Authors: Deirdre Gould
She was surprised to see that the store was almost as badly ransacked as all the others. She realized that most of the books were being burnt to stay warm, because a few of the wooden shelves were broken into splintered slabs and piled in a corner near the door. She looked around at the few remaining books and eventually found one on natural cures. In other days, it might have made her roll her eyes in private. There was nothing, in Ruth’s mind, better than modern medicine. Sure, people had used natural remedies for thousands of years, but the life expectancy of those people was decades shorter before medicine and technology made giant leaps forward. But now— now it wasn’t just a way to stall for time. Now it was an entire book full of things Ruth might have overlooked. A handbook for a city girl after the city was gone. It was armor against Bill and his despair. It was a way to find a cure, maybe. Or for now, at least to ease an upset stomach. But where was she going to get these plants in the middle of winter? Even in the spring she could go weeks without getting a glimpse of grass between the pavement. She shrugged off her doubt. For now, the book was enough.
She returned home, ready to face the misery that waited for her.
By the time the storm had cleared, Bill and Charlie had recovered. But something had changed. She didn’t know if it were her own resolve that had weakened or if Bill was more depressed than before, but both of them knew that they couldn’t go on as they were for much longer. Neither one brought it up.
Ruth began going to the botanic gardens, though the usual early thaw didn’t arrive and the streets were a treacherous mix of icy crust and decaying metal cars. She saw few of the Infected, anymore. Most often they would surprise her by stumbling out of an alley or snarling at a feral dog. It wasn’t hard to escape them. Even though they could run as fast as she could, they were weak and clumsy, and Ruth simply threaded in between car wreckage until they lost interest. Most of the Infected that were on the street simply had the bad luck of wandering out into freezing conditions. Some made it long enough to begin to starve, but most were dead within a day or two.
The greenhouses at the botanic gardens were almost as cold as the rest of the city, but the glass was intact and the wind couldn’t whip through them the way it did outside. The sun was only a pale cold coin and the condensation had turned to frost on the waxy leaves of the dead plants. Ruth regretted that the tropical plants were dead, there would be no replacing those, but she combed through what was left for anything she could salvage or recognize before spring. The walkways were a tan, sodden slush of old leaves that hadn’t been swept since the Plague, probably. In just a year, the beds had become tangled and overrun.
She picked through the dead stems holding leaf after leaf up to the pale light to study its shape, one hand on the open herb book, completely forgetting the cold. She was hovering over the agrimony on her hands and knees, picking up the burrs and sealing them in a plastic container when she heard someone clear their throat behind her. Ruth’s muscles froze with a painful jolt.
“I don’t much care if you’re desperate or stupid,” said a woman’s voice, “but the vegetables are needed for others. You’d better put them back and go, while I’m still willing to let you.”
Ruth’s heartbeat was so fast, that she began to feel dizzy. She slowly raised her hands to show they were empty. “I didn’t come for vegetables or any food. I have plenty.” There was only silence behind her and she began to panic.
Offer her something,
Offer anything. Just get out of here.
“I’ll share with you if you like, just think about what you are doing first,” she pleaded.
“What did you come for then?”
Ruth’s thoughts were sizzling and leaping. She caught one thought a self defense class had taught her years before:
Make it hard to kill you. Make yourself more human.
“I’ve got a little boy at home, and a husband. They are sick. I can’t find any medicine anywhere, so I came here to make some if I can. See?” she said, holding up the book. She felt the woman take the book from her. “Is it okay for me to turn around?” Ruth turned as she asked so that the woman wouldn’t refuse. If she could see her face, maybe she had a chance.
She was Ruth’s age, softer around the middle maybe, in a jumper and wool tights. She looked like she’d walked here from her second grade classroom. Ruth didn’t know if the woman’s normalcy made her feel better or more frightened. “Are you a gardener?” the woman asked.
