Steve lay in his hospital bed that morning when Dr. Thakkar reappeared. “Steve?”, he asked.
Steve turned his head. “Huh?”
“Hi, this is Dr. Thakkar again. Brace yourself; I’d like to talk with you about your disease.”
Steve propelled himself back on his head in a frightened manner. He absent-mindedly said, “All right” as he listened.
“Have you ever heard of Diamond-Zuckerman disease? Or DZD?”
Steve shook his head.
“Diamond-Zuckerman disease is a contagious disease . . . it’s spread by people sneezing or coughing on you, or sometimes by blood, or you can swallow it . . . caused by prions.”
“Prions . . . like the virus-like things that aren’t really alive?” Steve had learned about prions in biology class, but didn’t know too much about them.
“Well, yes. A prion is really a piece of protein that got folded the wrong way. Normally, strands of protein are folded like healthy proteins, but some of them are misfolded, and we call these little babies prions. Kuru, mad cow disease, those are caused by prions.”
Steve’s lips puckered out. He felt as if every cell in his body was being turned into a pretzel. Or maybe a subject in a Picasso painting. “Is this what’s making me forget?”
Dr. Thakkar nodded slightly. “Symptoms include memory lapses, long- or short-term memory, dizziness and lack of coördination, seizures, blindness, deafness, hearing voices . . . there are simply a lot of different things that go on in different people. And you seem to be having the dizziness and memory loss.”
“Is that how you know?”, Steve asked. He was still nervous, as what was really on his mind was the question: Is it fatal?
“Well, we recognized the symptoms – it’s a new disease, the first cases were reported in 2024 – combined with the blood test we took when you were having that nosebleed.” Dr. Thakkar fiddled with his moustache as he mentioned the nosebleed. It looked as if he was rolling up blood on his philtrum.
“So, how does this make me forget and go dizzy?”
“Well, these prions – remember those misfolded proteins I told you about? – they can go into your brain and other parts of the body and turn good proteins into prions, like a vampire biting a regular human and turning her into a vampire too. Every cell a prion invades . . . gets its proteins turned into prions. This gets the worst in your brain.”
Steve’s apprehension was now apparent. “So this means my brain’s cells are turning into prions?”
“Well, with diseases there’s something called an incubation time. That’s how long the prions, or viruses, or bacteria or whatever lie dormant in your body before you start showing the symptoms. The incubation period for DZD can be a few weeks, or months, or even a few years. Now you’re at the stage where you’re showing real symptoms, this fainting stuff. Other people have symptoms like blindness or seizures, but usually the symptoms start to develop slowly.”
“You said something about blindness? Does this mean I’m going to go blind?”
“Well, with DZD you can never really tell how it’s going to play out until the end.”
Until the end?, Steve thought. Death?
Dr. Thakkar continued, “Different people show different symptoms in different orders, but in all cases it takes over the brain. These prions hide all over the body, so they’re impossible to find. They’re just like an army that advances and advances, without retreating. I’m going to ask you to be calm about this – eventually DZD will lead to death.”
“Unless what?”, Steve asked.
“There is no ‘unless’. Everyone who’s had the disease so far has eventually died. And you”, Dr. Thakkar said checking his notes, “Have two months to live.”
Steve was numb. This was the news Steve had feared all along, but now that he actually heard it, he didn’t feel anything. He didn’t feel nervous anymore, there was so much shock. He just didn’t believe it.
“We could move you onto hospice care, and try to take away the pain?”, Dr. Thakkar asked.
It started to sink in. Steve was going to die. There would be no more of his life.
“No, I don’t want to enter hospice care”, said Steve. “I’m not going be a wimp and go down!” Steve actually sounded angry. To Steve, entering hospice care was an acknowledgment of the inevitability of death.
“Well, we’re going to ask you to discuss this with your family and loved ones; now would be a good time to start thinking about things like whether you’d like to be buried or cremated, or what you’d like your funeral to be like.”
“Why did I have to catch this disease?”, Steve asked, still angry.
“Well, DZD is often spread by people sneezing or coughing on you”, Dr. Thakkar said in a more clinical tone. “Have you been sneezed on by any people or pets who didn’t cover their mouths?”
