It was a miserable morning for loitering outdoors, with gray skies above, cold ground beneath, and a damp air that soaked right through clothes, leaving the skin underneath feeling moist. We were standing outside a popup—one of those flimsy red cross tents for treating plague victims—leaning on an icy brick wall that sucked warmth from the body like a thermal leech. The sick were lining up before us, wrapping around the block as they waited for treatment, if you want to call it that; all coughing, gray skinned, and pitiful.
“Look at the miserable sods,” said Taylor, pulling the collar of his parka closer to his neck. “Lining up to die like obedient little soldiers.” He balanced his cigarette between his lips as he spoke, puncturing every few sentences with an ejection of spittle from the corner of his mouth. “If I ever come down with it like that, I won’t go quietly, let me tell you.”
“Oh really?” I said, my eyes shuttered in disinterest as I focused on my protein bar, wrestling with the sticky wrapper as it clung to my fingers. “How would you go, then?”
He leaned back and spread his arms wide, as though presenting himself to an audience. “Guns blazing,” he said with a smirk. “Metaphorically speaking, of course.”
“And what does ‘guns blazing, metaphorically speaking’ mean, literally?” I said, finally tearing a bit of the stale food bar away from its wrapper and stuffing it into my mouth.
“Haven’t worked that bit out yet,” said Taylor. He let his arms fall by his side. “But it’d be epic, let me tell you. Blow all my savings on fresh pastry, maybe—the real shit, mind you; not that rationed filth—and gorge until I stop breathing.”
“Not a bad plan.”
“Or, maybe I really will go out guns blazing.” He pointed his fingers off to his sides, making shooting noises as he twitched his wrists. “Wouldn’t mind shooting a few politicians, given the opportunity.”
“You’re full of ideas today, T,” I said, my voice as dry as my meal.
“Oh, I know it.”
“A real idea man.”
“Don’t you get sharp, Walter, or I’ll scuff you.” He jabbed at my arm playfully.
“Alright, alright,” I said, swatting him away. “That’s enough.”
“What, all business today, are we?”
I nodded, shoving the remainder of my protein bar in the outer pocket of my flannel jacket. “Now that you mention it, I would rather get this over with.”
Taylor flashed a grin, exposing stained and crooked teeth. “Over and done with, just like that. Right behind you, then, gov’nor.”
“Pretend you aren’t enjoying yourself, at least,” I said, snorting through my nose.
“In this world? I’ll bloody well take my jollies were I can find them.”
I removed powdery white surgical gloves from my pocket, pulling them over my hands before strapping a face mask over my mouth and nose. To my right, Taylor was doing the same, completing his ensemble with broad-rimmed safety goggles.
“Bring a pair of these?” He said, tapping the lenses of his eyewear.
“Don’t need em,” I said, batting my hand.
“Could get in your eyes, you know. They say—”
“I know what they say. I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself.” Taylor shrugged. “I won’t be standing at your bedside.”
I ignored the comment and beckoned for him to follow, leading us around the side of the tent and out of site from the lines of sick and dying. Through the thin fabric of the popup, we could hear the hushed murmur of ventilators, whirling like mechanical lungs as they pumped precious seconds of life into dying patients. Occasionally an urgent voice would pierce the morbid quiet, causing a cascade of conversation that would die back down into the same eerie silence.
I pulled a buck knife from my boot. “Got a weapon?”
Taylor reached underneath his parka, removing a long machete that glistened in the faint morning light. Even from behind his mask and goggles, I could detect the hint of a smile on his features.
“Real subtle.” I said.
“Yeah, well that’s not the name of the game, is it?”
I let out a dry chuckle and brought the blade of my knife to the wall of the tent. “I guess not.” I said, and cut a large gash in the weak material with a fluid stroke. I then grabbed a lip of the slit and held it open as I gesturing my companion through with the knife. “After you.”
“Honored,” said Taylor, stepping through the hole with a spry step. From inside, I could hear a barrage of sound as a few healthcare workers cried in panic, and Taylor shouted, “Alright you nitwits! We’re here for the ventilators!”
I followed him into the tent, wielding my knife before me as I scanned the room. Taylor was loping down the aisles carved out by sickbeds, lunging at nurses with his broad shoulders as he threatened to strike. I followed behind, adhering to a more reserved approach as I scanned the room.
“Hands on heads and knees to the floor!” said Taylor, jumping on an unoccupied cot as he shouted across the large room. “Nobody moves, or you start losing fingers!”
I found one of the ventilators next to a patient’s bedside, the breathing tube rammed down the unfortunate’s neck. It was one of the new portable models, the machine itself the size of a small briefcase.
