The Mayan calendar year is made up of eighteen months, each month containing twenty days. These three hundred and sixty days are followed by a final, five-day period called Wayeb. During Wayeb, the boundary between the mortal realm and the Underworld weakens, and mal-intentioned spirits can flow freely into our lives to wreak havoc. To avoid disaster, Mayans try to stay indoors throughout Wayeb, when the walls that block such spirits have grown thin.
Chapter One: It Is with Profound Regret that I Write These Words
Palo Alto, California, 1999
The uncanny events that ultimately entangled Dr. Thomas Hawkin began years before, with his professor at Stanford, Alfred Li.
It was a temperate, clear May morning in 1999 when Professor Li got on his bicycle outside his Palo Alto ranch home and pedaled off toward campus. Perhaps, Li thought, the fresh, early air would clear his mind.
When you are about to destroy a man’s career, a clear mind ought to be a prerequisite. That’s especially so when that someone is close to you—a colleague, a friend. It’s even more the case when the man whose future you’re going to annihilate is one so uniquely brilliant and gifted that he might one day change the course of medical history.
As Li pedaled down University Avenue, then through an open quad, the spring air held a sweet, spiced scent from the northern California trees. Professor Li liked to get a jumpstart on his day—get ahead of everyone else while it was still dark and his mind uncluttered.
Normally, before enacting something so momentous as this, Li would have talked to colleagues about it, gotten feedback, triangulated a strategy. Professor Li was a transparent man and, at heart, a consensus builder. He had neatly trimmed nails, a worry-free haircut, and rimless glasses, and he typically wore the same thing to the office every day—khakis and a light blue button-down shirt. Li wasn’t a man to make waves; he was one to keep the boat steady.
But this situation was different. Li wasn’t quite ready to talk to his colleagues about the recent discoveries he’d made concerning one of the university’s most promising doctoral candidates. What Li had discovered had simply stunned him too much. It had embarrassed him, wounded him, perhaps even implicated him. The information was so explosive, in fact, that whoever he told would probably not be able to keep it a secret. They’d feel obligated to spread the word once they heard—such a severe lapse in procedure would have to be investigated.
Beyond that, Li wanted to keep it secret for the moment in case there had been a misunderstanding. Once a reputation is attacked, even if the accused is vindicated, a stain always remains. One ought to tread softly when treading upon a man’s good name.
Thus, Li had decided, what he needed to do before he opened his mouth was to spell out his thoughts clearly in words and then give the accused a chance to explain himself. Such was the task at hand.
At the Stanford Biochemistry building, Li looped the chain around his bike and locked it up. Moments later he was sliding his card into the building’s electronic security box, which clicked and let him in. The interior was silent and smelled like freshly cleaned carpets. No one was around.
Hardly making a sound, Li crept up a stairway and entered his office. The office was serviceable and tidy because Li spent most of his time in the lab. Though he’d had this office for eight years, one of the bookshelves was still empty, and another held only a plaster sculpture one of his children had made. On his desk were several yellow writing pads and a gray beer mug with STANFORD on it in big red letters, containing exactly five sharpened pencils, points up. A small potted bamboo tree sat on a corner of the desk, unattended to. A whiteboard on the wall opposite bore a crude drawing in red marker of the protein structure of the flu virus—it looked like a beach ball with tiny mushrooms growing out of it.
Li opened the window shade, sat at his desk, clicked his desktop monitor on, and then opened his email application. He pulled up a fresh note and wrote in the heading “DRAFT.” He was careful to not type an address in the “To” field yet. He couldn’t risk an accidental send.
An email like this was a bullet loaded in a chamber. The gun was pointed at the one person he’d ever met who deserved the title “genius.”
Learning had always come easily to Professor Li. Fifty-five now, he’d come to America with his parents from China as a child. He’d soared through MIT as an undergrad, gotten a Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford, and become a full professor at Stanford by age thirty-two.
Li had several titles now and had a hard time keeping track of them: Professor of Microbiology & Immunology; Director of The Stanford School of Medicine Immunotherapy Institute; Chairman, Bio-Next Pathology Lab. The list went on.
A person with a mind like Li’s—frictionless as spinning chrome gears—could have made a fortune on Wall Street or as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. But Li enjoyed teaching too much. His father had instilled in him the maxim “We are not great until we have made others great.” Teaching was Li’s way to do just that. His work bore the hallmark of a true vocation—only when he was doing it did the confusion of this world slip away.
