Friday, December 24, 2010
For Thomas Gordon, having a headache was as common as the sun rising in the east. Claire, his wife, had bought him the biggest bottle of Excedrin they sell at CVS, where she was a well-known customer. She didn’t want him to worry about having to stop by and get the painkillers on his way to work, where he had to be almost every day from 2:00 pm to 10:30 pm.
Thomas worked at McDonald’s, the one located on State Street, across the street from the Granada Theater. He was a shift manager and had the afternoon schedule. Sometimes it changed and that made the headaches worse. He attributed his pain to his sleep habits; Instead of going straight to bed, after finishing his shift every day, he sat at his desk and wrote stories for about four hours nightly.
Being a writer was his dream and working for The Golden Arches was his way to make both ends meet while trying to get published. Claire understood Thomas’ desire to be a writer and she sometimes came up with story ideas, trying to help him with the creative process. Thomas also had friends who read his stories and helped him editing them.
The day Thomas thought he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, he was scheduled to work at 11:00 am, rather than the usual time he used to work. He had gone to bed at five in the morning and Claire woke him at ten. “Tom,” she whispered on his ear.
Noticing he didn’t move, Claire decided not to be so gentle, “Thomas! You told me last night that you’re due to be at work at eleven today.”
Thomas opened his eyes, and finally realized he’d almost forgotten that he was scheduled to work earlier because they were going to close for Christmas. He got up very quickly, took a brief shower and went to work without eating. That day, he’d wished he were God so he could make the pain disappear. What he didn’t know was that he wasn’t the only one wishing to have the almighty capability to get rid of the headache.
There was a difference between Thomas Gordon And William Day; William wasn’t used to having headaches. The day he suffered one was on that Friday morning when he woke up. The cause, he thought, was the glass of wine he’d drunk the night before he went to bed. He complained about it and told Gabby, his girlfriend, that it was no wonder that he’d gotten a big discount at Ralph’s when he’d bought it.
Gabby suggested that the headache might have had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t eaten much the day before. “That could be,” William said. He sat on his bed and rubbed his forehead. Even if William wasn’t fat, he tended to eat a lot and if he missed a meal, he normally got upset but not headachy.
William worked at the same restaurant as Thomas. He was a cashier, but had been asked to become a manager, as well. He had said yes and was merely waiting for the store manager to give him the necessary training. He wasn’t thinking about it. Not at that moment. He told Gabby that he just hoped to have the strength needed to kill the pain and make it through the day.
“I’ll get you an Advil,” she suggested, while getting up from the bed and opening the nightstand drawer.
“No!” he snapped, as if she were suggesting something perverted or obscene. The truth is that he had never liked to use any type of medication.
“So, how are you going to kill the pain?” she asked, taken aback by his reluctance.
“It’ll go away by itself,” he said, with a hint of optimism in his tone voice.
“By the way,” she said, changing the subject while retrieving a pair of blue jeans and a black blouse from the closet. “Do you work today?”
“I do,” he said, as he continued rubbing the back of his neck.
“Two. We’re going to close earlier… for Christmas.”
“Want to come to my parents’ for Christmas when you finish?” She asked with a teasing smile.
“Of course!” he said, and gave her a smile, too.
“Great! I’m going to go home, get everything ready for tonight and… do you want me to come here and pick you up?”
He nodded, and she noticed, by the look in his eyes, that the pain didn’t seem to decrease. “Poor thing!” she said tenderly, “I hope you’re feeling better for tonight.”
“Me too,” he said, feeling pain rather than motivation. “I do hope that it goes away before then.”
Gabby walked to the bathroom, taking her clothes with her. She was actually going to tell him to call in sick, but she knew he didn’t like to do that. He was a man who preferred to work, even if we were dying of a cold. What Gabby didn’t know was that William himself had also thought of calling in sick, for the first time in his life. His pain, the annoying, horrible pain that began in his forehead, went all the way back to his neck and was driving him crazy. It was, he thought, as if something was pulling his eyes out.
Being the tallest building in the city, The Granada Theater gave McDonald’s a perpetual shade, keeping it from the sun’s strongest rays. There were two doors in the burger joint, one that was located on the Main Street side and the other on the left side, where there was a hallway that connected with a public parking lot that was in back of the restaurant.
When Thomas arrived at the restaurant, he entered through the side door. Javier, his boss, a tall man, about 6′ 2″, green eyed, with short blond hair, noticed at once that he hadn’t slept well. Thomas looked tired. His olive skin complexion had turned into a ghostly pale that was apt to make Casper feel like an idiot in comparison. Javier thought about sending him home, not because Thomas was a bad employee but because he cared for him. However, he changed his mind when he realized that nobody could cover his shift.
Javier was leaning against the wall, near one of the registers, and greeted Thomas before he entered. “Morning,” Thomas said, trying his best to pretend he wasn’t headachy at all. He went inside, stopped to say hello to the two girls on the registers, Diana and Mel, a couple of skinny girls who happened to be sisters, although they didn’t have much in common; Diana’s hair was straight whereas Mel had a lustrous curly mane.
After that, he greeted Rita, another shift manager, who was in charge at the moment. Rita was short, about 5′ 6″, skinny, brunette, and had a pair of big and captivating brown eyes; Thomas had a crush on her but always kept it to himself. He then walked through the kitchen and greeted two other girls who were busy making a couple of Big Macs.
Although Thomas acted casual, Rita noticed something was bugging him. She decided to let one of the cashiers take charge, while she went to the office to ask Thomas how he was doing. When she opened the office door, Javier was already there, asking Thomas the same question.
“I’m fine,” Thomas said. He sat on a black leather chair, in front of a dark brown desk, while Javier and Rita stood at the door, looking at him with concern. “It’s just a headache.”
Javier and Rita looked at each other with surprise. “It seems Santa is giving headaches away this year. Not toys,” Javier said, matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?” Thomas asked.
“We also have headaches,” she said.
“We actually took some of the pills you keep in your file,” Javier added. “Hope you don’t mind.”
Thomas forgot about those pills because he also carried a bottle with him all the time. He shook his head, which gave him a brief and uncomfortable pain in both his temples. “Isn’t this beginning to look weird?” he asked, as he stood and grabbed a pen and a set of keys that lay on the desk. “That we three-“
“What do you mean ‘weird’?” Rita asked, “You always have headaches, I do once in a while and Javier does, too. What could be weird, in my opinion, is if William does.”
“Why?” Javier asked.
“Because he once said, when we saw Thomas taking a pill, that he didn’t recall the last time he had a headache.”
“He was being a jerk,” Thomas said bluntly. “You know how he is; last winter he had the flu and he always said that he was fine, although he was going to the break room to blow his nose every five minutes.”
“You could be right,” Javier conceded, “but you shouldn’t call him ‘a jerk’, all right? You are his boss, and even if you weren’t, you should respect him.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend him,” he said.
Business was steady from eleven to two. Because it was Christmas Eve, people were coming into the restaurant with bags full of just about anything; from clothing brands such as Old Navy, Gap and Banana Republic, to already-wrapped-presents that they might have bought at Macy’s, Nordstrom or The Fifth Avenue. People were just in the mood for a cheeseburger and then they would go home to wait for Christmas to come.
Javier had gone home around 1:30 p.m. and said no more about his headache; nevertheless, it continued to be a bother all the way home. Rita was in the office doing some paper work and Thomas was running the restaurant. She remained silent, although she started feeling the urge to take the entire bottle of Excedrin that was in Thomas’ file.
Thomas had no other option than to keep his mouth shut and cope with the pain. As he was at the front counter, giving a Happy Meal to a kid, Thomas observed something; most of the customers that were in line along with some others, who sat, eating their food, seemed to have a look of pain on their faces. A woman, who had bought two Happy Meals earlier, grabbed the tray from Thomas’ hands with such urgency, that she almost dropped her food on the floor. She also had a big frown on her forehead that Thomas couldn’t help but notice. She sat in one of the booths with her two kids. Thomas heard one of them say, while rubbing his head, “It hurts mommy! It hurts!”
