I knew my mother was sick, weeks before we tried to take her to quarantine. There was no denying it. I first suspected it when she stopped opening her bedroom blinds in the morning. I knew it for sure when she started sleeping ‘til dusk. I was even more convinced when the upper floor took on that sulphur-like smell. The air was thicker, foul. I would hold my breath when passing her bedroom; the smell was strongest there. The door was always open. She would face the wall, hair leaking from the top of a blanketed lump. And the heat. Had the daylight been able to shine in, you might have seen a sheet of the hot stink wafting into the hallway like a fevered mirage. Yes, my mother was sick. No, it wasn’t your ordinary flu. She was aware too, of her sickness I’m sure, but gave herself no fighting chance. Not that she stood one; this we never said aloud to one another, Darry or I, but we knew. They all end up the same. We had seen it.
I wish she would have come to terms with it earlier. We could have done more with the last of her time in the house, if only to read together like we used to. Instead, she surrendered, let the sickness consume her. And just as sure as the sky is blue, as sure as the mourning dove sings to dawn its warm song of welcome, a hand from Hell cradled my mother snugly within the fiery furs of its palm. And I knew, on that Sunday evening, as Darry helped her down the front steps and I locked the door to our house, that it would be the last time she would leave it.
From behind the wheel, Darry scoured the radio waves for a station. We sat closemouthed as static rolled over the speakers. Finally, Rod Stewart started in with, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, and Darry let off the dial.
“Baby, can you turn it up? Please?” my mother asked.
He kept his hands on the wheel. “Don’t you think we oughtta talk?” he said.
She shrank towards the passenger-side window. From the backseat I could make out only the relief of her face: her nose and cheekbones reflected in the side mirror; the shallow terrain of her face buried within the hood of her sweater. I looked sparingly.
“Mum…,” he said. “Please. We have to.”
She inched her head off the window so that she was staring not at Darry but directly ahead. I looked out the windshield too—the road lit up by two pistons of white, scanning a desolate stretch of pavement, the dotted line being eaten by the hood of the Oldsmobile.
“We don’t,” she replied.
Darry was frustrated, working out the arithmetic to find the right words. In the rear-view, he wore the same look he used to when Dad would gift him a last-minute curfew, seconds before slipping out of the house to snowmobile with Samantha Herrin. We don’t take the ski doo out nowadays. Darry doesn’t wear his sledding bomber anymore either. It’s boxed up in the cedar chest in the garage. He says it reminds him too much of Sam. That was before the spread. Before the deaths.
Darry turned the volume knob clockwise, and the heap of sweaters that was my mother began to tremble, while Rod Stewart’s voice masked the sound of her tears. The streets were mostly vacant; they had been for many months. I watched the storefronts pass as we drove out of town. Most were boarded up—only a handful of shops remained afloat—but some had their lights on, and they stood as rectangles of illuminated hope, foreseeable futures, contrasts to the dark of the night.
“They’ll figure it out, Mum,” I said from behind a gauze mouth-covering. “They will. Why it’s still spreading I mean. Once they do⎯”
“I need to be home, Thomas.” She spoke into her lap. “I need to be in bed. Can’t you boys see that?” Her voice grew. “Has everyone gone mad? How am I supposed to gain strength if I’m taken from my home? How?” The last word rode on a pitch as deep as an operatic bass note. I caught Darry’s eyes in the rear-view. They mirrored the fright in mine. It had reached her larynx⎯another symptom they had taught us to watch for. The notion that she might not survive the drive pounded at the back of my skull, pleading its way in. If it were to be, if she didn’t make it, Darry and I would likely witness her return as well; those who had succumb to the illness hadn’t stayed down for long. I wiped my palms on my pant legs. Darry put his foot to the pedal.
She sighed a lengthy expulsion of air and returned her head to the window. The stench of her breath made its way to the back of the car. It was all I could do to subdue the gag reflex. When she was gone, Darry would take the car, and I wondered if the smell wouldn’t resonate in the fabric of the interior, immortalizing our last drive with her. On the seat beside me I toyed with the leather tassels of her slippers. They were the only things I thought to grab for her on our way out⎯not a family photo album, her glasses, ibuprofen for the drive, but the shrivelled foot coverings that so rarely left her feet. In the dark they looked like hairless carcasses of small animals. I was waiting to tell her. I wanted to give them to her when the hazmat officials took her over. I knew the slippers would fetch us a final smile from her face, so I held them back in anticipation. It was worth something.
We pulled over on the curve of county road fourteen, a few hundred yards from the tracks; she said her stomach was queasy. The crossing was broad and deeply-set, with just a marginal length of iron cutting across the road. The rest extended into infinite black on either side. Not a half mile beyond the tracks the quarantine centre stood like a bright white pillow, the four-acre dome lit by spot-lights surrounding its perimeter.
The cold had entered the car, but I was grateful for the fresh air. I leaned forward and rubbed the middle of my mother’s back as her head hung out of the door. I applied pressure in an attempt to soften the heaving. There was nothing to come up. At this stage, it was just the hunger forcing her body to lurch.
“Jesus Christ!” Darry threw his gloved hands over the wheel and let his head drop. The engine wouldn’t turn. He twisted the key over so many times I thought it would snap. My mother sat back and wiped her mouth, the nausea passed. Darry threw open his door and rounded the front of the car. My stomach began to reel as I watched him staring blankly at the hood. I knew there was nothing under it that he could fix, still he propped it anyway. My mother moaned, and the crank on my stomach tightened.
“I have an oat bar,” I said.
“Mum, you have to try.” I fetched the green foil package from my pocket and probed her arm with it. With a pale hand, cracked like fissured parchment, she took the bar and turned round to face me. She pushed her hood back, and while I prayed for a smile, she just stared blank-eyed. In the little starlight coming in through the windshield I could see acne along her jawline, and her umber hair no longer breathed, but clung to her scalp, hanging in ropes like greased silly string.
