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By Soter Lucio
The crowd gathered at the cemetery even before the funeral service in the church was over. This was the twelfth death in five months. The mothers to be, all chose suicide rather than abortion. The aedes aegpyti mosquito, having developed immunity to all repellents and fogging and what have you from the authorities, Zika continued to be on the rise.
The mothers all dreaded the fact that their babies would be born with microcephaly and the insults and teasing from heartless individuals, especially children who can be quite cruel and unscrupulous, was too much for them to handle.
Dr Michael Cockburn and Dr Heather McCain silently watched the haggard and disillusioned features of family and friends alike.
“We have to do something Michael. I can’t watch our people suffer so.”
“Yes. But what can we do? Some of the greatest minds in the world are trying for a vaccine, without any degree of success.”
“Maybe that is the problem.”
“I don’t follow. What do you mean?”
“They already know too much. You know. They can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Unknown to them there were two elderly ladies and two teenagers looking on and listening to their conversation.
“Let’s leave this place of death.” Said one of the elderly, and a young one replied, “That would be the entire community Grandma.” She was called Grandma through respect for age, rather than relation.
The young ones consistently looked back and were reprimanded by the elders.
“Always look ahead, never look back.”
“Grandma, there’s this lady on the other side of the river who said she never got a bite from a mosquito in over thirty years.” Said Ricky.
The two elders stopped and gave him a disapproving gaze.
“And now you say that? This is the twelfth woman to kill herself. Who is this person?”
“It’s Mrs Bonaparte. But people say she is not right in the head.” He answered.
“People will say anything about anyone. Can you take us to see her?” Asked Deanna.
“Who exactly is she?” Asked Eliza the other elderly.
“She is the school principals’ grandmother.” Explained Deanna.
“Sandra Pamponette? Serious? I know Sandra well. Let’s go see her now. There’s no time to lose.” Eliza was only too willing to do whatever she could, no matter how small.
On the way there, they heard the sounds of sirens indicating more sorrows for the community.
“God help us all. At this rate there’ll be no one to populate this town. It will soon die from the effects of the mosquito bites.”
“Please don’t say that. That’s too dismal a prediction.”
They met Sandra in the midst of doing her washing.
After the usual exchange of pleasantries they explained the reason for the unexpected visit. Sandra’s back visibly stiffened at the request.
“And why exactly do you want to meet my grandmother?” She faced them with a cold hard expression. The one reserved for the most undisciplined children at school, who freeze and change their ways forthwith.
“We’ll get straight to the point Sandra. We’ve just been told by Ricky that he heard mosquito hasn’t bitten your grandmother in over thirty years. And with all this Zika getting more prevalent and pregnant women committing suicides, we wanted to find out more from her so maybe we can help our own people.”
“I see. That’s a valid enough reason. You can go to her. I don’t know whether she’ll talk to you. But you can go.”
“Will you come with us?”
“No. She doesn’t bite. Have you offended her in some way? Does she have a reason to not talk to you?”
They looked at each other, and faltering, said they may have said some unkind words along the way.
“So she does have reason to not see you. Well you could try apologizing. Anything else?”
“No. That’s it.”
“Do you have problems with mosquitoes Sandra?”
“No. The citronella oil works just fine, thank you. Goodbye.”
“Well, that wasn’t too bad.” Deanna said on the way back. “When are you going to see her?” She continued. She took her afro comb from her bag and picked at her hair, a habit she picked up whenever she’s nervous or very uncomfortable.
“Aren’t you coming along?” Eliza asked with a lift of the eyebrow.
“Me? No way. We’ve all been unkind to her. It’s a wonder that Sandra is so good with our children.” Deanna was quite adamant in her refusal to go along with Eliza.
“That siren earlier. Do you think we should go find out more about it?” She changed the subject that would have grown uncomfortable.
“Well according to the boys at the corner, it was police, not medical.” Eliza answered.
“Let’s still go check it out.”
On their way to the general area they met with some people near to the only supermarket that served the country village of roughly fifty thousand inhabitants. Some of them were a bloody mess. When questioned they explained quite clearly what had happened to warrant that call to the police.
“It was terrible. Shaun came home early and found that Krystal was about to drink a glass of gramoxone. You know she’s three months pregnant. The doctor said the baby would most definitely be born with a small head.” Lucy, the most vocal volunteered, her words spilling over each other. Her tall frame gave her an air of authority which was special in her family.
“Shaun is opposed to abortion like everyone else here.” Added another of the group. “So Krystal decided the only way out is to die. She can’t go through life with her first child being teased all the time.”
“That’s not easy. Look at what happens to John and Mary. Every two days they are over at the neighbours or someone else fighting and carrying on because of the constant teasing. And their child is about five or six. Can you imagine when he is a teenager?” This from Jane, the only stay at home mother.
“In the city it may not be so bad, but this is country. A small village. Villagers are not as good and kind or even as considerate as others would believe.”
“We are a deceitful, hypocritical lot.” Agreed all together.
So what happened at Shaun’s?” Deanna brought them back to the question at hand.
“Apparently he grabbed the bottle from her and her mother intervened. Shaun pushed his mother-in-law aside, causing her to fall sustaining a gaping wound to her head. Her son Ricky was in the garden, heard her scream and ran inside the house. He saw his mother in blood and went berserk. He used the cutlass on Shaun severing one hand at the wrist, and dealt him several more chops.”
“The neighbours came to part the fight and several of them were hurt in the melee. Eventually the police were called and the rest is history.”
“This Zika is really acting up on everyone’s nerves. You can’t prevent it and there is no cure. It really is terrible.””
“We must find a way to help ourselves. Those in authority including those doing research are way too smart and intelligent to come up with something effective.”
“Eliza?” Her friend took her arm and pulled her aside. “Let’s take the bull by the horns and go visit Sandra’s grandmother now. I’m going with you.”
“Good. Let’s quell this thing before it gets any worse. A little word fight now and then is fine. But a cutlass fight is out of the question. And imagine that. Ricky chopping his brother-in-law. He is always such a cool customer.” Eliza was only too happy to hear that.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital the doctors were contemplating revolutionary tactics to deal with the situation. “Did you ever hear about research being done whereby the amniotic fluid can be extracted and replaced?” Asked Dr McCain.
“No.” Dr Cockburn was aghast. “Are you sure you heard correctly?”
“Yes. I’m sure. Granted it was through closed doors, but I’m sure of it.”
“Well, in science, I suppose anything is possible. Are you suggesting what I think you are?”
“There’s nothing to lose.”
“Except our license, and our reputation, and our sanity, our integrity. No, we’ve got nothing to lose.”
“We could do our own research, secretly of course, and no one will be the wiser. They are dying anyway.”
“It’s unethical Heather. And say we’re going that way, with what do we replace the fluid?”
“Oh I don’t know. But if we decide to go through with it, we’ll think of something.”
“Okay we go that route. Hey, do you know those two ladies out there?”
“Oh yes.” She answered with a twisted smile. “They’re our competition. The local medicine women. They say doctors only know how to cut out. We don’t heal.”
“Cut out?” He asked incredulously.
“Amputate. Cut out arms, legs, kidneys and all that.”
“What are they doing here?”
“I don’t know. But feel free to go find out. Me? I’m going in the opposite direction.” And with the most mischievous smile she was gone.
Deanna and Eliza were on their way to visit some of the pregnant women who were warded and under observation. They were all in their twenties, some with their first child and others with their second or third. All were devastated.
“Hello Keisha. How you keeping?”
“How do you think? We hear the nurses talking about the effects of this Zika virus. It’s terrible. How will I manage to go through life with this?”
“Take heart dearie. Things will work out fine. They are working assiduously on a vaccine or a cure for it. Don’t worry.”
“Marisa was discharged yesterday and she drank gramoxone last night. She’s in ICU right now.”
“Oh my gosh! This Zika is really a poison to us all. Let’s go see Mrs Bonaparte again.”
“Who?” Questioned Keisha suddenly dry eyed. “You mean the old lady up by the river?”
“Yes. You know her?” Asked Eliza.
Keisha sat up, hope written all over her face. “Yes. Why didn’t I think of her. That lady is a wealth of knowledge. She’d know how to prevent.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well. Before my mother passed away, we used to live next door to her. Every so often she’d bring some herbs and explain to my mother their properties and how to prepare them. We were never sick. Never visited a doctor. You understand. She prevents. But she doesn’t cure anything.”
“So this never should have happened here?”
“No. The general population were so unkind to her that she receded behind a wall and remained there.”