But that wasn’t all. He looked at the line and heard three customers talking; they all had headaches. Then, Thomas looked at his cashiers; they were both rubbing their heads as well. It was then that Thomas Gordon started noticing that something was really wrong. It was obvious that it wasn’t just Javier, Rita and himself. There were more people. He waited for William to see how he was doing. If he had a headache, then that would really be ‘weird’, as Rita had said.
It didn’t take long for Thomas to find out that William was in pain, too. When Thomas saw him coming through the main door, he noticed that William’s eyes were tired, and with his right hand, he was pressing his ear as he walked quickly into the break-room.
“Thomas?” Diana asked, once she finished taking an order, “Do you have pills? I have a real bad headache. I just didn’t say it before because I was waiting for you. I’d never grab your pills without asking,” she said, as she was helping him bag some burgers.
“Me too,” Mel said, and he was now convinced this headache situation was unusual.
Thomas told them to keep things running, while he went to the office. As he was leaving, he decided to take a look at William, who was still in the break-room, fixing his hat, while looking at the mirror. “Are you alright?” he asked, after he opened the door.
Thomas was sure he was going to say that he was fine, but this time was different, for William told him how he really felt. Briefly, the two men talked about how their headaches began. William conceded that they could be plausible reasons, but he was still convinced that the headache was going to go away by itself. On the contrary, Thomas still believed that something was wrong. He decided not to say a word, yet. Many people thought that because he liked to write stories that everything that he ever said was just part of his imagination.
Thomas let William go to the front and help the two girls, who were cleaning the counter because there were no customers in line. Mel reminded him about the pills. Thomas nodded and walked toward the office. He also heard when William asked her if she also had a headache. Thomas walked through the kitchen and heard a cook telling the other, “I woke up with a headache this morning.”
“Me too,” the other one said.
Thomas stood where he was, turned back and looked at them. They stopped talking, looked at him with fear, thinking that maybe he was going to scold them for talking about personal matters during work, but Thomas Gordon wasn’t like that. He was strict, of course, but never yelled at them for nothing.
“So, you two also have a headache?” he asked, and their expressions changed from fear to relief. They nodded; Thomas smiled, and turned back to the office.
“He is going to get pills,” one said to the other.
Thomas quit smiling when he wasn’t facing them. It wasn’t time to be happy, although Christmas was around the corner. The headache was the only problem Thomas was trying to figure out and, because he was stubborn, he wasn’t going to stop thinking about the cause, although thinking seemed to increase the pain.
Thomas stood at the office door, turned the knob, and stopped when he heard a sound; it was as if someone inside the office was knocking on something. He knew immediately that it wasn’t the door because he was in front of it. He thought that the only somebody inside was Rita, and the only something was the desk.
Because Thomas had a good imagination, he guessed what was happening inside. When he opened the door, he stood motionless and stared at her. She sat on the chair, had an empty bottle of Excedrin in her right hand and was hitting her forehead repeatedly against the desk.
Since the beginning of the headache, he thought something like that was bound to happen. He knew that if people couldn’t stop the pain with pills, they would find any way possible to stop it, even if killing the pain would kill them too.
Immediately after Thomas Gordon had seen Rita trying to kill herself, he managed to make her stop, and then made a couple of phone calls. He called Javier to let him know about the situation and because it was an obvious emergency, he told Thomas to close the restaurant and take Rita to The Cottage Hospital. After that, he dialed 911.
Before the ambulance came, Thomas notified William about Javier’s orders and he rapidly, yet politely, told the few customers in the lobby that they needed to leave. The reason made sense to them and they didn’t question his request. In fact, William heard that a couple of customers commented that they were thinking about going to the pharmacy to buy some headache pills and that, whatever the emergency at the restaurant was, it was a good excuse for them to leave.
Thomas also asked William if he could go with Rita to the hospital, while he finished any paperwork she had left undone. He agreed to do so and helped Thomas carry Rita towards the ambulance, which was already at the front door. Two paramedics brought a stretcher out of the ambulance and entered the main door. William and Thomas were in the middle of the lobby and had Rita sitting on a chair.
Rita was white as a sheet now and her brunette skin tone had faded. Also, a bizarre yellowish color covered her eyes and she didn’t say a word or made a sound. She was very quiet and looking at the distance; it seemed as if she was watching something. She was asked questions by one of the paramedics, but she only shook her head. Afterwards, she made a gesture, as if she wanted to throw up, but she didn’t.
A third paramedic, the one who was driving the ambulance, entered the door and greeted William and Thomas with such joy, as if he were coming into a party, ready to have fun, instead of coming into a place, where an emergency was taking place. He wore a blue outfit, just like the other paramedics, and his straight, blond hair was long enough to cover his ears. While the paramedics gently lay Rita on the stretcher, the driver nonchalantly asked what had happened.
“An Exedrin overdose,” William said, plain as day, and then Thomas explained how he had found Rita.
“I see,” the man said, and began speaking so fast that it seemed he was having a race against himself. He stated that her facial expression, the color of her skin and her attempt to throw up, were side effects of the overdose.
“I don’t understand one thing,” Thomas said.
“What is it?”
“About her facial expression,” he said, watching Rita being taken towards the ambulance.
“I know it sounds crazy,” the man said with a giggle, “but hallucinations are just one more of the side effects; maybe she was watching God Almighty,” he concluded.
Although neither Thomas nor William appreciated his sarcasm, they didn’t say a word about it; he was either too optimistic or didn’t give a darn about the woman’s health. They just looked at his nametag.
Jesse Butterfield, it read.
One of the paramedics came back, told Butterfield they were ready, and William said he was going to go with them. They walked toward the ambulance and Thomas said he was going to meet them there as soon as possible. Once Thomas finished his shift, sent everybody home and locked all the doors, he called Claire and asked her if she could come and go with him to the hospital to see Rita. She agreed and came to pick him up.
As Claire was waiting for Thomas in the parking lot she noticed two things: first, there were plenty of cars there and she thought it was weird because it was around five and Claire thought people should be home, getting ready for Christmas Eve. Secondly, although it was winter, the temperature felt a bit hotter than usual. She was wondering about it while watching Thomas closing the gate and coming towards the car.
“How is it going?” she asked when Thomas opened the door.
“Not too bad,” he said, in a tone he actually didn’t believe himself. In fact, he couldn’t lie to Claire.
“You still have that headache, don’t you?” she asked, giving him a warm smile, hoping that could somehow alleviate his pain.
“Well,” he said. “I think it is obvious, isn’t it?” he giggled.
She nodded, caressed his left cheek and pulled him close to her to give him a warm kiss.
“How about you?” he asked (when the kiss was over). He was a little surprised because everyone was having a headache that day, except for Jesse Butterfield and the two paramedics.
“Well,” she said, touching her eyebrow and turning on the engine, “I feel fine.”
“I guess it is only us,” he said.
“Us?” she asked, bewildered, realizing that she was missing something. Thomas hadn’t told her that Rita was in the hospital thanks to the headache. As Claire was driving towards the exit, Thomas explained to her that everyone was having a headache in the restaurant, including the customers.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, still doubting if she was paying attention or Thomas had gone crazy. “Almost everyone you saw today had a headache?” she asked again, as they were leaving the parking lot.
As she was driving on Chapala St, towards The Cottage Hospital, Thomas said, “Yes, almost everyone had a headache today and I am not exaggerating, I swear.”
She continued looking bewildered, and told Thomas that it was bizarre, because she was ok.
They didn’t say a word for a while. As she continued driving on Chapala and tried to turn left on Micheltorena, she stopped at the red light. “Oh gosh!” she said, because she meant to go straight, but had forgotten to move to the other lane on time.
“Don’t worry,” he said, rubbing his forehead with his index and middle finger, “we can go onto the next street.”
“Well,” she said, and looked around, “This is beginning to look weird.”
