March 21, 200—
I have begun this journal to help me deal with my feelings about X. siphonapteris. I started having nightmares about it the week I joined the CDC research team, though I assumed they would eventually go away. Now I must concede that not only have the nightmares not stopped, they have become more frequent and intense. Furthermore, the feelings of anxiety and nausea that have bothered me after the nightmares have lasted longer, sometimes the entire day, sometimes longer. Perhaps I am suffering from depression. I have not shared any of my feelings with my colleagues, for fear they will think I am emotionally unstable and incapable of participating in the research in an objective manner. Part of me fears they would be right, so I am using this journal as a form of auto-therapy. If by the end of the summer I still find myself incapable of regaining control of my emotional life, I will make a full disclosure to Miller, and tender my resignation.
I had another nightmare last night about the girl who had the first documented case of X. siphonapteris infestation, Susie B. I am in my study, working, sitting at my desk with my back to the door. I hear a buzzing noise, like mosquitos, quiet at first but then louder. I think, Did I forget to shut the screen windows? Suddenly, the noise is right on top of me. I turn around and see Susie in my study, covered with X. siphonapteris. She is babbling incoherently, and her face looks swollen. The bite marks of the vermin look bad, bloody and swollen. But she does not seem uncomfortable, in fact she appears enraptured. She is trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand a word she is saying. Then I look down at my arm and see it is bleeding because some have already burrowed into me, and I wake up.
I suppose it is normal enough when dealing with this sort of phenomenon to have nightmares about being infected oneself, but the part of the dream I found most disturbing was not the part about being bitten, it was the look of euphoria on her face and the way she gibbered at me.
It is true that the parasites, in the second stage of infestation, after they have injected themselves in amoeba form into the host's blood stream and attached themselves to the central nervous system, seem to induce a state of bliss. And while one would think that the hosts suffer, given the ghastly suicidal behavior that manifests in the later stages of infestation, the usual psychotropic treatments for depression have no effect since the patients are not "depressed." Preventing them from suicide has required constant vigilance, leaving the entire staff in a state of high anxiety.
March 24, 200—
Another disturbing suicide attempt yesterday. Michael bludgeoned his head against the toilet tank. He had removed the lid and smashed his forehead repeatedly against the sharp edge of the ceramic. He had obviously been in some kind of a frenzy. One of the attendants found him slumped over the toilet, deep self-inflicted scratch marks all over his upper body, his neck, his chest, his arms, his wrists. There was blood everywhere.
Of course Miller was furious that he had been left in the restroom unattended. Then there was the usual hysteria about the blood. We have explained repeatedly to the attendants that the eggs of the parasite, though carried in the blood stream, cannot infect anyone; the eggs must mature and hatch outside of the human body. But the attendants refused to touch Michael. I was forced to rescue him myself, along with Henderson. He was smiling and murmured something as we lifted his head out of the toilet bowl and laid him on a stretcher. I was not sure, but I thought he said, "Beautiful."
The attendants found him dead in his bed this morning.
March 28, 200—
Dreadful. I need to calm myself. My hands are shaking almost too much to write.
I had another nightmare about cannibals. They were like demi-apes or bears or werewolves, or something. Fierce. Aroused. They had just killed a human, had busted his head open and were eating his brains. Then they were worshiping some kind of blue fire and they transformed into human form, though they were still naked.
There was something about them — I recognized them. That is it. The werewolves were the patients we have been studying. Rachel, Marcus, Jonathan, Joan, Melissa. And the person whose brains they were eating, of course his face was gone, but he had a blue watch and those unmistakable white horn-rims hanging on a blue strap around his neck. It was Miller. Dreadful. He was still moving. His left hand was twitching as they were eating his brains.
Now that the horror of it has passed, I am left wondering what it all could mean. Of course the eating of the brains, perhaps it has to do with the effects of X. siphonapteris on the central nervous system. In my subconscious the cannibal patients represented the parasite, and Miller's brain of course that part of the human anatomy that the parasites attack.
By now it is almost four-thirty. I doubt I will sleep much again before the alarm clock goes off. Still too much of the jitters. Cannot bear to turn the lights out. I shall have some coffee and head over to the lab early.
April 25, 200—
I had promised myself to write in this journal every day, but work has been all-consuming.
This is no good. The nightmares continue. I am barely sleeping nights. I have found I am developing a horror of water, cannot bear to shower or bathe. I bought myself a case of those little white hand-towels soaked in alcohol that come in little plastic bottles, "handy-towels" or whatever they call them, and that is what I have been using to clean myself. I have lost my appetite too. The thought of eating fresh fruit and vegetables disgusts me. It reminds me of eating the brains in my cannibal dreams. What would a psychiatrist say? I have mostly been snacking on chocolate, just plain chocolate, drinking coffee, and if I am hungry (which is not often) a plain hamburger with mustard. It is all I can stomach. The thought of eating much else revolts me.
