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When Paula became conscious of her surroundings again, the first thing she sensed was his fingers entwined in hers.

She was strapped to the ambulance backboard—each wrist cuffed in nylon, her chest held down by a wide band—to stop her from flailing and yanking out the IV. Only his presence kept her from screaming. He gazed down at her, dirty-blond hair hanging over blue eyes, pale cheeks shadowed by a few days’ stubble. His love for her radiated like cool air from a block of ice.

When they reached the hospital he walked beside the gurney, his hand on her shoulder, as the paramedics wheeled her into the ER. Paula had never worked in the ER but she recognized a few of the faces as she passed. She took several deep breaths, her chest tight against the nylon strap, and calmly told the paramedics that she was fine, they could let her go now. They made reassuring noises and left the restraints in place. Untying her was the doctor’s call now.

Eventually an RN came to ask her questions. A deeply tanned, heavy-set woman with frosted hair. Paula couldn’t remember her name, though they’d worked together for several years, back before the hospital had fired Paula. Now she was back as a patient.

“And what happened tonight, Paula?” the nurse said, her tone cold. They hadn’t gotten along when they worked together; Paula had a temper in those days.

“I guess I got a bit dizzy,” she said.

“Seizure,” said one of the paramedics. “Red Cross guy said she started shaking on the table, they had to get her onto the floor before she fell off. She’d been seizing for five or six minutes before we got there so we brought her in. We gave her point-one of Lorazepam and she came out of it during the ride.”

“She’s the second epileptic this shift,” the nurse said to them.

Paula blinked in surprise. Had one of the yellow house women been brought in? Or one of the converts? She looked to her side, and her companion gazed back at her, amused, but not giving anything away. Everything was part of the plan, but he wouldn’t tell her what the plan was. Not yet.

The nurse saw Paula’s shift in attention and her expression hardened. “Let’s have you talk to a doctor, Paula.”

“I’m feeling a lot better,” Paula said. Didn’t even grit her teeth.

They released the straps and transferred her to a bed in an exam room. One of the paramedics set her handbag on the bedside table. “Good luck now,” he said.

She glanced at the bag and quickly looked away. Best not to draw attention to it. “I’m sorry if I was any trouble,” she said.

The nurse handed her a clipboard of forms. “I don’t suppose I have to explain these to you,” she said. Then: “Is there something wrong with your hand?”

Paula looked down at her balled fist. She concentrated on loosening her fingers but they refused to unclench. That had been happening more often lately. Always the left hand. “I guess I’m nervous.”

The nurse slowly nodded, not buying it. She made sure Paula could hold the clipboard and write, then left her.

But not alone. He slouched in a bedside chair, legs stretched in front of him, the soles of his bare feet almost black. His shy smile was like a promise. I’m here, Paula. I’ll always be here for you.

Richard’s favorite album was Nirvana’s In Utero. She destroyed that CD first.

He’d moved out on a Friday, filed for divorce on the following Monday. He wanted custody of their daughter. Claire was ten then, a sullen and secretive child, but Paula would sooner burn the house down around them than let him have her. Instead she torched what he loved most. On the day Paula got the letter about the custody hearing, she pulled his CDs and LPs and DATs from the shelves—hundreds of them, an entire wall of the living room, and more in the basement. She carried them to the backyard by the box. Claire wailed in protest, tried to hide some of the cases, and eventually Paula had to lock the girl in her room.

In the yard Paula emptied a can of lighter fluid over the pile, went into the garage for the gas can, splashed that on as well. She tossed the Nirvana CD on top.

The pile of plastic went up in a satisfying whoosh. After a few minutes the fire started to die down—the CDs wouldn’t stay lit—so she went back into the house and brought out his books and music magazines.

The pillar of smoke guided the police to her house. They told her it was illegal to burn garbage in the city. Paula laughed. “Damn right it’s garbage.” She wasn’t going to be pushed around by a couple of cops. Neighbors came out to watch. Fuck them, she thought.

She lived in a neighborhood of Philadelphia that outsiders called “mixed.” Blacks and Latinos and whites, a handful of Asians and Arabs. Newly renovated homes with Mexican tile patios, side by side with crack houses and empty lots. Paula moved there from the suburbs to be with Richard and never forgave him. Before Claire was born she made him install an alarm system and set bars across the windows. She felt like they were barely holding on against a tide of criminals and crazies.

The yellow house women may have been both. They lived across the street and one lot down, in a cottage that was a near-twin of Paula’s. Same field stone porch and peaked roofs, same narrow windows. But while Paula’s house was painted a tasteful slate blue, theirs blazed lemon yellow, the doors and window frames and gutters turned out in garish oranges and brilliant whites. Five or six women, a mix of races and skin tones, wandered in and out of the house at all hours. Did they have jobs? They weren’t old, but half of them had trouble walking, and one of them used a cane. Paula was an RN, twelve years working all kinds of units in two different hospitals, and it looked to her like they shared some kind of neuromuscular problem, maybe early MS. Their yellow house was probably some charity shelter.

On the street the women seemed distracted, sometimes talking to themselves, until they noticed someone and smiled a bit too widely. They always greeted Paula and Richard, but they paid special attention to Claire, speaking to her in the focused way of old people and kindergarten teachers. One of them, a gaunt white woman named Steph who wore the prematurely weathered face of a long-time meth user, started stopping by more often in the months after Richard moved out. She brought homemade food: Tupperware bowls of bean soup, foil-wrapped tamales, rounds of bread. “I’ve been a single mom,” she said. “I know how tough things can be on your own.” She started babysitting Claire a couple nights a week, staying in Paula’s house so Claire could fall asleep in her own bed. Some afternoons she took Claire with her on trips to the grocery or the park. Paula kept waiting for the catch. It finally came in the form of a sermon.

“My life was screwed up,” Steph said to Paula one afternoon. Claire had vanished to her bedroom to curl up with her headphones. The two women sat in the kitchen eating cheese bread someone in the yellow house had made. Steph drank wine while Paula worked her way through her afternoon Scotch. Steph talked frankly about her drug use, the shitty boyfriends, the money problems. “I was this close to cutting my wrists. If Jesus hadn’t come into my life, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Here we go, Paula thought. She drank silently while Steph droned on about how much easier it was to have somebody walk beside her, someone who cared. “Your own personal Jesus,” Steph said. “Just like the song.”

Paula knew the song—Richard loved that ’80s crap. He even had the Johnny Cash remake, until she’d turned his collection to slag. “No thanks,” Paula said, “I don’t need any more men in my life.”

Steph didn’t take offense. She kept coming back, kept talking. Paula put up with the woman because with Richard out of the house she needed help with Claire—and because she needed her alone time more than ever. The yellow house women may have been Jesus freaks, but they were harmless. That’s what she told herself, anyway, until the night she came home to find Claire gone.

