To Have Seen the Whales Again, a Short Story Essay
Scifi Story by Tamara Wilhite
“I love it here,” Kenneth told me, the strength of the emotion making up for the weakness in his voice.
Gray storm clouds stretched across the horizon, past the boundary between forest and sea. Salt laden gusts whipped at us, playing with our jackets, hair, and the wind chimes. Part of me wanted to race down to the beach and play in the waves, but I knew I couldn’t leave his side or safely take him down there if I wanted to make it back up here. It wasn’t safe to leave the house. Of course, it wasn’t really safe to have come here, either.
“In every season, Kenneth?” I asked him.
“Every!” Kenneth was smiling despite the pain. “I love this place. My father brought us here to fish. Many Christmases, Thanksgivings, summers and Spring Breaks have been spent here.”
“I was looking for tea in the cabinets and saw all the stuff. I didn’t realize there was already enough food here to last for years.” Kenneth went rigid at the last word in my sentence. I cursed silently. Time was the last thing he needed was reminding. “Did you and Marguerite have you honeymoon here?”
“Yes, we did.” He relaxed slightly, as if good memories could cure him. “And …” his eyes were misting over, the last few months seemingly disappearing. “Last fall, just last fall, we were together! Jenady, we were together … she was here, with me, here.”
“I know.” I put my hand on his shoulder. A breeze whipped up, stirring leaves down below. Kenneth shifted in his chair, his sweat shirt falling away to reveal a bony shoulder poking through the dark skin. I could imagine a bone jutting through the skin barely covering his lean frame and knew I couldn’t stand the risk of touching him more than I already had, vaccines be damned. I knew we were breaking so many laws being here.
“I wish it was spring,” Kenneth muttered.
“Why?” I asked.
“I would have liked to have seen the whales and orcas swim off the point again.”
“Do you want to go inside?”
“Not yet.” He shook his head. “No, not at all.”
“I meant in the cabin.”
“Yeah. Inside. Just put me somewhere near a window.” I watched the sun touch the water, slowly melting golden into a darkening sea. “This is a fine vantage point.”
“One of my favorites.”
“Hot tea, and make it sweet.”
Kenneth’s profile through the glass door revealed his small movements, signs of his inward struggle against the pain. “Sugar or Splenda?”
“Sugar. I want the real stuff. I want everything real. Gotta keep it real, right?” His joke fell flat. He tried to laugh and winced at the pain.
“Do you want some of the painkiller?” I asked.
“Yeah. This is as good a time as any.”
Steam rose from the cups as I poured. I picked up the medical storage box and sorted what I’d pilfered. A hypodermic I’d refused to use so far, some aspirin and a few not-yet-expired Advils lay inside. I gave the Advils and the tea to Kenneth. He choked down the painkiller down, then sipped the tea, and then swallowed an aspirin. “They never give me enough of this stuff in the hospital. They’re afraid they’ll exceed the rations or just want to pilfer it for the black market with the ones they should give but don’t. But I don’t care. Not now.” With that, he popped another pill. “You can’t see Orion yet, but the Big Dipper is coming out.”
“I see it.” He sipped slowly. “Three months. They gave me three lousy months, with lots of supervised care. Care? Damn, they did not. They kept me alive, I think, just to study the disease from start to finish. Then, right before I’m stage 4, they invent what’s supposed to be a cure.” We sat in silence for a long time. “Are you sure the vaccine you got is good?” he asked me. I shrugged. We both knew that in a care-giver role, the disease exposure was likely. The only question was if I’d be exposed to one person intensely or hundreds in a flow of patients. The only difference was that here I only had one person to supervise, and no one was screaming at me. It felt good to have the world calm and normal, like it used to be.
I fetched blankets and refilled his cup and every other thing he needed before he could ask. I felt so sorry for him. I’d lost my best friend. He’d lost his wife. He’d asked me to bring him home for a weekend. “I enjoyed this time, Jenady. And our conversations.” Another sip. ” Thank you. For everything.” He swallowed another pill with deliberate force. He smiled with utter relief. How long had he been left to suffer without any pain killers that he craved them so badly?
“I’ve enjoyed our time together, as well.” Without a legal power of attorney, taking him out of the hospital was technically a crime. Violating quarantine orders was a crime. Refusing a termination order was, too, though I could have delegated it to someone else because I knew the man. But instead of killing the man who had identified the disease in the first place and started the research toward its cure, I had used my credentials to sneak him out as a dead body and bring him home. It’s so much more convenient to kill the infected who cannot be cured.
A brilliant crescent moon hung high up in the sky, bleaching the color from the evergreens and beach below us. Silver tipped waves echoed across the ocean. It was pretty, like a high definition screen saver. I could imagine myself falling in love with Kenneth if he’d shown me this scene rather than Marguerite. Far too late for that now, I gave him my attention again. “Comfortable?”
