Thursday, October 11, 2012
[Prologue] Chapter 4: Pressure
She’s dying. Maeve feels it in each agonizing beat of her heart, every labored breath of air, the exhausted trembling of her hands. Her mother watches her closely, the older woman’s eyes filled with worry, but she doesn’t seem to realize the severity of Maeve’s condition.
“Luca?!” Esme spits the word out like poison. “That human? How could he possibly help?”
Maeve takes a deep, shaky breath, struggling to stay upright. “He’s the lead researcher at the hospital,” she rasps. “If anyone can figure out what’s wrong with me, he can.”
“I can heal you, Maeve. I can-”
Maeve silences her mother with a glance. “Your remedies aren’t working,” she says simply. “We need a doctor, and he’s the only one I trust.”
Across town, Luca sits in his office, fighting to remain focused on the work in front of him. He closes his eyes for a second and distractedly digs his fingers into his forehead, trying to massage away the throbbing pain in his temples. He never used to suffer from migraines, but lately he can’t seem to go a day without one.
Over the past few months, twenty-two more people have died from the White Fever, and still Luca and his team are no closer to finding a cure. Hell, they can’t even figure out what’s causing the virus yet, let alone how to stop it from spreading. As the head of the research department at Jericho’s one and only hospital, Luca is the face of the disease. He has to deal with the press day in and day out, calm the terrified masses, and explain to them why they haven’t been able to solve this mystery yet. The pressure from his bosses and the media, from the public, is enormous, but the pressure he puts upon himself is even more overwhelming. Luca feels personally responsible for every single new case, every single excruciating death, every single broken family.
A knock at the door interrupts his musings, and Bridget Callahan, a medical intern working under Luca, lets herself in.
“Dr. McKinley,” she purrs, her voice like silk. “I didn’t expect to find you here so late on a Friday.”
Luca frowns at the pretty young woman. He always works late these days, ever since he and Maeve broke up, and it’s rare to find him anywhere besides his office or the lab.
“How can I help you, Bridget?” he asks, motioning for her to sit down.
Instead she leans in closer until their heads are mere inches apart. “You can help me out of this dress,” she murmurs barely loud enough for him to hear.
Luca’s eyes widen as Bridget walks over and seductively begins to unbutton his coat. “Bridget, I don’t think-”
“Don’t think,” she whispers, placing a finger over his lips. “Don’t argue. I know you want this just as much as I do.”
Luca falters, feeling ambushed. Sure, Bridget is the most beautiful woman at the hospital, and most guys would kill to be in his shoes right now. But… His thoughts flash to Maeve, her smile and her laugh, her enchanting purple eyes, and he suddenly feels guilty for even looking at another woman that way. Just as he’s about to push her away, however, he suddenly stops himself.
Maeve doesn’t love me, he thinks bitterly. She never loved me. Why shouldn’t I enjoy myself a little? After all, it’s only sex.
And so he fucks her, desperately, defiantly pushing aside any thoughts of his ex-girlfriend.
Afterwards Luca feels nothing but disgust at himself. He doesn’t love Bridget. He doesn’t even like Bridget. Why did he allow himself to be tempted by her?
Bridget, however, seems oblivious to Luca’s indifference. She smiles at him coyly, wiping a smudge of lipstick off his face before casually inviting him over to her place for the evening.
Luca declines, claiming that he’s overwhelmed with work right now, and Bridget seems to accept this excuse.
“But don’t think you can avoid me forever,” she smirks. “I’m eagerly awaiting our next… encounter.”
A few minutes after Bridget leaves, Luca hears another knock at the door. Thinking that she must be back for round two, he reluctantly goes to let her in, only to be greeted by none other than Maeve’s mother.
“Mrs. Saville? What an… unexpected surprise.”
Esme snorts her disapproval. “I want to be here just as much as you want me here,” she chides. “But I need to speak with you, Dr. McKinley. It’s about Maeve.”
Luca doesn’t even bother to hide his irritation. “Maeve is no longer my concern,” he tells her flatly. “She broke up with me, as you very well know.”
“So she did,” Esme replies with an edge of satisfaction in her voice. “But she needs you now. She’s been asking for you.”
“Asking for me?” he frowns.
“She’s ill. Terribly ill I’m afraid. She thinks that you might be able to help her where my remedies have failed.”
“If she’s sick, you should take her to the hospital,” Luca says, waving his hand dismissively. “There’s not much I can do for her without the proper equipment.”
Esme glares at him. “I forgot that you modern medical practitioners rely so heavily on your gadgets,” she chastises.
“Our ‘gadgets’ are our tools,” he snaps. “Technology is the foundation upon which modern medicine stands.”
Esme shakes her head. “She doesn’t want to go to the hospital. She doesn’t want to see just any doctor. She wants you.”
“Why?” Luca demands.
“It is not my place to say, but I strongly advise that you put whatever you are feeling for my daughter aside and pay her a visit. You owe her that much, at least.”
