The Narcissus Plague
a short story by Lisa Goldstein
Lisa Goldstein writes...
I wrote 'The Narcissus Plague' after a week where everyone I met seemed to talk about nothing but themselves, and I began to wonder if there was some sort of plague going around.
The man in the tollbooth had the Narcissus Plague. "We moved when I was nine," he said earnestly. I held my dollar out to him, watched it sway in the breeze. "My dog never did get used to the new house. One day he got out and chased the mailman up a tree. No one was home, and the neighbors had to call the police ..."
Finally he took my money and I sped away. A minute later I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that the car after me was still trapped at the booth. A narrow escape, I thought. I checked my oxygen mask and surgical gloves and hurried toward the newspaper office where I work.
I parked in the lot and rode the elevator up to my floor. "Hi, Amy, how are you?" my editor Thomas asked. This is the only way we greet each other now. It's meant to assure other people that we can still take an interest in them, that we don't have the plague.
"Fine, how are you?" I said. He followed me down the hall toward my cubicle.
"Hi, guys," my co-worker Gary said, heading toward his desk. "I stayed up all last night working on that article you wanted, Thomas."
We turned and watched him go. If it had been anyone else in the office we would have worried about the plague, but Gary has talked about nothing but himself for as long as any of us can remember.
"Listen -- I've got an assignment for you," Thomas said. "Someone at one of the labs says she's come up with a cure."
"A cure? You're kidding me," I said.
"I'm not, but it's possible she is. That's what I want you to find out. Her name's Dr. Leila Clark."
He gave me the doctor's address and phone number, and I hurried to my desk to call. To my annoyance an answering machine came on. "Hello, you've reached the office of Dr. Leila Clark. We can't answer your call right now, but if you leave your name and number I'll get back to you just as soon as I go visit my boyfriend. He said he was going to break up with that other woman, but I bet he hasn't done it. He's been saying he'll break up with her since last winter, when I caught them at our favorite restaurant together --"
I hung up. The chances for a cure did not look good.
The lab turned out to be on the other side of the park from the newspaper's offices. The sun had risen above the clouds; it was turning into a warm, beautiful day. I decided to walk.
The fountain in the center of the park was stagnant, green algae lapping at the rim. Its filtering mechanism had clogged; it was making strange mechanical whimpering noises as it tried to get the water to circulate. The person responsible for fixing it probably had the plague, I thought. It only took about a week for the virus to render you unfit for anything but talking about yourself. Things were breaking down all over the city.
The Narcissus Plague had not always been this virulent. Ten or twenty years ago people talked about the Me Generation, the Greed Decade, as if those things were normal, just human nature. But about six months ago the virus mutated, became far stronger. Shortly after that a team of doctors isolated the virus they think is responsible for the plague.
My boyfriend Mark was one of the first victims of the more virulent strain. At the time I had no idea what was happening to him; all I knew was that he had changed from the concerned, caring man he had once been. "What makes you think I'd be interested in your old girlfriends?" I'd asked him angrily, over and over again, and, "Why don't you ever ask me how my day went? Why do we always have to talk about you?" Now he lives with his mother, sitting in his old room and talking eagerly to anyone who comes by. I try to visit him about once a week.
I came to the end of the park, found the laboratory offices, and went inside. The receptionist area was deserted, but I heard laughter and cheering from somewhere within. I went past the receptionist's desk and down a hallway, following the sounds. A group of men and women were gathered in one of the offices, holding glasses and bottles of champagne.
A woman turned toward me. She was young, with blond hair braided down her back and a white lab coat with "Leila Clark" stitched on the pocket. "Hello, Dr. Clark, how are you?" I said. "I'm Amy Nunes. The paper sent me --"
"How are you?" the woman said. "I'm Debra Lowry." Her voice sounded a little slurred, but even so I thought that I'd heard it before. She looked down at her lab coat and laughed a little too loudly. "Oh, sorry -- we've been celebrating. This is Dr. Clark."
