Carol read the message on her phone and was conflicted about what the best course of action she should take.
I miss you, she reread.
Surely Jamie was drunk when sending it, wasn’t he? Otherwise, who would have said that when the world had ended, dragging down the modern dating life with it to the bottom of the ocean? But who would have set their priorities straight with the bottles either? There was no time to think about the possibilities. Maybe she was just overthinking. Jamie and she was just a rumpled old photograph tucked inside a diary from her youth, no longer glanced at, even occasionally.
Until last weekend when they met in the flesh at a survivor gathering which was actually just a smokescreen to instate the world central government. An inauguration veiled as a half-efforted local gala. The powerhouses were busy flitting from circle to circle, the commoners like them huddling at the corners.
“So we’re not allowed any more to theorise about the vaccines?” he remarked coldly.
Carol gave a side-eye on him and sighed, “Don’t make my life more difficult. I don’t want people to look at me, then see you, and a mental connection forms in their head associating us working together. It won’t look good on us.”
“A doctor and a full-on conspiracy theory journalist,” his jaw dropped but Carol could see the gears in his head turn. As always, his eyes sparkled as if ten different branches developed from the starting idea like a mind map. Carol could only imagine how living in a fascinating mind like Jamie’s was. It had to be full of revelation moments when tendrils of formed knowledge unfurled to life.
“Don’t get any idea,” she added.
But of course, what their mouths uttered and what their body parts did in too close proximity with each other were not in sync. Carol could recall how many times their hands almost brushed during the event. Almost was the keyword here. It was no different than their status throughout their twenties and early thirties. Almost lover. Almost got engaged, if only the pandemic had not hit them like a missile nosediving to the ground zero. Almost closer as ever again, had he been not stationed to gather stories from the most forgotten nooks of the world about the possibilities of this virus to be manmade while she was contributing as a medical essential worker.
Almost got back together, should the scientists have not mandated the world population to stop breeding, quoted verbatim, as if they were livestock after the conclusion was drawn that the virus was caused by a hereditary dormant gene, meaning it could always be transmitted to a newborn baby.
“I just can’t hold myself together after watching thousands of people die after seven days of agony contracted the virus.”
“That’s the job, isn’t it? We do what we are best at. Your unbiased reportage gave us the accounts of how it behaves in a different climate. We usually skip the part where you insert your dubious opinion on the case, but who knows who might get triggered in this new government," she added in a hushed tone.
He sneered weakly. “Maybe I’m chasing them next.” He twisted his flute between his fingers, the champagne swirling inside it.
Don’t. “You never take a breather, do you?”
“What for? It’s a journalist’s job to pursue stories,” he answered brashly, the tone some firm believer used against a snide comment on their faith.
Carol flinched at the arrogance. You should lay low, this new central government is dodgy. “All the best to you, then,” she lifted her glass, they made a toast, and their bodies swayed at the slow music while some other pairs were dancing and crowding the floor.
“I’m not gonna miss you. Take care here,” he smiled fully so that crow’s feet stretched from the corner of his eyes.
Carol tried to pry the meaning of his attitude, clammed under the grey irises. But as always, she failed to translate his eyes. As always, she let them down by not catching his shirt hem so that he would stay.
Stay. “You, too, take care,” she mouthed that instead.
And since he was a journalist, he was eloquent and evocative with words. So this text had to mean nothing for her. For them. Jamie met tens of different people daily, made new friends and enemies as his routine, and he was compassionate. Missing her was just as similar as missing his warm editor in his base or a random family willing to share their table when Jamie was staying at their home for a mission. Carol left the message at read.
But on one fateful night, Jamie stood on her doorstep with a backpack slung on his shoulder. To top it all off, the side part of his shirt was drenched in blood.
“It’s just blood, not nuclear waste. Chill the f–”
“Mind your language,” she cut while allowing her guest inside–albeit from her way of opening and closing the door, she was tacitly frightened.
“I’m using English.” Like any other language was even allowed, Carol thought.
“Your blood’s dripping on my carpet, Jamie! What now, you’re that doofus that pesters the 11 pm warriors?” Who attacked him like this? Who did? Her heartbeat raced a mile a minute.
“How unbecoming of you, panic dialled up to eleven like this.”
“Yes, because I was a minute away from cardiac arrest seeing you like this.”
Seeing her stop tersely and turn her heels away, Jamie whined, “Where are you going?”
