DANA NEACȘU este doctor în filosofie, lector de drept la COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL, din New York, profesor adjunct la BARNARD COLLEGE – Columbia University, dar și dâmbovițeană de pe malurile Ialomiței…
Something Went Really Wrong
By Jordan Muncz
Instead of Forward
If you’re afraid of what you might learn, stop reading now – this isn’t for you. Furthermore, I have no proof. It was quick and mostly quiet and by 5AM all that was left was the sound of helicopters leaving the city. Anyone that might have heard anything, gunshots, screams, sirens, wouldn’t have gotten very far into it – internet searches yielded error messages, and there was nothing on TV but the usual: gang shootouts, potheads causing traffic jams on the GWB and Columbia University sprucing up their campus for graduation.
I’m here to tell you, the military dumped sick people into the Hudson River. Call the Pentagon and they’ll reassure you, they’ve heard the rumors, but isn’t it ridiculous? And they’re not in the business of spreading crazy rumors. The newspapers will do the same, exactly the same…
After you read what I’ve written, you…, well you might think I’m crazy, or jealous, trying to take down academia because I’m not Ivy League. I have my opinions, but that’s not what this is about. It’s just where it happened.
What this is about: people disappeared that night. I did what research I could. I called the NYPD but when I told them I had a blog, and it wasn’t the New York Times, they could neither confirm nor deny “the rumors”.
Like I told you, I can’t prove anything, but there are facts. Ollie Kun-He is missing. His father is owner of The Founding Father’s Burger Joint, where the explosion at the center of the mayhem took place. I tried contacting his parents but Ms. Kun-He’s answering machine says she’s travelling in Korea indefinitely.
So, a day that won’t live in history. The few media outlets that heard about what might have been happening didn’t run the story. Then there’s the floating head. „American Beauty” on Instagram and the story is that ISIS is claiming it. Right. They infiltrated NYC to put a hit on one guy, if you want to believe those opportunists…
Of course my book has a hero. He’s a security guard. I know his family, well, I used to know them. After what happened, when I asked for news about „Tony,” his job, his new girlfriend, my friend, his uncle, replied „Tony who.”
Finally, don’t try to find me because I’m in hiding. Anyway, it will be hard to find me because you don’t know my gender, age, not much of anything. At least I hope, because there are people looking for me who know how to look.
In my book you’ll meet an assassin. I’ve called him John Rambo, nice name, no? Doesn’t matter, what does matter is that he’s real and at large. General Pistone has a clear interest in him, as does Congresswoman Calder. This should be enough for you to understand what’s at stake for me or my future family, if I live long enough to have one.
So, how does that sound to you? A crazy person with no evidence telling you the world you live in is worse than you thought. Still, I’m writing so I have to imagine there are readers curious enough. But if that’s you, please consider this a coming of age book. Your own coming of age.
John and Ana were standing on the cliff overlooking the steep incline, and multiple playgrounds nestled at the bottom of the park’s hillside. The fog caused by the brief fall in temperature was still lingering. She was shivering. Having left her white lab coat behind, from under her short-sleeved T-shirt her bare arms became filled with goose bumps.
“You coming with me?” Ana seemed surprised but chose to skip the next questions. Instead she offered suggestions. “Times Square? Coney Island? Let’s be tourists! I’ve been waiting twenty years for this moment.”
She climbed down the rocks nimbly. John followed her keeping an eye on his pager. He did not know whether she had extracted her GPS transmitter or not, and that was going to set or not to set off his private alarm. His hand checked his beeper again. It was not vibrating.
They followed in each other’s steps, taking the popular winding paths bordered with trees barely covered in leaves. The trails passed by playgrounds and the sound of children giggling could have been easily imagined if either one of them had been so inclined.
When they reached Manhattan Avenue, they had to stop and assess the wisdom of their actions. It was so crowded it looked like a massive traffic jam.
“What’s going on?” Ana asked. “Is it always this crowded?”
John became sufficiently concerned to hold his pager.
A car on the outer lane rolled its window open. A woman of unidentified age, looking at them behind Ray Ban sunglasses took a cigarette out of the glove compartment and asked them for a light. Ana wanted to say something, but John gently went ahead and offered to light the woman’s cigarette. Ana looked surprised.
“What does it all mean?” she whispered so low that nobody else would have heard her. “We have been asked to evacuate. The military is knocking at doors sending us away. Do you know where? To New Jersey.” She started laughing and then coughing.
That was how Ana and John first heard about the order to evacuate civilians.
“No one says it but they believe there is an epidemic, like the Andromeda strain, but frighteningly too real, which causes people to go insane.” She continued. John approached her and looked her closely.
“Would you like to go insane with me, Mr.?” She asked. “I would like to die with someone next to me, even if I have to end up like that floating head,” she inadvertently added.
“Don’t worry,” John added “ma’am” when the light of the cigarette made her complexion visible. He noticed it had lost its flexibility around her now colorless lips covered in a strident red in a hurry. She shook her head as quietly as she spoke and pulled up the window.
John took his phone out and started searching the Internet. He handed it to Ana when he thought he had found what he’s searching for. Ana’s face whitened.
