Please note: This story was written after the series ended, but before any of the movies aired.
by Kate Halleron
No matter how many people Dr. David Banner had seen die, he never got used to it. And children were always the worst. Now, no matter where he looked, children were dying all around him. A boy had almost choked to death on the plane; sick children seemed to follow him everywhere. At O’Hare he had seen the swollen necks of the plague-stricken, the rheumy eyes, the hopeless gazes. He could not stand it. He had to do something about it if it killed him.
Wariness and suspicion were old habits, so he had the cabbie drop him off a few blocks short of his destination. He just felt safer if he could look the place over from a distance first. He passed a schoolyard where a large group of children were playing as children should. He paused to watch them, leaning on the chain-link fence and trying not to think of the children he had never had, would never have, and all the children who had died and who would die if this plague were not stopped. The sky was gray and a chill wind blew off the lake. Chicago was much as he remembered it and the most dangerous place he could think of to be. Suddenly, his ruminations were interrupted by the choked cry of a child who fell to the ground on the other side of the playground.
A little girl cradled the stricken boy’s head in her lap as David quickly climbed the fence and ran across the schoolyard. His hands flew to the boy’s neck and, as he had feared, it was swollen and extremely hot. He took the boy in his arms and smacked him soundly between the shoulders. A gob of phlegm flew out of the boy’s mouth and he seemed to breathe easier.
“You have to keep his head up or he’ll choke,” the girl said.
David looked at her for the first time. She was blonde and about seven years old, but something about her made her seem older. “That’s right,” he said, taking off his jacket and rolling it into a pillow for the boy’s head. “Is there a teacher around, honey?” he asked the girl. “We need to get him to a hospital.”
“She went inside for a minute,” the girl said. “I’ll go get her.” As she turned to go, she said, “His name’s Timmy. I’m Penny,” then she ran inside.
She returned a few minutes later with a frazzled looking woman. “Is it the plague?” the teacher asked in a frightened whisper.
“I’m afraid it is,” David replied. “I need you to call an ambulance; he needs to go to the hospital immediately.”
“Not much use in that, I’m afraid,” she said, stepping back from the child lying helpless on the ground. “The city’s stopped sending ambulances for plague victims. The hospitals are crammed full already.” She straightened. “All right, children,” she said, “recess is over. Everybody inside.”
“Wait! You can’t just leave him here. This child is burning up with fever! If there’s no ambulance, then you drive him to the hospital.”
“Look, mister,” the teacher said defensively, “we’re already short-handed. I’m teaching two classes as it is, and I can’t leave these children unattended. I’ll call his parents, if I can find them, but that’s all I can do.” She turned and fled into the schoolhouse ahead of the line of obedient children.
Penny was standing next to Timmy, holding a damp wad of paper towels. David had seen her neither leave nor return. “He’s hot,” she said. “This might help.”
“Thank you, Penny,” David said, grateful for what help he could get. He placed the towels on Timmy’s forehead. “You’d better not stay out here, he’s contagious. Go inside and do whatever your teacher tells you. I’ll take care of him somehow.”
Penny did not move. “What are you going to do?”
David sighed heavily. “You’re not very obedient, are you?”
She shook her head. “He’s my friend.”
“All right. Stay with him a moment. I’m going to see if someone won’t help.” He stood and headed for the street full of busy traffic flowing in front of the school.
At first, no one would stop, however he yelled and waved. He finally resorted to standing in front of an oncoming car until the driver was forced to come to a halt.
“What are you doing, you idiot!” the man yelled. “Trying to get yourself killed?”
“There’s a sick child at the school. He needs to go to a hospital.”
“What’s wrong with him?” the man asked suspiciously.
“Does it matter? He’s sick; he needs help.”
“He’s got the plague, doesn’t he? Not in my car,” and the man gunned his engine and roared off.
The next driver was a woman. “I’ve got kids of my own,” she said.
“Then help this one,” David pleaded.
She shook her head and bit her lip. A tear glistened in the corner of one eye. “I can’t take the chance. I’m sorry.” And she, too, drove away.
The third car did not even stop, merely slowed until David began to come around to the driver’s window, then roared off, running over David’s foot in the process.
Penny’s eyes grew large, but she did not run, as David began his transformation. First, his eyes grew white with rage, then his muscles dilated as he grew taller and stronger. His clothes ripped, and he screamed with rage at the unheeding traffic. He turned and crashed through the schoolyard fence, scooped Timmy up in his arms, and ran down the street, Penny’s blue eyes following him all the way.
* * * * * * * * *
The emergency room staff was too stunned when the large green being ran through the doors and deposited a very sick little boy on the triage desk, and then ran away, to do anything but call the police.
* * * * * * * * *
David came to himself as usual, lost, dazed, possessionless. His bag was gone, his clothes were ripped, and Chicago was no place to be lost in. Eventually, he reoriented himself, and once again headed for his original destination.
It was a large busy hospital, part of the University system. Outside of Atlanta, the best and most experimental research into the plague was being done here. It was also here that the creature, in its frenzied state, had brought Timmy.
The hospital was also in a frenzied state. Crammed to the gills with plague victims, short-staffed for the same reason. David had reason to be glad of his caution, for as he approached the building, he saw Jack McGee get into a car that was parked in a No Parking Zone and drive away. David hid as best he could until McGee was out of sight. The sight of the man always caused his flight reflexes to go into action. He could not well remember what he had just done, but McGee’s presence gave him an important clue. He went into the ER and asked after Timmy.
The harried desk clerk looked him up and down. “You look like you could use some help yourself, Mister,” she said.
“No, I’m fine. I had. . .an accident. There may have been a little boy brought in a little while ago, with the plague. His name’s Timmy?”
“No. No, I’m not. I’m a friend.”
“Well, if you know the family, you’d better contact them. He’s one sick boy. Of course, there’s nothing official until the doctor gets through with him, if you know what I mean. Why don’t you have a seat in the waiting area, and I’ll let you know as soon as there’s news.”
