Something in the lab smelled like nectarine jam. I looked up from the industrial autoclave, frowning as I sniffed the air. Unusual smells aren’t a good thing when you work in a high-security bio lab. No matter how pleasant the odor may seem, it indicates a deviance from the norm, and deviance is what gets people killed.
I straightened. “Hello?”
“Sorry, Megan.” The round, smiling face of one of my co-workers—Henry, from the Eden Project—poked around the wall separating the autoclave area from the rest of the lab. His hand followed, holding a paper plate groaning under the weight of a large wedge of, yes, nectarine pie. “We were just enjoying some of Johnny’s harvest.”
I eyed the pie dubiously. Eating food that we had engineered always struck me as vaguely unhygienic. “Johnny baked that?”
“Johnny baked it, and Johnny grew it,” Henry said, beaming. “The first orchard seeded with our Eden test subjects has been bearing good fruit. You want a slice?”
“I’ll pass,” I said. Realizing that I was standing on the border of outright rudeness, I plastered a smile across my face and added, “Rachel’s planning something big for tonight’s dinner. She told me to bring my appetite.”
Henry nodded, his own smile fading. It was clear he didn’t believe my excuse. It was just as clear that he would let me have it. “Well, we’re sorry if our festivities disturbed you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I gestured to the autoclave. “I need to unpack this before I head out.”
“Sure, Megan,” he said. “Have a nice evening, okay?” He withdrew, vanishing around the cubicle wall and leaving me comfortably alone. I let out a slow breath, trying to recover the sense of serenity I’d had before strange smells and coworkers disrupted my task. It wasn’t easy, but I’d had plenty of practice at finding my center. Less than thirty seconds later, I was unpacking hot, sterile glassware and getting my side of the lab ready for the challenges of tomorrow.
Project Eden was a side venture of the biotech firm where I, Henry, and several hundred others were employed. Only twenty-three scientists, technicians, and managers were appended to the project, including me, the internal safety monitor. It was my job to make sure the big brains didn’t destroy the world in their rush toward a hardier, easier to grow peach, or an apple that didn’t rot quite so quickly after it had been picked. On an official level, I was testing the air and lab surfaces for a committee-mandated parts per million of potential contaminants. On an unofficial level, I spent a lot of time sterilizing glassware, wiping down surfaces, and ordering new gloves, goggles, and lab coats.
It was work that could have been done by someone with half my education and a quarter of my training, but the pay was good, and it gave me an outlet for the compulsions that had kept me out of field biology. Besides, the hours were great. I didn’t mind being a glorified monkey if it meant I got to work in a good, clean lab, doing work that would genuinely better the world while still allowing me to quit by four on Fridays.
The team was still celebrating and eating pie when I finished putting the glassware away and left for the locker room. I hadn’t been kidding about Rachel telling me to save my appetite. It had been a long day, and I wanted nothing more than to spend an even longer night with my wife and daughter.
• • • •
Rachel was in her studio when I got home. She had a gallery show coming up and was hard at work on the pastels and impressionistic still lifes that were her bread and butter. I knocked on the wall to let her know I was there and kept walking toward the kitchen. It was her night to cook—that part was true—but that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little snack before dinner. The farmers’ market was held on Tuesday afternoons. I had worked late Tuesday night, but I knew Rachel and Nikki had gone shopping, and Rachel had the best eye for produce. Whatever she’d brought home would be delicious.
The fruit bowl was in its customary place on the counter. I turned toward it, and froze. A thick layer of grayish fuzz covered its contents, turning them from a classicist’s ideal still life into something out of a horror movie. “Rachel!” I shouted, not moving. It was like the information my brain had was too jarring to fully process. It would take time for all of me to get the message. “There’s something wrong with the fruit!”
“You don’t have to shout, I’m right here.” My wife stomped into the kitchen, wiping her hands on the dishtowel she’d been using to clean her paintbrushes between watercolor overlays. She had a smudge of bright pink dust on one cheek, making her look like a little girl who’d been experimenting with her mother’s cosmetics. I fell in love with her all over again when I saw that perfect imperfection.
That was the best thing about being married to my best friend, as I’d been telling people for the past fifteen years: I got to fall in love with her every day, and no one ever thought I was being weird. Sometimes normalcy is the most precious gift of all.
