The picture came! Veronica tapped on my glass and woke me up, and she held it up for me to see. It’s autographed and everything! For you, Veronica mouthed at me, and she smiled a really big smile. The autograph says, TO JAY—I’LL THROW A TOUCHDOWN FOR YOU. I couldn’t believe it. Everybody is laughing at me because of the way I yelled and ran in circles around my room until I fell on the floor and scraped my elbow. The janitor, Lou, turned on the intercom box outside my door and said, “Kid, you gone crazier than usual? What you care about that picture for?”
Don’t they know Dan Marino is the greatest quarterback of all time? I taped the picture to the wall over my bed. On the rest of my wall I have maps of the United States, and the world, and the solar system. I can find Corsica on the map, and the Palau Islands, which most people have never heard of, and I know what order all the planets are in. But there’s nothing else on my wall like Dan Marino. That’s the best. The other best thing I have is the cassette tape from that time the President called me on the telephone when I was six. He said, “Hi, is Jay there? This is the President of the United States.” He sounded just like on TV. My heart flipped, because it’s so weird to hear the President say your name. I couldn’t think of anything to say back. He asked me how I was feeling, and I said I was fine. That made him laugh, like he thought I was making a joke. Then his voice got real serious, and he said everyone was praying and thinking about me, and he hung up. When I listen to that tape now, I wish I had thought of something else to say. I used to think he might call me another time, but it only happened once, in the beginning. So I guess I’ll never have a chance to talk to the President again.
After Veronica gave me my picture of Marino, I asked her if she could get somebody to fix my TV so I can see the football games. All my TV can play is videos. Veronica said there aren’t any football games, and I started to get mad because I hate it when they lie. It’s September, I said, and there’s always football games in September. But Veronica told me the NFL people had a meeting and decided not to have football anymore, and maybe it would start again, but she wasn’t sure, because nobody except me was thinking about football. At first, after she said that, it kind of ruined the autograph, because it seemed like Dan Marino must be lying, too. But Veronica said he was most likely talking about throwing a touchdown for me in the future, and I felt better then.
This notebook is from Ms. Manigat, my tutor, who is Haitian. She said I should start writing down my thoughts and everything that happens to me. I said I don’t have any thoughts, but she said that was ridiculous. That is her favorite word, ridiculous.
Oh, I should say I’m ten today. If I were in a regular school, I would be in fifth grade like my brother was. I asked Ms. Manigat what grade I’m in, and she said I don’t have a grade. I read like I’m in seventh grade and I do math like I’m in fourth grade, she says. She says I don’t exactly fit anywhere, but I’m very smart. Ms. Manigat comes every day, except on weekends. She is my best friend, but I have to call her Ms. Manigat instead of using her first name, which is Emmeline, because she is so proper. She is very neat and wears skirts and dresses, and everything about her is very clean except her shoes, which are dirty. Her shoes are supposed to be white, but whenever I see her standing outside of the glass, when she hasn’t put on her plastic suit yet, her shoes look brown and muddy.
Those are my thoughts.
I had a question today. Veronica never comes on Fridays, and the other nurse, Rene, isn’t as nice as she is, so I waited for Ms. Manigat. She comes at one. I said, “You know how they give sick children their last wish when they’re dying? Well, when Dr. Ben told me to think of the one thing I wanted for my birthday, I said I wanted an autograph from Dan Marino, so does that mean I’m dying and they’re giving me my wish?” I said this really fast.
I thought Ms. Manigat would say I was being ridiculous. But she smiled. She put her hand on top of my head, and her hand felt stiff and heavy inside her big glove. “Listen, little old man,” she said, which is what she calls me because she says I do so much worrying, “You’re a lot of things, but you aren’t dying. When everyone can be as healthy as you, it’ll be a happy day.”
