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THE CLIMATE PARABLES  | FICTION

A Hidden Savior Finds The Lyme Light

It’s 2070, and Super Lyme Disease is spreading across North America. When a mother loses her child to the disease, she goes on a crusade to fight it—with help from a cold-blooded hero.

By Zoe Young

 

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What happens to a narcissist when their child dies?

They grieve more beautifully and piteously than anyone in the history of mourning parents. Crystal tears fall down their unwrinkled face, and they are perpetually surrounded by other people. They only eat when they are forced to. They pee with the door open to make sure they can hear footsteps somewhere in the house. They sleep often and wake in a panic, frantically searching the room to make sure they are not alone. They need to know that they are—at all times—being observed.

But five weeks of company eventually ends. On a Sunday afternoon, Celeste Adams finds herself alone, and she is more alone than she has ever been. The tree that is her beauty has fallen silently in a forest. With no one to look at her, she is left only with shame and horror and the understanding that she will never see her daughter again. Kelly was five years old.

It’s 2070, and Super Lyme Disease is spreading across North America from Canada and New England to the Southeast, leaping from white-footed mouse to red-breasted robin to blacklegged ticks—then to dogs and cats, and at last, to people. A wet spring gave way to a tick population explosion. Five-hundred million people now live in the United States in sprawling developments that lap up against foothills and wildlands. The buffer that could have insulated America’s humans from its ticks is no more. For every five people infected, four end up in the hospital and one in the morgue.

By the first day of summer, the disease was flying through the Mountain West; by July it overtook the West Coast. Epidemiologists longed for the days of a patient zero, instead of billions of infected ticks in every state. The whole continent retreated indoors and killed its cats and dogs.

The only vestige of network television remaining in a cloistered America is the Hallmark channel, and Celeste Adams is its star.

Now, in the bed she hasn’t left in two days, Celeste’s thoughts move only backwards. She tries to pinpoint the moment when the wheels of Kelly’s death began to turn. Was it when she gave Kelly to the production assistant to watch? When Kelly stepped off the plane with her little rolling suitcase covered in pink dragons? When Celeste booked the shoot in Maine?

No, it started with one conversation—a call she placed to her agent on August 28th.

“Max, I need to get out of here,” she said.

“Everyone needs to get out of here.”

“You don’t understand. Los Angeles has been locked down like a prison.”

“What do you think I am, some voice from the clouds? I live in West Hollywood” he said. “You’ve been to my goddamn house.”

“I’m just losing my mind. I send my kid to school in a hazmat suit. Just give me a job, anywhere, I don’t care.”

“There’s a holiday special filming in Bar Harbor. But that’ll be late November, still tick season.”

“Fine.”

“Tick-borne illness is not something the Hallmark channel will be able to insure you against. If you take that job, you do it at your own risk.”

“I don’t care!” Celeste shouted. “Just get me out of here.”

It’s 2070, and Super Lyme Disease is spreading across North America, leaping from mice to robins to ticks—then to dogs and cats, and at last, to people. For every five people infected, four end up in the hospital and one in the morgue.

Three months have passed since Kelly died, and Celeste is running out of money. It shocks her how quickly a person who hardly eats and doesn’t leave her house can burn through cash. She is going to have to start making a living again, and she can—easily—if she can bring herself to work. America is still indoors and Hallmark movies are more popular than ever. Any given week, millions of people—though about four million fewer than before the outbreak—watch Celeste kiss princes and firemen and one female postal worker.

The pay from those films doesn’t last long. Only gray-haired actors remember what it was like to receive residuals, but no one allows themselves to go gray.

So, when the call comes for Celeste to kiss a cowboy, she takes it. She signs a contract, sprays her clothes with her last bottle of Permethrin, and boards a plane to Montana.

The moment she steps onto the set, she regrets taking the job. Everything is outside. There is no fence or perimeter of any kind to stop a mouse from scampering between her legs. The only concession that seems to have been made to the ever-present threat is the spray bottle of oregano-spearmint oil someone left in her trailer. The shoot is obviously too cheap to buy the hard stuff.

