New York, New York
Mary had not been prepared for the bad news. Days later, she texted her daughter: “Please call Mom. Saw Dr. Bains a few days ago…” Then she deleted the note.
Leslie was her only child, married to Bart, like the California train system. Living near New York City was expensive, and they were an ambitious couple with two kids and long commutes. Mary didn’t like to bother them in their intense sphere of existence.
She wanted to do this by herself, this journey to death, or this adventure to Saburia to change her exit date, disappearing into the Shenandoah Valley alone down a forgotten trail, a wounded animal.
Dr. Bains had disagreed. “You need to update your family about your illness. If something happens to you, you don’t want them to hear about it from a stranger.”
She had asked Leslie to do something simple for her passing. “Services are too much work, and I’ll be gone by then.”
“Mom,” her daughter protested, “those rituals are for the living, like your grandkids, and not for the dead. I treasure my memories of Dad’s memorial service that you worked so hard on.”
When her husband was alive, they hiked the Blue Ridge Mountains together. Sometimes Mark went ahead, leaving her alone to rest. A large, powerful man, he then returned with a big smile and sunnier words, encouraging her to walk further.
In dreams, she still followed him down a forest path, reuniting, feeling such joy that she would not return. They would find the shell of her body, and there would be that funeral.
Finally, she called Leslie. Her daughter would be hurt to not be told sooner that the cancer was back or about her mother’s plans to travel to some remote international clinic in Africa.
Old and sick, she could not match Leslie’s energy who painstakingly researched details of her care. Then they had arguments when she found her daughter to belong to the judgmental younger generation.
For once, her call did not go into voicemail. “Hi, Mom, what’s up?” answered Leslie.
“Honey, I need to talk to you. Let’s meet for an early breakfast this week? You like morning coffee after your workout.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing urgent, now don’t get anxious, Dr. Bains …he thinks I need to talk to you.”
“I’ll come over now.”
“But I’m going to bed soon. It can wait until the morning.”
But Leslie was unstoppable. Soon, Mary heard her door open. She lived in her childhood city home inside a stately brick building on a thoroughfare in Manhattan. An antique wooden elevator cage took visitors directly into the lobby of her flat.
On seeing her, Leslie’s expression turned grave. They sat at the kitchen table with its west-facing windows. Always laid out the same way, on an antique wooden tray from the farmhouse — painted chinoiserie, exotic flowers against a black painted background, Mary had put out Leslie’s favorites: Manchego cheese, rosemary crackers, grapes and a mug of herbal tea.
Gazing at her child in the waning summer light, steeling for disagreement, treasuring resemblances to her husband and grandmother, she described the international medical center where an experimental vaccine was available for her terminal cancer.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
“You plan to travel to Africa?” Leslie was incredulous.
“It’s someplace on my bucket list before I go,” Mary explained. “Blackest skies, the stars of the Milky Way like a sparkly ribbon and wild animals calling to the depths of one’s soul.”
Preparing Leslie with medical information in files on her computer, Mary finally disclosed that she had already bought the tickets for Saburia next week. “I didn’t want to upset you until I decided I had to do it. We can still talk every day. The clinic said they have state-of-the-art communication for their patients, 24/7 — you can even video-call with my doctors that way.”
“Mom, don’t go alone. I wish I could come…” Leslie had the same expression that her father used, lips pursed, jutting her chin.
“Of course, honey, but you have other commitments.” She did not mention Bart, who appeared to find his mother-in-law’s health issues inconvenient, like a perplexed passenger experiencing delays on his namesake train.
“Maybe a nurse could go with you, Mom? I can call Dr. Bains for ideas.”
“No, the clinic provides personal assistance. I don’t want anyone else … to worry about too.”
After unfolding it, Leslie began tapping into her very large phone. “Well, it does say that Saburia is one of the safest places in Africa. They keep it that way for tourism. Majestic scenery. Even mountains on the border. Endangered wildlife. After the latest regime change, they renamed the capital Ramses like the Egyptian Pharaoh.
“For women, it’s Islamic: you should keep your head and body covered in the more remote areas of the country.”
Before leaving, Leslie hugged her — lightly around her shoulders as always, saying, “Bart’s mom says that one of the hardest things about growing old is losing control to her children — reversing roles with them.”
