"A Three Percent Chance He'll Ever Know I Lied"
I wonder when he’ll die. I wonder what I’ll
do when he dies.
I keep the needle ready. It’s steely and tanged
with a glowing cartridge of silvery chemical. The fluid inside will
bring him back. “Use immediately for best results.” I wrote
that instruction. I’ll follow it.
And I watch. Sleepless nights. The cancer will take him,
no question. I’ll bring him back.
I dream I sit naked on a cold porcelain toilet while
a wedding party waltzes past me. The strains of the 3/4 time music is
overwhelmed by my whistling flatulence and the hollow splatter of diarrhea.
The wedding guests, resplendent in silk and tulle and tuxedoes, watch
me in my blushing embarrassment as they circle. They smile and chatter
through faces wizened and blackened as any mummy, green and rotten as
any corpse. A spider, big as a kitten, runs over the plump flesh of
my bare left foot.
Luke stares at me, bright with fever, his pasty skin
slick with sweat.
“Sylvia. Tell me,” he demands in a bedroom
whisper that is part night and part illness.
I touch his face, high on the right cheek. Courage.
“It was our wedding,” I say. “Me in
that white silk dress, you in your morning suit. Except it wasn’t
Reverend Margaret, it was The Impressive Clergyman from “The Princess
Bride.” He kept saying, “A dweam within a dweam.””
Luke sleeps again. Does he know I lie?
“Reverend Margaret said “Forever,””
I whisper. He is turning that vow into a lie. I guess we’re even.
I stand in the hallway with my carryon suitcase and my
medical bag. I don’t want to leave for this shortest possible
business trip but the United Nations Human Rights Council insists. The
AMA insists. My research group insists.
A daydream evolves in my head. Luke is well enough to
join me. Luke and I visit all the touristy attractions of the Big Apple.
Luke and I. Luke and I. Just like it used to be.
A discreet knock on the door. I come back to myself.
The caregiver who will stay with Luke while I’m gone stands on
“Come on,” I say. “He’s in the
back room. All the meds are in the same places; you remember from last
time?” Koziol, his name is. He nods.
I sit on the bed and say goodbye to Luke. He must have
made a trip to the bathroom by himself while I packed. He’s neatened
up. Shaved. He smells like a Caribbean afternoon.
I kiss him on his hollow cheeks, my lips brushing the
carefully scraped skin. He has never liked stubble. I’m indifferent,
but I like his skin, smooth or prickly.
“Fly safe,” he says. His hand is strong in
mine. This vitality startles me. Isn’t he more frail than that?
“Remember your dreams,” he says. “We’ll
share when you come back.”
There’s an act of faith. I fear he’ll die
while I’m gone. Koziol isn’t one of mine; he’d never
use the syringe. If Luke dies in the next two days, he’ll remain
The flight isn’t full but a man sits beside me.
He’s a doctor of oncology. He trained in a backwater medical school,
he says. Going to bigger opportunities in New York City. I ask about
his school. His work. His family and hobbies. I tease him about his
He doesn’t recognize me but he flirts back. He’s
waiting. He knows I want to ask him something. They teach med students
about that, the “door question.” In my field, I am the dedicated
expert. He’s new in his field and has been exposed to everything
experimental. I approach the subject obliquely.
“No one uses cobalt radiation any more,”
he says. “Except for that particular cancer. Intractable. We can
cure so much these days,” he says, “but not everything.
He looks at me with scorching pity. I yearn to strike
out. My lips stretch thin over my dry teeth.
“Everybody dies. Eighty seven percent stay that
way,” I say. He turns pale. He’s a newly-minted doctor,
of course he knows all about the 87%. “We don’t know why.
When you die, will it be forever?”
It’s a weird kind of threat, hurting him with facts.
Recognition finally hits him. He stiffens, draws away from me in the
tiny airline seat. I sneer. Then I struggle to my feet and clamber over
him and the woman in the aisle seat. The bathroom is available. I close
the door and slam the latch home just in time. The bowl catches my vomit.
