I was lying on the floor watching TV and exercising what was left of my legs when the newscaster’s jaw collapsed. He was right in the middle of the usual plea for anybody who thought they were immune to come to Rockefeller Center when—pflumpf!—the bottom of his face went soft. I burst out laughing.
“Daddy!” Judy said, shooting me a razorblade look from her wheelchair.
I shut up.
She was right. Nothing funny about a man’s tongue wiggling around in the air snake-like while his lower jaw flopped down in front of his throat like a sack of Jell-O and his bottom teeth jutted at the screen crowns-on, rippling like a line of buoys on a bay. A year ago I would have gagged. But I’ve changed in ways other than physical since this mess began, and couldn’t help feeling good about one of those pretty-boy newsreaders going soft right in front of the camera. I almost wished I had a bigger screen so I could watch 21 color inches of the scene. He was barely visible on our 5-inch black-and-white.
The room filled with white noise as the screen went blank. Someone must have taken a look at what was going out on the airwaves and pulled the plug. Not that many people were watching anyway.
I flipped the set off to save the batteries. Batteries were as good as gold now. Better than gold. Who wanted gold nowadays?
I looked over at Judy and she was crying softly. Tears slid down her cheeks.
“I can’t help it, Daddy. I’m so scared!”
“Don’t be, Jude. Don’t worry. Everything will work out, you’ll see. We’ve got this thing licked, you and me.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because it hasn’t progressed in weeks. It’s over for us—we’ve got immunity.”
She glanced down at her legs, then quickly away. “It’s already too late for me.”
I reached over and patted my dancer on the hand. “Never too late for you, shweetheart,” I said in my best Bogart. That got a tiny smile out of her.
We sat there in the silence, each thinking our own thoughts. The newsreader had said the cause of the softness had been discovered: a virus, a freak mutation that disrupted the calcium matrix of bones.
Yeah. Sure. That’s what they said last year when the first cases cropped up in Boston. A virus. But they never isolated the virus, and the softness spread all over the world. So they began searching for “a subtle and elusive environmental toxin.” They never pinned that one down either.
Now we were back to a virus. Who cared? It didn’t matter. Judy and I had beaten it. Whether we had formed the right antibodies or the right antitoxin was just a stupid academic question. The process had been arrested in us. Sure, it had done some damage, but it wasn’t doing any more, and that was the important thing. We’d never be the same, but we were going to live.
“But that man,” Judy said, nodding toward the TV. “He said they were looking for people in whom the disease had started and then stopped. That’s us, Dad. They said they need to examine people like us so they can find out how to fight it, maybe develop a serum against it. We should—”
“Judy-Judy-Judy!” I said in Cary Grantese to hide my annoyance. How many times did I have to go over this? “We’ve been through all this before. I told you: It’s too late for them. Too late for everybody but us immunes.”
I didn’t want to discuss it—Judy didn’t understand about those kind of people, how you can’t deal with them.
“I want you to take me down there,” she said in the tone she used when she wanted to be stubborn. “If you don’t want to help, okay. But I do.”
“No!” I said that louder than I wanted to and she flinched. More softly: “I know those people. I worked all those years in the Health Department. They’d turn us into lab specimens. They’ll suck us dry and use our immunity to try and save themselves.”
“But I want to help somebody! I don’t want us to be the last two people on earth!”
She began to cry again.
Judy was frustrated. I could understand that. She was unable to leave the apartment by herself and probably saw me at times as a dictator who had her at his mercy. And she was frightened, probably more frightened than I could imagine. She was only eighteen and everyone else she had ever known in her life—including her mother—was dead.
I hoisted myself into the chair next to her and put my arm around her shoulders. She was the only person in the world who mattered to me. That had been true even before the softness began.
“We’re not alone. Take George, for example. And I’m sure there are plenty of other immunes around who are hiding like us. When the weather warms up, we’ll find each other and start everything over new. But until then, we can’t allow the bloodsuckers to drain off whatever it is we’ve got that protects us.”
She nodded without saying anything. I wondered if she was agreeing with me or just trying to shut me up.
“Let’s eat,” I said with a gusto I didn’t really feel.
“Got to keep up your strength. We’ll have soup. How’s that sound?”
She smiled weakly. “Okay . . . soup.”
I forgot and almost tried to stand up. Old habits die hard. My lower legs were hanging over the edge of the chair like a pair of sand-filled dancer’s tights. I could twitch the muscles and see them ripple under the skin, but a muscle is pretty useless unless it’s attached to a bone, and the bones down there were gone.