I didn’t get the chance to tell Rachel about the fruit. Her eyes followed my position to its logical trajectory. It was almost a relief when she recoiled the same way I had, her upper lip curling upward in atavistic disgust. “What did you do?” She turned toward me, scowling. “This was all fresh when we brought it home yesterday.”
I blinked at her. “What do you mean, what did I do?” I asked, feeling obscurely offended. “I can’t make fruit go off just by looking at it.”
“Well, then, did you bring something home from the lab?” She stabbed her finger at the gray-washed contents of the bowl. “This isn’t right. I examined this fruit myself. There was nothing wrong with it.”
“You got this from the farmers’ market, right?” She was right about the age of the fruit: I remembered her bringing it home and dumping it into the bowl, and it had looked fine then. I’d even been thinking about how nice those peaches would taste with some sharp cheddar cheese and a bottle of artisanal hard cider. I wouldn’t have done that for moldy fruit. I wouldn’t have made it to the office without sterilizing the entire room.
Rachel frowned. “Yes, we did.”
“There you go.” I picked up the whole bowl, holding it gingerly to avoid any contact with the gray scum, and walked it over to the trash can. The decay had progressed far enough that the bowl’s contents made an unpleasant squishing noise when I dumped them out. I wrinkled my nose and put it in the sink, resisting the urge to toss it into the trash with the fruit instead. “Something went bad and set off a chain reaction.”
Rachel wasn’t listening. She wrinkled her nose at the place where the bowl had been sitting, and before I could say anything, she ran her finger through the circle of gray fluff marking its footprint. “This crap is on the table, too. We’re going to need disinfectant.”
“I’ll disinfect the table,” I said, swallowing a jolt of panic. “Go wash your hands.”
Rachel frowned. “Honey, are you having an attack?”
“No.” Yes. “But this stuff reduced a bowl of fruit to sludge in less than eighteen hours. That doesn’t make me feel good about you getting it on your hands.” I glared at the gray circle. Rachel’s finger had cut a clean line through it, showing the tile beneath. “Please. For my sake.”
“Megan, you’re scaring me.”
“Good. Then you’ll use extra soap.”
“You’re such a worrywart,” she said, a note of affectionate exasperation in her voice. She kissed my cheek and was gone, flouncing back into the hall, leaving me alone with the faint scent of rotten fruit.
I looked at the circle for a moment longer, and then turned to the sink. I was going to need a lot of hot water.
• • • •
Fungus is the great equalizer.
We give bacteria a lot of credit, and to be fair, life as we know it does depend on the tiny building blocks of bacteria. They allow us to digest food, recover from infections, and eventually begin the process of decaying back into the environment. But the truly heavy lifting of the decaying process comes from fungus. Fungus belongs to its own kingdom, separate from animals and vegetables, all around us and yet virtually ignored, because it’s not as flashy or exciting as a cat, dog, or Venus flytrap.
There are proteins in mushrooms that are almost identical to the ones found in mammalian flesh. That means that every vegetarian who eats mushrooms instead of meat is coming closer than they would ever dream to their bloody hunter’s roots. With so many things we’ve cataloged but don’t understand, how many things are there that we don’t know yet? How many mysteries does the kingdom of the fungus hold?
Rachel—after washing her hands to my satisfaction—had gone to pick up our daughter from cheerleading practice. Nikki was in the middle of one of her “dealing with either one of my mothers is embarrassing enough, I cannot handle them both” phases, which would normally have aggravated me. Tonight, I took it as a blessing. Having them both out of the house made it easier for me to go through the kitchen and systematically bleach, disinfect, and scrub every surface the fruit might have touched to within an inch of its life.
Rachel’s immediate “what did you do” response wasn’t unjustified. I worked in a lab full of biotech and geniuses, after all; it wasn’t unreasonable to blame me when something went awry. But that was why I was always so careful. Didn’t she see that? Nothing from the lab ever entered our home. I threw away two pairs of shoes every month, just to cut down the risk that I would track something from a supposedly clean room into our meticulously clean home. Whatever this stuff was, it couldn’t be connected to Project Eden. It just didn’t make any sense.