Paula knew how to play the hospital game. Say as little as possible, act normal, don’t look at things no one else could see. She knew her blood tests would come out normal. They’d shrug and check her out by noon.

Her doctor surprised her, though. They’d assigned her to Louden, a short, trim man with a head shaved down to gray stubble who had a reputation among the nurses for adequacy: not brilliant, but not arrogant either, a competent guy who pushed the patients through on schedule. But something had gotten into him—he was way too interested in her case. He filled her afternoon with expensive MRIs, fMRIs, and PET scans. He brought in specialists.

Four of them, two neurologists and a psychiatrist she recognized, and one woman she didn’t know who said she was an epidemiologist. They came in one at a time over the afternoon, asking the same questions. How long had she experienced the seizures? What did they feel like when they struck? Did she know others with these symptoms? They poked her skin to test nerve response, pulled and flexed the fingers of her clenched hand. Several times they asked her, “Do you see people who aren’t there?”

She almost laughed. He sat beside her the entire time, his arm cool against her own. Could anyone be more present?

The only questions that unsettled her came from the epidemiologist, the doctor she didn’t recognize. “Do you eat meat?” the doctor asked. Paula said sure. And the doctor, a square-faced woman with short brown hair, asked a dozen follow-up questions, writing down exactly what kinds of meat she ate, how often, whether she cooked it herself or ate out.

At the end of the day they moved Paula into a room with a middle-aged white woman named Esther Wynne, a true southern lady who’d put on make-up and sprayed her hair as though at any moment she’d pop those IV tubes from her arms and head out to a nice restaurant.

Doctor Louden stopped by once more before going home that night. He sat heavily beside Paula’s bed, ran a hand over his gray scalp. “You haven’t been completely open with us,” he said. He seemed as tired as she was.

“No, probably not,” she said. Behind him, her companion shook his head, laughing silently.

Louden smiled as well, but fleetingly. “You have to realize how serious this is. You’re the tenth person we’ve seen with symptoms like yours, and there are more showing up in hospitals around the city. Some of my colleagues think we may be seeing the start of an epidemic. We need your help to find out if that’s the case.”

“Am I contagious?”

He scratched his chin, looked down. “We don’t think so. You don’t have a temperature, any signs of inflammation—no signs that this is a virus or a bacterial infection.”

“Then what is it you think I have?”

“We don’t have a firm idea yet,” he said. He was holding back, treating her like a dumb patient. “We can treat your symptoms though. We’ll try to find out more tomorrow, but we think you have a form of temporal lobe epilepsy. There are parts of your brain that—”

“I know what epilepsy is.”

“Yes, but TLE is a bit . . .” He gestured vaguely, then took several stapled pages from his clipboard and handed them to her. “I’ve brought some literature. The more you understand what’s happening, the better we’ll work together.” He didn’t sound like he believed that.

Paula glanced at the pages. Printouts from a web site.

“Read it over and tomorrow you and I can—oh, good.” A nurse had entered the room with a plastic cup in her hand; the meds had arrived. Louden seemed relieved to have something else to talk about. “This is Topamax, an epilepsy drug.”

“I don’t want it,” she said. She was done with drugs and alcohol.

“I wouldn’t prescribe this if it wasn’t necessary,” Louden said. His doctor voice. “We want to avoid the spikes in activity that cause seizures like today’s. You don’t want to fall over and crack your skull open, do you?” This clumsy attempt at manipulation would have made the old Paula furious.

Her companion shrugged. It didn’t matter. All part of the plan.

Paula accepted the cup from the nurse, downed the two pills with a sip of water. “When can I go home?” she said.

Louden stood up, ran a hand over his scalp. “I’ll talk to you again in the morning. I hate to tell you this, but there are a few more tests we have to run.”

Or maybe they were keeping her here because they did think she was contagious. The start of an epidemic, he’d said.

Paula nodded understandingly and Louden seemed relieved. As he reached the door Paula said, “Why did that one doctor—Gerrhardt?—ask me if I ate meat?”

He turned. “Dr. Gerrholtz. She’s not with the hospital.”

“Who’s she with then?”

“Oh, the CDC,” he said casually. As if the Centers for Disease Control dropped by all the time. “Don’t worry, it’s their job to ask strange questions. We’ll have you out of here as soon as we can.”

Paula came home from work to find the door unchained and the lights on. It was only 7:15, but in early November that meant it had been dark for more than hour. Paula stormed through the house looking for Claire. The girl knew the rules: come home from school, lock the door, and don’t pick up the phone unless caller-ID showed Paula’s cell or work number. Richard took her, she thought. Even though he won partial custody, he wanted to take everything from her.

Finally she noticed the note, in a cleared space on the counter between a stack of dishes and an open cereal box. The handwriting was Steph’s.

Paula marched to the yellow house and knocked hard. Steph opened the door. “It’s all right,” Steph said, trying to calm her down. “She’s done her homework and now she’s watching TV.”

Paula pushed past her into a living room full of second-hand furniture and faded rugs. Every light in the house seemed to be on, making every flat surface glow: the oak floors scrubbed to a buttery sheen, the freshly-painted daffodil walls, the windows reflecting bright lozenges of white. Something spiced and delicious fried in the kitchen, and Paula was suddenly famished. She hadn’t eaten anything solid since breakfast.

Claire sat on a braided oval rug, her purple backpack beside her. A nature show played on the small boxy TV but the girl wasn’t really watching. She had her earphones in, listening to the CD player in her lap. Lying on the couch behind her was a thin black woman in her fifties or sixties.

“Claire,” Paula said. The girl pretended to not hear. “Claire, take off your headphones when I’m talking to you.” Her voice firm but reasonable. The Good Mother. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the house.”

Claire didn’t move.

“The police were at the green house,” Steph said. A rundown place two doors down from Paula with motorcycles always in the front yard. Drug dealers, Paula thought. “I went over to check on Claire, and she seemed nervous, so I invited her over. I told her it would be all right.”

“You wouldn’t answer your phone,” Claire said without looking away from the TV. She still hadn’t taken off the headphones. Acting up in front of the women, thinking Paula wouldn’t discipline her in public.

“Then you keep calling,” Paula said. She’d forgotten to turn on her phone when she left the hospital. She’d stopped off for a drink, not more than thirty, forty-five minutes, then came home, no later than she’d come home dozens of times in the past. “You don’t leave the house.”

Steph touched Paula’s elbow, interrupting again. She nodded at the woman on the couch. “This is Merilee.”

The couch looked like the woman’s permanent home. On the short table next to her head was a half-empty water glass, a Kleenex box, a mound of damp tissue. A plastic bucket sat on the floor below it. Merilee lay propped up on pillows, her body half covered by a white sheet. Her legs were bent under her in what looked like a painful position, and her left arm curled up almost to her chin, where her hand trembled like a nervous animal. She watched the TV screen with a blissed-out smile, as if this was the best show in the world.

