Madness in the Blood
by Catherine Graham
read by Jason Warden
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For seven days Jen watched the body count pile up on the news. Five dead on Wednesday, 8 on Thursday, 12 on Friday. The numbers kept going up every day and the numbers went so high that on the seventh day she decided she couldn’t watch the news anymore. She switched it off and went out for a walk, but still she couldn’t escape the escalating numbers of dead people in her city. People were talking about them at the bus stop, in the coffee shops and in the queue for the cash machine. Everyone could see what was happening but no one knew why…except for Jen.
She knew the truth and for that reason she didn’t want to be around all these people having to listen to their false speculations. Especially since their conclusions were wrong. She headed back home the way she had come, back across the Kelvin Bridge in Glasgow’s West End. It was here that she encountered the first victim of the terrible mistake she had made.
This victim was standing on the railing of the bridge. Still alive, but she could tell it wasn’t going to be for very long.
She looked like a student, Jen thought. Jen was a student too, but she didn’t have the haunted eyes that this girl did. The haunted eyes that said the other student’s heart was already dead. She still looked pretty though. Even through her despair she was going to leave a beautiful corpse. Maybe that’s why so many people were trying to talk her down but they were all wasting their time because she had made up her mind, just like the rest of them had. Then she said the words that Jen had hoped she would never hear again because this wasn’t the first time she’d heard them. It was like an echo from a very close past. Almost exactly the same words that haunted her now.
“There’s something in my veins. It’s eating my joy” And then she jumped.
Shortly afterwards Jen felt herself being pushed out of the way by a Policeman.
“That’s what they all say,” he said to himself.
Jen replied “I know. It was on the news” but that’s not where she had first heard it.
The first time she heard it she laughed. It was in a meeting for her student magazine. She had taken charge of a column that no one wanted called “The Odd Column.”
She’d been asked to go see someone she didn’t want to see. A pretentious photographer named Dawn who’d won all the awards the college could offer and had gone into the world and won more. Jen had thought her superficial and fake because she was never without a smile. She looked like the happiest person in the world. She was bouncy and full of energy and that frightened Jen because she wasn’t like that. Jen was the darker, more gothic type who believed in nothing except that to be Bohemian and interesting she had to be wary of such types who had happiness to share. Someone with such happiness did not usually seek out the services of The Odd Column.
The Odd Column dealt with the strange, the bizarre and the stupid. Jen had to follow up every lead though because that was what the Odd Column had always been about. So when her editor told her that Dawn was back in Glasgow and had an odd story for the Odd Column, she had to go.
“Do you have any details?” she asked.
“No,” said the editor. “Just that something has eaten away at her happiness”
“No,” said the editor. “It’s not funny. She said it lived in her veins for about a month before she realized it, and by the time she found someone to remove it, it was too late. It had eaten every ounce of joy she had ever owned.”
“That’s a lot of joy,” said Jen, remembering Dawn’s smile.
“Why did she ask to talk to me?” inquired Jen.
“She didn’t, she asked to talk to me. She wanted me to take her seriously, but she’s crazy. There’s no way its real. She’s just spent too much time in a scary place. Now she’s gone mad.”
“Where was the scary place?”
“Afghanistan. It’s a war zone.”
“Why did she go there?”
“Because she said she was sick of people telling her she just took pictures of safe, happy things. So she wanted to go somewhere to prove that she was a serious photographer.”
“But she won all those awards” said Jen.
“She wanted more. So off she went to Afghanistan to talk to people caught up in the war. No one heard from her for over a year. She said I was the first person she’s talked to after she got back. And there was something odd about her.”
“But you don’t want to talk to her?” Jen asked.
“No. I wouldn’t be able to stop laughing. But I thought of you because you never laugh. You’re the most serious person I know.”
“Thanks” she said.
“Buy you a pizza if you go,” he said. “It sounds interesting.”
“Okay,” Jen said. She hadn’t had a pizza for weeks.
“But you can’t tell her you’re from The Odd Column. She used to be a student here, too. She knows what that means.”
“I won’t,” Jen said and set off to the most expensive, most Bohemian part of Glasgow. This was where Dawn Smith lived, in a great big house that her prize money had bought her in the Byers Road end of the Great Western Road.
She tentatively knocked on the door and could hear someone walking to the door, but no one answered. Jen listened carefully and could tell someone was looking at her through the peephole.
“Dawn. I’m from the Art College,” Jen shouted. “You asked me to come here.”
There was more hesitation so Jen stood back as the door was pulled open just a little, as far as a hook and chain would allow.
