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Salubrious - Oblender

Christian E. Oblender
Salubrious

                It couldn’t have been any earlier than 10 p.m. Bill Hardy sat cold, hungry, and a little disappointed. He had been fishing all day, but hadn’t caught anything. It was late February and hardly a day over the past week got above 30 degrees. As Bill stepped outside to relieve himself, he regretted staying out as long as he did, for the wind had picked up, and its icy teeth pierced through his jacket. Bill took one look around. He felt the loneliness of the evening as everyone he had seen earlier in the day had gone home. What few artifacts remained of the fishing shantytown that popped up over the weekend were some cigarette butts strewn about and a couple of crinkled beer cans. “I wonder if they had better luck than I did,” he thought to himself. As he looked toward the shore, the subtle twinkle of the lights in Chaumont made the little village look so far away. To the west, out over the frozen Lake Ontario, there were no lights to be seen, just an empty white landscape fading into a sea of darkness. There was no moon out, but the clear night sky above him created a beautiful, endless array of stars. As Bill looked at the time on his phone, the bright light of the screen nearly blinded him. It was getting really late. He had to work early the next morning, though he hated his job at the car dealership. For the eighth month in the running, he was the lowest-selling salesman, and the people he worked with were starting to notice. Bill just wasn’t good with people. Besides, he told his sister, Marie, that he would call her by 10:30 p.m. when he got back to his vehicle parked along County Route 125. Whenever Bill went fishing alone, he would establish a check-in time with his sister as a precaution in the event he fell through the ice. If he didn’t call on time, she would sent out her husband, Morgan Blake, to look for him. Morgan was the chief of the local fire department and had seen his share of ice water rescues and tragedies.

                Bill closed the door to his shack and gave his pockets a quick pat down: keys, phone, and wallet. He cautiously began the cold, lonely ten-minute walk back to the shoreline where he parked his truck. Bill shuddered at the thought of falling through the ice and the freezing, dark waters consuming him. He had only taken a few steps when a sharp HISS fractured the silence of the evening. Bill quickly looked up to see a bright shooting star racing over the icy lake. Bill was intrigued. The blue light from the star was so bright that it illuminated the ice on the water beneath it. The beauty of the star mesmerized Bill, for he had never seen one so close. He could see little sparks falling off the tail of the star. The light was so low and so fast that he instinctively ducked his head slightly as it ripped through the sky overhead, before crashing no more than a quarter mile from where he was standing. Excitement overcame Bill and he carelessly ran over to where the star had struck the ice.

                By 10:30 p.m., Marie was at home enjoying the last couple hours of the weekend watching television. When Bill didn’t call, she tried calling his cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. Marie anxiously called her husband, Morgan, at work. It wasn’t like Bill to miss his check in. Although Bill was the quirky sort, he was unflinchingly rigid on punctuality. The floorboards squeaked as she paced back and forth in the kitchen with her phone to her ear. Morgan assured Marie that Bill was fine and that his cell phone battery probably just died because of the cold. He promised to send out some firefighters to check on Bill’s fishing spot; he told her not to worry, and that she should get some sleep.

                “I’ll call you as soon as we know he’s safe,” he told Marie.

                The roar of a diesel engine passing on the street outside her window startled Marie from her sleep. She opened her eyes, only to shoot up from the bed when she realized it was light outside. She fumbled on her nightstand as she picked up her phone to check for any missed calls. The clock read 7.47 a.m.! She scrambled downstairs, but the house was empty. Morgan’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. Why hadn’t anyone called her to tell her that her brother was okay? Marie heard the sound of a car door slam, then boots walking up the wooden stairs to their porch. Someone’s here! she thought. Marie opened the door in a hurry, only to find a police officer at the door.

                “Ms. Hardy?” he asked, “I’m Deputy Lewis with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. I understand your husband and brother were missing, is that correct?”

                “Yes,” she replied, “my brother is missing and my husband, Morgan, went to look for him.”

                “Ms. Blake, we’ve found your husband and brother and we think they’re alive, but,” the deputy paused with a loss for words, “I can’t explain it. You had better come with me and see for yourself.”

                As Marie rode with Deputy Lewis, he began to elaborate. “Ms. Blake, we’ve been looking for Bill, Morgan, and a half-dozen other people all night long.”