Thomas remembered his own words when he was telling Rita and Javier, but they didn’t listen to him. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“I mean,” she continued, “When I went to pick you up, the parking lot was full of cars, but no people were walking on the streets and, up to now, I haven’t seen anyone,” she said, as she was turning right on Bath Street. “Besides,” she added, “don’t you feel the weather is a little warm?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
As she continued driving on Bath, they kept wondering about the emptiness of the streets. Even the air seemed very still. Maybe that was why Claire felt it was warm. Still, on the same street, they saw two bikers who were riding slowly and one of them was rubbing his head.
When they passed Islay Street, she asked Thomas how far they were from the Hospital. “Maybe two or three blocks away,” he said, having forgotten the last time he had been there.
When they stopped at the red light on the corner of Bath and Mission, Claire looked around. “Do you notice something?” she asked.
“There are not more cars on the road. Only ours.”
Thomas looked through the rear mirror.
She was right.
“What’s happening here?” She asked when the light turned green. She kept driving straight and glanced at a woman who was running inside a house, pressing her head with both hands. Claire didn’t say anything to Thomas.
“There must be a sign somewhere.”
“I think it’s here,” he said, looking at a Samsung Clinic sign.
“Nope,” she said, “This is a clinic for dia-“
“It’s there,” he said, when they were right at the corner of Bath and Pueblo.
Claire read the sign: The Cottage Hospital. “That made sense,” she said.
She drove further and parked on Nogales St. Then, they walked toward Junipero St., where one of the main entrances were, walked into the lobby and that sense of bewilderment embraced them even more when they saw how the place looked.
The place was packed; there were many people holding their heads in the lobby. Some kids were crying, and some adults had that frown in their foreheads, and that look of desperation and annoyance in their eyes, suggesting that they couldn’t stand the pain anymore.
There was a desk at the entrance, on the left-hand side, and a man in his twenties was reading a People Magazine. He had his feet on the desk and was leaning back against a comfortable black leather chair. He was wearing one of those blue outfits they wear in hospitals, without the nametag that was supposed to be attached on either side of his chest.
Ever since Thomas worked for McD’s, he had developed a penchant for looking at nametags, to either complain or complement about the service he’d received. This time, he felt the necessity to complain, although no service had been given to him just yet.
The man looked at Thomas, closed the magazine and nonchalantly tossed it aside. “Can I help you?” he asked, in a manner that suggested that he wasn’t that eager to help this couple, who had come to interrupt him, just when he was about to start reading that article about Celine Dion.
“Yes,” Thomas said, and clearly felt the coldness in which the man in front of the desk had offered to help them. He didn’t say anything just yet. “We are here to visit a friend of ours. She was brought here about an hour and a half ago.”
“She is in one of the rooms,” he said, not so amiably, and as though he knew which friend they were talking about. He didn’t even take the time to ask them for a name or anything.
Thomas looked at Claire, as if asking her, using a language that only they could understand, if they could stay and wait to find out about Rita. Claire looked around, noticed the lobby again and thought about saying no, but decided to be patient and wait.
Now that Claire and Thomas had figured out a possible reason as to why the streets were empty, they began to think about why this young clerk, or whatever the hell they call them in the hospital parlance, was so unworried and practically oblivious to the amount of people sitting in the lobby.
Many more people were walking in as they talked.
“Excuse me!” Claire asked the young man behind the desk. He looked at her. Claire didn’t need to guess that he was pissed about having to answer her questions, just at the moment when he only cared about reading his magazine. She asked, anyway. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?”
“I am afraid I don’t really know, ma’am,” he said.
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Thomas asked. “It’s obvious that something is definitely wrong here.”
“Well, yeah, it’s really, really obvious that something is wrong here,” he said, crossing his legs, “it seems like there is a headache epidemic. People have been coming in, since the morning, but as I said, I don’t know anything.”
There was silence; Claire looked at him and then at Thomas. “So you don’t know anything?” she asked again, and he shook his head, quite annoyed to be asked the same question more than once.
Thomas gently pulled Claire’s arm when he realized it was futile to keep asking questions to a person who didn’t seem to be worried about the situation. Then, out of the group of people that was beginning to completely fill the foyer, came Jesse Butterfield. He didn’t seem to be worried either. When Thomas saw him, he tried to ask him the same question that the other man didn’t seem to have a clue about.
“Hi!” he said, once he recognized Thomas. Jesse came to where they were, and they shook hands, “You made it!” Jesse said, smiling.
When Thomas saw that strange peacefulness about Jesse, he finally said what he had been thinking to ask before. “Excuse me, Jesse. I see several people here, suffering headaches and you are just… unconcerned.”
“What can I do?” Butterfield asked, unfolding his hands. “It seems it is something we can’t cure. We have Excedrin, Advil, Tylenol and nothing seems to help these poor people. The only thing we can do is to send them home and let them spend the most painful Christmas Eve of their lives!”
He actually laughed, thinking that what he said was funny.
Claire and Thomas couldn’t believe it. He clearly didn’t give a darn if people went crazy and tried to stop their pain in some other drastic way. Why should he worry? If he was fine, why should he try to suffer for them?
“I guess that’s it,” Thomas said, looking at Jesse one more time, perhaps trying to find a possible trace of concern in his eyes.
But he found none.
When Jesse felt he could no longer look at Thomas, he said, “Ohm, do you want me to walk you to the room where your friend is?”
“Yes,” Thomas said, staring at him, trying to understand what was going on.
All the way to the room, Butterfield walked looking down at the floor. Among the crowd of people in the foyer, something caught Thomas’ attention; there was a little girl, around nine or ten years old, wearing a pink dress and sitting down next to a window. The girl was doing what Rita had been doing before in the restaurant; she was slowly hitting her head against the wall.
Thomas was about to point out the little girl, so that Claire would notice what she was doing but he decided not to, perhaps because he hadn’t actually filled her in on what Rita had done. He just wanted to believe himself that what he was seeing had something to do with the ideas that he was coming up with when he was writing. He preferred to think that and just reminded himself to write everything down and use it as a ‘soon-to-be’ story.
When they got to the room, Butterfield opened the door for them and left, saying goodbye, but not looking at Thomas’s face. Rita was sleeping, and William was next to her. Gabby was also there but she had gone to the restroom. Thomas thought of asking how William was doing but changed his mind because it was obvious that he was still in pain. The pain didn’t seem to be going away by itself, as William had thought it would. This was permanent, like an ugly birthmark on the face.
When Gabby came from the restroom, she greeted Claire with a kiss on her cheek, and Thomas with a hug. She did ask how they were doing and was amazed to discover that she wasn’t the only one without a headache.
Rita opened her eyes and thanked everyone for being there. Rita was alone in Santa Barbara and it felt good to have someone caring for her welfare.
A nurse entered the room, saying there was nothing that they could do to heal Rita’s headache. Claire asked why this headache was happening, but the nurse was about as helpful as a chocolate teapot. Thomas said they were going to take her home and they all left through the back door, to avoid getting stuck among the growing herd of people who were in the main entrance.
They left in Thomas’ car. It was about 7:30 p.m. and Santa Barbara looked more like a ghost town rather than the picturesque small city that it normally was. Abandoned cars occupied the parking lots, and Thomas’ car was the only one on the road. They now knew where the people were, so they didn’t bother to question that.
Gabby broke the ice, always chatty and cheerful, despite the unpleasant events. She invited Rita, Thomas and Claire to go with them to William’s apartment, because her parents had called her to let her know that they had to leave for Ventura; a family emergency, they’d said, which had nothing to do with the headache. Rita said thanks but no thanks, saying she felt tired and wanted to sleep instead. Thomas and Claire agreed, dropped them at William’s and said they’d go home, shower and come back.
When Thomas and Claire came back, William and Gabby were outside their apartment, waiting for them. They’d showered as well, but William’s expression didn’t change. He wasn’t feeling any better. Likewise, Thomas felt as if millions of small nails were poking him in the head; but since he was used to always having that sort of pain, he didn’t complain.
“It’s everything all right, guys?” Claire asked, and then she looked around and noticed that the neighborhood was dark.
“Light’s gone!” Gabby said, “Could we go somewhere else?”
“Where?” Claire asked through the car window, and after Gabby thought about it, she said there was a buffet restaurant in Oxnard that was going to be open past midnight for people like them, who didn’t have a place to be on Christmas Eve.
