by Hannah Mathewson
Old Bobby was one of the first to go. His death rattle shook me awake around dawn four days ago, sooner than anyone would’ve thought. I covered him up with his sweat-soiled sheet and a couple guards took him away, mattress and all, because of the germs. Dragged it whispering into the corridor, lifted it onto a pallet and good riddance Bobby. Had a death rattle of a snore even when he was breathing. He’s still here somewhere. The canteen, probably. Or maybe they burned him in the yard. No way they’re collecting the bodies anymore.
Then they locked the cell door again, and here I still am, waiting to die one way or another, or get loose if they let me. They won’t let me. There’s no right time to commit to that decision. No sudden new world order. Just more bodies than the day before.
More coughing through the night. More mattresses in the corridor. Fewer choppers on the outside. Not one siren in days. It’s just Lewis and Barnes doing the dragging and wheeling; the others are dead or dying. Lewis is clammy and white himself. I had a headache this morning but it passed.
Lunchtime passes too, then recreation. Barnes hands a bottle of water and a box of cereal bars through the hatch, because the kitchen staff are out of play, too. I open neither. They go in the pantry with the rest. If I’m hungry now, imagine tomorrow. And the day after that. I turn Old Bobby’s cot on its end and ration the space where it used to be, too. This cell’s as big as I make it. It could take me weeks to explore.
Because it’s occurred to me maybe I can wait this out. When the first guard keeled over, and we got a sense of where this was headed, there was hammering on doors and a lot of yelling. What’s the use of quarantine, we said, if the keys are on a corpse and we’re starving to death? Then hammering got too much for the sick ones, and their cellmates started yelling for help instead; cowering against doors like they were down in a lion’s den and the beast was hungry as hell. At least in my solitude I’m halfway safe. And if I’m smart and lucky, I’ll still be breathing when the looters or scavengers roll through, when this place is a ghost town, and someone can let me out.
When morning comes around again, there’s no Lewis. No one left to bang on doors and have their dead taken either. Barnes drags himself along the corridor, looking through the glass of the cell doors and making the sign of the cross each time. He gets to me, and starts to see my living face up against the glass. Two cloudy eyes can’t make sense of me. He doesn’t know what to do, so I help him.
“Let me out,” I say. His grey skin is three inches away. His infected breath frosts the glass. “Let me out.”
There’s a long stare as he thinks it over, then he moves on. Only Barnes would honour his post as the world burned outside. Only Barnes wouldn’t take a sick day in a fucking pandemic. He’s got no family to go home to, though. I guess I’m all he has now.
In the afternoon, he brings me more cereal bars, then shuffles away even slower than before, and that’s the last I see of him. Must have died sometime between his coffee break and the 5pm checks. I can really hear the silence now. It’s a luxury I haven’t had in twenty-one years, so I treat myself to an early night.
But I can’t sleep. I’m preoccupied with what a goddamn shame it is, this virus. Plus I’m too hot with the sheets, too cold without them, so I toss and turn and think feverish thoughts, and I don’t notice the room is spinning till the light comes in at dawn. Then it all makes sense.
In my delirium, I dream of a bright January morning, forty-five years to the day since they banged me up. My flannel shirt smells like rot and the sky goes up so far it gives me vertigo. I hear the chugging metal sound of a gate on wheels as it’s rolled away like the boulder on Christ’s tomb, and I’m out of here.