The Boatman’s Price
by David Wright
Her husband was sleeping–sleeping, but not snoring. She watched the steady rise and fall of his narrow chest, waiting. Something gnawed away in the back of her mind, like a weasel pulling on the tail of a half-dead gecko. She didn’t want to wake him, but she could wait no longer.
“Alex,” she whispered, bending close to his hearing aid and nudging his arm. “Alex,” she said a little louder. His eyes opened, a look of instant recognition on his drawn and weary face.
“Ranjeet, my darling, you’re late.”
“I’m not late,” she said defensively, but then Alex smiled with his eyes and Ranjeet knew she’d been duped. Always the trickster, even now. She could kill him.
“So how are you doing?” she asked, trying to make Alex be serious for once.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Ranj.” He blinked with condescension, dismissing her worries before she could even express them. She hated when he did that. Didn’t she have a right to worry? Didn’t she have any rights?
“I don’t feel–something’s wrong.”
Alex laughed. “The whole world is wrong.”
“That’s just what I mean. It doesn’t seem right what we’re doing, not with the world the way it is.”
“Oh Ranj.” He tapped her hand, his touch cold. “You were always so superstitious
“It was perfectly fair. It was blind luck. We can’t just stop living because the world is falling apart. We have to take what life luck gives us. I just wish we had more time together.”
He looked at her sadly, serious for the first time. She tried to smile, grabbing his hand and squeezing it, feeling a pang in her heart that she could hardly bear.
“I’ve brought you something.” She looked over her shoulder furtively and reached into her handbag. “Samosa. It’s cold but still fresh.”
He shook his head, his eyes closed.
“But it’s your favorite. Here, smell.” She put the deep-fried triangle under the tubes in his nose. He tried to pull his head away and the health monitors screamed in protest. She stepped back, the weasel in her head swallowing the gecko whole.
“Your husband is very fortunate,” she said. “We’re into the second phase now and everything is five by five.” The doctor explained the phase schedules as if they were new to Ranjeet, as if she had not already heard them a thousand times before. They were always changing, yet always the same–meaningless.
“He’s not eating,” she said, interrupting the smooth, practiced cadence of the doctor’s recital. The doctor seemed mildly perturbed, but for the first time looked Ranjeet squarely in the eye.
“No. We removed the feeding tube because his digestive organs have shut down. I was under the impression this had already been explained to you.”
“So he won’t eat anymore?”
The doctor looked at her coldly as if she were a stubborn child refusing to go to bed.
The network was on when she got home–a thousand faces, a thousand voices, the tendrils of her world.
“Congratulations on the lottery.” It was Jumar, her lab assistant. He looked anything but happy. “So when will you be back?”
Was he smiling? She couldn’t tell with his head down. If she didn’t come back to work, she’d be off the shortlist and Jumar would be one step up the lottery. Nobody ever talked about that openly, but it was on everybody’s mind–the elephant in the room.
“UR71 has gone pandemic. It won’t be long now. We could always use your help in–”
He was kissing up, hedging his bets just in case she did come back. She didn’t have time for that. She panned through the news channels. The countdown had started. Pestilence, war, famine, death–the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It was as if the whole world knew its end was near. Only the lucky ones would live, like brands plucked from the fire, somewhere way out there in the stars, if you could call that living.
She shut it down, shut it all down, and now her house was a hollow shell, an endless cavern of blank, empty walls broken only by the closed door at the end of the hall. The closed door led to a room she never entered. The door beckoned to her, but she would not open it. The room beckoned to her, but she would not enter it.
“We’re well into the next phase,” Alex said with an odd sense of anticipation. “It could be anytime now.”
Ranjeet watched the steady rise and fall of his chest, not knowing what to say. It didn’t matter anyways. The hearing aid was gone. He was completely deaf. Soon he would be blind too. She felt the tears welling in her eyes. She squeezed his hand, but he didn’t seem to feel it. He stared past her at the blank, white wall.
“I feel–it’s hard to explain–like I’m on the edge of some great new world, not death exactly, but you have to die to get there. It’s like I’m crossing the River Styx.” He laughed hoarsely. “My ancestors used to put coins on a dead man’s eyes to pay the boatman.” He looked directly at Ranjeet. “I guess we’ve paid that price already.”
Ranjeet felt her soul melt. She bent forward and kissed Alex gently on each eye. He smiled, and then suddenly winced in pain. She looked pleadingly at the doctors, but their attention was now fully dedicated to the beeping lines and squiggles on the life support monitors. They too seemed rapt with euphoric anticipation, as if something great were about to happen.