Steph touched the woman’s shoulder, and she looked up. “Merilee, this is Paula.”

Merilee reached up with her good right arm. Her aim was off; first she held it out to a point too far right, then swung it slowly around. Paula lightly took her hand. Her skin was dry and cool.

The woman smiled and said something in another language. Paula looked to Steph, and then Merilee said, “I eat you.”

“I’m sorry?” She couldn’t have heard that right.

“It’s a Fore greeting,” Steph said, pronouncing the word For-ay. “Merilee’s people come from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Merilee, Paula is Claire’s mother.”

“Yes, yes, you’re right,” Merilee said. Her mouth moved more than the words required, lips constantly twisting toward a smile, distorting her speech. “What a lovely girl.” It wasn’t clear if she meant Claire or Paula. Then her hand slipped away like a scarf and floated to her chest. She lay back and turned her gaze back to the TV, still smiling.

Paula thought, what the hell’s the matter with her?

“We’re about to eat,” Steph said. “Sit down and join us.”

“No, we’d better get going,” Paula said. But there was nothing back at her house. And whatever they were cooking smelled wonderful.

“Come on,” Steph said. “You always love our food.” That was true. She’d eaten their meals for a month.

“I just have a few minutes,” Paula said. She followed Steph into the dining room. The long, cloth-covered table almost filled the room. Ten places set, and room for a couple more. “How many of you are there?” she said.

“Seven of us live in the house,” Steph said as she went into the adjoining kitchen.

“Looks like you’ve got room for renters.”

Paula picked a chair and sat down, eyeing the tall green bottle in the middle of the table. “Is that wine?” Paula asked. She could use a drink.

“You’re way ahead of me,” Steph said. She came back into the room with the stems of wine glasses between her fingers, followed by an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old black girl—Tanya? Tonya?—carrying a large blue plate of rolled tortillas. Paula had met her before, pushing her toddler down the sidewalk. Outside she walked with a dragging limp, but inside it was barely discernible.

Steph poured them all wine but then remained standing. She took a breath and held it. Still no one moved. “All right then,” Steph finally said, loud enough for Merilee to hear.

Tonya—pretty sure it was Tonya—took a roll and passed the plate. Paula carefully bit into the tortilla. She tasted sour cream, a spicy salsa, chunks of tomato. The small cubes of meat were so heavily marinated that they could have been anything: pork, chicken, tofu.

Tonya and Steph looked at Paula, their expressions neutral, but she sensed they were expecting something. Paula dabbed a bit of sour cream from her lip. “It’s very good,” she said.

Steph smiled and raised her glass. “Welcome,” she said, and Tonya echoed her. Paula returned the salute and drank. The wine tasted more like brandy, thick and too sweet. Tonya nodded at her, said something under breath. Steph said something to Merilee in that other language. Steph’s eyes, Paula noted with alarm, were wet with tears.

“What is it?” Paula said. She put down the cup. Something had happened that she didn’t understand. She stared at the pure white tortillas, the glasses of dark wine. This wasn’t a snack, it was fucking communion.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she said coldly.

Steph sighed, her smile bittersweet. “We’ve been worried about you. Both of you. Claire’s been spending so much time alone, and you’re obviously still grieving.”

Paula stared at her. These sanctimonious bitches. What was this, some kind of religious intervention? “My life is none of your business.”

“Claire told me that you’ve been talking about killing yourself.”

Paula scraped her chair back from the table and stood up, her heart racing. Tonya looked at her with concern. So smug. “Claire told you that?” Paula said. “And you believed her?”

“Paula . . .”

She wheeled away from the table, heading for the living room, Steph close behind. “Claire,” Paula said. Not yelling. Not yet. “We’re going.”

Claire didn’t get up. She looked at Steph, as if for permission. This infuriated Paula more than anything that had happened so far.

She grabbed Claire by her arm, yanked her to her feet. The headphones popped from her ears, spilling tinny music. Claire didn’t even squeak.

Steph said, “We care about you two, Paula. We had to take steps. You won’t understand that right now, but soon . . .”

Paula spun and slapped the woman hard across the mouth, turning her chin with the blow. Steph’s eyes squeezed shut in pain, but she didn’t raise her arms, didn’t step back.

“Don’t you ever come near my daughter again,” Paula said. She strode toward the front door, Claire scrambling to stay on her feet next to her. Paula yanked open the door and pushed the girl out first. Her daughter still hadn’t made a sound.

Behind her, Steph said, “Wait.” She came to the door holding out Claire’s backpack and CD player. “Some day you’ll understand,” Steph said. “Jesus is coming soon.”

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” Esther Wynne said. “I knew from your face. You’ve got the love of Jesus in you.”

As the two women picked at their breakfast trays, Esther told Paula about her life. “A lot of people with my cancer die quick as a wink,” she said. “I’ve had time to say goodbye to everyone.” Her cancer was in remission but now she was here fighting a severe bladder infection. They’d hooked her to an IV full of antibiotics the day before. “How about you?” Esther said. “What’s a young thing like you doing here?”

Paula laughed. She was 36. “They think I have a TLA.” Esther frowned. “Three-letter acronym.”

“Oh, I’ve got a couple of those myself!”

One of the web pages Dr. Louden gave her last night included a cartoon cross-section of a brain. Arrows pointed out interesting bits of the temporal lobe with tour guide comments like “the amygdala tags events with emotion and significance” and “the hippocampus labels inputs as internal or external.” A colored text box listed a wide range of possible TLE symptoms: euphoria, a sense of personal destiny, religiosity . . .

And a sense of presence.

Asymmetrical temporal lobe hyperactivity separates the sense of self into two—one twin in each hemisphere. The dominant (usually left) hemisphere interprets the other part of the self as an “other” lurking outside. The otherness is then colored by which hemisphere is most active.

Paula looked up then, her chest tight. Her companion had been leaning against the wall, watching her read. At her frightened expression he dropped his head and laughed silently, his hair swinging in front of his face.

Of course. There was nothing she could learn that could hurt her, or him.

She tossed aside the pages. If her companion hadn’t been with her she might have worried all night about the information, but he helped her think it through. The article had it backward, confusing an effect for the cause. Of course the brain reacted when you sensed the presence of God. Neurons fired like pupils contracting against a bright light.

“Paula?” someone said. “Paula.”

She blinked. An LPN stood by the bed with a plastic med cup. Her breakfast tray was gone. How long had she been ruminating? “Sorry, I was lost in thought there.”

The nurse handed Paula the Topamax and watched as she took them. After the required ritual—pulse, blood pressure, temperature—she finally left.

Esther said, “So what were you thinking about?”

Paula lay back on the pillows and let her eyes close. Her companion sat beside her on the bed, massaging the muscles of her left arm, loosening her cramped fingers. “I was thinking that when God calls you don’t worry about how he got your number,” she said. “You just pick up the receiver.”

“A-men,” Esther said.