On the bright side, the new experimental treatment appears to have slowed the effects of the parasite in patients, preventing the untimely death which so far has been the inevitable result of infestation. Unfortunately, preventing the death of the patients has allowed us to see the effects of long term infestation on the central nervous systems, especially in the only two survivors of the initial group of patients, Melissa and Jonathan. The parasites' invasion of the brain, the pituitary, and the spinal cord has resulted in certain physical deformities: degeneration of the lower body (leaving the patients bed-ridden); loss of hunger; loss of sexual appetite; and a form of dementia.
Seven of the sixteen male patients are definitely changing sex. We have measured dramatic hormonal imbalances and have observed numerous physiological transformations. The loss of facial hair, the decrease in the size of the vocal cords, changes in body hair and body fat patterns, the development of breasts, the retraction of the testes, atrophy of the penis and scrotum.
May Day, 200—
I have not been able to get out of my head something that Miller said to me the other day. We had gone out for a drink after he had patted me on the back in that fatherly way of his and said he was concerned about me. After gulping down a couple of tequilas he began to talk about the patients in a way I had not heard before.
He said, "Of course this disease, this parasitic infestation is a terrible tragedy. But this new treatment of yours has given us an opportunity to study the human condition in a way we have never been able to study it before."
When I asked him what he was getting at, he said, "We have labeled the patients' loss of speech and apparent loss of higher reasoning as a form of ‘dementia.' But it is not dementia. I asked the attendants to carefully log everything they heard the patients say. Write it down in a log!" He tapped the bar in front of him for emphasis. "I have been studying the log. These patients have a form of language. It is just not the kind of language we expect to hear in humans! It is proto-language."
"What the hell is ‘proto-language,' and what does it have to do with our study of this disease?" I asked.
He sputtered for a moment, "But, but, well, nothing to do with our study of this disease. But it gives remarkable insight into human evolution. Have you never studied evolutionary linguistics? Proto-language exists among certain more highly evolved species, like dolphins or African gray parrots, and maybe wolves, maybe chimpanzees. Proto-language consists of limited vocabulary, mostly nouns and verbs, linked together without syntax in short phrases. You know: ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane' or ‘Og kill bear.' It's good for coordinating hunting or food gathering activities, or for alerting the tribe to imminent danger or coordinating defense. It's not much good for telling complicated stories or arguing about the best way to build an irrigation ditch. It has no articles, no tenses that would allow speakers to distinguish between past, present, or future. Nor conjunctive syntax that allows the kind of speculative thinking that makes human technology possible: ‘If I dig a trench right here, then I will be able to water my fields better.' You understand what I mean?"
"What does this have to do with the patients?" I demanded.
"Where does human language come from?" he tapped me on the forehead. "The brain!" He smiled. "Up until a few hundred thousand years ago, humans had nothing more than proto-language, nothing more evolved than what our cousins the dolphins or the chimps had, what they still have. But then within an evolutionary blink-of-an-eye, a freak mutation, and humans suddenly have a new lobe of the brain, a lobe that does not have an analog in any other animal species. This lobe of the brain is not linked to the outside world, to the senses, it just taps into other parts of the human brain, it feeds off the cortex, taking simple impulses and processing them, giving them syntax, coordinating and controlling the rest of the brain. Giving us language!"
He looked at me knowingly, nodded his head. "You tell me what this has to do with our patients," he prodded.
"The parasite seems to have disabled the lobe of the brain that functions as the ‘impulse coordinator,' the ‘language center,'" I replied.
"Precisely. For the first time, we can see what humans were like in our primitive state, before a freak mutation set us apart from other animals, made us something completely different."
May 7, 200—
I do not even know where to begin. Miller is dead. Murdered by six patients, including Melissa and Jonathan.
A terrible failure of judgment of our part. We are to blame. How could we have been so misled? The patients were not bed-ridden at all. We mistook changes in muscle structure for a "degeneration of the lower body." True, as far as we can tell, the patients are still unable to walk upright. But they now seem able to move quite dextrously on all fours, as Miller learned too late. They were caught in the act by two of the attendants, who heard Miller's screams coming from one of the labs. They rushed to his assistance, but he was already dead when they arrived.
The horror unfolded almost exactly as I dreamed it. Miller was quite unrecognizable when they found him. They had shattered his cranium with a piece of heavy lab equipment and had spattered his brains all over the lab.
