When Marissa said, "Maybe we should see other people," Nicholas decided to give her cancer.
Nicholas, like many geniuses, had his great obsession. The root of his monomania wasn't hard to trace. After all, he'd lost both his parents to cancer by the age of thirteen. He bore mute witness as they wasted away, leaking mucilaginous fluids onto crisp white hospital sheets. Colon cancer (father) and lung cancer (mother) had followed in quick succession.
Outwardly, he remained stoic; inwardly, he was a roil of emotion. First debilitating grief, then rage at his parents for abandoning him. Followed by searing guilt. Guilt at surviving. Guilt at having done nothing to save his parents. Certainly he'd been young when it all happened, not even of legal age; still he suffered lingering doubts that if only he'd asked the right questions, insisted on different doctors or courses of treatments, spoke out for his parents when they'd been unable, things might have gone differently. For years he prayed that cancer would take him too.
Seven months after he'd watched his mother's casket lowered into the ground alongside his father's grave, and one week after he turned thirteen, Nicholas matriculated at Harvard. By the age of sixteen he'd graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology. At twenty-five, he'd already published half a dozen groundbreaking studies, was a full professor at his alma mater and an M.D. His goal was nothing less than the Holy Grail of cancer research: a magic bullet to cure all cancers.
By twenty-eight, frustrated with the incessant struggle for funding and bothersome distractions of teaching, he'd left academe for full-time research in a corporate lab. Twelve years he toiled at Recombicon, insisting on working alone, skirted by colleagues made uncomfortable by his brooding intensity. He didn't care that he must look a freak to them, tall and thin, a long sad face, stooped shoulders, skin sallow from the fluorescent lights of the lab. More than once he'd been likened to John Carradine, the perennial B-movie mad scientist. Yet he did nothing to dispel this image, favouring somber garb and the dark stubble of almost-beards, while sectioning cancerous mammals with precise strokes of his scalpel.
But he was tolerated, venerated even, by the corporation's board: his work had produced several lucrative patents. They gave him the things he needed and left him alone. In the same way cancer had relentlessly consumed his parents' vital organs, so it consumed his imagination, day after day in the lab, and during endless, sheet-twisting nights in his spartan, bare-walled apartment.
Until Marissa happened into his life, that is.
Even obsessed geniuses can fall in love.
The IRS had sent Marissa to audit him, he never having filed a return, nor answered any of their letters. She waited for him outside his apartment, into the wee hours of the morning, until he dragged himself home from work.
She startled him, looming out of the darkness, spectral, pale as a gibbous moon, the oval of her lovely, preternatural face framed in white hair. But most startling of all were her eyes, deep-red pupils, like those of a photo's flash-frozen cat, surrounded by milky blue irises. Bewitched, Nicholas couldn't look away.
Marissa was a breathtakingly beautiful albino.
She wore a perfectly tailored, black suit, a shocking contrast to her unpigmented skin and Argentine hair. A red garnet pin on her lapel glowed with the same eerie light as her eyes. "You've been a bad boy," she said, and that was all it took for Nicholas to fall terminally in love.
An audit can be a simple thing if one keeps good records; or, if the records are spotty, it can take a long time, require the auditor and auditee to spend many hours huddled, head to head, weaving together the intimate details of one's financial life.
Nicholas' case was the latter. Not only had his parents come from money—carrying with them all the attendant stocks, bonds, and sundry other investments he'd inherited and then ignored—but the generous royalty contract he'd negotiated with his biotech firm had netted him a small fortune now that three of the drugs he'd developed were fairly burning up the market. His tax liability, penalties included, was substantial. Seven figures, was her guess. A prolonged audit would be necessary. Nicholas was elated.
Over the course of the next few weeks he spent less and less time at the lab, and more and more at his apartment with Marissa, sifting through his financial records, slowly exposing his empty life through an audit trail. Within days cancer had been displaced in all his waking thoughts by her; when she wasn't around, he suffered the pangs of nascent love, the sleepless nights and tortuous days waiting for her to reappear. To prolong the audit, he lost some of the critical paperwork, purposefully misreported on other forms.
She was unfazed. They ordered pizza as they tried to make sense of his statements of earning and losses; tipped espressos in the local donut shop as they sorted receipts. When it turned out he was nominal president of three numbered corporations, and that his net worth was in the tens of millions, he shrugged. Marissa was clearly puzzled by his reaction, at his indifference to his own wealth.