“I owe her nothing!” he fumes.
Esme takes a deep breath, fighting the urge to argue. “Please, Dr. McKinley? All I ask is that you treat her the same way you’d treat any patient.”
Luca hesitates, eyeing the old woman warily. The idea of seeing Maeve again terrifies him, but as a doctor he has an obligation to help those in need.
“Fine,” he says at last. “But I can promise you no more than a few minutes.”
Back at Esme’s house, Luca finds Maeve in far worse condition than he could have imagined. When he first arrives, she greets him with a weak smile, but exhaustion soon overwhelms her and Maeve quickly falls into a fitful and restless sleep. With one glance, Luca knows her diagnosis, but wishing, hoping, praying that he’s wrong, he goes through the entire examination procedure, taking her temperature, checking her vitals, feeling her lymph nodes, and so on. However, the color of her skin, white as snow on a mountaintop, definitively confirms his worst fears.
Maeve’s mother takes the news as well as can be expected, lashing out at Luca with furious desperation.
“You did this to her!” Esme shouts, cornering him in the kitchen. “If you hadn’t seduced my daughter, she never would have gotten sick!”
“No one knows what causes this disease,” Luca snaps, trying to hold his own emotions in check. “We are trying to isolate the underlying agent, but it-”
“No!” Esme cries, breaking down into sobs. “You exposed her to this- this plague, and you are going to cure her!”
Hearing those words, Luca feels his temper break. He loves Maeve too, and seeing her wasting away like that hurts him just as much as it hurts Esme.
“We are TRYING!” he yells, his voice trembling with anger. “But there is nothing I can do for her at this point. Take her to the hospital, Esme, where they can make her last few days more comfortable.”
“You’re just going to leave?!” she demands, tears pouring down her face. “Without even trying?!”
“I AM trying,” he screams. “I have the entire lab working on it, but this disease is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”
Esme pauses. “What do you mean?” she asks quietly. “How is it different?”
Luca sighs, rubbing his temples. “Most microbes can be replicated, studied, and analyzed, but this one… This one can’t. It attacks the body’s white blood cells, leaching onto and taking control of them before turning on the body’s healthy organs. The person’s immune system responds to the attack by creating more white blood cells, which quickly become infected and continue the attack. The whole destructive process repeats itself until the Sim dies, their body basically killing itself from within.”
“And you can’t study it?” she gasps. “Why?”
“Without a host, the virus dies. We’ve had some success keeping samples alive temporarily, but this particular microbe can only live for a short time outside the body, which is why we are completely baffled by how it is spreading. Normal, everyday contact does not appear to provide sufficient exposure to transfer the disease from Sim to Sim, but we’ve yet to find another solution.”
Esme’s eyes narrow in thought. “Sounds like a curse,” she mumbles.
Luca feels emotionally exhausted and completely spent by the evening’s events, and his patience for Esme has run out.
“A curse?” he sneers. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Of course,” she exclaims. “I should have seen it from the get go! I can heal most ailments, Dr. McKinley, but I’ve never encountered one like this. It feels… different. Unnatural.”
Luca frowns. “Esme, I-”
“You must believe me!” she cries. “I know of a man who can help us, but I cannot leave Maeve right now. You must go to him at once and ask for his assistance.”
“I am sorry about your daughter, Mrs. Saville,” Luca tells her as he inches his way closer to the door. “I realize you are under a great deal of stress right now, but the best thing you can do for Maeve is take her to the hospital.”
“Luca, please!” she begs, her voice fraught with desperation.
But Luca just shakes his head in response. “I must leave now, Mrs. Saville. There’s nothing else I can do.”
He turns to go, but Esme follows him to the door.
“She’s pregnant!” she blurts out, the words spilling from her lips.
Luca freezes, his whole body glued to the floor.
“What did you say?”
“She’s pregnant, Luca,” Esme repeats. “And you are the father.”
“That’s not possible. We- We- We were careful. We-”
“I don’t need to hear the details,” Esme interrupts. “Please, just listen to me.”
Reluctantly, Luca follows her down a narrow hallway lined with dusty old bookcases.
“A curse?” he asks as she fiddles with one of the books on the shelves.
“Maeve didn’t tell you anything, did she?” Esme frowns.
Luca shakes his head, feeling more confused than ever.
“I am a witch, Luca. A healer. I primarily make potions, herbal concoctions that dull pain or alleviate nausea, but I can do a bit of illusionary magic as well.”
“Illusionary magic?” Luca repeats, sounding skeptical.
“Yes. Colorful lights, flashy sparkles, small mirages, and the like. Magic that tricks the senses.”
“I don’t believe in magic,” he states matter-of-factly.
“Of course you don’t. Most humans do not, and that is how we like it.”
Maeve pulls a book off the shelf, and a door suddenly appears. She leads Luca into a dimly lit room that smells strongly of sulfur and spices.
