Infection of the first victim began with a sharp stab of metal against flesh. The hypodermic needle plunged into his arm, its razor-sharp point slicing into the outer skin and through the living tissue below. The needle thrust downward, leaving a trail of torn and punctured cells. It sliced through the layer of fat, rupturing glistening fat cells. It slashed through thin webs of capillaries and nicked spidery nerve cells, launching electrical alarms of pain toward the victim’s brain.
Finally, the needle lanced through the rubbery membrane of the arm’s major blood vessel, into the pulsing blood flow. The metal invader’s tip then delivered a gush of liquid into the vessel.
That injection launched billions of precisely engineered viruses into the victim’s bloodstream. Those viruses carried a cargo of pirate genes, programmed to hijack normal cells, transforming their biological function and forcing them to reproduce more of the mutant virus to relentlessly spread the infection.
These viruses did not randomly attack. They were biological missiles, programmed to target only specific cells. As the viruses coursed throughout the bloodstream and into narrow capillaries, they began to find those targets—pigmented brownish cells near the skin surface. The viruses clutched the brown cells, fusing with them and injecting the viruses’ genetic cargo. Those pirate genes commandeered the brown cells’ genetic machinery, launching their biological occupation of the unsuspecting man’s body.
The emergency department triage nurse had no inkling that the first victim would abruptly shatter the early morning quiet. She paused in filling out routine forms and sighed, letting the soft fog of drowsiness envelop her for the moment. She was deeply fatigued after a hectic night, which included two particularly nerve-wracking cases:
A little boy fell out of an upper bunk and gashed open his forehead. Both child and mother had come in screaming maniacally. She’d almost had to have the mother restrained. The ED doc used a dab of superglue to close the wound of the frantic, bleeding boy, and the mother took a Valium to calm herself down.
Just after that a drunken, cursing man burst through the door dragging a bleeding foot and brandishing a shotgun. The idiot had tried to shoot a barking dog, but tripped in the dark and blasted his own foot. She had crouched behind the desk while the security guard persuaded him to give up the gun. The doc had picked birdshot out of the bellowing man for an hour.
Now thankfully, the ED had settled into a quiet lull before the early-morning heart attacks hadn’t begun yet. The nurse’s eyes slowly closed, her head nodded forward and her chubby neck sank slightly into the collar of her pink smock. As she dozed, her breath came in steady somnolent puffs.
A shocked “HOLY SHIT!” from a waiting patient startled her to woozy alertness. More alarmed cries echoed through the waiting room, as a middle-aged man rushed up to her desk. His pear-shaped body was barely covered by a thin, worn plaid bathrobe. His sparse, disheveled hair stuck crazily up from his bulbous head. His jowly unshaven face sagged with sleep and age.
And that face was blue! A solid, bright blue that brought an involuntary grunt of utter surprise, even from a nurse who thought she’d seen it all.
“Look!” he exclaimed, grabbing his bathrobe with blue hands and whipping it open. Expecting to suffer a display of male genitals before morning coffee, the nurse launched to her feet, sending her chair careening backward.
But the sight that greeted her proved much more shocking than that of a set of fleshy masculine paraphernalia.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to view his genitals. They were covered by baggy white boxer shorts. But his chest, belly and legs showed the same unrelenting blue as his face and hands. He was all blue!
He stared at her, wide-eyed with fear. His mouth opened twice, as if to say something. He released the robe, holding his palms up, silently pleading. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed with an alarming thud, his skinny blue legs splayed out on the floor.
The nurse recovered enough to bark, “Patient in acute distress!” to the emergency department staff. She scurried around the desk to find the man’s eyes opening as she knelt down.
“Sir, are you having trouble breathing? Are you having chest pains?”
“No, uhhhh, I’m . . .” But before he could finish, a doctor and another nurse rushed up. They took one surprised look at the man, and one puzzled glance at each other. Then the doctor crouched at his side. The nurse, a sturdy middle-aged woman in a uniform slightly limp from the night’s labors, shouted back for a gurney, which an orderly brought immediately. The triage nurse stood back, marveling at the blueness of the man. She was now thoroughly awake.
With brisk efficiency, the doctor, the sturdy nurse, and the emergency tech hoisted the man onto the gurney.
“Sir, can you breathe?” asked the doctor as he placed his stethoscope on the hairy blue chest, listening to the man’s heart as they rushed the gurney through the fluorescent-lit emergency department and swerved it into the last treatment cubicle on the left. The open cubicle contained a full complement of emergency paraphernalia—heart monitor, blood pressure monitor, oxygen source and glass-fronted cabinets filled with medical supplies. They lifted the man onto the bed and wheeled the gurney away.
