Jayne sat in the upstairs hall, his tail lashing back and forth like a snake. He was obviously displeased with me.
“Join the club,” I said as I ran down the stairs.
Trent had been moved to the clinic. He lay curled on his side on the metal table, the knobs of his spine exposed to a lantern that sat on a nearby rolling cart. A huge needle lay next to it. Berta stood next to him and wiped his face. Shane was by the window, watching the commotion outside as he pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat, which was considerable given the fact that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten.
Berta bent over and spoke in Trent’s ear. “Abbey’s here,” she said. She looked up and smiled at me encouragingly.
“Hey,” I said as I walked up to the table. “You finally woke up.”
“Shane said I should go back to sleep.” I had to bend down to hear him; his voice seemed so distant. “Cause it’s gonna hurt.”
I looked up at Shane who was watching the two of us. “Anesthesia? I mouthed. He shook his head no.
“Yes, it’s going to hurt,” I said to Trent. “But you’re a ninja now. And ninja’s are brave and strong.”
“Do ninjas cry?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. “When something really hurts.” I didn’t want him to be worried about trying to be brave.
“Ninjas are way cooler than pirates,” Shane said.
There he was with that line again. I wondered exactly what it meant and I gave him a puzzled look.
“Do you know any pirates?” Trent asked.
I arched an eyebrow at Shane. “A few,” I said. “But I know a lot more ninjas. And he’s right. They are cooler.”
Shane picked up the needle and handed me a piece of plastic. He pointed toward his mouth with his finger, and I quickly got the meaning.
“Put this in your mouth, and when it hurts bite down,” I said to Trent and he obliged. “That’s what the cool ninjas do.”
“You’re going to have to hold him,” Shane said.
I took Trent’s upper body, and Berta took his legs. I watched as Shane dabbed the base of Trent’s spine with alcohol and then inserted the needle.
The noise the boy made was wretched. Trent clamped his teeth down on the piece of plastic, and tears poured from between his clenched eyelids. I tried to soothe him. I don’t even know what I said beyond “Ninjas are cool” over and over again, but he seemed to respond, smiling up bravely at me when he could.
Shane backed off the plunger on the needle, and a cloudy liquid filled it. I was surprised; I’d expected blood. Shane frowned when he saw it.
“It’s over now,” I said as Shane pulled the needle away.
Trent didn’t answer. He’d passed out; from the pain or the fever, I didn’t know which.
Shane held the vial up to the candlelight and looked at it closely before placing it on a tray.
“What?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he picked up Trent and carried him to the wardroom. I stood at the door and watched as he gently placed the boy on a cot, and Berta pulled a blanket over him.
The look on Shane’s face was grim as passed by me again. He picked up the vial and left the room. I trailed after him with Jayne bringing up the rear as we once more went downstairs.
Shane attacked his work table. He lit several candles and prepared a slide with the fluid drawn from Trent’s back. I leaned against the edge of his sofa as he examined the slide and then went over to his desk and pulled down one of the thick books that sat on the shelf above.
Jayne looked up at me questioningly as Shane flipped through innumerable pages. Finally I saw Shane settle on a page and study it intently. He slammed the book shut and dropped it on his desk with a thud. He leaned over the desk with his back to me, his hair falling across his face. I watched as a long shudder moved down his spine.
“What is it?”
“Can you cure it?”
He laughed. It was mirthless, almost sinister. The sound gave me chills, and I rubbed the goose-bumps on my arms.
In one movement, he suddenly swung his arms and cleared his desk. Books, papers, binders, pencils and pens; everything went flying to the floor. Jayne jumped and ran under the bed. I heard a low growl in the cat’s throat and his eyes glowed with a strange gold light.
“How can I cure it?” Shane asked in a hoarse voice. “I’ve got nothing to cure it with. Nothing. No meds. Those were gone a long time ago, used up in the pandemic, where once again all I could do was stand back and watch people die.”
“We’ll go to the hospital, to doctor’s offices, pharmacies,” I said. “We’ll find some.”
Shane shook his head like he was talking to a child. “What do you think people have been doing for the past hundred years? I, myself, have cleaned out every stockpile of medicine in this city.”
He stretched his hands out in front of him, spread the fingers, and arched the palms. He looked at them as if he’d never seen them before.
