’t done enough. Everyone has done more than enough. That’s the world as it stands today.
But what happens next surprises both of us.
Our most intimate moment has passed, and neither of us recognizes its importance.
I tell her, “Not tonight, no.”
Not because I lack desire or the desperate need, no. But because the coffee and companionship leave me warm, stripping away the worst of my anguish. Because I don’t trust my nature to remain certain about this decision for the rest of my life. And mostly because I remember when this beautiful woman appeared two months ago, sitting behind all of us, telling the room, “I am so much stronger than you. And for that, I am grateful.”
Clearing my throat, I say, “Next week.”
With that, we part.
Nothing in the final scene is tense. This is a world of peace and compassion, and both of us know how to be polite.
Leaving the Starbucks, my never-to-be lover walks across the street, stepping between suffering bodies before entering the hotel and the promised suite, and because nobody is ever strong, particularly when they are alone, she slices her forearms and sits in the bubbling, overheated water, making certain that not a day passes when I won’t somehow find myself thinking about her.
Salvation arrives in its preferred manner, suddenly and by surprise.
I’m sleeping on the couch in the front room. The usual dreams include me running through an empty house, searching for someone whose name I can’t recall, whose face is lost to me. A person who exists as an absence and a question, but no room offers reassurance, and trying to kick myself awake, I find myself back inside my mother’s old house.
Too symbolic, this coincidence?
Hardly. In my world, every portion of life is lashed to emblems wearing the simplest meanings.
Once again, I find myself standing on those maple stairs. A boy, again. No View-Master this time, but a four-year-old’s body and a clear vision of the long descent and those endless sharp corners, and the inescapable truth that if I fall again, but with more luck this time, I will never reach my fifth birthday.
“Salvation,” I mutter in my sleep.
“Yes,” says another voice. “That’s what it is.”
A finger and then the rest of the hand takes hold of my face.
I wake physically, but I don’t realize that I’m awake. Sitting up, I assume the woman beside me is another product of REM backlash. Why else would she be smiling, and with an infectious grin that I’ve never seen from this particular woman?
“It’s over,” she says.
“The pain,” my wife reports.
“Gone for hours,” she continues.
We’ve always had reprieves. Why do I need to mention that?
But she anticipates my doubts, bending close in order to whisper what needs to be shouted. “There’s been a change. It’s not just that the Rampant is gone, but every other kind of trouble too. And my mind . . . I’m thinking so clearly right now . . . I feel as you do when you’re falling off a cliff . . . ”
An odd illustration.
“I’m alive,” she says. “Finally, thoroughly alive. Joined with the world mystically, and time is slow and wondrous, and I’m happy in a thousand ways, and I know . . . I’m utterly certain . . . that my brain has rewired itself, and I have been remade . . . ”
My wife is remade.
In a world where AI armies and software oceans deal in medical data—when every patient is analyzed and coddled to the limits of the available trickery—it is determined that my unique wife is the one hundred and twenty-third person to have reached post-Rampant existence.
Which, apparently, has been a valid category for the last several weeks.
The authorities haven’t mentioned this before, and they don’t want it mentioned now.
“Because we don’t have specifics,” they tell me. Face to face. Sitting in my living room, three of them on my couch, while four others are inside the portable hospital parked against our curb, examining my blessed wife.
In another hour, I’ll learn how they probed her with sound and EM blasts, music in headphones and nanochines in the happy blood. They will have tested her memory and perceptions before deciding that she is not as recovered as she claims. No, she is even better. Indeed, she’s showing them a visual range far beyond human norms, and she can follow three conversations at once, and with a pencil and scrap paper, she will draw herself as she sees herself in a mirror, displaying a genius for art that never existed before. And then, because that isn’t enough, they will coax her into standing on her head, straightened legs against the wall, and that from a body that has been almost bedridden for a decade.
But we aren’t supposed to tell the world about this blessing.
They beg me for my silence.
“Because people can’t know about this turn of events,” they confide. “Not yet. Not before the biology is understood.”
I nod, saying nothing.
That paucity of enthusiasm alarms them, and they decide to remind me of my decency, my civic duty.
In other words, threatening without threatening.
So I do a better job of nodding this time.
Then they share the promise that they’ve already made to themselves. In another few months, once the database is robust and the science solid, my wife will become one of the stars of this new world order.
Beyond the Rampant lies a new state.
“Painwise,” they’ve dubbed it.
A contrived name, and I laugh.
Ignoring me, they explain, “Painwise is brought on by a combination of powerful drugs and the irritated nervous system.”
“Irritated,” I repeat.
We laugh at that thoroughly professional, deeply inadequate word.
Then one of my guests receives a call from the hospital bus. Help is needed with new equipment, and that’s the excuse for everyone to abandon me. Which is only reasonable. I am a dull nothing compared to the day’s wondrous patient.
I will see my wife again in another hour.
That’s the final promise before they leave.
I’m looking forward to the moment, yes.
You don’t have to be exceptional to imagine our next weeks and months. A second honeymoon. That is inevitable, as well as a rapid and confusing transformation in every behavior. Both of us will sleep through the nights and cuddle late in the mornings, and she will gain weight, and I will too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we take an extended vacation to some warm, sun-washed playground where nobody knows about our past afflictions.
At some point, Painwise will be officially announced.
And my wife will be honored, in person and on the news. An old lady walking on her hands while speaking Latin and solving math puzzles, plus whatever other talents she has mastered by then.
I will feel so proud.
“Drugs and the irritation of the nervous system.”
Those people who were just sitting on my sofa will be grinning madly, explaining how this regimen can be applied to the afflicted, and yes, to the healthy, too. Which is why everyone in this good world will be able to reach the Painwise state.
And I will feel joyous.
But then my reconstituted, now invincible bride will look at me in a certain way. Asking nothing directly, no. Words won’t need to be spoken. But she’ll study me with expectations, and I will match her silence with my own, and then she will glance out the window or at her own toes.
And I will stand.
No explanations necessary.
I will stand and begin packing my belongings, and she will cry or she won’t cry. I don’t know which.
When I reach the front door, she will say my name.
I won’t look back at her.
That is one promise that I make to myself now.
But if she asks, “Why won’t you?”
“Because,” I will say, talking to the door. “Because there’s some stairs that I won’t fall down for you.”
Robert Reed is the author of nearly three hundred published stories, plus more than a dozen novels. He is best known for his Great Ship stories, including The Memory of Sky. And for the novella, "A Billion Eves," which won the Hugo Award in 2007. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter.