Originally published in Newtown Literary Journal Issue 10 (Spring/Summer 2017).
The solider holds his hand out to shake even though he’s handcuffed to a table. The guard behind him grabs his rifle tighter and leans in.
“I’m just showin him I would if I could,” the soldier says. His voice is high-pitched. His words halt at their conclusions as if he is being choked. The guard backs off an inch.
The handcuffed solider does not have the look of someone who would have caved in someone’s skull in with a wrench. I wouldn’t believe he could do it if I hadn’t seen the grainy video footage of him raising a pipe cleaner arm over Dr. Marshall’s head, the bony thing shaking from the effort, before bringing it down on his head. That same arm now pokes out of the sleeve of an orange jumpsuit with plenty of room to spare. His hair is a pale rust color, the kind you used to see on the heads of kids who’d spent the whole summer in a chlorine-saturated pool, chopped into a crewcut grown uneven for lack of maintenance. Glaring pores dot a nose that comes to a sharp point and holds up gold-framed glasses with lenses as thick as a slice of bread.
I tell the soldier I just want to talk.
“Talk about what?” he says. “They’re gonna throw me to the outside. Nothin you or me or nobody else can do about it.”
“Maybe there is something we can do about it,” I tell him. I say this because it seems to rude to say, You’re right, you’re as good as dead, even to a murderer. He shrugs.
“File says you were born in Queens. The tower must be practically in your backyard. Where’d you grow up?”
“So you know Queens,” the soldier grunts.
“Not really, to be honest. I used to know this neighborhood alright, but…”
“No point in me answering, then.”
I shuffle the papers in his file and clear my throat.
“I don’t get why people wanna know,” the soldier says.
“Know what?” I ask.
The soldier responds to all of my questions with a grunt or a smirk, if he responds at all. Do you know how close Dr. Marshall was to finding a cure? warrants the same reaction as The food down here okay?
When I get up to leave, the guard directs the soldier back to his holding cell with the point of his rifle. The cell is a caged-in area the size of a parking space. I know this because the holding area used to be the tower’s garage, the yellow lines outlining the path for the bars extending from floor to ceiling. Every single parking space has been repurposed this way. I used to be jealous of the rich tenants who parked down here because I had to fight my way into curbside spots every other day to stay ahead of the alternate side rules. Not a car in sight now. The first flood carried most of them away. The army removed the rest when they took over.
The soldier is the only prisoner at the moment. The whole row of cages rattles when the guard slams his cell shut. A prison cell shouldn’t rattle. I’d be worried if I thought he cared enough to escape.
* * *
I tell the sergeant to not expect much of anything after the first session. He doesn’t care to hear this. The sergeant’s office is on the 90th floor of the tower and contains little more than a desk plopped in the middle of what was once prime real estate. The enlisted men pass around the story that the sergeant’s office used to belong to Some Wall Street Guy who lost his mind when everything went down the shitter and pushed his wife and kid out the window before jumping after them. It’s more likely this apartment was bought by some foreign billionaire and never occupied. That was the case with most of the super fancy apartments here. At least that’s what I heard when I used to live here. I still live here, I guess, just not like I used to live here.
The sergeant’s office is a picture you would have once used to sell a luxury apartment. The fixtures are untouched by life, the wooden floors free from scuffs. The tower sways slightly in the breeze, rotating like a punching bag. If you didn’t know the tower was designed to sway like this to keep from snapping in half it would be terrifying, and even when you do know this fact the swaying can terrify you. The windows are darker up here than on the floors below where the enlisted men bunk, and still the sun fights its way through. Through the blackout shades the grid of the old city sticking up through the new coastline looks like row after row of bleached teeth.
“When can I expect to get something?” the sergeant asks in a voice that sounds like a cactus. “Time isn’t our friend. Did he say anything at all about Dr. Marshall? A word will do at this point.”
I tell the sergeant that the suspect hardly said anything at all.
“Please don’t say ‘suspect.’ In the army we presume guilt, not innocence. Did he give you any hint about why he did it? Anyone put him up to it? Is he one of those tinfoil-hat types?”