“Thank you,” David said. He noted the dark shadows under all the staff’s eyes, and the unusual bustle of the ER. He appreciated kindness, especially under such circumstances. He took her advice and sat down to await news.
The clerk appeared by his side a few minutes later, holding out a surgical scrub top. “I thought you might need this,” she said. “I mean your clothes. . . . Anyway, don’t tell anyone I gave it to you, OK?”
As David accepted the proffered clothing, a hand, which appeared in his field of vision, set down a familiar brown bag at his side. A gravelly voice said, “That won’t be necessary, Miss. I’ll take care of this for now.”
David looked up into the face of his worst nightmare. “OK,” the clerk said, and returned to her duties. David sat frozen for a long second, then sprang up to run, reflexes taut. A hand on his shoulder restrained him.
“There’s not much point in that anymore, is there, Doctor?” Jack McGee said. Oddly, he did not seem surprised to find David there. A strange sense of elation underlay his unusually placid manner. “Sit down, I think we need to have a little talk. On second thought, you’d probably feel more comfortable with a change of clothing. The ones you have on are on their last legs.” He threw David’s bag into his arms. “There’s a men’s room just around the corner where you can change. I’ll wait here for you.”
Like one hypnotized, David took his bag and walked to the men’s room. The window was open, and for a moment, his flight reflex nearly took over. He resisted it. As McGee had said, there was no point in it now. His one meager hope lay in somehow brazening this out. All his things were in his bag, even the jacket he had used to pillow Timmy’s head, but it was obvious they had been examined thoroughly.
Jack was waiting for him. “I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” he said.
“Don’t toy with me, McGee,” David said. “You knew I’d come back. You’ve got me all tied up and you know it. What do you want?”
Jack leaned forward. “When did you eat last?”
David was taken aback. “I had breakfast, such as it was, on the plane. Why?”
“And it’s nearly lunchtime,” Jack said, ignoring David’s question. “I’ll buy you lunch, and the two of us can have a nice little chat. Let me take care of something first.”
He stood and walked over to the ER clerk. “Have you located Timothy Anderson’s parents yet?”
“No, and we need them to come sign these admission forms desperately,” she replied.
Jack took a notebook out of his pocket and wrote in it. Tearing out the page, he handed it to the clerk. “Call this number and ask for Mrs. Tesla. She should know how to reach Timmy’s parents.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. McGee,” she said, picking up the phone.
“You know Timmy?” David asked, incredulous, as Jack walked back over to him.
“You will find, Doctor, that in this case I am remarkably well informed. Shall we?”
Jack led David to the hospital cafeteria. He bought them both lunch, and seated them at a corner table, as privately as possible in such a public place.
David expected a horde of questions, but Jack was remarkably silent, waiting for David to speak first. Finally, David broke.
“What are you doing here? I saw you drive away.”
“Oh. Merely moving my car. Seems for once I got lucky; for once, you weren’t expecting me. Apparently, you got lucky, too. The police left just a few minutes before I did. What are you doing here, anyway, Doctor? Chicago’s not exactly the safest place for you to hide.”
“I thought it was worth the risk. It seems I was wrong.”
Jack leaned forward, his fingers forming a steeple as he asked eagerly, “What was worth the risk, Doctor? What was worth risking everything for?”
“Look around you, McGee,” David said, his voice betraying the passion underlying his words. “People are dying. No one knows which side used biological weapons first, but it doesn’t matter, does it? All over Europe and Africa people are dropping like flies, especially the children. They say there are only a few thousand cases in the US, but that’s a lot of hogwash. I just can’t stand by and do nothing.”
“And that’s why you’re here?”
“I heard Mark Helpern was doing some innovative research. I had hoped he might let me help him. Unfortunately, you found me first. Damn it, Jack! I can’t just watch people die without trying to help.”
“In that case, Doctor,” Jack said, wiping his lips with his napkin and standing up, “I have someone you should meet.”
* * * * * * * * *
Dr. Mark Helpern was both shocked and delighted by the gift Jack McGee had brought him. “But, but you’re supposed to be dead,” he spluttered. “I’m glad you’re not. Jack, where did you find him?”
“In the ER, actually. Special delivery.” He leaned casually against the lab bench. He seemed quite pleased with himself. “But don’t thank me, he was coming to see you anyway.”
“OK,” Dr. Helpern said, rather confusedly. “We can sure use you, Doctor. This plague has us licked.”
“I’ll do all I can,” David said, rather confused himself, “but I hope you understand that I’d like to keep my presence here a secret, if at all possible, and if Mr. McGee will allow it. I seem to be in his hands at the moment.”
“It goes without saying, Doctor,” Jack McGee said. “Can’t expect you to get any work done if this place becomes anymore of a circus than it already is. How’s Timmy, Mark?”
“Not good,” Dr. Helpern said. “He’ll probably hang on for a few days, but that’s about it, I’m afraid. The staff tells me that green creature of yours brought him in, if they’re not all hallucinating from double shifts.”
“Dr. Banner brought Timmy in,” Jack said.
“Oh, well, thank you, Doctor,” Dr. Helpern said. “He wouldn’t have a chance otherwise.”
“That’s not what Jack means, Dr. Helpern,” David said. “It’s important you understand the danger I present.”
“Dr. Banner and the Hulk are one and the same,” Jack said.
“Oh,” Dr. Helpern said. “Well, never look a gift horse in the mouth, I always say. Just how much danger are you?”
“If I stay calm, none. Anger or frustration triggers the transformation.”
“We’re all doomed, then,” Dr. Helpern observed. “This has got to be the most frustrating job in the world. Still, you can’t be any more dangerous than this plague is. I’m still happy to have you; we need all the help we can get. It will be a couple of days before I can have lab space ready for you; as you can probably tell, we’re terribly short-staffed at the moment. If we don’t find a treatment soon, I’m afraid we really are doomed.”
“I can set up my own lab,” David insisted. “I’m eager to get to work.”
