I Am Legend

Chapter 17

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"I DON'T UNDERSTAND IT," he told her over supper. "Almost three years now, and still there are some of them alive. Food supplies are 'being used up. As far as I know, they still lie in a coma during the day." He shook his head. "But they're not dead. Three years and they're not dead. What keeps them going?"

She was wearing his bathrobe. About five she had relented, taken a bath, and changed. Her slender body was shapeless in the voluminous terry-cloth folds. She'd borrowed his comb and drawn her hair back into a pony tail fastened with a piece of twine.

Ruth fingered her coffee cup.

"We used to see them sometimes," she said. "We were afraid to go near them, though. We didn't think we should touch them."

"Didn't you know they'd come back after they died?"

She shook her head. "No."

"Didn't you wonder about the people who attacked your house at night?"

"It never entered our minds that they were–" She shook her head slowly. "It's hard to believe something like that."

"I suppose," he said.

He glanced at her as they sat eating silently. It was hard too to believe that here was a normal woman. Hard to believe that, after all these years, a companion had come. It was more than just doubting her. It was doubting that anything so remarkable could happen in such a lost world.

"Tell me more about them," Ruth said.

He got up and took the coffeepot off the stove. He poured more into her cup, into his, then replaced the pot and sat down.

"How do you feel now?" he asked her.

"I feel better, thank you."

He nodded and spooned sugar into his coffee. He felt her eyes on him as he stirred. What's she thinking? he wondered. He took a deep breath, wondering why the tightness in him didn't break. For a while he'd thought that he trusted her. Now he wasn't sure.

"You still don't trust me," she said, seeming to read his mind.

He looked up quickly, then shrugged.

"It's–not that," he said.

"Of course it is," she said quietly. She sighed. "Oh, very well. If you have to check my blood, check it."

He looked at her suspiciously, his mind questioning: Is it a trick? He hid the movement of his throat in swallowing coffee. It was stupid, he thought, to be so suspicious.

He put down the cup.

"Good," he said. "Very good."

He looked at her as she stared into the coffee.

"If you are infected," he told her, "I'll do everything I can to cure you."

Her eyes met his. "And if you can't?" she said.

Silence a moment.

"Let's wait and see," he said then.

They both drank coffee. Then he asked, "Shall we do it now?"

"Please," she said, "in the morning. I–still feel a little ill."

"All right," he said, nodding. "In the morning."

They finished their meal in silence. Neville felt only a small satisfaction that she was going to let him check her blood. He was afraid he might discover that she was infected. In the meantime he had to pass an evening and a night with her, perhaps get to know her and be attracted to her. When in the morning he might have to–

Later, in the living room, they sat looking at the mural, sipping port, and listening to Schubert's Fourth Symphony.

"I wouldn't have believed it," she said, seeming to cheer up. "I never thought I'd be listening to music again. Drinking wine."

She looked around the room.

"You've certainly done a wonderful job," she said.

"What about your house?' he asked.

"It was nothing like this," she said. "We didn't have a–"

"How did you protect your house?" he interrupted.

"Oh.–" She thought a moment. "We had it boarded up, of course. And we used crosses."

"They don't always work," he said quietly, after a moment of looking at her.

She looked blank. "They don't?"

"Why should a Jew fear the cross?" he said. "Why should a vampire who had been a Jew fear it? Most people were afraid of becoming vampires. Most of them suffer from hysterical blindness before mirrors. But as far as the cross goes–well, neither a Jew nor a Hindu nor a Mohammedan nor an atheist, for that matter, would fear the cross."

She sat holding her wineglass and looking at him with expressionless eyes.

"That's why the cross doesn't always work," he said.

"You didn't let me finish," she said. "We used garlic too."

"I thought it made you sick."

"I was already sick. I used to weigh a hundred and twenty. I weigh ninety-eight pounds now."

He nodded. But as he went into the kitchen to get another bottle of wine, he thought, she would have adjusted to it by now. After three years.

Then again, she might not have. What was the point in doubting her now? She was going to let him check her blood. What else could she do? It's me, he thought. I've been by myself too long. I won't believe anything unless I see it in a microscope. Heredity triumphs again. I'm my father's son, damn his moldering bones.

