Decontamination

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I walked into the bunker, I saw it even before I made it all the way through the airlock.  The clear plastic decontamination tent was set up in the middle of the large open area.  It was always a chilling thing to see, but as I stared a sick feeling grew in the pit of my stomach.  Inside the tent were three things: the contaminated clothing that was soon going to be disposed of, the stool and other equipment that would have to be decontaminated, and a huge pile of shorn flame red hair.  Unless we’d had an unexpected visitor, the pile of unusually colored hair could only have come off of one head.

I breathed deeply and closed my eyes, remembering how those long locks had felt gliding through my fingers.

When I opened my eyes, I looked around.  I saw Randi, one of the MDs, sitting to the side, working on the checklist.  She looked more than just a little shaken.  She wore nothing but a white tank top and a pair of shorts.  It was cool enough she should be chilly in that little clothing, but they had visibly wet sweat stains. Her short brown hair looked pretty sweaty too.  She obviously hadn’t been out of the hazmat suit for very long.  

I walked over to her on shaking legs.  “What happened?” 

“What do you think happened? What always happens?”  She asked in a sarcastic tone, then looked up at me with tired eyes.  “Why should you care?  You broke up with her, didn’t you Isabel?”

I looked away from her and stared at the impossibly large pile of locks next to the stool.  After the way too public fight, a few people had taken my side and a few people had taken Joan’s side, but most people seemed to think we had both been wrong.  Randi had made no secret of her opinion that we had both acted like children.

“Being angry doesn’t mean I stopped loving her.”  I said through gritted teeth.

“The exposure was minimal,”  Randi finally let me know, I guess she decided I’d suffered long enough.  “There’s a good chance Joan will be perfectly fine.  She’s in isolation for two weeks as a precaution.”

I closed my eyes and remembered the fight in the cafeteria from nearly a month ago

 

“Please don’t take this stupid risk.”  I had tried to keep my voice down, tried to keep the fight from being public, privacy was a commodity in very short supply though.

“It’s not stupid.”  She’d spat back at me, loudly enough a few heads had turned in our direction.  “It’s no worse than risks you take all the fucking time.”

“I don’t have a choice.  If I don’t go out there and do repairs and maintenance those wind turbines will stop working.  Then the power will fail.  Then we will die.  I HAVE to take the risk.”  I gave up trying to keep the fight private and just tried to ignore the dozens of faces staring at us.  “You want to go on a wild goose chase.”

“It may be a long shot, but it’s not a wild goose chase.”  Joan’s ears were red with anger as she yelled back at me.  “If it succeeds…”

 

We’d gone back and forth for over an hour.  We’d gotten nowhere.  In the end we just each gave up, and we’d spent weeks just avoiding each other, not speaking when we had to be in proximity.

I knew Randi’s reassurance didn’t mean much.  There was no way Randi could know for sure if the attempts to decontaminate Joan had been done in time.  We wouldn’t know if it was successful till Joan was ready to leave isolation or she started to show signs she’d been contaminated.

I walked back over to the tent, and stood staring down at the pile of red hair.  Joan had loved her long hair.  I had loved her long hair.  Now that beautiful hair was going to be incinerated along with everything else that wasn’t metal in that tent.

I’d never had to be decontaminated myself.  I’m not sure how much that was because I was careful and how much of that was just dumb luck.  I had helped decontaminate Rick though.  It was a blur of action.  Get the tent up and connected to the secondary airlock.  Everybody who entered the tent had to be in hazmats just as if we were going outside.  As soon as the exposed person was sprayed down with disinfectant and in the tent, it was a race against the spores.

Start by removing their compromised hazmat suit.  Then spray them with more disinfectant and  get off their clothing as quickly as possible, usually by cutting it off, so that the area directly exposed to the outside air didn’t have to be pulled over their head.  As soon as they were nude, sit them on the stool.  

Simultaneously, one or two people, depending on how many people were around, begin to scrub the skin of the contaminated person, while another person starts cutting off the hair.  Once the hair is cut as short as possible with the scissors that can be fully sanitized, then the person is stood up if they are uninjured and scrubbing becomes the main focus.  Then there is the painful process of irrigating the nasal passages, ear canals, and whatnot.