“How did this happen? I cannot leave. We have to call Pistone.”
“Shall we jog?” John gently pushed her ahead; his way to tell her they needed to run but in an inconspicuous way.
Ana started walking fast through the maddening honking and whistling and cursing and just about every type of human interaction. There was very little to say if they wanted to stay alive.
A few cars ahead, the occupant of the dead man’s seat made eye contact with them through the rear side mirror: A mistake, if he wanted to get Ana. He looked the part of the obvious drunkard, a cowboy showing off to his driver’s companion what he could do.
“What are you folks doing? Cruising for victims?” the cowboy said. He looked weird for New York City, but not for John and Ana who were unused to the city’s fashion. The wiry assailant wore jeans and cowboy boots, with a checkered shirt covered by a much used denim jacket.
“Back to your car! Back” he continued and his voice reached screaming levels. “Back or…” he stopped searching for the appropriate threatening words suited to express his strength and will to produce that result. “I’ll flatten you into a pancake,” he added and his companion laughed. He was a man in his early 40s with a mouth full of rotten teeth, laughing at the cowboy’s wit.
Ana decided to reply when she noticed the badly camouflaged rifle standing between the seats handy to be picked up by any of them. She finally looked ahead. They had lost the fear of being stopped by the police and asked about their arms and whatever permit they might or might not have. It was a modular AR carbine, a Colt, the arm of choice for war veterans. They seemed to be in a barely controlled state of senseless, tipsy rage when a man did not know what he said.
“Kind..ly, let us pass,” John carefully chose his words stretching in such a way, without moving his hands but making his T shirt sleeves move up so the cowboy could see his army tattoo USMC 0331, as if he were a Nazi camps survivor. Ana saw his move in the car lights. The driver recognized the tattoo, and the recognition worked magic.
“Mike, let them go,” he called at his buddy. The cowboy looked back confused and following his buddy’s chin move discovered John’s tattoo too. He nodded and let them go by.
“Good night,” Ana said and quietly went ahead. A baby crying being shushed by his mother was taking over her attention.
“Did you call Pistone?”
“Did he contact you?”
“So who is giving the orders here?”
“I don’t know.”
“With 17.5 miles of corridors and a total floor area of 6.6 million square feet, the Pentagon is a military complex like no other,” General Pistone liked to tell himself every time he entered the building. This was the only place where he enjoyed smiling at people randomly. He liked them all. They were his brethren.
But this morning did not start well. He arrived before 3AM. Surrounded by three minions he went into his office, easily identifiable by the pictures of him shaking hands and smiling with various presidents and their wives at different points in his personal history. They seemed duplicates of the pictures hanging on his bedroom walls.
When the door was closed, the four of them sat down and General Pistone started screaming at the two people sitting right next to him at the table. Further away from the two high ranked officers, a man and a woman, a quiet stenographer was ready to either start crying or taking shorthand.
“I was on line instead of sleeping. Thankfully someone was paying attention. That’s how the head floating in the Columbia dormitory bathtub made it on my screen.”
The general stood up and paced up and down his sumptuous corner office.
“I work with morons.” He looked at them, and they returned the stare. “Sue me for being rude.”
“General, sir, the situation is under control. FAST2 members have been deployed,” Colonel Florence Meat, as her tag indicated, interrupted him.
“I have to wake up my staff to tell them that we have a situation at our M.A.R.T.F. site? Why does the government pay you if I do your job?”
“Not now Colonel. It is our job to shield the world from psychopaths and we let them loose. How did this happen?”
Everybody was silent.
“Why haven’t we killed those fucking plague-ridden creatures?”
“Stop calling them that. This is not Hollywood. They are not zombies. Zombies do not exist. These are highly contagious cannibalistic humanoids. I want them all exterminated. When any hospital identifies them, give the order to exterminate them!”
“The lead scientist has insisted that she could manage their behavior and reduce their cannibalistic tendencies. She needs them to study the effect of bacteria-virus hybridization.”
Pistone was looking out the window. He stopped pacing. General Brigadier Cornelius Babel, as his tag stated, gathered his courage and added to what the Colonel said:
“Dr. Vodă has been able to use a cocktail of medicines to sublimate some of the somatic and behavioral changes which afflict the people infested with a cannibalized pestis DNA, so the cannibalization is delayed. She increased their survival from a couple of days to almost 40 days.”
“Bullshit. The lead scientist is fucking with us. Contagious psychopaths are contagious psychopaths, and having them around for 40 days is crazier than anything I have heard. I want them exterminated. NOW!”
“General, she discovered that in uterus, the cannibalized pestis DNA eats up the anterior cortex of the fetus atrophying it and destroying its empathy centers. Most such infected newborns don’t survive. Those who do are the real psychopaths, but under her supervision they adapt.” the colonel could not stop eulogizing Ana.
“Colonel, I know you vote with the pussy league. Is that why you take her side? Colonel, I don’t give a shit who you fuck, just don’t try to sell me bullshit. This lead scientist is terminated.”
The general continued his pacing up and down.
“What’s the prognosis?”
No one dared to reply.