Mark looked doubtful. “I think it would be better to wait until I can orient you myself. If you don’t know what we’ve been doing, you could be more hindrance than help. Forgive me for being blunt, Doctor.”
“That’s all right,” David said, “I think I understand.”
“How can I reach you in the meantime?”
“I’ll have to call you. I just arrived in town; I haven’t found a place to stay yet.”
Jack cleared his throat. “If the good Doctor would do me the honor of accepting my hospitality, I have an extra bedroom he’s welcome to. I’m a wretched cook, as all my friends will attest, but it’s clean and it’s cheap.”
David’s jaw dropped. “Do I have a choice?”
“Yes, Doctor, you do.”
Mark looked from one to the other. “I don’t understand half of what’s going on here. Since you’ve been exposed, Dr. Banner, I’ll want to do a plague screen on you before you start. Wouldn’t hurt you, either, Jack.”
The two men submitted to blood tests before leaving for Jack’s apartment. As they stepped onto the apartment building’s elevator, David asked, “Why are you doing all this for me, McGee?”
“Simple, Doctor,” Jack replied, “I’m not doing it for you.”
As they stepped off the elevator, a blonde whirlwind leapt into Jack’s arms. “Jack, you found him!” Penny cried. “Aren’t I a good informer? Wasn’t I right? Huh, wasn’t I right?”
“Dr. Banner,” Jack said, “I believe you’ve already met Miss Penelope Tesla?”
Several things dawned on David all at once. He said, “Yes, I have had that pleasure. It’s good to see you again, Penny. You were right about what?”
Jack said, “Penny had it figured out a couple of years ago that the Hulk had to be Dr. David Banner.”
David’s jaw dropped. It seemed to be doing that a lot lately.
“I know what you mean,” Jack said. “Better brains than mine.”
“How’s Timmy?” Penny asked.
“He’s very sick, Penny,” Jack told her. “Dr. Mark is doing all he can, and Dr. Banner is here to help find a cure, he hopes.”
“He already helped Timmy,” Penny beamed. “He ran right out in front of the cars. It was the bravest thing I ever saw.”
“Looks like you’ve won an admirer, Doctor,” Jack said.
“But one with divided loyalties,” David observed ruefully.
“What’s divided loyalties?” Penny asked.
“It means,” Jack said, “that if you had to choose which one of us to help, he’s not sure you’d choose him.”
“I’d choose whichever one needed me the most,” she said.
“There you have it, Doctor,” Jack said. “One of the world’s most pragmatic minds.”
They had walked nearly the length of the hall. “Is your mother home?” Jack asked.
“Yes,” Penny said. “She had to leave work to come get me. They closed the school, because of Timmy. How am I going to be a doctor if I don’t get an education?”
Jack knocked at the next-to-last door in the hall. “Marian? It’s Jack. I’ve got Penny.”
The door was opened by a young woman with long brown hair. “Boy, am I glad you’re here,” she said. “Penny’s been on pins and needles waiting for you. I haven’t been able to do a thing with her. Why are you here so early?”
“This is Dr. Banner, Mommy,” Penny said. “He’s the one who helped Timmy.”
“I’m glad to meet you, Doctor,” Marian said, shaking David’s hand. “Penny’s been babbling about you all morning. With some embellishments, I’m afraid. Penny’s imagination tends to run away with her sometimes.” She looked at Jack as she said this.
Jack looked at David expectantly. “Do you want to tell her?”
David shrugged. “May as well. It’s not Penny’s imagination, Mrs. Tesla. Whatever she told you is true.”
There was a deathly quiet in the hallway until Jack broke it. “Dr. Banner’s going to be staying with me for a while, Marian. He’s going to be working with Mark Helpern. Can you get him settled in for me? I need to run back to the paper. Got to get this story filed before deadline. Don’t worry, Doctor; I’m going to lie my head off.”
“OK, Jack,” Marian said, somewhat dazedly. “Then will you explain to me what’s going on?”
Jack set Penny down, a mischievous smile on his face. “I think I’ll let the good Doctor do that, if he doesn’t mind.” To Penny he said seriously, “You understand this is a secret, don’t you? You can’t tell anyone the Doctor’s here.”
Penny nodded. “I won’t tell.”
Jack straightened. “Doctor, I leave you in good hands.”
Marian showed David to Jack’s apartment, which was at the end of the hall, and to the spare bedroom. Penny tagged along to help. “I presume this is where Jack wants you, Doctor,” Marian said. “Would you mind telling me what’s going on here? I confess to great confusion.”
“He’s going to help Timmy,” Penny said. “Aren’t you, Doctor Banner?”
David crouched down to Penny’s level. “I’ll do everything I can, Penny. That’s all I can promise.”
“Penny,” her mother said, “why don’t you go wait for me in the living room? I need to talk to the doctor for a few minutes, OK? Grownup stuff.”
“Oh, all right,” Penny said. She threw her arms around David’s neck briefly before running off.
Marian crossed her arms. “Would you tell me what’s going on, Doctor?”
“Call me David. And I’m probably more confused than you are. I can’t figure what McGee’s angle is.”
“Then why are you here, if you don’t trust him? And why are you here at all?”
So David explained his reasons for coming to Chicago. “At least here I can keep an eye on him, I guess,” he finished.
“I’m not sure I believe all of this,” Marian said. “You seem perfectly harmless to me. But I do know that if Jack McGee says something, that’s what he does. I don’t think you have anything to worry about from that angle. Just don’t let him cook for you; Jack’s cooking is poisonous.”
David smiled. “So he warned me. How long have you known him?”
“Since Penny was a baby. I moved here shortly after my divorce, and Jack and Penny hit it off from the day they met. He’s a good friend. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Well. I’ll leave you to get settled in,” Marian said. “Come back to my place when you like. I usually fix dinner for all of us, so don’t feel like you’d be imposing. And Penny’s quite taken with you.”
