Fiction – “Blood Oranges” by Audrey Fine
From the top of Wind Cave trail, Catalina could see the permanent layer of smog over the Valley. The brown cloud, they called it. She suspected that some of the smog particles had been in the air above Phoenix, stagnant, stuck, for longer than she had been alive.
It was a beautiful late February morning, sunny and warm, but the trail was empty. That was the norm these days: people didn’t go out, didn’t have much interest in natural pursuits. Catalina didn’t mind. She liked hiking better without the crowds, anyway.
The Valley looked the same as ever, but it wasn’t. The giveaway was the freeway, as empty as the trail, or nearly; she spotted two cars for the whole hour she watched. Two cars. The last time she’d hiked, she’d seen four.
In the sky above her, two turkey vultures circled the mountain. A gecko sunned itself at the edge of the trail. The bright blue of the heavens gleamed so brightly that it looked like a Hollywood backdrop and not the Arizona sky. It was really too bad that everyone else was too dead to see it.
Catalina didn’t let herself look down on the Valley until she got to the top. The view wasn’t why she came. She didn’t want to feel like God, perched up on the mountain, separate from the world. But being alone, here, running too fast up the trail, pushing harder and harder until the gravel dribbled down and her legs gave out – it was proof of being alive. Of saying, not me. Not me. To go faster, faster, too fast, missing steps, scraping skin, tripping over rocks and palo verde branches to get to the top, to be that person who was faster and stronger and…invincible.
But then, at the top, when her breath came back and her heartbeat slowed – what was the point of it then? What was the point of being safe? Catalina still found her mind wandering to what would happen next week, or the week after that. What the newspaper headlines would be when the editors ran out of synonyms for “death toll” and “rising.” The articles ran down all the same stats: Ezekiel’s disease, prevalence nearing thirty percent of the population; survival rate for people with O-positive blood, zero percent.
Catalina took another deep breath. It was a beautiful feeling, distraction. She could feel it in every cell of her body. There wasn’t enough of that around anymore.
Catalina took a swig of water from her bottle and started back down the trail. It was different on the way down: there was a little cactus wren on a branch, a cholla cactus jumping into the trail, a mesquite tree whose tiny drooping leaves carved sharp shade marks in the dirt. And then there was a boy.
Catalina stopped short. A stream of pebbles careened down the trail under her shoes, but she was transfixed. She never saw other people here anymore, yet there he was, sweating bullets despite the cool breeze, eyes fixed on the dirt of the trail. Like he hadn’t even noticed her. Maybe he hadn’t.
“Hello,” she called out.
He looked up, startled, clearly as stunned to see someone else on the trail as she had been. With his face lit by the sun, Catalina could see that he was no older than she was, maybe twenty to her nineteen, Latino, with perfect dark round eyes and shining black hair. “Hello,” he replied, but it came out more like hrhrhhelo through his parched throat.
“Water?” Catalina asked, holding her bottle out in front of her. He stared for a moment, eyes flicking from the bottle to her and back, before he reached for it. “Have you hiked Wind Cave before?”
“No.” He took a deep gulp. “Never. I didn’t…I didn’t know it was so…long.”
Catalina smiled. “A lot of people have that reaction. It’s okay.”
Swallowing one last gulp, he said, “Thanks. I’m Eduardo.”
She took the water bottle back from him. “Catalina.”
“I didn’t expect to see anyone here,” Eduardo said a moment later, once he had regained his breath and steadied himself on a large rock beside the trail. “I sort of had to sneak in on the far side, since everything’s closed down at the entrance.”
“Yeah, it’s been like that for a while. They took all the park rangers down to guard the border.”
“The border.” Eduardo rolled his eyes. “Yeah. That’s important right now.”
Catalina shrugged and took a few steps down the trail, wondering if she could politely get away from him. He was cute, sure, but he didn’t seem as interested in her as in border politics.
He looked up. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“What brings you out here?” He stood up from the rock. “Please don’t leave. I don’t mean to be…creepy or anything. I just, um, don’t meet a lot of new people.”