“Can we do an interview on the doorstep, through the chain?” asked a woman she couldn’t see but presumed to be Dawn.
“No. That’s weird. You have to let me in.”
“I can’t. You’re not going to like what you see,” she stated.
“Dawn, don’t be silly. I’ve seen you before. You didn’t know me, though. I was in first year when you were in third. You were fit to be looked at.”
“I’m not now.” she said quietly.
“You can’t have changed that much” Jen said.
“Okay. I’ll let you in, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
There was quite a long pause, as if Dawn had run off to find something and then the hook was removed from the door chain. It slowly began to open to reveal a tiny petite figure swathed from head to toe in colorful Eastern scarves over loose fitting Eastern Pyjama trousers and a top. From what she could see it wasn’t very monstrous, but that wasn’t very much. The only visible thing was her eyes. Dawn saw what Jen was thinking.
“It’s under the scarves” Dawn said.
“I can’t tell you until you know the whole story.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” said Dawn, but I can’t make it without taking off my scarves, so I’ll have to shut my kitchen door on you.”
Again Jen said that it was okay.
“It’s a bit dark, though. Can I open the curtains?” she asked going over to the window to do just that, thinking there wouldn’t be a problem.
But Dawn shouted. “No!”
Jen looked shocked and Dawn looked terrified.
“You can’t let light into my house. It could kill me!”
“Okay. I won’t do that. I won’t open them.”
So the kitchen door was shut and Dawn made sure she heard the door click before she began the process of the tea making.
Jen took the opportunity to take a look around the gloomy living room, but it wasn’t dusty or untidy. In fact, it was spotlessly clean and artfully decorated with Dawn’s photos. Some of them were from her brief career; a lot of them were from her travels to the East. Deserts, Nomads and happy smiling people, mostly. Poppies and Lapis Lazuli and for the first time in this dark gloom Jen appreciated what people saw in Dawn’s work. It was frozen happiness. For an instant people could catch a glimpse of the state of mind Dawn had lived in. She gave a small piece of her own happiness away with every photo that she took but yet she had remained unchanged…until now. It left Jen wondering what had happened. What could have gone so horribly wrong to create such a frightened creature in colourful scarves?
Dawn appeared at the door but not with the tea. “Could you help me with the tea?” she asked. “I can’t lift it without you seeing what it’s done to me.”
“It?” asked Jen coming to get the tea. She carried it to the living room and placed it on the table where Dawn promptly sat.
“You’ll have to pour it,” she said and I won’t be having any because I can’t without you see…”
Jen got annoyed by this. “Just tell me. Tell me what it is.”
“Okay. It started when I went to Afghanistan. I wanted to see the sky and the sandstone colored deserts and the Lapis Lazuli mountain. And I did. I saw everything that I ever wanted to. I also wanted to see the people behind the war and I did that too. I went into the mountain and I got access to people I’d never seen before. I loved every minute of it… until I saw someone being burned alive.”
She looked at Jen for her reaction, but Jen wasn’t easily shocked and asked her to carry on and Dawn did. Dawn told her about how she had been travelling across country to go see Nomads with horses when she came across a succession of strange burnings in villages high up in the mountains. Through night and day Dawn and her companions continued through these villages and so did the burnings.
In every village there was evidence of the same seemingly ritualistic burnings. Witches came to mind, and Pagan ceremonies. Dawn said how she had stopped occasionally to take a photograph but the sadness of the scenes made her stop after a while. She hadn’t come to look for sorrow; she’d come to look for hope. But none was to be found except in the last village she came to where she was invited into someone’s house for a cup of tea. But the calm of that simple tea drinking session didn’t last long because as she left the house of this family, she saw a man being led from his house by a group of what looked like mourners at a funeral. They said prayers and hugged him. They looked like they were saying tearful goodbyes.
Dawn said the mourners led the man to the middle of a town square and that she watched as he shot himself through the head. “It’s to save the village,” said an interpreter she was traveling with, but he wouldn’t explain any further. Dawn watched a Pyre being lit and the body was mournfully thrown on the fire.
Quickly they moved away and came to the desert landscape with the colourful people she had come to see. She saw the horses running wild and she was happy again. This was what she had come to see and quickly forgot about the burnings and the sadness, until she saw “that thing” for the very first time.
