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       Haunted, p.34

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Still, I was swallowing the sticky-sweet taste of that pill.

  That little blue pill, Shirlee says just two of those would be a fatal overdose.

  When I woke up, it was here, in this room with this view of Puget Sound, this wide-screen television, this clean, beige-tile bathroom. The intercom in the wall beside the bed. Some of my clothes and music from my room at home, they were packed in boxes sealed with shrink-wrap plastic. A camera had to be watching me, because, the moment I sat up in bed, the intercom said, “Good morning.”

  My grandma was dead. Raymon was dead. Miss Frasure, my English teacher—dead. That was four Christmases back, but it might as well be a black-and-white TV rerun I watched a hundred years ago.

  At The Orphanage, you lose track of time. According to the chart, I'm twenty-two years old. Old enough to drink beer, and I've only ever kissed a dead boy.

  One, two, three days, and my life was over. I didn't even graduate from high school.

  You build up a viral load to the point you can transmit the Type 1 Keegan virus, and don't expect you'll get a lawyer. Or a caseworker. Or an ombudsman. You end up on Columbia Island, and you can expect to stay in a decent hotelish room like at a franchise hotel, a Ramada Inn or a Sheraton, but for the rest of your life. The same room. The same view. The same bathroom. Room-service food. Cable-television movies. A brown bedspread. Two pillows. One brown recliner chair.

  There's people locked up here, people who did just one wrong thing. They sat next to the wrong stranger on an airplane. Or they took a long elevator ride with another person they never even spoke to—then all they did was not die. There's lots of ways you can spend the rest of your life locked up here. Here being a little island in the middle of Puget Sound, in the state of Washington, the Columbia Island Naval Hospital.

  Most of the people here, they arrived when they turned seventeen or eighteen years old. The staff doctor, Dr. Schumacher, says we were exposed to something when we were little, some virus or parasite that took years to build in our system. The day it hit the right viral load or blood-serum level, the people around us started to die.

  That's when the Centers for Disease Control would notice a cluster of deaths, and the teams come throw you in a container suit and cart you here for the rest of your natural life.

  Each resident at Columbia Island carries something different, Shirlee says. A unique strain of killer virus. Or a fatal parasite or bacteria. That's why they're, each of them, isolated. So they don't kill each other.

  Still, Shirlee says, they get heat in the winter. Air conditioning in the summer. They get all their meals cooked for them, fish and vegetables, or ice cream, club sandwiches, anything within budget.

  Come the hottest days of August, and Shirlee says the air conditioning alone makes her glad she works here.

  Shirlee calls each resident a “blood cow.” In every resident suite, two long rubber arms come through the wall from under a mirror. The arms are this bulletproof kind of long rubber glove. Every couple of days, a light comes on behind the mirror to show a lab tech sitting there, he or she will reach through the wall with the rubber arms and take a blood sample, place the sample in a little airlock, then retrieve it safely on the other side.

  It's when the light comes on, when the mirror in your suite turns into a window, then you can see the camera that's always there. Always watching. Recording you.

  Shirlee, it's part of her job to herd the blood cows outside for some exercise.

  Every few days, the staff lets the cows put on container suits. Inside the suit, all you can smell is powdery latex. Pick a flower or lay down in the grass, and all you can feel is latex. Inside the sealed hood, all you can hear is your own breathing. The other hospital residents, they throw around a Frisbee, always knowing the exact number of minutes they have left before Shirlee herds thems back inside. They're always aware of the sharpshooters with rifles, in case a resident wades into the water to make a break for freedom. Wearing a container suit with its self-contained oxygen system, you could walk the mucky bottom of Puget Sound all the way to downtown Seattle. The dark-blue shapes of ships crisscrossing the water, high above your head.

  In case you're wondering how I got out . . .

  “After that long underwater walk,” Miss Sneezy says, “my sinuses have never been the same.” And she wipes her nose sideways with one sleeve.

