The news announcer’s shrill voice rang out, ripping through the bedcovers, stabbing into Marty Stark’s covered ears.
“There is fear of a new flu epidemic. Experts are dubbing it the “Chicken Flu” because it is believed to have originated from a chicken virus strain that has somehow mutated with a human flu virus. Three children in Hong Kong have died from the new strain and there is more concern about it spreading to the United States and Canada.”
Marty removed his hands from his ears, slammed the off button down on the clock radio and sat up. “Great! Chicken Flu! Now we have to be afraid of chickens!” He walked into the bathroom and took two aspirin, stuck his head under the dribble from the sink faucet and swallowed hard, trying to get them down before they disintegrated in his mouth.
“Why are they always from Hong Kong? What’s the deal with Hong Kong? They can’t keep viruses to themselves?”
The hot shower ran down the back of his neck and head, and he felt calm, almost serene for just a few seconds. That’s all he wanted. Just a few seconds of quiet before his hectic day began. Marty was lulled into mild denial; he didn’t really have to go to work and face a mountain of emails, (approximately 1256 ) didn’t have a meeting at two this afternoon with his biggest pain-the-ass client. The Super Bowl party the night before was great, but his head pounded with Margareta’s Revenge. Oh, and why did he have them with salt? Dehydration was not the ideal way to face Monday morning after the big game. And what’s with the Super Bowl on Sunday night? Why can’t they have it on Saturday so you can sleep in the next day? His eyes shot open as he remembered some of the words he’d spoken at the party. Hey, Babe, how’s it going?Did he really say that? That chick, Billy’s friend, my God, had he asked her out? What happened after half time? Oh, yeah, that cute blonde. Somebody’s cousin, what’s her name. Images of the office popped into his head, and he forced himself out from under the hot torrent of water just in time to see the time on his alarm clock. Shit. Running behind by twenty minutes.
The Choco Bean Coffee Plantation was packed, and Marty waited in a long line that snaked halfway around the store for his double latté. What was her name? Susan, wasn’t it? Or Sally? He got his latte and crossed Massachusetts Avenue and up to Boylston Street. He looked at his watch and realized he’d never make it on time if he didn’t hurry. He started to run, thinking what a sorry sight he must be with his briefcase flying, coat tucked under his arm, huffing and puffing around old ladies and nannies pushing blue strollers, all the while trying not to spill his drink, the big, dark circles under his eyes feeling about three inches deep, off-setting his grotesquely bloodshot eyes. And oh, man, why did he have to eat so much of that seven layer bean dip? His stomach tossed and turned almost giving up the 22 ounces of water he’d slurped down waiting in line at the coffee shop.
Marty didn’t see the cab as he raced across the street, only his latte as it flew above his head, almost in slow motion. Then the yellow hood of the cab came into view as he twirled slowly above the street. He didn’t remember hitting the pavement, only the old woman screaming like bloody murder.
The cab driver got out and was babbling something about brakes and the light change as he ran up to Marty. Bystanders murmured. A frantic buzz surrounded the accident. The scene embarrassed Marty as he lay there looking up at the sky. Latte stains on his shirt and pants. How could he ever live this down? Marty sat up and smiled at the crowd. A few of them actually cheered. The old lady and the cabbie called for him to lay still, but he would have none of it. The crowd slowly dispersed and he heard the sirens, but Marty didn’t care. He got to his feet, picked up what was left of his dignity and his latte and headed toward the office.
After finding a clean shirt in his lower desk drawer and changing into it, Marty sat at his desk and rubbed his throbbing temples. He took a deep breath and clicked on the space bar of his desktop computer. A black blob slowly twirled and danced on the screen. It resembled a fat worm. What the hell, he thought. Where’s my screen saver? Before he could do anything about the computer problem, his eyes started to ache. Sharp pains, like stabbing needles forced him rub his eyes. He got up and shut off the overhead lights, sat behind his desk, and closed his eyes, just praying the pain would go away.
The office door burst open and Guy Paterson, the tall, unkempt, nerdy computer tech looked in.
“Hey, you awake in here?” Guy said, pointing to the ceiling lights.
