“Personal Space"

Fiction by Peter Bar

I’ve survived long enough to remember a time when we all wanted a little personal space, maybe even cherished it, at least here in the city. The too-crowded subways, tight elevators, clustered workspaces, even in the outdoors where it was supposed to feel open, we’d be swept in the undercurrent of bodies moving like a tide up and down the sidewalks. 

Now finding a little personal space isn’t a problem. Now we have the pandemic.

It just came on, swept across the land, like a quick slash of a brushstroke, painting our nightmare. And still no one can say for sure how it started. Some people will tell you it was a lab technician who dropped a vial in a chemical weapons facility, others claim it was a genetics company that modified something they shouldn’t have been tampering with, while still others believe it’s a terrorist weapon gone awry. I don’t think the how really matters anymore, I’m guessing half the world is dead. 

And it’s everywhere, we’re all infected, though some people are just carriers; their switch never seems to go off. For everyone else however, when their switch goes off, they go stark raving mad, become enraged. Murderous. It’s as if the brain just short-circuits, like you are having a seizure. 

Only you are not incapacitated. Far from it. You are focused and intent, fixated on killing the first thing you see. And you’re jacked on adrenaline, or whatever the virus is pumping through your system, so you’re strong and fast. 

And this murderous seizure, it comes on suddenly, and just as suddenly it’s over. The whole thing lasts maybe three to five minutes. 

Now I used to think three to five minutes wasn’t much time, but trust me, it’s all the time someone that’s been afflicted needs to grab some random object and bludgeon you to death with it, or stab you, or maybe just strangle you. I’ve seen it happen, more times then I care to remember over the years, people killed in a myriad of ways. 

And the thing is, we’re good at it. We’ve been killing one another for thousands of years. And we didn’t need to be sick to do it. Or maybe we’ve always been infected. With the capacity. The pandemic just took things to the next level. Tweaked the latent brain chemistry. Awakened the monster in us all.

And there’s another thing about these seizures. Once they’re over, once you’re finished killing the unlucky soul who happened to be near you, you don’t remember a thing. You don’t realize that you’ve just murdered some stranger on the street, or your best friend, or your wife, or your child. That is until you see them lying in front of you. Then you’ll come around, remember what it is you’ve done. That’s when the horror of it all settles in. 

And it’s not over then, or maybe it is. Because you may have another seizure 10 minutes later, or next week, or next month, or never again. 

We’re all ticking bombs waiting to go off. Or maybe never going off.

Is there a warning? Most people say no, but some say there’s a sign. They say a second or two before a person has a seizure, their eyes can tear up with blood, just a few drops, but if you happen to be close enough to see this happening then you better get ready to defend yourself. Or run if you can. 

I saw my first seizure back in the summer of 2032, back when the virus was just starting to spread, back when the infectious disease experts at the C.D.C. and the World Health Organization didn’t know what they had on their hands, or were unwilling to admit what they had on their hands. 

I was working the grill at the Imperial Diner on Third Avenue, the breakfast crowd, and there’s a man in a suit, he’s perfectly calm, looking at his bill like he’s calculating the tip. Suddenly he leaps up, breaks a ketchup bottle on the edge of the counter, and starts stabbing the person next to him. Just keeps doing it over and over. A patron down the counter comes over to try and stop it and the suit just throws him off. Like a doll. Three minutes later it’s all over. The man in the suit lets the ketchup bottle slip from his hand, and then he just stands there breathing heavy, hyperventilating, saliva oozing from his mouth like some rabid dog. 

And then he gets this look in his eyes, like he’s coming back from somewhere far away. Someplace darker than he ever imagined. Wondering why he’s covered in blood, wondering why he’s standing over a stranger bleeding to death on the floor. 

And we’ve all learned it’s not safe to try and help the victims. Because one seizure can trigger another. I watch you murder someone and suddenly I want to murder someone as well. It’s like some nightmarish visual prompt. And this can happen two, three, four times in a row, one person after another turning, a bloodlust rippling outward. 

Fortunately it doesn’t happen often, but it happens, so if you are thinking about being a Good Samaritan, if you find yourself kneeling over someone who’s just been attacked, then you better keep one eye on your back because somebody nearby, somebody who’s just watched a murder, may suddenly turn and be coming for you.

As you might expect, people — those of us who are left — don’t congregate anymore. There are no social gatherings, no marriages, or funerals, no concerts, there are no medical services, hospitals, or schools. The museums, the libraries, and the office buildings are all abandoned and overgrown. Home to feral dogs and other animals that have started moving into the city. The streets are empty, there are no cars or taxis, no one rides a subway, takes a bus, or gets on a plane, not after the stories started spreading of passengers having seizures in enclosed spaces. 

