Authors: Deirdre Gould
She opened the doors and they stepped into a pantry with more canned food than Ruth had seen in over a year. What before would have simply seemed like an average stocked kitchen to Ruth, now seemed mythic. She touched the paper labels on some soup cans. “Those apples, for example, came from the Park. One of the families brought me those this fall. Who knew apple trees grew in all this concrete?” Ruth glanced over where Juliana had waved her hand. There were bins of fresh potatoes and apples and carrots. Ruth’s mouth started to water. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. She shook her head and turned to leave the pantry.
“No way. This is a death trap. I’m leaving right now.” Her legs shook underneath her.
“What? What are you talking about? This isn’t a trap. Have I done anything to threaten you?” Juliana held out her hands to stop Ruth.
“No, this is some kind of sick joke. Nobody has this stuff. Fresh fruit? Are you crazy? What’s the deal? Do you bring people here, show them the huge bounty of food they could have and then trap them and let the Infected get them? That’s how you feed them, isn’t it? You just throw innocent people to them as if they were wolves. You’re
.” Ruth pushed Juliana aside.
“I told you how I got these things. I’m about to cook dinner right now, and it isn’t you. Look,” she said, pulling an industrial sized can of tomato sauce down from the shelf, “it’s spaghetti, okay? Quick and easy to throw together and the carbohydrates will calm them down. I’m a— I
a Home Ec teacher, remember? Part of that is nutrition. That’s why I asked people for fresh stuff, it’s why I grew it in the garden. Even if growing fresh food wasn’t the best thing for us, the cans are running out. We have to start producing our own stuff if we’re going to survive. That’s not a miracle sitting in those bins over there, that’s several months of sweat and toil.”
“If that’s true, then you shouldn’t be showing it off to every stranger who wanders in here. It makes this place look like it houses the crown jewels.”
Juliana laughed and pointed to a huge case of pasta. “Grab that for me,” she picked up another can of spaghetti sauce and walked back into the kitchen. “Nobody just ‘wanders in’ to a mental institution Ruth. Not even after everything is gone. Besides, this place was abandoned for years before I got here. And I told
about it, because you had the opportunity to steal what’s left in the garden this morning and you didn’t. You didn’t even try to find out where the vegetables were. I’m prepared to defend this place and the food if I have to, but I’m not bloodthirsty. Or sick. Not the way you mean anyway. You’ve been in this city too long, it’s made you paranoid.”
Ruth shook her head. “If what you’re saying is true, and you got these things the way you said, then how can you possibly think all the kindness has gone out of the world? There’s enough food there to feed an army for months. Most of the time, my family is lucky if we eat a meal each day. And this place is warm. Not just above freezing, actually warm. You must go through a ton of wood. I doubt you had time to cut it yourself.”
“No, another helper brought us several cords this fall. He said after the gas goes bad, we’ll have to make do with less because he won’t be able to use the chainsaw, but I’ve had several more folks volunteer to help him. I guess you’re right. I should be very grateful for the people who are helping this place out. They aren’t getting much in return, just a bed and care for one of their loved ones and they bring far more than feeds and clothes just that one person.” She plunked the cans down on the thick wooden counter and cranked away at them with a large can opener. Ruth slid the case of pasta in next to her. “So, are you staying?” asked Juliana.
“For now,” said Ruth, and sat down to watch how Juliana served something as messy as spaghetti to restrained people. Half an hour later, a cart full of mellamine bowls was rolling down the hallway while the inmates shrieked and scratched. Juliana stopped at the first door, opened it, placed the bowl on the floor and slid it in with the handle of an old broom. Then she shut the door again. She did it so fast, that Ruth didn’t even see the person inside. They continued down the hall, sliding bowls into tiny cells and Ruth occasionally caught a glimpse of wild hair or an outflung arm or the flash of teeth or eyes. When they got to the last room, the hall was silent and Ruth thought she’d never heard anything more beautiful. She wondered how Juliana slept through the night after they started again.