Catalina smiled in spite of herself. She felt the same way when she woke up every morning and knew the only person she’d see was Tía Consuela – and even she wouldn’t greet her niece until she’d showered and changed clothes from outside. “I understand,” she whispered. It had been at least a week since she’d seen someone her age, not since she’d gone to Food City the day before it closed, and seen the teenage checkout girl with the smooth, cocky attitude of someone with A or B blood, and a family full of A or B blood, safe and secure, untouched by the fever. “It’s nice to see people out. It makes you think society still exists.”
“It does,” Eduardo assured her. “It just happens inside now.” He glanced up the mountain, a hint of worry in his eyes. “So, you’re headed back down already?”
Catalina smiled. “I come here like three times a week. I can go pretty quick.”
“Ah.” He nodded appreciatively. “Do you live nearby?”
“Mesa. Fifteen minutes on the 202.”
He looked out toward the freeway, barren as ever. “I’m from Apache Junction. Opposite way. Not too far, but I’ve never been here before.”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “My parents aren’t much for parks.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. My mom’s been bringing me here since I was little.” And now she’s dead.
“Cool.” Eduardo cast a glance up the trail – he was barely three-fourths of the way up – and Catalina could tell that he was reconsidering his plan to get to the top. The steep two miles up and back weren’t kind to beginners. She’d seen people pass out from it in the summer, when the heat and dry air conspired against faint hearts. “I don’t think I’m going to make it all the way,” he said finally. “Kind of lame, isn’t it?”
Catalina smiled. Wind Cave wasn’t for everyone. “It’s okay.”
“No. Lame.” He rolled his eyes, but the smile curling the corners of his mouth came through anyway. Was he flirting with her? “Maybe I’ll head down with you.”
They didn’t talk much on the way down the trail, which was just the way Catalina liked it. Despite years of warnings from her mother and aunts about the dangers of hiking alone, she couldn’t stand going with other people. She preferred to push herself, to go as fast and as silently as possible, to hold off on breathing in until that very last second before the burning in her lungs gave way to ice. No one else could understand that.
When they reached the parking lot – her mother’s beat-up Civic and his cherry-red SUV the only cars in sight – Catalina slowed her pace, hoping to avoid the sort of awkward scene where she had to stand around and wait for him to say something.
Luckily Eduardo didn’t seem much for posturing and games. “So, can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
Catalina couldn’t help but laugh. “Coffee isn’t the best when you’re parched from hiking.”
“Oh.” Eduardo looked away from her, smile plastered on. “Well, I, uh, I guess I’ll get going then.”
“No, I meant–” Catalina took a deep breath. “I meant coffee isn’t good. Like, it’s a diuretic. I didn’t mean don’t ask me out.”
He looked as though he were about to say something, but before he could – before Catalina could get her hopes up – the cell phone in his pocket began to buzz. “Sorry,” he said, pulling it out. “I should probably go home. Rain check?”
“Rain check.” Catalina smiled.
“Next Thursday? Here?” he asked. She detected some tiny note of desperation in his voice.
“Definitely.” Catalina smiled. There was something about Eduardo, something secret and compelling that made her think he felt the same way she did.
“Okay.” He popped open the car door. “I’ll see you then.”
For the first time in what felt like forever, Catalina drove home with a smile on her face.
The days passed uselessly, all spent the same: waking up late, rationing the food, checking all the websites to see what stores would be open that day, watching La Santa Masa on TV. Scrubbing herself down every time she came in from outside, shrinking under Tía Consuela’s judgmental stare, wondering if it were true, if little tiny viruses were burrowed into her clothing, just waiting to mutate and strike. If she really were dangerous.
Under the steam and stream of the shower, Catalina imagined the tiny invisibilities washing away, rolling into a single hollow line straight down the drain. She could be safe again, not a hazard to others, not the sort of person Consuela had to stay away from.
Every morning when Catalina drank her glass of orange juice, she gulped down her birth control pill with it. It seemed almost pointless now: bad menstrual cramps and acne paled in comparison to the memory of her mother in the hospital, hacking up blood as her lungs liquefied. But still she took the pills, Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday, because they reminded her what day it was. That days still existed.
When the pill pack said Thursday, she went to Wind Cave.