The people here always seems to be waiting, and I don’t know what for. I thought maybe they were waiting for me to die. But I believe Ms. Manigat. If she doesn’t want to tell me something, she just says, “Leave it alone, Jay,” which is her way of letting me know she would rather not say anything at all than ever tell a lie.
The lights in my room started going on and off again today, and it got so hot I had to leave my shirt off until I went to bed. Ms. Manigat couldn’t do her lessons the way she wanted because of the lights not working right. She said it was the emergency generator. I asked her what the emergency was, and she said something that sounded funny: “Same old same old.” That was all she said. I asked her if the emergency generator was the reason Dr. Ben took the television out of my room, and she said yes. She said everyone is conserving energy, and I have to do my part, too. But I miss my videos. There is nothing at all to do when I can’t watch my videos. I hate it when I’m bored. Sometimes I’ll even watch videos I’ve seen a hundred times, really a hundred times. I’ve seen Big with Tom Hanks more times than any other video. I love the part in the toy store with the really big piano keys on the floor. My mom taught me how to play Three Blind Mice on our piano at home, and it reminds me of that. I’ve never seen a toy store like the one in Big. I thought it was just a made-up place, but Ms. Manigat said it was a real toy store in New York.
I miss my videos. When I’m watching them, it’s like I’m inside the movie, too. I hope Dr. Ben will bring my TV back soon.
I made Veronica cry yesterday. I didn’t mean to. Dr. Ben said he knows it was an accident, but I feel very sorry, so I’ve been crying too. What happened is, I was talking to her, and she was taking some blood out of my arm with a needle like always. I was telling her about how me and my dad used to watch Marino play on television, and then all of a sudden she was crying really hard.
She dropped the needle on the floor and she was holding her wrist like she broke it. She started swearing. She said Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit, over and over, like that. I asked her what happened, and she pushed me away like she wanted to knock me over. Then she went to the door and punched the number code really fast and she pulled on the doorknob, but the door wouldn’t open, and I heard something in her arm snap from yanking so hard. She had to do the code again. She was still crying. I’ve never seen her cry.
I didn’t know what happened. I mashed my finger on the buzzer hard, but everybody ignored me. It reminded me of when I first came here, when I was always pushing the buzzer and crying, and nobody would ever come for a long time, and they were always in a bad mood when they came.
Anyway, I waited for Ms. Manigat, and when I told her about Veronica, she said she didn’t know anything because she comes from the outside, but she promised to find out. Then she made me recite the Preamble to the Constitution, which I know by heart. Pretty soon, for a little while, I forgot about Veronica.
After my lessons, Ms. Manigat left and called me on my phone an hour later, like she promised. She always keeps her promises. My telephone is hooked up so people on the inside can call me, but I can’t call anybody, inside or outside. It hardly ever rings now. But I almost didn’t want to pick it up. I was afraid of what Ms. Manigat would say.
“Veronica poked herself,” Ms. Manigat told me. “The needle stuck through her hot suit. She told Dr. Ben there was sudden movement.”
I wondered who made the sudden movement, Veronica or me?
“Is she okay?” I asked. I thought maybe Ms. Manigat was mad at me, because she has told me many times that I should be careful. Maybe I wasn’t being careful when Veronica was here.
“We’ll see, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said. From her voice, it sounded like the answer was no.
“Will she get sick?” I asked.
“Probably, yes, they think so,” Ms. Manigat said.
I didn’t want her to answer any more questions. I like it when people tell me the truth, but it always makes me feel bad, too. I tried to say I was sorry, but I couldn’t even open my mouth.
“It’s not your fault, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said.
I couldn’t help it. I sobbed like I used to when I was still a little kid. “Veronica knew something like this could happen,” she said.
But that didn’t make anything better, because I remembered how Veronica’s face looked so scared inside her mask, and how she pushed me away. Veronica has been here since almost the beginning, before Ms. Manigat came, and she used to smile at me even when nobody else did. When she showed me my picture from Dan Marino, she looked almost as happy as me. I had never seen her whole face smiling like that. She looked so pretty and glad.