Then the naked person with crudely cropped hair is placed in a bag and rushed down the halls before they could asphyxiate.  Then they spend two weeks in isolation with nothing but a disposable mylar blanket for warmth and minimal supplies, being sprayed with yet more disinfectant every day and irrigating their own nasal passages, ear canals, and whatnot.

When this whole thing first started, we used electric hair clippers the first time, but then there was no way to fully clean them.  The clippers had gone into the incinerator along with the hair and clothing.  There was a reluctance to expend too many resources on decontamination, since success rates were expected to be low.  So after that we gave up on using clippers and just started using scissors.

I sighed thinking about how Joan must have felt.  Cold and scared.  She must have wanted to object so badly when someone just started hacking off all that gorgeous hair.  She wouldn’t have though, she’d have sat there stoically.   She knew better than any of us why it had to happen the way it did.  She was the one who pointed out that hair was a hard thing to clean spores out of.

Randi came over and stood next to me, silent, also looking down at the pile of copper tresses.

“Was it bad?”  I asked, feeling horrible that I had to ask.  “Who did it?”

“I ran the team.”  Randi told the story carefully.  “It was me, Liz, Jay, and Tom.”

I took a sharp breath when she mentioned Tom, Joan had had to turn him down multiple times.  He seemed to be incapable of believing that she was really uninterested no matter how extremely direct she was.

“I’m sorry we had to include Tom, but you know how it is.  There isn’t time to be fussy.”  Randi said apologetically.  “I told him when we were getting into our hazmat suits that if he said a single thing that wasn’t both completely necessary and directly related to the decontamination, I would personally kick him out of an air lock naked.”

“Thank you.”

“I also made him responsible for only scrubbing below the knees and elbows so that he couldn’t use it as an excuse to…”

I’m sure even that had felt like a violation to Joan, having that asshole scraping under her fingernails, and cleaning between her toes.  Maybe she hadn’t noticed who was doing it.

“Was she injured?”

“A few bumps and bruises, but no broken skin, no open wounds that could…”

We’d both seen the way the fungus could take hold in open wounds.  She didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“Can I see her?”  I finally asked.

“You can look through the little windows in the doors.”   Randi said and grabbed her paperwork and started leading the way to the chambers we used for isolation.

As we walked, I thought back to the day I had first met Joan.

 

“Professor Cunningham, you need to come with us.”  The uniformed man said to her again.  

I wasn’t really a part of the discussion.  I was just also being escorted by the uniformed man and his contingent of young soldiers, since Joan’s laboratory happened to be on the way from where they picked me up to the bunker.  I worked in a different department at the same university.  Though I had never met her before, we had a fair amount in common.  The big difference between Joan and I was that I had been expecting the call and the escort; for Joan, it had been a surprise.

“Do you have any idea how important my research is at the moment, I can’t just leave it.”  She pointed out then went back to her collection of petri dishes.

“It is because your research is so important that we are here.  We expect you to continue it, just from a safer location.”  The man said.  “I don’t exactly know what a mycologist is, but my instructions are to transport you and any equipment you need to continue your research.”

“My equipment is fragile and I have experiments running.  I can’t just pack it up at a moment’s notice and set it back up god only knows where.”

“I’m sorry that I am not authorized to give you details about the location we are taking you to, but you have to come.  Please tell us what equipment you need to take along.”

“I said ‘no!’” Joan stated unequivocally.  “Now just leave and let me get back to my research.”

“Maam, I am authorized to use force.”

I suddenly realized that the group of people in uniforms had spread out strategically.  There was one at each door and another by the windows, blocking all the exits.  Two had positioned themselves just slightly behind the workbench Joan was seated at, flanking her.  They were in a very good position to grab her if they decided it was necessary.

One young soldier was standing very close to me, just slightly to my side and slightly ahead of me.  I found it amusing that it was obvious she had positioned herself to protect me from the quiet mycologist.  

Joan raised her head and looked around the lab, her expression telling me she’d also only just noticed the strategic placement.  She looked like she was contemplating continuing argueing or putting up a resistance for a few tense heart beats, but then let out a resigned sigh.

