Rebecca's Roses

The harder she scratched away at her forearm the quicker the flesh fell away. From outside the containment unit, Dr. Elena Miles and Dr. Mark Rustenburg watched in dismay as the patient watched her own skin fall to the floor.

"Put your mask on," Elena said as she took her own from the wall.

Mark placed his mask on his face and pushed the button on the side that seals it on and allows oxygen to enter filtered for him to breathe. He followed Elena into the separation chamber, a small sterile room separating the observation room from the containment room. The hatch closed behind them and they waited a moment for the buzzer on the inner door to beep and unlock the door.

Mark picked some gauze from a shelf inside the door and found the correct numbing and healing creams to use on the infected flesh.

Elena was already standing over with the patient, talking to her in a low whisper which she stopped when Mark reached them.

"Rebecca, we have new medical cream for your arms," Mark said holding out the cream for her to see.

Elena cleaned Rebecca's arms and took the ointments from Mark to rub into the infected areas. As she worked, a strand of her blonde hair fell from her ponytail to hang above Rebecca's knee. Tentatively, Rebecca reached out with her free arm and tucked the strand back behind Elena's ear. Elena glanced up at her and smiled.

She finished neatly bandaging Rebecca's arms and began inspecting her legs.

"It looks like some spots spread onto your legs, Bec. Do you think you can stop yourself from scratching it or should we bandage that too?"

Rebecca shook her head, "I don't think I can stop myself. It just gets more and more itchy."

Elena nodded gravely and started rubbing some ointment onto the new spots. When she finished bandaging Rebecca's legs, she hugged her quickly then followed Mark back into the separation chamber.

"You need to be careful about touching her too much," Mark cautioned as the buzzer for the outer door allowed them back into the observation room.

Elena clicked the button on her mask and took it off before answering.

"I can't help it, Mark. I have a responsibility to watch out for her and I let her get this stupid disease. What if I have to watch my little sister die? What then? I can hug her as much as I want."

"She has only had it for a couple days. Most people we have treated this early in the first stage have a much higher chance of surviving. Plus the technology we have now far exceeds what we had when we first started."

Elena went over to her desk by the window and rifled through the papers, probably looking for her sister's file. Mark sat at his own desk and opened his computer.

His research on the Hasila virus took up most of the space on his computer. He and Elena became two of the world's most renowned doctors studying the virus since they started six years ago, right after it had originally spread out of Africa to Europe and North America. The disease crippled its victims. It spread through the air into their systems and started attacking their skin. It made walking difficult and painful, and usually only affected the victims' arms and legs. Patients in earlier stages of the disease had an easier time recuperating, but the percentage of people that survive having it was still devastatingly low. Medicine had started to catch up with the disease in the last couple months, but the disease had ways of changing itself that made it very hard to find the right antidote. Many patients did not make it through the first month of having the virus.

Mark quickly typed in to his patient files a summary of how Rebecca was doing.

"We have to continue working on the antidote by ourselves," Elena said, interrupting Mark's train of thought, "We can't wait for the world to find it."

"I agree. Rebecca needs her booster shot soon, hopefully that gives us enough time to work before she gets worse."

"You assume that she will get worse?"

"Elena," Mark said seriously, "We have to work on the assumption that we are running out of time. You know this. She might only have a month."

"Then we can't wait for anyone else. We have to get to work now," she said matter of factly.

And they did. Over the next week, Elena and Mark watched Rebecca grow considerably weaker and her skin continue to disappear as they worked on her antidote. In the back of his mind, Mark knew that a month was not enough time.

They tried everything they could think of, from an assortment of different high grade laboratory medicines to tribal fixes used by what was left of the natives in southern New Mexico.

As a temporary solution they used booster shots that sent the immune system into hyper action. While this could temporarily resist the Hasila virus, it also made Rebecca more susceptible to common illnesses like the cold or flu, also making them far more dangerous than they would be to an unaffected person.

So, when Elena and Mark both came down with the common cold, Rebecca had to be alone for three days. She had to be left in a state of limbo, between consciousness and comatose, to prevent her from making her condition worse.

Elena also came up with a quick solution to close up the wounds on Rebecca's arms and legs by introducing new skin cells, developed in a high grade experimental facility in California by plastic surgeons looking for a new youth serum. When added to the damaged flesh, the new skin cells would grow to become a new piece of the same skin. For a while, this made Rebecca look like nothing was wrong with her. And, to Mark, it seemed as though Elena had started to believe that.

Her work on finding a better antidote had eased up considerably. She had begun to spend less time in the lab or observation room near her sister, and when she did see Rebecca they never talked about the virus.

