« Chapter Fifteen | Main | Chapter Seventeen »

December 08, 2004

Chapter Sixteen

The door to the fourth floor of Pomona Valley Hospital opened, and I was confronted by the face of officer Bob Ramos.

"Hi, Mr. Stein," he said.

"Hi, Bob," I said.

"Nice dog you have there," Officer Ramos said.

Joshua did his best stupid dog grin.

"Not my dog, it's Michelle's," I said. "I thought he might help bring her out of it. You know."

"Sure," Ramos said. "I guess we can pretty safely say you don't want Dr. Adams to know about it, right?"

"Right," I agreed. "I'm not visiting at two in the morning just because I'm not sleepy."

"Got it," Ramos said.

"By the way," I said. "I've got something for you." I pulled out a CD that I'd been carrying under my arm.

Ramos took it. "What is this?"

"You mentioned that your daughter was a fan of Tea Reader's," I said. "So I thought she might like to have an autographed copy of the CD. See, look, it's even made out to 'Maria.'" I didn't tell Ramos that the CD had in fact been autographed by Miranda. The chances of Tea Reader herself doing me a favor these days were slim and fast approaching none.

"Well, that was really nice of you to do that," Ramos said. "My little girl is going to be thrilled right out of her socks. You're a real stand-up guy, Mr. Stein."

"It's nothing," I said. "Glad to do it. Is anyone else in with Michelle?"

"I've been here since midnight and no one's come through except for the nurse," Ramos said. "You might check with Officer Gardner. She's over at the stairs. Been there since 11."

"That's all right," I said. "I'm just going to pop in for a couple of minutes. You'll let me know if the nurse comes by again?"

"Sure," Ramos said. "I'll make a lot of noise. Give you enough time to hide the dog in the can."

"Thanks, Bob," I said, and then headed down the hall with Joshua.

The door to Michelle's room had been left open. Inside, a cone of light illuminated Michelle, whose bed had been positioned so she was reclining rather than lying down directly. The rest of the room was dark, and the other two beds in the room, still empty, had their curtains closed around them. I closed the door, and then went over to Michelle. She was unchanged: comatose and on a respirator. I felt a fresh wave of guilt.

"Tom," Joshua said. "I can't do anything from down here."

"Do you want to get on the bed?" I asked.

"No, that'd be mighty uncomfortable," Joshua said. "Grab me one of those visitor's chairs and put it near the head of the bed, please."

There was one near the bed on my side; I wheeled it around to Joshua's side, to avoid him accidentally knocking over the IV. He asked me to turn it around so that the back faced the bed; when I had done so, he jumped up on the chair and propped himself up on the back of the chair, putting himself on a level with the bed.

"That'll probably be close enough," Joshua said.

"Are you going to be able to reach her?" I asked.

"Sure," Joshua said. "Ralph's body is totally gone now, you know. It's all me. I can make tendrils now. It still helps to be close, of course. Now I have to figure out where to enter her head -- she's got so many tubes in her. I think I'll go through the ears. This is going to take a couple of minutes, so don't talk to me for a few. I'm going to have to concentrate."

With that, Joshua made sure he was securely positioned, and closed his eyes. Then his face disappeared. His snout elongated and became the transparent goo that Yherajks were usually made of. It looked like a glass elephant trunk. The trunk waved in the air for a second, as if tasting the air, and then made its way to Michelle's head. An inch above her face, the trunk split in two; each tendril wandered casually over to an ear, then covered it. Michelle looked like she was wearing headphones that were attached to a headless dog.

The scene was so surreal that I lapsed into mute gawking. It took Joshua to bring me out of it.

"Tom," he said, "I think we have company."

"What?" I said.

"Turn around."

I did. Miranda stood there, a book in her hands. Behind her, the curtain was pulled back from one of the vacant beds. Miranda was looking past me, at the scene of Joshua and Michelle. Her eyes were wide and black, and she had the expression you get when you're seeing something horrifying and you hope you're dreaming.

"Miranda," I said.

Miranda glanced over at me, not really seeing me at first. Then I could almost hear her brain click as to who I was, where she was, and that she, in fact, was not dreaming. She opened her mouth and took a sharp intake of breath. In one more second, I knew, it would come out as the loudest scream I had ever heard.

I leapt at her. I clamped my hand over her mouth and turned her around. Then I picked her up and sprinted to the bathroom with her, kicking, in my arms.