“Fine,” she finally said angrily, “but you damned well need to be careful to not break anything.”

 

There had been several last minute personnel additions and substitutions, but Dr Joan Cunningham, mycologist and genetic engineer with so many degrees it looked like half the alphabet after her name,  was the only one worth actually kidnapping.  Everyone else had agreed to come when called and asked.  For every other last minute slot that needed to be filled, there was a decent sized list of people to ask, so if one said “no” the secretary filling those slots just crossed them off and called the next person on the list in alphabetical order.  Of course that was how Tom ended up here, as a last minute substitution for someone stuck in Europe, there was no way he would have passed a psychiatric evaluation if there had been time for one.  

The list Joan was on though, had only one candidate on it.  She wasn’t the only mycologist and geneticist in the world, but she was the leading expert on the particular subject that was suddenly very relanevent.  She also was the only one we could get our hands on easily, several had already died doing field research.  

When we rounded a corridore I dragged my thoughts back to the present.

“Right before we bagged Joan, she requested that you take care of her cat.”  Randi said as we walked.

“Of course she did.”  I let out an ironic snort.  “You know I had to call in favors to get that damned cat.  When Joan gave in and agreed to cooperate with the packing up of her lab, she just assumed that we would be stopping at her house so she could pack a few things and get her cat.  When she found out that wasn’t part of the plan she refused to get in the helicopter.  The soldiers were about to handcuff her and lift her in, but I asked them to give me 5 minutes.

“I called Alex and pointed out that a semi-cooperative mycologist was a much more valuable asset than an angry uncooperative mycologist.  So, our escorts’ orders were amended to include a half hour stop at Joan’s residence.

“Of course none of us trusted Joan at that point to actually go in herself, so it was me and a couple of soldiers who went into her house and got that damned cat.  I still have a scar on my hand from where he bit me when I was dragging him out from under the bed, hissing and growling.”

“I’m assuming that you will take care of him till Joan is out of isolation,”  Randi said with a slight tone of facetiousness, “and not follow through with your threat to toss him out of an airlock.”

“I was scared and angry.”  I admitted miserably as we arrived at the airlock to the isolation chamber.  “I thought she might change her mind about going if she thought I wouldn’t take care of Tribble if something happened to her.”

I looked through the small window of the outer door and lined myself up to the window of the inner door.  I could just barely see a whole bunch of mylar moving, slightly.  There were unexpected black markings on the wall.

“What is she doing, and how is she so covered?”  I asked Randi.

“I broke protocol a little.”  Randi admitted.  “She was so cold, I let her have a couple of extra mylar blankets.  And I gave her a permanent marker so she could write notes.”

“Write notes?”  I gave Randi a dubious look.

“She seems to think she’s found something.  She took a couple of rats with her back to the university.  Supposedly, one is still alive.”  Randi said with a certain wistful cautious hope.  “If she can make it through the next two weeks without going insane, maybe…. It just seemed worth using a few extra resources.”

I tapped the glass to try to get her attention.  The bundle of mylar didn’t react.

“You know how well sealed that is, she’s not going to hear you.”

I sighed, I knew tapping was pointless.  The only way Joan would know I was standing here wanting to apologize to her was if she just happened to look up and notice.

“How is she going to make it through two weeks like that and stay sane?”  I lamented.

“Rick and Gabby each made it through.”

“Not exactly sanely though, they both took weeks to get back to functional, and Rick still gets panicky if he thinks he’s alone in a room.”  I pointed out.  “And they volunteered to be here and passed psych-evals, then went through training for all kinds of potential disaster scenarios.  We just kidnapped Joan and brought her here against her will with no preparation.

“And she’s tiny and runs cold.”  I continued.  “I remember you saying you thought Grace might have died from hypothermia, and not infection, but you had no way to confirm it because it was too risky to do an autopsy.”

“There really isn’t a better option.”  Randi said regretfully.  “I can’t risk exposing the entire bunker.  Even if I decided that keeping her alive and sane was worth the risk, she’s safer in there without anything where spores could get a foothold.  I can’t give her anything that would make it more comfortable, without giving any spores that might have gotten in with her a place to hide.  Her best chance is in that chamber where we can remotely spray her and everything down with antiseptic daily.”

