An Excerpt from 'As Fast As It Is Gone'
Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3
Chapter 1 - David Riggs
THERE IS A GRAVESTONE IN ANN ARBOR where no one is buried. A granite boulder placed beside the brown Huron River, resting by the bike path between the Arb and Gallup Park. From the moment he saw it, the rock intrigued David Riggs. Affixed to it was a bronze memorial plaque embossed with a message. David Riggs took its message as an answer, because David Riggs was always looking for answers, even if he didn't know the questions. The plaque riddled, "Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you sing. Only when you reach the mountaintop shall you begin to climb. And when the Earth shall claim your limbs, only then shall you truly dance." David's interpretation of the inscription became his unifying theory until it nearly killed him - sacrifice is a measure of victory and there is no solace in chance.
David Ian Riggs, formerly of Boston, Massachusetts and Ann Arbor, Michigan, lay atop a plastic bed in Portland, Oregon. His eyelids weighed heavy as the cloud cover outside, but he could not sleep. Narcotics had numbed his wits. His gray-blue pupils traced a hazy-ceiling-tile journey. The nurse tucked his sheets and absent-mindedly checked his vital signs. Her motions weren't reassuring; David certainly wasn't going to talk to her about his family or his fear, much as he wanted to.
David's thoughts drifted to the memorial. It was hard not to, Sara had placed its photo directly in front of him on the bureau. He'd never found the picture very creative, but its answer was the important thing. It told him something true, and that made it worthwhile. Sara had dug its plastic frame out from the nether end of his closet. She was with David that faded January day when he'd photographed the plaque honoring the life of a boy who lived only to be 19 years old, himself only a 19 year-old boy wading in snow to his ankles walking down the middle of the frozen Huron. Sara remembered standing among the frosted trees on the river bank, falling in love with the man who walked on the river for a different perspective. She was a believer. Our collected objects illuminate our inner selves, she felt, and so she felt the memorial photo's presence could awaken David's dormant spirit.
David's sick box of a sick room smelled like a wet T-shirt pulled from a basement trunk. The nurse gone, he twisted his jaw and strained a glance at the black window and felt incredibly sad to stare at the small bulge of his feeble frame. Sara had left. His parents were so gone. Jared, his brother, was in Fiji or some damn place with the Peace Corps. David was in Sara's hometown, building equity near her mother. He clenched his face; his stomach seized. But no tears would fall. David may have once possessed natural crying ability, but it had been severed from him like the tail off a Rottweiler. But now he wanted to crumble; he wanted to arch his back and wail to the heavens the bullshit cry, 'why me?' Why this pain in my body? Why this pain in my mind? He scrunched his eyebrows and spat his frustration at the ceiling. Phlegm scattered on his cheeks and his face muscles spasmed. It seemed to David to be an instinctive male reaction, but he sniffed, and stifled any true tears.
"I'm sick of all this thinking," he muttered to the sailboats docked in the tranquil harbor scene in his hospital-room painting. He let go of the sheets and pounded the bed with both fists. He shook the cage on his bedside and screamed at the ceiling-tile canyons, stretching his neck and jutting his stubbly jaw. "I am SICK of all this THINKING!"
He cursed loud, irrespective of the hour. The ceiling tile did not care.
Then he began to die.
The shades were drawn, but David felt a draft sneak through the curtains. His right leg began to shake. Slowly at first, but then it lost control. Kicking wildly, his palms sweat despite the chill in his ribcage. He felt the indents of his hairline, the purple vessels strained against his temples and the sweat beads jettisoned on his forehead. He attempted to wrest control of his legs, but his stocky torso trembled too. David was five foot nine, but his head still smacked against the wall as his legs flailed at the other edge of the bed.
The machines around him buzzed and whistled in chorus. Contorted and confused, David grabbed at the bedrails and willed feeling into his body. "Don't die," he thought. His legs seized like an un-oiled engine. The crescendo of electronic monitors wailed while David, panic stricken, saw the ceiling tiles glow.
He heard emergency personnel barge in, an unquantifiable number of light blue trousers and wool sweaters. David felt jolted forward and bent over, his head tossed sideways, hearing the alarms. Then he was flipped the opposite direction, feeling the breath of those above him.
Doctor Epstein was recognizable as the bushy quaff above the hysteria. The doctor who'd remarried and gone to Mexico for his honeymoon and ran smack into Hurricane Ivan. David thought he'd caught a glimpse of Sara's long and straight Indian hair and felt comforted until she turned around with a full beard. The lights went out. Whoever turned out the lights must have started the fog machine.