“I used to think my hands were for healing,” he continued. He turned the left one over, and in a heartbeat his eyes took on that strange red glow that frightened me so. I watched with my stomach churning as that thing, that stabber, that life-sucker extended out of it. He held it up for me to see.
“This is all I’m good for,” he said. “This. Taking life. Killing. Ending it.” He took a step toward me. I wanted to retreat but the sofa was already pressed against my back. “I could save him,” he said. His voice was speculative. “I could change him.”
“No.” I shook my head fiercely.
I didn’t like the look on his face or the fact that he’d taken another step closer.
“Save Trent. Save you. I could save everyone. Then we could all live happily ever after; at least while we aren’t trying to kill each other off.” Shane took another step. He turned his palm over again so that the thing in his hand stood straight up. I couldn’t help but look at it. “How bout it Abbey?” he said. “Want to live forever?”
I looked into his eyes. The red glow was still there, but it covered something else.
“No,” I said.
“Think of all the fun we’ll have,” he continued. He took another step.
“Stop it Shane,” I said. I grabbed his hand and wrenched it away. It was an old move, one I’d learned in my karate class. Twist the fingers back, and the body will follow. “You said you couldn’t change us before. What are you doing?”
The weapon in Shane’s palm retracted, and I watched the skin close over it so that his palm once again looked normal. It amazed me to see the opening coincided with his life line. If I traced it would it run on continually? Did eternal life show in patterns on the skin?
I looked once more at his face. His eyes lost their red hue as he looked at me for a long hard moment but I felt rage and frustration simmer beneath their surface.
Suddenly, Shane fell to the floor. It was if all his strength left him at once. He sagged down, his back against the couch and his head on his knees.
“No matter what I do, I can’t stop it. I can never stop it,” He said. His voice was shaky. Was he crying? “It never ends,” he continued. “It’s nothing but an eternity of death.”
I knelt down beside him. I touched his hair and let my fingers trail through the silky blonde strands. He looked up at me. His eyes were dark, practically navy, and they filled with tears.
“I told myself a long time ago not to care. Doctors aren’t supposed to get personally involved with their patients. I try to keep everyone at a distance because I know in the end they’re all going to die.”
I realized then his pain. His loneliness. His solitude. And the reason why he always ran hot and cold with me. He was scared of caring for anyone. He’d watched so many people die through the years; his brother, his parents, his friends and the people who lived and worked in this small community trying to stay alive. And now Trent was dying. Trent, who was probably as close as he’d ever come to having a child of his own.
I wrapped my arms around his shoulders; I pulled his head under my chin. I stretched my legs out so that one went behind him and the other over his lap and I pulled him close.
His body was tense, his muscles rigid. I stroked his hair and held on tight until I felt him relax against me. His arms crept around my waist and he wrapped his hands in my shirt. I felt it bunch up and move, exposing the bare skin of my back. He let out a long sigh and moved his head up on my shoulder so that I could feel the brush of his breath on the skin of my neck.
We sat still for a long, long moment. I continued to run my fingers through his hair. Jayne came out from under the bed and lay down beside me, his paws tucked up beneath his chest. His rumbling purr seemed louder than normal as it broke the deep dark silence that surrounded us.
“No one touches me,” Shane said quietly.
I didn’t understand, but said nothing, just continued with my fingers in his hair.
“They’re all afraid to touch me,” he said. “Afraid if they touch me they’ll become infected. They don’t mind when I touch them, as long as it’s medicinal, but they won’t touch me.”
I nodded. I felt his lips move against my neck as he spoke again.
“Physical comfort is a precious thing,” he said. “You’re the first person to give it to me in one hundred years.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d only done what I wanted; I gave him what I felt he needed. I’d offered comfort. It was the most natural thing in the world.
“Abbey…” his voice trailed off as his hands freed themselves from my shirt and his fingers caressed my back.
I felt that touch down to my core. Heat coiled inside me. It bubbled and twisted and spread from the center of my body to follow the trail of his hand which moved gently up my spine.
“Abbey,” he said again. I turned toward him as he lifted his head from my shoulder.
“Abbey,” he whispered as I looked into his eyes.
They were blue. Very blue. For a moment I’d been afraid they’d be glowing with red fire. Instead, I saw something more dangerous.
Dangerous, yet so very very tempting.