The end of the world, as we know it, began over the Memorial Day weekend. It was a beautiful weekend in May, the start of summer, and nearly the end of school. It was a long tough winter in central New Jersey. In fact, it seemed much longer than the proscribed 90 days of winter called for on the calendar. Brutal storms crawled up the East Coast, dropping snow so deep it was measured in feet rather than inches. Temperatures were brutally cold; day after day temperatures fell below zero. The cold was blamed for a number of deaths along the way. Winds were so strong they blew snow across in drifts which covered everything in sight in a blinding white freezing fog. There seemed no respite as new storms seemed to hit every 3 or 4 days. People were truly tired of winter, and Memorial Day not only brought the promise of winter’s end but was the harbinger of all things new. Yup, they were done with winter and ready for summer.
“Mom, it’s almost time to go. Come on! We won’t get a good spot for the fireworks!” she called impatiently, waiting for her parents to come down from their bedroom suite. Melissa was a very precocious fifteen-year-old. Her long dark hair, frequently kept in a pony tail, perfectly complimented her beautifully clear, olive skin. She was not yet plagued by the dreaded acne as were her friends. She read everything she could on how to prevent acne. She made sure she scrubbed her face three times a day, used the most effective skin scrub, and watched what she ate. If anyone could keep acne at bay, it was Melissa.
Mel, as she was called by her friends, was popular among the teen set, even though she was the number one student at Piscataway High School. She never flaunted her intellect; in fact, she went out of her way to help others who were struggling, making her more popular each year. She had set up tutoring and study hours for her friends, which not only helped them but also helped her by improving her study skills.
Mel was an avid collector. She collected everything, especially that which was slimy, smelly, wet, or alive. She also had a collection of various rocks and minerals which she proudly displayed in her room, all neatly labeled as to origin, date of find, and specific geological description of each specimen. In addition to these, she had various tanks of salamanders, wild caught fish, two turtles, one frog, and several cocoons preparing to metamorphose into butterflies.
Her interests were varied in that she wanted to learn about everything. She studied biology, geology, chemistry, and physics with a passion. She also read about psychology, history, and a little about religion. She had not settled on a specific religion to follow. Even though both her parents were staunch Roman Catholics, they had the good sense not to pressure her to follow but let her decide for herself.
She was a lovely child indeed. A bright future spread before her. It’s too bad her natural curiosity would make her the first not to die.
“Mom come on. It’s almost seven and all the good spots will be gone,” she called once again, hoping her pleadings would move her parents along.
“We’re coming,” replied Sandy, Melissa’s mother. “Dad is grabbing his car keys and we’re ready to go.”
“Finally,” Mel whispered under her breath as she picked up the picnic basket at her feet and headed toward the door.
“What’s that?” asked her mom as she joined Mel at the front door.
“Supplies, what supplies?” asked Sandy, raising her eyebrows in confusion as to why Mel had prepared a picnic basket.
‘Well, I packed some beverages, some chips and pretzels for dad, some nuts for you and me, and some other things I may need.”
“Other things?” she retorted reaching down to take a peak in the picnic basket.
Opening the basket, Sandy could only laugh. There, neatly packed with the food, were a series of jars, plastic bags, markers, gloves, and various accoutrements Melissa carried in case she found something to add to her collection.
“I thought this was a firework display not a field trip,” she chided, knowing Mel could never resist the chance to collect something new.
“You never know. Come on, the good spots are going fast.”
Okay, okay, “called Tony, Mel’s dad. As he reached the bottom of the steps, he grabbed his ever-present Boston Red Socks baseball cap and headed towards the door. “Last one in the car has to carry the blanket.”
Mel tore off to make sure she beat her mom to the car. She already had the heavy basket; there was no need to add the blanket as well. Sandy never rushed. She knew she was destined to be last. Tony and Mel played this game a million times, and a million times Sandy was last. “One day I will show those two and will they ever be surprised” she thought to herself as she locked the door and headed out to the car.
With everyone settled in, Tony started the car and they were off to Johnson Park to watch the display put on by the City of New Brunswick just across the river.