I was crying so much I couldn’t even write down my thoughts like Ms. Manigat said to. Not until today.
A long time ago, when I first came here and the TV in my room played programs from outside, I saw the first-grade picture I had taken at school on TV. I always hated that picture because Mom put some greasy stuff in my hair that made me look like a total geek. And then I turned on the TV and saw that picture on the news! The man on TV said the names of everyone in our family, and even spelled them out on the screen. Then, he called me Patient Zero. He said I was the first person who got sick.
But that wasn’t really what happened. My dad was sick before me. I’ve told them that already. He got it away on his job in Alaska. My dad traveled a lot because he drilled for oil, but he came home early that time. We weren’t expecting him until Christmas, but he came when it was only September, close to my birthday. He said he’d been sent home because some people on his oil crew got sick. One of them had even died. But the doctor in Alaska had looked at my dad and said he was fine, and then his boss sent him home. Dad was really mad about that. He hated to lose money. Time away from a job was always losing money, he said. He was in a bad mood when he wasn’t working.
And the worse thing was, my dad wasn’t fine. After two days, his eyes got red and he started sniffling. Then I did, too. And then my mom and brother.
When the man on TV showed my picture and called me Patient Zero and said I was the first one to get sick, that was when I first learned how people tell lies, because that wasn’t true. Somebody on my dad’s oil rig caught it first, and then he gave it to my dad. And my dad gave it to me, my mom and my brother. But one thing he said was right. I was the only one who got well.
My Aunt Lori came here to live at the lab with me at first, but she wasn’t here long, because her eyes had already turned red by then. She came to help take care of me and my brother before my mom died, but probably she shouldn’t have done that. She lived all the way in California, and I bet she wouldn’t have gotten sick if she hadn’t come to Miami to be with us. But even my mom’s doctor didn’t know what was wrong then, so nobody could warn her about what would happen if she got close to us. Sometimes I dream I’m calling Aunt Lori on my phone, telling her please, please not to come. Aunt Lori and my mom were twins. They looked exactly alike.
After Aunt Lori died, I was the only one left in my whole family.
I got very upset when I saw that news report. I didn’t like hearing someone talk about my family like that, people who didn’t even know us. And I felt like maybe the man on TV was right, and maybe it was all my fault. I screamed and cried the whole day. After that, Dr. Ben made them fix my TV so I couldn’t see the news anymore or any programs from outside, just cartoons and kid movies on video. The only good thing was, that was when the President called me. I think he was sorry when he heard what happened to my family.
When I ask Dr. Ben if they’re still talking about me on the news, he just shrugs his shoulders. Sometimes Dr. Ben won’t say yes or no if you ask him a question. It doesn’t matter, though. I think the TV people probably stopped showing my picture a long time ago. I was just a little kid when my family got sick. I’ve been here four whole years!
Oh, I almost forgot. Veronica isn’t back yet.
I have been staring at my Dan Marino picture all day, and I think the handwriting on the autograph looks like Dr. Ben’s. But I’m afraid to ask anyone about that. Oh, yeah—and yesterday the power was off in my room for a whole day! Same old same old. That’s what Ms. M. would say.
Ms. Manigat is teaching me a little bit about medicine. I told her I want to be a doctor when I grow up, and she said she thinks that’s a wonderful idea because she believes people will always need doctors. She says I will be in a good position to help people, and I asked her if that’s because I have been here so long, and she said yes.
The first thing she taught me is about diseases. She says in the old days, a long time ago, diseases like typhoid used to kill a lot of people because of unsanitary conditions and dirty drinking water, but people got smarter and doctors found drugs to cure it, so diseases didn’t kill people as much anymore. Doctors are always trying to stay a step ahead of disease, Ms. Manigat says.
