The Letum Drive
by Abbigail N. Rosewood
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
A man wearing a T-shirt two sizes too small for him walked up to the Ford. The chauffeur nodded to the man in complicit acknowledgement. From the inside, the chauffeur unlocked all four doors. The trunk popped open. The protesters swarmed in then, like honeybees, taking out the vaccine coolers one by one. There were fifty five cases in total, fifty in the trunk, five in the front passenger seat, supplies enough for five hundred people to use for six to eight months.
“No, please... My daughter. She needs them.” Allen clambered out of the car. He was small, around five feet seven inches. His slightly hunched back made him look even more helpless.
“Virginia can come with us,” the man in the tight T-shirt said. “Come on, baby girl, ” he said to the governor’s daughter.
“Virginia, stay where you are,” Allen said, his voice still shaken but with a tinge of bravado this time. “I’m calling the cops. You... you will pay for this.”
“And tell them what? That you’ve been poaching medical supplies for personal use, Governor?” The man smirked. “I have no use for you or your daughter. I want those coolers and I’ve got them. My job is done here.” He laughed a smug, throaty laugh.
“But those guys there? You see them?” He pointed to a distinct group of people among the crowd of protestors. Cory and Elaine were standing next to them. They had the same look on their faces as Virginia had. Dark moons under puffy eyes. They looked thin, hungry, exhausted.
“A promise is a promise.” The man gestured. “You, there!” He shouted in the direction where Cory was standing.
“Yes. You with the Obey T-shirt. Come here, please.”
Cory felt sick to hear his feigned nicety. She understood his cause, the protest, even the madmen who advocated for the purity of the death drive. But standing in the middle of the scene, the man had sounded like a common bully, a criminal taking advantage of the weak. Perhaps it would always appear that way. The governor was in the wrong. Cory tried to remind herself of this.
“Don’t go.” Elaine squeezed Cory’s wrist.
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” Cory walked through the path the protesters had parted for her. These people were not dangerous. None of them seemed to carry any weapon, not that she could see. There was no threat at the moment, but violence was on the horizon, if there was resistance. Cory had no reason to resist.
“Tell the little girl to come with you,” the man spoke to Cory in a hushed voice.
“Hey, Virginia, want to come outside for a bit? It’s a bit too stuffy in the car, yeah?” Cory summoned her kindest voice. She wasn’t used to children and didn’t know how to act around them, except to treat them as smaller-sized adults.
Virginia nodded meekly and got out. Cory tried to send the governor comforting looks, to reassure him that Virginia would be safe, but he was too distracted. His face contracted in confusion. He seemed to be searching his options.
“Let me come with my daughter too, please,” Allen said to the man who appeared to be in charge.
“It’s not my decision.”
“What do you people want with her?” The governor was shouting desperately now.
“Get back in the car, Governor. Keep him here,” the man said to the chauffeur, who took out a shiny .22 Glock and waved its barrel at the governor. Allen had bought the gun so the chauffeur could double as both a driver and security guard.
“Why are you doing this? I treat you well! I treat you so well...” Allen said, choking on each syllable.
The chauffeur took a deep, long breath. It seemed he had been waiting a long time for this moment. “I’ve been with you for what? Eight years? You promised a wage increase after the first two. And nothing! You know perfectly” — he drawled out the word, then continued — “you know perfectly well with what you’re paying me, I can’t afford the damn medicine for my wife!” He laughed, incredulous as he replayed the memories of the past years. “And there I was, like an idiot, stealing serum for your daughter. You greedy bastard,” the chauffeur scoffed. “I’m not your idiot anymore, Governor. Get in the car!”
The man in charge turned to Cory. “Take Virginia over there. Tell that man in the gray jacket, tell him this closed our deal.”
“You can’t just kidnap a child!” Cory pleaded.
“They won’t hurt her. That’s not part of the plan. Just look at them.” The man said warmly. Somehow, Cory believed him.
The man in the gray jacket also had a gray dress shirt, cufflinks, scarf, and shoes. Cory thought the color of his skin looked gray too. He nodded to Cory and Virginia. His manners were gentle, unobtrusive.
“I’m Alexandro. Would you like to come with me and my friends, Virginia?” He smiled.
She stared at him without speaking.
“It’s only a little walk. We’ll take you back to your father very soon. We just want to show you...” He paused to look at Cory, as if he were revealing a great secret. “I can show you how to make it hurt less. Wouldn’t you like that? You won’t have to get those shots anymore. They’re no fun, are they?”
Virginia nodded, her lips thin and purple, her eyes watery. She seemed relieved to hear her illness spoken about so frankly.
Cory was suspicious of Alexandro, but his voice, his mannerisms, his whole presence commanded her trust. Still, it wasn’t possible to make it hurt less. Not without the serum.
