If you’re going to be cutting bodies open all day, you can’t see them as people.
Not even things-that-used-to-be-people.
Not even things-that-used-to-be-people-several-iterations-ago-and-were-essentially-walking-fleshbags-even-before-they-kicked-it.
That’s what Paloma told me on the first day of my internship. After she opened the lab door and looked me up and down with raised eyebrows.
“Actually, I, uh, usually go by Ella. But, hi, it’s really good to...”
But I trailed off because she’d already turned back around without another word. The crisp blue oxford shirt that Career Services recommended felt immediately wrong next to Paloma’s severe middle part, black turtleneck under her lab coat, and dark lipstick.
My only cue to follow her was the open door.
That first moment more or less sums up the mood of my internship so far. Since then, I’ve learned to listen the fuck up when Paloma speaks, because it could be hours or days before she does again. She’ll only say something if it’s of vital importance, and may the tortured souls of the fleshbags help you if you don’t remember it.
It took about five seconds of opening my first body to realize how critical that first piece of advice would be.
Let’s be clear: I’m not squeamish. I was the kid who leaned closer to see the scrape when I fell on the playground, marveling at how the layers of skin stacked on top of one another until they simply gave way to gristle and bone. The teenager who watched the nurse insert the butterfly needle to draw my blood for STI testing. In BIO-1 freshman year, when we dissected the fetal pig, I stayed in the lab long after the other kids left, pulling out organs and marveling at how firm and slippery they felt in my hand.
But none of that stopped me from sprinting out the door to puke the first time I watched Paloma drag the scalpel around a hairline and peel back the scalp in preparation to drill through the skull.
It was nothing like the fetal pig.
This body had been a whole person. And she, like everyone we’d see in the lab, had had the sickness. Instead of layers of pink, healthy tissue, the flesh was blackened and rotting around the edges like a ham left out in the sun.
We know enough about the virus at this point to understand that the state of the skin means the body was walking around for weeks with the brain essentially shot. Finished. Swiss cheese. The virus is picky. It eats the tastiest parts of the brain first - the ones that deal with creativity and logic and compassion. It leaves the boring parts that control the body, which is why an infected body continues to walk around long after its humanity is gone.
Since the whole brain-eating process takes a few weeks, rotting skin means nobody was looking out for you. Nobody noticed you were slowly slipping away and brought you to a hospital, where they could have put you out of your misery with a drug cocktail before your loved ones had to watch you get devoured from the inside out. Nor did anyone borrow a pistol and drive your shell of a body to a remote location to take care of it yourself. This one’s been giving law enforcement a real conundrum in rural areas where gun ownership is more widespread than health insurance. Is it murder if the person isn’t a person anymore? At what point are you dead, even if your body’s still walking around?
We’ve gotten more than a few bodies with gunshot wounds to the back of the head, in various stages of disease advancement.
We take those the same as we receive any other infected body. Depending on the gore, they’re usually less helpful for studying how the virus targets different areas of the brain. Still, at this point, any data is useful data. And it makes the families feel better, to know the body could help find a vaccine for this shit.
I don’t know how to tell them we’re no closer to finding a vaccine than we were when I started six weeks ago. Neither are any of the 463 other labs across the country doing similar research.
I press my palms into my eye sockets as I head to check the intake forms for today. When I listed the Alonso Research Center for Infectious Diseases as my first choice for fourth-year internships, I thought I’d be researching the Ebola virus, or bird flu, or one of the other classics. Preparing for the next time, one of those had an outbreak, but nothing immediate. Then the sickness started not a month later. And almost overnight, my work began to impact millions of people. How the fuck is the world trusting me with this? Me, Ella, the fourth-year med student with mediocre grades, whose mentor probably hates her or at least thinks she’s incompetent.
Three bodies came in since I left last night, their intake forms neatly stacked on a clipboard at the front desk like always. The transport crew from the morgue always leaves things just so. I wonder if it’s a personality thing: working with dead bodies means you can have more control. The dead don’t get up and mess up your filing system or make you self-conscious like living people do.