“That sound like a good idea. What do you think, honey?” Thomas asked Claire.
“Sounds great! Hop in, guys!” Claire said.
It took them less than thirty minutes to get there. The restaurant was called Hometown Buffet and was located on the corner of Lockwood and Rose Ave. Unlike Santa Barbara, Oxnard seemed to be having a healthy and happy Christmas Eve. Luckily, Thomas could find a parking space, thanks to an old, red Mustang classic that was leaving.
The restaurant, which shape seemed to be that of a giant green box, with a sign on the edge of the roof that read: HOMETOWN BUFFET, was full of people. The walls were solid glass, through which they saw people drinking and laughing, having a good time.
“This is a real Christmas Eve, indeed!” Gabby said.
“Hope this helps with their headaches,” Claire whispered on her ear.
“I heard you,” Thomas said, and they all laughed, trying to find the cure in humor, when the pills were no longer the alternative.
As they walked into the restaurant, Claire asked the hostess for a table; Claire couldn’t help but notice her skinny complexion, pale skin and matching red hair and lipstick. She told them, in a kind and polite manner, unlike the dimwit from the hospital, that they would need to wait a couple of minutes. They happily waited and were pleased to see that their table was ready sooner than what they expected. When they walked to the table, William asked Thomas how he could stand the pain for so long, without even complaining.
“Stop thinking about it,” he said.
“But how?” he insisted.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Claire said, “we are going to get the food, okay?”
The guys told them what they wanted to eat, and when they left, Thomas said, “Look, the pain is there, we know that, and because it is in your head, you may think that it is impossible to stop thinking about it. Right?”
“So, what you have to do, is to think it is a… I don’t know, a pain in your arm or your leg or any other part of your body.”
“Hold on,” William said, “What difference does it make if the pain isn’t in the head?
“Well, what I thought, yet maybe I was over-generalizing, is that when some people suffer a pain in any part of their body, that isn’t their head, is that they don’t pay as much attention to it.”
There was a paused.
“Where did you hear that?” William asked, “Discovery Channel?”
They both laughed.
Claire and Gabby came back with four plates stuffed with chicken, steak, gravy, salad and steamy bread. They sat down next to the guys and started eating and talking. William promised Thomas that he would try to heed his advice, although he didn’t quite believe it. The girls asked what they were talking about and Thomas explained it briefly.
They all made fun of Thomas, because his advice didn’t make any sense.
They weren’t half way through their meals when a tall, black man around his forties, approached their table and greeted Thomas. “Thomas Gordon?” he asked. Thomas recognized him; his name was Michael Freeman and he was the owner of the restaurant. Thomas stood up and greeted him with a hug. They had met before, a day when Freeman went to Santa Barbara and he was so delighted with Thomas’ service, that he made one of those 1-800 phone calls to say marvels about his performance in the workplace.
Thomas introduced him to his wife and friends and Freeman said that he remembered William as well. In fact, Freeman said, William had taken his order. Before he left, freeman thanked them for coming to his restaurant and wished them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
“I should’ve gotten that 1-800 call, don’t you think?” William complained.
“You will get yours, don’t worry,” Gabby said.
“We all did a good job. Not just me,” Thomas said.
As they kept eating, Thomas noticed that Freeman was greeting almost every guest with either a hug or a handshake. Those who he didn’t greet in that way, were touching the ones he did greet. Therefore, in just about ten minutes, everyone had something from him; either a little girl who dropped a toy on the floor and her mama picked it up and gave it back to her, or a waiter who shook hands with a family that just came in.
In just about ten minutes, everything began to change.
Thomas couldn’t help but notice and became hypnotized by the thought. Even though he was there, physically, his mind was lost, meandering around the room.
“Is everything all right, honey?” Claire asked Thomas, when she saw her husband looking around, as if he had lost something.
“No!” he snapped, “everything is wrong! Everything is so messed up!”
William, Gabby and Claire looked at him and perhaps they were so deep into their conversation, that they didn’t see what Thomas was watching. They didn’t feel what Thomas was Feeling. Except for William, who seemed to be okay thanks to Thomas’ advice.
“What is it?” Claire asked.
“Look around,” he said, almost in a whispered.
“Oh my god!!” she said while covering her mouth.
All of a sudden, the customers that were blissfully chatting and laughing out loud became still and quiet, as if they were mannequins, placed in those tables and booths for exhibition. Their heads were slightly tilted, looking at their plates, and their backs were straight. In the distance, the hostess had the phone on her ear and a voice on the other end was shouting something. A family of four came in, saw the place and got out as quick as they came in.
“What the heck!” William said, “What is wrong with these people?”
“Who knows,” Thomas said, “They are in some sort of a trance, but-“
“Thomas! Look!” Claire said, as she pointed at a woman, sitting at the next table. She was the one Freeman had greeted after Thomas. She moved her head up and then touched her forehead with her left hand.
Everyone did the same.
“Mommy! I am headachy, mommy!” a girl said, bursting into tears. Thomas recalled the kids he saw in McD’s earlier that day.
Thomas heard a man, at the table behind his, asks his wife for a pill, because he suddenly felt a horrible headache. His wife said she had none and suggested that they leave, so that she could go and buy some pills for herself, as well. A waiter walked by and asked another waiter for a pill. The hostess hung up and began looking for something in a drawer.
Then, out of the blue, a man walked out of the kitchen and demanded the hostess to give him a pill. People who were sitting nearby stood up and walked towards the front counter to ask for pills. The woman said that she only had a few. The man who had come out of the kitchen snatched the bottle from her hands and opened it.
People with the same headache problem surrounded him. Two more men tried to walk towards him and he backed off, as if he was afraid of them. He turned the bottle upside down and the unexpected happened; he accidentally dropped the pills on the floor.
Then, all the people knelt down to try to get a pill, as if they were kids, grabbing candies that dropped off a piñata. The man who walked out of the kitchen yelled and cursed everyone for stealing his pills. Then, full of anger and willing to put the blame on anyone, he turned towards the hostess, who was looking at him with fear. “You bitch!” he said and raised his hand to slap her. But he didn’t do it, because Freeman appeared from behind and grabbed the man’s hand just on time.
“Don’t be stupid, Butterfield!” Freeman said. The man kept yelling, in front of everyone. Freeman wasn’t going to deal with that so he fired him at once.
Thomas heard that, as well as William, and they looked at each other, wondering about the same thing.
“Did Freeman call him Butterfield?” Thomas asked.
More people gathered there and started looking under the tables, to see if there were pills somewhere else. Meanwhile, this man called Butterfield didn’t stop staring at Freeman for quite a bit. Freeman asked him to leave the restaurant one more time. When he left, freeman looked at Thomas’ table.
Freeman walked towards their table and apologized for the incident, this bizarre incident was turning this wonderful, dreamy and glorious Christmas Eve’s night, into a dreadful and awkward nightmare, featuring desperate people looking for headache pills under the tables.
And that didn’t stop for quite a while.
Thomas and company said it was all right and that they understood, although they didn’t quite understand what was happening. Thomas was actually thinking about telling Freeman what was going on back in town but preferred not to say a word about that situation. However, he did ask Freeman, because he and William were curious, about the man who began the whole mess.
“Oh!” Freeman said, “That kid? He actually lives in Santa Barbara, where you all live. Did he look familiar?
“We actually don’t know him,” Thomas said, “But we just met a paramedic whose last name was the same as his.”
“You mean Jesse,” Freeman said, “Jesse Butterfield?”
William and Thomas nodded and then Freeman told them that Jesse and that kid, whose name was Joseph, were brothers, and he’d only met Jesse once and that he didn’t seem to be a nice person.
“We know,” Thomas said.
They left and promised to see each other again. When they approached the car, they saw Jesse’s brother. He was in his car, an old and battered green Chevy Geo, with the windows rolled down. He was talking on the phone. For some reason, Thomas felt he needed to hear that conversation.
When everyone was in the car, Thomas stayed outside and told Claire he was going to check the tires. While he was supposedly doing that, and listening to Joseph, who was actually shouting instead of talking, Thomas couldn’t believe what he heard.