“People, are you both deaf and incompetent? What is the prognosis? What are we facing there?”
“They are very contagious. Doctor Vodă reported a few years back that one could easily infect one hundred people in a few hours, and 75% of that population could survive long enough to infest others with the same potential. Basically, 75% of those 75 people could infest one hundred each in another hour, so within two hours there are 6075 infested people who could each infest 100 additional people in the next hour, so we can easily talk about 80 million people having been infested by now from only one of them.
Barely containing himself Pistone asked:
“How many are missing?”
The General went to his desk. Unlocking a drawer he took out a cigar. Everybody was worried. Last time he tried to burn them with a cigar.
“All, but most of them were on their last legs.” Babel smiled. “No more than ten.”
Pistone opened his mouth to ask about what he was afraid to ask. He checked his pager. John had not replied yet.
“Let’s clean the pigsty,” the general uttered his words in pain. He did not have any news from John. Somehow he remembered that he never contacted John. He told him he needed to be at the Waldorf at 7 AM to pick up Congresswoman Calder.
“That’s standard protocol. FAST2 are one their way. They should arrive within minutes. They will check the compound and then close it down. The campus will be evacuated and then the isomer applied.”
“What happened with the alarm? Why did it not work?”
“We are working on that General. It could have been that we made it too sensitive to certain sound waves, and a nearby explosion destroyed some sensors,” the Colonel explains.
Pistone looks happy. He was ready to dismiss them.
“What about Dr. Vodă, Sir?” the Colonel finally asked.
“What about that cunt, Colonel?”
“Her GPS is non-responsive.”
“She’s a liability.”
“For the love of Christ, what do you want me to say?”
“Find her. Dead or alive,” Babel added.
Pistone was amazed how wrong he had read his subalterns. They were going for the kill.
“Let’s try to find her alive. I want to talk with her. Now all of you go,” he dismissed everybody and whispered to the stenographer.
“We don’t need any of those notes transcribed, you do understand, yes?”
She nodded in tears and he slapped her on her back. Lower back.
Tony and Lena managed to walk ahead, whatever that meant underground with no sense of direction, when a door barely ajar appeared ahead. Bright light can be seen coming out. They looked inside and noticed a rather spacious spotless tunnel.
“Ever seen Star Wars?”
“Yes and no.”
“How is that possible?”
“I went with Tom to see one of them but I fell asleep.”
“Actually, I meant to say the opposite. Someone has tried hard to recreate the vibe and failed.” Tony turned off his lantern. He kept the door open for Lena to go in first.
“Uh, whatever you say. It is brightly painted in white and shining.” She slipped and fell down. She smelt her fingers. “Smell.”
“Freshly cleaned I might add. Have you ever been in Paris?”
“Is that a diner?”
“No, Dorothy. I don’t mean Paris, Kansas.”
“I thought it was Paris, Texas?”
“Let it be. It’s hard to communicate with you,” Lena stood up and went along the tunnel until another door left ajar guided their steps. Tony followed shortly.
They found themselves in the middle of an immense room which could have been used both as a gym, and recreation center. It had a basketball court, track and all the equipment any college gym would have, including rowing machines and treadmills and steppers.
“I have never found exercising of any use,” Tony commented moving fast from one machine to another, “but I cannot say I do not admire muscular men.” He sat down on a rowing machine and pretended to row and watched his moves in the various mirrors.
“If our attacker escaped from here, because I believe he did, then we should be ready to find whoever uses this space.”
Tony moved to the weights section and attempted to lift one. He could not.
Lena lifted her finger to her lips with a librarian’s elegance, “Shhhh, you are making too much noise. How do we know we are alone here?”
He went to the bars trying to pull his body up. He failed. He saw his puny himself in the mirror. He gave up and followed the willowy figure of Lena.
“I have a strong feeling we are alone. Maybe the open door and the escaped guy, gal or whatever that creature was gave it away.”
“So what’s the plan? What shall we do?”
“I don’t know. I will lie down. I am wiped out. Exercising on an empty stomach is not the best idea.”
“Let’s find the kitchen. Every gymnasium comes with a kitchen nearby.”
“I won’t trust anything served on these premises. What do I know about Impalers? Maybe they get sick by eating stuff they should not touch.”
Tony lay down on a yoga mattress and invited Lena to join him. She nodded in approval and lay down next to him. While overcome byfatigue, they found themselves staring at the ceiling.
A slide show was being projected on the ceiling. Instead of the Sistine Chapel, a more historically inclined and less talented Michelangelo decided to put together a slide show of how a particular geographical area had been transformed through time. Mesmerized, Lena and Tony forgot to breath. They had missed the first slides. Then, luckily the next slide was from the present. They recognized the Low Library building and La Maison Française.
“That’s St Luke’s Hospital,” Tony added. Then, superimposed they saw a picture of another building whose frontispiece said “Bloomingdale Asylum for the Mentally Insane,” with people hoarded in a corner replacing Low Library, and then another picture of a smaller building identified as an Orphanage filed with pauper children replacing La Maison Francaise. A picture of an old farmhouse with a banner ‘Jones’ Farm,’ replaced St. Luke’s Hospital.
