In the quiet night on a tired country road, a gaunt wraith wandered.
She had her arms outstretched, trying to keep her balance on the white shoulder line. A green sign told her that the nearest town was a short three miles ahead. Taped to the sign and lit by the solar powered lamp was a picture. In bold letters it asked “Have you seen this woman?” and it had some numbers to call. She smiled, looking at a picture of herself from another time. Someone had sharpied “EBOLA ERICA” at the bottom of the page.
Even in a pandemic people still loved alliteration. She spit at the sign, something she had been doing a lot more of lately. Park benches, bike racks, store windows. Everything someone might lay a hand on.
She wondered for a moment if her reach had already been felt in this little city. If it was closed down or already infected. Inside, something assured her she was on the right path.
A very young girl with raven hair wandered the football field outside of her school, balancing on the white lines. Her shoes crushed down the white-painted grass but were small enough not to brush the edges of the green. It was a game she played alone at recess every day.
Her right hand rolled over a marble in her pocket. The simple glass sphere was a larger cat’s eye marble with a black sliver winding around a yellow one. She’d kept it close to her for several years now, and often caressed it when the world seemed a little bit too big for her.
On the field the other kids ran and played. They shoved and shouted, blurring the lines between two hand touch and tackle football. She paid them little mind.
Long black hair and a hoodie muted the game to her, keeping her focused on the line below.
Cortland was tall for his age, fast and lean. While huddled he whispered to his quarterback, “Throw it deep down the sideline, Try to get it to me right before Erica.”
“Why?” the quarterback asked.
“Just do it. She needs to know this is a football field, not a track.” Cortland said.
“Whatever man, just catch it.”
Cortland nodded and ran to the sideline. The ball was snapped, it was in the air.
Erica heard rapid footsteps but didn’t tense up. She was almost always invisible to them, and that’s how she liked it.
The green grass below her turned suddenly to bright blue sky. In the sky were black speckles that warped in and around the clouds. A brief thought of swarming insects filled her mind and then was drowned out by pain. She tried to breathe in but couldn’t and her ribs ached. She’d never had the wind knocked out of her before. Panic set in for a moment. The edges of her vision started going dark, but before she could pass out, her lungs relented and she took in a massive gasp of air.
On top of her, Cortland was sprawled out. He stood up and stared at her. Laughter rang out from behind them. Another kid shouted that Cortland was out-of-bounds when he caught the pass.
The dispute went on, and Erica lay there trying to catch her breath. The look on Cortland’s face was slipping from a smile to concern. Other boys ran up behind him, and he shook himself out of worrying.
“Watch where you’re going princess,” he said.
“Okay,” she uttered, rolling to her side. “Okay, okay okay.”
She reached into her pocket, feeling for the marble. Erica found nothing. She sat up with a start, and started groping in the grass. Her heart pounded harder than when the pain had overtaken her chest. Tears immediately welled up in her eyes, and short choked sobs ebbed from her heaving chest.
“Where the fuck is it?” She shouted. Several boys gasped. It was a word they had all heard hundreds of times, but the impact of a 10-year-old girl saying it jarred them.
“Where’s what? Cortland asked.
“My fucking marble. What did you do with it?”
“I didn’t do anything.” The boy searched for a moment and noticed a glint of light in the grass. He reached down and picked it up. “Here,” he said, handing it to her.
Erica snatched it from his hand. He kept his hand outstretched as if to help her up and she glared at it. She stood up on her own, spit at him, and ran back toward the school.
“You aren’t going to snitch on us are you?” Cortland asked. When Erica flipped him off he turned his head not knowing if that was a yes or a no.
A young portly boy walked up and grabbed the ball from Cortland and yelled “Delay of game! Let’s go.”
When Erica went home that night, she checked her body for bruises. She looked over her bony ribs at where a deep yellowish map had developed. It was an odd pattern, more like a country than any sort of recognizable shape.
In her parents’ bedroom, her mother, Anne, was getting ready to go out. “Mom, were you ever bullied in school?” Erica asked.