“Isn’t that going to erase the notes she’s writing?”

“Fuck,” Randi sighed softly.  “I shouldn’t have given her the marker.”

“How would having another person in there with her affect things?”  I asked.

“That chamber isn’t set up like the outside airlocks, we can’t just go in and out with hazmat suits constantly.”  Randi stated firmly.

“Not someone in a hazmat suit, someone naked like she is. Someone who just stays once they cross the threshold.”  I explained.  “Someone who can rub her back, let her rest her head on their lap.  A shoulder to cry on.  Warm hugs when she’s cold and scared.”

“I’m not willing to risk you,”  Randi said bluntly.

“You said the exposure was minimal.”  I reminded her.  “She’s our best chance for survival, it’s a reasonable risk.  I’m not the only person here that can do my job.  How many mycologists are left?”

“She’s angry at you, and expecting you to take care of her cat.”

“If she was that angry, she wouldn’t have trusted me to take care of that hell spawn.”  I pointed out.  “And he hates me, he’ll be much happier if I find him someone who didn’t drag him away from his home and shove him in a carrier the first time he met them.”

“If she starts showing signs of infection, you know I will just have to euthanize both of you?”  Randi warned.

“I know.”  I assured her.  “I can think of worse ways to die.”

Randi just stood silently for a bit, staring through the windows into the chamber.  She finally took a deep sigh and turned to me.

“Ok.”  Then she began walking towards the infirmary.  “Let’s get you shaved and ready.”

Shaved!  That somehow hadn’t occurred to me, even though it should have been obvious.  I wasn’t going to change my mind, but damn.  I ran my hands up into my shoulder length black hair, as I followed Randi.

“LIZ,”  Randi called out when we reached the infirmary, causing Liz to come out from behind a screen.  “Hey Liz.  I need you to shave Isabel.”

“Ok, I’ll go grab the kit.”  Liz, PhD RN, responded like it was a perfectly normal request.

No questions about why, no comment about it at all.  How often did Randi ask Liz to shave people?  It couldn’t be that often, I didn’t see people walking around bald all the time.  She just headed deeper into the infirmary towards the supply closets.

“I’ll be right back.”  Randi stated and walked off towards the entrance.

I was left alone in the middle of the infirmary.  I looked around and spotted a small mirror on the back wall.  I approached it and contemplated my reflection.  My hair looked good, even though it was far from at its best after a few hours in a hazmat suit and a year of cutting it myself.  It hung mostly to my shoulders, but I had cut layers as best I could right in the front creating a soft frame for my face.  I always parted it just above the middle of my left eye, so it would sweep across my forehead,  somehow, the part was still nice and straight.

I pushed the hair back with my hands, spreading out my fingers to try to cover as much of it as I could.  I still couldn’t get a good sense of how I was going to look without hair.

Between the blasé way Liz had reacted to Randi’s request for her to shave me, her generally no nonsense personality, and that she’d thought I was completely wrong for getting involved in a decision she felt should solely be made by Joan and the other biologists and was none of my business, I didn’t expect her to go even a little bit easy on me.

“Where’s Randi?”  Liz asked as she got back with the kit.

“She said she’d be right back.”  I answered as I turned away from the mirror.

“Do you know what has to be shaved?”  Liz asked me, opening my mind to the possibility it wasn’t my entire head, and set the kit down on a table.

“She didn’t tell me exactly.”  I said, running my hands over my hair again, “I had kind of assumed, but I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you have to be shaved?”  Liz finally asked as she pulled a stool over to the table.  “I’ll probably know what I have to shave if you tell me why it has to be shaved.”

“I’m going into the chamber with Joan.”

“Isabel?!”  The tone Liz used was full of shocked disapproval.

“I already talked risks and benefits with Randi.  We both agreed this was worth it.”  I said flatly.  “What do you have to shave?”

“I think this is a terrible idea.”  Liz quipped.

“It is, but we don’t have a better one.”  I said firmly.  “What do you have to shave?”

