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Pest Hag

by Edward Ahern

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Once at the nursing home, Anders checked in with the staff doctor on duty. “Any cases of the flesh-eating disease?”

“Amazingly, no. We’ve restricted visitors, because most of our patients are so frail that they’d just crumple up and die if they got it. I told your grandmother that you were coming.”

“Thanks.” Up three flights, down two corridors, and he was there. “Bestemor, how are you?”

“My little Anders, come give me a hug.”

He gently drew her torso off the hospital bed and gave her a soft hug, then kissed her forehead and eased her back down. “You mustn’t let others touch you unless it’s absolutely necessary, Bestemor. There’s a terrible disease in the city now, maybe a plague if we don’t take care of it right away.”

Marte Norberg’s expression seemed to suck back into herself, and then rush back outwards. “Finne Pesten Bjerring!”


“Look for the pest witch. That’s what my grandmother used to say. She believed that plague was spread by vicious hags who were immune to the disease, Sometimes, she said, the hag would act like a rake to spread the plague and only a small percentage would die. Sometimes she was like a broom and almost everyone was dead.”

“That’s an ancient superstition, Grandma.”

“I know, but disease is spread by people, Anders. Find who is carrying the disease and you can stop it.”

“Yes, Bestemor.” He provided twenty minutes of detailed news on Nellie and the children, then hugged Marte again and left.

His phone made noises on the way home, and he pulled over to read texts and e-mails. The Eau Claire health department had sent a long message, but Anders focused in on two paragraphs.

As of seven p.m. Tuesday, November 16th, the number of cases of necrotizing fasciitis has tripled to eighteen, with new cases being discovered every two to three hours. The CDC has arrived on scene and is setting up their disease control facilities.

While we have been unable as yet to determine the disease transmission vectors, the CDC suggests that there may be one or more human transmitters who as yet show no symptoms of the disease but transmit it through direct or indirect contact. This occurred most notably in the case of Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, who over time infected and killed a great many people.

Anders called Ralph Adams again. “Ralph? For Christ’s sake, Ralph! Typhoid Mary?”

“Could be, Anders. Mary Mallon refused to give urine or blood samples, so we’ll never know for sure but, over time, she worked as a cook for half a dozen families, and typhoid cases occurred in every family. Nobody’s quite sure what eventually happened to her.

“Anders, you should know that Judy Garrison has gotten a great deal worse. We may have to amputate portions of both legs, and even that might not be enough.”

“Damn! But thanks for telling me, Ralph. I’ll try and stop by.”

On arriving home, Anders showered, scouring his body with antiseptic soap before putting on fresh clothes and joining his family. Despite the howls of the children, he left the television off and confiscated the play station controls, taking an hour to explain to them how dangerous the disease was, and how careful they must be.

Anders reached his office the next morning to see an even larger clot of people, many not seeking treatment, but hoping to be examined and found uninfected so they could for a little while relieve their fears. Runa had already marshaled them into groups.

As they worked, Anders told Runa about the visit to his grandmother. “You’re Norwegian, Runa. Is our folklore so demented that we believed in a pest hag acting like a rake or a broom?”

Runa half-smiled. “I vaguely remember hearing the tale, Doctor, but not for a very long time.”

They worked non-stop until one p.m., and then Anders had to eat something, and Runa used the lunch break to go to her gym. At five p.m., as the last visitor left, Anders realized that he had ignored everything about his patients except their skin, and that he’d examined more fingers and toes in a day than he’d usually done in a year.

He left Runa to lock up and drove over to the hospital to visit Judy. She screamed when she saw him.

“Dr. Norberg, they’ve cut off my legs! I’ll never walk! How could they for a little infection!”

“Judy, I’m so sorry, but it must have been necessary. They want to save your life. I’m sure you want to stay alive.”

She started sobbing, repeating, “My legs, my legs,” in a tortuous sing-song. Anders examined her chart. Despite the removal of both lower legs at mid-calf, the doctors were not at all confident that the infection could be stemmed.

“You’re alive, Judy, that’s the important part. I’ll try and come back tomorrow or the day after and make sure you’re going well.”

Anders rarely drank during the week but, once he reached home, he found where he’d put the scotch bottle and poured himself a double. My God, he thought, all our procedures and treatments and check-ups and we’re still dying off. Maybe it is a curse.

He drained his drink just before his cell phone rang with another pre-recorded message from Public Health.

The total of those infected has reached fifty-seven, with four fatalities thus far. St. Olaf’s hospital isolation ward is full, and patients are now being cared for at a temporary facility set up by the CDC. A press release will be provided to media outlets shortly, urging all residents of Eau Claire to avoid public gatherings and unnecessary contact, and to wash their hands several times a day with antiseptic soap.

