the disease

“Alex!” Her Mom’s voice echoes across the high living room ceilings. “Come sit with me! I made tea!”

Alex shuffles out from her room in her favorite grey hoodie, sauce stains adorning the collar, her favorite game’s logo splashed across the front:



“Sit!” Mom smiles in her favorite white tunic. “I’ll explain everything.”

Alex drags her feet across the marble floors and over to the plush white armchairs in the corner. Her old paintings and happiest photos hang across the living room walls in brass frames and VR displays. Streaks of morning sun sneak between the tall window blinds, casting dim rays over the vibrant floor plants and hushed white walls.

She yawns and squints through the beams of sunlight.

“How are you feeling, sweetie?”

She plops down in the feathery armchair across from Mom and drops her gaze to the floor.

“You feeling okay?”

She sinks her cold hands into the pockets of her coziest grey sweatpants. Shrugs. Her shiny platinum hair has faded into a frazzled hue of dirty iron. Her sparkling grey eyes have turned to stone.

“Drink your tea, sweetie.” Mom nudges a glossy white teacup toward her.

She stares into the bitter steam rising from the cup. Fog clouds her brain. She pulls her hands from her pockets, sets them on the white marble table. It doesn’t feel real.

“It’s your favorite,” Mom smiles. “Peppermint.”

She stares at her hands, stares through the table, under the Palace, into the Bunker, mind dredges deep underground, dives into the garden pool, swims to the surface, swims back up to the living room table, swims through the foggy teacup, swims back into her hands as she lifts the teacup for a tiny sip.

“Thanks.” She sets the cup back down on its saucer. Stares back down into her lap.

“What’s on your mind, sweetie?”

She races through Dad’s lab, races through the friends she left behind in Boston, Toronto, Cambridge, Tokyo, forgets most of their names now, but she remembers the move to the Palace, thoughts race through the military convoy that brought them here, race through the garden, the woods out back, the mountainside, the classrooms, the dance hall, the residential hall, the bunkers, the locusts, the buzzing, the blood, the bodies, the virus, the first day of Grade 8 and all she wants to do is go back to bed and sleep forever.

“Nothing,” she mumbles. “Stuff.”

“You look sad.” Mom frowns and tilts her head.

Alex picks her chin up to glare wide into her eyes. “Of course I’m sad.”

Mom sighs. Lifts her teacup for a graceful little sip. Sighs again. “It’s okay to be sad right now, sweetie. But I want to explain what happens next for us, so that you’ll—”

“What’s left to explain?” Alex scowls. “You’re leaving me to go work for Dad.”

“Alex, that it not what is happening here at all.” Mom sets her tea down firmly, calmly folds her hands in her lap. “I’m going away to an Alliance lab, yes. But it is not one of your Dad’s labs, and I am not going there to work, I’m—”

Her voice hoarsens. She pauses to clear her throat and pound her chest. She takes a big gulp of tea and clears her throat again.

“I’m going there to—”

She pauses again, sputtering and choking and coughing, keeling over in the white chair, struggling to find her breath between her wet, grainy coughs.

“You’re dying,” Alex mumbles. “You’re going there to die.”

“Alex, I’m not dying,” Mom wheezes. “I’m very sick, yes. The disease is progressing, so now they need to study me more closely to understand how the virus works.”

“You’re dying,” Alex mumbles again. “You were infected by a bioweapon from all those locusts in the Bunker. You’re dying from it.”

“Sweetie, I—”

“Don’t lie to me.” Alex shakes her head, eyes welling up with tears. “I read about this stuff all the time in biology class. You’re dying.”

“Sweetie, we don’t know for sure that it’s a bioweapon yet, that’s why they want to—”

She coughs hard, spews into her white sleeve, hacks and heaves into the air, turns away to catch her breath.

“Stop trying to hide things from me all the time!” Alex cries. “Stop lying to me about everything that’s going on outside of this . . . bubble.” She shrugs around at the lavish fixtures of the glistening white living room. “Stop pretending everything’s okay when it’s not!”

“Alex, I—” Mom goes hoarse again, bursts into coughing and gasping and tears.