August 10, 200—
I had almost forgotten about this journal. I have been completely overwhelmed by my responsibilities as the new director of the project after the tragedy with Miller.
Perhaps Miller would be pleased with the direction I have taken the project. It was not easy, especially after what the six patients had done. But I told the CDC that I was unwilling to accept the position of director of the project unless I was given complete autonomy and complete control.
I moved the research project to a compound in Arkansas. I suspected that the disaster with Miller was a result of confining the patients under such stressful conditions in a crowded hospital. The patients were moved to a more natural setting, where they could enjoy fresh air and sunshine, and where they could move about more freely.
This new setting has not done me any harm either. I have felt more at ease, more light-hearted, more myself, perhaps another reason I have not touched this journal in so long.
My instincts seemed to have paid off. The patients were immediately much more comfortable and relaxed under the new conditions. They regained their appetites too. Actually I suspect that what we initially interpreted as a loss of appetite was more like a change in appetite. They seem most to crave fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, berries, and tubers, fare they almost never received at the hospital/lab. We have occasionally also found them eating insects. Though they utterly refuse meat. In fact the smell of it seems to nauseate them.
My insistence on bringing Dr. Janet Summers, an anthropologist, onto the team almost led to my termination by the CDC. I told them that parasites like X. siphonapteris that invade the brains of their hosts affect social interactions, and need to be studied by someone qualified to analyze social situations (which is true enough, though I did not mention that my primary reason for choosing Janet was her expertise in linguistics). They suspect I am turning this into a pet project that has nothing to do with curing X. siphonapteris disease. Fortunately, the results we have obtained with the experimental treatment, a treatment I played no small part in developing, have bought me some leniency. I do not know for how long.
The Director of the CDC was extremely short with me during his tour of the compound. He found it "degrading" to have the patients scampering about on all fours, with little if any clothing. They tear clothing off when left unrestrained, and I have felt it fit to leave them as much freedom as possible without compromising the project. He considered it a disaster that no attempt had been made to force the patients to sleep in their beds. They do seem to find the beds and the furniture slightly less comfortable than the ground; some actually sleep under the beds though most prefer the bushes. Times of inclement weather seem to be the only time they prefer the barracks to the outdoors, though they are less afraid of getting wet than we are.
The director complained about hearing "disgusting rumors" of "rampant homosexuality" among the patients. It is true that left to their own devices the male patients stay segregated on the edges of the main compound living area, barely interacting with the female patients and the sexually intermediate patients. We have watched the sexually intermediate patients very carefully, noting that they seem to have blended completely with the socially dominant female patient population, sleeping, eating, and grooming with them. And the attendants have reported some sexual activity going on in the compound after lights out, though this seems preferable to the kinds of intrusive behavior that would be necessary to prevent it. We are not sure whether to categorize sexual interactions between the female patients and the sexually intermediate patients as "heterosexual," "homosexual," or "bisexual," but the females seem to show little or no interest in the patients who have remained fully male.
Despite his extreme skepticism, the director was forced to admit that there was not the slightest hint of violent behavior among the patients since moving them here. And the catastrophe with Miller has left him extremely anxious to avoid a repeat of that, not to mention the dreadful suicides that took place before we developed the new treatment. The patients appear to be happy.
October 29, 200—
The situation has declined rapidly, now that a preponderance of clinical evidence has shown that it was the experimental treatment and not X. siphonapteris that has caused the physiological and psychological aberrations we have been observing among the patients. I have been forced to admit that Miller and I were terribly wrong about X. siphonapteris and that the experimental treatment is a dead end.
It should have been obvious, but we preferred to believe that our treatment was working and overlooked the obvious inconsistencies. X. siphonapteris attaches itself to a human or animal host as a flea- or tick-like larva, eventually injecting itself into the bloodstream in amoeba form and attaching itself to the brain or the spinal cord. Then it grows, sending tendrils out to key parts of the central nervous system, influencing the behavior of the host to favor its own growth and development. Its tendrils also invade the ovaries or testes, destroying human reproductive function to replace it with that of X. siphonapteris. It uses the human gonads to produce X. siphonapteris eggs, releasing them into the blood stream. That is the point in the cycle where the hosts engage in self-destructive behavior, cutting or abrading themselves so as to spill blood infested with X. siphonapteris eggs into low-lying bodies of stagnant water (swimming pools, toilets, sewers, small ponds or lakes), where the eggs can hatch and the life cycle of the parasite can begin again. Under the influence of X. siphonapteris humans become anti-social and lose interest in sex (which is why infestation is frequently mistaken for depression). Far from losing normal linguistic ability, they become quite verbal. And X. siphonapteris is no vegetarian; hosts crave red meat, can become wild if they do not get it.