Too little, too late, he thought. By tomorrow or the day after, they’ll realize that they don’t want anyone from Eau Claire leaving the city limits, and we’ll all be in quarantine.

There were far fewer patients waiting for Anders the next morning, and he realized that they feared being too close to others who might be sick. At 10:30 he took a call from St. Olaf’s hospital.

“Dr. Norberg? This is Grace Sullivan. I’m the charge nurse in the contagious disease ward.”

“Yes? Is this about Judy Garrison?”

“Yes. You asked to be notified. I’m afraid that the trauma from the amputations and the toxins from the necrotizing fasciitis were too much for her. She was pronounced dead twenty minutes ago.”

Anders was silent. “Dr. Norberg?”

“Yes, I heard you. Has the family been notified?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Thank you,” Anders said, and hit the Off button. He realized he was in shock, that it was impossible the young woman he’d seen the night before was dead, that it was impossible to be this powerless.

He saw the remaining few patients, and then it was noon. Thankfully none of the morning’s visitors had appeared infected.

Runa looked over at him. “Doctor, if it’s all right, I’d like to head over to Millenium and work out over lunch.”

“Of course, Runa, you deserve a decent break.”

Anders had brought a sandwich from home, and sat at his desk while eating it and scrolling through his emails. Delete, delete, save, Eau Claire Public Health: open.

Locations common to patients having necrotizing fasciitis:

This list has been compiled from interviews with lucid patients identified as suffering from necrotizing fasciitis caused by the staphylococcus aureus amoeba. The list is fragmentary, but being refined daily. The list includes only those places visited by more than one patient. Numbers in parenthesis show how many victims visited the locations during their period of probable infection.

Oakwood Mall: (25)
Eau Claire high school: (15)
Complete Foods: (11)
Kwik Trip gas station, Edgewater Avenue: (11)
Sam’s Club, Gateway Drive: (7)
Fitness Millennium: (6)
Mayo Clinic Health System pharmacy, Bellinger Avenue: (4)
Trinity Lutheran Church: (2)

Useless, just useless. We may as well just draw names from a hat.

Runa came back in, her body totally ablush from the workout.

Almost like the flesh-eating disease.

Anders jolted upright. “Runa, you just went to Fitness Millennium?”

“Yes, doctor, why?”

“And you shop at Complete Foods and attend services at Trinity Lutheran?”

“Yes and yes, but why is that important?”

“These places you go to were also visited by people with the flesh-eating disease. Have you noticed any rashes or infections? Any recent cuts or scrapes?”

“No, Dr. Norberg. Anders. Nothing. I feel fine and I just had a good look at my body in the shower; nothing out of the ordinary.”

“I want you to take the afternoon off and go to St. Olaf’s. Get a complete workup, blood, urine, stools, everything, including a head to toe visual inspection.”

“Don’t you trust me to monitor my own health?”

“Of course I do, but we have to make sure before we see more patients.”

Runa’s face was even redder, but from anger rather than exercise. “I’m in perfect health, and I don’t like you ordering me around like this!”

“Runa, I don’t know what to think anymore, but I do know that you can’t work here unless you’re checked out. Tell you what, once you’ve been tested clean, I’ll go in myself and get the same tests.”

She looked at him sadly. “Stakkars lille menneske. You’re destroying everything about us. All right, doctor, I understand your order.” Runa turned and walked out of the office without another word.

Despite Runa’s anger, Anders felt relief. At least he’d confirm that his only helper wasn’t spreading the disease. She’ll get over her sense of betrayal, he thought, and muddled through the afternoon’s patients, picking them from the waiting room almost at random.

At five p.m. he called St. Olaf’s and asked for out-patient. “This is Dr. Norberg. I’d like to see how far you’ve gotten on the workup for Runa Bergdahl.”

“Bergdahl. Bergdahl. Nobody by that name has been here this afternoon, doctor. Would she have used another name?”

“No, I don’t think so. Thanks.”

Anders called Runa on her cell phone and got a recording. “”Runa, it’s Dr. Nordin. Anders. You haven’t been in for your workup. If I handled it badly, please call, so we can get you checked out. I want to make sure you’re all right.”

Then he called home. “Nellie? I’ll be home in less than an hour.”

“That’s fine dear. The most peculiar thing just happened. Runa stopped by. She said she was leaving town and just wanted to say goodbye.”

“What! What else did she say?”

“Some weird things, like that she’d loved working through you. And she hugged me and the kids, and I don’t remember her ever touching us before. And as she was leaving, she said to tell you that she always preferred using a broom.”

Copyright © 2020 by Edward Ahern

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