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Beyond Control: Chapter 1

That morning another woman died. She was the tenth. Reardon remembered her as shy, no English at all, she had first come to the clinic with her sister-in-law and the interview had broken down into a strange four-cornered conversation: Reardon would ask a question, the translator would translate it, and then the girl would whisper her answers to the sister-in-law, who repeated them out loud to the translator. Could she have been sixteen? Frightened dark eyes. One hand on her belly where the pregnancy had begun to show as if to hide it in embarrassment. Some Pancho had had a good time--knocked her up. She was so frightened and shy. Reardon looked at the girl's dark, slender face and kind of wished he had done it.

"What do you think you'll name the baby?" Reardon said with a friendly grin when he had finished the interview; just trying to detain her so that he could look at her large shy eyes a little more. It was translated and the sister-in-law gave a cackle and nudged the girl and repeated it. The girl looked at Reardon for a second with something like interest. Reardon felt his stomach lift.

". . . Tomás . . ." she whispered.

"Tomás!" the sister-in-law cried out.

"Tomás." the interpreter said, officially.

"Oh. You mean Thomas, huh?" Reardon couldn't resist. The interpreter was a pompous spic and he was as insulted as Reardon had known he would be. Reardon laughed to himself.

"Tomás," the girl said, quietly, but firmly.

Reardon was suddenly embarrassed. Well, maybe that was the guy that knocked her up.

"Tomás, okay, sure," Reardon said, grinning, trying to make a joke out of it. But the girl didn't look at him again as she left and he felt that he had made himself look like a fool to her. That's because you are a fool, Reardon said to himself in a low voice, afterward.

A month later when he noticed that she was due for her checkup he went to the men's room and combed his hair. He was working out-of-title because the hospital, a welfare barrel in the South Bronx slums, was understaffed. But he had to admit this was fun. Reardon didn't figure that he could do anything with the girl, but he had learned that you never knew.

During the whole interview he tried to catch the girl's eyes or coax her into some personal discussion. He even tried a little Spanish that had the sister-in-law smiling-- but from the girl, nothing. When the interview was over Reardon made a face and gave up. Too young anyway.

It was at her checkup at the beginning of her sixth month that Reardon saw the girl had started to turn. The first thing he noticed when she came into the room behind the sister-in-law was that the girl was stooping. When she sat down her eyes seemed sunken. Her jaw looked more prominent. Reardon glanced down at her hands, folded on her lap.

The once slender wrists were now as broad as a lumber-jack's. Powerful bony wrists that ended in long, heavily knuckled hands.

Reardon sat back slowly. He felt as if he had had the air struck out of him: this was the way he had seen it start with the other women. Her jaw seemed longer because it actually was longer, it had begun to grow; her eyes looked sunken because the bone over her eyes was thickening: "acromegaly." It happened gradually; the sister-in-law, living with the girl from day to day, had noticed nothing. Reardon, feeling sick, saw that the girl's sneakers were unlaced: the bones of her feet were growing and she had outgrown her shoes.

Over the frightened objections of the sister-in-law he sent the girl upstairs to be examined. A week later he had found a bed for her and she became an in-patient. After this point he had nothing officially to do with her but once or twice a week he asked Max Byrd, the internist assigned, and learned that they were giving her radiation, gamma from a cobalt source, focused on her pituitary. At the same time they were trying a very low dosage of cytotoxic drugs, not high enough to affect the fetus.

But they couldn't arrest it. Shortly before she was due he had seen her in the dayroom, her eyes completely blank from the months of shock and terror she had endured. She was no longer beautiful; scarcely human. She looked like a clay doll that had been assaulted by a furious child, her body and the features of her face pushed out and distorted by the wild growth everywhere in her of those cells which still had the power to grow-- the facial and cranial bones, the feet, spinal cartilage, the small bones of her hands and wrist, the soft tissue organs. Little was left of her face: her jaw extended out in a prong and her lips had thickened until they sat above her jaw like the muzzle of a baboon. The superorbital ridges had enlarged and fused into a bar at the bottom of her forehead; her forehead, once olive, vertical, and smooth, now sliding forward into the ridge like the forehead of an ape.

He had seen this thing, sitting in the dayroom, and stopped. She had seen him stop and look; before he could walk on she pushed herself, with great effort, out of her chair and trudged toward him, trundling her great pregnant belly in front of her, a once slender woman who looked as if she were evolving back into a chimpanzee. She walked toward him, her back hunched, because the cartilage between her vertebrae had grown, warping her back. Her great hands dangled by her sides, twice normal size, as if she had put on absurdly large gloves; her fingers so thickened that they splayed out from her hand in a semi-circle. Reardon couldn't move.

She stood in front of him, her nose thickened and flattened, as if she were being punched, her mouth partly open so that she could get air past her thickened tongue; but from beneath the gorilla's forehead her terrified, still womanly eyes looked out. She looked at Reardon with her frightened eyes, the eyes of an uncomprehending animal in pain, and fixed Reardon's eyes as if she knew that when she had been a woman he had let himself become involved with her and somehow if she pleaded with him he would help. He stood, unable to speak, or look away. No one could help her. After a minute she took her eyes from his face and shambled past him off toward her bed.

Shortly after that she had shown the beginnings of dementia and Max decided to go in. Reardon did something he never did and asked to watch.

When Max's surgeon went in he found, as Max expected, that the dementia had been caused by a giant tumor in her pituitary that had grown up into her brain and blocked the ventricles. The tumor curled around a blood vessel, and when Max's surgeon tried to remove it the blood vessel hemorrhaged. She died on the table, while Reardon watched. They cut the baby out of her.

At least, Reardon thought, she never had to see what she gave birth to: more frog than baby, big and pink as a baby but no neck or shoulders, the head part of the body like a frog's, the spinal cord unformed and bare, covered only by coarse black hairs. Suck a throwback that it felt no pain, having no nervous system, but looked at him with sightless blue eyes that were unnervingly like a baby's.

So this was Tomás.

Tomás could have lived a week or two; his respiratory and circulatory systems functioned; but Max let Tomás go back to sleep.

She was the tenth to die. The others too had had the cancer; had undergone first the frightening reverse-evolution of acromegaly. They had given birth before they died to five dead monsters, two other living frog children, now dead, and two seal children, smiling babies whose torsos rounded off in smooth knobs at shoulder and thigh. Those were humans and they had to let them live, although motherless, and needing one more than most.