“He said so little to me I couldn’t hazard a guess. I have to say, sir, again, I’m not comfortable with conducting a murder investigation. It’s really beyond my expertise…”
“This is not a murder investigation,” the sergeant says. “There’s no question of his guilt. I need to find out what he knows about Dr. Marshall’s experiments. I know the boy’s dumb as a bag of hammers but something could have sunk into that ugly skull of his.”
The sergeant lets out a long, flatulent sigh and pushes a piece of paper across his desk.
“I need to know if he mentions any of these topics and what he has to say about them,” he says, pointing to the paper. It is filled with three columns of type. Scientific names and compounds sandwiched together. Technical jargon I couldn’t pronounce if you put a gun to my head. Some of the words ring bells from high school biology class. I read them and I see a lab with gas jets and a frog in a tray pinned down spread eagle on corkboard. Retrovirus, shifting antigens, ochre mutation. Each column is headed by a word in bold: Quonset, Seabee, Tarmac.
“Circle anything he mentions and write down as many notes as you can,” the sergeant says. “These designations at the top are code names for theories about the paths to a cure. If he says enough about one topic or another, it’ll help us figure out which path Dr. Marshall was pursuing. You do what you can, but if we don’t get nothing outta him in five days, I gotta use the heavy artillery.”
“I don’t think severe measures will produce anything of value, sir.”
“I don’t think they will either, but if the men don’t see he got worked over I’m gonna get fragged. They think this man killed our only hope of a cure.”
“Why was he assigned to Dr. Marshall’s detail?” I ask.
“Huh?” the sergeant says, feigning a sudden lack of attention.
“After reviewing his file, I have to say, this guy was a real piece of work. Constantly cited for insubordination, always getting into fights. Not an ideal person to assign to the most important man in the tower.”
“We figured a self-directed researcher like Dr. Marshall was more in need of a mechanical assistant than a baby sitter,” the sergeant says. “And in any case his CO recommended him. I merely signed off on it.”
The sergeant busies himself with some papers on his desk, a move I take as my cue to get lost. I get up to leave before stopping myself.
“Sir, I was wondering, if I can get something out of the suspect, could we reopen a discussion of me hitching a ride to Florida? You know, the next time a unit is deployed there. Or even in that general direction. Anywhere further down the eastern seaboard.”
“You’re not in the army,” the sergeant says, pretending to concentrate on the paper in his hand. “You wanna walk out the front door, no one’s gonna stop you.”
“I just figured if a unit was headed in that direction anyway, one more man on a transport wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“There’s no units set for deployment to Florida any time soon. There’s nothing down there for them to deploy to, the way I hear it.”
“But if I can get this done, if I can get him to spill the beans, can we at least discuss it?”
“You need to do this for us to have a discussion about anything.”
The sergeant waves me away.
* * *
I eat alone in the mess that used to be the gym for the luxury half of the tower. What was left of the exercise equipment in the gym was moved to the old laundry room. The washers and driers in the laundry room were then placed in the game room. The pool table from the game room was relocated to a new Enlisted Men’s Lounge, which used to be a walk-in bicycle storage closet. The billiard balls disappeared one by one until the men thought playing with a compromised pool table wasn’t nearly as fun as trying to break it. One PFC did a running jump onto the pool table and snapped the thing in two. Everyone laughed until they realized how badly he cut himself on the jagged edges of the snapped slate inside. Then they roared.
I only used the gym once when I lived here. I mean when I really lived here. I received a free amenities pass in my mailbox for the holidays, a Christmas gift from building management to those of us who didn’t live in the luxury part of the tower. The gym struck me as a better use of that privilege than the pool or the sauna room. The doorman in the luxury lobby eyed the pass with suspicion and wouldn’t let me in his half of the tower until he placed a call to the manager. His eyes scraped over me until I stepped in the elevator. All the equipment in the gym was gleaming, burnished, and unscuffed, as if none of it had ever been touched. No one was in the gym but me. I sat on a stationary bike trying to figure out how to use the thing, punching at the touchscreen to make the bike to do something that felt right. The resistance was too great so I dialed down the levels down to one but the pedals fought me the whole way. I gave up after ten minutes.
