“Amelia?” he asked as he watched bars of sunlight extend along the ceiling. In a strange way, laying here like this reminded him of their university days, back when they’d made a habit of sleeping through lectures, usually after a piss-up the night before. “What time do you reckon it is?” he added for old time’s sake.
“That eerie space between the History of English Literature seminar and the Victorian Lecture,” she would reply, still dressed in a lacy bodysuit from the night before.
Now Amelia said nothing, continued sleeping. Isaac always liked watching her sleep. “Bet you only like it because I’m quiet,” she used to joke. “I don’t know if it’s cute or creepy.” He was about to get up when Amelia’s eyes snapped open as quick as yanking down on a blind cord. It was enough to send Isaac jumping out of bed. She sat up on one elbow and stared at the wall so intently she seemed to be looking through it.
“Shut up and listen.” She held up a hand. “Do you hear that?”
It was the same rumbling he’d heard many times before: the sound of immense wheels rolling over macadam, shaking the trees from their roots.
“What day is it?” Amelia’s voice was wafer-thin.
Isaac checked his phone: 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.
The rumble intensified until it sounded as if it were enough to send the building sideways. A static, grainy voice blared out from a speaker. They already knew what it said.
“Isaac, go!” Amelia yelled, trying to scamper out of the bed herself and failing.
Isaac threw open the bedroom doors, pulled an old pair of joggers and a hoodie over his pajamas, and stumbled into the kitchen.
He ripped open the cupboard door so fast the handle snapped clean off, and grabbed one of the few remaining bin bags inside. There was no shortage of crap to throw away. Empty jars and used medicine packets had accumulated in piles since the last time the rumble came around. He snatched up as much garbage as he could—decapitated tuna cans, melted candle wicks, rotten vegetables, empty packets of paracetamol, and syringes of dried-up morphine—and crammed it all into the bag.
Only when he bent down to grab a broken jam jar did the thought occur to him: supplies are running low. By his estimate, they had enough supplies to last a fortnight, maybe a little more than that, considering Amelia barely ate anymore.
The rumble was so close now that he had to grab the side of the kitchen counter to stop himself from falling over.
“PRESENT ARTICLES FOR INCINERATION,” the grainy voice blared.
“Mask!” Amelia called.
“I’m getting the fucking mask,” he yelled back, spinning wildly round in search of it. Where the hell was it? For God’s sake Isaac, why don’t you just leave it somewhere convenient like the hook on the door—and, of course, that’s where it was. The mask swallowed his head and specks of grime polluted the glass visor, making it difficult to see. His breaths came in sharp rasps, and he found himself counting each one to offset the feeling of suffocation.
He jumped the stairs three at a time, hearing the horrible dirt-on-coffin thump every time he landed. When he reached the bottom floor, he edged a glance at flat no. 5—Miss Sayuka’s flat. She was a hobbled old lady who had made fruit tea for Isaac and Amelia the day they moved in. The last time he saw her was on the previous bin day, but she hadn’t been the one taking out the bins. He made a sign of the cross and threw open the finicky front door of the building.
The sky was the color of magma, and it was thick with the smoke that poured from the many chimneys of London—where charnel houses burned around the clock. Isaac felt the warm blast of air over his hands as he struggled to tie a knot in the black sack.
A huge dragon-shaped vehicle waited outside his apartment block, trailing smoke from the open furnace at the rear end. A Bonegrinder.
“Wait right there!” a voice commanded. Two men clambered down the huge ladder from the vehicle’s front compartment. It took almost a whole minute before their boots touched earth.
You got used to seeing the Bonegrinders. They’d been a regular part of life ever since the government launched the national “Clean Up” program at the start of the plague. But Isaac never got used to the workers who operated the machines—the Incinerators, as they were called.
“You’re late,” one of the Incinerators said. His voice buzzed through the black tube that ran from his mask to the voice-box strapped to his waist. The white circle painted on the lapels of his black coat signified his position as Sergeant-Incinerator. “Present articles for incineration.”
Isaac handed over the rubbish bag he had filled moments ago. The Sergeant tossed it into the fiery mouth of the Bonegrinder, where it exploded in a puff of black smoke. “Only one article?” the voice buzzed again, bug-like.
“Slow week,” Isaac replied, trying his best to avoid eye contact. The chugging engine of the Bonegrinder mimicked the rhythm of his own heartbeat.
The Sergeant produced a tablet from inside his coat. “Says here that your partner, Amelia Vance, is scheduled to be picked up today.” He pointed towards the collection of bins clustered at the front of the apartment block. Black for rubbish, green for recyclables, and a tall red one for corpses. “It’s my understanding that this collection is three weeks past due.”
