The gash across his wrist looked worse than it actually was. The glass hadn't severed a major artery, and the bleeding had already stopped. The wound in his upper arm was another matter. He picked away clumps of blood-matted down, then poured half the contents of a bottle of bourbon over it. The pain increased, and he swore through clenched teeth. He blinked away tears, then again examined the wound.
It was deep--he could see the yellow of tendon and the red-stained white of bone--and it was already beginning to show signs of infection. The tissue around it was red and puffy. Then blood welled up, filling the wound and making further inspection impossible.
For an instant he considered pouring the rest of the bourbon over it, but decided against that. If the first cleansing hadn't done the job, subsequent bourbon baths wouldn't help. Instead, he took a long drink from the bottle, then put it down beside the candle on the night table.
He got up from the bed with a great deal of difficulty. He was weaker than he had thought; the battle with the dog pack, the walk home, loss of blood--all had taken their toll. And he had never really gotten over his bout with pneumonia.
Staggering to the corner near the door, he pulled a soiled blue work shirt from beneath the jacket and carried it to the bed. Should be sterile, he thought as he sat and began tearing the shirt into three-inch-wide strips. But it was the best he could do.
When he had enough strips, he began to bandage the wound. It was slow work; his arm hurt more now, and he was becoming steadily weaker. The bandage kept slipping. He stopped often to drink from the bottle.
Finally, he finished. The wrappings were loose, and they didn't stop the bleeding, but he had done what he could. If he bled to death in the night, no matter; he would probably die soon anyway from the infection.
Besides, what was there to live for? Once life had meant something. Now, everything was gone.
Picking up the bottle, he took three long swallows. The bourbon burned down his throat, and the pain slowly left his arm. He placed the bottle back on the night table, nearly spilling it.
* * *
The springs complained loudly as he groped beneath the bed. He sat up, placing the small newspaper-wrapped book in his lap. He could not bring himself to unwrap it. There were both good and bad memories there, but none of them fit now. They belonged to a different world, a dead world he wished he could forget.
But the metallic-crystal chip in his brain would not let that happen. Even with the book's wrappings still intact, entries from it flashed through his mind, beginning with the very first page. He took a deep breath and forced the memories from his consciousness.
The remainder of the first bottle and a good part of the second were gone before he had worked up sufficient courage to tear away the soiled wrappings. He let them fall to the floor, then sat fingering the journal's leather binding. When he finally did open the book, two neatly folded newspaper clippings fluttered to the floor. He bent and picked them up. One he put back in the book. The other he carefully unfolded. Before he could read it, the words painted themselves in his mind, called up by the microcomputer buried in his brain.
WASHINGTON--(UPI)--The Pentagon announced Saturday that it is still unable to explain the twelve-day-old epidemic of mysterious disappearances both in the U.S. and abroad.
A spokesman said it is highly unlikely the disappearances are being caused by a new Russian or Chinese weapon, biological or otherwise, as several cabinet-level officials have theorized. He said no nation has been spared.
"We think it might be a virus of some sort," the spokesman said. "But we can't be sure. We haven't seen anything like it."
The spokesman said that by a conservative estimate a little over three percent of the world population has so far been affected.
* * *
He pushed the memory from his thoughts and refolded the clipping without reading it, then put it back in the book with the other article. That one was an Associated Press story originating from Kitt Peak National Observatory, where astronomers claimed to have discovered several inexplicable changes in the sun and other stars. The observatory's staff said fewer stars had appeared in the sky each night over a twelve-night period. They said the light emitted by the remaining stars as well as that radiated by the sun could no longer be broken down into spectra. The story mentioned the theory of one astronomer that the physical universe was coming to an end, literally running down. His colleagues had considered the theory mildly amusing, but nothing more. They thought the phenomenon was caused by an as yet un-isolated change in the atmosphere, a consequence of pollution.
What had caught Steven's attention in the first place was that this article and the one about the strange epidemic had appeared in the same issue.
He flipped through the journal's pages, letting his eyes scan the small, neat script without actually reading it, forcefully keeping the memories from his thoughts and picking up only an occasional key word. His gaze was snagged by one short passage and he read aloud:
"Again last night she told me more about herself than I told her about myself. She always opens up much more than I do. But that might be natural. Once I told her I'm nothing more than a mirror--I reflect her, whatever she is becomes echoed in me. And perhaps I was right."
He nodded drunkenly. Perhaps he was right. Of all the people who had lived in Boston before the End had come, only Steven and a mere handful of others remained. Maybe that's why I didn't disappear with Pamela and the rest, he thought through the bourbon fog. Maybe there just wasn't enough of me to disappear.
He turned the pages quickly, knowing precisely where he wanted to stop, then closed the book on his middle finger. Keeping the memories at bay, he picked up the bottle and took another long drink. Then he placed the bottle back on the night table and again opened the book. Following the lines of writing with a shaking index finger, he leaned close to see the script in the flickering candlelight. The handwriting was sloppier here than throughout the majority of the journal; he had written this as he was now reading it--drunk.
As he read, the memories again flooded his mind--sharp, clear, and painfully vivid. He remembered every time he had read this entry in the past. He remembered writing it, and he relived the actual event that had caused him to write it in the first place. And with each memory came a difference in the shading of his feelings and emotions.
Steven was literally drowning in his past.
* * *
It is like a scene from an old movie, bigger than life and sharper too, yet somehow twisted and surrealistic. He has gotten drunk; all night some fool has been buying him drinks he neither needs nor wants, but is too polite to refuse.
