THE GRAY PLAGUE
by Fr. Andrew Marr, OSB
Many people could have been the first to break out with the Gray Plague that struck a town that could have been any town, but a boy named Jimmy Peppersapling was accused of starting it. On a warm autumn afternoon, Jimmy was walking home from school with three friends in his seventh-grade class: Perry Brokerfist, Ned Weathervane, and Bart Shoehorn. As usual, they were all arguing about something that they soon forgot about. Jimmy was getting carried away with whatever point he was yelling about when Perry stared into his face so hard for so long a time with such an odd look that Jimmy suddenly shut up.
“What’s the matter?” Jimmy asked Perry after a brief awkward silence.
“Something’s wrong with your face,” said Perry.
“Well, your face looks like a monkey,” Jimmy retorted.
Ned and Bart stared at Jimmy’s face and their eyes started to bug out.
“Where did you get the gray spots on your face?” Perry asked.
“What gray spots?”
“The gray spots on your cheek and forehead,” Bart answered.
“You’d better wash those spots off when you get home before your Mom sees them,” said Perry.
“You’d better wash off your face before anybody sees it,” Jimmy retorted.
“I bet you can’t wash that gray spot off you face,” said Bart.
“What about the gray spot on your face?” Jimmy asked Bart in return.
“What gray spot?”
Perry looked hard at Bart’s face and finally pointed to a spot high on Bart’s cheek.
“That spot. I hope it isn’t catching.”
“Maybe Jimmy just gave it to Bart,” Ned suggested with that nasty smile he made when somebody else was getting into trouble.
“If I get sick because of you, you’re really going to get it,” Bart warned Jimmy.
“If I got this from you, you’re really going to get it,” Jimmy warned Bart.
As soon as Jimmy got home, he rushed to the bathroom and peered anxiously into the mirror. At first, he didn’t see anything wrong, but after he’d looked at his face for a while, he saw a small gray spot on his right cheek and another on his forehead, just as Perry had said. When he touched a spot with his finger, it felt just a bit tougher than the skin on the rest of his face. The spots were small; he could hope it would go away in a day or two. Jimmy went straight up to his room and tried to concentrate on his homework but he was so anxious that he ran to the bathroom several times to check on the spot. To his dismay it did not go away. If anything, it was getting slightly larger.
After he had checked for the seventh or eighth time, Amy, Jimmy’s younger sister, popped out of her room.
“Why are you going to the bathroom all the time?” she asked him.
“None of your business.”
“If you’re sick, it is my business. I don’t want to catch what you’ve got.”
“You won’t catch anything from me,” said Jimmy as he slammed his door.
When he’d finished his homework, Jimmy ran halfway down the stairs to watch TV with his sister but then he remembered the spots on his face. Knowing that Amy would be sure to notice and ask awkward questions, he reluctantly returned to his room. He checked is phone for text messages, but all of them were nasty. Obviously Perry and Ned were spreading the word about his gray spots.
Dinner was almost always late due to the hours both parents kept. When Jimmy finally heard the back door open, he was so hungry he ran down to help his mother, Diane, unpack whatever she had brought home. It was Chinese this time. A strange look from his mother reminded him to put a hand over his cheek as he relieved her of a bag and put it on the kitchen counter. When his father, John, got home a bit later, the family sat down at the kitchen table.
“Jimmy, why are you covering your cheek?” his father asked. “It’s bad table manners.”
Too late, Jimmy realized that trying to hide his gray spot only drew more attention to him than pretending nothing was wrong.
“It’s nothing,” said Jimmy, looking away for a minute in the hope they wouldn’t look at his face too closely.
“What is wrong with your cheek?” asked his mother.
“Why were you covering your cheek if there’s nothing wrong?” asked his father.
“I don’t know.”
Diane only looked at Jimmy’s face all the more closely.
“Hmm, you’ve got a gray spot there. How did you get it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Then why can’t you keep your hand away from it?” asked Dad.
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm. maybe I-don’t-know-itis is the sickness you’ve got.”
“I think I’ll have to take you to the doctor tomorrow to have it checked out,” said Diane. “Not that I have time for this.”
“I don’t want to go see the doctor, so you don’t have to take me” said Jim. “I don’t feel sick, so why don’t we wait a day to see if the spot goes away?”
“I suppose we could do that” said Diane.
“That’s a good idea,” said Dad. “If the doctor doesn’t see a problem that needs treatment, insurance might not pay for the visit.”
After dinner, Amy ran through the house crying: “Jimmy is turning into a gray monster! Jimmy is turning into a gray monster!”
Jimmy dutifully chased her around the house until his father stopped him so he could concentrate on the work he had brought home. Jimmy went up to his room and checked his phone for text messages. All he got were more messages from Perry and Ned telling to see a doctor tomorrow. At bedtime, Jimmy looked in the mirror before and after taking a shower and while brushing his teeth. To his dismay, he saw that gray spots on his cheek and forehead every time.
Just as Jimmy was crawling into bed, a widow named Wanda Mutterstock was wondering why she had a small gray spot on her chin. Perry’s mother noticed that her husband, Jack Brokerfist, had a gray spot on his nose, an affliction that he hotly denied to the amusement of his son. Many more people besides were noticing gray spots and shrugging them off. Nobody thought that this was the beginning of an epidemic that would throw the town into a crisis.
When Jimmy’s alarm went off the next morning, he rolled as usual but when he remembered the gray spot on his face, he shot out of bed like a rocket and ran to the bathroom. His heart sank when he saw that not only were the gray spots on his face still there, but they were slightly bigger. Although the spots made him feel sick, he didn’t actually feel sick. He ran downstairs, poured out some cereal and milk and gulped it down as fast as he could. His mother was in the kitchen, staring at the screen of her notebook and tapping on the keyboard. Father was already on the way to work. Without waiting for his mother to think to ask about the spot, Jimmy pulled on his jacket, picked up his book pack, and dashed out of the house.
“Hey! What are you doing going to school today?” Parry yelled at Jimmy as he approached the school. “Aren’t you going to see a doctor?”
Before Jimmy knew it, Ned and a boy named Cameron Sixpack were forming a circle around him.
“I’m not sick enough for that,” Jimmy replied.
“How do you know?”
“I know how I feel and I feel fine.”
Nearly a dozen kids joined the circle around Jimmy.
“Then I’ll examine you myself,” said Perry. “Don’t take another step! If you do, I’ll tear the skin off you face.”
Parry looked like he meant it. Jimmy had never seen him look so mean, not even when he knocked a kid down during a soccer game for taking a cheap shot at him. Jimmy stood where he was while Parry took a cautious step forward and looked at his face.
“Your gray spots are still there, all right. In fact, I’d say they’re a little bigger. Not only that, but your eyes are turning yellow.”
“No they’re not!”
“Wanna make a bet?”
“How much money do you want to contribute to my after-school snack fund?”
“How much money do you want to contribute to my model battleship fund?” Jimmy retorted.
Since Jimmy hadn’t seen any yellow in his eyes when I looked at himself in the mirror, he thought he was on solid ground with that bet, but the way Ned and Cameron and Perry peered at my eyes and nodded made Jimmy fear he might be on the brink of bankruptcy instead. When several more kids stared at Jimmy and then backed off with wide eyes, Jimmy began to fear a lot more than bankruptcy. Angry at the way his classmates were treating him, Jimmy stared back at them until he saw that one girl, Jill Flowerpot, had a gray spot on her forehead.
“Jill has a gray spot on her forehead,” said Jimmy.
Next thing anybody knew, there was a ring of children around Jill like the ring around Jimmy.
“Yea,” said a girl named Carol Butterknife. “Not as big a spot as Jimmy’s and her eyes aren’t yellow yet, but they probably will be soon.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” said Jill, but with little conviction under pressure of the stares she was getting from everybody.
“Now are you going to go home and see a doctor before anybody else catches your disease?” asked Ned.
“Why should a spot or two be catching?” asked Jimmy.
“Bart already caught it from you yesterday,” said Perry, “and now you’ve just given it to Jill.”
“What makes you think they caught it from me?” Jimmy yelled.
All of the kids shrank back from Jimmy.
“Because first I saw the spot on your face, then there was a spot on Bart’s face and now there’s a spot on Jill’s face,” Perry explained.
“Now you’ve got three gray spots on your face,” said Ned.
Perry looked at Jimmy’s face again.
“Yeah, there is a third spot on your face. You’d better go home right now.”
“I don’t think so,” Jimmy replied. “I don’t feel sick and I don’t think you’ll get a gray spot on your face just because I did, but I wish you would!”
“Jimmy’s bringing the plague to school!” Perry yelled.
With that, the children ran off as if Godzilla was chasing them. Jill alone remained to give Jimmy a look full of poison.
“If I get sick like you, I’ll never forgive you,” she said before she ran into the school.