He smiled again. “It’s mutual. I’ll be happy to join you later.”
* * * * * * * * *
When Jack returned a few hours later, David had already ensconced himself at Marian and Penny’s apartment. He had spent the afternoon talking with Marian, who he learned worked as a secretary for Legal Aid, and playing checkers with Penny. The score was three games to two, David’s favor, when Penny upset the board as she dashed to greet Jack.
Marian helped David pick up the checkers. Penny came running back, waving a copy of the late edition of the National Register. “Look, Mommy,” she cried, “I got my name in the paper!”
“May I see that, Penny?” David asked, taking the paper and reading it. The headline read “HULK RESCUES PLAGUE VICTIM” and underneath, in smaller type, “Heartless Motorists Refuse to Aid Stricken Child.” There was no mention of Dr. David Banner or hint as to the Hulk’s identity.
David stood and said, “Thank you, Jack. But they weren’t really heartless, you know. Just scared.”
“I figured you could use some good publicity for once, especially since it’s true. And maybe it will make people think. We’re all scared.” Jack flopped on the sofa and loosened his tie. “I didn’t think they were going to let me do it, but both the publisher and the editor are now out sick, so I’m Acting Editor, all of a sudden. I can do what I want for a while.”
“Both?” David asked. “Is it that bad?”
“And getting worse. Half the schools are closed and the city is on the verge of grinding to a standstill. The hospitals can’t handle it; they’re taking only the worst cases. It’s bad all right.”
“And I don’t know what I’m going to do with Penny,” Marian said. “Day care’s out of the question, and I hate to miss work with so many people out sick already.”
“I can take care of myself, Mommy,” Penny said.
“No, you can’t, and I don’t want to hear another word about it. I’ll just have to stay home with you, that’s all.”
“The good Doctor isn’t going to be doing anything for a couple of days,” Jack said. “How about it, Doctor? Care for a little babysitting?”
“I’d be delighted,” David said.
* * * * * * * * *
David took Penny to the park the next day, although she had warned him there would be no one else there, and although he did not feel terribly well. He had not slept well, and his muscles held a vague ache that he had chosen to ignore.
The day was sunny, and the usual Chicago wind seemed to have decided to take a day off for once. But Penny was right, there was no one at the park; the denizens seemed to be avoiding public places if they could. As he watched Penny playing alone on the swings and slides, he rubbed his sore neck and wondered how it could be so hot in Chicago in October.
Perhaps it was leftover medical arrogance, but it did not seem to occur to him that a doctor could get sick, and the onset was rapid. As he stood to offer Penny a push in her swing, he nearly fell flat on his face.
Penny ran over and felt his neck as she had seen him do the day before. The glands were hot and swollen. “David?” she asked, “can you walk? You need to go home.”
“I’ll try,” he croaked, and coughed violently.
Penny supported him as best as she could, and the two of them eventually made it back to Jack’s apartment. David collapsed on the sofa, and Penny ran to fetch some aspirin and orange juice. “Can you swallow, David?” she asked. “I don’t want you to choke.”
He nodded, and she gave him the glass and the pills. He swallowed them painfully. “Go home, Penny,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t be here.”
She went to his bedroom and returned with pillows and a blanket. “You need to keep your head up and stay warm,” she said, putting the pillow under his head and covering him with the blanket.
“Go home, Penny,” he said again, but was too weak to resist her ministrations.
“I’ll call Jack,” she said, and went to the phone and dialed the Register. The light on the answering machine was blinking.
“Hi, Jack, this is Penny,” she said, her bright voice betraying neither fear nor concern.
“I’m pretty busy right now, sweetheart,” Jack said. “What is it?”
“David’s real sick,” she said. “He’s got a fever and his neck’s all swollen.”
“Oh my God,” Jack intoned. “OK, Penny, listen to me. Go home. Go home right now. Call your mother and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I can’t leave him alone, Jack,” Penny argued. “Grownups can die of the plague, too. I’ll stay until you get here.” She hung up the phone without waiting for a reply.
She checked on David again, who kept muttering, “Go home, Penny, go home,” over and over again. She pulled up the blanket, readjusted his pillows and sat down to watch over him. She could tell the pain was very bad, and he was nearly delirious. Suddenly his eyes turned white and he changed as she had seen him do once before.
The creature was not in much better shape. The sofa collapsed under his weight. He leapt to his feet, scattering pillows around him, and promptly fell over - hard - into the coffee table, smashing it to rubble.
“No, no, David,” Penny cried. “Don’t get up, you’ll hurt yourself.”
The creature blinked and roared in pain, sitting in the middle of the living room, trying desperately to stand.
“There, you have hurt yourself,” Penny said, crouching down and examining his arm. “It’s just a bruise, you’ll be all right.” She stroked his arm and reached behind him for the pillows and blanket. “You just lean back, there,” she said, pushing him back against the collapsed sofa. He did not resist her. She adjusted the pillows behind him, covering him once more with the blanket, and then held his hand until he changed back and Jack came charging through the front door.
“Oh my God, Penny, oh my God,” he said, clasping her in his arms. “Are you OK, honey? Did he hurt you?”
Penny pulled away. “I’m fine, Jack,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s David who’s sick.”
She was all right, by some miracle, Jack thought. He switched his attention to David, feeling his forehead and neck. “I thought you said he was hot and his neck was swollen, Penny?”
Jack looked puzzled. “Dr. Banner?” he said. “Are you all right? Penny here thought you had the plague, but you look OK to me.”
David made a valiant effort to pull himself together. “Rapid healing,” he said weakly. “It’s one of the side effects of, of the change. Jack, I tried to make her go home.”
“Yeah, me too. She’s a stubborn little girl. All right, you’re still not in any shape to sit out here and argue. Let’s get you to bed and I’ll take care of Penny.” Half to himself he said, “Marian’s gonna kill me when she gets home.”
* * * * * * * * *
The coffee table was gone and Jack had made some attempt to prop up the broken sofa, but it was still obvious that something nearly disastrous had happened when Marian arrived late in the afternoon. “My word, what happened here?” were almost the first words out of her mouth.