Marty sat up. “Yeah. Come on in, Guy. Just watching the screen.”
“What’s with the lights?”
“Got a bit of a headache.”
“Here’s the ten bucks I owe you for the game. You called it, Marty. The Patriots crushed it.” Guy tossed a crumpled ten spot on the desk.
What self respecting New Englander would bet against the Patriots in the big game, Marty thought with contempt. “Thanks, Guy. Hey, there’s this thing on my screen.”
“On my computer screen. There’s this thing I’ve never seen before.”
“A thing?” Guy said, in a mocking tone. “Like The Thing, from John Carpenter’s The Thing? Is it gonna assimilate you?” He had constantly chided Marty about his lack of computer knowledge. According to guy, nobody knew anything about computers except Guy, the all-knowing office guru of computer tech wizardry. “Well, then. Let me take a look.”
Marty was already sorry he’d asked, as Guy sat on the desk and leaned toward the screen, his fat thighs smothering some of Marty’s files.
“Come on Guy! Over this side.” Marty laughed and pushed him back.
Guy came around the opposite side of the desk, and they both stared at the screen. The image appeared to be an out of focus, borderless, 5 x 7 black-and-white photo, twirling and scrolling across the screen in a wavy pattern. Guy touched the space bar on the keyboard, and the screen changed to the desktop.
“It’s a screen saver. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, first of all, what the hell is it? I mean, I didn’t load it and it’s out of focus and…” Marty pulled up the screen saver options and punched in a selection. The indistinct black and white image appeared on the screen.
“There it is,” said Guy.
“Yes, there it is. But, I have no idea what this is. It was on my computer when I came in this morning. I didn’t put it there, and I have no idea who did.”
Guy grunted and made a clucking sound as he pecked at the computer keyboard.
“Well?” said Marty.
“It looks like someone loaded a photo onto your computer and set it up to be your screen saver. You didn’t do it?”
“No, I swear, never seen it before.”
“Well, then you’ve got a hacker.”
“My office was locked. I lock it every Friday.”
“No, no. Not a thief, a hacker, doe doe. From the internet,” said Guy. “Or…Maybe it’s a new internal program connected to the mainframe. Hmmm….”
Guy’s cell phone rang, and he took the call. “This problem, again? Yeah, yeah, okay be right there.” Guy walked to the door and turned to Marty. “Hey, what can I say? I didn’t do it.”
Guy started to close the door.
Guy poked his large, shaggy haired head back into the room. “Yeah?”
“Could this photo have been loaded from the Internet without me knowing it? Downloaded somehow?”
“Could be. You have to watch what you open. Sometimes you have to open an email to do it, though. Be careful, there’s lots of scary stuff out there!”
The door started to close again.
“Guy! Just wait a second, will you?”
“Sure, Marty. Anything for you, Man. I’ll just tell Mr. Hart I was late for his little Monday morning pep talk because you have a screen saver demon.”
“Could someone have a remote program that locked onto my computer and put the image in there?”
“Actually,” Guy said, in an ominous tone, then paused for effect, “Yes, there’s a number of ways, Marty. That’s what all those nasty little worms are about.”
“What do you mean, ‘worms’?”
“Well, if you want to get romantic about it, somebody could send you an email, a love letter say, that had a worm attached, and as soon as you opened it, pow! You’re taken over, baby! Worm moves in, you’ve lost control.”
“They can control my computer? Do you think that’s what happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Guy, starting to show signs of concern. “Look, let me run a diagnostic after the old pep talk. I’ll give you a call after lunch.”
Marty sat back, taking a long, deep breath.
“Deal?” asked Guy.
“Yeah. Should I not use my computer until you let me know? I have a client sales pitch at two.”
“I think you’re fine,” Guy said, frustration starting to seep into his tone. “Got to go.” He backed away from the door and quietly pulled it it closed.
Marty sat back and looked at the strange image dancing on the screen. He clicked to the screen saver option to get a better look. The image was basically two small, dark spots and a larger black spot in a sea of gray. He touched the screen, and the image disappeared. He searched the options screen, and the desktop, but couldn’t find where it went. After a few minutes, the screen saver kicked on. GO PATRIOTS! scrolled across the screen. That was the screen saver Marty had put in the computer before the Super Bowl.