Even in the august halls of Stanford, Li had a reputation as one of the sharpest minds around. Other professors—even those outside his department—would come to Li and spill forth their muddled ideas like gold-panners dumping out their stones, weeds, and mud on Li’s desk. These other professors knew that if there was any gold in their thinking, Li would find it.
People regularly called Li “brilliant.” “Elegant” was another word used to describe his papers. “Elegant,” of course, was the highest compliment that could be paid to an academic paper. If what you had written was elegant, that meant it was simple, incisive, easy to grasp, and groundbreaking. In the last few years, some had even begun calling Li a genius, especially after he published an influential—elegant—paper on the shared protein structures of some of the world’s most diverse viruses. Science put Li on the cover under the headline “Immunology’s New Genius.”
But Li hated the “G” word. He was far too familiar with his own limitations to accept such a title. He knew he was sub-par at math. He often got lost when driving. And it was impossible for him to keep straight the date of his anniversary and his wife’s birthday—one was the 22nd of May, and the other was the 27th; he could never remember which was which. No, Li did not see himself as a genius. He worked hard, had good habits, kept sober, and stayed out of trouble. Add to that foundation some innate ability, and you could go plenty far.
To Li, “genius,” suggested something else. It meant a mind built fundamentally differently, a mind that could leap over the chasm where everyone else had gathered, stuck. Newton was a genius. Einstein was a genius. For much of his life, Li doubted that he’d ever met anyone who deserved to be placed in that category.
Then he met Thomas Hawkin.
One afternoon three years before, Li received an email out of the blue from Hawkin. He’d never met him, nor heard of him. The email read, in part:
I have recently reviewed your papers on the highly conserved sequences of influenza viruses, and I would like to meet you to discuss various avenues of creating a universal flu vaccine. I not only believe this is possible but, building on your research, believe it is probable, and in the near term. It is not too far-fetched to surmise that such similarities can be found among all viruses. This would suggest that a single vaccine could be created—a universal vaccine—targeting all viruses on earth with a single shot.
At first, Li thought the email had been sent from some crackpot in the San Francisco’s homeless neighborhood, the Tenderloin. He imagined a doped-out ex-hippie with a graying beard, sleeping on a stoop by night, who’d somehow stumbled across Li’s name while getting a cup of hot water at a local internet café. This man, whoever he was, wanted to talk about a universal vaccine to cure all viral illness. Next he’d want to discuss how Elvis was alive and living in Guatemala.
But at the bottom of the email, Hawkin included some details of his background: Harvard undergrad in three years; Harvard Medical School, accelerated track; affiliation with Doctors Without Borders; vaccinating villagers in the Yucatán jungle. Li was intrigued enough to meet with the man a week later.
The meeting was unlike any he’d ever had.
Waiting for him at a table at a Stanford café was a tall man, maybe six foot three. He had a full head of straight, dark brown hair, he was thin to the point of being lanky, and his eyes were bright blue. Cordial and polite, Hawkin stood, smiled, and shook hands with Li. Yet these gestures struck Li as a formality—an almost learned behavior. Within minutes, Hawkin’s features settled into an intense, focused state, and Li quickly developed the impression that Hawkin was a man without time to waste.
Hawkin was a match for Li’s intellect; he quoted segments of Li’s papers verbatim. Not only that, but he had some unique ideas about how to make progress in immunology. One was the idea that human immune systems could learn to mimic those of bats, which can tolerate viruses in their bloodstreams by keeping their immune systems constantly “switched on.” Hawkin also talked about possibilities in bacteriophage-based treatments for infection. Bacteriophages “ate” bad bacteria in the body and could be used as an alternative to antibiotics, since antibiotic-resistant bacteria were becoming more prevalent.
But what really caught Li’s attention was Hawkin’s belief that hundreds upon hundreds of influenza virus genomes could soon be mapped, with common proteins being found across them all, leading to the “one life, one shot” solution for the flu.
“The flu is a highly malleable virus that changes rapidly and constantly,” said Hawkin, flexing his thin, pointy eyebrows over his blue eyes, “but I think you’d agree, it can’t be entirely malleable. There must be a handful of proteins that remain the same. If we can find them, and train the immune system to find them, we’ll have our silver bullet.”
“I agree it’s possible,” said Li, “at least for the flu. But you mentioned in your email a universal vaccine for all viruses. Viruses are astonishingly diverse. There are hundreds of thousands of them.”