Jimmy hurried into the school and ran to the bathroom to look at his face in the mirror. To his horror, he saw a new gray spot on his other cheek, and his eyes were turning a sickly yellow just as Perry said.
When Jimmy walked into his classroom, he could tell by the buzzing in the room and the looks on all the faces that they’d been taking about him. The kids who sat near him shrank away. Bart was glaring at him. The bell rang. Before Ms. Potterkneeler could open her mouth, Parry raised his hand. Ms. Potterkneeler gave him an angry look.
“Do you really have something so important that you can’t wait until after I check attendance?” she asked him.
“Yes, there is an urgent matter” Perry replied. “Jimmy has a contagious disease that’s given him gray spots on his face and turned his eyes yellow. Can you make him go to the clinic before the rest of us get sick?”
Ms. Potterkneeler looked at Jimmy with both a frown and concern.
“Are you feeling sick?” she asked him.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Look at his face,” said Parry. “He’s got a gray spot on each cheek and another on his forehead and his eyes are yellow.”
“Parry, you are speaking out of turn.”
But Ms. Potterkneeler continued to look at Jimmy’s face. When she frowned again, Jimmy’s heart sank.
“Jimmy, it looks like you might have a case of jaundice.”
Ms. Potterkneeler looked a little embarrassed.
“It’s—not good, Jimmy. You’d better go to the clinic.”
Jimmy felt like a bearded lady and three-legged man all wrapped into one from the way everybody was staring at him while he waited for Ms. Potterkneeler to write out the pass to the clinic. When she gave it to him, he couldn’t get away fast enough. But then as soon as he was out in the hall, he couldn’t get to the clinic slowly enough for fear of what the nurse would say when she saw him. When he finally did get there, the nurse confirmed Jimmy’s fears with a bewildered look.
“What has happened to you?”
“I don’t know,” Jimmy mumbled.
The nurse took his temperature. Normal. She took his blood pressure. Normal.
“Do you have a headache?”
“Do you feel kind of woozy?”
“Does it hurt when I touch you here?”
She touched the spot on Jimmy’s left cheek. He didn’t feel a thing.
“How about your eyes? Is your vision blurry?”
“Please read the fourth line down on that chart over there.”
Jimmy read off the letters.
“Did you have any trouble seeing the letters?
“Well, I don’t know what the problem is, but I don’t like the look of those gray spots on your cheek and I like a lot less the yellow in your eyes. I think I’d better call your mother and have her take you to the doctor.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Jim said hastily.
“Maybe not,” said the nurse. “And I hope not. But it’s better to be safe and healthy than sorry and sick.”
Before Jimmy could protest any more, Bart came into the clinic followed by Jill.
“What?” the nurse exclaimed, looking more worried than ever when she saw their faces. “Do both of you have the same problem Jimmy has?”
“It’s all his fault,” said Bart. “He got sick first and gave it to me.”
“I did not,” Jimmy protested.
“Catching this whatever-it-is from Jimmy has really wrecked my day,” said Jill.
“I don’t think you should blame Jimmy for this,” said the nurse. “I’m sure he didn’t get this rash, or whatever-it-is on purpose.”
But it was obvious that neither Bart nor Jill were willing to listen. The nurse went through the same drill she’d just gone through with Jimmy. While she was finishing up, three more kids came into the clinic with gray spots on their faces
“That settles it,” said the nurse. “I’m calling all your parents to arrange for you all to see a doctor. We’ve got to see what this illness is right away.”
“Oh good,” said a boy named Davy Ciderfeather. “Thanks for helping me miss school, Jimmy.”
“I guess you’re welcome,” said Jimmy, assuming it was another nasty joke like he’d been getting from everybody else.
“If I lose my perfect grade point average over this, I’ll never forgive you,” said Jill.
Meanwhile, at the high school, Carl Spidertop, had been smouldering with resentment for weeks because the girl he liked, Carol Leafybran, preferred Brent Parsnip He kept a close watch on his rival, hoping to see something incriminating. When he saw a gray spot on Brent’s neck, it really made his day. He mentioned it to Carol during science class with great concern. Much greater was Carol’s concern when she met up Brent at lunch and saw the gray spot for herself.
When the butcher at the grocery store asked Mrs. Mutterstock if she was all right, she said she was fine but felt a dip in her stomach when the butcher said he hoped the gray spot wasn’t a sign of anything.
Jack Brokerfist was presiding over an executive meeting of his lucrative and busy company. John Peppersapling, Jimmy’s father, the vice president, was there along with half a dozen others. The looks he was receiving from everybody in the boardroom began to unnerve him, all the more because of what his wife and son had said at the dinner table to night before.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Jack suddenly asked the group.
There was a long uncomfortable silence. John Peppersapling knew better than to be the first to say anything. Finally, Wilma Cinderturnip said in a small voice that there was a gray spot on Jack’s face. Wilma was fired on the spot. Wilma’s voice became strident. Jack’s voice grew louder with accusations that all of them were trying to take over the company, which John knew was actually true. By the end of the meeting, the business agenda was completely forgotten as the executives ganged up on their boss as if they were a posse roping in a criminal. Jack Brokerfist fought back like a cornered animal. Because he was still the boss, he held his ground and refused to leave work early to see a doctor.
“Say ‘ah’,” said Doctor Mayflower as he held a stick in Jimmy Peppersapling’s mouth.
“No gray spots down your throat.”
“Disappointed?” asked Jimmy.
“No, just looking to see what’s there and what isn’t. Those gray spots on your cheek have me stumped. Urine sample is okay, so you probably don’t have jaundice.”
Jimmy frowned at the word Ms. Potterkneeler had said with such discomfort.
“It can be caused by lots of things, none of them good. Usually a bad liver. Gray spots and yellow eyes don’t look like a good combination.”
“What do they add up to?’
“I don’t know. I’m going to take a sample of the gray spot and send it to the lab and see what they make of it.”
Jimmy winced as Dr. Mayflower scratched at the gray spot on his cheek.
“There, that didn’t hurt, did it?” asked the doctor.
“Hmm. Well, I’ll give you a prescription for some pills that might help. You’re a growing boy. You should be fine in a few days.”
Jimmy was on the verge of feeling good until he got back to the waiting room and saw Bart, Jill and Davy sitting there with their parents. The gray spots on their cheeks were scary enough, but the looks Jill and Bart gave him with their yellowing eyes scared me even more.
“Does the doctor know what you’ve infected us with?” asked Bart.
“Don’t go blaming Jimmy for this,” said his mother.
“Who else is there to blame?”
“Maybe it isn’t anybody’s fault,” suggested his mother.
“Everybody says Jimmy started it,” said Jill.
“Just because everybody says it doesn’t make it right,” said Davy Ciderfeather.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Jill’s mom with a nastier look in her eyes than either of the kids.
“I didn’t get my gray spots on purpose,” said Jimmy.
“How do we know that?” Bart asked back.
“It’s called giving the benefit of the doubt,” said Davy.
“I doubt Jimmy’s been up to any good since getting his gray spots,” said Jill.
Jimmy stuck out his tongue at Bart as he went through the door with his mother.
“Hang in there, Jimmy,” Davy called after him. “I’ve got your back.”
Jimmy was surprised that Davy Ciderfeather was supporting him when they hadn’t even been friends but just two kids in the same class.
“That wasn’t very nice of you, Jimmy,” said Jimmy’s mother.
“That wasn’t very nice of him.”
“Just because somebody else is nasty doesn’t mean you have to be nasty.”
“It does too,” said Jimmy.
He was wondering why his mother hadn’t defended him the way Bart’s mother had, but then he remembered how put out his mother was when she was called out of work to take him to the doctor.
When they got to the parking lot, a couple more kids with gray spots on their faces got out of their cars and Jimmy’s heart sank even lower.
At another clinic, Dr. Busterknuckle shook his head at Martha Muttersock.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” he said.
“Neither do I,” said the widow. “That’s why I came to see you.”
“All I can say is: rest up and see what it’s like in the morning.”
Dr. Busterknuckle thought little of the matter until he saw his next patient, a highschool student named Brent Parsnip who had a large gray spot on his neck just like the gray spot he had seen on Mrs. Muttersock’s face.
At the end of the afternoon, after having seen seven more strange cases of gray spots on faces or hands or legs or backs, Dr. Busterknuckle called several doctors he knew, including Dr. Mayflower. What these doctors had to say did not reassure him.
Duncan Owlglass, mayor of the town, had gone through a long and wearying day and was looking forward to getting home and having a martini before dinner when his secretary rang his phone.
“Duncan Owlglass, how may I help you?”
“This is Dr. Douglas Mayflower calling. I and my colleagues feel called upon to alert you to a serious health problem in our town.”
