They didn’t know what it was at first. The itching and coughing and scabs. After they investigated the first few cases, they dubbed it a sexually transmitted disease. It was transferred when genitals touched genitals or the mouth or the anus, just like herpes. Nothing new. Nothing strange.
They had no clue what it really was. What it would do.
Not that I did, either. I wasn’t a doctor or on the pre-med track or even a big fan of House, M.D. I was a fucking writer. A literate who had ten fingers and the ability to tap on a keyboard.
All I knew about the disease was that my younger brother had it. He even made the local news, because he was one of the first ever cases. It should’ve been something he was ashamed of, that he kept hidden from the rest of his high school buddies, but he bragged. Bragged, because when he said, “I have RRD, but I don’t know who I got it from,“ he was really saying, “I get laid. A lot.”
There weren’t many changes during the first month. He scratched a lot, but not just at his crotch. At his thighs, and his ribs, and mostly at his scalp. Dandruff piled onto his black wife-beaters and strands of hair clogged our shared shower drain. He even made himself bleed a few times, he scratched so hard. Whenever I caught him doing it, I’d grab his wrist and twist.
As July faded into August, there still wasn’t a cure, which wouldn’t have been a big deal, except the symptoms piled on. Fevers. Headaches. Nightmares. Nausea. He vomited at least twice per day. He was down to a fraction of his size.
But the weight loss wasn’t the worst of it. He’d walk into a room to get a glass of water, and then stand in the kitchen with a blank stare, giving a forced laugh about how he couldn’t remember what the hell he was looking for. He’d lose his keys. Lose his contacts. Lose his goddamn mind.
Toward the end of August, the memory loss intensified. It came to a point where he couldn’t remember where he was, even when he was at home. He couldn’t remember how to drink, even when I shoved a straw in his mouth. Couldn’t remember how to shit. How to talk. How to breathe. There were a few times when I could’ve sworn his pulse stopped.
Everyone else with the disease was regressing at the same pace. There were specials about it on TV, but on the shitty channels, the ones you flip right past to get to NBC and CBS and CNN. But anyone who followed the story heard the doctors declare that this was the first type of STD that was capable of transferring Alzheimer’s.
But my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. This mimicked it pretty closely, but this wasn’t it exactly. It wasn’t. My parents said I was in denial. That I didn’t want to believe something so horrible and incurable could happen to a kid three years younger than me.
They were wrong. I knew it this morning when I found him slumped up against the wall, his chin squashed against his chest. I crouched, checked his cold, bony wrist for a pulse, and felt nothing. Waited. Waited. Waited. After five minutes of blank stares and unanswerable prayers, he flipped his eyes open, divided his chapped lips, and twitched his fingers.
This whole scene had played out before. At this point, I would normally walk away, thanking (or cursing) God for letting him live in my world for a little longer. But this time, I checked his pulse again, just to see how slow it was.
Nothing. He was fidgeting, but there was nothing. My hands climbed up to his neck to feel the same thing. Nothing.
He didn’t have a pulse anymore. In technical terms, that meant he wasn’t alive anymore. But there he was, moving and twisting and grunting.
His eyes flicked toward my fingers, still pressing into his neck, and he opened his jaw. Like he wanted to say something. Or do something.
I’ve seen The Walking Dead. I’ve played The Last of Us. I’ve listened to friends trade theories about how the apocalypse is going to begin. But I don’t have to guess. I don’t have to wonder.
And soon, once it travels to your town, you won’t either.