“Hmm?” Anne mumbled, applying lip gloss as she went. “I suppose. It just meant the boys liked me. They’re stupid like that.”
“I don’t think that’s it.” Erica said. “I’m not really liked much.”
“Oh sure they do. You’re young and pretty. Like I used to be. You’ll make some good friends soon enough,” Anne said, adjusting her dress.
“Look at this though,” Erica said, lifting her shirt to show her ribs. Anne didn’t look away from the mirror only giving a side glance to the reflection of her daughter.
“Kids get scuffed up all the time. You aren’t the first. Now let Mommy finish up. You’re going to give me a headache before I go see the girls and that just won’t do.”
Erica’s shoulders slumped and she walked out of the room.
Outside, the sun was setting on the October night. A man in a bright red car honked and Erica’s mother went running out, waddling on heels that were at least two inches too high.
Erica would have the house to herself for a few more hours until her Dad got home from work. She thought about the ache in her ribs and how cold the house felt. She rubbed the marble in her hands and turned on the television.
A happy young woman danced across the screen. She wandered through a field of flowers representing the freshness of her laundry. The ad asked her if her clothes were as fresh as they could be.
“I don’t know. I don’t do the stupid laundry,” she said. “Why would she ask me that?”
In the next commercial, a fantasy movie filled the screen. It was all orcs and wizards. She loved this series and would ask her Dad to take her some weekend. The handsome lead character looked at the camera for a moment. “Our quest is to kill him. To kill Cortland!”
Erica slammed her fist on the remote, turning the television off. The same feeling of breathlessness from earlier washed over her. She grabbed the marble and held it in her hands. She told herself she was just tired. Had just gotten too much sun and was too stressed out.
She gripped the marble until her hands turned white. She felt its familiar weight, focused on it, and tried to imagine her stress balling up inside of it. The shrink her mother had sent her to had called the marble a totem. He told her to focus on its weight, on its smooth surface. On how the light glinted off of the cat’s eye center.
The anxiety started to dissipate and gave way to tears. She wished she could go back to the doctor. It was a thing of the past now that money was tighter. Dr. Chilson had actually wanted to listen to her, wanted to talk. His big beard reminded her of her Daddy’s and she was happy just to prattle on about anything and everything. He was there a few nights a week when Daddy had to work late and Anne still drove her to things.
She turned on the TV again, and there were no messages for her, just late night cartoons and comedy she wouldn’t get for several more years.
The morning was frosty cold and not just by Texas standards. A cold front had rolled in all the way from Canada, or so the weatherman had told her that morning. Erica had developed a bit of suspicion toward the people on her TV from the previous night.
The dark hoodie she wore gave a significant amount of comfort to her, and she was glad for the chill. She walked the long path to school, cutting through a field with a small outcropping of trees around a nearly dry creek bed.
“Hey there,” a voice from behind her said. Erica froze for a moment, and then kept walking without looking.
“Hey don’t be like that,” the voice tried again. A hand grabbed her elbow and she spun around, finding Cortland staring at her. A jolt of worry shot through her and she tried to get away.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” Cortland said. He looked at her face, which was pale. Her eyes were wild like a rabbit’s when caught in a snare.
“I don’t care,” she said, trying to pull away.
“That’s not how apologies work. If someone is sincere you have to accept. Momma always said that. It’s the Christian thing to do,” Cortland said. He let go of her arm.
“Well my Mom always tells people to stick their apology where the sun don’t shine. Apologies don’t mean anything.”
“Aw, come on, we were just having some fun. I’m really sorry I hurt you. Honest,” Cortland said, holding up three fingers in scouts honor.
Erica sighed. She didn’t quite know what to do so she sat there, staring, feeling her face turn red. “It’s alright,” she said. Her hands were playing with the marble in the front pocket of her hoodie. Cortland noticed and gestured toward her.
“What’s with the marble anyway?” he asked.
Erica pulled it out and showed it in the light. The surface was perfect, unmarred in spite of the distances it traveled with her.