Eduardo was already there, leaning against his car in that strange sort of casual affectation. Catalina couldn’t believe how high school it was, how teenagery and lame. But it was normal, and something about it made her smile. Normal didn’t exist anymore, yet here she was, meeting a boy, being casual, like everything was the same and Mamá was just at work.
Catalina parked her car one space away from Eduardo’s and hopped out. “Hey,” she called.
“Hey,” he replied, raising a caramel hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “I was wondering if you’d show.”
“What do you mean?” She glanced down at her watch: 10:30 a.m. “This is when I normally come.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I just didn’t know.” He smiled. “I buzzed over here. There was no traffic.”
There never is anymore, she thought. He should know that. She glanced up at the mountain. “Wanna head up?”
“In a second.” Eduardo smiled, picking two Jamba Juice cups out of the driver’s seat. “I brought you something. Last Jamba Juice in the Valley.”
Catalina’s eyes widened as she took the styrofoam cup. She didn’t know what to say: there were no luxuries like this anymore. The taste of tart raspberries and cold stung her tongue.
“Wow,” she breathed. “Thank you.”
She took another slurp, then said, “So tell me about yourself.”
Eduardo laughed, a beautiful broad laugh that was instantly jarring and comforting. “What a speed-dating thing to say.”
“Sorry.” Catalina smiled. “I didn’t know what else to ask. I don’t spend a lot of time around other people anymore.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” He sighed. “It’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She set down the smoothie on the trunk of her car. “My emergency job is working as a pharmacy tech, and every day these people come in for their prescriptions like they feel really guilty that all these people they know are dead and they’re trying to keep their cholesterol down or whatever.”
Eduardo looked down into his smoothie, as though he didn’t know what to say. As though Catalina had pegged him wrong, and he wasn’t the conversation soulmate she’d been dreaming of, someone who could look at the world now and be heartbroken but say something besides that all the time.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to–”
“No, it’s fine.” He looked over at her, quickly glanced down at her breasts – Catalina noticed and started to blush – then back up. “It’s sort of weird to hear someone talk about something other than the…um, the fever.”
Catalina lowered her eyes. “Sorry,” she whispered again.
“Don’t apologize.” And he kissed her, hard.
The prickly touch was so unexpected, so stunning, that Catalina jumped back. Eduardo’s skin felt unnatural, unreal, on hers. She had nearly forgotten what it was like – nearly forgotten that other people radiated heat, too, instead of clammy cold.
When Eduardo pulled her into the car, she went. He reached for her hands, lifted up her shirt, found the looped bow on the top of her track pants. Catalina lay still as he kissed her. Watching him pull down his own pants, she wondered what she would have thought about girls who did this before. Not positively, before, watching him get a condom from the glovebox. Not positively, before, when she would have joined in the chorus of whore with the rest of them. Things were different before.
Instead she reached down and helped guide him in.
He wasn’t the best she’d ever had, but it was a beautiful distraction for ten minutes, maybe fifteen. She wondered what he would have said if she were a virgin, bleeding all over him. Something about blood felt toxic now: she battled nausea every time her period started, even. Seven years times twelve periods and now tampons whispered to her death. But this…this didn’t.
“Thank you,” he said when he rolled off of her.
“Thank you.” It sounded stupid as soon as she said it, but she didn’t know what else to say. She wasn’t saving him. She was just being normal.
“Listen,” he said, “I should get going, but I’d like to see you again.”
She looked up. “What?”
“I’d like to see you again.” He smiled, running a hand down her bare thigh and reaching onto the front seat for her pants. “Here,” he said, handing them over. The polyester was harsher than his skin had been.
“You aren’t going to hike?”
“Um. I don’t think so.” Eduardo brushed a hand over his short hair, then winked. “I’m kind of exhausted now. You know. And I don’t have any water anyway.”
“Okay.” She wriggled back into her track pants. “How about next week?”
“Sure.” His eyes, still trained on her breasts, gave nothing away. “D’you do Wind Cave every Thursday?”
“Yes.” And Saturday, and Sunday – but he didn’t need to know that.