He remembered the way Miss Sayuka’s dead body had been stuffed into the corpse bin like it was just another bag of trash. Her husband had taken her out. But instead of going back to his apartment, he climbed into the bin after her, pulled a gun, and took himself out too. On some weeks, multiple corpses would be out for collection, stacked one atop the other. Whoever put the last one out had to really push down to make room. Due to an overwhelming demand, only one corpse bin was permitted per building.
“Grady Morrison came around this morning and put his parents out for collection. That’s number sixteen crossed off,” the Sergeant verbally noted. “Which means Miss Vance is the last registered collection—
“She’s still alive,” Isaac interrupted. “There’s no sense putting her out if she’s not dead yet. As long as she’s alive, I’ll look after her.” He jabbed a thumb toward the tablet. “And there’s nothing in your horse shit policy mandates that says I can’t.”
Three Incinerators began dragging the corpse bin toward the Bonegrinder. The sergeant sighed and clipped the tablet next to the holstered pistol on his belt. “Listen, sir. If she’s got it, you’ll get it too, eventually. If you get rid of her now, you might still stand a chance.”
“I’ve been taking precautions,” Isaac responded.
“In a tiny flat that you share with an infected?” Even through the voice-box, the voice sounded incredulous. “Sir, be realistic. It’s best if she comes with us.”
Isaac fought the urge to wrestle the Incinerator to the ground. Amelia was getting better, dammit! It was even possible she was immune. He’d heard stories of the immune at the start of the pandemic, though the media (back when there was a media) had uniformly dismissed the stories as misinformation propagated by conspiracy theorists on the internet. “If you can show me the proper paperwork, you can take her,” Isaac said, “but until then, she stays.”
The sergeant laughed and motioned for his counterparts to head back to the ladder. “You win, citizen. See you next bin day.” He turned to go, then paused. “Maybe you don’t care about yourself, but it sounds like you care about her. Don’t make her suffer just because you don’t have the courage to let her go.”
Isaac returned to his flat, which now seemed so quiet compared to the distant rumbling of those rolling furnaces from Hell.
“Isaac?” Amelia’s voice was weak. Isaac threw the mask on a hook on the door and went into the bedroom.
Jesus Fucking Christ!
There was blood all over the mattress, threads of it running up to Amelia’s thin lips. “I’m…it’s getting worse.”
“You were doing so well, baby,” he whimpered. “It was getting better. You were getting better.”
Don’t make her suffer. The bug-like voice chittered around his mind. He felt all the energy go out of his legs, and he grabbed onto the bedroom door to support himself. “I’ll go get a towel,” he said.
For a painful few moments, he considered opening the broken oven and grabbing the handgun he kept there. It would be over quick. No pain. But he grabbed the towel from the sink instead and stumbled back to the bedroom.
When the first domestic case was reported, Amelia and Isaac were in their final year at the University of Surrey. TV screens were dominated by speculation that Snowflake had leaked from an Alaskan military base. On the weekends, Isaac passed gaggles of panicked people on his way to the Poetry Café, where he watched Amelia perform experimental poems that resembled cities when held sideways. He asked her if she thought that poetry should look good or sound good. She replied both. Afterward, they took the train back to campus together. When their phones pinged with news reports, they put them on silent. Snowflake sounded as minor and fragile as the name implied. It was nothing to worry about.
Isaac made a habit of creeping into Amelia’s creative writing workshops, but he never found her there. She thought they were a waste of time, full of people too terrified to criticize each other. Instead, he always found her in the library, working on a collection of poems centered around brutalist architecture. It seemed like she lived there. He’d sit across from her and read his book, usually a hardboiled noir – he liked the grittiness—until Amelia began digging books out of her bag and passing them over to him. “If you’re interested,” she said.
Naturally, he read everything she handed him, and they filled those after-sex mornings with conversations about Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler. The one Isaac enjoyed the most was the Poe story, The Tell-Tale Heart. They were in the library when Amelia asked him about it. He told her that it was – quite obviously – about madness, that cutting his flatmate up and burying him under the floorboards demonstrated the main character was in the clutches of a deep mania. Amelia countered this by explaining how it was really a story about resilience. “The repetition of the heartbeat beneath the floorboards,” she said, “kinda feels like nothing ever dies. Part of a person continues after they’re dead.”
“That’s quite possibly the most hopeful reading of the story ever,” Isaac replied.