Still, she seemed to warm to him, took to calling him by his first name, to touching his arm lightly when she discovered something of interest in the sea of documents. One day, they even took boxes of pay stubs to dinner at her favourite restaurant, an intimate Turkish café. It was here, after the meal, that she jokingly suggested he might add to his paltry deductions by marrying her and having a child.
Marriage. A child. With Marissa.
His heart soared.
Weeks passed before the first kiss, weeks in which Nicholas fretted endlessly about her feelings, replayed their encounters over and over again in his mind trying to gauge her reactions to his clumsy advances. Marissa. Beautiful, delicate Marissa. When the last 'i' was dotted and last 't' crossed on his final return, they kissed.
For the first time, cancer seemed unimportant.
"Maybe we should see other people."
Marissa's words jolted Nicholas out of his body. He floated above them, the vacated shell of his physical self still in bed next to her, frozen in rejection, his glistening erection, not yet subsided, withering instantly. Twice before he'd experienced this out-of-body phenomenon: both times when the same stooped oncologist had explained his parents' cancers had metastasized.
"Things aren't working out the way I'd hoped," Marissa said to the shadows of his bedroom.
Nicholas collapsed back into his body. Every molecule of his being wanted to scream, No! You're wrong!, but he remained tight-lipped. As self-contained as he had been at the side of his parents' hospital beds.
"I don't think you're ready for this level of commitment."
How could she say that? Of course he was ready. Tonight he had planned on telling her he loved her. That he wanted to be with her forever. Too late for that now. Unless . . . Reaching out, he put his hand on her breast, traced its shape the way she liked.
"Don't." But her sharp intake of breath belied her admonition.
Nicholas feathered the back of his hand down her belly, felt tiny invisible hairs rise to meet his knuckles. As soft as a breeze, his hand slid between her legs, his long index finger straightening into the mucilaginous warmth. . . .
"No!" Marissa disentangled herself and rose, looming naked in the moonlight, her skin flawless as the finest English porcelain. Heart-stoppingly beautiful. A contrast, in Nicholas' imagination, to his own scrawny, consumptive form. Of course she wanted to see other men. Younger, better looking men. Men she could love the way he loved her. He pulled the sheets up to his chin, ashamed of his pitiful carcass. "You're dumping me."
"Don't say it like that, Nicholas."
His genius utterly failed him. She was slipping away while all he could do was stupidly clutch the edge of the sheet.
"You know I want children." She looked away. "I'm sorry, but I don't think you're ready."
So that's what this was about. "You're wrong."
"Look, Nicholas, you're a nice guy. But there's an anger inside you that scares me. It's poisoning our relationship. I can barely cope, so how could a child deal with it?"
Anger? Nicholas was taken aback. "I don’t know what you're talking about."
"You can't bring your parents back," she said sharply, as if she were annoyed at him for forcing her to explain. "Not by being with me. Or by having your own child." Marissa pulled on her panties, an absence of black against her alabaster skin, slid her arms through the straps of her bra, its dark lines bisecting her breasts. "I've got to get going." Her tone softened, became conciliatory. "We'll talk about it later. When we're calmer. Next week. Okay?"
He had nothing to say.
Too fast, too fast, she'd gathered up her things and was gone, leaving Nicholas in the dark, a ghostly after-image of her naked luminescence burnt indelibly into his corneas. He felt abandoned, lost, as much as he had that day he stood alone over the twin graves of his parents.
That was when he knew he had to give her cancer.
The essence of his plan was simple: he'd save her and she'd love him. How to do it? Three years ago he'd worked on a clandestine project funded by the CIA. The agency had requested an undetectable delivery system for aggressive cancers using emasculated viral vectors—a kind of deleterious gene therapy. Nicholas pulled up the old files. The cancer he selected, an accelerated pancreatic cancer, was one he'd fathered in his lab.
He knew its cell surface proteins as intimately as he would have known the face of his own child. And so knew its weaknesses too. In his experiments, he found that he could vanquish the malignant neoplasm easily, working miraculous recoveries in chimpanzees languishing in the latter stages of the disease. He also knew conventional therapies would be useless in fighting his variant. It was ideal. The only problem was its liquid suspension system: too dark, too viscid, and with a sharp, funky aftertaste that made it useless to the CIA.