Johnson Park, located in Piscataway, was a 423-acre park nestled along the beautiful Raritan River, giving residents an open space amid the sprawling urban areas that comprise Piscataway and New Brunswick. The park was named after the “Johnson” family, who founded the pharmaceutical firm “Johnson & Johnson” and donated the original 100 acres of land for the park to Middlesex County. Everything from picnic groves and sports fields to an animal haven and even a restored 18th century village can be found in the park.
The facility boasted eight lighted tennis courts, one baseball field, one soccer field, seven picnic groves, and several playgrounds, including a newly designed Pirates Cove. In addition to the river access, the park had its own pond along which was a paved bike path. For the history buff, there was the fully restored “East Jersey Old Town” Village.
Mel, especially, liked this area for its proximity to the Raritan River. She enjoyed collecting various small critters along the bank and, with the rise and fall of the river, often interesting rocks or minerals could be found along the bank. This was a favorite hunting ground and Mel took every opportunity to hunt.
Just as Mel had feared, they were arriving late to the party. The main parking lot was long filled, and the police were directing cars out along the roadway to alternate parking. Tony found a spot along Johnson Drive and quickly settled the car into the tight spot. It had a self-parking feature, so he had little to do but keep his hands off the wheel.
Sandy followed and reached for the blanket, since she was indeed last to the car. Before she could grab it, Tony picked it up, smiled, and gave Sandy a kiss. He was never going to let his wife of twenty years carry the blanket.
“Gross,” called out Melissa as she struggled to pull the heavy basket out of the trunk. She soon had the basket under control and took off down the road toward the park.
Tony shook his head and turning toward Sandy said, “We better get a move on before she leaves us in the dust.” He took her hand, swung the blanket over his shoulder, and headed off to catch Melissa. Sandy just shook her head and followed.
It was about a ten-minute walk to the park entrance and another ten minutes to find the ideal spot, one that Melissa could approve of, before the family settled in to watch the fireworks. Dad grabbed the chips and a beverage from the basket, while Sandy and Melissa settled in and waited for the display to begin.
It wasn’t long before the “oohs and aahs” followed by booms and bangs signaled the start of the display. And what a display it was!
There were the typical stars, peonies, chrysanthemums and diadems. All were followed by loud explosions as they lit up the sky. Palms, crossetts and horse tails were thrown in as well. The display went on and on; sights and sounds filled the skies as the people applauded after each major display.
The display continued to build in intensity until the climax, when a series of massive fountains, mines, and aerial star shells were set off all at once. This brought the cries of “ooh” and “aah” louder, until something strange happened.
During the middle of the climax, one of the rockets appeared out of place. Instead of shooting up as planned, it looked like it was flying horizontally. As fountains and combination cakes exploded all around, this one rocket seemed to continue on a path that appeared to be bringing it closer and closer to the park. At first, everyone just watched as the rocket came closer and closer; assuming that any minute now it would explode into some flag or other special display. But no, it just came closer and closer.
Suddenly, the euphoria in the spectators slowly turned toward panic as it became obvious this rocket was heading right into the crowd. Someone shouted, “It’s gonna hit us!” That set off a panic among those who appeared to be directly in the path of the aberrant rocket.
People directly in front of Melissa scrambled to get their things and move out of the danger zone. Mel looked at the rocket and quickly determined that, on its current trajectory, it would safely pass overhead. She turned to her parents, who began to follow the other panicked spectators and said, “It will miss us by a few feet.” That is exactly what it did.
The rocket, or whatever it was, flew overhead, past the crowds, heading toward the river. There was a streak of what appeared to be fire coming from the rocket. Mel turned just in time to see the rocket skid across the last few feet of grass along the river bank and smash into the sandy soil. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the danger passed.
The display soon ended, and people began to pack their things to prepare to sit, for the next ninety minutes, in traffic as the huge crowd tried to get home. Mel marked the spot where the rocket landed and was going to head that way when her father picked up the blanket and basket and announced, “Time to skedaddle.”
