Married To The Apocalypse
Rick knew that if he started something, anything, if he just picked up some new project and ran with it, the question would go away. Stopping, that was the problem. They’d told him in school, in the cross-country races, don’t stop. Slow down, sure, get your wind, slow to a crawl if you have to, but don’t stop. If you come to a full halt, the body just takes a step back, has a look see, and says that’s it, no way, no more. It’s that step back, that extra perspective. Fine, see the big picture if it helps. But in life, when it’s your life, the big picture rarely helps. It’s too damn big, too incomprehensible. It paralyses you is what it does. Keep your head down, keep stepping, don’t lose that momentum.
In the summer of ’13, the summer that wouldn’t quit, Rick took a step back. They’d come to Holden in March, the ides of March. Mary had scouted the place out when it seemed like the job would take them out of Maine and set them down in Idaho. The job did that. On occasion, like a big wave, it would lift them lock, stock, kitchen sink, and barrel, and strand them on a new shore. On this occasion, it was the wide, bland, corn-belt blah of perfect Idaho.
“I’ve found the house.” That’s how she put it. Not `our house’, or `a house’, not a possibility, or a prospect, but `the house’.
“You have, huh?” Rick set his hands on her hips. That still did it for him. Just to feel the span of her between his two hands, and when she moved he’d want her.
“And I’m going to like it am I?” He raised an eyebrow. Mr. Spock taught him that one a long time gone.
“Don’t know, don’t care.” She twisted from his grasp with an impish smile.
And that was that. They’d come to the house in a March gale, and found it huddled by a lakeside, a ways off from route 65 where it starts to cut through the low hills east of Holden. Rick liked it, of course. What wasn’t to like? A long, wood-shingled construction on one floor, a summer project for some idle rich man between the wars. The view from picture windows gave onto the wind-flattened lake Musoo, leaden beneath a pale sky. They had made love on the floor by the windows, and house creaked around them.
They lived outside Holden by choice. Rick had been a new arrival in enough small towns to know that you lived outside them wherever your house might actually sit. Holden wasn’t so small that the young couple by the lake would be a topic of conversation, or that curtains would twitch in surveillance whenever they passed, but it was small enough that they were noticed.
“Hot enough for you?”
“Sure is.” Rick wondered how many times the UPS guy had used that line today.
“Sign here, and again here, please.”
Rick signed, and again. “Thanks.”
Rick took the package and watched the postman head back to his van, his shadow black on the sun-soaked ground. The summer had arrived a week ago, as if God had opened the blinds all of a sudden, and the heat hadn’t wavered since.
He weighed the package in his hands. Heavy for its size. Big enough to hold a football… or a head. He grinned and gave it a slight shake. What’s in the box? He set it on the table by the door and went to get a coffee.
What’s in the box?
That’s the way with it is with questions. If you don’t feed them, they’ll die eventually, but give them just a crumb of curiosity and they grow, and grow. The more you give them, the hungrier they get, until they start to gnaw on the hand that feeds them. Until they start to consume you.
What’s in the box? Rick didn’t care so much. He’d know when Mary came home and opened it. Rick had a bigger question biting him.
Death might still ride a pale horse, but Pestilence drives a fuck-off big mustang. Olive green. Pestilence moves with the times, and she has a lot of places to be.
“You never have!”
Deke hadn’t, but he shrugged like it didn’t matter a toss whether James believed him or not. “If you say so.”
“You haven’t have you, Deke?” Roy squinted at him, a hand to shade his eyes from the sun, as if he could read the truth on Deke’s face. “Been in?”
“He hasn’t.” James again. The only James in a class with four Jimmies.
“His pop works there you know,” Roy said.
Deke smiled. Roy always believed. He tried hard to believe, whatever crap was spun out in front of him. “Yeah, he does.” He pointed to a large gray building behind the gently steaming oxygen storage cylinders. “In there.” It might even be true. His dad worked somewhere on the site.
A quiet moment stretched between them. Deke felt the silence of the empty country press him. Holden lay too far down the track to hear the sawmill or the machines at the granary, only the wind underwrote the faint hiss of the cylinders.
James spat into the dust and turned away. Three steps and he had his face up against the wire of the outer fence. “Nobody gets on the site. Not without a special pass. They don’t let kids in.”