They stayed still while the slides went by a few times. When nothing helped them comprehend what was going on they turned on their sides to stand up. Doing so they saw the banner reading „The Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane” was affixed right above the entrance they used to come in.
“If this is a joke with a remote connection to the past, then we find ourselves in an asylum built right beneath Low Library.”
“I don’t know I could call what I see here a joke.”
“This is no Asylum.”
“No, but where Low Library exists, there used to be an Asylum. Actually, I have a feeling that I have already researched it. Here it is.”
Tony started reciting while walking along the gymnasium, but Lena soon took over. She was reading from a book which she found lying down next to the rowing machine Tony attempted to use minutes earlier.
“The military started its underground complex when the Asylum cover-up could not continue any longer: the real estate the so-called Asylum occupied was now pressured to be repositioned. As soon as the military project moved underground, Columbia University’s President Seth Low was encouraged to bid on the property and easily won it. He was also encouraged to have a massive building erected on top of the military project, so while differently, the smokescreen would continue. Low happily donated $1 million and the Low Library building resembled the Acropolis in Athens and the space around it, Piazza Navona in Rome. Visitors felt welcomed to access the campus through a low flight of stairs which run along 116th street. That open court became an inviting public space in which the academic community and the general public mingled, shared marble benches, lingered by the fountains and sometimes disappeared unobserved.”
Lena and Tony eyed each other.
“Tony, what do you know about this place?”
“I don’t know anything more than what I have just read about it.”
“Tony, how can we get out of here? I am feeling very uncomfortable.”
Tony checked his phone.
“No coverage. Bummers.”
“Hey, look at those doors. We need to find out if any of them lead to the outside world.”
Lena took the lead and moved closer to the closest door. It had a sign which said: „Site Director. Knock before you enter, and leave the door open.” Something else had once been written under “Site Director.” They could make up a “dr.”
“Shall we start with the management?” They looked at each other and nodded. “After you, my lady,” Tony pushed the door and made space for Lena to get in.
It was an apartment rather than an office as they had expected. They noticed the sofa and a huge book shelf. Near it there stood a small bar with a bottle of sherry, almost full. Lena opened the bottle and took a sip.
“Sorry I really need it. Would you like a sip?”
“No, I do not drink, and yes, I live with mom, and yes to the next question and the following.” Tony added to his prohibited and permitted list, approaching Lena and taking the bottle out of her hand. He took a large gulp.
“It’s tasty for something absolutely disgusting.”
“Hey, no disrespectful comments. We are guests here.” Lena half joked.
Tony took another gulp while Lena moved next to the book shelf. She noticed another copy of the book she just read from earlier, „The History of Columbia University”. The book seemed to have been read a lot; its spine stuck out. Lena took it out of the shelf and let it open wherever it had been most often opened.
It showed a picture of the Bloomingdale Asylum for theInsane, built to house widows of the Revolutionary War. On the next page there was a another building The Leake andWatts Orphan Asylum for Children whose lives had been destroyed by the same war. She started reading aloud:
“During the 18th century, people became aware that the war produced a lot of victims. Some were still alive and needed to be separated from the population at large. They could not be controlled. They were beyond help by church and charities. Even prisons proved inadequate: they spread disease and then insanely killed others. Local New York luminaries arranged for the private funding and constructions of such buildings: one for adults and one for minors. Eventually the New York State Legislature started to fund it promoting the advanced idea of caring for the mentally insane in a humane way, and incorporating nature as much as possible in their treatment.”
She stopped and looked for Tony. He was sitting down on the sofa with his eyes closed.
“Are you asleep?”
“I should be, but I’m not. Could you please continue reading? I have this feeling of déjà vu all over again”
“Little development occurred to change the region’s rural character or threaten the isolation of the two asylum buildings. In fact, a shantytown was soon encouraged to encroach as a way of discouraging urban developers’ having an interest in the area. All would have continued undisturbed within the 19th century, had not two institutions decided to move into that area: Columbia University under the presidency of Seth Low, an ambitious rich man immune to blackmail and extortion, and the Anglican Church.”
“Stop. That’s it. That’s the reason the military project moved underground. It needed privacy, and as I guessed, the only privacy modern times offer is underground. Do you remember “The Little Prince?” Dad loved to read it to me. Essentials are only visible with the heart, not with the eyes, be them even in 3D Glasses, Miss Vodă. I would append that by saying that we imagine first and then we see. We cannot see what we cannot imagine.”
“You are a poet, my friend. May I call you that?” Tony nodded in fake embarrassment. “But what is going on here?” Lena wandered as she moved to the other room.
“Something scary which needed to be kept away from any inquisitive eyes?”
She looked back smilingly.
“You’re crazy in a very inventive way. I think I like you.”
“Do you notice something weird?”
“No. In this apartment. Look around. It offers no clue about the person inhabiting it. No pictures. No dirty dishes. No dirty towels.”
She moved to the bathroom. Tony followed her. Nothing in the bathroom. Spotless.
“I really need some privacy.” He closed the door behind him. Lena excused herself and went back to the bedroom. She looked under the pillow. He appeared next to her.
“Do you expect to find what?”