Joseph was talking to Jesse and demanding something about an antidote. “You told me I was gonna be fine! I fucking feel like I’m gonna die!” Joseph said. When Thomas heard the word antidote, he decided to keep ‘checking the tires’ to see what else Joseph would say. “The virus became more what?” Joseph yelled, and Thomas was very interested to hear what else he might say. “Hey bro, don’t fucking talk to me like a doctor, when you’re just driving an ambulance, okay? Just tell me what went wrong?”
Thomas was about to stand up, snatch the phone from Joseph’s hands, and talk personally with Jesse. But he waited. He thought waiting might be more prudent. Joseph didn’t say anything for a while, and that was because Jesse was explaining to him what happened. Then, he said okay, hung up the phone, started the car and left.
When he got in the car, Claire looked at him with surprise. Then, Thomas looked at William and Gabby, who also looked surprised. He didn’t need to be a genius to know why they were looking at him like that. It was obvious, since Joseph’s windows were down and he was yelling. After about a minute of silence and seemingly endless stares, Claire said, “We heard him, too.”
They drove back to Santa Barbara without uttering a word. The thought of the headache and Joseph’s conversation were the only two things in everybody’s mind. Thomas was thinking about the intensity of his headache but kept concentrating on being calm, still hoping it would go away. William had lost all hope and began to think about finding a way to make the pain stop. Claire still couldn’t understand what started the mayhem back at the restaurant but was convinced that the Butterfield brothers held the answer to it. Finally, Gabby was wondering why she and Claire were ok when everyone around wasn’t.
It was around 1:30 a.m. when Thomas left Gabby and William at their apartment. Before leaving, Thomas asked William to call him during the day to see how he was feeling. Thomas remembered that they hadn’t called Javier with an update, let alone to see if he was feeling okay. William said that he would call him. Thomas and Claire drove to their place, went to bed and hoped that everything would return to normal the next day.
But it didn’t.
Claire was awakened by a scream, a very loud one, followed by another and then another. It wasn’t Thomas, she knew at once, because the first thing she did was to look at him and he was still sleeping. She was scared and more afraid when she heard steps outside her front door. She left her room and walked to the door. She stood there, motionless, afraid to open the door. She looked at the window and opted to move the blinds a bit to see what was going on outside.
What she saw startled her. She covered her mouth with both hands and blinked twice, thinking that it was a bad dream, but it wasn’t. People were aimlessly running and screaming on the streets. Then, unexpectedly, a man stopped in front of Claire’s car and hit his head against it, breaking a window. Shattered glass fell inside the car and Claire yelled when she saw that.
Thomas woke up when he heard his wife and jumped out of bed when he noticed that she wasn’t there. He left the room and saw her, kneeling in front of the window. “What happened?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“You won’t believe this,” she said, turning her head towards him, and with her hand pressing her cheeks.
“You also have a headache?”
“No!” she yelled, and tears began to fill her eyes. When Thomas saw that, he walked towards her and tried to hug her, but she gently pushed him back and said, “Look out the window!”
“Why?” he asked, still confused.
“Thomas! Just look out the window!”
He did. Then, he looked back at her, without showing fear or surprise. “What?” he asked, “What do you want me to see?”
She couldn’t understand why he was asking that.
She asked, “Isn’t it obvious that there is a maniac outside, hitting his head against our car, and lots of people running and screaming like crazy? Don’t you see it?”
He shook his head and she stood up. She looked through the window and saw nobody on the street. But she wasn’t dreaming. She had seen people and was damned sure about it. Then, she looked at the car. Because the broken window was on the opposite side, Thomas didn’t see it. It happened, she insisted, and told him what she had seen.
He looked at her and asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am!” she yelled, “Do you want to go and take a look?”
He walked outside, holding Claire’s hand.
The street was deserted, and Claire didn’t hear people screaming anymore. Could all that she had seen only been in her imagination? She was sure that it hadn’t been that way. As they got closer to the car, a steady shiver was going down her back. She stopped in front of the car and told Thomas to go and see. He looked at her, as if asking to himself if it was worthwhile to continue.
He didn’t say a word, because Claire’s look of horror made him think he’d better not ignore her. Instead, he kept on walking, while she was looking at him from where she stood. When he was on the other side of the car, he finally understood why Claire was scared, and thanked God for not having ignored her.
The window was broken and the look on his face was enough for Claire to know that he believed her, but still, the screams she said had faded away. There was some doubt in his mind, but he kept quiet. He didn’t want to upset her anymore. He walked back and hugged her. This time, she clung to him, hugging him so tightly, as if it they might never hug again.
They stood there for a moment. There was no sound, there was no air. The weather was warm, like it had been the previous night. It was actually too hot for the season, Thomas thought. They walked back to their apartment and he assured her he was going to take care of the window.
The phone rang as they walked into their apartment. Thomas walked to the kitchen, where the phone was attached against the wall next to the fridge. Claire stood at the bedroom door, watching her husband turn pale, as the person on the other end of the line yelled something that Claire couldn’t hear very well. However, Thomas’ expression suggested it was something appalling rather than appealing. He slowly put the phone back, while looking at Claire. She didn’t need to ask who it was, because she knew Thomas would tell her.
“It was Gabby,” he said, while walking into the bedroom.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“You were right,” he said, and grabbed some slacks out of the closet. Then, looking back at her, he added, “It is happening. William just tried to kill himself.”
Although she couldn’t believe her ears, she was sure this would happen. She had just seen it, for Christ sake! “Where are you going?” she asked.
“To talk to him! Maybe take him to the hospital. Gabby said he doesn’t want to go anywhere.”
“Oh God! Can I go with you?” she asked.
He nodded and kept thinking about how to talk to William. Thomas knew how stubborn he was in normal situations and guessed that, with the headache, he wasn’t going to be as cooperative as he normally was. Thomas glanced at Claire, as she was putting on some jeans and a white t-shirt. He suddenly remembered he hadn’t told her his whole conversation with Gabby. “There is something else, though,” he said. “Gabby saw what you saw, too.”
All the way towards Williams’ place they didn’t speak at all. Thomas could finally believe his wife’s words, now that Gabby said that she’d seen a herd of people running on the street. Nevertheless, Claire didn’t know what to believe. She had, for a moment, considered that everything was a product of her imagination.
As Thomas had suspected, the first thing William did when he saw Gabby opening the apartment door, was to reject being taken to the hospital.
“What for?” he yelled while covering his head with a blanket. He lay on the sofa, and Thomas walked towards him and pulled the blanket away. William’s forehead was red. According to Gabby, he repeatedly smacked his head against the floor that morning.
William gave Thomas what appeared to be an angry look, but it wasn’t. It was just the headache’s frown that gave the impression of madness.
“You don’t have the headache, do you?” William asked. “You look so calm.”
Thomas chuckled at the question. “Of course I do!” he said. “I told you last night that the only thing I do is not to think about it.”
William didn’t believe it, but that wasn’t why they were there, Thomas thought. The priority was to take William to the hospital. Without uttering a word, William stood up, walked to the restroom and once Gabby heard the water from the shower, she sighed in relief, assuming he was going to go to the hospital.
Gabby told them to sit so she could get some water from the kitchen. While she was doing that, she thought it was time to say what she’d thought on their way back from Oxnard. She came into the living room with two glasses of water and as she sat down, she said, “I don’t know if you guys have noticed something.”
“What it is?” Thomas asked.
“That Claire and I don’t have the headache.”
“Yes, we have noticed,” Thomas said, “and that must mean something.”
Then, as Claire sipped from her glass of water, she saw something; it was a small, red mark next to Gabby’s eye, like a birthmark. Claire thought of asking Gabby about it, but just then, William came out of the restroom and said he was ready to go.
“I thought you were going to take a shower,” Gabby said.
“Nope.” William said. “I only washed my head.”
The streets were deserted, like the day before. Thomas drove without talking. Why talk, when the abandoned streets suggested that being quiet was the best thing to do? However, the quietness was interrupted once Thomas parked the car in front of the ER’s door. What they saw made them startled in horror.
