Every time consciousness returns, it is raining. Hissing through the sodden canopy, drumming a cadence on his roof it pulses and flutters like a panic-stricken moth trapped between his eardrums and swollen brain. Cascading down walls and windows, it floods the undergrowth and pools beneath his stilted cabin. Later, it will evaporate up through the warped floorboards, turning his lab into a sauna again. And he will remember none of it.
Flat out on the floor, alone and boiling alive in his naked skin, but cooler than he would be had he made it to his cot as originally planned, Andrews lies oblivious to the passing time. He cannot remember how many days or nights have passed. He can’t even remember his name. His last intact memory remains the agony of dragging his half-full rain barrel inside so that when the fever peaked, he would have drinking water. Everything since is delirium.
But that's how it is with this virus. For Andrews, it started as it always does for the uninitiated, with a niggling flutter of a headache manifesting as he pored over the results of his latest batch of tests. Initially, he wrote it off as simple fatigue and eye strain thanks to spending two sleepless days hunched over his computer gazing into its flickering CRT monitor as it mocked him with petty negatives. But as afternoon progressed, pain flared. Soon, no amount of temple-rubbing or eyeball-squishing could soothe the pulsing pressure behind his eyes as his brain swelled against the confines of his skull.
By early evening, work was long forgotten as the headache bored its tentacles down through his neck, radiating through his flesh. A deep, tingling itch teasing at his joints became a bone-cleaving ache so excruciating that by 7 pm, Andrews felt like he was the victim of some invisible sadist intent on dismemberment. Inexorably, the virus coursed, poisoning blood, jangling along shredded nerves, igniting marrow, tissue and anything else in its way before pushing out through his very pores with an intense, fiery rash. By then, he was already curled on the floor, wallowing beneath white sheets of pain that his addled mind believed could only be relieved by the administration of a silver bullet. With his last vestiges of lucidity, he realised he had to act fast before the real break-bone fever descended to render him helpless.
As a virologist, Andrews knows the symptoms of Dengue fever. But knowing it is not the same as seeing it at work, and experiencing it personally is a whole nother level of spiritual annihilation. Andrews had witnessed the virus in action only once two and a half years ago, and that was enough to develop a dread of ever contracting it. Back then, his estranged colleague, Hobbs, had endured nine cot-bound days charting the purest frontiers of human pain and suffering. Watching his partner’s agony and helpless to intervene, Andrews had thanked a god he didn’t believe in that it was not contagious. Yet given its mosquito-borne prevalence locally, Andrews knew that only luck had prevented him from experiencing its icicle embrace and Hobbs malady proved the fickle nature of such luck. Knowing that it was just a matter of time, Andrews had at least learned what he needed to survive when his turn came; water, painkillers, rest and above all, hope because no one would come to his aid out here.
Now, deep in the sucking depths of its hellish mire and loaded to the moon with an accidental, sub-fatal overdose of morphine, Andrews recalls nothing from one waking moment to the next. Whenever he does surface, the reek of his own stale, sweating meat mixed with that of the dried bodily excretions surrounding him is always a fresh experience, as is the state of his lab. All around him, his precious work lies scattered and abandoned. On the bench above him, used flasks and Petri dishes exhibit blackened contents, bloated and ruined with days of untrammelled growth and mutation. Coming precariously closer to the bench edge whenever Andrews inadvertently nudges it in delirium, a bunsen burner stands alight. Its flame sputtering as its bottled gas supply nears exhaustion. It’s a costly expense that will plague him in the coming days until his next supply drop. That is assuming the virus doesn’t claim him, or the burner fall, reducing him to pork scratchings first.
In the corner just beyond his sight, his specimen fridge sits, door ajar and forgotten. Its fragile biological contents, painstakingly gathered over many months are also spoiled and with his generator having spent its fuel, his lights, life-supporting dehumidifiers and air conditioning are all dead. Now, just a paper-thin screen door shelters Andrews and his research against the near limitless creeping, flying, snuffling and sometimes roaring perils of unrelenting bush beyond. Not that the screen provides any actual protection, flapping back and forth unlatched as it is, not that he is even capable of caring or of realising just how close he has come to being devoured alive.
Every so often, his fugue lifts bringing brief slices of semi-lucidity during which it is all he can do to remember to whack himself up with another dose or fill his cup from the barrel. Despite even his own hastily scrawled reminder taped to it...
