Author's Note: This story takes a slightly different look at the situation I first explored in the story "Just My Luck". That one ended up taking a twist from my original idea, and I felt I needed to write it the way I'd first intended.
Not a Day in my Life
I'd like to be at home right now, my belly full of Sonja's good cookin', the boys beside me on the couch as I crack open a cold beer before the game starts. I'd like to be but I'm not because Joe's home sick and I gotta get the work done before I can leave.
Joe's got the flu –big deal, it's just a bad cold isn't it? He could've drug his ass in to work anyway and done his part so I didn't have to stay late. Wimp. He says his kids are sick too, they gave it to him. Kids are wimps for sure; they'll use any excuse to stay home from school. You can't let 'em get away with it, though I think mine have got Sonja suckered into taking their side. Just because they don't feel so great doesn't mean they can't go to school and learn a little something.
Truth to tell, I don't understand all these people who let a little thing like feeling bad keep 'em from doing what they're supposed to. So their nose is running or they've got a bit of a fever – what's the big deal? I mean, how bad could it be? Take an aspirin and deal with it; that's why they sell aspirin. They've got a job to do and the world doesn't stop spinning just because they're not 100%.
I don't let it get me down. Sure, there've been days when I don't feel so good; I didn't sleep well or have a headache or, well, I have to admit to showing up at work with a buzz on more than one Monday morning. But you won't find me lollygagging around in bed sleeping 'til noon and making Sonja wait on me hand and foot. No Siree, I suck it up and make the effort. Why can't they?
Sonja says I don't understand, and she may have something there. I've never had the flu or the 24-hour stomach virus or, come to think of it, measles, mumps, chicken pox or any of those kiddie diseases. I don't get colds, and as far as I know I've never had a fever. Broke my arm once, that hurt like a son of a bitch, but it wasn't like I was sick. In point of fact, I've never been sick a day in my life. Neither has my old man so I obviously got his good genes.
She keeps telling me that one day I'll catch whatever's going around, and then I'll understand. But it hasn't happened yet and at 35 years old I don't think it's gonna. I mean, I've helped take care of her and the kids when they were puking their guts out and never felt even a little queasy myself. So I try to keep my trap shut and not complain when someone whines about being sick. But it doesn't stop me from thinking they're not pulling their weight.
I finally finish up at work and head home; at least traffic's light so I should make it by the second quarter. Sonja will have kept my dinner warm and I can watch most of the game with the boys; anything spectacular I might've missed will be re-hashed after the game. Life's good.
Except when I get there Sonja's glued to a newscast and the boys are upstairs doing their homework.
"Hey, Baby!" says I. "What's goin' on? Earthquake, tidal wave…uh, some nutcase blow something up?" The pretty lady reporter certainly looked serious, like something terrible had happened. The view switched to a helicopter camera; greasy black smoke was billowing up from the now-missing corner of a large one-story building. Though dozens of firemen trained gushing hoses on the fire, they didn't seem to be making much progress.
"Hi, Frank," she said, not taking her eyes off the TV for even a second. "They don't know much yet."
I sat down on the couch beside her and gave her a one-armed hug. She snuggled up against me and laid her head on my shoulder, but her body was still tense. "They don't know much about what yet?" I asked, trying to project a soothing demeanor. I love Sonja, and don't want her to be upset.
She took my other hand, weaving her fingers through mine, but sat up straighter to pay attention to the reporter who'd been listening to her earphone and had now re-focused on the camera.
"We've just gotten word that the General Research Laboratories facility here in Southern California was working on genetic studies and we've been assured there were no dangerous chemicals in the building. I repeat, no dangerous chemicals so even though that huge cloud of smoke is drifting over a residential area there should be no toxic fumes for those people. The thick smoke may be another matter. Brad, have you heard if the area will be evacuated?" The reporter lady gave that perky but vacant stare that indicated she was talking to someone back in the studio.
"No, Stephanie," said a disembodied male voice, presumably Brad. "We're keeping in close touch with both police and fire officials, and so far we haven't been told of an evacuation order. We'll let you know the moment we hear anything. It's a little difficult to see from this angle, but it looks like the firefighters have the blaze under enough control so that it isn't likely to spread any further."