“Huh!” he said. “What do you know, it’s back.”
He pressed the space bar again and noticed a dark, blue-black bruise on the back of his left hand. Shit, what the hell is that? The accident must have caused more damage than he realized. Glancing down at the back of his hand, he could have sworn he’d seen the bruise move. He watched for a few seconds more and laughed to himself. He was being silly. Bruises don’t – The bruise crawled a few inches up his arm, like an ameba finding its way in a Petri dish. Marty jumped to his feet, pulled his sleeve up to his armpit. The bruise was traveling fast, just under the skin. It wiggled and pulse and almost seemed to smile at him. His heart pounded. He felt dizzy. The accident, he thought. He remembered being hit and seeing the crowd, but…he didn’t pass out did he? Perhaps he shouldn’t have refused an ambulance. My God, he was sick! A walk-in clinic was just down the street. Maybe he should go there, get checked out? Just the thought of going to a doctor calmed him, but not enough to stop him from running half way there.
When Marty reached the clinic, he was out of breath. His heart was pounding in his ears. He walked quickly up to the front desk and found it was unattended. The woman sitting inside the clerical support area behind Reception looked strange; a mist-like aura surrounding her. Marty’s head was still pounding, and he was starting to have problems with the bright lights. Everything seemed to have that mist-like halo surrounding it.
“Can I help you?” The receptionist walked to the window and smiled
“I had an accident. This morning, on the way to work.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“I have this bruise…” Marty blinked, trying to clear his vision. The lights were stabbing his eyes. “I was hit by a cab.”
“Oh, dear. Fill out this form. The doctor will see you as soon as he can.” She handed him a clipboard stuffed with papers.
Marty sat on one of the green plastic chairs and tried to read the forms, glad to be the only patient in the waiting room. His arm itched, and he pulled up the sleeve to take a look. The bruise was on the inside of his forearm now, spreading up to the shoulder. A fresh shot of adrenaline coursed through him and his heart skipped a beat, then raced on, upwards of 130 beats per minute, Marty guessed. He stood up and turned to the girl in the office window.
“I think I need to see the doctor, now.”
“He’ll be right with you,” she said.
“I don’t feel good.”
“He’s with another patient. We’ll get you in as soon as we can.” She smiled, and he swore he saw a slight wink, but he wasn’t sure through the strange haze that obscured his vision.
Marty returned to the chair in the waiting area and tried to write his name on the form, but he felt like he needed reading glasses. All the headers for the lines were blurry. He put his head in his hands and whimpered softly. Then he remember to take a long deep breath, count to five and slowly let it out for another five count.
The door next to the reception window opened. “You can step inside now.” A plump middle-age nurse in a white uniform motioned him into the room.
“I didn’t do the forms.”
“Bring them in, we’ll finish them in here.” She smiled. Her voice was soothing and calm.
Marty felt a little better when he sat on the table in the curtained-off exam area. She checked his blood pressure and temperature.
“How am I?” he asked.
“You’re blood pressure is a little high. Are you nervous?”
“I was hit by a cab, and I have this bruise on my arm.” He held his arm out straight, exposing the nasty bruise.
“Oh, that’s not too bad.”
“It was on my hand before. Now it’s on my arm, like it moved.”
“Bruises don’t move,” she chuckled.
A short, balding man with a round pot belly, and dressed in a white lab coat strolled into the room.
“I’m Doctor Babcock. How are you?”
“I have this bruise. Do bruises move, because, I think this one moved?”
“Oh?” Babcock stood back, studied his chart for a second. “Let’s take a look.”
Marty held out his arm. The doctor took a penlight and shined it on the bruise. The nurse leaned forward to get a better look.
“Have you been out of the country, lately?”
“Do you own any chickens?”
“Any contact with birds?”
“There is a new flu. A virus they are calling Chicken Flu.”
“You think I have Chicken Flu?”