When I was done scrubbing down the counters I threw the sponges I’d used into the trash on top of the moldy mess that had been a bowl of nectarines and apples—the mold had continued to grow, and was even clinging to the plastic sides of the bag—and hauled the whole thing outside to the garbage bin.
I was on my knees on the kitchen floor, going through my third soap cycle, when Rachel and Nikki came banging through the front door, both shouting greetings that tangled together enough to become gloriously unintelligible, like an alphabet soup made of my favorite letters. “In here!” I called, and continued scrubbing at the linoleum like I’d get a prize when I was finished. I would, in a way. I would get the ability to sleep that night.
Footsteps. I looked up to find them standing in the kitchen doorway, and smiled my best “no, really, it’s all right, this isn’t an episode, it’s just a brief moment of irrational cleanliness” smile. It was an expression I’d had a lot of practice wearing. The elbow-length rubber gloves and hospital scrubs probably didn’t help. “Hi, guys. How was practice?”
Nikki frowned, which was almost a relief. There had been a lot of eye-rolling and stomping lately, which wasn’t fun for anyone except for maybe her, and I wasn’t even certain about that. Having a teenager was definitely a daily exercise in patience. “Mom, why are you scrubbing the kitchen floor? It’s not Thursday.”
I’d been braced for the question. I still cringed when it was actually asked. There was a weight of quiet betrayal behind it—nights when I’d missed my medication without realizing it and wouldn’t let her eat until I’d measured every strand of dry spaghetti and placed it in a pot of boiling, previously bottled water; days spent searching through the women’s department at Target for the only bras that had no structural or cosmetic flaws. Years of living with my OCD had left her gun-shy in a way neither Rachel nor I could have predicted when we decided to have a baby.
Nikki looked so much like me at her age, too. That was part of the terror. Nikki was sixteen, and that was roughly the age I’d been when my symptoms had really begun to solidify. Had she managed to dodge the bullet of her genetics, or was she going to start washing the skin off of her hands any day now? No one knew. No one had any way of knowing.
“Remember I told you about the fruit from the farmers’ market going off?” asked Rachel, coming to my rescue as she had so many times before. “That mold was nasty. It needed to be cleaned up before we’d be able to cook in here again.”
Nikki glanced to the trash can, which was so clean it gleamed. “All this over a little mold?”
“It wasn’t a little mold,” I said. I was starting to feel like I should have taken a picture of the trash before taking it outside. That stuff had been growing at a rate that made me frankly uncomfortable, and for more reasons than just my OCD. I might be obsessed with cleanliness, but that didn’t make me immune to the allure of a scientific mystery. Mold that grew at that kind of rate was mysterious to be sure.
If it were legal to burn trash in our neighborhood, I would have already been looking for the matches.
“Uck,” said Nikki: her final word on the matter. She backed out of the doorway and announced, “I’ll be in my room,” then turned to prance away, flipping her hair theatrically. Rachel watched her go, waiting until the characteristic sound of a door being slammed confirmed Nikki’s retreat to her room. Only then did Rachel turn back to me, rolling her eyes. I managed to stifle my laughter.
“You’re where she gets the stomping around and slamming doors, you know,” I accused, resuming my scrubbing. “My little drama queens.”
“I had to contribute something,” Rachel said. There was a worried note in her voice. I glanced up to see her leaning in the doorway, arms folded, frowning as she watched me. “Honey . . . is this really about the mold? You can tell me if you’re having a bad night. I just need to know.”
I shook my head and went back to work. “I’m fine, honestly. I took my medication, and I’m not having trouble breathing.” Asthma-like symptoms were often my first warning of a serious attack. “I just really didn’t like the looks of that mold, and I don’t want to risk it being carried through the house on our shoes. I already scrubbed down the table and the trash can.”
“Mmm-hmm.” From Rachel’s tone, I could tell that she was debating whether or not to believe me. “What about the fridge?”
The smell of the bleach was soothing. I kept scrubbing. “The fruit never went into the fridge. I did a basic check for mold or signs of spoilage, found none, and left it alone. You can check if you want, as soon as I’m done with the floor.”
“I will, you know.”
“I know.” I dropped the sponge into my bowl of sudsy water and stood, stripping off my gloves. I threw them into the trash and turned to find Rachel still looking at me with concern. I offered her a tired smile. “I’m sort of counting on it. What do you want to do for dinner?”