“It’s just something that keeps me calm,” she said.
“Like a worry stone?” Cortland said.
“Yeah, like that,” she said.
He reached for the marble and she recoiled. “I just want to see it. I thought we were okay?”
She shook her head. Cortland reached again, missing and grabbing her wrist.
The marble rolled out of her hand, and arced downward. Erica’s heart leapt and she tried to dive for it, but ran into Cortland who went after the marble as well.
With an almost inaudible “TINK” the marble hit a rock in the creek bed. A small fracture spider legged its way through the sphere. When she clutched it in her hand, a small fragment broke loose, cutting into her finger. She let out a whimper, but clutched it tighter. The marble split in half in her closed palm.
“Oh god, Daddy’s right I am just a screw up. I’m so sor…” but before he could finish the words, Erica gave him a look of pain that the boy would never forget. It was a feral sadness that came upon him like a lightning bolt from a clear sky.
Erica pushed him aside and started running home.
For three days Erica didn’t leave her house. She sat in her room, watching the school’s automated phone line call to let her parents know she had missed class.
She had cried to herself for so many hours, thinking of nothing but the naked and exposed feeling she had without her marble. It was heartbreak more than she could bear and she couldn’t understand why.
Her parents didn’t notice the difference during the day and just thought she was moody at night.
She had Googled how to fix glass. She tried glue, tried a lighter but knew it wouldn’t get hot enough. It was dead and gone, and with it, part of herself.
Thoughts that felt wholly not her own wandered through her mind. A stern voice went on repeat inside her, blasting her with “Broken little Erica, what a horrible little girl you are.” She felt these thoughts thunderclap around inside her skull, and tried to clutch anything else that might take her focus from the battle in her mind.
A shrill child’s voice reminded her that she was nothing.
She turned on the TV and blasted the volume as loud as it could go.
Bob Barker told a contestant to spin the wheel on The Price is Right. It was her go-to sick day show, and so she sat in quiet oblivion. At the end of the episode he reminded her “Help control the Cortland population, have him choke on his mistakes! Goodbye everybody!”
She blinked a few times, trying to ignore it, but the words echoed in her brain. Make him choke on it. Make him choke on it!
She walked down to the garage and grabbed an old rusty hammer from the wall. She put the marble fragments down on the counter and started tapping. Each time the marble fractured she felt a cold vindication coming over her. The clear dust danced lowly over the workbench with small particles of black and yellow.
Soon, the marble itself was nearly dust. She gathered it in a small Tupperware container and sealed it shut.
On the football field, tiny kids wore pads and helmets that were oversized. Passes missed their mark by giant margins, and parents whooped and hollered as their children made plays or blew assignments.
Erica sat behind the bleachers, watching Cortland carefully. She was dressed in the school colors of Blue and silver, blending into the small crowd. With her hair up and under a hat, she was almost a different person.
On the sidelines, Cortland was a kid with a habit. Play a series, chug from his PowerAde bottle. Erica waited.
When a runner broke free and went charging toward the end zone, all eyes moved downfield and she snuck in. Using a piece of paper, she funneled the broken marble dust into his drink.
She watched from the sidelines as Cortland took heaping swigs from the bottle. He seemed to be uncomfortable, and looked at the drink. Before he could examine it, a coach called for him.
Erica calmly walked away.
Erica watched the newspapers closely in the coming days, stalking certain pages. She saw prayer vigils, she heard lawsuits being made from the family, but she never quite heard news of death. It appeared that Cortland would pull through, but only through a massive and exhausting digestive effort.
“You couldn’t even finish that.” A voice prodded at her. “He was all yours and you just gave him a tummy ache. Why even bother?”
Erica was displeased with this, but also, on another level relieved. She had learned a few very important things about herself. One, she could blend in, just be another face in the crowd. Second, that she was capable of righteous revenge. That she could make people pay. She could rearrange their insides if she wanted. She could make their terrible misdeeds come back on them and get away with it.