“No, no. The CDC wants us to ask all patients these questions for tracking purposes.” The doctor pointed to the bruise on Marty’s arm. “How did you do this?”
“A car accident,” said the nurse, helpfully.
“I was hit by a cab.”
“Ouch. While walking? A pedestrian? ”
“Yes, I was walking and suddenly, there it was. I must have flown fifty feet. People were staring at me. The whole world stopped and I was just hanging there in the air.”
They stared at him patiently. He suddenly became self conscious of what he was saying and how panicked he must seem to them. “Then, I came down.”
“I bet. Did you lose consciousness?” asked the doctor.
“No, no. At least, I don’t think so. I was on the ground. I spilled my latte and then I was back at the office.”
“Have you been missing time?”
“I don’t remember. Time? I guess I missed some time, because the next thing I knew I was sitting at my desk. And there was this thing on the screen.”
The nurse and doctor gave each other another glance.
“Why don’t we get an x-ray of that arm?”
The nurse nodded as the doctor leaned in to get a better look at the bruise. The doctor’s bald spot reflected light in Marty’s eyes, and he noticed that only a few straggly hairs still covered his oily scalp. How can a doctor have an oily scalp problem and not cure himself? And why does he have a comb over? This is the guy that I’m supposed to trust with my life? Immediately, his confidence in the doctor was shaken. Who was this fat, balding man with a greasy scalp? He couldn’t even take care of himself, how he could expect –
“Wouldn’t Chicken Flu make you sick with a cold or something?” Marty blurted out, wanting to take control of the situation.
“We don’t know what that flu will do. It came from chickens. People don’t respond like chickens,” said the doctor, then Marty swore he heard him cluck. Just two little clucks, like a chicken. Cluck, cluck.
Marty laughed, feeling like he was in a bad practical joke, half expecting Guy and some of the folks from work to start laughing in the hallway, give the joke away. “So, you’re telling me, I get hit by a cab, and I get the chicken flu?” Marty paused, then clucked once. “Cluck.”
“I didn’t say you have the flu, sir. I said we are checking all patients.”
The doctor turned and was already gone out the door when he noticed the nurse fishing through some draws to his right. She turned to Marty, held up a paper gown and said, “Put this on.”
He took the gown and said, “I’m sensitive to light, too. I see halos. You have a halo.”
The nurse smiled slightly. “Must be because I’m an angel.”
Marty let that roll off his back. “And that cab driver, he looked foreign. Maybe he traveled to where they have the flu and came back? Can you get it that quick? The Chicken Flu, in an hour?”
“I don’t think so,” said the nurse. She took Marty by the arm and slowly walked him to x-ray room.
His light problem seemed to be getting better now. He could almost make out the X-ray technicians features, who seemed to be a balloon faced monster with horned rimmed glasses who had silver braces on his teeth. Of course, there was no monster, he knew. He laughed to himself, and began to calm down. He could take a joke as well as anybody. Cluck, cluck, indeed. Marty smiled and took a few deep breaths after the x-ray. He was even feeling a bit calm while being led back to the exam room.
After a few minutes, Dr. Babcock walked into the room and stuck an x-ray of Marty’s arm and shoulder onto the light panel. Dr. Babcock stroked his chin, turned his head sideways and again made the clucking noises while he studied the film.
“How’s it look, Doc?”
“It’s not broken.”
“What about my eyes?”
“You may have a slight concussion.”
Marty leaned forward on the gurney and peeked over the doctor’s shoulder. There on the x-ray, seemingly embedded in Marty’s arm, was the fuzzy black-and-white image from his computer.
“Whoa! What is that?” asked Marty, his voice cracking, a rush of adrenaline doing the giddy-up on his cardio.
“I’m not sure. Bruises don’t usually show on x-ray like this. Hmmmmmm.” Dr. Babcock fastidiously straightened the few hairs left on his head and stood back, staring at the x-ray like it was an expressionist painting.
“Well, it keeps moving. Look!” Marty held up his arm. The bruise was almost to his chest. “What do I mdo? What is that?”
“Boy, you’re a nervous one, aren’t you?” Babcock said, with a cluck.