But Marissa loved the thick, brackish coffee served at the Turkish place. Nicholas was right in believing that the murky liquid was one of the few substances likely to mask the taste, smell and appearance of his acrid, carcinogenic goo.
A tiny squeeze tube in his pocket. An opportune moment when she excused herself to go to the toilet. Nicholas picked up a silver-plated teaspoon, stirred, watching the liquid diffuse in the miniature cup. Marissa returned and resumed her seat. She looked at him oddly. Nicholas frowned, then realized he was still stirring her coffee. "Sorry," he said, dropping the spoon.
She looked at her cup, then at him. "Are you all right?"
Sweat trickled down his temple. "Fine."
His stomach knotted. Until now he'd been so focused on preparing his cancer he hadn't had time to experience doubts. Now he looked at her, at beautiful Marissa. What the hell was he doing? Reaching for her cup, he curled his fingers around it. "That one's probably cold. I'll order you another."
She grabbed his wrist. Nicholas felt his own quickened pulse beating beneath her pale fingers. "No. It's fine. I . . . I have to be going."
"Going? But we haven't really talked."
"I'm not sure there's a lot more to say." She looked away, out the window. "Besides," she said, far too casually, while letting go of his wrist. "I really do have to be going. Another case."
Another case? Another late night audit? Like his? Nicholas felt nauseous. He let go of the cup. Marissa picked it up and put it to her lips. Nicholas watched her drink. She dropped her share of the bill on the table and, with a chaste peck on Nicholas' cheek, was gone.
Six weeks later she called him from the cancer ward.
Ask any researcher: as good as a chimp is for modelling a human being, a chimp is not a human being. So, it shouldn't have been a complete surprise to Nicholas when things went awry. Amidst the monitor ping and the drip of the IV, he hovered over her hospital bed, devastated. Marissa's fingers clutched weakly at his. She looked deceptively normal. But inside things had gone very wrong.
Unlike the lab experiments, Marissa's cancer had metastasized. Slipped into other organs where it wasn't supposed to have gone. It spread with a single-minded virulence that befuddled the doctors at the hospital. In a matter of weeks Marissa's poor body had not only been assaulted by pancreatic cancer, but had been besieged with an inexplicable spate of other cancers afflicting her colon, lungs and throat. Nicholas' miraculous cure aimed at only one target: the pancreas. In that respect, the experimental drug he proffered the doctors had worked exceptionally well. They were singularly impressed at the results. But as for the other cancers . . .
They gave her four months, tops.
Nicholas stared at Marissa's beautiful, sad face. She would abandon him as his parents had. And, for all his genius, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Or was there?
He'd made the proposal to the board several years ago. His notion was to fight cancer with an equally aggressive vector: embryonic cells. Or, more specifically, trophoblasts cultivated from embryonic cells. After all, the embryo's struggle to bury itself in its mother's uterus was rivaled only by the assault of malignant cancer on normal tissue. His Powerpoint animation showed the engineered cells, his black magic bullets, dispersing throughout the body like a swarm of angry bees, targeting malignant growths, then hijacking critical blood for their own voracious appetite, starving out the malignancy. Once its host died, the engineered trophoblast cells would starve too. On Nicholas' screen bright tangles of tumorous cells crumbled under the onslaught, disappearing altogether. Complete remission in days. A catholicon for all cancers in a single syringe.
A convincing presentation, he thought.
Unfortunately, the board hadn't found it so. Rather, they found it unpalatable. Developing bio-weapons for the CIA was one thing; creating human embryos from which to harvest cells was another. Support for the project was roundly rejected, thus making it impossible for Nicholas to obtain the embryonic material he needed for his experiments. He moved on.
Only now his magic bullet was Marissa's last hope. She simply had too many tumors, too many targets, even if he stole all the experimental drugs he and his colleagues had ever produced and pumped her full of them. So Nicholas made a copy of the necessary files, snapped the lids onto several Petri dishes, and stuffed everything into his briefcase. Then he tendered his resignation.
The next day he rented a vacant butcher shop and spent a significant amount of his liquid assets equipping it. The place was in the middle of an industrial neighborhood, surrounded by decaying warehouses on three sides and a rail yard on the fourth.
