She was startled to see Clyde standing by the door as the meeting dragged on. It would have been nothing unusual under normal circumstances, true, but it was Tuesday. And he had died last Wednesday.
In her astonishment, she inhaled too deeply, coughed harshly, and sent a wave of whispering through the room. Pulled from her chair by a security guard in a biohazard mask – one of the old ones that hung baggy around the cheeks – she assured him that she was not sick, but he dragged her into the quarantine office without uttering a word. Clyde followed her just as silently and sat down by the wall as she waited for them to come and test her so she could go.
"You think there's reason to worry?" Clyde asked her as he fidgeted on the thin, clean carpet.
Of course there's reason to worry, she thought, I'm seeing a dead man.
"That's not what I meant," he said and wrapped his arms around his drawn-up knees. She glanced over at where he sat. "Is there a reason?" he tried again, his voice lower than before and more demanding.
"No," she assured aloud. "I haven't been anywhere to be exposed. I haven't done anything to be exposed." God, she'd barely been out of the house except for the funeral.
"Then why were you coughing?" He would not let it drop.
"Because you startled me!" she quietly insisted. "I didn't know it was improper protocol to be surprised when a ghost shows up at your work."
"Has someone been sick?" he asked, ignoring her outburst. "I noticed Stevens wasn't at the meeting."
"I haven't been near Stevens for the past week," she countered as something raw shook itself in her gut and curled around her heart. Now she was becoming paranoid because of a dead man.
"That doesn't mean -"
"Shut up!" she hissed, and he turned a wide-eyed gaze upon her before falling silent. With a soft knock, the building's biohazard nurse stepped through one of the interior doors. He snapped his mask in place and turned on the air filters without a word.
It had been her birthday last Tuesday, and Clyde woke her up for breakfast. She had felt queasy the night before with a headache to complement, and they had gone to bed with the worry lurking in the back of their minds. She had dreamt of quarantine and death but had opened her eyes in the morning to find her ailment gone. As if he had known, Clyde already stood against the wall with a plate in hand, and they sat down together cross-legged on the bed to eat her birthday meal and to silently, guiltily count their blessings – to thank whoever was listening for avoidance and escape. They ate her birthday breakfast together on Tuesday, and they still had enough time, time enough.
"You coughed at 15:24 today?" the nurse directed toward her.
"I was surprised, is all," she defended. "I forgot a key brief for the meeting, one I've been working on all month, and I just – I guess I choked on my own disbelief, you could say."
"Arm out," he told her, and she dumbly held it in front of her, all excuses forgotten. And really, there was no place for excuses here, not with a virus that wiped out ten percent of the world population. Placing the syringe against her bare skin, he depressed the plunger. There was a slight pinch, and she watched her blood meander into the clear syringe. Then the skin was cauterized, the needle removed, and her precious life flow was never once exposed to the air. Sitting down at a desk, he slid the syringe into a machine she did not understand and watched the screen as electricity stirred and fans whistled.
"Ask him about Stevens," Clyde told her.
"Ask him yourself!" she shushed back. The nurse turned his attention away from the machine to give her a confused, condescending look, and she realized with nauseous fear that he could not see Clyde and that she might be crazy.
"Negative for antibodies," he told her after a tense and embarrassing silence, and she felt her muscles go limp, the problem of Clyde's existence momentarily forgotten. He firmly pressed a wrapped syringe into her hand. "Go home and quarantine," he demanded. "Tomorrow morning, take another blood sample and call for expedited delivery. If it's clear, we'll call you, and you can come in."
"But my meeting," she pleaded. He simply turned his back and had the instructions relayed to her superiors. She nearly began to cry, not knowing how she was to survive going back to that empty house with such doubts. Clearing her throat, which earned her a suspicious glance from the nurse, she steadied her heart and opened the door.
"I just worry about you, baby," Clyde said as she left the building and he followed. It was Tuesday, and Clyde had been dead for a week.