“I’m not weak! I can handle the truth!” Alex pounds on the table and sobs. “You always treat me like I’m a weak little girl, but I’m not! I’m not the one with the virus! And I’m—”


“I’m so strong that I’m immune to it! They were trying to kill me with it but they couldn’t because I’m too strong!”


“I wish they had killed me with it! I wish!”

“Alex—” Mom keeps coughing and sputtering and crying.

“Stop lying to me!”

The sun rises higher in the sky. Light floods in between the blinds. The floor plants and potted sunflowers slowly turn their leaves and stems to face the bright rays of light. Motes of dust shimmer and twirl through the sunbeams as Mom coughs and coughs and coughs. Alex folds her arms and sobs into her stained grey collar, quivering with rage and loss.

“Alex.” Mom croaks and coughs again, gulps down the rest of her tea, finally regains a full breath. “Okay, sweetie. You’re a big girl now, so I’m going to be very honest with you, okay?”

Alex keeps quivering in her soft white chair, arms folded, leering at her Mom, weeping and sniffling, fighting off another flashback from invading her mind.

“You might not like what you hear.”

Alex keeps quivering and staring, sharp silver eyes demanding the truth.

“Okay.” Mom sets her hands out on the table. “Okay, where to even begin . . . so you know the disease is targeting my brain, right?”

Alex glares at her knowingly.

“And you know that it’s causing my nervous system and some of my organs to deteriorate, right?”

Alex keeps staring and scowling.

“Do you know what a prion is?”

“Bad protein.” Alex mumbles. “Bad shape. So it infects all the other proteins around it.”

“You really do like your biology class, don’t you?” Mom grins with pride for a brief moment. “Well, what they think is that this virus somehow caused my body to start creating a lot of prions. So what they want to study at this lab is how those prions are—”

“So you’re dying?”

Mom sighs, drums her fingers against the table, struggling to avoid the question. “I’ll be getting the best treatments while they’re studying me. Some of the world’s best doctors and scientists, they’re gonna—”

“When will you be back?” Alex sits up in her chair and chokes back more tears. “You are coming back, right?”

Mom sighs again, turns her head to gaze at the rays of light peeping through the window blinds. “I’ll come back,” she smiles at Alex. “I’m sure of that.”

“Don’t lie to me.” Alex sniffles, leans forward in her chair. “When? When will you come back?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.” She shakes her head, rubs the brim of her empty teacup. “I might be gone a few weeks. Maybe a few months. It depends what they find when they’re studying me.”

“Then how do you know you’ll come back?”

“Because they’ll be taking very good care of me while I’m there. And they’ll take extra special care to make sure my brain stops deteriorating so that they can—”

“Soren promised he’d come back, and he’s still deployed.”

“I know,” Mom groans. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. I have no idea when he’ll be back.”

“And Auntie Cass is dead.”

Mom gasps and coughs, pounds her chest until she can wheeze out words again. “Alex, I—”

“So you’re just leaving me alone here?”

“You won’t be alone, sweetie.”

“Who?” Alex tears up again and flops back into her armchair. “Who do I have here after you leave?”


“There’s Carson. Some of the teachers like me. And that’s it.”


“You’re abandoning me.”

“No sweetie, I’m coming back.” Mom smiles and nods to reassure herself. “I promise I’m coming back.”

“Soren promised he’d come back too.”

“And he will come back.”

“Dad’s sending someone to watch me while you’re gone, isn’t he?”

“How . . .” Mom coughs and sputters in surprise for a moment. “How did you know that?”

“You said it to Aunt Cass. In your room, the night we got attacked.”

“Alex, sweetie, I—”

“You said he’d send someone else to look after me. You said I was just an experiment.”

“Oh God.” Mom covers her eyes. “Alex, no no no no no, you are not just an experiment, you are a beautiful—”

“Are you really my Mom?” Alex stares back down at her tea. The steam has stopped rising. The cup has gone cold. “Am I really your daughter?” She leers back up at her.

“Oh sweetie, yes.” Mom gasps and holds back a cough. “Yes you are. My own flesh and blood.”

“Then why was I born in a lab?”

“You’re . . . a very special girl.” Mom glances up at the ceiling, choosing her words carefully. “You came into this world much differently than other girls.”

“Am I robot?”


“I’m stronger than all the other kids and I have weird computers in my brain. Everyone teases me. They all call me a robot.”