Behind me, I heard Joshua say, in a conversational tone of voice, "If she screams, we're fucked, Tom. Calm her down." The conversational tone of voice was simply so that it couldn't be heard outside the room -- Joshua's voice was as tense as I'd ever heard it. As I shoved Miranda into the bathroom, I caught a whiff of something rotten and realized that Joshua was screaming -- just in his own language. I closed the bathroom door behind me, locked it, and hit the light switch to start the fan.

In shoving her into the bathroom, I had accidentally pushed Miranda into the sink. Her aborted scream went out of her with a whuff; her book went flying. She reeled sideways, colliding with the tub. I reached for her to help her regain her balance; Miranda grabbed me, ducked her head down, and launched herself into my abdomen. It felt like I had been hit by a cannonball, and the impact slammed me up against the door -- I felt myself bounce off of it. I couldn't breathe and went down to the tiles.

Miranda was now pushing me away from the door, trying to unlock it. I lurched up from the floor, grabbed her around the waist, and pulled her to the floor with me. On her way down, Miranda cracked me in the eye with her elbow. There was a mushrooming sensation of pain behind my eyeball; I was pretty sure I was going to be blinded for life. But I held on, rolled over on top of Miranda, pinned her arms with my legs, and used my weight to pin her down. Miranda opened her mouth to scream again. I reached down to cover her mouth. Her head dodged sideways and then flicked back; she caught the side of my hand in her mouth and bit down, hard. I had to bite the side of my cheek to keep from screaming myself.

"Miranda," I said, gritting my teeth. "This is really beginning to hurt."

Miranda let go of my hand; I pulled it up and started shaking it in pain.

"Thank you."

"Get off of me, now," Miranda said.

"I will," I said. "But you have to promise me not to scream."

"Tom, I want to know what the fuck that thing was out there."

"That's good," I said. "Because I want to tell you. Now I just need you to promise me you're not going to run screaming. Okay?"

Miranda nodded her assent. I gladly collapsed off of her and leaned my back against the door, clutching my hand. I could feel the blood; I wasn't yet mentally prepared to look at it and see the carnage. Miranda got up slowly, never taking her eyes off me, and perched on the tub; she was preparing to make a hole through me if she had to in order to escape. I had been lucky to catch her by surprise. In a real fight, she could have sent me to the hospital. Fortunately, we were already there.

"Explain," she said.

"Remember Joshua?" I said.

"The dog?" she said.

"No, the other Joshua," I said. "Well, actually, yes, the dog Joshua, too. They're both the same person."

Miranda looked at me very dangerously. I held my hand up.

"Start over," I said, took a second and then started again. "You remember that secret project Carl has me doing."


"The project is about aliens. Space aliens. They had contacted Carl. He wanted me to find a way to introduce them to the world. That thing out there is one of them."

"Joshua," Miranda said.

"Yes," I said. "He was an alien first, and then he took over the body of a dog named Ralph. Long story."

"What is it doing to Michelle?" Miranda asked.

"He's scanning her brain," I said. "Trying to see if she's ever coming out of the coma."

Miranda shook her head violently. "This doesn't make any sense."

I laughed, weakly. "If you have a more rational explanation, Miranda, I'd love to hear it." I finally got up enough courage to look at my hand. It was covered in blood; Miranda looked to have ripped out a fairly large chunk.

Miranda noticed it too. "My God, Tom, you're bleeding," she said.

"I know," I said. "I think I have a black eye, too. Our first fight. Remind me never to piss you off again."

Miranda came off the tub, helped me up, and walked me over to the sink. She turned on the water and put my hand under it; I just about jumped out my skin from the pain.

"Sorry," Miranda said. "Sorry about everything, Tom. I just didn't know what was going on. I still don't."

"What were you doing here, Miranda?" I asked. "The officer at the front said no one was here."

Miranda shrugged and started soaping the wound, which hurt like you wouldn't believe. "Dr. Adams said that we should talk to her, that it might help bring her back out. I figured I would come read to her. I brought Alice in Wonderland, if you can believe it. I got here about eight. Around eleven I got tired. It was a long day. I didn't think anyone would mind if I took a nap."

The blood had been pretty much washed away; with it gone the wound appeared much less severe than it had seemed. Miranda grabbed a washcloth from the rack near the tub, folded it once, and pressed it over the wound.

"Hold it there for a while," she said. "It doesn't look that bad. I don't think you'll need stitches."

"That's a relief," I said. "It would have been a little difficult to explain how it happened." It was an attempt at humor, but Miranda wasn't biting. So to speak.

"Tom," she said. "You said that he was scanning her brain."

"That's right," I said.

"What happens then?" she asked.

"Well, if it looks like she'll come out of it, he'll do what he can to help her. He's got the experiences of thousands of his people, Miranda. One of them has to have been a doctor or a scientist that could make guesses on how to do that."