“For you, Thomas,” she said, “I’ll try.” Before she turned around I caught a glimpse of the top of her chest where her sweater hung loose, where extra veins had begun a hike up her neck.
“Thomas?” she said, barely above a whisper. I hunched over the centre console, and she latched onto my sleeve. Her wedding ring hung loosely between two pronounced knuckles. Her hand slid down and found mine. Her flesh was no longer hot, not even warm. It was ice. It stung. “Thomas,” she said again and placed a hand on the back of my head, drawing my ear towards her lips. “I think we ought to hurry up, baby.”
A rumble sounded deep within her, and I stole my head back. A wild appetite was growing in her belly, I could sense it. As I sat back in my seat, I could feel her eyes on me in the passenger-side mirror. I drew my zipper up to my neck and reached for the door.
“Darry.” I came around to the front of the car.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at,” he said. The metal innards of the old beast were nothing more than dark shapes, complete gibberish to us both.
“We’re going to have to walk,” I said. “She’s getting worse.”
Darry stepped away from the car and stared across the fields of black snow, fields so vast they rendered us pebbles, loiterers on a stretch of nowhere highway.
“We have no choice,” I said. I curled my bottom lip and guided a breath of hot air towards my nose, warming the interior of my mask. “Darry. Look at me.” I went ahead and said it, what neither one of us wanted to admit. “I think we might have waited too long.”
He faced me. Stray curls spiralled out of his tuque at the ears. We shuddered in unison as the wind came at us. A sheet of snow trailed behind it. It grazed over the road in a hurried fashion, and then it was gone into the field on the other side, as quickly as it had come. Again, all was still. Darry drew on a cigarette, pitched it into the dark, and yanked his mouth covering up from his chin. “You’re right. Go on and fetch your gloves. Let’s get moving,” he said.
We didn’t look at each other much as we carried our mother toward the dome. I’m not sure we would have survived each other’s sorrow had we. Darry had her torso in his arms, and I, her legs. She was looking up at the stars, brilliant, full. A ring of white had invaded her irises ⎯another symptom, one of the final stages. It wouldn’t be long now. My legs began to feel the added weight not only of my mother, but of the helplessness that was suddenly birthed by the inevitable. Ahead, our dome-shaped haven looked smaller than ever.
“It’s not so cold out anymore,” she said. Darry and I halted. “It’s really quite a nice night. Don’t you think, boys?” Her breath didn’t show in the cold. The snowflakes on her face didn’t melt.
“It’s beautiful, Mum,” Darry said, brushing the snow from around her eyes.
“You’re father loved this kind of weather.”
We walked along the shoulder of the road, trying to be quick but only wasting energy in doing so, and in turn slowing us down. I concentrated on my Kodiaks to confirm that my toes were in fact wiggling.
“I have to go back to the car,” I said.
“Thomas, what? Why?”
“Her slippers. I have to get them.”
“Take her!” I dropped her legs and Darry scrambled to balance her weight.
“Thomas! Stop!” he yelled.
I ran with all the fire in my legs, kicking up chips of ice with my heels, but the Oldsmobile was hardly getting bigger. Under only starlight it looked long abandoned, like it hadn’t seen an owner in years. Behind me, Darry was a frenzy of shouts and hollers.
“There’s no time!” I heard him say. “Thomas! There’s no time!” Then he blurted something I couldn’t make out. He screamed it again, but I kept running. Only at the sounding of the air whistle did I draw the connection. Train.
My heart nose-dived to the base of my stomach. I pivoted brashly, slipping to my knees on a patch of black ice. Pants shredded and knees bleeding, I scrambled to my feet and raced back towards Darry and my mother. If we didn’t make the tracks before the train … the setback could be devastating.
When I reached them, however, Darry had already laid her out on the tracks. I wanted to scream, but my lungs were gone.
“Don’t look,” he said.
I tore over to her and winced as my bloodied knees pressed against the iron. The tracks were buzzing with the momentum of the impending train. To my right, a dime-sized light was broadening in size.
“Thomas! Get back!”
I placed my bare hand on her cheek. Her lids were closed, but her eyes were running rampant beneath them. My heart hit my throat as the whistle sounded⎯move or die, it announced.
“Thomas! Get the fuck off the tracks!” Darry swung himself under the flashing arm that had lowered between us.
But a heat flooded my mother’s face beneath my hand. She became a searing furnace. The blood of renewed life surged into her veins, and my tears hit her flesh with a hiss. The headlight bore down on us now. She opened her eyes, seeing life again for the first time, and the last. With the train’s light, I could see bright candy red where the whites of her eyes should have been. I knew then that Darry had done what I couldn’t have. The sickness had completed its work. The woman on the tracks below me was no longer my mother, my friend, but a parasite desperate to drain the blood from my body. Her eyes scanned mine with unfamiliarity, widening as they landed on my throat.
Darry’s arm hit my neck and yanked me backwards. I cupped my hands to my ears as the air brakes screeched at a soaring decibel level. Before he spun me around, I glimpsed her on her knees: her frothy open mouth, her poor attempt to try her legs. Her bleeding eyes. The metal beast roared into frame with bullet-like velocity. My mother went with it in a burst of dark wet, fragments of her assaulting the snow in my peripherals.
As we walked, the train’s rhythm chugged steadily alongside us, synching to my pounding heartbeat and diminishing only when we reached the car. I clambered into the back seat, and Darry took rest beside me. Our breath was just as visible inside, and between us, the cold slippers were stiffened like museum pieces. I disregarded them and awaited the grief to infect and transform me.