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Authors: Edward W Robertson

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BOOK: Breakers
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Walt was glad to see Vanessa sick.
, not fake-sick, be it his forced coughs or some nebulous notion of a weak valve that could collapse on him at any time. Which, incidentally, had cut both ways. On the one hand, she cared again. She didn't stay out so late. She replied to his texts within minutes instead of hours/never. Brought soft tacos from the Ecuadorian place down the block. Held his hand while they watched movies on the couch. Even fucked him, after a two-week drought, gently and apologetically and with an earnestness that let him believe they were back on track.

But she couldn't keep her mouth shut, telling his parents about his "condition" even after he'd asked her not to. They had, in usual fashion, scheduled an appointment for him with one of their own specialists on Long Island.

So when
got sick—well, there was a sweetness to that. A little payback. It kept her in the apartment, too. She depended on
. She just felt too weak, she said, and seeing the way she coughed, one hand clenched to her mouth while the other waved as spastically as if she'd swallowed a moth, well, he could believe it. She wasn't the type to take sick days. After the report of the death in Idaho, that limb-curdling cough worried him, undercutting his pleasure, but then he'd bring her a mug of green tea and she'd smile at him, a smile he hadn't seen in months, that summed up her simple beauty like the green flash of the last second of a tropical sunset, and he'd remind himself people died of the flu every year, especially old people who lived in Idaho, and that she'd be fine in a few days.

But as improved as things seemed, when she went to the bathroom and he checked the drawer where she kept her ticket stubs, the letter was still there.

Three days later, she couldn't sleep from coughing. He paced to the window, considered the traffic. "I'm calling a doctor."

"No doctors," she said, ensconced in the comforter, voice ragged with phlegm.

"You were fine with them when
got sick."

"And you came back thinking you could die at any moment."

"You'd rather I dropped dead without warning?"

"I'd rather you lived to forever and had a spout that dispensed tea."

"That would require a lot more doctors." He sat down on the bed. The heat of her body felt strong enough to cook breakfast. He reached for her hand. "We're going to make a deal. If you're not better in two days, I'm making you an appointment."

She frowned, wrinkling the corners of her glassy brown-green eyes. "That sounds more like an ultimatum than a deal."

"So your fever still hasn't zapped your thinking. I'll have to wait until you're delirious to ask you to change your will."

She rolled her eyes but laughed, thick barks that morphed into a wet and gloomy cough. Two days later, she was no better; sometimes she had to lean on him on her way to the bathroom.

His doctor was booked for the next two weeks.

"That won't work," he told the receptionist over his cell. "In two weeks she'll be better."

"Then what do you need a doctor for?"

"In case she isn't."

"Then we'll see what we can do for her at that time."

"Say it's something serious. Do you know how many times a person can die in two weeks?"

The man sighed. "What's she got? The flu? Just like everyone else? Plenty of water, some orange juice, a decongestant or three, hey. All better."

On the off chance the receptionist was currently operating a telescope, Walt scowled uptown. "Is that your professional opinion?"

"As a state-licensed, Hippocrates-sworn nobody? Absolutely."

"Look, what if she were growing a third hand? Or had blood squirting out of her belly button? There must be a protocol for vaulting the queue."

"Go get her some NyQuil," the man spat. "If she's improved before you're scheduled to come in, please cancel the appointment in advance, will you?"

"Anything to help." Walt hung up. The corner bodega was out of anything resembling NyQuil, Advil, Cold-Eeze, or Flintstones chewable vitamin tablets. Up at Yukio's, where he wasn't due in for another four hours, he fared no better.

"Walt?" Behind the counter, Yukio pushed his white cap to the back of his head. "I didn't think you were due in for another four hours."

"My girlfriend's sick, but apparently we're no longer concerned with profiting off the illnesses of others."

Yukio grinned, ducked under the counter, and flipped a green NyQuil bottle at Walt, who promptly fumbled it, allowing him, as it skittered across the shoeprinted tile floor, to discover the bottle was plastic.

"Been saving it," his boss said. "We sold out days ago. Make it last—we're supposed to get more next week, but the way this city's coughing right now, I'm doubting it."

Walt tapped the bottle in his palm. "Thanks. See you tonight."