“If you say so.” Deke shrugged again. It had been a stupid lie to start with, but something about the way James discounted it made him want to be true, more each time the kid opened his mouth.
“Why’re the chimneys so tall?” Roy asked, squinting again, hair lank with sweat.
“Who knows.” Deke scooped a rock off the dirt and tossed it at the nearest of the red `Biohazard’ signs clipped to the fence. He reached for another and stopped. Up on the ridge behind them where the road ran, a car had pulled up. He’d not heard it arrive.
“They didn’t tell you when you were in there?”
Deke scowled at James. If he’d still had the rock in hand… James looked back. He didn’t seem to feel the heat. Where Deke and Roy were tan with dust, James was as pristine as he’d been two hours back coming out his front door.
“We could get in, and I’ll show you the place,” Deke said. He blinked in surprise. It was like his lips had made up their own mind without consultation.
“You kill me!” James shook his head and turned to go.
Up on the ridge the big car pulled away.
“Hi Dad.” Shula held the shop door open with her shoulder and eased Little Ed’s pushchair through.
“You brought the Ed-monster to see his grandpop!”
The Ed-monster reached out for the bananas. Shula twitched the pushchair out of arms’ reach.
“The boy can have a banana if he wants.”
“He doesn’t want to eat one, Dad. He wants to see what they’ll all look like on the floor.”
“Now that he gets from that husband of yours.” A placatory grin behind the whiskers. A Dale Winters special.
Shula grinned back and pushed Little Ed across to the potatoes. She loaded a couple of pounds into a paper sack.
“That’s it? Just potatoes?” Dale sneezed into his hand. A wet one.
“That’s all. We just wanted a walk really,” Shula said. “Sounds like a nasty cold.”
Her father shook his head and reached into a pocket for a handkerchief. “Came on just now. Probably an allergy.”
He weighed the potatoes by eye and keyed it into his till, a mechanical one that Shula reckoned to be older than she was.
“My day for bits and pieces.” He did a mock sigh. “Had that new woman in before you, the one from up by the lake. Wanted three carrots!”
“Paid by check, too. Three carrots and she wanted to pay by check. I told her I had to charge her five dollars just to cash it.”
“Some folk don’t know what to do with money.” Shula frowned. “What’s she look like.”
“Pretty.” Dale paused and looked up for a moment. Shula knew the look. The kind men, all men, throw into the middle distance when they’re replaying a woman’s ass.
“That’s it? Pretty?”
The grin behind the whiskers again. The Dale Winters special had deflected her mother’s hardest looks for thirty years, and Shula had nothing on her Ma.
“Red hair, kinda pale, skinny thing. You’d know if you’ve seen her.” Fifty cents rang up on the till. “Oh and get this. She’s Mary Tee. I asked her what the Tee stood for of course.” He sneezed again, half laughing.
Shula didn’t laugh. “I’ve seen her. She’s got some big shiny car that must do a mile per gallon. Nearly killed me and Little Ed up on Yew Street. She comes in here waving her checkbook again, you tell her I’m not happy!”
Shula exchanged two quarters for the potatoes and hooked the bag on the back of Little Ed’s chair. “A stew tonight, something that’ll simmer if Ed’s kept late at the site.”
“Seems like they’re keeping them all late at the site recently,” Dale said.
“Yuh-huh.” Shula nodded, aiming Little Ed’s chair at the door. “Oh, and if you see Deke about, tell him I’m looking for him. But don’t mention his chores.”
She headed out into the street and the sun hit her, an oven heat that made her want to turn away. Without prompting, an image of the red-haired woman crossed her vision, pale skin and black shades, hunched behind the wheel of the car that almost mowed them down on Yew Street. There had been somebody in there with her, in the passenger seat. Shula couldn’t picture anything about the passenger, nothing except a white grin, jack-o-lantern wild, and wide enough for a Cheshire cat.
In his chair, Little Ed surprised himself with a fierce sneeze and started to cry.
The bell again.
Rick heaved himself from his armchair and left the day-time TV talking to itself.
The woman behind the door must have been standing with her nose a half inch from the wood. Rick found himself eye to eye with her.
He stifled a yelp of surprise. “Hello?”
Her smile, which had been face-achingly broad to start with, widened to display a mirthful gleam of white enamel.
Rick gathered himself. “Can I help you?”
She had no color to her, no brightness save for the white blaze of too many teeth. Her hair fell in a lank sheet of dusty blonde, her jacket and pants a play of ivory and gray.
