I tossed Lin’s idea around for a long while today. There is so much we don’t know. How does the jelly work? What kinds of surfaces will it adhere to? What thickness does it need to be to keep the water out? How will we pressurize the interior of the cabin so that the hull won’t implode?
And so on.
There are a hundred million objections, not the least of which is how to get the sub back into the water fifteen or twenty feet away, which, when you’re talking about a six ton vehicle with no wheels, is kind of a big deal.
But I also have something I have never really had before.
Lots of things suck right about now. My marriage sucks. My health sucks My friends are dead, I have a suspicious Zebulani love-child, and I am living in an underground zombie nest. But I now believe we can get home. That hope changes everything. It fires the imagination, renews my spirit, and makes me thankful for the few things I have to work with.
I have hope for Jonah, that he will survive. That he will remain unharmed. That Scyla and Schylla will find one ounce of humanity and not sacrifice my child to the idol of scientific discovery.
I have hope for Liz, that she will persevere. That she will not give in to despair. That she will not lose her mind. I have hope that she can forgive me. That she and I can be together. That we can start over somehow, in the midst of all of this, and enjoy again what we had together before.
I have hope for myself. Hope is the promise that things can be different. Hope is the belief that, given the right circumstances, the right will, sufficient determination and an unwillingness to quit, the stuff that sucks now won’t have to suck forever. Hope is the ruin of misery.
I did my best with pen and paper to lay out Lin’s ideas to Iara. It took a long time for her to understand the ideograms, but she got it. Jelly is hard to draw. Looking thoughtfully at the breach in our hull, she began to talk with Lithe. I’m guessing he was little help, as all he did was grunt here and there noncommittally. But Iara began to nod her head. After a while, she looked directly at me and cooed, short and sweet.
I smiled when I realized she thought it could be done.
Iara had a mission now. She grabbed Lithe, pushing me back down and making it clear I was to rest. His black-veined arm wasn’t getting any worse, but despite two additional injections of the antibiotics, it wasn’t getting any better either. His eyes had been stained a permanent red around the skin on the outside. It looked like he was wearing the face of a red-raccoon, like tribal war paint or the markings of a phantom. When Iara grabbed his arm, he stiffened, and for a moment, I thought he was going to slap her. I think Iara thought so too, but she controlled herself. The two of them put on some of our heavy dive suits from the Monk which, even though they would impede movement, were likely to stop any stray spinefish needles from penetrating their skin. They set off, and I was left alone with Chris for the time being.
He started up his old gig right away. “We’re going to die, you know?”
“Stop talking.” He mimicked me, mocking. “No one wants to listen to the downer, I get it, but what I’m saying makes sense. Look: everyone else is dead, and since you’re the most useless person I’ve ever met, maybe God really is protecting you for the time being. Nessa and Jo shouldn’t be dead. They were pros. But you, you’re made up. You’ve got a PhD in bedtime stories and church manners and it makes no sense why you’re not already fish food. But listen up, god-watcher, none of us are going to make it out of this alive.”
I took in everything he was saying, trying hard not to overreact. There’s a fine line between turning the other cheek and becoming a victim. I needed to say something, but I didn’t want to give myself permission to be as crappy as he was.
“Chris,” I began, “I wish you had died. You deserve to, for what you did to Lin. But right now, more than anything, I wish you’d just shut up.”
I went over to put his gag back in, but he bit my hand. It surprised me. It hurt, and I reacted. I punched him in the head and it knocked him over.
Chris lay on his back, still stuck in the chair, and spit a mouthful of blood in my face. “Is that your idea of turning the other cheek? Blah blah Jesus blah. Pick me up, holy man.”
I hadn’t thought to hit him before; it just happened. But he seemed to be reading my thoughts, and that made me furious. I was about to pick him up. I did feel guilty. I was already justifying my outburst. But now it had all changed to something different. Now it was just being sick and tired of all his garbage. His words were like black needles. He deserved everything he got. He should suffer for the way he had treated the people around him. But not with his life. Not after everything I had been through with Lithe. Not after finding my wife, and then losing her again. Not after gaining a son only to wonder if I ever had him. Not after journeying along the bottom of the planet, facing creatures from hell, friends dying, and all that blood in the water. I was not going to lose myself to the basest creature above or below the surface of the deep. Chris may have been the devil, but at that moment the way I treated him was more about the person I wanted to be than the festering thing he had already become.
Oh God, give me strength to be better than I am.
“I know about the tumor, Chris,” I said, trying to see things from his perspective, to remind myself that there’s always a reason whenever someone acts out. “I know why you’re acting this way.”
“Shove it,” he said, spitting. “You don’t know anything.”
“Lin told me all about it before I left.” I said, determined to do good.
He laughed. “I made it up.”