Now I sweat into my powdered eggs and beans. Enlisted men sweat into their food at the table in front of me. They’ve been on site for a week, which means they’ve stopped being grateful for the rest from patrol and have started to go stir crazy. You can’t ask men to put down riots and execute hoarders and haul in half-dead infected samples in 120 degree heat for weeks on end, then lock them up in a tower to babysit scientists. Fucking geniuses and they can’t tie their god damn shoes is a common complaint. A different platoon arrives every few weeks and all of them grumble some variation of this before long.
“Sumbitch fucked us good,” says one PFC.
“News flash,” says another, “we been fucked for a while now.”
“That fucker who killed the doctor, I wanna snap that peckerwood’s neck.”
“Snappin his neck would be too quick. I’d take him to the top of the tower and toss him off. He’d hit the pavement and splat like a sacka manure.”
“At 90 stories? Motherfucker would black out way before he hit the bottom. Just take him up to the watchmacallit, the thing where they used to have parties up there or something?”
“The rooftop garden.”
“Take him up to the rooftop garden and leave him there. Couple days up there and the sun’d roast him alive. He’d cook like a god damn bratwurst.”
“I’d take him to the top too, but I’d throw him down the first flight of stairs. And the next one, and the next one. Keep goin until his head split like a pumpkin.”
“That civilian don’t get nothin outta him,” says another PFC in a voice louder than the rest, to make sure I hear him clearly, “and he’s goin down the stairs too.”
They’re just letting off steam, I tell myself. Most of these guys have to return to the outside in a matter of days. They have to take out the fear and frustration on someone, and as the lone civilian at arm’s length, I’m the most convenient target. Plenty of the soldiers have seen awful things. Many tell me so, in great detail, when they lay in the bunk below mine. One night, without warning a soldier started telling me a story about raiding a hospital and how he was the one who found the maternity wards filled with incubators and each one had a tiny skeleton in it. I asked him if he was in Florida when he saw that, but telling the story expelled whatever it was that kept him awake. The next noise I heard was snoring.
People open up to me. They tell me stories they didn’t even know they wanted to share before they share them with me. I don’t know why people feel the need to do this in my presence, but they do. It was a handy skill to have when I worked for an insurance company. I’d ask someone about an item on a claim and they’d say Yeah, I threw that in there to see if I could get away with it. Or they’d confess, We moved out of state a while ago but we kept the old registration because the premiums in our new place would be through the roof.
A cop came into the office shopping for a new homeowner’s policy on a vacation home he had out in the Poconos. Within minutes he told me he really lived at the bungalow and sent his kids to school out there even though NYPD rules said he couldn’t live out of state. He thought Internal Affairs was onto him because whenever he went to the supermarket he’d turn around and see a pair of guys in suits near the vegetables pretending they weren’t staring at him. When he was on duty, his wife was under strict orders to keep the place in darkness at night so somebody driving by wouldn’t know people lived there during the week. He laughed at how they all skulked around the place holding candles like it was the dark ages again. Five minutes after meeting this guy for the first time he divulged every detail of his elaborate scheme to game the system, a ruse he feared would crumble at any second and cost him his job, an outcome I could set in motion with one email.
“Even if I get shitcanned, they ain’t touching my pension,” he said. “I’ll fight em on that. I got some dirt on some people, trust me. They come after me and some heads will roll.”
I like to imagine he holed up in that little place in the Poconos when everything went to shit, hiding in a whole new way.
* * *
It looked like a magic number. A huge banner hung from the tower, 1 FAMILY’S and a price. I’d done the math in my head many times: At 4.2 percent with a down payment of… The units at the tower were near the upper ceiling of what we could afford, but they weren’t above that ceiling.
