Rand stood with his head back while Zelinski looked inside his mouth. Rand obediently kept his mouth open with his tongue sticking out. He was stared at by people sitting in their parked cars, like some no-budget safari.
Caleb was able to look at Tam directly now. He was flexing his fingers. He seemed amazed. “Feels like I’ve come down off something,” he said.
“Take some more,” said Tam, but Caleb shook his head.
“What I’ve had is enough,” he said. “More won’t help. I’ll know when I need it.” They stared at each other for a while and then, once again, she wrapped herself around him. This time he returned the gesture like his old self and it seemed one step closer to right. Still, he smelled of smoke and mould and she could sense something about him that was strange. Closer to the edge. And his face was worn. So much older, it felt like he was back from ten years of war.
Zelinski finished what he was doing. “God damn it, Bill,” he said.
“Will,” said Rand. “Colleagues call me Bill.”
“I’m sorry,” said Zelinski. Tam had never seen him really upset. He was actually moved. “There’s a few cuts, there’s bleeding. It gets in your bloodstream that way and… from what I’ve seen that’s enough. It’s in you.”
For a while, nobody spoke. Zelinski kicked at pebbles. Rand sat on the front of his Lexus. Caleb held Tam and she felt his breathing, his warmth. It only made her more aware of what she was losing. Eventually, she couldn’t stand the silence. “Should we find the next METMA Centre?” she said.
Rand laughed. It was hoarse. “All they do is process people and catalogue deaths,” he said. “We’ve seen more than enough of those places.”
“We need to help you,” Zelinski said to Rand.
“I have all I need right here,” said Rand. He waved towards the plastic bags from the Indian shop. “That’s as good as it gets for someone in my position. What’s next?” His carefree attitude was impressive. But Tam wondered if he was forcing his real feelings under the carpet. It looked like an act.
“Finding answers,” said Zelinski. He skuffed the ground with his feet. “For Christ’s sake, we need information if we’re ever going to beat this disease. METMA had nothing. They weren’t doing any close observation. That’s what we need, a goddamn study. I don’t care if there’s no time, we still need it.”
“You guys,” said Tam, “I just want one last day with my boyfriend. He’s dying.” At that exact moment, of course, she realised that she didn’t have a car. If they went their separate ways right now, she and her advanced Ep Rex victim were stuck on foot, miles from home. A wave of despair washed over her, like the laughter of schoolyard bullies.
Rand scratched his chin, a gesture that morphed into massaging his bruised throat. He coughed. “Fine, but listen,” he said. His voice was always gentle but Tam got the feeling he was injecting 20% extra Smooth into this monologue. “We need Caleb right now. We aren’t going to cut him up, I just want to talk to him. He’ll be able to talk us right through the process and maybe beyond. He’s important.”
Tam gave her beloved a glance. “Whatever you want,” she said. He let her see him wink.
“I’m at your disposal,” he said. “I’m a gonner but if I can help out, that’d be a bonus.” How easy it was for him to make tragedy seem light. Tam was nervous that it would turn into some mad scientist caper. On the other hand, she was proud of Caleb. And damn it, she kind of wanted to contribute to the war effort herself.
Unfortunately, they were stuck in a freaking car park. They had to go somewhere. But there was nowhere to go.
“I think we should get out of Rounlin anyhow,” said Tam. All three men returned blank stares. “Things have changed. Yesterday there was an uneasy truce. Today won’t be the same. It doesn’t look that way now but… it’s early. Most people haven’t woken up yet. I’ve got a bad feeling.”
Zelinski ran with it like they were best buddies since their road trip. “On top of that,” he said, “Wrecks are gathering here. It’s an inherently dangerous place to be.”
“The hell with it,” said Caleb. “Everyone back to mine?”
It was actually a good idea. Tam found herself elated at the thought. At least it would be familiar. They were headed back to Varsity in Rand’s plush Lexus.