The Fifth Step
by Eddie-Joe Young and Elsha Hawk
8:30 Thursday Evening
Grace House, Camp Street, New Orleans
Weekly meeting of Narcotics/A.A.
Cara Rothering almost wrote Cara H. instead of Cara R. on her ‘Hello my name is’ sticker. It’s a mistake common to newlyweds. She chuckled when she thought about being a late-thirties newlywed. The difference between the 20-year-old newlywed and the 38-year-old buxom blonde was a brush with death, a twelve-step program, and a life with meaning.
She was just as beautiful now as she had been almost two decades earlier. She primped her cornsilk blonde hair in a mirror across the room and then began arranging the nametags on the table. Before a person even reached her she had sharpied his or her name on a sticker. Of course, new members required an introduction, but an old member she never forgot.
Mr. Ashurbai Patel didn’t notice that Cara Hernandez had become Cara Rothering. Mr. Patel didn’t marvel at how Cara could remember so many names. Ash looked at his name tag through a stranger’s eyes. Cara’s cordial greetings and concerned inquiries were barely penetrating the haze around Ash. His fake smile and “Yes, thank you.” were really What’s one lousy drink? I’m freakin’ dying. Not some woe-is-me dying, but a pushing up daisies, maggot food dying. He made another robotic response that really meant, This wasn’t’ supposed to go like this. I should be celebrating with my wife, not ditching her to come to a meeting because I can’t think of anything past buying a bottle of scotch and drinking until I pass out.
Then his muddled mind hit rewind.
Ash had bounced into work that morning filled with nervous excitement. The papers were awash with headlines about Ash’s boss, a genius geneticist, Lahz Berezwick, being awarded a funding grant huge enough to fund his project for fifteen years.
Ash worked as a research intern, which meant he was not a permanent employee. He dreamed that would change with the new funding. In his two years with AnimaGene Ash hadn’t had an overabundance of conversations with Dr. Berezwick, but he also hadn’t made any mistakes. He was never late, first one in, every report filed on time without an error, every T crossed and every I dotted. Ash was above reproach. He didn’t need praise to know the boss had noticed.
Every Monday the secretary would bring all of the research assistants their packets; everyone but him. Dr. Berezwick brought Ash’s to him personally. Why else would he walk all the way across the facility, past all the other employees, quietly examine Ash’s mice, and then hand him his packet, unless he had recognized Ash’s example of excellence?
So, Mr. Patel hoped to parlay his perfect record, great work history, and repartee with the boss into what every intern dreams of; a permanent position on a world-renowned research project. For the first time in two years, when the boss handed him his packet, he would engage him in conversation. At first, he espoused his delight with AnimaGene and then everything else just came out in a rush. When Dr. B smiled, Ash was sure he had been granted his heart’s desire.
Then Dr. B said, “I’m sorry, Sir. What did you say your name was? How long have you been here?” The response was an unexpected blow that broadsided Mr. Patel.
Dr. B offered his apologies explaining how none of the assistants would be permanent. He planned on filling their spots with researchers from his lab in Lithuania. As the doctor turned to try to escape the awkward situation, Ash stopped him with, “Just out of curiosity, why did you bring these files to me for the past two years instead of sending them with the secretary?”
Dr. B turned to the nearest tank and tapped the glass. A grizzled, one-eared mouse perked up. He said innocently, “I like this mouse. He’s been in my project longer than all the others.” He pointed to the name tag. “All the others have numbers, but he has a name: Igor Ivanovich, Igor, son of Ivan. Ivan means John in Russian. Like the apostle Jesus loved.” He tapped on the glass once more and then walked off.
Ash fought back tears as he realized his boss knew the mouse’s name, but not his.
“Mr. Patel? Are you alright?” Cara asked, interrupting his reverie. Her hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present: where Ash was still dying from a fatal disease, where his dreams had just been crushed. But Ash was a scientist, a man of logic, and a fighter. He gathered himself together and used all the coping skills he had learned from two years of A.A. and said, “Yes, it’s just been a hard day. I know that just being here will give me strength.”
Cara gave him a warm hug and he went off in search of coffee. She wondered if the recovering alcoholic researcher might be going through a mid-life crisis. He was dressed in trendy jeans, had a chain wallet, thick bracelets, and drove a crotch-rocket sports bike even though he looked like he was in his late forties.
She’d been coming to the meeting on Camp Street for over a decade and facilitating it for the last five years. The motorcycle accident that had killed her first husband left her with a broken neck and an addiction to pain killers that led to an addiction to heroin. Her young son would often care for her while she was incapacitated. One day he badly burned his arms cooking, and in her guilt, she had sobered up and been sober ever since.