Standing in the dark kitchen, digging his blunt nail under the wrapping around the neck of the bottle, Robert Neville looked into the living room at Ruth.

His eyes ran over the robe, resting a moment on the slight prominence of her breasts, dropping then to the bronzed calves and ankles, up to the smooth kneecaps. She had a body like a young girl's. She certainly didn't look like the mother of two.

The most unusual feature of the entire affair, he thought, was that he felt no physical desire for her.

If she had come two years before, maybe even later, he might have violated her. There had been some terrible moments in those days, moments when the most terrible of solutions to his need were considered, were often dwelt upon until they drove him half mad.

But then the experiments had begun. Smoking had tapered off, drinking lost its compulsive nature. Deliberately and with surprising success, he had submerged himself in investigation.

His sex drive had diminished, had virtually disappeared. Salvation of the monk, he thought. The drive had to go sooner or later, or no normal man could dedicate himself to any life that excluded sex.

Now, happily, he felt almost nothing; perhaps a hardly discernible stirring far beneath the rocky strata of abstinence. He was content to leave it at that. Especially since there was no certainty that Ruth was the companion he had waited for. Or even the certainty that he could allow her to live beyond tomorrow. Cure her?

Curing was unlikely.

He went back into the living room with the opened bottle. She smiled at him briefly as he poured more wine for her.

"I've been admiring your mural," she said. "It almost makes you believe you're in the woods."

He grunted.

"It must have taken a lot of work to get your house like this," she said.

"You should know," he said. "You went through the same thing."

"We had nothing like this," she said. "Our house was small. Our food locker was half the size of yours."

"You must have run out of food," he said, looking at her carefully.

"Frozen food," she said. "We were living out of cans." He nodded. Logical, his mind had to admit. But he still didn't like it. It was all intuition, he knew, but he didn't like it.

"What about water?" he asked then.

She looked at him silently for a moment. "You don't believe a word I've said, do you?" she said.

"It's not that," he said. "I'm just curious how you lived."

"You can't hide it from your voice," she said. "You've been alone too long. You've lost the talent for deceit."

He grunted, getting the uncomfortable feeling that she was playing with him. That's ridiculous, he argued. She's just a woman. She was probably right. He probably was a gruff and graceless hermit. What did it matter?

"Tell me about your husband," he said abruptly.

Something flitted over her face, a shade of memory. She lifted the glass of dark wine to her lips.

"Not now," she said. "Please."

He slumped back on the couch, unable to analyze the formless dissatisfaction he felt. Everything she said and did could be a result of what she'd been through. It could also be a lie.

Why should she lie? he asked himself. In the morning he would check her blood. What could lying tonight profit her when, in a matter of hours, he'd know the truth?

"You know," he said, trying to ease the moment, "I've been thinking. If three people could survive the plague, why not more?"

"Do you think that's possible?" she asked.

"Why not? There must have been others who were immune for one reason or another."

"Tell me more about the germ," she said.

He hesitated a moment, then put down his wineglass. What if he told her everything? What if she escaped and came back after death with all the knowledge that he had?

"There's an awful lot of detail," he said.

"You were saying something about the cross before," she said. "How do you know it's true?"

"You remember what I said about Ben Cortman?" he said, glad to restate something she already knew rather than go into fresh material.

"You mean that man you–"

He nodded. "Yes. Come here," he said, standing. "I'll show him to you."

As he stood behind her looking out the peephole, he smelled the odor of her hair and skin. It made him draw back a little. Isn't that remarkable? he thought. I don't like the smell. Like Gulliver returning from the logical horses, I find the human smell offensive.

"He's the one by the lamppost," he said.

She made a slight sound of acknowledgment. Then she said, "There are so few. Where are they?"

"I've killed off most of them," he said, "but they manage to keep a few ahead of me."

"How come the lamp is on out there?" she said. "I thought they destroyed the electrical system."

"I connected it with my generator," he said, "so I could watch them."

"Don't they break the bulb?"

"I have a very strong globe over the bulb."