Paloma won’t be in for another hour and it’s my job to complete the paperwork for the bodies of the day and prep them for us to drill through their skulls and take samples of brain tissue. I skim the forms for the info I need: time of last brain activity, estimated date of infection. Those let me know more or less what state to expect the body to be in when I pull it out of its freezer drawer in the basement.
As a rule, I don’t look at the names. Part of the whole not-seeing-bodies-as-people thing. I honestly don’t know why they even include them on the lab intake forms.
But today, the one on the third form catches my eye.
Instinctively, I flick the form away. It flutters to the floor, facedown. My blood feels like it’s made of tiny grains of sand, draining faster than they’re supposed to out of an hourglass. Everything in me rushing towards the earth.
It can’t be her. Someone with the same name, surely.
I glance at the clock. Paloma’s still not due in for a while. And even if she came in early, this very second, I can’t see her saving me from this confrontation. Or being much of a support if it does turn out to be my Yamel. Paloma, who shows less emotion than the still-twitching body we got in last week.
I take a deep breath. Crack my neck. Heart beating in my temples, I stoop down to pick up the paper where it’s fallen next to my work boots. I flip it over and read the whole thing as fast as I can.
I can’t process what I’ve read.
I reread it.
Yamel Villanueva. Age: 24. Height: 66 inches. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Brown.
Brown doesn’t begin to cover the color of her eyes. They’re gold and toffee and ochre and steeped in pain as she listened to me tell her I can’t see her anymore.
“Why? Did I do something wrong?” She didn’t say it accusingly. Just like she really wanted to know.
No, I wanted to scream. That’s the problem. You did everything right, and I’m in love with you, and that makes me feel like I’m falling into an abyss. I’m not ready for you.
My body snaps into action. Fingers slide the intake form back into the clipboard, where it started, neatly enough to make the morgue team proud. Feet march me across the floor and out the front door.
When Paloma pulls up in her cream-colored vintage Mustang, I’m sitting on the stoop, four cigarettes into the pack of American Spirits I just bought at the deli across the street. A habit I picked up when my mom got sick. She always had cartons hidden around the house and would sit on the porch, smoking them when she thought I was asleep. They seemed to calm her. I wanted to feel calm. So when she got too sick to crave them, I picked them up. She wasn’t there enough to object by then. And I don’t think dad’s noticed anything I’ve done since the day they told us she had the sickness.
In any case, the way things are going, I doubt I’ll be around long enough for lung cancer to get me. So I might as well enjoy a bad habit.
I watch Paloma unfold out of her car, with her signature all-black outfit, slicked-back hair, an impassive expression. My leg’s stopped shaking at this point and the reel of Yamel memories is on its third loop: dark hair falling around my face as she leaned over me, her snort-laughing on the bus, how small she looked sitting on the fence when I walked away for the last time. My body is numb.
I know Paloma can see me but she doesn’t turn to look at me until her door is locked, and her bag is securely on her shoulder. So when she does, I have her full attention. She stands still for a moment, head cocked slightly to the left, exempt from the rules normal people have about staring. She seems to come to a decision and takes slow, deliberate steps towards me.
I’m shocked when, instead of sliding past me, she settles herself next to me on the stoop and pulls a small tin out of her bag. I suck down the last of the cigarette in my hand and put it out on the cement step, watching her sprinkle tobacco in the center of the rolling papers and seal them into two perfect cylinders. She holds one out to me.
I light and inhale, surprised at how smooth it feels, considering the work I’ve put into destroying my throat so far today.
“Someone, you knew?” Paloma says. Her voice is low and not quite raspy. Gravelly, you’d call it.
I inhale sharply and cough, then stare at her. She’s looking straight ahead, though, into the passing cars.
“How’d you know?”
“Yeah. My, um, someone I used to be involved with.”
Paloma nods, says nothing, gazes out across the street that’s just starting to get trafficky. The way she’s looking makes it seem like she’s staring across the ocean, not at the gray facades of the deli and the laundromat and the apartments above.
