At first Mark thought the delivery driver might have a chance. Some guy had jumped into his path. To his credit, the driver powered his little e-bike right into the bastard. He had almost made it past when a second guy came out of nowhere and settled the issue with a bat.
The two muggers walked off with the bike, laughing. The first one mimicked his friend’s windup. The delivery guy’s leg twitched a few times.
During the first week of the crisis Mark joked about burning through his and Troy’s liquor cabinet while they waited for all this to blow over. Then the booze stockpiles dwindled. The places that had stayed open to deliver cocktails and tater tots faded one by one from social media. Some of the proprietors got sick—a lot, actually. Right when the hospitals were filling up. Bad timing. It got real clear, real quick that going outside was a terrible idea. Not that staying in was all that fucking great.
Troy had been unflappable until recently. Mark envied him for that. They had been in the same year at school, graduated with degrees in finance. Interned together at JP Morgan. Everybody liked Troy. He had an energy Mark would have called infectious a few months ago but that no longer felt appropriate; yet, even Troy was beginning to crack around the edges. Right now he was kneading his phone with both thumbs as if with a bit more effort he might burst through the other side.
“Damn,” he mumbled, turning the screen to Mark. “See?”
“She’s flexible.” Mark tilted his head. “Oh, wow.”
“Worst part? She only lives like two blocks away on Orchard.” Troy flopped his head back on the couch and let out an exaggerated sigh. Mark picked up Troy’s phone and took another peek, for good measure.
“Far be it for me to look past the main attraction but what’s wrong with her eyes?” They gave Mark a hell of a shock. Black from edge to edge, probably a stupid chat filter.
“Dunno, e-girl thing I guess. Contacts or something. She’s been doing cam shows for extra bucks.” He drummed his fingers on the coffee table. “She asked me to come over. Begged me.”
“You can’t go outside, man.”
“I know.” Troy made a show of snatching his phone from Mark, then tossing it back on the coffee table.
Mark knew it wouldn’t be more than a few seconds before he was at it again. This had been going on all morning. It was strange seeing Troy finally deteriorate like this, though Mark supposed if Troy was going to lose his mind over anything it would be a hot slutty e-girl that popped his last screw.
“I love ya bro, but take that edging bullshit to your bedroom. The living area is for video games and watching delivery guys get mugged. Rules.”
Troy made a show of glowering. Mark leaned against the breakfast bar unfazed. Troy took his phone back from the coffee table and went right to thumbing the screen again. He grew steadily more intense, after a bit it was like he’d forgotten Mark was even there.
“Gross. You’re legit drooling right now,” Mark said, as a thin trail of saliva crept down the corner of his friend’s mouth. “Come on.”
Troy looked back up from his phone, wild-eyed. In an unnerving deadpan he said, “I’m out of here.”
“No, wait–” but Troy was already out the door, clomping down the stairwell. Mark screamed after him, “You horny idiot!”
He almost stepped foot outside. It struck him he hadn’t even touched his own welcome mat in weeks. Being cooped up really fucks with you. He called out after Troy again, but the by now the boy was long gone.
Troy just broke quarantine for some egirl pussy, he wrote, realizing it had been ages since he’d sent something to Anna that wasn’t a dumb virus meme.
WTH?! She sent back immediately.
tbf she was . . . compelling. He mentally patted himself on the back for not saying ‘flexible’.
Ye ye, I bet she compels a few bux out of his bank account too. TF? You gonna let him back in?
Mark rubbed his forehead, then jerked his hand away and typed, I can’t believe he walked out, it was like something came over him.
Horny cabin fever.
Mark set his phone on the counter and washed his hands, going through all the motions—back, between the fingers, scrub the thumbs, and so on. He dabbed the phone down with an alcohol wipe. Pointless ritual. He hadn’t gone outside for so long that he could’ve spend the rest of the afternoon eating ribs with his fingers and be perfectly safe. God, he missed ribs. Funny how the act of washing his hands had evolved over the last few weeks. Gone from being a precaution to a meditation, something he did to soothe the panic when things got to be a bit too grim. He eyed the little green nub of soap resting by the sink. The National Guardsmen would bring another ration box soon, probably.