That was the day Erica truly felt free.
Standing in front of the full length mirror in the women’s changing room, Erica inspected a red mark on her thigh. Further up her leg, there was another brownish-yellow spot.
“Damnit Peterson,” she said to herself, referring to an old man at her hospital recovering from a heart attack. She always hated the lonely patients, especially the grabby ones.
“Take care of it,” a thought blasted in her head with sharp clarity. It wasn’t quite her inner voice. Erica looked at her watch. Just a little too much time had passed. She shook a small mess of pills into her hand and dry swallowed.
“Potassium. That’s all it takes,” the voice pleaded. Erica tried to ignore it. “That’s what your newspaper said.”
In her purse, there was a folded page of newsprint. Absent mindedly she pulled it out. She passed the article mentioning growing fears of an Ebola epidemic and looked down the page.
“Italian Nurse Accused of Murdering 38 patients,” the headline read. She looked through the article again, quiet admiration of the nurse bubbling inside her.
“It would be so easy,” Erica said to herself.
That night, Erica lay in bed thinking of the bruises on her leg, the oafish behavior. The voices had quieted from the barrage of anti-psychotic drugs, but her thoughts of ending Mr. Peterson had not.
For a moment she wondered if the thoughts she had were her own or if they had been hijacked. If the voices were merging with her own. They’d been a part of her for so long that she mostly knew what reality was. Knew that the shadows in the edge of her vision were just misfirings in her brain, and not real. Even still, when the hate was directed at her, she felt they helped kill the feeling of isolation.
It was all part of how she kept it together, held a job for so long. Incredible discipline and work with psychologists who diagnosed her as bi-polar with a touch of OCD. She never told a soul about the voices or the hallucinations. She’d read too much as a kid about asylums and shock therapy to let a soul know of them.
Still. They had a point. She could do it. Erica could take his life. She even wanted to. Erica knew men like Mr. Peterson were just a waste of space. He would be gone and no one would care. She could help. She could be special, like the Italian nurse.
Erica skipped her morning dosage and went to the hospital. As she was doing her morning rounds, she heard the faint echoes of the voices encouraging her.
The bald old man sneered at her through missing teeth. “Bed pans all full, sugar. What say we make with the clean up?”
“Certainly Mr. Peterson,” she said, almost glowing. He cocked his head; she had never been this nice to him before. It had been why he harassed her so much.
“First, let me give you a little pick me up. We need to get you out of here sooner than later. This should help. Erica said, drawing liquid into a syringe. The bottle was easy enough to pilfer. She injected it into his IV.
Immediately the old man jerked in the bed. “Wah?” He said, and then started grabbing at his chest. Erica walked to the biohazard bin and tossed the shots into the biohazard container.
The old man reached for the nurse button behind him, gargling in effort. She took his hand, old but still oddly strong and pulled it away. His eyes were swimming and his mouth fell open. Horrid breath wafted at her through those yellow teeth, and she only smiled.
The heart rate monitor sounded like a dubstep song. She watched it, the erratic behavior giving way to a flat line. Inside her mind, a cacophony of voices celebrated with her. She remembered Cortland.
The door burst open and other nurses charged in. Immediately Erica fell into action, assisting them in their fruitless effort to resuscitate Mr. Peterson.
Her conversations with the rest of the staff were light that day, just like any other. Underneath it all, her heart still raced. She knew that the coroner wouldn’t bother looking too far into the old man’s death. He was just a lazy public worker, elected without competition every time. If it wasn’t a blatant murder, the details always slipped past him.
A few months passed, and Erica felt bold. She yearned for the feeling of taking a life again. The discipline that had gotten her this far in life kept her from ‘aiding’ more patients with their ends, but the desire couldn’t wait any longer.
She walked into the hospital, sure and confident of the day, but noticed news vans and several police cars outside. She saw an EMT standing next to his ambulance and asked him what was going on.
“Some lady on a plane just got back from Sierra Leone. Apparently she kept her symptoms in check enough to get through security over there and in the UK, but some concerned stewards called it in when she collapsed in the bathroom.”