We blinded ourselves to the possibility that it was our treatment and not X. siphonapteris that was producing the hideous physical and psychological abnormalities displayed by the patients. Since the parasites mimic human neural tissue, we designed a treatment that would target neural-mimetic tissue identified as alien by the lack of certain human protein markers. Only now do we realize that our drug was attacking the human brain.
I am not sure if we will recover from this blow. We thought we were so close to a cure. Despite quarantines and pest control efforts, the infestation has been spreading. It is only a matter of time before it reaches epidemic proportions.
November 7, 200—
I killed them. They were under restraint in their beds, and I thought I was injecting them with their medication, but it was poison. They were writhing under the restraints and screaming when I woke up. What a nightmare. Their screams where high pitched, like animals.
They are under restraint now, in their barracks. Hendersen is in charge of the project now, and the compound will soon be shut down, as soon as we move back to the CDC labs in Georgia. The medication was only keeping X. siphonapteris dormant, something we learned soon after Hendersen discontinued the treatments. Three more gruesome suicides before we realized the hard way.
What have I done? Some of the patients appear to be recovering from Miller's and my treatment. Some have regained the ability to walk upright and apparently have recovered normal linguistic faculties. Although it is hard to say what is normal under the circumstances. One of them, Harry Z—, was shouting at me from his restraints, "What have we to do with thee, Jesus of Nazareth?"
About fifteen percent of the patients, including Jonathan and Melissa, have not reverted. They are now being called the "beta patients" and have been segregated in their own ward. I still haven't grown accustomed to seeing them scamper about on their knuckles and the balls of their toes. If I tried going about like them, I would be too stiff to move after a few hours, but they seem most comfortable squatting close to the ground on their haunches. Jonathan and the other males have lost most of their facial hair. All of the beta patients' faces seem rounder, fuller, their bodies heavier. They only talk in disjointed words and phrases. They still answer to their surnames, though their family names seem to have lost meaning to them. So now it's just Melissa, not Melissa T—.
It is still impossible to know whether the treatment caused permanent damage. However, I am afforded only a little grim satisfaction by the fact that the beta patients seem unaffected by X. siphonapteris disease, while those who have recovered from the treatment have experienced a resurgence of it. Hendersen claims that he intends to have members of the project pursue leads from my research. But he is mired in conventional approaches. I doubt he will allow my work to go much further.
Janet and I have ended the pretense that we are not seeing each other, now that Hendersen has taken her off the project. But her idea that we should live together is insanity. She has some romanticized notion that our living together can somehow help me. She cannot see that I would only drag her down, make a wreck of both of us. I cannot stop seeing her, but it will be best for both of us to not get too close.
November 13, 200—
Hendersen ignored my objections to the presence of armed guards in the patient quarters and the labs. The smug bastard. His martial law has left the beta patients terrified. This afternoon I was about to leave their ward, and Melissa started to wail, "YOU NO FREE I." Jonathan joined in too, in a high-pitched whine, "YOU NO FREE WE."
I could only imagine that they were begging me to undo their restraints. The guilt is unbearable when I see what the treatment has done to their minds. When I mentioned the incident to Janet, she replied that she found their use of the word "free" curious.
She said, "I wouldn't think that users of proto-language could attach any meaning to a complex abstraction like ‘freedom.' It requires the ability to organize concepts and categorize them, to be able to associate certain states with ‘freedom' and certain states with ‘captivity.' Proto-language users can't do that. They cannot think in terms less immediate than the immediate present. As former speakers of English, perhaps there are words left over in their lexical storehouse that they are assigning new meanings. I wonder what on earth they could have meant."
Whatever they meant by it, it was heart-rending. I wish I could have freed them.
November 25, 200—
It disgusts me, the thought of millions of sightless, shapeless things, smaller than we can see. Filthy whiteness.
We had another falling out. Over the same thing. I forgot to bring the condoms again, and Janet was out, from the last time I forgot. I suggested anal, but she was adamant. And then we argued about the last time, when I had promised to pull out and did not until it was too late. She suggested masturbating me (though I could not tell whether she was serious or whether she was mocking me). I felt sick to my stomach and left. What ever happened to a good, old-fashioned fuck?
Something is wrong. Something invisible, impalpable. I can feel it buzzing inside my skull.
December 24, 200—
I had heard rumors of the guards joking about raping one of the beta females. I had also heard that they brutalized the intersexed beta patients when the staff was gone from the building. I overheard one of the guards referring to them as "freaks" and "faggot freaks," though Henderson of course ignored my complaints. The thugs have been in charge.