“Do you think she’d help us now?” They asked Keisha.
“I don’t know. I could go to see her. She’s got a memory like no other. Quite vivid. Yes I’m sure she’d remember me. I feel like I got a new lease on life.”
“Maybe she could cure now.” Said Deanna.
“That’s asking a lot. But we could hope. Okay Keisha, we’ll pick you up after your discharge tomorrow and we’ll go directly to see Mrs. Bonaparte.” Said Eliza.
Drs. McCain and Cockburn were in the upstairs gallery when the two elderly ladies were walking out of the hospital.
“Did you happen to see whom they were visiting?”
“One Keisha Montgomery. Six months pregnant with her second child. Wasn’t holding up too well.”
“What are we going to do about the changing of the fluid?”
“Not here you dumb ox. Remember where this hospital is located. There’s an old saying, ‘The walls have eyes and ears too.’ Never forget that.”
“More sirens. Let’s go in.”
The call came in from the speaker, all hands report to emergency. They weren’t in that department but went anyway. They were shocked at the scene before them. About a dozen people experiencing seizures. The first responders were ensuring that there were no objects around to hurt them, before moving them to examining rooms.
They went on to read the reports which clearly showed that the Zika virus was mutating. This was not unexpected since the mosquitoes themselves weren’t dying from the various poisons used to destroy them.
Then they noticed a crowd gravitating to the windows and silently looking out in awe. Thick clouds of smoke could be seen on the horizon billowing into the air and the now familiar sounds of sirens moving steadily towards the area. Some surmised that it was a building on fire, others disputed that there were no buildings in that area and yet others that it was the landfill. But all agreed on one aspect that it was dangerous to asthmatic patients and the air would be filled with a greater concentration of irritants worsening the already weakened state of the populace.
While the irritants within the air weakened the body’s immune system, patients would be more susceptible to the effects of the pollutants which presented another cause for worry. The nervous system would be compromised resulting in signs of mental instability manifesting itself in the already prone-to-suicide population.
They soon found out that it was the landfill on fire. The fire services, being ill equipped to manage a fire of that magnitude, soon gave up since they didn’t envisage any threat to life and limb. Not directly from the fire itself of course, but the fumes would be toxic. So face masks were distributed to all.
“Did you hear who started the fire? And why?” Asked Maryanne the mother of a patient in the hospital. She was just leaving and decided to walk out with Eliza and Deanna.
“Yes. Can you believe it? Jonas Romany. Imagine that! He said that we messed up his life and as such we deserve a terrible death. The Zika was only getting rid of pregnant women, not enough for him, so he decided to enrage an already unstable population.” Eliza repeated what she’d heard earlier. “I don’t know if it is true, but how I buy it, is so I sell it.”
“I haven’t heard that saying in such a long time.” Said Maryanne. “Okay. I’ll leave you two here. I have to walk fast, cause the boys are home alone. See you later.” And she was gone.
“Wait a minute!” Eliza stopped still for a minute, while a frown appeared, as though deep in thought. “Wasn’t he the one who got a scholarship and went to some far of university to study? Science or something?”
“That was a few years ago. Nobody agreed with him going. They said that science destroys the fabric of humanity.” Put in Deanna.
“Yes. It’s coming back now. He was also in love with the Vincent girl. She promised to wait for him and they’d get married. But her parents encouraged her to marry someone else. Said he’d be a changed man when he came back, and would most certainly be ostracised.”
“Yes. He was so heartbroken when he found her married and with a daughter that he tripped.”
“Guess he used his education to finally hit us all.”
“Yes. Poisons. And at a time when we’re all already weak in the mind. Do you think Mrs Bonaparte could really help?”
“No. It’s too late for her. Zika is now the least of our worries. The toxic fumes from the landfill will kill us long before the Zika induced suicides could. The factories from hundreds of miles away dump their chemicals and other dangerous stuff here in our part of the country, cause nobody pays any attention to us. We are nonexistent and irrelevant to every one but ourselves.”
“So our situation is hopeless.”
Dejected, they sat on the pavement contemplating a bleak future that suddenly went blank. They were startled out of their reverie when a voice asked, “What are you doing here? Everyone’s waiting for you at the Community Centre.” The two ladies who’d just walk up to them asked.