At about 2:15 A.M., he packs up his music, counts his tips, and stumbles out the door. It isn't raining yet, but the threat is in the air.
All the way up Harrison Avenue he keeps thinking: What if she isn't there tonight? What if she's gone--to wherever it is she goes, to whomever she sees? Or worse, what if she is there, but not alone? She hasn't done that yet; she hasn't deteriorated quite that far.
He goes up the stairs slowly and hears water running in the bathtub as he stands outside the door. Pamela unlocks the door before his key is in the lock.
"Oh, it's you," she says, peering around the door. Her long, blonde hair is piled up on the top of her head. A few strands have come loose and are hanging down in front of her face.
She doesn't seem at all happy to see him, and the vision of someone sneaking out the bedroom window leaps into his mind. It is a rather humorous image, and in spite of himself he snickers drunkenly under his breath.
"Just a minute." She closes the door again. He knows she is getting into a bathrobe, the pink one with small blue flowers he gave her last Christmas. After several minutes, she lets him in.
He drapes his coat over the desk in the living room, places his case of sheet music atop it. She goes into the bathroom without another word.
The television is on, but the sound is turned all the way down. On the screen is a fine-featured black man wearing a small mustache and goatee. His hair is cut in a neatly trimmed Afro. His gaze has that disconcerting quality produced when each eye looks in a slightly different direction.
Burton, Steven thinks. The man's name is Hilborne Burton. He is a psychic of considerable notoriety and has his own weekly television show.
When Steven enters the bathroom, Pamela is already in the tub.
"Sit down," she says, motioning to the toilet. Steven puts the lid down and sits.
"Want some company in there?" he asks.
"Oh, I don't care."
He nods, gets up and goes into the small dressing room between the bedroom and the bathroom, and begins to strip. A knock comes at the door. He zips his trousers up, but leaves them unsnapped and the belt dangling loose to discourage whoever it is. Again the thought that it might be some other man gnaws at the back of his mind.
It isn't. It's the girl from down the hall returning a book she had borrowed.
Steven places the book on the desk in the living room, then finishes undressing.
"Who was it?" Pamela calls from the bathroom.
"Sylvia," Steven says, peeling off his socks. "What's her last name?"
"Yeah. Sylvia Fedderman. She brought a book back. I didn't know you were interested in archeology."
"Yes," she says, almost too quickly. "Sylvia's loaning me a book on the subject."
When he returns to the bathroom, Pamela is lying full length in the tub.
"Move over," he says.
She sits up and pulls her legs up to put Steven in front of her. He wants to be behind her, where she can lie back against him. He has the logistics of how to turn her from cold to hot all mapped out in his mind.
"The other way," he says. "Move the other way."
She moves down and sideways, pulling her legs up until she is sitting sideways across the tub, her chin resting on her knees. Steven is disappointed and a little mad at her maneuver.
The water is hot. It feels good as he sinks into it. Keeping his legs drawn up, he begins splashing himself with the water. Immediately Pamela complains about what a bad day she's had, how every muscle in her body hurts, how tired she is.
That's all right," Steven says, but he puts as much disappointment into his voice as he possibly can. It isn't really all right. They haven't made love in weeks, and Steven is beginning to feel a strange emotional wall building between them.
He takes her arm and gently pulls, trying to coax her around to the position he had originally intended.
"Damn it, don't pull," she says. "My body aches, and you're pulling on me!"
Rejected, he lets go of her arm. He slips his left leg down across her back, lets her lean on it. Again she starts in about how tired she is. Again he reassures her.
He splashes water on his face. He can see it coming. The same thing that happened the last few nights is happening again. He doesn't want it to happen, but he knows there is no way around it. Somehow, Pamela is changing. She is no longer the woman he once loved.
He gets up, begins toweling himself.
"Where are you going?" Her voice is harsh, carping.
"To bed," he says.
Pamela gets out of the tub behind him, grabs the other towel, begins drying herself. By the time she enters the bedroom, Steven is in bed.
They make love. Rather, Steven makes an attempt at it. Pamela just lies there, unresponsive, a limp body lacking the mind to move it; her mind is obviously somewhere else. Steven catches himself simply going through the motions, without feeling, like a programmed automaton, and he quits. He tries to sleep, but he can't.
* * *
The next morning he touches her and feels it again--that strange barrier between them. They both push against it, trying to break through, trying to reach each other. But it doesn't work. The barrier is stronger than it was the night before. Hard. Rough. Cold.
* * *
Three nights later he finds her in bed with Sylvia Fedderman, the girl from down the hall. The morning after that Pamela moves out into Sylvia's apartment. For a month Steven visits her several times a week. She seems to take less notice of him each visit.
By the end of the month, she starts to fade physically.
* * *
Steven closed the journal and placed it between the empty bottles on the night table, then stared into the candle's flickering flame. His gaze drifted from the half-burned candle to the sweater beside it. The frog prince squatted atop the sweater and smiled blindly at him, its outstretched human hands gesturing in empty futility.
Glancing around the room, he surveyed his small world. It was filled with shadows of the old, dead world and cluttered with empty bourbon bottles. Yet, it seemed so very empty.
He looked to the door, where the ax handle should have been leaning. It was no longer there. It lay in a gutter somewhere, stained with blood and sweat, notched several times at one end.
It really doesn't matter, he thought through the bourbon haze. Nothing mattered anymore.
He closed his eyes. Sometime during the night, probably closer to morning, he fell asleep.