by Talia Santopadre
The disease, known as Compound X, started a few months ago and affected my family almost immediately with the loss of my mother. Since the day she got sick, our lone source of income is the money I get from the Coalition, a renegade group of researchers fighting to find a cure. At the time, the only option was to let the disease overtake you, or to take pills to get the job done faster. My mother chose the pills. She didn’t have faith in the Union to find a treatment in time, let alone a cure, and she didn’t want us watching her turn from our mother into something that was no longer human. We didn’t know then what I suspect to be true now: The Union was behind this. Everyone knew it when they started stepping in to take over, claiming that they would protect us from Compound X more than our current governments.
The Coalition started in a treatment center, where I was working to administer the pills to the infected who’d chosen their fate before their minds turned to mush. While working late one night, I caught someone sneaking off with samples of the disease and found out that there was a group of scientists testing it in hopes of finding a cure. I begged to become part of it, vowing to provide the Coalition with samples as they became available to me. They agreed, and I got the chance I was hoping for––to stop the disease that took my mother from me. Since I joined the Coalition, we’ve been able to find treatments that prolong the inevitable, but we’re not sure a cure will ever be found.
No one really knows quite what Compound X is, but we all understand that once you’re infected, you don’t have much time left. We don’t know how or where it started, everything about its origins remains a mystery thanks to the Union. At this time, all known files have been sealed for “protective” reasons. Once it started though, the disease spread more rapidly than any member of the Coalition had ever seen an illness spread. Bodies started to pile up after only a few weeks, and we had no where to put them. The smell of rotting, burning flesh was always in the air, and I suspected would be for a long time.
The best that the remaining researchers in the Coalition–seven, including myself, from an original team of sixty–can guess is that the disease is a mix of things, but those who start asking questions of their peers about the more violent symptoms disappear quickly. We’ve been able to discover hints of leprosy, in the chemical makeup of Compound X, but what we can’t explain is how that got mixed with so many other diseases to create one so lethal. Whatever created this, whether nature or human, knew what it would do to the population. I personally believe that the Union is behind it, everyone in the Coalition does. It doesn’t seem plausible that something like this would spontaneously appear in nature. It was designed to kill.
It didn’t take long for a state of emergency to be declared worldwide, but it was too late. The disease had taken hold and the population was dropping quickly. That we knew of, there were sixty of us left that were skilled enough to stop it. No one stayed alive long enough to govern, and if they did somehow live, they quickly lost their minds and were moved into quarantine. The Union had found a way to isolate themselves from Compound X, so when governments began to fall, branches of the Union took over, stepping in to rule in their place. The Union was funded by the rich, and benefited them as well. Very few wealthy individuals contracted the disease from the limited records that we stole and kept in the treatment facility. It is because of these files that the Coalition believes that the Union is seeking to wipe out the population. We don’t know why they would want this, but it seems like Compound X’s spread was originally concentrated to areas below the poverty line, but its mutations have reached into more middle class neighborhoods, destroying whole cities.
Most people who were infected died within two or three weeks, longer if they were lucky enough to get treatments, but these participants were selected at random because we couldn’t produce the volume to treat everyone, especially with our staff dwindling. Those who received the treatments, however, knew they weren’t strong enough to delay the inevitable for long. The particularly challenging part is the rate at which the disease mutates, because every time we get close to a cure, it reverts to a treatment when a new symptom or strain has risen. By the time we discover one thing about it, it’s already changed on us again.
Of course we know the symptoms of Compound X, but that’s all we had to go off of for the treatments. We could treat them as they appeared, but we couldn’t stop the mutations. Once we found a solution for the mania, a new form would arise. Once we found a treatment to stop the flesh eating components, new strains would appear. Treatments prolonged the inevitable, but if you were getting them, you were hoping that the Coalition would find a cure before the disease killed you. However, once you’re infected, you become a shell of yourself, even with the treatments your mind begins to deteriorate at speeds that researchers in the Coalition had never seen before. Now, after 7 months, the population of the world has decreased to approximately 15% of its original number. The mutations seem to be less rapid, which is a good thing for the Coalition. We might actually be getting close to a cure, if we haven’t found one already. We have multiple treatments in testing as cures right now, and they seem to be working for the time being, but every other treatment we have tried has worked for a week or so, and then Compound X has taken over our patients’ bodies at triple the original speed, causing rapid deterioration of the mind and body in a strange phenomenon we have yet to understand.
In joining the Coalition, I became consumed by my research to find a cure. I knew I would be the one to do it, and I was close. Closer than the six other researchers who remained. Of course we shared ideas, but I had to keep my major advancements secret, until I knew they worked. I had more stakes in a cure than everyone else.
