I guess I'm not coming back to you.
I guess I'll never see you again. The thought is too big to deal with right now.
I may not have enough time left to finish this letter.
Yesterday Ayaan hugged me on the roof of the Natural History Museum but I could feel the hesitation in her embrace. She could see in my eyes what was going to happen.
No matter, I told her. We were almost done.
My fever had abated. It came and went in waves and I was feeling pretty lucid. I had developed a new symptom, a kind of queasy rumbling in my guts but I could keep that to myself.
In the last minutes of the siege, just before Jack shot at me and Gary realized that he was being set up, the Museum of Natural History had been attacked by a million corpses with their bare hands. Many, many of them had been crushed as they put their shoulders to the metal frame of the building, their weight added to the pile. I didn't bother to look over the side and thus see what trampled ghouls looked like. The dead had wreaked so much damage on the planetarium that the roof we stood on slanted to one side and Kreutzer could barely keep the Chinook from rolling over the edge. We wasted no time getting the girls onboard and getting out of there, even abandoning some of the heavier weapons and supplies. We were airborne in five minutes and headed straight for the United Nations complex on the far side of the city.
"Gary's dead." I said, filling in Ayaan on what had happened in her absence, shouting over the Chinook's engines. I left out most of the grisly details. "I still don't know if the mummies were leading me into Gary's trap or if they were being sincere. Either way they saved the day. We took the survivors back to Governors Island – Marisol's going to build something there, something safe and meaningful." Ayaan nodded, not terribly interested in my story, and stared out one of the porthole-like windows. I wrapped my hand through a nylon loop sewn into the ceiling of the cabin to steady myself and moved closer so I didn't have to yell. "So I'm sorry."
"Why is that?" she asked. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
"You didn't get to martyr yourself."
That got a bright little grin out of her. "There are many ways to serve Allah," she said. I'd like to remember Ayaan that way. The light from the porthole blasting across her shoulder. Sitting with her hands in her lap, one knee bouncing up and down in anticipation. When Ayaan got truly excited she couldn't sit still. She thought it a weakness but to me it meant so much. It meant she was human, not a monster.
We set down in the North Garden of the UN, a patch of green just off First Avenue that had been closed to the public since September Eleventh. The girls deployed from the Chinook's rear ramp in standard battle order but it looked like Gary had been true to his word, which surprised me a little. There weren't even any undead pigeons to bother us. I lead the girls to the white security tent at the visitor's entrance, past the "Non-Violence" sculpture which takes the form of an enormous pistol with its barrel tied in a knot. They didn't know what to make of it. A world without guns to them is a world that can't protect itself. Before the Epidemic began I used to fight that attitude. Now I can't help but praise it.
Oh God – there's a pain, shit! Motherfucker! A pain in my head and I –
Sorry – I'm back. Sweaty, bruised and half blind in the dimness of a bunker under the security tent I got the emergency generators going and the whole complex came to life, a random pattern of lights appearing on the surface of the Secretariat building, the fountain out front spitting out a ten foot plume of greenish scum. Thank God there was still fuel in the reservoir. I had dreaded the idea of searching for the drugs in pitch darkness the way I had done at St. Vincent's.
Inside the General Assembly building I stopped and had to take a breath. It was strange to be back in a place where I used to have an office – that life was removed from me not only in space and time but also by a psychological breadth I don't think I could measure. The soaring Jet Age architecture of the lobby with its terraced balconies and – how pointlessly heartbreaking now – its model of Sputnik hanging by wires from the ceiling spoke of not just a different era but a different kind of humanity, one that had actually thought we could all get along, that the world could be as one.
Of course the UN of my experience had been riddled with corruption and class snobbery but it still managed to do some good. It fed some of the hungry, tried to keep the lid on genocide. It at least felt guilty when it failed in Rwanda. All that was gone now. We were back to the state of nature, red in tooth and claw.
We passed the personalized stamp shop on our way to the Secretariat building, a place where tourists used to be able to get their picture put on a sheet of legal, usable stamps. I barely gave it a glance but Fathia called out a sharp warning and suddenly the cold air of the lobby exploded with noise and light. I dove behind a Bauhaus-style bench and when I looked up saw what had happened. The shop's camera was set up to display a video picture of everyone who walked past as an enticement to the public. When the girls walked past they had seen their own images reversed on the screen, seeming to move toward them. Naturally they had assumed the worst: active ghouls. The video monitor was a heap of sparking shards by the time they were done.
Sarah – will you even remember television when you're grown? I would have let you watch more American sitcoms if I knew it wasn't going to become a habit.