“But that thing was on my computer! You understand? That black spot thing is on my arm and now my chest. They said it was a worm. The same thing is on my computer! I have a worm! It’s a worm! A computer worm and I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Marty had visions of inch long, black glistening slug-like worms squirming around under his skin, eating flesh, boring holes through his body, and finally reaching his spine and then soon, eating his brain. His brain! Then the notion came over him that it was all in his head, and perhaps he was losing his mind, like meth-heads do. They see bugs, crawling on their skin and in their eyes. Maybe the concussion was doing this? Or perhaps he was dreaming. He’d wake up from a nap soon, and all this would be gone. It was all a strange, crash induced hallucination dream. That’s what this is, he thought.
“And you keep clucking at me like a chicken.”
“Come on, now.” The doctor smiled, his finger on the x-ray. “It’s a superficial bruise.”
“You gotta help me, Doc!”
The doctor turned to Marty. “You need to remain calm. Okay? Look at me.” He held out his hand. “I’ve got twelve patients with the chicken flu, you don’t see me running around yelling about worms, clucking up a storm, do you?”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not infected.”
The doctor put his hand to his chin for a second, as if to think, then he said, “I’m going to call an ambulance to take you to County General.”
“What? Why? Am I dying? Oh, my God, am I going to die?” Marty jumped to his feet and grabbed his clothes, shoving his leg into his pants. He tripped himself, falling to the floor. The doctor started to help him, but stopped himself before touching Marty’s arm. Marty looked up at the doctor and saw the hesitancy on his face.
“You’re afraid to touch me, aren’t you? You’re frightened by me. This thing I have!”
The doctor shook his head, clucked twice, and waved his hands in front of him, as if to warn him off. “I’m just concerned. That’s all.”
Marty reached out to the doctor, and Babcock backed away toward the door. “What are doing? I need your help! I’ve got a worm, don’t you understand! A worm!”
“Settle down, now. Cluck. I’ll get you something.” He called out to the nurse for some lorazepam.
“I touched the screen and the worm went into my hand! You understand?”
The nurse brought in a small bottle of clear liquid. Babcock started to load a syringe with the substance.
“What’s that?” asked Marty.
“Just something to calm you down.”
“I don’t want to calm down. We have to do something about this worm!”
The doctor held up the loaded syringe and turned to Marty. “Roll up your other sleeve, cluck.”
“No, I don’t need that! It’s the worm. We have to get it out!” He pushed the doctor away, knocking the syringe to the floor. “You keep clucking at me!”
Doctor Babcock abruptly turned and ran from the room, holding his arm where Marty had touched him. Marty snatched up his clothes and followed him into the hallway. Babcock disappeared behind a door marked, Office. Marty ran to the front-desk area, but the place was empty. He ran back into the x-ray room, but no one was there.
He found his way back to the exam room and hurriedly put on his clothes, thinking; I have a worm. A worm! And he could feel it working its way under his armpit, gnawing at his flesh, boring a path through his body, knowing that if it reached his heart, he would die.
Marty got to the front reception area, and heard clucking coming from behind another door.
“Are you in there?” he yelled. “Hey, Doc, why are you hiding from me? Nurse?”
It was no use. They weren’t going to help him. No doctor could. Sirens wailed from a few blocks away. He ran to the exit door. They were coming closer. Coming for me, he thought. He imagined a paddy wagon, him being loaded in with chains wrapped around his wrists, the driver saying, “Better watch him, Len. He’s got the worm.” The driver’s pencil-thin head would open in a rabid, sharp toothed grin as he poked Marty with a stick to make him move. He’d be an animal in a cage. The beast with the worm!
Marty ran into the street, not seeing where he was going, knowing only that he had to get away, had to find out about the worm before it was too late. Instinctively, he turned and headed toward his office.
Marty opened his office door. Guy sprang up from the desk chair.
“Marty, what happened to you? You look horrible.”
Marty grabbed Guy, pulling his tie until his face was close enough to smell the tuna fish sandwich he’d had for lunch.
“You did this, didn’t you?” he huffed.
“The worm! The worm! Look at it!” Marty lifted his shirt. The bruise covered parts of his chest and armpit.