“How do you feel about spaghetti?” The question was neutral enough, but I understood its intent. Spaghetti was one of my triggers, and had been since Nikki was a baby. If I could tolerate irregular pasta, I wasn’t having an attack.
“Spaghetti sounds great,” I said. “Do you want me to go get some tomatoes from the garden?”
“That would be wonderful.”
“Be right back.” I stepped out of the kitchen, my bare feet feeling slightly tacky from the bleach, and kissed her cheek before starting for the back door. The floor was clean. The mold was gone. It was a beautiful evening, and it was going to be an even more beautiful night.
• • • •
Rachel’s spaghetti was, as always, fantastic. She had a real gift with the sauce, managing to combine basic ingredients in a way that was nothing short of magic to me. I could work up complex solutions in the lab, I could synthesize impossible things, but ask me to brown some ground turkey and I was lost. Even Nikki, who had been making vague noises about watching her weight—worrisome, given how slim she was and how often OCD was connected to eating disorders—ate a serving and a half.
Dessert would have been a fruit tart, had everything gone as planned. In the absence of the fruit, we had ice cream—pear sorbet for me, Ben and Jerry’s coffee with chunks for Rachel and Nikki—while we talked about our days. As always, Nikki was happy to listen to Rachel talk about painting, and began interrupting with facts about her own infinitely interesting life as soon as I started talking about what I’d been working on back at the lab. I thought about getting offended, and settled for smiling and stealing half of Nikki’s ice cream while she was distracted. Rachel’s job was more interesting to hear described: she created art, something that could be seen and touched and immediately understood without years of education and practical experience. All things being equal, I’d rather hear about Rachel’s job, too.
All in all, it was a pretty peaceful night at home. No, that’s not right. Once I shut away the dread that still lingered in the pit of my stomach over the gray mold in the kitchen, it became a perfect night. It was just flawed enough to be real, and so real I wanted to repeat it over and over again for the rest of my life. If I could have had that night a hundred times, I would have been able to die a happy woman.
That’s the trouble with perfect nights: No matter how good they are, you only ever get to live them once.
It was a work night for me and a school night for Nikki, and both of us were in bed by ten. Rachel joined me an hour or so later. I woke up when she pressed a kiss into the hollow of my throat, her lips practically burning my skin. She snuggled close, and we both dropped down into dreamland, where everything was safe and warm and nothing could ever hurt us, or change our perfect little world.
I woke to the sound of Rachel whispering my name, over and over again. “Megan,” she said, her voice tight with some arcane worry. “Megan, wake up, please, I need you to wake up now. Please.” It was the panic in that final plea that did me in, yanking me straight through the layers of sleep and back into our bedroom. There was a strange, dusty scent in the air, like something left in the back of an airless room for a long time without being disturbed.
“Rachel?” I sat upright, reaching for the lamp on my side of the bed. Light would make things better. Monsters didn’t thrive in the light.
“No! Don’t turn it on.” The panic that had woken me was even stronger now. “Megan, I . . . I need you to take Nikki and go next door. Call the paramedics when you get there, but don’t turn on the light.”
“What?” I squinted into the darkness. Rachel was sitting on the far edge of the bed. I could see her silhouette in the light coming through the open bathroom door. “Honey, what’s wrong? Did you hurt yourself? Let me see.”
“Oh, no.” She laughed, but the panic wasn’t gone. It laced through her laughter, turning it jagged and toxic. My heartbeat slowed for a moment, and then sped up as my own panic bloomed. “You don’t want to see, Megan, all right? You don’t want to see, and I don’t want you to see, so please, just go. Get Nikki and go.”
“I’m not going to do that. Honey, what’s wrong?” And then, God help me, I turned on the light.
Rachel was wearing her favorite nightgown, the blue satin one with the popped and faded lace flowers around the neckline. Her back was to me and her hair was loose, hanging to hide her face from view. As I watched, she sighed so deeply that her entire body seemed to sag, the delicate tracery of her spine pressing hard against her skin.
“I should have known you’d turn on the light,” she said, and twisted to face me.