"That's right, Brad," Stephanie nodded sagely. "Jim spoke with Fire Chief Tipton just a moment ago. Chief Tipton estimates that it will take several more hours yet to completely put out the fire, but it is confined to the building. Barring any further explosions they expect to have it out by morning."
"That's good news, Stephanie," Brad said with professional cheer.
I grabbed the remote and hit the mute button. "See, Baby? Everything's under control. Let's forget about this and watch the game."
"This is the game," Sonja replied. "Well, it's the channel the game's supposed to be on anyway. That's why I was in here; I thought I'd watch so I could tell you what you'd missed. But when this Special Bulletin came on I sent the boys upstairs so they wouldn't be worried."
"Well then, why don't we go to the kitchen; I'll light a candle and we'll have a little quiet time together while I eat. We can have a glass of wine so you don't feel like you're just watching me," I suggested.
Sonja smiled knowingly. "I haven't eaten dessert yet…" She turned the TV off as we left the room.
The front page of the next day's newspaper was devoted to the explosion in California. Sonja and I shook our heads over the pictures of the burned-out hulk. A quick scan of the article told us that a dozen people had been in the room where the fire started, all presumed dead. Every one else had made it out safely with only minor injuries. The fire had still been smoldering when the paper was put to bed so it was anyone's guess what had happened. Workers reported a big explosion in one of the labs, but no one had any idea what might've caused it. And the company was being tight-lipped about the nature of the research in that lab, claiming they didn't want to tip off the competition.
I'm always sorry to hear about accidents, especially when folks have died in them; but sometimes I think the press makes mountains out of molehills. Granted we're all a little twitchy about terrorists these days, but why would a religious fanatic want to destroy a research facility? Maybe one of those militant tree-hugger or PETA types, that makes a little more sense. More than likely it was just a terribly unfortunate accident. I'll be glad to read the facts once they're known, but until then I wish they'd stop with all the speculation just so they can keep up the story.
Anyway, I had my own problems. Joe was still out sick so it was another long day. When I got home Sonja said Dad had called to say he was coming over; that worried me. Dad never called, he just showed up. Sure enough, it was bad news. Dad tried to joke about it, saying his body had saved up all those cold germs that hadn't made him sick and now they'd mutated into cancer. The docs had given him three months.
Dad was hardly happy about the situation, but since there wasn't anything he could do about it he was determined to enjoy the time he had left. We set up a fishing trip for the following week. Everybody took a week's vacation and Sis and I yanked the kids out of school. Our world had suddenly shrunk down to our own family; nothing else mattered.
We all had a great time, too. Most of the time we were able to enjoy the moment without thinking about the bittersweet quality it held; we'd remember this week for the rest of our lives, but for Dad that wouldn't be very long. We'd take the boat out at the crack of dawn while the ladies slept in. We'd come in to a hearty breakfast and then maybe go for a little hike. Afternoons we'd fish some more, but mostly we'd fish a cold one out of the cooler. Dad didn't seem to have the stamina he once had so we took it easy. Evenings we'd play cards with some of the other campers or shoot the breeze while staring into the primal depths of the campfire. The outside world might not have even existed.
Sunday afternoon we started the process of packing up, which always seems to take three times as long as setting up in the first place. It didn't help that the kids disappeared like magic, allergic to work. Dad and I carried the big cooler over to the tailgate of his truck so we could load it up after it'd had time to drain. Dad seemed a little remote, doubtless thinking of his mortality, and I wasn't sure what to say or do.
He cleared his throat like people do before saying something important. "Your mother and I are thinking about taking a drive," he began.
"Where to?" I asked. I tried to sound casual, but it'd been clear that Dad would've never gotten that cooler into the truck by himself. If his strength was going, what else might be as well?
"Oh, you know, out there. Somewhere." He waved his hand to indicate the world in general. "Just to see the sights together before my time's up."
"Dad, you're not the traveling type; we never even took a cross-country vacation," I said before I could stop myself. If that was what he wanted then I could hardly tell him not to, even if it meant less precious time spent together.