I wanted a home because I had a wife and kid and I was already older than my father was when he bought the place where I grew up. It was a dump with a leaky roof and bad foundation that gave him three heart attacks before I was out of high school, but at least when he left work he came home to a place that was no one’s but his. When I left work I returned to an apartment with the peeling paint and an upstairs neighbor who screamed at a rotating series of girlfriends that screamed right back even louder and sketchy wiring that made me nervous for the day little Kalvin learned to walk. Every day I walked in the door at 6:45 to that place, it felt like another mark in the L column.
Sharon was as anxious to get out of our crappy apartment as I was, but the idea of moving to the tower was a nonstarter. For years every lamppost in the neighborhood was littered with anti-tower posters. People worried it would destroy the character of the neighborhood, and that its unprecedented height would cast ugly shadows that dimmed ten-block stretches. I was accosted one afternoon outside the local bodega to sign a petition against the tower, so I did. We brought hot chocolate to protesters who stood in the cold and shook their fists at the girders climbing upward.
“I feel like a traitor,” Sharon said before we met with the man from the tower sales office. He wore a polo shirt with the tower’s logo and jeans and dispensed sweaty handshakes before showing us a one-family unit. It looked enormous compared to our apartment where you couldn’t crook an elbow without fear of taking someone’s head off. The unit didn’t look out toward Manhattan because that view was reserved for the luxury portion of the tower, but from ten stories up the bridges and 7 line and the cemeteries of Queens twinkled below us. It looked something like magic, if you wanted it to. Sharon and I went off in a corner of the apartment to conference.
I said, “I think I want to do this.” She shook her head in agreement.
We wrote a check for more money than we even knew we had and spent the next month taping things into boxes nonstop so we wouldn’t have time to think about all those zeroes.
From the minute the movers left our new home, a quiet fell on us. If I passed the grand lobby that led to the luxury half, I’d see doormen hoisting luggage from Jaguar trunks, valets scrambling to run the cars to the underground garage. Our entrance was a simple one in the back of the tower, always in shadow, away from the skyline, unmanned. You waved a key card to get inside and the door made a noise halfway between a moan and a whine as it opened. If anyone else lived on our floor, we never saw or heard them. The elevators traveled at a snail’s pace, though we never saw anyone other than ourselves get on or off, no matter which direction we rode. When we turned the faucets on and off, we heard the pipes vibrating, not because they were malfunctioning but because there was no other noise to blunt normal plumbing sounds.
The windows were rigged so they could only open a crack. A safety measure, I assumed. One day I decided I wanted to open one, to prove I could, to show that this really was my place and I had dominion over everything in it. It was a typical summer afternoon for those days, upper 90s and humid. When I opened the window, a swirling wind torpedoed into the apartment, a gust that felt like it came from a blast furnace. The wind was so harsh it pushed the window further open than it was designed to go. I spent the next ten minutes trying to slam it shut. I thought about calling the super before I remembered that we didn’t have a super. The better half of the tower had a maintenance crew but we did not. This place was mine. It was up to me to take care of things like that.
* * *
“What kind of work did you do for Dr. Marshall?” I asked.
“The file must tell you that,” the soldier says.
“I’d like to hear you describe your work in your own words.”
The soldier waits ten seconds before answering. He does not move an inch until he speaks.
“I was in the motor pool. When we came here, since there’s no motors to fix, they assigned me to the lab to fix things. I don’t even know half the shit I fixed, but if it’s got moving parts I can probably fix it.”
“Walk me through a typical day.”
“Not much different from the motor pool. I sat around until something broke and then I fixed it.”
“So when you had nothing to fix you just sat around? You didn’t do anything else?”
“Pretty much. Dr. Marshall used to poke the samples through the quarantine shield and they’d moan, or one of em would go nuts or die after getting injected and we’d have to call up the meat wagon. If there was a bunch of em that died all at once we had to pitch in with disposal and put on hazmat suits. That kinda shit.”
“Do you recall anything the doctor said?”
The solider scratches the table in front of him with his fingernails, the sound of a frying pan scraping a burner.