‘YOU HAVE DENGUE FEVER. DRINK OR DIE!’
...he still forgets to do so, waking hours or perhaps untold days later with a sandpaper throat, mind and body spiralling into glorious hypernatremia with only the daily steam bath of evaporating rain to hydrate, and pull him back from the ultimate brink on more occasions than he would wish to know.
It is during these brief lulls that thoughts of work plague him and not merely with concerns of his predicament, but random, fragmented memories from throughout the history of his mission. Four years it has been. Four long years of seclusion and hush-hush big pharma research deep in the mountain rainforests of central Papua. Three days and ten litres of water on foot to the nearest, nameless village. Two wasted years with Hobbs before cabin fever took his former assistant and lover, and two alone since their bitter separation with only monthly update calls with his employers and the unwelcome sporadic visits of curious hunters and wildlife to break the endless social isolation.
For Andrews, this timeless, empty existence, though largely unrecognised as such by him, has become a personal quest in which he remains interminably close to his elusive objective, but never close enough to grasp it. His antigen works. It always has. But the massive dose required to neutralise the viral antibodies always destroys the meningeal layers, killing his unfortunate simian subjects. Time and again he’s tried, littering the bush for a square mile around his cabin with the desiccated bones of his failures. He knows the key is slow release in far smaller doses over several days. But no matter what he tries, the serum enzymes never remain bonded to their protein carriers long enough to deliver the necessary slow delivery of antigen across the membranes and every attempt collapses leaving resurgent antibodies behind.
After two years of failure, isolation and illness, Hobbs cracked. Packing his meagre bags, he decried Andrews as a textbook psycho and borderline sadist for pursuing his ‘holy frigging grail of genetics and one man holocaust against the fauna,’ before departing on foot for Jayapura and, assuming he survived that odyssey, onwards for home, purportedly to “Enjoy scientific obscurity practising chemistry on the back streets of Soho!” as Andrews bawled after him on parting. Andrews neither saw him nor heard of him again. For all he knows, Hobbs is a skeleton in the bush, a lost ghost wandering the forest watching him from afar, but such is Andrews’ bitterness that he couldn’t care less if that was or was not Hobbs’s fate. Sometimes, when pressed by one of his many imaginary interlocutors, he might admit to missing Hobbs in some way, but only in his darkest days such as these when his fever is so bad that he desperately needs someone to care for him. Even then, Hobbs scarcely figures until Andrews has exhausted every alternative fantasy first-responder, including on two occasions, Beverley Allitt, and during another, begging sweet chemical release from Harold Shipman.
But such fantasies are always fleeting. One moment, like now, Andrews is aware and lucid, hoping his fever is breaking. The next, he’s adrift on a dreamscape ocean of pain and delirium fuelled nightmares with little delineating the boundary between. Now, shivering violently on his back, dry, bloodshot eyes glaring up to the ceiling, he seeks focus, a distraction to help calm his breathing and stay the tremors as waves of invisible ice water wash over, something... anything...
There, directly above and almost invisible in the darkness, his eyes settle on a dark smudge on the ceiling. It looks like an aggressive patch of fast-growing mould blooming in the absence of air-conditioning. Festering on the damp plaster, it taunts him with its filth and his disgust wells up, bile stinging his throat. But by necessity, he feigns fascination, studying the mould’s patterns and growing fixated even as he curses its mottled blue, black and green existence. Nothing like it should dare live beyond a petri dish, he believes. He knows he must clean it, get the air conditioning working again, dehumidify and kill the contamination, scrub, scrub, scrub it, or even better, burn it. "Yes, burn it all!!” he mutters, despite the obvious lunacy. But he can’t help it, his mind has gone, slipping into feverish fantasy as it conjures a towering pyre stuffed with his research, journals and specimens and with him right on top, roaring with laughter, melting down through its purifying flames. Groaning as a fever propelled quasi-orgasmic shudder chills his spine, Andrews grits his teeth against the falling until both sensation and hallucination pass and he opens his eyes to resume his examination.
The mould is moving.
Startled, yet unsure of his eyes in his drifting condition, Andrews blinks twice and then rubs his clammy lids, squeezing out tears to moisten them before blinking them clear and looking again.
