Growing up, the unnamed NARRATOR always dreamed of freedom. As did his mother. As did his father.
His mother dreamed of freedom from the ghosts of her past, the broken and abusive family that she came from. In turn, she became the controlling and abusive force in the household, never quite able to let her demons go.
His father dreamed of freedom from his wife, his familial obligations, from his parent’s expectations and conservative and strict views. He cowered under all this, trying hard to keep everything together but never quite managing to.
And the narrator, well, the narrator dreams of freedom from his mother, from her controlling nature and her insane expectations. He reacts by doing everything he knows is wrong, by trying to answer a question that should never have been asked: If brains were bigger, would people be smarter?
The research begins. Combining diseases, picking and choosing traits for an abomination. He knows it’s dangerous and he should never have done it. He knows brains are sensitive and any change could cause massive damages. So he destroys it, all but one vial. Just enough to test it. But then, he misplaces it. Horrified, he prays that nothing will come of this carelessness and escapes back to the only place he’s ever considered home: the University of Chicago, and the beautiful glass dome where he spent years studying and relishing the escape from his childhood prison.
But years later, he sees a headline: “Seven Dead from Mysterious Cause.” The effect: brains expand to enormous proportions, spilling out of the skull and pushing through eye sockets and ear canals.
For a moment, he feels proud of his scientific achievement before everything comes crashing back down. People have died and it’s his fault, or maybe not. After all, he never tested it.
But as seven becomes hundreds, becomes thousands, and the world around him falls to pieces, he panics and isolates himself, driven mad by the guilt and the hopelessness. It’s only when ANNA, an old friend, perhaps the only friend he’s ever had, calls and pleads for help, for him to join the team for the cure, that he realizes the true extent of his actions. Millions have been infected and died. Anna herself is infected and to be sent to quarantine to await death. She will leave her remaining children behind. One child and husband are already gone, presumably dead.
He says yes. Of course he says yes, what else could he say? He’s not a monster. He does care about some people. And he made the disease; he should be able to destroy it.
But he soon learns that it has mutated beyond anything he’s ever thought possible. Days and weeks blur together and he feels himself breaking. One by one, the other scientists fall, some to infection, some to exhaustion. It’s after he hears of his father’s death that he can’t take it anymore and wakes up in a hospital, long gashes running down his arms.
He tries to leave, claiming he needs to return to work. But the hospital refuses; he’s now infected and must be quarantined. A coworker comes to argue his case, explaining that there’s so few of them left, it doesn’t matter who’s infected. Still, the hospital refuses.
Together, they escape, careening down hallways and through parking garages before reaching safety. And then it’s off to Chicago, where he searches for an answer where it all began.
Back in the library, the beautiful glass dome, he sits and watches the students, admiring their resilience, envious of their innocence and their unwritten futures. They’re still out and about, studying, complaining about exams, working late nights, just like he used to. And he realizes that he’s not making the cure for himself, for the people who have died, he’s making it for these students, for their future.
And suddenly, he know what he’s been doing wrong. Rushing back to the lab, he persuades the broken group and tired, so tired, group of scientists to try one last time, one last experiment. Numb and nearly mindless, they agree.
As they wait for the results, he looks around at the team, his team, realizing that they had made their last stand. Together, they wait in silence, in solidarity, with the tiniest flicker of hope between them, keeping them alive.
Finally, the call comes. Everything, they say, will be okay. But though he’s relieved, he knows that nothing will ever really be okay again.