Mark had his doubts that the skin had really been repaired. He continued to reach out to multiple colleagues all over the world working tirelessly on the same antidote. He spent as much time as he could both working on his own antidote and speaking to Rebecca, about her condition and other less critical subjects to keep her mind off of it occasionally.

After another couple days waiting for responses from colleagues and watching the skin once again start to fall away from Rebecca's arms and legs, a colleague in London by the name of Dr. Hans Hoffnung finally reached out to Mark and sent a skin ointment that he had concocted using someone with the same virus saying that this had helped to "reverse the effects of the virus and promote the immune system in a way that targets and destroys the Hasila virus". According to Dr. Hoffnung, the cream seeps into the skin to heal the skin and help boost the immune system in a way that stabilizes the virus enough to kill it before it morphs. He had yet to see any serious negative signs from use of his antidote.

Elena walked into the observation room as Mark sat unpacking the box Dr. Hoffnung had sent. She watched him as he carefully set the letter describing the antidote at the far end of his desk and began to cautiously take the medicine out, vial by vial, setting them gently onto the desk creating row by row of daily doses. She walked over and picked up the note, typical doctor's handwriting scrawled across the page.

She walked over to her own desk and read the note. In it, Dr. Hoffnung promised that he had seen significant changes in the victims' arms and legs. Both had cleared up, and the patients' had stopped complaining about itchiness. He did, however, warn that the subjects had not been using the cream long enough for him to prove that it would cure them. On the back of the note were the instructions for recreating it, to be done before they ran out.

When Mark finished unpacking the box, he carefully placed it on the floor next to his desk. He took his mask off the wall and placed it securely on his face, then picked up a vial and walked into the separation chamber.

Elena watched from her desk as he entered the room, he glanced her way and she knew he wanted her to follow him in. She grabbed her mask off the wall and made her way into Rebecca's room. When she got in, Mark already stood next to Rebecca explaining the cream he held in his hand. She walked over to join them as he took off the lid and handed it to Rebecca.

Rebecca held the cool vial in one hand and gently poured some cream into the other. She rubbed her arm with the cool cream, feeling the soothing sensation overcome the immense itchiness. She felt her muscles relax, letting go of the tension she didn't know she had had. She watched as the skin on her arm, almost by magic, closed up and healed itself. Her arm looked as it had before the virus; she could even see some blonde arm hair growing out.

She glanced at Mark and smiled, watching as his face turned red. His eyes dropped to the floor and he fiddled his fingers for a moment before stuffing them into his lab coat pockets. He knew this might not be the end and he didn't want to be the reason she had false hope.

She looked at her sister and watched as disbelief entered her pretty blue eyes. Elena smiled when she caught Rebecca's eye, "Keep going!" she said.

Rebecca continued along her arms and legs, watching in amazement as each and every mark disappeared. The itchiness she had felt throughout her body for the last couple weeks fell away like her skin had done. She felt it disappear as she spread the cream over the scarred sections of her body.

Elated, she jumped up to hug Mark. She felt the muscles in his shoulders and back tense to take on her weight. Her arms felt stronger than they had for the last two years as she wrapped them around his neck, feeling them brush his unkempt brown hair. Her ear could feel his glasses being pressed against his cheek. After a moment's hesitation, she felt his arms tighten around her waist, his muscles tightening and lifting her up. She felt her feet rise off the floor as he brought her to his height. He placed her gently back on the floor and let go.

"We need to keep an eye on how this goes. Dr. Hoffnung doesn't know yet if there are any serious side effects," he said. His green eyes showed the inescapable truth that this may not be the end.

The medicine continued to work throughout the coming days, and everything seemed to be fine. There was no promise that Rebecca would be good enough to leave the containment unit anytime soon though. People in containment had to be proven one-hundred percent virus free through a series of extensive tests. If they were not proven healthy before their release, allowing them to reenter society could be risking that the virus would spread through the air to other uninfected persons. As the week following the new medicine dragged on, Mark watched as she seemed to grow healthier and healthier.

He wanted to believe that Rebecca would be fine soon, but he had a nagging feeling in the back of his mind that told him something would change.

He watched as Elena spent time with her sister, watched her start to believe more and more that Rebecca could soon come back into the world.

Rebecca's birthday came around and Elena decided the three of them would do something nice to celebrate her turning twenty.

Her skin was staying clear, thanks to the medicine and the doctors had yet to see any of the side effects they had worried about. She had also not complained about any itchiness since she had first started using the cream. Both Rebecca and Elena were convinced that soon she could be released from containment and be allowed to enjoy her birthdays out in the world.

Elena made a nice lunch of chicken tamales and lemonade, Rebecca's favourites; which had to be enjoyed by Rebecca alone because it was still not safe for Elena and Mark to take off their masks in her chamber. Rebecca smiled sweetly at her sister when she set the plate in front of her on the table and filled a glass with lemonade, but it soon disappeared when Elena left the room to leave her to eat in peace.

Mark watched from the observation room as Rebecca slowly ate her food. She picked at it with a fork, turning it over on the plate. She picked up the glass of lemonade and took a sip, at the same time looking over at Mark in the observation room. She smiled, halfheartedly at best. She stood up and walked to the window.

Mark moved closer to the window where she stood.

She gave him a weak wave and an even weaker smile. He smiled back as she placed her palm on the glass.

He looked into her eyes. He could see the desperation and loneliness in them; they seemed to scream let me out. But, there was nothing he could do.

He knew that being in solitary confinement for the last couple weeks was hard on her. She was a young, innocent girl being treated like a prisoner.

He remembered the first day he met her, she was only fourteen years old at the time, nearly six years younger than him. She was just a child in his eyes, and that was exactly as he treated her- as Elena's baby sister. For a long time after he and Elena had started working together, on days that Rebecca would come along to work, Mark would completely ignore her, treating her as if she was a nuisance.

At the time, Elena was his superior in the laboratory. Both in age, by three years, and clearance level at the lab. He had just graduated from school and gotten a job working at the lab with Elena.

A lot of the time that Mark spent in the lab would be observing the patients, and Rebecca would be there with him watching. After a certain amount of time, Rebecca's persistence in conversing finally got through to him and they had formed a friendship over the conversations they had while he was working.

Then four weeks ago, an infected person had entered the facility while Rebecca was there, Elena and Mark had thought she was sitting safely in an observation room waiting for Mark, she hadn't known about the new patient and didn't have a mask when they were transporting him and had walked into that area unprotected.

It hadn't seemed, at first, that she had the virus but protocols were in place for instances like that and Rebecca had to be treated like any other infected person and placed in her own containment room. It hadn't taken long after that for symptoms to start showing up. Often the first signs of the virus were complaints about itchiness in the arms and legs. Once the patient started scratching there was little that could stop them because the itchiness would just grow. Quickly thereafter their skin would begin to peel away from their arms and legs. Then the skin left on their body would begin to rot, which would lead to them exhibiting symptoms similar to the flu. Usually within three or four weeks of contracting the virus the patient would be dead.

And, now, here she was. Standing there staring at Mark through the glass on her first birthday spent in a room by herself. He remembered their friendship well; after all it hadn't been that long ago. He knew that when she started to show signs he had started acting like the doctor he was: observing but not interacting. It had only taken one month for their friendship to fall away, and now he watched her in her time of need through a window.

He went to move closer to the window, but Elena rushed in with a present for Rebecca and ushered him toward the door. They grabbed their face masks and secured them onto their faces before the buzzer went off.

Elena had a giant smile on her face as she rushed over to Rebecca, who had obviously rushed over to finish her food and was in the middle of a mouthful.

"Leave that for later," Elena said, pushing the plate to the far end of the table and setting the present in front of Rebecca, "Open it!"

Rebecca started tentatively to open the box.

"Oh come on!" Elena said excitedly.

Rebecca laughed and tore into it, revealing just a standard cardboard box. Elena took out a knife and cut open the tape across the top.

Rebecca stood up to open the box and peer in; a bright smile spread across her face. A real, genuine smile, one Mark had not seen in weeks. She reached into the box and pulled out a book, and then another, and then another, and then two more.

"I know you've gone through everything you have in here so far, so I went out and found some old books. I was told they are classics," Elena said.

Rebecca picked one up, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?"

"Oh! I know a lot of people love that book. It was written about a century ago in the 1990s. The other books are older than that one."

Rebecca glanced through the titles, set them aside on the table and leaned over to hug her sister, "Thank you Elena!"

Mark left the room quickly while they talked and returned with a vase full of beautiful yellow roses, Rebecca's favourites. Because she had been in the containment chamber for the beginning of the rose season, she had yet to see any this year.

Her face lit up when he set them on the table, "Mark! Thank you!"

She leaned down and let their scent waft into her nose, "They smell, and look, amazing!"

Mark cheeks turned a bright shade of red that contrasted his pale skin, "You're welcome Rebecca."

"I'll be right back; I need to go get your cake," Elena answered and rushed out of the room.

Rebecca stood up a little unsteadily to pack up the box she had left messily on the table next to the flowers and set it aside.

"Whoa," Mark said, quickly standing to steady her, "Are you okay?"

She could see in his eyes that he was concerned, "Oh yeh, I'm fine. Just a little unbalanced is all."

He let go of her arm hesitantly and sat down again.

