When he awoke, his head hurt. The drizzly fog of sleep thinned and parted. Rays of reality sliced through the departing clouds of his mind, and he gradually regained the ability to think clearly. But his head still hurt. Felt like a fever.
A realization stung him like a slap in the face. This could be number six! He shuddered. But he knew it would come one day. How could anyone escape number six?
He tried to think positive. Maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t it. Perhaps it was only a head cold. He stumbled into the bathroom and examined his eyes in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. They were bloodshot. Not a good sign.
Below the quartz countertop of the vanity was a drawer, which he slid open with his left hand, while steadying himself with his right, next to the sink. Shaky fingers extracted a thermometer that had been in his wife’s mouth and his own mouth many times before. “May God rest her soul,” his lips murmured.
A minute later he pulled it out and read 99. Not too bad. Probably just a head cold. He returned it to its home and slowly slid the drawer closed.
He walked to work, a grocery store, a mere two blocks from his home. Before this all started he’d been a waiter. But after all the restaurants were shut down, he’d spent two years unemployed, on government assistance.
His restaurant never reopened, but a job did, at the grocery store, and he was next in line. Employment was practically mandatory, because the offer of a job always meant the end of one’s assistance check, whether the job was accepted or not. He needed money, so he accepted the job.
That was a year ago. Covid-19 had been ravaging his world for three full years now. It was stumping science. After three years, the experts were still scratching their heads. What few experts remained. They knew a lot more about it now than they did when the pandemic began, but they weren’t anywhere close to a cure or effective vaccine.
He rubbed his forehead as a maskless pedestrian passed closely by, brushing his shoulder. Masks had been proven unhelpful at preventing transmission, and most people had stopped using them. Social distancing rules were still in effect, but more and more people ignored them these days, with a fatalistic “what’s the use?” attitude.
The morning sky was so blue it stunned him, and managed to stimulate his mood to a slightly lighter side from the persistent heavy sadness of his heart. He noticed more birds flying around than he’d ever seen before in the city. And the overgrown yards of the homes where nobody lived anymore, hinted of a revivifying forest.
He passed through the parting doors of the supermarket, headed for the back, and within minutes was assigned his first task of the day. Canned beans were running low, and someone had to restock them.
“Hey Terrance!” a man tapped his shoulder as he was settling three cans onto a shelf. He turned and faced Lamont, a former co-worker at the restaurant. “Finally got beans in, huh? I’ll take a few.” Lamont leaned over Terrance’s kneeling figure and pulled the same three cans off, and dropped them in his cart.
“How you been, Lamont?”
“Fine, fine, how about you?”
“Oh, alright.” He didn’t want to admit to his headache and 99 degree fever. That sort of news sometimes freaked people out.
Lamont held up four fingers. “Four times, man, four times I’ve had it. How about you?”
“Five, I think.”
“Five?! Oh shit man, watch out. Hey, if you get it a sixth time, I hope you break a record,” Lamont said with both pity and hope.
One of the few things scientists had discovered about the coronavirus was that nobody survived more than five known infections. The sixth time, for those who managed to make it to a sixth time, was always fatal.
“Thanks. See ya around, Lamont.” He turned back to his box of beans and resumed restocking, not wanting his eyes to betray the fear of death.
Returning home that evening, Terrance thought he heard a wolf howl far off in the darkling twilight, and quickened his step. There’d been rumors of wolf sightings, but it seemed unbelievable to have such large, wild predators prowling the city. Mother Nature couldn’t be recovering that quickly, he reasoned. Impossible.
He shut the door behind him. Safe now, from wolves or whatever was out there. Safe. Safe from all but the invisible enemy. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his burning forehead. He felt tired. His body ached all over. More so than it should.
Into the bathroom he trudged, to the drawer that held the thermometer that had portended his wife’s death. And she after only three times! Why had he lasted through five? Who knew? No one knew.
What scientists did know, was that each infection was followed by antibodies. But those antibodies only protected people for about four to twelve months. And each reinfection weakened the body more and more, like a cannonade cracking the ramparts of a castle. Infections left survivors with permanently damaged lungs, hearts, kidneys, and other organs, creating within them underlying conditions.
Those who already had underlying conditions often died from their first infection. For healthier victims, it usually took two, three, four, five, and rarely six. Nobody had ever been known to survive six infections. Number six always broke the castle walls down.
He shook the mercury to the bottom with a few flicks of his wrist, then stuck the thermometer under his tongue. He studied his ridiculous reflection in the mirror, with the glass stick jutting out from between his lips. He pulled it out and examined the result.
Terrance didn’t bother putting the glass stick away. He just left it sitting in a puddle of his saliva, on the quartz countertop.
His body was warm, but he felt cold. In fact, he felt like he was freezing. And he was so tired. He wanted nothing more than to snuggle into his bed, under some deep, warm covers, and rest his aching muscles.
Hunger had fled his stomach. He only wanted rest. And so, within minutes, Terrance found himself crawling between sheets and sinking into the comfort of his mattress. He’d neglected to draw the curtains of his bedroom window, but felt too tired and achy to care.
Glancing out the window as he adjusted blankets around his shivering body and head, Terrance caught the vestigial red glow of a recently submerged sunset. He finished adjusting and stopped moving, readying himself for sleep. He coughed a few times.
His tussive fit died down, and a silence enswathed him like heavy cloth. Outside, no city sounds seeped through his window. Just an eldritch quiet, that perfused every molecule of the universe.
Except that somewhere, way off in the dark, between starlight and a wilderness of trees and vacant homes, there drifted a faint howling.