I want to back up, but I’m having trouble ordering my thoughts. As far as I can tell, every day of the last six days by my reckoning has lasted about a full month for everyone else. I’ll go day by day and see if I can work this all out, one post at a time, and try to deal with all the feelings I have about it. It’s…I’m finding that it’s not something I’m equipped to handle. Emotionally. I don’t know who would be. Some sci-fi character, maybe, John Crichton from Farscape or Olivia Dunham from Fringe. I’ll start at the beginning.
I showed up for the first meeting of the special session on theoretical physical engineering early. Was that the name of the class? I’m not sure. I’ve been to so many and they all have such technical names. I’m never an expert in the subject matter, not even an amateur. I do ask a lot of questions, though. If I’m enthusiastic enough, most professors seem willing to overlook the fact that I know nothing about their topic. I’m good at enthusiasm. So far nobody’s even figured out that I’m not actually enrolled in MIT.
Enthusiasm makes it that much easier to get into the labs, where they keep the good stuff. You know, the real moneymakers. The ones my clients will shell out for.
I’d ridden the train into the city, then walked through the sticky morning until I felt swollen as a sponge. The ascending sun would soon turn Kendall Square into a furnace, but by that time, I’d be in a nice air-conditioned building, probably pretending to take a bathroom break so I could snoop. A few other early birds joined me in front of the imposing academic edifice where the special session would be held, walking in and out of the long morning shadows that striped the sidewalk. Everything seemed extremely usual.
Until he grabbed my arm.
He was a young man – very young, actually, no more than eighteen, with an acne-scrambled white face. It took me a minute to determine his age because the rest of his appearance and demeanor were so arresting. The first thing that I noticed was that his hair was falling out, and had in fact almost all fallen out already. What remained was nothing but a few thin, light brown clumps. Once you looked past that, it was clear that he was on the verge of collapse. His head hung off his neck as though it weighed a thousand pounds, and when he stood, he swayed a little, hanging onto my arm for support. His eyes focused and unfocused like broken cameras as he seemed to fight to look at me.
“Are you here for Paven’s special session?” He asked in a wavering, weak voice. [NOTE: Paven isn’t the professor’s real name. I’m just borrowing it from my high school art teacher. (Sorry, Bob.) You’ll see why I can’t tell you who I was taking this class from. Later.]
“I am,” I replied. “First class of three. I don’t think we’ve met. Are you at MIT too?” At this, he seemed to become uncomfortable, even upset. He swayed on his feet, nearly falling.
“I’m Greg!” the kid gasped, barely catching himself. He let go of my arm and gripped his pack’s shoulder straps as though they could hold him up. “I need to talk to him!”
I was alarmed at this point. “OK, no big deal,” I said. “You OK? You need a hand?”
He didn’t reply, but he did acknowledge me with a quick, tense nod. His forehead was drenched with sweat. I offered him my arm. He didn’t move, but seemed to stare into the distance.
“All right,” I said, moving around him and ushering him toward the building’s big glass double doors. “Let’s get you inside.” I was already calling 911 in my head. The first step towards getting him to a hospital was getting him off the street to a place where he could sit.
I barely moved in time. Vomit splashed all over the sidewalk. Greg collapsed to his hands and knees in the mess, still retching.
My side gig may be a bit unethical – hell, it’s downright wrong – but I’m basically a decent human being. The kid was clearly in need, so I sprang into action, for a minute anyway. My phone was already in my hand when he grabbed it with surprising strength, covering the screen in a thin, sticky reddish layer of what he’d just thrown up.
“I’m so sorry,” he gasped. “But I don’t want you to call anyone.” I pulled away, hovering between sympathy and disgust. I wiped the phone on my jeans and put it away. Once we were inside I could get out of sliming distance and call. Greg stumbled to his feet and nearly collapsed again. Around us, a few other do-gooders had crowded up, looking concerned, while others were hurrying away as fast as they could. “I…I’m sorry about your shoes, I know they mean a lot to you…I’m trying to do this backwards…”
I glanced down at myself. Sure enough, my Timberlands were ruined, soaked through with red slime. It gave me a little pang and I suppressed a rising ball of resentment toward this kid. I’d climbed Katahdin in these shoes right after I’d broken up with my asshole of a first girlfriend. For a second, I wondered how he knew that the boots mattered to me. But I decided that he was confused and probably mistaking me for someone else who loved their hikers. “Don’t worry about it, buddy,” I said, “Want to go inside?”
Again, he bobbed his head, then reached for me. I’m ashamed to admit that I flinched away. He opened and closed his mouth a few times.
“It’s not contagious. Just…please. Please. Help me.”
I’m a rude person. I own this. It’s better to know what’s going on than to sit there with a forced smile while something potentially bad happens. So I asked the following question: “What’s wrong?”
