Read Peeps Online

Authors: Scott Westerfeld

Peeps (5 page)

You may have been wondering: If Sarah was my first girlfriend, where did
I
catch the disease?
I wish I knew.
 
Okay, I obviously knew
how
it happened, and the exact date and pretty close to the exact time. You don’t forget losing your virginity, after all.
But I didn’t actually know
who
it was. I mean, I got her name and everything—Morgan. Well, her first name anyway.
The big problem was, I didn’t remember
where
. Not a clue.
Well, one clue: “Bahamalama-Dingdong.”
It was only two days after I first got to New York, fresh off the plane from Texas, ready to start my first year at college. I already wanted to study biology, even though I’d heard that was a tough major.
Little did I know.
At that point, I could hardly find my way around the city. I got the general concept of uptown and downtown, although they didn’t really match north and south, I knew from my compass. (Don’t laugh, they’re useful.) I’m pretty sure that this all happened somewhere downtown, because the buildings weren’t quite so tall and the streets were pretty busy that night. I remember lights rippling on water at some point, so I might have been close to the Hudson. Or maybe the East River.
And I remember the Bahamalama-Dingdong. Several, in fact. They’re some kind of drink. My sense of smell wasn’t superhuman back then, but I’m pretty sure they had rum in them. Whatever they had, there was
a lot
of it. And something sweet too. Maybe pineapple juice, which would make the Bahamalama-Dingdong a close cousin of the Bahama Mama.
Now, the Bahama Mama can be found on Google or in cocktail books. It’s rum, pineapple juice, and a liqueur called Nassau Royale, and it is from the Bahamas. But the Bahamalama-Dingdong has much more shadowy origins. After I found out what I’d been infected with and realized who must have done it, I searched every bar I could find in the Village. But I never met a single bartender who knew how to make one. Or who’d even
heard
of them.
Like a certain Morgan Whatever, the Bahamalama-Dingdong had come out of the darkness, seduced me, then disappeared.
These searches didn’t evoke a single memory flashback. No hazy images of pinball machines jumped out at me, no sudden glimpses of Morgan’s long dark hair and pale skin. And, no—being a carrier doesn’t make you pale-skinned or gothy-looking. Get real. Morgan was probably just some goth type who didn’t know she was about to turn into a bloodthirsty maniac.
Unless, of course, she was someone like me: a carrier. But one who got off on changing lovers into peeps. Either way, I hadn’t seen her since.
So this is all I can remember:
There I was, sitting in a bar in New York City and thinking,
Wow, I’m sitting in a bar in New York City
. This thought probably runs through the heads of a lot of newly arrived freshmen who manage to get served. I was drinking a Bahamalama-Dingdong because the bar I was sitting in was “The Home of the Bahamalama-Dingdong.” It said so on a sign outside.
A pale-skinned woman with long dark hair sat beside me and said, “What the hell is that thing?”
Maybe it was the frozen banana bobbing in my drink that provoked the question. I suddenly felt a bit silly. “Well, it’s this drink that lives here. Says so on the sign out front.”
“Is it good?”
It was good, but I only shrugged. “Yeah. Kind of sweet, though.”
“Kind of girly-looking, don’t you think?”
I did think. The drink had been a vague sort of embarrassment to me since it had arrived, frozen banana bobbing to the music. But the other guys in the bar had seemed not to notice. And they were all pretty tough-looking, what with their leather chaps and all.
I pushed the banana down into the drink, but it popped back up. It wasn’t really trying to be obnoxious, but frozen bananas have a lower specific density than rum and pineapple juice, it turns out.
“I don’t know about girly,” I said. “Looks like a boy to me.”
She smiled at my accent. “
Yerr
not from around here, are
yew
?”
“Nope. I’m from Texas.” I took a sip.
“Texas? Well, hell!” She slapped me on the back. I’d already figured out in those two days that Texas is one of the “brand-name” states. Being from Texas is much cooler than being from a merely recognizable state, like Connecticut or Florida, or a
huh?
state, like South Dakota. Texas gets you noticed.
“I’ll have one of those,” she said to the bartender, pointing to my Bahamalama-Dingdong, which pointed back. Then she said her name was Morgan.
Morgan drank hers, I drank mine. We both drank a few more. My recall of subsequent events gets steadily worse. But I do remember that she had a cat, a flat-screen TV, black satin sheets, and a knack for saying what she thought—and that’s pretty much all I remember, except for waking up the next morning, getting kicked out of an unfamiliar apartment because she had to go somewhere and was looking all embarrassed, and heading home with a hangover that made navigation difficult. By the time I got back to my dorm room, I had no idea where I’d started out.
All I had to show for the event was a newfound confidence with women, slowly manifesting superpowers, and an appetite for rare meat.
 