But sometimes they can’t. Sometimes a new disease comes. Or, maybe it’s not a new disease, but an old disease that has been hidden for a long time until something brings it out in the open. She said that’s how nature balances the planet, because as soon as doctors find cures for one thing, there is always something new. Dr. Ben says my disease is new. There is a long name for it I can’t remember how to spell, but most of the time people here call it Virus-J.
In a way, see, it’s named after me. That’s what Dr. Ben said. But I don’t like that.
Ms. Manigat said after my dad came home, the virus got in my body and attacked me just like everyone else, so I got really, really sick for a lot of days. Then, I thought I was completely better. I stopped feeling bad at all. But the virus was already in my brother and my mom and dad, and even our doctor from before, Dr. Wolfe, and Ms. Manigat says it was very aggressive, which means doctors didn’t know how to kill it.
Everybody wears yellow plastic suits and airtight masks when they’re in my room because the virus is still in the air, and it’s in my blood, and it’s on my plates and cups whenever I finish eating. They call the suits hot suits because the virus is hot in my room. Not hot like fire, but dangerous.
Ms. Manigat says Virus-J is extra special in my body because even though I’m not sick anymore, except for when I feel like I have a temperature and I have to lie down sometimes, the virus won’t go away. I can make other people sick even when I feel fine, so she said that makes me a carrier. Ms. Manigat said Dr. Ben doesn’t know anybody else who’s gotten well except for me.
Oh, except maybe there are some little girls in China. Veronica told me once there were some little girls in China the same age as me who didn’t get sick either. But when I asked Dr. Ben, he said he didn’t know if it was true. And Ms. Manigat told me it might have been true once, but those girls might not be alive anymore. I asked her if they died of Virus-J, and she said no, no, no. Three times. She told me to forget all about any little girls in China. Almost like she was mad.
I’m the only one like me she knows about for sure, she says. The only one left.
That’s why I’m here, she says. But I already knew that part. When I was little, Dr. Ben told me about antibodies and stuff in my blood, and he said the reason him and Rene and Veronica and all the other doctors take so much blood from me all the time, until they make purple bruises on my arms and I feel dizzy, is so they can try to help other people get well, too. I have had almost ten surgeries since I have been here. I think they have even taken out parts of me, but I’m not really sure. I look the same on the outside, but I feel different on the inside. I had surgery on my belly a year ago, and sometimes when I’m climbing the play-rope hanging from the ceiling in my room, I feel like it hasn’t healed right, like I’m still cut open. Ms. Manigat says that’s only in my mind. But it really hurts! I don’t hate anything like I hate operations. I wonder if that’s what happened to the other little girls, if they kept getting cut up and cut up until they died. Anyway, it’s been a year since I had any operations. I keep telling Dr. Ben they can have as much blood as they want, but I don’t want anymore operations, please.
Dr. Ben said there’s nobody in the world better than me to make people well, if only they can figure out how. Ms. Manigat says the same thing. That makes me feel a little better about Virus-J.
I was happy Ms. Manigat told me all about disease, because I don’t want her to treat me like a baby the way everybody else does. That’s what I always tell her. I like to know things.
I didn’t even cry when she told me Veronica died. Maybe I got all my crying over with in the beginning, because I figured out a long time ago nobody gets better once they get sick. Nobody except for me.
Today, I asked Ms. Manigat how many people have Virus-J.
“Oh, Jay, I don’t know,” she said. I don’t think she was in the mood to talk about disease.
“Just guess,” I said.
Ms. Manigat thought for a long time. Then she opened her notebook and began drawing lines and boxes for me to see. Her picture looked like the tiny brown lines all over an oak-tree leaf. We had a tree called a live oak in our backyard, and my dad said it was more than a hundred years old. He said trees sometimes live longer than people do. And he was right, because I’m sure that tree is still standing in our yard even though my whole family is gone.
“This is how it goes, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said, showing me with her pencil-tip how one line branched down to the next. “People are giving it to each other. They don’t usually know they’re sick for two weeks, and by then they’ve passed it to a lot of other people. By now, it’s already been here four years, so the same thing that happened to your family is happening to a lot of families.”