“Pretty much everything.”  Liz said, finally resigned to the fact that I was going into the chamber with Joan.  “There will be stubble left since taking it to the skin can create little cuts that are more of a problem than the stubble is.  Come on, take a seat.”

“Is it really necessary?”  I asked, finding myself hesitant to sit down.  “I mean theoretically any spores have already been cleaned off Joan, right?”

“So you’re willing to walk into a chamber with a possible deadly contagion, but you balk at a haircut.”  Liz said impatiently and gave me a look.  “It will grow back, Isabel.”

“I suppose it was worse for Joan.”  I sighed and reluctantly walked over and sat on the stool.

“Yeah, it was.”  Liz said, showing me little sympathy as she swung a sheet over me.

“You were there with her?”  I prompted as Liz was arranging the sheet around my shoulders crossing it over in the back.

“She asked for you.”  Liz said, finally with some sympathy in her voice as she tucked the sheet into my shirt collar.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”

“You had no way of knowing what had happened,”  Liz pointed out as she gave the sheet one last tuck at my spine.

I listened to Liz pick something up from the table.  Then I heard the click followed by a hum.  I assumed that was Liz turning on clippers.  Liz’ hand brushed back the hair on my forehead slightly, and I felt the vibrating blades touch just in front of the hairline at my part.

I closed my eyes and reminded myself, it’s just hair, it will grow back.  I felt dumb for caring so much.

The blades slid back into my hairline.  First the change in tone was slight as it only encountered the soft wispy baby hairs at the edge of my face.  Then the tone changed more as it entered the abundant thicker strands behind. Liz brushed her hand slowly back along my part as the clippers were slowly pulled back following Liz’ hand leaving a slightly chilly strip behind them.  

When the clippers reached the back of my head, I felt a soft weight hit my back before falling to the floor behind me.  That was my hair, I thought to myself sadly.

“Did you cut off Joan’s hair?”  I asked.

I felt Liz’ hand back at my forehead, beginning to brush the hair backwards again.  Part of her hand was touching the shaved strip.  The contrast between how her fingers felt where I still had hair to insulate my head from them, and where her cold fingers touched my almost bare skin driving home what was happening.

“Unfortunately Jay did.”  Liz said apologetically as she placed the buzzing clippers on my forehead and began to slowly pull them back.  “Randi and I both agreed that it was best if I concentrated on the areas that were most intimate.  With Jay it wasn’t quite the same as it was with Tom, but we still figured it would be better for him not to touch her breasts and stuff.  So I was supposed to be occupied with her torso.”

“Did he nick her or something?  Was he careless?”  I asked, concerned about why Liz had said unfortunately.

“No nothing like that,” Liz assured me.  “He just was a little less aware of the emotional impact.  He didn’t do things like make sure all the hair fell behind her like I do.  He let hair fall where she could see it.”

“Does it really make a difference?”  I asked, it wasn’t like I was unaware that my head was being shaved just because I only felt the hair falling against my back.

“You tell me.”  Liz said with annoyance right before she lifted up a hand full of my hair right at the front and pushed the clippers into it from behind.

The black locks tumbled down in front of my face.  They landed in my lap, very obvious against the plain white sheet. A few strands stuck to my face.  The severed hair in my lap looked longer than I had expected it to.  My heart suddenly was pounding fast.

“Jesus Liz!”  I exclaimed.  “What the hell!”

“You asked.”  Liz said coldly.  “And you’re kind of annoying me.”

Her little demonstration complete, Liz went back to just pulling the clippers back over my head slowly.  Though now she wasn’t quite so deliberately brushing the severed hair backwards.  It mostly tumbled to the side landing on my shoulder as she just let it fall where gravity pulled it.

“I guess I don’t get to be concerned about the woman I love.”  I grumbled, as my head felt bearer and bearer.

“She might have been more open to letting one of our many virologists go and do the experiment if you hadn’t turned it into a control issue.”  Liz muttered as she folded my ear down and circled it with the clippers.  “Have you considered that?”

“Of course I have.”  I admitted miserably.  “You don’t think that guilt has been eating away at me?”