“You can see me?” she asked, her grin cracking impossibly wider. She breezed past into the hall.
“I don’t have to invite you in then?” Rick shook his head and closed the door against the heat.
“I’m not that sort,” she said. “Call me Enza.”
Rick followed her into the lounge. “Make yourself at home, why don’t you.”
Enza made for the sofa and settled in a comfortable sprawl. She watched him with pale eyes and unaccountable glee.
“So, Enza,” Rick said. “What can I do for you?”
“Mary sent me. She’s busy in town. Wants a package that was due to be delivered today.”
Rick glanced at the mantelpiece. Enza followed the look. “That’s it, huh? Coolies.”
“I guess.” Rick frowned. He’d hoped they’d have some time in Holden before it all started up again. These days with Mary it all seemed to be about the job.
Enza got to her feet. She was quick. They reached the fireplace together. Rick got his hand to the box first. Enza lay her pale fingers over his, sickly white on sun-brazed brown. Neither of them moved for a moment, but something crackled between them. Rick could feel it in his skin where her fingers held him, a bitter tingle, as if roots were seeking a way in. Then it faded.
“Why…” Enza’s everlasting smile faltered.
“It just doesn’t,” Rick said. “That stuff never works with me. Iron constitution or something. I’ve never had a sick day in my life.”
“I can see why she likes you.” The smile returned. “Mary always loved a challenge.”
Rick shrugged. He took the box from the mantelpiece and held it to his chest. “I thought I’d talk to Mary about this first. I mean, this is a big deal, what we’re up to here.”
“She said, `Enza, get me the box’, so I’m here to get the box.”
Rick pursed his lips and held the box tight.
“Give it up, man. When She asks for something, I do it. You don’t fuck around when she’s working. You should know that. And you don’t mess with me either.” Enza set her hand on Rick’s, again the digging prickle, and the fade. Her smile fell and then grew. “I’ve got a big family, Richard. Brothers and sisters… twelve of us primes, and more cousins than I can remember. I’m sure there’s one of them that could get under your skin. So be a good boy, and hand over the fucking box.”
She snatched at it. Even though Rick was ready for her, Enza was too fast. Somehow he lost his grip. For a heartbeat, they both juggled the box, and a moment later it hit the floor. The top gave with a rip of tape, and a dark something rolled out. A dark-haired something.
“Jesus Christ!” Rick took a step back. “It’s a head.”
A single eye opened, the brow above it arching. “Give that man the Weiner International prize for stating the obvious.” The second eye opened and the head gave Rick a slow dark smile. “Don’t just stand there, man. Pick me up.”
Tee is for Tetanus. Tee is for Tuberculosis. Tee is for Typhoid. Tee is for Tachycardia. Tee is for Thrombosis. Tee is for Tennis fucking Elbow, if you like. Tee is for Two. Me and You. Till death do us part.
Deke pulled at the chain-link fence again. It slipped his grip and his hands came away orange with rust.
“It almost went that time,” Roy said.
Deke shook his head. Roy surely was a believer. The fence didn’t have an ounce of give in it. “We’ll try someplace else.”
He walked the perimeter, Roy in tow. It seemed an empty exercise now that James had left, but his promise tied him to the task. That, and Roy’s unreserved faith.
Deke took slow steps, trailing a hand across the fence wire. Something about James burned him. Worse with him gone, maybe. It seemed to Deke that every bad decision he’d ever made had been witnessed by a James. Not this James maybe, but some calm and collected soul, eminently sensible and tutting their disapproval in just the way that made him want to do whatever it was all the more.
His fingers scraped across a rough patch on the smoothness of the wire.
“What?” Roy squinted at the wire.
“The whole thing’s rusty,” Roy said. He wiped at his nose.
“Yeah, but it’s got deep here. My Pop says rust’s a disease, like cancer. It eats its way in.”
Deke hooked his fingers through the link and pulled.
He thought of James’ face, clean and bored. He pulled again, ignoring the pain.
“Motherfucker!” He hauled on it, throwing his body back at the scrub behind.
And suddenly he was on his ass on the dusty ground with bloody hands and Roy dancing in front of him shouting, “You did it! You did it!”
“Of course.” And Deke was through the hole, ignoring the ache in his fingers and the clutch of the wire as he squeezed by.
