Novel Excerpt from The Plague by Kevin Chong

New fiction by the Vancouver author of Northern Dancer and My Year of the Race Horse

Photo credit: Andrew Querner

Dr Bernard Rieux and his mother had returned to his condo when he saw his first victim of the disease.

At the airport, Rieux’s mother waited for him at the arrivals area, her Burberry jacket, handed down from her daughter, folded over her arm. He apologized for being late, but she had just come through the exit after waiting for a half hour for her bag to arrive on the conveyor belt. She only had her carry-on. “I got dizzy looking for it,” she said. “Please, Son, will you help me speak to the airline?”

The man behind the desk at the counter said that all the luggage had been unloaded and claimed. “It’s possible that the bag has been stolen,” he told them. “It happens rarely. Do you have insurance?”

Mrs Rieux looked at her son in dismay and tugged the sleeve of his fleece jacket. It saddened him that his mother, once a woman who instilled fear among landlords, bureaucrats, and plumbers—as fearless as she was obsequious to her employers and the relatives who gave her money for her children’s school expenses and tuition—now seemed so small and looked to him to make things better. Dr Rieux puffed out his chest and told him that airport security needed improvement. He gave the man his address and contact information should the luggage turn up.

“You’ve aged,” she told him when they were in the cab. “That’s good. Your patients will take you more seriously. That’s not a bad thing. You look more like your father every day.”

Rieux’s own father was only a half decade older than he was now—thirty-six—when he had been killed in a car crash. Rieux was five when his father died, old enough to have memories of him, though few remained—the sense of his father’s mustache across his cheek was one of them. His father had been a doctor too, although Rieux had made no effort to emulate him. He’d passed on to his only son his hair, his slight stature, and according to Mrs Rieux, his taste for argument.

Mrs Rieux herself was a devout Catholic who believed in reincarnation. She saw joy in patterns and was the kind of person who, while eating a meal, was reminded of some place she’d visited as a child and would tell you all about it. She sometimes believed that the strangers she spoke to were dead relatives reborn. As she grew older, she became even more fanciful.

“Elyse sends her regards,” Rieux offered.

“It makes me so sad for you two.” She dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “When I look at her Facebook profile and see her most recent shots, it’s like a light being dimmed.”

“She’s optimistic about this … treatment,” he said. “What’s important is that she remains positive.”

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

He’d conscientiously avoided dinner. Mrs Rieux would cook and clean while she was here. In Hong Kong, she was waited on by a Filipina helper hired by his older sister. When they arrived at his house, Mrs Rieux swept immediately into the kitchen before she even washed her face and wrapped an apron around her waist. Rieux set her jacket and handbag on the bed in the spare room where he would have taken her suitcase. It was the better room, with a mountain view, the one they had set aside for a nursery.

The phone rang. It was the seldom-used land line, a number called only by telemarketers and the woman who was now in the kitchen. “I am fine, Dr Rieux,” a voice announced.

“Mr Santos?” Rieux asked.

“Do not worry about me,” Mr Santos said. His breathing was heavy. “My wife worries too much.”

“Are you not feeling well?”

The sound of coughing filled Rieux’s ear. “Mrs Rieux looked very good today,” Mr Santos said once he’d cleared his throat. “Is she going on a vacation?”

“She’s in Mexico until the New Year.”

“An extended holiday. How nice! It’s too bad doctors have such busy schedules.”

“Indeed.”

“As you can tell, I’m feeling better as I speak. I won’t take too much of your time. Enjoy your evening.”

As Rieux puzzled over this phone call, Mrs Rieux prepared macaroni in broth with shredded ham and peas—a Chinese diner specialty. Her preference would have been to make a proper Cantonese meal, but first she would have to shop. She asked her son for bus directions to the nearest Chinese grocer. He worried that she’d have too much to carry and said they could go together.

She threw a hand against her forehead. “I forgot that I packed sausage in my luggage,” she told him in Cantonese.

“We have that here,” he answered in English. “You’ll see when we get to the store. We can pick up some items—clothes, toiletries—tomorrow morning. It won’t be long before your luggage is retrieved.”

“You’re already too busy. I’m here to help you.”

“It’s no trouble,” he lied.

This was the extent of their conversation. As it had been in his youth, the meal was so void of chatter that every slurp and clink of spoons against bowls seemed to form its own language. At least in his youth his mother could ask him and his sister about schoolwork. This was the first time she’d seen him in a year and she would be here at least until January. Unless he insisted, she would not go sightseeing—she had lived here for twenty-five years, anyhow—or visit with her remaining friends. She would watch her Chinese TV shows through an elaborate black box whose installation Rieux had arranged last week. They would eat together, silently, and this would be the extent of their time together.

A firecracker went off nearby, causing Mrs Rieux to shudder. “Should we call the police?”

“It’s Halloween,” Rieux told her.

“Oh … I’d forgotten about these North American customs,” she said, recovering her composure.

