Paul L. Pothier
Brad woke suddenly. The recurring nightmares had haunted his childhood. After all these years, they troubled him again. He reached for one of the towels next to his bed and wiped away the perspiration. For some reason his thoughts turned to his late great-grandfather, who hadn't been heard from in years and most thought dead.
He had been a professional magician, a real one, very different from the Vegas-style entertainers of today. Self-assured, the old man's faith had always comforted him, though his words were often sobering. One of his favorite pastimes was imparting spiritual principles to the young lad. As a result Brad grew up well-versed in Bible stories such as the account of Lazurus, Moses versus the Pharaoh of Egypt, the parable of the difficult narrow road versus the smooth well-traveled one, and many others. Of course, as he grew into adulthood, he became more sophisticated, educated, and upwardly mobile.
Now, sadly those early lessons were nothing more than distant memories.
Brad lie wearily back on the sheets and remembered.
The doctors in the next room went through a lengthy series of safety procedures. First they put on surgical scrubs, followed by several pairs of latex gloves closed and taped securely at the wrists. Over this went a self-contained suit fitted with a facemask. Plugged into the side of the suit was a tightly coiled air pipe attached to a backpack unit. Only then did they open the outer door to the isolation room and cautiously enter.
Brad turned on the hospital bed as they approached. It was hard to move in his weakened condition.
"Good morning Brad," the doctor nearest him said. "Dr. Anderson and I are going to take some readings this morning, if that's ok with you."
Brad waved them closer. He was used to the daily routine. The doctors went to work.
Had it only been three weeks since the party? Three weeks ... unbelievable, he thought. That fateful day...
It had all started well enough. An early riser, Brad enjoyed a light breakfast on his sun deck. Spring was perfect this year, and he determined to make the most of it. So after breakfast, he went for a walk. His neighborhood was typical of the newer upper-middle-class areas around the country. Stately homes with well-kept lawns lined by short fences, amply surrounded by shrubs and flowers. But for some reason, there were few sidewalks. Brad pondered, as he tromped across the lawns of his neighbors, if the lack of sidewalks was deliberately planned to discourage people who couldn't afford to live in these neighborhoods from entering them.
Whistling while he went, he soon found himself passing by the Thompkins estate. Mrs. Thompkins was a fifty-something busybody known for her active involvement in various local social organizations. Upon sighting Brad, her terrier tore across the lawn, barking wildly.
Looking down at the little terrier, Brad leaned on the four-foot picket fence and laughed. He had never understood why old ladies liked little lap dogs. Their high-pitched barks aside, they certainly weren't a deterrent. He turned to resume his walk when, all of a sudden, the terrier leapt high in the air, bit him decisively on the arm, and hung on for dear life. Brad cursed with pain as his arm spasmed. He grabbed the dog by its throat and forced it to release him. Involuntarily, almost blindly, he flung the animal into the fence so hard that he killed it.
He took off his cashmere sweater and used it to apply pressure to his arm, then stood there dumbly examining the dog's lifeless body. It was dead, all right. For a brief moment he considered stuffing the body into the bushes and continuing his walk. That's when he heard the scream. Mrs. Thompkins apparently had seen some portion of the struggle through her kitchen window and was shrieking hysterically while calling the police. Brad sat down on the curb and waited for them to arrive. It was going to be a long day.
Strangely, the evening before had started well, too. It had been Fiona's 28th birthday, and they were having a party for her. Fiona was the wife of Gerald Sherrel, a wealthy attorney, author, speaker, and their neighbor. The couple was wildly popular among the community's social elite. These parties were social in nature and thrown for personal reasons, but they had serious business facets. People used these occasions, and the guest lists were carefully prepared.
Later, in the hospital, Brad wondered if everything that had happened had been some kind of divine judgment against them. After all, almost the entire social elite of their community had been in attendance. But no, he'd decided that couldn't be. Collectively, they were all involved in some charity or other. And exclusion was necessary to create safe environments where people could feel comfortable.
Still, Brad knew that many of them had secrets. And most were emotionally removed from those outside their social circles. Furthermore, there had been disturbing incidents, like the fire three years ago at the Meyers estate. Mrs. Meyers had immediately rushed to rescue an expensive painting before sounding the alarm. Her decision to rescue the painting first resulted in the unfortunate death of their maid. Even now, ill, Brad felt a shiver creep up his back as he remembered Mrs. Meyer's cold justifications. There was no denying that.
Nevertheless, the party had been quite a gala, and the handpicked guests had milled about talking, socializing, eating catered delicacies, and drinking imported champagne.
Only in hindsight was it odd that nobody noticed the stranger. Brad had first spotted him by the caterer with a huge plate of food. He was heavy and wore polyester clothes that could have come from a thrift store. His hair was combed to the side in a feeble attempt to cover a large balding spot. Brad had wondered what the man was doing there but said nothing. The stranger, however, had caught him looking and immediately walked over. He'd precariously balanced the huge plate of food with one hand and brought the other up for a handshake. Brad had glimpsed a strange rash on the man's arm, but his social conditioning was so ingrained that he automatically shook hands. The man grinned, displaying a case of gingivitis. Brad excused himself and walked away.
Later in the evening, Brad had started thinking about the man and the strange rash. Panicky, he spent considerable time in the bathroom washing and rewashing his hands with antibacterial soap, until he was sure there was no way he could be affected by whatever condition the stranger had. Brad had then mingled the rest of the evening talking about business and current events as usual.
Frequently he'd spotted the obnoxious individual approach people with the constantly refilled plate of food and shake hands with them. It was like a compulsion. The look of revulsion on the guests' faces was always evident, yet they always shook the stranger's hand. More than once Brad had felt compelled to warn the guests, but fear restrained him. Not fear of the stranger, but fear of embarrassing himself. The stranger could be one of the well-heeled guests' uncles, or perhaps he was a family's black sheep. Brad was no different than anyone else at the party that evening. Not one of them was going to risk losing face with so many important people in attendance. Their world was carefully built, so Brad, like the others, had continued to merely observe the stranger.
Finally, around 10 p.m., the stranger simply left. Brad had breathed a sigh of relief. It turned out that no one had known him. One thing was sure; the stranger wouldn't be able to stay the next time. Brad was confident the stranger would be asked to leave if he ever appeared again. That was how it worked.
The night ended on a good note and everyone left at the appropriate hour. Brad had gone home and slept soundly. The next morning he'd enjoyed a normal day at the office and then another good night's sleep. That, however, was the last good night's sleep he would ever have. The recurring childhood nightmares began the next evening.
And the day after that, he was horrified to discover that the body of the strange uninvited guest had been found behind a gas station near the Sherrel estate. The local newspaper reported that the stranger had succumbed to a new variation of a deadly virus. The authorities moved in, destroying everything and isolating everyone associated with the body.
Apparently, the virus was not contagious until its later stages, and the only people affected were those at the party. There was no cure, so they were isolated.
Within three weeks, all were dead. All, that is, except Brad, who was very close to dead.
He looked at the rash, which now covered 50 percent of his body. Sobbing, he wondered what had become of his great-grandfather.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM