This facility was one of the few that still looked like it could be new. It wasn’t, of course. Kravitz had seen nothing new in his entire life. Pain lanced up his arm and he winced. He put a hand uselessly over the bandage as if pressure could help at this point.
Taking a deep breath, Kravitz shoved the door open with his shoulder. The receptionist smiled up at him. He noticed Kravitz’s badge and his smile only widened. Kravitz regretted not taking it off in his haste.
The receptionist stood to put some gloves on. “Great timing,” he grinned, grabbing a clipboard. “We think we just had a breakthrough. Do you have any patients who are freshly—?”
“Sorry,” Kravitz interrupted, scratching his arm. He’d been warned these people called the creatures patients, but it was still off-putting. “The firm sent me here, I—” He cut himself off and just pulled back his sleeve to reveal the bandage.
“Oh,” the receptionist said, smile dimming. “I see. How long ago?”
“This morning, sir,” Kravitz answered, looking away from the receptionist. “There were three monsters—sorry—”
“It’s alright,” the doctor assured him, writing something down. “I’m Dr. Bluejeans. You can call me Barry. Don’t bother with ‘sir’. You might be under our care for some time and that would get tiring.”
Kravitz swallowed thickly. He knew it wasn’t a threat, but it felt like one. When he was a kid, he’d been dared to knock on the door of a facility near his school. He’d gotten as far as the open, barbed wire gate and run away crying at the flash of red eyes he swore he saw in the window. “T-the patients to the north—” he tried to go on.
“Let’s get you checked in, first,” Barry said, adjusting his glasses. “What’s your name?”
“K56301 dash WAP,” Kravitz said, crossing his arms so he wouldn’t scratch the bandage again.
“Your name,” Barry persisted, frowning.
“It’s what the state named me,” Kravitz said, pursing his lips and meeting Barry’s eyes. A part of him screeched at him to stop glaring at the mad doctor he was about to be at the mercy of, but Kravitz figured he was well on track to dying. It wouldn’t really matter much longer.
“Ah,” Barry lamented awkwardly, tapping a pen on his clipboard. “Kind of a mouthful. Do you, uh, have a nickname?”
“Kravitz,” he said quietly, looking over at a colorful sketch of some kind of building hanging on the wall. It was oddly tiered, but everything in this place was ancient. “Like the actor.”
“Progress,” Barry cheered, writing down more on what was quickly becoming Kravitz’s sheet. “Follow me and we’ll talk more when you’re properly prepared.”
Kravitz nodded and acquiesced, trying to remind himself these people were trying to help. Raven wouldn’t have sent him here in the first place if she thought they’d hurt him. He may not have trusted plague doctors, but he trusted her.
Barry led him into the back. The facility could have easily been any of a dozen Prend hospitals Kravitz had been in thousands of times, but it was cleaner. A group of someones obviously cared about the place being sterile. Everything felt stark and bright like the old TV sets from posters about the ER. He was almost afraid to even brush the walls in case he ruined something in his dirty fatigues.
Their shoes squeaked on the linoleum tiles. Despite how well kept this clinic was, it was eerily deserted. The sound echoed back to them a thousand times over. Kravitz peered into every room he could. Most were shuttered, probably to save precious energy. The few that were open looked like someone had very recently been at work in them. He couldn’t even begin to guess what anyone was using them for, but it felt of some great importance by the number of instruments and papers laid on the tables.
Finally, Barry stopped by an empty exam room and gestured for Kravitz to go in. He took out a cloth sheet and sat it on the little bed. “Do you know how to put on this gown?” Kravitz glanced between the sheet and Barry, shaking his head. “Right,” Barry smiled a bit sadly. “You’ll undress and put this on like so.”
When Kravitz was changed, Barry began a simple physical exam. This was something Kravitz had done a million times. Reflexes, ears, throat, breathing, all of it came back normal until Barry flashed a light in Kravitz’s eyes. “Hm.” He marked something down on Kravitz’s chart. “You said you were bit this morning? Could you give me an approximate time?”
“Maybe oh-six-hundred,” Kravitz said automatically, curious what Barry was getting at.
“Have your doctors ever mentioned your eyes don’t react to light evenly?” Barry leaned forward, flashing the light at Kravitz again. “You’ve got some swelling back there, too.”
“I’m guessing that’s not normal,” Kravitz mumbled, trying to blink away the bright splotches still lingering in his vision. “I’ve always been a little sensitive to light. Doctors told me it was probably from growing up on the West Coast.”
“Mm,” Barry hummed again, sounding dissatisfied with Kravitz’s answer. “No head injuries lately, right?” He took a step back and crossed his arms, looking at Kravitz like an insect under a microscope.
“Yeah—Yes,” Kravitz said nervously and then quickly corrected himself, “I mean—No, no head injuries.” He licked his lips, lacing his fingers together in his lap. “Is there something wrong? Well. More wrong?”
“No, no I don’t think so,” Barry said and jotted down a few more notes on Kravitz’s sheet. “Why don’t you unwrap your bandage so I can take a look at what we’re dealing with?”
He turned towards the kitchen-sink counter and began taking out a lot more empty vials than Kravitz was comfortable with. Especially when those were probably going to be filled in some way by himself.
Kravitz picked at the edges of gauze he’d swaddled his arm in. Finally, he got the courage to start unwrapping it. The bandages were rusty red through several layers. He had to steel himself for the last piece laying against his skin. With a deep breath, Kravitz ripped it off like a bandaid. Several teeth clattered to the floor and Kravitz covered his mouth to bite back a scream of pain.
It certainly didn’t look pretty.
He caught sight of something moving in the folds of broken skin and looked anywhere but his arm, trying not to gag. Barry rolled over to Kravitz’s side as if this was nothing more than a papercut.
“This needs stitches,” he said unhappily. “How badly does it hurt?”
“Does it matter? I won’t need my arm in a couple hours,” Kravitz sighed, not really arguing as Barry gently prodded the edges of the wound with a swab.
“You’ll need it a few hours after a couple,” Barry shrugged and rolled away to the counter again. He came back with a pair of tweezers. “I need to clean this out before I can close it up. I think the sudden summertime this morning helped your new little friends hatch.”
“I really don’t want to know what is or isn’t moving around in my skin,” Kravitz hissed, putting his free hand over his eyes. “I didn’t even know they could just hatch like that. Outside of a somebody.”
“Oh yes. We hatch them in the lab all the time,” Barry said idly, as if parasites were part of that morning’s early entry into summer. Kravitz could feel him occasionally plucking and pulling around the wound, but it came with very little pain. “Fortunately, when they hatch outside of somebody, they’re already too big to get into somebody. They die off pretty quick like this. These little guys are lucky. They’ll go in an isolation tank so we can use them to help treat you. If you’re infected at all.”
Kravitz made a face under his hand. Even if minorly disturbing, it was comforting to hear Barry talk so matter-of-factly about them. It made the parasites seem less powerful. “What do you mean if I’m infected?”
“You were bitten, not injected,” Barry said evenly. “This will sting a bit. I’m putting some disinfectant on it.” Kravitz hissed in pain on cue. “Some hatched parasites are a good sign that they may have all gotten too big before they could enter your bloodstream. It’s unlikely, but it is possible. We’ll know for sure here in a minute when I do a Color Test.”
Right. The Color Test. Green meant ‘not infected’. Blue meant ‘too late’.
“I have to say it’ll be bittersweet for us if you’re not infected. We were looking for someone with the disease who was relatively healthy,” Barry explained as he closed up Kravitz’s arm. Kravitz took the pain with only a grunt. “Once we’ve removed the parasite, we believe the host will return to normal functionality. Like waking up from a nap.”
Kravitz’s curiosity got the better of him. “How are you going to remove it?”
“I don’t think you really want to know. It involves a lot of needles,” Barry answered with a small laugh. “We’ve seen some promising results in the lab. Problem is, the parasite changes the biology of its host. If the parasite is gone, we can assume the host will die under the conditions most patients with the disease are driven to.”
All of this was starting to make Kravitz’s eyes glaze over. Normally he’d probably find this fascinating. Unfortunately, Kravitz didn’t really think Barry could cure him. It felt like a lot of talk for something that would never happen.
He knew he would die. He would have to feel every inch of his body being taken from him. He knew there was nothing anyone could do.
Slowly, Kravitz closed his eyes. “Sorry,” he whispered, putting his free hand over his mouth. “Can I have a moment?”
“No,” Barry said quickly, wrapping Kravitz’s arm. “I’m afraid we don’t have much time, Kravitz. Once you’re in your room, you’ll have all the time you need to-to make peace or whatever you need.”