Celeste’s trailer is bare, aside from a bed, a couch, and her contractually obligated fruit plate (a few bruised apples and cantaloupe chunks). Her costume is hanging on the door: a cowboy hat, a pair of tight jeans, and a halter top that smells of fabric softener and not Permethrin.

She puts on the hat. It hides how far her roots have grown out, but when she takes it off she sees that more than a few of her hairs are stuck inside it. Her hair has been thinning ever since Kelly died.

The first scene is terrible. They put her up on a dolly with a saddle and a pair of reins that will later be CGI’d to become a horse—most domesticated horses have been put down by now. A fan blows her hair back as the director tells her to look free and at peace. She fails. The director doesn’t seem to care.

The only thing working is the lighting. More gaffers than she has ever seen on one shoot have pointed lights not only at her but at the trees, the ground, and various flat rocks. The set glitters like the inside of a diamond—a dazzling vision of what the West has ceased to be.

The whistle blows and they wrap for the day. No one bothers to say anything like “nice work,” and even now, after everything, the absence of a compliment unnerves her. Celeste goes fishing. She introduces herself to one of the gaffers whose work actually was nice.

“I know who you are,” he says. “I’m Tim. This is Liz.” He reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out a lizard. It’s brown and unremarkable to Celeste. From nose to tail, it’s about as long as the gaffer’s hand.

Celeste doesn’t know what to do. Can ticks bite lizards? Does he expect her to shake the lizard’s claw? She puts out her finger. “Hello, Liz.”

The lizard stares at her with a look of suspicion. Tim the gaffer laughs and laughs. “I’m just joshin’ ya. I don’t know this lizard’s name, she just hopped onto my shoe. We keep as many around as possible, and if they wanna ride along”—he points to his pocket—“we say ‘step right up.’”

Tim points to one of the flat rocks on which he and the gaffers have trained a light. Sure enough, a dozen lizards have gathered to warm themselves, some doing pushups, others flicking their tails.

“Isn’t that dangerous?” she asks. “What if the lizards catch a tick?”

“Au contraire,” Tim says with an accent even more American than her received Californian. “You’re looking at the western fence lizard.” He pets the hard scales on the Lizard’s head. “If a tick with Lyme bites one of these beauties, by the time it falls off, that tick is cured. Something in their blood.”

Celeste gawks. “Impossible.”

Tim shakes his head. “You’ve just stepped onto the safest set from here to New York City.”

The Lizard Cure for Lyme and Loneliness

A protein in the lizard’s blood kills the Lyme-causing bacterium. Ticks that feed on these lizards can still go on to bite people, but they don’t infect them.

Celeste all but sprints back to her trailer and pulls out her screen. It’s true. A compound in the lizard’s blood not only protects it from Lyme disease, it cures the infected ticks that bite it. She finds a recent press release. The CDC is testing a synthetic version of the compound as a treatment for Super Lyme.

She reads for hours. Apparently the lizard’s range is shifting north with climate change and urban sprawl—up from Mexico, Arizona, and California throughout Oregon and Washington. By 2050, the lizard had migrated north to Canada and eastward across the Rockies to—sure enough—Montana. She pulls up a map of their range and a map charting the death toll from the pandemic, and with a wave of her hand, overlays the two.

The correlation makes her catch her breath. In the first year, Super Lyme killed 100,000 in Pennsylvania, just 270 in Washington. Almost 200,000 dead in Massachusetts, only 378 in Colorado.

She puts down her screen and goes outside. The set is still glowing like a disco ball in the desert. There is even light under her trailer. She sits on the step. A flash of movement draws her attention down. A little lizard has hopped onto her boot. She lifts her foot to get a better look, and the lizard hangs on, unphased. Its scales are a herringbone of brown and white; its belly, sky blue.

“Hello, Liz,” she says, bowing to meet its gaze. She smiles, her first genuine smile since Kelly died.

Explore the science behind the fiction

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

A compound in the Western Fence Lizard’s blood not only protects it from Lyme disease, it cures the infected ticks that bite it. The Journal of Parasitology 84(1), 1998. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart

prescribed fire and lyme disease

A new way to fight Lyme Disease: Prescribed fire. Setting fires in eastern U.S. forests could combat rising tick-borne diseases, while also making forests more healthy, say scientists.

