It’s not my fault. I was careful. I was so careful.
I wear a mask, I wear gloves, I use sanitizer all the time.
I was careful.
I know how it happened. On my way to work. I was coming up from the subway. As I was coming up, there was the sound of gunfire. I froze. I wanted to go back down to the subway, but I was too scared to move. He came around the corner with a look in his eyes like a wild animal. He saw me there, standing stock still at the top of the stairs to the subway. That’s when my legs started working again. I turned to run back down, but he was so fast. Faster than anything. Faster than anything on earth should be. Within a half breath he was on me. His hands, his impossibly strong hands, wrapped around my head.
He was bleeding. He’d been shot, several times by the look of it. So much blood, and it was getting all over me. But that wasn’t enough. His sick, blackened tongue rolled out of his mouth, and he licked me. He licked my face. I tried to pull away but he held tight and growled something.
“One of us now.”
Then he pushed me. Back down the stairs. I fell head over heels down those concrete steps. It hurt, but I couldn’t bring myself to focus on the pain of the fall. All I could feel was that man’s hideous tongue on my cheek. It felt like it was still there, black and infected and on my skin.
I landed on the bottom, and struggled to stand. From above, I could hear the sound of more gunfire, and feel explosions rocking the ground. I couldn’t focus on that either, I looked around frantically, until I saw the sign for restrooms. I scrubbed and scrubbed, I scrubbed until my face was raw. I stripped naked, right there in the restroom, and I emptied the sanitizer dispenser. I bathed myself in alcohol and soap and hot water. I still didn’t feel clean. I washed the blood out of my clothes, but after putting them on, I still felt like I was wearing the man’s blood.
I decided to get home as fast as possible, burn my clothes, maybe I could bathe in bleach and kill it before it got inside me. There were police out, and soldiers, and they were questioning people. Asking who had seen anything. If anyone had been touched.
My clothes had been washed in a bathroom sink, and clearly had been. They were still wet, and still visibly stained from the blood. They should have stopped me, but they didn’t. It was like their eyes went right over me. Even stranger, I should have told them. I know what happens. I watch the news. I know that if you think you’re infected, the smartest thing you can do is go straight to the authorities. They’ll decontaminate you, quarantine you for a few days, then send you on your way with a clean bill of health if you check out. If not…they have to burn you, but it’s better than the alternative.
I know this, but I didn’t do it.
I didn’t turn myself in, I just kept walking.
I got back on a train, I went back to my apartment. Things you are not supposed to do if you think you might be infected.
I fought the whole way home not to touch my face. I could still feel that tongue there, even after the alcohol, the soap, the fall. The fall….
I should have been injured from the fall. It was not a short stairway, and the steps are solid concrete. I should have been bruised, a broken bone maybe, but I felt nothing. I should have known then…
I made it home, I threw my clothes onto the grill on the balcony and splashed lighter fluid on them. I let them burn while I filled my bathtub with hot water and bleach. I closed my eyes, held my breath and submerged myself in that caustic mix. I wanted to feel clean, I wanted the tongue to be gone.
I came up, took a breath, and spit out some bleach that had gotten in my mouth. I nearly puked from that, but it felt good. It felt like I had won. I had made it home, I had decontaminated myself, I was in the clear.
Just to be safe, I gargled alcohol based mouthwash for almost half an hour, then took a very, very long shower and scrubbed myself raw all over again. I felt clean. I felt like I could finally put it behind me.
I decided to take it easy the rest of the day, letting myself relax and breathe easy. I had been lucky. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate, I turned on the tv, I was ready to settle in.
Until I reached for my mug.
I reached from my couch, leaning over to my coffee table, and the mug moved.
I didn’t touch it, but it moved.
When I reached, it slid slightly but noticeably towards me. I leapt back, and the mug tipped over. I shouted (screamed really) and the volume on my tv spiked. I threw my hands over my ears and closed my eyes tightly. I whispered to myself that no, this wasn’t happening; I caught it in time; I was clean.
I opened my eyes. The cup was still there, hot cocoa dripping off the edges of the table. My tv was now on mute, but when I uncovered my ears, the volume came back on.