At first Steve didn’t remember, but then he thought back to that homeless man with the beard at St. Charles Bridge. “That man who lived at St. Charles Bridge! He sneezed on me and didn’t cover his mouth! Now he’s going to kill me!”
Dr. Thakkar edged back, noticing Steve’s choleric reaction to the news. He remembered another common symptom of DZD: rage.
Dr. Thakkar then told him, “I will meditate for you”, and walked off.
Steve started thinking in earnest about all that had gone on. The man sneezing on him . . . the trip to St. Charles Bridge . . . the AALL card thieves.
If Steve hadn’t tried to stop Lee and his friends after overhearing their conversation at the coffeeshop, if he had just let it go, none of this would have happened. He wouldn’t have gone to St. Charles Bridge, and he wouldn’t have been where that man playing grank with his boom box was. He still remembered the brown System of a Down beard, the plaid shirt, everything.
Or if he had paid closer attention to the coversation when he was in the coffeeshop, he would have remembered it was 3:00. He and Peter could have waited until close to the thieves’ meeting time, and then they wouldn’t have gotten bored and started pacing waiting for the thieves to show up.
As Steve brushed his hair out of his face, he thought about Peter telling Steve to meet him “10 minutes before sundown”. What if Peter had decided that “tonight” meant closer to midnight instead of that soon after the sun was still shining? Then Steve wouldn’t have paced by that homeless man. By telling Steve to meet him that early in the day, Peter was killing Steve!
Suddenly, Steve’s thought processes came to a jolt and a bolt. Steve was out of his head, getting mad at Peter and trying to blame his friend for this fatal illness. It wasn’t Peter’s fault.
Steve stopped thinking about the if-onlys and started thinking back on his life. His life seemed pretty shallow. He had broken up with about ten different girlfriends throughout his adolescence. He had broken up with Artemisia Feldman because they could never agree on which restaurant to go to when eating out. He had broken up with Yesenia Cruz because of her annoying toothless lisp when she spoke. He had dated Jessica, broken up with her, tried dating her a second time, and broken up with Jessica again. And of course, he also had broken up with Luann Meyer. But it would be better if he weren’t dating Luann, right? All this time, Steve had never been able to stick with a girlfriend for more than four months. And he had broken up with some great girls for stupid reasons. If only he were to live, he would stick with Rochelle Conti for longer than that. He had found the perfect girlfriend in Rochelle, or may have found, at least, but now for a reason totally out of his control, that wouldn’t last. He wouldn’t break up with Rochelle. Not even if they couldn’t agree on whether they wanted kids. If only he could get another lease on life, Steve and Rochelle would find a way to make it work out, and Steve would have the love of his life. He wouldn’t break up with her for a stupid reason.
Oh! And another thing! When Steve was at the party, and the other guests were talking about Communism, Steve didn’t have anything to say. Nothing to contribute at the conversation. Steve didn’t link into GAN and didn’t watch the NKAT talks. North Korea was the foreign policy issue of the decade, and Steve was out in the dark about what was going on. When he did overhear snippets of North Korea talk, it all meshed together in his head. Ahn Soon-Yi NKAT President LeGrand Park Eu-Jin McDonald’s McWorld McCommunism. Kevin Flax had looked so intelligent compared to Steve. Sharon could even sense that he didn’t have anything to say.
In fact, every day was the same old vacuous working and appointments and hanging out with friends. Steve got dressed, ate, drank, went to the bathroom, listened to music, skateboarded, went to his job at the GAP, went to parties, dated girls, visited the coffeeshop and slept. And that was it. Charlotte Church had been 14 when she put out her bestselling album. Jordan Romero had been 13 when he climbed Mt. Everest. Tom Schaar had been 12 had he had pulled off the Holy Grail of skateboarding tricks: the 1080. And Ilana Greenberg wasn’t even a teen-ager when she had invented powdered tea in 2021. Steve’s life seemed so . . . wasted by comparison. I’m such a boring person, Steve thought to himself. What’s my obituary going to say?
Steve pulled the sheet of his hospital bed up to his face. He looked downward at the bed in a defeated manner. Tears streamed down his freckled nose and landed on his freckled cheeks. There was going to be no new lease on life. He was only 16 years old. And now, Stephan Bruise was going to die.