“How many families?” I asked again. I tried to think of the biggest number I could. “A million?”
Ms. Manigat shrugged just like Dr. Ben would. Maybe that meant yes.
I couldn’t imagine a million families, so I asked Ms. Manigat if it happened to her family, too, if maybe she had a husband and kids and they got sick. But she said no, she was never married. I guess that’s true, because Ms. Manigat doesn’t look that old. She won’t tell me her age, but she’s in her twenties, I think. Ms. Manigat smiled at me, even though her eyes weren’t happy.
“My parents were in Miami, and they got it right away,” Ms. Manigat said. “Then my sister and nieces came to visit them from Haiti, and they got it, too. I was away working when it happened, and that’s why I’m still here.”
Ms. Manigat never told me that before.
My family lived in Miami Beach. My dad said our house was too small—I had to share a room with my brother—but my mother liked where we lived because our building was six blocks from the ocean. My mother said the ocean can heal anything. But that can’t be true, can it?
My mother wouldn’t like it where I am, because there is no ocean and no windows neither. I wondered if Ms. Manigat’s parents knew someone who worked on an oil rig, too, but probably not. Probably they got it from my dad and me.
“Ms. Manigat,” I said, “Maybe you should move inside like Dr. Ben and everybody else.”
“Oh, Jay,” Ms. Manigat said, like she was trying to sound cheerful. “Little old man, if I were that scared of anything, why would I be in here teaching you?”
She said she asked to be my teacher, which I didn’t know. I said I thought her boss was making her do it, and she said she didn’t have a boss. No one sent her. She wanted to come.
“Just to meet me?” I asked her.
“Yes, because I saw your face on television, and you looked to me like a one-of-a-kind,” she said. She said she was a nurse before, and she used to work with Dr. Ben in his office in Atlanta. She said they worked at the CDC, which is a place that studies diseases. And he knew her, so that was why he let her come teach me.
“A boy like you needs his education. He needs to know how to face life outside,” she said.
Ms. Manigat is funny like that. Sometimes she’ll quit the regular lesson about presidents and the Ten Commandments and teach me something like how to sew and how to tell plants you eat from plants you don’t, and stuff. Like, I remember when she brought a basket with real fruits and vegetables in it, fresh. She said she has a garden where she lives on the outside, close to here. She said one of the reasons she won’t move inside is because she loves her garden so much, and she doesn’t want to leave it.
The stuff she brought was not very interesting to look at. She showed me some cassava, which looked like a long, twisty tree branch to me, and she said it’s good to eat, except it has poison in it that has to be boiled out of the root first and the leaves are poisonous too. She also brought something called akee, which she said she used to eat from trees in Haiti. It has another name in Haiti that’s too hard for me to spell. It tasted fine to me, but she said akee can never be eaten before it’s opened, or before it’s ripe, because it makes your brain swell up and you can die. She also brought different kinds of mushrooms to show me which ones are good or bad, but they all looked alike to me. She promised to bring me other fruits and vegetables to see so I will know what’s good for me and what isn’t. There’s a lot to learn about life outside, she said.
Well, I don’t want Ms. Manigat to feel like I am a waste of her time, but I know for a fact I don’t have to face life outside. Dr. Ben told me I might be a teenager before I can leave, or even older. He said I might even be a grown man.
But that’s okay, I guess. I try not to think about what it would be like to leave. My room, which they moved me to when I had been here six months, is really, really big. They built it especially for me. It’s four times as big as the hotel room my mom and dad got for us when we went to Universal Studios in Orlando when I was five. I remember that room because my brother, Kevin, kept asking my dad, “Doesn’t this cost too much?” Every time my dad bought us a T-shirt or anything, Kevin brought up how much it cost. I told Kevin to stop it because I was afraid Dad would get mad and stop buying us stuff. Then, when we were in line for the King Kong ride, all by ourselves, Kevin told me, “Dad got fired from his job, stupid. Do you want to go on Welfare?” I waited for Dad and Mom to tell me he got fired, but they didn’t. After Kevin said that, I didn’t ask them to buy me anything else, and I was scared to stay in that huge, pretty hotel room because I thought we wouldn’t have enough money to pay. But we did. And then Dad got a job on the oil rig, and we thought everything would be better.