He looked back to see Roy still standing on the outside, sniffing. “C’mon. I’ll show you around.” I’ll show fucking James is what I’ll do.
“If we get caught–” A wet sneeze cut him off.
And Roy was through, too.
Mary rolled up to the gate. The guard box housed a single man, feet up, head inches from a table fan, a fat book on his lap. Beyond the entrance, past the box, Mary could make out two small figures tugging at the perimeter fence.
Somehow the guard hadn’t noticed that a big mustang was now idling in front of his post, its polished grill mere inches from the barricade bar. Mary smiled and stepped out. The road felt sticky under her boot heels. She should have worn pumps, but Rick liked the boots. Her cowgirl-porn boots he called them.
She stepped around the barricade and laced her fingers through the fence wire. Tough stuff, cold extruded iron with a hint of tungsten. Three hundred yards further around the perimeter the two boys were still fighting the fence. Mary thought there had been three of them when she drove by earlier with Enza. She gave a shrug. Around her fingers rust blossomed. It ran along the wire like ice across a winter pond. The chain links around her hands fell away in a dry scatter. The corruption spread. Ripples on a lake. Ivy over old stone.
Mary turned away. She crossed to the guard box and tapped on the window.
“Hey!” Another tap. “What’s a girl got to do to get served around here?”
“Jesus!” The guard jumped, almost going over backward in his chair. He took her in with eyes that still held a hint of whatever world he’d been exploring in his book.
“Sorry ma’am, didn’t hear you coming.” He looked at her car and blinked, as if wondering quite how he hadn’t.
Mary smiled. “No problem, honey. At least you’re reading. Most times you guys are checking out this month’s playmate. What you got there?”
He held it up somewhat sheepishly. “War and Peace.”
“War? Now him, I like. Had some good times there. Peace? Never met the bitch. Keeps a low profile these days.”
The guard frowned, losing his surprise and his good humor in equal measure. Beneath his mop of blackest hair he was young, not more than twenty, good looking in an earnest sort of way. “Do you have an appointment? Miss…”
“Mrs,” Mary corrected. “Mary Tee. I kept my maiden name.”
“Uh huh.” All business now. “And the `T’ stands for?”
A shrug. “Toothache, if you like.”
The guard’s frown deepened. “Look, Lady, the Center for Disease Control keeps this place under military protection for a reason. Either you got an appointment or you got a ticket to leave the way you came. Which is it?”
“I’m invited. You should let me in, Robert. You really should.”
“How–” Robert slapped a hand to his jaw. “Jesus. Man, that hurts.”
“Nothing personal, kid.” Mary walked to her car, heels clinging to the tacky road-surface. “You really should let me in now.”
“Oh, man.” The pain spread deep into his gums, like razor wire digging along the marrow of his bones. One hand waved her through.
Mary eased the Mustang under the bar as it swung up to admit her. Off in the distance, she could see the two boys had found their way through the weakened fence. On Robert’s console, a red light blinked its warning, but Robert had other things on his mind.
She was halfway to the main building complex when her mobile started to buzz against her hip.
She fished it out, one hand on the wheel, and flipped it open. “Mary Tee?”
“We’ve got to talk. I’m at the house. There’s a fucking head on the floor.”
“Rick, good to speak to you, too.”
“Whatever. There’s a person’s head on our lounge floor.”
“Hon, I’m kinda busy right now.” She had a hand on the wheel, a hand on her phone, and her eyes on the buildings ahead, searching.
“It’s talking to me. Says it’s called Eric. It won’t stop talking.”
“I can imagine how that is.” She steered one-handed, fixed on building 7 now, a big and windowless gray box.
“One of your little friends is here, too. Says we’ve got to get the box to you ASAP.”
“The would be nice, yes.”
“Well you could have warned me! I just opened the door and–”
“In flew Enza,” Mary finished for him.
“Influenza? Oh come on! What kind of–”
“Humanity gets the kinds of physical manifestations it deserves, darling. You know that.” Mary pulled the car up outside Virology Lab 3. “Now why don’t you and Enza get yourselves out here. With poor Mr. Bola safely in his box. And be careful around Enza, she’s one of the twelve.”
No answer, just a squeal of brakes, a shrill `Fuck’, and static.
