Oregon City Science and Technologies Center spread out from center; the dome that I noted on our approach, was closer now, and the tallest building by several stories. The rest were one and two story, squat structures that ambled west and east and about half a mile north, backing up to the base of several, smallish mountains. Like a compound, all the building were white cinderblock, the windows were sparse and few. Nearly two square miles, here in the lowest and flattest gully of the rolling hills in Oregon City, was dedicated to this Center. The white of the buildings against the blue-black tones of the surrounding hills, against the cold black of the night sky, seemed stark and utilitarian. The compound/center was bathed in light from tall, high voltage flood lamps that surrounded the perimeter. The effect was eerie. Almost governmental.
I walked slowly and deliberately forward, through the small gate where a man stood with a clipboard. He wore no official uniform, only a black jumper in the style of chemical-plant workers; buttoned to the neck and cuffed at the wrists and ankles. As if to cover every inch of skin, with exception of his face and hands. In his front pocket, I could see a pair of gloves poking out. At his neck, rested a small plastic cup on an elastic band; some kind of mouthpiece that resembled the oxygen masks that drop from the overhead compartments in commercial airplanes. He nodded to the men behind me, and I continued to walk, willing the rubber from my knees. I was told to walk. I was told not to turn around. I was told to be quiet and that soon, there would be answers, somewhere in the confines of this sprawling, unfriendly maze of buildings. I was told all of these things by my dead husband. Mayor Lockley became mute since Roberts appearance. I had the distinct impression that Robert represented to Lockley, authority.
I could hear the crunch of white gravel below their boots, behind me. The urge to spin around and face my once lost husband was nearly too strong to overcome. What kept me walking, what kept me focused on the entrance of the low, square building in front of me, was the cold in Roberts eyes when he spoke. That was his voice, those were his features, and by God that was his hand that took mine as he pulled me from the car. But those were not his eyes. He’d placed a finger to my lips when I began to stutter and fumble for words I never thought I’d have the chance to say. He pressed more firmly when I whispered, Danya.
For the possibility of Danya, I would obey. We’d walked in silence for six minutes, up the gravel drive, passed the jump-suited guard, through the wire gate and up to the first building. Six minutes of internal wonder, shock, outrage, confusion and fear. Oh yes. There was fear. It was the underlying, rotten smell that was ruining my sweet reunion.
Robert pushed passed Lockley, stepping up to the keypad that flanked a non-descript, metal door. After a series of codes, beeps and one solitary flash of green from the LCD screen, the tumblers in the lock began to clunk and turn, falling into place and the door without a knob
(how had I missed that? What kind of center was this, where knob-less doors were opened with codes and guards looked like CDC employees rather than rent-a-cops?)
opened slowly, revealing a two inch band of bright light and the medicinal smell of antiseptic.
“Maribel?” Robert wrapped his hand
His hand. That IS his hand-I remember the scar that reaches from wrist to knuckle from the night at the docks
Around the edge of the door and pulled, motioning for me to enter. I pushed my legs forward, and though I felt like I were walking through waist-high Jell-O, I managed to clear the doorway.
I heard the door clang shut behind us, and then Robert had his hand on my shoulder. I shivered.
“This way, Maribel. Into the office on the right.” He steered me toward the dark room, and just as I entered, he stopped behind me, his hand still on my shoulder. “Lockley? Head over to the warehouse. Check on Phillips. I’ll take care of this alone.”
I tried to turn, to face Robert, to see Lockleys expression, or maybe to stop myself from being nudged into that dark, suspicious office, but Robert held firm to my shoulder and squeezed. The cunning and well trained Ms. Allison Bueller was gone- Ms. B incognito; I was just Maribel Newman now, weak and confused wife of Robert, dead man come to life, and the mother of Danya who never lived to see her seventh birthday. Whatever glue that held me together these last ten years was rapidly drying out and flaking to the concrete floor beneath my feet. I willed myself to stand upright only long enough to find out my one, burning question. Anything beyond that was out of my scope of comprehension.