The window seat is too small now. I decline drinks and
foil-wrapped peanuts. I can ignore the doctor but I can’t ignore
my own whirling mind. I stare out the plane’s portal window at
the clear blue sky. Cobalt. I close my eyes. I don’t think I cry.
Linen wraps my body from head to toe. Strips of disintegrating
fabric, gray and dusty, hang from my hands. I clutch a sealed canopic
jar to my chest. My heart is inside the jar. I set the jar on the podium
and wipe some linen threads from my face. The microphone picks up my
heart’s strong beat and amplifies it back into the auditorium.
I try to speak but the electronic feedback whine cracks my ears. I put
the jar on the floor and resume my speech.
I’m talking in Egyptian, the ancient language of
the pharaohs from three thousand years ago. For a moment I panic, but
this is the U.N.. The translators smoothly find my words and give them
back in modern language. I hear English and Russian, Farsi and Thai.
The lights glow off the mellow velvet curtains and upholstery. It’s
a full house, crowded ranks of diplomats and envoys and they are all
But they listen.
The chamber is silent when I finish. Under the agony
of those dead gazes I stumble away from the podium. I kick the canopic
jar. It spins wildly and rolls off the edge of the stage.
I scream, and screaming, I awaken. I’ve kicked
the seat in front of me. The woman turns to glare and I duck my head,
shamed. Must I always dream?
I will write a story in my dream book to share with Luke,
something sweet. It might be a while before I can think up something
I suffer a blur of airport and taxi and traffic and hotel
check in. I text Koziol for updates on Luke’s condition but he’s
very terse. All well. Same. No change. Next time I’ll hire a verbose
Of course there won’t be a next time. And Luke
is comfortable with Koziol.
Luke is foremost on my mind during my United Nations
appearance. I might have enjoyed the experience. If I’d been living
in the moment and not panicked about losing my husband.
I sit in bed, comfortable with white-covered pillows
mounded behind my back and coverlets pulled up to my lap. I’ve
completed the official report. Now to write a blog post about what really
happened in that United Nations chamber. No secrets, no surprises, in
either my presentation or the council’s unsettled response.
I type “87%.” The chemical will not affect
most people. The chemical may as well be saline solution injected into
fresh corpses. For 87% of the newly-dead.
I type in “10%.” A significant number. These
people come back. They revive, but they are docile. Sheep. Incomplete.
They have no stamina. A startlement, a common cold, an upset stomach,
and they die. No amount of the chemical brings them back a second time.
And yet. Ten percent of the dead come back. Drink a cup
of soup. Allow family time to love them for a few days more.
I type, “3%.” This is the statistical flag.
This is what we’re working towards. There are still some flaws.
Some problems. They come back robust, complete, exhibiting free will.
They aren’t alive biologically. They don’t eat soup. I sit
back in my chair and frown. I know what they’re called, this 3%.
Zombie. This percentage is why I still have a program. The name is why
the assemblies and councils are reluctant to grant permissions for further
I text Koziol. It’s still early on the West Coast.
He texts back. “No change.”
The bedroom light is on. Men and women in stiff suits
crowd around my hotel bed. A lovely woman in a peach silk robe approaches
me, kneels at the bedside.
“Please,” she says. “He is dead.”
There are no tears in her eyes.
I’m not allowed to pretend I don’t know what
they want. Someone holds my medical bag. I slide out from between the
warm sheets, naked. For a fleeting moment I wonder if I’m caught
in another dream, but of course not. I never wonder during a dream.
She shrugs out of her silk robe and gives it to me. Her
chemise clings to her body, lace at her throat and ankles. I wrap myself
inside the silk robe. I follow them to a room two floors up and a world
of prestige beyond mine. We sweep through the salon and the sitting
room into the bedroom and beyond it, into an enormous bathroom.
We’ve shed the escort. Now it’s only me and
the woman and a suit holding my medical bag.
The body isn’t naked. He’s stretched on the
tile floor, clothed in warm cotton pajamas. He has blue socks on his
feet and there’s a hole in one toe. He hasn’t been dead
very many minutes; the stink of his voided bowels is strong and raw.