“I’m sorry.”  Liz said quietly, pausing her task.  “That was out of line.  I shouldn’t have said it.”

“It’s not like half the bunker doesn’t think it.”

“She’s going to be ok.”  Liz said gently.  “The tear in her hazmat suit was very small, and she poured disinfectant on it and patched it right away.  The decontamination was rough, but she’s strong.  She’ll be ok.”

“Thanks,”  I said, wanting to believe it, but finding it hard to.  I took a deep breath.

“I expected you to be done by the time I got back.”  I heard Randi’s voice say behind me.  “You haven’t even shaved half her head, Liz.”

“Sorry,” Liz said.  “Just got a little distracted.”

I heard the clippers click on and hum to life.  Liz placed them on my forehead again, and started pulling them back through the hair on the other side from the one she’d already shaved

“Isabel, I have an Idea for how Joan can make notes.”  Randi spoke up to be heard over the buzzing machine that was slicing off my hair.   “I stole a bunch of metal lunch trays from the cafeteria, and I grabbed a couple of nails.  She can scratch her notes into the surface.  They can be sterilized, and the writing should be fine.”

“That’s brilliant,”  I smiled, then frowned when I felt hair hit my back before tumbling to the floor.  “That should help keep her sane.”

“Yeah.”  Randi said, her tone giving away that Joan’s sanity hadn’t been what she was thinking about.

“You think she might write down something important?”  I guessed.

“One of the rats is still alive.”  Randi said, once again her voice tinged with cautious hope.

“Why not just wait for her to be out of the chamber so she can write it out on paper?”  I asked since Joan had near perfect recall, notes were just for her to document her work, not to help her remember it.

Randi didn’t say anything, Liz paused the clippers half way back along my crown.  I turned and looked at the uncomfortable look on Randi’s face.  I suddenly knew what she didn’t want to say out loud in front of me.  The notes had to be preserved in case Joan didn’t make it out of the chamber.

I turned back to face the back wall of the infirmary, and said, “Never mind.”

Liz silently returned her hand to my half bare scalp, and continued running the buzzing clippers over my crown.  I still wasn’t happy about having my head shaved, but in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty inconsequential.

I sat there trying not to think about the possibility that Joan and I were never going to get to leave that chamber.  Of course the only thing I had to concentrate on to take my mind off it was the hair falling on my shoulder as Liz ran the clippers around my other ear.

“Put your head down.”  Liz instructed me.

Liz ran the clippers up my neck and over the back of my skull.  Hair slid down my neck, some falling into my lap.  It wasn’t as long as the lock from the top of my head had been, but it still looked longer than I had expected.

I finally heard Liz turn off the buzzing clippers and put them down on the table.  My ears relaxed into the silence.  I took a deep breath and braced myself as Liz started untucking the sheet she’d cover me with.

Liberated from the sheet, my hand traveled to my scalp.  I hesitated slightly just before I touched, then finally made contact.  The stubble left there wasn’t exactly like a man’s five o’clock shadow.  It was a little softer.  Not quite as soft as velvet, it was scratchier than that.  It wasn’t quite as scratchy as velcro though, it was kind of in between the two.

I looked down at the scattered black locks that covered the floor.  I wasn’t happy to see all my hair there, but it wasn’t as upsetting as the pile of Joan’s lovely hair had been.

“Do you want to go look in the mirror, or just get on to the next step?”  Liz asked.

I was a bit undecided about whether or not I wanted to see it.  I thought maybe putting it off for a little bit might be better, I could look when I needed to use the bathroom.  Then it occured to me that Liz just said there was a next step.

“What next step?”  I asked with trepidation.

“Your head isn’t the only place you grow hair.”  Liz reminded me.  “I really did mean it when I said pretty much everything.”

“You can’t be serious.”  I signed even though I knew she was, and was glad that Joan was in the habit of keeping herself well groomed down there so she hadn’t had to endure that level of humiliation at least.

“I’ll be gentle.”  Liz promised.

 

————————————————

 

I stood in the small airlock between the doors, naked except for the mylar blanket I had wrapped around me and tied like a sarong, listening to the outer one being sealed.  Once it was complete, I could start opening the inner door.  Once the inner door was open, I could see Joan.

