There are only three rules for survival: no contact with meat, dairy, or humans. He’s already broken two of them.
The dairy was from before; a pint of ice cream lifted from 6B’s freezer three days after they removed the body. That night, the TV confirmed what we all feared, and I dumped what little remained down the drain. I watched him for a week, but he showed no signs: no cough, no fever, no stumbling. Just the same freckled cheeks and wide grin. Luck, he said. Stupidity, I thought.
The woman was from after. She lives below us, and sometimes her ceiling fan shakes my bedroom floor. Two days ago, her coughing shook the floor instead. Over the past forty eight hours, dry rasping evolved into nonstop hacking, into wheezing, into spluttering and choking and drowning in air. He and I have had no choice but to listen, laying in the dark and counting the seconds of silence between. We never got higher than two minutes. “Pneumonia,” he said, rolling over and staring at the wall. “It sounds like pneumonia.” I didn’t bother correcting him.
He is a doctor, after all.
Which, I suppose, explains his actions this morning. The Hippocratic Oath, and all.
He’s been down there six hours now, I think. The only working clock is the battery-operated one in the kitchen, but its pendulum seems to be swinging slower, slower, not moving at all. Hardly reliable. The last cough was five minutes ago, though. I know that for certain. I’ve been counting: three hundred seconds. No sound since then. A week ago, there would’ve been shouting, breaking glass, sirens and screaming. Screaming. I think the next door neighbor shot himself Tuesday night (Wednesday? I don’t know. 4, 236 seconds ago. I think today is Friday. My phone doesn’t work anymore, though. It died, and took my only calendar with it. When civilization falls, technology goes with it.); we heard the single shot, but the noise stopped soon after that.
No, that’s not right. Not entirely. The noise stopped, but the coughing didn’t. He opened a window last night, and the coughing was all you could hear. So much of it: human static. And moaning, too. No birds, though. They were the first to go, dropping in midflight, landing in gardens and cars, covering the sidewalk. Cats were thrilled. People were terrified; Doomsday stars when the birds stop singing. The window was useless, anyway. All the fresh air smelled like rotting flesh.
360 seconds, and his footsteps creak the loose floorboard outside our door. He opens it slowly, and I stare at him, not moving from my chair. He closes the door and leans against it for a moment, sighing and rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand, before going to the kitchen and turning on the tap. When no water comes out, I see his shoulders sag as he braces himself on the counter, head dropping low.
“It stopped working this morning,” I say. “Just before you left.” He knows this already, though; I heard him curse when he first discovered it, watched his eyes glaze over when I asked him what was wrong.
“I thought maybe...” he trails off and shakes his head, shoving the faucet handle back into the off position. He thought what, exactly? That some brave soul at the Water One plant decided to risk exposure and go to work today, just to keep the water running? Just to save the rest of us?
I think of the woman downstairs and swallow. “Not everyone can be you.”
He turns around and looks at me for the first time since he reentered our home. One hundred thirty two seconds of silence. I lift my gaze to his, but his eyes are intense like the sky we no longer allow ourselves to see, so I look at the floor again. Stillness. “Did you touch her?”
His jaw works for a minute (sixty nine seconds), and his left hand slowly clenches and unclenches. “She’s dead.” His voice is flat like roadkill, heavy like the seventh-day air draped around us.
“But did you touch her?” It’s a stupid question. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, after all.
“I won’t touch you,” he promises solemnly, then moves to our wall of framed pictures, back to me. His lips turn up in a smile as he says, “The health of my patient will be my first consideration.” I don’t need to follow his gaze to know what he’s looking at. A calligraphy copy of the Declaration of Geneva has hung on our wall for three years now; I know what it says just as well as he does. His attention shifts to the medical license next to it, and he trails his fingers over the spiky path of his signature.
Anger surges over me. He worked so hard for that certificate, and hardly got the chance to use it.
He’s using it now, though. Now, when it means...well.
“That’s not worth much anymore.” I’m mad at him, too. If he’d just stayed here, let that woman die like she was going to anyway, then we’d both still be safe. The back of his neck, once a constellation of freckles, is nearly as pale as my own. I want to strangle him. Maybe my fingernails can press the freckles back into place. Instead, I gesture to our belongings: his grandmother’s couch, the garage sale TV we practically stole, the conch shell from our one trip to Florida, all the detritus collected by the storm of life. All plastic and posed and meaningful, fake things made real by our existence. “None of this is.”
He just laughs. Laughs and laughs. For a good 200 seconds. He’s almost hysterical, really. When he calms enough to breathe, he exhales deeply and says, “We’re going to die anyway. Might as well do some good.” Then he coughs, and my heart stops.
It’s just a small cough, more of a flutter than anything. But when he meets my eyes, his are big as the moon, and he knows. Not long now. Quick onset, the doctors said, back when there were still doctors to speak and TVs to broadcast. Most cases, less than a day. Just a few hours from exposure to death. Eats a person alive, they said. Gnaws through tissue and muscle and bone until weakness and blood-filled lungs are all that remain.
Shoulders back, chin up, he begins to pace. Back when he worked in ER, he’d come home and follow the same path two, three, twenty times a night; around the couch, between the chairs, into the living room and down the hall to the bathroom. Turn around, back again, again, again. I watch, pressing my fingernails into my palms and pretending it’s his face, grinding my heels into the floor and pretending it’s his face, biting my tongue and pretending it’s his face. God, he’s so stupid. So infallibly, wonderfully, reliably stupid. Once, he was a child who climbed 20 feet up a tree to save his neighbor’s cat. Once, he was a teenager without a license who drove his drunk father home from the bars. Once, he was an adult with golden hair and a sunshine smile, and hands like the elixir of life. Once, he was, but will be no longer. He was always a doctor, though. He always will be.
As he paces, his coughing morphs into hacking, hundreds of boulders rattling around in his chest. For a moment, I consider running to my room and slamming the door, so he knows how mad I am, how much watching this hurts. Because we could’ve done it; I know we could’ve. Lived, that is. Survived. He never was much of one for just surviving, though.
When he next coughs, he draws his hand away covered in blood and collapses into a chair. He doesn’t look at me. The smell from downstairs is thickening, and I can’t bring myself to leave him like this. So I extend my hand towards him, fingers outstretched. He recoils like I’m the infected one, rasps, “Don’t touch me,” before doubling over and choking on his own tongue. Red spatters his jeans.
I grasp both his wrists and haul him to his feet, drawing him close to me; he’s too weak to resist. Little earthquakes tremor through his body as I place his hand on my waist. “Dance with me,” I murmur, shuffling our feet into something like a waltz. He sighs and rests his forehead on my shoulder; his skin burns so fiercely I nearly combust from the proximity.
We sway. He stumbles. I hold him tighter.
The coughing stops, but I still feel the rumble in his chest, the tightness in his frame.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers hoarsely. “You were always so hopeful.” Hopeful, synonym for selfish, synonym for denial. I lift my hand from his shoulder into his hair and say nothing.
He folds against me, a city collapsing, a marionette with severed strings. I gently lower him to the ground, trace his face with my fingertips.
No contact with humans.
I lean over and press my lips to his.
His last exhale flutters against my cheek.