“Well, yeah, I’m okay,” the man answered groggily. “I’m just—”
“Are you having chest pains?”
“No, I . . . just woke up and I was blue.” His eyes showed rising fear. A sheen of sweat formed on his blue upper lip.
“You just woke up? You were asleep, or did you faint?”
“I was asleep. I fainted just now. I’m scared.”
“Well, sir, you just relax. We’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“How can I relax? What’s wrong is I’m blue!” he exclaimed. “Am I okay?”
The doctor, a slim man in his thirties wearing baggy light green scrubs, placed his stethoscope on the man’s chest and listened intently, as the sturdy nurse fastened adhesive electrodes to the man’s chest. The heart monitor added its reassuring metronomic beep to the bustle of the room. They were joined by a short, dark-haired nurse.
The sturdy nurse efficiently stripped away the man’s robe and undershorts, quickly laying a gray cloth over his waist for a semblance of modesty. Her discipline prevented a peek at what lay beneath it, but the dark-haired nurse managed a quick, curious glance. Her eyebrows lifted slightly at the sight.
“Heart sounds okay. Lungs are clear,” said the doctor quietly. He stared at the monitor screen, its luminescent dot tracing a reassuringly regular pattern of peaks and valleys across the small screen.
“Heart looks okay.” He opened the man’s mouth.
“Lug, I’g jus’ glue,” gurgled the man past the doctor’s tongue depressor, as he checked the man’s airway for obstruction. Satisfied that the way was clear, he stood back.
“Sir, we’ve got to do these tests to find out. Just relax,” said the doctor, as the sturdy nurse slipped an oxygen tube under his nose.
The dark-haired nurse deftly slid the needle of an IV catheter into the back of his hand, knitting her dark brows at the difficulty of finding the blue vein against the blue skin. Her brows relaxed as she satisfied herself that she hit the vein and taped the catheter into place.
Inserting another needle into his arm, the dark-haired nurse drew vials of rich dark-red blood and handed them out the door for testing.
The team was cool, efficient . . . and increasingly puzzled.
“Stick on a pulsox,” said the doctor, but the dark-haired nurse was already slipping the plastic pincer of a pulsoximeter over the man’s fingertip and scrutinizing the readings from a small box to which it was attached.
“Blood oxygen is okay,” she announced.
The doctor continued to stare at the cardiac monitor, as if his concentration would force the tan box to give up secrets to the man’s condition. He transferred the intense gaze to the patient, who looked back, trying to read something in the thin face besides a practiced impassiveness.
The doctor picked up the patient’s hand and examined it closely, front and back. He scrutinized the face and neck, and worked his way down to the chest, stopping at moles, wrinkles, and the many interesting hair follicles. He lifted the gray cloth at the waist. An involuntary infinitesimal raise of his eyebrow indicated that the sight of the man’s genitals was a rather striking one. Then he proceeded to the bony middle-aged legs and the wide ungainly feet.
“Yup, sir, you are definitely blue all over,” he announced. “Y’know, this doesn’t look like a cyanotic pattern to me. His face is blue, his chest is blue.” The doctor looked significantly toward the man’s waist. “He’s all blue. If he was cyanotic, just his extremities would be blue. And look at this.” The sturdy nurse stepped dutifully forward, and the dark-haired nurse craned to look over her shoulder.
“The bottoms of the feet are lighter,” he continued. “And up here . . .” he took one of the man’s hands, “. . . the palms are lighter. Maybe this is some kind of pigment disorder. Now, you’re sure blood gases are okay?”
“Yeah, and the arterial blood’s nice and red,” said the dark-haired nurse, a lilt of puzzlement in her voice.
“Also, look at the blue,” he instructed the nurses. They did so. “Something interesting here. This isn’t a cyanotic shade of blue, either. This isn’t a blue from lack of oxygen. This is another blue.”
“Yeah, yeah, now that you mention it . . .” said the dark-haired nurse. Indeed, the blue was a pure blue, a rich simple blue that needed no description other than blue. It was a little darker than bluebonnets, a little lighter than blue jeans. But blue was a sufficient descriptor.
“What’s your name?” asked the doctor.
“Mr. Harding, I’m Doctor Lesser. You breathing okay?”
“Yeah, doc. What do I got? Why’m I blue?”
“Well we don’t know, but we’re sure going to find out. How old are you?”
“Tuesday. I don’t know the date.”