“Okay,” said Juliana, turning the cart around, “clean up time. And a chance for you to inspect them.” She rolled the cart back to the first room. She pulled out a bucket of soapy water and some rags. She handed Ruth a tray of labeled toothbrushes. “Here, can you put some toothpaste on each?”
“How do you brush their teeth? I have to wait until Charlie passes out from exhaustion to do it.”
Juliana held up a teething ring. “With this, you’ll see. Are you ready?” Ruth nodded, dolloping small squeezes of toothpaste down each brush. Juliana opened the door. The spaghetti sauce gave the man on the floor a ghastly ring around his mouth. His hair was patchy, some of it long, some torn away leaving ugly scabs, some stubble in other spots, like a forest trying to recover after a fire. He was full now and quiet but he still growled and stood up to pace as far as the restraints would let him move in the small room.
“As long as we keep our voices soft and we move slowly, they don’t get too agitated after eating,” said Juliana in a sickly sweet voice. She slid the bowl out of the room with her foot, her eyes never leaving the man’s face. “Loud noises or people getting too close will make them angry and want to fight.”
“Aren’t we cleaning them?” asked Ruth.
“Yes,” said Juliana, “but I never said this was going to be easy. We have teething toys to distract them from biting us. I’ve found that they don’t really know what they are biting, just that they need to bite
. They’ll go after other humans first, but if they aren’t hungry, they seem just to be driven to bite and don’t appear to care what they bite, including themselves. We still have to be careful, even with the teething rings. And it’s a completely different story if you ever have to— ever have to
them when they are hungry. Let me go first.” She searched the tray and found a toothbrush that was labeled “Owen” with a permanent marker. The ink was rubbing off and the bristles flared like they had been scrubbing a floor. They were probably hard to replace.
“Is his name really Owen?” Ruth asked.
Juliana shrugged. “Maybe? Some of them I know because their families brought them. But some of them, like Owen, I found wandering and starving. I have to call him something. He looked like an ‘Owen’ to me.”
Ruth’s scalp prickled with discomfort. It was like naming a rescued dog. She wondered if anyone missed this man anymore. If anybody left would have recognized him and known his real name. Juliana entered the room and held the large teething ring in front of her. Owen scrambled toward her, his arms stretched toward her, fingers trying to grab her clothes, her hair, anything. The restraints stopped him halfway across the room.
Juliana cautiously slid the ring between his teeth. Owen clamped down around the tough plastic and Juliana let go of the far side as he jerked it away. Ruth was fascinated, despite herself. It made her think of the circus her father had taken her to when she was little. The lion tamer had frightened her and she’d watched the whole act through the cracks between her fingers. Owen chewed on the ring with one side of his mouth, a splatter of drool dripping onto the floor every few seconds. Juliana adjusted the arm restraints so that he couldn’t grab.
“It’s okay, you can come in now,” she said. Ruth picked up the soapy water and the rags, tucking her own kit under her elbow. She stood beside Juliana as she wiggled the toothbrush between Owen’s teeth on the side that wasn’t clamped down on the ring. “I do my best,” she said without looking around, “but some of them are developing bed sores or getting sick anyway. There must be something I’m missing.”
Ruth worked at gently cleaning the scrapes on his head and holding him steady for Juliana. Owen growled and tried to snap when Ruth hit tender spots, but the the teething ring kept him from biting. “I’m not sure what to tell you. I don’t want to add to what is already a huge amount of work,” said Ruth.
She wondered if she ought to be helping Juliana at all. The whole thing was insane.
, her inner voice whispered,
if you weren’t around, you’d hope Charlie ended up somewhere like here instead of shot or starved or freezing.
