For a moment, I didn’t think he was going to answer me. He glanced briefly at Carla and hesitated, and I suddenly understood his apprehension. He didn’t feel comfortable speaking freely. Maybe if Carla hadn’t been there, he would have told the truth. He might have told me about the insatiable hunger...
Perhaps if he had, things might have turned out differently. Perhaps. I’ll never know. One tiny thing like Carla’s presence, which had been well-intended, might have have possibly turned the giant tide.
But she was there, and I didn’t even know about the enormous tide yet, and it might not have mattered anyway.
I guess my brother was as honest as he could be. “I don’t feel anger or irritation, Jack. But I do feel more alive than I ever have in my entire life. I feel really strong, too. You know? Stronger than before. It’s weird.”
Now I studied him. His color was back to normal. Yes, he did have a healthy glow. The only trace of illness left now was in his eyes. His red eyes. No, they weren’t completely red. The whites were still white. It was his irises. Once a dark green, they were now streaked with red, as if he was wearing some crazy Halloween costume contact lenses. His eyes gave me the damn creeps. God, I really hoped he was better.
“And,” he continued, “like I said. I’m really hungry. Starving. And the oatmeal just ain’t doing it for me, bro.”
“Do you feel like you’re better? Be honest.”
Again, he hesitated. He was trying, I knew that now. “I think so.”
I waited. I wish now that I’d known what he was really thinking. It could have made a difference.
“The truth is,” he added. “I’m not a hundred percent sure, Jack. Maybe I’ll feel better if I can, you know, eat some more.”
I considered what I had to say. Again, if Carla hadn’t been there, I might not have been able to have the courage to say to my own brother what I was about to say. “Joe. You know I love you.”
“Ditto, bro.” His smile was bittersweet.
I said, “If you’re really thinking straight, then I hope you understand that I think we need to give this a little more time, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“I want you to wait this out in the cellar.”
He drew a deep breath.
So did Carla. Her hand was resting loosely on the butt of her pistol.
Joe let out his air. “Okay, yes. I do understand. I’ll go back down there. Can you just leave the light on this time? It doesn’t hurt our eyes so much.”
I gave his arm a squeeze. “Of course.”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. My brother looked out the kitchen window, taking in the morning blue sky as if for the last time.
* * *
In the cellar, I gave him a hug before I cuffed him again. Mike was quiet. No doubt, he was waiting for me to leave so he could talk to his cellmate.
I left the light on, as requested. I felt guilty as hell cuffing my brother down here again. But I would have felt worse if he’d hurt himself or someone I loved. I debated, and then turned and asked him, “How do you want your steak?”
His answer was immediate, and as he spoke his pupils flared brightly red. “Rare.”
My brother, of course, had never ordered his steaks rare. I should know. We’d barbequed enough times together. He always ordered them, in fact, medium-well.
“Rare?” I repeated.
Next to him, Mike nodded as well, his eyes equally red.
Joe said, “Rare. Very, very rare.”
When I unlocked my bedroom door shortly thereafter, Anna practically flung herself at me, furious. It took me minutes to calm her down. When she finally agreed, she understood that I had done my best, under the circumstances, to keep her and Jared safe.
“Fine,” she said, glaring at me. “But I still hate you.”
“You can hate me all you want, but at least you’re alive.”
Anna was elated to know that her Uncle Joe was feeling much better and asking for food. Of course she wanted to see him, too.
I considered her request. “Carla’s downstairs making some steaks now. I suppose you can see him when we bring down their food. But Anna, I don’t want you to touch him.”
“But if he’s getting better—”
“Until I know for sure this isn’t contagious, you’re not coming into contact with him.”
“But didn’t you come into contact with him?”
I had, of course, and it was something I was doing my damndest to ignore. Especially considering that I was feeling worse and worse.
“Let’s not talk about that now, baby.”
“Uh, sir?” Jared spoke up. “Is there any more steak left? We haven’t eaten yet.”
“Of course,” I answered. Where was my head? “Do your parents know where you are?”
He held up his phone. “They know I’m okay.”
“Do they know you’re here?”
He blushed a little. “No, sir. Not really. I told them I was with another friend.” He looked at Anna and blushed some more, then looked at me again. “It seemed too complicated to try to explain. I’m sorry I lied.”
My thoughts were getting fuzzier and fuzzier. “Don’t you think you should go home? Won’t they want to see you?” My voice drifted. I had lost my train of thought. What the hell was wrong with me?
“It’s okay,” said Jared. “They work a lot, you know, at the zoo. We hardly see each other anyway.”
“You don’t have to call me sir all the time. I appreciate your respect, though. Call me Jack.”
“Thank you, um, Jack.”
“Let’s go!” Anna was smiling now. “We’re hungry and I want to see Uncle Joe!”
“All right, all right. But remember your promise. You can talk, but no touching—and don’t get too close, either. Can I trust you?”
“Yes, Dad. Geeeez!”
* * *
The two infected men sat now, facing each other. They’d been given wet cloths to clean themselves up, toothbrushes and a comb. They’d washed their faces and felt fairly decent. Except for the hunger.
“So, you told him about the heightened senses?” Mike asked. They were alone in the basement. Their voices echoed, and sometimes they heard critters rustling around in the shadows. Rats. Joe was mildly disturbed that his stomach actually growled when he thought of the rats. They could hear footsteps above, and the sound of someone cooking in the kitchen.