“It’s the fourteenth,” said Lesser.
“The fifteenth,” corrected the sturdy nurse.
“Oh. Right,” said Lesser. “Night shift.” Lesser went on to quiz Harding about the president and the town he was in. He concluded that Harding was lucid, or at least as lucid as a man could be who had just changed color.
“Tell me how did this come on?” asked Lesser. He directed Harding to sit up and tapped his blue knees and elbows with a little rubber hammer, eliciting the appropriate subtle twitches that revealed healthy reflexes.
“Well, last night when I went to bed, I looked kind of funny. Y’know maybe a little bluish. But I thought it was the light or something. I was tired. Then I got up this mornin’, I was blue . . .” Harding glanced nervously down at his waist. “. . . all over!”
A knowing smile dawned on the doctor’s face. “Mr. Harding, what drugs are you on?”
“Well, Tylenol, vitamins, that’s about it.”
“No colloidal silver? For a rash, maybe? You know, that turns skin blue.” He looked up triumphantly at the nurse.
“Gee, no, nothing like that. Tylenol and vitamins. One-a-Day. Could vitamins do it?”
The doctor’s triumphant smile faded back into impassive seriousness. “Hmm. No. Well, Mr. Harding, it looks to me like you don’t have anything immediately dangerous. You fainted because you were scared, right?”
“Yeah, my dad died when he was my age. Heart attack. Wouldn’t you be?”
“Sure would,” smiled Lesser. “But your heart sounds perfectly normal. As far as we can tell, it’s just your skin. So let’s see if we can settle your mind by finding out what’s going on.”
“Yeah, sure, thanks.” The steady beep on the heart monitor began to slow slightly, as Harding relaxed.
“Let’s do a chest x-ray while we’re waiting for the blood tests. Get Mr. Harding to give us a urine sample, and tell ‘em to do a drug screen,” he told the sturdy nurse.
“What do we call this?” asked the sturdy nurse, scanning the coding sheet. “You know the x-ray techs. Got to have a good reason for the chest film.”
“Well, hell . . .” The doctor scratched his head. “I guess we call it ‘pigmentation dermatopathia of unknown origin.’ Colored skin. But also add ‘possible pulmonary involvement.’ That ought to keep them happy.”
“Yeah, that’ll do,” said the sturdy nurse. She helped a shaky Harding to the bathroom, where he dutifully delivered a stream of normally colored urine into a clear plastic cup. Feeling reassured by the outcome, he sat gratefully down in a wheelchair brought by an orderly, who took him out for a chest x-ray, past the nursing station. The sturdy nurse was intently filling out the forms, and the dark-haired nurse was edging toward a nearby ward to tell her friends what she’d seen. By the time he arrived back in the treatment room, Dr. Lesser was leaning against the door jamb, leafing through papers on a clipboard.
“Blood chemistry’s okay,” he said, pursing his lips in concentration. “Liver’s okay, kidneys look okay . . . white blood count’s up just a bit. But not much, really. No drugs, no methanol in the urine.” He paused and looked up. “Mr. Harding, are you sure you’re not taking any other medication?”
“No, I just take Tylenol. And I got allergies.”
“Oh. You take allergy shots?”
“Yeah, one about a week ago.”
“Oh.” Lesser was disappointed. An allergic reaction to a shot would have come much quicker. But it was something at least, and he noted it on the chart.
“Well, sir, let’s admit you to the hospital so we can get to the bottom of this. I think it’s time we get some specialists in here.” He picked up the phone to call chief of staff Lori Meadows. He hoped the crisp, efficient Dr. Meadows would take this puzzling case off his hands.
And she did. She reviewed the lab results and was just as puzzled. So by nine the next morning, she’d corralled a bunch of specialists and their egos to crowd into Harding’s small room in La Vista Community Hospital.
Each had arrived smiling, confident. Each had interviewed Harding, taken notes, wracked their brains, checked reference works. Their smiles slowly faded, replaced by wrinkled brows, distracted peering at the ceiling in puzzlement.
Harding remained stoic, and not a little embarrassed. He lay stolidly in his bed, his stomach growling, his faith in the doctors absolute. He’d given endless blood and urine samples. And he’d patiently told them over and over that he worked as a lumber salesman with no chemical exposure; his only travel had been to LA; and he only took Tylenol, vitamins and that allergy shot.
He also assured the doctors over and over that he’d not dipped himself in dye, ink, paint, food coloring, or any other substance.
He even obediently answers the question about his sex life—three or four times a month with a woman in the upstairs apartment.
