The Letum Drive
by Abbigail N. Rosewood
part 1 of 2
Before the death drive became a viral phenomenon, before famous actors and actresses were diagnosed with it, before a famous singer described to People magazine that it was a force simultaneously demonic and soothing, before labels of the gentle but seductive disease were stamped on T-shirts and treated as nothing but a phase of bad metal bands that would rise just as forcefully as they would fall...
Long before this, seventeen years ago, Cory’s father came home to find her lying face down on the back seat of his Honda Civic. One end of the garden hose was connected to the exhaust, the other locked inside the car. The motor was running.
Cory’s father grabbed an axe hanging behind the garage door and smashed the passenger’s side window with it. He pulled her convulsing body out of the car and laid Cory on her side on the garage floor. She vomited a cloud of blood.
In the ambulance, Cory became conscious. Her head was on her father’s lap. He petted her hair, ran his fingers through the matted knots to undo them. At his feet was a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. In his distress, he had grabbed it while the paramedics carried Cory on the stretcher.
“Got you a new scarf,” he said.
“Thanks, Dad,” Cory sniffled.
They sat in silence as if time didn’t move. Cory thanked her father two or three times for the scarf. She knew she would love it without even looking at it. He knew it too.
* * *
Today was Cory’s thirty-first birthday. She sat on the kitchen barstool, crunching on a bowl of Fruit Loops without milk. The bottle of milk she had in the fridge had expired last month. Cory was waiting for Elaine, who insisted they go out to celebrate on a Monday night.
On her Sony tablet, Cory watched the news. Her teeth crushed the cereal so noisily that she could only partially make out what the reporter was saying. It didn’t matter too much to Cory what the woman was saying; it never did. Too often, newscasters conveyed the information in a perfect monotone that made it difficult to differentiate one report from another. Every three seconds, the screen switched to a different image.
The Death Drive Strikes Again was in a block of red letters above the name of the newscaster. For months, the disease had been a hot topic. One in five Americans had felt the death drive. D.D was the headline of all major newspapers.
On the screen appeared a group of people restraining a man in his late fifties from jumping off the Manhattan Bridge. He was smartly dressed, wearing a salmon-pink button-up vest and a felt Homburg hat. He reminded Cory of her father, who had always been stylish.
The newscaster spoke in a speedy and artificial voice. It was the salmon-vest man’s birthday, too. Instead of having breakfast with his family, he had left them a perfunctory suicide note. Perfunctory because it had the typical, self-deprecating tone of “I’m sorry. It is not your fault.”
His wife had found it and immediately driven as fast as New York City’s traffic allowed to the Manhattan Bridge. Apparently this was not his first attempt in the last three months. “This isn’t like him,” the wife said to the camera, still wearing her egg-stained bathrobe.
“Last night, he still took his Linsinopril. People who want to die don’t take their medicine!” She sobbed openly, free of shyness and restraint.
Cory laughed. She had a habit of laughing at things that weren’t exactly of a humorous nature. Though there wasn’t a cure for the death drive, there was a temporary treatment: a serum. Cory had been getting hers regularly every three months.
Finally, there was something terminal patients were good for: relentless, unyielding, foolish hope. The very genetic mutation that doomed them was also the key to combating the death drive. Scientists were able to harvest these patients’ curious penchant for life.
There were many different methods, but the preferred practice was to penetrate the patient’s brain with a sixteen-gauge needle and shock their pineal gland. The electric current induced memories, from the earliest to the most recent, of times when patients had experienced a sense of hope.
Then, one by one, as each moment was revived, they had to relive it, but with all optimism removed. Through induced hallucinations, again they sat in the reception room awaiting the doctor’s verdict. This time, they did not wonder whether they might still climb Mt. Everest next year, or make it till their son’s graduation. This time, they saw the inevitability in the result of the X-ray before it was even delivered to them.
The vaccine worked like a truth serum by reigniting a desire for survival in some people and sustaining the rest. Against nature’s entropy, which pushed and pushed on man’s already weakened will, the serum was the only thing that worked, however impermanently.