There was a big crowd of furious people, banging on the closed glass doors. They continued, hoping someone would come down from the second floor and open the doors. But they didn’t do it. They were scared too.
Butterfield was there among the other hospital workers.
For about five seconds, while those desperate Santa Barbara residents kept furiously banging on the door, Butterfield and Thomas shared a stare. When Butterfield recognized who the man staring at him was, he leaned next to a nurse and whispered something into her ear and walked away.
As if Thomas had guessed what Jesse’s intentions were, he started the car and drove toward the other side of the building. Nobody said anything. It was obvious that being there was a bad idea. When Claire asked where they were going, Thomas said he had a feeling that Jesse needed to say something to them.
“What?” Gabby asked, but then remembered about last night’s phone conversation between Jesse and his brother.
“The antidote?” William asked.
“Exactly?” Thomas said.
While Thomas drove towards the other side of the building, Claire was thinking of how much willpower Thomas had. It really seemed as if he didn’t have any pain.
“There he is!” Gabby yelled, pointing at Jesse, who was running towards the parking lot.
Once Jesse saw them, he ran faster. He jumped over a bench and fell on the other side. Thomas drove in the lot, killed the engine and got out of the car. Jesse stood up, trying to run, but had injured his knee. Thomas grabbed him from the back and asked, “Where the hell do you think you are going?”
“Watch your mouth!” Jesse said and laughed, “or I’ll call customer service to say a McDonald’s employee is-“
He didn’t finish his joke or whatever he thought it was, because Thomas punched him in the face, making him land on the ground like a sack of potatoes.
Thomas had never cursed in front of others, not even his wife, but this was the time to do so. He had many reasons not to be polite: the headache, people asking for help at a closed hospital and the sarcasm of Jesse. The latter was the number one reason to do it. “You call whoever the fuck you want, you son of a bitch!” Then he kicked him several times, until William, Claire and Gabby got out of the car to make him stop.
Why are you doing this to me?” Jesse cried, and for the first time, there was a look of concern on his face because now he was the one in trouble. “I don’t even know you!”
“You don’t know me? So why are you running away from me, you moron!” Thomas yelled.
“We don’t have time to waste,” William said, sure enough that Butterfield knew what they wanted. “You tell us what the antidote is, and we’ll leave you alone.”
Still on the ground, surrounded, he made that classic face of a man who pretended not to know a thing, but he did, of course he did. However, he had to ask the stupidest question of all times, “What are you talking about?”
Thomas explained to him about the conversation that he had had with his brother the day before. Jesse didn’t believe it. Instead, he thought his brother had paid them to get the so-called antidote. Then, he thought that was ridiculous because he didn’t have enough money for that.
“What are you thinking?” Gabby asked, looking at Jesse with disgust.
“I-” Jesse said, taking his time, as if measuring his words would soften their tempers. “Don’t know what you are taking about.”
When he said that again, Thomas reaction was furious and physical. He jerked Jesse off the ground, grabbing him by the neck. Then, he threw him on a car and cocked his fist, ready to break his nose. Before he could do this, Claire grasped his hand. “Let me handle this,” she said, looking at her husband, who was not at all like Thomas, the gentle and calm Thomas that she knew so well.
But he was indeed the same Thomas. Unfortunately, this headache epidemic was making him react with foolishness rather than wisdom. Claire’s hand holding his arm was like a cord that gave him peace. And through her eyes, staring into his, she said without speaking, don’t be a fool and let me do this, dear.
So he did. He moved away, next to William and Gabby, while Claire stood in front of Jesse, who was shivering uncontrollably. It was strange, but it seemed as if Claire’s serenity was more persuasive than Thomas aggressiveness. She leaned closer to Jesse’s face, trying to intimidate him more so she wouldn’t waste time in asking the exact questions that needed to be answered. “Tell us two things,” she asked very tranquil, with a calmness that Thomas couldn’t believe she had. “First, how all this mayhem began and where is the antidote.”
Jesse said that the best place to talk was his house, so they drove him there. What he called ‘his house,’ was actually an old and almost wrecked gray trailer, parked in the garage of a two-floor, pink house on the Eastside of the city. Claire and Gabby couldn’t help but feel pity when Jesse said he lived there. On the other hand, William and Thomas didn’t give a damn where he lived; they only cared for the cure of the headache.
When they entered the house, everyone was startled as they looked around the inside of the trailer. There was shattered glass on the floor, a chair and a table upside down and a small brown bookcase lay in a corner. The kitchen drawers were open. There were also books, utensils and plates strewn all over the place.
The door to the room was ajar. Jesse was shivering when he approached it. He didn’t want to go in. He was afraid that whatever omen or bad thought he had, would actually come true. If it came true, he didn’t know how he’d take it. He didn’t want to go inside. He was scared to death. The closer he got to the door, the surest he was that something in the room wasn’t quite right.
“What now?” Thomas asked from behind, clearly livid.
“My brother was here this morning when I left,” he said, and didn’t stop shaking. “I am just afraid he might’ve…” he stopped.
“Might’ve what?” Thomas yelled.
“I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!” Jesse started crying and tried to run outside, but William stopped him, grabbing his arm. “He might’ve! He might’ve!” he repeated over and over again. It was surprising for Thomas and William to witness such behavior now, totally opposed to what it was when they first met him back at the restaurant. Perhaps, Thomas thought, it was because now, the person who might be in danger was his brother and not any other inhabitant of the Santa Barbara County.
Thomas stood there, near the door, so he was the one who needed to open it. He did. What he saw, made him remember what his wife and Gabby had said, about people running and hitting their heads against whatever they found on their way so they could stop the pain. He also thought of Rita. Thomas was glad, not because of what he saw, but because Jesse didn’t see it first. Jesse was completely overwhelmed by his thoughts of what the scenario in that room could possibly be. If he had seen it first, he would have seen his brother’s head with a hole in it, caused by a gunshot.
Jesse had to know it, though. Without actually seeing it, he knew by looking at Thomas. Jesse slumped onto the floor, devastated, and cursing hell and heaven for his brother’s death. Thomas and William saw one more time in Jesse’s eyes the man they’d met at first, someone who was still worried about his own problems. He didn’t care about the people who were begging for help.
When they grew tired of seeing him cursing and crying, Claire decided to take the lead and ask him what the hell was going on. The time of being a lady was over. Now he’d better speak up or else.
“It’s something partially unknown,” Jesse said, sobbing.
“What?” William shouted.
“Let him speak,” Claire said.
“Just about a week ago,” Jesse began, “a patient came to the hospital. He was a 26-year-old Hispanic man and claimed to have had a headache for three days, which wouldn’t stop, even for a moment. Instead, it increased, and he described it as a whirl that went around like nails poking his head. I reckon that’s what you guys feel right now. Anyway, we gave him medicine, but nothing worked. He stood there for three hours, screaming in pain like you can’t even imagine. He came with his girlfriend, who didn’t have any sort of pain.
“Where is that man, now?” William asked.
“He is dead,” Jesse said. “He killed himself at the hospital. His girlfriend had actually said he’d thought about killing himself, which was weird, because according to her, he’d never had suicidal thoughts.”
“How did he kill himself?” Gabby asked.
“Someone had accidentally left some scissors on a table and when his girlfriend went to the restroom, he stood up, walked to the table, grabbed them and stabbed them into his head.”
Thomas closed his eyes and grimaced at the thought. Gabby was about to ask why he did that but the answer was more than obvious; he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. Like Thomas, Claire’s gesture was of disgust.
Jesse went on explaining what the headache was called, according to the doctors’ diagnosis. “It may be a Cluster Headache,” Jesse had heard when two doctors were talking and one of them was explaining the symptoms. “It could be,” the latter agreed.
However, doctor #2 said, “Cluster Headaches only occur on one side of the head and the analogy of it could be described as that of a spear, penetrating from the top of the head, behind one eye, going down towards the neck. Unlike this unfortunate patient,” he’d gone on, “his pain is present in both sides of the head.”