Kravitz nodded, shoving down a sob. He sat up, silently crying through the rest of the exam. Barry drew his blood and he didn’t even notice the pinch. A little splash of blood on The Color Test.
He was led to a hallway of small glass rooms, each with a padded chair bolted to the floor. It was clean and sterile like the rest of the facility. Every chair had an occupant.
That shocked him from his grief.
Rows and rows of monsters in various states of decay sat in silence, heads dipped forward. Most of them were breathing. Efforts had obviously been put into repairing them, caring for them. Every monster was in clean clothes, their hair trimmed short and skin washed. They were all strapped into the chairs, a clipboard hanging on each door. Every clipboard had a picture of the monster from when they were a person.
Barry led him towards the one at the end. It snarled and hissed at him, fighting its bonds. Even the room it was in bore the evidence of its escape attempts in deep scratches around the lock and handle. It looked almost alive. A devastatingly handsome elf, scarred all across its face. Only the vacant red eyes gave away what it really was. If Kravitz squinted, he thought it looked familiar.
“Don’t mind Taako,” Barry sighed, flicking a switch that darkened the glass. Kravitz tried to smile and failed as he realized the empty cell next to Taako was meant for him.
This was where he’d die.
Barry gestured to the chair.
Kravitz sat down and Barry secured him in place. “Tell me if it’s too tight.”
It wasn’t and Kravitz wished he had another reason to stall the inevitable. He knew it wouldn’t stop him from dying, but it was better than waiting for death, wasn’t it?
Barry placed the IV in his arm, checking the drip. “I’ll give you some time,” he said and shut the door.
Please don’t let me die alone, Kravitz tried to say. He opened his mouth and nothing came out. Barry gave him a soft smile. He darkened the glass. Kravitz was left staring at himself as dread and panic set in.
A scratching noise to his left caught his attention. Through the darkened glass, he could see sharp red eyes. It was staring straight at Kravitz. Behind the glass and in the same position, its eyes didn’t look so vacant. It looked bored, despite the big grin on its face.
“H-hello,” Kravitz said, as if it could understand him. “I’m Kravitz. Barry said your name was Taako, right?” He saw its head tilt towards him as if reacting. Maybe that was why Barry had pressed him so hard for his name. “Taako. Great. Looks like we’re going to be neighbors.”
He was really only talking to dampen his nerves. He turned back to staring at the door. A pillow on the headrest gave him a place to at least put his head. Actually, the whole damn chair was comfortable.
“If you’re an elf, you must be from Prend, right?” He took a deep breath, looking up at the dim lights above him. “Only seen a couple elves who were still alive. You’ve got a nice smile, too. Bet you were an actor on—” Realization slammed into him.
Taako from TV.
He’d seen him, once, in the centerfold of a very old, very dirty magazine; a centerfold about spreading more than icing with TV’s Taako. He turned his head away, face practically lighting on fire. It wasn’t every day you met a monster you’d wanked to pictures of.
Thankfully, the door swung open again. “Hi there,” a woman greeted, one eye as sharp as Taako’s and the other covered with an eyepatch. “I’m Dr. Lup.” Barry stood somewhere behind her. Dr. Lup knelt so she was eye-level with Kravitz. Another familiar face. She was older than Taako. It showed in her eyes and the way she carried herself rather than anything in her looks beyond the silver at her temples. He’d always heard elves didn’t age and he supposed Dr. Lup proved that true. She was Taako’s spitting image in all the ways that mattered, but few he could vocalize. “Barry said he told you about the procedure,” she said, interrupting his thoughts.
“K-kind of,” Kravitz stammered, fingers clutching the arm rest. “Something about needles.”
“Good,” she said softly, putting a hand on his. It was cold and comforting. His eyes pricked with tears from the simple kindness and Kravitz hated himself for being so easily moved. “We’ll be here with you through it all.” He looked to the side, then tilted his head back, trying not to cry. “We think we finally have the cure, Kravitz. When you change, we’ll just flush the parasite out. It’ll be like you closed your eyes for a moment and you’ll be back with us, I promise.”
“Lup, we can’t—” Barry frowned, looking nervously at Taako.