  Out on Columbia Island, all of them outside on the hospital lawn, throwing a Frisbee back and forth, wearing their baggy blue container suits, they could've been a gang of stuffed animals. All blue, from head to foot. Sweating inside the layers of rubberized nylon and latex. Running and catching, all the time framed in the scope of some navy guy's rifle. It doesn't sound fun, but you want to cry when it's time to go back inside, to spend your life alone in your room.

  The other residents, one girl has green eyes. A guy has brown eyes. With the container suits on, all you can see is somebody's eyes. The boy with the brown eyes, Shirlee says he's the other Type 1 Keegan carrier.

  The new guy with the huge dick. She's seen it through his two-way mirror.

  Shirlee says, next time I talk to Dr. Schumacher, I should ask about starting a breeding program. To see if we can give birth to a generation of babies immune to Type 1 Keegan. Another scary possibility is, this boy and me, we have different strains of the virus, and we'd just kill each other.

  Or we'd have a healthy baby . . . and we'd kill it with our germs.

  “Slow down,” Shirlee says. “Forget babies. Forget dying.” She says what's important is getting me deflowered.

  This boy and me, the two of us locked up in a room, together. Both of us virgins. The video camera behind the mirror, watching, the staff hoping we'll breed a cure the government can patent. Those crafty drug-company people. Still, a cure wouldn't be bad.

  And sex, that wouldn't be bad, either.

  Shirlee says sometime The Orphanage should have a dance for the residents, but just the image of those baggy blue container suits, clutching each other and swaying to some pop music on a dance floor . . . nobody wants to see that.

  Most times when I see Dr. Schumacher, I don't tell the doctor jack shit. The way I figure, I only have so many memories, and I don't want to use them up. Most of my best memories are of saving the world from evil space aliens or escaping on a jet boat from sexy Russian spies, but those aren't real memories. Those were movies. I forget how the girl doing that is a movie star.

  Framed on the wall in my room, a sign says: Busy = Happy.

  Shirlee says this same sign is in every resident's room. The lightbulbs in each room are full-spectrum lightbulbs that simulate natural sunlight, generating vitamin D in people's skin and keeping their mood up. Shirlee says the official term for each room is “resident suite.” Mine, for example, is “Resident Suite 6-B.” On all my charts and records, officially, I'm known as Resident 6-B.

  As a parallel study, Shirlee says the data collected on residents here will be used to predict how people might live better in isolated, self-contained outer-space colonies.

  Yeah, some days, Shirlee is full of useful information.

  “Think of yourself,” Shirlee says, “as an astronaut living in a Ramada Inn on a planet only six miles southwest of Seattle.”

  Shirlee, her voice coming over the intercom at night, she'll ask about my dad, how did my father get me put here. Then Shirlee will let go the button on her side, waiting for me to speak.

  My old man, he didn't know enough for a college degree, but he knew how to make money. He knew guys who'd wait until the day you left on a week's vacation, then they'd move in with a crew and cut down a two-hundred-year-old black-walnut tree. They'd limb it and section it, right there in your front yard. They'd tell the neighbors you'd hired the work done. By the time you got home, your tree would be cut and milled and curing in some factory a dozen states away. By then it might even be black-walnut furniture.

  This is the kind of smarts that scares the crap out of college people.

>   My old man, he had his maps. His treasure maps, he called them.

  These treasure maps, they were from the 1930s, from the Great Depression. What people called the Works Project Administration, the government hired folks to go around and take notes about every abandoned cemetery in every county. Every state. Back when lots of these little cemeteries were going under the plow or about to be forgotten under blacktop. These old pioneer cemeteries, they were all that was left of towns that had disappeared from maps a hundred years before. Boom towns now crumbled and blown away. Or burned to ashes by forest fires. Gold mines that played out. Railroad spurs that shut down. All's that would be left is the little cemetery, a patch of weeds and fallen-down old headstones. The old man's treasure maps were the WPA maps, showing where to find each patch, how many graves it held, how the headstones would look.