Dr. Louden appeared a few minutes later accompanied only by Dr. Gerrholtz, the epidemiologist from the CDC. Maybe the other specialists had already grown bored with her case. “We have you scheduled for another PET scan this morning,” Louden said. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all last night, poor guy. “Is there anyone you’d like to call to be with you? A family member?”

“No thank you,” Paula said. “I don’t want to bother them.”

“I really think you should consider it.”

“Don’t worry, Dr. Louden.” She wanted to pat his arm, but that would probably embarrass him in front of Dr. Gerrholtz. “I’m perfectly fine.”

Louden rubbed a hand across his skull. After a long moment he said, “Aren’t you curious about why we ordered a PET scan?” Dr. Gerrholtz gave him a hard look.

Paula shrugged. “Okay, why did you?”

Louden shook his head, disappointed again that she wasn’t more concerned. Dr. Gerrholtz said, “You’re a professional, Paula, so we’re going to be straight with you.”

“I appreciate that.”

“We’re looking for amyloid plaques. Do you know what those are?” Paula shook her head and Gerrholtz said, “Some types of proteins weave into amyloid fibers, forming a plaque that kills cells. Alzheimer patients get them, but they’re also caused by another family of diseases. We think those plaques are causing your seizures, and other symptoms.”

Other symptoms. Her companion leaned against her shoulder, his hand entwined in hers. “Okay,” Paula said.

Louden stood up, obviously upset. “We’ll talk to you after the test. Dr. Gerrholtz?”

The CDC doctor ignored him. “We’ve been going through the records, Paula, looking for people who’ve reported symptoms like yours.” She said it like a warning. “In the past three months we’ve found almost a dozen—and that’s just at this hospital. We don’t know yet how many we’ll find across the city, or the country. If you have any information that will help us track down what’s happening, you need to offer it.”

“Of course,” Paula said.

Gerrholtz’ eyes narrowed. She seemed ready to say something else—accuse her, perhaps—but then shook her head and stalked from the room.

Esther watched her go. After a minute of silence, the woman said, “Don’t you worry, honey. It’s not the doctors who are in charge here.”

“Oh I’m not worried,” Paula said. And she wasn’t. Gerrholtz obviously distrusted her—maybe even suspected the nature of Paula’s mission—but what could that matter? Everything was part of the plan, even Dr. Gerrholtz.

By noon they still hadn’t come to get her for the scan. Paula drifted in and out of sleep. Twice she awoke with a start, sure that her companion had left the room. But each time he appeared after a few seconds, stepping out from a corner of her vision.

The orderly came by just as the lunch trays arrived, but that was okay, Paula wasn’t hungry. She got into the wheelchair and the orderly rolled her down the hall to the elevators. Her companion walked just behind them, his dusty feet scuffing along.

The orderly parked her in the hall outside radiology, next to three other abandoned patients: a gray-faced old man asleep in his chair; a Hispanic teenager with a cast on her leg playing some electronic game; and a round-faced white boy who was maybe twenty or twenty-one.

The boy gazed up at the ceiling tiles, a soft smile on his face. After a few minutes, Paula saw his lips moving.

“Excuse me,” Paula said to him. It took several tries to get his attention. “Have you ever visited a yellow house?” The young man looked at her quizzically. “A house that was all yellow, inside and out.”

He shook his head. “Sorry.”

None of the women still at the yellow house would have tried to save a man, but she had to ask. The boy had to be one of the converts, someone Paula’s mission had saved.

“Can I ask you one more question?” Paula said, dropping her voice slightly. The old man slept on, and the girl still seemed engrossed in her game. “Who is it that you’re talking to?”

The boy glanced up, laughed quietly. “Oh, nobody,” he said.

“You can tell me,” Paula said. She leaned closer. “I have a companion of my own.”

His eyes widened. “You have a ghost following you too?”

“Ghost? No, it’s not a—”

“My mother died giving birth to me,” he said. “But now she’s here.”

Paula touched the boy’s arm. “You don’t understand what’s happened to you, do you?” He hadn’t come by way of the yellow house, hadn’t met any of the sisters, hadn’t received any instruction. Of course he’d tried to make sense of his companion any way he could. “You’re not seeing a ghost. You’re seeing Jesus himself.”

The boy laughed loudly, and the teenage girl looked up from her game. “I think I’d know the difference between Jesus and my own mother,” the young man said.

“Maybe that’s why he took this form for you,” Paula said. “He appears differently for each person. For you, your mother is a figure of unconditional love. A person who sacrificed for you.”

“Okay,” the young man said. He tilted his head, indicating an empty space to Paula’s right. “So what does yours look like?”

God came through the windshield on a shotgun blast of light. Blinded, Paula cried out and jammed on the brakes. The little Nissan SUV bucked and fishtailed, sending the CDs piled on the seat next to her clattering onto the floorboards.

White. She could see nothing but white.

She’d stopped in heavy traffic on a four-lane road, the shopping center just ahead on her right. She’d been heading for the dumpsters behind the Wal-Mart to dispose with those CDs once and for all.

Brakes shrieked behind her. Paula ducked automatically, clenched against the pending impact, eyes screwed shut. (Still: Light. Light.) A thunderclap of metal on metal and the SUV rocked forward. She jerked in her seatbelt.

Paula opened her eyes and light scraped her retinas. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks.

She clawed blindly at her seatbelt buckle, hands shaking, and finally found the button and yanked the straps away. She scrambled over the shifter to the passenger seat, the plastic CD cases snapping and sliding under her knees and palms.

She’d found them deep in Claire’s closet. The girl was away at her father’s for the mandated 50% of the month, and Paula had found the CDs stacked hidden under a pile of blankets and stuffed animals. Many of the cases were cracked and warped by heat and most CDs had no cases at all. The day after the bonfire, Paula had caught the girl poking through the mound of plastic and damp ashes and told her not to touch them. Claire had deliberately disobeyed, sneaking out to rescue them sometime before the garbage men took the pile away. The deception had gone on for months. All the time Paula thought Claire was listening to her own music—crap by bubble-gum pop stars and American Idols—her headphones were full of her father’s music: Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Pearl Jam, Nirvana.

Paula pushed open the passenger door and half fell out the door, into the icy March wind. She got her feet under her, stumbled away from the light, into the light. Her shins struck something—the guard rail?—and she put out a hand to stop from pitching over. Cold metal bit her palms. Far to her right, someone shouted angrily. The blare and roar of traffic surrounded her.

Paula dropped to her knees and slush instantly soaked her jeans. She covered her head with both arms. The light struck her neck and curved back like a rain of sharpened stones.

The light would destroy her. Exactly as she deserved.

Something touched the top of her head, and she shuddered in fear and shame and a rising ecstasy that had nothing to do with sex. She began to shake, to weep.

I’m sorry, she said, perhaps out loud. I’m sorry.