Rebecca moved the box to the other side of the table where her, now cold, tamales sat. All of a sudden her head felt very strange, like a headache but mixed with dizziness. She sat down and tried to steady herself. Her mind started to spin, whirling around as if she sat in the middle of a tornado. She felt her hands at her temples, holding on for dear life.

"My head," she said so weakly it was a whisper.

Distantly she could hear Mark by her side, saying her name. And then it was gone; all she could see was darkness.

"Rebecca!" Mark called desperately. Rebecca lay on the floor in front of him, completely unconscious. He didn't want to leave her side but he had to call for Elena's assistance; he got up quickly and ran to the phone by the door.

Over the intercom, Elena could hear Mark calling her to Rebecca's room. Emergency he had said. She ran, forgetting the cake that she had left for. She stood outside the chamber door within the minute, and waited impatiently for the buzzers to go off and let her through.

Mark gently laid Rebecca on her bed as the buzzer sounded and Elena ran to his side.

"What's wrong with her?"

"I don't know, we need to start running diagnostics."

Elena nodded and pulled the equipment over to the bed. She started hooking Rebecca up to the machines for blood pressure and heart rate. She took a blood sample to the lab next door for processing.

"I had Jerome start the blood work, he says we need to bring her over as soon as she's stable and, if possible, has woken up" Elena told Mark, glancing at her sister sadly.

"I have been checking her vitals; blood pressure is really low at 89/52 and heart rate is 37 beats per minute."

Elena frowned, "So, what changed?"

"I don't know."

Rebecca woke up about half an hour later and just lay in bed staring at the ceiling as they wheeled her over to the lab for tests. They would have to wait until the next day for the results of the standard tests. Plus more extensive tests were also run, and those would take longer even with the high grade technology in the lab. At the end of the day, they wheeled Rebecca back to her room and allowed her to take off her mask.

They studied her closely over the next couple days as they waited for the results of the tests to tell them what had happened. When they did come back, they revealed that the virus had begun attacking Rebecca's internal organs and blood had gone from her brain to the organs in an attempt to save them, and that caused her to pass out. The medicine she had been using had disguised her as healthy and successfully turned the virus away from her skin, but that lead it to start harming her internal organs.

Elena and Mark started working furiously on a solution to the new problems they were faced with. They took Rebecca off of the medicine and watched as the itchiness in her arms and legs returned and the skin began to fall again. Elena stayed for long hours in the lab to find the solution while Mark would go to check on Rebecca more often.

He stood in the observation room and watched Rebecca, sitting in a chair next to her bed. She was slumped against the chair with her head tilted to the ceiling. She absentmindedly scratched her forearm; her flesh fell away from her arm and seemed to float down to the floor. She shifted her head to look at it fall. Mark could see her visibly sigh. She glanced up and saw him watching; she smiled weakly and then slumped back against her chair.

That was yesterday. Since then, Rebecca's condition had severely deteriorated. They all knew there wasn't much time left, if any, to save her. They continued to work on a cure but, with each passing hour, they seemed to grow farther from finding it.

The flowers Mark had originally brought for Rebecca's birthday had faded away by then, so he decided to bring in some more fresh ones to hopefully make her feel better.

When he walked in Rebecca was lying on her bed, she looked at the flowers when he sat them next to her bed and mouthed a thank you. She felt too weak to even try to smile at him. She could feel how slowly her heart was beating, trying to get blood to the rest of her body while under attack by it at the same time.

She knew how weak she was, she knew it couldn't be long before the end. She also knew they would never find a cure in time. She felt like dying right there with Mark standing next to her and the beautiful flowers looking over her. She weakly reached out her hand to Mark.

He took it.

"We can still find a cure, Rebecca, just hold on."

"There's no need, Mark. Just know that I love you. And Elena. Neither of you are to blame for this."

"Bec…"

She shook her head, "Just let me go."

"Bec, I love you too," Mark could feel a tear pushing its way out of his eye, down his cheek.

She smiled and closed her eyes. Mark thought he should let her sleep, but the heart rate on the machine dropped, her hand let go of his.

"Rebecca?" he asked, already knowing there would be no answer.

All of a sudden, he didn't know what to do. He had watched so many people die, but she was the first one he knew beyond the papers.

Elena waited for the buzzer to go off, then entered Rebecca's room. She saw Mark sitting rigidly by the side of her bed, and Rebecca was ash gray lying completely still next to him.

She rushed over to the side of the bed, completely ignoring the silent heart monitor, "Rebecca!"

Tears started rushing down her face as she realized the finality of her sister's condition.

Elena and Mark stood before Rebecca's grave. Two yellow roses were laid delicately next to her name.