What was I going to say to Joan?  Something that didn’t make it seem like I was just going in there to have a last opportunity to say I was sorry before she died.  Of course saying I was just there to bring her the trays to engrave her notes on would also make it sound like she was going to die.  I guess telling the truth that I was there to keep her sane and warm was the only thing that didn’t make it sound like she was about to die.

The outer door was sealed, and I began unsealing the inner door.  As it opened, Joan’s note writing hand paused.  She turned very                                                                                                           slightly towards me, the blankets obscuring her face still.

“Hi,” was all that I could manage to say.

“Isabel?”

“Yeah.”

“What are you doing here?”  Joan asked, her voice filled with uneasiness.

“We were worried about how cold you are.”  I said with fake casualness, as I brought the stack of trays across the threshold.

“It’s not that bad.”  Joan said not very convincingly.  “Randi let me have extra blankets already bending the rules.  You coming in here is completely against protocol.  That airlock doesn’t have a place to decontaminate your hazmat suit and change out of it.  How are you going to leave?”  

“I’m not going to be leaving.”  I stated, as I put down the trays..

Isabel finally turned enough that she could peer out from the cocoon of blankets.  The expression on what I could see of her pale tired face showed worried confusion.  She eyed me from head to toe.  I tried to smile, knowing that I looked ridiculous in my mylar blanket sarong with all my hair cut off.

“Were you exposed?”  Joan asked with a wrinkled brow.  “Is someone else in the other isolation chamber?”

“Randi just figured the risk of my getting exposed coming in here was really low and we were worried about you.”  I tried to sound reassuring.  “Look, she gave me these trays that you can engrave your notes on.  It didn’t occur to her that when the disinfecting cycle runs in the morning it’s going to wash away the marker she gave you till after she’d sealed you in.”

“That explains why she agreed to this, she wants to make sure my notes are preserved if I die.”  Joan speculated calmly.  “I suppose just by the numbers, it’s a pretty reasonable risk, you versus what remains of humanity.”

She paused talking, took a deep breath and asked.  “If you’re going to be in here, who’s taking care of Tribble?”

“Liz will take care of him.”  I assured her.  “He’ll be happier this way.  He doesn’t hate her the way he hates me.”

“She’ll be nice to him.”  Joan said softly.  “She was so patient with me during the decontamination even though I was being irrational.”

She began crying, the mylar cocoon crinkling as she hugged herself.  I sat down behind Joan and started rubbing her back.

“It’s ok.”  I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone.  “Everyone cries while being decontaminated, everyone is scared.”

“I didn’t just cry,”  Joan said miserably, turning towards me finally and falling into my lap.  “I refused to cooperate.  I tried to talk them out of cutting off my hair.  I just didn’t want to die bald like this.  I know this sounds weird, but I just want to look nice when I die.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t look that bad.”  I said down to the mylar wrapped weight in my lap I was trying to comfort.  “And it will grow back.”

“It’s not going to have time to grow back if I’m infected.”  Joan said.  “I’m just so embarrassed by the way I acted though.  I saw my reflection in the mylar, I barely recognized myself.”

“Here, let me look,” I said gently.

Joan whimpered slightly, but didn’t object as I started pulling back the mylar blanket she had pulled up over her head.  Slowly Joan’s scalp was revealed.  Her copper and gold hair was cropped almost to the skin as I expected.  Not as close or as evenly as mine had been, but close enough that her pale scalp was visible under the soft stubble.  I ran my hand over the uneven fuzz that reminded me of a chenille bedspread.  

“You’ve got more hair left than I do.”  I pointed out smiling down at her.

“I was so awful when they were cutting it off, I should have just sat down and let Jay do it.”  Joan confessed.  “It was me who said hair was too hard to decontaminate and should just be cut off.  It’s on my say so that everyone else had to endure being bald and cold when they entered here.  And then I made a huge fuss about it when it was mine.”

“It’s ok honey, I’m sure they understood that you were just in shock.”  I continued to stroke the cropped head in my lap.  “Tell me about what happened.  You’ll feel better if you get it off your chest.”