Just a fleeting glimpse at first. A bump that appeared then disappeared on the back of her hand. Then it was in her forearm and then gone again. A few days past until she saw it again. This time it was in a mirror running across her face but, to her horror, it wasn’t on the outside, it was on the inside, under the surface of her skin. She screamed and one of the interpreters came running. She told him her story but he showed no sign of shock. He just stared in a sadly detached way. Then others arrived from her traveling party and they turned away from her to discuss the situation. They repeated a word the villagers had used and then they told her that this was the reason why the villagers had burned their loved ones. It was quite common. The way they dealt with it was the best way to keep “the thing” localized in one person and not to allow it to spread to other people. Dawn realized what they wanted her to do.
“I’m not going to kill myself,” she said.
“It’s for the best” said her translator. “It’s best you do it now. You’ll save yourself a lot of suffering.”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“Over the next few days” He explained, “that thing is going to get bigger and it’s going to start eating endorphins in your brain. It’s what they do. They live in your blood and they eat your “happy chemicals.” You’re about to experience misery beyond belief.”
“There must be another way,” she probed.
“There is but it’s not nice” he said.
“Tell me,” she screamed.
“You have to trap it in you arm and then chop it off,” said her interpreter.
Dawn decided she wasn’t going to do that either, so for the next week she sat with a pair of scissors and set about trying to catch the creature. She cut and jabbed at her arms and legs and face every time she saw the creature rise to the surface beneath her skin. She became so demented that she spent all day doing it and soon was scarred from head to foot. Eventually she agreed that she had to succumb to the arm chopping. Ten days before she was due to leave Afghanistan for good, the interpreters took her to an Army hospital and they performed the operation. They were good at it. They had performed the operation many times before but would never speak about it. It was a secret of war. They also treated her wounds but they couldn’t do anything about the scars…or the terrible bleak misery that had descended over her entire being. They were there forever. They told her this fact as soon as she woke up. They also did something more shocking: they presented her with the creature that had done this to her. It was a very pretty and shiny, red iridescent beetle in a jar. They told her about her new responsibility toward this beetle.
They told her she had to keep it happy, and he showed her how to do it. Her interpreter took some blood from her arm and mixed it with some brown powder in a spoon and then began to cook it up like a junkie would. This was heroin. The beetle had to be fed this drug three times a day along with some of Dawn’s blood, otherwise it would die.
“But that’s good, isn’t it?” Dawn asked. “We want it dead.”
“No.” He said. “You don’t, because it’s got the last of your happiness in its veins and so long as it’s close to you, you get to enjoy the reflection of a happiness that used to be yours. Without this your soul will die. So in order for you to live, you have to keep the beetle with you at all times and you have to keep him fed.”
“With Heroin?” Dawn Shrieked.
“And blood. He needs blood, too. Yours, to be precise. It’s the closest thing to Endorphins you’ll be able to find for him and he looks quite happy on it.”
“I don’t want to carry that thing around with me. I want to forget about it. How did it get into my bloodstream anyway?”
“Through the water you drank in the villages, which reminds me…”
“What?” She asked.
“There’s one more thing.”
“What?” She said
“You can’t ever let him go, because if you do, he’ll go to the nearest source of water and lay eggs. Millions of eggs, which will infiltrate the water systems and infect millions of people with the same thing that you have, filling people with the desire to kill themselves all over whatever city you chose to go back to live in”
“And that’s the whole story” said Dawn abruptly to Jen, pulling off her scarves to reveal that she was indeed covered from head to foot in terrible scars. She did indeed have one arm and as Jen put down her cup of tea, Dawn reached under the table and produced the bottle with the shiny red beetle inside.
“I’m giving him to you,” she said.
“But according to what you were told, you’ll die.” Said Jen
“It’s yours now. It’s what you came for. Here’s your story.”
Jen laughed. She didn’t know what had happened to Dawn in Afghanistan, but she didn’t believe her story. She took the beetle and Dawn told her it was time for her to leave. The door got shut behind her and the next thing Jen heard was a gunshot, just as she reached the bottom of the garden. The shock of the sound made her drop the bottle and the beetle quickly scurried away.
Jen went to the police and was treated to the same disbelief that Dawn had been given by Jen herself. She told them they had to help her find the beetle before it was too late. But they didn’t and when Jen saw the bodies start to pile up on the news she knew why and she knew who was to blame. She was. And if she couldn’t help save her city she didn’t want to have to be tortured by the sight of the horrors she knew were going to come. She decided she wasn’t going to be there when this plague really got started.
So she stood on the bridge like the girl who had jumped and wondered whether the policeman would believe her now. Even if he did, how would that solve anything with her or the epidemic she had released into the world?
The last she remembered was her body slicing through the air and the water swallowing her whole.