Death's silhouette filled the doorway. Wearing a black hospital coat instead of a hooded robe, Death did not carry a long scythe. But it was obvious to David, as the door shut by a fiery red hand from the black hospital coat, something odd was going on here.
Death turned to David, its black face stark beneath a raging white flame. David called out for his father. Someone moved the pillows behind his head. That was better. But shifting his eyes back, Death still approached, its hospital coat surrounded by a faint glow.
David jerked his body but his body jerked back. His chest heaved as he struggled against the living. Death's flaming visage cut through the smoke and lowered, as if by rope. David could see two deep black holes swirling like cooling lava approach. Then Death spoke. "There is no need for fear, David Ian Riggs," it said.
Death knew his middle name.
Scream, he thought.
"Stop," Death pleaded. "You are dying, but you are not yet dead."
David grabbed a breath and tried to store it in his chest.
"Let it out."
David shook his head in defiance.
"…or it will be taken out."
David let go of the air slowly, pursing his lips.
Death revealed one glowing orange finger and pointed it at David's head. "You know who I am, David Ian."
David scrambled for a quick answer. He stretched his arms toward Death. "I want to live! Please…I pray!"
"Oh yes, you pray," Death said sarcastically. "You do not pray." Death placed one orange foot on the bed and lifted itself in the air horizontally above David's prone frame. David winced, but he was distracted by a glimpse into Death's vest. He saw a viscous nebula, like a distant galaxy, a sight he could never have imagined. He reared his head back and screamed again, "I have to live!"
"Sara…" he sobbed under his breath. "This isn't me. This isn't now…"
"You are not very strong, David Ian," Death concluded.
"I am strong," David reacted. "Sara's not here!"
In two weeks the year would be 2000 and the world would know if the dates matched up on their computers. The kinetic disaster of unfinished code threatened everything from airplanes dropping in mid-flight to alarm clocks that would make untimely rings. When the government prepared for disaster, David had thought, then he'd better. So before checking into the hospital, he purchased a fifty-dollar Y2K preparation kit containing spam, two C batteries, a gas mask, mint, duct tape and a stick of dynamite. He stashed it in the basement and immediately felt safer, regardless of how he might implement his tools.
Sara Riggs had left just two hours previous to David's episode, intending to spend her first night home in the past three. She tossed her wet winter accessories on the floor and waded into the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of merlot, drank it, and poured another. She shook her hair, thick yet light against her head, out of its ponytail, and she surmised the frivolity of the post and took her glass to the couch in silence. That soon grew lonely and so she turned on the TV.
Sara knew David had asked Doctor Epstein to ask her to leave. David wasn't so much as embarrassed to tell her as he knew she'd never listen. At least it showed David was thinking about her. At least it showed he could think at all. The couple Riggs both had trouble with humility.
But then the call came. David had gone into convulsions that nearly stopped his heart. "I knew it," she said, slamming down the phone. "I goddamn knew I shouldn't have left." She left the house without her favorite coat and the TV stayed on for two days.
By the time Sara arrived at Room 702, the bleeps had mellowed. It was midnight. The skeleton crew was largely oblivious to the earlier trauma. Not many of the night staff particularly liked David and his phobic outbursts anyway. She felt abandoned. She touched the tip of her long narrow nose to that of David's more rounded muzzle. His gown was torn. She fell asleep with her head resting on the bed next to him.
David hadn't had an episode this bad. Not where he went unconscious; not where his heart seized. In fact, Doctor Epstein had recently told Sara he was considering letting David go. He'd been wilting in his room. After only three weeks he no longer looked or sounded like himself.
Sara startled herself when she woke up.
But soon David woke, and right before he did, nasty green phlegm chunks fell from his mouth. Sara smiled because though he didn't put his hand up to wipe it, he'd twitched. Seconds later, awareness returned to his glassy eyes.
But David had actually woke hours earlier.
Weak and confused, he still recognized Sara folded over him, her long hair spread across the white sheet like the shadow of tall grass across a late summer evening meadow. She snored at her warm exhale. Sara's hand holding his felt lumpy. He slipped his hand from hers, tripping the machines with the awkwardness. Between their two wet hands she held a green crystal fused as long individual rods. He was too tired to question the energy Sara must have thought the rock transmitted. Though her stubborn persistence in karmic beliefs was a trait with which David could still resonate. And OK, maybe he was starting to agree with her. To her credit, David was the one in the hospital. David tried to sit up, but he couldn't.