I scrambled for the door. I don’t know why. That’s not what you’re supposed to do. I know this. If you think you’ve been exposed you turn yourself in, but I didn’t. If you start showing symptoms, you dial 9-1-1. Or you light yourself on fire.
The symptoms were there, and I didn’t call.
I went outside. I bargained with myself that I must be imagining it. I was attacked earlier, and I must have been having a weird moment. Losing it just a bit, but that was normal right? If you go through something like that, you’re allowed to lose it a little.
I didn’t bring my mask, I didn’t bring my gloves. I was in sweatpants and t-shirt, but nobody seemed to care. Most people wears masks these days, and almost nobody leaves the house without gloves. Nobody stopped me, nobody pointed. It was like they could see me, but didn’t really see me. I didn’t know, but that felt like it might be another symptom.
I couldn’t believe this. I just couldn’t. I was so careful. This was the sort of thing that happened to other people. People who were less careful. Stupid people who didn’t know any better.
I ducked into a bar. Maybe that was all I needed. I was shaken up by what happened that morning, that was all. A drink might calm the nerves, or something like that. I would quiet down, take a breath, and when I came out of the bar in an hour or two, everything would be better.
It was early for the drinking crowd still. The bartender seemed just as oblivious to my appearance as the people on the street. He gave me a beer, and I gulped it down. I drank another, and another, and I started to feel a little bit calmer. The world started to blur around the edges, but something else started to happen too. Certain things became clearer. Not just clearer, transparent, if that’s the right word.
The first of the evening’s dedicated drinking crowd came through the door, and I knew them. I had never met them before, but I knew their names, their stories, other things.
I knew that the guy with the grey suit and red tie was named Vance, and he had hated the name since childhood. He thought it sounded like the name of a dumb jock from an 80s movie. I knew the red-headed guy with a beard pretended to be Irish to get girls; his name was Calvin. George, who followed behind, was having an affair with his secretary. Not a malicious sort of affair, his wife and he had simply grown apart and he wanted companionship. George hated Calvin, but liked Vance; Vance liked both of them; Calvin tolerated them both because nobody else would go drinking with him after work.
I blinked, wondering how I could know that. The bartender was giving me weird looks, like he was seeing me for the first time, he made a gesture as if to ask me why I wasn’t wearing gloves and a mask, but then he shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He didn’t ask me anything.
I barely remember what happened after that. I remember leaving the bar. I remember stumbling into George on the way out, and him yelling at me.
I staggered through the streets, not knowing what else to do. I stumbled into an alley, fell into a pile of trash, and blacked out.
I had dreams. Terrible dreams. Dreams I wish I could forget, filled with dark jungles, and a city of rough black stone. There were things inside those high stone walls.
Next, I was being woken up by a nudge to the ribs. It was soft, not hostile, just a polite nudge.
There was a voice, brief and to the point, telling me I couldn’t sleep there. He asked me if I needed any help, if I needed to go the hospital. Then he grabbed my shoulder.
I don’t know what I did. I don’t know why. I did something though. I didn’t mean to really.
I just wanted to shove him off me. I wanted him to leave me alone. So I threw my hand at him, just to shove him.
There was a sound. A terrible ripping sound, and I looked up to see the lower half of a police officer tumble to the ground. The top of him was nowhere to be seen.
That was the last straw. I couldn’t deny it anymore.
I was infected.
I curled up in a ball there on the pavement and started crying.
I’m not sure how long I cried. It was well into the night when I stopped, probably the early morning. I did stop though, and I stood, and I walked out of the alley.
I was infected, I had to turn myself in. It was that simple.
The street was mostly empty, there was only one person I could see. A man at the corner atm. I knew his name was Thomas, that he was an accountant, single, and secretly very into anime. I knew it by looking, and I knew why now. I could see it all. I knew for a fact that if I turned myself in, they would burn me. There would be no hesitation. It was the only way to kill the infection. You had to burn witches.
I walked up behind him, I couldn’t understand why I was doing that, until he turned around.
My hands wrapped around his head, and held him in a grip that was impossibly strong. His eyes over his mask went wide with panic, and I heard a whisper leave my lips.
“One of us now.”