“Looks like your gray spots have gotten a little bigger,” said his John Peppersapling to his son as he opened the boxes of pizza he’d brought home for dinner.
“I don’t feel sick.”
“You look sick,” said Amy.
“I think my boss has caught the gray skin disease that Jimmy’s got,” said Father.
That got Jimmy’s attention.
“I haven’t been anywhere near enough to him for him to have caught it for me,” said Jimmy.
“Haven’t you been at their house to play with Perry?”
“Not lately, and never again.”
“I thought he was your friend,” said Diane.
“Wilma Cinderturnip noticed a gray splotch on his face during our executive meeting today. He threatened to fire her but I don’t think Jack will be in a position to follow through on that.”
“I called the special toll-free number the mayor has just set up to report these cases while I was waiting for the pizza,” said Father.
“What about me?” asked Jimmy.
“I’m afraid I had to report you, too. It’s our civic duty.”
“What are they going to do about us?”
“I don’t know. Find a way to make you better, I suppose.”
That took away the appetite Jimmy normally had for pizza. To his surprise, he didn’t even feel like gloating over what had happened to Perry’s father. Whatever was happening was too strange and frightening for that. After picking at a slice for a while, Jimmy pulled away from the table and went up to his room. Nobody tried to call him back. With the fascination of dread, Jimmy checked for messages on his cell phone. There were about twenty. After the first three or four he skipped to a message from Davy, who had never sent him a message before. It read: “Hey buddy! I think we’re making medical history!”
That night, Mayor Duncan Owlglass held a frantic emergency meeting of the city council and Barbara Yellowcotton, chief of the Health and Welfare Department, and several doctors, including Dr. Mayflower and Dr. Busterknuckle, and the chief of police, lasting well into the night until they agreed on a plan to nip the Gray Plague in the bud. In the morning, when the sun was showing the first bit of gray in the sky, a couple dozen school busses moved slowly through the streets.
Jimmy expected to sleep in since he couldn’t go to school, but a sharp knock on his bedroom door woke him up just before the crack of dawn.
“What is it?” asked Jimmy in a fuzzy voice.
“I know it’s early, but you will have to get dressed and come right down right now.”
“Just do it.”
Worried by the urgency in her voice, Jimmy reached for his clothes and froze in mid-air when he saw a gray spot on the back of his hand. He frantically looked over the rest of his body but didn’t see any other gray spots. He threw on his clothes and ran to the bathroom where he saw another gray spot on each cheek.
“Jimmy! Hurry up!”
Jimmy was halfway down the stairs when he saw a policewoman waiting in the front hall. His heart stopped for a beat. He almost opened his mouth to ask what this was all about, but he was too afraid to find out. His mother was dressed for work and was obviously ready to go out the door.
“Jimmy,” said his mother, her voice sounding very strange. “The town council has made an emergency decision that everybody who has your—your condition—must go to the hospital and stay on the floor set aside for this—this illness—until you are over it.”
Jimmy looked uncertainly at the policewoman.
“I’m sorry we have to do this, but it is for your own good as well as the good of the town, since we don’t know how serious this plague is.”
“Can I have some breakfast first?” Jimmy asked his mother.
“Go pack up a few things and I’ll give you a couple of donuts to take with you. Be sure to bring your wallet with your health insurance card.”
Numb as he was with shock, Jimmy could hardly think about what to pack. He remembered his cell phone and his favorite plastic monsters, but that was about it. He didn’t even think about his toothpaste. When he got back downstairs with his shoulder bag, he hardly looked at his mother as he grabbed the bag of donuts from her.
“We promise they’ll take good care of your son,” said the policewoman. “Hopefully he’ll be better in a couple of days and he can get back to normal.”
“I’m sorry I can’t go with you right now,” said Jimmy’s mother. “I have to get to work which I’m sure you can understand. Your father and I will visit you as soon as we we can.”
Just then, Amy came down the stairs and stopped in mid-step when she saw the policewoman.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Jimmy’s going to the hospital to get all better real soon,” said Mother.
“I hope I haven’t already caught whatever it is you’ve got,” said Amy. “If I catch it, I’ll never forgive you.”
With those words ringing in his ears and a quick, desperate kiss from his mother, Jimmy followed the policewoman out into a dark morning that felt even colder than it was. He expected to see a police car but instead, there was a school bus. He took a bite out of his donut. It tasted like ashes.
“There’s the kid that started this!” two kids’ voices yelled as Jimmy climbed into the bus.
He didn’t have to look to know they were Bart Shoehorn and Jill Flowerpot.
“He’s the one who made my little girl sick!” cried Jill’s mother who was holding the girl in her arms.
There were several hisses and much ominous grumbling as Jimmy searched for a place that wasn’t next to somebody.
“Howdy stranger,” said a man.
The man looked like a stranger with the large gray splotches on his face, but then Jimmy recognized his neighbor Eddie Fountainpike. He used to take Jimmy fishing when he was younger when his parents were too busy to do anything of the kind. He was the grandfather Jimmy otherwise didn’t have, since his grandfather was too busy doing real estate in Florida to come north for a visit. Seeing Eddie made Jimmy feel guilty about not having spent time with the older man as he got older. He sat down next to Eddie, relieved to have a friend in the hostile environment. Jill and Bart continued to yell nasty things to Jimmy as the bus started up.
Perry Brokerfist was woken before his alarm was set to ring by his father yelling like a wounded bull on a rampage. He jumped out of bed and ran to the top of the stairs where he saw his father being handcuffed by two policemen in the vestibule. Parry thought of the illegal tactics he knew his father had done and fretted about the many others he knew nothing about until he heard one of the officers saying that the whole thing was a health precaution and he should be back to work in no time. Perry smiled to himself and went back to bed for ten more minutes of sleep.
When Davy Ciderfeather got on the bus, Jimmy lifted a hand a little in case Davy still liked him. One of his gray splotches curled up from one side of his mouth, making him look a bit like a half-smiling clown.
“I’d sit next to you if the place wasn’t taken,” said Davy.
“You’re not going to sit near that creep are you?” Bart asked him.
“I can move,” Eddie offered.
“That’s okay,” said Davy as he took the seat across from Jimmy.
“Davy likes rats who spread the plague,” said Jill.
“I just like people—except people like you,” Davy replied.
At his office, John Peppersapling, checked through the emails in Jack’s inbox, feeling very important. He was sorry he had to leave so early that he couldn’t say good-bye to his son, but he knew he would have to take leadership in the company with Jack Brokerfist going to the hospital that morning. He consoled himself by thinking of how he could help his family with whatever extra income he could bring in. Jack’s secretary Brenda Shootingstar greeted him and handed Jack’s correspondence to him.
“Any idea when he’ll be back?” Brenda asked.
“Same idea the doctors have. None whatsoever.”
Everybody on the bus heard the bellowing of Jack Brokerfist while they waited for the struggling police officers to load him onto the bus in handcuffs. When he finally climbed on and saw the other people on the bus, his eyes narrowed on Jimmy.
“There’s the kid started this plague so his father could try to take over my company!” Jack yelled.
That started another round of yelling at Jimmy. Davy stood up.
“Kids don’t get icky gray stuff over their faces just to help their dads!” Davy yelled.
“That’s not what my son said, “ said Mr. Brokerfist, glaring at Jimmy with eyes that looked like they were going to burn him with yellow fire. “If I lose my position because of this, I will sue your family for every last fork in your house!”
In three medical labs, researchers studied sample after sample of tissue taken from the gray spots of countless patients. So far, nobody had discovered anything that could explain what caused the disease or what its outcome would be. All of the doctors in town feared seeing more patients with gray spots on their faces and eyes turning yellow. Their fears were more than realized.
Each bus that had been sent out in the morning pulled up to the hospital where the passengers got off and walked through the glass doors. Special tables were set up in the lounge to admit the patients as expeditiously as possible. All of the staff there wore face masks which spooked out Jimmy and a lot of other people. One of the officers from the bus kept Jimmy, Davy and Eddie together and suggested that they should be placed together in one room.
Ms. Potterkneeler tried to bring her class to order so that she could explain preposition phrases, but nothing she said or did, at no matter how high a volume, could stop her pupils, led by a vociferous Parry Brokerfist, from pointing at her face. Determined to put a stop to the accusations of being as plague-ridden as Jimmy Peppersapling, she took her pocket mirror out of her purse and looked at it. That look was enough to send her fleeing from the classroom, leaving the unruly class for somebody else to worry about.
Jimmy Peppersapling, Davy Ciderfeather and Eddie Fountainpike looked dully at the TV in their hospital room. After a couple of news report about a mysterious epidemic they were calling the Gray Plague, Davy switched the channel to a cooking show.
Before they could learn how to cook the exotic meal the TV cook was demonstrating, a doctor and a pair of medics entered their room. With their masks, all three looked like Darth Vader to Jimmy and Davy.