“Now, Marian, before you get upset, Penny’s fine, everything’s fine, nobody was hurt. . . .”
“David had the plague and it made him turn into the Hulk, but he was still sick, and he broke the couch and fell on the coffee table and broke it and I took real good care of him and now he’s better and. . . .” Penny said.
“WHAT!?” Marian shouted. “Jack McGee, are you out of your mind?! What’s Penny still doing here if that man has the plague? This was all your idea. I can’t believe you wanted to leave her alone with someone who changes into some kind of monster!!”
David appeared in the bedroom doorway, leaning heavily against the doorjamb. “Don’t blame Jack, Mrs. Tesla. All three of us told you - did you think we were making it up?”
She was stricken dumb for a moment, then went and examined David’s neck. “They said you have plague, but you look fine to me.”
“It’s OK, I’m over it, or almost anyway.”
“It takes weeks to get over the plague, Doctor, you should know that. You must have been mistaken.”
“No, Marian, it’s no mistake,” Jack said. “Listen.” He turned up the answering machine and played back the message that had been waiting for him when he got home.
“Hi, Jack,” Dr. Helpern’s voice came over the speaker, “your tests came back, and I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re clean, the bad news is David’s not. He’s going to be one sick camper for a few weeks. Call me if you need anything. Tell him to stay away from children, and we hope we won’t still need him when he gets over it. Take good care of him. Bye now.”
“You don’t get over the plague in a few hours,” Marian insisted.
“David does,” Penny said.
“Jack, could you take Penny home and stay with her until I get there? I have a few things to say to the Doctor here.” There was still a fire in her eye, and Jack scrammed without another word, but with a pitying look in David’s direction.
Marian scrutinized him for a few moments, then said, “You look terrible. You’d better sit down before you fall down.” She assisted him over to the sofa, propped up though it was, and sat down across from him.
“Marian,” he said, “I would have prevented what happened today if I could have.”
That took the fire out of her. “I guess I know that, David. You were right, I should have listened to you. Jack’s been feeding Penny Hulk stories since before she could talk, but I guess I never believed it until now.”
“Jack and I both tried to get her to leave before it was too late, but she wouldn’t go. I think she may have saved my life.”
“That’s my Penny,” she said ruefully, but with pride. “She has very set ideas of right and wrong and no one can shake her.”
“She’ll make a hell of a doctor,” David said.
Marian did not reply immediately. “I’m so afraid for her, David,” she confessed at last. “This plague is growing. They try to reassure us, but all you have to do is look around to know it’s just a matter of time before. . .I can’t say it.” She gulped back tears as best as she could.
“I’ll do everything I can,” David said, taking her hand.
“Thank you. At least you can try to do something. All the rest of us can do is stand by and watch it happen.” She wiped her eyes. “Well, it’s easy to see that you shouldn’t really be out of bed yet. Come on, David.” She helped him back to bed, then asked if he needed anything.
“I am rather thirsty.” She fetched him a glass of orange juice.
“I was wondering,” she said as she handed him the glass, “if you think you’ll be well enough to watch Penny for me again tomorrow. I mean, there really is no one else - if you feel like it.”
David smiled and set the glass on the table by his bed. “Thank you, Marian. I’d love to, if you’re sure that’s what you want.”
“I’m sure.” She pulled his blanket up around his shoulders and then kissed him quietly before she left.
He was already asleep when Jack returned, and Jack stood in his doorway for several minutes, contemplating him. “How do you do it?” Jack said half out loud. “How do you make everyone trust you?”
* * * * * * * * *
The next day passed without incident, and Marian came home to find Penny playing quietly by herself in the living room and David brewing up a stew in the kitchen. “I didn’t see why you should have to do all the cooking all the time,” he explained.
“You are a Godsend, David,” Marian said. “I really am wiped. Thanks.”
“Hard day?” he asked, and “Got any cornstarch? I think this stew is still a little watery.”
“In the left cupboard. Yes, it was a hard day, although if any more of our lawyers get sick, we’ll have to close down the office entirely.” She paused, then, “David, about yesterday. I really don’t know what came over me. I don’t want you to think that it’s normal behavior. . . .”
David put a quieting finger over her lips. “Hush,” he said. “I’ve never apologized for kissing someone, so I don’t see why you should. Best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”
Marian smiled, then frowned. “It’s just that I don’t see how someone like you could see anything in someone like me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Penny’s told me how you ran out into traffic to help Timmy, and you’re willing to risk your whole life on the chance you could find a treatment for this plague, and I’ve never done anything worthwhile in my life.”
“Yes, you do. You help people who need it, in your job.”
She shook her head. “It’s just a job. My heart’s not in it, I can’t take any credit for it.”
“What is your heart in?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
“No, come on, tell me. What do you really want, Marian?”
He had a way of making her smile when she did not want to. “Well, when I was younger, I had some talent as a painter. I was even majoring in Art in college. Then I met and married Tom, and gave it up to put him through law school. Then there was the divorce, and Penny, and I guess I just never had the guts to try it again.”
“You should, you know, if it’s important to you. Just for yourself. You don’t do much for yourself, do you, Marian?”
“Maybe not,” she said.
“And it’s not easy to raise a child alone, but you’re doing an admirable job.”
“I’m afraid I can’t take full credit there, either. Penny’s real father has no interest in her, but Jack’s filled that gap wonderfully. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
“Ever thought of making the arrangement permanent?” David stirred the stew.
Marian laughed. “Me and Jack? No, he’s a good friend and someone I can depend on, but there’s never been anything between us. I think if Jack’s in love with anyone, it’s Penny.”
David put down his spoon. “I’m happy to hear that. I’d hate to think I was muscling in on his territory.” He tilted her face up and kissed her.
“David,” she murmured.
“Marian, I can’t promise you anything.”