“Ok.” Joan began her story.  “I had finished what I needed to at the university, and we were heading back.  One of the rats survived the experiment.  And I needed to get him back here alive, so I insisted on carrying his cage myself.  I guess once I handed him up to the crew in the helicopter, I relaxed too much and lost my balance as I climbed in.  I fell back and ripped my suit.

“I sprayed it immediately, and put a patch on it, but I know the odds of that working.  There have been ten hazmat suit tears, and only two survivors.  So, I was thinking more about communicating what I was doing, so someone else could take over my research, than being decontaminated.  But when I got here, they rushed me in and started the process.  I kept trying to get them to let me write out my notes instead of wasting time cutting off my clothing and stuff, but Randi kept saying I could do that after, and keeping me alive was the best way to make sure my research continues.  

“So I’m standing there, as the last of my clothing is cut off, and Jay is waiting at the stool, and I know he’s there to cut off my hair.  And I just suddenly am picturing myself laying with nothing but a mylar blanket bald on this damned concrete floor, and that’s not how I want to die.  I just want to be home in my own bed cuddled with Tribble, and that picture has me with my hair spread out on a pillow.  

“This whole time, since the day you and the soldiers took me from my lab, I kept the image of myself going home with Tribble.  I’ve pictured it various ways, getting out of the helicopter alone, driving up with you, walking there.  There are lots of things that change depending on how I was imagining it, clothing, tribble in my arms or in his carrier, etc, one thing never changed though, I always had my hair.

“Liz starts telling me to sit in the stool, and I know that if I do, Jay is just going to start hacking off my hair, and then I’m another step farther from that vision of myself going home, so I don’t move.  Liz tries to guide me to the stool by my shoulder, and I don’t move.  Instead I say ‘No.  I don’t want to die bald like that.  Just let me take Tribble and go home.’

“Liz then tries to convince me that if I just sit down and let them cut my hair, I won’t die.  She keeps reminding me that it will grow back, but of course it’s only going to grow back if I survive this, which I don’t think I will.  She was being all gentle and trying to talk to me rationally, and I just kept saying ‘no, please don’t cut it off,’ completely hysterically.  I think I asked her to get you, because I thought I could convince you to take Tribble and me home.

“Liz finally gave up trying to convince me, and said to Jay in this crazy calm voice ‘Jay, just put the stool behind her so we just have to get her to sit, not walk over to it.’  What is it about nurses, that the more chaotic the situation, the calmer they are?

“Anyway.  Jay does what Liz said to, and he puts the stool right up against the back of my legs.  So all Liz has to do is give me a little shove and I’m down onto the stool.

“I swear, I was trying to be reasonable.  I knew I should just sit there and let it happen, but I was just so…I don’t even know how to describe it, panicky?  I was just suddenly incapable of being rational.

“I can feel Jay lifting up hair, then I hear this crunch.  Then I see this huge lock of my hair dropped off to the side, and I just lost it.  I’m crying even harder, and I start covering my head with my hands, and saying ‘I don’t want to die like this, I just want to die somewhere comfortable.  Please let me go home.’

“Liz was so kind and gentle as she pulled my hands down, and held them in my lap.  She kept making a soothing shushing sound and promising me that she’d do everything she could to keep me alive till I could actually go home.

“And I can feel Jay lifting up locks of hair, and the cold blades of the scissors right against my scalp.   Then after each crunch, I would see another lock of my hair dropped onto that pile right next to me.

“I just want this all to be over.  I just want to be home.”  Joan concluded her story sobbing.  “Now everyone is going to think I’m incredibly vain.”

“Nobody is going to be thinking about that.”  I assured her as I stroked the shorn hair.  “Everyone is just going to be hoping to go home, just like you.”

“Is the rat I brought back still alive?”  Joan asked in a cautiously hopeful voice.

“Yes.”  I assured her and held her till she fell asleep on my lap.

 

4 responses to “Decontamination

  1. So tender this story, so lovely as you describe the feelings and eventually the offer made for love.
    I like it, I like the view (and the expectation to find of the flaming red hair in the tent) and the shorn long locks of black hair.
    Superb written.

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