“He said a lotta shit but he would say it like he was saying it to the air around him. Sometimes he’d call me over to the shield while he poked a sample and say, ‘Watch what happens when I blah blah blah.’ He got so excited when one of the samples would start shakin on the table or throwin shit around the quarantine room. It’s like he didn’t think they were humans no more. He’d poke one of em with a needle or a stick or something and he’d say, ‘Fascinating! My god this is fascinating!’ And I’d be like, ‘Stop being fascinated and do somethin already’.”
“Did you say that to him?” I ask.
“And what would he say in response?”
“Nothin, usually. Don’t think he heard me most of the time. When he did, he’d just laugh.”
“Is there a day that sticks out in your mind? One where you talked to Dr. Marshall a lot, or he said something that really grabbed you?”
“They burned up his body,” he says.
“The doctor said that?”
“No. I’m talking about the doctor. They burned up his body.”
“Yes, they cremated him. There’s no place to bury anyone right now. There was a ceremony. Everyone in the tower attended and we were able to video conference with some of his old colleagues from the lab in Atlanta, who had some nice stories to share. Why did you ask about his cremation?”
“I didn’t ask shit. I just said they burned him. Burned like everyone else. Science can’t do nothin for that.”
He nods to himself at the thought.
* * *
I watch the transport land in the courtyard below. A new unit trudges through the sealed plastic gangway and into the tower’s old luxury entrance, worn out from months on tour and a week of detox, backpack straps sagging off each shoulder into the crooks of their elbows. A shipping container is dumped out the back of the transport, flailing red arms pushing through the air holes, the latest samples. The container is carted around back to the old non-luxury entrance, the door that used to whine at me every day when I slumped home from work.
An old unit stomps up the gangway and into the transport, impatient to leave this tedium behind. Through the shaded windows of my old apartment it all looks green. It’s still my apartment in the eyes of Best Golden Management Holdings. Their offices are safe from contagion in Guangzhou. I don’t think the disease has gotten to China yet. But now I share my place with as many as twelve GIs at one time and the front door has been removed and none of the fixtures work and my fridge has been requisitioned for one of the labs.
The men from the newest unit to arrive are honored at a reception in the lounge on the 57th floor. The doctors and officers and me, the lone civilian who is not a scientist, hoist resin cups full of grape-ish drink and toast them for their service. The men do their best to appear appreciative with their half-smiles, though they are so tired their knees shake underneath them, weary from standing. A helicopter patrol zips across sky, casting a spotlight down on nothing before darkness takes over again. You used to be able to see some spectacular fires from up here, but everything once flammable is soaked to the bone now, if it didn’t burn long ago.
We are served the usual cruel parody of appetizers made of hydroponic lettuce and a cheese simulation with just enough taste to be nauseating. The men want to sleep, but the scientists and officers have exhausted all avenues of conversation for at least a year, and so they pepper the new arrivals with questions they are too exhausted to answer with any coherence. I pace the room, food with a single bite taken out of it in the palm of my hand, counting the seconds until I can duck out without appearing rude.
A doctor tugs at my sleeve. I know she’s a doctor because of her lack of fatigues and her head of frazzled, too-busy hair going off in all directions at once, but I have not seen her before. The doctors do not mingle much, not with the soldiers and certainly not with the civilian population of one.
“You’re the investigator?” the scientist asks. “You’re supposed to come see me tomorrow? Dr. Jansen?”
Once I say yes, Dr. Jansen asks me if we can do this now instead because tomorrow will be a jam-packed day in the lab for her. She tells me why it’ll be so busy but I don’t catch most of what she says because it’s far too technical. I tell her if she’d rather talk right now I’ll be happy to accommodate her. I’ve barely finished speaking when she begins to churn out words. She expels them so quickly her mouth can barely form the syllables.