They turned to the window, which overlooked the great commotion in the campus square. An ambulance had pulled up outside the student cafeteria and people in baggy hazmat suits were making their way over to where a young girl sat shivering on a bench. A crowd of students watched from a distance. Isaac thought he recognized the shivering girl as Amy Lynn, a girl from his Gothic module who had managed to slam ten Jägerbombs back-to-back without throwing up during freshers. Now,
being waddled toward the ambulance, Amy looked brittle and weak. Oddly, Isaac thought he saw her smiling.
“And now it looks like we’re about to graduate during a fucking pandemic,” Amelia sighed. “What the hell does that tell you?”
Isaac reached across the table and took her hand. “That we’ll be okay.”
At times, it seemed like Amelia had petrified in her sleep, and Isaac found himself once again counting every wheezy breath to remind himself that his girlfriend was still alive. Three…four. She woke each morning, sometimes a little weaker, sometimes a little stronger, but always alive. And yet, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t stop himself from counting down the days. Bin day would come soon enough, and what would he say to the Incinerators then?
Even on her good days—the days when she could manage a few sentences without her entire body locking up in opposition—she spent most of the time asleep. Isaac moved a chair into the bedroom and re-read a few of her architectural poems while she slept. What if she gets worse? The thought flickered at the edge of his mind every time he went to fetch a new towel or pour a new hot-water bottle. What if she’s not immune? Occasionally, he tried to picture himself doing it, stuffing her into a corpse bin. He put his head in his hands and wept. “I don’t want to put you out with the bins,” he said, softly.
Two days before bin day, Amelia made a miraculous recovery. Isaac had been in the kitchen, buttering the last two slices of sourdough and searching for something to go between them. The knife fell from his hands as soon as he heard it. The hewsh-eeek of the springy mattress as a person moved off it.
“Amelia?” He ran through the flat, slowed as he entered the bedroom, then froze.
Amelia stood in front of the mirror, picking dried globs of blood from her faded pajamas. The bed had been made for the first time in months. She still looked pale, deathly even, but there was a dim flush of red in her cheeks. “Does our shower still work?” she asked. Her voice sounded chalky from disuse. “I feel like I need to shower for a million years. I can’t believe you never told me I stink like death.”
Isaac could find no words. Sounds fell dead on his tongue. It didn’t matter that outside the sky was black with corpse-smoke; it didn’t matter that in a few days they’d be woken by the sound of the Bonegrinders again; it didn’t even matter that he couldn’t find the words he wanted to say at that moment. What mattered right then was that time stood still, ran backwards, and made the world seem whole again. How could you find words for something like that?
“I feel good,” Amelia continued, brushing past him and touching a hand to Isaac’s cheek. The touch was warm. “Really good, actually. I don’t know what’s happened.”
“You’re immune,” Isaac gasped. “Like those stories at the start of the plague. Like…like me.”
She drew him close. Isaac had spent months kissing death away from her lips; it felt amazing in this moment to feel her return the favor.
After she showered, Amelia set her favorite Lana Del Rey record, Born to Die, on the vinyl player, and they danced in the living room, pressed tightly against one another for balance. Isaac breathed in deeply the scent of her hair and savored how fresh it smelled. It was almost enough to make him forget about everything that had happened since they graduated. He broke away momentarily and pulled the blinds against the soot-black sky. Then he allowed himself the freedom to forget.
He was prepared for Bin Day. He’d cleared the kitchen out the day before and taken the black sack down to the front bins. He didn’t even mind being woken by the rumbling of the Bonegrinders. Just let them see, he thought. The intercom at the front of the building buzzed a moment later. Isaac threw on his joggers and pressed the receiver.
The bug voices returned. “Your presence is requested immediately.”
The line fell dead. Several Incinerators were waiting on the porch when Isaac opened the front door. A Bonegrinder was parked at the curb, expelling black smoke from its pipes.
“Amelia Vance isn’t in the bin,” the Sergeant boomed. “And where is your mask, citizen?”
Isaac realized he’d left his mask hanging on the hook in the flat, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need a mask anymore. He would never need one again. “Oh, I don’t need one,” he explained. “I’m immune.”
“Sir, your flat is now the last pick-up in the entire neighborhood.” A black rubber glove pressed firmly against Isaac’s chest. “Don’t make this difficult.”
Isaac tried to control his shaking. “But she doesn’t need picking up. She’s made a full recovery. Are you listening? Full. Recovery. I’m going to drive her to a facility or a lab so she can get properly tested for immunity. It won’t take long.’
Expressionless masks exchanged glances. “Sir, I understand you may be under a great deal of pressure right now, but nobody gets better from this. Not a single case of natural immunity has been documented. There is no way to test natural immunity.”