“It’s not true,” He said, grinning. “I don’t have a tumor. I hacked into the medical records and falsified my history. I thought it would be funny.”
“You’re kidding.” I couldn’t believe it.
“But why would you do that?” I asked, feeling a sinking pit grow inside of me.
“Why would you put Sebastian into a coma?” he asked, that evil gleam in his eye.
“What are you–”
“–don’t bother denying it, Mister Mann,” he interrupted. The pit grew a little larger. “Dr. Perry’s report didn’t say anything about administering extra morphine to Sebastian. She was a drunk, sure, but she knew well enough how to hide it from everyone. I made it a habit to poke around Perry’s files. The only person who had any possible motivation for slipping the mickey to our illustrious benefactor was you. Sebastian would never have let you on the sub otherwise.”
“I’m gonna be sick.”
“Don’t stress about it,” he said like we were old buddies. “That’s the one thing you ever did that took any guts. It’s the only thing you’ve ever done that I liked. It’s proof there’s hope for you yet.”
I did get sick then, throwing up bile onto the floor. I collapsed on my hands and knees next to Chris. He laughed again, good-naturedly, like it was all a joke. But it wasn’t a joke for me. I was ashamed. I’d never done anything like that before. What’s worse, I could see the truth of Chris’ words. I had it in me to be just like him. I had that same evil lurking. I had to stop it. I had to shut it out, shut it down, shut it off.
I pried open his jaws with both hands and shoved his gag in deep with my fist. He broke the skin of my hand with his teeth, but I got the gag in without choking him and then left the bridge to tend my scrapes with rubbing alcohol.
Get thee behind me, Satan.
The others returned without incident, carrying a big sack of the jelly. Heavy as it was, Lithe humped it all the way back to the Sea Monk. It practically burst out onto the floor when he put it down. Iara scolded him before trying vainly to drag the sack along the ground. Lithe stifled a laugh, and I stepped in to do my share of the heavy lifting.
But not before we took care of Chris. I did my best to communicate my feelings to Iara and Lithe. They were impatient at first, but when they put it together, they became immediately consumed.
I came into the bridge where Chris was still tied to his chair. I reached out and yanked the gag from his mouth. The stench was unbearable. “Chris,” I began, trying to look into his eyes without my eyes watering from the smell. “You don’t value life–”
“–Not your life, bucko.”
“You don’t respect others–”
“–Is this going to take a long time?”
“You treat people like cookies in a web browser, like something that can be removed when it’s inconvenient–”
“–I can think of someone I’d like to remove now.”
“You delete the people who remind you of who you really are and how you’ve applied yourself. So we have a task for you. The task of re-humanization–”
“You’re going out there, in and among the infected, and you’re going to pick the spinefish needles out of the dead…”
“…No I’m not.”
“You’re going to learn how costly life is and how troublesome death is, and you’re going to learn that the things separating you from death are insubstantial.”
“Not that insubstantial.”
“You’re going to learn how lucky you are to be alive.”
We hobbled him, tying his two feet and one wrist together, placing him in the middle of the mass grave where we had fought Goliath. Lithe and I used long poles to herd Chris into the pile of dead. Because of the way he was hamstrung, Chris couldn’t get past the dead without pricking himself on the needles. It hurt. A lot. It wasn’t fatal, but neither is a dog bite, and none of us go around kicking canines. In order for Chris to get out, he had to learn how painful, how oppressive, and how absolute death is.
In theory, anyway.
But once we herded him into that death-heap, Chris just sat down. I watched him for a while, convinced that sooner or later he would have to submit to the necessities of the situation. He didn’t. He sat there and looked at me. He could have been a barnacle.
Lithe and I tried to move him. I began to jerk the long pole, hoping to drag him against some of the spinefish needles embedded in the infected corpses. He got pricked a few times, even bled that I could see, but refused to cooperate. I did it again, yanking harder, and this time he got stabbed in the eye. The needle didn’t stick all the way in, but when he pulled his head away the blood began to flow freely down his face. Chris still didn’t react. I felt myself losing control. This wasn’t supposed to be how things worked. He was supposed to figure it out. He was supposed to see how precious life really is. But instead, here I was trying hard to remember the very thing he’d forgotten. I was, once again, in danger of becoming just like Chris. I was treating his life like a commodity, like a lesson he was supposed to learn, instead of treating him like a person. I was jerking him around like a naughty pet. I was beating him, trying to show him how wrong it was to abuse another person. Even in his inactivity, Chris found ways to send his corruption forward into my spirit.
I couldn’t win.
I had a choice to make then, a choice about whether I would continue to force my will onto his. A choice about whether I would dominate Chris in order to prove the futility of domination, or whether I would just let him sit there.
I walked away, my choice made, and left him alone.
Lithe stayed to watch.