“I know,” she said, twining her arms around his neck. “I lay awake all night thinking about you and your situation. It doesn’t make sense. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose in it.”
“Everything has a purpose?”
“I’ve always thought so.”
“Jack’s here,” Penny cried, rushing into the kitchen, Jack trailing behind. David and Marian leapt apart, but not quickly enough. David turned back to his cooking, hoping the heat would hide the blush.
“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” he said. Jack beat a hasty retreat, Penny in tow.
* * * * * * * * *
Later, everyone was congratulating David on his excellent stew when the phone rang. “I’ll get it,” Penny said, jumping up from the table.
“Yes, they’re both here,” she said, in answer to an unheard query. “Which one do you want to talk to?” She held out the phone to David. “It’s for you. It’s Dr. Mark.”
“Hello, Dr. Helpern,” David said, and jerked the receiver away from his ear as a stream of shouting threatened to pierce his eardrum.
“What do you think you are doing?” Mark shouted. “You’ve got the PLAGUE there’s a CHILD there for Christ’s sake are you crazy didn’t you get my message?!”
“Hold it, wait, hold it,” David said. “It’s OK, I’m over it.”
“You don’t get over the plague in a day.” Mark was still shouting.
“I do,” David said. “It’s one of the side effects of my condition.”
The line suddenly went silent. “Are you still there?” David asked.
“Yes, I’m still here, and I want to know more about this ‘condition’ of yours. Come in tomorrow morning and I’ll run some tests. You’re a strange man, Dr. Banner, and I want to know what I’m working with.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” David said.
“Bring Penny, too. She’s been exposed, so we may as well be sure she doesn’t have it yet.”
“Right,” David said, hanging up the phone.
“What was that all about?” Jack asked, as Marian stood and began clearing the table.
“Dr. Helpern’s upset with me for exposing Penny to the plague, for which I can’t blame him. He wants both of us to come in tomorrow for tests.”
“It would take a load off my mind,” Marian said. “Hope you don’t mind getting stuck with needles, do you, Penny honey?”
“Naw,” Penny said. “I’m going to stick people with needles, so I shouldn’t mind getting stuck myself.”
David laughed. “I wish every patient was like you.”
Jack stood. “Why don’t you and I go over to my place, Penny?”
“Planning to leave us with the dirty dishes?” David asked.
“The two of you did want to be alone for a while, didn’t you?”
“Piggyback!” Penny cried.
“All right, piggyback,” Jack said, taking the little girl on his back and galloping off with her to the sound of giggles from both Penny and her mother.
* * * * * * * * *
Penny was asleep on the sofa when David and Marian came for her later. Jack was busy typing away at his desk, and had quite a pile of finished papers by his typewriter. Marian gathered Penny up, blankets and all, and carried her off to bed after a farewell to Jack and a warm goodnight kiss to David.
“That was quick work,” Jack said as David closed the door after Marian and Penny.
“Do you disapprove?”
“No. Under other circumstances, I’d think you were perfect for each other.”
“You do disapprove.”
“It’s just that I’ve grown very fond of Marian and Penny. . . ,”
“. . .And I’d hate to see either one of them hurt.”
“I’ve told Marian I can’t promise her anything.”
Jack studied him for a moment. “I guess that will have to do.” He gathered up the pile of papers from his desk and handed them to David. “I think you ought to see these, Doctor.”
David began to read, his initial puzzlement giving way to anger as he read. He threw the loose pages in the air and stomped off to his bedroom. Jack ran for the front door and blocked it as David reappeared carrying his few possessions.
“Out of my way, McGee,” David said. “You know better than to try to stop me.”
“What will you do? Change? Break the door down?”
“Maybe. I was an idiot to trust you for a moment!” he raged. “All you ever cared about was your damned story!”
“Is that what you think?” Jack asked. He threw open the door and stood aside. “Go, then!” He was shouting, too. “But you’ll feel pretty foolish when your story doesn’t appear. And you never trusted me, not for an instant!”
David pushed past him, then turned to face his adversary after gaining the relative safety of the hallway. “Give me one good reason why I should!”
Marian’s door opened, and she appeared wearing a robe. She took in David’s bag and stance and remained silent.
“Because, Doctor,” Jack said, “I’m trusting you.”
“Go back to bed, Marian,” David sighed. “I’ll see you in the morning.” He brushed past Jack back into the apartment.
Jack closed the door and began gathering up the scattered pages. “One day, Doctor, you’ll want to come out into the open. I want to be ready for it.”
“The name’s David, Jack. And you’re wrong. I’ll never come out into the open. Not of my own free will.”
“Go to bed, David. You’re still weak and it’s been a long day.”
As he lay in bed, David Banner heard the tap of typewriter keys like the footsteps of doom.
* * * * * * * * *
Penny had her blood drawn and was amusing herself in Dr. Helpern’s outer office while he gave David a more thorough examination. “Well,” Mark said, “the tests will confirm it, but it looks to me like you had the plague, all right. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
“That’s not the only thing you wouldn’t believe.” David stood and began putting on his clothes.
“I’ve got to study this. It could be the breakthrough we’ve been praying for.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You, of course. Think about it. In a matter of minutes, you shook off a disease that it takes weeks to recover from, if it doesn’t kill you. There’s got to be a way to harness it.”
“How? I can’t even control it myself.”
“How do you know? Have you tried?”
“Yes!” David yelled, slamming his hand down on the examination table. Controlling himself, he said more quietly, “It’s what I’ve spent years trying to do.”
“What? Harnessing it, or ridding yourself of it?”
David did not reply. Mark said, “I’m tired of watching people die. I’m tired of watching kids die. Nothing I do helps. You’re the first hope I’ve seen.”
“I’m dangerous, Mark. You don’t know how dangerous. And I can’t control it, how many times do I have to tell you that? People could get hurt, you could get hurt, if I do what you want. Don’t ask me.”
Mark turned to go. “You know, Timothy Anderson’s parents are dying to meet you. They read the papers. They don’t care what you turn into; they just want to thank the man who helped their son. Think about it, David.”