“What is this place?” he asks, gazing around.
Esme ignores his question and immediately heads to the cauldron in the middle of the room.
“You suffer from headaches,” she tells him as she pulls a strange looking bottle down.
Luca is stunned. “How’d you-”
“I’ve been a healer for much longer than you’ve been a doctor,” she replies. “I can see it in the way you squint your eyes against the light.”
“Drink this,” she commands, pouring the bottle’s glowing contents into a glass of water.
Luca looks horrified at the prospect. “No!” he refuses.
“It will help. You have enough on your plate right now that you don’t need to deal with migraines on top of it all.”
“It won’t do any good,” he says, eyeing the glass suspiciously. “I’ve tried painkillers, herbs, diet changes, vitamins, and more. Nothing ever works.”
“This will,” Esme answers confidently. “This recipe has never failed me yet.”
Closing his eyes, Luca takes a big swig of the mystery drink, downing it in one swallow. He feels lightheaded for a second, but when he opens his eyes the pressure, and the pain, are gone.
“Well?” Esme grins.
“That’s incredible!” Luca exclaims. “You should sell your formula to the drug companies. You could make a fortune!”
“It cannot be replicated by human hands,” she snaps. “And besides, I’d rather sell my soul to the devil than make a deal with a pharmaceutical company.”
Luca frowns but holds his tongue. She makes a fair point, after all.
Esme leads Luca outside to her garden. “So, Dr. McKinley,” she begins, watching him closely. “Are you ready to listen to me now?”
Luca nods. “I’ll do anything to save Maeve,” he tells her.
“And her baby,” Esme adds as she plucks a few pieces of fruit from one of the bushes.
“Our baby,” Luca amends.
“There is a man,” Esme tells him while she slices the fiery fruit into razor thin pieces, “who lives in the wooded hills outside of the enchanted town of Arundel. His name is Atticus Thorel, and he is Maeve’s father.”
“Arundel?” Luca repeats, letting the name roll off his tongue. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“I grew up in Arundel," she explains, "as did my daughter. It is an ancient village nestled deep within the remote forests of northern Sim Nation and veiled by a powerful magic that hides it from human eyes. These dense woods contain more than a few secrets, but perhaps the most valuable is the one that Atticus guards. He is the keeper and protector of eternal life.”
Luca rolls his eyes. “Eternal life?” he laughs. “Are you kidding me?”
“Don’t believe me,” she scowls. “But Atticus is the only mage I know of with enough power and resources to help us.”
“What is so special about this mage?” Luca demands.
“As the guardian of everlasting life, Atticus himself enjoys an immortal existence. He was alive during the Great Plague, and he knows every curse, blight, and scourge that has ever beleaguered Simkind over the last seven hundred years. If anyone can solve this mystery, Atticus can.”
Luca isn’t sure whether to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of this story or cry at the hopelessness of his situation. Instead he remains quiet, watching as Esme continues to fiddle around in the kitchen.
“You must go to him,” she continues. “You must find him and convince him to help us reverse this curse and save my daughter.”
“Why don’t you speak with him yourself? Surely, as Maeve’s father-”
“Atticus and I did not end on good terms,” she says simply. “I wanted us to raise Maeve together, and he refused. I have not seen or spoken to him since before she was born.”
“Why did he refuse?” Luca asks. “I can’t imagine not wanting to be a part of your child’s life.”
Esme shrugs. “It doesn’t matter,” she replies. “Hopefully, the years have made him more compassionate and kindhearted, but I somehow doubt it.”
“Give him this cake,” she says, “as a token of our good will. I will give you a map of the forest he lives in, marked with the location of a small frog pond. Throw three stones into the water to summon him, and as soon as he arrives explain that Maeve has sent you. Hopefully he will be patient enough to listen.”
Luca frowns. “And if he’s not?”
“He will turn you into a toad,” Esme smirks, almost enjoying the idea. “But don’t worry about it too much. Atticus always could smell fear.”
Healing witches, powerful curses, enchanted towns, and immortal mages? Luca finds this all a bit too fantastical for words. Sensing his skepticism, Esme smiles at him encouragingly.
“Once you cure Maeve, I’m sure she will explain everything to you much more clearly than I can. Just trust me on this, okay?”
And for some reason, he does.
So, I succumbed to temptation and decided to go for a magic/fantasy type story. I thought this arc was going to be short and sweet, but it keeps growing and growing; however, there will be babies soon, I promise! (But who’s to say which Sims are the parents... ;)
A whole lot of this chapter was done in an alternate save, for which I apologize. I hope it didn’t detract from the story’s authenticity too much! I just couldn’t get the right pictures without taking control of certain Sims for certain scenes.
Also, I know absolutely nothing about diseases, viruses, microbes, etc. I made all that stuff up, so hopefully it was kind of believable. Please forgive any mistakes in terminology or whatever, as it all sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook to me. =)