Exercising the craft—August 17, 2015

By Ekta R. Garg

Prompt: Contagious: Write a scene from a medical thriller. The disease you invent is passed from person to person in an unusual way.



Carla tried to ignore the sweat beading on her upper lip as she walked toward the building. The temperate climate of the California suburb had nothing to do with her perspiration. No, all of that moisture came from the tension and stress of the last three weeks.

“Gotta figure this out,” she whispered as she scanned her ID on the panel by the side door. “People can’t keep avoiding one another forever.”

The door beeped and a light on the panel turned green. She entered, not bothering with a safety suit. Regardless of what people said, she didn’t believe the suits added a level of protection. Instead she kept moving down the hall to her personal lab. After the maelstrom of the bacteria’s emergence, Carla knew she had to do something. Today.

When the bacteria first popped up several months earlier, the CDC had kicked in with all the normal testing. Scientists and researchers had spent thousands of hours and dollars scrutinizing, swabbing, and asking. Talking. Arguing. But not discovering. Not yet. All anyone knew was that the bacteria passed from person to person. No one knew how. Or why. Or when.

Because the bacteria had first emerged not far from her lab, Carla found herself in the eye of the ever-strengthening storm. Some of the town’s residents had begun avoiding her, crossing the street when they saw her coming. Of course, they had already begun crossing the street from one another too, so she didn’t feel too badly. But they didn’t give one another menacing looks when they stepped off the curb.

She heaved a huge sigh. It didn’t matter, those looks, anymore. What mattered was finding a cure. And finding one soon. Three weeks earlier Derrick had been quarantined, and that’s when she knew she couldn’t ignore her feelings anymore. She also couldn’t wait any longer for the CDC or the dozens of other organizations worldwide to find a solution. No matter what she felt for Derrick on a personal level, or whether he felt the same thing, she couldn’t let the disease get a hold of him. If it did, Carla would lose one of the smartest people she’d ever known.

Carla pushed the door open to the lab and stopped mid-step.

“Hi, Carla.”

She looked at Derrick on the far side of the room behind a table. He’d powered up one of the more powerful microscopes, and a stack of slides sat nearby. The tentative smile on his face did nothing to ease the tension in Carla’s chest.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, taking one or two steps forward. She let the door swing shut behind her and stopped again. “Why aren’t you in the hospital?”

“I think I have an answer or two,” Derrick said, stepping back. He moved with slow deliberate steps around the table, and Carla felt goosebumps prickle across her bare arms. When she’d put on the black sleeveless top that morning, she had actually smiled at herself in the mirror. Now she regretted leaving so much skin exposed.

“Derrick, maybe you should get back to the hospital before someone finds out you ran away,” Carla said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “I know you want to figure this thing out, but right now you need to focus on getting better. Go on; we’ll keep working on it over here.”

“With who?” Derrick asked with bitterness. “Who’s left, Carla? Everyone who could do something about this is either in the hospital or dead.”

Carla flinched, and then he started walking closer to her. She glanced behind her at the door.

“I don’t know how the bacteria got started, but I figured out how it’s passing from person to person,” Derrick said, pulling her attention back to his advancing form. “Just give me a second to—”

“Don’t,” Carla interrupted. “Don’t, Derrick, please. I want to be able to help people, and I can’t do that if I get stuck in quarantine with—”

Just then he darted forward and put his hands on Carla’s arms. She gasped, the fear shooting through her with enough strength to cause pain. She pulled against his grasp, but Derrick refused to let go.

“Derrick, please,” she said, fighting shallow breaths. “Please let me go. Derrick, you’re—”

“How do you feel, Carla?”

“I’m scared, Derrick, please—”

“No,” he said with more force. “How do you feel?”

The shallow breaths continued, but the scientist in the corner of her brain began analyzing her physical state. Within moments she understood what Derrick wanted to know. Those infected reported a burning sensation all over their bodies within minutes of the bacteria invading their systems. But with Derrick’s hands on her bare arms she felt…nothing.

“What…but you were…you were in quarantine. How did you…why am I…”

Derrick pulled his hands away and went back to the microscope, gesturing for Carla to follow. She couldn’t suppress a sigh of relief when his hands left her, despite the fact that she seemed okay.

“I got the idea from a nurse in the hospital, believe it or not,” he said, rearranging the slides on the table. “She was talking about the new babies delivered last week and how having skin-to-skin time with their mothers benefited them so much. Something clicked just then.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, touching skin to skin has nothing to do with how the disease transmits from one person to another. It’s only when people’s clothes have brushed against each other that the bacteria movies.”

Carla blinked a few times and then stepped to the microscope. Taking a moment to clean the eye piece with an antibacterial wipe, she looked through it at the bacteria she’d come to know so well. “I don’t get it. Why would that happen?”

“I think it’s because of the synthetic fibers in clothes. Think about it, Carla, our bodies have immune systems. They’re built to fight bacteria and disease. When we touch skin to skin, nothing happens. But everyone wears clothes—all the time—and the bacteria use the fibers as a conduit to get stronger and then burrow into the person’s blood stream. By the time we find them…it’s too late.”

Her heart started beating hard. Derrick’s explanation seemed too simple. Too easy. But one thing Carla had learned in her long career thus far was the truth in Occam’s Razor: that, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation tended to be the right one. But would it work here?

As she noticed Derrick watching her carefully, Carla knew the two of them had to make an effort to find out.