* * * * * * * * *
David was silent as he and Penny walked the few blocks back to the apartment building. “What’s wrong, David?” she asked.
“Don’t lie to me, David,” Penny admonished. “I may be just a kid, but I’m not stupid.”
David stopped and sat down on a nearby bench. “I’m sorry, Penny. I know you’re not stupid.”
“So what’s wrong?” She sat down next to him.
“Dr. Mark wants to study the Hulk in order to learn why I recovered from the plague so quickly.”
“Penny, the Hulk hurts people.”
“You didn’t hurt me, and I’ve seen you that way twice.”
“We were lucky, I guess.” He hugged her. “I have hurt people, Penny. I don’t want to do it again.”
Penny was thoughtful for a moment. “When I saw you run out in front of all those cars to save Timmy, I thought it was the bravest thing I ever saw.”
David looked at her, long and deep. “And you think I’m being cowardly now.”
“I think that if you can help someone, you should.”
David shook his head and smiled. “Out of the mouths of babes.” He stood. “Come on, Penny. Let’s go home and call Dr. Mark.”
* * * * * * * * *
Penny was in the process of beating David at checkers when Marian came home that afternoon laden down with packages. “What’s all that?” David asked.
“Art supplies,” Marian grinned. “Could you watch Penny a little while longer for me?”
David hugged and kissed her. “You bet. I couldn’t be happier.”
Marian looked into his eyes. “Is something wrong, David?”
He sobered. “Not wrong, exactly, but I do have something I want to discuss with you and Jack when he gets home.”
“All right, as long as there’s nothing wrong,” she said, kissing him before going to her room with her paints and canvases and closing the door.
“David,” Penny asked, “are you going to marry Mommy?”
David tapped a checker. “How would you feel about it if I did?”
“I don’t know. Would Jack still be my friend?”
“Jack will always be your friend, Penny,” David said very seriously. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“That’s all right, then,” she said, and jumped all the rest of David’s checkers.
David laughed as he had not laughed in a long time.
* * * * * * * * *
Later, he explained to Marian and Jack what Dr. Helpern required of him. “You are going to do it, aren’t you, David?” Marian asked, barely containing her elation.
“Well, yes, I had decided to. You really think I should?”
“Oh, yes. Didn’t I tell you that everything had a purpose?”
He hugged her. “I confess to being terrified,” he said. “The Hulk can’t be restrained, and he’s certain to do damage before Mark gets what he needs, if he does. There’s got to be a way to mitigate the damage.”
“Any ideas?” Jack asked.
“Yes. It appears that, in the past, the Hulk is easier to handle if there’s someone there that I trust.”
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away,” Marian said.
“No, Marian, not you,” David said. “I was thinking of Jack.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “Me? Well, that’s a surprise. Although it doesn’t escape me that you would rather risk me than Marian, I am nonetheless flattered.”
“Will you do it?” David asked.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
* * * * * * * * *
Mark had made the lab as secure as he could on such short notice. All but the most essential equipment had been removed, and he had resigned himself to the fact that he would be limited to collecting tissue and blood samples - David had finally convinced him that if the creature were to be kept calm enough for a more thorough examination, he would revert to David’s normal aspect. Only rage sustained the transformation.
The three men gathered early the next morning. “How do we go about this?” Mark asked.
“I’ve given it some thought,” David replied. “If I inflict pain on myself, that should do it. Got any broken glass?”
“I have a pocketknife,” Jack offered.
“I don’t like the idea,” Mark said. “Are you sure there’s not a better way?”
“None that I’d care to try,” David said.
Mark and Jack watched as David stripped to his underwear, then opened the knife and jabbed it into the palm of his hand once, twice, three times before the transformation began. The beast cried out in pain and rage and attempted to overturn the lab bench, wrenching the bolts from their sockets.
“Hold on there, calm down, David,” Jack said, in as soothing a manner as he could muster, given that he was terrified. The creature turned toward him with a snarl, but did not attack. While he had its attention, Jack said, “Quick, Mark, I think this is as good as it gets.”
“He’s big, isn’t he?” Mark said as he quickly scraped a layer of skin from the creature’s arm. “I didn’t expect him to be so big.” The creature turned on him, crying out in shock.
“Easy, David,” Jack said. “That didn’t hurt, it’s all right. We’re not going to hurt you. You said you trusted me, remember? God, Mark, how are you going to get a blood sample? You can’t stick a needle into that.”
“I won’t have to, if I can get close enough. That hand’s bleeding enough.” He picked up a box of capillary tubes. “Now, David, it’s Mark, you remember me. I just want to get a little blood here. It won’t hurt.” He took the creature’s hand. It pulled away, but Mark held firm. “Now, now,” he said, siphoning blood as fast as he could change tubes, “what do you think you’re here for? Look at this, Jack - this hand is practically healed already.” He continued filling tubes until the hand ceased bleeding and David Banner returned to normal.
“You’re fine, David,” Mark said. “You did just fine.”
“I didn’t hurt anyone?” David asked as Jack draped his jacket across David’s bare shoulders.
“Not at all,” Mark said. “Everything’s perfect. Take him home, Jack, and I’ll call as soon as I know anything.”
“I’ll stay and help,” David said.
“No,” Mark replied. “You’re too emotionally involved. Go home. I’ll call if I need you.”
The two men turned to go. “Oh,” Mark said, “before it slips my mind again - I have Penny’s test results. She’s clean.”
“Thank you,” David said. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”
* * * * * * * * *
Mark did call, bright and early the next morning, before breakfast. “You’d better get down here right away,” he told David. “You’re going to want to see this.”
“What is it?” David asked as he entered the lab. Mark was seated in front of a microscope, into which he was peering intently.
“Look here,” Mark said, vacating his seat. David sat and peered into the ‘scope. “The blood samples were a washout, but the tissue! I was afraid that, separated from the carrier, it would revert to normal, but far from it. In culture, it doubles itself every couple of hours. Phenomenal.”