“What for? Is there a meeting? We weren’t told about it.” Even with that spark of illumination, they didn’t bother to get up.
“Didn’t you hear the bells? They were rung for a full five minutes.”
“With so much going on, I didn’t notice. Did you?” She asked Deanna who replied in the negative.
They handed them some face masks and said, “Here. Put these on. The two doctors from the hospital have called a meeting to explain to us the pros and cons of the effects of the fumes from the fire.”
“It really is fatalistic.”
“Guess we just have to make ourselves comfortable and wait for death. Will it be painful?” They’d resigned themselves to their fate.
“What do you think? It has everything to do with chemicals, lots of different kinds meeting up with Zika in our bodies.” The ladies volunteered this explanation.
“The hospital have no room, so they fixed rooms at he centre for the influx of cases.”
“What are you two talking about?” Asked Deanna and Eliza simultaneously.
“Some are even in the process of writing out their last will and testament. But then they freeze and break out in tears. To whom shall they leave their whatever?”
“We have all our families right here. We don’t move.”
“There are people coming in with blisters and sores all over their bodies. The children have rashes and scratching so much that their skin peel. It’s terrible.”
Deanna and Eliza were shocked out of their wits when they entered the back room cum quasi ward for the sick who were apparently going insane. The families who were not yet affected were inconsolable.
The hardest part of it all was in knowing there’s nothing to be done except wait for a painful and excruciating death.
And Jonas couldn’t be punished. There’s no way and no one on whom to vent their feelings of anger and helplessness. The police and firemen and all authoritative figures were now out of uniform having resigned their posts. They are all incapacitated.
Only the doctors were performing, prescribing painkillers, and the pharmacists were also dispensing but were quickly running out of supplies.
Nobody talked at the meeting that was supposed to have taken place because of the escalating drama.
Eliza approached Dr Cockburn who was in a hustle sweating profusely and apparently at his wit’s end, just entering the kitchen.
“Excuse me Doctor.”
She called him and as he turned she realised he too was affected. The sores on his face, proof that no one was free.
“You too? What was in that landfill? Do you know?” She asked him, the frown on her forehead deepening.
“Well to surmise the situation from the bits and pieces that we’ve picked up, apparently someone called Jonas has been secretly directing the drivers of the trucks with uranium filled waste products closer to our landfill. He’s been doing that for years until there was enough that when burnt would saturate the air with toxic fumes thereby hurting everyone.”
“Is there something we can do besides wearing masks? That isn’t helping any.”
“Believe me, if I knew I wouldn’t be looking like this.”
“But this happened quite rapidly. Didn’t it?”
“Too rapid I’d say. But we have no idea how to deal with it. I’ve sent an email to the head office in San Fernando. No reply as yet.”
Dr Cockburn was deteriorating as fast as the other patients. He was suddenly gasping for breath, and Eliza, being fragile herself, tried in vain to keep him from falling and hurting himself.
Overwhelmed at the entire situation she broke into heartrending sobs.
Deanna found her on the floor cradling Dr Cockburn’s lifeless body in her arms. Eliza’s heart wrenching sobs brought stinging tears to her eyes. That night there was the proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The following morning brought a ray of sunshine that was seemingly oblivious to their plight and practically laughing at them all. In came Jonas with skin so clear and clean, that in their collective minds they beat him and tortured him by skinning him alive, tarring him and dropping him in a chicken coop to get feathered. He shouldn’t escape the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Mrs Bonaparte in her wisdom, decided to visit the centre to get a first hand view of the extent of the damage done. She gasped when the scene unfolded before her eyes. They all were on their last, but she knew she wouldn’t be affected. Mosquitoes won’t come close to her, and fumes do her no harm. It was difficult to not feel pity for them all. What a terrible way to go. Jonas was smiling from across the room. She looked at him with a smile that said, ‘I know what you’ve done, and I empathize with you. But this is unforgivable and inexcusable.’
She spent the last night of her life penning the unfortunate events that led to the destruction of a once tightly knit village community.
This story previously appeared in Toxic Anthology 2016.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Soter Lucio is a great grandmother who does ironing for a living and writes horror at night. She lives alone and her hobbies are reading and writing. She's been published by Sirens Call, Weird Mask, Dark Chapter Press and Migla Press. She can be found on twitter @JanSoter and on FaceBook at Soter Lucio.