Sideways. Bicep under skull, and Sam almost cried to savor full lungs, cool air flavored by beech, dirt and alder. Brilliant smell. Beautiful. Baffling. Where was he now? Managed half-smile, neglected muscles: needed to stop waking up like this. Global disaster wreaks havoc on continuity of consciousness.
Had a sense of the sky’s morning slant (8:30, 9-ish?), but struck him that it was dead quiet, overwhelming vacancy after the heavy breath and hard stomps of camp. No birds, even. Just blue beyond poplar yellowing. That’s a treat, autumn in the leaves. Something his mother would have said.
Lurched up on propped elbow, lumpy earth. But loathe to crane his neck; checked extremities with one hand, collar down to wrist, chest, belt, hips. Cold, but clothed, canvas jacket, shirt, trousers. His own, even? Fit, but loose. Reached toward hindquarters and pulled from back pocket a stack of scribbled notes in his own hand, hoped-for stuff and QSL; felt boyhood pen knife in his coat. The things he liked to keep on him, still there. Compassion indeed.
Urgency to eat something triggered instant recoil: How hungry? And for whom?
But no, no discernible change in appetite. (Except new terror of roasted fowl.) Sam, parched, thought first of an orange. Could’ve torn teeth right through astringent peel, sweet-tart burst of juice to tongue, sharp scent in his nose.
Climbed to his knees and sat back atop bootheels, rubbed face and considered circumstance: There in the wilds, Sam himself—lank and stubble, black hair in his eyes, the only man-made thing among the trees. Alone, but not for the first time since the dissolution of infrastructure (social and otherwise). But now sick? Though he felt no fever and nothing else awful, as yet, again. Energized enough to sit upright, relief in the chill. Had the illness burrowed somewhere deep in his marrow? Or passed through and out unencumbered?
My god, thought Sam, they’d gone and dropped him inexplicable in God-Knows-Where.
On top of it, realized he might never again taste a real orange.
Up creaky on one knee, then two feet, started to turn a surveying 360, but stopped short when he saw her.
Pint stood, sort of, staring right at him, crooked bend at hips as if in half-bow, forearm planted against a tree. “You’ve got a stick in your hair.” Her voice transformed, low rattle. Pallid. But smirked. “Sleep good?”
His churned thoughts, sickness and affection, inseparable in her down to a molecular level. Life to him a hopeless trap of swings and roundabouts. Reached up without thinking to remove the twig, held onto it gripped fist even as he moved forward, more gravity than purpose, hugged impact.
Her ear to his sternum, gateway to his muffled inner workings. He wrapped elbows around her skull protective, enveloped her head and everything in it. Sam, chin in her hair, closed eyes, exhaled every conscious thought and longed to keep his mind from interfering. She wafted hospital.
Counted down a few heartbeats, and Sam managed in a whisper to translate them for her: “I’m glad you’re here.”
Wordless, and with no merit in standing still, they agreed on westward.
Trod together across their own waning shadows in vague hope to put distance between themselves and recent horrors. Certainly before putting voice to them. But no map for it, and so far no pavement, even.
Slow progress. Pint summoned all strength just to walk—stiff torso forced upright—and even more not to show the effort. The effect some wholly new gait, each pair of steps resonated from head to toe with staccato spots and languid ones. Sam stifled one instinct with another, forewent physical support in favor of bolstered emotions. Pretended not to notice. But still, he worried.
And, somewhere unacknowledged, also seethed.
At a dribble of a semi-clear stream, where they’d drunk full on water they could only assume would kill them slower than thirst—giardia be damned—they quiet for a time sat grappling.
Sam, who often bore silence as his own damn fault, finally broke it. “The time out wasn’t how you said?”
Tension tightened. Not the conversational domino he’d hoped.
Tried again. “When you saw them, lost contact? Said it all happened safe enough. Not so much, right? Apparently?” Forced sick, sober logic to the forefront for the first time. “You’d lost your radio kit. What, not a snag on a branch, then, right? What else got you snagged?”
Pint unmoved. “Not a lie. I wasn’t bitten, dammit, if you’d thought it worked like that.” Her memory pricked by scant, scratching contact through stiff arms, almost overwhelmed by roadkill scent, grabbed and yanked, panting amid an unseen cloud of potential sickness. She in the moment had been all instinct and subconscious, the near meditation of athletic challenge.