The least she could do is make sure that their existence wasn’t one of physical suffering if she could help it. “You might want to shave their heads and find those heavy work gloves for their hands. They are pulling out their hair, see?” Ruth pointed to the large sores in Owen’s scalp and Juliana glanced up. “They are also biting their hands because it’s all they can reach. Charlie— my son, does it too. We keep his hands bandaged because those big gloves would just slide off his little fingers.” She watched as Juliana’s face became grim and then pitying. Ruth turned away for her scissors and gently cut the remaining tufts of hair around Owen’s scabs. Then she checked the rest of him while Juliana continued washing him. The whole thing only took a few minutes, but the women didn’t look at each other again. And then it was time for the next room.
It went on for nearly five hours, but it felt more normal to Ruth than most of the rest of her life. For a while she could pretend she was making rounds at the hospital and that she would go home through the bustling, brightly lit city to Bill and a sleeping Charlie at the end. That she’d wake Charlie up for school in the morning and Bill would make her eggs and coffee. That everything would be back the way it was. But the restraints, the missing supplies, the silence without the whir of hundreds of machines in the background, all broke the illusion and bore down bit by bit.
By the time they were nearing the end, Ruth was exhausted and even Juliana was flagging. The people they were treating had fallen asleep though, which made it easier and faster to get through. “You do this how many times?” asked Ruth.
“Once a day most of the time. Sometimes baths are every other day if I need to spend extra time on someone’s bandages or something, but teeth get done every night and I try to at least wipe their faces.”
“What about diapers?” asked Ruth.
Juliana cringed. “Don’t think ill of me. I just have trouble fitting it around everything else. If I had help, maybe I could do it more often. Right now it’s twice a day for each. I know I should check more often, but I need to grow the food to feed them and prepare it and get them medicine when they need and—”
Ruth put a hand on her arm to stop her. “Listen, I’m the last person to criticize. You’re doing your best for people that no one else cares for, dozens of them. I can barely muster my best for my only child every day. There should be a fleet of nurses for these people, not just one person. Who’s taking care of
? When are you sleeping?”
Juliana shook her head and waved Ruth off. “Never mind that, I get by. We just have one left and then we’ll be able to clean up and go to bed. He’s been coughing a lot and hasn’t eaten much. I found him on the road about a week ago. He was already sick, but I thought warm food and being out of the cold might fix it. He’s just gotten worse.” She opened the door and Ruth knelt down beside the sleeping man. He was damp with sweat, though the room was not hot. She could hear his breath catching in his chest and she touched the back of his neck. It was so hot that it hurt her fingertips. “Get out, Juliana,” she whispered.
“What?” hissed Juliana, “ he’s passed out.”
“Get out, and shut the door. I’ll be out in a moment. Don’t come back in here and go bleach or burn everything that has touched this man.”
Juliana backed out slowly as she pushed a battery powered lantern toward Ruth with her foot, then shut the door behind her. Ruth pulled the stethoscope from her kit, already knowing what she would hear. The question was how to prevent it from spreading to the rest of them. She pressed the diaphragm against the man’s heaving back. The crackling she heard didn’t surprise her. She halfheartedly tapped a finger over his chest, almost ignoring the flat thuds through the stethoscope. She had no antibiotics. Even if she could find some, they’d probably be no good now. She didn’t even know if it was bacterial anyway. The man was lost. All she could do would be to reduce his fever and try to keep him hydrated. If Juliana did it, she risked catching it herself and spreading it to the others. But if Ruth stayed to care for him, she risked taking it back to Charlie and Bill. It wouldn’t matter much, she guessed. They would never even know they were sick.
Her eyes filled with tears. She was exhausted and running on anxiety alone. She sat in the harsh light of the lantern and cried for a few minutes. Juliana knocked gently at the door and the man beside her started. Ruth scrabbled away from him, expecting him to launch himself at her. He opened his eyes and stared at her, but didn’t move. She opened the door and backed out.
“You have to stay away Juliana. From this room, from that man and from anything he touches.”
“Why? And how can I? He’ll die.”
“He’s got pneumonia. He’s going to die anyway. It’s very contagious. Better for someone that was already dying to do it alone rather than take twenty-five healthy people with him.”
“But you can help him. What do you need? I’ll find the plants—”