The Tick Bite
Robb T. White
After college, Edward Grasso put his
biology degree from The Ohio State University to work and trained in Atlanta with
the C.D.C. and eventually shifted position to become the W.H.O’s principal
representative in Burkina Faso. In his career, he’d seen them all, experienced
many of the worst, from Dengue fever, schistosomiasis, protozoal diarrhea, and hepatitis
Ed was raking in his backyard when he
noticed the tick on his forearm. He didn’t panic, although Ohio was a hot spot
for Lyme disease. He’d seen insects the size of Brazilian Wandering Spiders all
over the African bush. Ed cursed at the annoyance, went into the kitchen to
burn the pest. When he trapped it between his fingernails, the body separated
from the head, which was firmly buried in his skin.
When he woke up days later with a fever
of 103 degrees, he had his wife Lorraine call an ambulance. By nightfall, he was
delirious. Ed spent 4 days in the ICU with one test after another showing
nothing on the MRI or PET scan. The blood results were normal. Lyme disease was
ruled out immediately. Meningitis was the more likely culprit because of fever
and headaches, but that also proved negative. The doctors didn’t understand it,
how one day he was on the verge of being strapped into a gurney and life-flighted
to Cleveland and the next, he’s asymptomatic, issued a clean bill of health and
released to his wife waiting in the lobby.
Ed felt like skipping out the doors but
allowed the nurse to ride him out in a wheelchair. He went back to his modest retirement,
puttering with fix-it projects and making bird houses to give to friends.
A month had passed since the tick bite. Ed’s
wife asked him if he started dyeing his hair.
“It looks darker,” she said.
Ed scoffed; it wasn’t worth pursuing. But
days later, she accused him of using her skin cream.
“Hon, are you cracking up? Am I going to
start finding your car keys in the fridge?”
Early-onset dementia ran in both
“Have you looked in the mirror lately?”
“Every time I shave,” he replied, which
came out to every four days or so, not shaving daily one of the perks of
He went into the bathroom, flipped the
light switch, and stared at his reflection.
God, he did look
younger. He pulled the skin of his face this way and that. The crow’s-feet
around the eyes were there, but it seemed undeniable he had dropped years without
even noticing it.
hell, OK, I can live with it.
“I made a pact with the devil,” he quipped.
“My portrait’s aging away in the attic.”
“Funny,” Lorraine said.
Lorraine’s snide comments bounced off
him. This time, however, he heard a note of concern.
Ed was watching CNN when he caught a news
crawl reporting four people had made miraculous comebacks from chronic diseases
including end-stage cancers. The common factor was that all four were from the
Midwest and had gone to the renowned Cleveland Clinic.
The Sunday Plain Dealer had more
details in “Doctors Puzzled by Cures.”
All were treated with red blood cells,
platelets, or plasma from a single AB-negative donor, according to the piece.
The bar code at the Red Cross lab that tested all donated blood established it
was “from a donor in the Midwest.” Ed’s heart raced. Much too coincidental. He
was AB-negative, a type possessed by only 1% of the population and had donated
blood at the high school three weeks ago.
The next day the phone rang.
The voice was accented, East European
and identified the speaker as the head of the oncology department of the
he be willing to come in for a blood draw? Sure, he
“Your blood, Mister Grasso, it shows interesting
platelet characteristics. We’d like to test further.”
“What kind of . . . characteristics?”
“Certain . . . unusual properties.”
All day he entertained himself with
secret thoughts of being a super-donor. Finally,
he told himself, after years of
witnessing horrible diseases ravage entire villages and decimating whole
families, now he could do something meaningful.
“My new, improved blood,” he told
Lorraine, “will save the world.”
“That’s wonderful. Stop at the store on
your way back. We’re out of butter.”
He drove to the clinic, gave his name at
the desk and the name of the doctor who’d called yesterday. That didn’t seem to
mean anything to the receptionist. He had to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and
was finally shown into a room where a lab assistant entered to draw the blood.
“Thank you, that’ll be all.”
No big “thanks for driving sixty miles
to come in.” He drove home feeling foolish and a little annoyed.
Ed went back to his quiet life—except
that the forces he had unknowingly unleashed were already moving, building up
like a rogue wave about to crash down on him.