My room here is as big as half the whole floor I bet. When I run from one side of my room to the other, from the glass in front to the wall in back, I’m out of breath. I like to do that. Sometimes I run until my ribs start squeezing and my stomach hurts like it’s cut open and I have to sit down and rest. There’s a basketball net in here, too, and the ball doesn’t ever touch the ceiling except if I throw it too high on purpose. I also have comic books, and I draw pictures of me and my family and Ms. Manigat and Dr. Ben. Because I can’t watch my videos, now I spend a lot of time writing in this notebook. A whole hour went by already. When I am writing down my thoughts, I forget about everything else.
I have decided for sure to be a doctor someday. I’m going to help make people better.
Thanksgiving was great! Ms. Manigat cooked real bread and brought me food she’d heated up. I could tell everything except the bread and cassava was from a can, like always, but it tasted much better than my regular food. I haven’t had bread in a long time. Because of her mask, Ms. Manigat ate her dinner before she came, but she sat and watched me eat. Rene came in, too, and she surprised me when she gave me a hug. She never does that. Dr. Ben came in for a little while at the end, and he hugged me too, but he said he couldn’t stay because he was busy. Dr. Ben doesn’t come visit me much anymore. I could see he was growing a beard, and it was almost all white! I’ve seen Dr. Ben’s hair when he’s outside of the glass, when he isn’t wearing his hot suit, and his hair is brown, not white. I asked him how come his beard was white, and he said that’s what happens when your mind is overly tired.
I liked having everybody come to my room. Before, in the beginning, almost nobody came in, not even Ms. Manigat. She used to sit in a chair outside the glass and use the intercom for my lessons. It’s better when they come in.
I remember how Thanksgiving used to be, with my family around the table in the dining room, and I told Ms. Manigat about that. Yes, she said, even though she didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Haiti like Americans do, she remembers sitting at the table with her parents and her sister for Christmas dinner. She said she came to see me today, and Rene and Dr. Ben came too, because we are each other’s family now, so we are not alone. I hadn’t thought of it like that before.
No one will tell me, not even Ms. M., but I think maybe Dr. Ben is sick. I have not seen him in five whole days. It is quiet here. I wish it was Thanksgiving again.
I didn’t know this before, but you have to be in the right mood to write your thoughts down. A lot happened in the days I missed.
The doctor with the French name is gone now, and I’m glad. He wasn’t like Dr. Ben at all. I could hardly believe he was a real doctor, because he always had on the dirtiest clothes when I saw him take off his hot suit outside of the glass. And he was never nice to me—he wouldn’t answer at all when I asked him questions, and he wouldn’t look in my eyes except for a second. One time he slapped me on my ear, almost for nothing, and his glove hurt so much my ear turned red and was sore for a whole day. He didn’t say he was sorry, but I didn’t cry. I think he wanted me to.
Oh yeah, and he hooked me up to IV bags and took so much blood from me I couldn’t even stand up. I was scared he would operate on me. Ms. Manigat didn’t come in for almost a week, and when she finally came, I told her about the doctor taking too much blood. She got really mad. Then I found out the reason she didn’t come all those days—he wouldn’t let her! She said he tried to bar her from coming. Bar is the word she used, which sounds like a prison.
The new doctor and Ms. Manigat do not get along, even though they both speak French. I saw them outside of the glass, yelling back and forth and moving their hands, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was afraid he would send Ms. Manigat away for good. But yesterday she told me he’s leaving! I told her I was happy, because I was afraid he would take Dr. Ben’s place.