“Sweetie, you are NOT a robot, okay? And don’t let anyone ever try to treat you like you are. You are a real person with real hopes and real dreams and you deserve so—” she chokes again, clears her throat, fighting back another coughing spasm. “You deserve so, so much more than what I’m able to give you right now. I’m so sorry.”

“You give me a lot.” Alex sighs as she folds her hands back down into her lap. She watches all the sunflowers in pots and vases by the windowsill as they slowly turn their petals to the sunlight. “I just wish you’d stop hiding so many things from me.”

Mom sighs back at her. “I know sweetie. There are just . . . there’s some things I’m not allowed to tell you right now. I’d like to. But I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s your Dad. The Alliance. They have all these rules. Protocols. And the protocols dictate what I can and cannot do with you. What I can and cannot say to you.”

“Why should I trust you then?” Alex wipes her tears away and raises her brow. “If you’re just doing whatever their protocols tell you to do?”


“Why should I trust you when you say you’ll come back from their lab?”


“You’re dying, aren’t you?”

Their eyes tremble at each other from across the table. Soft rays of light sneak in through the sunroof, wash over the sparkling white room, wash over Alex in her cozy grey sweats, sting her with false warmth. Mom waivers, quakes, muting her tears, fighting off another coughing spasm.

“You’re not coming back to the Palace, are you?”

The sunlight glows bright white, slipping through the blinds and flaring through the roof, beating down on Alex and her cloud of grey. Mom chokes on more tears, but Alex is done crying.

“Be honest with me.”

“The odds are bad,” Mom croaks and rasps. “They don’t know how this disease works. They don’t quite know what it’s doing to my brain. Or the rest of my body. But they’re some of the smartest people in the world, and they want to find out.”

The sun beams down from the sky, kindles their dull hair and dead eyes with scorching white. Pearly waves of blue flicker and shimmer across Alex’s face, streak through her messy iron hair.

“I love you,” Alex drones. Her quaking brain numbs. Her trembling body calms. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t want to go either,” Mom cries. “But they’re forcing me to.”

“They’re forcing you to?” Alex scoffs in denial. “Who’s forcing you?”

“Oh sweetie.” She shakes her head and clasps her hands. “I know this must all be so confusing for you. There’s so much I’d love to tell you but I just . . . I just can’t.”

“If you’re dying, why can’t you just tell me whatever you want?” Alex sneers, pops her grey hood up shield her from the swelling sunlight. “Fuck their protocols.”

Mom’s jaw drops at her language, throat itches. Another spasm of heaving, gasping coughs echoes through the living room.

“For once in your life, can you please just let me in on some of these secrets everyone keeps from me?” Alex looks away as Mom chokes and sputters and grasps at her breath.

“Everyone’s always talking about all these plans behind my back,” Alex groans. “Nobody ever tells me what’s really happening outside this Palace.”

“Oh sweetie,” Mom rasps as her voice returns. “I’d love to tell you every little secret under the sun. But that would only lead to bad things for both of us.”


“Please sweetie, I need you to have faith in me here. I know that so hard for you after all you’ve been through, after all I’ve put you through, but—” She pauses again to clear her throat, lets out a few small coughs. “Everything I do, I do because I love you. To keep you safe. You know that, right?”

Alex sighs, peers away from her and up into the sunbeam, squints at the glaring white sunroof. “I know.”

“And I need you to have faith that even though I’ll be gone, you’ll—”

“I’ll be okay.” Alex nods. “I’m a big girl now. You said so yourself. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Mom smiles, laughs under her breath. “You’re a big girl, but you’re still only 12. I’m going to worry about you.”

Their home goes quiet. Vents and appliances hum in the background. Alex keeps squinting up at the sunroof, scanning the plumes of morning dust overhead. “So Dad’s sending someone to watch me?”

“Yes.” Mom clears her throat and folds her hands on the table. “Alex, I want you to look at me now. This is important.”

Alex tilts her head down from the sunroof. She scans the fierce wrinkles and stern lines carved in Mom’s face, processes her fears, her hopes, her instincts, her memories, predicts her next words. “They’re gonna try to turn me into their soldier, aren’t they?”

Mom sighs, stutters, hesitates before reminding herself that Alex is a big girl now. “Yes,” she nods again. “They are going to do everything in their power to try to get you to fight in their war.”