He decided to brush that off and wait to fully wake up until Sara was awake too. It would make for a better performance.
"Sara," David said with a twitch in his voice.
"Yep?" she replied - her trademark affirmation.
"I don't think I can move my legs."
Bronchitis was not known to cause heart failure or paralysis.
Doctor Epstein visited the couple Riggs later that December morning, his afro-size curls glued together and his bushy eyebrows parted. Dr. Epstein had news. He had a diagnosis.
David liked the doctor. He was only a few years older than David and he'd gone to Michigan for med school. He talked full of jargon because he didn't know how to bullshit or relate to patients, having been originally focused on being a genetic researcher. David liked that honesty. The rest of the staff made David worry about being secretly maimed.
"About one in one hundred thousand people have what we feel you have, David," he explained, handing out his awkward prize. "It's called Guillan Barré Syndrome. A syndrome is a medical word for a condition," the Doctor assured. David said nothing.
"Let me explain. A syndrome is basically a collection of symptoms, possibly caused by a disease-causing agent."
"I see." David looked at Sara. She shrugged.
"Guillan Barré symptoms manifest around the nervous system. The syndrome is likely what engendered your paralysis." Alas, David's legs lay lifeless atop his mattress. "However," he continued, "The good news is, I feel OK about your condition, because in all the cases of Guillan Barré that I've seen, the paralysis has not been permanent. The degree of auto-immune syndrome affectation varies widely, however. And we don't know the causation for reoccurrence, but it does occur in some cases."
"How often?" Sara asked.
The Doctor's eyebrows raised and signaled he was unable to quantify an answer. "You know I can't give odds," he said, shaking his head as if telling himself as much as the couple Riggs. "Maybe thirty percent of Guillan Barré patients have weakness as much as three years later, but many heal quickly. We have theories as to why, but we don't have answers."
"But I want answers!" David erupted.
Sara rubbed his back as he hung his head.
The Doctor nodded.
David shook with frustration. "Well let me ask you this, doc. What am I even doing here?"
"You had quite an episode last night. How've you been feeling this morning?"
"Not so good," he said, betraying his worry. "I've been twitching a lot, and I can't sit up. How bad is that?"
"Well, does it hurt when I do this?" the Doctor asked as he raised his arm and playfully swung down, pretending to knock David's legs. Sara laughed; David did not.
"David, the twitch you have is related to the nerve impacts of Guillan Barré. That's the best I can tell you. The paralysis, I believe, will dissipate. The degree of affectation depends on the person, I'm afraid," he said. "Guillan Barré lives in the peripheral nervous system, basically your spinal cord. The one x-factor I can note is stress. Guillan Barré Syndrome can be triggered, we think, through another viral condition with the element of acute stress. Now I've never seen it appear quite like your case, but then again I'm not totally surprised by it, either." He raised one eyebrow. David raised his eyebrows in return. "The jump from the viral infection of bronchitis to autoimmune was probably related to acute stress, or genetics. But either way, in the short time we've known each other;" Doctor Epstein laughed, "I can safely say that you, my friend, need to relax." He arched one big eyebrow at Sara, who couldn't stop giggling. Sara saw David's bitterness in his eyes. The Doctor laughed. She could always read the emotions on his face, especially with David's dramatic tendencies.
After the doctor left, Sara kissed David softly on his lips. His pasty skin dragged beneath his pale blue eyes. He let his head go limp into her hands while she surveyed the patient. His formerly luscious brown curls had new gray ends. His energy was not flowing properly. Had it ever?
"Your mother was strong," she said, holding his head. "You have her strength in you David. We'll get through this." Her voice was soft, but the sweetness of her pitch was behind it. David recoiled, trying to shake a wont for his mother right then.
Sara wrapped one arm around the top of his right shoulder and the other under his left and adjusted him, letting his weight fall on her arms. "Uggh, you're still heavier than me," she commented. David's nostrils filled with her dirty hair.
"I feel like ass," he muttered.
"We've got lots of Christmas cards and letters and flowers and things at home, babe," Sara muttered.
David's right leg twitched. He checked it and glanced back at Sara, as if she would explain the shaking.