I didn’t gasp or recoil. I wish, looking back, that I could say I’d been a better person than that, but the truth is that I was too stunned to do anything but stare silently, trying to make sense of the single gray mitten that she had pulled over her left hand, or the patch of pale gray felt that she had glued to the corner of her left eye. Then she blinked at me, and the strands of mold clinging to her eyelashes wavered in the breeze, and my denial snapped like a broken branch, leaving me holding nothing but splinters. Before I knew it, I was standing with my back against the wall, as far from her as I could get without actually fleeing the room.
Now I understood the dry, dusty smell. It wasn’t old paper or a forgotten library book. It was mold, living, flourishing mold, feasting on the body of my wife.
My throat was a desert. It didn’t help that Rachel—my beautiful Rachel, who should have been the one panicking, if either one of us was going to—was looking at me with perfect understanding, like she hadn’t expected any other reaction, yet still couldn’t blame me for following the nature she’d always known I was slave to. She blinked again, and I realized to my horror that the sclera of her left eye was slightly clouded, like something was beginning to block the vitreous humor. Something like the spreading gray mold.
“I must have had a cut on my hand,” she said. “I thought I’d scrubbed hard enough, but I guess I was wrong. And then I rubbed my eye in my sleep . . . maybe that’s a good thing. The itching woke me up. So we can go to the hospital and they can do whatever it is you do when you get a . . . a fungal infection, and then it’ll all be okay. Right? I just have to go to the hospital. Right?” There was a fragile edge to her words, like she was standing very close to the place where reason dropped away, leaving only a yawning chasm of blackness underneath.
She looked so sad. My girl. My wife. The woman I had promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, amen. And I couldn’t make myself go to her. I tried—no one will ever know how hard I tried—but the muscles in my legs refused to work, and the air in my lungs refused to circulate until I was stepping backward into the doorway, away from the dry, dusty smell of mold growing on human flesh.
“I’ll call the hospital,” I said, and fled for the hall.
• • • •
Nikki woke when the ambulance pulled to a stop in front of our house, flashing lights painting everything they touched bloody red. “Mom?” She appeared on the stairs, holding her robe shut with one hand and squinting through the curtain of her hair. “What’s going on?”
I forced myself to smile at her. The EMTs already had Rachel outside. They’d taken one look at her and swung into action with a speed that impressed even me, producing gloves and sterile masks and anything else they could use to keep themselves from coming into contact with her skin. Even then they’d touched her as little as possible, guiding her with words, not hands, casting anxious looks at each other and then back at me as they moved. I understood their concern, but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t even force myself to follow them. The dry mold smell filled our bedroom, almost solid in its presence. I wanted to bleach the whole place, would have bleached the whole place, except that I knew Rachel’s treatment might depend on being able to examine the spot where she’d been infected.
“Rachel’s not feeling so well,” I said. “I’m going to follow her to the hospital as soon as they call and tell me it’s all right. I was going to come up and make sure that you were awake before I went.”
Nikki’s eyes got very wide and round. “You’re going to leave me here?”
“No, I’m going to ask Mrs. Levine from next door to keep an eye on you.” I didn’t want to leave her alone in the house, but even more, I didn’t want to take her to the hospital. Not until we knew what the thing on Rachel’s arm was, and whether it was contagious.
It had to be contagious. It had been on the fruit, and then it had been on the table, and Rachel had touched the residue on the table; just touched it, nothing more than that. If this stuff wasn’t contagious, she had been exposed at the same time as the fruit, and Nikki—
Sudden terror seized me. “Honey,” I said, fighting to keep my voice level, “are you feeling all right?”
Nikki’s eyes got even wider. “Why? Is it food poisoning? My stomach feels fine.”
“No, it’s not food poisoning. Hold on.” I flicked on the light, illuminating the hall and stairs in a harsh white glow. Nikki squinted at me, looking affronted. I would worry about her sensibilities later. “Show me your hands.”
“Show me your hands.” I was using the tone Rachel always called “OCD voice”—and she wasn’t kidding, exactly, even if she used the label to soften my admittedly violent reactions, turning them into something that wouldn’t frighten people who weren’t as used to me as she was.