"Don't they climb up and try to break it?"

"I have garlic all over the post."

She shook her head. "You've thought of everything."

Stepping back, he looked at her a moment. How can she look at them so calmly, he wondered, ask me questions, make comments, when only a week ago she saw their kind tear her husband to pieces? Doubts again, he thought. Won't they ever stop?

He knew they wouldn't until he knew about her for sure.

She turned away from the window then.

"Will you excuse me a moment?" she said.

He watched her walk into the bathroom and heard her lock the door behind her. Then he went back to the couch after closing the peephole door. A wry smile played on his lips. He looked down into the tawny wine depths and tugged abstractedly at his beard.

'Will you excuse me a moment?'

For some reason the words seemed grotesquely amusing, the carry-over from a lost age. Emily Post mincing through the graveyard. Etiquette for Young Vampires.

The smile was gone.

And what now? What did the future hold for him? In a week would she still be here with him, or crumpled in the never cooling fire?

He knew that, if she were infected, he'd have to try to cure her whether it worked or not. But what if she were free of the bacillus? In a way, that was a more nerve-racking possibility. The other way he would merely go on as before, breaking neither schedule nor standards. But if she stayed, if they had to establish a relationship, perhaps become husband and wife, have children–

Yes, that was more terrifying.

He suddenly realized that he had become an ill-tempered and inveterate bachelor again. He no longer thought about his wife, his child, his past life. The present was enough. And he was afraid of the possible demand that he make sacrifices and accept responsibility again. He was afraid of giving out his heart, of removing the chains he had forged around it to keep emotion prisoner. He was afraid of loving again.

When she came out of the bathroom he was still sitting there, thinking. The record player, unnoticed by him, let out only a thin scratching sound.

Ruth lifted the record from the turntable and turned it. The third movement of the symphony began.

"Well, what about Cortman?" she asked, sitting down.

He looked at her blankly. "Cortman?"

"You were going to tell me something about him and the cross."

"Oh. Well, one night I got him in here and showed him the cross."

"What happened?"

Shall I kill her now? Shall I not even investigate, but kill her and burn her?

His throat moved. Such thoughts were a hideous testimony to the world he had accepted; a world in which murder was easier than hope.

Well, he wasn't that far gone yet, he thought. I'm a man, not a destroyer.

"What's wrong?" she said nervously.

"What?"

"You're staring at me."

"I'm sorry," he said coldly. "I–I'm just thinking."

She didn't say any more. She drank her wine and he saw her hand shake as she held the glass. He forced down all introspection. He didn't want her to know what he felt.

"When I showed him the cross," he said, "he laughed in my face."

She nodded once.

"But when I held a torah before his eyes, I got the reaction I wanted."

"A what?"

"A torah. Tablet of law, I believe it is."

"And that–got a reaction?"

"Yes. I had him tied up, but when he saw the torah he broke loose and attacked me."

"What happened?" She seemed to have lost her fright again.

"He struck me on the head with something. I don't remember what. I was almost knocked out. But, using the torah, I backed him to the door and got rid of him."

"So you see, the cross hasn't the power the legend says it has. My theory is that, since the legend came into its own in Europe, a continent predominantly Catholic, the cross would naturally become the symbol of defense against powers of darkness."

"Couldn't you use your gun on Cortman?" she asked.

"How do you know I had a gun?"

"I–assumed as much," she said. "We had guns."

"Then you must know bullets have no effect on vampires.

"We were… never sure," she said, then went on quickly: "Do you know why that's so? Why don't bullets affect them?"

He shook his head. "I don't know," he said.

They sat in silence listening to the music.

He did know, but, doubting again, he didn't want to tell her.

Through experiments on the dead vampires he had discovered that the bacilli effected the creation of a powerful body glue that sealed bullet openings as soon as they were made. Bullets were enclosed almost immediately, and since the system was activated by germs, a bullet couldn't hurt it. The system could, in fact, contain almost an indefinite amount of bullets, since the body glue prevented a penetration of more than a few fractions of an inch. Shooting vampires was like throwing pebbles into tar.