“Dr. Marshall was so close to figuring it all out,” she says. “That’s the real tragedy. I can’t say 100 percent because he didn’t like to share his results until they were what he called ‘publishable.’ But he’d drop little hints in our conversations. ‘It’s coming together,’ he’d say, or, ‘I have a good feeling.’ That sounds like nothing when I say it, but he had a way of speaking that allowed you to feel he was letting you in on a secret. We never would have come here without him. Atlanta seemed much safer back then, before we knew how bad things would get, but he convinced us it was important to be here, in the center of where it started. I would have stuck my hand in a whirring blender if he said it was safe.
“I always told him not to work alone and to share his data. Or at least write it down somewhere. I told him he was too important and if something happened to him, we’d be lost. But he’d just laugh and say, ‘What could happen to me?’ And I’d say, ‘Would you look around? The world is collapsing and you think something can’t happen to you?’ I didn’t mean anything like what happened. I just thought, you know, you work with the disease every day so who’s to say one of the samples won’t break loose? I never liked the last soldier he had, the one who…He hated us. You could tell. I know the soldiers don’t all like us and I don’t expect them to, but this one was different. You could feel the hate pour out of him. It was as if he didn’t even like the idea of us. If I went to Dr. Marshall’s lab to discuss something or get his opinion and he’d fix me with this cold, hard stare. I could sense him drawing an X over me in his mind. It’s just a feeling and I know a feeling’s not worth anything. I know that I felt it is all. God, these things are awful.”
Dr. Jansen takes a mouse-sized bite of her soggy lettuce and fake cheese and wanders off.
I ride the elevators down to the old lobby filled with sandbags and gun battlements, then take the Poor Stairs up to my place on the 10th floor. Sharon and I called them the Poor Stairs because that was the only reliable way to get to the non-luxury floors. We’d get so sick of waiting for the elevator we’d climb the ten floors even when we had hoist Kalvin in his stroller from landing to landing.
The lower half of my bunk has a new soldier in it. He snores like a jackhammer, dead to the world. In the morning, he wakes me up with the grunts and farts he emits while doing diamond pushups. He asks me if I’m Dr. Farner because he’s assigned to Dr. Farner. I tell him Dr. Farner is up in the hydro lab on 37. He tilts his head like a confused dog. I explain it’s basically a greenhouse where they grow our food.
“That’s good,” he says. “I don’t wanna be in one of the germ labs. I heard the cures they workin on is worse than the disease. Like that grunt who got shot up with some kinda serum and went nuts and killed Dr. Marshall.”
I tell him that’s not how it happened and he says, “Okay,” the last syllable trailing off to show he’d rather not talk about it anymore. He asks me what doctor I’m assigned to and I have to tell him I’m not assigned to any doctor because I’m a civilian. He gives me that same look of fascination and pity I’ve seen from every other soldier who’s bunked with me.
“I used to live here before everything went down,” I tell him. “Now, well, I still live here. I was telecommuting when the bug started to get bad. If I’d been riding the subways with everyone else, I’m sure I’d be dead by now.”
“Uh huh,” the soldier says between pushups.
“You ever get down to Florida?” I ask.
“Nah,” the soldier says. “Hear it’s even worse than here, though…8, 9…”
“But there’s gotta be some refugee camps down there,” I insist.
“I ain’t never seen one…12, 13…We just bag the dead ones…16, 17…and drag the samples in for you doctors.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“Whatever you are…Fuck, I lost my place.”
He must hear a lot of stuff on the outside. If he’s never even been to Florida then he has no idea what it’s like. For all he knows, the place is one big refugee camp. Everyone down there must be okay or I’d have heard something tangible by now. A figure. The names of towns that burned away. He can’t be right, I tell myself.
I tell the soldier he was up to seventeen pushups, but he starts back at one anyway.
* * *
We were sitting in the living room, Sharon opposite me on our brand new couch, legs stretched out toward mine. We had enough room in our new place that our feet wouldn’t touch. Sharon asked if I heard that.
I said I heard nothing because there was nothing to hear in our apartment. Kalvin was sound asleep, his baby monitor pelting us with white noise from its perch on the coffee table. If any noise happened in the luxury half of the tower, we were shielded from it. The traffic on the expressway came through as a sustained hush, like one person trying to imitate the roar of a huge crowd.
