—FROM CAN OF WORMS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SHANTI CALE, PHD. AS YET UNPUBLISHED.
Someone knocked on my bedroom door, coaxing me out of an uneasy sleep. I opened my eyes but didn’t lift my head from my pillow. Maybe if I stayed where I was, they’d go away and leave me alone.
The knocking continued. Beverly lifted her own head and turned toward the door, ears cocked at an inquisitive angle. Then she turned and looked at me, the question clear in her puzzled brown eyes. Why was I, the one with the thumbs, not getting up and answering the door? Was something wrong with the world?
Yes. Something was wrong with the world. SymboGen was withholding information about what was becoming a national health crisis, at least according to Nathan. He’d produced reports from hospitals around the country the night before, stacking them up in front of me like silent accusations. I’d picked up the first one, flipping it open to the list of cases. Twenty-seven affected so far in Cleveland, Ohio, and the surrounding cities. “Why hasn’t this been on the news?” I’d asked.
And that was when Nathan had said the most damning thing of all: “I’m starting to think it’s because SymboGen doesn’t want it to be.” Each outbreak was reported on the local news—that was unavoidable—triggering a brief flurry of concern, but after that, it just vanished, falling into whatever pit waited for buried news cycles. Miracle diets and pop starlets ruled the headlines, and a few dozen sleepwalkers in a few dozen American cities barely registered as worthy of attention.
But it wasn’t just a few dozen, according to the reports Nathan had. There were a few hundred cases, once you looked at the whole country, and they weren’t limited to American soil. We knew of definite cases in Canada, the United Kingdom, and South America, and there were rumors of more cases elsewhere in the world. If this was as widespread as Nathan suspected, worldwide infections were probably somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand, and climbing—which just made the lack of major media coverage more alarming. Someone, somewhere, was spending a lot to bury this.
SymboGen obviously didn’t have a treatment protocol—that was clear from the way they’d eliminated Chave—but they knew more than anyone else did. So why hadn’t they shared their information with the rest of the medical community? Why were they choosing to shut out all the other researchers and scientific establishments in the world? There were a lot of potential motivations for that sort of thing. None of them were altruistic.
After what Nathan and I had seen at SymboGen and the hospital, neither of us was in the mood for company. He’d dropped me off at home, barely beating Dad and Beverly to the driveway. I’d kissed him goodbye, whistled for my dog, and gone straight to bed. That was—I lifted my head enough to check the clock. That was either three or fifteen hours ago, depending on whether it was nine o’clock in the morning or nine o’clock at night.
The knocking wasn’t stopping. I finally forced myself to roll out of the bed, raking my hair out of my eyes with my fingers as I walked to the door. I wrenched it open, and demanded, “What is it?”
Joyce blinked. “Whoa. Dad said you’d gone to bed as soon as you got home, but I expected you to be wearing your pajamas. Why are you wearing scrubs?”
“It’s a long story,” I said. The hallway was brightly lit, but that didn’t tell me anything; there were no windows. “What time is it?”
“Don’t you have a clock, sleepyhead? It’s nine in the morning. You’ve slept the clock all the way around.”
“Oh.” I stood there, blinking dumbly at my sister, as I realized one of the things her statement meant: I’d slept for more than twelve hours. That guaranteed deep REM. So why didn’t I remember any of my dreams? Last night should have been a perfect candidate for a trip into the hot warm dark.
Even as I thought that, another realization hit me: I resented the absence of the dreams. The hot warm dark was always safe, always constant, always there for me, even if it represented something I didn’t understand. I woke up from those dreams confused but at peace, like I was only fully myself in those moments when the drums still echoed in my ears. So why had the hot warm dark deserted me when I needed it most?
“Sal? You okay?”
“Huh?” I wrenched myself back into the conversation, shaking my head to clear it. “I’m sorry. I just woke up. Did you need something?”
“You mean apart from wanting to be sure you weren’t dead? SymboGen just delivered a great big package for you. It’s labeled ‘time-sensitive’ and ‘perishable’ and ‘this end up,’ and I thought it would be a good idea to get you up so you could go and deal with it.”
I eyed her. “You just want to know what’s inside.”
My sister beamed unrepentantly. “That is correct. Besides, you know it’s not healthy for you to be in bed for too long. There’s a whole big world out there just waiting to be explored.”
“You can cut the New Age nature spiel. I’m not buying it, and we both know you never sound like a physical therapy motivational tape unless Mom’s been priming you,” I said without rancor. Mom could be pretty persuasive when she wanted to be, and Joyce probably hadn’t taken much persuading—not with a mystery package waiting to be opened.
“Come on, Sal. Come open your big box.”
“What if I don’t want to?” I shot back. Beverly chose that moment to shove past my ankles and go trotting off down the hall, her tail waving languidly behind her as she made a beeline for the door to the backyard.