No, she told me, there isn’t anyone taking Dr. Ben’s place. She said the French doctor came here to study me in person because he was one of the doctors Dr. Ben had been sending my blood to ever since I first came. But he was already very sick when he got here, and he started feeling worse, so he had to go. Seeing me was his last wish, Ms. Manigat said, which didn’t seem like it could be true because he didn’t act like he wanted to be with me.
I asked her if he went back to France to his family, and Ms. Manigat said no, he probably didn’t have a family, and even if he did, it’s too hard to go to France. The ocean is in the way, she said.
Ms. Manigat seemed tired from all that talking. She said she’d decided to move inside, like Rene, to make sure they were taking care of me properly. She said she misses her garden. The whole place has been falling apart, she said. She said I do a good job of keeping my room clean—and I do, because I have my own mop and bucket and Lysol in my closet—but she told me the hallways are filthy. Which is true, because sometimes I can see water dripping down the wall outside of my glass, a lot of it, and it makes puddles all over the floor. You can tell the water is dirty because you can see different colors floating on top, the way my family’s driveway used to look after my dad sprayed it with a hose. He said the oil from the car made the water look that way, but I don’t know why it looks that way here. Ms. Manigat said the water smells bad, too.
“It’s ridiculous. If they’re going to keep you here, they’d damn well better take care of you,” Mrs. Manigat said. She must have been really mad, because she never swears.
I told her about the time when Lou came and pressed on my intercom really late at night, when I was asleep and nobody else was around. He was talking really loud like people do in videos when they’re drunk. Lou was glaring at me through the glass, banging on it. I had never seen him look so mean. I thought he would try to come into my room but then I remembered he couldn’t because he didn’t have a hot suit. But I’ll never forget how he said, They should put you to sleep like a dog at the pound.
I try not to think about that night, because it gave me nightmares. It happened when I was pretty little, like eight. Sometimes I thought maybe I just dreamed it, because the next time Lou came he acted just like normal. He even smiled at me a little bit. Before he stopped coming here, Lou was nice to me every day after that.
Ms. Manigat did not sound surprised when I told her what Lou said about putting me to sleep. “Yes, Jay,” she told me, “For a long time, there have been people outside who didn’t think we should be taking care of you.”
I never knew that before!
I remember a long time ago, when I was really little and I had pneumonia, my mom was scared to leave me alone at the hospital. “They won’t know how to take care of Jay there,” she said to my dad, even though she didn’t know I heard her. I had to stay by myself all night, and because of what my mom said, I couldn’t go to sleep. I was afraid everyone at the hospital would forget I was there. Or maybe something bad would happen to me.
It seems like the lights go off every other day now. And I know people must really miss Lou, because the dirty gray water is all over the floor outside my glass and there’s no one to clean it up.
6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3 6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3 6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3
I remember the numbers already! I have been saying them over and over in my head so I won’t forget, but I wanted to write them down in the exact right order to be extra sure. I want to know them without even looking.
Oh, I should start at the beginning. Yesterday, no one brought me any dinner, not even Ms. Manigat. She came with a huge bowl of oatmeal this morning, saying she was very sorry. She said she had to look a long time to find that food, and it wore her out. The oatmeal wasn’t even hot, but I didn’t say anything. I just ate. She watched me eating.
She didn’t stay with me long, because she doesn’t teach me lessons anymore. After the French doctor left, we talked about the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King, but she didn’t bring that up today. She just kept sighing, and she said she had been in bed all day yesterday because she was so tired, and she was sorry she forgot to feed me. She said I couldn’t count on Rene to bring me food because she didn’t know where Rene was. It was hard for me to hear her talk through her hot suit today. Her mask was crooked, so the microphone wasn’t in front of her mouth where it should be.
