PART 4, SECTION 16

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"Well, no, not exactly like zombies." Chris sat down at his makeshift desk. "But, I mean, they are totally dead and conscious at the same time. So, in that sense, yeah, they are like zombies. But they don't feel any different or look any different . . . not at first anyway."

He leaned back and dragged from his joint, then he released the smoke, eyeing us.

"Okay, so," he said. "Here's the deal. Have you ever heard of Toxoplasma Gondii? The parasite that reproduces inside cat intestines and causes infected mice to be physically attracted to cats, making it easier for cats to eat them? It's real. Look it up. It even causes higher rates of risk-taking behavior and suicide in humans. Well, as far as we know, the plague pathogen is a mutation of Toxoplasma Gondii, one which uses humans as hosts instead of mice and cats. They think a strain got into a bunch of chickens in one of those giant factory farms—probably from cat shit in the chicken feed. That's where it mutated, and then somebody somewhere must have eaten some undercooked chickens, and then it mutated again and really took off in the human population. Toxoplasma Gondii Five. TGV. It's a kind of venereal disease. After sleeping with someone who's infected, people get flu-like symptoms and slip into a coma. Anywhere from a few hours to a few days later, they die."

Chris took one last drag from his joint then stubbed it out in an ashtray made from the bottom of a soda can.

"This is where it gets weird," he said. "The host's death triggers the parasite to take control of the amygdala—that's the center of the brain, where all the most basic, primitive functions are located. The infected person wakes up, feeling healthy, and with all of the brain's original personality and memory centers intact. They're basically normal, but with two exceptions. Number one, they're dead. Number two, just like in mice, the libido is stimulated. The parasite has begun to lay its microscopic eggs in the tissues of the host's reproductive organs. We don't really understand how, but it makes people do virtually anything to do the wild thing. To get it on. The humpty dumpty. Get what I'm saying, people? There's evidence that a pheromone gets released, which attracts even uninfected people to the host. This is stage one, and lasts no more than about five days. In stage two, things go downhill, while the libido gets even stronger. People start to lose verbal skills and go numb at the fingers and toes. This is because the parasite's larvae feeds on the outer brain matter. It slowly begins to eat everything but the amygdala. Meanwhile, the colony lays millions more eggs in the host's reproductive organs, making them much more contagious."

Chris stood and motioned to the opposite side of the dusty grain elevator engine.

"Have a look at this."

A body, covered in a thick sheet, lay on an old door supported by a pair of sawhorses.

Ian said, "You don't have to see this if you don't want to."

But by now, I didn't care what I saw. I was feeling not just emotionally drained, but emotionally blank. I knew right now I could see anything without being affected by it. And I was also curious. Learning about the disease was helping me focus my thoughts, and, surprisingly, even calming me down a little.

"I'm okay," I said.

But Bryce had had enough. 

"Sorry, I think I need to catch my breath," he said, and he stepped outside.

Chris pushed back the sheet.

I'd thought I could handle this, but I couldn't believe what I saw lying on the table. . . 



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