Dr. Graves waved a tongue depressor near my mouth and said, “Say ahhh,” Dr. Graves waved a tongue depressor near my mouth.
“Are you sure you want me to do that? I nearly killed my roommate’s canary with my breath this morning.”
“Julia, I’ve removed gangrenous toes from diabetics and digitally removed feces from constipated patients,” he said, wagging a forefinger. “I think I can handle your breath.”
“Okay, but don’t use the feces finger—and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Opening my mouth wide, I said, “Ahhhhh.”
Dr. Graves peered inside my mouth and stepped back, wiping the tears from his eyes.
“I told you it was bad.”
“You did,” he said, wiping his eyes for a second time. “So how is the canary.”
He rolled his eyes, and said, “Your breath smells like spoiled hamburger, but I seriously doubt it would kill a bird.”
“You’re right, my breath only knocked him out. I ate him while he was stunned.”
He cocked an eyebrow Spock-fashion, and turned his back, briskly washing his hands and drying them with nearly the same vigor.
“Just be straight with me, Dr. Graves. What is the matter with me?”
“It’s complicated,” he said, stepping on the pedal to the waste can and disposing of the wadded towel.
“I do have a mirror. Not that I’m that keen to check my reflection at this point. My boobs are gone and I look like I’ve been lying in pond for three days. It wouldn’t surprise me to pull moss out of my ass. So spare me the this-is-complicated speech and cut to the chase. Am I dead? Because I think I’m dead, but here I am, walking and talking, oh, and eating other people’s birds!”
“Look, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m not sure dead is the best way to describe your condition.”
“Oh really? Listen to this—,” I took the end of the stethoscope draped around his neck and held the bell to my chest.
“Do you hear anything? Because I can’t find a steady pulse. I could parallel park my car between beats. How is that possible?”
Gently prying my fingers from the bell, he removed the stethoscope and laid it on the table, pulled a stool from the corner of the room and parked it just in front of the examination table.
“You’re sure you want it straight?”
“I think you have STZ.”
“I have a what! Did you just say I have an STD? Oh my god! Wait…what sexually transmitted disease causes this?” I asked, pointing to my gray face and sunken chest.
“Have you had sex within the last three days?”
“Saturday night, but it was the first time in six months—and we used a condom!”
“Yeah, they don’t make a condom for this,” he said, patting my hand.
I tried to speak but couldn’t form words. He looked at the ceiling and continued to talk, as much to himself as me.
“Today is Monday, so the time-frame fits.”
Turning his gaze on me, he said, “We’re talking about a virus, so we can’t be absolutely sure about how or when you caught it. Your sexual encounter may be the cause or it may not be. STZs, not unlike STDs, can lie dormant for years and poof! Stress or illness can trigger it.”
He rested an arm on the corner of the counter that surrounded the sink. Pointing a finger in my direction, he said, “Wait a minute. Didn’t your fiancé jilt you a few months ago?”
“How did you know that? I never told you that?”
“Your roommate was worried about you. She called and said you were depressed and wondered if you were taking any medications that could be lethal. Of course privacy laws prevented me from telling her anything specific, but we did reassure her and ask her to call us back or call 911 if she thought you were in real danger.”
Leaning forward, he said, “If you’re having sex with a new man, you must be doing better, so tell me a little about that.”
Taking in my narrowed eyes and slightly disgusted expression, he held up his hands, palms first.
“I’m not interested in the actual sex part, Julia, just the timing and nature of the symptoms you’ve had over the past forty-eight hours—anything that stands out in your memory. It will help me pin down your exact diagnosis.”
“I was at a night club with Kim—the woman who called you after Colin…left. I’m not into casual sex, so I’ve had this long, sad dry spell in the that department. Kim pointed out this smoking hot man and suggested I hook up with him, but I wasn’t sure. I know it sounds corny, but I have never had sex with anyone I wasn’t in a relationship with until Saturday night.”
He nodded. “Go on.”
“Kim kept pushing me. Her exact words were: ‘You’re way too serious, Jules. It wouldn’t kill you to hook up with a guy and just have some fun.’ So…we hooked up. It turns out, the guy—Nathan—is a friend of hers and the whole thing was a set up.”
“Wow. I’d hate to be Kim right about now. How did you feel the next day?”
“A little light-headed, but I was up all night. I got up early to go the gym on Sunday, but I didn’t have the energy to work out.”
“Any bleeding or bruising that didn’t go away?”
“No bruising until today, but my teeth started to bleed when I brushed them, and…”
“You lost a tooth?”
“Yes, one of the back ones. It lodged in a bagel.”
“You didn’t think losing a tooth at your age is significant?”
“I thought maybe I had one of those asymptomatic abscesses or something.”
He sighed. “It never fails to surprise me how much people rationalize their symptoms.”
“I saved it. I figured a dentist could put it back.”
“Let me see it.”
I extracted the wrapped tooth from my purse, peeling back the layers of the napkin.
He picked it up, studied it for a moment, and then tossed it into the waste basket.
“It’s not a finger that you cut off and put on ice for an hour. It’s a tooth. It can’t be re-attached.”
He jotted down a couple of notes in my chart, laid it on a side table, recapped his pen and said, “Okay. You wanted it straight, so here is the bad news. All your symptoms point to STZ.”
“I will kill that sonofa—!”
Graves interrupted me, “Not STD, Julia. You don’t have a sexually transmitted disease—not exactly—though the method of delivery is similar. You have STZ.”
“What does ‘not exactly’ mean? And what the hell is STZ?”
“STZ stands for sexually transmitted zombieism. All the signs point to it. It is possible the man you slept with may have infected you with an acute case of zombieism, but we can’t be sure. It is also possible you have infected him.”
My mind reeled as I tried to keep up.
“Sexually transmitted zombieism? You made that up!” For the first time since I woke up in hell, I felt a surge of emotion. Not to the degree or intensity of my human emotions, but the thought of sexually transmitted zombieism was beyond ridiculous.
“I’m afraid not.” His face was etched with pity.
My heart chugged out a beat—the closest thing to anxiety I’d felt since everything had changed.
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