Wake up, Polly Parrot.

 











Touched
by Brian Plante

So many of you babies. Good Lord, I'm too old and tired to be changing diapers at this stage in my life. How stupid am I, letting myself become responsible for nine cranky little ones like you? I should be relaxing in a rocking chair, my reward for a long life. Things sure have happened differently from the way I supposed.

Whose kids are you anyway? Am I kidding myself that you'll grow up smart, or will you just be another bunch of idiots like your parents? Maybe I can teach some of you to read so you'll be able to understand this record I'm starting. You kids better smarten up fast, because Grampa Amos may not be around to see you through too many more years.

Now, where do I begin? The first thing you kids should know is that I'm not right in the head. Touched. Not as bad off as the other adults, if any of them are left alive, but bad enough. I have Alzheimer's Disease. I can't help that. You're just going to have to understand if I skip around a bit or leave out anything important.

Well, maybe that's enough writing for today. I can't seem to do this for very long before I tire and my handwriting gets illegible, and a bunch of you kids are crying to be fed. I'll try to keep at this journal until it feels like a proper record, or until I can't remember anything more. I know it's not much, but it's something.

* * *

I've been thinking about this journal, and I decided I should fill you in on who I am and how I got to be in charge of you kids, just in case. My name is Amos Franklin, and when this whole mess started, I was living with my daughter Marie, her husband Jim, and their teenage daughter Sheila. Jim didn't like me much.

"Come on, Marie, you know we have to put him in a home," Jim said, one day after supper, as if the Alzheimer's meant I couldn't hear or understand him. "When Sheila has the baby, we're going to need the room."

Did I say Sheila was pregnant? No, I guess I didn't. Well maybe for you kids, getting pregnant will be a good thing, but back before everything changed, it wasn't always something welcomed.

"He's not going in any home," Marie said, "even if we could afford one of the good ones."

Jim looked at me hard, and I knew he didn't care if it was a good home or a bad one. He just wanted me out of his home. I pretended not to notice and turned my attention to the nightly news.

While the argument continued on whether or not to put me away, I watched a story on some group calling itself Eden-2. They were a bunch of environmental terrorists who thought mankind had mucked up the planet. There were probably hundreds of silly radical groups like that back in those days, but the authorities were taking this one seriously.

"What do you know about Eden-2?" I said to Jim, hoping to change the subject of conversation.

"We just ate, Pops," he said, not really paying attention to me.

Out in the kitchen, I heard Sheila say to Marie, "Momma, I don't want Grandpa to go away just because of the baby. I can keep it in my room."

I didn't hear what my daughter said back to Sheila, because the television was still going on about the terrorists and Jim was talking: "Pops, you know it's not fair to burden your daughter and me as you keep getting worse. At some point we won't be able to take care of you as well as a professional facility can."

"You mean a nursing home?" I said.

"Yeah, that's right. We'll find you a really good one, I swear," he said, averting his eyes to the television.

"But Dr. Mason says the neuronal transplant may reverse some of the Alzheimer's Disease."

"Yeah well, we'll see."

"He says it's very promising."

"I'll level with you, Pops. The doctor says it's experimental. If it helps a bit, great, but there's just no counting on something like that. Marie and I have to make real plans with Sheila's baby on the way."

There was no way I was going to win an argument with Jim that night. I also wasn't going to give in and tell him that it was okay to pack me off to some warehouse for the dying. I pretended to lose interest in the conversation and turned my attention back to the television. It was an easy way out, using the Alzheimer's as a crutch. Jim gave up and walked away, no doubt even more convinced that I needed to be put away, but at least I had avoided a fight.

I can't say that I miss that man, now that he's dead.

* * *

I just looked in on Sheila a few minutes ago. Not counting you kids, she's the only other one I saved. Not that I thought she could really survive, but because she was pregnant. Soon you kids will have another little brother or sister.

"Gamma, wan go," Sheila said, her voice sounding more like one of those retarded kids instead of the bright 18-year old that she is. That she used to be. She watched me with eyes that looked no more intelligent than a puppy's, but it was only a few weeks ago that she was bright and sassy, with a mouth on her that could alternately melt your heart or cut you to ribbons. I guess she can still cut me to ribbons, but in a different way now.