* * *
A different person called him this time—in
fact, he spoke to three people during that one hectic call. He couldn’t
remember all their names, but they all seemed to hold impressive titles at
various hospitals or universities. The last doctor said she was director of the
neurology department at the University of Michigan. Her sing-song Indian accent
was pleasant but hard to follow. Her expertise took Ed out of his depth and he
didn’t understand why someone who studied “brain plasticity” wanted to talk to
him about his blood.
They wanted to do more tests.
Ed politely declined. He thanked them all
for their interest.
“What was that all about?” Lorraine
“Some pest—a telemarketer,” he said.
“God, those people,” Lorraine said;
“they should get a life.”
The man who knocked on his door the
following morning claimed to be a reporter for the North Coast Tribune, the town’s
paper. He wanted to interview Ed
about his “miracle blood.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s on the Cleveland news,” the man
He ran upstairs and booted up his
computer. He googled two local broadcasts and saw nothing about him. The third
news channel, however, had him as their lead story. It was a “teaser” item,
dubbed “miracle blood,” and Ed had to skip through the remainder of last
night’s taped program to find the segment before sign-off.
“A retiree who donated blood to the Red
Cross in Northtown has been linked to the cures of four stage-four cancer
patients . . .”
my God, no—
He no sooner came downstairs to tell
Lorraine than the first of the vans with logos on the sides and long whip
aerials on top pulled up to the curb out front. Ed’s stomach fell when he
noticed one van revealed the call letters of a national broadcasting channel.
Neighbors who walked dogs every day
suddenly lingered near the tree out front, encouraging their dogs to do their
business all the while casting glances at the house.
The phone rang. It didn’t stop until Ed
pulled the cord out of the wall jack.
“What the hell did you do now, Ed?”
Lorraine parted the sheers in front of
the picture window.
“I gave blood,” he said. I dodged a
million malaria mosquitoes but got
bitten by a tick in my backyard.
The knocking on the door by strangers didn’t
stop until Lorraine called the police. Some banged frenetically. The buzzer
finally gave out from relentless pressing.
Men in three-piece suits, children, old
people, young people, teenagers. Some might be neighbors, most he’d never seen
in his life. They didn’t all look poor or needy, though. A few looked like professionals—lawyers,
All day long arthritic elderly and children
on crutches came to the house. Some of the infirm hugged the rails and climbed
the stone steps one at a time, stopping to rest as if they were ascending the
north face of the Eiger.
“My God,” Lorraine said, “the place is
turning into Lourdes. “What do they want, Ed?”
“They want to drain me like vampires,”
The mailman placed all the letters and
packages inside the aluminum door when the mailbox attached to the house filled
Ed was mobbed whenever he left the house.
Going to the store proved too difficult because of the people waiting for them.
They had to call Lorraine’s sister to bring food. They drew blinds and closed
curtains. Even the upstairs windows had to be covered to prevent neighbors
across the street from looking in with binoculars.
Lorraine spied a news anchor
interviewing people in their yard. Despite their repeated calls to police,
people scattered when the cruiser pulled up to the house only to return after
“Ed, damn it, do something!”
The next morning, Ed saw a bullet hole
in the large picture window in the front room facing the street.
“I never heard the gunshot,” he said.
Lorraine shivered and hugged herself. Ed
was tempted to insert a stick through the bullet hole like a trajectory rod in
a crime show to see where the bullet had gone, but the look on Lorraine’s face
stopped him. A detective took the report. He didn’t promise anything. Ed told
him he didn’t expect anything.
“You probably should keep the lights off
at night,” he suggested.
At the door, the officer turned around
and said, “Have you thought of leaving town—you know, for a while until things
“I’m considering it,” Ed replied.
“Just a suggestion, Mister Grasso,” the
things die down . . .
Ed sensed an unpleasant ambiguity in the
* * *
Weeks passed. The water, like the
electricity the week before, was shut off.
His own body odor mingled with the
ferocious odors of the house until he became nose blind. He learned to sit
quietly in various corners of the downstairs, adjusting his time spent until
his watch battery died and he had to reckon time by the amount of daylight
penetrating the gloom.
It took him days of thinking about it
before he found the courage to plug the phone back in. He took a position on
the floor and concentrated his gaze on it, waiting for the ring he knew would
Hours passed. When the phone trilled,
his heart bumped in his chest.
Hand trembling, he lifted the receiver
from its cradle and held it to his ear.
“We’re tired of waiting. Come on out now.”
“No, I won’t.”
“You won’t be harmed. You know that.