The Saburian clinic’s arrangements started with a handsome young man in a suit who came a few days later. Speaking excellent English with a hint of an accent, he helped her with the baggage to a waiting car. After opening the car’s rear door for her to step into the dark wine interior, he offered her a flute of champagne or a delicate porcelain cup of Saburian coffee. She smiled and shook her head. Then they were on their way.
Mary appreciated the silence inside, hard to find in help these days. Raised with people who worked for her family, she believed they should not speak unless spoken to, blending instead into the background.
“Good fences make good neighbors.” At a young age, she had also learned that everyone who worked for her family would know all her personal business. So she prized her privacy — the imaginary boundaries she built with these workers she spent so much time with — it was another reason she wished to make this trip to Saburia alone.
Outside the car window, the familiar lights of Manhattan streets rolled by. Like her father, her mind calculated the cost of everything. Starting with this trip to LaGuardia, the vaccine trial was costly even by her measure.
Her father used to say, “People deserve to be paid for their hard work, but it’s always good to know how much money they’re makin’ off of ya.” He had developed an irritating way of underlining paternal advice by flipping on the country accent of her stepmother’s rural relatives.
She called Leslie to say goodby. Mary knew many families where the children were independently wealthy, just with trust funds alone. Grudgingly, Mary agreed with her country-born father (even if he was referring to her mother): “inherited money becomes a curse when it takes incentives away for people to make something of themselves.”
Still, Mary had made the down payment for her daughter’s new home. Like the farm Mary had spent childhood summers in, it also bordered on woods. There, her grandchildren could now disappear into the trees to play — like she used to — seeing wild animals and befriending strays.
Making this the third generation of their family at their New York City private school, Mary also paid for her grandchildren to attend the same one she and Leslie had attended. Someday, everything would be passed down, including her Manhattan flat, but not yet.
Then there was Bart, loyal, just a bit dull, a good father and husband. Compared to the melodramatic marriages among the children of others she knew, things could be worse.
One of the first to board the plane, Mary had an upholstered berth to herself with a privacy curtain, snacks and a mini-bar. Handing her a glossy guide, the masked attendant thanked her for being a “Travel Saburia First-Class Club” member. Grateful that the young woman did not press her for conversation either, Mary drew the heavy drape and poured herself a cold seltzer.
Behind the curtain, she could hear the muffled voices of other passengers boarding the plane. After texting Leslie that she had boarded, she looked out the window at the tarmac and New York City beyond, already feeling homesick. “The fairest one of all,” she murmured.
As the plane took flight, she watched the receding face of Manhattan below her, its lighted skyscrapers fading under clouds. Mary opened her brochure to read about her upcoming journey, first to ancient Athens and then even further back in place (and time) to an East African city now named after an Egyptian Pharaoh, near the birthplace of the human species. From there, forgotten generations had ventured forth in waves over tens of thousands of years to reach this island she called home.
“Goodbye,” she whispered to her world that now disappeared under her. “Thanks for all the courage you stand for. Going back to where it all started, and I will see you again.”
In East Africa, the Drukker plane carrying David Campbell bounced on the tarmac of Ramses International Airport. Heat blurred the morning air outside where the only signs of civilization were a few planes and open runways, amidst a sea of dirt, rock and desert sand.
Pickup trucks appeared, carrying men for unloading the Drukker computer. Back in San Francisco, he had overseen the machines being lifted onto the plane, wrapped in foam and bungee cords, beside crates of military ration units, MREs. The MREs would be cheap meals for the workmen. They grew little food here in Saburia.
Looking for Elise, he turned around. She was the only woman on the plane besides that sweet young attendant of the coffee pot.
Waving back, Elise smiled. While stretching his legs, he had strolled to talk to Elise a second time.
“Have you been to Saburia before?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I have done research on it to prepare. I like to be respectful of local customs.”
“You could watch ‘Black Shadows.’ It’s their most popular show, and they can set up English subtitles for you,” he suggested.
“That’s just propaganda, I think. No, I want to see things for myself.”
“Me,” he said, “I’m looking forward to a drink on the balcony overlooking the ocean. The coast is pretty and cooler than inland.”
Cautious about saying more until he spoke to Kochanski, he had returned to his seat.
Now exiting the plane, Campbell walked past the thick frosted window in the cockpit door and watched a shadow of the pilot move across it, its head appearing disproportionately large and spherical like an astronaut’s helmet — or the head of an ant. Perhaps it was just a refraction of the light or he was dehydrated. He swigged his water.