It kills me to keep my own granddaughter strapped down to a hospital bed like this, but if I let her go, she'll just wander off until she starves like all the others. I know I can't keep her prisoner like this forever, and I'll have to let her go eventually and let whatever happens happen, but it would be a tragedy to lose the baby, too.

"When the baby's born, everything will be all right," I said to her, stroking her dirty brown hair.

"Lemme go!"

With a sponge and a basin of water I cleaned Sheila up as best as I could. Her belly was getting large, and it wouldn't be long before the baby came. I hope everything works out all right. Just because we live here in the hospital doesn't mean I know what to do with any of this equipment.

I fed Sheila some cold, canned stew that I found in the hospital pantry. It's wretched stuff, and I probably should go out and scrounge something from a supermarket, but I haven't ventured outside the hospital since everything changed. Before long, you babies will have exhausted the hospital's supply of disposable diapers and I'll be forced to go out looking for more.

I'll probably wait another week or two before I go out scouting, just to make sure there's no crazy people left to hurt me.

* * *

Did I say how it all ended? No, I guess I didn't. Well, it was damn quick. I was in the hospital when it happened -- this same hospital where we all live now. It was shortly after having a fetal neuronal transplant operation, and I was still recovering. I suppose that last sentence won't make much sense to you. What it means was that Dr. Mason opened my head up and put in some healthy brain cells from babies that were never born. The disease that I have, Alzheimer's, messed up a lot of the cells in my brain -- that's why I'm so slow -- but the fetal cells were supposed to help my old damaged ones along.

It worked pretty well, I think. It's hard to tell, as the people that would normally test for such things are gone. I certainly didn't get any worse after the operation, and in a lot of ways I got better. Things like writing this journal would have been impossible for me a few months ago, and I seem to remember things a lot better now, although maybe not as well as when I was a young man.

* * *

Another one of you kids died today. I used to call this one Marie, after my daughter, even though there was a different name on the hospital cradle. She was a cute little one. What did I do wrong? Maybe it was that disease where a baby just doesn't wake up one day. Some spontaneous thing. There was a name for it.

What was the name of it when a kid just ups and dies like that? It was an acronym, I think. Why can't I remember? This is making me very angry.

Maybe my operation was only temporary and the Alzheimer's is back. Or the Eden-2 thing. If it's true, God help you kids. I can't be responsible.

That's enough. I can't write any more today.

What was the name of it?

* * *

While I was recovering from the surgery, I watched a lot of news on television. I suppose the idea of television is going to seem pretty odd for a while until you kids figure how to get the electricity turned back on. On the news they were real alarmed about the release of a synthetic retrovirus by the Eden-2 people. A bunch of the Eden-2 people released this virus at the same time all over the world, and one of them was only about ten miles away from the hospital. Over the next couple of days I noticed people starting to change.

"Hey, old man," the morning nurse said to me one morning, "if you want breakfast, you gotta fix it yourself, 'cause the kitchen staff ain't here."

This was very unusual. You kids have to understand that hospitals were always staffed, and things like this just didn't happen. And the nurse had always been very courteous before that "old man" remark.

"Where's Dr. Mason?" I asked.

"Dr. Mason?" she repeated with a puzzled look on her face. "He's not here. Why don't you just go home? Everybody else is."

"If this is how you treat your patients, I just might," I said.

She flashed me a goofy grin and disappeared out the door. I could hear laughter and loud voices from somewhere in the hallway, and it scared me half to death. A hospital wasn't the right kind of place for these kinds of sounds. It sounded more like a zoo.

* * *

My granddaughter Sheila came in to the hospital to visit me on that last day of almost-normalcy. "G-g-grampa?" she said sheepishly, peeking her head in the room.

"Sheila!" I said. "Am I glad to see you. This place is a madhouse."

"M-m-mom says h-h-hi."

The stuttering slowness of her speech quickly dampened my happiness. The thing that was going around must have hit her while she was on the way over, for it was obvious she'd never make it home alone in the addled state she was in. It was amazing that she even made it to the hospital. This wasn't the Sheila I knew. Over the next few minutes, as I watched, what little spark of intelligence that was left vanished from her face.