Another woman detached herself from the group. She looked more like someone who'd made a major medical discovery, a woman in her mid-forties, with long black hair streaked with gray and tied back in a ponytail. "Hello, how are you?" she said. "I sent word to all the papers, but you're the only one who seems to have shown up. I suppose everyone else must be out with the plague." She stretched out a gloved hand, realized she was still holding her champagne glass, and set the glass down.
"I tried calling --" I said. I shook her hand, glove touching glove.
"Things have been a little hectic here," she said. She took a folder from a stack on the desk and gave it to me. "Here --this handout will give you the details."
I opened the folder; it had the kind of scientific detail so beloved by our science section. I took out my tape recorder and turned it on. "You say this is a cure for the plague?"
"But how can you be sure it works?"
"Everyone I've treated so far has recovered." Dr. Clark took another sip of champagne, put the glass on her desk. "You see, I was almost certain I'd discovered a cure, but I needed subjects to test it on. Of course we couldn't experiment with animals -- they don't seem to get the plague, or if they do it takes a form we can't understand, since they don't communicate using language. So I asked everyone working here if they would sign a release form." She waved her hand, nearly knocking over the glass of champagne she had set down. "They all agreed that if they got the plague I could administer the drug. Our receptionist Debra was one of people who manifested symptoms."
Debra nodded. "So she gave me a pill --"
"You're the one who did the answering machine message!" I said, recognizing her voice.
"Oh my God!" Debra said, and ran down the hallway.
"You see, you don't remember what happened to you when you've been ill," Dr. Clark said. "After you recover it seems a blur to you, as if it happened to someone else."
"How soon will your drug come on the market?" I asked.
"Not as soon as I'd like, unfortunately. Because of the crisis the Food and Drug Administration is moving as quickly as possible, but even at their quickest they're not very fast. And a good many of them are out with the plague. Have you ever tried dealing with a bureaucrat with the plague?"
I nodded sympathetically.
"At the soonest we'll get FDA approval in six months, maybe a year." She took a bottle of pills off her desk. "Here they are."
The pills -- red and yellow capsules -- caught the light and shone like jewels. "How long does the cure take?"
"A week. The pills should be taken twice a day. But the results are immediate, within a few minutes of taking the first pill."
"And are there side effects?"
"None that we know of."
I cleared my throat. "My -- uh, my boyfriend Mark --"
Dr. Clark shook her head. "I'm sorry -- I can't prescribe anything to anyone who hasn't signed a release form. I don't want to jeopardize our standing with the FDA."
She set the bottle back on its shelf. Just fourteen of them, and Mark would be the person he had been before. If I could distract her somehow ... But there were at least a dozen people crowded into the doctor's office. There was no way I could get a pill.
I got some background information from Dr. Clark -- where she was born, where she went to school -- and made my way back to the office.
My editor Thomas stopped me before I got to my cubicle. "Amy," he said. There was an edge of excitement in his voice I had never heard before.
Because of the plague I never know what to expect from the paper. Some days the printers run whole sections of autobiography, some days they catch it in time and leave huge parts of the paper blank. "What is it?" I asked.
"Gary got the plague," he said. "You've got to come see this."
"Gary? How can you tell?"
"Come on," he said.
Gary seems to have always had the plague -- that is, Gary has never paid attention to anyone else in his life. Unlike the victims of the plague, though, he's always been very sneaky about it, managing to turn the conversation toward himself with all the subtlety and dexterity of a master chess player. Intrigued, I followed Thomas down the hall.
Gary was in his cubicle. So were a number of other people, all of them sitting around his desk and watching him. "I like to be noticed," Gary was saying. "I love it when people pay attention to me. That's what I live for. I have to have someone listening to me and watching me at every minute ..."
Almost everyone was trying not to laugh. "One day, I remember, we were sitting around and talking about the president," Gary was saying. "So I started talking about the president too, and then the president's brother, and then my own brother, and finally I got to my favorite topic, myself. Another time I thought that Thomas was getting too much attention, so I went down two floors and had him paged from a pay phone. Then I went back to work -- it was much easier to talk about myself after he'd gone."