A person with a sticker that read ‘My name is Hector’ asked, “I thought you were on your honeymoon?”
“We didn’t go far; just to Biloxi. My husband had to come back early for work.”
“Should have went farther,” Hector advised with a small laugh.
“Good advice. There’s coffee inside.” He thanked her and went in search of it.
Cara’s new husband worked at Finnerty’s Detective Agency.
“Is that the one with the big eyeball on the sign over on Lee Circle?” asked a mocha-skinned matron recovering from a Xanax addiction with a sticker that said, “My name is Monique”. Cara had repeated her explanation for her apparent lack of honeymoon longevity.
“That’s the one. He wants to eventually be a full-time reporter at the Times, but for now, the ‘big eyeball’ pays the bills.”
“Hey, I read an article yesterday about that rabid dog in the Times. That wasn’t his, was it?”
The dog that Monique was talking about had savaged two people during the winter. The first victim was a convicted rapist who had left a group home and was living in an abandoned building overlooking St. Mary’s Catholic girl’s school on Napoleon Avenue. The second victim was a man on parole for armed robbery and his body was found with a loaded pistol in his boot. The attacks were so savage that they were attributed to a rabid dog. Bobby Rothering suspected that there was something ‘not right’ about the particular case. In a city of almost half a million people, a crazy dog happens to kill two despicable bad guys, both parole violators whom the authorities couldn’t locate? Combine that with the fact that there was not one paw print at the crime scenes, and Bobby had a recipe for foul play.
He had spent his own money and all winter working on the story. Then, on the second day of his honeymoon, he read the headline N.O.P.D. Kills Rabid Dog Suspected of Slayings.
“No, but he spent a lot of time and money following his own leads only to have the dog turn up,” Cara answered.
“I know he was upset, yeah?” said a narrow-boned, fox-faced redhead whose S’s had the slightest hint that they wanted to be Z’s. Only those Z’s in her accent betrayed her eastern European beginnings. She wore a thick, black velvet coat trimmed in fine Russian mink. The only color she wore was her auburn hair, the red letters that said “My name is Anna B”, and a red stripe on her six-inch stilettos that ended in a heart-shaped heel. Anna’s tiny angular features were more pixie-ish than classically beautiful. Her reserved, aloof demeanor gave the impression that she knew the punch line of a joke that you weren’t privy to.
“You know, I don’t think he was. I think he was so happy that he wasn’t following a serial killer it canceled out his disappointment in losing the story. That is probably why I love him,” Cara said warmly.
In all her years at A.A./N.A. Cara had known heroin junkies, crack heads, speed freaks, and even a few people who huffed paint, and prided herself on the ability to recognize a person’s chemical addiction. So when Anna B. walked into the meeting last fall and announced she drank, Cara wanted to call bullshit. The rules and traditions of the meetings wouldn’t allow it. She felt that she, out of anyone, should recognize the opiate addiction in Anna. Her weight loss; Cara was twenty pounds lighter when she was in the depths of her addiction. The rings under Anna’s eyes; Cara used to spend half the morning doctoring her eyes with concealer. The pale skin like butter stretched over too much bread; she knew with every ounce of her being that Anna was lying about her drinking. Her drug might not have been heroin, but Cara would have bet her breakfast biscuit it was a type of opiate.
There is strength in numbers at an A.A. meeting. Anna gathered her strength while she snuffed out a Benson Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light One-Twenty with a red heart-shaped heel and began, “Hello, my name is Anna B and I have a drinking problem. I have been sober for almost 2 months.” A couple of people clapped, but she continued, “But I almost had a drink Monday night.” She closed her eyes and sucked her teeth as a little shudder rippled through her.
“That metallic taste is still on my lips, a hint of burnt cinnamon still on my tongue. If my husband hadn’t found me in time I would have drunk ‘til I passed out right there. It has been three days and I can still smell it in my hair, on my skin, everywhere. But every time I start to say I need a drink, I hear my husband’s voice. He drank with me years ago, but now he’s sober and I suffer. He says that drinking activates the reptilian part of the brain–the primal part–the animal part. But ‘animals have not the power of human beings’. We are one or the other. I have to be a human being powered by logic, reason, and love. I have to hate drinking. I have to despise behaving like an animal. I have to give myself over because like the Big Book says, ‘Half steps avail us nothing’.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
Cara had finished with the meeting and was walking outside when she saw Anna on her cell phone calling a taxi. “I was going to walk. If you want, you can walk with me, but…” She looked down at Anna’s six-inch heels.