Grey headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus)

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Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

The importance of ecology in controlling ticks. As ticks and the diseases they carry become more abundant, spring’s arrival has a certain foreboding. There’s no easy solution—but the lessons of ecology might help.

It’s surprisingly easy to start a foundation when an entire country knows your face.

Celeste uses half of her money from the cowboy movie to start a program based on the research of a herpetologist named Angela Martinez. Dr. Martinez won an award from the National Academy of Medicine for something called landscape immunity—conserving wildlands to push disease-carrying animals farther from humans and creating new habitat around cities to pull protective species close.

The rest of the money buys an old-fashioned infomercial. On the day of the shoot, Celeste and Dr. Martinez sit together in sundresses on a tan couch, hands primly crossed in their laps. They are surrounded by lizards. The bright lights of the soundstage go up. The cameras roll.

“I’m Celeste Adams,” she says with a quick flip of her now perfectly blond hair. “I’m here today with Dr. Angela Martinez, a doctor of reptile science who heads up the Super Lyme task force at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thank you for joining us.”

“Happy to be here,” Dr. Martinez says. She couldn’t have been more stilted in the green room, but now, her smile, her demeanor, her hair are all perfect.

“I see you’ve brought some friends with you?” Celeste says.

Dr. Martinez scoops up a lizard that has crawled onto her knee and holds it up for a tight shot. “This is a western fence lizard, one of the most common—and friendly—reptiles in the western United States. Believe it or not, these little guys are a crucial part of our strategy to control Super Lyme disease.”

Celeste gently takes the lizard from Angela and tips it up to reveal its blue belly. “Look at that color! Tell us what makes them so special.”

Dr. Martinez explains her research into the protein in the lizard’s blood that kills the Lyme-causing bacterium. “And they’re ticks’ favorite target,” she adds. “Ticks that feed on these lizards can still go on to bite people, but they don’t infect them.”

Three more lizards have now crawled into Dr. Martinez’s lap. She casually pets their heads. “A century of research on Lyme still can’t beat evolution.”

“Then are we getting closer to a . . . treatment for Super Lyme?” Celeste asks the question despite knowing the answer, as does the whole country. She was told to say treatment and not cure for legal reasons.

Dr. Martinez shakes her head. “We’re not sure. It could be months; it could be years. Our lab is working around the clock to create a synthetic version of the protein. But it’s a tricky thing to replicate.”

Celeste can feel disappointment reverberate through the studio.

“In the meantime,” Dr. Martinez continues, “these lizards can help us—if we help them. Celeste, why don’t you tell us about Kelly’s Foundation?”

Celeste takes a studied, heartbreaking pause to collect herself. She turns to the camera, a perfect tear glistening on her cheek. “I lost my daughter Kelly to Super Lyme. She was only five. I never even saw the tick that bit her.”

Dr. Martinez takes Celeste’s hand.

“After Kelly died, I felt powerless, totally lost…” Celeste looks down at a lizard that has hopped onto her knee. “Until I found this amazing creature.”

She turns back to the camera, fully composed. “At Kelly’s Foundation, we work to create more habitat for these lizards, bringing them to us so they can protect as many people as possible. Your donation today will help us expand our captive breeding program and create ideal habitat, so the lizards stick around once we release them into the wild.” She turns to Dr. Martinez, who now has two more lizards on her shoulder.

“We can even release them into your back yard.” Dr. Martinez says. “Western fence lizards aren’t picky. They’re happy anywhere with shrubs for cover and some good rocks for sunbathing.”

Celeste jumps in. “For just $5,000, Kelly’s Foundation will convert up to one hectare of your yard to chaparral habitat, the western fence lizard’s favorite. Just $100 buys a coastal sage scrub planted in a park or golf course by one of our volunteers. And $300 is enough for a week’s worth of crickets to feed these little guys and gals.”

Celeste stares into the camera, and a sincerity she didn’t know she could summon suffuses her voice. “So many of us have lost someone we love to Super Lyme. We owe it to their memory to make a difference. Ask yourself, what are you waiting for?”