After dismounting on a steep mobile staircase, he waited for Elise by the runway lights. She finally emerged, an amorphous cloak over her head and body like the local women. They walked together to the main building, where they patiently sat on their suitcases under the awning.
Next, a giant loader approached the jet cargo area directed by two Saburian technicians. In the warming early morning, the metal skin of the airplane reflected the colors of the dawn sky, turning rose with flecks of gold.
Campbell squinted. Why were clouds, dappled pink, blue and orange, reflected on the metal? Puzzled, he looked up — no clouds — and then back down to the plane, colors fading into a flat aluminum gray.
Campbell oversaw the workers with a translator. The loader went back and forth, plane to the trucks, then back again, with the occasional shout of sweaty men.
Finally, he returned to Elise. They shared their history in the various labs they had worked in, from exciting discoveries to steamy politics.
After he fondly described his roots in Texas, he asked about her family.
An awkward silence followed. The plane whirred, buzzed and sailed away down the runway.
Where the wind had dislodged it, Elise pulled her scarf back over her head, Out of her designer handbag, she removed lipstick and a compact mirror, touching up her lips over perfect white teeth. He saw a brief glint of a pistol in the bag and debated whether to tell her they would take it away at the base. Then she adjusted some stray, dyed bronze hair with ringed hands and replaced the elephantine sunglasses on her nose.
“Well, we’ll be working together on this cancer vaccine trial,” Elise said, “So I may as well tell you that my ex-husband left me for a younger woman about five years ago. My son and daughter are now in college.”
He had seen her wiping her eyes on the plane; perhaps her failed marriage had been on her mind, and maybe her words now flowed to the nearest listener — him. He braced himself. There was the enchanted queen in a story he had once read who fell in love with a donkey. And David, you’re that ass now, that first creature she sees and that she will pour her heart out to you.
Instead, Elise changed the subject. “Michael plans that you and I’ll be working here in Saburia together for some time though on different aspects of this trial. So you may as well know I am here in Saburia because of unexpected turns in my personal life…and all the unplanned bills.” She waved around her dismissively at their bleak surroundings.
“Otherwise, why would I end up here? I suppose you’ve got a story too.” She looked away, not sounding interested.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to bring up a sensitive subject.”
In his travels, Campbell found that two strangers like them in an unfamiliar place opened up to each other in ways they might not with people they knew better. Elise’s face, the make-up over fine wrinkles, reminded him of his own mother when she was younger.
Still, here Elise was, working and supporting her family, unlike his own mother who was now his responsibility after all the other men had discarded her. Neatly tucked away in a Texas condo complex for her age group, precisely gridded with tennis courts, a pool and a new group of friends, he planned to move in the future closer to her.
“What about you, are you married?” Elise inquired.
“I’m not married…yet.” He pictured Lucky.
“Better do it soon,” she teased. “Or you’ll be too set in your ways. You know our boss is my age, and he has no wife.”
“Your type?” David laughed.
“Oh, no.” Mock horror. “I wasn’t suggesting that. Now you will get me into trouble. David, I’m good at my job but not men. Right now, I’m just paying for the kids’ expensive education. Then I’ll enjoy doing the things I like.”
“Maybe, you haven’t met the right person yet, hmm?”
Would he stray like Elise’s ex-husband? Unlikely. Feelings for other women would not dislodge him from the mother of his children, or his secure place in dream home acreage.
The airport was quiet, an occasional breeze ruffling the heating air. Waiting, he remembered Lucky showing him around Pandolf, from the glitter of its newest buildings down to the old, abandoned on-call rooms with only bed-frames, where a lonely lock might hang idly for years until Housekeeping cut it.
“Here,” Lucky had told him, “decades ago, doctors used to switch from scrubs to street clothes and back again and try to catch some sleep.”
The business of hospitals had changed since then. Now, these sections of Pandolf with their moldy showers and toilet stalls were being renovated for more contemporary purposes.
Pandolf Medical Center Housekeeping would have quite the time locating that Indian doctor with the unpronounceable name before cutting his lock. Dr. Arjun Jagdishwar Bhattacharya, Dr. B or AJ, was the oncology vaccine expert for Soria Clinics.
“They will recheck the spelling first,” Kochanski had joked, “to make entirely sure that the doctor no longer works there, then kindly try to reach him anyway and finally forget about it for a while. Some Polish names are like that too.