“In Prague, the streets are slick, treacherous, cobblestone. I grew up on the streets, always in heels. I will walk with you.”
Cara knew this was going to be the best opportunity she was likely ever to have to confront Anna, empowered by her quote: half steps avail us nothing. She went into the pitch exactly like she’d prepared, starting with her own struggle against opiates. She could tell that she was getting through and Anna was beginning to feel a kinship with her. They were both wives, mothers, and Anna was struggling with a demon that Cara had already conquered. It was now or never. Cloaking herself in courage, Cara said, “I know you are not an alcoholic. It’s alright. Step five says that we admit to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Let me be that human being.”
Anna let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and tears rushed down her cheeks. Cara recognized the surrender. It was the type of breakthrough that changed people’s lives.
“Could you ladies spare a couple bucks for a hungry vet?” This question startled the girls. The voice belonged to a grizzled man in a green army coat sitting a few feet behind them on a plastic bucket.
“I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash, but there is a mission on Prytania Street that is open 24 hours,” Cara advised sympathetically.
As they turned to walk, he lunged for her purse, muttering, “I’ll just take what I want.”
The instant the bum’s hand closed on Cara’s purse, Anna exploded. Her left hand closed on his wrist. Her right hand struck out like a cobra at his voice box. The effect was instantaneous. One of his hands went to his throat, but Anna used his other arm as a lever to slam his face on the pavement. She wrenched his arm with a cacophony of snaps and cracks as she let loose a verbal scathing.
“That’s what’s wrong with the world; animals like you being treated like human beings. You are shown kindness and you shit on it! You’re going to take something you want? What if I take what I want?” Anna snarled her question with a wrench that brought a whimper from the sobbing man.
“Anna, let him go. He’s hurting,” Cara pleaded.
“What do you think he was going to do to you?” she reasoned back venomously. With one final wrench that sounded like she dislocated his shoulder, she stormed off down the sidewalk.
Cara caught up with her just as she reached the castle-like privacy wall that surrounded the Berezwick’s luxurious home. “Anna, wait!”
Anna paused at the gate. “Cara, I’m sorry. Nobody can help me.” She disappeared behind the wall, the gate locking behind her, deaf to Cara’s pleas.
How did this happen? Cara thought dizzily. “Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!” she pounded her fist and kicked at shadows wishing she could smash down the black iron gate.
Her anger was interrupted by the vibration of her cell phone as it rang.
“Hey, Cara. This is Maggie at Camp’s Used Books. Are you coming to get the books?”
“Oh, Madge! I’m sorry. I forgot to come by. Are you still open? I’m on my way. I’m on the other side of the park, like two hundred yards away.”
She was thankful for the respite of the early evening park. Cara ran a coffee shop/ice cream stand/gift shop on the ground floor of St. Vincent’s Guest House, the building where she lived. She also gathered used books from a variety of sources around town for the neighborhood youth who hung out at her shop. She didn’t fuss about the kids returning the books as long as they at least passed them on to someone else to read. This tradition went back to when her son and his friends were kids.
With an armful of books, she passed back by the black iron gate on her way home.
“Mrs. Cara, have you seen my wife?” asked a tall, dark-complected man in his early sixties. He wore creased slacks and polished wing-tipped shoes. Despite the chilly night, he wore only a white tank-top shirt, the kind the kids called a wife-beater. He had the chiseled physique of a man half his age that, combined with a Guy Fawkes goatee and a Russian accent, made him a prime candidate for super-villainy. However, his golden, hazel eyes exuded warmth and made you believe he was no villain and his shirt was just a tank top.
“I just walked her here twenty minutes ago, Dr. Berezwick.”
He had a look on his face as he shook his head that hurt Cara’s heart. It said she was out drinking and he was helpless to stop it. “She went through that gate. It’s a big house. Maybe you missed her.”
“No. I was waiting inside for her. She never came in. The servants say no one came in through the back. Plus, she won’t answer her phone. She’s out drinking.”
Cara berated herself.
As if he could read her thoughts, Lhaz said, “It’s not your fault, Cara. She’ll be alright. She’ll do some things she’s not proud of, but she’ll survive.”
Then he noticed for the first time her burden.
“That’s an odd selection of books.”
“They are for the kids that come into my shop. They like the fantasy and sci-fi stuff.”
“I read this one on a flight from Norway last year.” He lifted Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend from the stack.