“Hmm. Three gray spots on your face today,” murmured the doctor as he examined Jimmy. “Records show two spots yesterday. I wonder if this disease adds a spot a day until your whole body turns gray. A gray spot a day gives the doctor his pay.”
“Very funny,” said Jimmy.
“I’m just trying to cheer you up,” said the doctor.
“We’re trying to decide if I should name the disease after one of the doctors who thinks he or she first discovered it, or name it Peppersapling’s Disease after you, or just call it the Gray Plague.”
“If you name it after me, I’ll sue you for a zillion dollars,” Jimmy threatened.
“Can’t you be more sensitive to a kid who’s been given a hard time?” Eddie asked him.
“Sorry,” said the doctor. “I’m just trying to cheer you up. I hope we make more medical history by finding the cause and cure of this disease, whatever we call it,”
“You don’t have to find the cure until school’s out for the summer,” said Davy cheerfully.
“Oh, I hope to have you back in school in a week or two.”
With that, the doctor and the medics were off to the next room of patients.
“I can’t believe you don’t hate me like everybody else for starting this plague,” said Jimmy, after a period of silence.
“How could I not still like you?” Eddie replied. “It was so much fun to have you along on our fishing trips. There’s no way I’m going to turn against you after that.”
Jimmy’s jaw just about dropped. It had never occurred to him that Eddie had really liked having him along. He has assumed he was just a bother when Eddie had to put the worms on his hook for him.
“I just don’t want to be part of a group of people who gang up a kid just because he got sick,” said Davy.
Those words gave Jimmy a burning sensation of guilt as he realized that if Davy had been the one blamed for starting the epidemic, there was no way he would have stood against everybody else for Davy’s sake.
“I’m sorry everybody hates you just because of me,” said Jimmy.
“Everybody always hates me because I’m the only one who doesn’t hate people.”
“They do?” Jimmy asked in surprise.
“Yea. Didn’t you notice I don’t really have any friends?”
After a stunned silence, Jimmy said:
“I’m sorry I took you for granted. I promise to start liking you because you don’t hate people.”
“Me too,” said Eddie.
With Ms. Potterkneeler gone and nobody coming in right away to take her place, Perry Brokerfist and Ned Weathervane checked out the other kids in their class with the result that two of them were ordered to leave immediately for the clinic or be beaten up. Then Perry and Ned went to the next classroom.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked Mr. Lawncruiser.
“We’re checking to see if anyone in this class has the Gray Plague.”
“That is not your business.”
“It is too our business if our health is threatened by any of your kids,” said Ned.
“Do you want to get sick because you didn’t check out the kids in your class?” asked Perry.
The class was quickly in an uproar with everybody checking out everybody else and some kids being instantly diagnosed with the Gray Plague. Mr. Lawncruiser grabbed a hold of Perry to restrain him but so many other boys came to pull the teacher off him that Perry got free to continue his work of saving the school from the plague.
Later in the morning, Diane Peppersapling came in, wearing a face mask that made her almost unrecognizable.
“How are you doing?” she asked, almost sounding like a robot.
“Fine except for these spots.”
“I can’t say you look good.”
“Neither can I.”
Jimmy’s mother dropped a bag at the food of her son’s bed.
“I brought some things for you in case you’re here for a while.”
“I can’t stay. I have to get back to work. Half of our staff is sick and that means twice as much work for the rest of us. Your father won’t be able to come at all today. He’s taking on all of Jack Brokerfist’s responsibilities for as long as he is sick. I’ll be lucky if I get to see him myself in the next day or two.”
“He blamed me for making him sick.”
“Well, if it’s your fault, you’ve helped your father. Eddie, thank you for looking after my son—again.”
“You’re most welcome.”
“I’d better not run into Perry for a while,” said Jimmy as soon as his mother was gone.
“We’ll protect you,” Davy promised.
“You bet,” said Eddie.
Since neither of them were very big or strong, Jimmy didn’t like their chances even fighting two-against-one.
Once or twice an hour, a bus with some more plague victims would roll up to the hospital. Martha Muttersock, with a suitcase carefully packed, was on one of those busses after having called in to report herself. Doctors’ secretaries were kept busy calling the city to report one more case of the Gray Plague. Those people who seemed compliant were allowed to drive themselves to the hospital and turn themselves in. In the case of the recalcitrant, the police were called. Some people tried to escape the town but they ran into police blockades that turned them back. These same blockades protected those people who would otherwise have driven into town, unsuspecting of what could await them there.
Eddie Fountainpike’s wife, Edna, came in about the middle of the day. She, too, had to wear a mask, but the mask couldn’t keep her eyes from being bright and dancing.
“My!” she exclaimed. “How did you get two grandsons as roommates?”
“Cause he and Davy are the only people in town who don’t hate me for starting this plague,” Jimmy answered.
Edna came over to Jimmy’s bed, her eyes full of concern.
“Well, I’m somebody else in town who doesn’t hate you for starting this plague.”
“And it isn’t Jimmy’s fault anyway,” added Davy.
“That’s what I was about to say myself,” said Edna. “Well, I’ve brought some cheese sandwiches and cookies I just baked to make sure you get a decent lunch. I’ll be sure to make three or four or five times as much to bring this afternoon.”
By the time she left, Davy and Jimmy felt that they had adopted a grandmother who had adopted them.
Early in the afternoon, Davy’s father, Thornton Ciderfeather, was brought in to their room. Davy visibly cringed at the large gray splotches plastered on both of his cheeks, but then he jumped out of bed and gave his father a long, tear-filled hug. Jimmy braced myself for a tirade accusing him of making both of them sick, but nothing of the kind happened. Thornton asked Davy who his roommates were and Davy introduced Eddie and Jimmy to him with no mention that Jimmy was being blamed for starting the plague.
Edna Ciderfeather came back later in the afternoon with a Monopoly game to help the group pass the time. She also left a bucket of fried chicken for supper and a box of cupcakes. The four patients spent the afternoon playing the game. For a while, Davy was winning big, but he was not mean enough to bankrupt anybody who landed on a street with a hotel on it and Jimmy ended up the winner. As he collected his last pile of money, he noticed that the gray spots on the faces of his roommates were getting worse and spots were appearing on their hands. He looked at his hands and saw gray spots appearing there.
“Do I look as bad you as you think you do?” Eddie asked, just as Jimmy was throwing the dice.
“Well, I’m sure I’m not looking my best,” said Eddie.
“Have the gray spots on my face gotten any worse?” Jimmy asked him.
“I’d say they have, but I’m afraid you’ll say the same thing to me,” said Davy.
Jimmy sighed and re-counted his Monopoly money.
Throughout the day and far into the night, Mayor Duncan Owlglass and the council had continuous meetings with all the relevant health personnel. The wing at the hospital reserved for the Gray Plague was filling up and plans were put into motion to set up another wing for the plague as well. This entailed moving patients to the other hospitals in the area. One of the directives from the city council was for a panel of physicians to put together a long questionnaire to be given to all patients and also to everybody who was still free of the Gray Plague in search for correlations between every aspect of their lives and the disease. They also decided to close all schools and require every citizen to receive a quick checkup from a doctor each day. The researchers examining infinite lab samples came up with an infinitude of theories, none of which made sense to anybody.
Jimmy awoke to the soft voices of Davy, Thornton, and Eddie trying to console each other about their situation. The colorless walls and view of sky outside the window as gray as the plague spots told Jimmy that raising anybody’s spirits was a losing battle. When he looked across the room at Eddie, Davy, and Davy’s father, his spirits sank even lower. The gray spots on their faces were turning into masks which weren’t very funny when Halloween was months away. When Davy and his father noticed Jimmy was awake and looked at him, the concern on their faces made Jimmy fear that his face probably looked the same. He looked at his hands and saw large swaths of gray.
“We don’t seem to be getting any better,” said Eddie.
“Guess not,” said Davy. “At least they won’t send me to school today.”
“Is getting out of school the only thing you care about?” Eddie asked him.
“No, it’s just the thing I care about the most.”
“How are you going to learn anything if you don’t have any school for the rest of your life?” Eddie asked him.
“I’ve been asking Davy that same question for years,” said his father with a sigh.
“I’m wondering how I’m going to learn anything if I ever have to go to school again,” said Davy.
“I guess I see your point.”
A masked woman brought in the breakfast trays with no cheery “good morning” for the patients. She slammed the trays down on the little tables overhanging the beds and left the room as fast as she could. They were just finishing their tasteless breakfasts when a doctor with a team of medics came in.
“Looks like the disease is taking a new turn,” said the doctor as he carefully noted the gray splotches on everybody’s hands. “I was wondering if it was going to spread from the face to other parts of the body. Now I know. Maybe you’ll all end up being knights in shining armor without the knight or the shining.”