“We can tackle flu first,” said Hawkin, “then expand to all viruses. The immune system is like an army, and like any army it makes mistakes. It gets tricked. It doesn’t fight the enemy where the enemy is weakest. It sometimes doesn’t recognize the enemy at all. But the immune system can be trained. By genetic analysis, we can locate the enemy’s true Achilles’ heel—shared proteins. Once we find them, we’ll teach the body to attack them.”
“But we have the genomic information of only a fraction of all viruses.”
“That will change exponentially in the coming years.”
“What about bacteria?” said Li, bemused by the grand ambition of the young man before him. “Is your plan to eliminate all bacterial infection, once you’ve killed off all the viruses?”
“One thing at a time,” said Hawkin with a straight face. He wasn’t kidding around.
Li took a sip of his coffee and scratched his chin. “You’ve just become a doctor. This would be a big career switch, to come into my lab. It’s a big paycheck to pass up.”
“I understand. But I’ve realized that I don’t want to help one patient at a time. I want to help millions of patients. The money’s not important. Making an impact, that’s important.”
“Leaving your mark?”
“Yes. But also helping people.”
“So why have you come to me?”
“To put it simply, because you’re the best.”
Li was flattered—a bit. But the more noteworthy feeling was excitement. This young man sitting before him—brilliant, impassioned, devoted—was, perhaps, the student for whom he’d been waiting his whole life.
“Can I ask how old you are?” Li said before they left.
“Twenty-four,” said Hawkin.
So Hawkin checked that box too. As Einstein said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.” If Hawkin had been much older, he would have been discovered by now. If he had been much younger, he’d have been too unfocused. Twenty-four was just right.
By the following fall, Hawkin was enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in the Biochemistry department at Stanford. Li quickly noticed that Hawkin possessed the two basic requirements necessary for a world-class scientist: a ready intellect and a capacity for sustained work. Yet Hawkin also had a third quality, an X factor. He had passion. Urgency. One of his fellow professors had once told Li, “The most important characteristic of a scientist isn’t intelligence. It’s tenacity. Get your jaws on something like a pit bull and never let go.” If one experiment didn’t work out, Hawkin wouldn’t leave the lab till it did. He’d sleep on the couch in the lounge for a while, then wake up in the wee hours and get back at it. He’d brood, redo the numbers, sit hunched over the lab table for long stretches at a time in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker.
“You’re still here?” Li said to him on one such occasion, arriving at the lab early one morning.
Hawkin kept his eyes locked on the lens of a microscope. “Every day we don’t get this right, people are dying who should be living.”
It became clear to Li that, in whatever he undertook, Hawkin was going to get the result he wanted, one way or another. For Hawkin, finding the cure to end all disease came before family, friends, distraction, pleasure, comfort.
A few years later, Li would discover that it also came before ethics.
There in his Stanford office on that May morning, Li looked down at his desk. Lying on it was Hawkin’s dissertation:
ON THE IDENTIFICATION OF HIGHLY CONSERVED PROTEINS
IN THE INFLUENZA VIRUS,
AND PRELIMINARY RESULTS OF
A MULTI-STRAIN INFLUENZA VACCINE IN MICE
Li had overseen Hawkin’s work on the thesis, providing advice, brainstorming, introducing him to key figures in the field. The experiments had been going well. Hawkin had been able—in a lab setting—to teach the immune system to react to new parts of the flu’s protein structure. It had worked with mice as well.
Then had come that fateful evening a few weeks before. It had all started with a sentence—a throwaway sentence at that, toward the end of Hawkin’s dissertation. Most probably wouldn’t even have noticed it. But it prompted Li to call a friend at a lab at UC Davis, where experiments on macaque monkeys were conducted. This call raised still more questions. Soon Li paid a visit to the UC Davis Non-Human Primates lab.
What he found out there didn’t merely mean that Hawkin had engaged in an unethical activity. It meant that what he had done was illegal. Some might have called it grotesque.
Li stared at the DRAFT email. The cursor blinked, dutifully awaiting a command from the keyboard.
Maybe I could just bury the whole thing, Li thought.
Turning a blind eye might have a net positive outcome. For one thing, everyone in his department was eagerly awaiting the results of Hawkin’s thesis. Li knew that the department Chair, Mitch Balboa, was on the verge of offering Hawkin millions in funding for a new pharmaceutical venture. Furthermore, Hawkin was making credible, verifiable steps toward the Holy Grail of his mission, the universal vaccine. Probably in the next few years he’d have a breakthrough of some kind. If millions of people would benefit from the universal flu vaccine, billions would benefit from the universal viral vaccine.