Not letting her disappointment show, she thought to herself, “Maybe tomorrow.” Mel turned away as she picked herself up and followed her parents to the car.
On her last day truly alive, Melissia woke bright and early. It was Monday, and being Memorial Day, there was no school, but Mel was up far earlier than the typical teen who had the chance to sleep in. She was on a mission.
It was a little before 9:00am. Having finished a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole grain toast, a half a banana, which she shared with her dad, and a glass of fresh squeezed juice, Melissa was ready for adventure.
“Dad, I’m heading off to the park to do some prospecting,” she told her dad, being careful not to reveal the exact nature of her expedition.
“Okay, hon, but be careful.”
“I’m always careful,” she cheerfully replied, grabbing her dad about the shoulders and planting a loving kiss on his cheek.
As she headed out the door her father called, “Try not to bring anything alive home today please. Your room smells a bit like a zoo and we are running out of tanks to put things in.”
“Not today. I ‘m after a rocket.”
Before Tony could respond, she was out the door. “A rocket?” he spoke out loud to himself while shaking his head. “You never know what that girl will do next.” If he only knew what would happen next, the potential for the cataclysm to follow, he would have stopped her. But he didn’t, and so everything changed.
Melissa had already prepared her “expedition back pack” as she called it early that morning. She had a Swiss Gear backpack fully loaded with everything she might need for collecting objects of interest.
She had a pair of leather gloves, to protect her hands and to keep some of the grime and muck off her hands. She had two small garden shovels, one with a cutting edge and one with a larger spoon to dig into soft or hard ground. In case of a good find, she had a collection of specimen jars, Mason Jars actually, one with holes punched in the top for live catches and one without for wet or non-living specimens. She also included permanent markers and labels, so she could provide accurate labels as to date, time, location, and conditions of the find.
She also carried two water bottles, one for hydration and one to be used to wash off a particularly dirty specimen. For delicate work she had a hemostat, surgical scissors, a scalpel, with a fresh blade, and, of course, a magnifying glass, all compliments of Dad who was a research scientist at Johnson and Johnson, so he had access to some of the coolest toys. To complete the supplies, she carried a well-worn notebook in which she documented everything about the find: time of day, weather conditions, specific location, using the GPS on her Galaxy phone, a description of the surrounding area, and any other pertinent information she thought necessary to provide full documentation of the find. Fully loaded, the pack weighed in at 25 pounds, a little heavy, but she was used to the extra weight.
Excited and raring to go, she opened one of the garage doors on the front of the house from the remote just inside the garage. The sun came streaming in. The sounds of songbirds filled the area. The temperature was a cool seventy-two degrees. It was a bright and beautiful day - a perfect day not to die.
All geared up with her backpack secured, she jumped on her twenty- one gear Shimano aluminum mountain trail bike, a gift from her grandparents, Sal and Rose, for her fifteenth birthday, and she was off.
She drove out of the driveway, past the tree in the front yard and headed east along Dunbar Street. It was a five-mile ride, one she had made many times in the past, so she was used to it. Besides, today she was going to hunt down a rocket. Something really amazing to add to her growing collection.
At the corner, she turned south onto Metlars Lane and entered the bike path. From here she proceeded to Avenue E and traveled to Cedar Lane which ultimately led to Johnson Park. It took her less than a half hour to complete the five-mile journey. She was pumped! She entered the park and headed across the bike path, then across the field to the exact spot they had spread their blanket last night to view the fireworks.
She jumped off the bike and, using a very secure bike chain, chained her bike to a very large birch tree along the river. She headed back to the spot they were last night and surveyed the area, looking for clues as to where the rocket ultimately landed.
It didn’t take her long to find the right spot. As she stood surveying the area, she had fixed a spot in her mind last night. The spot lined up with a tree across the river. It was a distinctive tree, dead with no leaves, and a “Y” shape, making it hard to miss. She lined herself up with the tree and followed a line to the river.