He brought the bottle home to Vanessa, then went back out to hit up every bodega, grocery, and Duane Reade he could find. He wasn't a scaremonger—after 9/11, every grocer south of 14th Street had run out of bread, milk, and everything else with an expiration date by the day after, which only made him roll his eyes and swear about having to walk up to Midtown for a fucking bagel—but unlike most of these surgeon-mask-wearing dipshits stocking up on cold medicine and face masks, Vanessa actually
it, and given his proximity to her, he probably would soon, too. In the grocery stores, the white ladies wore transparent plastic gloves. An empty circle appeared around anyone who coughed. He tried three more pharmacies before he found a Walgreens with a single bottle of aspirin. The selfishness of it floored him. Unless the entire goddamn city was sick, no way that should be happening.

But the whole city
sick. A lot of coughing, yeah, a handful of pale faces and people resting against street signs while they waited to jaywalk, but for the most part, you still had your same old hustling crush of pedestrians. Middle Eastern guys still sold fruit from sidewalk stands, and behind them, the Gristedes and Cafe Metros and Chinese joints still saw a constant flush of customers. That meant people were hoarding. Preemptively stealing resources out of the fear there might not be any left if they ended up needing them later on, thus
people went without them now. It made him feel like knifing somebody. Several somebodies. After buying up all the Band-Aids in town.

The squeak and clunk of his shoes on the hardwood woke Vanessa. She squirmed upright, rubbing yellow gunk from her eyes, tucking her greasy hair behind her ears.

"Brought you some aspirin." He rattled the bottle. "Had to go to like eight different places. Half the city's sick and the other half's a bunch of assholes."

She smiled, a beacon beneath her patina of illness. "You're so sweet to me."

And he was. Whatever his faults (and Walt presumed he had a few), whenever someone close to him needed something, he gave without complaint or hesitation. At times it was practically a compulsion, so reflexive Walt didn't always consider it a virtue. Nor did he resent sacrificing his time or money or self-interest. If someone needed, they deserved;. if he could give it, it was theirs.

Vanessa, though, sometimes she forgot it was a sacrifice. She felt entitled. Partially, he blamed it on the acting: when you come to expect eyeballs on your every word and gesture, pretty soon you start to expect the hands and brains behind them to start giving as well. Whatever the case, it had been weeks? months? since she'd expressed more than bare thanks when he did the dishes, took her clothes to the laundromat, or made vindaloo, her favorite, spiced so ruthlessly it made their noses run.

Hearing her now, he almost had to turn away. "It's nothing. People who love each other go to eight million stores for a stupid bottle of aspirin."

"I'm not sure. A hell of a lot of people treat each other like servants who can't even remember which side of the toast the butter goes on." She sat up further, pressing her fingers to her sweat-damp chest. "I hate getting sick, but a part of me loves it. It's the only chance I get to slow down. It's easy to miss what's in front of you when you're always flying past at 90 miles an hour."

He smiled. Vanessa and her aphorisms. "Just remember this when I catch whatever you've got."

"No such luck. I'll dump you down in the boiler room and lower in some water twice a day."

"Twice a day? Ritzy."

He went in for his shift at the bodega, where people bought bread and disposable gloves and herbal supplements that hadn't moved in months. Three days later, with Vanessa more or less the same, he left work at two minutes after midnight and walked down a Broadway that was deserted even by the sparse standards of the hour. As with the hoarding, he hadn't seen Broadway this empty since 9/11, when he'd been able to stand smack in the middle of the street at ten in the morning to take pictures of the buses lining both sides of the street like a hollow aluminum fence. He didn't see another pedestrian until he crossed 8th Street and entered NYU territory, where freshmen smoked on dorm steps and argued books from the benches in Washington Square. The tower-channeled wind smelled as cold as it felt. He stopped for takeout at the Indian place on MacDougal, bombarded by cumin and cardamom. Where decongestants failed, a vindaloo might be the only thing to knock down the wall of phlegm inside her sinuses.

He buttoned his coat collar before returning to the street. From a stoop, a white guy with a shaved head jerked his chin at Walt. "Hey."

After nearly a decade in the city, Walt could have ignored a man dressed in nothing but a trumpet codpiece. He went on by.