“Radiation poisoning. Please. I really don’t have much time.”
Getting inside didn’t solve my problem; I soon found that Greg wouldn’t let go of me.
“Get me to Paven,” he insisted.
“You need an ambulance.”
“No, I need to get to Paven!”
That’s how we ended up in the stairwell, me dragging him, he clinging to me like a monkey. Halfway up he lost his grip and collapsed, vomiting again. It seemed impossible that there was anything left in his stomach, but stuff still came up – reddish black stuff that didn’t look normal at all. Only when I grabbed his arm to help him up did I realize that he was actually vomiting slippery chunks of…something solid. For the first time, I felt like heaving, too. Did this guy really have radiation poisoning? Or did he have something worse, like Ebola?
I thought of the little splatters of vomit on my shoes, so demure-seeming now that I was basically drenched in this guy’s blood. If I did have Ebola, there was nothing to be done about it now, and running around, blood-soaked and panicking, in Kendall Square was bound to delay treatment. The best thing to do would be to remain calm. If Paven knew this guy, he’d probably know what to do about him, and from there I could contact a hospital or whatever. Calm. Straightforward. I basically carried him the rest of the way up the stairs. By the time we reached the top, he was unconscious and I made Carrie look like a clean, well-put-together lass. The door to the third floor was a heavy thing that I slammed into with the combined weight of my and Greg’s bodies. It yielded with a groan and we tumbled into a well-lit white hallway.
“Need some help here!” I screamed.
A few people came running, but they all recoiled when they realized what they were seeing. I deposited Greg on the ground as gently as I could. His body slumped awkwardly over his backpack. I wrestled it off him, wishing I knew anything about first aid.
I looked up and saw the hallway to both sides fairly full of students. A few people dove into their pockets for their phones and started filming. Fuck. “Don’t film! Call for help!” I fumbled for my pocket, looking for my phone, but realized that I was so covered with blood that there was no way I could use it.
Emergencies are weird. You snap into action mode and the most random thoughts drift through your head as your body does everything it knows it should. All I could think in that moment was that people were filming me, catching my face on camera. That’s evidence. I’d have to peace out without going for the thing I was there for. I wasn’t really focusing on it, just knowing it in the back of my head as I was screaming at the crowd to call 911 and randomly shaking Greg and trying to do something useful and generally failing. The stench of the blood and the weirder smell of whatever he was coughing up is still with me six days later. Six months. God.
Next thing I knew, Paven was there, kneeling beside me, shaking the kid. At this point, Greg was completely unrecognizable, and I think now that Paven actually didn’t recognize him at first, because he was on the phone with 911 and going through Greg’s pockets looking for ID with his free hand.
Paven stands out, so I can’t give you any good descriptive details about him, except to say that he’s an older, clean-shaven white guy with glasses. There – that’s just about half of everyone in Kendall Square. Paven, you know who you are, and this is more than you deserve, you fucking bastard. Because the next thing you did was find Greg’s student ID. And I saw you do a double take. I saw recognition register in your eyes like a mechanism clicking into place. Like a transformer made up of the pieces of your personality just switched into a whole different mode. Very quickly, but very clearly, you snapped the components of yourself out of the mild-mannered MIT professor persona and into something…else.
I saw you hang up the phone.
And turn it off.
Then, you made direct eye contact with me and said, “I’ll give you what you’re here for if you help me get him into my office.”
I’m not a bad person.
The fact that I have to say this so much bothers me more and more. What I do doesn’t really bother me; like I said, I’ve never lost so much as a night’s sleep. I need money. Everyone does. This seemed like the most efficient way to get it. At least, when I started, it did. Now, I’m not so sure.
Paven had snapped me right out of emergency mode. Without a word, I grabbed Greg’s feet. Paven grabbed him under the arms. We hauled ass down the hall, Paven leading, until we barreled into a cozy, desk-dominated room that I assumed was his office. He dropped Greg hard on the carpet, zoomed around behind me and slammed the door. Click. Locked.
“What are you doing?” I asked, laying Greg’s feet down. Was he breathing? I held my hand in front of his open, blood-soaked hole of a mouth. Some air. OK, good. “He was asking for you. Do you know this guy?”
But the good professor had removed himself from the Greg situation and was consumed with a new task: wrecking his office. When I looked to see what he was doing, he was already ransacking a shelf of ponderous engineering books, tossing them on the floor like garbage. He didn’t answer me, but bent to the floor, hefted a giant cardboard box full of papers, and upended it over his head.
“Dude!” I shouted. “What are you doing?”
“Shut up,” he snapped, sweeping everything off his desk in one clean motion of his arm.
