Read The Four Fingers of Death Online

Authors: Rick Moody

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Four Fingers of Death (10 page)

BOOK: The Four Fingers of Death
He had his reasons, evidently, and I believed they would come to light. But my principal reason for wanting to play this game of chess was that I wanted the
. I wanted to write the novelization he described. And I wanted to make my life better, in a Horatio Alger sort of way—I wanted the money, I wanted the self-respect, and I wanted the approval of Tara Schott Crandall, the woman with the new lungs. This made a rather adorable story, writing a science-fiction novelization in order to impress a double lung transplant from whose side I had not strayed for more than three or four hours in a couple of years, except when she was in the ICU and I left her, for example, to give a reading at Arachnids. But just as the chess match was looming on the calendar, something awful happened, the awful thing that goes by the name
. Prior to the events described here, I knew nothing about fungus but that mushrooms were tasty and that you should wash between your toes. But fungus, in particular
, would become my wife Tara’s greatest threat.
There are a number of kinds of organ rejection, as we now know from the medical literature. The first of these is instantaneous, in which the organ is flooded with lymphocytes, and death is immediate. Tara, to our great relief, did not suffer this rejection, which is rare in the era of nanotechnological agents. A second kind of rejection is chronic, and characterized by a hardening of the tissues involved at the spots where the organs are connected by the surgeons. While a certain amount of antirejection therapy can help here, the long-term prognosis is cloudy and dark. Still, you may have time to see your child graduate or your spouse appear, inevitably, on a reality-based web program.
Then there is an intermediate sort of rejection, a sort where you have some time, but it is not great time. What happens in this third alternative is that all the nearby germs come stampeding onto your prairie. Germs you never even heard of. With lung transplants, the most common of these infections is pneumonia. But there are far more exotic germs. People coming to the NAFTA signatories to buy up distressed companies and close them down bring a lot of exotic infectious agents with them. Patients who are trying to fight tissue rejection are prey to any Southeast Asian mite that comes along.
Naturally, my personal bête noire among the new hospital-cultured strains of disease is
necrotizing fasciitis
, or flesh-eating disease. There was a report just the other day. A woman’s thumb was swelling up; she went to the doctor. He sent her home. That night they took off her arm, the next day both legs, and on the third day she died, leaving behind two children.
Tara had shortness of breath. Even when she got home. We didn’t think much of that. She’d had shortness of breath through the entirety of our marriage. She sounded like a toy train, what with the whistling and the chest cough. But upon coming home, she began complaining rather quickly about pressure in her chest. I say
, but that is not the right word, really, because she did not complain. We were picnicking, after I sold a Barry Bonds rookie baseball card at profit enough to live on for a month, and we were in the park by the railroad depot, the one where all the Central Americans live, and we had some cheese, some jug wine, and some sourdough bread, and a small army of men came over to ask for change, though we didn’t really have any change, most of which was worthless anyhow. Despite all of this, Tara was smiling, and her gingham dress nearly matched the cloth we put down on the sands beneath a shady, nonnative palm. She had alluring sunglasses on, sunglasses designed to repel ultraviolet rays and to suggest erotic submissiveness, and as far as she was concerned, there was no better day than this, this unanticipated day, this extra day.
She said: “If you had to weigh, under pain of long-term torture and incarceration, the amount you love me in loaves of bread, how many loaves would it be?”
“This old game,” I said, though the game was new. “If I must. Let’s see. More than a bread truck. Or a bread factory. And if it were in bottles of wine, easily more than a cask, easily more than a wine cellar. My love would be counted in vineyards. And if it were cheese, more cheese than in the Sea of Tranquility. And if it were measured in dark matter, more than ninety percent of the universe would be it, would be
the love
. And no scientist would be able to locate or recognize it, because it’s
“You always know the right things to say. And if you didn’t, I’d tell you what to say.” She drained a glass of wine. Tannins were good for her gums; the grape skin had free radicals. I tried to keep track of these things. I employed sage, healing prayer, crystals.
Then my wife said, “Monty, there’s something
not right
going on.”
I wasn’t paying attention at first. After all, there was almost always something
not right
“There’s something
not right
“What do you mean, there’s—?”
“I mean there’s something
not right
“What are you saying?”
She put her hand on top of mine. My thrift store wedding ring. She looked into my eyes.
“Monty, you have to get prepared. And I don’t think you are.”
“What are you saying?”
“Things are not… It’s not going to go on like this for very much longer.”
“I don’t agree. I think things can go on the way they are going on, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be sitting here taking in the—”
“You’re just not being realistic.”
“We can call the… I’ll call right now. What’s-his-name. The surgeon. He’s got a… what do you call it? A round-the-clock service.”
“We’re not calling any surgeon today. The important part of today is what we’re doing right now.”
the important part. The important part is where your life gets saved. The important part is that things go on as they’re going, with only modestly increased levels of sadness and disappointment.”