Ruth brushed the soil from her hands. “Ruth Socorro. I’m a— I
a pediatrician.” She held out a shaky hand to the woman. The woman grinned and closed Ruth’s hand in both of hers. Ruth almost sighed with relief.
“You’re a doctor?”
Ruth held up her other hand to stop her. “I
a doctor. Now I’m just someone who knows how to apply a bandaid. If I can find one, that is.”
“Oh no, you’re
more than that. You’re the only sane, living doctor I’ve met in the past year. I desperately need your help.”
“I don’t know—” began Ruth, pulling her hand back.
“I’m not after your stockpile of drugs. I just need a little of your time. There are people you can really help, people in pain.”
Ruth stared at her for a long moment. She wanted to believe the woman, but she knew Bill would tell her she was crazy, that people were only looking out for themselves these days.
“Look, if you won’t do it out of the goodness of your heart—” the woman began, but Ruth waved at her to stop.
“Of course,” she said, “Of course I’ll come and help them. But I haven’t got much in the way of medicine.”
The woman nodded and bit her bottom lip. “Maybe we can trade secrets. You teach me a little bit of first aid, and I’ll teach you a little botany. I can’t tell you how to make medicine out of them, of course, but if you find the name of a plant you can use, I can probably help you find it. I know almost every plant in the conservatory and more than half of what’s in the outer garden. I’ve been coming here to take care of them since— since the power failed anyway. My name’s Juliana. I was a Home Economics teacher.”
Ruth agreed to meet her at the greenhouse the next day, after she had gone home to Bill and Charlie. She hurried back through the icy streets feeling lighter, purposeful. Better than she had in weeks. Maybe she just needed other people. Maybe help would convince Bill they could do this, if Juliana’s community was a good one.
But Ruth got a nasty shock when she returned home. Bill was slumped on the top step, holding a bloody towel to his side and watching the front door shudder in its frame as a series of loud thuds exploded behind it.
“What happened?” Ruth ran up the steps to help him.
“Charlie got loose. He must have chewed through the straps or something.” He drew in a hissing breath as Ruth lifted the cloth from his wound to inspect it. “I went into his room to give him lunch, and he leapt at me. I tried to push him back and shut the door, but it was too late. He bit me and he wouldn’t let go. I tried everything. It hurt like hell and he wouldn’t stop. I had to hit him.”
Ruth drew back a little to look at Bill’s face. He shook his head. “I didn’t want to. I slapped him. I slapped Charlie. But it didn’t do any good. He started whipping his head back and forth, like a puppy with a toy. Like he wanted to take a chunk out of my skin. So I hit him in the head with that vase thing in the hall. You know, the one he made at that day camp, that’s squashed on one side?” Bill was crying, wiping his face with a sleeve. “The pain was so intense, I couldn’t think of anything but getting him to let go. And Charlie’s vase was in reach. I’m sorry. I’m so
.” He sobbed. “I’m sorry, Charlie,” he yelled toward the door.
She wanted to tell him that it was okay, that everything would be fine. That he’d only done what he had to. But instead she thought secretly,
I would have found another way. I wouldn’t have hit him. I love him more.
The wrongness of it overwhelmed her. So the rational, doctor side of her stepped in to save them all.
“Come on,” she said, “We have to get you out of the cold.” She wished she’d said something more loving, something to make him feel better, but she didn’t know what.
Bill shook his head. “Charlie’s still loose. I can’t go back in there and risk doing something even worse.”
“We can’t stay out here. You need stitches and it’s so cold. And what would happen to Charlie?”