I slipped off my chair to what was left of my knees and shuffled over to the stove. The feel of those limp and useless leg muscles squishing under me was repulsive but I was getting used to it.
It hit the kids and old people first, supposedly because their bones were a little soft to begin with, then moved on to the rest of us, starting at the bottom and working its way up—sort of like a Horatio Alger success story.
At least that was the way it worked in most people. There were exceptions, of course, like that newscaster. I had followed true to form: My left lower leg collapsed at the end of last month; my right went a few days later. It wasn’t a terrible shock. My feet had already gone soft so I knew the legs were next.
Besides, I’d heard the sound.
The sound comes in the night when all is quiet. It starts a day or two before a bone goes. A soft sound, like someone gently crinkling cellophane inside your head. No one else can hear it. Only you. I think it comes from the bone itself—from millions of tiny fractures slowly interconnecting into a mosaic that eventually causes the bone to dissolve into mush. Like an on-rushing train far, far away can be heard if you press your ear to the track, so the sound of each microfracture transmits from bone to bone until it reaches your middle ear.
I haven’t heard the sound in almost four weeks. I thought I did a couple of times and broke out in a cold, shaking sweat, but no more of my bones have gone. Neither have Judy’s. The average case goes from normal person to lump of jelly in three to four weeks. Sometimes it takes longer, but there’s always a steady progression. Nothing more has happened to me or Judy since last month.
Somehow, someway, we’re immune.
With my lower legs dragging behind me, I got to the counter of the kitchenette and kneed my way up the stepstool to where I could reach things. I filled a pot with water—at least the pressure was still up—and set it on the Sterno stove. With gas and electricity long gone, Sterno was a lifesaver.
While waiting for the water to boil, I went to the window and looked out. The late afternoon March sky was full of dark gray clouds streaking to the east. Nothing moving on West 16th Street one floor below but a few windblown leaves from God-knows-where. I glanced across at the windows of George’s apartment, looking for movement but found none, then back down to the street below.
I hadn’t seen anybody but George on the street for ages, hadn’t seen or smelled smoke in well over two months. The last fires must have finally burned themselves out. The riots were one result of the viral theory. Half the city went up in the big riot last fall—half the city and an awful lot of people. Seems someone got the bright idea that if all the people going soft were put out of their misery and their bodies burned, the plague could be stopped, at least here in Manhattan. The few cops left couldn’t stop the mobs. In fact a lot of the city’s ex-cops had been in the mobs. Judy and I lost our apartment when our building went up. Luckily we hadn’t any signs of softness then. We got away with our lives and little else.
“Water’s boiling, Dad,” she said from across the room.
I turned and went back to the stove, not saying anything, still thinking about how fast our nice rent-stabilized apartment house had burned, taking everything we had with it.
Everything gone . . . furniture and futures . . . gone. All my plans. Gone. Here I stood—if you could call it that—a man with a college education, a B.S. in biology, a secure city job, and what was left? No job. Hell—no city.
I’d had it all planned for my dancer. She was going to make it so big. I’d hang on to my city job with all those civil service idiots in the Department of Health, putting up with their sniping and their back-stabbing and their lousy office politics so I could keep all the benefits and foot the bill while Judy pursued the dance. She was going to have it all. Now what? All her talent, all her potential . . . where was it going?
Going soft . . .
I poured the dry contents of the Lipton envelope into the boiling water and soon the odor of chicken noodle soup filled the room.
Which meant we’d have company soon.
I dragged the stepstool over to the door. Already I could hear their claws begin to scrape against the outer surface of the door, their tiny teeth begin to gnaw at its edges. I climbed up and peered through the hole I’d made last month at what had then been eye-level.
There they were. The landing was full of them. Gray and brown and dirty, with glinty little eyes and naked tails. Revulsion rippled down my skin. I watched their growing numbers every day now, every time I cooked something, but still hadn’t got used to them.
So I did Cagney for them: “Yooou diiirty raaats!” and turned to wink at Judy on the far side of the fold-out bed. Her expression remained grim.
Rats. They were taking over the city. They seemed to be immune to the softness and were traveling in packs that got bigger and bolder with each passing day. Which was why I’d chosen this building for us: Each apartment was boxed in with pre-stressed concrete block. No rats in the walls here.