“What am I looking at?”
“I introduced some of your tissue cells into an infected blood sample. Tell me what you see.”
David studied the cells intently. “The foreign cells are invading the host cells. That’s exactly what we don’t want!”
“Just watch a while. It will change.”
A few moments later, David jerked his eyes away from the ‘scope. “I don’t believe it. It destroyed the virus and actually restored the host cells. Nothing does that.”
“Then it goes dormant,” Mark observed. “It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. This is it, David. It’s the answer.”
“How? You’re not going to inoculate a person with that! It could take over - you said it doubles every two hours.”
“In culture, it doubles. In a host, it goes dormant. David, stop fighting this. I’ve tried it in dozens of samples, all with exactly the same results. I can’t try it in animals, the virus is species specific - it only infects humans, you know that. I have a volunteer subject and I’ve already gotten approval to go ahead. I want your assistance - you deserve that much.”
“You work fast,” David said.
“Desperate straits call for desperate measures. Come on, let’s get ready. The patient is being prepped now.”
“All right,” David said, finally resigned. “After I make a phone call.”
“Fair enough,” Mark said, heading for the door. “And before we get started, you should know that the patient is Timothy Anderson.”
* * * * * * * * *
It was touch and go at first; Timmy’s weakened body reacted violently to the inoculation, raising his temperature to dangerous levels and causing Mark to pump him full of anti-pyretics and causing David to pray fervently. At least one of the two worked, for Timmy’s temperature dropped back to normal, and he fell into the first painless sleep he had known in days. A blood sample showed no trace of the virus, and the foreign tissue cells lapsed into dormancy, just as Mark had expected.
Marian ran into David’s arms as he and Mark entered Mark’s office. David held her close. “How’s Timmy?” Penny asked.
“He’ll be fine,” Mark answered. “He still needs to stay in the hospital a while longer, but he’ll recover. The Banner Treatment is an unmitigated success.”
David stiffened in Marian’s arms. “No, Mark, it’s the Helpern Treatment. Keep my name out of it.”
Mark sighed in exasperation. “David. The other doctors who are going to use this have to know what it is. Don’t be stupid.”
Jack put his hand on David’s shoulder. “Don’t you think it’s time you came out into the open, David? You’ll be a hero and you can start making promises.”
David looked into Marian’s eyes. She nodded. “All right, Jack,” he said. “Run your story. It looks like I’m coming out of hiding after all.”
“I’ll call a press conference for the day after tomorrow,” Mark said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Jack said, “Come on, Penny. How would you like to see how to run a newspaper?”
“Super,” Penny said.
* * * * * * * * *
David had not been looking forward to the press conference - after hiding so long, it made all his hairs stand on end to be the center of attention. Jack, however, was in his element; this was the moment he had been waiting for all his life. The National Register had run the story the day before, and every aspect of the press was there, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
DR. MARK HELPERN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Dr. Mark Helpern, University Hospital. Also with me today are Dr. David Banner, Mr. Jack McGee of the National Register. . . .
JACK MCGEE: Formerly of the National Register. <laughter>
DR. HELPERN: . . .Mr. Arthur Smith of the FDA, and Dr. Alex Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control. I’m sure all of you have read our press releases and the Register’s story, so we’ll get right down to questions.
ANNE PORTER, of Scientific American: Dr. Helpern, all this seems rather far-fetched. Could you clarify for us how you arrived at this treatment?
DR. HELPERN: Dr. Banner has a rare, I should say unique, medical condition, a mutation if you will, that, among other things, causes him to heal and recover from disease at an accelerated rate. I discovered that some of these effects were transferable.
MS. PORTER: And side effects?
DR. JACKSON: Neither Dr. Helpern nor the CDC have found any, nor do any seem likely. The treatment goes completely dormant once the body is rid of disease. We will be studying other applications, but right now, this epidemic is everyone’s first priority. However, the applications seem nearly endless.
DAN ISSINGTON, of the National Register: Mr. McGee, you knew about this days ago, and not only sat on the story, but actually hid Dr. Banner out in your apartment. Isn’t this behavior unbecoming an investigative reporter?
MR. MCGEE: Evidently that’s what the Register thought, too. We ran the story and Mr. Steinhauer dragged himself to the phone long enough to fire me. Happiest day of my life. <laughter> How are things at the old rag?
MR. ISSINGTON: Not the same without you, Jack.
MARTIN GATES, of the New York Times: How do you feel about all this, Dr. Banner?
DR. BANNER: Terrified. <laughter> Well, if you turned into a large green thing, would you want everyone to know about it?
MR. GATES: Seems like a difficult thing to keep secret to me.
MR. MCGEE: At which Dr. Banner did an admirable job, let me tell you. <laughter>
DR. HELPERN: I’m sure all of us here feel nothing but sympathy for Dr. Banner’s condition. When it became apparent that the only way to save lives was to sacrifice his privacy, he did so, fully aware of the possible consequences. He has my admiration. <applause>
MR. ISSINGTON: Isn’t the Hulk wanted for murder? Will Dr. Banner be standing trial?
MR. MCGEE: Digging for the dirt, Dan?
MR. ISSINGTON: Just following in your footsteps, Jack.
MR. MCGEE: Touché. To answer the question, we’ve already contacted the District Attorney’s Office in question. Since I personally witnessed the Doctor run into a burning building in an attempt to rescue his colleague, her death has now been ruled accidental. All charges have been dropped. <applause>
MS. PORTER: What are your plans now, Dr. Banner?
DR. BANNER: I’d still like to try to find a cure for myself, but if not, I may just have to learn how to live with it. For the immediate future, Mr. McGee and I have both received book offers. I don’t know though, he’s a much better writer than I am.
MR. MCGEE: But then, Dr. Banner’s story is much more interesting than mine.
MS. PORTER: Maybe you should collaborate.
DR. BANNER: I think we were counting on it.