The girl was squeezing Cory’s hand now. Virginia’s bony fingers were stiff and cold. “Come with me, please,” the girl asked Cory in a mousy, anxious voice.
Cory agreed and watched Elaine’s expression turn from shock, to fear, to annoyance, and back to shock again.
“I’m fine,” Cory reassured her friend for the second time that night, though she wasn’t at all. Part of her blamed Elaine for the outcome of the night. She wanted to go home and finish her bowl of Fruit Loops.
Then she wanted to crawl in bed and remember her father, the man who in his last stage of lung cancer had let himself be hooked up to needles and tubes and deprived of his last drop of optimism, of hope, to save Cory. It was his way of atoning for sins that weren’t sins: his love for another man, his honesty to Cory’s mother, his insistence on staying in a hopeless marriage for Cory’s sake.
* * *
Inside the harvest room, other terminally ill patients like Cory’s father sat in a row with pious resignation. They all shared a common sentiment, the fear of being a burden to their loved ones. But this final act of altruism would restore their need to feel useful, worthy. On the wall hung a poster with a quote by the psychologist Erik Erikson:
“Hope is both the earliest and most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive. If life is to be sustained, hope must remain, even where confidence is wounded, trust impaired.”
A small electric current was sent through the back of Cory’s father’s head. He was attached to needles that measured his pulse and heartbeat. Memories blossomed as if he were experiencing them for the first time.
He was a five-year-old boy again, waiting for his dog on the bench, outside the veterinary hospital. Except this time, he did not shiver in anticipation, he did not pray blindly to a god he wasn’t sure existed and promise to never be late for school again, to always eat his vegetables, if only his dog would live.
He also saw himself at nineteen, meeting his first love at a frat house party, a boy with the longest eyelashes he had ever seen. He remembered kissing those thick, brown lashes. Standing on the altar, before he said “I do” to Cory’s mother, he’d trembled at the thought that a boy he once knew would crash the wedding and take him away forever. His hopefulness had not paid off, and so he was more than willing to give it up. There it was, false hope, perfectly contained in little tubes that could save his daughter’s life. That was enough.
Every three months, Cory visited the hospital, showed the front-desk attendant a card and then was led to the bank of serum her father left behind. There was not enough for a lifetime, but his gift had bought Cory another year, another birthday.
She did not know what the future would look like once the reserves ran out. The price was rising every day. And though Cory had a good job and a comfortable life, she would not be able to afford it.
Cory did not tell Elaine any of this. She did not tell her friend that she wasn’t afraid to accompany Virginia, to follow Alexandro wherever he may lead them because Letum was not a tangible disease but a daughter’s guilt and broken heart.
Even though Cory could no longer hear the rushing of her blood, even though her father’s sustaining hope continued to course through her veins, Cory would go with Alexandro. She would find out what he meant about it hurting less.
* * *
The warehouse, around twelve hundred square feet, overlooked Harlem River. The outside walls were a grayish blue. Though the structure was large, it blended in perfectly with its surroundings. Nobody would look twice there.
“This place is completely soundproof.” Alexandro shepherded inside a small group of seven people that had broken off from the earlier protesters. “I need it. Living in the city, everything is just so loud.”
The indoor decor was warm in tone. Persian carpets lined the floor. In the middle of the ceiling hung a small, rustic chandelier.
Ignoring everyone’s eyes on him, Alexandro focused his attention on Virginia. “What calls to you, Virginia?”
The girl looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“I should be more precise. What does your death drive want you to do? I try not to use those terms. They are misleading, you see. What we have, this thing that both you and I deal with, doesn’t want us to die. That isn’t its purpose.”
Alexandro paused to ascertain that Virginia still followed his every word. “For me, it’s fire.” He unrolled his sleeve to reveal a charred arm, the skin still raw and pink.
“Depth.” Cory murmured under her breath unconsciously.
“Water,” Virginia mouthed timidly. She looked ashamed. Coming from an orthodox religious family, she’d had to deal with the contempt of a church that had no sympathy for suicidal children.
“Ah, an agent of water.” Alexandro was pleased. “I can show you, Virginia. And you can help me show America.”
Alexandro took the girl’s hand and led her to a granite bathtub in a corner of the warehouse. An oriental screen separated the tub from the rest of the place. It was already filled with water.
Cory was concerned. What did this man plan to do? It would be easier to say no to him if he were violent, but his manners were unfailingly placid. He directed the girl to lie down in the bathtub.
“Trust your drive. It just wants to be acknowledged.” He placed his hand on Virginia’s forehead to keep her submerged under water. “Naturally, this is where you need to be. Don’t fight it.”