Nikki had grown up with my quirks and issues. She stopped arguing and held her hands out for me to inspect. They were spotlessly clean, with short, close-clipped fingernails that had been manicured with a simple clear coat. Most importantly, there was no mold on them. I swallowed the urge to tell her to disrobe, to prove that she wasn’t infected. Things weren’t that bad. Things weren’t going to get that bad. I wouldn’t let them. I couldn’t help her if I let them. I had to hold onto control with both hands, because if I lost it—
If I lost it, I was going to lose everything. For the first time in my life, the sense of impending doom that followed me around might actually have weight.
“Mom, what’s going on?” Her voice shook a little as she pulled her robe tight around herself once more. “Where are they taking Rachel?”
“I told you. To the hospital.” I turned to look at the front door, and then at the open door to our bedroom. “Go upstairs. You can get online if you want, but I don’t want you down here until I’ve cleaned up a little.” Any mold that was in our bedroom could stay; I could sleep on the couch. But the kitchen? The dining room? My fingers itched, and I rubbed them together to reassure myself that it was just the urge to clean, and not a sign of contamination.
“Okay,” said Nikki meekly, and turned and fled back to her room, where she could barricade the door against me and my insatiable need to scrub the world.
Rachel’s hand. Rachel’s beautiful, delicate hand. Completely obscured by clinging gray.
I turned and walked straight for the closet where we kept the bleach.
• • • •
The hospital called a little after five a.m., four hours after they had loaded Rachel into the back of an ambulance and left me alone with a contaminated house and a teenage daughter who refused to come out of her room. The gray mold had been growing on Rachel’s latest picture, almost obscured by the pastel loops and swirls. I’d stopped when I found it, standing and staring transfixed at the delicate swirls it cut through the color. There was something strangely beautiful about it. It was hardy, and alive, and finding sustenance wherever it could. Even in pastels.
It was eating the last thing my wife had touched before she came to bed and woke me up pleading for help. I had thrown the picture in the trash and was in the process of bleaching the studio walls when the phone rang. My gloves were covered in bleach. I answered anyway. I didn’t trust the receiver. “Hello?”
“May I speak to Megan Riley?”
“Speaking.” It felt like my insides had been bleached along with the walls. Please don’t be calling to tell me that she’s gone, I prayed. Please, please, don’t be calling to tell me that she’s gone.
“Your wife, Rachel Riley, was admitted shortly after one o’clock this morning. She’s resting comfortably, but I have some questions for you about her condition.”
Relief washed the bleach away. “So she’s all right?”
There was an uncomfortable pause. “I don’t want to mislead you, Ms. Riley. Her condition is very serious. Anything you can tell us would be a great help.”
I closed my eyes. “She came into contact with a strange gray mold that was growing on some fruit in our kitchen around five o’clock yesterday afternoon. She woke me up shortly after one with the same mold growing on her hand and eye. Judging by how advanced it was, I would estimate that it had been growing since the afternoon, and had only reached a visible stage after she went to bed. She said that it itched.”
“Have you, or has anyone else in your home, come into contact with this mold?”
Yes. I’ve been chasing it through my house, murdering as much of it as I can find. “No, although I’ve poured a lot of bleach on it,” I said. “My teenage daughter is here with me. She hasn’t touched any of the mold, and she’s clean. I didn’t sterilize our bedroom. I thought you might need to examine some of the stuff growing in a relatively natural way.”
There was a pause before the doctor asked, “Do you have anyone who can look after your daughter for a short time, Ms. Riley? You may want to come to the hospital.”
“Is Rachel all right?”
“Her condition is stable for the moment.”
We exchanged pleasantries after that, but I didn’t really hear or understand them. When the doctor ended the call I hung up, opening my eyes and leaning against the counter with all my weight on the heels of my hands. My gaze fell on the sink, and on the fruit bowl, which I had scrubbed until my hands were raw before going to bed the night before.
A thick layer of gray mold was growing in the bottom.
• • • •
I relaxed as soon as Nikki and I stepped into the cool, disinfectant-scented lobby of the hospital. Nothing could take away from the sense of cleanliness that pervaded this place, not even the people sitting in the chairs nearest to the admission window, waiting for their turn to see the doctor.