She said: “Maybe there’s something that’s against us, fate or history or luck or something. Maybe for some people, that’s not how it goes. You need to be ready for bad luck. If I have to go on that donor list again… Think about it. I just got
pair. And I feel feverish. I feel weak.”
“That’s a
response. You don’t know. We can ask the doctor.”
“It’s time we started planning what we’re going to do. We have tried doctors, Monty. My whole life has been spent with doctors. I mean, when I got three months off from going to the doctor, in my teens, I felt like I was free in a totally new way, and as the care has got worse, you know, even
doctors, so that the worse the care got, the better I got to know them—”
“Darling, I—”
“What’s the right response? More doctors? Or is there maybe a better response that has to do with art and poetry and with just giving life a chance in the way it presents itself, even if it’s in a broken-down place like this? I’m not going to write about all this, Monty, I’m through with writing all this stuff down, and I don’t want to film myself for my website, and I don’t want to be on some compendium of footage of dying people, or friends of people with pulmonary disease, or whatever; I just want to be a young woman who is alive for a little while longer, and I want you to do whatever you need to do to start preparing for what happens when I’m not here to harass you any longer.”
How can these things come to pass? When on the surface everything was so serene? There were many things to be courageous about. War spreading around the globe until it was routine. I could list a half-dozen spots where civil war raged. Economic collapse among, for example, the Central European democracies. Religious violence. Poverty. Overpopulation. Hatred among all the peoples of the world. These were things to be courageous about. But I couldn’t be courageous about my wife, not a day longer. What had been asked of us was that we give up
, all that we had built together and all the strength we had stockpiled, and now we were being asked to watch our contentment come to
Some bits of bad luck you can work hard at accepting, and some bits bludgeon you. And the big lie you tell yourself is that you’re
going to be the one who gets bludgeoned, right up until the moment when the instrument meets the surface of your thick skull.
Next day, Tara went to see her surgeon, and they subjected her to a battery of diagnostic tests with high-powered magnets and proton emitters. These revealed the presence of the aforementioned fungus.
. Antibiotics were increased, and Tara was moved into a hyperbaric tent a few hours each week. We stocked up on tanks for the home yet again. People around us, official people, began talking about months or even weeks.
What could I do? What could I do? What had I ever done?
I called D. Tyrannosaurus. Over the phone, he made his first move.
Book One
September 30, 2025
What does a man think about while he’s making history? A man thinks about his viscera. In the midst of the final countdown, on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, while Mission Control is counting back from the double to the single digits, he thinks about his bile, his adrenal glands, his hemoglobin, his pancreas, his bowels. Ignoble, I agree. You’d think that a guy like me, Colonel Jed Richards, would be thinking about the judgments of future generations or about the next phase of space exploration, the one in which we travel out beyond the solar system. Or perhaps I’d be thinking about the great religious questions, about who exactly stage-managed the Big Bang, from her loom casting off the whorl of dust and gas and stars, in turn spawning the tiny wisp of our universe, of which but one puny rock is Earth. But no. I was not thinking about interstellar space. As you probably know, the commonest inquiry of schoolchildren as regards space travel has to do with the disposal of human wastes. And since this is the inaugural day of my Martian blog, I am prepared to deal with the question of human wastes, with irritable bowel syndrome and related difficulties. Yes, IBS is just one of the idiosyncrasies I had to sweep under the rug during my long climb through the ranks of astronauts and technicians who peopled the Mars Mission Recruitment Initiative.
Mission Control reached “fifteen,” and “fourteen” quickly followed, and while I was thinking about using the suction device in the restroom that I would attach to my lower self, and how there would be no chance to do so for at least an hour, I was also whiling away some milliseconds considering the possibility of my own incineration. In case of launch mishap, temperatures would reach 3,000 degrees, owing to the nature of the solid fuel in the first stage. We would be cinders. As did the other members of my space confraternity, whom I’ll soon get around to introducing, I understood that the two parts of the voyage most likely to bring about our incineration were liftoff and landing. Of these, the more dangerous was the landing. On, for example, the surface of the Red Planet.
We’d already written letters to our loved ones, explaining that we knew of the numberless threats on this epic flight. Time slowed around “thirteen” and “twelve” as I reconsidered the text of my own video letter, hesitating over the irony thereof, upon which I will elaborate soon.
Massive public and private fiscal outlay (consider the fuel costs, e.g.) had been spent by our rickety and fiscally strapped government in order to make a desperation wager on the Red Planet, the specifics dating back to a halfhearted boast by a less-than-mediocre president nearly a quarter century ago. Could we do it? Could we bring pride and dignity to a multiethnic post-industrial third-rate economy? Could we redeem a nation before it defaulted on certain kinds of government payments? With this launch did we not ask:
Can we do anything right?
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