There was one thing that I knew now: this job had gone completely off the rails. “Listen, I’m going to go get someone,” I said. “I’m going to go get help.”
Paven eyed me like a crazy man as he smashed a glass trophy against a wall, shattering a flying woman figure into a million sparkling shards. “You’re about to get yours,” he snarled. “You’re finally about to get what you deserve. That’s what you’re going to get.”
Messing up his office. Luring me in here with him. Some kind of funny business with Greg. “Oh fuck,” I breathed. Whatever was going on, this was a bad situation, and doubly bad because I’d only ever come here to commit larceny, and triply bad because it looked like this kid I’d just met was about to die on the floor. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I ran to the door so I could fling it open and show the crowd outside what was going on. Except that the door wasn’t opening.
“Don’t bother!” Paven said, tearing open some cabinets and digging through them like a deranged mole. More papers and books flew everywhere. “I had some work done on it. Learned from the last time. Didn’t expect that, did you?”
I banged on the door with my fists. “Let me out!” I screamed. “Let me out! He’s crazy!” At this point, I reasoned, the prof was clearly nuts and maybe mixed up with something darker than I what I was mixed up in – who would believe him if he said I was a professional tech thief? In the confusion that was definitely going to ensue when the authorities arrived, maybe I could get away without being positively ID’ed and Greg would get help. To my intense relief, strong pounding from the other side of the door met mine with gusto. “Help me!” I screamed.
“This is the police!” a voice responded. “Open up!”
“I can’t! He’s got the door locked! He-”
I felt the pain before I heard the gun go off. The bullet ripped a chunk out of my shoulder, and even before I spun around, I knew it was just a warning shot. Paven was less than five feet away, standing amidst the wreckage of his career, hands smeared with Greg’s blood, a small but robust-looking revolver now leveled at my head. “Get away from the door,” he growled. Have you ever stared down the barrel of a gun? I hadn’t until then. It’s like running through the nighttime desert at top speed, feeling the air burn in your lungs, feeling full of power, and then looking into the deep canyon that suddenly yawns before you and realizing that nothing will stop your feet from carrying you over the edge.
I sidestepped around Greg, trying to stay as far away from Paven and the gun as I could. His face was as hard as stone. The thought occurred to my fear-numbed mind that my client hadn’t told me the entire truth about this job.
“How did you know I was here for it?” I asked. From the other side of the door, there was a mighty crash. The door shook in its frame.
“I remembered you from last time.”
“Last…” I racked my brain. What was he talking about? “No, I’ve never…ah, you’ve never been on my list before.” BOOM. Something hit the door with serious force. Its center bulged inward, but held.
“You try about once a month,” Paven said. “Every time, I promise to give it to you, and then I don’t. But this time, I’m going to make it stop.” He hiccoughed. Then he did it again. The gun jumped. I realized that the man was giggling.
Or was he sobbing?
And there it was. In his hand. My target.
It had been described to me as a device the size of a shoebox, probably blue or black. It was black. It might have buttons, they’d said. It did, several rectangular white buttons like you might see on a control panel in an original Star Trek episode. It would have two handles that made a sideways C together, like an airplane pilot’s controls. Paven held one of these in his free hand. There were two dials and some fades like you see on an audio engineering board, as well as a green digital display. Don’t turn it on, they said, but if it’s already working, you might feel nauseous or hear a very high-pitched noise.
I didn’t hear anything, but I was feeling pretty sick. Where had he been hiding the damn thing?
From the other side of the door, another BOOM. Another big dent. I was amazed that the door was still hanging on.
I raised my hands in front of me, wincing as I realized that I couldn’t raise my left one higher than my stomach. The pain seemed distant – that’s the adrenaline, I thought. But I could feel the wetness and knew I was bleeding pretty profusely. Rushing him wasn’t going to work. Stalling was my only option. “Professor Paven, my client wanted me to send you a message,” I said. BOOM. “They wanted me to give it to you personally.” BOOM. Was it working? Did I have his attention? At least he hadn’t shot me yet. He was looking at me with piercing, bloodshot eyes. Were his hands shaking?
“They want you to know-” BOOM. “They wanted to tell you-” BOOM.
“WHAT?” Paven screamed. At the same time, the police busted right through the door, guns blazing.
A lot of things happened at once.
First, the police tripped over Greg. The first couple of officers sprawled into each other, slamming into the desk in an unruly pile. A gun went off and one of the men howled in pain. The officers behind them couldn’t make it into the room – the door was too small, and blocked by three bodies now – but they did start firing at Paven.
At the same time, Paven switched his focus to the police and opened fire himself. Though every shot shook his arm to the shoulder, he still clutched the device – my target – in his free hand. He was clearly struggling with its weight, to the extent that it was starting to slip out of his grip.