"What if she has permanent damage, Tom? What if she's never going to come out of the coma?"

I took a deep breath. "Then I'm going to ask Joshua to inhabit her body."

Miranda drew back. "What?" she said, rather too loudly.

"Keep it down," I said.

"Keep it down?" Miranda said. "We're talking about Michelle's life, and now that thing wants to take it so he can have the body? Don't you have a problem with that?"

"Miranda," I said. "If Michelle's never coming out of the coma, she's already dead. Brain dead, at least, with her body kept alive by a machine. She's gone. And if that's the case, then there's an opportunity to make her death at least have some meaning, an opportunity for something historic."

"It's body snatching," Miranda said.

"Not any more than organ donation," I said. "Look, Miranda, the Yherajk --"

"The what?"

"The people who Joshua come from," I said. "They're called the Yherajk. In their natural form, they look like Jell-O globs. People will be terrified of them. But if they could see them in human form first, it would make it easier. We need a Trojan horse, Miranda. Something that will allow the Yherajk to make it through the door of human consciousness without terrifying humanity half out of its brain. Think how you just felt out there; now multiply that by six billion. We need a Trojan horse."

"The Trojan horse wasn't so great for the Trojans," Miranda said.

"It's just an analogy," I said.

"How do you know Joshua won't just say she's not coming out the coma, so he can get control of the body?" Miranda asked.

"Because he doesn't know I'm going to ask him to do it," I said. "This isn't his idea, Miranda. It's mine."

Miranda slumped back down onto the tub and pressed both hands against her head, as if to keep it from exploding. "I think I'm in shock," she said. "I can't feel anything. I don't know what to make of what you're saying to me."

I knelt down until I was at her level and took her hand. "If you were in shock, you wouldn't know you were in shock, Miranda," I said. "I think you're going to be just fine. Listen, I know how sudden this feels. When Carl introduced me to Joshua, it was the same thing -- just threw me right into the deep end. He trusted me to be able to swim. I trust you to be able to swim, Miranda. And I'm going to need you to help me from here on out. I've had to deal with this thing by myself -- Carl gave it to me because he couldn't be seen handling it, and I couldn't get help from anyone else. Now you know. I need you to help me. I need you, Miranda. Okay?"

"Oh, God, Tom," Miranda said. "If I knew the job was going to be this tough, I would have asked for more up front."

"Hey," I said. "I already got you two raises in the last few weeks. Don't push it."

Miranda laughed that time. She had a very nice laugh.


"Good to see you're both alive," Joshua said, as we returned to the bed. "I was worried there for a while. It sounded like a cat got caught in a dryer."

"We got it worked out," I said.

"Good thing, too," Joshua said. "Because from the look of it, Tom, she kicked your ass."

"I pulled my punches," I said.

"I'm sure you did," Joshua said, dryly. "Hello, Miranda. Sorry about the surprise. I'm afraid you're not seeing me at my best. I really do look nicer with a head. But then, really, don't we all."

"Hello, Joshua," Miranda said. "I hope you don't mind if it takes me a little while to get used to this all."

"No problem," Joshua said. "Personally, I'm glad you're in on the secret. Tom could use a better brain than the one he's got."

"Enough with the insults," I said. "Have you found anything?"

"I'm afraid I have," Joshua said. "I have bad news and worse news. Do you have a preference to which you want to hear first?"

My heart sank. Miranda reached over and took my hand. "Might as well tell me the worse news," I said.

"She's gone, Tom," Joshua said, bluntly. "From what I can tell, large chunks of her brain had already died before Miranda got to her. She was down a long time. It's pretty obvious, actually; I'm surprised that the doctors here haven't already told you. They probably want to do a couple more CAT scans to be sure. But I'm sure. It's a mess in here. I'm sorry, Tom. I really am."

"Isn't there anything you can do?" Miranda said. "Tom said that you have the experience of doctors and scientists. Can't you do anything?"

"It's not a question of expertise, it's a question of raw materials," Joshua said. "Michelle's brain is severely damaged, and the damage affects a wide range of functions. It's not like a stroke, where the damage is localized, and the brain might find some way to route around the damage. Here, if I was to try to route around damage, I'd only come across more damage. They're never going to get her lungs pumping again on their own, and from where I'm at, most of the parts of the brain that control things like her liver and kidneys look to be non-functioning. I'd expect that in another day or so, you'll be told they expect liver and renal failure within a few days. I'm sorry, Miranda. If I could do something, I would. But there's nothing to do."