Painting over the windows, he worked feverishly to convert the shop into part lab, part operating theatre. He installed everything necessary for blood work and biopsies, then put together an imaging centre of sorts, including an ultrasound and a used X-ray unit. Against one wall he placed a rack for a dozen rat cages; against the other he put two blue plastic-lined bins for animal waste. He'd use the animals to perform toxicity and side-effects tests—at least whatever time would allow.
Long after visiting hours had ended, the corridor was silent save for the occasional nightmare-inspired moan or distant sputum-laden cough. Unseen, Nicholas slipped past the sleepy duty nurse and crept into Marissa's darkened room. Her eyes were closed and her chest rose and fell with a wheezing irregularity. It had been a week since his last visit—he'd been busy prepping his lab and beginning the first series of live animal experiments—and her condition had so deteriorated Nicholas was shocked into momentary inaction.
She looked hollowed out, her cheeks sunken, her eyes dark bruises, her long glorious hair all but gone from the futile regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. Nicholas picked up her hand; it was limp and damp, like holding a drowned kitten. She stirred and groaned softly, her eyes fluttered open, startling him. Her red pupils were dilated. "Nicholas?"
"Wh . . . why . . ." She floated groggily in a sea of painkillers.
He stroked her forehead gently. "Why what, Marissa?"
"Why . . . did you . . . do this to me?"
Nicholas was taken aback. Did she know? She'd never mentioned it on any of his previous visits. Or was she just delirious, talking about something else, an errant memory swimming up through the analgesics? He searched her face, but couldn't tell. She swallowed and closed her eyes. In a moment her breathing slowed and, although shallow, became regular.
"Because I love you," Nicholas said, kissing her lightly on the forehead.
He carefully detached the IV drips, sliding the needles from her velum skin, dribbling bright red lines on her thin arms. Peeling back the tape, Nicholas removed two catheters. Cradling her like a newborn, he lifted and placed her in the wheelchair he'd brought. He made for the elevator, passing the now empty nursing station, and down to street level. He rolled her through the emergency room, past incurious, dazed eyes lost in their own pain, and out to his waiting van.
"Please, Nicholas, let me die." Marissa's voice was raspy; it was the first time she'd addressed him directly in a week. Usually when she spoke it was to phantoms; occasionally she sang snatches of children's songs. But for the last hour she'd followed his movements around the room from where she was strapped to the gurney, repeating her plea like a mantra.
Nicholas increased her morphine dose 2 milligrams. "Please—" she started again, then shuddered, lapsing into abrupt silence.
Nicholas felt a sharp pang of guilt; she hadn't really needed the analgesic. But his nerves were raw. And now, of all times, it was critical that he be able to concentrate. For three weeks he worked on culturing trophoblasts from Marissa's eggs and his sperm. Of the dozen of cultures he'd started, only one cell line was still viable. Nicholas filled a syringe with half of the murky fluid in which her final hope swam, slid it into a vein in her arm, then thumbed the plunger, firing his magic bullets at their targets.
Marissa rallied and Nicholas allowed himself a faint hope. In the days that followed, her tumors began to shrink. In the next two weeks her progress was astonishing; her recovery seemed a certainty. Nicholas was joyous.
Then her remission came to a crashing halt.
Her tumors began reasserting themselves. Nicholas applied a second course of treatment. It used up the last of his engineered cells. Only this time her rally lasted for no more than forty-eight hours. The cancer made up for its temporary abatement with a deadly new efficacy. Fresh lymphomas, carcinomas and myelomas appeared. Lumps developed in her breasts and uterus. Her left iris flecked with the black spots characteristic of melanoma of the eye and her nose developed ulcerating sores. Her beautiful, once pristine skin, slowly receded under masses of brown lesions and the red-purple nodules of Kaposi's sarcoma.
Esophageal cancer ravaged her throat, reducing her cry to an unrecognizable rasping noise. When an x-ray revealed the dark spots of several gliomas in her brain tissue, Nicholas finally understood her cancer-riddled organs were beyond even his powers of redemption. In days, perhaps hours, Marissa would succumb. He'd lost again. Six weeks to the day after he'd brought her here, exhausted and filled with desperate anguish, he pulled her off life support, then lay next to her on the gurney and wept.
Despite his belief that he was feeding the cancers more than her, Nicholas kept her IVs attached. He couldn't bear to starve her to death. He loved her too much for that. So she lingered another day. And then the next. For a whole week.
