“Are you okay?” I ask my roommate, Toni, as I enter our living room.
“Yes, I’m fine. Why?” she responds from her seat on the couch, not looking up from the television.
“Well, I just heard you sneezing, and I just…”
She looks at me, her face expressionless. “I’m fine. It’s just the dust. I’ll vacuum later.” She looks back at the television.
“Sure. We have nothing else to do but clean, right?” I chuckle.
She says nothing and continues to stare at the box, hugging a cushion to her chest, her vacant stare indicating our conversation is over.
I sigh inwardly and walk into the kitchen to make some coffee. Toni and I use to get along brilliantly. I was looking for a new place to live after my old roommate’s boyfriend moved in and had answered Toni’s online advertisement looking for a roommate to help with the rent, bills, etc. We quickly became friends. I really liked Toni, but ever since the lockdown, she had become moody and distant. Now she just glues herself to the television, flicking between the news and reality TV. I’m lucky to get a word from her most days, and sadly, she is the only human contact I have. Since the outbreak, the government has banned anyone going outside. The virus, which had started innocently enough as a simple strain of the flu, mutated quicker than anyone had thought possible, and people were being infected in record numbers. The authorities couldn’t keep up. As a last resort, civilians were put on house arrest to stop further infection. Armed guards donning protective gear patrol every street, looking for anyone trying to sneak out, quickly detaining and isolating those who dare leave their front door. Those same guards deliver food daily – a balanced diet of fruit, protein, and vegetables – along with treats such as coffee and chocolate to stop us from going completely insane. The mandatory dose of supposedly immune system boosting vitamins and probiotics are given to us in liquid form and consumed in front of the guard, who crosses your name off a list as you drink it. All this meticulous planning and caution, trying to prevent this thing from spreading and it still appears we are fighting a losing battle. The latest reports confirm more deaths, more confirmed new cases and more mutated strains of the virus, some housing an unpredictable incubation period. The powers to be are scrambling to contain it, struggling to find a vaccine, while humanity wastes away in their homes.
I don’t even bother getting out of my pajamas most days. There’s no point when the only human contact you have is social media and a roommate who grunts more than she talks. Two cute little birds, blessed with the bluest of feathers that reside in the small tree outside my kitchen window are my company now. Most mornings, I make my coffee and watch this duo as they innocently go about their day collecting sticks and bugs. I enjoy watching them. I enjoy talking to them. And though I know they don’t understand me, my loneliness makes me feel like they do. Sometimes when I’m talking, they give me a reassuring chirp or even a look, a simple yet kind gesture to show me they are listening, and I’ve grown very fond of them. My daily chats with my feathered friends help me forget the horror of what is happening outside my door.
This morning is no different from any other, and I pour my coffee into my favorite mug as I watch the birds, envying the simple life these creatures have. I’m blowing on my coffee to cool it down before taking a sip, when one of the birds suddenly jumps across the branch, away from its nest. It lets out a loud squawk and drops from the branch, hitting the ground with a small thud. I gasp in shock as I watch the other bird fly to the ground and poke his motionless mate with its beak, nudging it over and over, its little chirps of desperation piercing my heart through the glass. The bird remains motionless on the ground. The other bird keeps nudging his dead mate, jumping from one side of his body to the next, undeterred by the lack of movement. Tears blur my vision as I turn away from the scene before me, unable to watch anymore. I leave my coffee on the kitchen bench, clutching at my chest as I make my way towards my bedroom, my sobs of despair not rousing Toni, who’s yet again sleeping on the couch.
I stay in my room after that, only leaving to answer the door to the guards each morning. After the bird’s death, any hope I had was gone. Sleep is fleeting as I wallow in grief, the sadness a welcome break from the static in my mind. Each day is filled with more news on the virus, more mutations of the strain, more deaths. There are even reports of cannibalism, with humans being attacked by infected persons that have managed to sneak out past the guards. Toni doesn’t even bother getting off the couch anymore, our living room her new home, only getting up for the guards and to use the bathroom. There’s coughing now, each cough echoing throughout the house day and night, breaking the silence. I suspect she’s not okay and have reported my suspicions to the authorities, but they are inundated and have advised to minimize contact and wear a mask at all times. To potentially stop spreading the virus, I am to stay put. Help will get to me when it can. All I can do is wait.
And waiting is all I can do.
I finally shuffle out of my bedroom one Friday morning to get a much-needed caffeine fix, ignoring Toni and her rattled breathing on the couch as I walk through the living room. My head is pounding as I pour my coffee, my eyes widening when I suddenly remember my other bird friend. How could I forget the other bird! I quickly
put my cup down and press my face against the glass, the sight of him in the tree bringing a huge smile to my face.
“Sorry”, I whisper against the glass, the guilt of forgetting him moving up my chest like a warm rash.
My breath fogs up the glass and I wipe it with both hands as I watch him moving down the branch, a big fat worm in his beak. He jumps in his nest and inhales the worm, the tail sliding down its neck as it swallows. I lick my lips at the sight, my pulse racing. My hands are still clammy though minutes have passed since I wiped the condensation from the glass. Toni appears next to me, looking out the window in silence. I turn my head and look at her. She’s a mess. Her pajamas are filthy, her skin a pasty white, her bedraggled mousy brown hair glued to her neck with sweat. She coughs into her hand, wiping the phlegm on her pajama top. I cough back at her, covering my mouth. And then I cough again, the coughing fit coming in waves so violent I feel I’m going to choke. My hands drop to my knees as I lean on them for support, desperately sucking in breaths between coughs. The pain in my head goes up a notch, switching from a dull pounding to a constant ache. The fit subsides, and I straighten up, focusing on my breathing as I look at Toni again. She is still looking out the window, her eyes narrow and beads of sweat trickling down her forehead.
I turn back to the window, back to the little bird, chirping happily in its nest, full and content form its worm dinner. I never realized how plump my little friend looks. How healthy it looks. How delicious it looks. The hunger is instant and undeniable. My stomach growls as I look at Toni, her nose now bleeding, blood staining her already filthy pajama top.
“That bird looks like it has a lot of meat on it,” I say, my mouth watering.
She nods, still looking out the window, the blood flowing from her nose in a slow stream. I look back at the dead bird on the ground underneath the tree, not moved since the day it landed there, its bloated body now home to the many maggots crawling in and out of it.
“His dead friend looks like it’d make a tasty appetizer,” I continue, my voice shaky, my eyes not leaving the carcass on the ground.
The fever hits me quickly, burning me up from the inside. My body is aching all over and my skin breaks out in a damp sweat. My head feels like it’s going to explode. My stomach growls again, loud and angry from hunger. I open the utensil drawer and grab the sharp butcher’s knife from the tray. Just before I walk to the tree, knife in hand, and decapitate the bird, silencing its morning song when I yank it from its nest. Just before I pick up its decaying friend off the ground and lumber towards the house, holding both dead birds in my hand like a gruesome bouquet. Just before I decapitate a still silent Toni, then devour hers and the dead birds’ flesh in a feeding frenzy on our blood-soaked kitchen floor. Just before it all goes to hell, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the kitchen window.
And as I hungrily lick the blood that’s trickling from my nose onto my lips, I know this sickness, the one that’s been slowly attacking my body all along, has finally consumed me.