Along the intended path she walked, keeping the tree in a fixed position. She slowly surveyed the ground all around, looking for clues as to where the rocket landed. A horrible thought crossed her mind. What if she was already too late? What if someone else got there before her? She pushed these thoughts out of her mind and proceeded along the path.
Suddenly, she saw something different about the ground roughly ten yards ahead. She picked up her pace and, as she drew closer, she could see a black line in the grass as if the grass and the surrounding soil had been scorched. She dropped to her knees to investigate.
The grass and the soil had indeed been burned. She pulled out her shovel and a plastic back and carefully dug out a clump of grass and some surrounding soil. As she dug, she noticed that the ground was scorched a full six inches below grade.
“For something to burn that deeply, it had to be hot. Really hot.” She made a note in her notebook to check at what temperature soil burned so she might calculate how hot the “aberrant rocket” was when it hit the ground.
Her sample collected, she stood up and looked around. There was no sign of the rocket itself. The burn mark, however, continued along a line that led directly to the river. “Maybe the rocket hit here at a high speed, skipped along the ground, and ended up in the river.” Logical she thought, so she followed the line of scorch marks until they disappeared in the reeds along the river bank.
She pushed through the reeds, being careful not to disturb anything in case the rocket was just laying there buried in the reeds. It wasn’t. She pressed on following the trajectory she assumed the rocket followed.
She searched the ground and soon found another scorch mark. This one was not as burned or as deep as the earlier mark. Again, she took a sample, noted the GPS coordinates in her notebook and continued looking.
After fifteen minutes, she found nothing. She was about ready to give up when she spied something in the river bank, just buried a few inches into the mud.
As she approached, she noted a small round hole about six inches in diameter where the surrounding ground was scorched and charred as if something very hot landed here.
“Aha,” she said out loud. “Found you!”
Excited, she approached the spot and kneeled in the muddy earth. Using her phone as a camera, she took several photos to document her find, added the GPS coordinates, and got ready to extract the rocket from its prison.
For safety, she donned a pair of safety glasses, and leather gloves. She took out the smaller of the two garden shovels and began, carefully, to dig around the rocket just enough to loosen the soil and extract the prize fully intact.
As she dug out the loose soil, she noticed that the “rocket” was not a rocket at all, but something else. She continued to dig, taking care to remove the soil slowly around the mystery object. Pushing the shovel deep into the soft wet river back, she positioned the blade at the back of the object. Applying a slight pressure, she used the blade as a crow bar and heard a slight sucking sound as the object was released from the wet earth.
The object rolled out of the hole and dropped a few inches to level ground. Not daring to touch it just yet, Melissa just looked at her find.
She would later write in her notebook, “The object was a uniform dark color, almost pitch black. The size and shape resembled a soft ball. The object appeared to be quite smooth with no seams or projections as if it had been forged in fire.”
Using the tip of her shovel, she rolled the object around to get a better look at all sides. It seemed to be exactly the same all around, no changes in color or texture, just a smooth black ball. Putting down the shovel, she poked the object with her gloved hand. “The object is very hard to the touch as if it were made of rock or other hard formed mineral,” she later wrote in her notes.
Reaching under the object, she picked it up and later noted, “I estimate the object to be about four or five pounds, heavy for its diminutive size. The mass is evenly distributed, and the object feels quite solid, meaning I do not expect it to have a hollow core.”
She continued to study the object, fascinated by its structure and makeup. She was firmly convinced this was not a fireworks rocket gone awry, but might actually be… well, what might it be?
Studying the object further, she ran a series of scenarios through her mind. Suddenly it hit her. It must be a meteorite! A rock from outer space. A foreign body not of this planet. “Eureka,” she shouted. “I have the find of a lifetime here in my hands.”
Quickly, she wrangled in her elation. If someone like an adult were to hear of her find, they would likely take it away from her and take all the credit. No, that was not going to happen. Crouching there in the wet ground, she had an overpowering desire to touch the object, not with a glove, but with her bare hand. “Imagine, touching an object from outer space, an extra-terrestrial object, right there in my hands,” she thought.
