The Indian restaurant we wound up in was half a mile from the hospital, tucked into one of those odd warrens of half-residential, half-commercial streets that seemed to spring up all over San Francisco. Every neighborhood had its own character, a mixture of city natives, transplants, and people who thought of themselves as just passing through, even though they’d been living there for longer than I’d been alive. On such blends are cities built.
Nathan took a sip of his mango lassi as he looked thoughtfully at his goat curry. I leaned over and poked him in the arm with my fork. He looked up, startled.
“We’re supposed to be having lunch together, but I don’t know where you are,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”
An odd look crossed his face. Putting down his lassi, he reached up and adjusted his glasses—a sure sign that he was uncomfortable. “Did you know that curry powder is a natural antiparasitic? That’s probably part of why it was originally so popular in Indian cuisine. India has a warm, moist climate. That encourages high levels of parasitism, and the more parasites you have, the more ways you’ll need to keep them out of your population. Assuming you want to have a healthy population, that is.”
“And it’s not until recently that we’ve been put into the position of needing to add parasites for the sake of our health, rather than getting rid of them,” I said. “I know. You tell me things like that every time you don’t want to talk about what’s really on your mind. It’s a good thing I was never enthusiastic about developing a taste for sushi. I think you’d get us kicked out of any sushi restaurant worth visiting.”
“Just because people don’t want to consider the risks inherent in their food choices—”
“Nathan, what’s wrong? You don’t usually try to change the subject twice in one meal.”
He paused before sighing heavily. “If I say you really don’t want to know, Sal, will you believe me?”
“Yes, but I won’t stop asking.” I poked him with my fork again. This time the action earned me a brief smile. “I would be a terrible girlfriend if I didn’t make you tell me what was on your mind. You listen to me whine about dealing with SymboGen enough. I can listen to you.”
“It’s about what happened last night.”
The words were simple, but still sent a thread of unease into my guts, where it curled and twisted like a parasite in its own right. Last night he’d been dealing with an accident. I hated hearing about accidents… but this was Nathan, and he deserved better than me shutting him out because I was uncomfortable. “I’m a big girl,” I said. “I can handle it.”
He sighed again. This time he took off his glasses, polishing them on the tail of his shirt as he said, “It was a nine-car pile-up on the Bay Bridge. The people who made it as far as the hospital said they had no warning at all. One minute, traffic was moving normally. The next, a big rig was jackknifing to block all four lanes of traffic, and cars were slamming into it before they had a chance to realize what was about to happen to them. Eleven people died before emergency services could even get to the scene.”
“That’s horrible,” I breathed, feeling the unease twist harder in my stomach. It was horrible, yes, and it involved a car crash, which was normally enough to make Nathan reluctant to discuss his work with me. But was it horrible enough for him to be this reluctant?
I didn’t think so.
Nathan heard my confusion. He looked up, putting his glasses back on, and said, “You said you were going to the mall with your sister yesterday. In San Bruno. Where those people started sleepwalking.”
“Yes. Joyce and I were both there. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“The driver of the big rig survived. So did the driver of the bus that capped off the accident. His passengers—the ones who lived—said he hit the gas when he came around the curve on the bridge and saw the wreckage. Not the brakes. The gas.”
The similarity to my own accident made me go cold. “What are you—”
“Both drivers are showing the same symptoms as the people from the mall. They’re walking in their sleep. And apparently, causing multi-car pile-ups in their sleep, too. The trucker had no passengers, but the people on the bus said that their driver was perfectly normal when they first got on. He took their fares, said hello, asked about their families… some of them had been riding with that driver for years. They said he seemed perfectly normal, right up until he stopped responding to questions. The accident happened a little bit after that.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so I didn’t say anything at all. I just stared at him, trying to formulate the words that came next. I couldn’t find them.
Nathan nodded, seeming to understand my silence. “More than half the people who were in the accident didn’t make it out of the ER. Some of the others will never be the same. That doesn’t even go into the ones who won’t wake up.”
“There’s more than just the drivers?” The question came out in a whisper.
“Two from the bus, a few passengers from the cars—it’s hard to tell ‘sleepwalking, won’t wake up’ from ‘genuine coma’ right now. You were in a coma. You came out of it.” Nathan paused, wincing. “Oh, hell. Sal, I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay. I asked, remember? And I know my coma didn’t end the way the original Sally might have wanted. I wanted to be supportive.” My stomach was still rolling. I pressed my hand flat against the skin above my navel, grimacing. “Maybe I was a little too supportive. I’ll have to remember that for next time.”