Continued her argument. “If there’d been a chance I’d gotten off clean, I was going for it. What, I was just supposed to say, ‘Hey, maybe you should lock me up, kick me out, kill me now?’ I had to persuade. If any damn person had thought I’d got it, you know I’d never even have made it back. You’d’ve been left to think I’d run off. Or worse.” Thought, but didn’t mention, the public benefits of an accomplice inside. Someone to help vouch for her.
She measured his near-stillness–so strange in him, the first bubbles of a rolling boil.
Tacked quieter. “I really didn’t think I’d got it. You know that. I was so healthy; I felt fine. To risk getting you sick? Anyone? You know I wouldn’t do that. ”
Sure enough, Sam spilled over. Couldn’t help but see hubris, knowing her. “My god, didn’t think you’d got it? After all you’ve seen. What it’s done, you know full well. This thing, this thing that savaged the whole lot of…my god, able-bodied people?” Blew through roadblock, the part of him that wanted to comfort, would bend over backwards to fix her, shrank. “Thousands—millions? Not just children or infirmed. Able-fucking-bodied.” Full-on yell. “I mean, my god, what on earth made you think you were that special?”
Launched comets to see impact, but knew he should’ve stopped sooner. Pint cratered from first shout.
A breath between them, Sam’s sigh and her rasp. And then, by way of explanation, his apology: “Pint. I’m sick.”
“No, you’re not.” Resentment where he’d expected sympathy.
“I am. They put me away, too, you know. Alone.” Reconsidered. “Well, for the most part? Anyway, here I am. What they do with …Christ, you know. The ones. Infected.”
“Infected with what, do you think? Every goddamn sniffle means you’re unrecoverable sick?”
“I was, I mean…I mean, certainly fevered.” Doubted himself in claims of withstanding anything substantial. Knew what awful he’d been through, anyway. “Not well. Very, very much not well.”
But she resented his assumptions, having now lived with it within her and a week spent poked and prodded to confirm suspicion, endured sleepless hypothesis and grasped-straw tests and treatments. And after all dumped, albeit blessedly, back alongside him. Bitter Pint knew well her own cellular tempest. “Yeah? This is your expert opinion? What are your symptoms, then, doctor? Wanna munch on flesh, do you?” Sam winced and she jabbed harder. “Staph, strep, ebola, rabies, AIDS, flu, syphilis, fucking mad cow? No chance you could’ve maybe been sick with anything else?”
“Jesus, syphilis?” No idea why this, of those listed, had struck him as most horrible.
“Still swimming in a sea of diseases, Sam, not just the one. They’re not even dying off. Just us.”
He flooded with memories of childhood infirmity—rubella, scarlet fever, sinusitis. How often in his life he’d been horrible sick not with plague. Or, really, sick with aspiring plagues themselves, but all the many ones that had been unsuccessful.
Pint, still poisonous, “And here you thought yourself all special.” Surveyed his expression, added with authority, “You’re not sick.”
Sam a flash of hope. “Are you…OK then?”
“Not in the least.”
No, she was quite sick.
But beneath her current moment’s ire, secretly she celebrated his recovery, had known it to look at him: not bloodshot or disabled; certainly not incommunicative or turned. She said agnostic silent blessing to whatever wonderful in his bones had kept it at bay, whatever anatomic grace had latched it in her but still spared him.
That moment months ago, when a single switch flipped in the DNA of some otherwise innocuous speck of buggy microbe, mild-mannered Sam, unbeknownst even to himself, already carried the genetic wherewithal not to bite.
After a time willing away his thoughts, Sam finally summoned from his left-front hip pocket a long-treasured sweet, some hard, pink candy from a since-lost suitcase, something he’d found in the beginning of things going bad. He’d often thought it a comfort to have; and now, at long last, an even bigger thing to give. He started the wrapper, with a bit of trouble, and held it out for her.
For a moment, thought himself quite romantic, actually.
Pint looked only askance, shrugged without reaching. “Nah. Nothing to me.”
Hurt Sam, like she’d stolen something.
But that quick, she doubled back at him, though she knew it cruel martyrdom. “Can’t taste. Anymore. Sorry.”
Raged internal against her own broken senses, done-for flavor and smell, blurred vision and mumbled ears. Feared herself numb to Sam next. But resolve in her like an injured animal. Would suck on fistfuls of sawdust to stay alive. To keep that one feeling, if none other.