For two long weeks the cancers continued their rampage. She barely looked human. There wasn't a single centimeter of her ivory skin left; although she was still vaguely Marissa shaped, she was a mass of lesions, waxy brown lumps and suppurating tumors. Her left eye was dark with clotted blood. It swelled and crusted over, forcing her lid perpetually open. Nicholas leaned over to examine the brown, distended globe; he touched it with the tip of his latex-clad finger and it popped, spattering his cheek with a yellowish-white pus.
How could she be alive? Nicholas hadn't a clue. Unless . . .
A snatch of conversation he'd once had with Marissa came back to him, one of the few times he'd talked to her about his work.
"Isn't cancer caused by a mutation?" she'd asked.
He'd answered in the affirmative.
"And isn't that also how new species evolve?"
He conceded the point.
"So maybe cancer is a new form of life struggling to express itself."
At the time he'd tried to explain the naiveté of her point. But now Nicholas wondered if he hadn't been the naïve one.
Another week passed. Nicholas' lab filled with the stench of death, of the bacterial products of decay: histamine, putrescine and cadaverine. But instead of killing her, the tumors commandeered her organs and stabilized them, creating dark, clotted doppelgangers. The smell diminished. New growths popped up, the cancers somehow activating long-dormant sequences of DNA. Strange, misshapen organs proliferated inside her abdominal walls and thoracic cavity. They pulsed with life and dark fluids passed around and through them, sustaining her. Her blood-starved skin cracked and peeled, then sloughed off in broad swatches, revealing a brown carapace beneath. Where her mouth had been was a blistered oval. Something that might have been a tongue twisted in its depths. Two brown, fibrous orbs had replaced her albinic eyes, twitching in dark sockets, mimicking the movements of real eyes. But did they see anything? Nicholas had no way of knowing.
Marissa was alive. He stared at her, incredulous, and appalled. How could he love such a monster? Yet he did.
When blood formed dangerous, fetid pools in her new organs, Nicholas disensanguinated her. He washed the blood from the floor with a hose, spraying it into runoff channels. A brown sludge now circulated in her sclerotic veins. A few days later he cut out her fibrous, atrophied heart. It had no appreciable effect on her.
Marissa, his Marissa, made odd, ululating sounds, turning her head back and forth as if trapped in a nightmare. Nicholas discontinued the morphine. She calmed. However, when he approached, her head swiveled and her body strained towards him, as if she wanted him to comfort her. Nicholas pulled on his latex gloves and stroked her striated forehead. She relaxed. A dark arm pressed against his thigh.
Though nobody else in the world could possibly have understood the mangled word, Nicholas did. Marissa, his Marissa, had called his name.
Nicholas peeled off his gloves; he reached out and, for the first time since he'd brought her here, touched her directly. Her skin was stippled with waxy bumps and felt cool beneath his fingertips. Yet, in that moment, he could not have loved her more. She stirred when he touched the prominence of her breast. The nipples had rotted and fallen off nearly a month ago, but the rest of the breast had hardened into a shape that remained true to Marissa's. He stroked her the way she liked. Marissa groaned, arching against the restraints.
Just as he had done so long ago, Nicholas feathered the back of his hand down her belly, felt tiny invisible hairs rise to meet his knuckles. As soft as a breeze, his hand slid between her legs, his long index finger straightening into the mucilaginous warmth....
A single drop of brownish fluid ran down his finger to his knuckle and fell onto the table. Nicholas had an erection.
She called out his name again.
Climbing onto the gurney, Nicholas straddled Marissa. Her head rose to meet his, her lipless mouth fitting precisely over his—
—and something pointed and greasy tore across his tongue like a rasp. He jerked his head back, tasting his own welling blood, and something else too: the pang of loneliness, abandonment and dark, brackish coffee. The taste of cancer. He leaned forward and kissed her harder this time, pressing his face against hers, his weight fully on her chest, her blistering breath forced down his throat, scalding his esophagus like bad scotch, unfurling in his lungs, settling contentedly there. He kept his lips on her, one minute, two minutes, almost three. Then pulled back, gasping for air. His heart hammered desperately; his vision blurred. Losing his balance, he toppled backwards off the gurney, felt ribs crack when he hit something that jutted from the cold floor, though he couldn't quite think what it might be, and it didn't really bother him all that much. Nicholas' limbs twitched uselessly as he convulsed. But bit by bit his body stilled as the cure took hold.