“Got one over here,“ I said, nodding at the apparatus as I caught Taylor’s eye.
His eyes hovered over the sick patient for only a moment before he gave a curt nod. “Yank it, then.”
I gripped the ribbed plastic tubing with my hand, pulling hard as the breather slipped free of the patient’s trachea with a sickening wet squelch.
“Do you have no hearts?!” screamed someone, a woman’s voice from near the center of the room. Whoever it was, her head remained down, and identity anonymous.
Taylor threw back his head and laughed like a cruel bear. “Who said that?” He said, watching the room for motion; no one stood to his challenge. “Brave enough to mouth off, but not to show your face?” He wheeled on one of the dying patients in their bed, lifting the poor wretch by the shoulder with his muscular arm, and displayed him to the room. ”Look at this lot! Mottled skin, hazy eyes, blood on the linens from coughing—they’re at death’s door.” He dropped the man back onto his cot, eliciting a weak exhale from the victim. “Call me heartless; it’s a waste of resources.” He stalked over to me, pointing with his glistening machete. “Isn’t that right, Dub?”
“That’s right, T. We’re just preserving resources. Heart’s got nothing to do with it,” I said in a level voice. I set the ventilator in it’s carrying case and threw it over my shoulder. “One more to fill the quota.” I scanned the room, searching for another device to plunder.
“Alright bleeding hearts. You want us out of your lives, don’t you?” Taylor grabbed a nurse who was cowering on the floor, lifting her by a thick clump of mousey brown hair. “Now’s your chance. Give us another ventilator, and we disappear forever.”
The room remained silent. I started opening drawers and overturning sterile metal trays, spilling small medical implements over the floor. From one such pile fell a cherry-red inhaler loaded with a cartridge—A bronchodilator. I stuffed it into one of my pockets. No vents, though.
“What’s your name, love?” said Taylor, letting spittle fly with his loudly projected words.
The woman in his clutch cowered. “Ann,” she said. Her voice barely carried.
He turned to address the room.“Don’t you care about Ann?” He raised his machete to her collar bone, placing its sharp edge on the soft skin at the base of her neck. “Your fellow bleeding heart? Your courageous colleague?”
I watched from across the room, my heart racing. It was just a show, I knew, but Taylor could sell it. Every fiber of my being wanted to intervene, to tell him to ease off, but we had to present a unified front. It was just a show, anyway. He wasn’t going to hurt her.
“Don’t be a hero!” said Taylor, casting his wild eyes about the tent. “It’s a thankless world for heroes.”
Near the center of the room, a male nurse with tightly cropped black hair stood from the floor. He clutched a mobile ventilator close to his chest. “Enough!” He said, his body visibly heaving with deep breaths and adrenaline. “That’s enough. Just let her go.” He held out the vent in a shaky arm, beckoning for the hostage with the other.
“Good lad!” Taylor pulled the machete from Ann’s neck and pushed her toward her rescuer, grabbing the vent from the man’s hand in a fluid follow-up motion. “Knew you’d see sense.” He glanced at me; I nodded. “And with that we’re off! Be well, friends!”
Taylor and I jogged back out through the hole we’d created at the back of the tent, picking up speed until we were at a full sprint, dashing down the open street. We rode the madness of the moment like falcons on a strong gust—propelled forward, the cold wind brought tears to the corners of my eyes, my legs burned with acid as they pumped beneath me. We dared not look back.
After ten minutes of hard running Taylor slowed, nudging my shoulder as he pointed to a small alleyway off to the right. We slowed to a stop, checking behind us before darting down the narrow corridor, cast in shadow by two derelict concrete buildings that made up it’s walls.
“Check our six?” said Taylor.
“Yeah. Don’t think we were followed.”
Taylor nodded, tearing off his protective gear. I did the same, stuffing my mask and surgical globes back into a pocket. From the other side of my coat, I pulled out a thick shopping back and shoved the ventilators inside.
“Well, that’s it then,” said Taylor.
“That’s it, T.” I presented my knuckles, which he tapped in salutation.
“You’ll make the drop?”
“I’ll get you your cut in a few days.”
Taylor nodded. “Later Walt.” He turned on his heels and hurried out the alley, reverting to a casual stride as he broke onto the main street once more.
I waited in the dark of the alley, counting down from thirty under my breath as my heartbeat hammered in my ears; my body was a twitchy live wire, like a restless bronco caged in it’s pen. Once I reached zero, I peaked my head out the mouth of the corridor, checking up and down the street. Taylor was nowhere to be found.