Mary closed her phone and shrugged. Soon twelve would be thirteen. It had taken a while. Too long in fact. But once she finally had thirteen primes the endgame could start. There might be four horsemen but at the end of days Mary planned to be the only one that mattered.
Fact: All poets before Plato thought of love as a disease.
Quote: You given me the fever,
I got you under my skin,
You given me love-blindness,
This broken heart’s done in.
– Moses `Duke’ Domino
Fact: The ancient Romans thought love was a sickness.
Quote: My love is as a fever longing still – for that which longer nurtures the disease.
– William Shakespeare
Shula glanced at Little Ed, secure in his car seat, adjusted her mirror and pulled out into the traffic. Her Ford Mercury wheezed a little as she accelerated. Getting old, like Dad back in his grocery shop.
The lights held her at the interchange. Shula watched the red, her mind running over the day. Dad in his shop, growing gray with just the Dale Winters special to remind her he was young once. The smile still took her back, to when she was a child, to the vital man who threw her in the air, so high she almost wet herself. And Deke. She thought about her boy, out there somewhere, getting into trouble, a wild one with a streak of angry hurt in him. Shula didn’t know where that had come from. Maybe folks got born that way. And Ed, her own sweet Ed, tied to a desk up at that research center, bound by a fear of cutting loose.
A crash shook Shula from her reverie, a noise louder than anything reasonable could be.
She found herself face to face with the steering wheel, pressed hard enough to take the grip pattern into her skin. For what seemed an age, she wondered why nothing hurt. When at last the pain started up, not in her head where she expected it, but in her shins, she wondered why the hell her airbag hadn’t gone off.
A new thought smacked into her head, like an unseen pass in any ball game you care to mention. Little Ed!
With arms that felt at once too heavy and too soft to be hers, Shula thrust herself back off the steering wheel.
Little Ed drew in a breath, as though he’d been holding it all the while, and started laughing.
BANG! BANG BANG!
Shula tried to shake the fuzziness from her head. Somebody was hammering on her window. She reached out for the switch, and on the third attempt the window rolled down.
“Jesus, lady! Are you ok? I’m sorry. I really am. Oh Jesus, you’ve got a baby with you…”
She shook her head again. The man at the window reminded her a lot of Ed. The same square jaw and wide blue eyes.
“Can you open the door? We should get you out of there.”
“I… I think I’m OK.” By her side, Little Ed subsided into chuckles. The shock took her without warning, as if the force of the rear-ending had been stored up and now struck her in the chest — a sledgehammer blow. The tears just ran out of her.
“Hey, don’t cry, Miss.” He looked more terrified than she felt. “Open the door and we’ll get you out now.”
The door gave at the third tug after she’d unlocked it. Shula struggled out, half carrying Little Ed, half dragging him, supported by the man outside. A pale woman in white stood close by, watching, a cardboard box in her hands.
“He’s OK? The baby’s OK?”
“Wh… yeah, I think so.” Shula held Ed up for inspection and tried to sniff away her tears. “You’re all right aren’t you, Sweety?”
She looked around to get her bearings. The lights at the Sherman interchange. Green now. A simple fender bender. The rest of the traffic was just going around, leaving the two of them alone to exchange insurance details.
“Hell, I’m so sorry–”
“Wasn’t there a woman with you?” Shula asked.
“What? A woman?”
Shula positioned Little Ed on her hip and made a slow turn on the spot.
“Sure. With a box.”
The man frowned. “Do you see a woman here?”
Shula glanced back at the man’s car. Empty. “Sorry, I’m still shaken up, I guess.”
“No look, it’s me that should be sorry. I saw the lights change and I just went for it. Rear-ended you. Entirely my fault.” He got his wallet out and fished a card from one of the compartments. “Rick Hippocra. It’s one of those weirdy Greek names, don’t worry. Anyhow, all my insurance stuff is on there.”
Shula took the card, not sure what to say.
Rick turned to go, then turned back. “You’re sure you’re OK? The baby’s good? You don’t need a doctor?”
“We’ll be all right,” Shula said. “It wasn’t all you. I should have seen the lights change. I was miles away.”
Rick reached out to touch Little Ed’s hand. His eyes were bright, not far off crying, Shula thought.
“Thank God.” Rick manufactured a grin for Ed. “You know, if I’d hurt him…” He shook his head.