“I’ll be there.” He waited as she readjusted her shirt and hair, then leaned over to kiss her softly once more. “Can I walk you to your car?”
“I’m okay.” But she did appreciate the sentiment.
“See you later,” he said.
When he was gone, she took a deep breath and started up the trail.
When it was Thursday again, Catalina brought two extra water bottles. She didn’t want to give Eduardo any excuse not to do the trail.
Unlike the last time, when Eduardo had made a passable hiking companion, this time he talked too much and went too slowly. His breathing grew heavier, then shallower by turns, even on the shallow inclines. Catalina heard, but she didn’t stop. She had yet to be winded. She knew this trail, knew the twists and turns, knew where the cactus grew too close to the footpath and where the stones were looser. If he wanted to stop, he’d have to ask. Ask, or keep up.
Catalina hoped for the latter: she wanted to feel the acid in her lungs, the burn as cold air seared her insides. She wanted him to take the same pleasure in being proven alive. But only two-thirds of the way up, Eduardo found a long flat rock and plopped himself onto it. “Su-sorry,” he croaked out, gasping for air, fumbling with the cap on his second water bottle. “Need…rest.”
Catalina gave him a curt nod and sipped from her own water. Below them, the Valley stretched out for miles, the brown cloud looking a tiny bit lighter than usual. On the mountain, though, everything was green and fresh and alive, like no one from the government had bothered to inform nature that there was a state of emergency, thankyouverymuch, and could you stop the desert flowers from blooming, it just really isn’t appropriate.
Without invitation, that image of her mother in the hospital came flooding back. The way she’d lain in the bed, pale and bruised – blood dripping from her nose and throat, the thickness of it coating every word she choked out. The room smelled like iron and antiseptic, a cloying odor that snuck into her nostrils. She’d dreamed of it for days afterward. It caught in her mind and under her fingernails as the other nurses escorted her out, eyes clouded, pretending they didn’t know what would happen.
Catalina could feel the bile rising in her throat, a burn so much worse than the kind she did to herself with the hikes or the curling iron. She jumped back to the trail, pounding her legs down faster, faster, feeling the dirt shift under her tennis shoe soles. Three days, it had taken. Three days from Mamá’s first nosebleed; two days from her hospital admission. That was when they didn’t know why some people just coughed and others died, before they realized that there was only one type of blood in the bags.
She whirled around to see Eduardo, pulling himself slowly from the rock, staring after her. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Not ditching me, are you?”
Catalina took a deep breath. “No.” She pointed up the trail. “Better views from up there.”
“But I’m tired,” Eduardo moaned. Catalina caught on something in his voice – something childish and whiny she hadn’t caught before. She had no interest in waiting around for him, so she shrugged and turned back around, taking several more steps up the trail. Pound. Each step put her legs at perfect ninety-degree angles. Pound. Concentration was key.
She turned back around. “What?” she snapped.
“I’m tired.” He let out a dramatic sigh. “Let’s go back down. Please?”
Catalina wanted to get to the top. She wanted to feel the prickly cold of the air and build that fire. She wanted to feel the burn, the punishment, the pain of survival, instead of nothing.
But when she looked at Eduardo, she didn’t feel that same empty nothing hole. She felt normal: thinking he was cute, thinking they could fall in love, like normal people who did normal things in normal circumstances.
At the bottom of the hill, when Catalina was beginning to wonder again what she’d do for the rest of the day, Eduardo caught her hand. “What are you up to now?”
The mountain and trees and city melted away until he was the only thing left to see. “Nothing,” she said, squeezing his hand. Then, before she could psych herself out of it, “Do you want to come over?”
“Your family won’t mind?”
“No.” This was probably a lie. Tía Consuela would not be happy to see someone else from the infected world: she already hated that Catalina went out there, despite bringing home food and clothes and money. “Probably not,” Catalina amended. “I mean, it’s just me and my aunt, and you probably won’t even see her, anyway.”
“Oh. Is she…?”
“O positive. Yeah.” Catalina shrugged. “I guess I don’t blame her for being scared, you know? But it’s like she’s scared of me now, not just the disease.”
He nodded. “Any other family? Mom? Dad?”