I rang for the nurse, but no one came. On the television, many of the regular stations were off the air already, but a few remaining ones were trying to do news reports. I remember watching a newsman dressed in pajamas trying to read a story. He was looking away from the camera and giggling a lot. The story, when he could muster enough discipline to read it, told of the end of life as we knew it.

What it amounted to was the profound mental retardation of the entire adult population overnight. The Eden-2 group had succeeded spectacularly in their plans to restore humanity to a pretechnological level. Over the next 24 hours, the hospital staff, the other patients, and the people on the television all turned into a bunch of hopeless morons.

I tried phoning home to Marie to have her come over and pick Sheila and me up but the line was busy and remained that way. After a few hours of fruitless dialing, I called 911, information, and the operator, and got busy signals on those numbers as well. In frustration, I punched numbers at random, hoping for anyone to answer, but the telephone system was gone.

It was obvious that if Sheila and I were going to get home, I'd have to take charge. I found my clothing, got dressed, and prepared to face the world. Just getting Sheila through the hallways of the hospital was an ordeal. The floor was littered with all manner of debris: clothing, bedding, medical equipment, food trays and bedpans. A few mindless people were milling about and several of them followed us to the main entrance.

Once outside the doors, our followers dispersed in all directions. God only knows where they were going. Doctors, nurses, patients, they were all equal in idiocy now, and I made no effort to stop them. What happened to any of them I don't know. They were all doomed, but what could I do?

My hope of getting us a ride home was dashed by the sights of the street outside the hospital. Several cars were crashed, and an ambulance was overturned. No traffic moved along save for the sad, vacant pedestrians scurrying by at random. I briefly thought I might take a car and drive myself, although it had been a few years since I was allowed behind the wheel, but I gave up on that. Even if I could find us a working car with keys in it, the roads were all but unpassable with all the wrecks.

I brought Sheila back into the hospital, and that's where I made our home. And why not? There was plenty of food in the kitchen, and lots of places to sleep.

I found a bed with restraints to keep Sheila from wandering off into the night.

Within a few days, almost all of the remaining people had found their way to the door and disappeared. A dozen or so of the patients had died in their beds and I rolled them out into a back hallway.

And I found you, dear children, the residents of the maternity ward. Even as squalling infants, it was obvious that the virus had not affected you kids. Eleven of you when I first discovered you, although two of you died quickly thereafter. How could I not try to save all of you? After all, it was the thing we shared in common that had allowed us to ride out the virus: we all had baby brain cells.

* * *

Despite a whole storeroom full of diapers off the maternity ward, it didn't take too long for you kids to go through the lot of them, and you'd soon need sizes bigger than the newborn ones the hospital kept. There was plenty of infant formula for a while, but I could see the day coming when that too would run out. There was just no getting around the fact that I had to go out searching for supplies.

Things had quieted down a lot since the change. Looking out the windows, I hadn't seen anyone moving out on the street in a week when I decided it was time to explore. I found a telephone directory at a nurse's station, and a pretty good street map in the emergency room, so I knew where I was going. I made sure all you kids and Sheila had a good meal and were changed before I headed out.

The place I was going to was only about a half a mile away, so I probably could have walked it -- I'm not nearly as feeble in my legs as I am in the head -- but I took one of the fancy electric wheelchairs instead. It seemed to be holding a charge, the last one it would ever get, and it carried me all the way there, although it was slow going at the end.

On the way, I saw things that I wish I hadn't. Plenty of crashed cars with their decaying occupants still in them. Lots of dead people on the curb where they simply toppled from starvation. I saw a dog roaming the street, frightened by the sight of me, but obviously well fed. I didn't want to think about what it might have found to eat. It was with relief that I reached my destination, the Toy Warehouse.

There was a supermarket a little farther away, and I'll investigate that another time, but the Toy Warehouse was the closest place in the Yellow Pages that had what I needed -- infant formula, diapers, and baby food. The baby food was for Sheila, as she had to be spoon fed by this time.

Getting the wheelchair in the toy store was impossible with all the debris littering the entrance. Luckily it wasn't human bodies, but toy ones, dolls, and cars and balls and all manner of playthings. The place looked as if it had been ransacked. I might have expected a supermarket to be cleaned of its contents, but a toy store? It was sad, but in their final days, perhaps many of the confused horde found the comfort of cuddly toys a higher priority than the necessity of food.

