Where I live, screams are normal.
Fights are normal.
Drugs are normal
Crime is normal.
Women are not.
As I wake up this morning I hear a scream. Since I live in a small, windowless shack at the end of an alley, I am not surprised. The only people I have heard come into the alley in the ten years are angry teenage boys in rumbles or quietly doing drugs, so I assume it is a man running into the alley. But as I listen closer I realize I’m wrong. What the hell is a woman doing in this part of town? I listen more intently as the screaming gets closer. Behind her I can hear a couple men who I assume have weapons of some sort. This pains me more than all other people who have come and gone here, for this is an innocent woman who is probably scared and alone.
I keep listening and the screams continue. I get a little worried because it sounds like the woman is getting closer and closer to my shack. Hearing a woman gives me a large dose of reality. I mean, the reason I hide in my shed is solely to stay away from women. Ever since I was 19 I have had a curse on me that spreads an incurable disease around the world that kills hundreds of thousands whenever I find love. I know no cure. So when I was 20 I decided to live in isolation and that pretty much brings us up to date. Anyway, nobody comes near my shed. And that is fine with me.
Over the last ten years I have become quite good at creating images using sound, so I know that this woman is running towards my shed. Sweat starts to run down my back almost as much as the hose at the back of my shed. My palms get sweaty, I start to shake, and then suddenly she bangs on the door. I jump up, knocking over my chair with a loud BANG! I guess there is no chance I can pretend to not be home. All this as she bangs on the door helplessly.
“Open up! Open up!” she half sobs, half screams,”I know you’re in there. Open the door! Please.”
My thoughts are tearing into millions of pieces. This has never happened before! What do I do? What do I do? If I open the door will I fall for her? No, put up your wall. Let nobody in.
Before I know it, my hand is turning the doorknob. As soon as the door opens the woman rushes in. I don’t even look at her for I am looking at something far more stunning. For the second time in my life I see the alley. Tall, dark brick walls line the narrow sidewalk. On the right I see a dumpster and a sad plant trying to grow like a snake trying to walk. Just outside the alley there is a seemingly deserted town. Well except for the three teenage boys with knives running towards me.
Bam! The door is slammed shut. I snap back to reality when I see the woman whom I opened the door for.
When I see her my lungs stop working and I subconsciously try to straighten my now greasy, long, jet black hair. Her long dirty blonde hair is braided in a messy bun. The dirt smeared on her face does not mask her beauty in any way. Tall, lean, wearing black capris and a grey quarter sleeve hoodie, she could not have been better for me. But the look on her face said she was not interested.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” she says,“they were going to kill me!” She throws her hands over her face as they fill with tears.
I wait fifteen minutes before speaking.
“What is your name?” I say.
“Are you doing okay now?” I want to send her on her way.
“I was just almost killed by three men with knives!” Mari spats. ”Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“What now?” Mari repeats.
I honestly don’t know
“What now?” Each time her voice gets a little more firm.
“I said, what now?” She does not seem happy. Well neither am I.
“What now! You were the one who came running into my house! You tell me what now! You are a typical dumb blonde.” I try to put as much anger and hate into my voice as possible. If I push her away I won’t have a chance to love her. And right now, I do love her.
“What is the matter with you?” she yells back.”Why are you such a jerk?!”
“Look miss,” I say,”if you knew what I have been thro-”
“Well then why don’t you tell me Mr. Secrets?”
This throws me back. Do I trust her enough to tell? I guess it won’t hurt to tell the general reality of the situation.
“The thing is, whenever I have visitors, a disease breaks out that cannot be cured.” To be fair, that was not a total lie.
“Oh,” Mari says, “I’m so sorry. Has the disease already spread?”
“It was probably just released.” This is the truth.
“Well,” Mari says, “is there a cure?”
“Not that I know of…” I didn’t always have this anti-loving curse. I used to be a girl-crazy 19 year old not worried about anything except having a great time. I went to parties every other night. One night while I was at a party, I fell in love with a blonde 20 year old. We were talking and drinking and just having an amazing time. Around 11 o’clock I was dancing when I stumbled into a middle aged man with tattoos covering his whole body and ronald mcdonald hair. He told me that if I kept loving the blonde twenty year old a disease would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Of course I didn’t believe him.
Three weeks later, I was watching the news when a story came on about a deadly plague that had killed 200,000 people. I was stunned. What if the man at the party had been telling the truth. But there was no way he could have known. This was just a huge coincidence.
Or so I thought. Until I saw him again at my door. When I opened it, the man from the party with the tattoos was standing there.
“I told you what would happen if you loved,” he said.
“How do I stop it?” I was frantic, “There has to be a way.”