“We’ve been over all that,” I said to Dr. Prolix. “I still can’t help you.”
“This is not about helping me,” she said firmly. “You won’t come to terms with your disease until you find your progenitor.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve tried. But like you’ve said before, she must have moved away or died or something.” That had always been the big mystery. If Morgan was still around, we’d be seeing her handiwork everywhere—peeps popping up all over the city, a bloodbath every time she picked up some foolish young Texan in a bar. Or at least a few corpses every now and then. “I mean, it’s been over a year, and we don’t have a single clue.”

Didn’t
have a clue,” she said, and rang a small, high-pitched bell on her desk. Somewhere out of sight but within earshot, a minder tapped away at a computer keyboard. A moment later, the printer on my side of the red line began to hum, its cartridge jerking to life below the plastic cover.
“This was recently brought to my attention, Cal. Now that you’ve dealt with Sarah, I thought you might want to see it.”
I stood and went to the printer and lifted with trembling fingers the warm piece of paper that slid into its tray. It was a scanned hand-bill, like they pass out on the street sometimes:
Dick’s Bar Is Back in Business!
—Seven Days a Week—
The Health Department Couldn’t Keep Us Down!
*The One and Only Home of the Bahamalama-
Dingdong*
Dr. Prolix watched me read it, steepling her fingers again.
“Feeling thirsty?” she asked.
CHAPTER 4
TOXOPLASMA
FLIP
a coin.
Tails? Relax.
Heads? You’ve got parasites in your brain.
That’s right. Half of us carry the
Toxoplasma gondii
parasite. But don’t reach for the power drill just yet.
Toxoplasma is microscopic. Human immune systems usually kick its ass, so if you’ve got it, you’ll probably never even know. In fact, toxoplasma doesn’t even
want
to be in your head. Trapped inside your thick skull, under assault by your immune defenses, it can’t lay eggs, which is a big evolutionary Game Over.
Toxoplasma would much rather live in your cat’s digestive system, eating cat food and laying eggs. Then, when kitty takes a crap, these eggs wind up on the ground, waiting for other scurrying creatures. Like, say, rats.
A quick word about rats: They’re basically parasite subway trains, carrying them from place to place. In my job, we call this being a
vector
. Rats go everywhere in the world, and they breed like crazy. Catching a ride on the Rat Express is a major way that diseases have evolved to spread themselves.
When toxoplasma gets into a rat, the parasite starts to make changes to its host’s brain. If a normal rat bumps into something that smells like a cat, it freaks out and runs away. But toxoplasma-infected rats actually
like
the smell of cats. Kitty pee makes them curious. They’ll explore for hours trying to find the source.
Which is a cat. Which eats them.
And that makes toxoplasma happy, because toxoplasma really, really wants to live in the stomach of a cat.
 
Parasite geeks have a phrase for what cats are to toxoplasma: the “final host.”
A final host is the place where a parasite can live happily ever after, getting free food, having lots of babies. Most parasites live in more than one kind of animal, but they’re all trying to reach their final host, the ultimate vector . . . parasite heaven.
Toxoplasma uses mind control to get to its heaven. It makes the rat
want
to go looking for cats and get eaten. Spooky, huh?
But nothing like that would work on us humans, right?
 