Of course, some people saw a problem, as people always do with new inventions: once the substance was taken from the terminally ill, it was gone forever. Men, women, and children were left to die without a shred of hope. But what did they need it for anyway? Their fate had already been decided.
* * *
It was fifteen past eight. Elaine was late, but Cory knew she would arrive exactly at eight-thirty. Elaine was punctual in her lateness.
At a knock on the door, Cory looked through the peephole. Elaine was not wearing her usual high heels and tight dress appropriate for girls’ night out. She sported Seven for Old Mankind jeans and a see-through black blouse. She slapped the door with her palm.
“Come on, babe. I know what we’re doing!” Elaine shouted through the door.
Cory was worried. Cory turned each knob on the triple-lock door.
Elaine ’s usual Marc Jacob perfume invaded the room. “Get changed,” she said. “You can’t wear that.”
Cory held back her questions. Elaine would tell her soon. She couldn’t control herself for long.
“We’re going to protest with the NYU students tonight!” Elaine squirmed in excitement.
“What? Why would we do that?”
“Oh, naive Cory,” Elaine clucked affectionately. “Protesters! Booze! Parties!” She never liked to explain things to others. It was not one of Elaine’s strengths.
“Forget it, Elaine,” Cory said without much conviction. Elaine had always been able to persuade her. “What are they protesting anyway?”
“Oh, I don’t know... Humanitarian something,” Elaine said vaguely.
“Fine,” Cory conceded. She walked to the bedroom and took off her skinny, cleavage-baring dress. Looking through her closet, she took out her protester V-neck T-shirt with a sarcastic Obey! printed across the chest.
On the back of the T-shirt was a picture of a raised middle finger. Why not? Cory thought. This shirt had blended in well at other similar events. She put on her most tattered jeans, one she would not miss in case the protest got out of control.
* * *
The crowd of protesters had conglomerated in front of Central Park then snaked slowly up Park Avenue. Cory and Elaine joined them. Though it was only the beginning of fall, the air was chilly.
In front of Cory marched a tall, lean, beautiful blonde with dreadlocks down to her waist. Cory knew the blonde was beautiful because of her walk, one step aligned perfectly in front of the other like a model’s on a runway. Beautiful people always walked as if the whole world were watching them.
“This doesn’t look like the regular NYU crowd,” Cory whispered over Elaine’s shoulder.
Elaine cupped her hand on the side of her mouth, making it obvious to everyone around that whatever she had to say wasn’t pretty. “More like national hippie day. I’m going to kill Nick.” Nick was Elaine’s marathon buddy and a factory of bad ideas.
“Just because he’s pretty doesn’t mean you should listen to him,” Cory said reasonably, but she knew Elaine did not hear her.
A young man in his early twenties came up beside them. “Smile!” he said, and the flash on his camera blinded their eyes. “I’m Kyle. What are you girls’ names?” Cory studied his slicked-back hair, his flawless white rows of teeth.
“Cory,” she said with a measured voice so as not to appear overly friendly.
Elaine, of course, had no such qualms. She broke into a conversation with Kyle right away. “What the hell is going on here? Do you know?” She stared hard at him without any reservations, as if they had always known each other.
“Oh,” Kyle displayed his rows of teeth again, seemingly proud he had information Elaine wanted. “They’re heading to the governor’s house. There has been talk...”
At this, he lowered his voice almost to muteness. “The governor’s daughter has been getting the serum since her diagnosis with the death drive last year. Apparently, gallons of serum were stolen from a hospital as a reserve for her.
“An intentional oversight of the hospital CEO perhaps? His bank account suddenly got much fatter. We got inside information that the serum was gone and the governor wanted to keep his daughter alive. Their chauffeur, one of ours, is to go back to the hospital tonight. We’re going to meet him there.”
“So everyone here is against the serum, is that it?” Cory knew that wasn’t the point. Nobody should have access to that much medication when so many others were slicing their wrists or jumping off buildings. But she was unnerved, since she herself was regularly vaccinated.