Nobody laughed except the doctor and a couple of the medics.
“Eyes remain as yellow as ever, just like the color of—well, you know what I mean.”
All four patients glared at him.
“Actually, I will need samples of that very thing, and blood samples, too.”
“I don’t like blood work,” Jimmy complained.
“We don’t take blood for the fun of it,” said the medic who had the blood-drawing equipment. “We can’t leave any stone unturned if we’re going to lick this plague. Think of how much you are helping everybody by cooperating.”
“Nobody deserves Jimmy’s help after the way everybody has treated Jimmy,” Davy grumbled.”
The medics took the samples and left a sheaf of paper filled with questions for each patient to fill out.
“Looks like they want to play five-thousand-six-hundred-and-forty-seven questions with us,” said Davy.
“Rather be in school?” asked his father.
“Almost. This really cuts into our monopoly time.”
“I can’t remember everything I ate the day before I got sick,” said Jimmy.
“I remember I had one of Edna’s prize casseroles the night before I came down with this,” said Eddie. “It had everything in it but the kitchen sink. If that had anything to do with this, than all the foods in the world are unhealthy.”
Later in the morning, Edna came in with another large picnic basket. The mood in the room suddenly turned brighter.
“I hope you like this better than the hospital food you’re getting,” she said.
“Let’s not talk about the hospital food,” said Davy.
“All right, I won’t. Things are getting so crazy out there, I’m beginning to wonder who the sick people really are. Everybody is afraid to get near to everybody else. We all have to get a checkup at least once a day.
“My baby!” cried Mrs. Ciderfeather when she came into the room.
“I’m too old to be your baby, even if I am sick,” said Davy.
His mother gave him and then her husband a long, fierce hug.
“Careful, dear, you’ll catch the plague,” Thornton warned his wife.
“I’d rather catch seventy plagues then be deprived of the hugs I deserve or deprive you of the hugs you deserve,” said Janet Ciderfeather stoutly.
“That’s my gal,” said Thornton with a troubled smile. “How’s Susie holding up?”
“No gray spots on her yet. She doesn’t know what to do with school canceled.”
“You mean I could have gotten out of school today without getting sick?” Davy asked.
“Looks like it.”
“Are you bored with Monopoly?” asked Edna. “Should I get you another game?”
“Not yet,” said Davy.
A visit from Jimmy’s mother later in the morning was a different manner. Jimmy shrank back into his pillows when he saw the cold, angry look in her eyes.
“Jimmy, Amy caught the plague this morning,” she said without even asking Jimmy how he was doing.
“Is that all you can say, after bringing the plague into the house?”
“I’m sorry she’s sick!” Jimmy yelled in self-defense.
“It’s too late to be sorry. She’s in this hospital, stuffed into a room with eight other girls, all of whom hate her because of you.”
“Mrs. Peppersapling,” said Eddie, “I really don’t think everybody is getting sick just because of Jimmy.”
“Everybody else thinks that!” Jimmy’s mother yelled. “My social life has gone down the tubes because of him. Everybody at the company is insulting your father every chance they get because of what Jimmy did to Perry’s father. At least one of the worst of those got the plague this morning. Well, I have to get back to work before I lose my job. At least a third of the staff is sick and we all have to spend time waiting in lines for our checkups and that gives us even less time to do our work.”
All this time, Jimmy could scarcely recognized this masked woman as his mother. Many times he had yelled at her for just doing her job as a mother, but this time he was too discouraged to say anything. When his mother left, he lifted a hand to wave just a little.
“She’s not usually this bad,” said Jimmy.
“I know,” said Eddie. She’s always been more busy than she should be for you and Amy, but she’s always been more understanding than this.”
“I fear that this plague is going to bring the worst out of some people,” said Thornton.
“Then we’ll just have to bring the best out of us to make up for that,” said Davy.
The four patients went back to filling out answers to the questions in the questionnaires.
“This is worse than a test at school,” Davy muttered when he flipped to the next page.
“Rather be in school?” asked his father.
“No. I just want to play Monopoly and then go out and play soccer. I suppose everybody out there is afraid if I touch a soccer ball, everybody else will catch the plague from my cooties.”
Roughly an hour later, a haggard medic came in to collect the questionnaires and left as quickly as he could.
Outside the hospital there was chaos everywhere. People were lining up at the closed schools that were being set up as emergency clinics for the mandatory checkups. Traffic was snarled everywhere. There were shops with one or two employees but no boss and other shops with the boss but no employees. Business was slow everywhere but those who did enter stores had a hard time getting waited on. The national guard had been called on to shepherd the people and maintain order. When they found out, too late, that they were being quarantined, they became disgruntled and impatient with everybody they had to deal with.
Early in the afternoon, when Jimmy and his roommates were munching on some egg rolls Edna had made, Amy came to the door and stood there, glaring at Jimmy. Jimmy was shocked at the long gray scars running across her face.
“See what you did?”
“Don’t blame me.”
“Who else could I have gotten it from?”
“You could have gotten it from hundreds of people,” said Thornton Ciderfeather,“assuming this disease is contagious.”
“If it isn’t contagious, then why is everybody getting it?” asked Amy.
“Nobody seems to know,” said Eddie.
“I’m sorry you’re sick,” said Jimmy. “I really am. If I could make you well, I could, but I can’t even make myself well.”
“All the girls in my room hate me because of you.”
“Doesn’t speak well for the girls in your room,” said Davy.
“This isn’t fair!” Amy cried. “It isn’t my fault I got sick. You’ve wrecked my social life, Jimmy!”
“Sorry, I’d fix it if I could,” said Jimmy.
That got Amy yelling at Jimmy at a much higher volume than Jimmy thought a girl her size could ever muster. Everybody just let her have the floor until she finally ran out of breath from yelling so much. All the while, Davy shook his head and gave Jimmy a sympathetic look.
“I think the way you feel is the way Jimmy feels all the time,” said Eddie when Amy had finally run out of words.
“I think you heard me. The way you feel from being blamed for being Jimmy’s sister is the way Jimmy feels for being blamed for the Gray Plague.”
That shut Amy up. She sniffled, then cried a bit, then sniffled some more.
“I don’t like feeling like that,” she said in a croaked voice.
“I don’t either,” said Jimmy.
“And I don’t like seeing you get blamed for being the sister of the boy who’s been blamed for starting the Gray Plague,” said Davy.
Amy didn’t say anything, but Jimmy knew she was more grateful for Davy’s words than he could ever know.
“Want to have some food that Eddie’s wife brought us?” Jimmy offered.
Amy looked at the egg rolls everybody was holding with her lip curdled as if it were covered with puss and started to walk away. But then she stopped and a tear came to her eye. She turned around and walked slowly to the table by Eddie’s bed where the picnic basket lay.
“Do you really want me to stay here?” she asked, looking straight at Jimmy.
“We promise to treat you a lot better than the girls in your room,” said Davy.
So Amy took an egg roll Eddie held up for her and sat down. When they finished lunch, topped off with chocolate cup cakes, they started another game of Monopoly.
When that game was over, with Davy narrowly beating Amy after the two of them had bankrupted everybody else, Davy turned on the television. Dr. Mayflower’s face filled the screen.
“I was the first the diagnose a case of this dread disease we are now calling the Gray Plague. I could have gotten the disease named after me, but I decline the dubious honor. It started when a boy was sent to my office by his school nurse when she observed alarming symptoms on his face and in his eyes.”
“Is there anything else besides news about the plague I started?” asked Jimmy.
Davy switched the channel and got scenes of anxious people getting checkups and sometimes being diagnosed with the Gray Plague. Davy punched in the next channel. A preacher was waving a hand in the air while insisting that the gray plague was God’s punishment on the town for the sins that committed by the people that the law enforcers were allowing to happen.
“Is it because of my sins or the sins of other people that I got the plague?” Jimmy asked with a groan.
“Probably mine,” said Davy with a wry smile.
“Some preachers are always angry at other people and so they assume God is always as angry as they are and so they think all God cares about is punishing people,” said Eddie.
“Some people aren’t happy unless they’re blaming somebody for something,” Thornton muttered.
“What do these preachers do if something goes right?” asked Amy.
“They probably look for something that’s gone wrong so they can blame somebody for it. Davy suggested.
“I know I’ve been bad enough to deserve getting the plague,” said Jimmy. “Ever since I got sick and Parry treated me the way he did, I’ve been thinking about the times I went along with mean things Parry and Ned wanted to do to other kids. But the rest of you sure don’t deserve it. If God caused this plague because He’s angry with you, then the rest of this town is in a lot of trouble.”
“God can’t be angry with you, Jimmy” said Edna, “not when you’re sorry for things you know you’ve done wrong and you’re trying to be a better person.”
“I think things like illness happens and God helps us deal with it,” said Eddie.