Feet scuffed the sidewalk behind him. "Hey, you got a quarter?"

Walt did pass out change to out-and-out bums, no matter how obviously insane or drunk; if anyone deserved a plastic bottle of booze, he figured it was the homeless. Besides, he considered it a karmic investment on the not-insignificant chance he someday ended up streetside himself. But when a guy like this asked for change, a guy in clean jeans and a black bubble jacket without any stains or tape-mended tears, that hit Walt's obnoxious-button. It felt unsavory. Shameless. It wasn't about deserving, it was about demanding.

"Hey, I'm asking you a question. It's an easy one. All you gotta do is stick your hand in your pocket."

Walt glanced back, giving the guy the chance to catch up and circle around in front of him. Walt shifted his takeout to one hand, dug into his pocket, and tried to keep his inner scowl from touching his face. "Yeah, I think I got something."

"That's great. I was gonna go to Gray's, you know, some fruit juice to wash down my dogs, but then I remembered their special went up."

"Yeah." Walt retrieved four of the ten-odd coins in his pocket and jangled them in his open palm, making sure there was at least one non-penny in the bunch. "Hope this helps."

From under his bubble jacket, the man removed a short and shiny blade. Almost sadly, he smiled under the never-dark of the streetlights. "You know what's next."

"What? Come on, man."

The man gestured with his knife. "Exactly. Come on and hand over your shit and we can both go home."

Slowly, Walt reached for his wallet. "There's like five bucks in there. Can't you go rob somebody on 86th Street instead?"

"Know what, I wasn't lying about the hot dogs. I'm fucking starving. Give me the bag, too."

Walt reached up to rub his eyes. The guy feinted at him with the blade, freezing him. He raised opened his palms. "It's for my girlfriend. She's sick."

"So's my grandmother. Buy her some chicken noodle, not this spicy shit." The shaved-headed man pocketed the wallet, snatched the bag, and raised his eyebrows. "We cool?"

"Totally. Want to go play some pool when you finish eating?"

"Don't be a dick," he frowned. The knife flashed, pointing the way. "Get on home now. Your girlfriend needs you."

Walt turned, stone-faced, and crossed the empty street. His cards, his cash, even his
...but what, you're going to get stabbed over five bucks and a curry? It was insane, when you thought about it, how easily the things you owned could be taken away, be it via knife or foreclosure. Incontrovertible proof the whole thing was a sham, wasn't it?

It wasn't so much the physical loss that bothered him. Literally just a few bucks. He could cancel his debit card, order a new one and a new license with a few minutes of phone calls. Could probably call the bank that night, in fact. The wallet itself was some black fake leather knockoff. Finding another in Chinatown would be easier than finding wet in the shower. Aside from that, he'd lost little more than a bunch of useless receipts, unnecessary rewards cards, and expired phone cards he should have thrown away years ago as soon as he got a cell. The only thing he truly regretted losing was a worn-edged photo of a bikinied Vanessa grinning on the shore of Brighton Beach, but knowing her, she'd have plenty more self-photos stashed somewhere.

Two things troubled him. The powerlessness, of course, an itching raw thing that had him imagining himself going back in time, taking the man's knife away, and slipping it so far inside the man's guts Walt could feel the warmth of kidneys on his hand. Still, after years with Vanessa, he was used to feeling that—the powerlessness, that is, not the kidneys.

The worst thing of all was very simple: the disruption of the illusion of safety. That if you were a good person who worked hard and stayed within the law, you'd always be okay. Every time he was reexposed to the truth, the whole city looked different. Hungry. Predatory. And utterly, terrifying indifferent.

He thought about turning back for another curry for Vanessa until he remembered he had no way to get more money. At least, not without resorting to violence himself. He thought they still had some soup in the cupboard. He wouldn't tell her about the curry; no need to worry her, to disappoint her with what could have been. To make himself look weak.

It was nearly 1 AM by the time Walt got home. On the good chance she was sleeping, he slipped the bolts home as softly as he could, easing over the hardwood floor toward the bedroom. By the time he hit the doorway, he could no longer deny the stink: wet and sour, metallic and hot, so thick he could have stirred it with a spoon.

BOOK: Breakers
8.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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