“What did it sound like?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “A noise.”
She let it go until the next night, when she thought she heard it again, whatever it was. I opened my mouth to say it was nothing, but she shushed me.
“When you talk it goes away,” she said.
She shushed me again. I didn’t move for a full five minutes. When my neck went stiff from holding it place for so long, I turned toward Sharon to ask if it was okay to move. She’d fallen asleep.
Sharon woke me at 3 am the following night, swearing she heard something again. She placed a hand on my chest, pinning me to the mattress, and held a finger to her lips. I heard nothing, not even the highway. The pressure from her hand subsided little by little until her head slumped down on top of me, asleep. I was up for the rest of the night, listening for something and hearing nothing.
The next morning, she told me she couldn’t sleep a wink because I didn’t believe her about the noise.
“I’m pretty sure you fell asleep,” I said. “I heard you snore.”
“See? You don’t believe me,” she said.
I figured this had something to do with the heat. It had been 110 every day for weeks on end, which seemed crazy to us back then, believe it or not. Jacking up the AC to max did nothing except make Con Ed richer. Sharon was just stressed out from the heat and lack of sleep, what with Kalvin still waking up in the middle of the night for feedings. Once the summer was over and he slept through the night, this would pass, I believed.
* * *
The soldier’s CO runs laps in the drained pool, jogging around its perimeter at the exact point where the floor begins its slope upward, dog tags clinking against one another with each hard step. I try to follow behind him for a while, but I’m more out of shape than I thought. Lack of exercise and the fabricated garbage they feed us has whittled me down to skin and bones. I stop chasing him and stand in the middle of the pool so I can direct my words to wherever the CO is at the time.
“Did the private take part in any particularly traumatic missions?” I ask. “It would be helpful to know if his actions were possibly the result of PTSD.”
“Not unless you can get PTSD from doing oil changes,” the CO says between pants. “Always in the rear with the gear and the beer. Didn’t see shit. He was a grumbler. I’d give him an order and the second my back was turned he’d mutter something under his breath. Call him on it and he’d slide under a vehicle and clang away like he couldn’t hear you.”
“Did he ever talk to you about his work with Dr. Marshall?”
“He never talked to me about anything. Didn’t talk to anyone else, far as I know. Not a single friend in the unit. Miserable little fuck. I wanted to punch that face long before he went and did what he done. You know Dr. Marshall had just one last trial to do before he could start giving the vaccine to humans?”
“I didn’t know that. Are you sure that’s correct?”
“Oh yeah, everyone was saying it. Makes me regret sending that shitbag to Dr. Marshall in the first place. The sergeant wanted him there. I shoulda said it was a bad idea, but the sergeant gets what he wants.”
“Do you know if your unit is deploying to Florida?” I ask.
“Why the fuck would we go to Florida? Whole place is either on fire or underwater. Makes the mess here look like paradise. What the fuck does Florida have to do with Dr. Marshall?”
I confess it has nothing to do with Dr. Marshall, after my throat stops seizing up and I can get the words out. I thank him for his time and start climbing out of the pool. I’m halfway up the ladder when the CO calls after me.
“I grew up in Florida,” the CO says. “We had a pool in the backyard. When there was droughts, my old man made me do laps on the inside so’s we could get some use out of it. ‘I paid too much money to put that thing in to see it go to waste,’ he said. Even when the temperatures started to get crazy, he’d make us go out there and run around like idiots. Kids next door would laugh at us from inside their air conditioned rec room. God damn prick my dad was. Based on the contagion maps I seen I doubt he got through this. Least I hope not. Sorry. You said Florida and it made me think of that. I don’t know why I’m laying this shit on you.”
His back is to me now. I continue climbing.
* * *
“I’m going to read a series of words and phrases,” I say to the soldier. “If any of these ring a bell for any reason, you let me know.”