Doctor #1 had listened to doctor #2, patiently waiting for him to finish his asserted, yet incomplete theory.
“Upon its occurrence,” doctor #1 had said, “Although I admit you are right, I tell you that, because this is a very rare type of headache, to which a cure hasn’t yet been found, the symptoms vary. It is true, as you pointed out, the pain is generally unilateral, but studies have found cases where the headache is bilateral.”
Doctor #2 had been astonished at the explanation that his colleague gave him, and, humbling himself, he’d asked if the pain periods were still the same.
Doctor #1 said “Yes, they are the common ones already known; from fifteen minutes of intense pain, up to three hours.” Doctor #1 stopped, and then added, “Imagine the suffering of these people, as if they were being hammered. It is actually said that most people claim this is the worst pain they had ever had. Women, in particular, say this is even worse than giving birth.”
Doctor #2 startled at that comment, added, “Speaking of genders; is it still true that such pain occurs in men more than women?”
“It is, but as I said, this is very rare, and I still doubt if this is the type of headache this particular man had suffered.”
“Because he hadn’t said anything about suffering periods of pain, which is one of the symptoms we need to have knowledge of, so we can determine its veracity.”
“I supposed, if I may, the patient hadn’t said so, due to the annoyance of such pain.”
Doctor #1 thought for a moment and then shook his head, “I don’t think so.”
After Jesse finished telling the story, Thomas said, “I don’t think this is the same kind of pain.”
“Why?” Claire asked.
“Because it doesn’t stop.”
Jesse looked at them for a moment. Deep inside his head, he was thinking of different ways to flee. He wanted to do it because he had just realized he had lied about something.
“What are you thinking?” William asked, as if reading his mind. But he wasn’t going to say just yet. He needed to wait for either a moment or a sign. He came up with an excuse. Actually, it wasn’t entirely an excuse, because he thought about asking them before.
“All of you folks have the headache?” he asked bluntly and although it was an easy question to answer, they felt it as if it had been the hardest one they’ve ever heard.
“No,” Claire said, “only the men. Gabby and I are just fine. Maybe this is the whatever type of pain you said, that only occurred to men and-“
“It isn’t the same,” Jesse interrupted, and they were puzzled to see the positive way in which he spoke.
“How do you know?” William asked.
“To begin with, none of the headaches known to mankind are contagious. This one is.”
The look in their eyes was of déjà vu and it greatly struck them. Though everyone wore the same expression, Thomas was the first to remember.
“We’ve overlooked it!” he said.
“What?” Claire asked.
“Last night, at the restaurant in Oxnard, when I greeted the owner, then he greeted everyone else and consequently, within ten minutes or so, everything stopped.”
They began to remember. How could they have forgotten, when it had been there where they met Jesse’s brother? Astonishment flew in the air, and Gabby questioned how it could be that this shitty headache was able to grow and affect them?
“Didn’t you guys notice something else yesterday?” Jesse asked.
“If you could be so kind and tell us, because we don’t have time for stupid fucking questions!” Gabby exploded.
Jesse looked at them with disregard, suggesting he hadn’t liked Gabby’s approach. Then, he said, “The heat. It was the heat. Yesterday the weather was hotter than usual, throughout the day, and that worsened the headache. Therefore, when you greeted that man and he greeted the others, everything got fucked up!”
They couldn’t do anything but wait; wait for the moment to get what they had come for. He didn’t know how to tell them. He guessed what the outcome could be but it didn’t stop him. The truth needed to be known. He said, “I’m afraid I don’t possess what you guys are looking for.”
They were angry, righteously.
Claire asked, “What are you talking about?”
“The antidote,” he said. “You guys have come for the antidote.”
Claire nodded. “Yes, we’ve come because we thought you had it.”
Jesse looked at her, and Claire could see sadness in his eyes. “There is no such antidote,” he said.
The first thing William did was to jump over Jesse and smack him on the face. “You son of a bitch!” he yelled with outrage, as Thomas and the two women tried to jerk him back and make him stop. “You worthless piece of shit!” he kept on cursing him, while Thomas managed to hold him by the arm. Although Jesse deserved it, Thomas began to think that they needed to be patient. Jesse has something to say, but he just didn’t know how to say it.
“What do you mean ‘there is no such antidote’,” Claire asked, still stunned by Jesse’s words.
Jesse was breathing heavily, tired out because of the way William had shaken him. From his mouth, came some words no one in that trailer would bet he’d ever say, “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know I wasn’t specific since the beginning and I still don’t know why I didn’t tell you guys before. I now believe you were there in Oxnard and heard the conversation my brother and I had and when he said the word ‘antidote’ you thought it was possible that there was one but-“
“Hold on!” Gabby said, “So you are gonna say that your brother, rest in peace, said the word ‘antidote’ referring to something else?”
“What it is?”
“Remember I told you, in the beginning, that the doctors thought the headache was the one called a Cluster Headache?”
“So, because they thought that was the diagnosis, they told the hospital members only, that a possible cure, or temporal medication was something called Sumatriptan.”
“And that’s what you brother called an antidote?”
“Yes, and it was my fault, because I never explained to him what it really was.”
“I imagine that he took it once and that’s why he asked for more?”
William smiled wryly, but Gabby and Claire decided to keep silent.
“You guys don’t believe me, do you?” Jesse said.
“At this moment we don’t know what to believe,” Thomas said, “because you said it is contagious and my wife doesn’t have it.”
“Me either,” Gabby said.
“Maybe this is the Cluster Headache,” Claire suggested, “because you said it doesn’t commonly attack women.”
“Precisely for that reason,” Jesse said, “doctors thought it could be, due to the fact that the girlfriend of this man I told you about didn’t suffer from it.”
“Where is she?” Claire asked, and Jesse’s eyes glimmered at her question.
Everyone noticed it.
“What else do we have to know?” Thomas asked. “Or should I suggest the answers?”
Jesse bit his upper lip, while thinking about what he was going to say. The moment to tell the truth, regardless of how nasty or hideous it could be, had come. “She is the cure of the headache,” he said.
Claire and gabby inhaled large amounts of air and opened their eyes widely when he said that. She is the cure, the words whirling in everyone’s heads.
“What do you mean ‘she is’?” Thomas asked, “I believe you mean she has it?”
“He is fucking lying,” William said.
“Stop it!” Gabby yelled, “I know it sounds impossible, but what doesn’t?”
“What do you mean?” William asked, staring at her.
“Your religion for example,” she said, “You believe in a talking-snake, women created out of men’s ribs, a man born from a virgin and so forth.”
“Gabby, stop it!” Claire said, “This is neither the time nor the place to talk about that, although I do agree with you on that one.”
“Thank you!” she said. “Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this town isn’t normal. Three months ago the water just evaporated. You guys don’t remember?”
Yes, they remembered. Thomas had been working at a different restaurant when that happened. They never liked to talk about it but it was true, Santa Barbara was a very particular city.
Thomas looked at William, who seemed to be about to hit his head against the wall but instead remained quiet. “So tell us please what you know,” Thomas said, diverting his gaze from William to look at Jesse.
“You won’t believe the rest if I tell you.”
“We just established the fact that our city is weird, didn’t we?” William said.
Jesse thought about it, clamped his hands together and put them near his mouth, as if he were praying. “Well, this isn’t a nice thing we are doing at the hos-“
“Stop this fucking mystery and talk!” William shouted. “There’s a reason why I don’t read Agatha Christie!”
“When I said she is the cure,” he said, “I meant it that way. What happened after her boyfriend’s death was really foolish. A janitor came to the room before the doctors and saw the woman hugging the body. The man came close to her, trying to help in some way and blood from the dead body dripped on his hand. This janitor had no gloves, so you know what happened.”
“Was he struck by the headache immediately?”
“Did he have an open wound?” William asked, showing interest in the conversation.
“No” he said, “after the body had been taken elsewhere, the girlfriend left and the doctors had been trying to guess what was happening. One of them thought (according to him, unexpectedly) that the girl might just be the answer that could solve what was happening. The other doctor thought that was nuts, however, they called the woman, took some blood samples and found out that she had an uncommon blood type.”