“I don’t know. I had this weird recall of my mom telling me to always put my pajamas well folded under the pillow.”
As she uttered the words, Lena looked under the pillow only to find nothing. She kept searching. She looked in the drawer under the bed. She found a few identical pairs of jeans and various Tee shirts. One was a large size and had a picture of the president and vice president, „Vote 4 Donald Rumsfeld 4 President and Mathew Pistone 4 Vice President.” She threw that shirt to Tony. He caught it, read it, made a grimace and threw it back to her.
Lena chose one of the black jeans and a Teeshirt. She smelled them. Channel 5. She took off her Gucci gown and her broken tights. She looked at the size of the jeans. 27. She put them on. They fit her perfectly. Tony was staring at her beautiful back. His glasses suddenly fogged and needed to be clean. He could not care less. He kept on staring. Lena’s was the first naked back he had ever seen.
All done, she turned and saw him. She smiled indulgently. He did not catch that. He was finally cleaning his glasses.
“Now, shoes. Would you help me find some?”
They both looked around. Tired they sat down. At that point they finally noticed the cameras blinking.
“We have been under surveillance. Let’s leave.” Tony stood up to go.
“Not us. Whoever lived here had been under surveillance. But she did not seem to care. She entertained.”
“The man size T-Shirt I gave you.”
“How do you know she is a she?”
“I am wearing her clothes, female clothes.” Lena continued looking for shoes. She found a few pairs of identical flats under a drawer of more folded jeans. She slipped into a pair. They fit her perfectly.
“Cinderella, come, what if WE are being watched, too? Or, I should say, we do not have too much time before those who watch us get us, too.”
“If we have, then we have been watched from the beginning, and we are still alive although whoever keeps this place could have exterminated us fast.”
“Maybe we were just lucky. What if something went really wrong if they’re all gone and we are inside?”
Lena neatly folded her Gucci gown and ragged tights and put them in a drawer behind the other clothes. She put a lot of effort in making everything as neat as possible denoting a lack of habit. Tony smiled imagining her messy surroundings as she pushed back the drawer. She grabbed her bag and was ready to leave. Her chin was up and her entire face was smiling.
“Okay, so let’s follow the directions.”
Tony looked pensively for a minute. “You don’t mean the exit direction?”
“There must be one even if we cannot see it right now.”
Ana was shivering walking slightly ahead. John, having changed his clothes after their earlier interlude, had the presence of mind to wear a sweater on top of a freshly washed Tee. Comfortable, he was worrying about his pager being quiet. Luckily, a diner’s big sign illuminated the next block and they hurried towards it. They looked inside as they approached the door to appraise the clientele, when they recognized a patron. It was“Aaron from the Bronx.” Ana stopped. The window was cracked open to let the smoke come out.
“Do you have a cigarette to go with that silver lighter?” She whispered to John. “I have not smoked in twenty years, but I have a feeling it will calm me down if I had one now.”
John took a Marlboro package out of some pocket, opened it and handed it to her.
“I carry one,” John answered her unasked question and unhappy with the implied clarity of his answer added, “Just in case.”
Watching Aaron through the window Ana felt a pang of maternal feelings for him. She remembered his file. An orphan, he lived from foster home to foster home. When he finally found a foster family who could afford having him permanently, their apartment collapsed when an explosion caused the entire building at Park Avenue and 130th street to fall slowly but completely to the Manhattan ground. Ana inhaled and she almost coughed. John covered her mouth. His hands were sweaty too. She was full with emotion and anticipation. What did John feel? She looked furtively at his profile. She had changed so much since John came into her life. When her coughing spasm was gone, John let her breathe and took her cigarette away and put it out with his foot.
“It’s not for you.” Ana nodded with embarrassment. What else would she discovered was not for her? Did she have time for that? Slowly, slowly was dawning upon her that Pistone might soon contact John to terminate her. Would he do it?
Inside the diner Aaron had ordered a burger and the waitress slapped down a smudge-marked glass of water, and a cheeseburger plate that looked more like a shrunken head on a serving platter than an edible meat patty. He looked at her and nodded. She looked away.
Aside from him there were three other people sitting at a table. One guy was staring at him. The girl was texting with her head on the shoulder of the other guy who was wearing dark sunglasses. The guy who was staring at Aaron bent his head and kissed the girl on her mouth and filled her breast with his dirty hands, still looking at Aaron. She giggled.
“Dough-boy, want a piece of the action?” The guy with the sunglasses screamed at Aaron loud enough John and Ana heard it. Outside the window, they made eye contact wondering whether that was their clue to go in.
“Shall we?” John asked. Ana shook her head “no.”
“He might have been the artist behind that floating head you saw on the Internet.”
“John, the time has come for Aaron to live on his own. He may kill today, but maybe the threshold of frustration would just become a little higher and enable him to survive. Let help him if he needs us. For now let’s keep watching.”
Aaron was chewing his burger avoiding eye contact. He was chewing it very slowly.
“Hey Dough-boy, you know you want these tits on your face,” the guy with the sunglasses continued. The girl giggled without stopping her doing whatever she was doing with her phone.