The protesters stood behind Alexandro, watching him in reverent silence. After some time passed, Virginia convulsed slightly.
“Please, please, please.” Cory found herself repeating under her breath to no one in particular. She was selfishly hopeful for herself. Perhaps Alexandro wasn’t mad, perhaps he knew of a way to save Virginia, to save them all.
“Right before it envelops you with complete darkness, come up for air.” He pulled Virginia up with one hand behind her back to support her. The girl coughed painfully for a whole minute.
“Acknowledge. But don’t overindulge yourself, or you will die,” he said. “You’re lucky, you know. Fire is not as forgiving as water.”
“It’s enticing to stay in that calm forever, though you’re trading your life for it.” The yearning in his voice was a sad echo in that giant, soundless warehouse.
* * *
Next to the grave of a Percy Dayton was a lusciously green and unoccupied burial plot. A plot at Grace Cemetary sold from five to eight thousand dollars. Then there was monthly maintenance fee. Cory explained to Elaine about her need to be independent of the vaccine. There they now were, under the waxing crescent moon with shovels in their hands. Elaine’s pointy heels left round holes two inches deep on the cemetery path.
“Babe, are you sure? I’ve got goosebumps. But if you think this would help...” Elaine chattered nervously.
“I have to try.”
“Embrace your agent. I know.” Elaine did not look as if she understood. What kind of disease was this? Elaine had paid five thousand for Cory’s first shot. Yet it had not cured her. All these deaths everywhere, with the most abstract causes.
Together, they began digging. The deeper the better. Cory needed to be encased as far inside the earth as possible. They stopped at five feet to make sure Elaine would have enough time to get Cory out.
Lying inside her tomb, Cory’s vision muddied to a tunnel of swirling grey. Above her, the stars blinked brightly.
“All right, you ready?” Elaine leaned on the shovel.
Cory nodded. Her arms were neatly tucked by her sides. The cool earth fell on her stomach, knees, face. As her breathing slowed, an unmeasured calmness washed over her and numbed her senses. Creatures wiggled inside the crumbled dirt. Cory felt their liveliness more than ever. They slithered and crawled about noisily, indifferent to her presence. Though Cory’s eyes were closed, she could see through the soil, to the stars, to the forever rotating planets.
In the cool earth, Cory dreamt about the day of her father’s funeral. She had wanted to jump after his coffin as it was being lowered into the ground. She was not ready to see him as an unthinking, inactive mass of flesh, worthless to everyone until his body disintegrated and became food for maggots and worms. She wanted to hold onto him a little longer, to tell him that his life wasn’t false, nor his self-denial cowardly. She wanted to convince him he hadn’t wasted his last hopes on her.
* * *
After two or three minutes, Cory heard the sounds of Elaine’s scooping up the dirt. Elaine was quick. On her pointed heels, she pushed the shovel inside the earth, took out a portion of dirt, and heaved it to the side. She never stopped to take a breath.
Cory took the hand that reached out to her. Elaine was glistening with sweat. “A real friend digs you out of trouble. Literally.” Elaine wiped her face. Her forehead was streaked with dirt.
Back at her apartment, Cory went to bed with the dirt still clinging to her pores. She found sleep easily. When she woke, she did not want to get up but to lie there, to listen to the swishing sounds of her blood. She knew if she listened long enough, her body would calm and find its center where silence was absolute. But Cory also knew she would get up again. She would go to work, eat cob salads with Elaine, flirt with strangers on Saturdays.
When Cory got up from her own grave, she had felt bolder and more thirsty for life, like a cicada that had tunneled into the earth and stayed for seventeen years only to spring up again, Cory gasped for air as if it were the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted. Her lungs and chest were full and large, just as they were many years ago when her father pulled her from his car and forced life back into her.
* * *
At eight o’clock in the morning, Cory read two news articles by Kyle Adlem. “The Architecture of Hope” was published by the New York Times, “Drowning in Manhattan” by the Huffington Post. She was now certain he was the same Kyle she and Elaine had met at Central Park. Both articles were analyses of recent events: the governor’s daughter’s suicide and the deaths from overdose of over a hundred protesters at the East River, under the Manhattan Bridge.
Virginia had inhaled enough water from her shower to fill her lungs with liquid. The church refused to coordinate her funeral.
As for the protesters, their corpses were stacked together at the scene, which, according to Kyle Adlem, was an orgy of death. Empty needles were left floating on the river.
Kyle Adlem believed the protesters should have suffered much worse, for their irresponsibility, for the loss they had caused to New York City. But the protesters had died an easy death. Their lungs had been dry, their consciences guilt-free. They had been high on the vaccine, on the life and hope it had given them.
Copyright © 2014 by Abbigail N. Rosewood