Davy switched to the next channel only to have Parry Brokerfist’s face fill the screen.
“I was innocently walking to school when this kid named Jimmy Peppersapling came up to me with his face covered with ugly gray spots. Obviously he was trying to infect me with his horrible disease,” Parry told a reporter.
Jimmy was so shaken he didn’t know what to think.
“Enough news!” cried Thornton.
Suddenly, the news program blacked out.
“Whoa!” Davy explained. “Somebody’s got magic powers.”
“Now they’re telling us what they really know,” Eddie quipped.
Everybody sat in silence for as long at the screen was blank until the friendly face of Andy Griffith the sheriff appeared.
“That’s a nice change of pace,” Thornton remarked. “I wonder if they suddenly decided to say nothing and pretend this plague isn’t even happening.”
Late in the afternoon, a doctor came in looking like he’d taken a tour of a washing machine with a couple of medics who carried laptops.
“Has the city really blocked out all news of any kind?” Eddie asked them before they could ask their patients how poorly they were feeling.
The doctor and medics looked at each other uneasily.
“I’ve been too busy seeing patients to know,” said the doctor.“Let’s see how you are all doing.”
The doctor looked over the gray spots of each patient, then cross-examined them on dozens of the answers they had given to their questionnaires.
“I already told you that,” Davy complained. “Can’t you let us lie sick in peace?”
“It is of the utmost importance that we get to the bottom of this illness before it destroys us all,” said the doctor.
“Keep acting like the way you are acting and you’ll be destroyed whether you get any gray spots or not,” warned Thornton Ciderfeather.
The doctor rattled off a few dozen more questions while the medics tapped furiously on their keyboards. When he had finished, he tore out of the room with the medics at his heels to the relief of everybody.
During the day and into the night, Mayor Duncan Owlglass and city officials held nonstop meetings and made one hard decision after another. Administrators of the hospital where the plague victims were taken had advised the city management that it was reaching full capacity and some other place had to be found immediately. Desperate, ruthless solutions to the crisis were proposed and discussed. One of the hard decisions made was to order a complete blackout of news to stem the panic. An even harder decision was to find a place for all victims of the Gray Plague and make arrangements for the transfer which occurred at a dizzying pace. Meanwhile, equally haggard medical lab technicians examined blood and urine specimens and seemingly tons of gray spot tissue while other technicians fed high-powered computers with date from the questionnaires without any pattern emerging to suggest possible causes of the plague.
When Duncan Owlglass got home well after midnight, his wife, Phyllis, was waiting up for him in her bathrobe and slippers. She started to give him a kiss but suddenly drew away.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“I – I hardly know how to say this.”
“Do you mean you see—you see a gray spot on me?”
Phyllis nodded, her face filled with tears.
When Jimmy heard a rumble of activity outside his room followed by the grumbling of voices early in the morning, his antennae began to twitch. Suddenly, the door opened and a masked police officer followed by two more, swarmed in and turned on the light, popping four patients up in their beds.
“I have to ask you to get dressed right away, grab our things and come with us,” said one of the officers in a gentle but firm voice.
“Where are we going?” asked Thornton.
“To a new place for until this plague is over,” the officer replied. “Sorry for the early hour but we are moving you ahead of all the others in this hospital for your own protection.”
Jimmy and his roommates gathered their few things as quickly as possible with Davy clutching the Monopoly game to his chest. They were hustled out into the spookily empty hall where even the counter of the nurses’ station by the elevators was deserted. The long ride down the elevator took them to the lobby where more police officers were stationed.
“We need to wait a minute before we move out,” said the officer who led the group.
Almost instantly another elevator dinged and a couple of policemen came out with a gray-scarred girl in the middle.
“Amy!” Jimmy cried.
Amy ran into Jimmy’s arms.
“Okay, let’s go,” said the officer.
Outside, dozens of busses lined the street in front of the hospital and more policeman stood in clumps in front of the busses. One small bus was parked right near the door and the officers directed the patients to that one.
Numb over this turn of events, and numb from the cold wind, the small group climbed into the bus and sat down. Two police officers got into the bus with them, obviously to make sure nobody caused any problems. Amy sat close to Jimmy and for the first time in his life, Jimmy was glad to be close to Amy. Eddie sat on the other side of Amy and held her hand gently to reassure her, not that Eddie felt reassured himself. Davy opened his mouth as if he were about to make one his smart and funny remarks, but then closed it again, his face overcome with gloom.
The bus passed City Hall where, even this early in the morning, dozens of protesters were demonstrating with signs demanding civil rights for sick people. Some streets were deserted but others were filled with traffic and pedestrians converging on schools and other buildings marked “Daily Gray Plague Checkups Here.” The bus wound through the familiar streets at the center of town and then turned down a street headed toward the edge of town. Eddie tightened his lips. Thornton groaned.
“Where could they be possibly be taking us?” he asked.
The officers looked at each other uncomfortably.
“You’ll see when we get there,” said one of the policemen. “Please believe me when I say that we are doing everything we can for the sake of your health and the health of everybody else in town.”
The bus made another turn down a street where there was serious commotion further down. Several armed police officers surrounded a house, their faces up only by the flashing lights of the police cars.
“What’s going on there?” asked Davy Ciderfeather.
“Those people are resisting getting their checkups,” one of the officers in the bus replied.
“Can’t they leave them alone?”
“Not if we value public health, we can’t.”
The bus stopped and backed up the street before turning to take a different route that moved toward the edge of town. When the bus turned again, Davy gave out a sharp cry when a tall cyclone fence with electric barbed wire strung across the top lit up in the bus’s headlights. Thornton stood up.
Everybody groaned. Davy threw his arms around his father, crying. Amy grabbed Jimmy’s hand and squeezed it.
The gate in the fence was opened by a pack of officers, their own faces scarred with gray spots. Beyond the gate was a dead mall that was being brought to life by swarms of people carrying cots, wires, boxes, and much more. The bus motored through the open gate and then stopped. The door popped open. Nobody wanted to move out of the bus.
“I guess we might as well find out what’s in store for us,” said Eddie. “If we all stick together, we can get through this.”
The other patients nodded solemnly.
Eddie stood up and the rest followed him out of the bus. Although the first crack of dawn was visible, the air felt even colder.
Another police officer, his own face scarred by the Gray Plague, came up to the group.
“I’m Jasper Hangnail. I know this isn’t the best facility in the world, but I’ll do everything I can to make this place comfortable for all of you. After all, as you can see by looking at me, I live here too.”
Before the officer could say anything more, the headlights of a dark car showed up at the gate. The driver said something to the guard and the gate was opened.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone else just yet,” Jasper grunted. He padded up to the car as the back door opened and a man came out. When the man identified himself in a low voice, Jasper stifled a cry before greeting him with deference.
“You!” Thornton Ciderfeather cried. “Is it really you?”
The man sadly nodded.
“So you’re the one who set up this concentration camp!” Thornton yelled.
“I did,” said the man quietly. “And now I am caught in the quarantine facility I have made.”
Only then did Jimmy and the others realize that the man was the mayor, Duncan Owlglass. His forehead was slashed with a gray streak and he had a large gray streak on his cheek.
“And now you’re just one of us,” said Eddie gently.
“Looks like it,” said the mayor.
“Do you still think this place is a good idea?” asked Thornton.
“I hope so, I hope so. I still think we have to contain this disease as best we can until the doctors figure out the cause and cure.”
“Perhaps it will be a good idea if you get to your places before the others start coming,” suggested Jasper.
The mayor nodded and the group followed the officer into the mall. It was gutted when it was closed and it was little more than a concrete desert with a few scattered lamps that had just been put up.
“Are you still glad you’re missing school?” Thornton Ciderfeather asked Davy.
“No,” Davy replied with a trembling lip.
The group shuffled by what had once been a tall fountain in the middle of the mall. No water was flowing and the pool was only an indentation of concrete with a layer of scum darkening the bottom in the dim light. The journey into what looked and felt to everybody like a black hole seemed to take forever. Finally, Jasper came to the end of a corridor and waved the group in at what had once been the opening to a store.
“Howdy stranger!” cried a familiar voice.
Eddie’s face lit up and so did Jimmy’s heart when Edna fell into her husband’s arms and then gave everybody else a warm hug. The smell of food perked everybody else up even more.
“Believe it or not,” said Edna, “I was intelligent enough to bring all of the foodstuffs in our house and cook some scrambled eggs and bacon in the kitchen here and bring them to our room right when I knew you’d be coming,” said Edna.
“Edna, you are the most intelligent person I’ve every met,” said Eddie. “Please understand that I am overjoyed to have you here with me, but I am worried about your being in a seriously quarantined area.”