He placed most faith in the dermatologist. A thin, middle-aged man like Harding, he looked like Larry of The Three Stooges—with magnificently bushy hair on the side of his scalp, but with only a few scraggly strands on top.
He’d taken a plug of Harding’s skin, and announced to the gathered specialists that Harding’s problem was literally only skin-deep. But the Stooge-like dermatologists wanted to do a demonstration.
“If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Harding, I would like to show my colleagues some important aspects of your . . . uh . . . situation. May I undrape you?” asked the dermatologist. He peered expectantly at Harding.
“What for?” Harding began to blush, an arresting sight, as his skin transformed subtly from a pure blue to a purplish blue.
“I’d like to show the nature of the color distribution.”
“Well, yeah, okay.”
“You’re sure, now? If you’re a bit shy about it, we’ll understand.”
“Well, uh, no. If it’ll help you get rid of this thing . . .” He laid back, determined to endure the indignity for the sake of being cured. The dermatologist drew a curtain around the bed, pulled away the sheet, and helped Harding remove his hospital gown, revealing his body in all its middle-aged corpulent glory. The blush continued to spread, like the purple haze over a mountain at sunset. Harding laid in his bed, looking mostly at the ceiling, but occasionally at the doctors.
“Notice that he is not a uniform blue,” began the dermatologist, extending a silver telescoping pointer to aid his lecture. He tapped his subject’s shoulder, stomach, knee. “His skin has all the shadings of naturally colored skin. But the color is in different values of blue, not brown.”
The dermatologist took Harding’s hand. “You will see that the palms are lighter, as are the soles of the feet,” he said, laying the pointer on Harding’s blue toes, causing them to twitch nervously. “The freckles are darker here . . . here . . . and here.” The dermatologist tapped Harding’s forearm, forehead, and chest with the pointer.
“And the lips, doctor?” asked a young female intern, her white lab coat open to reveal a hint of firm, high breasts in the form of a fetching cleavage.
“Ah, yes, of course. The lips are darker, as would be the case with natural skin,” said the dermatologist, smiling and waving the pointer. “To those of you who have studied art, it looks as if a master painter—a Gainsborough au naturel—has dappled and shaded the color to render the same skin tones, but in a blue. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a fundamental biochemical change in the patient’s dermis,” he said somewhat grandly.
As the dermatologist concentrated on Harding’s lips, he did not notice the change occurring in the lower portion of Harding’s anatomy.
Perhaps the change was caused by the sight of the nubile young intern—given that Harding had missed his last liaison with the lady in the upstairs apartment. Or perhaps it was the friction of removing the gown, or exposing the lower region to the tickling breezes of the ward. Certainly, a major cause was the small, tan pill Harding took every day to enhance his carnal capability.
Whatever the case, his previously modest, blue penis began to stir and shift. At first it merely lengthened and grew slightly purplish. Then it lifted itself slowly from its horizontal resting position, throbbing slightly. It began to rise, like the thick stem of some determined plant— reminiscent of rhubarb—seeking the sunlight.
Those physicians at the foot of the bed had the most advantageous viewing position, and their eyes widened at the sight of the surging blueberry-colored protuberance.
Ironically, because of the intervening mound of his belly, Harding had the least advantageous view of the phenomenon. He remained unaware of his flourishing member, concentrating on the intern leaning over him and feeling certain familiar hormonal stirrings.
Lori Meadows finally broke the embarrassed silence, observing wryly that “I think Mr. Harding is demonstrating to us that this disorder leaves certain urogenitary functions quite intact. Thank you for raising the point, Mr. Harding.” The female intern noticed the physiological response she’d apparently kindled and gasped and reddened.
Made aware of the interest in his lower anatomy, Harding raised his head from the pillow to glimpse from behind his stomach the richly blue helmet of his soldier at full attention.
“Oh, jeez!” he exclaimed in embarrassed shock, flipping a sheet over his middle, the resulting deflating shroud signaling the immediate end to the demonstration.
Leaving Harding to recover, the doctors gathered outside his room, some still smiling.
They didn’t smile for long. An intensely serious, rail-thin nurse called Meadows from down the hall. Meadows stepped away to talk briefly on the nurses’ station phone, and returned toward the group, a mysteriously puckish look on her face.
“Doctors, I think we should proceed to room three-oh-four,” she declared. The group followed her to the room, finding a huge woman with great jowls and small close-set eyes, sobbing miserably.
Her name was Joy Chambers, and she was bright red. The red of a stop sign. The red of the American flag.