Rieux had begun to explain the peculiarity of firecrackers at Halloween when the land line rang again. This time it was Mr Santos’s wife. “I’m so sorry to bother you,” she said. “My husband is unwell, but he refuses to visit the hospital.”

It took Rieux a moment to understand what had happened: Mr and Mrs Santos had argued about calling Rieux, and Mr Santos had called him pre-emptively, thinking Rieux had already spoken to his wife. Mrs Santos described symptoms that resembled the flu. Dr Rieux said he would be down immediately. Normally he would have advised Mrs Santos to take her husband to the hospital, but he knew how stubborn the man could be.

“I have to speak to the superintendent,” Rieux told his mother. While her back was turned, he retrieved the bicycle saddlebags where he kept some medical equipment.

The Santos’s suite was similar to Rieux’s, though their patio view offered more of the commuter traffic of Great Northern Way than the mountains. Mrs Santos led Rieux to the living room. Mr Santos was sitting on a worn brown leather couch, a wool blanket pulled up to his neck, his legs extended on a footrest. A water bottle sat on the armrest. The living room was dimly lit except for a floor lamp at the far end of the couch.

Mr Santos was visibly clammy. When he first saw Rieux, something like fear passed his face, which he covered over with a defiant, impatient look. The doctor realized that he’d always seen Mr Santos smiling, standing completely erect. The superintendent’s features had never been more expressive, and he felt the superintendent’s shame reflected back onto him.

“What did I already tell you, Dr Rieux?” he asked him.

“Mrs Santos asked me to take a look,” Rieux told him. “I promise you, if this is not serious, we will leave you alone.”

“There’s swelling, Doctor,” Mrs Santos said.

Mr Santos nodded and looked away as Rieux moved the floor lamp closer and retrieved a pair of latex gloves, a stethoscope, and a flashlight from his bag. Mr Santos flung his head back like a silent-film damsel-in-distress as Rieux pulled off the wool blanket.

Mr Santos was dressed in a white undershirt and pyjama bottoms. The swelling on his lymph nodes startled Rieux. They looked like large blisters, each one the size of a robin’s egg. Rieux could only recall seeing such swelling in photos.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” Rieux told the superintendent. “I can’t say for sure what it is. But you need to go to the hospital.”

Mrs Santos was already putting on her coat. Rieux helped them into their Toyota Camry in the garage. When he saw another dead rat, he again removed latex gloves from his bag, slipped them on, and placed the rodent into the trash can. He stood impatiently in the elevator on his way back to his apartment. After thoroughly washing his hands and throwing his clothes in the wash, he joined his mother in front of the television. Thankfully, no explanations were required by Mrs Rieux.

The doctor slept poorly that night. In the morning, he took the elevator downstairs and knocked on the Santos’s door. He was about to return to the elevator when the door opened. Mrs Santos had gotten back from the hospital an hour ago. Mr Santos was still under observation and she would visit later in this morning, she told him. Without explanation, Rieux asked for Mr Santos’s keys. She pointed to a loop of keys by the door and handed them over. Rieux found his way to the supply closet where Mr Santos kept his cleaning equipment. Rieux took the broom and dustpan and went down to the garage where he was able to collect four dead rats. There were also two dead squirrels and a dead raccoon—the urban wildlife Vancouverites were accustomed to seeing. He wrapped them up in two garbage bags, threw them in the trunk of his wife’s Subaru Forester (they owned the car together but he did not generally like to drive), and delivered them to the incinerator in the suburbs.

The next morning, before work, he found six rats, including one lying belly up, feet pawing listlessly, that he killed; then twelve rats (and squirrels) the day after; and more in the days following that. News reports confirmed that Rieux’s experience was shared in other parts of the city. Between the blasts and whistles of fireworks, Rieux could hear the moans of these pests as they died in the alleyway. And then, five or six days after Mr Santos discovered the first rat, after Rieux had filled three garbage bags with lifeless rodents, the doctor searched the garage for more corpses and didn’t find a single one. The immediate relief he felt was quickly chased away by an uneasy feeling.

By the end of the next week, the city’s hospitals saw about a hundred cases similar to Mr Santos’s. For the first few days, the results were kept under cover to stave off hysteria as treatments were applied. The name of the disease had ugly historical connotations, and the antibiotics used to treat modern cases were highly effective. It was only after the first death that a press conference was called to announce the outbreak. Even then, the Minister of Health appeared to talk down the situation.

Mr Santos was not the first one to die; his death was part of a wave that occurred twenty-four hours after the first fatality. Because that initial death struck in one of the areas surrounding the Annex, many people ascribed the fatality to a resurgence in the drug problems that had previously afflicted the city. Roadblocks were set up within a two-block radius of the first casualty. Calls were made to protect taxpayers. Rieux learned of Mr Santos’s death when a notice was posted in November by the strata management company. The company apologized for a delay in repairs and any decline in maintenance as a replacement was sought.

*

The Plague (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018) is now available at your local bookstore. The Vancouver launch with Charles Demers is on April 27, 2018, 7-9 pm at The Fox Theatre (2321 Main Street). Here is the Facebook invite.

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