Someone stood beside her. She turned her head, and he appeared out of the light. No—in the light, of the light. A fire in the shape of a man.

She didn’t know him, but she recognized him.

He looked down at her, electric blue eyes through white bangs, his shy smile for her only. He looked like Kurt Cobain.

“I’m not taking the meds anymore,” Paula said. She tried to keep her voice steady. Louden stood beside the bed, Gerrholtz behind him holding a portfolio in her hands as big as the Ten Commandments. They’d walked past Esther without saying a word.

Her companion lay on the floor beside her bed, curled into a ball. He seemed to be dissolving at the edges, dissipating into fog. He’d lain there all morning, barely moving, not even looking at her.

“That’s not a good idea,” Dr. Louden said. He pulled a chair next to the bed, scraping through her companion as if he wasn’t there. Paula grimaced, the old rage flaring up. She closed her eyes and concentrated.

“I’m telling you to stop the drugs,” she said. “Unless I’m a prisoner here you can’t give me medicine that I refuse.”

Louden exhaled tiredly. “This isn’t like you, Paula,” he said.

“Then you don’t know me very well.”

He leaned forward, resting elbows on knees, and pressed the fingers of one hand into his forehead. More TLE patients were rolling in every day. The nurses murmured about epidemics. Poor Dr. Adequate had been drafted into a war he didn’t understand and wasn’t prepared for.

“Help me then,” he said without looking up. “Tell me what you’re experiencing.”

Paula stared at the TV hanging from the ceiling. She left it on all the time now, sound off. The images distracted her, kept her from thinking of him on the floor beside her, fading.

Gerrholtz said, “Why don’t I take a guess? You’re having trouble seeing your imaginary friend.”

Paula snapped her head toward the woman. You bitch. She almost said it aloud.

Gerrholtz regarded her coolly. “A woman died two days ago in a hospital not far from here,” she said. “Her name was Stephanie Wozniak. I’m told she was a neighbor of yours.”

Steph is dead? She couldn’t process the thought.

Gerrholtz took the sheets from her portfolio and laid them on Paula’s lap. “I want you to look at these.”

Paula picked them up automatically. The photographs looked like microscope slides from her old bio-chem classes, a field of cells tinged brown by some preserving chemical. Spidery black asterisks pock-marked the cells.

“Those clumps of black are bundles of prions,” Gerrholtz said. “Regular old proteins, with one difference—they’re the wrong shape.”

Paula didn’t look up. She flipped the printouts one by one, her hand moving on its own. Some of the pictures consisted almost entirely of sprawling nests of black threads. Steph deserved better than this. She’d waited her whole life for a Fore funeral. Instead the doctors cut her up and photographed the remains.

“I need you to concentrate, Paula. One protein bent or looped in the wrong way isn’t a problem. But once they’re in the brain, you get a conformational cascade—a snowball effect.”

Paula’s hands continued to move but she’d stopped seeing them. Gerrholtz rattled on and on about nucleation and crystallization. She kept using the word spongiform as if it would frighten her.

Paula already knew all this, and more. She let the doctor talk. Above Gerrholtz’ head the TV showed a concerned young woman with a microphone, police cars and ambulances in the background.


Dr. Gerrholtz’ face was rigid with anger. Paula wondered if that’s what she used to look like when she fought with Richard or screamed at Claire.

“I noticed you avoided saying ‘Mad Cow,’” Paula said. “And Kuru.”

“You know about Kuru?” Louden said.

“Of course she does,” Gerrholtz said. “She’s done her homework.” The doctor put her hands on the foot of Paula’s bed and leaned forward. “The disease that killed Stephanie doesn’t have a name yet, Paula. We think it’s a Kuru variant, the same prion with an extra kink. And we know that we can’t save the people who already have it. Their prions will keep converting other proteins to use their shape. You understand what this means, don’t you Paula?”

Still trying to scare her. As if the promise of her own death would break her faith.

On the screen, the reporter gestured at two uniformed officers sealing the front door with yellow tape that looked specially chosen to match the house. Paula wondered if they’d found Merilee yet.

“It means that God is an idea,” Paula said. “An idea that can’t be killed.”

The house shimmered in her vision, calling her like a lighthouse; she understood now why they’d painted it so brightly. Minutes after the accident her vision darkened like smoked glass, and now only the brightest things drew her attention. Her companion guided her down the dark streets, walking a few feet in front of her, surrounded by a nimbus of fire.

Steph opened the door. When she saw the tears in her eyes Steph squealed in delight and pulled her into a hug. “We’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “We’ve been waiting so long.” And then Steph was crying too.

“I’m sorry,” Paula said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know . . .”

The other women came to her one by one, hugging her, caressing her cheeks, all of them crying. Only Merilee couldn’t get up to greet her. The woman lay on the same couch as four months ago, but her limbs had cinched tighter, arms and legs curled to her torso like a dying bug. Paula kneeled next to her couch and gently pressed her cheek to Merilee’s. Paula spoke the Fore greeting: I eat you.

That was the day one life ended and another began.

Her vision slowly returned over the next few days, but her companion remained, becoming more solid every day. They told her she didn’t have to worry about him leaving her. She called in sick to work and spent most of the next week in the yellow house, one minute laughing, the next crying, sometimes both at the same time. She couldn’t stop talking about her experience on the road, or the way her companion could make her recognize her vanity or spite with just a faint smile.

Her old life had become something that belonged to a stranger. Paula thought of the blank weekends of Scotch and Vicodin, the screaming matches with Richard. Had she really burned his record collection?

When she called him, the first thing she said was, “I’m sorry.”

“What is it, Paula.” His voice flat, wary. The Paula he knew only used “sorry” to bat away his words, deflect any attack.

“Something wonderful’s happened,” she said. She told him about Steph and the women of the house, then skipped the communion to tell him about the accident and the blinding light and the emotions that flooded through her. Richard kept telling her to slow down, stop stumbling over her words. Then she told him about her companion.

Who did you meet?” he said. He thought it was someone who’d witnessed the accident. Again she tried to explain.

Richard said, “I don’t think Claire should come back there this weekend.”

“What? No!” She needed to see Claire. She needed to apologize to her, promise her she’d do better. She gripped the receiver. Why couldn’t Richard believe her? Why was he fighting her again?

She felt a touch on the back of her head. She turned, let her hand fall to the side. His blue eyes gazed into hers.

One eyebrow rose slightly.

She breathed. Breathed again. Richard called her name from the handset.

“I know this is a lot to adjust to,” Paula said. The words came to her even though her companion didn’t make a sound. “I know you want the best for Claire. You’re a good father.” The words hurt because they were true. She’d always thought of Richard as a weak man, but if that had once been true, Claire’s birth had given him someone weaker to protect. As their daughter became older he took her side against Paula more and more often. The fights worsened, but she broke him every time. She never thought he’d have the guts to walk out on her and try to take Claire with him. “If you think she’d be better off with you for awhile, we can try that.” She’d win his trust soon enough.