“I think all kids like zombies,” Cara smirked.
“No, vampires. The movie is about zombies, but the book is about vampires–very smart vampires.” He sat on the curb, inviting her to join him. “Would you like to hear a story while we wait?”
“In my country, we have a very different legend about vampires. It started with the man Jesus brought back to life.”
“That’s the one. Now, keep in mind, Russian tales have a more important function than historical accuracy. In a very pre-socratic way, legends are how my people have solved the problems of the unknown. So this Lazarus was a horse trader with a lust for wine. He gambled his family into poverty and then drank himself to death. He was a bad man, however, in spite of that, his wife loved him very much. She begged Jesus to help him and he was moved. Lazarus returned from the dead. You would think that after a resurrection he would have turned his life around, but no, he was still bad. While drunk, he ran over a young girl with his horse. A mob stoned him and crushed his skull. The next day he awoke, healed, but to a life without death and a life without meaning; deathless and soulless. That was his curse into the fifth or sixth generation.”
“I’ve never heard that story,” she said enthralled.
“You wouldn’t have. Telling tales is something more of your grandmother or grandfather’s generation. Now we have the internet.”
“And gene splicing.”
“Funny you should mention my work. This same tale of vampires is sort of how I became interested in the field.”
“Wait. What do vampires have to do with gene splicing?”
“A lot, if they are real. I like to solve problems by working backward. For example, Anna. The problem is her drinking. I start by imagining her healthy and addiction-free. Then I imagine how she came that way; by having people who supported and loved her, who helped her through her disappointments and praised her successes. Voila. Now I have the cure. I apply this same method to the vampire myth. We have a group of people who live forever and for some reason murder and drink blood. Well, what makes us age? They used to believe it was free radicals and oxidation, but now we know it is telomerase”
“Never heard of it.”
“Telomerase helps cells make perfect copies of themselves. As the cell stops producing telomerase, it begins producing degraded copies – aging. You know the oldest cell in your body is only ten years old?”
“I feel older than ten,” she chuckled.
“Because of poor copies. I’m going to fix that. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, how did Jesus resurrect this man? He rewrote the genetic code! Maybe he used hidden regenerative genes lying dormant from our amphibian days before we crawled on the land and invented the internet. In rewriting the code, he must have incidentally fixed the telomerase problem, but in awakening the amphibian, he awoke the reptilian; the blood-thirsty animal part. This solves all the problems with making legends scientific. Light doesn’t kill vampires, but Jesus, who claimed to be the Light, created this curse, so they shun it. Crosses don’t kill them, they just remind them of their shame, of their animalistic side.”
“What about your work?”
“If my work continues at the current rate, sometime in the next ten years I will have written a new genetic code that will be able to regenerate like an amphibian whenever parts are damaged and create perfect telomerase-rich copies every time. Stay fit, Cara, if you live long enough, you might live forever.” He handed her book back.
“But what happens to the vampires?”
A little girl who looked so much like Anna B she could have been a clone came outside and jumped into her dad’s arms.
“One second, sweetie.” He held her on his hip and continued with a smile, “Maybe one day the vampires will come for my help. By then I’ll have enough knowledge to cure them.” The two went back inside as Cara left.
Sha smiled to herself and thought how colorful the scientist was with his vampire folklore. “Maybe I should walk past Grace House just in case Anna forgot something and went back for it,” she announced to the evening air. She knew she was kidding herself, but it was only a little out of the way. When she turned onto Camp Street, she saw police lights and hurried to investigate.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine, a red-headed woman in a black coat.”
The officer shook his head. “No Ma’am, this is an older white male; looks homeless.”
“Oh, I saw him about an hour ago,” she and the officer walked closer. “He tried to snatch my purse. I’m glad he’s going to jail.”
“He’s not going to jail, Ma’am. He’s going to the morgue.”
When she turned her head there was no way she could unsee the mangled body of the homeless man. She went to one knee and almost vomited at the sight of the torn-apart corpse. While bent over the books and trying to hang onto her dinner, she saw something completely out of place. In a pool of blood that ran to the street was what looked like a nickel-sized indentation in the shape of a heart, the same size as Anna B’s high heel. But before it could completely register the officer stepped on it and asked, “Are you okay, Ma’am?” When he moved his foot, it removed the heart-shaped print along with her confidence that she had even seen it.
Euterpe Street, New Orleans
Dr. Berezwick listened to briefings from his department heads. All of the scientists were Russian or Eastern Europeans who had worked with him for years. They were the inner circle from whom he kept no secrets.