                Marie shook her head in confusion. “What do you mean, several other people? What’s going on?”

                The deputy continued, “Your husband, Morgan, contacted our office late last night requesting search-and-rescue assistance. Apparently, he sent some firefighters over to your brother’s fishing shack off Point Salubrious. When they didn’t return, he went over there himself and found several sets of footprints heading out further on to Chaumont Bay from your brother’s shack, yet no footprints returning. He requested snowmobile support, and we sent two deputies on snowmobiles around 3 a.m. to assist. We lost radio contact with that team a half hour later after they reported spotting several people on the ice. At 4:30 a.m., we sent two more deputies out on the ice to reestablish communications with the other team, but we lost contact with them, too.”

                “But you said they’re alive, what’s happening?” pleaded Marie.

                “Ms. Blake, they’re just standing out there,” the deputy explained. “Nobody can get them to answer on the radio, they’re not answering their phones. They’re just standing out on the ice, motionless.”

                Marie and the deputy arrived in Chaumont and saw many emergency vehicles and barricades blocking access to the network of roads surrounding the bay. The deputy directed Marie’s attention out towards the middle of Chaumont Bay. She gasped as she saw a group of people just standing out on the ice, far from the shore. As they stepped out of the vehicle near where Bill parked his truck, all sorts of news vehicles were setting up and crowds of people were standing around taking pictures. It was so cold that it almost hurt to breathe. In addition to the heavy police and rescue presence, Marie spotted several army vehicles.

                “Why is the army here?” Marie asked Deputy Lewis.

                “When I arrived earlier this morning, I witnessed eight people just standing in a circle in the middle of the Bay,” explained the deputy. “We’ve kept residents away from the group because we don’t know how good the ice is out there. We sent another team to figure out why the men weren’t moving. They reported that the men appeared to be alive, but as that team approached the group, they just stopped and slowly joined the others. All together there were twelve of them out there. At our request, Fort Drum sent an NBC team, that’s nuclear, biological, and chemical, to scan for any threats. They’ve detected some unusual radiation readings from an unknown source and are forming a response plan as we speak.”

                Marie could hear the unmistakable sound of helicopters approaching from the east. Just then, two Black Hawks soared over the rooftops of the village. Both helicopters landed on the ice along the shoreline and delivered several soldiers wearing bulky radiation suits. More soldiers walked out from the shore to meet them and started unloading all sorts of containers and equipment from the helicopters. The powdery snow that covered the ice whirled around them. The soldiers in radiation suits wasted no time and started making their way over to the twelve catatonic men. Marie watched from a distance as they approached. After ninety minutes of radio chatter and snowmobiles whizzing back and forth, each one of the twelve men were rescued and brought back to the shore on the stretcher sleds towed by snowmobiles. The men were taken to an impromptu containment zone. Although the men were still catatonic, none of them exhibited any signs of hypothermia, nor were they contaminated by radiation. Once each man was examined, they were flown to Syracuse for further care as their families looked on anxiously.

                At the hospital, the doctors were baffled as to why the men were still unresponsive, but otherwise in excellent physical health. One of the men, John Harvey, who had been a diabetic for 20 years, shocked the medical staff when his blood sugar was normal, despite not eating for the past twelve hours. Another man, Stewart Miller, who suffered from hypertension, but refused to take medication, suddenly had normal readings. As the doctors reviewed each man’s medical history, compared with their current vitals and blood work, they found that each one was in perfect health and that any previous medical ailments had vanished.

                One by one, the men started to wake up. Despite their positive mood, healthy vitals, and high energy levels, the doctors kept them under close observation for another week. One day Morgan, who would sneak out of his room and go for walks up and down the halls, heard the “Code Blue” alarm. He watched as the nurses rushed into a room with one of them shouting “she’s not breathing!” Morgan had seen this girl before during his frequent walks. From what he knew, the teenager was being treated for meningitis. Morgan passed by her room just an hour earlier, and she looked like she was doing fine. Without hesitating, Morgan walked over to where the nurses were working on the poor girl and laid his hand on her forehead, as though instinctively. The girl miraculously started breathing on her own and sat up in her bed. The nurses quickly assessed the girl as Morgan, who suddenly felt very tired, returned to his room to rest.