Aaron looked for the waitress. She had disappeared. Probably in the bathroom.
He took a menu left on the table and read it. It turned out he wanted to know the price of the burger. He took a $20 bill and went to the counter. He pressed the bell. No one came. Eventually the cook came out. He gave the bill to the cook, an oily guy with an earring and a bandana on his head.
“Okay,” the cook nodded and disappeared to his greasy grill where he was frying bacon, eggs and a toast.
“American breakfast does smell good. Can we go in and order some fried eggs and bacon?”
“Not yet,” Ana replied without moving. “I assume they serve breakfast all day and all night.”
When his change arrived, Aaron took it, tipped and aimed for the door. He passed by the table and suddenly stopped. Aaron lifted his hand and looked at it. Blood was coming out. The sunglass guy was smiling with a knife in his hand.
“Got you attention, Dough-Boy?” He had time to say before Aaron pulled him up by his collar to straighten him up in his chair and still mesmerized by the thin cut, without looking at the hoodlum, Aaron pulled the guy’s head backwards until its vertebrae snapped on the back of the chair. Without looking behind, Aaron left the diner and passed by a livid Ana, ignoring her.
The young woman started making out with the other guy. Probably they found death arousing. John hugged a quietly sobbing Ana. Was this the prelude to her own vertebrae being snapped, Ana could not stop wondering.
Tony and Lena finally exited the space labeled “The Asylum.”
“Definitely less insane,” Tony smiled. Lena returned the smile and took his hand out of his pocket and held it in hers. Tony shivered but did not take it away.
They were back in the white spotless tunnel and two yards into it the white walls were covered with blinking colorful lights.
“What’s going on?”
“A show of light and sound.”
“But there is no sound.” Lena stopped. She looked ill.
“Sorry to bring it to you: the doctor is not in.”
“Funny. I need a few minutes. It comes and goes.”
“What comes and goes.”
“What’s going on? Is this a joke? You came here on your own will, knowing that you are claustrophobic? Are you that crazy?”
Lena squatted and folded her arms on her knees and put her head on her arms.
“Okay.” Tony sat down next to her.
“How can I help?”
“Talk to me.”
“How did it happen?”
“I was five. It was the last time I saw mom and grandpa. Grandpa brought us to these ruins. He said they were our castle. It was 1995. July 14, 1995.”
“Bastille Day. What better way to celebrate it than in a ruined castle?”
“As a five-year old kid I thought giant bats came over the ruins and sprayed a white rain. They came closer and from their giant tummies giant insects climbed down a rope. One such giant insect approached me. I was crying next to my mom and grandpa. Mom was only looking around but could not move, while grandpa looked asleep. The insect came to me on its two heavy legs wearing what later I understood were army boots. Its face was that of a giant fly. It looked at me. It was holding a can and when it opened it, smoke covered everything.
My insect gently put its hand under my very heavy head. I was lying down. Mom closed her eyes. Another insect took mom away. I closed them too. It was all dark and instead of insects and bats, pigeons started fluttering above my bead. I could hear their soft, complacent call, so comfortable and cool on a hot summer’s afternoon.
I woke up in our apartment, in Bucharest. Next to me was grandpa’s secretary, Ms. Pop. I tried to minimize her by calling her Ms. Pop, here goes the weasel. It did not help. She was the bearer of the bad news. She told me that my parents died in a car accident on our way back from Poienari Castle, but I should not worry about anything, that everything would be okay. I wouldn’t go to an orphanage because she knew I would be a good girl, and she would take care of me, and she did.”
Lena stopped as abruptly as she started. “All better now. Thanks for staying. Let’s go.” Tony knew better than make a comment about how weird her confession sounded. He followed her content they were back on track.
The lights were changing with increased frequency.
“Shall we run?” Lena suggested and took Tony’s hand running. Only a few yards ahead of them they saw a door starting to close. Above the door it says, “Jones’ Farm.” Tony pushed Lena ahead. She got in and turned. Tony’s glasses flew off his nose and he instinctively stopped to search for them. Lena fast blocked the door from closing with her body. Tony grabbed his glasses and ran in. The door closed. Water was heard hitting the door.
“We reached the end of the yellow brick road.” Both said forgetting about the close escape. Laughingly and perhaps embarrassed to say “jinx,” they missed the water retreating behind. As they were walking away, the door started to opendue to a system malfunction.
“All these YA literary references are remarkable in light of the fact that you have not grown up here, in the U.S. I am impressed. You must read a lot.”
They were walking around a circular hallway. There were door openings all along the smaller wall.
“Who says I’ve grown up? Look at the mess I am in searching for dad.”
“Dad? I thought it was Knowlton and Sam you were, oh…okay.”
“You confused me again.”
“Not for long.”
They put their head through the doorway and looked. They saw another banner with a name on it: “Bobby.” The room had another opening, smaller on the opposite wall which was also circular and like a pistil connected all the dormitory rooms.
“This is so strange.”
“These rooms. They are like a hybrid between jail and hospital rooms.”
Tony had to admit they looked strange. Inside they noticed a nailed-in metal toilet, a bed which could become a surgical table, a sink with not visible faucets, more like a place to disgorge; a dumbwaiter, and in the back a two-way mirror and a passage to the central room, probably the Laboratory.