Well, maybe. No one’s really sure what toxoplasma does to human beings. But when researchers collected a bunch of people with and without toxoplasma, gave them personality tests, observed their habits, and interviewed their friends, this is what they learned:
Men infected with toxoplasma don’t shave every day, don’t wear ties too much, and don’t like following social rules. Women infected with toxoplasma like to spend money on clothes, and they tend to have lots of friends. The rest of us think they’re more attractive than non-infected women. In general, the researchers found that infected people are more interesting to be around.
On the other hand, people
without
toxoplasma in their brains
like
following the rules. If you lend them money, they’re more likely to pay you back. They show up for work on time. The men get into fewer fights. The women have fewer boyfriends.
Could this be toxoplasma mind control?
But that’s just
too
weird, isn’t it? There has to be another explanation.
Maybe some people
always
hated getting to work on time, and they like having felines around because cats wouldn’t go to work on time either, if they had any work to go to. These people adopted cats and
then
got toxoplasma.
Maybe the other half of humanity, the ones who enjoy following the rules, usually get dogs. Fetch. Sit. Stay. So, their brains stay toxoplasma-free.
Maybe these are two kinds of people who were
already
different.
Or maybe not.
That’s the thing about parasites: It’s hard to tell if they’re the chicken or the egg. Maybe we’re all really robots, walking around doing the bidding of our parasites. Just like those hungry, twitching snails . . .
Do you really love your cat? Or is the toxoplasma in your head telling you to take care of kitty, its final host, so that one day it too will reach parasite heaven?
CHAPTER 5
BAHAMALAMA-DINGDONG
DICK’S
Bar hadn’t changed all that much, but I had.
It wasn’t just my superpowers. I was older, wiser, and had lived in New York for just over a year now. I had grown-up eyes.
It turned out that Dick’s Bar didn’t get a lot of female patronage. Not much at all. Just a lot of guys playing pool in their leather chaps, drinking beer and swigging the occasional Jell-O shot, listening to a mix of country and classic disco. A typical West Village bar.
It was a relief, really. I could hang out here without having to stare into my drink, trying to avoid contact with any hot girls. Even better, any woman who was a regular would stick out like a banana in a highball glass. Surely
someone
would remember a tall, pale-skinned creature wearing a long black dress and picking up wayward Texans.
“Drink?” the bartender asked.
I nodded. A little stimulus for my fugitive memories wouldn’t hurt.
“A Bahamalama-Dingdong, please.”
The bartender raised an eyebrow, then turned to ring a bell over the bar. A few guys playing pool in the back chuckled, and something dislodged itself from the cloudy sky of memories inside my head.
Ding!
said my brain, as I recalled that whenever anyone ordered a Bahamalama-Dingdong, they rang a special bell. Hence the “dingdong” part of the name.
Well, partly. I watched the bartender take a banana from the freezer. He put it in a tall highball glass and poured rum over it, then mystery juice from a plastic container marked
B/D
, and finally a careful layer of red liqueur across the top. I detected a scent like cough medicine rising up.
“Nassau Royale?” I asked.
The bartender nodded. “Yeah. Do I remember you?”
“You mean, from before the Health Department shut you down?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “You don’t look so familiar, though.”
I nodded. “I’ve only been here once, actually. But I had a friend who used to come all the time. Named Morgan?”
“Morgan?”
“Yeah. Tall, dark hair, pale skin. Black dresses. Kind of gothy?”
Pause. “A woman?”
“Yeah.”
He shook his head. “Not ringing a bell. You sure you got the right place?”
I looked down at the Bahamalama-Dingdong, the Nassau Royale- stained banana looking back at me like a bloodshot eye, and took a sip. Tropical fruit sweetness poured over my tongue, textured by strips of rind shedding from the frozen banana. That night of more than a year before began to flood back into my mind, carried on pineapples and the burnt taste of dark rum.
“I’m positive,” I said.
 
There wasn’t much to do but get drunk.
The bartender asked around, but no one remembered Morgan or even vaguely recalled a gothlike woman who had hung out here in the old days. Maybe, like me, she’d randomly wandered in off the street that night.

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