Shula clutched the baby a little tighter to her, and as she did a sneeze tore through him. “He’s fine,” she said. “Just this cold to worry about now. It’s come on so fast, and he’s getting a temperature with it. I should get him home now, before it turns into flu or something.”
Rick turned away at that, a hard look on his face. He went to his car without a word. Shula was still putting Ed back into his seat when Rick pulled out and passed them by.
Shula did up the center buckle, letting her fingers figure it out. `Do you see a woman here?’ That’s what he said. An odd way of answering her question.
She climbed into her seat and started the engine up. A quick adjustment of the mirror and she pulled away. There had been a woman. She was sure of it. A pale woman with a smile like fever, and a cardboard box in her hands.
“I want you to let that baby go.”
Rick didn’t look over at Enza, but he could feel her in the passenger seat, he could feel the sharp pricking of her presence, like the tickle of a cough that’s going to leave your throat raw.
“Sure you do,” she said, amiably.
“You’re going to let that baby go,” he said.
“In 1918, Rick, I went for a walk,” Enza said. “A little stroll across nations. You know who gave me my marching orders?”
Rick kept his eyes on the road. Something about the way that woman tightened her arms around her baby, something about it wouldn’t let him go.
“It was your own little Mary,” Enza said. “Mary Tee. Your own little Typhoid Mary. Mary mild. Pestilence herself in her big ol’ car. Only it wasn’t a car then. She rode the trains in those days. And the ships before that, down in the holds with the rats. Oh, it’s been a while since the horse, but it’s hard to keep up with you people sometimes.”
“You know how many corpses I left?” Enza cut across him. “In the winter of 1918?”
“Do tell.” A dark voice from the box in her lap.
“Twenty million,” Enza said. “Did you ever count to twenty million, Rick? Did you? You didn’t? Well, don’t talk to me about one baby. Not interested.”
“Did you ever get sick, Rick?” Eric from his box again, relishing the rhyme.
“I’ve been sick,” he said. He kept his eyes on the road, on the white lines flashing by. Somehow they reminded him of the kid, the soft whiteness of baby arms.
“I thought you were immune?” Enza said. She leaned toward him, her grin wider, interested.
“Plague came to visit. A house call back when we lived in Arizona.” Rick couldn’t repress a shudder. Some nights he’d wake with a start and the image of that black figure in the doorway. “I had a few bad nights of it before I shook it off. And one time… Well, let’s just say that the worst of you guys can sometimes get one over on me for a while, but I shake it off in the end.”
“Tell me more,” Enza said.
“Tell me why you’ve got a head in a box.”
“It’s a new thing,” Eric spoke up for himself. “You clever little humans have been getting up to all sorts these last hundred years.”
“The men in white coats,” Enza said. “If they can grab hold of a disease, they try to cripple it.”
“Then they send it out harmless, so everyone can get used to it,” Eric said. He didn’t sound pleased.
“Immunization!” Rick saw the center up ahead, tall fences with razor wire surrounding a clutch of drab buildings.
“That’s what they call it,” Enza said.
“You’re an ebola vaccine.” Rick risked a glance down at the box. The head inside regarded him with black eyes.
“Mary’s going to make me whole again.” Laughter bubbled from the box. “Going to make me better than whole! Going to make me ready for prime time!”
An oxygen cylinder taller than a two-story building stood outside Virology Lab 3, its lower third and the feeder pipes crusted with frost and steaming gently in the Idaho heat. Narrower pipes, black with insulating foam, led away into the building. Beside the oxygen cylinder stood a small one, the words `Liquid Nitrogen’ stencilled on its side. The first of Mary’s carrots fitted snugly into the emergency vent valve of the larger cylinder, the second blocked the nitrogen cylinder’s port after a little pushing. The third she took a bite from before tossing over her shoulder.
“This place creeps me out,” Roy said. He sniffed and wiped at his nose, leaving a snail’s trail of slime across the back of his hand.
“It’s just buildings.” Deke shrugged. It creeped him out, too. Where was everyone?
They hurried along in the shadow of a long windowless wall. Pipes ran the length of the brickwork, branching into a confusion of smaller tubes, like the veins in a wrestler’s arm. In some of them, Deke could hear whatever it was inside, whispering through the dark interior.
They reached the far end, and stopped at the corner.
“Is it me, or has it just gotten cold?” Deke could see the gooseflesh on his arms.