Why is he dead? Suicide? Stroke? Cancer? I don’t
see any obvious signs, no blood, no wounds. He is thin, flaccid, gray;
but the dead frequently are.
The woman shakes her head.
The suit gives me my bag and I select a syringe, fill
it with the chemical.
“Roll him on his side,” I say.
The woman and the suit move the body. I arrange his upper
leg so the knee bends. The spine needs to be flexed for this. I push
up his shirt and find the right spot between the vertebrae.
I pause, needle hovering at his back. I look at the lovely
“If this works, it’ll be immediate.”
She stares at me.
I inject him.
I would never do this to a living being, not even a lab
mouse. The agony of spinal injections is too severe. But the dead don’t
complain and the revived never notice.
The man stirs.
The woman sits back on her heels and drags in a breath.
I reach over the man’s body and grab her wrist.
“Don’t scream,” I warn.
She shakes me off but nods. She understands.
The man sits up. He’s dazed, sitting in his own
stink. He blinks his eyes.
I put my fingers on his wrist. His pulse is slow and
mild. I could perform a flurry of tests but I already know. I’ve
seen so many in this state. He is one of the ten percent.
The man and the woman speak slowly to each other. I suddenly
recognize them. A strong president and her brilliant diplomat husband.
They’ve done good things for their country. Never a media hint
that he was ill.
She presses herself against his chest. He strokes her
hair. He’s not stupid, I know, or damaged. He’s distant,
as if part of his soul were elsewhere.
I stand up, replace the used syringe in the bag. The
suit blocks my exit, waiting impassively for a sign from the woman.
“You’ll have all the funding you need,”
No superfluous words. I admire that. But it’s not
enough. Funding is good but I need permissions. Licensing. Otherwise
I might as well stop.
“And we’ll negotiate with the council for
your permissions,” she says.
I don’t believe in the sixth sense, psychic ability.
She’s not reading my mind. She knows what I need, is all. She
knew I was in the hotel. Just in case. She would know how to pay me.
Just in case.
I nod sharply. The suit relents and allows me to leave
I’m in the air halfway home before I realize I
still have her silk robe.
Luke has broken all the glass.
I follow a progress of destruction that begins with the
door panel, cracked and loose. It’s a carpet of sharp stones.
The photo frames, the expensive Chihuly glass, the terrarium. Water
glasses, tea cups, wine bulbs. Spice jars. In the front hallway by the
bedroom door I’m reflected in shards of mirror.
I’m afraid to open the door.
He is alive, I say to myself. My eyes are closed. I shove
the door open.
He sits at the window, huddled under a load of blankets,
motionless in my oaken rocking chair. A crocheted stocking cap covers
his shaved head. The syringe sits on the window sill, a moment away
from his hand. Sunlight glints on it and sends refractions of light
spinning onto the bedroom walls.
“Where is Koziol?” I say. I texted an hour
ago from the airport. He’d texted back, “No change.”
I sit on the bed next to the rocking chair.
“The speech went well,” I say. “We
got some help.”
“You have enough subjects,” he says. His
voice rasps. “Not me.”
“Where’s Koziol?” I say again.
“He found that,” Luke says. “I asked
him to leave.”
I’m not worried about the syringe. I have plenty
of syringes. I have plenty of the chemical. Why had I left the prepared
needle in Luke’s room? I curse Koziol. I curse myself.
Luke coughs. I reach out with a tissue. There’s
blood. Worse yet, there’s pink foam. Blood in the lungs.
“Not me,” Luke says when he can talk again.
“I don’t want to be a zombie. I don’t want to die
at all, but please. Not a zombie.” He gasps out the last word.
“There’s only a 3% chance,” I say.
“Shouldn’t we take any chance we can get?”
“Swear to me,” he says. He lurches up from
the rocking chair. Blankets fall to the floor. He sways. His skin is
gray and sweaty. The rampage took a lot out of him. I surge to my feet,
put an arm around his waist. He pushes me away.