I made my way through the littered aisles to the back storage area, where I found case upon case of diapers, formula and baby food, all untouched. In the bicycle area I found a large adult three-wheeler, and I was able attach a big wagon to haul some cartons back to the hospital. The tricycle and wagon proved a reliable method of transportation and I made several trips to the toy store and the supermarket in the following weeks. Later I went to a hardware store and got kerosene heaters and a gas camping stove. Then some books from a library.

I never saw anyone alive during any of the outings.

* * *

A few days ago, Sheila had her baby -- my great-grandchild. The delivery seemed to go well, without me having to do much more than coach her to push at the right time and tie off the cord afterwards. Sheila barely knew what was going on the whole time, merely birthing the child by some animal instinct, like a dog or cat.

The baby is a girl, which I think is a very good thing if you kids are ever going to build up the population again. Sheila was worn out by the labor, and I left her restraints undone afterwards so she could relax in her exhaustion. The next morning, however, she was gone with the rest, as surely to her death as if she had jumped off a cliff. God rest her soul.

The baby has alert, intense eyes. Young as she is, I can see a sparkle of intelligence there that her mother lacked. I call her Marie.

* * *

What a dunce I am. of course there have to be others out there like me who survived the Eden-2. Even if this fetal tissue procedure was experimental, there have to be other test subjects. What a monumental conceit on my part to assume I was alone.

Even if there's only one other person alive that can help me with raising you kids, it would make me sleep a whole lot better at night. It's not fair for me to have so much responsibility.

If they did the procedure on me at this hospital, then they must have done it to others. There have to be records of such things somewhere in this building. I hope it wasn't just kept on the computers. Even if I could get the things working, I wouldn't know what to do with them. There must be something on paper.

I'll tear this place apart if I have to.

* * *

I found the records, in Dr. Mason's office, of course. There was a row of file cabinets, crammed with folders, one of which was mine. Interesting stuff there, but the important thing was it cross referenced to an "FT-12" file. That's where the gold was buried.

The FT-12 file had all the names of Dr. Mason's fetal neural tissue procedures over the last four years. About a quarter of them were listed as deceased, but there were 22 others, mostly with local addresses. Surely some of them must have lived past the Eden-2 disaster. Maybe a few still survived.

How do I find them? I'm afraid to go too far from the hospital looking for them. If anything happens to me, you kids are lost.

* * *

I figured out how to make a really good noisemaker. I took the siren off an ambulance and brought it up to the roof. Maybe it's just because it's so quiet these days, but when I hooked a car battery up to it, it seemed as loud as anything I can ever remember. The battery didn't last very long, the bulk of its charge long since spent, but I have lots of cars to pick over. There must be over a hundred right here in the hospital parking lot, and I'll use every damn one of them.

* * *

It was a full day before the first one came. Rose Feinstein, a dear old woman. She raised a couple of kids of her own in her day, and she knows a whole lot more about caring for babies than I do. Rose was afraid of what she might find when she timidly inched through the hospital door, attracted by the howling siren. She still didn't look very trusting when I ran out and greeted her, but you kids won her over. As soon as I could get her to come upstairs and see the nursery, she broke down and cried, hugging a bunch of you.

That's when I knew you kids would be safe.

Over the next five days of running the siren, three more of Dr. Morgan's patients came in. That was all. I kept at the siren another week, off and on, but the five of us seem to be all there is. There's probably more in other cities, and maybe some of them were quick enough to save the babies wherever they are. All we can do is hope.

* * *

It's been awhile since I last wrote in this book. I guess having other people to talk to changed things a bit. I'm sorry, but I was probably running out of things to say anyway.

You kids are getting bigger now, so I guess we're doing something right. Rose is really good with babies.

It's going to be a lonely world for the bunch of you. All of us adults are pretty old, so by the time you're grown up, we'll be gone. Maybe that's best. You kids don't need any old baggage dragging you down -- you have a whole world to rebuild. Maybe it really is a second Eden.

Copyright © 1997 Brian Plante, first appeared in Year 1: A Time Of Change.
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