The rush of memories blocked her voice in her throat, trapping the sound behind air and anger. “No dad. Mom’s dead,” Catalina spat. “She was an ER nurse, so she was right there when the first people came in, before they knew it was contagious. Before they even knew what it was.”
“God,” Eduardo breathed. “That’s awful.”
“Yeah.” Catalina took another look out over the Valley. Thirty percent of Phoenix was dead, she’d heard during televised Mass. A city wiped clean. “And I can’t get it, because of some stupid guy I’ve never even met having A blood, and giving it to me.” She looked at him. “It’s pretty fucked up.”
Catalina searched his eyes. She’d never told anyone this before, not even Tía Consuela. It was infuriating that Mamá was dead, and Catalina – flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood – was safe thanks only to the A blood of Mamá’s old boyfriend, who’d knocked her up and skipped town.
When she looked up at Eduardo again, she saw his eyes clouded, distracted. Had she wrecked things? Had she really ruined everything with her stupid too much information desperate lonely conversation? “You still want to come over?” Catalina asked.
He turned back to her, a smile breaking over his face. “Yeah.”
At home, Catalina went in first, to check for Tía Consuela. Her bedroom door was bolted shut. Lucky, in a way. Catalina and Eduardo crept through the hallway to her bedroom in the back. He didn’t speak; she didn’t mind. She clung to him, brought him to the bed. She kissed him and waited. He took the bait. She let go.
When it was over, Catalina sank into the pillows and sighed. “What’s wrong?” Eduardo asked, rolling over to face her.
“Nothing.” She let out the massive smile that had built in her the second he’d come into the house. “I’m good. I feel…like, normal.” She shook her head. “Isn’t that pathetic?”
“No.” He snaked a hand under the sheets and across her bare stomach. “That’s what I like about you.”
“Oh really.” She smiled again, this time a flirtier smile. She felt out of practice, but the muscles in her face remembered. “That’s all you like about me?”
“That’s not all.” He leaned in again, a soft, salty whisper of a kiss. “I think I like everything about you.”
You barely know me, Catalina thought, but she pushed the thought away. This was her choice, too, being normal. Sleeping with Eduardo. Negotiating bed sheets with a stranger. It hardly seemed like the worst thing people did, now.
“I’m hungry.” Eduardo kissed her one last time, then slid away, out of bed. “Are you hungry?” he asked, pulling his jeans off the floor.
She wasn’t – she was never hungry anymore – but she duly got out of bed and reached for her own clothes. In the kitchen, the sun beat in through the windows. No Tía Consuela to be found. “Help yourself.”
“Do you have any soda?” he asked.
“No. They were out of soda when I was at the store.”
“I can’t believe they’re out of so many things,” Eduardo said, reaching for the pint of milk.
“Seriously?” Catalina raised an eyebrow. “Everybody’s out of things. You go to the grocery store and you cross your fingers that they brought things in from the farms and you get to them before FEMA does.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “I haven’t really been to the grocery store.”
“What?” She eyed him suspiciously. “How?”
“We have the government service deliver them.”
Catalina gasped – she couldn’t stop herself. “Wait, you have O-positive blood?”
“I do.” He shrugged, taking another long gulp of milk. She watched him, but her mind raced too quickly for her to even think about what he was saying, what noises spewed from his wiggling lips. O-positive blood. The idiot had O-positive blood and he was out in the world, walking around, going places, living. He was signing his name on the death certificate, practically.
“…not that big of a deal,” Eduardo finished.
Although she hadn’t heard most of what he’d said, Catalina was shocked. Shocked that he was out; shocked that he didn’t seem scared of it; shocked that the idea of having his lungs bubble up blood didn’t keep him locked inside the way it did everyone else.
“Are you an idiot?” Catalina blurted out. “You’re risking your life. Oh my God. Do you know what Ezekiel’s does to you?”
“Yeah.” He closed the refrigerator door. “I know what happens.”
“Then how can you–”
“I’m going to get it anyway.” He watched her carefully for a moment before adding, “You know it’s true. We’re all going to get it and we’re all going to die. I don’t want sit inside my house and waste away and wait for it to happen.”