In the weeks after, Claire stayed with Richard, and Paula did hardly anything but talk with the yellow house women. At work the head nurse reprimanded her for her absences but she didn’t care. Her life was with the women now, and her house became almost an annex to theirs. “We have room for more,” Paula said dozens of times. “We have to tell others. It’s not right to keep this to ourselves when so many people are suffering.” The women nodded in agreement—or perhaps only in sympathy. Each of them had been saved, most of them from lives much worse than Paula’s. They knew what changes were possible.

“You have to be patient,” Steph told her one day. “This gift is handed from woman to woman, from Merilee’s grandmother down to us. It comes with a responsibility to protect the host. We have to choose carefully—we can’t share it with everyone.”

“Why not?” Paula said. “Most of us would be dead without it. We’re talking about saving the world here.”

“Yes. One person at a time.”

“But people are dying right now,” Paula said. “There has to be a way to take this beyond the house.”

“Let me show you something,” Steph said. She brought down a box from a high bookshelf and lifted out a huge family Bible. Steph opened it to the family tree page, her left hand trembling. “Here are some of your sisters,” she said. “The ones I’ve known anyway.”

The page was full of names. The list continued on the next page, and the next. Over a hundred names.

“How long has this been going on?” Paula said in wonder.

“Merilee’s mother came here in 1982. Some of the women lived in this house for a while, and then were sent to establish their own houses. We don’t know how many of us there are now, spread around the country. None of us knows all of them.” She smiled at her. “See? You’re not so alone. But we have to move quietly, Paula. We have to meet in small groups, like the early Christians.”

“Like terrorists,” Paula said bitterly.

Steph glanced to the side, listening to her companion. “Yes,” she said, nodding. And then to Paula: “Exactly. There’s no terror like the fear of God.”

He woke her at 3 a.m. Paula blinked at him, confused. He hovered beside the bed, only half there, like a reflection in a shop window.

She forced herself awake and as her vision cleared the edges of him resolved, but he was still more vapor than solid. “What is it?” she said. He teasingly held a finger to his lips and turned toward Esther’s bed. He paused, waiting for her.

Paula slipped out of the bed and moved quietly to the cabinet against the wall. The door came open with a loud clack, and she froze, waiting to see if she’d awakened her roommate. Esther’s feathery snore came faint and regular.

Paula found her handbag at the bottom shelf and carried it to the window. Feeling past her wallet fat with ID cards, she pulled out the smaller vinyl case and laid it open on the sill like a butterfly.

The metal tip of the syringe reflected the light.

Paula made a fist of her left hand, flexed, tightened again. Working in the faint light, she found the vein in her arm mostly by feel and long familiarity, her fingertips brushing first over the dimpled scars near the crook of her elbow, then down half an inch. She took the syringe in her right hand and pressed into the skin. The plastic tube slowly filled.

Paula picked her way through the dim room until her hand touched the IV bag hanging beside Esther’s bed. The woman lay still, her lips slightly apart, snoring lightly. It would be simple to inject the blood through the IV’s Y-port.

But what if it was too late for her? The host incubated for three to six months. Only if the cancer stayed in remission that long would the woman have a chance to know God. Not her invisible, unseen God. The real thing.

Paula reached for the tubing and her companion touched her arm. She lowered the syringe, confused. Why not inject her? She searched his face for a reason, but he was so hard to see.

He turned and walked through the wall. Paula opened the door and stepped into the bright hallway, and for a moment she couldn’t find him in the light. He gestured for her to follow.

She followed his will-o’-the-wisp down the deserted corridor, carrying the syringe low at her side. He led her down the stairwell, and at the next floor went left, left again. At an intersection a staffer in blue scrubs passed ten feet in front of them without seeing them.

Perhaps she’d become invisible too.

Her companion stopped before a door and looked at her. It was one of the converted rooms where doctors on call could catch some sleep. Here? she asked with her eyes. He gestured toward the door, his arm like a tendril of fog.

She gripped the handle, slowly turned. The door was unlocked. Gently she pushed it open.

The wedge of light revealed a woman asleep on the twin bed, a thin blanket half covering her. She wore what Paula had seen her in earlier: a cream blouse gleaming in the hall light, a patterned skirt rucked above her knees, her legs dark in black hose. Her shoes waited side-by-side on the floor next to the bed, ready for her to spring back into action and save her world.

Paula looked back at the doorway. Dr. Gerrholtz? she asked him. Did he really want this awful woman to receive the host?

His faint lips pursed, the slightest of frowns, and Paula felt a rush of shame. Who was she to object? Before Steph had found her Paula had been the most miserable woman alive. Everyone deserved salvation. That was the whole point of the mission.

Dr. Gerrholtz stirred, turned her head slightly, and the light fell across her closed eyes. Paula raised the needle, moved her thumb over the plunger. No handy IV already connected. No way to do this without waking the woman up. And she’d wake up screaming.

“Hello?” Dr. Gerrholtz said. Her eyes opened, and she lifted a hand to shade her eyes.

Jesus is coming, Paula said silently, and pressed the needle into her thigh.

Paula and Tonya stooped awkwardly at the edge of the pit, clearing the sand. They dug down carefully so that their shovel blades wouldn’t cut too deep, then pitched the spark-flecked sand into the dark of the yard. They worked in short-sleeves, sweating despite the cold wind. With every inch they uncovered, the pit grew hotter and brighter.

It was hard work, and their backs still ached from this morning when they’d dug the pit, hauled over the big stones, and lined the bottom with them. But Paula had volunteered for this job. She wanted to prove that she could work harder than anyone.

Inside the house, women laughed and told stories, their voices carrying through the half-opened windows. Paula tossed aside a shovelful of sand and said, “Tonya, have you ever asked why no men are invited?” She’d thought about her words for a long time. She wanted to test them on Tonya first, because she was young and seemed more open than the other women.

Tonya looked up briefly, then dug down again with her shovel. “That’s not the tradition.”

“But what about Donel? Wouldn’t you want this for him?” Donel was Tonya’s son, only two years old. He shared a bedroom with her, but all the women took care of him.

Tonya paused, leaned against her shovel. “I . . . I think about that. But it’s just not the way it’s done. No men at the feast.”

“But what if we could bring the feast to them?” Paula said. “I’ve been reading about Merilee’s people, the disease they carried. There’s more than one way to transmit the host. What if we could become missionaries some other way?”

The girl shook her head. “Merilee said that men would twist it all up, just like they did the last time.”

“All the disciples were men last time. This time they’re all women, but that doesn’t make it right. Think about Donel.” Think about Richard.

“We better keep going,” Tonya said, ending the conversation. She started digging again, and after a moment, Paula joined her. But she kept thinking of Richard. He’d become more guarded over the past few months, more protective of Claire. When her daughter turned 14—another of Merilee’s rules—Paula would bring her to communion. But if she could also bring it to Richard, if he could experience what she’d found, they could be a family again.