She saw my notebook and asked if she could look at it. I said sure. She looked at the pages from the beginning. She said she liked the part where I said she was my best friend. Her face-mask was fogging up, so I couldn’t see her eyes and I couldn’t tell if she was smiling. I am very sure she did not put her suit on right today.
When she put my notebook down, she told me to pay close attention to her and repeat the numbers she told me, which were 6-4-6-7-2-9-4-3.
I asked her what they were. She said it was the security code for my door. She said she wanted to give the code to me because my buzzer wasn’t working, and I might need to leave my room if she overslept and nobody came to bring me food. She told me I could use the same code on the elevator, and the kitchen was on the third floor. There wouldn’t be anybody there, she said, but I could look on the shelves, the top ones up high, to see if there was any food. If not, she said I should take the stairs down to the first floor and find the red EXIT sign to go outside. She said the elevator doesn’t go to the first floor anymore.
I felt scared then, but she put her hand on top of my head again just like usual. She said she was sure there was plenty of food outside.
“But am I allowed?” I asked her. “What if people get sick?”
“You worry so much, little man,” she said. “Only you matter now, my little one-of-a-kind.”
But see I’m sure Ms. Manigat doesn’t really want me to go outside. I’ve been thinking about that over and over. Ms. Manigat must be very tired to tell me to do something like that. Maybe she has a fever and that’s why she told me how to get out of my room. My brother said silly things when he had a fever, and my father too. My father kept calling me Oscar, and I didn’t know who Oscar was. My dad told us he had a brother who died when he was little, and maybe his name was Oscar. My mother didn’t say anything at all when she got sick. She just died very fast. I wish I could find Ms. Manigat and give her something to drink. You get very thirsty when you have a fever, which I know for a fact. But I can’t go to her because I don’t know where she is. And besides, I don’t know where Dr. Ben keeps the hot suits. What if I went to her and she wasn’t wearing hers?
Maybe the oatmeal was the only thing left in the kitchen, and now I ate it all. I hope not! But I’m thinking maybe it is because I know Ms. Manigat would have brought me more food if she could have found it. She’s always asking me if I have enough to eat. I’m already hungry again.
I am writing in the dark. The lights are off. I tried to open my lock but the numbers don’t work because of the lights being off. I don’t know where Ms. Manigat is. I’m trying not to cry.
What if the lights never come back on?
There’s so much I want to say but I have a headache from being hungry. When the lights came back on I went out into the hall like Ms. M told me and I used the numbers to get the elevator to work and then I went to the kitchen like she said. I wanted to go real fast and find some peanut butter or some Oreos or even a can of beans I could open with the can opener Ms. M left me at Thanksgiving.
There’s no food in the kitchen! There’s empty cans and wrappers on the floor and even roaches but I looked on every single shelf and in every cabinet and I couldn’t find anything to eat.
The sun was shining really REALLY bright from the window. I almost forgot how the sun looks. When I went to the window I saw a big, empty parking lot outside. At first I thought there were diamonds all over the ground because of the sparkles but it was just a lot of broken glass. I could only see one car and I thought it was Ms. M’s. But Ms. M would never leave her car looking like that. For one thing it had two flat tires!
Anyway I don’t think there’s anybody here today. So I thought of a plan. I have to go now.
Ms. M, this is for you—or whoever comes looking for me. I know somebody will find this notebook if I leave it on my bed. I’m very sorry I had to leave in such a hurry.
I didn’t want to go outside but isn’t it okay if it’s an emergency? I am really really hungry. I’ll just find some food and bring it with me and I’ll come right back. I’m leaving my door open so I won’t get locked out. Ms. M, maybe I’ll find your garden with cassavas and akee like you showed me and I’ll know the good parts from the bad parts. If someone sees me and I get in trouble I’ll just say I didn’t have anything to eat.
Whoever is reading this don’t worry. I’ll tell everybody I see please please not to get too close to me. I know Dr. Ben was very worried I might make somebody sick.
© 2000 by Tananarive Due
Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.