I waited for the inevitable. Soon it happened: A number of them squealed, screeched, and thrashed as the crowding pushed them at each other’s throats, and then there was bedlam out there. I didn’t bother to watch any more. I saw it every day. The pack jumped on the wounded ones. Never failed. They were so hungry they’d eat anything, even each other. And while they were fighting among themselves they’d leave us in peace with our soup.
Soon I had the card table between us and we were sipping the yellow broth and those tiny noodles. I did a lot of mmm-gooding but got no response from Judy. Her eyes were fixed on the walkie-talkie on the end table.
“How come we haven’t heard from him?”
Good question—one that had been bothering me for a couple of days now. Where was George? Usually he stopped by every other day or so to see if we needed anything. And if he didn’t stop by, he’d call us on the walkie-talkie. We had an arrangement that we’d both turn on our headsets every day at six p.m. just in case we needed to be in touch. I’d been calling over to George’s place across the street at six o’clock sharp for three days running now with no result.
“He’s probably wandering around the city seeing what he can pick up. He’s a resourceful guy. Probably come back with something we can really use but haven’t thought of.”
Judy didn’t flash me the anticipated smile. Instead, she frowned. “What if he went down to the research center?”
“I’m sure he didn’t. He’s a trusting soul, but he’s not a fool.”
I kept my eyes down as I spoke. I’m not a good liar. And that very question had been nagging at my gut. What if George had been stupid enough to present himself to the researchers? If he had, he was through. They’d never let him go and we’d never see him again.
For George wasn’t an immune like us. He was different. Judy and I had caught the virus—or toxin—and defeated it. We were left with terrible scars from the battle but we had survived. We acquired our immunity through battle with the softness agent. George was special—he had remained untouched. He’d exposed himself to infected people for months as he helped everyone he could, and was still hard all over. Not so much as a little toe had gone soft on him. Which meant—to me at least—that George had been born with some sort of immunity to the softness.
Wouldn’t those researchers love to get their needles and scalpels into him.
I wondered if they had. George might have been picked up and brought down to the research center against his will. He told me once that he’d seen official-looking vans and cars prowling the streets, driven by guys wearing gas masks or the like. But that had been months ago and he hadn’t reported anything like it since. Certainly no cars had been on this street in recent memory. I warned him time and again about roaming around in the daylight but he always laughed good-naturedly and said nobody’d ever catch him—he was too fast.
What if he’d run into someone faster?
Only one thing to do.
“I’m going to take a stroll over to George’s just to see if he’s okay.”
Judy gasped. “No, Dad! You can’t! It’s too far!”
“Only across the street.”
“But your legs—”
“—are only half gone.”
I’d met George shortly after the last riot. I had two hard legs then. I’d come looking for a sturdier building than the one we’d been burned out of. He helped us move in here.
I was suspicious at first, I admit that. I mean, I kept asking myself, what does this guy want? Turned out he only wanted to be friends. And so friends we became. He was soon the only other man I trusted in this whole world. And that being the case, I wanted a gun—for protection against all those other men I didn’t trust. George told me he had stolen a bunch during the early lootings. I traded him some Sterno and batteries for a .38 and a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun with ammo for both. I promptly sawed off the barrel of the shotgun. If the need arose, I could clear a room real fast with that baby.
So it was the shotgun I reached for now. No need to fool with it—I kept its chamber empty and its magazine loaded with #5 shells. I laid it on the floor and reached into the rag bag by the door and began tying old undershirts around my knees. Maybe I shouldn’t call them knees; with the lower legs and caps gone, “knee” hardly seemed appropriate.
From there it was a look through the peep hole to make sure the hall was clear, a blown kiss to Judy, then a shuffle into the hall. I was extra wary at first, ranging the landing up and down, looking for rats. But there weren’t any in sight. I slung the shotgun around my neck, letting it hang in front as I started down the stairs one by one on hands and butt, knees first, each flabby lower leg dragging alongside its respective thigh.
Two flights down to the lobby, then up on my padded knees to the swinging door, a hard push through and I was out on the street.
We kept our windows tightly closed against the cold and so I hadn’t noticed the change. Now it hit me like a slap in the face. As a lifelong New Yorker I’d never heard the city like this. Make that not heard. Even when there’d been nothing doing on your street, you could always hear that dull roar pulsing from the sky and the pavement and the walls of the buildings. The life sound of the city, the beating of its heart, the whisper of its breath, the susurrant rush of blood through its capillaries.