“And to think this is called ‘Jones’ Farm,’” Lena thought aloud and stepped into Bobby’s room, all white, spotless and brightly lit.
“Like the Asylum we visited earlier.”
“You know what? There was a Nicholas Jones’ farm above the ground right here during the Revolutionary War. It started north of McGowan’s Pass occupying part of today’s northern end of Central Park. It contained a buckwheat field. It extended from today’s 106th street to 110th and then it ended with and orchard, brush and woods at today’s 116th Street and Broadway, then Boston Post Road.”
“It sounds very informative. So we know that the Government likes history. But something else must have happened in Jones’ Farm to keep its name alive, don’t you think so?”
“Beats me,” Tony replied going ahead of her through the partition separating the dormitory room from the central room, the Laboratory. “Until tonight I thought I was the most imaginative historical fiction writer, but obviously am not. My most believed superhero, Vlad,used contagious sick people as soldiers, and what we found here seems to be some very sick people too. So, what if during the Revolutionary war Jones’ Farm saw some special mercenaries, some contagiously sick people? I’m improvising here, but everything I have imagined pales compared to what I fear this place has housed. I imagined Vlad’s soldiers as highly contagious zombies. But, I never thought about their life span. How long do zombies live? And that seems to be their main deficiency: each individual cannot survive too long.”
Tony stopped and slapped his forehead. “I got it, what if this is a nursery of sorts where Impalers, or whatever we saw is called, live?”
“It sounds interesting. I should do some reading about Jones’ Farm, so I can understand the military nostalgia form commemorating the place. Not bad guess work. Let’s search Farm Central, then,” Lena said starting her investigation.
The Laboratory looked like a lab they both saw in
many sci-fi movies, except it did not have the heavy doors which clang shut heavily and sealed with a hissing sound airtight were missing.
“No heavy doors in this secret lab, though I do detect a peculiar odor, a faint woodsy smell of disinfectant.”
“No steam room to have your body covered in god knows what, either.”
“I cannot find any drying rooms.”
“Could it be because the only people who needed disinfectants lived outside?” Tony joked and Lena approached him. Tony retreated to a slightly scared state of mind which caused his stomach to rumble and his glasses to fog up. Holding her stare he backed up until a desk located in the middle of the room stopped his retreat. His hand quickly found a tissue box. He took one out and desperately cleaned his glasses. He tumbled onto the seat and restrained by the desk he put his glasses back on his nose. He turned on the desk top. The screen was so bright. He loved that cold electronic light.
“No holographic keyboard here.”
Lena cataloged the furniture pieces pensively and very slowly. There were cabinets filled with tubes where various cultures were taking their time.
“It’s not easy to decipher secrets seems to be the motto of this place,” Lena thought when started she could control the tremulous in her voice.
“Hey, take a look! I have not seen such a Pinguicula vulgaris since mom …let’s say for ages.”
Tony came closer.
“Are you making this memory up?” Tony said approaching and trying to touch the plant.
“Don’t touch it! It would pinch you,” Lena slapped his fingers.
“A carnivorous plant reminds you of your mother?”
“Better than nothing.”
Tony chose to go back to the desk instead of making any additional comment. While she was mesmerized with the plants, Tony started playing with the buttons on the desk.
“Is that wise?”
“Don’t worry. I am not banging on buttons which look carnivorous,” Tony had time to say, when a bang was heard, and simultaneously some containers slammed open and shut.
“What the hell,” Lena said and ran back into Bobby’s room.
“Gross.” She was staring at human organs lying inside dumb waiters as if they were someone’s dinner. “Tony, dinner has been served,” she said running to a sink to vomit. “Help!” she added and collapsed. “Help please,” she could whisper before collapsing. Her 1995 vision revisited her.
She became the 5-year old Lena, who saw her mother being taken away while closing her eyes as if pushing the vision of baby Lena away. Lena had never forgiven her mother for having closed her eyes in that moment of existential panic. Why didn’t her mother keep looking at her child? Why didn’t her mother fight back her oppressor to save her baby child? Why did her mom reject her and then abandon her to the piggish Ms. Pop, her grandfather’s mistress?
“Why mom?” Lena heard herself scream with the mouth full of vomit. Angry at her own impotence, Lena turned on the faucet and washed her face and hair. Thinking she could stand up she leaned against the sink only to face the daily schedule affixed above the sink:
- Wake up – 6 AM
- Toilet and Exercising – 6:10-6:30 AM
- Reading or story telling 6:30-7:30 AM
“Story telling” sent Lena again to nightmare land. Soon after she had arrived at Columbia University, still mesmerized by the revolutionary change in her life, a mere high school graduate form some unknown high school in Bucharest, she received a letter. It was the last everMs. Pop wrote. That missive furtherchanged her life, as improbably as it seemed.
It took me a long time to decide whether I would mail you this letter or not. I had promised your late grandfather I would never talk to you about the past. You were supposed to know that you survived a car accident.