  Every summer I was out of school, me and the old man would follow these maps up into Wyoming or Montana, into the desert or the hills, where whole towns had vanished. Towns like New Keegan, Montana, where nothing's left except the tombstones. It was the kind of stuff that garden stores paid big money for in the city. In Seattle or Denver. San Francisco or Los Angeles. A load of hand-carved granite angels. Or sleeping dogs or little white marble lambs. People wanted something old and crusted with moss to put in their brand-new garden, to make their place look ancient. To look like they'd always had tons of money.

  In New Keegan, not one of the tombstones had writing you could still read.

  “Shaving cream,” my Dad told me. “Shaving cream or chalk. Goddamn fucking graveyard freaks.”

  He told how people who loved to study tombstones, to read a faint inscription worn away by time and acid rain, they'd wipe shaving cream across the face of the tombstone. They'd shave off the extra with a piece of cardboard, leaving just the white in the engraving. This made the words and dates easy to read and photograph. What sucked is, shaving cream contains stearic acid. The residue these people left would eat the stone. Other tombstone junkies, they'd rub chalk on a tombstone, coloring the whole surface so the faint, engraved epitaph would stand out as darker. This chalk dust was plaster of Paris or gypsum, and rubbing it worked the dust into the invisible cracks and fissures of the tombstone. The next time it rained . . . the gypsum dust would soak up water and swell to twice its original size. The same way ancient Egyptians used wood wedges to split stone blocks for the pyramids, the swollen chalk dust would slowly explode the whole front off a tombstone.

  All that stuff about stearic acid and gypsum and the Egyptian pyramids, it proves my dad wasn't an idiot.

  He'd tell me, all these well-meaning cemetery folks, all they did was destroy what they claimed to love.

  Still, it was nice, that last, best day with my dad on that hillside that used to be New Keegan, Montana. The hot sunshine baking the dead grass. The kind of brown lizards that would leave their squirming tail behind if you caught one.

  If we could've read the headstones, we'd see how almost the entire town had died in one month. The first cluster of what doctors would call the Keegan virus. Rapid-onset viral brain tumors.

  My dad sold that load of angels and lambs to a garden store in Denver. Driving home, he was already chewing aspirin and swerving the pickup truck all over the road. Him and my mom were both dead in the hospital before my grandma arrived.

  After that, life calmed down for ten years. Until Miss Frasure and her brain tumor the size of a lemon. Until my viral load built up to make me infectious.

  These days, the government can't kill me and they can't cure me. All they can do is damage control.

  That new boy, with the dick, he's going to feel how I did when I first arrived: His family dead. Maybe half his school dead, if he was popular. Sitting alone in his room every day, he'll be scared, but full of hope for the cure the navy promised.

  I can show him the ropes. Calm him down. Help him adjust to life here at The Orphanage.

  That last good day of my life, my dad drove his pickup all the way from Montana to Denver, Colorado, where he knew a store that sold antique garden shit. Cast-iron deer and concrete birdbaths crusted with moss. Most of this stuff was stolen. This store guy gave him cash, and helped unload the angels off the truck. The store guy had a kid, a little boy who came out the back door of the store and stood in the alley to watch the work.

  Talking to Shirlee over the intercom, I would press the button and ask if this new resident . . . did he have curly red hair and brown eyes?

  Was he about my age? I'd ask if he was from Denver, and did his dead folks use to run a garden-antique store?


  The ghost light is our only campfire left. Our last chance. The glaring-bare bulb on a tall stand, center stage. The safety valve made to keep old gaslight theaters from exploding, or the light always left on inside a new theater to keep any ghost from calling the place home.

  We're sitting around the light, the circle of people still here, sitting on the stage, from where you can see only the gold-paint outline of each auditorium chair, the brass rail snaking along the front edge of each balcony, the cobweb clouds that hover across the dead electric-night sky.

  In the dark rooms behind rooms, the Matchmaker and the Missing Link are dead in the Italian Renaissance lounge. In the subbasement below the basement, Mr. Whittier and Comrade Snarky and Lady Baglady and the Duke of Vandals are rotting-dead. In their dressing rooms, backstage, are Miss America and Mrs. Clark. All of their cells digesting each other into runny yellow protein. The bacteria in their guts and lungs going wild with bloat.