I took a deep breath and exhaled into my hands, rubbing them together. It was cold for November. I walked under the dimly lit street lights on my way home from work, thinking about the hell-hole I was walking back to. My fourteen year old brother, in bed, pain coursing through his body; each breath he takes is one closer to death. He was infected a month ago through an attack while he was outside. He managed to get away from his attacker, but they still managed to scratch him, causing his infection. I didn’t want to take treatments out of the facility because I feared getting caught breaking the randomized rules of our participant selection process, but I knew I had to try to keep him alive. He was all I had left.
I wanted to stop thinking about it; how pretty soon I was going to be the only one left if I couldn’t cure Trevor. I knew he did not have much time without a cure, but part of me was holding out hope that the treatments I smuggled back were helping more than we knew. I knew this wasn’t the case though, because the last treatment didn’t work like the previous one had. Compound X was mutating, even if the treatments slowed it down, I needed to work faster and longer. Trevor was fine with being a test subject if it meant he got to live, but I was afraid to give him anything more than a treatment without knowledge of the cure working; I also knew I was running out of time. I knew from the start that the treatments weren’t a cure, but I hoped that it would miraculously cure him anyway, so I wouldn’t be alone watching myself unravel. Part of me wanted to run, run and never look back. Knowing he was going to die soon drained me so much it hurt; it made it hard to keep going, knowing that one day I might come home to him, laying in his bedroom lifeless, having died alone. No one should die alone.
The wind blew then, cold air piercing my skin, shocking me back to reality. I shook the thought from my head and looked around.
“Shit.” I whispered under my breath, wrapping my jacket tighter to me. I wouldn’t be able to stay out in the cold much longer, and I still had a little ways to go until I got home. I knew I needed to get home, and I thought about running because it would have been faster, but I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I needed to stick to the shadows and stay quiet if I was going to make it home without being noticed. I picked up my pace and continued into the darkness.
My dad had left way before Compound X, so it was only me, mom, and Trevor. I had promised my mother, as I watched her take her last breath, that I would take care of him, and I could barely even do that. It was my job to protect him and I let him down; I let her down. Thinking about it sent a pang of sadness through my heart that then radiated through my body. Wiping the tears from my eyes with the back of my hand, I coughed, afraid for a moment I had drawn attention to my existence, however, the street seemed to be empty still. I put my head down and kept moving.
I kept walking down the road, getting antsy at the speed I was forced to walk at to avoid making too much noise. I looked up at the sky, because I liked to think that’s where my mother was, “please,” I silently whispered to her, “please don’t let me be too late.”
I continued walking, careful to stick to the sides of the road, using the overgrown foliage as a cover. I stopped at the top of South Storrow Street and peeked around the corner. There was only one working street light left and it was too dim to see anything. This was the most dangerous section of my commute, but it was the only way for me to get home from work. The other routes were just too dangerous, due to the fact that they had more hiding places for the diseased to linger. I knew that I needed to be extra careful considering the drop in temperature. We learned in our preliminary treatments that heat seemed to calm the infected down, which surprised us, because that’s not usually the case with any diseases we have seen, however, that meant that we also knew that cold temperatures can make the infected even more violent.
With that thought in the back of my mind, I took a deep breath and walked slowly down the road. I walked by an alleyway, and heard screeching. I told myself it was only animals fighting, but deep down, I knew those sounds. I reached into my pocket to feel a syringe filled with weeks of research. This was my cure. I knew Trevor wouldn’t survive on just treatments, and he was bound to die soon, despite the original success the medicine had. He couldn’t fight much longer, but I had been fighting harder since treatment version 77 didn’t work. I put all my eggs in this basket, so if it didn’t work, Trevor would die, and I would have killed him. Through my notebooks filled with research, all littering my desk at the Coalition’s research lab, I thought this might be the one, and if it was, Trevor was going to be the first to get it.
“I’m almost there,” I whispered, as if my brother could hear me.
“Almost where?” said a voice behind me. I turned, scrambling away from the voice, looking up into the eyes of my worst nightmare. I was typically able to make it down this road before the infected spilled out from their daytime hiding spots, but now that night had fallen–earlier than it does in the summer months–I had no such luck.
Standing in front of me was a woman. I supposed it was probably the one I had heard in the alley, but there was no way for me to be sure. If she wasn’t one of them, others would be joining her soon. She was creeping out from behind a car that had long ago been swallowed by the trees. Even though I stood about a foot taller than her, my heart began to pound. Her eyes were glazed over, the way Compound X does to people. Her hair hung in strands so dirty I couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be. In an odd way, she looked almost familiar, and I thought that maybe I knew her before she was infected, but it was impossible to tell now; most of her skin had peeled off her face, revealing the muscles underneath. She began walking toward me, and before I could move, the woman grabbed me by the neck, tightening her grip just enough to make me gasp for air, but not enough to kill me. She rummaged through my pockets with her free hand, scavenging for scraps of food and pulled out the syringe. I could tell her mind was still moderately intact, unlike most of the other infected people. She had probably only been infected for a week or so. The woman recognized the syringe almost instantly.
