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Keeping Time

Keeping Time

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MIKE eats a solitary dinner at the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Loading up on carbs and protein helps to slow down the decline, and he finds himself in the ridiculous position of having to eat to keep his weight up. The restaurant is nearly empty except for him and a couple at the other end of the room, their plates also piled high. He had hoped that his boss Peter could join him; but he too is in the final stages and can hardly get out of bed. Coming to the conference today was pure agony for him. Mike had told him to go home.

The woman walks into the room: blue skirt, white blouse, arms bare, hair loose. When she sees him, she stops in her tracks. Mike senses she is trying to decide whether to stay or leave. When she turns and goes back the way she came, Mike wipes his mouth, throws his napkin on the table and follows her. In several long, quick strides he is close at her heels.

“Wait,” he says.

She walks faster, turns a corner to get to the elevators.

“Wait,” he repeats, louder this time.

She breaks into a run.

“Jesus,” he mutters, “what the — “

He’s brought up short by a trolley half-laden with baggage, being pushed along by his porter from the previous day. The woman runs into one of the lifts. She looks at Mike; considering that she has just fled from him, she appears surprisingly unruffled. The lift doors close before Mike can get to them.

“What’s the point of running,” he snarls. “I know where to find you.”

***

He does not see her anywhere in the hotel the next morning, before he heads to Peter’s home. He had considered knocking on her door the night before, but decided against it.

On the drive to Makati, where Peter lives, Mike sees all the signs of contamination: the abandoned buildings, the half-empty streets, their sidewalks populated by shuffling skeletons that make any city look like Biafra in the 70s.

Peter Darrow has never been fat, but he has always been tenacious. Even now he clings to life the way he has always clung to his convictions; he has a job to do, and he’ll die doing it. With little energy to climb the stairs, he has taken to sleeping in a room on the ground floor of his two-story house. Only a nurse and a cook attend to his needs now — his wife and two grown children are dead. He is sitting on the edge of his bed and just about to have breakfast when Mike arrives.

“I’m sorry, would you like me to wait outside?” Mike asks.

“Sit, sit,” Peter insists, waving him toward a nearby chair. There is a plate stacked with pancakes on a folding table in front of him, another plate of sausages on the side. “The dietician keeps telling me to pack it all away. You want some?”

Mike shakes his head, drags the chair over the floor and sits across from Peter. “No, thank you. I did my own packing away this morning.” Even from this relative distance, Mike can smell his boss’s breath, rank from catabolysis. A plastic tube snakes out from under his T-shirt, attached to a bag filled with intravenous fat emulsion. He’s not yet at the point where the body begins to reject any amount and type of nutrition, but he’ll get there within weeks.

The older man begins to eat: stabbing at the pancakes, chewing with neither hunger nor pleasure. “Always thought eating was a waste of time. Sleeping, too. Now I hardly do anything but.”

“You’re joking, right? You still email me a dozen times a day, riding my ass.”

Peter flashes a puckish smile, and for a moment he looks as he did seventeen years ago, when Mike first came to work for him. “You’re a good kid, Mikey. I had a great team, and you were the best one in it. You were smarter, worked harder than anyone else. And everybody on that team worked damned hard.”

He’s already thinking in the past tense. A sound escapes Mike’s throat, unintelligible but unmistakable: a welter of emotion trapped there. Peter recognizes what it is, wisely decides to ignore it. Between the two of them, words aren’t necessary.

“So where are you off to next? Polynesia?”

Back on safe ground, Mike quickly regains his composure. “Kiribati, Samoa, Tuvalu. The reports aren’t good.”

“There haven’t been any good reports since this whole business started.” Peter sighs. “The Age of the Enzyme. Bigger than AIDS. Badder than bird flu.”

Mike sits quietly for a moment. “Peter, I have to ask. Who takes over when you — I mean …” It is difficult to continue. The crusty old Brit is more than just his boss; he is mentor, friend, surrogate father. He is also one of the last surviving of the world’s leading epidemiologists.

“When I croak?” Peter pushes the sausages around on the plate; their oily sheen only sickens him. “Khairy from the Eastern Mediterranean. Theophile Allegre — he has little enough to do in Europe, it’s too late for them. Tan Siew Kune from Hong Kong — he still has a good two or three years left in him. You, I have to keep on the ground. You’re not an administrator.” This is typical Peter, tough, blunt, unsentimental. “I need your sharp instincts out in the field. While you’re alive and able to function, my friend, you’re the timekeeper of the world.”

Mike mulls this over for a while. The three men are nowhere near as experienced or single-minded as Peter, but they will have to do.

“The turnover’s likely to happen before the next conference. I’m sorry I won’t be around to help you, old boy. You’ll do well, I know it.”

Mike does not know what to say, so he says nothing.

Peter pushes the plate of pancakes away; he’s barely made it through a fifth of them. “Listen, Mikey. Can I give you some advice?”

“Always.”

“Don’t be alone when the end comes. That’s key. Everything else is just noise.”

***

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