The mould is still moving. Its surface rippling gently like the surface of some disturbed, noisome pond. Illogically fascinated, Andrews stares at it, unblinking. He remembers an old illusion he saw as a child where after staring at a rotating spiral for a minute, the skin on his hand had appeared to boil. But lifting his clammy flesh before his eyes, he sees no such disturbance. This is no illusion. Reaching up, he stretches both arms to the ceiling then like a child drawing in wet sand at the shore, he caresses the greasy, bacteria-laden surface of the mould, all thoughts of disgust gone. Tracing childish, geometric shapes and glyphs in its dank substrate, he scrapes, scoops and cajoles it as it morphs and swirls with increasing vigour beneath his gestures, a biological painting on a canvas visible only to him.
At some point as he plays, Andrews becomes aware that he is no longer seeing the ceiling, room or even his hands but somewhere far beyond. This new world is a vaporous zone where physical material is breaking down at the molecular level and reconstituting into a multitude of living, amorphous shapes beyond his limited imagination. Opaque ovoids, spheres and migrainous lights spin like catherine wheels against a milky sky. Pulsating cells, glowing links and molecular chains dance and flash between, trailing into tunnel-like infinity. Beneath it all, oblique lines of radioscopic energy slowly warm the plane, transforming it into a bubbling liquid, evolving from milky white to necrotic blue then to a boiling, life-affirming scarlet before erupting forth in a frothing deluge against which he hopelessly holds immaterial hands, that fail to shield him as its swelling warmth bites deep, fortifying him.
Gasping, his eyes snatch open, arms flailing, damp hands grasping empty air. Logic and drug-induced fantasy collide, coalescing, becoming reason, becoming logic, becoming...
His lips cry as his mind crests a wave of realisation and absolute clarity. Blinking pooling sweat from his eyes, he looks up to the source of his breakthrough. But there is only a patch of mould on the ceiling, damp and unmoving in its obscenity. Futilely, he stretches toward it, knowing that flat on the floor, he can’t possibly reach it but he tries anyway, straining until his euphoria subconsciously breaks, surrendering to the fuzzy, groping darkness already clawing at the vestiges of his consciousness, rapidly dragging him back into obliv...
Last night, Andrews’ fever broke and he wakes to a mid-morning cathedral of sunbeams piercing the canopy, dappling the bush and spilling in through the wide-open door. Starving, chronically dehydrated and weak but lucid for the first time in days, he lies in the pleasing breeze for a while before looking at his watch.
“What the... eight days can’t be fucking right!”
Sitting up sharp, he nearly cracks his skull on his bench, but it is nothing against the shock of his surroundings. Looking around, he is amazed to discover that his lab is a complete toilet and though he doesn’t know why, the implications are stark. Months of painstaking work is ruined. Nature has intruded, depositing its dank seeds as plain as the filthy track and spoor of his countless visitors surrounding him. He could cry, but something even more important grips him. He is ravenous. Struggling up, he staggers on jelly legs to his fly-blown kitchen. There, finding his fresh provisions mostly spoiled, infested or ransacked, he scrapes together a meal of cereal and tinned milk from his emergency rations, ladling it down with a half-dozen cups from his stagnant barrel water. Twice he throws it all up before his stomach settles to the gruel. Afterwards, he can only sit scowling at the devastation and massaging his aches until enough strength returns for his OCD to kick in, driving him to embark upon an odyssey of scrubbing and cleaning as rain lashes. Washing away the viral stink of his humanity, killing and cleaning every wriggling maggot, pupae, fly, pest and spoor, gathering every leaf, twig and vine that has somehow invaded every surface, nook and cranny he works feverishly. He sneezes out spores as he scrapes and sanitises the patches of reeking mould from walls and ceiling, shivering with revulsion as he reaches the largest patch that had dripped its poison above where he lay. As he scrubs, its random patterns briefly fascinate him, a confusing familiarity hovering forever short of revelation.
“It’s just bloody mould, no different than the rest,” he mutters, silently cursing his wandering thoughts and setting aside deja-vu as he finishes scraping it clean.
Later, with his generator refuelled and burbling, the air conditioning kicks in, drying dampness and returning it to the jungle where it belongs. By evening, Andrews has called in a supply drop and finished sterilising his lab in preparation for tomorrow when he must begin his work from scratch.
“We’ll get there,” he says, wringing his hands and surveying once more pristine surroundings, “Maybe next week. Maybe even tomorrow.”
But tomorrow is yet to come.