“I know,” Alex nibbles at her fingernails. “Soren’s warned me about them.”

Mom raises a curious brow. “What has he told you about them?”

“That fighting’s bad.” Alex chomps her nails even harder. “That Dad and the Alliance and everyone else only want to use me as their tool.”

Mom nervously grins. “Maybe your brother isn’t as naive as I thought.” She drums her nails on the white table before taking a big breath in, choking back her anxiety. “Okay sweetie. I can’t tell you about a lot of my work with the Alliance. But I want you to listen very closely to what I’m about to tell you, okay?”

Alex pokes her ears up and leans into the table. “Okay.”

“All these men know only war.” Mom points out through the window blinds. “They fight fire with fire. Machines with other machines. So they want you to be like a machine. Not like their AI. Not like one of their robots. But just enough of a machine to obey all their orders. All their protocols.”

“But I don’t wanna be a robot.” Alex keeps biting away at her nails. “You told me I’m not a robot.”

“Then you don’t let them turn you into one.” Mom pauses, peering into the depths of her daughter’s brain. “You are a person. A beautiful, wonderful person with hopes and passions and fears. Not a robot with scripts and protocols and functions. Do you understand?”

“Can’t I just run away?” Alex grinds her nails and tilts her head. “If they’re trying to turn me into a robot . . . can’t I just run?”

“The world’s not that simple sweetie,” Mom coughs. “They’ll find you. Maybe not right away. But they’ll find you eventually, no matter where you run away to.”

“Then I’m stuck here.” Alex sniffles, blinking and bobbing her head in thought. “The man Dad’s sending to look after me . . . does he want to turn me into a robot?”

“He will try to change you into something else.” Mom nods with a solemn, grudging frown. “Something other than the wonderful woman you’re becoming. But you need to promise me something, okay?”


“You promise me that you won’t let him.” Her eyes burn with white light. Alex hangs on her words, holding her breath and clenching her teeth. “You promise me that you keep doing your art. You keep doing your dancing. You keep doing your hair and reading your books and playing your games and wearing what you want to wear and doing what you want to do. Because that is all you.”

“But Soren says they’ll force me to fight for them.” Alex bows her head. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“Oh, they’ll try,” Mom scowls. “They’re obsessed with making you fight for them. Pathologically obsessed. It’s all your Dad wanted to talk about when we were still together, always scheming to control you. It’s sick.”

“So then how am I supposed to stop him?” Alex starts trembling again. “I’m not even 13 yet.”

“You keep doing exactly what you’re doing,” Mom instructs. “Keep growing. Keep doing your art, your dancing. Keep getting good grades. Keep proving to them that there’s so much potential in you. So much good you could do in this world. So much you’re capable of other than fighting.”

“But you all built me for fighting.”

Mom pauses, dwells on her daughter’s design. Dwells on the cold, arctic lab. Dwells on the blueprints, the white papers, the failed prototypes. Holds in more tears and more coughs. “That doesn’t matter,” she shakes her head, struggling to believe herself. “They don’t know your own heart like you do.”


“You keep at your art, sweetie. You keep studying. You live at your fullest and do your very best every day. You show that man your father sends to supervise you. You show him that there are things that make life worth living for you. Things you excel at. Things other than fighting. Promise me?”

Alex holds her tongue and nods cautiously. “Okay,” she murmurs. “I’ll do my best. I promise.”

Mom closes her eyes and takes a long, easy breath out. “I know you will, sweetie.” She stands from her downy white armchair and hobbles around the table, wrapping Alex in a warm, sunlit hug. “And I’ll do my best to come back here to you as soon as I can.”

“I believe you,” Alex mumbles. “I’ll miss you.”

She places a long kiss on Alex’s forehead, then slowly peels her arms away. “I’ll miss you too, sweetie.”

“I’m sad,” Alex moans. “And hungry.”

A bittersweet smile crosses Mom’s face. “I’ll make breakfast for us before I leave? And more tea?”

“Okay,” Alex nods.

“And we can talk about this more. I’m sure you still must have so many questions.”

Alex nods again.

“And then after breakfast, will you come down to the courtyard with me? So we can say goodbye when they come pick me up?”