“I would be more worried about all of you if I weren’t here after getting that call from the Gray Plague Emergency Service,” said Edna. “They told me they were setting up this—this place and gave me the option of either joining you, or staying separate from you until this is over—if it’s every over.”
“And to think all this was my idea,” said Mayor Owlglass.
Davy looked at his father.
“Well, you know Mama couldn’t leave Susie or drag her to this place,” said Davy’s father in a choking voice.
Jimmy stared at the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Amy’s lip trembling.
“I guess Mom and Dad both have to be at work,” said Jimmy.
“I guess,” Amy sobbed.
Jimmy was stunned, but not so stunned that he couldn’t be enough of a brother to put his arm around his sister.
“I know it’s not the same thing,” said Edna, “but Eddie and I and Thornton will take care of you as if you were our own family—which you are, really.”
Jimmy’s throat was too thick for him to speak, but he nodded.
“Thanks,” Amy sobbed.
“I’ll leave all of you to get settled,” said Jasper after an uncomfortable silence.
Throughout the day, one bus after another rolled into the dead mall turned into a plague colony. Some patients, Jack Brokerfist prominent among them, protested vigorously, but more patients were resigned, numb with shock over what was happening to them.
Martha Muttersock was moved into a room, which happened to be next to Jimmy Peppersapling’s Two women who were rather infirm and a young mother with her baby followed. Her roommates needed so much help that she was soon too busy to feel sorry for herself.
Each empty store was filled with cots and a privacy screen. With the bathroom facilities installed in the mall inadequate for the onslaught of patients, Porto-potties were set up all over the hallway. The kitchens that served the restaurants had been reactivated. People like Edna, willing to share the fate of a plague-stricken spouse or child, had brought what food they could. Boxes of good paid out of city funds or donated by several churches were being delivered through back doors. Those, like Edna, who were good at cooking teamed up to feed everybody.
Just outside the fence, a heavily guarded gate lead to a maze of trailers where doctors, nurses, and medics were setting up shop to examine patients and continue their research. Some of the policemen were given stacks of questionnaires to hand out to all the patients. So it was that Jimmy and his companions were among the first to receive yet more pieces of paper and pencils to write with.
“How many more of these things will we have to do?” Amy moaned.
“As many as it takes to the docs to have the info they need to cure this plague,” said the officer.
“What are they going to do if we refuse to fill out these forms, put us in a prison made out of a dead shopping mall?” asked Jimmy as soon as the officer had left to deliver more forms elsewhere.
“Might as well give them the info again this time around,” said Eddie. “It’ll pass the time.”
“What about next time?” asked Amy.
“Next time we give them crazy answers,” said Davy.
The questions were detailed and tedious. How much exercise do you get? What music do you listen to? What music do you avoid? Do you read any books? If so, what kinds of books do you read? Do you play computer games? If so, what kind of computer games? How angry do you feel about life? How were you feeling just before you first noticed you had symptoms of the gray plague?
“What’s this about my sex life?” Davy cried. “I’m too young to have a sex life—so far, anyway.”
“Just put N/A,” his father suggested. “I guess they didn’t bother to make the questionnaires age appropriate.”
“This is getting to be an IQ test,” Amy complained. “I suppose they’ll conclude that only stupid people get this stupid disease.”
“I think it’s the most intelligent people who got it,” Davy replied.
“Making these questionnaires seemed like a good idea at the time,” Duncan Owlglass sighed.
Later in the day, the group was escorted to their first medical exam in the new facility. Several people were standing in line while more police herded them to keep them in order. When Jimmy was gently but firmly pushed into one of the trailers, he was surrounded by a whole team of doctors and nurses who glowered at him over their masks. They grumbled among themselves about how much more of his body was covered up by the gray rash and how his hands were starting to get deformed. Since they didn’t talk to Jimmy, but only to each other as if he wasn’t there, Jimmy felt like a nonperson, an animal in their eyes, an animal facing doctors and nurses who didn’t believe in animal rights.
Parry Brokerfist threw a rock through a store window. He broke off more shards of glass with the rock until he had made a large enough opening for him and Ned Weathervane to enter the store. Neither of the boys had much need of any of the sporting goods on sale there but they couldn’t resist the chance to take advantage of a police force spread out so thinly that unguarded stores had become easy pickings.
Several times throughout the day, John Peppersapling thought he would get a chance to give Jimmy and Amy a quick call, but each of those times, Wilma Cinderturnip came into his office with yet another stack of papers, or another bunch of emails would pop into the president’s inbox, requiring immediate attention.
Jimmy and Amy did get each get a call from their mother who sounded distracted by her responsibilities at work. Jimmy told her that Eddie and Edna were taking good care of them and she didn’t have to worry.
Carl Spidertop made a point of making sure he showed up for his checkup at the same that Carol Leafybran was there. After making sure she wasn’t showing gray spots on her face, he sidled up to her, taking cuts in line and ignoring the old woman behind him who could only protest in vain.
“Still feeling okay?” Carl asked her.
“Too bad Brent’s out of commission for a while.”
“Want to do something together today to take our minds off all this?”
“I’m going straight to the church after this to help with their emergency outreach. Want to join us for that?”
“I’ll think about it,” said Carl, not hiding his disappointment very well.
By the next day, the fences and trailers for the medics had been moved back, making the walk to their checkups longer, and at least half a dozen prefab buildings were being unloaded in the expanding colony. More medical labs, subject to media blackout, were examining gray samples and questionnaires were being crunched into the most high-powered computers available, but still no helpful correlations whatever turned up. It was beginning to appear that the gray plague struck all ages, genders, races, religious affiliations, intelligence levels and lovers of all kinds of music and none.
Finding something to do that wasn’t horribly boring was getting to be a challenge for all patients. Cheap TV’s were wheeled into as many rooms as they became available through the generosity of others. As before, there were no news programs and current TV programs were blacked out as well. Only reruns of old shows and movies were available to offer some feeble entertainment.
Jimmy and his companions felt it prudent to stay in their rooms and not wander about, given the bad publicity Jimmy had gotten thanks to Parry. The gray was beginning to cover their faces but in spite of that, they were recognizable when somebody looked closely. When they got tired of TV, they had another Monopoly tournament.
Amy and Jimmy got each got another brief call from their mother on our cell phones. She passed on apologies from their father that he wasn’t able to call them because of his nonstop work running the company in Jack Brokerfist’s absence. The phone call didn’t make either of them feel any happier. Davy and his father got much longer calls from Davy’s that made them a bit less miserable.
Bart Shoehorn and Jill Flowerpot joined up with a gang of children who ran through the mall, harassing police officers and other patients as much as possible. Jack Brokerfist was orating nonstop about the evils of the situation to any who would listen and was gaining more listeners by the hour. Brent Parsnip exchanged text messages with Carol Butterknife nonstop. It was the only thing that kept him going. The rants of Jack Brokerfist poured into his ears as he waited for Carol’s next response that sometimes was slow in coming because of her charity work at church. Two more women moved into Martha Muttersock’s room, complaining bitterly over their fates until Martha got them involved in her activities of helping other people who needed it.
By the next day, most of the people running businesses or living close to the plague colony had panicked and moved away from their locations to houses and buildings of plague victims that had just gone on the market at good prices. Unfortunately, these buyers often found they didn’t get as good a deal as they thought they had because the house or office had been trashed by looters. In the course of that day, the fences were moved to include the houses and buildings to make better accommodations for those plague victims who could afford them. The walk to the medical trailer became longer.
Phineas Oysterstew slammed the phone receiver.
His secretary Bertha Snowgrinder came running.
“What is it now?”
“Do not put through any more calls from reporters who want information we are not willing to give them!”
As soon as Bertha left his office, Phineas read through the dozen or so text messages he had received in just the past few minutes detailing more and more instances of lawless behavior that the limited resources of the police force and the national guardsmen were unable to deal with effectively. Requests for more units of the National Guard had been turned down. Outside City Hall, groups of people were chanting their displeasure with the city’s policies for dealing with the Gray Plague. It was almost enough to make Phineas Oysterstew wish that Duncan Owlglass would get well and be able to resume his office as mayor. Almost, but not quite.
With so many people herded into the dead mall, tensions were growing. The blackout of news increased anxieties and rumors were born and overgrown within short spans of time. Like shapeless monsters emerging from horror movies, these rumors devoured listeners and talkers alike. One of the rumors was that Mayor Owlglass was among the patients in the plague colony. As soon as Jack Brokerfist heard it, he cried out in the middle of the mall, right at the dry fountain, and denounced the mayor for what he had done to the town to the ever-growing number of malcontents who were gathering around him, Jill Flowerpot and Bart Shoehorn among them.
“There is only one thing we can do in a situation like this!” Jack Brokerfist yelled. “We must exact revenge. The mayor has ruined all of our lives; we must ruin his! We will never get out of this place unless we break the glass that mirrors his face and turn him into the screech owl he’s always been and always will be!”