Several minutes later they found the burlap by the feel under their shovels. They scraped back the sand that covered the sack, then bent and heaved it up onto a pallet of plywood and one-by-fours. After they’d caught their breath they called the others from the house.

Over seventy women had come, some of them from as far away as New Zealand. None of them had come alone, of course. The air was charged with a multitude of invisible presences.

Eight of the women were chosen as pall bearers. The procession moved slowly because so many of them walked with difficulty. God’s presence burned the body like a candle—Merilee’s early death was proof of that—but not one of them would trade Him for anything. A perfect body was for the next life.

Steph began to sing something in Merilee’s language, and the others joined in, harmonizing. Some knew the words; others, like Paula, hummed along. Women cried, laughed, lifted their hands. Others walked silently, perhaps in communion with their companions.

There was an awkward moment when they had to tilt the litter to get through the back door, but then they were inside. They carried her though the kitchen—past the stacks of Tupperware, the knives and cutting boards, the coolers of dry ice—then through the dining room and into the living room. The furniture had been pushed back to the walls. They set the litter in the center of the room.

Paula gripped the stiff and salt-caked cloth—they’d soaked the body overnight—while Steph sawed the length of it with a thick-bladed knife. Steam escaped from the bag, filling the room with a heady scent of ginger and a dozen other spices.

The last of the shroud fell away and Merilee grinned up at them. Her lips had pulled away from her teeth, and the skin of her face had turned hard and shiny. As she’d instructed, they’d packed ferns and wild herbs around her, dressing her in a funeral dress of leaves.

Steph kneeled at the head of the impromptu table and the others gathered around. The oldest and most crippled were helped down to the floor; the rest stood behind them, hands on their shoulders.

Steph opened a wooden box as big as a plumber’s toolbox and drew out a small knife. She laid it on a white linen next to Merilee’s skull and said, “Like many of you I was at the feast of Merilee’s mother, and this is the story Merilee told there.

“It was the tradition of the Fore for the men and women to live apart. When a member of the tribe died, only the women and children were allowed at the feast. The men became jealous. They cursed the women, and they called the curse kuru, which means both ‘to tremble’ and ‘to be afraid.’ The white missionaries who visited the tribe called it the laughing sickness, because of the grimaces that twisted their faces.”

As she talked she laid out other tools from the box: a filet knife, a wooden-handled fork with long silver tines, a Japanese cleaver.

“Merilee’s grandmother, Yobaiotu, was a young woman when the first whites came, the doctors and government men and missionaries. One day the missionaries brought everyone out to the clearing they’d made by the river and gave everyone a piece of bread. They told them to dip it into a cup of wine and eat, and they said the words Jesus had spoken at the last supper: This is my body, this is my blood.”

Steph drew out a long-handled knife and looked at it for perhaps thirty seconds, trying to control her emotions. “The moment Yobaiotu swallowed the bread, she fell down shaking, and a light filled her eyes. When she awoke, a young boy stood at her side. He held out his hand to her, and helped her to her feet. ‘Lord Jesus!’ Yobaiotu said, recognizing him.” Steph looked up, smiled. “But of course no one else could see him. They thought she was crazy.”

The women quietly laughed and nodded.

“The doctors said that the funeral feasts caused Kuru, and they ordered them to stop. But Yobaiotu knew the curse had been transformed in her, that the body of Christ lived in her. She taught her daughters to keep that covenant. The night Yobaiotu died they feasted in secret, as we do tonight.”

Steph removed the center shelf of the box, set it aside, and reached in again. She lifted out a hacksaw with a gleaming blade. A green price tag was still stuck to the saw’s blue handle.

“The body of Christ was passed from mother to daughter,” Steph said. “Because of them, Christ lives in all of us. And because of Merilee, Christ will live in sisters who’ve not yet been found.”

“Amen,” the women said in unison.

Steph lifted the saw, and with her other hand gently touched the top of Merilee’s skull. “This we do in remembrance of him,” she said. “And Merilee.”

The screaming eventually brought Louden to her room. “Don’t make me sedate you,” he began, and then flinched as she jerked toward him. The cuffs held her to the bed.

“Bring him back!” she screamed, her voice hoarse. “Bring him back now!”

Last night they’d taken her to another room, one without windows, and tied her down. Arms apart, ankles together. Then they attached the IV and upped the dosage: two parts Topamax, one part Loxapine, an anti-psychotic.

Gerrholtz they rushed to specialists in another city.

A hospital security guard took up station outside her door, and was replaced the next morning by a uniformed police officer. Detectives came to interrogate her. Her name hadn’t been released to the news, they said, but it would only be a matter of time. The TV people didn’t even know about Gerrholtz—they were responding to stories coming out of the yellow house investigation—but already they’d started using the word “bio-terrorism.” Sometime today they’d move her to a federal facility.

Minute by minute the drugs did their work and she felt him slipping from her. She thought, if I keep watch he can’t disappear. By twisting her shoulders she could see a little way over the bed and make out a part of him: a shadow that indicated his blue-jeaned leg, a cluster of dots in the speckled Linoleum that described the sole of a dirty foot. When the cramps in her arms and lower back became too much she’d fall back, rest for awhile, then throw herself sideways again. Each time she looked over the edge it took her longer to discern his shape. Two hours after the IV went in she couldn’t find him at all.

Louden said, “What you experienced was an illusion, Paula, a phantom generated by a short-circuiting lobe of your brain. There’s a doctor in Canada who can trigger these presences with a helmet and magnetic fields, for crying out loud. Your . . . God wasn’t real. Your certainty was a symptom.”

“Take me off these meds,” she said, “or so help me I’ll wrap this IV tube around your fucking neck.”

“This is a disease, Paula. Some of you are seeing Jesus, but we’ve got other patients seeing demons and angels, talking to ghosts—I’ve got one Hindu guy who’s sharing the bed with Lord Krishna.”

She twisted against the cuffs, pain spiking across her shoulders. Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth.

“Paula, I need you to calm down. Your husband and daughter are downstairs. They want to visit you before you leave here.”

“What? No. No.” They couldn’t see her like this. It would confirm everything Richard ever thought about her. And Claire . . . She was 13, a girl unfolding into a woman. The last thing she needed was to have her life distorted by this moment. By another vivid image of her mother as a raving lunatic.

“Tell them to stay away from me. The woman they knew doesn’t exist anymore.”

This morning the detectives had emptied her bag and splayed the driver’s licenses and social security IDs like a deck of cards. How long has this been going on? they demanded. How many people are involved?

They gave her a pencil and yellow legal pad, told her to write down all the names she could remember. She stared at the tip of the pencil. An epidemiology book she’d read tried to explain crystallization by talking about how carbon could become graphite or diamond depending on how the atoms were arranged. The shapes she made on the page could doom a score of her missionaries.