A tall bearded Russian was speaking. “We are currently trying to find a way to insert the gene code from test subject Z. We are using a revamped, pardon the pun, poliovirus to house the DNA and we may be able to infect Igor Ivanovich this week.”
“Please do not refer to my daughter as a test subject, D’Mitri.” Dr. Berezwick’s tone brought color to the scientist’s cheeks.
A disheveled Ash, seemingly in a daze, barged into the meeting and announced, “I have to tell you something!”
“What are you doing in here?” shouted D’Mitri. He turned to Dr. B and said, “I apologize for this intrusion. He is one of my assistants.”
“I know who he is. He asked me for a promotion last week.” Dr. B was running out of patience for disrespect. “Mr. Patel, once again I am sorry, but this program is number one in its field. You are what, in your late forties, and no one has ever heard of you. You are out of your league. We will be replacing you because we need the best.”
“I’m only nineteen.” He distractedly fumbled with a sheaf of papers but plunged ahead. “I was upset Friday and I killed Igor Ivanovich.”
“You what?!” chorused half the scientists in the room.
Dr. B shot to his feet, “You have no idea how long that subject has contributed to this program!”
Ash, still in a daze, dismissed his words, saying, “It’s okay. He came back to life.”
They all froze, exchanging looks. Some shook their heads, while others looked down.
“Perhaps you were mistaken and he wasn’t really dead,” offered an auburn-haired scientist with a menacing smile and a hooked nose.
“No, I hit him repeatedly with a claw hammer. Besides, I had him X-rayed this morning and there are hundreds of tiny healed breaks.” He dropped the papers on the table. “I ran tests on Igor and there is something amazing going on in his gene reproduction. I found seven years worth of his gene samples in the computer.”
Dr. B shot an angry look at the head of security whose guilty face meant that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Ash continued, “In seven years, Igor’s cell integrity has not even degenerated three to the negative tenth power. Igor could be immortal.”
Ash’s mind was far away and oblivious to the chaos that erupted around him. He barely heard the heated yelling. It was like watching through a fog. He didn’t notice that Professor Vladia Rokmanovich suddenly had more pointed canines and her fingernails were shaving pieces of the marble tabletop like swiss chocolate.
“ENOUGH!” Dr. B silenced the chaos. With speed so fast it looked like a movie skipping frames he was face to face with Vladia. Smiling through pencil-thin lips, he said, “Get a hold of yourself, Vladia. You let this child reduce you to an animal.”
She transformed, regressing to a mild-mannered scientist before Mr. Patel’s eyes. Ash was a scientist and unbeknownst to his bosses, a very good one. Just then his training and scientific mind kicked in. It registered the words that had been said. Phrases like, “how could you let this happen”, “you said this wouldn’t happen again”, “he can’t leave here”, and “we are too close to a cure to let him ruin us”.
With the horror of the situation finally setting in, Ash saw the scientists in a new light. He saw their ancient, knowing eyes. He turned to Dr. B and asked, “What are you really doing here?”
In a calm voice, Lhaz said, “Let’s back up. You said you were nineteen, but you look closer to fifty than twenty.”
“I have adult-onset progeria, a condition that accelerates my body’s aging. Right now I am aging eight to one. I might have another year left. You were wrong. I am a top scientist. I graduated high school at age 12 and M.I.T. at 17 and have been here ever since.”
“Do you have family, Mr. Patel?”
“A wife. She is twenty. I thought maybe this discovery… maybe… well, it’s why I joined this team.” He looked shamefully down at his feet. “You are going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“You are already dying. Killing you would be redundant.” Dr. B nodded at a person in a white lab coat who had appeared after the chaos broke out.
He injected Ash with a pneumatic inoculation gun.
“What was that?!” panicked Ash. “Am I going to die?”
“Sit down, please.”
“If you work hard and dedicate your life to our research, you may one day grow old and see a genetic breakthrough that will allow you to die. Until then, with the genetic code that was just introduced to your body, you are in the same shoes as Igor Ivanovich…and everyone else in this room. Welcome to the family.”
Around the same time that Ashurbai Patel, newly promoted team member of AnimaGene was discovering that he was no longer going to die, there was a knock on Cara’s door.
Anna began before she could lose her nerve. “Step five says to admit to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. I started drinking when I was a sixteen-year-old girl in Prague. Shortly after that I met Lhaz. We drank together for ten years until we moved to New Orleans in 1831. I am a genetic anomaly that most of the world would call a vampire. Will you be my sponsor? I want to stop drinking blood.”