Later that night Mark texted Troy.
That better be good pussy because there’s no way I’m letting your plague-ass back into the apartment.
He waited for several seconds, scrolled through social media feeds. Some guy he met on a road trip through the mountain west was ranting about how the plague was a hoax. Easy to be insulated in a cowtown. People all deal with this shit in their own way, he supposed. Tried to suppose. Before he knew what he was doing he had thumbed out a pretty vicious personal attack and hit send. Score another one for social distancing. He flipped back to his messages. Still nothing from Troy.
Mark sat in the crook of the window, eyes on the corner of Grand Street. Slow night, only only one mugging. People were either wising up or all the easy marks had been picked off. He tried not to think about Troy walking into a baseball bat.
A few days passed.
Anna was sure that Troy had just shacked up. Maybe she has good drugs? She offered at one point.
Shit, right now any drugs are good drugs.
BANG BANG BANG on the door.
Holy shit, brb, Mark hit send and ran to look through the peephole. Troy was on the other side, hunched over, only the top of his head visible. Mark went to open the door.
“Hey, what happened out there?” Mark called out, taking his hand away from the knob.
Troy’s fist came up and slammed into the door. The sound made Mark jump.
“Mark, you—you—have, to let me in,” Troy said. Something about his voice was weird, like he was talking through a bunch of gravel.
“Where have you been, man?” Mark’s anger rose quickly enough to push the jitters aside. “We both know I can’t let you in.”
Troy slammed his fist into the door again.
“Fuck!” Mark stumbled backward and tripped over his own feet, knocking his head into the breakfast bar. A trickle of blood snaked its way down the back of his head.
Troy yelled something unintelligible. Mark hadn’t ever heard him angry before, not like that. Fear tickled the back of Mark’s brain.
“You coming down off something?”
“Just, open, the door,” Troy said with that same lazy gravel drawl.
Mark wiped a smear of blood from the back of his head.
He got up to look out the peephole again when he caught movement on the street. Another delivery guy got shanghai’d. He went to the window to get a better look. The mugger had a knife. He stuck the delivery guy in the chest just like that, one two three. It seemed so distant, so unreal. The delivery driver fell to the ground. Then the mugger turned his head.
He stared directly up at Mark. He dragged the knife in front of his throat, pointing with the other hand. Intention clear.
“Troy, did you close the stairwell door? Troy!” Mark’s voice cracked.
The man in the mask walked toward the building. Too close of an angle for Mark to see.
Mark pressed his eye to the peephole. Troy was still there. Mark wanted to open the door. He couldn’t get the social media images out of his head. The hospitals overloaded, bodies shoveled into the backs of trucks, bound for industrial incineration—what rich countries did to avoid the accusation of digging mass graves.
Echoes of footsteps in the stairwell. Getting closer. Mark ran to the door just as something heavy slammed against it. He covered his ears and whimpered his friend’s name while the dull wet thuds continued.
The sun had been set for some time when Mark uncovered his ears. He leaned back against the wall, reopening the scab from earlier. The sting and the wet of the blood on his neck were distant, like they belonged to someone else.
Mark pulled his phone from his pocket. Stupid, he thought, how we do that in times of stress. The green notification from Anna asking how he was doing paused the moment, gave a little relief, right up until he started typing and the weight of everything came tumbling back down. He’d hid like a coward while his best friend got stabbed (or worse) just three feet away.
I’m a piece of shit.
An elipsis animated underneath his message. In a fit Mark threw his phone across the room, feeling instant remorse as glass crunched against the radiator.
Scraping came from the other side of the door.
Mark peeked through the peephole to see Troy staring back at him. His eyes were black from edge to edge, a blank expression on his face.
“Are you okay, man?” Mark asked. “What happened with that guy?”
Troy smirked in a way that Mark didn’t like at all. His face twisted up and to the side, the effect was even more off-putting with those gruesome contacts. When he spoke, the effect was like one of those poorly dubbed kung fu flicks from the 70s.
“Everything’s fine now, Mark. You can let me in.”