“Geesh, Marty! You better get to the doctor.”
“I’ve been to the doctor. He just clucked at me! It’s the worm. The worm, Guy! Don’t you get it?”
“Okay, that’s enough. Get back, you idiot.” Marty pushed Guy out of the way and ran to his computer. He frantically pawed at the keyboard, trying to find the screen saver. “Come on, Guy! Help me find it. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”
Guy stood back, watching fearfully, and looking like he didn’t know what to do next.
“Come back over here. Take a look at my computer. I can’t find it.”
“You gotta calm down, Dude.”
“Just do it!” Marty yelled.
“No, I mean it. Calm down,” Guy said, and he took a few steps toward Marty.
Marty suddenly realized how crazy he must seem. He took a deep breath, then stood and graciously presented his chair for Guy to sit. “How’s this, Guy? See? I’m okay. Come. Take a look, will yah?” He had taken a deep breath and smiled politely, but he knew he wasn’t going to be calm. His heart pounded against the wall of his chest. He imagined that wall contracting, turning black, with the body of that worm thing surrounding his heart, squeezing the juice from it, sucking every ounce of blood he had left, its gnarly, spiked teeth delving through his tender flesh. Marty’s knees were weak, and he felt faint, but he managed a smile as he held the chair for Guy to sit and start his work.
Guy hesitated a second, watching Marty suspiciously.
“Find the image, will you please?” Marty asked, baring his teeth in forced smile.
Guy came around the desk and clicked the keyboard. After a few minutes, the dark image popped up on the screen, slowly twirling like a roast on a spit.
“There it is.”
“What is it, Guy? Is it a worm?”
“I tried to tell you when you first walked in, but you were going nuts.”
“It could be part of a worm.” Marty’s body tightened. “But it’s a photo,” said Guy.
“Yes,” said Marty, as he watched the lethal image. “It looks like an out-of-focus photo.”
“Yeah, but what I bet you didn’t know I have software to remedy this,” Guy said.
“What do you mean?” asked Marty.
“I can clean up the image. Look.”
They both stared at the fuzzy blobs on the screen. Marty felt a muscle spasm in his side and grabbed it, clutching what he thought might be the worm as it slithered its way into his chest cavity.
“Can you make it clear?” Marty said, sweat pouring down his forehead so profusely he had to wipe it from his eyes with his shirt tail.
“Keep watching it,” said Guy, a bit cocky now, confident in his almost magical control over the computer.
Guy went into a program, pulled the photo from the screen saver and started to press the number pad. Marty leaned forward, looking over Guy’s shoulder.
“See? It’s getting clearer,” Guy said.
At first, Marty couldn’t tell what it was. Perhaps it was at an angle he hadn’t expected. It appeared to be taken from way up high. As he took in the whole image, he began to understand what he was seeing.
Guy turned to Marty. “What is that, a car?
“Yeah, a taxicab,” answered Marty. “A yellow cab.” The pain in his side was getting worse now.
“And that, right there. Look!” Guy pointed to what appeared to be a crumpled lump of clothing. “What is that?”
Marty took a deep breath. He could feel his head starting to spin as recognition slowly crept upon him.
“And that, that looks like a guy standing in the street,” said Guy.
“Yeah,” said Marty. “Like a cab driver.”
“But what is this?” Guy pointed to the bundle of clothes.
“That? That’s me, Guy. That’s me.”
Guy turned to Marty and said, “What?”
The word what echoed through Marty’s head as he slowly opened his eyes and faced the early morning sky. It was a lovely deep blue with just a few clouds. He turned his head slightly, and an old lady crossed herself as she leaned in, her wrinkled face sadly looking down upon him. The cab driver stood above, yelling something about traffic lights and brakes, and waving his arms around. Marty tried to say something. The cabdriver and the old lady leaned in to listen. Marty took the cabbie by the collar, put his lips to the driver’s ear and whispered, as a pang of relief fluttered through his chest.
“Yes, yes, at least?” parroted the cabbie. “At least, what?”
And with his last, dying breath, Marty said, “At least it’s not a worm.”