It began with a wet cough and blood-streaked phlegm. The doctors told Vera the mass was an aspergilloma, a fungal ball in her left lung. Hunter clutched Vera’s hand, absorbed the news like it was his own body under assault. If Vera was afraid, she wore that fear comfortably, like a second skin. She thanked the doctor, said she had a lot to think about. Then they went home, and several things happened.
Vera told Hunter she was not going to go through with the treatment. As she spoke, she rubbed her ribs as a mother might caress her pregnant belly. Hunter got on his knees and begged. He pawed at Vera’s hands and face. He stomped back and forth across the living room, raging, threatening to leave her to die alone.
Vera called his bluff with her silence.
Packages came to their door. Small packages from illicit websites. Hunter intercepted one while Vera napped, tore it open, found a bottle of immunosuppressants. He went for a long walk and left the opened package on the kitchen table, a silent accusation. When he returned, the pills had been sequestered away, and there was Vera, sitting on the sofa with that placid look, a bloodied handkerchief folded primly in her lap.
“It talks to me,” she told Hunter.
He blinked a few times, like a man startled awake.
“It says–” Vera’s voice cracked, the first sliver of emotion she’d shown since before the doctor’s office “–that if I help it, I’ll live.”
They talked until Vera was too tired to speak. She slept. Hunter lay awake in their bed and wondered at himself, how he could become an accomplice to infection.
There was a sound like crunching ice. Hunter looked over, saw Vera’s jaw working and clenching as she slept. Grinding. He reached over and touched the side of her face. Her eyes fluttered open.
“Your teeth,” Hunter said. Vera frowned a sleepy, consternated frown, then smiled with understanding. She raised herself up on her elbows and planted an open-mouthed kiss on Hunter’s lips. He breathed her in, a drowning man sucking at a whisper of air. She fell back onto her pillow, fast asleep.
The next morning, Hunter went to the hardware store and returned with supplies: a respirator, a roll of polyethylene sheets, and duct tape. Their house became a plastic-draped catacomb. Hunter’s face disappeared behind the respirator mask. He ate his meals in the garage. Vera told him it was important that her passenger not spread itself any further, not yet.
“It’s still figuring things out,” she said. “Like a baby. But it’s also old and set in its ways. I think — I think it would get confused if it had more people right now.”
When Hunter was alone, he balked at what he was doing, what they were doing together. But there was a dark intimacy to it. He played nest-maker while Vera gestated the strange progeny under her left breast.
Hunter dreamed he was a smear of lichen. He clung to a massive stone statue. That statue was Vera. Her head was lost in low, wet clouds. Hunter crept up pillarish thighs and across the convexity of Vera’s stone belly. The clouds parted and there were her eyes, beautiful and solar, full of something nameless and essential. They wept light-life in rivulets that mingled with the rain. Hunter drank deeply of this new complexity and exalted.
He opened his eyes; he’d fallen asleep on the couch again. The respirator bit into his cheeks. Vera stood over him, silhouetted by the light from the television.
“I saw you,” she whispered. Her voice was still froggy from sleep.
The wet, bloody cough dissipated. Hunter slept in the bed with Vera, maskless and unafraid. The passenger inside their bodies was young and fragile, and now it had two hosts to manage. Hunter braided his mind together with Vera’s, became a fortifying extension of her being. She was the mother and the source, and so the nursery of her body was treated with care and reverence.
At night they — mother, father, and child — dreamed of a world where all bodies were bent to the purpose of tender, loving symbiosis.
When representatives from the Center for Disease Control arrived, Hunter and Vera were already gone. A short time later, Investigators in hazmat suits crept through the womb-like warren of hanging plastic, murmuring to each other over crackling radios. Clouds of spore made sharp beams out of the light from their headlamps.
They converged on the bedroom. No one spoke. This was the origin, the forbidden bed, the place that nurtured history’s most baleful child.
All around the world, in sagging suburbs and ivy-choked alleys, human voices yipped and chirped in time with birdsong. Human bodies held hands and walked barefoot down quiet streets. Human minds twined together in a gestalt knotwork, the greatest communion ever known to mankind.
A special grove was prepared for the mother and father of the sharing, a place wreathed in flowers and festooned with glittering trinkets. Hunter woke to sunlight filtered through a thick canopy of trees and smelled rich loam. Vera was curled against his chest, eyes closed. Even though she slept, Hunter felt her joy as though it were his own, and the whole of the world rejoiced with him.
Tara M. Lee is an author from Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Devilfish Review, Flash Frontier, and in various obscure literary cage matches.