One of the more enterprising reporters on the paper had turned on his tape recorder. If Dr. Clark had indeed found a cure for the virus Gary was going to have a very hard time living this one down.
"How long are you going to let him go on like that?" I whispered to Thomas.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. He felt to make sure his mask and gloves were in place. "It's almost lunchtime -- probably we'll send him home then."
I left Gary's cubicle and went back to my desk. Before I could start on the story about Dr. Clark my friend Barbara knocked on my partition and sat in the room's other chair. "Hi, how are you?" she said.
"Fine. How was Washington?"
"You won't believe it," she said. "The pilot on the flight back got the plague. There we all were, looking out the window or reading our in-flight magazines, and the next minute this guy comes over the intercom to tell us that his fingers are nearly all the same length. On and on -- you wouldn't believe how much mileage this guy could get from his hands. Every so often you'd hear a scuffle in the cockpit, where the co-pilot was trying to gain control of the intercom, but the pilot held on grimly all the way home." She sighed. "For three and a half hours. Talk about a captive audience."
"What happened when you landed?"
"Oh, he landed fine. He wasn't that far gone. There was a stretcher waiting for him at the landing gate -- I guess he'd bored the traffic controllers too."
"Listen," I said. "I just interviewed a doctor who says she found a cure for the plague."
"Really? Do you think she's on the level?"
"God, I hope so," I said.
I visited Mark after work. I'm not sure why I still see him -- I guess I do it out of respect for the person he once was, for the memories I have of our times together.
Mark's mother let me in. Her eyes looked tired over her oxygen mask. "He's in his room," she said, pointing with a gloved hand.
I thanked her and went down the hallway to Mark's old room. He was staring out the window with his back to me, and I stood there a while and watched him. He was tall and thin, with straight brown hair that shone a deep red in the light. For a moment I desired him as much as I ever had before he became ill. Maybe this time, I thought, he would turn and smile at me, kiss me, lead me toward the bed.
Suddenly I realized that he was not looking out the window at all. He was admiring his reflection in the glass. "Hello, Mark," I said. "How are you?"
He turned. He seemed eager to see me. He always seems eager to see me -- victims of the plague need other people to talk to. "When I was a kid we used to turn the sprinklers on on hot days," he said. "All the kids in the neighborhood would run through them. And then the ice cream truck would come, and we'd all go and get ice cream."
He went on in the same even, contemplative tone. He never noticed that my attention wandered, that I looked out the window as often as I looked at him.
When he was well he had never talked so much. He would think before he spoke, weigh each of his words carefully. I had never met anyone before who so clearly meant what he said. Six months ago he had asked me, with no wasted words, if I thought we should move in together.
He'd gotten the plague instead. And here I was, trying to find the man I loved somewhere within this garrulous stranger. I sighed and checked my watch. I try to spend at least an hour with him.
Finally the long hour ended. I stood up to leave. He looked sad to see me go, but he did not stop his flow of reminiscences. I knew from previous weeks that he was incapable of asking me to stay. In a very real sense I was not a separate person to him. I was Audience.
I said goodbye to Mark's mother and drove home. Once there I took off my mask and gloves and microwaved a day-old pot roast. When the beep sounded I took it over to the couch and ate, staring bleakly at my television set. I did not want to turn on the TV; these days, with the plague so rampant, you never know what you might see.
I should call someone, I thought. I should call my friend Barbara. But I'd heard too many stories about people calling old friends who turned out to have the plague.
Still, I looked at the phone with longing. The very first words spoken over a telephone had been words of need, of desire, I thought. "Watson, come here -- I need you," Alexander Graham Bell had said. How many times since then had people tried desperately to connect over the phone? Because we do need other people; we need them terribly. What would happen to us if the whole world got the plague?
I opened my handbag and took out the folder Dr. Clark had given me. I had already written and turned in my article, but I wanted reassurance. Could it be that she had actually discovered a cure?