“Not necessarily. A lot of these people have the drive too. Some believe we should just embrace it. Like the bubonic plague. Happens for a reason, you know.” Kyle winked at them, then continued, “The rest are here ’cause they can’t afford the cost of the vaccine. Tonight is their chance. To steal from the thief.” Kyle laughed. His laughter was inappropriately loud and callous. Cory looked over at her friend. Elaine was smitten.
Cory had heard of these extremists before. Underground cults that strove to preserve the purity of the death drive. The mainstream had its divides, too: some would do anything to stay alive, while others, who had supported assisted suicide, now felt forced to continue the line of logic. Everybody pretended to have an opinion, but the truth was that nobody understood what the death drive was and why it was so widespread in America and Europe. Within a year, it had already killed over two hundred thousand people.
A scientist speculated that people prone to depression and other mental illnesses were more vulnerable to the death drive. But soon it became obvious that the disease did not discriminate.
A smart-ass journalist had coined the term for the disease, which produced no sign of bodily deterioration. Nobody argued with him. As Freud was supposed to have said, the death drive was a simple human desire to return to an inanimate state.
A black 2014 Ford Excursion was parked at the back of the Weill Cornell Medical Center. Cory recognized a tuft of Governor Allen’s silver hair through the back windshield. She felt a pang of pity for him then. He didn’t just send his henchmen to do the dirty deeds but came himself. His daughter Virginia was sitting next to him. Poor Allen. Bringing his daughter here, he really didn’t suspect a thing. He was only taking what he believed was due to him, to Virginia.
Elaine took Cory’s arm and pulled her towards the back of the crowd. “I’m going to kill Nick,” she whined. But neither of them was inclined to leave.
“Pleasure meeting you ladies. I have work to do.” Kyle curtsied to them.“Ciao!” Then he was off, mixing into the crowd.
For a moment, Cory wondered if it was Kyle who had written that article in the New York Times last year, giving this intangible sickness of the human heart a tangible name. He seemed the type. The clever sort who pretends to be daft to match his good looks.
The protesters circled the brand-new Ford like hungry vultures. Allen was alarmed. Immediately, he reached into his breast pocket and started to punch numbers onto his smart phone. He said something to Virginia, and the girl scooted closer to him. Her eyes looked out the car window to the protesters. She was frightened, her skin a sallow green, dark circles under her eyes. Virginia looked closer to thirty than twelve years old.
* * *
When the death drive first invaded a person’s body, it came as lethargy, a deep sleepiness. Cory had yawned constantly and wanted to lie back down just as she woke up in the morning. There was no pain, except for a need to be absolutely still. Eventually, any movement at all was unbearable, even the blink of an eye.
Cory could hear the sound of her own blood cells rushing through her body. Red cells, white, platelets... her blood was separating. The noises her organs made by throbbing, squeezing, thumping, roared in her ears. There was no peace anywhere. She could hear her own thoughts as if somebody were saying them out loud. She wanted everything around her to be dead silent. But even her wanting was deafening. Never before had she noticed how much all things were in constant motion until she stopped moving with them.
Cory had been in bed for several days when Elaine found her. At first, hunger had gnawed at her. Like a rabid dog, it was chewing on her insides. Eventually, her pulse slowed and she felt more restful. Just as Cory closed her eyes, Elaine dashed in through the door, dragged her down eighteen flights of stairs, and checked her into an emergency room.
Letum, the doctor scribbled on his notepad. The Latin word for annihilation, ruin.
“Everything is too fast for me. I just want to lie down. Please,” Cory pleaded to the dimple-cheeked doctor.
He nodded and cooed to her as he would to a child. “Soon, Cory, okay? Just after this. A little prick is all.” He inserted the needle into her arm. The liquid traveled through her body within seconds. It was numbing her senses as it passed. Colors, sounds, tastes were restored to a normal speed. Perhaps they did not change, but she was no longer aware of them.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Abbigail N. Rosewood