The office was less suspicious once a low-wattage lamp was flicked on, and Robert pushed me, quite gently into a metal and vinyl chair that sat along the short, north facing wall of the room. He stood against the grey, metal shelving that lined the wall behind the desk, and stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, something I’d seen him do hundreds of times. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. Blood pumped feverishly from my heart into my throat, swelling the tissue and burning whatever words I may have spoken, incinerating them into soundless, formless hiccups of hot air. Silence stretched between us and Robert seemed to be studying my features carefully, as if it were he who weren’t convinced of my existence, rather than the other way around.
Finally, mercifully, he cleared his throat. “Maribel, you have the opportunity now to really help. To really make a difference in our-our campaign. There is a place for you here, and once you’ve learned more about the project, I think you’ll find yourself more than willing to make yourself…useful.”
For a frightening moment, I thought I would choke, thought those words would continue to burn away as they pushed themselves out and I would gag on their ashes, but necessity seemed to sway the blood to lessen it’s pummeling in my neck and I counted a steady ten beats before I could speak.
“You-were-dead.” Raspy, painful words, but words, none-the-less. “You died, Robert. I buried you. And Danya. I buried the both of you ten years ago. Please tell me Robert. Please tell me…is…?”
“You didn’t bury me, Maribel. I didn’t rise from the grave.” He broke into my painful question and shifted his weight from left to right, tilting his head, his eyes boring into mine. “You buried G.P. Harlow, the man who organized the snipers and paid Morgan to head up Project Scarecrow. You buried the bastard who nearly ruined one of the most revolutionary experiments in the history of society.”
“How did you know it would happen? How did you…plan it? What about our little girl, Robert? If you’re still al-.” He raised a hand and his deep voice filled the vacuum in my tired and disbelieving mind.
“I know what you want to know. Is Danya still alive? If I’m alive, she might be as well; is that what you’re thinking? Well, Maribel, I will let you know the answer to that shortly. But in the meantime, I need your attention. Your undivided attention. We have a lot of ground to cover, and only a short time to cover it. You’ve worked well for us, these past ten years. Unquestioning, unfaltering, completely committed. I think you might be ready to play a larger role. We’ll see.” He paused, shifting his weight from front to back, rocking slightly, and seeming to contemplate something. I watched his eyes, so dark and unknown to me now, flick back and forth with thoughts.
You’ve worked well for us, these past ten years.
The realization of that struck home and my gut clenched on itself, a lightening rod of pain shot through my insides and I cried out in shock, in anguish.
Whatever Government Agency I thought I’d worked for the last decade was not what it seemed. I knew without an ounce of hesitation that I’d been working for Robert Newman all along. The Agency was his Agency.
“I can see you’ve reached some conclusions, Mari, about what I’ve told you. But you need to understand more, more about the purpose of the Project before you make assumptions. There is a greater good here.” Robert took a deep breath, I sat very still and the story unfolded.