So what happened today came as no surprise to me. We have pieced together that one of the beta patients — I suspect Jonathan or (more likely) Melissa — worked herself free of her restraints, and then freed the other eight. When the guards arrived for the nightly trips to the lavatory the beta patients ambushed them. The patients had, ingeniously enough, unscrewed all the light bulbs in the room. I presume they took advantage of the guards' momentary surprise when the lights did not turn on to knock them to the floor and seize their weapons. We found both guards dead. The patients had apparently held them down and shot them execution style, right through the forehead. I'm not sure what kind of bullets Hendersen's thugs were arming themselves with, but they split the men's heads wide open.
I happened to be working in the lab late when the shots rang out. I ventured into the hallway, and that is when I saw them racing toward me like a pack of dogs. Melissa and Jonathan were in the lead, and when they saw me they froze. They had torn off their robes, were quite naked, except for the patient tags around their wrists. Melissa was covered in blood. She whined, "NO KILL I."
I still have no idea what she meant. Was she denying a role in the murder of the guards? Or was she promising not to hurt me? Or was she begging for mercy?
At that point I had no idea what had happened, though that does not necessarily excuse what I did. Perhaps it was fear of them, perhaps it was guilt. I replied softly, "No kill I," and moved slowly toward the exit. They watched me quietly as I used my code to deactivate the security alarm, and pointed to the door. In another split second, Melissa led the patients lunging through the doors, and they were gone.
Hendersen hasn't found them yet.
December 25, 200—
I woke in a sweat.
I dreamed I was sitting under a weeping willow, leaning my head against the trunk. I looked up into the branches, and saw that the leaves were all dead and the branches were covered in silky white spider webs. The tree was crawling with spiders, huge, white spiders as big as my hand, sickeningly smooth and shiny. They were crawling up and down the trunk, and that is when I realized they were crawling on me too, that one of them had planted itself on top of my head. It was fat, so heavy, pressing down on my forehead. I tried to jerk my hand up to brush it off. I wanted to jump to my feet and run, but I could not move. The spiders had bound me with their webs, tied my hands to the roots of the tree, my body to the trunk.
Then I saw Melissa and Jonathan, like through a haze, far away on a knoll. Melissa was wearing bright garlands of purple and red and pink flowers, and Jonathan was lolling in the grass, playing. Jonathan said, "He can understand us now." Melissa said, "You are not free. I am." Jonathan nodded, "You are not free. We are."
Melissa came closer, leaned down over me and tried to pull the spider off my forehead, but it felt as if it had dug its fangs and its claws deep into my skull, because her pulling only gave me a terrible, biting headache.
December 31, 200—
The patients are dead. They did not get too far from Atlanta before the MP's tracked them down. Hendersen has promised that I will be arrested as an accomplice to first degree murder.
I cannot remember if I was very drunk, or if I dreamed it. Janet said something. I think she was trying to be funny in that sick way of hers.
She said, "The beta patients were not sub-human, they were in touch with a deeper humanity. They were so gentle."
Imagine her calling them gentle. She said, "Despite what they did, they were gentle. They had gentle natures. What they did, murdering Miller, murdering the guards, they were driven to it. They did it in self defense."
I told her she was full of it, full of tequila.
She was smirking, prodding me just to get a reaction out of me like she always does. "Maybe your treatment wasn't a failure after all," she said, "What if the human brain is some kind of symbiotic parasite, like siphonapteris, that uses our reproductive systems against us to replicate itself, that has created language and civilization and everything that goes with it — slavery, rape, war, female infibulation, bride-burning, witch-burning, foot-binding, genocide, the lobotomization and the castration of homosexuals in American hospitals. . . ? What if your treatment were the cure that humanity has needed for three hundred thousand years? You found it by accident trying to cure the latest neural invader, and now it's being swept away because it is the cure."
We both laughed. What if.
It has been days since we had that conversation, and I am not sure how many days it has been since I've been sober. The alcohol haze comforts me, makes me feel like I might be killing it, or am I just killing myself?
I have a recurring nightmare that I am naked, sitting in a field and leaning against a willow tree. There is a strange buzzing in my head, right in my forehead, that makes me tremble, and leaves a terrible pit in my stomach. There's only one way to stop the buzzing, and that is to take a gun and shoot myself in the forehead.
And then I wake up and I'm naked and there's a bitter taste in my mouth and there is gun on my night stand. I pick it up and hold it to my forehead with both hands, my left thumb on the trigger. I want to pull the trigger, but I cannot, I just cannot. Here I sit on the edge of my bed with half a bottle of Tequila and a gun.