“You had a child?”
Frank shook his head. “No, this was after the Plague started. We had this bomb shelter. It’d come with the house when we bought it. I just kept it stocked because it seemed like a good idea and a safe place to store emergency supplies. You know, in case of a bad storm or something. But then, the Plague began spreading. It hadn't reached our area yet, in fact, I think we were one of the last places to become infected. But we heard on the news that the incubation period was very, very long. We didn't wait to see if we’d get sick. We closed ourselves in the bomb shelter and just tried to wait until it could burn itself out. It had it's own air filter, we had enough water and food for years. We were safe, my wife and I. All we had to do is stay sane and keep the door closed and we would’ve been fine. We were safe.”
Nella sank down onto the couch next to him but she didn't try to touch him.
“But then, a few weeks later, there was this pounding on the door. Sarah, my wife, begged me not to open the door. We had already discussed it, we’d agreed that no one, not family, not neighbors, nobody was going to come in. But I heard this little voice.” He put one long hand on his head. “This small voice that was so scared. It just kept saying, 'Let me in, please let me in! They'll eat me! I'm not sick, let me in!' And on the other side was Sarah, pleading for me to come away from the door, for heaven's sake not to listen. She kept saying, 'It's a trick. They'll rob us or throw us out.' But I had to. I had to open the door. It was someone's baby. Someone's whole reason for being. And he was begging for anyone to help him. Nella, how could I not open the door?”
He looked at her as if she had some answer, but she was silent.
“I let him in. Sarah, bless her, never said another word about it, just acted as if it was the plan the whole time. As soon as the door opened she acted like she was the boy's own mother.”
His chest hitched and he choked back a sob. His hands kept moving, sliding over his face, rubbing his knees, flying in front of him like startled birds.
“But he was sick?”
“Yes, he was sick. It took us a few weeks to realize it. He was slower and slower. He stopped talking. But we just kept pretending like it was okay. We kept telling him we were just going to wait a few days for him to feel better, and then we’d all go find his parents. We never had our own, we were so young. We didn't know what the hell we were doing, but we did the best we could for him. There were no doctors to call, no medicine we could give him or even anyone to ask advice from. There was only us in that tiny metal tube, watching the time run away from us so slowly. And then about a month after we let him in, he bit me. I yelled for him to stop, just to calm down and stop, but he wouldn't. He just kept clawing and screaming and there was blood everywhere. I kept trying to hold him back but he was so wild. I didn't want to hurt him. He was just a little boy, maybe eight. Maybe younger. And Sarah shot him.” Frank stopped a small groan with his hand over his own mouth. “Sarah shot him because I couldn't do it. She wanted to shoot me too. I begged her not to. I told her we could be immune, we weren't sick. And the bites weren't how it spread. She listened. I should’ve let her shoot me then.” He put his head in his hands and his whole body shook. “I should’ve let her shoot me.”
Nella didn't know what to do. She'd seen dozens of people cry in the past several years and she always knew what to do. But not now. Her skin ached to touch him, to glide her fingertips over his back in soothing strokes. But she sat motionless beside him instead.
“Was she Immune?” her voice was low and thick around the lump of sympathy in her throat.
“I'm not sure,” he said, trying to wipe his eyes. Nella resisted the urge to hand him a tissue. “She said she felt very slow over the next few weeks but she never seemed to show symptoms other than that. But maybe that's why she waited too long. Maybe she was thinking so slowly she missed my symptoms.”
“Maybe she thought you’d get better.”
Frank nodded. “Yeah, she would have hoped that.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Some days, I think she missed on purpose. But I didn't get better. And if she was sick, then she held on longer than I did. We were arguing about the boy again. We had wrapped him in a blanket and some old plastic sheeting I had stored in the bunker. I thought he ought to be buried. And I meant to do it. But every time I got close to the door, Sarah would panic. She'd beg me to wait just one more day, not to leave her alone with those things waiting for her outside the door. I tried to tell her that anything that was out there would’ve moved on, but she was convinced that if I opened the door again we’d both be dead. We were both sure we were Immune. But the infection was already inside. It was already too late. But I kept putting off burying the boy to appease her. We argued about it every day for weeks. In the back of my mind, I knew he was rotting, that we were breathing him in. I couldn't smell it- maybe because we never opened the door for fresh air, so it kind of just crept up gradually. We never smelled him, but in the back of my head it drove me crazy to think about him in there with us, slowly falling apart, liquefying. I used to lie awake thinking about it.” Nella felt Frank's shudder pass through his body and into hers as he spoke.
“So this last day, I could barely get the words out. I was trying to climb up the ladder to the hatch and hold his body at the same time. He kept slipping inside the plastic and I could feel the bones shifting and wiggling in there. And I just wanted it done. My feet didn't work right, but only sometimes, so I would get a few steps up and the bag would slip, so I would yank it up again and lift my foot up to take another step and instead, slide backwards. It took a long time and I was getting angry. I had started while Sarah was asleep, because I didn't want her to stop me again. This time I had to bury him, or I’d go mad. I knew it. I only had three steps left to reach the hatch when she woke up. I knew it would take me another fifteen minutes or so just to manage those steps, but I thought if I could just get the door open, she'd stop being upset about it and I could take my time with the rest. I was covered in sweat and so tired. The boy couldn't have been more than fifty pounds. Something I wouldn't normally struggle with. But that day- I don't think I've ever been that tired before or since. I felt like all the water and air had been squeezed out of me and I was just this paper thing, just a husk being thrown around in a strong wind. I managed another step and I could almost reach the door handle with one hand. Almost. If I hadn't been carrying the boy I could have reached it.” Frank stretched his arm in front of him as if the hatch were before him now, always just farther than he could manage. Nella wondered how many nightmares had featured that hatch over the years in Frank's mind.
