The Scattered and the Dead (Book 0.5)

By: Tim McBain & L.T. Vargus

Pittsburgh, PA

21 days before


You don’t know me, but I live down the hall. I see you, though, and sometimes I feel like I know you. I see you walk out of the building and get into your car. The wind picks up strands of your hair, and the whole world moves around you, and you are alive.

I’ve never known how to say hi, though. I guess I still don’t, but I’ll take a crack at it.

So yeah. Hi. I’m Decker. What up?

(Sorry if this is weird. It’s my first semi-creepy letter to a girl that I don’t know, so I’m still figuring things out. Oh, and just to be clear, my name is John Decker, but everyone just calls me Decker. Even my mom.)

Have you lost anyone? I’m sure you have. We all have. Don’t know why I asked. I guess I just didn’t know how else to bring it up, you know?

My mom died early on. I sat with her in the hospital. Plastic shrouded her room, and they made me wear a hazmat suit. Back then, they thought shit like that might make a difference. I’m sure lots of other people didn’t get this opportunity to be with their loved ones – the hospital workers couldn’t be expected to hook up everybody with a suit and supervise them to some degree and all -- but my business lawyer knows people. He had me make a donation to the hospital, and that was that.

Trying to remember, the images get all mixed up in my head like there’s a missing piece that makes it impossible to put it back together properly. Some sense of the way things used to be that got ripped out. I know it should be there, but it’s not, and I can’t quite remember how things used to feel, I guess.

The nurses told me she could go at any time, so I slept in her room for six nights. I didn’t sleep so much as close my eyes and squirm around in a chair in my hazmat suit. But yeah.

I didn’t realize what they meant at the time, but I think the nurses tried to offer me something to help her if she wanted to do the whole assisted suicide thing. I was pretty out of it, though.

But she was sitting up and talking, and she seemed like herself and everything. She kept telling me I didn’t have to stay the night, that she’d still be there in the morning. So on the seventh night I went home, slept in my own bed.

In the morning, I went to Wendy’s before I headed over to the hospital. I got this idea that I should get my mom a Frosty. They were her favorite. I knew I’d have to sneak it in since you can’t take anything like that into the plague ward, and I knew it’d be soupy as hell from being tucked against my body inside of a damn hazmat suit, but I don’t know. I thought she’d like it.

Even through the suit her room felt different. Her face seemed more gaunt, the skin pulled tight around her cheek bones, puckering into pits below them. New wrinkles shriveled around the edges of her mouth. Dry. Crusted. She didn’t look at me at first. She just opened her mouth and kind of arched her tongue against the inside of her lips a few times like a lizard.

“Hey Mom,” I said.

She blinked a few times, eyelashes fluttering, and then she smiled.

“Decker. Good to see you.”

Her voice wavered a little, a rasp grating in her throat that hadn’t been there the day before. She extended her hand, and I held it for a moment, though I couldn’t really feel her touch through the PVC, just the pressure of it. I could tell her arm had a tremor to it, though.

I released her fingers and dropped my voice to a whisper.

“Hang on. I brought you something.”

I closed the door, glancing down the hall and seeing no one. My heartbeat and my breathing seemed to grow louder as my hands fumbled to open the suit. I wasn’t sure what the nurses would say if they caught me in the act. What could they really do? Still, I felt the adrenalin tingling in all of the places where my skin touched the suit, like sweat and excitement manifested in those spots in some electric throb.

The Frosty cup squished as I pulled it out of my hoodie pocket. Way too soft. I knew that meant it was melted as hell, but I hoped it was better than nothing.

Thinking back, it’s hard to even express how this felt at the time. I was excited to be giving her this. It felt important in some way that no longer really makes sense. A Frosty. A dairy and sugar concoction that formed some primal connection to how things used to be, how things used to feel, some way of looking at life that felt a long time gone. I don’t know. In that moment, it felt important, though.

She drank it through a straw, stopping to smack her tongue against the roof of her mouth periodically. She thanked me over and over again, and she seemed to gain some strength as she drank, her eyes clearing and looking more alert, her sentences growing longer, the syntax more complex.

“It’s creamy,” she said. “My tongue and throat have gotten so dry, I think from the medication they’ve got me on. I asked the nurses for something to help, but they just pour me glasses of water which does nothing. But this?”

She wiggled the paper cup in her hand.

“This feels wonderful.”

The cup rose to her face, and her dried out lips cinched around the straw again. I could see the silhouette of the chocolate drink climbing up the inside of the plastic tube.

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