She cackled, releasing my neck with a shove before injecting the treatment into her veins. I staggered backward before I collapsed. I laid on the ground and looked up at the sky. The stars were gone and, with them, I felt as though my mother’s spirit had left me too. This was the final straw; I had failed to protect Trevor and he was going to die. We both knew it, my mother and I.
A man’s face suddenly blocked my vision of the sky as I felt his foot connect with my ribs. I felt him grab me, scratching at me, and finally pulling me to my feet. Upon standing, I saw the woman again. Her fist connected with my jaw and I fell back onto the concrete, hitting the back of my head hard. Disoriented, I felt weight on my chest. The woman was on top of me, her hand wrapping around my neck yet again. Warm tears fell from my eyes, but I glared at her. She smiled at me; it was an ugly, twisted smile that showed her rotting teeth; she was enjoying my pain and fear. Before then I hadn’t believed that a smile could be so vicious. She pulled her hand away, scratching my skin. I screamed as I felt blood dripping from the marks she’d left. The gash was deep, and long; stretching from behind my ear down to my collar bone. She stood, leaving me lying on the ground gasping for air. I knew immediately that I had been infected. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. The pair that attacked me knew it too. I expected more attacks, and frankly, for them to kill me, but they didn’t.
They retreated into the darkness cackling and mimicking my screams. After being so careful to stay safe in order to take care of my brother, it was all for nothing. I realized that they had left me for dead, waiting for nature to take its course, or, worse, more infected to appear.
If I somehow survived, I knew there were only two options. I was either going to become my worst nightmare or I was going to take pills. I couldn’t knowingly take the treatment and not give it to Trevor, and there was no way that I could take more than one syringe from the treatment facility, but, if I took the pills, who would take care of Trevor?
Trevor. I couldn’t take care of him anymore. There was no way. I would lose my job the second someone saw the scratch. Everyone would know I was infected. If I even lived to make it back to work tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter. My fingers touched my neck gently, the scratch was bleeding heavily, not to mention all the other cuts across my body. I didn’t need to worry about my job tonight. I had to worry about staying alive long enough to see tomorrow morning.
In the back of my mind, I knew we were both doomed. Tears welled up again as I forced myself to my feet through the pain and trudged the rest of the way home to where my brother was waiting. I didn’t have much faith in tomorrow, so I was just hoping that I would stay alive long enough to say goodbye to him.
I didn’t expect to make it home at all, but I managed to stagger through the doorway despite my blurring vision. Once I was over the threshold, I closed the door and collapsed onto the couch. I called to Trevor, but there was no answer. After a few moments, I worked up enough strength to stand once again, and grabbing a towel from the kitchen, applied pressure to the gash on my neck. I walked down the hallway towards the bedroom.
I rounded the corner and pushed open the bedroom door, expecting to see the corpse of the last family member I had left. Instead, I found nothing; just an empty bed. It was somehow worse. My throat felt like it was closing from the pain of knowing that I would never see him again. I didn’t know where he went, but I knew that with the amount of blood I lost, he probably wouldn’t make it back while I was still alive. Instead, we would both be taken individually. No one deserved to die alone, yet here we were: Trevor, lost, infected, slowly losing his mind, and me, bleeding slowly, losing more and more blood with each pump of my heart. Funny how the organ that was supposed to keep my alive was the very organ causing my death.
I always expected Compound X to take me; for it to win. I never expected it to end like this, bleeding from a gash on my neck, rather than living long enough to watch myself become infected. I guess, though, in a way, Compound X did win, taking out one of the only people who might actually be able to find a cure. I expected to be angry, in that moment, however, my treatment didn’t go unused, so maybe, just maybe, I cured Compound X after all. My lack of anger surprised me, because I should have been mad that the woman who took my cure, had also killed me. I should have been mad that she took away Trevor’s chance at the cure. I should have been mad because I only made one syringe of it. I should have been mad that I was dying or that I was infected or that the Coalition might never find a cure without me and my research. But I wasn’t mad at her.
She took the cure, which, if it works, means my research will be validated. My sights had been so focused on saving Trevor, that I nearly forgot about the rest of the world. Maybe this woman was the person someone lost. Maybe someone was waiting on her. I couldn’t be mad at her for what the disease had made her. Laying in Trevor’s bed I finally let go for the first time. I no longer needed to take care of anyone. I didn’t need to watch him die if my cure didn’t work. I would be reunited with my mom, and eventually, with Trevor too. In knowing that, I was, actually–happy. I was always the last one left to deal with the fallout, and for once, it didn’t have to be me. I could forgive this woman, because it wasn’t any fault of her own; what she had done to me was what Compound X made everyone do. Even though I would never live to find out, I prayed in this moment, that the woman who did this to me would.
About the Author:
Talia Santopadre is a publishing and writing 4+1 major at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She enjoys writing works that straddle the line between reality and fiction. When Talia is not writing, she enjoys reading a good book while being surrounded by her three cats. Her work has previously been published in the Underground Literary Magazine.