Their wedding picture, spattered with her blood, kept him company when he couldn’t bear to look at her. The plague now confined him to his home, and one look out the window showed him a staggering, shifting army of half-rotted people, their once pristine clothing now tattered and dust stained.
Already, Jon had read every book in the house. With the state of things in the country, the television and radio hadn’t been airing entertainment in months. Rations were low. Morale non-existent. He missed holding his wife the most, the press of her warm flesh, the smell of lavender in her hair.
He kept his rifle – a thirty aught six that he once felled a doe with in happier days – braced across his knees. Jon watched the sunlight creep in through the front windows by day, recede, and then reverse the process through the back windows at night.
As much as he tried to avoid it, the sounds of her shuffling, her moaning, kept him awake most nights. Romy’s cries were merely ambient noises, harrowing in their desperation, comforting in their reliability.
His grip tightened on the stock of the rifle.
Once per day, Jon went to the side room where Romy spent her days. With a long broom handle, he prodded her in the chest whenever she came near. Her eyes were filmed over with a gray membrane, hiding the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen.
Romy came at him, wanting him, her ruined mouth working, jaw snapping. He easily pushed her away with the broom handle, her cries swelling in frustration. It was better that he didn’t bring the gun to the room. Outside, it would not tempt him.
Jon never left the room dry eyed. Soul mates, he’d promised her he would love her in sickness and in health, through better or worse, until death do they part. What was her current condition other than the height of the worst, a true sickness? Didn’t he owe her his love, as he vowed?
In the hall with the door secured, he stooped and picked up the rifle. His hand hesitated on the doorknob to the side room, the butt of the gun tucked up against his shoulder. Trembling, the cold knob became slippery in his hands. He missed her smile, the annoying way she embraced every morning, and the feather light touch of her hand in his when they slept.
The muzzle drooped, his hand sliding off the knob. Jon hung his head and swallowed the phlegmy wad of despair that choked off his breathing. Taking the gun, he shuffled toward the living room to the sounds of her fingernails scraping against the door, trying desperately to make a meal of him.
He flipped on the small, hand-cranked radio that he’d scavenged from his trip to Wal-Mart. Mostly, he found static, but occasionally, he would find dire warnings, instructions on how to meet up with authorities, and news on the collapse of the infrastructure that had protected them all for so long.
Never did they talk about a cure for this thing.
Every day, he listened in the hope that a new clinic would open with a miracle cure. Jon would brave whatever those shamblin corpses could throw his way to get medicine for Romy. His gun had limited ammo, but a shovel worked just as well. In his mind, he saw himself cutting a swath through the abominations, a white knight hell bent on saving his beloved from this terrible dragon.
Yet the news never mentioned an antidote. It certainly mentioned research, but never a success.
Jon picked up the blood splattered wedding photo while the dire news crackled over the radio. Right before her change, when she was at her worst, the festering, dripping, gummy flesh of her bitten hand leaked gore throughout the house as she wandered, looking for comfort. Then she found this photo. And she looked at him, a look that begged him, helpless, drowning, knowing that she was beyond saving.
She had kissed it and handed it to him.
That was the day she went to the side room.
A sob reached up Jon’s throat, flew from him in a near shout. He couldn’t save her. Husbands were supposed to protect, to keep their wives from harm, to provide all that she needed to live a decent, happy life. That’s all he ever wanted.
If he couldn’t save her, this had to end.
Taking up his weapon, Jon walked the narrow hallway to the side room. Her clawing at the door increased in intensity, sounding like the rapid scurrying of a mouse behind a wall. He pushed the entrance open and stepped in, not bothering to close it behind him.
The gun quavered in his hands.
Outside, the sound of other unfortunate souls suddenly became clearer, and each one seemed to have a plaintive, separate cry. No other sounds came to him, the great machinery of modern life ground down to abject inhuman suffering.
Romy, or what remained of her, stood in the center of the room, her body as whip slim as she had always been, now framed in the sights of his rifle.
Tears streamed down his face, and his wife’s head quirked to the side, as if not understanding a question he’d asked. Then she came at him, arms extended, ruined nails still showing chipped red polish, her lips pulled back to reveal gore encrusted yellow teeth.
“I love you,” he told the approaching monster.
Jon lowered the gun.
He embraced her, closing his eyes, remembering the happiness in that wedding photo, and the feel of her sharp teeth tearing into his neck didn’t bother him at all.