The director calls it a wrap. The editor will cut in prerecorded testimonials at this point when the infomercial airs. Celeste paid extra to have the ad filmed both digitally and in hologram, so the crew is enormous. When the lights go on in the soundstage, she is shocked to see how many of them have tears in their eyes.

Dr. Martinez gingerly picks the lizards off of her dress and puts them in a warming enclosure. An aide appears beside her.

“Your aircraft is on the roof,” he says, as he hands her a hazmat suit liner. She matter-of-factly strips out of her sundress and puts it on.

Celeste extends her hand. “Dr. Martinez, thank you.”

“I just hope this Hollywood bullshit works,” the doctor says.

The infomercial airs the following week. Kelly’s foundation raises $93 million dollars in the first eight minutes. Within hours, major news outlets pick it up. Before the sun rises the following day, Celeste has meetings scheduled with two of Silicon Valley’s richest CEOs.

The Lizard Cure for Lyme and Loneliness

Celeste needs to see a guy about a well. For the first time in her life, the problem is not money—it’s water. Kelly’s Foundation is only two months old and it is worth $50 billion. An army of volunteers has already planted a million hectares of fence lizard habitat. Sagebrush, ceanothus, and toyon are some of the least thirsty plants money can buy, but Celeste’s crews are already running out of water.

The water cartels have locked up the rights to every drop in the rivers and aquifers of the West, and the desalination plants along the coast are fully contracted to the cities. So Celeste finds herself sitting next to her lawyer in the back of a four-wheeler on a dirt road in the San Joaquin Valley, sweating through her suit. It’s over 100 °F.

They zip past miles-long solar farms and the dusty ruins of abandoned dairies rising out of an endless field of scrubland. This was once California’s greatest agricultural hub. But by the 2030s, farming had sucked up so much groundwater that the valley floor sank, and winds lofted the soil into a new dustbowl that doomed the last crops. A series of floods in the fifties helped the valley gradually return to the desert scrub it once was, just in time for solar to move in.

The four-wheeler skids around a hill, and the dirt road ends at the gates of a corporate campus. More than a dozen thin skyscrapers shoot up from the valley floor. They’re taller than most Manhattan buildings and filled with vegetable crops, visible behind glass walls. Celeste can see drones harvesting lettuce and peppers inside.

At the gate, a scanner reads the driver’s face and lets the four-wheeler in. They pull up to the base of the tallest skyscraper where the word AgriCorp is laser cut into sliding glass doors. This is the bloated grandchild born of multiple mergers between companies like Monsanto, Bayer, and ADM. AgriCorp now controls an alarming amount of global food production.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” the driver says. Celeste and her attorney get out and mop sweat off their necks. “Just call if you finish early. It tends to happen.”

“Where do we….” Celeste tries to ask. But the driver is already backing away. Celeste turns to her lawyer. “Jesus, Josh.”

He just shakes his head. He’s a hedge-fund hawk who lost half his family to Super Lyme. Now he works pro bono for Kelly’s Foundation.

At the doors, Celeste feels the light warmth of a scanner on her cheek. “Celeste Adams,” a voice says. “Welcome.” The doors slide open, releasing a wave of heat and moisture, and the two of them step from a desert into a rainforest.

No space has been wasted. Bean stalks line trellises along the path to the elevator. She smells the sharp bite of fertilizer and looks up into a long row of cabbages above her. For a second, Celeste gets a kind of vertigo. It’s as though she’s not looking up, but out across a vast field. She imagines all these vegetables replaced with the native shrubs that Kelly’s Foundation grows for habitat.

Then they are in the elevator, which is a cool 65 °F and smells of lemon zest. They rocket up past crop after crop—too fast to identify them. It’s like flying through a corn maze. The doors ding open on a glass room on the eightieth floor.

A man in a suit greets them. “Mr. Tate will see you now,” he says, and leads them to an observation deck where Andrew Tate, AgriCorp’s regional water manager, stands waiting.

“I knew it was just a matter of time before Celeste Adams came walking through my door. Big fan, sweetheart.”

Celeste puts out her hand, wishing there was a knife in it.