As he sat looking at her, she arranged the folds of the robe around her legs and he got a momentary glimpse of brown thigh. Far from being attracted, he felt irritated. It was a typical feminine gesture, he thought, an artificial movement.

As the moments passed he could almost sense himself drifting farther and farther from her. In a way he almost regretted having found her at all. Through the years he had achieved a certain degree of peace. He had accepted solitude, found it not half bad. Now this–ending it all.

In order to fill the emptiness of the moment, he reached for his pipe and pouch. He stuffed tobacco into the bowl and lit it. For a second he wondered if he should ask if she minded. He didn't ask.

The music ended. She got up and he watched her while she looked through his records. She seemed like a young girl, she was so slender. Who is she? he thought. Who is she really?

"May I play this?" she asked, holding up an album.

He didn't even look at it. "If you like," he said.

She sat down as Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto began. Her taste isn't remarkably advanced, he thought, looking at her without expression.

"Tell me about yourself," she said.

Another typical feminine question, he thought. Then he berated himself for being so critical. What was the point in irritating himself by doubting her?

"Nothing to tell," he said.

She was smiling again. Was she laughing at him?

"You scared the life out of me this afternoon," she said. "You and your bristly beard. And those wild eyes."

He blew out smoke. Wild eyes? That was ridiculous. What was she trying to do? Break down his reserve with cuteness?

"What do you look like under all those whiskers?" she asked.

He tried to smile at her but he couldn't.

"Nothing," he said. "Just an ordinary face."

"How old are you, Robert?"

His throat moved. It was the first time she'd spoken his name. It gave him a strange, restless feeling to hear a woman speak his name after so long. Don't call me that, he almost said to her. He didn't want to lose the distance between them. If she were infected and he couldn't cure her, he wanted it to be a stranger that he put away.

She turned her head away.

"You don't have to talk to me if you don't want to," she said quietly. "I won't bother you. I'll go tomorrow."

His chest muscles tightened.

"But… " he said.

"I don't want to spoil your life," she said. "You don't have to feel any obligation to me just because–we're the only ones left."

His eyes were bleak as he looked at her, and he felt a brief stirring of guilt at her words. Why should I doubt her? he told himself. If she's infected, she'll never get away alive. What's there to fear?

"I'm sorry," he said. "I–I have been alone a long time."

She didn't look up.

"If you'd like to talk," he said, "I'll be glad to–tell you anything I can."

She hesitated a moment. Then she looked at him, her eyes not committing themselves at all.

"I would like to know about the disease," she said. "I lost my two girls because of it. And it caused my husband's death."

He looked at her and then spoke.

"It's a bacillus," he said, "a cylindrical bacterium. It creates an isotonic solution in the blood, circulates the blood slower than normal, activates all bodily functions, lives on fresh blood, and provides energy. Deprived of blood, it makes self-killing bacteriophages or else sporulates."

She looked blank. He realized then that she couldn't have understood. Terms so common to him now were completely foreign to her.

"Well," he said, "most of those things aren't so important. To sporulate is to create an oval body that has all the basic ingredients of the vegetative bacterium. The germ does that when it gets no fresh blood. Then, when the vampire host decomposes, these spores go flying out and seek new hosts. They find one, germinate–and one more system is infected."

She shook her head incredulously.

"Bacteriophages are inanimate proteins that are also created when the system gets no blood. Unlike the spores, though, in this case abnormal metabolism destroys the cells."

Quickly he told her about the imperfect waste disposal of the lymphatic system, the garlic as allergen causing anaphylaxis, the various vectors of the disease.

"Then why are we immune?" she asked.

For a long moment he looked at her, withholding any answer. Then, with a shrug, he said, "I don't know about you. As for me, while I was stationed in Panama during the war I was bitten by a vampire bat. And, though I can't prove it, my theory is that the bat had previously encountered a true vampire and acquired the vampiris germ. The germ caused the bat to seek human rather than animal blood. But, by the time the germ had passed into my sys?tem, it had been weakened in some way by the bat's system. It made me terribly ill, of course, but it didn't kill me, and as a result, my body built up an immunity to it. That's my theory, anyway. I can't find any better reason."