“David, do you think that maybe ICE profiled Manny as having a connection to a terrorist drug organization they monitor,” Kochanski had continued, “maybe with roots in South America and the Russian Mafia and training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
In his usual over-the-top manner, Kochanski speculated, “It’s terrible that someone would think bad things about our Manny, but his behavior has been erratic lately even being cagey with me. It worries me, David. it’s sometimes difficult to understand the complex psychology of scientists and other more temperamental types. So I’m grateful on the other hand that you are a grounded man.”
Garcia seemed perfectly balanced to him. On the other hand, men like Kochanski could not be trusted. “Lots of nooses in his family tree” was an old Texan saying.
Campbell had known that Garcia was using the Drukker computer to run independent research on the cancer vaccine. It appealed to him that a scientist could pursue his own theories. It wasn’t until the ICE detention that Campbell admitted that in the thrill of the scientific pursuit, they, no, he may have entered an unregulated, international zone.
Would his contract with the multinational Soria corporation give him legal help if he was arrested, say for being a mule for the mystery drive in the heavy purple case? Garcia had made that first before George arrived in Pandolf. Why was Kochanski helping George?
Here I am, Campbell wondered, an idiot carrying files across international borders that I don’t know everything about? Still, gamely pushing the edges of scientific exploration, this was more exciting than anything he had done before.
He heard the sound of idling motors, and then another pickup truck roared in. “Time to go,” he told Elise.
They climbed into the second row of the armored vehicle. Behind them, loaded with the Drukker computer and rations covered with tarp and rope, the flatbed vehicles pulled up, There was much shouting again among the workers in languages he did not understand. To examine the cargo one last time, he got out and walked around.
Recognizing it by the serial number on its crate – a Drukker 3-D printer — he frowned. Why did they need the 3-D printer? Was it to print proteins and polysaccharides for the vaccine?
Some men rode with them and others in the cabs of the other trucks. Windows rolled open, their Chinese driver had the air conditioning on full blast, an improvement over sitting outside in the boiling sunshine. As they gained speed, the gritty dust bit into their eyes, their clothes and their lungs.
Elise popped out her plastic contacts, threw them away and changed into her prescription sunglasses, thick and large like bug’s eyes. Once outside the airport, the driver finally closed the windows. The car quickly filled with filtered, chilled air that powered out of the fan.
“If I knew Chinese,” Campbell shouted over the vehicle engine. “I would have asked her to close the windows sooner.”
Elise shrugged and yelled over the motor. “I’m sure she knows English very well.”.
He caught the driver’s face in the rearview mirror; her eyes were unreadable behind her own wraparound sunglasses.
“When in doubt, be kind,” his MIT girlfriend had advised him one day. He had just moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and expressed frustration about its international crowd, coats of many colors, how sometimes people did not disclose they knew English or even the local American customs, sometimes they honestly did not know and sometimes it was somewhere in between.
“The driver is here to drive,” he told Elise. “Maybe all she wants to do is her job, not to make loud conversation over a large engine to foreigners while on a rutted old road.”
“I have to return to their local airport tomorrow,” Elise groaned. “All this motion makes me carsick.”
“For Mary? That soon?”
“Mary from New York, New York.” She shot out the city’s name in its brusque, nasal accent. “She’s going to fly from Ramses to the local town. For security, they won’t let her fly directly into the base.”
But how did they have time to get ready for Mary? The data drives were still in his backpack. How could the vaccine infusion be prepared so soon? But that was Dr. B’s job. He had been there for months already.
Elise continued, “In this country, women doctors generally take care of women. It’s one of the reasons they recruited me. But isn’t it odd though that Mary’s in her 70s, and I’m a pediatrician by training?”
Elise paused. “I didn’t get a detailed job description for my work here in Saburia…still the one year contract pays as much as working for three years back home. For one thing, I don’t need malpractice insurance.”
“Children get cancer too,” he said. “Maybe Soria plans to include pediatric cancer patients.”
Outside the truck window, dust rose up off the road beside them. Next to Campbell, Elise was enthralled with the endless desert view on her side. Had she noticed that three minute time discrepancy when their plane descended a short while back?
He was about to ask her when Elise let out a scream and clapped her hand to her mouth. Campbell leaned over her to the window and then the rear windshield. In the receding view of the roadside before the curtain of dust closed over it, he saw a small body and its shroud of flies in the dirt. The driver did not slow down.