At sunset, craving cool, fresh air, Andrews takes a groundsheet and lies outside beneath the dripping canopy. The breeze soothes his still aching flesh as he gazes up at starless black as the groundsheet gently envelopes him cocoon-like, slowly sinking with him into cool, soft earth amidst rain-fresh undergrowth. Eyes closed, he listens to the hypnotic chirp and hiss of the night, mind wide open, awaiting inspiration, revelation or just the light of dawn to fill it while patient, covetous eyes look on.
Though never having met, Caroline and Stevie-Boy were destined to be together one way or another. Yet, at the moment of their encounter, as Caroline stepped into that wide bend of Lock Street by the canal, Stevie-Boy was nowhere to be seen.
Well, not to Caroline anyway. She was so engrossed in updating her profile with her morning’s shopping exploits that I’m not sure if she even knew where she was when they met. Certainly, by the time she should have seen Stevie-Boy coming, hammer down in his shimmering, silvery-blue roadster, a car that might have drawn her eye to him had she seen it, Caroline was already gone. Winking out instantly, her airborne body flipping end over end through the brackish air like some demented, untethered marionette, she seemed desperate to become ashes for her parents to scatter alongside those of her grandparents and brother over that same dank, sheep-stink escarpment of the peak district following an all-too-brief funeral.
Stevie-Boy never saw Caroline either.
Flush from his latest deal, he was preoccupied with extravagant thoughts of how he’d spend all that cash the cops would find still warm in his pocket, clicking his tongue to the beats while driving eyes-down and tweeting of his day’s triumph to his friends and bot followers. If he’d seen Caroline, he probably would have fancied her and under alternative social circumstances, he might have made a move. She was his type, after all; eighteen, pale skin, long boned and oh, so red. But before he could have seen or fancied her, she had caved in the front of his car, destroying it with those very bones and flesh before flipping out in her terminus somewhere overhead. I sometimes wonder what went through his head then and I believe only three flickering afterimages of these events would linger to dominate his remaining years of comatose darkness.
The first is of his dope yellow thumb pressing ‘Tweet’. The second is a brief and nonsensical impression of his world tumbling end over end, and the third... well, the third is not so much an image, more a netherworld recollection of the sensation that first time the greased, rubber interior of his life-support mask was permanently fitted and the squeak of scentless sterilised air filling the void where eyes, nose and mouth had once existed before his windscreen tore them away. An unstoppable force. That’s what the papers called him, referencing not his prowess, as Stevie-Boy would likely have preferred, but how his unbelted body was ejected like a rag-doll through the glass when that shimmering roadster cartwheeled and slammed into the old block stone lock house, disintegrating into worthless scrap by the canal.
So it was in just minutes, the two potential lovers had crossed paths only for their brief affair to terminate side by side in the flashing vehicle that conveyed them to their final destination, never knowing what might have been in the last ebb of their mutual warmth.
At her daughter’s funeral, Caroline’s mother broke tradition by wearing a scarlet dress in honour of her daughter’s physical and spiritual nature. Nobody complained audibly, not even when she broke down over the pine as it slid toward oblivion, nor when Caroline’s father became the only thing preventing her mother from diving head-first after the coffin and joining her last child in eternity. Nothing prevents the inevitability of grief.
As Caroline billowed from the southside smokestack, drifting back over the canal, town and looking down over the hospital, the chair by Stevie-Boy’s private cubicle bed lay empty. Neither friend nor foe has visited, nor will they. Not even has his own Mother has attended, such is her absolute disgust at the thing that was her son that we’ll never know what colours she wore on the day of Caroline’s funeral. I wonder if Caroline would have visited?
But who knows, it was all months ago. What’s done is done and can’t be undone any more than I’ll ever forget seeing it happen before me. That is especially so when every day while walking to work, I pass the dead flowers fixed to the old tie rings on the side of the lock house just above the still shimmering scuffs in the limestone. I suppose all that matters was that Stevie-Boy managed to send that final tweet, timestamped and all, and boy if it didn’t half convict him. Not that he knows about any of it or even cares anymore.
Mike Farrell-Deveau is a Newport based fiction writer. Working as a legal adviser by day, he writes mostly for pleasure and enjoys smashing genres together like atoms, usually with a contemporary twist. He has drafted two cross-genre science fiction - historical drama - contemporary thriller novels and a growing pile of short stories and collections that might eventually see the light of day. His work has been previously published in the ASP Literary Journal.