Carefully, as if it were an egg, she set the object back down on the mud base and took off her gloves. Taking in a deep breath, she hesitantly reached out with her bare hands and encountered an object not of this world.
As she made contact, something strange happened. As soon as her skin touched the object, she felt a slight tingle at the points of contact. The tingle traveled through her fingers, entered her hand, and then traveled up her arm. Frightened, she broke contact with the invader, but it was already too late. Melissa would soon be known as “patient zero.”
Shaking off the sensation, she put her gloves back on, picked up the object, and placed it into one of the plastic bags from the back pack. She withdrew the marker, filled out the label with the appropriate data points on the find, and put everything back into the bag.
She took some more photos, brushed off some of the mud from her jeans, and hiked back to where she left her bike. Unlocking the bike, she mounted up and headed home. From the moment of contact with the foreign object, life for Melissa, and for millions of others changed forever.
It’s always a little difficult to return to normal after a three-day weekend. It’s especially difficult for most high school students. With only a few weeks left in the school year, it’s just difficult to motivate oneself to rise and shine at 5:30 in the morning.
Normally, not so for Melissa. She really enjoyed going to school. She looked forward to the challenge every day might bring, buoyed by the hope of learning something new or exciting. She was usually up before the alarm. Not so today.
It was well beyond unusual to find Melissa hiding under the covers as her alarm blared out. Mel was usually up and out of bed two minutes before the alarm ever rang. Her normal exuberance drove her to shower, fix her hair in the ever-present pony tail, dress, and be down the steps by 6:00 AM, ready for breakfast with her dad.
This morning, Mel swung out with a well-timed hand, snapped off the alarm, and pulled the covers up high over her head all in one swift motion.
As she lay there under the covers, she took stock of what was going on. Her head felt heavy, not congested as with a cold, just plain heavy as if she had put on a few pounds overnight. She felt her head pound as if something was adding pressure inside her skull. Her arms and hands still had that prickly, almost electric, sensation arising from her fingertips and running up her hands, along her arms, and right to the back of her head. It was not a muscle ache or spasm, but more like the feeling under the skin as if an army of ants were marching back and forth up her arms towards her neck. It wasn’t that far from the truth.
Finally, after just lying there, Mel rolled slowly out of bed. For a moment she felt dizzy and thought she might violently throw up but, just as fast as it came, the feeling passed. With a great heave of her body Mel reluctantly left the bed. She stood up, gained her poise, and headed toward the shower, thinking “What I really need is a hot shower to get the old blood pumping.”
She adored a hot fresh shower in the morning, just hot enough to stimulate the skin, but not so hot to cause any redness to her delicate olive skin. “I have to take care of my skin now, if I hope to prevent wrinkles down the road,” she would tell her mom.
Today, she turned the hot water to full blast, hoping the stimulation would jolt her body into action. She took a breath as the steam escaped over the shower door and stepped in.
Although she was prepared for a slight shock to her skin as the hot water hit her, she did not anticipate anything like what happened next. Instead of a refreshing blast, the hot water was extremely painful. As soon as the water brushed the skin across her arms, the pain was immediate and so severe that she almost screamed. She jumped to the back of the shower, mostly out of the stream of burning water, and reached out to adjust the water temperature.
When she was able to tolerate the temperature, she looked at her arms and was shocked to see they were red, swollen, and studded with small white goose bumps that looked like the most severe case of acne on record. Even with the water turned down to just cold water running, the pain of the water hitting her arms was intense. Her arms were unbearably itchy as well. She didn’t want to scratch for fear of opening the pimples and leaving severe scars, so she just let the cold-water rinse over her hoping the cold water would reduce the irritation.
She closed her eyes and remained under the shower water for a full five minutes, shivering from the cold but noticing a reduction in the pain of her skin.
When she opened her eyes, she noticed her skin was red as if she had suffered a severe sunburn. She knew that was impossible for she had worn long sleeves the last two days and she was not exposed at all to the sun. She had no idea what was happening and, as such, she became more than a little frightened.