“Getting the first aid kit ready.” Her voice sounded from a distance. She was raking through some cabinets to find the box and the rubbing alcohol. But the time taken to prepare the medicines and tools was also a quiet one, giving her space to take a deep breath while leaning on the closet. She slid down slowly to the parquet floor, hiding and repressing the incipient sobs. This couldn’t be happening, could it? Someone attacking her Jamie? She should have offered a neutral assessment that Jamie just reaped the consequences of his action. But no, her trembling hand caused the bottle of alcohol to shake in her grip.
When she came back, Jamie had laid down on a sofa. "I need a stitch."
“As if I can’t see it bloody clearly.” Her tone went back to the biting sarcastic one, leaving no hint of her almost breakdown.
“I’m bloody. As in, I’m bleeding. I’m covered in blood.”
“You’re rambling. Yeah, you’re in shock.”
“I’m always rambling. You’re always composed. The rock in our relationship.”
“It’s not- it’s not a relationship. We never– how many times do I have to tell you?” she groaned.
But he was right. To her, it was a relationship, all blooming and ripe before the fiasco called the pandemic.
He huffed but not before glancing at a black apparatus attached to the wall above the medical corps symbol serving the new central government.
“We’re never a relationship material, are we?” he snickered.
“Should not get into that. I’m patching you up.” She prepared the needle and the suturing material. Jamie’s eyes were trained on her. His gaze fixated on her every move, on her latex-covered fingers dabbing the damp cotton to sterilise the wound. He hissed but didn’t flinch.
“Sorry, this might hurt like hell. I don’t have anaesthetic.”
He didn’t retort, so she looked up. Her eyes caught with his. A pair of brown orbs and their blue-grey counterparts. How easy it was for her to find approval there, without a nod or spoken confirmation. It was her who eventually nodded, and kept her head down to focus on the work. His hand gripped the arm of the sofa when her needle threaded with precision through the mess of wound tissue.
He decided to cut through the thick and pregnant silence. “I never knew you would still want to treat me. After what I’ve done.”
“Hm?” She just raised an eyebrow as a response.
“Our paths always cross, I disagree about numerous things about this employer of yours, and here I am, the douchebag who ruined everything, standing on your doorstep in need of your medical expertise.”
“I shouldn’t dismiss a patient.”
“I’m not your patient, this is not a life-threatening situation, and I’ve rebelled enough to collate stories that you can simply admit to not recognise me.”
He didn’t get corrected. Instead, he felt her fingers carefully put a gauze to cover the stitched wound. The rattling sound of tape being peeled off the roller filled the awkwardness that ensued.
“The 11 pm warriors did this to you, didn’t they? Why are you so eager in the face of dangers? What were you even doing that warranted such a reaction?” She realised her training helped her to stitch any wound but broken hearts.
He lifted both hands to surrender. “I wasn’t eager. I was collecting proofs.”
“Blood in the water. I smelled it. So fishy and the air reeked of the foul motive behind the vaccine production.”
“Stop this nonsense,” her harsh tone raised her hackles.
“My hunch says it’s to make us infertile. Think about this, we’re forbidden to breed, to get married–”
“So this is personal?” she raised her voice. “You risked your life over something elusive? A botched attempt at a relationship?”
He swung his backpack, getting ready to leave.
“Obviously not,” he rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t have been willingly gone to a high-risk mission, almost getting captured by the government’s attack dogs, if it only had been for us.”
“Good to know. We’re like a ragtag couple, I’d better stay away from your shady business,” her jaw clenched.
“We’re just too different, aren’t we? Chasing two different goals at the end of the world. Don’t go after another man if you can.”
She threw her head back, her eyes glinting with soft adoration and her lips chuckled with mirth. “I wouldn’t do that,” she changed into a deeper seriousness. “When I’m with you, I never feel threatened. I know you won’t do anything without my consent.”
In her afterthought, it might sound alarming, but he just shrugged, “Thank you. For tending to my injuries.”
They nodded to each other. No hug, no silently exchanged promises of the future because, as he said, it was the end. What came after the end?
With that, he left.
His footsteps soon went out of her hearing and his tall, lean figure her sight. She wouldn’t know the meaning of the cryptic text he ever sent. She wasn’t so sure that they would ever meet again, either. And did she just imagine it when she thought his eyes flickered when she was saying about consent?
She glimpsed the black apparatus that Jamie glanced up momentarily. She knew he knew, but did he say what he wanted to say? With the person whose job was to craft compelling stories, it was hard to tell. After all, why would she want to know the truth when her house–and almost all the other places in this country–was put under surveillance by this diabolical tiny camera?