“Ok, because this was your first time, I will give scientists the cure to the plague,” he said. “But remember what happens when you fall in love.” And with that he left. I haven’t seen him since. After that day I decided to put myself into isolation. I was twenty when I left.
I snap back to reality when Mari says her next sentence.
“Then I’m sorry for the world but because you saved me, I’m going to help you find a cure.”
“No.” It is as plain as day. She is not going with me.
“Look, if I don’t go, I will die anyway from the plague. What difference does it make if I go?” She makes a valid point. If I don’t let her go she will get the plague anyway. Might as well have a partner.
“Fine, but under one condition. You will not flirt with me at all,” I say.
“That will be more than doable. Your appearance reminds me of a rotting corpse.” There is no humor in her voice. Ouch.
We leave the next day. I think I have an idea of where we should start. When I met the tattoo man, I was at a party. We will go to the party to find answers.
For six hours we board busses, steal bikes, and ride trains. On the last bus ride I spot the house where it all began: 9390 Hawker Circle. It looks like it has been vacant for years. The grass is yellow, weeds are overgrown everywhere, and the paint job is a terrible green.
Mari and I head for the yellow door. As soon as we knock the door creaks open. What I see makes me jealous of those who haven’t seen it. Amidst the dust is a middle aged man with tattoos all over his body. I can’t stop looking at his bright red hair and it seems that neither can Mari.
“I thought you might come eventually,” Mr. Tattoos says. “No man can stop loving forever.”
“Wait what are you talking about?” Mari says. “Howard, you told me that if you had visitors the plague spread.You lied to me. And you love me?” The disgust in her voice makes me want to hold her and tell her I’m sorry. But I cannot be so sweet.
“I told you that so you could not want to help me more than you did. If you knew you might have acted like this.”
“Acted like what! Right now my anger has nothing to do with the fact that because you love me hundreds of thousands will die. I’m mad because you lied straight to my face. How can I trust you again?”
“I lied to protect you. That is the only thing I did not tell the whole truth about.” I want her to trust me. That is the only way we can get the cure.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tattoos just sits in the house watching with amusement.
“Look,” I say, “the only way we will get the cure is if we work together.”
“Well, you two seem to hate each other. Let me help.” Mr. Tattoos grins.
I don’t like where this is going and I want to get out of here. I am mad at Mari but for some reason I love her like I have never loved anyone else. But before I can tell her I’m sorry, Mari vanishes without even a scream.
I start to panic. No, not panicking, going crazy. I can’t think. I can’t breath. I am losing too much water with all the sweat pouring down my body.
Mr. Tattoos comes over and sits by me, computer in hand. I want to leave but I can’t figure out how to move my legs.
“That was exciting,” Mr Tattoos laughs. “How do you feel right now. And remember, this is for posterity so please be honest.”
“Give her back!” I am on the brink of insanity right now.
“I have a game for you first. You want Mari back right?”
“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth.
Mr. Tattoos opens his laptop. This is not an ordinary laptop. It has a screen, but instead of a keyboard one red button sits on either half. On the screen, I see two trains heading extremely fast towards a huge wall.
“What am I looking at?” I say.
“Why don’t we zoom in.”
The screen zooms in so that I can see the inside of the two trains. In the train on the left I see a blue liquid in a clear barrel.
“What is the blue liquid?” I look towards Mr Tattoos.
“The last cure I have,” He says.
I almost gasp before I compose myself. But I quickly notice that in the other train a blonde girl in black capris and a grey sweatshirt. MARI!
“Now you see don’t you. The game is simple. You have access to one brake. You may only stop one train before it crashes into the wall ahead. Choose wisely. Lives depend on it.
I only have seconds before the trains crash. I notice movement in Mari’s train. She has found the camera and is motioning to me.
Mari mouths something but I cannot make it out. I have to make a decision. Kill hundreds of thousands or kill the one I love the most. The answer is clear but it is killing me inside.
“5 seconds,” Mr. Tattoos says.
I push the button.
Mari is dead.
“Well done Mr. Howard. You saved the world,” Mr. Tattoos hands me the computer, “Now, keep this video to remind you always of the choice you made.”
Three weeks later I sit alone in my shack. I finally find the courage to watch my love’s death. I scroll through until I find the part where Mari mouths something to me. I watch and rewatch until I decipher the message. When I do my heart sinks to my toes. For mouthed from those full lips are two simple phrases. The phrases that would have saved her.
“It’s not the cure. I love you.”
I can’t process the video even now, 30 years later. Why was the cure fake? How could I not see what she said earlier. I killed her. But wait. How did she know the cure was fake? This will haunt me for the rest of my short miserable life.
And indeed, Howard died lonely, bitter, and wondering how and why the cure was fake. It turns out Mari was Mr. Tattoos daughter sent to help make sure Howard never dared to love again. And thanks to that, he never did love ever again.