“You can’t live in fear.” He smiled. “If I did, how would I have met you?”
“I don’t think so.” He set the milk cup back down on the table. “I think it was completely worth it.”
When he touched her this time, it felt different: there was heat in him, life, but it was shrouded by what he’d said. Catalina had imagined them as the last two left, but instead he was dead.
“So what do you have to eat around here?”
Catalina looked up at him. She could barely think, barely remember why they’d come here or why she knew him. “Um.” She should have known he only wanted the sex, anyway, not a stupid torrid love affair when everyone else was dying.
The kitchen swam through the lens of her tears. “I have some trout,” she said. “Do you like fish?”
“Oh. I…um. That’s really all we have.” Trout from the fish hatcheries in northern Arizona was all that came in regularly, besides occasional steaks from the ostrich farms between Phoenix and Tucson. She’d learned to like them both. “Um. We have fruit.”
“From our trees.” Catalina glanced out the kitchen window toward the row of citrus. “We have lemons and Valencias and blood oranges. We used to have a grapefruit tree, too, but it died. Mamá – um, my mom used to say four trees was unlucky, and one of them was bound to die.”
“I’ve heard that before,” he said. “Don’t know why.”
“Me neither.” Catalina took a deep breath. She wondered how she could get him out of the house, away. He had lied. He was toxic.
“I’d take a blood orange,” Eduardo said finally. “Those are really good.”
She plucked one out of the fruit bowl and handed it over. “I, um. I think you should go.”
“What? Why?” He stuck one finger into the shiny skin and pulled up. “Catalina, why?”
“I think I heard Tía Consuela.” Catalina watched, transfixed, as he peeled off a large chunk of peel. It came off in layers, membrane sticking to each of his fingers. “I don’t want to try to explain this to her.”
A thin line of red juice dripped down his thumb. Catalina was dying to wipe it away, to get rid of that stain, but she stood, frozen, before him.
“Eduardo?” she whispered.
“Yeah. Totally.” He tossed the pile of orange peel into the sink in one fluid motion, one wrist flick in the air. “Are you free this weekend? Do you want to do something?”
“I…” Catalina bit her lip. She couldn’t imagine seeing him again, thinking of him again, letting him in. He was O positive. There was no future in that. “I think I need to stay with Tía Consuela.”
“Okay.” He shrugged, chewing another wedge of orange with his mouth open. The pink inside his mouth melded with the red of the orange, foaming almost, and she had to look away. She couldn’t think of that. She couldn’t see that color again.
Eduardo swallowed with a gulp so loud it rattled in her throat. “I’ll see you next Thursday,” he whispered, leaning over. His kiss, so sweet from the orange, made Catalina almost forget who he was.
When it was Thursday, she didn’t go. When it was Thursday again, she didn’t go again. She stayed home and stared out the window at the looming clouds – how unusual, February rain – and wondered what the trail would be like. She loved the way the desert smelled under the rain, scented with creosote’s stinging freshness. There was nothing better in the world.
She could imagine Eduardo arriving at the trailhead and waiting, trekking from his car to the dirt under the rain, careful of mud.
“You seem different,” Tía Consuela told her as she prepared tortillas at the press. A bright silver rosary hung from her neck. “No smiles. No going out.”
“It’s raining,” Catalina offered.
“Never stopped you before, mija. You used to love rain.”
“I’m fine, Tía.” Catalina stood up. “Just fine.”
“I’m glad you aren’t going out. Very dangerous out there.” She pressed down on the lever, then raised it to produce one perfectly flattened tortilla. Peligroso, peligroso. “You’re much better off staying at home.”
Catalina didn’t feel better off. She didn’t feel like staying home was saving her life: it was stifling her, suffocating her, choking out the beauty of the world. If she stayed in the house, there was no chance for something better.
Eduardo… Catalina closed the kitchen door and sank onto the floor, back tight against the wall. He wasn’t broken. All this, and he wasn’t afraid. He had wanted her despite an entire world that said he had to stay indoors.
When she saw people at work, she knew that everyone who was alive was lonely now. But she hadn’t been, with him. Maybe that was enough.