“What happened next?” Thomas asked.
“Doctors injected the janitor with her blood and believe it or not, he stopped suffering from the pain.”
They remained silent for a moment, and then looked at each other. In a regular world, this was a crazy and irrational conversation.
“Tell us,” Thomas said, “did the janitor touch anyone else?”
“No,” he said, “but the woman did. When she stood up, with the help of the janitor and saw how he suddenly covered his head with both hands, she ran and accidentally hit a man outside the room. He, too, suddenly covered his head screaming in pain.”
“Because she had her boyfriend’s blood on her clothes.”
“And what happened with other man?”
“We don’t know. He left just like that. All of this happened three days ago and what is already known is that this headache is contagious and only by touching, can people get easily infected.”
“This man who left,” William asked, “You don’t know anything about him?”
“No, but who do you think might’ve spread the disease all over town?”
“Of course,” Thomas said, “and because this is the fourth day, the pain is more intense.”
“And people are beginning to wish they could kill themselves.”
Thomas remembered Rita again. They didn’t know anything about her or Javier. The answer was almost tangible; they might’ve just killed themselves. What about William? Was he still thinking about it? Perhaps Gabby’s strong hand, holding him tightly, was prohibiting him from doing that.
After all, women are the cure.
“So,” Claire said, recalling that she had asked about the girl, but Jesse didn’t say anything. “Where is she?”
“She is in the hospital,” he said. “I told you she is the cure.”
There was more silence. It seemed as if everyone had a different idea of what Jesse meant to say, but it only took a look in his eyes for Thomas to guess it. It was unthinkable. What wasn’t supposed to happen, in any other civilized city, was happening in Santa Barbara.
“Don’t you tell me,” Thomas said, actually afraid to finish a sentence, which wasn’t difficult for him, being a writer. “That you,” he stopped again, now certain he couldn’t finish his question.
“Yes,” Jesse said, “she is in the hospital because we need her blood and the only way for her to survive, is to find more people who aren’t infected.”
Claire and Gabby looked at each other, having the same thought going through their minds: both of them in the hospital, being drained to death, so they could save the Santa Barbara’s population. “Why are you guys doing this,” Claire asked, “Was she forced or-“
“We didn’t force her. When we knew she was the cure, we didn’t need to ask anything. She, by her own will, said she wanted to help. It’s just that we don’t want her to die… I don’t need to ask you this,” he added, looking at Claire and Gabby, “but if you want, you can help to.”
“How do you know we even have the same blood?” Gabby asked.
“I don’t know if you have the same blood; I just know you don’t have the headache and that must mean something.”
Claire looked at Thomas, communicating with him in that language that only they could comprehend. Likewise, Gabby looked a William. Words were useless and excuses meaningless. It was a hard decision but something needed to be done. “Let’s go to the hospital,” Claire said, “If we can help these people, we will do it.”
“That’s right!” Gabby said.
On their way to the Cottage Hospital, Jesse told them that it was just that morning when they’d found out that the cure was in the blood. He knew his brother was in danger and he wanted to go and take him to the hospital, but it was too late. They offered him their condolences and also apologized for having been so rough on him in the beginning.
“I understand,” he said, “I took the situation for granted. I was careless about other people’s feelings. Like always, I was just thinking about myself.”
Thomas parked across the street from the ER, in the same spot where he had parked earlier. People were still crowding the main door as well as the ambulance parking area. More people were arriving and standing nearby, because the whole street was now congested. When they got out of the car, Thomas could see some people hitting their heads against the walls. A cold chill ran through Claire’s spine when she saw it as well.
“He’s from the hospital!” someone shouted when he saw Jesse, still wearing his attire and coming closer to the main entrance. “When would you open the door?” the same man yelled.
Claire, Gabby, and the three men were very sad at this scene, feeling pity for them and wishing they could write the end of this nightmare. Outwardly, Thomas and William didn’t worry about their headache; Thomas kept focusing on anything else other than his pain and William seemed to have learned to do likewise.
Trying to be thorough, Jesse announced to the crowd that they’d open the door, once they have everything ready.
“Ready for what?” another man shouted. Jesse looked at the Claire and Gabby, then, back at the crowd.
“To have everything ready!” he repeated, “and heal everyone!”
The two doctors Jesse had talked about were inside the hospital. Seeing him coming towards the door, accompanied by his four new friends, they appeared to have very little confidence. During the day, nobody but hospital crew was allowed to set foot in the building and certainly, they wouldn’t allow Butterfield to do so, unless he had a good reason to gain entrance.
And he did.
Through the glass door, Butterfield explained that the two women could possibly share the same blood type as the woman who was inside. “‘Possibly’ isn’t enough, Butterfield,” Doctor #1 said, speaking firmly. Jesse couldn’t help but smile, as if making fun of the doctor, who didn’t appreciate being addressed in that way. “What is so funny, Butterfield?” he asked, using the same tone of voice.
Jesse looked at him and said daringly, “How do you expect me to know, if you don’t open the damned door?”
Doctor #1 stepped back and walked towards doctor #2, asking for his opinion. Doctor #2 nodded, but also whispered something in doctor #1’s ear. Then, doctor #1 strolled back towards the glass door and informed Butterfield that the two women could go in but the two other men must remain outside. Jesse looked at Thomas and explained to him that they had to abide by the rules, because the doctor didn’t want any surprises.
“What kind of surprises?”
“See, whatever headache this is, it drives people crazy. Look around. See what that woman is doing there?” he pointed toward a woman hitting her head against a rock. “Another thing this fucking headache does is to make you do things like, drink a whole bottle of pills.”
“Like my friend,” Thomas said, “the one you brought to the hospital yesterday.”
Jesse nodded sympathetically.
Jesse, Claire and Gabby were allowed to go in, whereas Thomas and William stood outside with the immense mob and looked at their women being taking in, all by themselves. Claire and Gabby looked back at their men and, with their eyes they said how much they loved each other. A tear threatened to drop from Claire’s eyes but she held it, thinking there wasn’t any reason to cry.
Surprisingly, Gabby, Claire and the other woman, whose name was Dahlia, shared the exact type of blood, which the doctors were unable to recognize. They decided to call it Universal, hoping that it’d work for everyone. So far, they had used Dahlia’s blood for the janitor, but they didn’t want to suck the poor woman to death. Now, with Gabby and Claire, there was a match that kept their hopes alive.
Back To normal
A week passed since the headache had attacked a large part of the inhabitants of Santa Barbara and few people from Oxnard. Hundreds of people had made a seemingly endless line, waiting for a shot of the women’s blood to cure their pain. It was only a small amount for each person, but because of the number of people, doctors feared the women could die. They didn’t. There was a moment in which doctors were on the verge of losing hope, when they saw that Claire was about to black out.
William and Thomas were some of the first people to get the shot. Jesse had the phone number of Freeman, the owner of the restaurant in Oxnard. When he called to announce the discovery of the cure, he couldn’t believe his ears when he was told that Mr. Freeman had just killed himself no more than thirty minutes before his phone call. As for the rest of the people who had dined there, the night when Thomas unwillingly spread the virus all over the place, there was nothing that could be done. Unfortunately, that is the way it was; some people lived, and others died.
Life returned to normal. Claire and Gabby stayed in bed for a week, trying to recover their strength. Thomas and William kept working for the Golden Arches, where everyone had forgotten what had happened. They did this, by not thinking about it, like Thomas had taught William. Javier was fine; they found out that his headache was a ‘normal headache’. As for Rita, nobody ever knew what happened to her.
There was also little information on Dahlia. The way she came, was the same way that she left. About the blood type, there was a strong curiosity; maybe they were family but they didn’t know each other. Claire and Gabby individually researched if they could possibly be related and since they couldn’t find any proof, they soon forgot about such likelihood.
Nevertheless, Thomas never forgot this episode of his life. He continued having his daily headaches that he had always had, due to his habit of pulling an all-nighter after his shift at McD’s. He wanted to be a writer, so he had to suffer that inconvenience. However, Claire sternly prohibited him to write a story about what happened, so he never thought of that as a possibility again.