“Feels too hot to me.” Roy sounded bunged up, like he had a quart of phlegm bubbling in his lungs.
They turned the corner together.
Two huge cylinders towered over them, the pipes around their base thick with frost and radiating a fierce cold that didn’t so much soften the heat of the day as flip it one eighty into something just as hard. The wheel valve on the feed line into each was rusted shut. A tiny jet of gas plumed out of a joint close to Deke and the whole cylinder seemed to tremble.
Roy stooped. “What’s this?” The word `this’ came out `dis’ through his pinched nose.
“A carrot.” Deke frowned at the teeth marks. “Half a carrot.”
A large hand descended on his shoulder. “Oh boy, are you two ever in trouble!”
Mary moved along the corridors pausing at each junction and then taking the turn that most appealed. They reminded her of hospital corridors. Long, antiseptic, cheap linoleum worn by too many busy feet. She had spent a lot of time in hospitals.
Twice she passed people, a man in a white coat, a woman in a business suit with coffee in one hand. They didn’t spare her a glance. The place seemed pretty empty, by and large.
She reached a water cooler outside a common room. Two young men stood on either side, plastic cups to their lips.
“Like a ghost ship here today.” The taller man tossed his cup into the bin.
“You and me against the world, Bud. The flu’s got everyone else.” The shorter one shot a look in Mary’s direction, and frowned. He blinked twice and shook his head.
Folks didn’t normally see Mary unless she wanted them to. It made crossing the road tricky on occasion, but it had its uses. Some people had the knack for it though. People who knew how to look.
“Doctor Ed’s still here, of course,” the tall man said. “Stirring his potions.”
“That’s Doctor Winters to you, Bud. Doctor Ed’s a talking horse.”
“That’s Mister Ed, you doofus…”
Mary moved on.
She came to the door she wanted. A white portal. Enamelled stainless steel, rubber, and pneumatics. Hermetically sealed. A small round window, triple glazed, gave a view of the laboratory beyond, a wide room with half a dozen Perspex cells, each with its own air supply.
Mary set her hand to the door. She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again, harder, in the regular way, and in a wide variety of irregular ways. No give, not even an ounce. If ever there were a door designed to keep Pestilence out, this was it.
She pressed her face to the glass. Way back in a cell behind the others, she saw movement. A figure in a bubble suit, trailing an air hose. Pestilence smiled to herself. In the same way Death knew his clients, she knew her foes.
Inside the sealed lab a red light began to flash on a phone by the far cell. A voice rang out on speaker.
“Jesus! Shit. Sorry, sorry, nearly dropped… never mind. Yes?”
“I need you to come to reception, Doctor Winters.”
“I can’t. I’m in the middle of something, and I’m the only one on right now.” The figure moved toward the phone on the desk.
“We need you here, sir.”
“It can’t wait?”
“Sir, I’ve got two boys here. One of them says he’s your son–”
“That’s the one. And–”
“What the hell is Deke doing on site?”
“I found them at the cylinders. I think they may have broken them, but I can’t raise maintenance, or front gate. I’m the only security this side of the site, and until you come for your boy, I’m stuck watching him. Unless you want me to handcuff them to a radiator?”
“Just wait. I’m coming out. Be there in five.”
The suited figure came by stages through the Perspex airlock from his study chamber, out beneath a fine spray of corrosive detergents, and to the main door, disrobing as he went. The disconnected air-supply tube trailed behind him. He hung the suit on its peg alongside the door, shed the boots, peeled the gloves off into a biohazard vent in the wall.
Mary waited. The door opened with a sigh that sounded like relief. Dr. Winters hurried through, a frown creasing his forehead beneath a shock of black hair. He didn’t look at her, didn’t see her at all, didn’t so much as flinch when she slipped past him into the airlock. He sealed the door behind her, allowing her to open the next door and enter the laboratory.
Pestilence walked between the lab tables. She trailed her hands over their sterile surfaces and corruption bubbled where her fingers passed. Her children watched from within their prison cells, some held in glass vials, some in cultures, in cloudy solutions, some behind the pink eyes of white rats shivering with the early stages of their doom.
Pestilence loved her children. They might be legion, they might be transient, but they were hers. Warriors all. Locked in combat with flesh. A war older than humanity, almost as old as life, almost as old as Death. And first among her children, she loved her primes, raised from amid a host of mild ailments to become her captains, the harbingers of the end days. A dozen of them, the last elevated to his station in a year when the gas-lamp had been new technology. Time to complete the set before humans got too clever for disease.