Bill was silent, still crying. Ruth knelt down and squeezed his hand in her own. “Okay, I’ll get Charlie to his room. Don’t fall asleep out here, I’ll only be a few minutes.” She took off her heavy coat and wrapped it around him. Charlie was still banging on the door and Ruth decided to use his distraction. She went into the yard and climbed carefully onto the rickety generator shed. She tried to ease open the living room window without making too much noise. She could see Charlie now, flinging his little body at the door. His head was caked with drying blood. Ruth wasn’t sure she could forgive her husband for that, despite realizing that he had done only what was necessary to survive. The window wiggled and Ruth pushed it up inch by inch, holding her breath. It was a long drop, but there wasn’t anything she could use as a step. She jumped down as softly as she could, the thud lost in Charlie’s own pounding. Ruth scanned the room for anything she could use to restrain him. Most of the furniture had been pushed back to make space for the wood they’d scrounged to burn in the fireplace. Otherwise, the room was empty. The restraints in Charlie’s room were broken. She had to keep him still long enough to fix his wound and get him safely back where he couldn’t harm anyone. There wasn’t really any choice. She slid the window closed and held her breath as she crept behind Charlie to the kitchen. The lab door squeaked and Ruth winced but a glance back at Charlie told her he wasn’t noticing anything but his own rage. She closed the door behind her and went down to open the cabinet. The tray of small glass bottles glittered like something sharp and hot. She pulled one out. It rolled in her hand, smooth and heavy. She unwrapped a syringe and looked at it.
I could finish it now
, she thought,
just a little extra and all this misery would be over for him. For Bill too. But not for me. It’ll never be over for me.
She pulled the right dosage into the needle and stopped.
Not today. Not on a bad day, I’ll wait for a good one, when we aren’t all trying to hurt one another.
Bill would have told her that there
no more good days, but he wasn’t there to argue, so she went back into the kitchen and found an old tablecloth.
She moved quickly, more concerned with getting it done than making noise. Throwing the tablecloth over Charlie’s head, she wrapped one arm around the boy and pinned his arms. He stumbled and struggled against the cloth, but Ruth just held him tightly. She pressed gently on the back of his knees with her foot. He collapsed into a kneeling position and Ruth held him there. She pulled one thin arm out of the cloth and patiently waited for his struggling to pause. She was ready when he stopped to catch a breath through the thick cloth. He struggled so hard and he was so warm from the pounding and screaming, his veins weren’t hard to find. Ruth injected the sedative and then carefully pulled the cloth down from his face. He tried to snap at her, but she was ready. Ruth rocked back and forth on the floor with the shrieking boy tight in her arms. The back of his head pressed hard into her chest and she could feel the wet warmth of sweat and blood seeping into her shirt. “I’m sorry Charlie,” she said and closed her eyes while they sat there.
“I remember the first time I got to hold you,” she said, though she knew he couldn’t hear her. “You smelled like soap and talcum powder and the social worker pretended like she had the most normal job in the world. Like it was just another night at work for her. But it was actually the best night in all of human existence. And your daddy wanted to hold you, but I didn’t want to let you go. It was so hard to let you go when you were so warm and soft. I thought it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Until now. I can’t let you go Charlie. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but I can’t do it.”
The boy’s ragged breathing slowed into a smooth wave and his shoulders drooped. His head rolled slightly to the side and his cries became a sad, shrill, keening that made Ruth cry. She called for Bill, and he stumbled in through the door and collapsed beside them. He ran a gentle hand over Charlie’s sleeping face and kissed his head. They sat that way a few more moments until Ruth picked up her son, who was sleeping deeply now, and started down to the lab.
“I’ll come back and get you in a few minutes,” she said over her shoulder, “I just want to get him cleaned up and safe first.”
Bill got up with a groan and followed her. “I can walk,” he said.
Ruth laid Charlie on the gurney she’d scavenged from the clinic and began finding her tools. Bill stood in front of the open cabinet, staring at the vials of sedative.
“You lied to me? Why didn’t you tell me you had it?”
Ruth shrugged and moved to another drawer, not wanting to discuss it.
“How long have you had it?”
“Only a day or two,” she lied.
“Why do you keep putting this off? You know what we have to do. This is cruel, keeping him this way. You know that.” Bill’s face began to get red and she could see his fist holding the cloth tighter and tighter against his side.