Eveline ran a hand over Javier’s forehead and kissed his cheek. She lay her head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of the machines doing their job. It wasn’t enough. Without a new heart, her best friend would die within two days.
“I feel like a vulture,” Javier had told her the previous evening, shortly before slipping into a coma. “You know, waiting for someone to die.” He slid yet another card out of its green envelope, opened it, and set it on the bedside table next to the others, which proclaimed “Get Well Soon” and “Happy 2024!” in bright letters.
“People die, especially now. It happens. At least you’re at the top of the waiting list.”
Javier had looked at her and raised one eyebrow in that way, which always made her catch her breath. He had a sixth sense for bullshit and always saw through her fake optimism.
Eveline sighed, raised her head from Javier’s chest, and stepped back. The room swirled and she collapsed into the chair behind her as her legs turned to jelly. Black spots grew and changed shape, her stomach clenched, and buzzing filled her ears. Gripping the armrests with ice-cold hands, she closed her eyes and shook her head, gasping for breath. Eveline couldn’t ignore these symptoms any longer—time for an IBT. She slowly rose and headed for the lab, supporting herself against the wall in the hallway.
“Are you all right, Dr. Collins?” The receptionist hurried from behind her desk to help.
Eveline forced a smile. “I’m fine. I just need some sleep. It was a long night.”
The receptionist nodded, her eyes radiating sympathy behind her glasses.
The hospital staff was used to seeing Eveline there on her days off. Javier had been assigned to Dr. Jones instead of her, and Eveline was glad for that. Her professionalism had its limits.
Eveline pushed open the door to the main lab and looked around, thanking the stars for the budget cuts that had emptied the hospital’s labs of employees. She could probably roll a whole cabinet out the door without anyone noticing. Until she got to the armed guards lurking outside the building, at least. She punched in the combination to the large safe that held the IBTs and various antidotes. The orderly stacks of blue and white tests filled the bottom half of the safe, and Eveline pocketed one.
She ducked into a changing room and pricked her finger. Despite the civil and world wars, the slew of new diseases resulting from chemical warfare, and the famine of 2019, which together had killed three quarters of the US population, education in science, the humanities, and philosophy continued underground. And despite the medieval quality of mainstream scientific education and the breakdown of the economy after the cutting of ties with Europe, dissident scientists had persisted and, with limited funding, created the Ishikawa-Barnes Test, a device that could diagnose nearly anything with one drop of blood. For many diseases, especially the newly engineered strains, the test could instantly estimate how much time you had—it usually wasn’t much. And against all odds, these tests were still available if you knew the right people.
The test beeped, and Eveline clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a shriek. She knew what the diagnosis meant—five injections of Solatriole within two hours or death, which would probably come by midnight according to the orange numbers flashing on the tiny LED screen. The PEP—Pharmaceutical Engineering Patriots—had concocted this disease in 2021 to covertly attack the Chinese, whom the regime referred to as “allies.” It targeted the central nervous system and shut it down within five to seven days. There was a vaccine, of course, but Eveline was allergic to it. She had taken the test just in time.
She rushed upstairs, holding the handrail to steady her shaking legs. She tore the foil off the syringe of antidote, aimed it at a vein—and froze. What if she didn’t take it? A curious impulse once informed her that she was a match for Javier—and this disease would not touch her heart. Hands trembling, she lowered the syringe and sank to the floor, sobs racking her body. She rolled onto her back and sucked in a breath, willing herself to focus. She wouldn’t have much time to decide.
Eveline rested her hand on her heart, feeling its rapid but strong beat. Her fingers brushed against something metallic. Her mother’s locket. She grasped it tightly as she thought about her family. Her father’s plane was shot down in combat. His death left her mother unable to afford chemo—this was before Eveline had graduated medical school—and she soon joined her husband. An anti-gay mob in white sheets had lynched her only brother. Eveline could still feel the sweaty hands of the men who held her down and forced her to watch. Her brother choked and clawed at the rope while laughter echoed around him. Javier was the only human being she had left, and losing him would finish her.
She stood, pressing herself against the wall as the circles danced before her eyes again. The episode past, Eveline descended the stairs. There would be paperwork to fill out.
At 11:30 p.m., Eveline sat on the cot next to Javier’s bed and used her remaining energy to detach Javier’s monitor and clip it onto herself. Tears slid down her face. She should have told him years ago . . . There was no time for regrets. Eveline caressed Javier’s cheek and kissed his lips before lying down.
Images chased one another behind her eyelids as she floated into oblivion: Javier and Eveline laughing over bad coffee, dancing at a Botanical Dregs concert, feeding the swans at her childhood home.
The images darkened and dissolved as the monitor let out a shrill whine.