I made my way through her technical explanations. I understood very little of it, but her conclusion was nothing if not clear. "Over a three month period," she had written, "we have treated 79 people with the plague virus, all of them successfully."
I closed the folder. Six months to a year seemed far too long to wait for Mark's cure. Tomorrow I would return to Dr. Clark's office and steal her pills.
My editor Thomas was in a jubilant mood the next day: we'd scooped all the other papers with the news of a possible cure. He made no objection to a follow-up article on Leila Clark. I walked back across the park to the laboratory.
I passed the ragged speaker who sometimes stood by the fountain, exhorting people to come to Jesus. "Yesterday someone gave me a slice of pizza!" he was yelling. "I had just enough money to get a Coke to go with it! Coke and pizza, my friends! Coke and pizza!" He paced back and forth in front of the fountain, his arms punching the air. I gave him a wide berth.
Debra Lowry was sitting at the receptionist's desk. "Hello, how are you?" she said. "You're the reporter who was here yesterday, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm Amy Nunes," I said. "I'd like to ask Dr. Clark some more questions. Is she in?"
Debra looked at her calendar. "She's at Channel 7 right now, doing an interview. She'll be back in about fifteen minutes, but only to meet with the staff and pick up her messages. She's got another interview after that."
"Shall I wait in her office?" I moved back toward the hallway.
"I'm sorry -- no one's allowed in Dr. Clark's office."
So much for that idea. I sat in a leather and steel chair and picked up a Cosmopolitan from the glass coffee table. "Men Are Too Much Trouble: How I Learned to Love Myself," the cover said.
The phone rang constantly, all people who wanted to hear more about the cure. I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. Dr. Clark had obviously been detained at Channel 7.
I thought of Mark. I couldn't sit still while the cure, his cure, was only a few steps away. I stood and walked toward the hallway.
"Ms. Nunes," Debra Lowry said, calling after me. "Ms. Nunes!"
I turned. Debra had come around her desk and was hurrying toward me.
Very deliberately, I took off my mask and gloves. "Last summer I went to the Grand Canyon," I said. "It was huge -- I've never seen anything so big. I have pictures right here."
Debra backed away. She may have been cured of the plague, but obviously the old fear still lingered. "After I saw the Grand Canyon I went to Yellowstone," I said, moving toward her.
She looked back toward the front door, toward safety. "And then Mount Rushmore," I said. She turned and fled.
I ran down the hallway and into Dr. Clark's office. The bottle of pills was still on her desk. I grabbed it, shoved it into my coat pocket and hurried out the door. The receptionist area was deserted.
On my way to the elevator I passed a group of people holding microphones and lights and cameras. Leila Clark stood in the center of them. She seemed to be enjoying the limelight; I hoped she'd remembered to sign a release form.
I drove to Mark's house. His mother let me in, surprised and pleased to see me so soon after my last visit. I took a glass from her kitchen, filled it with water. "What --" she asked.
I said nothing, but hurried down the hallway. Mark turned from the window. "Here," I said, giving him the pill before he could say anything. "Swallow this."
He looked into the glass, studying something -- his own reflection? -- that I couldn't see. "Swallow the pill," I said again, and this time he did.
"I always dreaded going to school after summer vacation," he said. "I hated having to put on shoes after going barefoot all summer. They never seemed to fit right somehow ..."
How long would it take? Would it even work at all? Seventy-nine successes -- would Mark be the first failure?
Mark continued to talk. I heard about his friends at school, the ones he liked, the ones he hated, his first crush. I heard about his teachers.
"I never liked getting used to a new teacher," Mark said. "Some of them were nice, but some of them were horrible, like Mrs. Plauscher. I -- I -- You." He looked at me, found my eyes. "Oh, you!" he said. "Where have you been?"
© Lisa Goldstein 1994, 1997
This story first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction July, 1994, and was reprinted in Ms. Magazine, May/June 1997.
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