“When you united with the Farmer’s Organization against the Government Crop Dustings, taking notes for them at their little meetings and creating letters to mail to every Senator and Representative you could find, thinking that what you were fighting was a choice to remain organic, what you were really doing was fighting against me, Mari. The Agency I headed introduced Repensil, a powerful new drug, into the pesticides and we had the green light from those who whispered into the ear of the President himself, to dust every crop farm and field of wheat across three states. For research mainly, but necessary research. I’d worked for Repensil-Goodman for two years by then. You only knew that I had a busy job with a low paying position in pharmaceuticals in the city, and that was the best way to handle it…at the time. What I had done, along with a man named Polansky, a team of genius scientists, lab runners and field men, was trip across the greatest scientific break through in the history of inoculations. We found funding through extraordinary and sometimes dangerous avenues and we began to mass produce Repensil with the promise that it would not only change the way humans view disease but create a vast, worldwide bidding war for the right to spread it. We found a vaccine that alone, and ingested over a long period of time into the body, would prevent, vaccinate men, women and children from every known disease, plague and virus. We knew this because it had been tested, over and over again and in laboratory after laboratory prevented the cold virus from spreading, prevented HIV from spreading from animal to animal during repetitive exposure. We had a strong idea, backed with a lot of research, that it would be very effective against cancer. However, the FDA refused to give us any funding initially and refused to validate our findings. We decided to keep it private, for its power would be worth an unnamable sum of money. We ran into a problem in that first year; the first several rounds of exposure to Repensil, actually produced cancer cells in its patients. With more exposure, tests had shown we could reduce those cells to benign and harmless clusters. We found out about the growth of cancer cells in Phase Five. When the plane was shot down by snipers we were in Phase Six. Morgan, the man who headed your little Farmers Union and hired the guns to shoot down the plane, found out about Repensil; he and a rag-tag bunch of investigators had found incriminating evidence and threatened to expose us. We learned of their impending sniper attack, and with orders from the White House, were told to pull the plug on the entire project. To let the plane get shot out of the sky and let the evidence burn with it. We also had Russian investors swearing that if this went public they’d do far more damage to us, and our affiliates, than mainstream American media could ever hope.” Robert took a ragged breath. I couldn’t move; transfixed by the revelations, by the corruptness, by the possibility of what I was hearing.
“The formula was slipped into a canister and left on the crop dusting plane intentionally. Not by me of course, but by my head at the time, Polansky. He thought he’d gone too far, and he feared the retaliation of the not just the world but the investors who sought the big pay-off when this miracle drug didn’t hit the market. He decided to place the tube with the chemical compound on the plane himself and he belted himself into the third seat of the crop duster, called the pilots to board, told them not to dust just yet and just head over the fields towards the hills. He knew the sabotage was coming, he’d been tipped off that snipers were waiting in the silos and welcomed the death that would release him from the inevitable suffering he would do at the hands of the media, the Russians, and with the knowledge that he would fail to make this right.” Something burned in Robert’s eyes, something like passion but closer to obsession.
“You see, Mari, we now knew that the entire three-state span we’d dusted with Repensil had infected all those people with cancer cells, growing cancer cells. But without more testing, without Polanksy, without the formula, and funding, we couldn’t give them the necessary set of inoculations to cure the very cancer we’d created. But even still, Repensil protected these people from every other harmful disease and virus known to us. It was a worthy risk to chance the cancer cells, knowing we could repair those cells with more vaccine, more doses.”
"Who are you trying to convince, Robert? You or me?"
Another breath, this one heavier. He ignored my question. “Danya had been given six rounds of Repensil by the time we learned of the growth of cancer cells. I gave it to her without tipping you off, I knew you wouldn’t approve. You would say it was too risky. But I believed in it! I knew it was the miracle the world had been waiting for. It was in her blood, by then. I couldn’t save her from rapidly growing cancer if I couldn’t get Repensil funded again, produced again. I knew of the snipers, I knew what Polansky had planned for himself, for the fate of our project. I took Danya to Goodman Labs and waited there with her, knowing that plane would crash and people would die. I had no idea it would crash into our backyard. I had no way of knowing that it would be the most opportune moment for me to disappear and find a way to save her, and all the other children that’d been affected. You were told it was your family in those ashes. I left you to your grief, for reasons you may never understand.”
I shook with rage, bells and sirens wailing in my ears, my blood boiled so raucously I though it might start spilling from my mouth, my nose. Robert tried to reach for my hand, seemed to think better of it, and the cold, uncaring poker face swept back over his features; the unknown man again.
“The file in your suitcase, the one that you were told to bring to Portland, those are for me, Maribel. Those are the codes and compounds, the only existing copy of what Polansky had created. We used you to search them out, to find them, and it took town after town, city after city, job after job, but we have them now. That file is the only thing that has held our progress back these last ten years.”
My lips had been pressed tightly together during this wealth of information, this outpouring of pathetic explaining. Now, I prayed for the strength to speak without trembling, without faltering.
“Robert, who were all those children, the children that were bused in town tonight? Where were they going?”