Isaac’s excitement curdled to anger. “Still being alive seems like a pretty good indicator to me.” He stood aside and held the door open. “Come and see for yourselves.”
Behind those masks, the Incinerators stared.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the sergeant said, pushing his way across the threshold, “if I give up the opportunity to witness a miracle.”
Isaac led the Incinerators up the stairs to his flat, and by the time they reached the door he felt the gravity of the decision for the first time. He had just invited a squadron of Incinerators into his home. They each set a hand on their holstered pistols as Isaac opened the door to the flat. Isaac’s mind drifted to the handgun stashed in the oven.
“Amelia?” he called. “I’ve got some friends who want to see you.”
“Perhaps she’s still sleeping,” the sergeant said. “Mind if we see for ourselves?”
Isaac stepped aside to let them into the flat. He counted five Incinerators as they made their way down the hallway and to the bedroom. Once they were all inside, he shut the door and bolted to the kitchen.
“JESUS FUCKIN’ CHRIST!”
Isaac grabbed the gun from the oven and hurried down the hallway. An Incinerator staggered out of the bedroom as Isaac was turning the corner. Isaac raised the gun toward the masked figure and pulled the trigger, but the gun only made a useless clicking sound. Empty. He had just enough time to scream before a fist rammed into his solar plexus, dropping him to the floor. The gun clattered uselessly beside him.
“I certainly hope whatever bullets you thought you had in there were used to put her out of her misery.” The sergeant’s mechanical voice was shaky, disturbed. He gestured at the Incinerator who had dropped Isaac and the man heaved Isaac onto his weak legs. He forced him forward and then pushed him into the bedroom.
“Look,” the sergeant commanded. “Look at what lies on your bed.”
Isaac couldn’t do it. Instead, he kept his eyes trained on the Sergeant. Tears gathered at the corners of Isaac’s eyes. When he refused the commands a second time, the men grabbed his face and forced him to look. And when he held his eyes shut in defiance, they punched him in the stomach until he fell wounded to his knees, eyes now wide and face streaming with tears.
“Look at her!” the Sergeant shouted. “She’s been dead for months!”
Isaac shook his head in disbelief. What lay on the bed couldn’t possibly be Amelia. They’d spent each night cuddling, clinging onto each other for warmth. They’d danced yesterday; she’d taken a shower; she’d…and then the smell hit him. It clung to the room like rot and shit and decay. He saw her then as she truly was: a decaying corpse dressed in blood- and shit-stained pajamas. Bones heaved against the gray withered skin, threatening to poke through.
“We’re taking her now,” the Sergeant said firmly. “Like we should have done weeks ago. Next week, we’ll be back for you.”
“But I’m not sick,” Isaac wept.
“You know,” said the sergeant. “For a moment, you almost had me. I was honestly ready to believe you—believe that you had somehow avoided the virus.”
“But I have.”
“No, you’re sick. You thought you’d be safe after shooting your girlfriend dead.” He pointed to the bullet hole in Amelia’s forehead. “I imagine you still believed those news stories about Snowflake dying with the host.” The sergeant paused. “Those stories were hoaxes. The virus doesn’t die with the host. It continues to live until it’s incinerated.’
Isaac moved his mouth but all that came out was cool air.
An Incinerator brought a device to Isaac’s arm and jabbed the cold needle into his flesh. After a moment, it beeped and clicked. The Incinerator looked at the readout on the device and nodded soberly to his superior.
The Sergeant nodded, then addressed Isaac. “One of the first symptoms of Snowflake is psychosis. Infected people spend their final days indulging in all sorts of wild fantasies. It’s a shame you didn’t have another bullet saved up. I’d do it myself and save you the suffering but…policy mandates and all. I’m sure you of all people can understand.” The Sergeant pointed to Amelia’s corpse. “All right boys, get her out of here.”
Isaac slumped to the floor. He watched with baleful eyes as the thing he called Amelia was lifted out of the bed. He no longer felt cold in the slightest. Rage ran through him like lava. “That’s not Amelia!” he yelled, beating his fists against the floor. “That’s not Amelia!”
“Monty, restrain him!”
“GET THAT THING OUT OF MY FLAT!”
Isaac watched from the window as the Incinerators tossed the bag of bones into the jaws of the Bonegrinder. A cloud of smoke burped back at them. Then they clambered up on the machine and the heavy vehicle rolled away, pulling the thunder out of the sky as it went. Soon it would be back for him.
“It’s okay,” Isaac said to the empty flat. “You can’t catch it if you’re immune.” He shook the coldness out of his hands and stared for a long time at the bed. The sheets were a mess. They would have to go out with the bins.
Copyright © 2023 James Tatam