"What parts of her brain do work?" I asked.

"Well, her heart's still pumping, so that tells you something," Joshua said. "Her digestive tract is fine, not counting the liver or kidneys, which I've already spoken about. Her auditory centers are working --"

"She can hear?" I asked.

"That's not what I said," Joshua said. "The parts of her brain that process sound are still doing that. But the parts of the brain that interpret sound aren't. Sound is going into the microphone, but it's not being recorded, if you know what I mean."

"What about her?" Miranda said. "You're talking about her body processes. What about her? Her personality? Her memories? Those things?"

"Like everything else," Joshua said. "Some parts are there, some aren't. Most of her recent memories are here; I'd say the last couple of weeks for sure. After that, it gets spotty. Of course, that could just have been the way her mind worked, anyway. You humans remember some things better than others. But as to her personality -- well, let's just say that if we managed to somehow get the rest of her brain working, and she came out of it, she wouldn't be the Michelle you remember."

"What would she be?" I asked.

"Psychotic," Joshua said. "Frankly I doubt that she would comprehend the world anymore. It would just be some terrifying blur to her."

"So she's dead," I said.

"She -- Michelle -- is dead now," Joshua said. "This body, on a respirator, will last about another week. Best estimate. I'm going to disconnect from her now, Tom, if you don't mind. The scenery in here is starting to make me depressed."

About a minute later Joshua was completely reconstituted as a dog. He leapt down from the chair and padded over to us.

"Is anyone else hungry?" he said. "I don't know what it is, but ever since I melded with Ralph, every time I'm depressed I just want to eat."

"Hold that thought for a second, Joshua," I said. "I have a question for you."

Joshua sat. "All right, what is it?"

"You're positive that Michelle is gone and that the body will be dead within a week."

"Pretty much," he said. "I'm sorry about that for you."

"Joshua, why don't you use her body?" I said.

Joshua looked perplexed. "Come again?"

"She's dead," I said. "And you could use her body. You would finally be able to walk around and interact with humans. Michelle was famous. You'd already have a high profile. You could finally be a true intermediary between our species. Michelle's gone, we know that. But here's an opportunity."

"Tom," Joshua said, slowly. "I know you think that what you're suggesting is a good idea. From where you're standing, maybe it looks that way. But it's not. I can't take Michelle's body."

Beside me, I could feel Miranda nearly collapse with relief. Despite what I told her, she must have still harbored the worry that Joshua was simply waiting to snatch Michelle's body. Now that he was rejecting the offer, Miranda could believe that he was genuine and honest in his intentions. I, however, was merely confused.

"I don't follow," I said. "Can't take Michelle's body? Or won't take Michelle's body?"

"Either," Joshua said. "Both. Can't and won't."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Tom, Michelle is brain damaged. Even if I could inhabit her body, I couldn't control it or keep it alive. I need an at least nominally functioning brain to do that. Michelle doesn't have that any more. It'd be like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel."

"But that's just temporary," I said. "You have Ralph's appearance now, but there's none of Ralph's body in you anymore."

"That's true," Joshua said. "But Ralph's brain was in one piece when I inhabited him. I had time to learn how to be a dog. I don't have that here."

"That's the can't," I said. "And maybe we can find some way around that. What's the won't?"

"The won't is that Michelle didn't give me permission to inhabit her body or transfer her personality," Joshua said. "That's incredibly important, Tom. Otherwise it's tantamount to causing soul death. I won't do that. It goes against everything that a Yherajk stands for, ethically."

"You didn't get explicit go ahead from Ralph, and yet you inhabited his body," I said.

"But I felt that Ralph wanted me to," Joshua said. "It's hard to explain. And at the very least, Ralph was my friend, my very good friend. I knew better what he wanted that I would Michelle, who I didn't know at all."

"It's what I want," I said. "And Michelle gave me permission to make decisions on her behalf."

"Not this decision," Joshua said.

"You don't know that," I said, almost accusingly.

Joshua sighed. "Actually, Tom, yes, I do."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Remember when I asked you if you wanted the bad news or the worse news?" Joshua said. "Well, the worse news is that she's gone. But the bad news was, she did it to herself."

"What?" Miranda asked.

"I saw it," Joshua said, turning to Miranda "Her last memory. After you left, Miranda. Michelle pulled the breathing straws out and closed the latex over her nostrils. Then she waited to suffocate. She committed suicide."

Joshua turned back to me. "Right or wrong, Michelle chose to end her life, Tom. And that's why I can't take her body, no matter what you say. Her decision was to die. And I can't take that decision away from her. Neither can you. No one can."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:46 PM