“But if I reached as far as I could have, the boy would have slipped out of my other arm and fallen. Sarah was just stretching but she saw me pretty quickly up on the ladder and she sprang out of bed.
'Frank,' she said, and she was already crying, 'Don't go today. Please, just one more day I promise.'
I put my forehead on the ladder rung in front of me, trying to focus on the cool touch of the metal. I wanted to cry. I couldn't turn back. Not now. This small trip up a ladder, a trip that would have taken all of thirty seconds when I was well, had taken over an hour. I think some part of me knew I was really sick. I don't think I would’ve come back to the shelter if I’d left that day. Sarah would have been safe.
“The ladder wasn't that long, maybe twenty rungs in all. I could stand at the bottom and reach halfway up to the hatch. I didn't have the greatest grip on the boy by now, I just kept readjusting as he slipped, so part of him was dangling below me. It was low enough that Sarah could reach it if she stood up on her toes.
'Sarah,' I said, 'It has to be today.' and that was all I could manage to say without forgetting which word I wanted to say next. I just kept repeating, 'It has to be today' over and over. I lifted my foot to put it on the next rung.
Sarah was yelling at me, begging me not to do it, but all of my concentration was on that one foot. I just had to get that one foot onto the next rung without slipping. She didn't wait for that though. She started pulling on the plastic around the boy. She wasn't just gently tugging either. Sarah was desperate to stop me. She yanked as hard as she could. The boy slipped away from me and landed with a greasy pop next to her. But the sudden shift in weight threw what little balance I had completely off. I fell too, landing on my back on the cement floor. I think I blacked out for a second and the wind was knocked out of me. I could see Sarah leaning over me as I lay gasping there. She was crying and her hair brushed my face. The bunker light made a halo around her head, sparked and shone on her skin. And I had my last charitable thought then. I thought, she's just scared. She didn't mean to hurt me, she's just scared.
And then it was as if someone came along and blew the little candle that was my soul out and left an empty, cold place behind. All I could think of was how much pain I was in from the fall, from the disease, how hard I had worked to get the boy up the ladder and Sarah had smashed me back into the ground. That she was always holding me back from doing what I knew needed to be done. That I had to get rid of her, so I could be free. And while she was still leaning over me, trying to see if I was all right, trying to help me, I grabbed her hair and wrapped it around and around my hand, pulling her down toward me.”
Frank looked at Nella and his face was like a cracked mirror that could only show grief. His voice wavered. “She must have been so scared. I'd never even raised my voice with her before that. She must have been terrified and heartbroken. Her whole face was almost blank with shock. And I knew, even then, that she was frightened. I knew and I was glad. It was a fierce, hot joy, as if I was filled with vengeance. But for what? She hadn't done anything. And I did the most painful thing I could think to do. I bit her behind the ear. I bit her so hard that her skin and scalp started to come away from her skull.”
Nella felt her stomach boiling away even as she tried not to shudder. Her teeth ached in protest at the image.
“I bit her where I used to love kissing her the most. And I still felt nothing but visceral delight in doing it. I let her hair go though, when she screamed and she leapt back. It took me a few seconds to get up off the floor, because it really had given me a blow to land that hard. Sarah didn't waste those seconds. She found the gun and had it pointed at me. She was crying, begging me to stop. She said I was just sick, if I could calm down, she'd get me to a hospital and everything would be okay. I stood there, this hulk of a thing, my mouth dripping with her blood and I could feel the grin splitting my lips. She was trying to save me, and all I could think of was how good it had felt to bite her. Like it filled some part of me I'd never known was empty before. I could see the end of the gun shaking and I knew she wouldn't be able to do it before I reached her. And I didn't care that I was going to kill her and I didn't care that I was going to die too. All I wanted was that feeling back. There was nothing left in me but this growl, this grunt that grew and grew until I leapt at her and I couldn't even hear her screaming over the growl coming from my chest.
“If there had been any mercy at all left in me, I would have tried for her neck and ended it quickly. Instead I scratched and hit her face. She had lost control of the gun, I was far too close for her to raise it again. She reached behind her and found a glass bottle and smashed it across my face. That's how I got this.” Frank rubbed the purple jag on his cheek. Nella's eyes were too blurry with crying to see his face very well. She wasn't sure she wanted to see it at that moment anyhow.
“The shock of it pushed me back about a foot and Sarah managed to raise the gun. She was still crying. She wasn't angry with me, she wasn't trying to hurt me. She was just crying. And she shot me in the shoulder as I sprang again for her. I wasn't glad anymore. I was angry. Hideously, blindly angry. I snapped her neck with my hands. And she was gone. And I was alone with my rage and that never ending hunger. How could you possibly love somebody like that?”
Nella swept the tears from her face. Frank was looking grimly at her, but Nella didn't think he was really seeing her.
“Dr. Pazzo wasn't lying when he said they found me just a few months later surrounded by the bones of my wife and the boy. I didn't bury them. I didn't even leave them in peace in the silent bunker. I was surrounded by bottles of water and over a year's worth of food. But I ate the bodies as they rotted around me. After the Cure, when I could think rationally again, I realized what I’d done. I wished that they’d left me in the bunker to starve. I didn't want to live, but I believed it was a just punishment, that killing myself would be worse than everything that I'd done before. Every following breath was hell, until I met you. I could feel them inside me, I could remember their taste, the texture of their skin and organs. I could taste it all the time, no matter how many times I scoured my teeth. I could smell the rot on my skin no matter how much I scrubbed. How could you kiss someone like that?”
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