"But–didn't the same thing happen to others down there?"

"I don't know," he said quietly. "I killed the bat." He shrugged. "Maybe I was the first human it had attacked."

She looked at him without a word, her surveillance making Neville feel restive. He went on talking even though he didn't really want to.

Briefly he told her about the major obstacle in his study of the vampires.

"At first I thought the stake had to hit their hearts," he said. "I believed the legend. I found out that wasn't so. I put stakes in all parts of their bodies and they died. That made me think it was hemorrhage. But then one day–"

And he told her about the woman who had decomposed before his eyes.

"I knew then it couldn't be hemorrhage," he went on, feeling a sort of pleasure in reciting his discoveries. "I didn't know what to do. Then one day it came to me."

"What?" she asked.

"I took a dead vampire. I put his arm into an artificial vacuum. I punctured his arm inside that vacuum. Blood spurted out." He paused. "But that's all."

She stared at him.

"You don't see," he said.

"I–No," she admitted.

"When I let air back into the tank, the arm decomposed," he said.

She still stared.

"You see," he said, "the bacillus is a facultative saprophyte. It lives with or without oxygen; but with a difference. Inside the system, it is anaerobic and sets up a symbiosis with the system. The vampire feeds it fresh blood, the bacteria provides the energy so the vampire can get more fresh blood. The germ also causes, I might add, the growth of the canine teeth."

"Yes?" she said.

"When air enters," he said, "the situation changes instantaneously. The germ becomes aerobic and, instead of being symbiotic, it becomes virulently parasitic." He paused. "It eats the host," he said.

"Then the stake–" she started.

"Lets air in. Of course. Lets it in and keeps the flesh open so that the body glue can't function. So the heart has nothing to do with it. What I do now is cut the wrists deep enough so that the body glue can't work." He smiled a little. "When I think of all the time I used to spend making stakes!"

She nodded and, noticing the wineglass in her hand, put it down.

"That's why the woman I told you about broke down so rapidly," he said. "She'd been dead so long that as soon as air struck her system the germs caused spontaneous dissolution."

Her throat moved and a shudder ran down through her.

"It's horrible," she said.

He looked at her in surprise. Horrible? Wasn't that odd? He hadn't thought that for years. For him the word 'horror' had become obsolete. A surfeiting of terror soon made terror a clich¨¦. To Robert Neville the situation merely existed as natural fact. It had no adjectives.

"And what about the–the ones who are still alive?" she asked.

"Well," he said, "when you cut their wrists the germ naturally becomes parasitic. But mostly they die from simple hemorrhage."

"Simple–"

She turned away quickly and her lips were pressed into a tight, thin line.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"N-nothing. Nothing," she said.

He smiled. "One gets used to these things," he said. "One has to."

Again she shuddered, the smooth column of her throat contracting.

"You can't abide by Robert's Rules of Order in the jungle," he said. "Believe me, it's the only thing I can do. Is it better to let them die of the disease and return–in a far more terrible way?"

She pressed her hands together.

"But you said a lot of them are–are still living," she said nervously. "How do you know they're not going to stay alive?"

"I know," he said. "I know the germ, know how it multiplies. No matter how long their systems fight it, in the end the germ will win. I've made antibiotics, injected dozens of them. But it doesn't work, it can't work. You can't make vaccines work when they're already deep in the disease. Their bodies can't fight germs and make antibodies at the same time. It can't be done, believe me. It's a trap. If I didn't kill them, sooner or later they'd die and come after me. I have no choice; no choice at all."

They were silent then and the only sound in the room was the rasping of the needle on the inner grooves of the record. She wouldn't look at him, but kept staring at the floor with bleak eyes. It was strange, he thought, to find himself vaguely on the defensive for what yesterday was accepted necessity. In the years that had passed he had never once considered the possibility that he was wrong. It took her presence to bring about such thoughts: And they were strange, alien thoughts.

"Do you actually think I'm wrong?" he asked in an incredulous voice.

She bit into her lower lip.

"Ruth," he said.

"It's not for me to say," she answered.

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