And then it did.
The bed kicked suddenly and the monitors screamed. Two more white-robed doctors ran into the crowded hospital room. Alex’s body convulsed violently on the bed, nearly knocking Ranjeet to the floor. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was screaming and praying and pleading. And then everything just stopped–Alex, Ranjeet, the squiggling lines.
Alex opened his mouth to let out one final sigh, and his narrow chest lowered, never to rise again.
Ranjeet broke over his lifeless body, her tears mixing with his sweat. The doctors ignored her, still too intent on the electronic monitors. And then she heard it. A beep. And then another. And then a steady rhythm, and the doctors gave a collective yet civil cheer.
Days passed, weeks.
Her husband slept. He did not snore. He did not breathe. Only the steady beating of his heart told Ranjeet that he truly was alive. And then his eyes opened.
“Late again,” he said.
She did not argue. She did not laugh. Her husband was a stranger to her, trapped behind the aura of his ghost.
“So how…?” She began, but did not finish.
He’d lost his hair, his eyebrows, and his eyelashes. His skin had become featureless, without pores or wrinkles. He hardly seemed human anymore, like an undressed manikin in a store window. They said he could hear again, that she could talk to him, but she couldn’t think of what to say. She felt the coldness of his skin and let go of his hand.
“Ranjeet,” he said clearly, as if no time had passed since their last conversation over a month ago, “I’ve been thinking.” He looked at the blank, white wall. “I’ve been thinking maybe you should go. I know what you said before about staying to the end, and I appreciate that, but you have to go on with your life. Nobody knows for sure when the final phase will happen, and from what I can tell, it won’t be a pretty sight. Come back when it’s all over. Will you do that for me? Will you, Ranj?”
He reached for her with his pale, white hand like some grotesque zombie. Ranjeet stepped back from the hospital bed, horrified.
“Ranj, it’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
She covered her face.
“No!” she screamed, and ran out of the room, down the hall, past the startled patients and doctors who had come to think of her as just part of the aging hospital décor, like a wilting flower by her husband’s deathbed. But she would not come back, she told herself. She would never come back.
Two days later, she showed up for work. No one was particularly happy to see her, especially not Jumar–the illusion of her juicy lottery spot shattering before his greedy brown eyes. She couldn’t blame him. They all wanted to live. And every day UR71 spread to another city, and more and more transports thundered out of Cape Canaveral and Baikonur. Soon, very soon, the last transport would leave, and what was left of the human race would wither like a raisin in the sun. The earth would live on, the plants and animals, but the people would just blink into oblivion.
“It’s good to see you back,” Jumar lied, the words dripping off his tongue like acid. “I suppose you’ll want your office back.”
“Yes,” she said bluntly, “and my parking spot.”
Jumar didn’t even blink.
Ranjeet took charge immediately, diving into her work with a feverish passion that immediately silenced any hope Jumar had of taking her position permanently. It was all meaningless. The chance that her lab or any other lab would find a miracle cure before UR71 eliminated the earth’s human population was a statistical impossibility, but that didn’t matter. She had to work, and so she did, past all reason, past all hope.
At night, she would walk home through the park, the smell of lilacs filling her nostrils. She used to love that smell, or any smell, but now she felt nothing. There were no flowers in New Haven, or so she’d heard, no plants of any kind, no great red cedars, no little ground ferns, no budding cacti, and no lilacs. They didn’t even grow plants for food. They didn’t need it after the change. Oh they had the genomes for most species in stasis just in case, but it would be centuries before they bothered to clone them, if ever.
New Haven–a world without food and death and flowers.
And then she would enter the blank cave of her apartment, and the closed door at the end of the barren hall would greet her, ever silent, ever beckoning.
Days passed, weeks.
She received an email from Alex’s doctor. The final phase was over. She could return to the hospital. The news glared at her accusingly on her wall screen. But this time, she did not respond. This time, she did not head immediately to the tram as she had so many times before–and into the elevator, and down the hospital’s antiseptic hallways to her husband’s room to sit by his bedside like the dutiful, loving wife. And neither did she steel herself and return back to work with her head held high. This time, she failed. Curled up in a ball of self-defeat and self-pity, she mourned her weakness until her eyes were dry.
And then the door beckoned to her.