She resumed her shower, keeping the water on full cold, and tried to carefully soap her arms, being careful not to rub them too hard for fear of doing further damage. She washed her hair quickly, completed her morning ablations, turned off the water, and opened the shower doors. She stood there a moment and, shaking from the cold, reached out to get the bath towel off the rack by the shower stall door.
As she pulled the towel from the hook, she caught notice of herself in the full-length mirror on the bathroom door. She was upset by what she saw.
Both of her arms were red, with raised splotches of dark red circles stippled with white head pimples up and down the top layer of skin. Not only were her arms covered with these angry welts, but they also appeared across her shoulders and up her back. She had never had an allergic reaction to anything, so she had no idea what was happening. She wrapped herself in the terry cloth towel and patted herself dry, being careful not to rub her skin causing any further damage. She had planned to call her mother to see what she thought was happening.
When she had completely dried off, she dropped the towel to, again, assess her condition. She gasped at the image in the mirror. Her skin was perfectly normal. Her smooth natural olive complexion had returned. There was no redness, no welts and, certainly, no signs of acne. She was normal. She turned this way and that, scrutinizing every inch she could see, looking for the angry welts. Nothing. It was as if she had imagined the whole thing.
Mel shook her head in disbelief and thought, “I must have been more out of it than I thought. My mind must have been playing tricks on me.” If only that were true.
She continued for another minute or two at the mirror, when she noticed the time was slipping away and fast. Brushing the experience from her mind, she dressed quickly and prepared to go downstairs to breakfast.
Meanwhile, Dad was downstairs as usual preparing breakfast for him and Mel. It had become a family ritual. Tony would get up at 5 AM, shower, dress for work, then head downstairs to the kitchen and prepare a hearty breakfast for him and his only child.
Breakfast usually consisted of scrambled eggs with either bacon or ham on the side, fresh squeezed orange juice and twelve grain toast with salted butter. For Mel he added a bowl for a cereal of her choice, a peeled banana, cut and ready to add to the bowl, a glass of milk, and finally a dark brewed coffee for him and one for Mel. She loved coffee as much as her dad and they both drank it hot, black with just a touch of sugar.
Tony looked up at the kitchen clock and noticed it was well after 6:15 and Mel was nowhere in sight. That was most unusual for his daughter who was nothing if not punctual, and she was always in her seat by 6:05.
Tony’s colleagues from work, would often complain how it sometimes took a crane to get their teens out of bed on a school day. And on weekends, please! Most of them slept till noon or later; only to get up and eat everything in sight. Tony felt blessed that Melissa was different.
So, Tony became concerned when his daughter was just ten minutes late. He put the cooking pots into the sink, the utensils into the dishwasher, and grabbed a dish towel to wipe down the stove. She still wasn’t down. Now, a little more concerned, he wiped his hands on the dish towel, tossed it on the counter, tucked his shirt into his slacks, and headed to the stairs leading to the bedroom suites.
Reaching the bottom of the steps, he called out, “Hey, Mel, everything all right?”
“Yup, dad, everything is fine. Just making a few last-minute adjustments. I’ll be right there.”
“Okay, honey, breakfast is ready. We have to get going soon, big day at work,” replied Tony.
Professionally, Tony was more formally known as Dr Anthony Carmine MD/PhD. He also earned a doctorate in neurobiology and was department head of new product research and development for Johnson & Johnson whose world headquarters was located just a few miles away in New Brunswick on George Street.
Dr. Carmine’s team had been working the last few years on a promising new drug therapy designed to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating disease of the brain which robs people of their memory and, eventually, as the disease progresses, people become so mentally incapacitated as to no longer be able to function normally. The disease was devastating to patients and families alike, causing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to be spent on medication, health care and, eventually, long term care for the afflicted. The cost of care could be crippling for families. The worst part was to watch someone you love lose their mind before your eyes.
Tony’s team had discovered a potential way to slow the progression of the disease in those already exhibiting symptoms and, potentially, halt the disease entirely in those not yet showing symptoms but were genetically prone to the disease.