"No time like the present," Dad said. Then, "Don't worry, Frank. I'll be all right. I'll let Mother drive most of the time and I promise we'll be back home in a couple weeks."
"I'm sorry, Dad. It just seems like such a strange thing to want to do all of a sudden. You go and have fun – and promise you'll call every few days."
Dad got a funny smile on his face, like there was something he wasn't telling me. "I promise," he said.
It wasn't like him to give in so easy, and that worried me. On the other hand, I didn't feel like I had the right to ask him not to do this. So when we'd finished packing and rounded up the kids Sis and I headed north while Mom and Dad headed off south. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I couldn't quite define it.
I felt like the real world should've somehow changed, but of course it hadn't. Work was still there, bills still needed to be paid, and there were still games to watch with the boys. Sonja got caught up with the news and told me she'd read about rumors coming out of California.
"You remember that research lab that blew up?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah," I said. Actually I didn't, but it was easier that way.
"Well, they were doing some kind of genetic research there, and now there's all kinds of strange things going on in that area," she said meaningfully.
"Like what kind of strange things?" I asked in what I thought was a reasonable tone.
"You don't believe me?" she asked. She sounded hurt.
"You haven't told me yet," I reasoned. "So I don't know what to believe."
"Miracle cures!" she said. "Sick people restored to health; well people swear they feel better than they ever have; people getting up out of their deathbeds and running out of the hospital."
"Sonja, that's just plain crazy," I told her. She took a deep breath to begin what would probably be a lengthy and heated response so I hastily added, "I believe that you read stories where people claimed these things but that doesn't mean they're true."
She raised one eyebrow in slight mollification, but I could tell she wasn't yet ready to give up. "It does sound crazy, doesn't it? But there are so many stories and they all seem to have some kind of proof. Letters from doctors – tests that are suddenly negative. Kinda makes you wonder just what kind of research they were doing there, doesn't it?"
I laughed. "You make it sound like they created some kind of super-bug that cures what ails you."
"Don't laugh, Frank," she said. "That's exactly what it sounds like. And it must be some kind of virus because it seems to be spreading."
"Spreading," I repeated.
"At first the reports came from the immediate area but now they're coming in from all of southern California and western Nevada. People are showing up from all over, walking around the towns and camping in fields if they can't book a hotel."
"To do what, exactly?" I asked.
"Catch the bug, of course," Sonja replied seriously. "So they'll get well."
I opened my mouth to reply, and then closed it again as a thought struck me. The same thought seemed to strike Sonja.
"Oh Frank!" she cried. "Do you think that's where your Dad went?"
"He always made fun of California," I told her. "He called it the granola state – the land of fruits, nuts, and flakes. He wouldn't voluntarily go there." In my gut I knew I was wrong.
Sonja giggled at the description. Or maybe it was a way to relieve some of the tension we both suddenly felt. "What could it hurt?" she asked.
The answer turned out to be 'nothing'. The trip didn't hurt, but neither did it help. Dad came back even more tired than when he'd left, though Mom clearly had more energy. By the time they got home there was little doubt left that something was happening not only in California but spreading to the rest of the world. Mom claimed to have the scoop: researchers had somehow altered a common cold virus so that it blocked its natural fellows, an anti-virus in effect. Only the cure had been a lot more robust than intended. And it was catching; once the super-bug had breached containment it was easily passed from person to person.
Popular theory held that General Research execs had deliberately tried to keep quiet about the whole thing, knowing its release would render medical research obsolete within weeks. Those that took their side claimed they only wanted to do further testing before they announced the breakthrough, but we'll never know for sure. Arson investigators determined the explosion was caused by a faulty microwave; when one of the workers nuked a cup of coffee it tripped a breaker and caused some kind of chain reaction. It was an accident after all. I guess if a concerned scientist had really wanted to share this with the world he or she would only have had to open the container.
Sonja and the boys picked it right up from Mom, they'll never be sick again. But here's the problem – Dad and I never caught a cold in our lives. There's something about our body chemistry that doesn't play nice with bacteria and viruses. Which means we're not gonna catch the super-bug either. And Dad tells me that being sick really sucks.