I rattle through the sergeant’s list of words, one by one. The soldier doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t move a muscle, except to blink. The longer it takes me to read the list, the harder he blinks. I don’t know how it’s possible to blink harder, but he does it. His eyelids get slower and heavier the longer it takes me to say the words. I give up before I’m halfway through the Seabee column.
“None of this sounds familiar to you,” I say. “You were in the same lab as Dr. Marshall for three weeks and you never heard him say any of these things.”
“If I did hear him say any of that shit I forgot it,” the soldier says. “No point in remembering shit like that.”
“You told me he talked all the time, and you don’t remember a single word of what he said?”
“I know what I know. Don’t no other shit need to get in here.”
The soldier lifts his hand as much as the handcuffs will allow and aims a pointer finger at his head.
“He walked around like he was hot shit,” the soldier says. “Like he knew everything.”
I remind the soldier Dr. Marshall was one of the top epidemiologists in the world. He laughs.
“That’s not a real thing. I never heard of it before I came here. Not enough you gotta be a doctor and pretend you make people better. No, you gotta come up with a new kind of doctor you are so you can be the best whatever the fuck that is. Doctors made this shit in the first place. Nobody was really sick until they started going to the doctors and it messed them all up. The heat didn’t get real bad and the oceans didn’t start risin until doctors said we had to do something about it. All this shit because people think we gotta know everything.”
“Doctors and scientists didn’t make those things happen,” I tell him. “They only discovered they were happening.”
“So they discovered we’re shit. Now we know we’re shit. Congratu-fuckin-lations.”
* * *
Over the phone, Sharon swore there wasn’t anyone else. She didn’t want to take Kalvin with her but he was still nursing. If she left him with me, she’d just hurt both of us and that’s the last thing she wanted. Another day in the tower and she’d go nuts.
“I never wanted to move there in the first place,” she said. “I told you that over and over again.”
I told her she never said this to me once. I reminded her of our conversations while we packed up our old stuff in boxes, how we told ourselves this move would be good for us, how we were already behind in our retirement plan to build equity, how it was important to have space for Kalvin to run around.
“You said those things,” Sharon said. “I kept my mouth shut.”
“So which is it, you told me over and over you didn’t want to move there or you kept your mouth shut?”
“It doesn’t matter. I just need some time away.”
I told her I would come with her. I could sell the apartment. I could do my job from a laptop. I could go anywhere.
“No,” she said, “I need some time away. If you come meet me now, you would bring it with you.”
“Bring what with me?”
Sharon exhaled into the phone, blowing out the speaker. If I didn’t understand what it was already, she saw no point in trying to explain it.
“At least tell me where you are so I know you’re okay,” I said.
“We’re fine. I’ll call you in a little while.”
“Are you in Florida, at your mother’s place? You’re in Florida, right?”
She hung up, but right before she did, at the very last split second, she muttered “yes” into the phone. I believe she did. The noise could have been static or a passing truck, but I don’t believe it was any of those things. I believe she wanted me to figure out where she was. I believe that.
* * *
I slide the paper in front of the soldier.
“I want you to close your eyes,” I tell him, “and I want you to put your finger down on the paper.”
His finger lands on escape mutation. I circle it.
“Lift your hand and do it again,” I tell him. He does, over and over until he’s pointed to 15 phrases, five in each column. I circled each one.
“Thank you for your help,” I say to the soldier.
He executes a salute, though he can’t lift his hand more than a few inches above the table.
“Don’t salute me,” I tell him, “I’m not an officer. I’m not even in the army.” But he doesn’t stop.
As I take the elevator up to the 90th floor, the bleached courtyard and the embankment walls holding back the flood rush away from my feet. I look down at the paper and circle one more phrase in the Tarmac column to make things uneven. The sergeant says he must have an answer. This will give him the closest thing we will ever have. We’ll never know the answer for sure, but thanks to me we will we think that we know them. Only I will know about the randomness. Maybe in time I’ll forget and convince myself we really have the answer, like everyone else will. That will feel wonderful, I believe.