You’re patient zero. You’re completely safe with us. Think of the fruit bats
streaming from their caves. They carry Ebola with no harm to themselves.”
“I’ll infect the world,” Ed croaked.
“We don’t need you,” the calm voice
replied. “We have others.”
The gentle lilt reminded him
“I’ll kill myself first!”
“That would be stupid. Think about it. You
would bloat with virus. They would penetrate through the spaces of your skin
cells to the surface. You would seethe with them. Those coming to collect your
rancid body would be the first infected to carry the virus into the world—”
Ed slammed the phone down and ripped the
cable from the wall.
what should I do?
That night as he lay whimpering in his
chosen corner downstairs close to the door with a blanket covering his head,
she told him.
“Yes, yes—oh, yes,” Ed sobbed, relieved
of his terrible burden of misery.
* * *
“Ever seen anything like it, Chief?”
“God almighty, it’s a new one for me,”
Chief Maki said.
They looked to where the naked man lay slumped
against the huge granite boulders of the breakwall. His body seemed almost
relaxed, insouciant, one foot crossed over the other, his arms stretched out.
Up close, they’d seen how the dead man had kept himself upright; his hands were
jammed into crevices between the massive boulders so that he would remain
suspended instead of crumpling to the sandy ground at the base of the breakwall.
The thick blue rope that hung from below his navel at a distance turned out to
be his major intestine. Forensics personnel continued to work all around the
corpse, busy as ants, collecting, measuring, photographing.
“Some kind of occult thing, maybe? A
“You really think?”
scoffed. “Grasso’s bare footprints, nobody else’s, no tire tracks. The knife’s
lying right there in his hand. That’s probably his blood smeared on it.”
Both cops knew they’d have to wait for
tests to confirm it as entirely Grasso’s blood, no one else’s mixed in from stabbing.
Killers often cut themselves. But there appeared to be no stabbing, only one neat
slice six inches below the navel. The toxicology report was weeks away. Still,
it didn’t look like anything but a bizarre suicide.
“Why come all the way down here in the
middle of the night if you want to commit hary-carey?” Det. Sgt. Barton
speculated, thinking aloud.
“It’s called hara-kiri, Frank.
the Samurai way,” Chief Maki said.
“I guess that’s why you’re Chief and I’m
a lowly sergeant.”
“You got it, Frank.”
“Why the whole pagan sacrifice thing?”
said. “He thinks it’s too ‘theatrical,’ like a pagan sacrifice, he says.”
“Frieland loves publicity,” Maki
replied. “Thinks he ought to have his own crime show. It’s not a whodunit, not
yet. It’s a whydunit.”
“One quick slice across with an upward
twist, Frieland says. No hesitation marks.”
“His sister-in-law just got back from
Florida yesterday. She calls us for a welfare check on him because he wasn’t
answering his phone. Then this . . . business.”
“Guy must have turned into a hoarder after
his wife died. The condition of the house made Zappitelli gag when he got
inside,” the detective said. “He had all this crap piled up against the doors like
he’s under siege.”
“People go crazy. I understand that, I
do. Dementia, whatever.”
“Grasso’s neighbors all said he’d been acting
looney for a long time. Got drunk, screamed at passing cars, then started taping
cardboard over his windows.”
“Cursing at . . . cars?”
“Not exactly,” Det. Barton said. “Something about his blood, they told Zapp.”
“Yeah,” Det. Barton replied, “his blood.
Maybe he thought they were vampires.”
“Look, you don’t go trotting nude out of
your house at night in the middle of March with a butcher knife, run three
blocks down to the beach in pitch-black, climb onto the rocks, and do what he
did if you don’t have a reason, even a lunatic’s reason.”
“Looks like he wanted to draw the
coyotes with that bacon grease slathered all over himself. The techs took
photos of his legs, teeth marks all over. His scrotum was ripped off—”
“Frank, do you mind? I haven’t had so
much as a coffee since the call came in.”
“Think of it, Chief. Those wild-ass dogs
snapping at him, pulling his guts out . . .”
“What did I just say?”
“We’ll never know, Detective.”
has published several crime, noir, and hardboiled novels and published crime,
horror, and mainstream stories in various magazines and anthologies. His crime
story, ‘Inside Man,’ was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2019.
A recent series features private eye Raimo Jarvi and includes Northtown Eclipse.
His novel When You Run with Wolves was cited as a finalist by Murder,
Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018. Find him at