Now we all keep to ourselves, we don’t get close, we stay in our safe zone, inside our own personal space. How big is our personal space? About 30 feet. Come inside that and I have to assume you’re about to turn murderous, or already have. Thirty feet gives me enough time to get ready to defend myself, or if I can, try and get away. 

We all carry some kind of weapon now. A makeshift club, a spear, a sword. Some people have guns, but I imagine a lot of the ammunition was used up when the army and police tried to quarantine the sick. That is, before they realized they were infected as well, and began turning on one another.  

I think a lot of people believe it’s just a matter of time before we’re all dead. If we don’t starve, or freeze, or get ourselves murdered, then we’ll just die of loneliness. Still some of us cling to the hope that maybe the pandemic will play itself out, or we’ll be saved in some other way. 

The objective now is to survive, to hang on to your hope and hunker down against this murderous hurricane, wall yourself in, stay safe. I live in a townhouse, I took it over a few years back, there’s no shortage of real estate in the city or anywhere for that matter. I only go out during the day to scavenge for food, water, medicine, or anything I can burn in the winter to keep warm. At night I secure myself in, triple locks on the doors. No one is getting inside. 

Except Maggie. 

Late last night she came to me. The truth is I’d been thinking about going to her. Dreaming about it actually. 

Maggie’s from Alabama. She lives next door in a townhouse like mine. Maggie and her husband took over the their place last year. I remember being surprised to see a couple. I don’t see many couples in the city anymore. I don’t see any kids either. Kids can’t defend themselves. 

Maggie and her husband set out quickly to make their place secure. Worked round the clock. And then her husband went out one day and never came back. Maggie cried for a long time after that. I’d see her in her upstairs window at night, a small candle burning on the table. I started leaving something at her door every time I went out to scavenge: canned food, matches, seeds for a rooftop garden. 

And then one afternoon I went up to my roof and saw Maggie building a planter box. We spoke across the alleyway between our buildings. The alleyway works as our safe zone, our buffer. It allows us to talk to one another while remaining inside our personal space. And we talk every day. With summer here, it’s mostly at night when it’s cooler outside. 

Maggie will sit on her rooftop and I’ll lie on mine, looking up at the blanket of stars, no planes overhead, no sounds on the streets below, just our voices alone in the city. Maggie says we’re like two lifeboats drifting close, but never linking up, surrounded by a sea of silence. 

I love listening to Maggie talk. She speaks slowly, in a measured way, with just a hint of a southern accent. And she’s smart and strong. Stronger than me. Like everybody still surviving she’s lost someone dear to her, but she’s not forgotten how to laugh. 

It was raining last night when she knocked on my door. I looked through the peephole and saw her standing there, wrapped in her shawl, belt cinched tight around her slender waist, a small sword tucked inside. No one goes on the street at night. I watched her eyes, they were calm, but at the same time alive and alert, like a deer might watch you in the woods. Beautiful.

I unfastened the bolts and moved back to let her in. When she stepped inside she paused, kept her distance, one hand on her hip near her blade. My knife was close on the table. We looked at each other for some time, warily, like two dogs might, circling in a park, guard up, like the animals we’ve become. 

The room was quiet, just the sound of the rain tapping on the barred windows gradually washing the tension between us away. Finally I stepped forward and reached out to touch her wet hair, brushing it off her forehead. Her skin felt electric, a warm current. I’d forgotten what it was like to touch someone, something alive. We’ve all been dead so long. 

We went upstairs and we made love, we didn’t speak, we just let ourselves swim in the closeness. Drown in it. Afterwards we laid in each other’s arms listening to the rain, watching the lightning flashing across the ceiling, waiting for the thunder rolling through the empty avenues below. 

The storm has passed, it’s morning now, and Maggie’s standing at the window, the curves of her body backlit by the pale light. And she’s beautiful, real to me now, no longer just a dream. The rising sun is slowly setting the shattered glass and broken steel of the city skyline afire. 

And I remember the fire, I remember the flames leaping toward the sky as I burned my house to the ground. And I remember standing over my wife, Sarah. Her blood pooling on the tiles of the kitchen floor. The steel ringing as I dropped the knife. The kettle screaming on the stove as I was coming back from somewhere far away. I remember all of it yet I know I’ll never have the courage to tell Maggie. 

But I don’t need to now. Because Maggie’s slowly turning to me. And she’s smiling, her eyes alive and alert. Like a deer might watch you in the woods. Only there’s a hint of sadness in them. And a rising flicker of uncertainty.  

And a single tear of of blood. 

Peter Bar is a web designer who spends summers in Montauk. His fiction has been published previously in The Star.