                A few minutes later, one of the nurses came to Morgan’s room. “What did you do in there?” she asked him. Morgan didn’t know what to say, other than that he just reacted.

                The next week, as they were discharged from the hospital, rumors began circulating that several of the men had demonstrated mysterious healing powers while they were in the hospital. News outlets from all over descended on Chaumont to cover this incredible story. Although the army cleared out having not found any further traces of radiation since that night, this small village became the center of national attention. Its streets were filled with the sick and desperate family members of dying relatives pleading with the men for them to help, and most of the men did. Over the following two weeks, the men cured sick people who came from all over, suffering from a variety of serious medical conditions. Many of them were interviewed by the news, and doctors from around the world wanted to examine them and draw blood samples.

                For Bill, this was all too much. He already wasn’t good with people and didn’t like all the attention. He tried to go back to work, only to find that his potential “customers” were just people pretending to buy a car as an excuse to talk to him or to ask him to heal their relatives. His sister Marie tried to encourage him to speak with the other men and hear about all the joy they were bringing to the community through helping others, but Bill wanted none of it. Bill stopped showing up for work and began to withdraw to his home. His phone rang constantly, and he received knocks on his door several times an hour from when he woke up to when he went to bed. When he would peek out his window, he was met with strangers staring and pointing at him in excitement. Bill would have to sneak out of the back entrance to his house so that he could get away to go ice fishing. He found respite in being out there on the ice all alone without anyone bothering him or expecting anything from him. And just like always, he established a check-in time with Marie to ensure that he returned to his truck safely.

                One day, after healing a terminally ill patient, one of the twelve men died suddenly. Shortly thereafter, another of the twelve died, followed by another, and another, until only Bill and Morgan remained. Despite his disinterest in being a part of the media frenzy, Bill watched the news carefully for any clues as to what may have caused the deaths of the others. He listened as experts from all over the world suggested that they died of exhaustion. He heard them say that their bodies must have eventually succumbed to the incredible stress of healing others, and that the lives they restored ultimately cost them their own. Bill’s mind began to race with fears of an untimely death.

                Putting aside his own fears, Morgan looked beyond himself and continued his participation in a scientific study in Watertown. The study attempted to understand the healing powers of the twelve, and what effect the unidentified radiation may have had on his body. The study carefully observed Morgan’s body before, during, and after healing cancer patients. It was hoped that if doctors could understand and replicate the powers in a lab, they could implement this discovery worldwide and revolutionize modern medicine. The researchers were gathering some very interesting data when Morgan suddenly became very weak.

                As he lay perilously close to his death, Marie rushed over to her brother’s house and told Bill what had happened. Marie begged him to go over to the hospital and try to heal Morgan. Bill panicked. He didn’t want to be a part of any of this and wanted nothing more than to return to how things were. Bill wondered, “Will my saving Morgan shorten my life, or worse, will it kill me instead?” He couldn’t go through with it; he was overcome by fear. Bill grabbed his coat and rushed out the door, his sister crying and pleading with him to save her husband as he left. He burst through the crowd of onlookers and media gathered in front of his house, who briefly gave chase as he ran. After dashing between a couple of houses and running a few more blocks, Bill had lost the crowd. It was nighttime, and the darkness concealed Bill’s identity as he made his way to Point Salubrious. He sought refuge in his fishing shack, the only place the world made sense and where he felt in control. He wept as he sat wondering what his life would be like after this. As he sat there in the darkness, his phone rang. It was his sister. Morgan was dead.

                “How could you be so selfish?” he heard her say. “He went out on the ice that night to save YOU. They all did, and you let them die in vain.” As she hung up the phone, Bill realized that the very life he was clinging to was the very life he had lost.

                It couldn’t have been any earlier than 10 p.m. Bill Hardy sat cold, hungry…and alone. He put down his phone and slowly closed the door to his shack. Guilt overcame Bill as he walked over to where the star had struck the ice. The hole where the star pierced the ice had frozen over, but was still very thin. The lights from the village had never seemed so far away. He knew he would never be the same, he would never be free. Bill shuddered as he jumped through the ice, and the freezing, dark waters consumed him.