“To a testing warehouse on the edge of town. Those are children who have cancer cells growing in their bodies. Their parents were those who ingested Repensil a decade ago and when they had children, passed the malformed cells onto their babies. There were many who died, many who are dying now, and those who haven’t are being treated in our centers, and have given us their children in the hopes we may cure them. They know there is no known cure in the hospitals for what eats away at their children. We have promised them that we can. We can save them. The majority of Mayor Lockleys town is infected, the soil is still testing positive for Repensil. Those families in that town are dying and their last hope is me. MY project, my team, my hard work and diligence. And you were going to burn that file, Mari. You were going to burn it or throw it away or hide it and change your name and RUN from that town! Weren’t you? ANSWER ME! Weren’t you?”
“Ye-ye-yes. I was. How do you know that? How?” And the answer came to me in a flash of memory, of Pete, the school janitor and a conversation I’d had with him one chilly morning. Though I told Pete nothing about my past, or my job, I did tell him about Robert and Danya and my plans. I told him that I was tired of changing, that I was tired, so tired of running from my own pain. I looked up into those old, wise eyes and said to him; “Pete, I’m probably not going to be here much longer. If it means sneaking away in the middle of the night, I have to find a different way to live. Not like this, not like this anymore.”
“I didn’t know. Robert I didn’t know! How could I?” Pete. Pete told someone, and it found it's way to the mayor. Who was what...watching me? Is that why they wanted to kill me? If I disappeared so did the formula and so did the hope of saving their children, themselves?
Suddenly I could see the dark circles beneath the round eyes of Amy, and the sallow complexion of Jake. I could see now, the fear in the eyes of Marcus and Irene Tomason as they stood in my doorway last night and wondered if their son had said anything strange to his favorite teacher. My head snapped up, my spine exploded into little pinpoints of pain as every hair on my neck stood on end.
“Robert! Where is Danya? You saved her. You said you saved her. Where is she? WHERE?”
Robert seemed to take an long, agonizing moment to choose his words. I watched his lips, lips I'd once kissed in love, form hateful, terrifying words.
“She’s dead, Mari. She didn’t make it. I kept her alive but six months ago, just before her seventeenth birthday, time ran out on us. If we’d had the file sooner, the formula….well it would have changed things. But you still hadn’t found it. You were still a month away from calling Chomsky and telling him you’d found the papers they’d requested in Lockleys office. Lockley by the way, is a dead man. By the time he reaches Phillips, there will be six bullets in his back. Hiram Lockley is really Hiram Polansky. The brother of our founder, our creator in Repensil, Haskell Lockley. We’ve known for some time.”
The world swam beneath me. I could see the rise of the concrete floor, to meet my face as I slipped, rather unceremoniously to the floor. I couldn’t breathe. She was dead to me all along, but even ten minutes of hope could erase and rejuvenate the pain of ten years. I had wanted her back. Not him, not Robert. I didn’t know this man any longer, this man who could keep such secrets and steal my life from me like bitter cold sucking the breath from my lungs.
What I did know, and know very well, as I slipped into the oblivion that seeped into my dark and damaged mind, was that I had actually found that file four months before I’d ever called Chomsky to relay the information, to schedule the pick up. I knew I wanted to run, to change my name, my face, my life for one last time. I was eye-balling names on long overgrown grave markers in the Cemetary and I had nearly settled on an idea, on a plan. But I wasn’t ready yet, when I recovered the file. I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want Chomsky pulling me out before I’d had a chance to find an escape. So I held onto the file. I hid it. I sat on it. I waited. I waited while my daughter died, and I could have saved her.
Robert watched his wife fall to the floor, her hair tumbling over her face, her mouth slack and her eyes only white and sightless. He punched a number on the phone that sat on the military style desk.
“Chomsky? Get Wilkes down here pronto. Make sure Phillips has taken care of Hiram Polansky and disposed of him…properly. I want the quarantine warehouse sealed off and make sure that we’ve got the patients prepped and ready for the treatment. I have what we needed to complete the final stage. We are a go for Phase Ten.”