“We tried this on my brother,” she confided, squeezing Kravitz’s hand again. “The strain of virus he has only ever hit Glamour Springs in force with a few minor outbursts. Burns itself out. It’s too dangerous, too deadly. We weren’t surprised when it resisted our efforts.” Kravitz nodded vaguely, as if he had the knowledge to agree. He was a drowning man grasping at the straws of hope Lup was offering him. “Do you know what Glamour Springs was?”
“W-where they used to make talkies,” he nodded, feeling a bit like a little kid. For the two people in front of him, he probably was. “They taught us in school. I went to one on the West. Silent Field Elementary. It burned down a couple years ago.” He winced and stared at a point above Lup. “It’s not important. Sorry. I’m rambling.”
“Ramble all you want,” she told him, sitting cross-legged on the floor. “We could be here a few minutes or a few hours.”
“I don’t want to ramble until I die! I—I’m scared,” he admitted, nails digging into the wooden end of the arm rests. “Can’t—Can’t you knock me out until it’s over?” He looked up at them desperately. “Please.”
Lup and Barry exchanged a look. “Yeah,” Barry murmured. Lup stood, nodding at Barry as he took something from his bag. He slipped a needle into the top of Kravitz’s IV.
“Count backwards from one hundred with us,” Lup said, already sounding distant. “One—”
Kravitz slammed back into reality with a scratching to his left. He groggily turned his head, meeting red eyes. The monster’s face was pressed against the glass, Taako free of its bonds. He looked around desperately, trying to form words. Nothing came out.
His mouth wouldn’t work.
The monster seemed to realize he was awake and stood properly. It smiled, a big broad grin like all monsters did when they saw prey. Kravitz’s heart picked up and his fingers twitched in their restraints.
The monster turned suddenly to its door and opened it as if it was a person. As if it leaving his field of vision wasn’t terrifying enough, he heard rattling at his door. He couldn’t lift his head to look.
Instead, he screamed.
An alarm went off somewhere as a hand touched his. It was warm, gentle. The hand moved to his face, patting his cheek softly. “Kra-av,” a voice croaked near his ear, “vi-itz.” Its hand covered his mouth.
Kravitz squeezed his eyes shut and tried to pretend he was anywhere else. Someone far away shouted, “Shit!”
His screaming gave way to half-hearted whimpers. Everything felt too surreal as this monster climbed into his lap and put its hands around his throat.
Then the hands were gone.
Kravitz cracked an eye open. The biggest person he’d ever seen was in a full suit of armor, wrestling Taako back into its cell. He opened both eyes to watch as Taako tried and failed to bite through the knight’s chainmail. Eventually, the knight succeeded and snapped a padlock on the outside of the door.
Taako snarled and bodily slammed itself against the door. “Well,” the man announced, shoving his visor up. “What’d you do to rile him up?”
“N-nothing,” Kravitz slurred, closing his eyes again. The man didn’t seem to hear him, checking Kravitz over. Everything was happening too fast. “Nothing,” he said louder, nearly shouting.
The man in the armor froze, blinking down at Kravitz. “Wait, you’re alive?” He walked backwards, snagging a clipboard off Kravitz’s door. Taako’s hissing increased, door rattling. The armored man looked at the clipboard, then back to Kravitz, then again at the clipboard. “Sure you got bit?”
Kravitz glared at the ceiling, irritated by everything. “Yes,” he did shout that time, enunciating carefully.
“Ye-es,” Taako mocked.
The armored man startled away from Taako, staring between the two of them. “Did you just—?” His mouth opened and closed. He kept looking at Kravitz as if it was his fault Taako was mocking him. Finally, he held up his hands in brief surrender. “Okay, this is way too weird for me. Barry ‘n Lup will be awake in like an hour, keep it together until then,” he said, and closed Kravitz’s door, padlocking it too.
“Great,” Kravitz spat in Taako’s direction. Taako was still pawing at his door, rattling it. He mentally noted he’d started thinking of Taako as a person and frowned.
“Gr-r-eat,” Taako echoed back, hands slamming against the door. He turned his big, vacant eyes on Kravitz.
“As if he’s never heard you bunch parroting whatever you hear,” Kravitz snorted, refusing to look at Taako anymore.
“Yo-ou,” Taako groaned.
A monster three cells down turned its broken head to Kravitz. “Yo-ou,” Kravitz realized it was mouthing. He squeezed his eyes shut as the other occupants began croaking, gurgling, pulling at their restraints. “Kra-avi-itz,” they chanted, so far out of sync they sounded like static.
He hated zombies.