CW: death, gore, illness
The man in my room was dressed like an alien. He had a white plastic suit, like a packaged fish from the town over the hill. I couldn’t see his face behind a dark visor, but when he spoke his voice was fluent in muffled smiles. It was comforting in a way, like burying your face in pillows when you’re tired. I wish I could see his face, I hadn’t seen anyone's face in weeks.
Not since I got sick.
I was playing with my baby sister outside the village about two weeks ago. Running around near an old hollow tree. We were playing pretend- she was the princess and I the brave prince. An evil vampire bat had captured her, hiding her in the tree for me to rescue. I fought through the guards, smacking them with a stick I found, and broke into his foreboding tower.
My little sister was crying.
She had a little red mark on her hand, so we went home.
When we walked through the door, Mom was the first to identify the bite. A bat must’ve got her when we were playing. It wasn’t big and there wasn’t much blood, but the fear in Momma’s eyes frightened me.
“What bit you?” She asked.
My little sister wiped tears from her eyes, “A mean old bat! I didn’t mean to touch him, but he looked so cute hanging there. I didn’t know he’d bite me!”
“You need to be more careful, sweetheart.” Mother wiped the wound clean with water, then poured some smelly bubbles onto a piece of cloth. My sister flinched as Momma pressed the cloth to the wound, “This is why I told you never to play by that tree! Honestly, it’s like you never listen to me!”
She was looking at my sister, but talking to me.
“Momma, the tree is hollow! It’s the perfect evil tower!”
She sighed, “I know.”
Two days later my little sister had a fever. A day later my Momma had a fever too. Another day passed and I had one. I quietly wished Dad was here to take care of us, but he left a long time ago. The village elders tried to take care of us, but as more and more people fell sick they stopped letting people visit each other.
It was a week into the sickness that men in white suits came to help us. They separated us, putting us into little makeshift rooms on comfy beds. They’d poke and prod, check our temperature, and feed us.
They’d never take the suits off though.
“Can I see my Momma? Is my sister alright?” I asked.
The man had been working at a nearby table. The vials of blood and urine clicked against one another as he hesitated, “No, son.”
The Covered Man set the vials down, turning towards me, “Because they’re very sick right now and need to rest. You need rest too.” He placed a covered hand on my forehead as he spoke.
“But I’m feeling better today! Can’t I just say hey?”
He sighed sadly, “No, son. Not yet. Not until you’re all better.”
I hadn’t moved during the conversation, I hadn’t moved in a long time, “How long will that be?”
His face was hidden, but his voice shook, “I-I’m not sure, son. Soon though. Soon-”
My breath was rattled, shaky, and wet, “You keep calling me son. Are you-?”
“It’s an expression used in America, where I’m from.”
I felt my eyes grow wide. Imaginations of Dad being behind the visor dissipating. My chest beat with excitement, “America?! I’ve always wanted to go to America!”
“Yeah. My little sister wants to go too, but Momma said it was too far away.”
“Did she now?” He took my hand and squeezed slightly.
“Yeah-” I felt something warm on my cheek, sliding across it like a wet slug, “I’ve always wanted to try a hot dog…”
The Covered Man chuckled, “Oh yeah? Hmmm. I think I have an idea. Hold on for a minute.”
I smiled and nodded as he left the little room. His footsteps disappeared down a corridor of moans and crying. Someone was in the room next to me, shuffling around and mumbling to themselves. They were new here. My previous neighbor had left a few days ago.
I called out weakly to him, “It’ll be okay! They’re really nice here. You’ll be better in no time!”
An old, gruff voice echoed back to me, shaking, “Yes-Yeah! Yeah, little man, we’ll be okay.”
I could feel the tears in his voice. The loneliness. The shock. His words spoke comfort but his voice betrayed a deep despair. Before I could ask the old man his name, the Covered Man stepped back into the room carrying a plate with weird bread on it. There was a log of meat in between, covered in ketchup and mustard.
“A hotdog?!” I whispered, breathlessly. My chest hurt.
He brought it to me, “Yeah! I had one of my colleagues deliver it from my ‘special stash.’” Sitting down next to me, the Covered Man broke off a piece of the hotdog and held it to my mouth, “Go on. Take small bites.”
It tasted exactly as I imagined. I chewed it slowly. The ketchup was full of vinegar, blending well with the mustard and the mysterious meat of the hotdog. The bread was like a little cup holding all sorts of flavors. Happy tears slid down my cheeks. Thick. Sluggish. I took another bite. Chewing deliberately.
It hurt to swallow.
The Covered Man was silent as he fed me, finally pulling out a white towel and rubbing my cheeks carefully. When he pulled back, the towel was coated in red liquid. He tossed it into a yellow bag with symbols across it.
“You need to…You need to take one to my sister… She’d love that.” I sighed, “ I wish I wasn’t so mean to her all the time.” I took a deep, shaky breath. When I coughed, my entire body hurt. Globs of coagulated something splashed across my chin and lips. “I wish I had…I really wish I had listened to Momma about that tree-”
The Covered Man’s chest rattled, “Y-yeah, son. I’ll make sure to do that.” I could feel his eyes on me, safe behind the visor.
“Can’t I go see them?” I asked.
It’s so hot…
“I-I can’t-” The Covered Man was crying now, struggling to speak.
“Hey, don’t cry .We’ll be okay.” I reached out to him. He took my little hand in both of his and squeezed.
“Yes, son. You’ll be okay.”
His voice spoke of comfort. Companionship. Of hot dogs and freedom. Of playing with my little sister far away from the tree. Of my Momma watching us run around, rarely joining us but it was always better when she did. I imagined Dad coming back home from wherever he’d gone. He would smile and give me the biggest bear hug. He’d tell me how proud he was knowing that I helped Momma take care of my sister.
I closed my eyes, using so much strength to open them again.
The Covered Man was still there, looking down at me.
I reached towards his face, towards his mask.
He recoiled and I stopped.
“Sorry. I-I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He hesitated for a long time, taking deep breaths. After a while, he took one big breath, exhaling slowly.
The Covered Man took my hand, cautiously leaning down towards it and pressing it against his cheek. I felt his mask; cold, hard, and old.
I couldn’t help but smile.
“You know, Doctor, you don’t need to be with every person when they pass.” A woman in white coverings was scolding the man. He placed the now limp hand, so small, so young, against the boy’s chest.
“All he wanted was to see his sister and mother again.”
The woman peaked around the Doctor’s shoulder at the still warm corpse of the boy. He was patient two. The second patient to contract the illness. “Did you tell him what happened?”
“No.” The Doctor shook his head, “I didn’t.”
They stared at the boy in silence for a while. He was no older than ten. The hemorrhagic fever had destroyed his face. Blood bubbled from his ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and everywhere else you could imagine.
Finally, the woman broke the quiet, “You shouldn’t let patients touch you, Doctor. This disease spreads through touch and we can’t risk losing our team leader.”
“I know, I know.” The Doctor took a deep breath, “But all he wanted was a connection. He didn’t want to suffer alone.” He paused, “You know what his last request was?”
The woman placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “What?”
“He wanted a hot dog.”
They sat in silence.
She spoke, “He was smiling when he passed.”
There were three wooden crosses next to a hollow tree.
One for the Mother, the Sister, and finally for me.