I take another breath, then pause. Do I really want to share any more with Paloma? But I have all this shit swirling around in my head, and where the fuck else can I put it? I can’t sit here chain-smoking for the rest of my life, and I can’t do anything else until my brain’s at least a little unscrambled. I wish I could call mom.
“I lost a lover to the sickness as well,” Paloma says.
She would use the term lover. But also...wait, what? Is Paloma opening up? Paloma, of the unflappable gothic energy. Of the staring-at-me-wordlessly-when-I-make-a-mistake.
I take advantage of my turn to stare. Her profile is impossibly neat, nose perfectly in proportion to lips and chin. Her lipstick’s left the tiniest shadow of evidence on the end of her cigarette.
“It was in the initial wave before we understood the early signs. Gemma had always been forgetful. So I wasn’t worried at first when she started leaving her phone in weird places, like the fridge. Then she couldn’t make sense of the morning paper. Then she got mean.”
The classic progression of the virus as it eats your short-term memory, your logical reasoning, your compassion.
“I wanted to be the one to take care of her when the time came. I didn’t want her moving on in a hospital, surrounded by strangers. We put her in the backseat of the car, between two friends. We drove to the forest. We said our goodbyes. And I gave her the pill. The man who sells me these—” she waves her cigarette “—has quite the thriving side business. Lots of demand these days.”
She takes a long drag and exhales. Her voice hasn’t shaken the whole time, but her hand is giving the tiniest tremble.
“Gemma took the pill, quiet as a lamb. We buried her there, in the moonlight. Marked the spot with a stone.”
She looks at me, an expression was as placid as ever. Like she didn’t just tell me how she watched her partner disintegrate before her eyes before mercy-killing her in the forest. Something hot falls on my wrist, and I realize I’m crying.
“How do you do it?” It comes out a croak. “Keep living?”
The corners of her mouth creep upward, the tiniest bit.
“Maybe my logic is starting to go, too.”
Did Paloma just make a sickness joke? Is she the type of person who uses humor as a defense? I hadn’t thought her capable.
“I work,” she says. “I watch you. You give me hope.”
“Really?” I wasn’t expecting that.
“You’re young, and you’re learning. You ask questions I wouldn’t think of because I’ve been going through the motions for so long. That’s how we’re going to figure out how to stop this thing.”
She gazes at me evenly. The receiving end of Paloma’s stare is intense as ever, but this time it doesn’t make me feel like I’ve done something wrong. I feel like she’s seeing me. Almost the way mom used to.
“The cycle continues,” she says, simply. “We learn from the pain, and we find joy and hope where we can. We keep walking forward because it’s the only thing we can do.”
I nod like I know what she’s talking about. But then again, maybe I do. Everyone’s been talking about the sickness like it’s changed everything. And in some ways, it has. Everyone has at least one person they love who’s died from it. The collective trauma in the world has increased in scale.
But in other ways, everything’s the same. I still wake up in the mornings and try to reciprocate small talk with the girl who works at the coffee shop, feeling awkward the entire time. I take the bus to the Research Center. The bus stinks of sweat and stale smoke. It’s delayed just as much as before.
You think a crisis of this scale will solve your smaller problems, or at least make it so you don’t care about them. But I’m still stressing about whether Paloma thinks I’m doing a good job. I’m still too scared to talk to Aleah in Organic Chem, where she sits in front of me during the lecture and rubs the buzzed back of her head when Professor Young makes a particularly obscure point. Even when she catches my eye at the end of class, in that accursed dead time when everyone’s packing up.
Even after the sickness started and my mortality suddenly felt much more urgent, I didn’t automatically go back and fix things with Yamel. I thought about it. Of course, I did. Every day. But the sickness didn’t make it any easier. There’s no divine scale that says, hey, enough is enough. It’s all on us.
Paloma neatly puts out her cigarette on the step.
“Come. Let’s go say farewell to your…”
“Yamel,” I finish.
She stands and reaches a hand down to pull me up, then steadies me when my head spins. I lean against the railing for a moment, watching the cars pass. Moving forward, always.
I’m not ready. But I follow Paloma through the open door.