  This leaving just eleven of us, sitting in our circle of light.

  Our world of only humans, a world without humanity.

  Agent Tattletale has been tiptoeing around, breaking lightbulbs. So have the Countess Foresight and Director Denial.

  Each of us, we were sure, the only one at work. Each of us wanting to make our world just a little more dark. None of us aware we all had this same plan. Victims of our low threshold for boredom. Victims of ourselves. Maybe it's our being so hungry, some form of delusion, but here's all we have left.

  This one lightbulb. The ghost light.

  Here is light without heat, so we're bundled in pea coats and furs and bathrobes, our heads sagging under piled-up wigs and door-wide hats. All of us, ready.

  When that alley door opens, we'll be famous. When we hear the lock turn, then the sliding rollers squeal, then the click-click and click-click of someone trying the light switch, then we'll have our story ready to sell. Our death-camp cheekbones ready for our best-profile close-up.

  We'll say how Mr. Whittier and Mrs. Clark fooled us into coming here. They trapped us and held us hostage. They bullied us to write books, poems, screenplays. And when we wouldn't, they tortured us. They starved us.

  Sitting cross-legged in our circle on the wood boards of the stage, we can't move in the layers of velvet and quilted tweed keeping us warm. It takes all our energy to repeat our story to each other: How Mrs. Clark ripped the unborn baby from Miss America and stewed it in front of its dying mother. How Mr. Whittier wrestled the Matchmaker to the floor and hacked off his penis. Then how Whittier stabbed Mrs. Clark and choked down so much of her thigh he split open. Us, we're practicing the word peritonitis. Under our breath, we practice inguinal hernia. We say cheveu-cut potatoes.

  That's how both villains died, leaving us behind to starve.

  It's been a lot of marks on the wall with Saint Gut-Free's pencil. Those hash marks, his only masterpiece. The landlord or rental agent or someone should be coming to check. Maybe a man from the power company coming to shut off the service for unpaid bills.

  In the quiet, any flip of a switch will sound gunshot-loud.

  A click makes us turn. The clatter of metal on metal turns our heads to look in the same direction. Toward the wings and, beyond that, the alley door.

  There's a squeal, and the dark explodes.

  In light this bright, after so long in the dark, everything we can see is only
black and white. Only glaring shape-outlines we have to blink against.

  The light is bolder, eye-shutting stronger than any lightbulb.

  It's not the alley door. The stage explodes into daylight-bright, a solid fat beam of sunrise from somewhere overhead. The light so bright we squint and cup hands into shields to block it. This new day so sunny it throws our shadows out long behind us. Our shadows hunched and cowering against the brown water stains on the movie screen behind us.

  Outlined on the movie screen, you can see our tilted wigs. Our bodies look so spidery thin, Comrade Snarky would tell us we could wear anything.

  It's the movie projector with no film, the projector's bulb shining on us, a huge spotlight. Bright as a lighthouse. This sun shines from almost midnight on the rear wall of the theater.

  None of us can stand yet. All we can do is duck our heads and look away.

  The projector is so bright the ghost light looks burned out. Dim as a birthday candle on a summer day.

  “Our ghost, again,” says the Baroness Frostbite.

  Saint Gut-Free's two-headed baby.

  The Countess Foresight's antiques dealer.

  Agent Tattletale's gassed and hammered private detective.

  Miss Sneezy yawns, saying, “Another good scene for our story.”

  Like the popcorn. And the furnace being fixed. Our clothes getting washed and folded. Everything paranormal, every miracle is just another special effect.

  Saint Gut-Free turns to Mother Nature and says, “Now that we're a romantic subplot . . . how about you give me that foot job?”

  Agent Tattletale says, “After we're outside, I'm staying high for a month . . .”

  The Reverend Godless says, “I'm burning every church I find . . .”

  Each of us, just a lump of fabric, fur, and hair.

  Director Denial says, “I'm buying Cora Reynolds a headstone . . .”

  Back from the walls beyond the bright light, the place it hurts to look, from that far away, echo back the words “. . . headstone . . . headstone . . .”

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