“Swear. Not me.”
“Get in bed,” I say. “A last chance
for us,” I say. “Please!” I beg. Finally, finally,
I say, “I swear. Not you.”
He collapses into bed as if explosively punctured. I
arrange his legs, plump the pillow, raise the blankets to cover him
foot to chest. I crawl into bed with him. My head on his shoulder, I
whisper into his throat, “I swear. I promise. Not you.”
My fingers aren’t crossed behind my back. And he’s
I rock next to the bed and dream a future. At his next
doctor’s appointment his tests are clear, miraculous remission.
He’s still pale because it takes a while to recuperate. The doctor
recommends a long vacation on a warm beach. The president makes us her
guests. In a month, no, let’s be realistic, two months, Luke is
strong and tanned and eating huge seafood feasts. Shrimp and golden
I’m happy with him. The urgency of research fades.
I can do anything tomorrow. Today the sun shines on me and Luke.
I wake because his breathing changes. Rasping. Intermittent.
Like a defective buzz saw that stops and needs restarting.
He’s not sweating. I sit on the bed next to him.
His skin is cool. Pulse mild. I pump the sphygmomanometer and read low
I scream. I grab his arm and pinch the flesh underneath,
that most sensitive spot. He does not respond. I slap his face.
He snorts out a ripping exhalation. And stops.
I roll him onto his side and bend his top knee. I ruck
up his bed shirt.
I grasp the prepared syringe from its place in the bedside
drawer. I don’t hesitate for a moment. I never planned to hesitate.
I would have sworn on my eternal soul and would have still. Never. Hesitated.
The chemical goes into his spine. I withdraw the needle
and rub the spot on his back. An apology.
I can’t bring myself to check his pulse, now, when
it counts most.
But he’s not in the 87%.
He sits up. I note that his bowels never relaxed enough
to purge. A last indignity he’s spared.
Then he shrieks.
He leaps from the bed. Sees me. Grabs my shoulders and
flings me across the room. Enormous strength. My head knocks against
the wall. Black spots dim my vision.
He doesn’t ask any useless questions. No what.
No why. He doesn’t confront me with my lie. He doesn’t say
anything. He slams his fist against the wall. Paper and chalk cloud
around him. The hole grows under repeated blows. No blood. The ripped
skin on his knuckles will never heal and never bleed.
He stops hitting the wall. He looks at me. I’m
not able to hold his gaze. I look away. He pulls clothes from the dresser.
Basics: underwear, jeans, tee-shirt.
I struggle to my feet.
“Where are you going?”
He can’t tell me. Not if he’s in the 3%.
He slides his feet into his shoes.
“I want to be with you. Forever,” I say.
I pull a second prepared syringe from my bedside drawer. This one’s
special. The load will kill me first then allow the chemical to do its
work. I position the fine point above my arm vein.
Luke darts over to me. Preternaturally quick. He slaps
my hands. The syringe flies across the room. It shatters against the
wall. He holds my hands in his, not at all gentle.
It’s a moment of quiet. We gaze into each other’s
eyes. I’m not at all psychic. I don’t believe in the sixth
sense. But I see the answer in his still-clear eyes. He knew. All along.
He knew I lied. He knew I’d do anything to bring him back.
He kisses me with the desperate passion I remember from
before his illness. I kiss him back with all the strength I can muster.
His teeth grind behind the hard line of his closed lips. He’s
resisting a new desire, a new need. A month from now he won’t
be able to resist. Given the chance he’ll bite the lips off my
face. Devour them.
With that awful thought I’ve let him go. My heart
has labeled him. Zombie.
I flinch away from his kiss. I stiffen against him, turn
away so slightly. I can’t let him go. I can’t bear to hold
He pushes me away. With a roar he wrenches the door open.
He escapes into the morning twilight.
I should follow him. Dispose of him. Using methods outlined
in my research protocols. But I can’t. Not to Luke. Not him. He’s
alive. That has to be enough. I turn back to the dark room. Back to
what’s left of my dreams.