Nikki was wearing her robe over a pair of jeans and a pilled sweatshirt that she should have thrown away at the end of the winter. It swam on her petite frame, making her look smaller and even more fragile. I resisted the urge to put an arm around her, offending her teenage pride and making her reject me. Instead, I walked to the open window, waited for the receptionist to acknowledge me, and said, “Megan and Nikki Riley. We’re here to see Rachel Riley?”
Her eyes went wide with comprehension and something that looked like fear. “Please wait here,” she said, before standing and vanishing behind the dividing wall. I stepped back, rubbing my chapped hands together and wishing I didn’t feel quite so exposed. Something was wrong. I knew it.
Nikki and I turned to the sound of our last name. A door had opened behind us, and a doctor was standing there, looking weary and worried, wearing booties and a plastic hair cap in addition to the expected lab coat and scrubs. I stepped forward.
“I’m Megan Riley,” I said.
“Good. I’m Dr. Oshiro. This must be Nicole.” He offered Nikki a tired, vaguely impersonal smile. “There are some snack machines at the end of the corridor, Nicole, if you’d like to go and get something to eat while your mother and I—”
“No.” She grabbed my hand, holding on with surprising force. “I want to see Rachel.”
The doctor looked at me, apparently expecting support. I shook my head. “I told her she could stay home if she wanted to.” Although not in the house, dear God, not in the house; not when mold could grow on a ceramic bowl that had already been bleached and boiled. We’d have to burn the place to the ground before I’d be willing to go back there, and even then, I would probably have avoided contact with the ashes. “She said she wanted to see her mother, and I try to accommodate her wishes.”
The doctor hesitated again, taking in the obvious physical similarities between Nikki and I, and comparing them to dark-skinned, dark-haired Rachel, who couldn’t have looked less like Nikki’s biological mother if she’d tried. Family is a complicated thing. Finally, he said, “I don’t want to discuss Ms. Riley’s condition in public. If you would please come with me . . . ?”
We went with him. For once, I didn’t feel like the people still waiting were watching with envy as I walked away: they had to know what it meant when someone arrived and was seen this quickly. Nothing good ever got you past the gatekeeper in less than half an hour.
The air on the other side of the door was even cooler, and even cleaner. The doctor walked us over to a small waiting area, guiding Nikki to a seat before pulling me a few feet away. Neither of us argued. We were both in shock, to some degree, and cooperation seemed easier than the alternative.
Voice low, he said, “Ms. Riley’s condition is complicated. We have been unable to isolate the fungal infection. To be honest, we’ve never seen anything this virulent outside of laboratory conditions. We’ve managed to stabilize her, and she’s not in much pain, but the fungus has devoured the majority of her left arm, and patches are beginning to appear elsewhere on her body. Barring a miracle, I am afraid that we will have no good news for you here.”
I stared at him. “Say that again.”
Dr. Oshiro visibly quailed. “Ms. Riley . . .”
“Outside of lab conditions, you said. Is this the sort of thing you’ve seen inside lab conditions?”
He hesitated before saying, “Not this, exactly, but there have been some more virulent strains of candida—the fungus responsible for yeast infections—that have been recorded as behaving in a similar manner under the right conditions. They had all been modified for specific purposes, of course. They didn’t just happen.”
“No,” I said numbly. “Things like this don’t just happen. Excuse me. Is there somewhere around here where I can go to make a phone call?”
“The nurse’s station—”
“Thank you.” And I turned and walked away, ignoring Nikki’s small, confused call of “Mom?” at my receding back.
I just kept walking.
• • • •
The phone at the lab rang and rang; no one answered. I hung up and dialed again: Henry’s home number. He picked up on the second ring, sounding groggy and confused. “Hello?”
“What did you do?” I struggled to make the question sound mild, even conversational, like it wasn’t the end of the world waiting to happen.
“Megan?” Henry was waking up rapidly. Good. I needed him awake. “What are you talking about?”
“What did you do?” All efforts at mildness were gone, abandoned as fast as I had adopted them. “How much fruit is Johnny’s orchard producing? Where have you been sending it?”
And then, to my dismay and rage, Henry laughed. “Oh my God, is that what this is about? You figured it out, and now you want to yell at me for breaking some lab protocol? It can wait until morning.”
“No it can’t.”
Henry wasn’t my teenage daughter: he’d never heard me use that tone before. He went silent, although I could still hear him breathing.