“Are you hurt?” Mark cursed himself. He needed to come right out and ask if Troy had been in contact with the plague, but he couldn’t muster the words. It felt like he was in the back seat, a spectator to his own speech. “Even if you feel okay, I can’t let you in.” Because you’re sick! I can’t let you get me sick! What he said was, “I’m concerned for you.”
Troy tilted his head to the side, but the angle was too acute. Unnatural, even. Mark’s teeth chattered against each other, either in frustration or fear.
“You’re—the—the only one who can help me.” Troy’s voice seemed to skip, synching back up with the movements of his lips, so seamless that Mark questioned whether his speech had been out of sync in the first place.
Mark began to wonder if he was the one acting strange.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“Nothing, Mark. That’s just a thing I got up to.” Troy smirked. This time it was classic Troy, all arrogance and charm. “Remember the girl?”
“What happened to your eyes?” Mark demanded, growing more unsure of himself. A slick of sweat had formed on his neck. He wiped at it with his forearm. The sleeve of his sweater came away soaked.
“Let me in, I’ve got some really good news. About all this.” Troy made a motion with his arm that was hard to make out through the distortion of the peephole. Mark caught sight of a shape behind him, a man’s body slumped in the far corner of the hallway.
“What if you’ve been exposed? You don’t know if that chick was a carrier.” Mark tried to get a glimpse past Troy’s shoulder. No luck.
Troy didn’t sound bad if he was being honest with himself. In fact, Mark figured that Troy sounded better right now than he had for the last week or so before he took off.
“What have you got to lose?” Troy asked, when he knew full well that the answer was life, health.
Mark wished he hadn’t thrown his phone across the room like an asshole. Anna was good with these situations. She’d know what to do.
“Okay Troy.” Mark pulled his sweater up over his mouth and nose. “I’m going to open the door. You gotta stay on the other side, okay?”
Mark pulled the door open.
Troy glowered with those horrible black eyes. Mark averted his own, only to see that the body slumped in the corner belonged to the skimasked mugger. A chill came over Mark. Hot wetness trickled down his leg. He’d pissed himself. Troy took Mark’s forearm with grip so strong he felt like a toddler. Dragged out into the hallway.
“You don’t want to end up like him, do you Mark?” Troy nodded at the slumped ex-mugger in the corner. His head had an unnatural shape that Mark realized was because it had been staved in at the temple. Bile flooded his mouth. Troy took Mark’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, turning his face around so that he was staring into those black, black eyes. “Aren’t you glad you opened the door for your old friend?”
Mark’s vision narrowed so that all he saw was the field of darkness in Troy’s eyes. His fear fell away, still real but now quite distant. He was here with his friend Troy. In the hallway of their building. Outside. The word stumbled through Mark’s consciousness until it found its place like a drunk falling into bed.
With violent effort, Mark twisted loose from Troy’s grip. He ran as hard as he could down the stairs, taking them two, three at a time. Leaping from landing to landing, until he hit the ground floor. He burst through the door onto the street and ran as hard as he could. Drenched with piss and sweat, he shivered, chilled to the bone, even as he ran. Only when he’d crossed 6th Ave did he stop looking furtively over his shoulder. Anna’s place was close.
Every movement on the street set off little explosions of fear in Mark’s head. Any shadow could hide a mugger or worse, and the street lamps cast shadows everywhere. He could barely breathe by the time he got to Anna’s building. God, he was out of shape. Mark mashed the buzzer, 5D. It rang out.
A few guys shuffled past, hoods up. They took no note of him. He must look deranged right now. Not such attractive prey.
“Come on, Anna!” he screamed impotently and hit the buzzer again, and again, and again.
“Mark?” came Anna’s voice, distorted and scratchy from the intercom.
“Bad news, something—something happened to Troy.” Mark gasped for breath, he was stuttering and could barely get words past his tongue. “You’ve got, to let, me up. Please, it’s not, safe out here.”
There was a pause that stretched out for so long that he wondered if she had hung up on him. Then the door made a faint buzz-click-whirr.
Anna was in the hallway when he came out of the elevator. Her face dropped in shock.
“Mark,” she said with a tremble in her voice, taking a step backward. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”