It had stopped.
The shiver that ran over me was not just the March wind’s sharp edge. The street was deserted. A plague had been through here, but no contorted bodies were strewn about. You didn’t fall down and die on the spot with the softness. No, that would be too kind. You died by inches, by bone lengths, in back rooms, trapped, unable to make it to the street. No public displays of morbidity. Just solitary deaths of quiet desperation.
In a secret way, I was glad everyone was gone—nobody around to see me tooling across the sidewalk on my rag-wrapped knees like some skid row geek.
The city looked different from down here. When you have legs to stand on you never realize how cracked the sidewalks are, how dirty. The buildings, their windows glaring red with the setting sun that had poked through the clouds over New Jersey, looked half again as high as they had when I was a taller man.
I shuffled to the street and caught myself looking both ways before sliding off the curb. I smiled at the thought of getting run down by a truck on my first trip in over a month across a street that probably hadn’t seen the underside of a car since December.
Despite the absurdity of it, I hurried across, and felt relief when I finally reached the far curb. Pulling open the damn doors to George’s apartment building was a chore, but I slipped through both of them and into the lobby. George’s bike—a light-frame Italian model ten-speeder—was there. I didn’t like that. George took that bike everywhere. Of course he could have found a car and some gas and gone sightseeing and not told me, but still the sight of that bike standing there made me uneasy.
I shuffled by the silent bank of elevators, watching my longing expression reflected in their silent, immobile chrome doors. The fire door to the stairwell was a heavy one, but I squeezed through and started up the steps—backward. Maybe there was a better way, but I hadn’t found it. It was all in the arms: Sit on the bottom step, get your arms back, palms down on the step above, lever yourself up. Repeat this ten times and you’ve done a flight of stairs. Two flights per floor. Thank the Lord or Whatever that George had decided he preferred a second-floor apartment to a penthouse after the final power failure.
It was a good thing I was going up backward. I might never have seen the rats if I’d been faced around the other way.
Just one appeared at first. Alone, it was almost cute with its twitching whiskers and its head bobbing up and down as it sniffed the air at the bottom of the flight. Then two more joined it, then another half dozen. Soon they were a brown wave, undulating up the steps toward me.
I hesitated for an instant, horrified and fascinated by their numbers and all their little black eyes sweeping toward me, then I jolted myself into action. I swung the scattergun around, pumped a shell into the chamber, and let them have a blast. Dimly through the reverberating roar of the shotgun I heard a chorus of squeals and saw flashes of flying crimson blossoms, then I was ducking my face into my arms to protect my eyes from the ricocheting shot. I should have realized the danger of shooting in a cinderblock stairwell like this. Not that it would have changed things—I still had to protect myself—but I should have anticipated the ricochets.
The rats did what I’d hoped they’d do—jumped on the dead and near-dead of their number and forgot about me. I let the gun hang in front of me again and continued up the stairs to George’s floor.
He didn’t answer his bell but the door was unlocked. I’d warned him about that in the past but he’d only laughed in that carefree way of his. “Who’s gonna pop in?” he’d say. Probably no one. But that didn’t keep me from locking mine, even though George was the only one who knew where I lived. I wondered if that meant I didn’t really trust George.
I put the question aside and pushed the door open.
It stank inside. And it was empty as far as I could see. But there was this sound, this wheezing, coming from one of the bedrooms. Calling his name and announcing my own so I wouldn’t get my head blown off, I closed the door behind me—locked it—and followed the sound. I found George.
George was a blob of flesh in the middle of his bed. Everything but some ribs, some of his facial bones, and the back of his skull had gone soft on him.
I stood there on my knees in shock, wondering how this could have happened. George was immune. He’d laughed at the softness. He’d been walking around as good as new just last week. And now . . .
His lips were dry and cracked and blue—he couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow, could barely breathe. And his eyes . . . they seemed to be just floating there in a quivering pool of flesh, begging me . . . darting to his left again and again . . . begging me . . .
I looked to his left and saw the guns. He had a suitcase full of them by the bedroom door. All kinds. I picked up a heavy-looking revolver—an S&W .357—and glanced at him. He closed his eyes and I thought he smiled.
I almost dropped the pistol when I realized what he wanted.
He opened his eyes again. They began to fill with tears.
Something like a sob bubbled past his lips. And his eyes . . . his pleading eyes . . .