“What did you do? How did you slip her the fruit?” I was a fool. I should have realized as soon as I saw the mold . . . but maybe I hadn’t wanted to, on some level. I’d already known that it was too late.
God help me, I’d wanted my last perfect night.
“Maria from reception. We had her meet your wife in the parking lot and say she’d bought too many peaches. It was going to get you to come around to our way of thinking, but Megan, the fruit is safe, I promise you—”
“Have there been any issues with contamination of the samples? Mold or fungus or anything like that?”
There was a long pause before Henry said, “That’s classified.”
“What kind of mold, Henry?”
“How fast does it grow?”
“Does it grow on living flesh?”
Silence. Then, in a small, strained voice, Henry said, “Oh, God.”
“Did it get out? Did something get loose in the orchard? Who decided testing genetically engineered food on human subjects was a good idea? No, wait, don’t tell me, because I don’t care. How do I kill it, Henry? You made it. How do I kill it?”
“It’s a strain of Rhizopus nigricans—bread mold,” said Henry. “We’ve been trying to eliminate it for weeks. I . . . we thought we had it under control. We didn’t tell you because we thought we had it under control. We didn’t want to trigger one of your episodes.”
“How kind of you,” I said flatly. “How do I kill it?”
His voice was even smaller when he replied, “Fire. Nothing else we’ve found does any good.”
“No anti-fungals? No poisons? Nothing?”
He was silent. I closed my eyes.
“Who decided to give it to my wife?”
“I did.” His voice was so small I could barely hear it. “Megan, I—”
“You’ve killed her. You’ve killed my wife. She’s melting off her own bones. You may have killed us all. Enjoy your pie.” I hung up the phone and opened my eyes, staring bleakly at the wall for a long moment before realizing that the nurses whose station I’d borrowed were staring at me, mingled expressions of horror and confusion on their faces.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “Maybe you should go home now. Be with your families.” There wasn’t much else left for them to do. For any of us to do.
• • • •
Rachel was in a private room, with a plastic airlock between her and the outside world. “The CDC is on their way,” said Dr. Oshiro, watching me and Nikki. Anything to avoid looking at Rachel. “They should be here within the day.”
“Good,” I said. It wasn’t going to help. Not unless they were ready to burn this city to the ground. But it would make the doctors feel like they were doing something, and it was best to die feeling like you might still have a chance.
The bed in Rachel’s room was occupied, but where my wife should have been there was a softly mounded gray thing, devoid of hard lines or distinguishing features. Worst of all, it moved from time to time, shifting just enough that a lock of glossy black hair or a single large brown eye—the right eye, all she had left—would come into view, rising out of the gray like a rumor of the promised land. Nikki’s hand tightened on mine every time that happened, small whimpers that belonged to a much younger child escaping her throat. I couldn’t offer her any real comfort, but I could at least not pull away. It was the only thing I had to give her. I could at least not pull away.
The doctors moved around the thing that had been Rachel, taking samples, checking displays. They were all wearing protective gear—gloves, booties, breathing masks—but it wasn’t going to be enough. This stuff was manmade and meant to survive under any conditions imaginable. They were dancing in the fire, and they were going to get burnt.
All the steps I’d taken to keep my family safe. All the food I’d thrown away, the laundry I’d done twice, the midnight trips to the doctor and the visits from the exterminator and the vaccinations and the pleas . . . it had all been for nothing. The agent of our destruction had grown in the lab where I worked, the lab I’d chosen because it let me channel my impulses into something that felt useful. I hadn’t even known it was coming, because people had been protecting me from it in order to protect themselves from me. This was all my fault.
Dr. Oshiro was saying something. I wasn’t listening anymore. One of the nurses in Rachel’s room had just turned around, revealing the small patch of gray fuzz growing on the back of his knee. The others would spot it soon. That didn’t matter. The edges told me that it had grown outward, eating through his scrubs, rather than inward, seeking flesh. The flesh was already infected. The burning had begun.
“Mom?” Nikki pulled against my hand, and I realized I was walking away, pulling her with me, away from this house of horrors, toward the outside world, where maybe—if we were quick, if we were careful—we still stood a chance of getting out alive. Nikki was all I had left to worry about.
Rachel, I’m sorry, I thought, and broke into a run.