She didn’t know what to do. She turned to her companion but he was silent, already disintegrating.

“You’re too late,” she told the detectives. She snapped the pencil in half and threw it at them, bits of malformed diamond. “Six months too late.”

They called themselves missionaries. Paula thought the name fit. They had a mission, and they would become agents of transmission.

The first and last meeting included only eighteen women. Paula had first convinced Tonya and Rosa from the yellow house, and they had widened the circle to a handful of women from houses around Philly, and from there they persuaded a few more women from New York and New Jersey. Paula had met some of them at Merilee’s feast, but most were strangers. Some, like Tonya, were mothers of sons, but all of them had become convinced that it was time to take the gospel into the world.

They met at a Denny’s restaurant in the western suburbs, where Steph and the other women wouldn’t see them.

“The host is not a virus,” Paula said. “It’s not bacterial. It can’t be detected or filtered out the way other diseases are, it can’t be killed by antibiotics or detergents, because it’s nothing but a shape.” A piece of paper can become a sailboat or swan, she told them. A simple protein, folded and copied a million times, could bring you Kuru, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or salvation.

“The body of Christ is powerful,” Paula said. They knew: all of them had taken part in feasts and had been saved through them. “But there’s also power in the blood.” She dealt out the driver licenses, two to each woman. Rosa’s old contacts had made them for fifty bucks apiece. “One of these is all you need to donate. We’re working on getting more. With four IDs you can give blood twice a month.”

She told them how to answer the Red Cross surveys, which iron supplements to buy, which foods they should bulk up on to avoid anemia. They talked about secrecy. Most of the other women they lived with were too bound by tradition to see that they were only half doing God’s work.

Women like Steph. Paula had argued with her a dozen times over the months, but could not convince her. Paula loved Steph, and owed so much to her, but she couldn’t sit idly by any longer.

“We have to donate as often as possible,” Paula said. “We have to spread the host so far and so fast that they can’t stop us by rounding us up.” The incubation time depended directly on the amount consumed, so the more that was in the blood supply the faster the conversions would occur. Paula’s conversion had taken months. For others it might be years.

“But once they’re exposed to the host the conversion will happen,” Paula said. “It can’t be stopped. One seed crystal can transform the ocean.”

She could feel them with her. They could see the shape of the new world.

The women would never again meet all together like this—too dangerous—but they didn’t need to. They’d already become a church within the church.

Paula hugged each of them as they left the restaurant. “Go,” she told them. “Multiply.”

The visitor seemed familiar. Paula tilted her head to see through the bars as the woman walked toward the cell. It had become too much of a bother to lift Paula out of the bed and wheel her down to the conference room, so now the visitors came to her. Doctors and lawyers, always and only doctors and lawyers. This woman, though, didn’t look like either.

“Hello, Paula,” she said. “It’s Esther Wynne. Do you remember me?”

“Ah.” The memory came back to her, those first days in the hospital. The Christian woman. Of course she’d be Paula’s first voluntary visitor. “Hello, Esther.” She struggled to enunciate clearly. In the year since they’d seen each other, Paula’s condition had worsened. Lips and jaw and arms refused to obey her, shaking and jerking to private commands. Her arm lay curled against her chest like Merilee’s. Her spine bent her nearly in half, so that she had to lie on her side. “You look—” She made a sound like a laugh, a hiccupping gasp forced from her chest by an unruly diaphragm. “—good.”

The guard positioned a chair in front of the bars and the older woman sat down. Her hair was curled and sprayed. Under the makeup her skin looked healthy.

“I’ve been worried about you,” Esther said. “Are they treating you well?”

Paula almost smiled. “As well as you can treat a mass murderer.”

Some facts never escaped her. The missionaries had spread the disease to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. But more damaging, they’d completely corrupted the blood supply. New prion filters were now on the market, but millions of gallons of blood had to be destroyed. They told her she may be ultimately responsible for the deaths of a million people.

Paula gave them every name she could remember, and the FBI tracked down all of the original 18, but by then the mission could go on without them. A day after the meeting in the restaurant they’d begun to recruit others, women and men Paula would never meet, whose names would never be spoken to her. The church would continue. In secret now, hunted by the FBI and the CDC and the world’s governments, but growing every day. The host was passed needle by needle in private ceremonies, but increasingly on a mass scale as well. In an Ohio dairy processing plant, a man had been caught mixing his blood into the vats of milk. In Florida, police arrested a woman for injecting blood into the skulls of chickens. The economic damage was already in the trillions. The emotional toll on the public, in panic and paranoia, was incalculable.

Esther looked around at the cell. “You don’t have anything in there with you. Can I bring you books? Magazines? They told me they’d allow reading material. I thought maybe—”

“I don’t want anything,” Paula said. She couldn’t hold her head steady enough to read. She watched TV to remind herself every day of what she’d done to the world. Outside the prison, a hundred jubilant protestors had built a tent city. They sang hymns and chanted for her release, and every day a hundred counter-protestors showed up to scream threats, throw rocks, and chant for her death. Police in riot gear made daily arrests.

Esther frowned. “I thought maybe you’d like a Bible.”

Now Paula laughed for real. “What are you doing here, Esther? I see that look in your eye, you think I don’t recognize it?” Paula twisted, pressed herself higher on one elbow. Esther had never been infected by the host—they wouldn’t have let her in here if she didn’t pass the screening—but her strain of the disease was just as virulent. “Did your Jesus tell you to come here?”

“I suppose in a way he did.” The woman didn’t seem flustered. Paula found that annoying.

Esther said, “You don’t have to go through this alone. Even here, even after all you’ve done, God will forgive you. He can be here for you, if you want him.”

Paula stared at her. If I want him. She never stopped craving him. He’d carved out a place for himself, dug a warren through the cells in her brain, until he’d erased even himself. She no longer needed pharmaceuticals to suppress him. He’d left behind a jagged Christ-shaped hole, a darkness with teeth.

She wanted him more than drugs, more than alcohol, more than Richard or Claire. She thought she’d known loneliness, but the past months had taught her new depths. Nothing would feel better than to surrender to a new god, let herself be wrapped again in loving arms.

Esther stood and leaned close to the bars so that their faces were only a couple feet apart. “Paula, if you died right now, do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’d go to heaven?” The guard told her to step back but she ignored him. She pushed one arm through the bars. “If you want to accept him, take my hand. Reach out.”

“Oh, Esther, the last—” Her upper lip pulled back over her gums. “—last thing I want is to live forever.” She fell back against the bed, tucked her working arm to her chest.

A million people.

There were acts beyond forgiveness. There were debts that had to be paid in person.

“Not hiding anymore,” Paula said. She shook her head. “No gods, no drugs. The only thing I need to do now—”

She laughed, but it was an involuntary spasm, joyless. She waited a moment until it passed, and breathed deep. “I need to die clean.”

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