If successful, Dr Carmine and his team would have a great impact on the future of health care, not to mention profits for J&J as well as well as fame and fortune for him and his team.
Today was a big day because he was presenting the results of their research to the Board of Directors at J&J who would then decide the fate of future testing on human subjects.
When Mel finally came down, she didn’t look like her normal self. Her pony-tail, usually well brushed and perfectly tied, was unkempt and loosely tied, off center, at the back of her head. She even had a few errant strands falling across the front of her face. Even her clothes were off.
Normally, her white blouse was clean, pressed, and tucked into a pair of clean slacks, finished off with a pair of sensible shoes. Today her blouse was dark blue, wrinkled, and not fully tucked into black pants. She was also sporting red sneakers. Normal attire for a teen, but far from normal for Mel.
“New look, Mel?” her father teased as he set the table with freshly made toast and coffee. “What cereal would we like today?” he added holding up choices of Cheerios or Special K with Strawberries, two of her favorites.
“None today, thanks. Just coffee and toast for me,” Mel replied, reaching for the coffee with one hand and the toast with the other.
“Are you feeling all right?“ Tony asked with deep concern. If Mel was anything, she was predictable, and not eating a hearty breakfast was, absolutely, out of character. Tony pulled a little closer to see if he might be able to discern what might be wrong.
“Boy troubles?” he intimated, hoping the change in tactics might elicit a better response.
“Noooo,” she replied, dragging out the word and shaking her head. “I’m just not feeling quite right. I’m sure I’ll be just fine.”
“Okay, if you say so. Come on, Kiddo. We gotta get a move on,” Tony said as he dropped the dirty dishes in the dishwasher and wiped off the breakfast nook.
“Sure thing. I’ll grab my back pack, “she said as she dropped a half-eaten slice of toast into the sink and dumped the entire cup of coffee. She never even touched her OJ but just left the glass where it was. Tony made a mental note to call Mel after school today to see if she was feeling better.
Later that afternoon, when he did call Mel, she was definitely not feeling better. In fact, she was worse; much worse.
By the time Mel had returned home from school, she was feeling sick, really sick. All afternoon, in class, normally a quiet student, she fidgeted in her seat unable to sit still. The army of ants had returned, and they were on a march all over her body. It was horribly uncomfortable. Every class was torture. Her only solace was the time she spent between classes in the lavatory putting cold water on her face and rubbing her arms trying to quell the itch without scratching. It was agony.
By the time the school day was over, Mel had broken out in a sweat all over her body. It was as if the outside temperature was over 95 degrees when it was only 78 degrees with low humidity. Her clothes felt damp and clung to her body, increasing her discomfort.
Mel normally loved to walk home from school each day. Piscataway High was a little more than a mile from home. She always looked forward to her walk which allowed her some “alone time” after a hectic day at school. Today was different. She could barely move, let alone walk. She had to stop every few steps and rub her legs against the pain and intense itching.
It felt to Mel that the army of ants under her skin had begun military maneuvers all over her body. Earlier, the march was just on her hands and arms. Now it moved up her shoulders, down her back, across her hips, and down both legs to the very tip of her toes. Every inch of her body was in turmoil. The back of her neck and the base of her skull were the most intense areas of pain. It was as if the army had massed there and was preparing an assault on the rest of her body. Mel was a little scared to say the least. She had never felt like this before and she knew enough medicine from her dad to realize something was wrong, really wrong.
Although in intense pain at every step, Mel persevered and finally reached the comfort of home. She was a wreck, both physically and emotionally. Her light sweat had blossomed into a full dripping sweat causing her to constantly wipe her brow with the back of her hand. Her hair was plastered to her forehead and her color, normally a beautiful olive, was, at best, a pasty white.
Mel stood for a moment at the front door, hesitating to enter in her state. She wiped her forehead for the hundredth time, straightened her hair as best she could, adjusted her sopping wet clothes, and reached out to open the door. She had one goal in mind: hit the shower as fast as possible.