When it was quiet at the pharmacy, which was most of the time, Catalina read the newspapers and magazines stacked under the counter. For the first time in her life, she found news fascinating. The spread of the disease, the death rates, the momentum towards cures. The way everybody had dropped everything on the continents affected; the way people in Australia and Antarctica weren’t allowed out or in. Everything shuttered to stop transmission. Not that that had worked for the U.S., sealing the border when Patient Zero had already crossed over from Mexico. She mused that it was impossibly easier to stop people from getting into Antarctica anyway.
The whirring of the fax machine jarred Catalina from her thoughts. Friday afternoon: weekly orders for FEMA’s delivery service. Sixty prescriptions, zero new. They’d all be the same things she normally filled, thyroid meds and statins and antidepressants. The regular rumblings of the world going on.
The pharmacist, a man in his late fifties, came into the storeroom and poked through a few of the top faxed sheets. “Sixty,” he said. “Fewer than we used to get.”
It seemed inappropriate to say. Catalina imagined he must not know about her mother, but even if he didn’t, why would he say something like that? Why would he assume she was unaffected?
Catalina simply nodded. She looked at the first readout: Jeremy Abrams, acebutolol, a beta-blocker.
Before Catalina could reach for the correct bottle, the call button buzzed. A customer, this late Friday evening? Hard to believe.
When she saw him, everything else disappeared. He looked paler under the bright store fluorescents, but it was him. His eyes and his hands and his voice on her name, a wispy breath cutting through the air. “Catalina.”
“What are you doing here?” She glanced back toward the storeroom door, which stood half-open. The boss would be mad. Oh well.
“I missed you at Wind Cave.” Eduardo’s face broke into a half-smile. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“I’ve had a cold.” The lie slipped out easily. “How did you know I worked here?”
“You told me your emergency job was pharmacy tech. I didn’t know where. I’ve been looking.” He shrugged. “I needed to see you again.”
Catalina couldn’t help but smile. The warmth in his words spread through her face, her hands, every skin cell, every neuron. “I–”
“Can we get out of here?” he whispered, eyes darting nervously across the back of the counter. Perhaps the pharmacist was back there, watching them, shaking his head in disdain. Catalina didn’t care. “I really want to talk to you.”
“I’m done at seven.”
He glanced down at his watch. “Can we just go now? I can’t really wait around.”
There was something so desperate in his voice, something so hurt and raw. Catalina recognized that feeling, the insurmountable helplessness, the sort that ate at her actions and thoughts half the time, too. “Yeah,” she breathed. “I’ll go.”
Outside the darkness seared her skin. When he kissed her this time, she didn’t feel normal. His lips didn’t have that promise of reality, of former life, like they used to. Instead they had every element of this new world: they were rough and cruel and whispered darker futures. He oozed desperation and cold, and when she felt the saliva on her tongue, she couldn’t push away the idea of that other liquid, frothy and viscous, and the way she’d tried to tell herself the crimson was just a broken blood orange splattered on the bedsheets.
“We got it,” Eduardo said.
“What?” Catalina had been so lost in the stars, the shadows, that she barely noticed his shaking hands on hers. “Got what?”
“It.” He spat out the word. “Ezekiel’s.”
All it took was that word: before he’d even gotten to the s, that horrible hiss of finality, Catalina was collapsing inside. Everything she’d held up gave out, tink tink tink, until even her bones felt hollow.
“No,” she whispered. Him too, she thought. It was all she could think. Him too him too him too.
“I wanted to tell you.” Eduardo didn’t try to touch her again; he could see it, maybe, or he was as fucked up over it as she was. “I didn’t want you to…to not know.”
Catalina stared out into the murky air of the evening, but she didn’t see the cars or the street lights or the little white lines of the parking lot; instead her vision was corrupted by memory, the last time she’d seen her mother in the hospital, the way the other nurses pushed her away, behind the curtain, so she wouldn’t see those last breaths, garbled by blood and morphine, thick black coming up in the respirator tube until the beeping went flat and a fat slug of a clot crept out through Mama’s lips.