Over the morning, even more “colored people”—as one embarrassed doctor unthinkingly referred to them—began to arrive. By noon, La Vista held four more “differently hued” patients—as the doctors ultimately decided was the politically correct term.
A pretty, tearful teenager, Ellen Lucius, was blue like Harding. A muscular construction worker named John Lance was red like the hysterical Joy Chambers. A secretary named Ada Frye was a bright yellow, which was particularly distressing to her, because the black woman’s skin had once been a lovely rich dark caramel.
By now, the doctors referred to the individual patients by color—“sort of like M&M’s,” said Lesser, an impish twinkle in his eyes. Thus, by that afternoon, the increasingly worried La Vista doctors heard that County Medical Center ten miles away had a blue, a red, and two yellows. But Central Presbyterian Hospital only had a blue.
Since the “dematopathia of unknown origin” seemed to be spreading, the affected patients were gathered in men’s and women’s isolation wards.
In their room, Harding and Lance began to compare notes, as nurses swathed in isolation gowns, masks, and surgical gloves bustled in and out, bringing food and taking vital signs.
“Shit, man, what if this is permanent?” asked Lance, vigorously rubbing the back of his arm, and checking his fingers for residue, although it would have been hard to see against the red of the fingers.
Harding lifted the blanket and looked down, shaking his head and remembering his earlier demonstration.
“You think it could be a sex disease? Like clap?”
“I doubt it. Say, man, I heard you got a boner in front of the docs. Really?”
“Hey, man, that is so cool! That’s really struttin’ your stuff.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Hey, it’s awright.” Lance looked down. “Y’know, my Jimmy looks like a damned cherry popsicle. My girl might like it. Like an all-day sucker, maybe!” He brayed a laugh. Then he realized Harding wasn’t particularly pleased at his situation. “Well, at least we’re not yellow,” he said comfortingly. “Did ya see that yellow woman? That nig . . . uh . . . colored gal? Damn! Yellow!”
In the women’s ward, the yellow Ada Frye was comforting Joy Chambers, who still hiccupped an occasional sob, her bulk making the action an almost seismic event.
“Gawd, I’m gonna die!” wailed Chambers. “I’m inflamed. I’m gonna jus’ bleeeeeed and die!” The tranquilizer she’d received had begun to slur her speech, and her sobs weren’t shaking the bed anymore.
“Hey, yeah, this is shit, that’s true,” said Ada Frye. “But we gonna get over this. We not gonna be colored like this for good. The doctors will find something. It’s food or something. Or the smog, or some drug.”
“Ohmigod! I look like a Smurf!” declared Ellen Lucius, minutely examining her perfect-but-blue teenaged face with a hand mirror. “Like, it looks real permanent. This would totally ruin my chances for cheerleader! Everybody’ll stare! God, it would be totally the end of my life!”
“Maybe it’s an allergy,” said Ada Frye. “I got allergies.”
“Yeah, me too,” snuffled Joy Chambers, sinking into the pleasant fog of the tranquilizer. “I take shots.”
“You take shots? Like, I take shots!” exclaimed Ellen Lucius.
“Dr. Clayton?” asked Ada Frye.
“Yeah, I think. Yeah, that’s him! Next to the Domino’s Pizza!” exclaimed Ellen Lucius, putting down her mirror in teenaged amazement.
“Yeah, Clayton,” agreed Joy Chambers.
“That little shit!” screamed Ada Frye.
Had the women not fallen into an angry clucking of denunciation, they might have heard the men in the next room come to the same conclusion, with John Lance shouting,
“That little fuck! He did this!”
As the patients raged on, nobody noticed the young man pushing a meal cart down the hall paused outside their door. Nobody noticed that he stopped just a little too long at each doorway, peering in just a little too intently at the patients.
He went on to deliver the meal cart to its proper place on the ward and retreated to a quiet corner. There, he took out a gray, bound notebook and spent fifteen minutes assiduously writing notes. He periodically pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose, seemingly an unnecessary habit, because they stayed in place quite nicely.
He was an unassuming man, with a remarkably round face, dark little eyes, dark eyebrows, and a small, straight nose. His little bow-mouth seemed to be set into his pale face like the parts to a Mr. Potato Head stuck into a cantaloupe. His ears were intricate fleshy shells, also seeming to be stuck into the sides of the round head. The ears were accentuated by his short crewcut, which he rubbed occasionally, seeming to relish the tactility of the brushy hair.
He closed the notebook and slipped away, unnoticed by the busy doctors and nurses, who paid little attention to people like him.