Opening the door, she felt a moment’s respite from the heat her body was generating as the cool air-conditioned entrance air brushed her skin. Her mom always kept the house at a chilly 74 degrees, a source of much kidding in the Carmine household, but today it was a blessing. It only lasted a moment, however, as the change in temperature caused the ant army to respond by sending her arms and legs into a spasm of twitching and itching. Without a sound she headed up the stairs and straight to the shower.
Mel’s mom, Sandy, short for Sandra, had laid out a snack of cookies and milk, another family ritual. While dad always set out breakfast, mom always set out an after-school snack. She and Mel would sit at the kitchen table and snack and chat about their day, what she learned at school, and what plans she had coming up. Sandy would share her day of volunteer work at the nursing home, especially how sad it was to see how some people really suffered in old age. She was so proud that Tony and his team might someday be able to ease their suffering with his new drug therapy. They would talk about this and that. They were very close, and Sandy always looked forward to these little chats.
When Mel opened the door, the beep of the alarm system announced she was home.
“Hi there,” Sandy called out, expecting the usual reply from Mel. Silence. There was no response. “Hmm, that’s odd,” she thought to herself and repeated the greeting a little louder, only to get the same response. Thinking Mel may have had inserted her ear buds from her cell phone, something new since she had discovered the Scottish folk/rock duo the Proclaimers, she may not have heard her call.
Even this greeting went unanswered. Sandy wiped her hands on the dish towel she was holding, dropped it on the table, and went into the hallway to investigate. When she entered the hall, there was no one in sight. She turned toward the stairs leading up to the bedroom suites and caught a quick glimpse of Mel’s leg as she climbed the steps toward her room. She remained at the foot of the steps contemplating if she should go up to see if anything was wrong, when she heard the shower water start to run.
“That explains it,” she thought out loud and returned to the kitchen, expecting Mel to appear after her shower for milk and cookies.
Mel entered her room and uncharacteristically began to disrobe, dropping her clothes on the floor as she headed straight for the shower. She reached in and turned on the water full blast, hoping the cool water would soothe her irritated skin and reduce the intense itching. Wrong. She stepped under the spray and screamed.
The army of ants under her skin rebelled the instant the water touched her skin. This time, instead of red welts growing all over her body, it was a dark blue bruise that spread everywhere as if every blood vessel under her skin had burst at once. Her skin began to swell; she looked like she had been hit by a truck. She pulled back out of the spray as best she could. She stood there and began to shake from pain and fear.
- the hell is going on?” she thought as she turned off the water and reached for the terry towel to dry off. Turning, she caught sight of herself in the mirror. “This is not right, not right at all,” she said out loud as she began to pat herself dry, trying not to rub her skin and irritate it any further.
It looked as if her entire body, arms, legs, back, and buttocks had been beaten to a pulp. Every inch of her body was covered by mean looking black and blue bruises and welts that seemed to be growing right before her eyes.
She reached out and touched one of the welts on her thigh, expecting it to hurt, it didn’t. Instead of pain, she felt as if something under her skin physically moved away, as if to avoid her touch. As she pressed a little harder, the area under her finger suddenly became devoid of color as long as she held her finger there. As soon as she removed it, the black and blue color returned. This was most peculiar and added to Mel’s fears.
- knowing what to do next, Mel continued to dry off, being careful not to cause any further irritation. “Maybe I should tell Mom. Maybe she knows what’s happening,” she thought as she finished drying off.
Preparing to leave the bathroom, she opened the towel she had wrapped around her body for one last look and was shocked at what she saw, or rather didn’t see. All the bruises, the dark spots, and the welts were gone. Her normal, clear, smooth, olive skin had returned. It was as if nothing happened. She turned this way and that trying to catch a glimpse of a bruise, but nothing. Her body was perfectly normal. After careful inspection, she was relieved to find nothing, not a single spot out of place. She felt relieved but fearful. She was glad it was gone, but what had happened in the first place? “This is getting way out of hand,” she thought as she left the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to dress. She put on a tee shirt and shorts and prepared to head back downstairs. She was confused as to whether or not to tell her mom. Not having any proof of what was happening, she had no idea the best course of action.