The way those government doctors came in once it was over, didn’t talk, just wanted to know why Catalina wasn’t sick. The way they turned away from her when they stuck her with needles. The way her own blood, squirting into the tiny sample tubes, was bright red. Healthy. Different. The way Tía Consuela cried and prayed every second, until three weeks later, when the letter came in the mail announcing her A positive blood and decreeing her safe. But it was too late by then. She’d seen it.
“Thank you.” It seemed like a strange thing to say, but it was all Catalina could think of. “For telling me. Thank you.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “I just…I had to. You’re the only person I know now.”
It was true, she mused: he was the only person she knew now, too, besides Tía Consuela and the people at work. He was the only one she knew with O positive blood. But he was dead too.
“What…” She sighed. “What are you going to do?”
“They’re taking us to the FEMA hospital tomorrow. My sister’s already there. She got, uhm, she had symptoms first.”
“Your sister?” She hadn’t known he had a sister – but she barely knew him, after all.
“Yeah. She got the rash and a nosebleed, and they took her away this morning. They told us we had 24 hours to get our affairs in order. Called it ‘Korematsu time’.” Catalina watched as his eyes filled with tears – it was the first time she’d seen him this way. “That’s so stupid, isn’t it? ‘Get our affairs in order.’ Like that’s all we have left.”
She didn’t say that it was all they had left. She didn’t say anything. Instead she snaked an arm around his waist, her fingers on top of his, close enough to hear him breathe. His heart beat through his wrists and pulsed into her. He was infected, but he was alive.
“It just doesn’t seem fair,” he whispered, his words floating off into the night. Catalina could barely hear them, much less hold on to them. She knew she’d never see him again, after tonight. This was it. For good. “I go out every fucking day and I’m fine. She goes out one time, to her friend’s birthday party, and she gets sick.”
The wind chilled Catalina through the skin, until every hair stuck up on her arms, hers intertwined with Eduardo’s. She could let him go. She would have to.
“I have to go,” he whispered.
“Sorry.” Catching her hand one last time, he said, “Don’t feel guilty. Not like the rest of them.” She watched him walk away, eyes fixed on the tiny hint of pink rash where his wrist poked out of his sweatshirt.
There was no announcement in the newspaper, no list of deaths online. Eduardo was buried, somewhere, in the numbers that they read off at the end of the week. Another 900 in Arizona; 27 million nationwide. Death rate increasing. No news on vaccine. Emergency procedures and FEMA marshal law. Speculation forever; nothing concrete.
Catalina stopped counting the days. He wouldn’t have lasted more than three since she saw him. She hoped things were different – that they had better sedatives now, that it wasn’t so painful, that there was something besides sitting in that tiny bed and waiting for the last bits of lung jelly to bubble up. But she wasn’t quite sure she believed it.
When she went to Wind Cave, it felt more like punishment than salvation. This was the place where she’d seen him first, among the creosote and jojoba. This was the place where she’d pushed him, though he’d never made it all the way up the trail, and now he never would. This was the place they’d made love. This was the city they’d looked at together.
At home, she imagined him, too: this was where he’d lain on her bed. This was where he’d peeled away the blood orange’s rind. This was where he’d told her his death sentence.
It was also where she found out hers.
“It’s mutated,” Tía Consuela said. “People with A and B positive blood dying, too.”
Catalina stared down at her palms. Tiny blue and red veins snaked under her caramel skin. Poison. Infected.
It was the tail end of blood orange season. Catalina sliced hers open and the thick sweet crimson spilled out onto the cutting board. “Oh,” she said.
Catalina looked out over the yard. It would be March soon, and the cactus flowers would bloom. The prickly pear buds would give way to sweet thorny fruit with no one to eat it. The palo verde trees would break out in yellow with no one to see it.
“I have to go,” she whispered. She would have to get to the top again. She would have to do it for Eduardo.
There were no visions of blood, no memory of that sharp antiseptic smell. There was only the idea of Wind Cave. It was all she wanted.
“You can’t live in fear.”
Catalina was not afraid.
About the Author
Audrey Fine attends an Ivy League university, hoping that being a National Security Advisor and a novelist aren’t mutually exclusive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.