Jack Brokerfist ranted on and on in this vein for as long as it took for the crowd around to grow every larger with those who had missed listening to social commentators on the radio or TV. Brent Parsnip, impatient with waiting for another text message from Carol Butterknife, listened in. As Jack’s voice swelled, boisterous responses from his supporters egged him on for more. Jill Flowerpot’s voice was the loudest and Bart Shoehorn’s voice the second loudest.
“What are we waiting for?” Jill cried out.
The time for action had come. The crowd swarmed through the mall like a hungry dragon searching for the fire that had been stolen from it, Following the rumors, the many-voiced monster came down the corridor where Mayor Owlglass was believed to be.
“What’s going on out there?” asked Eddie as the noise of the crowd grew louder and came closer.
“We probably don’t want to know,” said Davy.
“I hope they aren’t after me again,” said Jimmy.
“That’s getting so old,” said Amy.
Everybody in the room instinctively drew closer together as the noise reverberated out in the spacious hall.
“I think that is Jack Brokerfist,” said Thornton.
“I know it is,” said Jimmy.
When the name “Owlglass emerged from the roar. The mayor turned pale.
“Jack Brokerfist has not forgiven me for not giving him the shady privileges he asked of me” groaned the mayor.
Before anybody could stop him, Mayor Owlglass bolted to the door and opened it. Thornton pulled at him to yank him back into the room, but it was already too late. The dragon had found its prey.
“How does it feel to catch the plague you invented?” cried Jack Brokerfist amidst a chorus of inarticulate yelling.
“I feel I got what was coming to me,” said the mayor as he staggered out into the hallway.
He tried to speak further, but the cries of the many-voiced monster drowned him out. Since moving into the dead mall with Duncan Owlglass, Jimmy had felt that mayor was part of his new, sick family. Before he knew what he was doing, he had run outside where the monster was closing its jaws around Duncan Owlglass.
“I’m the one who started all this!” a high-pitched voice rang out, riding over the monster’s roar.
“Jimmy, no!” Edna cried out.
But Jack Brokerfist had already zeroed in on the boy he had wanted to persecute since the plague began.
“Here is the reason I am here and not in my office and in the position I ought to be in!” yelled Jack Brokerfist.
“He breathed on me and gave me the plague!” Jill Flowerpot yelled.
“Jimmy just looked at me and I got it!” Bart Shoehorn cried.
“No, I’m Jimmy!” another boy cried.
To Jimmy’s surprise, Davy had clapped an arm around his shoulder and stood right next to him.
That diminished the monster’s roar considerably at the people looked at the two boys who were hard to distinguish with their gray faces and yellow eyes. All of a sudden, Brent Parsnip lost his appetite for persecuting somebody and started to walk away.
“But I’m Jimmy!” Jimmy protested.
“How can he be Jimmy if I’m Jimmy?” Davy asked.
“Then get them both and the mayor, too!” Jack Brokerfist yelled.
“But I’m the one who started the plague!” cried a woman just as the monster was beginning to rev up its roar once again.
Those words drew a puzzled background drone as many of the people turned toward a gray-covered woman with yellow eyes who had emerged from the room next to Jimmy’s.
“How do you know you got the plague before Jimmy did?” asked Jack Brokerfist.
“I had seen a doctor about some gray spots on my face at least a day before I’d heard about this epidemic,” said the woman.
By this time, the policemen had caught up with the crowd and moved in to the front to protect Jimmy, Davy, the woman, and the mayor. They weren’t anywhere near enough to control a mob turned into a mindless monster, but Martha Muttersock’s claim to be the first patient had taken enough life out of the monster that the police had little trouble coaxing the people to disperse while Jack Brokerfist ranted on to little effect.
“Did you really get the plague first?” Jimmy asked Martha once the monster had gone.
“Does it matter?” the woman replied.
That evening, Martha Muttersock and her roommates visited Jimmy’s room to talk about how they could make the most of being stuck in the plague colony. They discussed getting art supplies and model kits for the children and practical ways to organize more people to help more people who needed it. As the discussion went on, Jimmy began to realize that he’d never felt this way with a group of people. He was amazed that he was learning to actually like Amy and wanted to have her around. When Jimmy had gotten to the point of thinking he could be surprisingly content staying in the plague colony with these people, Edna stopped in mid-sentence and stared at Jimmy.
“What’s wrong with me now?” asked Jimmy.
“Uh—Jimmy, it think it might be a question of what’s right about you.”
“No question of that,” Jimmy muttered.
“Just take a look at him,” said Edna.
Jimmy slumped a bit as everybody else in the room stared at him.
“The gray has cleared on most of your right cheek,” said Martha Muttersock.
“Yeah, it has,” said Davy. “Jimmy, I think you’re starting to get better!”
“Yea, really,” said Eddie.
“When am I going to get better?” asked Amy.
Edna took at close look at Amy’s face.
“Very soon, I think. The gray is lightening up.”
“Davy, the gray is breaking up on your forehead,” said Thornton.
With all talk of art projects and models forgotten, everybody in the room started talking about the new life they would lead if they continued to get well. By bedtime, all of the plague victims in the room had seen at least one patch turn back to the flesh color they used to have.
“How did this happen?” Jimmy asked.
“Same way the plague started, I suppose,” said Davy.
“And how is that?” asked Amy.
“Who knows?” Davy replied.
“Maybe God has stopped punishing me,” said Jimmy.
“I don’t think God even got started punishing you,” said Eddie.
“I think God is helping us make the best of the situation by learning to love each other more,” said Edna. “Of course I wouldn’t put a healing miracle past Him.”
By the next day, several patients had discovered, to their amazement, that patches of true skin were breaking out on their faces or their hands. Cautious whispers of hope began to float about the plague colony. Jack Brokerfist, Jill Flowerpot and Bart Shoehorn, however, assumed they were as sick as ever and tried again, without success, to grow another mob to attack Mayor Owlglass or Jimmy Peppersapling.
Diane Peppersapling was eating chow mein out of a takeout container when John came home from work.
“Hear from the kids?” he asked.
“Yeah. Jimmy thinks he and Amy might get released tomorrow.”
John looked at the overflowing trash can as his wife threw the container on top of it.
“Good, maybe he’ll be able to take out the trash for us.”
“Is that all you can think of?”
John winced at the gibe.
“You don’t know what it’s like at work,” he said.
“Neither do you,” his wife rejoined.
The next morning, Jimmy was amazed with how clear the faces of his roommates were. Amy had her teasing smile back and Davy’s face was open and happy. Eddie’s eyes were twinkling again as much as Edna’s always were. When their turn came for their medical examination, they headed out eagerly for the medical trailers, giddy with the excitement of being released from the plague colony. They had a long walk ahead of them as more houses and stores had been absorbed into the colony the day before.
“Looks like this little plague colony might take over the whole town,” said Eddie.
“The whole town’s sick no matter what,” Amy muttered.
“Maybe the people who think they’re healthy will end up in a little healthy colony and the rest of us will have the whole town to ourselves,” Davy suggested.
“I’ll find ways to rectify this whole situation as soon as we get out of here,” said Duncan Owlglass.
Jimmy got to thinking again about how he wanted to stick with the people who had befriended him after he got sick. Surely Edna and Eddie would come over to his and Amy’s house when their parents were too busy to come home for dinner, or they could go to their house. Then he remembered Davy saying that he didn’t have any friends.
“I want you to know that I’ll be your friend even if that means you’re the only friend I’ve got.”
“What about me?” asked Amy.
“I think you’re surrounded by friends,” said Edna.
The glow on Davy’s friend made Jimmy wish he’d been wise enough to make friends with Davy a lot sooner.
When they entered one of the medical trailers, the doctors and the nurses gasped and bunched together as if a group of monsters had invaded their makeshift clinic.
“What’s the matter?” asked Davy. “Can’t you see we’re better?”
But the looks from the medics made Jimmy fear that his face has turned purple overnight and nobody had the nerve to tell him.
“It appears that the plague is changing colors,” said one of the nurses.
Amy and Jimmy exchanged frowns with their roommates.
“Yes, that is what has happened,” said a doctor. “All of their faces have grown very pale—a very bad sign.”
“And look at those eyes!” exclaimed a nurse.
“The eyes are changing into strange shades of brown and blue,” said another nurse.
“Well, Jimmy!” said the doctor, “it appears that you have started another phase of the plague, a phase worse than the last.”
“What do yo mean?” Jimmy asked.
“Have you looked yourself in the mirror?”
Jimmy was about to answer that he didn’t need a mirror, but the words stuck in his throat when he took a closer look at the doctor and his nurses who shook their gray heads and stared at him with pale yellow eyes.
[If you liked this story, go back to the Stories page for sample stories from my three published collections]