“What are they doing here?” Erica asked, gesturing toward the media. Her plans had been set. Having a dozen camera crews was a complication she didn’t need today.
“Trying to get that money shot. I’m sure the CDC folk bring in the ratings. Fucking scavengers.” The man said.
“He’s right,” said a quick voice in her head. “Wouldn’t it be terrible if they got a little too close?”
The man looked at her. “Did you say something?”
Erica blushed. “Just talking to myself,” she said. “You must deal with them a lot.”
Images flashed in her head; thoughts of news anchors, pale and deathly with the sickness, trying to tell the news. A sports reporter doubled over on a football field, collapsing as he says, “The Cowboys really made a game of it tonight. What a finish! Back to you, Kenny!”
She thought they deserved it. Or her own sickness thought that they did. Not just the reporters but everyone in this stupid city, town, country. They just wasted and wanted. They never thought about her, or anyone else for that matter. If they were going to be so selfish, she wanted them to think about their own mortality, not who was playing a stupid game that weekend.
A thought occurred to her that she needed her meds. That if these thoughts kept cascading, she might get into real trouble. This was too much.
Before she could do anything about these thoughts, a van pulled up. Men in hazmat suits got out and pulled a gurney that was covered in some sort of contained plastic bubble. The crowd of reporters rushed forward, news crews raised their cameras as high as they could, trying to get an angle.
An incredible roar of voices blasted in her head. They ordered and pleaded for her to go forward. She resisted for only a moment, and then bent to their will.
The reporters squabbled, screaming questions to the suited figures that obviously weren’t going to answer. With the throng distracted, Erica walked toward the van. The back door was closed, but not locked. She looked around, trying to find anything that the victim might have touched. In a biohazard marked bag, Erica saw a purse and quickly ripped it out. She walked away, holding it like it was hers.
Grainy security footage showed a raven haired woman on repeat, pulling a purse from the back of a CDC van. As the woman walked away, she pulled chapstick from the bag and applied it to her lips.
Talking heads raged at the CDC for the oversight. The CDC claimed it was the media rush that flustered their security. Edgy comedians made fun of her for taking what was obviously a cheap knock off purse. Twitter’s hashtag #PurseGate was filled with quippy comments.
In the hotel mirror, Erica stared at the tired and wispy reflection of herself. She had exposed herself to everything in the purse, including eating a tissue that was stuffed into the front pockets. It had been caked with unsavory colors and she was sure the infection should have had her by now. She’d been on the road for almost two weeks and not so much as a sneeze had hit her.
She wasn’t afraid to die. The voices had encouraged her death for so long that she was numb to the thought. She was afraid of a box, the sort you find at an asylum or state penitentiary.
On the bed behind her, her laptop was open to craigslist. She had been going through personal ads, committing to anonymous hook ups in the dark. The virus spread through contact, and she made sure each anonymous suitor had had their fill of her.
“You couldn’t even get this right. Worthless. Fucking worthless you are,” the voices pestered. She reached for her pill bottle, and it was still empty as it had been for weeks. She had forgotten what life was like without the pills, and was beginning to feel overwhelmed. Spots swarmed in her vision. The shadows moved inward.
To drown it out, she flipped the TV on. “Ebola infections spread across Texas, move northward,” a headline ticker read. A map showed a nice line moving across the state. It followed a trail of where she had been the week before, and splintered outward.
“Maybe not so worthless after all.” She whispered. The voices seemed to agree.
Later news reports would say that some carriers could be infected and not show symptoms. Sometimes they went asymptomatic for weeks and months.
The ticker at the bottom of the screen showed cities, even some states under martial law. Roads were being closed except for military personnel.
Smart men in suits would mention her name, but casualty figures overshadowed anything about her. They called her the new Typhoid Mary. They called her Ebola Erica.
She watched this, glowing in the television’s light. Then the power went out.
When the night came, she wandered out, looking for the next closest town.
Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.