“These humans…” she spoke aloud, taking a test tube from a long rack as she passed. “They’re different. It’s always been a war, my children, pestilence against flesh… but these humans, they’ve made their own battle ground.”
She unstoppered the tube and took a swig. Typhoid, an old favorite, sweet on her tongue, a memory of sickness running through man, woman, and child, swimming in the very water that made them. You might not be able to stop Death, but on a hot day, in a typhoid summer in old New York, Pestilence had made her sister run to keep up.
The humans had made a new battleground, with their microscopes, their vaccines, their bitter little pills, CAT scans, and stem cells. And in a sense, they’d made her, too. Pestilence couldn’t pinpoint her first conscious thought, but it had been in Africa, about two hundred thousand BC.
She reached Dr. Winters’ research chamber. A headless body rose from the table within, scattering glassware, and executed a deep bow.
“Why there you are, Ebola,” Pestilence said. “Well, hurry up. We’re going to do what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do. And when we’ve put you back together again… you’ve got some work to do. You’ll be my thirteenth apostle and we can begin the end – at long last we can begin the end. You’re going to be very busy.”
They met at the front gate. Rick and Mary – Pestilence to her kindred – face to face at the rusting gates of Holden Research Center for Communicable Diseases. Rick had Enza with him, and a head-sized cardboard box in his hands. Mary had a warm smile, a gingham summer frock, and a headless body following at her heels.
“Baby, you brought it! You’re the best.”
Rick crossed his hands over the box. He frowned, shaking his head as if to bring some loose memory to the surface.
Mary held her hands out. “Darling, the box.”
Behind her, thirty yards back along the dusty road to the complex, three figures lay in the dirt, a man in a white coat, black hair, and two boys, coughing weakly.
“Mary, we’ve got to talk about this.”
“We will, Darling. Later.” She kept her hands out.
“You’re going to let ebola loose? Here in Holden?”
“Holden?” She wrinkled her nose. “Well, yes. Idaho. The Western States.”
“The Western States…”
“At least.” She grinned. “He’s to be the thirteenth prime – I’ve got to let him practice.”
“I’m not him.”
“I can’t let you do it,” Rick said.
Mary gave him her look. The one she reserved for when he’d said he would load the dishwasher and four hours later he hadn’t. The one for when he farted and blamed it on the dog they didn’t have.
“We’ve talked about this, Rick,” she said. “Death and taxes. It’s all about inevitables. Darkness defines light. Disease defines health. People die every day, in their tens of thousands. A slip from a ladder, a knife in the kidney, a cough, a sniffle, a carcinoma, a car crash, it’s going to happen. It’s the job. So why not here, why not now, why anywhere but on your doorstep?”
Rick didn’t have an answer. Not one he could put into words. He knew the logic, and the numbers. Perhaps if she hadn’t said car crash she’d have had him. He didn’t have an answer, but he had a baby’s laughter ringing in his ears, and the frightened eyes of a mother as she carried her tiny son from her car.
Mary took a step toward him.
Rick took a step back.
In the summer of ’13, the summer that wouldn’t quit, Rick took a step back.
“I’m sorry,” Rick said.
“I know you’re what it’s your nature to be, Mary.”
“I don’t understand.” And she didn’t. It was an odd feeling. Pestilence hadn’t felt that way since the Earth was cooling its way toward oceans and an atmosphere.
“We’ve shaped you as much as you’ve shaped us. I know that.”
“What’re you saying?” And just like that she didn’t want to know. “Give me the box, Babe. Give me the box and we can just go home.”
“The thing is,” Rick said. “The thing is that in the end, I always shake it off.”
“Give me the box.” A soft pleading.
“You got under my skin, Mary. I had you bad. Like a fever.”
“I loved you.”
“You still do…”
“I was lovesick.”
“But I shook it off.”
Rick turned his back on her. To his left, Enza faded away, her smile lingering like Carroll’s cat’s. The box in his hands became light, empty.
He walked slowly to his car. Opposites attract. Positive and negative, ying and yang, Charles and Diana, if you like. Sickness and Health.
Rick walked away. The people of Holden would still die. The reaper’s scythe would still fall, one way or another, but not this way, not today. Today they got lucky.