"From Jared," she continued. "He's a good brother! And Julien sent a gift." She took a short breath and turned her head to smile, "a kind of slick-leather Blazers jacket."
A nonchalant chortle, "That's the hospital prize, huh?"
"Yep," Sara smiled at David's sarcasm.
"Actually, guess who may be coming out," she teased.
"I don't know…"
"Wild Bill."
David perked up. "Wild Bill? Did you talk to him?"
"A little. It was last week and I was flustered and staying at mom's house and coming back to the hospital and talking to the insurance people more than either you or her…"
"Is he still in Colorado?"
David considered if he should say anything else, but he laid back and fell asleep.
David's legs started to function two days after Christmas. Doctor Epstein kept him in the hospital for another week, but just before New Years he released David. On the fateful Millennium Eve, the Y2K bug trapped neatly in amber, the couple Riggs lounged on their wide red couch with the television off and the fireplace on. Sara cooked a dinner of green salad, nuts, almonds and oranges, chicken sautéed in garlic and oil with a light tomato sauce, and her patient took his medicinal array. She administered doses of echinacea, golden seal, ginseng, and ginkgo, all from medicine-looking bottles. David also had an arsenal of pain medication. She allowed herself some of those as well.
A cold Alaskan front whipped down the dark green Willamette River valley. The frigid breath of the Kodiak poured south across the choppy waters of the Juan de Fuca Straight, squeezed through the pointy towers of Seattle and rode between the giant volcanoes of the Cascades and the mighty forests of the Coast Ranges. The cold air funneled south to the wide Columbia River. Along the former floodplain on the south bank at the confluence with the Willamette, the regional capital of Portland sat between great mountain chains. On the hills northwest of downtown, the windows of the Riggs' fifties-constructed clapboard home rattled against their wooden frames. The cold pierced the room through the old windows. The fire was small and with the lights turned low it puttered, feeling the rolling cold wind. Beyond their home lay Forest Park and then downtown, the home of resource commerce in the northwestern US. 54-40 or fight!
"You are alive," Sara whispered, brushing David's curls back to kiss his forehead.
The variety of medicines had slowed David's bloodstream to the pace of the mouth of the Columbia. He slept a lot and he dreamt a lot. Strange, vivid dreams of his parents and about work. As the millennium began, David dreamt a variation of one he'd had for over a year. He and Sara were in a house in the country. Creaky wood stairs led to the kitchen door. David knew that in the oven was a bomb that was going to explode. He was determined not to get caught in his dream again. He grabbed whoever was in there- Sara, a child, a dog and a cat that did not come easily. David pulled them all through a passage into a white bedroom and shut the door. A voice told David he was in the wrong room. But he waited, crouched behind the dresser. Sure enough…BOOM! A muffled blast shook the house; plaster fell from the ceiling. He opened the door to check the damage. In the new variation, however, Death stood in the debris-filled kitchen, clad in a black apron. David ran around the kitchen table in circles, waving a wooden spoon, the colors of Death's fiery head trailing. When David went back, Sara was gone. He walked down a long hallway with a bedroom at the end. She was in the bedroom. Someone was in there with her. He could not see her face. Someone knocked.
David woke, confused by his dream.
His foot was banging against the arm of the couch. Sara was not in the room; he didn't have the strength to call her. The firelight had died. David lay back, hyperventilating, picturing his demise. Sara. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes. "OK," he whispered aloud. He tried to corral his breath. "OK, fuck. OK."
But for five minutes he convulsed, fully awake and helpless as his body bucked like a rodeo bull, until the wave mercifully receded. He panted, mindful of after shocks.
After an hour lying wide-awake and terrified, David pushed himself up to a seated position. Exhausted, his gait resembled a limp as he went to the kitchen and set up a plate of grapes, olives, Swiss cheese and cole slaw. David pulled out the atlas and stared in the dark at maps of the stars, the oceans and the expanse of the continents. Maps held David's attention. They told him how to get somewhere, what he could find when he got there, and what he would see along the way.
"I am alive," he whispered. "Unbelievable." He took a bite while his other hand clawed through his untidy curls, rocking his head back and forth.
Sara stood in the darkness of the hallway. She recognized this behavior from when David had, previous to his disease, spent the odd night on the couch and gorged himself in the wee hours of the morning. So it seemed to Sara, peering at David with alacrity, that any gesture resembling an old behavior pattern was a reassuring sign at this point.
But then, a lot of people knew David Riggs as a selfish bastard.

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3