Deal Me In Lite, Week 20: "The Boy in Zaquitos" by Bruce McAllister
Only six weeks left in my Deal Me In Lite journey, and this week I drew the four of clubs, which led me to another story from The Best American Short Stories 2007.
"The Boy in Zaquitos" begins with the heading "The Retired Operative Speaks to a Class." The narrator is recounting his adventures as a much younger man involved in covert operations for the government. He didn't start out in life with that goal -- he merely wanted to be an analyst for the CIA or some other governmental intelligence agency, so he could "do something for his country," but from behind a comfortable desk. However, the government has other plans in mind for him. They discover that he is one of the unique individuals who can carry the bacteria that cause bubonic plague but not get sick. So he is recruited as a kind of "Typhoid Mary" who is sent to strategic locations in strategic countries, where he releases the germs from a special hollow tooth in his mouth, coughs on people and spreads disease as effectively as he can, then gets out of the country before the epidemic takes hold. He has other hollow teeth in his mouth that contain antibiotics, so he can wipe out all traces of his "payload" if he should happen to be apprehended and tested. Then the government purposefully delays shipments of antibiotics and other medicines to these countries, all in an attempt to destabilize them and their governments as the epidemic begins to ravage the population. It's a really interesting premise for a story, and actually not that far-fetched in this day and age, even for someone who is not a conspiracy theorist.
This kind of work rapidly begins to take its toll on him, however, and he starts developing odd habits. For example, he buys toothbrushes by the dozens and brushes his mouth every day, sometimes multiple times a day. He's paranoid about touching people, especially people he cares about, for fear that he will accidentally infect and kill them. However, he does end up accidentally killing a young woman whom he meets on his travels. She is working for a civilian aid organization in the country he is sent to infect, and he leaves the country not knowing if she lived or died. He finds out a couple of years later that she did die, and he knows he is responsible for her death. This sets into motion the central series of events in the story. One day, in a country where he is about to start another epidemic, he meets a young native boy who reminds him of a friend he had in the third grade, and suddenly he feels compelled to do something to try to save this boy and his family, to help them get out of the city before he begins the epidemic. He succeeds in getting them to leave the garbage dump (literally) that is their home, but of course he doesn't know if his actions have the intended effect or not.
This was a captivating story that pulled me along and made me care about what happened (especially the microbiological premise of the story), but somehow it felt incomplete. It felt like more of a vignette than a real short story with resolution. Maybe that was the point of it. Anyway, it's definitely worth your time to read, but it's not the best story I have read so far this year.