“Yes, it’s taking effect.” He sank into the pillows. “There’s no more pain, Jenady.” His voice grew fainter as sleep threatened to overtake him. “Finally, there’s no pain.” I watched as his body relaxed. A stupid smile that in other times would have been mistaken for drunkenness spread across his face. “I would have liked to have seen the whales again,” he whispered. Kenneth’s eyes closed slowly. He was asleep.
I watched him through the night. Memories of me and Marguerite were hard to push away. The bedroom’s dark door was past the couch, though it was impossible for me to enter. I tried to think about them and myself with my various dates when we went out as a four-some. That felt depressing. I listened to nature instead, worryingly listening for sirens or flying cameras. The only sounds were the natural wave machine outside and a few lonely insects. With the quarantine in effect and strict rationing of fuel and everything else essential, there were no boats or cars out at all. The peaceful quiet was relaxing, soothing me for the first time since the pandemic struck. I listened to the waves until I, too, fell asleep.
A bird chirped. It sounded like a siren like those from my dreams. My mind tried to process the natural sounds to what I expected. I uncurled from around the blanket I’d clutched all night. I rose quietly to avoid waking him, watching the still form. Then it hit me that he was totally still – his chest wasn’t moving.
His words raced through my mind, and I mentally tripped on the markers I shouldn’t have missed. Painkillers so strong on someone so weak and ravaged by disease had been a fatal combination. “I need to ask you a favor. Get me some pain killers that the docs here won’t give me.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“You want a challenge? This is a BIG one. I just want to be pain free and go home. Could you do that for me?”
A small voice in my head wondered if I should have simply given him the painkillers he asked for then and let him die in the ward instead of using the formal euthanasia injections, giving him relief while only leaving me with a “waste of medical resources” charge. Had I misunderstood and then overachieved, trying to impress him to the very end?
Yet Kenneth had said nothing as we got out of the hospital, to a car, on the road and then here. Did he think it was a hallucination and thus played along? Or did he think it was a reward from higher up, of the orders I carried, to go home to die instead of being terminated in the ward?
I didn’t want to think about what I had just done or the full import. He’d died at home. Kenneth seemed to blur into the shadows of the cabin, as if his body had already faded into this being of this place to join his spirit, which had always been here and had never left. To join his wife, who had died here, too, one of the first victims of the disease. She’d died in their bedroom here, still sealed off with quarantine tape.
The vaccine was an unknown factor, untested. If it failed, I’d be infected without permission to receive treatment due to my crimes. If it worked, I’d tested it in field conditions – and I still violated quarantine orders and disobeyed orders. I sipped chamomile tea as the weight of my actions hung in the air and my mind. I hadn’t told him about the patients I had “released” per orders, only stopping when I realized how many could be saved if given the right anti-viral drugs. And then I came across Kenneth.
I’d driven a car so old it had no GPS, but they were looking for me. Had to be, given the magnitude. They’d find the car, eventually. It was a miracle no one had located us yet, an infected man and caregiver.
I toyed with a few ideas. Hiking into the woods would take time and energy and mean stepping into an environment I knew nothing about. There were rumors of an underground, Luddites and pro-lifers fighting the technocrats. But I’d been a scientist of sorts and had put down some of the infected. And then there was the fact that I’d been exposed to the disease caring for infected and was not certain the vaccine would provide protection.
I could not, in conscience, risk becoming a modern typhoid Mary or Gaëtan Dugas of AIDS. All the choices would mean a painful end at the hands of those who would want to make an example out of me. I looked back at Kenneth’s still form, relaxed peacefully on the couch.
My body seemed to be on automatic when I went over to get the hypodermic. I lay down next to his still warm body. I had seen how fast this stuff worked in my patients. I laid against the fading warmth left by the fever. No worries about exposure risks now, a small voice in my head laughed. Another thought about being with Kenneth now that there was no reason not to be lingered, images of the three of us together, him asking her out because I had a date beside me, one that dropped me the next day. Their romance blossomed as mine bombed. This would be, no matter what, the last time we’d be together.
My eyes instinctively went to the bedroom door and its layers of quarantine warning tape. She was dead, I was here, and nothing else was between us. I tried to nestle beside him, his body still warm. There wasn’t any hesitation once I was comfortable beside him.
There was hardly any pain, though the drugs suffocating effect worked faster than the drugs that stopped the heart. While part of me knew it was the lack of oxygen, I saw the imprints of those who had walked these halls here, ignoring me. Kenneth saw the faint image of his wife, seeming to ignore me while I was alive. I reached out to him, and his gaze passed through me.
My last coherent thoughts were that it would indeed have been nice to have seen the whales again, to know that something intelligent and free still lived in the world. They couldn’t do worse than we had in the world.
The natural wave machine lulled me to sleep. The screaming of sirens became like seagull cries. The lights flooding into the room couldn’t match the darkness that took me to be with Kenneth.