Powerless to resist though she knew it would utterly destroy her, she drifted down the barren hallway like a ghost in a dream. The door gave way to her slightest touch although it had not been opened in more than two years. She entered helplessly. A thick layer of dust coated the furniture, obscuring the pastel pictures of dancing hippos and flying alligators. The dinosaur mobile hung limp and lifeless in the airless room. She wanted to touch it, but did not. Instead, her trembling hand fell upon the edge of the dusty crib and her eyes upon the picture of her daughter above it.
Cassandra was one of the first to contract UR71–one of its first victims–a six-month-old child. What kind of a malevolent bug would choose an innocent child for its first victim? What kind of a god would allow it to happen?
Two years of bitterness and sorrow welled up in Ranjeet’s heart. Never had she felt so much emotion all at once, not when she first fell in love, not even at her own daughter’s funeral. It was overwhelming, intoxicating. She could not take it, but she could not resist it either. Collapsing on the hardwood floor, she lost herself completely to the blind rapture of utter sorrow. And in that moment felt perfect peace.
Time itself became meaningless. When she opened her eyes again, it was morning and her husband was standing over her.
“Alex?” she said groggily. “You’re late.”
He laughed nervously. “Yes, Ranj, it’s me.”
He had hair again, not just on his head but all over his face. He was fully suited for flight, all except his pressure helmet, which was cradled in his left arm. He looked strangely happy, like a boy with a secret.
“I don’t have much time. My launch is scheduled for this afternoon. But I have good news.”
“What?” She rubbed her eyes still not sure whether she was fully awake.
“I got them to bump up your lottery number. You start phase treatments tomorrow.” He looked at her, apparently eager for signs of her approval. She gave him none. His new, brown eyebrows knitted together. “You know what this means? In a month, maybe two, you could be on route to New Haven like me. We could be together again, forever this time, or pretty close to it.”
Ranjeet looked into Alex’s eager eyes, so filled with life, so filled with hope. Could she ever feel that way again with all she’d left behind? She gazed helplessly at the dusty furniture with its prancing cartoons, the lifeless dinosaurs above her head, and the empty crib behind her. Last of all, her eyes fell upon Cassandra’s picture, and all at once her mind was made up.
“No,” she said firmly.
She heard Alex drop his helmet and then he was bending over her, reaching for her with his gloved hand.
“Look, Ranjeet. I know you’ve been through a tough time, but you don’t have to die. My new body may look different. It may feel different. But it will last virtually forever. No more growing old. No more dying. And it’s still me on the inside.” His gloved hand touched her shoulder and she cringed. Alex stepped back, startled.
“Be reasonable, Ranjeet. They won’t let you go without the phase treatments. You’ll never survive transport. And you can’t stay here. The plague is unstoppable. The earth is doomed.” His tone became desperate. He looked at the dusty crib behind her and the picture of Cassandra on the wall. “You have to–we have to leave the past behind and start a new life for ourselves. It’s the only way.”
“No!” she screamed, pulling away from him. “I won’t go. I will stay here until the end, and die if I have to.”
“Ranj, please. You can’t give up hope.”
“I haven’t given up hope, Alex. You have!” She rose to her feet, suddenly strong, suddenly powerful. “I will stay here and fight this thing until the very end, until my last breath. I owe her that much.”
Alex stared at Ranjeet mutely, his rubbery, bearded face torn in anguish, but he had no more arguments, nothing else to say. A suited soldier appeared in the doorway.
“Sir, our time is up. We must go now!”
Alex did not move.
“I’m coming, damn you!”
The soldier hesitated in the doorway for a moment, and then disappeared into the blank hallway. Alex turned back to Ranjeet, his eyes pleading.
“But why,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Ranjeet reached up to touch his chest, but there was nothing–no breath, no heartbeat, no life. Her eyes fell.
Alex shuddered, but did not speak. And then, slowly, he turned towards the door and left. Ranjeet covered her mouth to restrain her cry, to stop herself from calling out to him. And then it was too late. And then he was gone. But in her heart, she knew she had done the right thing. She had stayed true to herself, true to her daughter. She looked up at Cassandra with fresh tears in her eyes.
“For you, baby, I won’t give up hope. For you…”
David Wright is a writer and teacher living on Canada’s majestic west coast. He has a lovely wife, two sparkling daughters and 40 published short stories in a dozen magazines including Neo-opsis, MindFlights and eSteampunk. David’s latest eNovels, are available at Smashwords.com. Visit his website at wright812.shawwebspace.ca.