I ran up the stairs to our apartment, screaming, “Baby!”
My whole body shook. I couldn’t breathe.
I have faced down the worst of the worst, survived horrors I still see when I close my eyes. But this…nothing prepared me for this.
Splayed out on the couch, his feet hung off one end, his head hung off the other. My worst nightmare changed right then and there. His face told the story; black lines spread around his neck and covered his face like shadows from tree branches. He had the new Plague. He was going to die.
Oh, my love. My sweet love.
“Baby?” Even though the lines on his face told me everything, I still hesitated to touch him, afraid to find a fever, afraid to find cold. “Rick?”
Finally, I summoned the courage to touch his neck. The Plague brought high fever with it. He was hot. So fucking hot. But alive – still.
His eyes fluttered open – He no longer had perfect brown eyes with clear whites surrounding them. The last symptom, other than pain, was bloodshot eyes. Now they were just red. Nothing but red.
“Barb,” he croaked. His weak voice brought pain to my heart.
“How long have you been like this, you’re burning up.”
“I’m here, baby.” I wanted to pull the sickness out of him, to find some pill to give him. To take it all on myself, a thousand times over, a million times, if it would save my love.
I dialed 9-1-1, but the phones were still dead. I tried my police radio, but only heard silence. I was on my own.
“Just hold on, love. Just hold on.” I kissed his forehead, my lips burned from his fire. “You are not gonna die. Not on my watch.”
I took a deep breath and hoisted my husband over my shoulder. He howled in pain.
I’m a strong woman. A cop. Before that, I served two proud tours as a Marine. I am no petite flower. But Rick had 100 pounds on me. My knees wanted to buckle. But I refused. I was not going to give up before I got out of our apartment. I was not going to give up before I got down four flights of stairs. I was not going to give up before I got to the car.
The good news was that the burning in my shoulders and back turned to a throbbing which turned to numbness before I got to the third floor.
Easy rollin’ from there, baby.
Sirens on, horn blaring, the road blurring in front of me, my patrol car got us across town somehow. I don’t remember the drive and I don’t remember crying but my face was wet when I got there.
A couple of blocks from the hospital I had to stop. The road was littered with abandoned cars. I climbed on top of my car to look for a clear path. There wasn’t one.
“Fuck this shit. I’m not givin’ up, Rick.”
I hauled him over my shoulder again and walked. At times I climbed over cars, at times I squeezed through, but I kept going. By the time I got to the hospital parking lot I thought I’d pass out if I had to go another step.
The commotion around the hospital was intense. The grounds surrounding the building were a giant triage. People were everywhere, dozens, maybe hundreds of people laying on the pavement or on makeshift cots. I’m sure hundreds more were out of my view. The sounds of human suffering blended into one long drone, like a beehive, but much. much louder.
I only saw one person who was clearly a doctor: A short woman with long frizzy hair. Her doctors coat, probably white when she put it on, was covered with stuff I didn’t want to consider. She looked like she hadn’t slept in years.
“Help me!” I wanted to yell to get her attention, but I didn’t have much in me. I dropped Rick at her feet and collapsed next to him.
“Please! My husband needs help!” I panted between words.
“He looks advanced.” She knelt down and pried his eyes open.
“Advanced? I dunno what you mean. But, please, ma’am, please. I can’t…I just can’t lose him. Please.”
She looked at me like she’d heard my story a million times that day.
“I’ll do what I can, but there isn’t much. Are you OK?”
I couldn’t process her question.
“Where do you need him?”
“Lot B. I’ll be able to keep a better eye on him over there.”
I prepared to lift him again, but she put her hand out, touching my arm to stop me.
“What’s your name?”
“Barb, I’m Allannah. You’ve carried your load already, let me.” And with that she leaned down and lifted him over her shoulders. “Ran out of gurneys yesterday.”
For such a small woman, she carried him with strength I couldn’t imagine. She even checked a few patients, barked orders to a nurse and picked up a bag of synthmorph and a needle while we walked.
She lay him down in a shady spot near the building.
“I’m so sorry I don’t have beds, or cots, or mats left. But I still have a little synthmorph. It won’t cure him, but it will relieve some pain.” She spoke while she took his temperature and listened to his heart beat, shaking her head. “Your police officers?”
I realized we both still had our uniforms on. I had my service pistol, but his was probably sitting on our table at home.
“Yes ma’am. City of Berkeley.”
“I’m sorry Barb. I really am. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything…”
“I know. But I hadta try.”
“Give the synthmorph a few minutes and he might be well enough to talk to you, before…”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. A gesture I learned from Rick to help people be less intimidated by the uniform and gun. I now used it whenever I felt for a person. Something about the way she tried to comfort me was touching.
“Thank you.” I tried to pour as much honesty as I could into the simple words.
Sadness and exhaustion tinged her smile, but I appreciated her effort.
“I’ll come check on you when I have a chance.”
“Barb,” Rick moaned as I sat down on the pavement next to him. I took off my shirt (leaving my t-shirt and bullet-proof vest in place) and piled it under his head.
“Hey baby, we’re safe now. You’re gonna be OK.”
“Liar.” He squeezed his eyes closed.
“Where does it hurt?” I unbuttoned his shirt and unstrapped his vest.
“Everywhere. Swear my blood is boiling, but it’s a little better now.”
Everything welled up at once. I couldn’t hold back any more. I put my head on his chest and sobbed.
“Look at me.” He whispered with a hoarse voice.
“I look like shit.” For lack of a towel I tried to dab at my eyes with my sleeves.
“Yeah, you do.” He smiled.
“Really? If you’re gonna go there you need to look in the mirror.” I tried to smile, but my chest tightened with fear. He looked worse than before I cried on him. So many black lines crisscrossed his face he was hard to recognize and his eyes were solid red. I wiped dark blood from his nose.
“You are still the prettiest girl at the dance.” He coughed. “Always will be.”
“Rick, please don’t…” Leave me, I wanted to say. Please, baby, please…please…please don’t leave me. But I didn’t have enough words. I couldn’t tell him that my heart and soul would die with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want to live in this fucked up and cold ass world without him.
“Love you, so much.” Small tears leaked from his eyes.
“I love you more.”
He shook his head and coughed again.
“Don’t you have some people to save?”
“Only you, baby.”
“Gonna rest a bit.”
“I love you.” I had a sudden overwhelming need to make sure he knew. They had to be last words he heard. More than I had to breathe I had to know he knew. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Too weak to talk, he smiled a little and closed his eyes for the last time.
“I love you, baby. I love you so much.”