I stood there a long time in the stink of his bedroom, listening to him wheeze, feeling the sweat collect between my palm and the pistol grip. I knew I couldn’t do it. Not George, the big, friendly, good-natured slob I’d been depending on.
Suddenly, I felt my pity begin to evaporate as a flare of irrational anger began to rise. I had been depending on George now that my legs were half gone, and here he’d gone soft on me. The bitter disappointment fueled the anger. I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t help hating George just then for letting me down.
“Damn you, George!”
I raised the pistol and pointed it where I thought his brain should be. I turned my head away and pulled the trigger. Twice. The pistol jumped in my hand. The sound was deafening in the confines of the bedroom.
Then all was quiet except for the ringing in my ears. George wasn’t wheezing anymore. I didn’t look around. I didn’t have to see. I have a good imagination.
I fled that apartment as fast as my ruined legs would carry me.
But I couldn’t escape the vision of George and how he looked before I shot him. It haunted me every inch of the way home, down the now empty stairs where only a few tufts of dirty brown fur were left to indicate that rats had been swarming there, out into the dusk and across the street and up more stairs to home.
George . . . how could it be? He was immune.
Or was he? Maybe the softness had followed a different course in George, slowly building up in his system until every bone in his body was riddled with it and he went soft all at once. God, what a noise he must have heard when all those bones went in one shot. That was why he hadn’t been able to call or answer the walkie-talkie.
But what if it had been something else? What if the virus theory was right and George was the victim of a more virulent mutation?
The thought made me sick with dread. Because if that were true, it meant Judy would eventually end up like George. And I was going to have to do for her what I’d done for George.
But what of me, then? Who was going to end it for me? I didn’t know if I had the guts to shoot myself. And what if my hands went soft before I had the chance?
I didn’t want to think about it, but it wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t remember ever being so frightened. I almost considered going down to Rockefeller Center and presenting Judy and myself to the leechers, but killed that idea real quick. Never. I’m no jerk. I’m college-educated. A degree in biology. I know what they’d do to us.
Inside, Judy had wheeled her chair over to the door and was waiting for me. I couldn’t let her know.
“Not there,” I told her before she could ask, and busied myself with putting the shotgun away so I wouldn’t have to look her straight in the eyes.
“Where could he be?” Her voice was tight.
“I wish I knew. Maybe he went down to Rockefeller Center. If he did, it’s the last we’ll ever see of him.”
“I can’t believe that.”
“Then tell me where else he can be.”
She was silent.
I did Warner Oland’s Chan: “Numbah One Dawtah is finally at loss for words. Peace reigns at last.”
I could see that I failed to amuse, so I decided a change of subject was in order.
It was the truth. The trip across the street had been exhausting.
“Me, too.” She yawned.
“Want to get some sleep?”
I knew she did. I was just staying a step or two ahead of her so she wouldn’t have to ask to be put to bed. She was a dancer, a fine, proud artist. Judy would never have to ask anyone to put her to bed. Not while I was around. As long as I was able I would spare her the indignity of dragging herself along the floor.
I gathered Judy up in my arms. The whole lower half of her body was soft; her legs hung over my left arm like weighted drapes. It was all I could do to keep from crying when I felt them so limp and formless. My dancer . . . you should have seen her in Swan Lake. Her legs had been so strong, so sleekly muscular, like her mother’s . . .
I took her to the bathroom and left her alone. Which left me alone with my daymares.
What if there really was a mutation of the softness and my dancer began leaving me again, slowly, inch by inch? What was I going to do when she was gone? My wife was gone. My folks were gone. What few friends I’d ever had were gone. Judy was the only attachment I had left. Without her, I’d break loose from everything and just float off into space. I needed her . . .
When she was finished in the bathroom I carried her out and arranged her on the bed. I tucked her in and kissed her goodnight.
Out in the living room I slipped under the covers of the fold-out bed and tried to sleep. Useless. The fear wouldn’t leave me alone. I fought it, telling myself that George was a freak case, that Judy and I had licked the softness. We were immune and we’d stay immune. Let everyone else turn into puddles of Jell-O, I wasn’t going to let them suck us dry to save themselves. We were on our way to inheriting the earth, Judy and I, and we didn’t even have to be meek about it.
But still sleep refused to come. So I lay there in the growing darkness in the center of the silent city and listened . . . listened as I did every night . . . as I knew I would listen for the rest of my life . . . listened for that sound . . . that cellophane crinkling sound . . .