My hand is shaking almost spastically and I'm not sure you'll be able to read my handwriting. I know you'll never see this anyway. I'm writing for myself, not my far-flung daughter. Pretending this is a letter to you helps me keep you in my mind's eye, that's all. It gives me a reason to keep going.
Please. Let me live long enough to finish this letter.
Anyway. There isn't much more to tell.
On the fifth floor of the Secretariat building we found the drugs exactly where I'd thought they would be. There was a complete dispensary up there as well as a miniature surgical theater and a fully functional doctor's office. The pills we needed were lined up carefully on a shelf in a low row of plastic jug after plastic jug. Epivir. Ziagen. Retrovir. There were so many the girls had to take them out fire brigade style. One by one they filed into the elevators and out of the building. Fathia took the last four jugs in her arms and turned to address Ayaan, who hadn't lifted a finger.
"Deg-deg!" Fathia implored and then she too was gone. Ayaan and I were alone.
I could hear my labored breath in the cramped dispensary. "I hope it won't sound condescending if I tell you how proud I am of – " I stopped as she unlimbered her weapon.
One of her eyes was open quite wide. The other one was hidden behind the leaf sights of her AK-47. The barrel was lined up with my forehead. I could see every tiny dent and shiny scratch on the muzzle. I watched it wobble back and forth as she switched the rifle from SAFE to SINGLE SHOT.
"Please put that away," I said. I'd kind of been expecting this.
"Be a man, Dekalb. Order me to shoot. You know it is the only way."
I shook my head. "There are drugs here – antibiotics – that might help me. Even just sterile bandages and iodine could make a difference. You have to give me a chance."
"Give me the order!" she shouted.
I couldn't let it happen like that. I couldn't bear it, to go out like that. Like one of them. Her weapon should be used for putting down the undead, not for taking a human life.
No, that wasn't it. I'll be honest. I just didn't want to die. Gary had told Marisol once about his days as a doctor, about the dying people he'd seen who would beg and plead for just one more minute of life. I understood those people in a way I could not understand Ayaan or Mael and their willingness to sacrifice everything for what they believed in. The only thing I believed in at that moment with that rifle pointed at me was myself.
My generation was like that, Sarah. Selfish and scared. We convinced ourselves that the world was kind of safe and it made us make bad choices. I'm not so worried about you anymore, or your generation. You will be warriors, strong and fierce.
I reached up and touched the barrel with one finger. She roared at me, literally roared at me like a lion, summoning up the courage to kill me regardless of my wishes. I held the barrel in my hand and I swung it away from me.
"Promise me you'll look after my daughter," I commanded her.
When I looked at her eyes again she was weeping. She left without another word.
I didn't follow her, of course. I wouldn't be going back to Somalia. I wasn't going anywhere. It was too late for antibiotics, too late for anything. Still. I wasn't ready to just give up. I sat down on the floor and rubbed my face with my hands and thought about what had happened, and what was going to happen, for a long time.
My leg went numb at one point and I struggled up to a standing posture with much cursing and falling down and a little bit of crying. I kept hoping to shake the numbness off. I fully expected the pins-and-needles feeling you get when your circulation comes back.
Just to have something to do I found a yellow legal pad and a pen and started writing this down. Everything that has happened, as it happened, since I left you behind, Sarah. It took me hours. My leg is still numb. The lights flickered every once in a while and I worried I would be cast into darkness for my last hours. So far I'm good, but, ugh, hold on –
I threw up blood just now. My body is breaking down.
Please, doctor. Just one more hour. Just one more minute.
Okay, I'm back, Sarah. I needed to black out there for a while. Now I'm back and I'm feeling a lot better, a little light-headed and forgetful, perhaps. Kind of hungry. Better enough that I can finish this letter even though I'm having a lot of trouble holding the pen now. I have Gary's head on the table in front of me, watching me as I write. It doesn't move or anything but it doesn't need to. He's in there hating me, hating Ayaan, hating Mael. Blaming everybody for his downfall except himself. He's just like me, Sarah. Both of us looked death in the face, comforting, appropriate, timely death and both of us said no because we were scared.
You're probably wondering something, or you would be if you were actually reading this. You're probably wondering how I can know what he's thinking. How I could write all those passages from his point of view, describing things I never saw or experienced.
Maybe you think I made it all up.
Or maybe you already know. Maybe you know that the room next door to the dispensary is a critical care ward. A room full of hospital beds and all the emergency medical equipment necessary to keep someone alive until they can be moved to a real hospital.
Equipment like respirators and dialysis machines.
Just one more minute.READ MORE >>