A knock comes on the front door. I freeze. Another knock. I getup from the kitchen table. 2:10 AM? Damn, must’ve lost track of time…
…Secretary of Defense refuses to comment on the location of the heads of FEMA and the CDC… St. Louis has gone completely silent…
The radio said the looting was mostly South Side, but I’m not taking chances here. In my bedroom I grab my 1:1 replica of that sword from Lord of the Rings. It may be a toy, but it’s sharp.
I hold my breath, check the peephole.
I shouldn’t let her in. The bulletins said not to. But it’s her.
I put the sword down and open the door.
“John, oh my God, I’m so glad, I was so scared…”
“Shh.” I take her in my arms. “You’re safe here.”
Gretchen squeezes me back. I nuzzle into her hair. She’s still. After a while she shrugs me away, polite but firm.
I clear Keebler trays and Doritos bags from the kitchen table. Who sticks to a diet at a time like this?
“I’m not hungry.”
Gretchen’s never hungry when she comes over, usually after another fight with Bill. Then I fuss, and wait on her, and ask if she wants to talk about it.
“Yeah.” She smiles. “Thanks, John.”
I microwave a mug of water.
Here’s where she’d normally begin to talk in circles about her feelings. How Bill doesn’t listen or care, how she’s ashamed that she loves him. I’ve been there for Gretchen every time, ever since college. I’m a good listener. Even when it makes me sick inside.
One time I asked Gretchen if I could kiss her. Gretchen said, but we’re friends.
Good friends are good listeners.
(I know Bill wouldn’t have asked permission first. A real man doesn’t, he just takes what he wants.)
“Downtown,” says Gretchen. “Dealing with all this shit.”
Bill’s a firefighter-EMT. Big, fit, useful in all the ways I’m not. A software engineer can’t do much inside a plague zone. Or a friend zone either.
“He told me to take the car and leave,” Gretchen says. “But someone slashed the tires.”
“You call his cell?”
“He didn’t answer, so I walked up here.”
Now only the humming microwave, the crackling radio.
…CDC estimates place the incubation period between thirty minutes and eight hours…
“Well you are always welcome here, Gretchen. I’m just happy you’re safe.”
She nods faintly, looks away, and puts her head in her hands.
…Millennium Park has been set off as a quarantine area… all Chicago metro residents are ordered to wait in their homes for testing and evacuation…
“Fuck,” she whispers. “Fuck.”
I drop a teabag of Lemon Zinger into the mug and slide it over.
We sit in fluorescent light. Gretchen doesn’t touch the tea. The news on the radio repeats. The victims of this plague don’t shamble or swarm or grab chainsaws, they just stand till they fall. For a zombie apocalypse, it’s almost boring…
“Tired,” Gretchen whispers, like the creak of a hinge.
I turn off the radio. I look over at Gretchen, her beautiful chestnut hair, the smooth skin I’m forbidden to touch.
She doesn’t look up. Her breaths are shallow.
“Gretchen!” I yell.
I take a step back, two. From Streeterville up here is an hour’s
walk… she had no mask…
Bitch! I think.
And then, horribly: Obedience to simple commands.
“Gretchen, stand up.”
“Let’s get you to your room.”
She always took, she never gave. She’s probably infected me. But the incubation period: I’ve got time still, thirty minutes at least…
Haven’t I earned a little comfort?
Gretchen trance-walks to the bedroom. I follow, I lock the door behind me.
Real men don’t think like this, I remind myself. But Gretchen never treated me like a real man. More like her eight-year-old cuddle buddy. How many times have I sat though My Neighbor Totoro?
I think about saying: If you don’t want to do this, say no.
But real men don’t ask permission.
“Take off your shirt, Gretchen.”
Her argyle sweater flops to the floor, her Gap button-down next to it.
“And your bra.”
She stands still amid clothes, naked from the waist up, beautiful, so slim. It’s cold – I’ve turned the gas off – but she isn’t shivering. Her nipples aren’t even hard. I touch her chest, smooth, hotter than human, like sheer heat has taken her over. I move in for the kiss…
A knocking sound. The front door.
“Lie down on the bed,” I tell her. She obeys.
Peephole again. Bill’s waiting outside, six feet of uniform and muscle. He’s wearing a clear filtration mask. My eye falls on the sword. I could surprise him…
Bill, the man I hate so much, knocks again. I open the door.
They must’ve agreed to meet.
Bill steps inside, takes off the mask, eyes me hard.
“She’s resting. She was worried.”
Bill’s face softens a little.
“I appreciate it, man,” he said.
“She’s in the guest bedroom. She said she was going to lie down.”
Bill notices the sword, grins.
“Lord of the Rings? Nice…”
He sets his gas mask down next to it.
“I’m taking off,” I tell him. “There’s somewhere I gotta be.”
“Bad idea. The streets aren’t safe.”
“I promised someone.”
“Oh.” Bill shrugs. He sees Gretchen lying still, smiles, turns back to me.
“Thank you again,” he says, and closes the bedroom door.
I throw on my coat, snap on the gas mask, grab the sword. I’m outside, running north on Clark Street.
Winter trees claw Chicago’s sodium sky…
I smile. In that bedroom, breathing that warmth, Bill won’t ask permission either.
A real man wouldn’t, after all.
Nick’s fiction work is forthcoming in Schlock Magazine and the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. He lives and works in Chicago.