And I – I don’t know why I did it. I saw the thing dangling and…instinct? Greed? Single-mindedness? Honest to God, I really don’t know.
I grabbed it. Right out of his sweaty, slippery grasp. For a second, I held it with both hands, more than a little shocked at what I’d just done and surprised at its weight. It must have been twenty pounds, maybe more. Then I looked up and saw Paven staring at me through a rain of bullets. He’d been grazed and blood was trickling down from a deep gash on his head. We locked eyes. Deliberately, he aimed his gun at the machine in my hands and fired.
There was a blinding flash of light. When it cleared, the building was dark. Not just the office, but the entire floor, apparently. The hall lights were off and I could hear nothing, not even the whir of an HVAC system. The office itself was empty, the door crumpled and hanging off a hinge. There was tape on the floor where Greg had laid, tape that outlined a body. Little yellow tags with numbers on them marked bits of the mess, which was still there, the desk, and the grim outline on the floor.
The machine in my hands was intact. Not even a dent from the bullet.
This wasn’t a good time to question things. I’d figure out what was going on later. There’s a pretty straightforward procedure for getting out of places like this without being ID’ed by a camera and I defaulted to that. I quickly stuffed my prize into my backpack and dug a bandana out of my pocket. I tied it around my face bandit-style and left the room.
Emergency lights gave the hallway an eerie orange glow. When I looked for the red pinpoints of security cameras, I didn’t see them anywhere. I knew they were there because I’d marked them during the course intro. Was the building without power? Good, I guessed, that gave me a chance to-
I was outside.
I blinked. It was darker than it had been a minute ago, a 3am darkness rather than a 11pm, if that makes sense. I felt disoriented, but in a minute, I got my bearings among the hulking shadows of buildings and yellow pools of streetlamp lights. Maybe the power was only out for that building. I started to walk toward the closest T stop. Was the T even running at this time? I almost dug out my phone to check it, but remembered that I was covered with Greg’s blood. Can’t get the phone messy. Then there was the other device. My prize. Something about it. Time to get rid of it-
The train screeched. I actually jumped this time. The car I was sitting in was empty…except for one person.
He was sitting across from me, elbows on knees, looking exhausted, studying me with an inscrutable expression on his face. It was a few minutes before I could say anything. He waited, eyebrows raised.
He looked at me for a few more minutes, his face noticeably devoid of blood and viscera. Then, he sighed and ran his hands through his hair. (Was there more of it? No, that wasn’t possible.) More than a little of it detached from his head and remain between his fingers. He looked at the pathetic tufts of light brown on his palms and coughed. Then, he stood, slowly and unsteadily, like a man four times his age. I noticed that he’d gotten a new backpack. A new used backpack, anyway – it was as scruffy as the one I’d gotten off him in the Kendall Square building. In fact, it was remarkably similar. Same color, even.
“Don’t want to do anything,” he said. “Just focus on me. Follow me. I think you’re moving in the right direction.”
“We’re getting off here. Just – Focus on me, OK? Try not to think about anything with, you know, intention.”
“What the hell is happening?” I demanded. “You were dying! What happened to Paven?”
Greg suddenly looked striken. “Dying?” he whispered. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and seemed to compose himself. When he was calm, he started to nod. “I guess I knew that. OK. Yes. Oh god.” He sighed and leaned against a pole. “I’ve got to call my mom. Or…no, that’s a bad idea. Maybe a…note…”
“Just follow me, OK?” He paused. “And don’t want anything. I’ll explain when we get somewhere safe. OK?”
He left the train and I followed him, awhirl with questions but ready to go along for the minute, even if just to figure out how he was alive and un-bloodied. My pack was weighty with the device I’d stolen. I hefted it, forgetting to be careful of my hurt shoulder. But there was no pain, or even discomfort. My shoulder was strong and firm. I reached back to feel the gunshot wound with my good hand. No blood on my hand. No pain. I raised my crippled arm. I raised it higher. I raised it above my head. I looked up at it and realized, for the first time, that I was clean.
Greg’s blood was gone. I looked down. My Timberlands were…
What was happening?
We moved at a deliberate pace past the kooky art pieces of David Station, Greg wobbling and weaving as though he were drunk. As we climbed the stairs, I was blinded by noonday sun and a wave of midday heat. It was…Tuesday? Suddenly, I realized that I must be losing time. This panicked me more than anything that had happened yet. I am terrified of blacking out. Fear made my legs lock and my skin go cold. I had not been so frightened even when Paven had me at gunpoint. Davis Square was full of people…and police officers. Lots of police officers. They were stopping people and showing them a piece of paper. People were shaking their heads. Then, an officer looked up. And spied us.
“Run,” Greg said. “I’ll find you.”