I have a feeling that something is amiss. I have the same feeling I had thirteen years ago when I lost your grandfather. So, here I am writing to you to tell you that you come from illustrious parents, and you are destined to go places, my child. Whatever else you might hear about your mother, remember that she was supposed to receive the Nobel Prize in medicine the year of her death.
No one knows this, but before your apartment was ransacked and her journal stolen, I was able to read some of her entries. She talked about curing the “living dead” at the Municipal Hospital. I did not understand what she was saying about DNA sequencing, but I learned from her journal that your father was not her dear husband, Vlad, whom she loved very much, but a colleague of hers. I want you to know that your mother wrote Dr. David Soare as your father. That is terrible news because your grandfather was fighting him for the Poienari Castle. David is the descendant of Vlad III the Impaler, and the Poienari Castle had originally been his, not his brother’s Radu, your mother’s ancestor.
I hear a car approaching the house. I better go downstairs and ask Ms. Cora, my neighbor to mail it to you.
When she stopped recalling the letter, Lena started whaling. She collapsed on the floor all curled up as a little baby. Why did her nightmare revisit her twice today in this horrid place? What was she doing here? She wanted to go home to her mamma, but she had no mom.
“Tony!” She whaled a few times. “I cannot breathe.”
“Stop the nonsense. You’re fine. Try to find me.”
Lena stopped and listened to her heartbeat until it became clear that it was normal. She uncurled her body and sat up normally. She looked ahead but did not see him. She noticed more space in the lab though.
“Can’t see you. Where did you go?”
“Look down. I’m deeper.”
“In your thoughts?”
“There too. I’m serious. Look down the hole.”
Lena approached the middle of the room and looked into the hole created by the desk and the chair, which she noticed one flight down.
“A storage room of some sort. I don’t know what they grow here. It is quite cold.”
“Open a cabinet.”
“I’m highly impressionable.”
“It goes away in time, I am told.” Ana smiled and added, “But it also tends to come back,”
Tony opened a drawer. More cultured tissue in various tubes. Some containers were bigger than others.
“Could this be a cloning center?”
“You watching ‘Black Orphan’?”
“Hold on, there are some scientific papers here. They are signed. Oh, no, it cannot be. Come down. You won’t believe your eyes. Lena?”
Lena could not hear the last part. The lights around started blinking and Lena pressed against her ears.
“Tony, I cannot take this noise, what is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come down, I don’t hear anything here.” Tony went to the desktop and typed a name in the password. It worked. “Lena, come down. You won’t believe your eyes.” The screen saver was a ruined castle. On the lower right bottom it said: Castle Poienari. “Lena, are you coming? Have you heard of Castle Poienari?”
Lena tumbled down.
“That is where Vlad’s last battle against his
Muslim convert brother Radu Bey took place.”
“Exactly. I am writing about it, and you mentioned that as the place you last saw your mother, correct?”
“Yes,” she admitted having reached him. “Tony, something went really wrong with this place. My ears are bleeding pain. I don’t know what you are talking about, but I have a strong feeling we have to leave. Please, we need to hurry. Another claustrophobic attack is making its way through my current anxiety and when it hits me, I will be catatonic. Damn it, if I only could get in touch with my therapist! Please, help me get out of here.”
“Lena, calm down and please sit down.” He noticed a pair of headphone and handed it to her.“Take them and cover your ears.
Lena obliged. “Look, I am logging out. Now, you try to log in this computer.”
“Tony? This is childish. How on earth would I know the password?”
“Try your name.”
“Are you crazy? Why would my name be the password?”
“Because this is your mom’s lab. Remember when you told me you are not Dr. Vodă, not yet, because that was Dr. Ana Vodă? Look at this.” Tony slammed a research paper signed “Dr. Ana Vodă” in front of Lena. Lena, her ear pain gone, typed her name in the password box. She got in. The screen saver was Poienari.
The alarm’s sound intensified. Tony could hear it too.
“We are being locked in.” He said.
Lena fished something from her bag. It was a flash drive. She quickly saved the contents of the computer.
The walls were making the space around them smaller by the second. Their 3D rectangular space was aiming for a two-dimensional recreation.
“Tony, I’m scared.” She took he drive and put it back into her bag.
“Lena, hold on. We just found your mom. We need time to celebrate. It would be stupid to die now. So, let’s think fast. There must be an exit somewhere. Your mother must have used it not long ago. Think Lena. Think like her.”
“A switch. I remember her room. She liked having a switch for everything.”
They were seeking nervously and banged on every single switch, until they found one under the desk. They were saved. The last book shelf remaining on the opposite wall collapsed when Tony touched that single purple switch. As they threw themselves through the collapsing wall they found themselves back into a dark dirty tunnel. Lena lost her headphones in her rush to fly over the shelf.
“Could you please turn on your lantern?”
“I don’t have it.”
“What are you carrying in your left hand then?”
“Let me walk ignorant of my surroundings.
“Give me the lantern, please. I want us out of here.”
Tony turned on the lantern. In front of them another open door was clothing.
“It seems that we came right before the grand closing, doesn’t it?”
They both ran. Lena was grateful for her flats. Tony pushed her outside and through himself out. Cool air and a breeze welcomed them.