Andrew Tate launches into a lecture about water scarcity, and Celeste and Josh quickly learn that the wells they were hoping to contract dried up years ago. The water that now flows to these Agri-Towers is waste water “. . . from the drains and toilets of your fair city,” he says. “Treated, of course. Totally sanitary. But now the FDA is on my ass to filter out the microplastics—and that’s a cost not even your dedicated viewers can match.”

Celeste can see the tops of the adjacent towers through rows of various crops. “How much?”

“$200 billion a year.”

“We might be able to cover it, if donations hold.” Josh says.

Might is not will, and my buyers will.”

Celeste looks out at a row of vegetables through the glass wall behind Mr. Tate. It’s rainbow chard. She used to juice it for various cleanses. Though the big, shiny leaves look nothing like it, she thinks of western sagebrush—what does it taste like, she wonders. Then she has an idea.

“Mr. Tate, what if you could grow a cash crop without straining your water for plastic?”

“I just told you—it’s illegal to grow food that way.”

“I’m not growing food. I’m growing habitat. Nobody’s trying to eat my sagebrush, not even my lizards.” Andrew Tate raises an eyebrow.

“It uses a fraction of the water of anything you’re growing here,” Celeste continues, “and that’s water you don’t have to filter.”

Josh has been tapping on his screen. “This is just a rough estimate, but here’s how much you could increase profits, from this building alone.” He turns the screen around to reveal the number.

A big smile spreads across Andrew Tate’s face.

More than a dozen skyscrapers shoot up from the valley floor. They’re taller than most Manhattan buildings and filled with vegetable crops, visible behind glass walls.

The Lizard Cure for Lyme and Loneliness

It’s 2080, and Los Angeles is now home to as many fence lizards as people. Rates of Super Lyme have plummeted across the country, thanks in part to Dr. Martinez’s treatment, in part to Kelly’s Foundation, and in part to the fires. Chaparral evolved to burn. After Celeste succeeded in relandscaping the West, new waves of wildfires broke out. Ticks, like most creatures, don’t like fire.

Now, Celeste sits in her backyard under an umbrella. It is a perfect sunny day in her perfect chaparral garden. She has a rainbow of shrubs and sages, even milkweed for the butterflies.

She sees a monarch land on a low branch, and she notices that she is grateful to be alone—grateful that no one is there to look at her. There is no longer a pane of glass between her and the outside world, and she can look at the butterfly without her own reflection getting in the way. It’s peaceful.

She hears a rustling, and out of the sagebrush creeps a western fence lizard. It takes slow, measured steps out onto the gravel. The butterfly doesn’t seem to notice. The lizard lifts its tail, flashing its blue belly. Closer, closer, and then with a woosh from above, the lizard is caught in the jaws of a Swainson’s hawk. The bird looks at Celeste, readjusts the shocked lizard in its beak, and takes off. Celeste can see the lizard’s tail flicking until the hawk is out of sight.

 

_____________
Zoe Young is a San Francisco writer. You can read her work in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Grist, Identity Theory Magazine, Downbeat Magazine, and on multiple bathroom walls. She serves as Head of Creative Content for The Nature Conservancy in California and teaches Playwriting and Screenwriting at Berkeley City College. Read her work at www.zoeyounghere.com. When not writing, Zoe fronts a Bay Area punk band called The Furious Tits.

All Illustrations are AI-generated by W. Wayt Gibbs

Explore the science behind the fiction

Grey headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus)

Improving wild bat habitat could prevent a new deadly disease. Researchers have  traced how habitat loss and climate drive disease outbreaks—and how saving flowering trees is a key part of the solution.

prescribed fire and lyme disease

A new way to fight Lyme Disease: Prescribed fire. Setting fires in eastern U.S. forests could combat rising tick-borne diseases, while also making forests more healthy, say scientists.

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

 A compound in the Western Fence Lizard’s blood not only protects it from Lyme disease, it cures the infected ticks that bite it. The Journal of Parasitology 84(1), 1998. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

The importance of ecology in controlling ticks.As ticks and the diseases they carry become more abundant, spring’s arrival has a certain foreboding. There’s no easy solution—but the lessons of ecology might help.

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