So who was Professor Alfred Li to blow the whistle on such a man, heading toward such a discovery?
Li looked out the window and watched a morning jogger trot past. He berated himself for the strictness—the childishness—of his morals.
If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.
Li sighed. He resolved, for the moment, on a middle ground.
Just write the email, then see how you feel.
I hope you are well, and have been safe on your trip in Mexico.
Li stopped. No need to sugarcoat something like this. He highlighted the passage, hit delete, and started again.
It is with profound regret that I write these words.
Working with you has been one of the great highlights of my career. From the moment I met you I knew that you were a man with a special destiny—one unlike any other student I’d met.
Unfortunately, I have recently made a discovery about your research methods that has caused me distress and alarm.
As you know, I desire the eradication of viral illness as much as anyone. But as you also know, I am a man of conscience. As such, I cannot keep silent about what I have found…
Li wrote for another twenty minutes. When he finished, he read the email over. Then he read it again. It pained him to imagine the effect it would have upon Hawkin. But every word he had written was true.
The email complete, Professor Li felt was facing a classic dilemma. One way was bad, the other worse. Down one road, Li and Hawkin might together make one of the great discoveries in the history of medicine. Down the other road was shame. Scandal. Ruin. Banishment from the field for Hawkin. Certainly no breakthrough vaccine.
Li sighed again. He was in his fifties. He’d been on earth long enough to know who he was. This self-knowledge was neither a blessing nor a curse; it simply meant that he knew how to make choices he could live with.
Perhaps his decision was inevitable. As his favorite philosopher, Confucius, had said, “Fame without honor isn’t worth having.” Li knew that was what he believed. At this stage in his life, nothing was going to change his mind.
He entered Hawkin’s email address in the “To” field and clicked Send.
The Thinning tells the harrowing tale of world-renowned scientist Thomas Hawkin, who comes to believe that a Mayan curse has been put upon him. Though at first he denies that such a curse could exist, as eerie events begin to unfold, every countermeasure he takes only hastens his ghastly fate into being.
In 1999, Hawkin, an ambitious Stanford Ph.D. candidate, is vacationing in the Yucatán. While roaming through an old village, he buys an ancient Mayan medallion from an eccentric shopkeeper. That evening, Hawkin’s Mexican host warns him about this medallion, which is connected to an actual Mayan religious concept called the “Thinning,” a five-day period at the close of the Mayan calendar cycle, during which the boundary of reality “thins” so that otherworldly spirits can affect our fates—most often, for the worse.
Hawkin’s host goes on to explain that just such a medallion was donned by a conquistador from this region five centuries before. After putting it on, the conquistador enjoyed eighteen years of living like a god, and then, over the five days of The Thinning, he, his wife, and his young son all came to a horrific demise.
Hawkin, a brilliant narcissist and devout atheist, laughs off this old tale. But the very next day, he receives devastating news that may ruin his career. Hawkin puts on the supposedly cursed medallion, just to see if it might help.
For the next eighteen years, Hawkin accumulates boundless wealth and fame as a biotech pioneer, philanthropist, and public intellectual, while his rivals encounter tragic accidents and failure. Yet, ideal as his life seems to be, Hawkin secretly dreads the coming of “Day One,” when the dark side of the curse may come into effect.
When Day One finally arrives, each precaution that Hawkin has planned to fend off the curse begins to backfire. Hawkin plays chess with fate, but in move after move he is thwarted and surprised by this mysterious force, which cleverly ushers horror into the world around him. Ultimately, Hawkin flees into the Arizona wilderness with his family, in a desperate effort to escape the final act foretold by the curse—a horrifying murder committed by Hawkin himself.
At 86,000 words, The Thinning is an adrenaline-fueled suspense tale with touches of the medical thriller and horror genres. Think of it as The Shining meets Michael Crichton. I also love the classics and was inspired by such ancient tales as The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex—stories in which successful men are caught in twisted fates beyond their control.
Mark Cecil lives in Sherborn, Massachusetts. He is a graduate of Brown University and a former reporter and editor for the global news agency Reuters, as well as a member of the International Thriller Writers Association. The ITW board recently selected him to be its first mentee in its pilot Big Writer mentoring program. He has also written for The Millions. His website is markcecilauthor.com.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019