I always thought that when it rains that means someone died. Funerals need rain like they need flowers or a priest or a rabbi or an imam.
It rained a lot that summer.
The first things we noticed was the smell and the silence.
Tommy was making an omelet in our tiny kitchenette, the pan sizzling and cracking. He was humming some tune as he always does when cooking. I was strumming on a guitar on the ugliest couch in the world. We had woken up to an unpleasant odor from outside and closed the windows in our apartment. The place had A/C, but we couldn’t afford to turn it on.
When Tommy shut off the stove, there was a kind of unpleasant quiet. It was noticeable. I looked up to find him already staring at me. Even with the windows closed, we should have heard more city noise. Car horns, hissing trucks, chattering people, the occasional shouted Spanish curse. Was it Sunday?
His omelet forgotten, Tommy joined me at the window. The glass was still wet from rain. I reached down to pull it open.
The smell hit us at the same time. Rotten eggs. Moldy vegetables. Old dog food.
New York, in summer, is known for its stench. Usually garbage left out on in the sun for too many days. Maybe a chemical fire in Queens.
This was different. This was close.
We sat on the couch and turned on the TV to local news. I hadn’t watched local news since the last terrorist attack. I felt myself shiver at the thought of another.
Tommy’s warm hand touched my own. He knew exactly what I was thinking. “It’s okay,” he said.
There was a disheveled man behind a news desk. He looked like he needed a coffee, a shave, and a drink.
He stopped mid-sentence to take a deep breath and started up again as if for our benefit.
“We don’t know numbers yet, but police departments from all over the city are reporting massive numbers of sudden fatalities, in their homes, in their sleep, over the last few days. We don’t know why. We don’t know how many. We don’t know…“
Here the man stopped again and reached his hand to wipe a tear from his eye.
“We don’t know anything except they’re dead. They’re all dead.”
We were musicians. Tommy was destined for Broadway and I was going to be the next Bowie. We came to New York on a dream and a few thousand dollars from our parents. We met online. I was from a small town, he was from an even smaller town.
I took the train. He took the bus. We met in Grand Central among the thousands of other people. It was so loud and so crowded, I’d never seen anything like it.
I remember he hugged me right away and it felt like we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in forever. We walked down the crowded New York streets, smiling at the girls and marveling at the buildings.
That felt like a long time ago, even though it wasn’t.
On the morning after the epidemic made the news, everyone was freaked out. Social media fell silent and the streets were barren. We were afraid to go to sleep. Tommy and I finished all the coffee in the apartment in two days. Eventually, we slept and then woke up, a surprise every time. Is this what it feels like when the world ends?
Life continued, but in a crawl. Like fast-forwarding on the TV. It’s still moving, but in such a fractured pace, you can’t follow what’s happening.
When the city put out a call for “Paid Volunteers” (no further details), we were among the first in line. We should have known what they needed, but I think we were still naive.
We became gravediggers.
It’s like anything you do every day, it becomes familiar. Routine. Numb.
Another sealed apartment. Another quarantine sign. We used a crowbar to open the door and then slid patterned masks over our noses and mouth.
I will never be numb to that smell.
The apartment, like most in this small building on the West Side, was small and cluttered. Bookshelves overflowed, the kitchen had plastic shelving towers everywhere and the bedroom looked like a tornado hit a garage sale.
The corpse was an overweight woman on a lounger. She was in front of a large flat screen TV. Everything in the apartment was old except that flat screen.
Tommy and I held our breathe as we got her off the lounger and into a black bag on a stretcher.
In the beginning, they were concerned about the spread of disease. There was no cause of the sudden deaths, no discernible pattern, so they assumed an airborne contagion. We wore hazmat suits and layers of gloves to do our extractions. When no else died, the precautions were lifted.
Now we wore a mask and thin clear gloves as if we were working behind a deli counter.
It was grim work, but it needed to be done. The people who passed away deserved one last decent act. We owed them that. No mass graves. No trailers full of anonymous black bags.
“Let’s do right by these folks,” the Mayor had told us in an airplane hangar in LaGuardia. There were hundreds of us “volunteers.” Afterwards, he stood next to the CDC officials as they handed out the hazmat suits and was introduced to every one of us. He must have stood there for six hours.
The CDC studied the damn thing for months and no cause emerged. All they knew is that it was a global event. Millions of people passed away in their sleep, all over the planet. Half the population of the Earth.
They called it the Dying Disease.
Half the population.
This wasn’t the Sudden Departure. This wasn’t Thanos.
This was old fashioned death on a grand scale. It was like half of the world just decided to give up that night. Except we know they didn’t. We know they wouldn’t.
We took turns driving. Today it was my turn.
As usual, the city streets were quiet. There was graffiti everywhere, most of it about the end of the world. We were on our way upstate, to the makeshift cemeteries set up by the state.
Outside the city the trees, like everything else, were dying. The leaves were turning brown and red and littered the floor like doll parts in a child’s play room. Grey nimbus clouds threatened rain.
Out of respect for the dead body in the van, we didn’t listen to music. We barely talked. Tommy was chain smoking cigarettes, a new habit. I hated the smell, but what could I say? If he needed it to cope with all of this, if it helps even a little, he should do it.
I joined the line of cars at the cemetery gates. A couple of hearses but mostly vans. When it was our turn to pull in, we drove down row after row of temporary markers with names and dates. I drove slow and it took forever before we got to an open space. Professional gravediggers were working a couple rows down, breaking the earth to create new graves.
I pulled the van to the end of the lot. Tommy put out his cigarette in an already full ashtray in the dashboard.
We began our work in a drizzle that became a torrent. The storm didn’t last long, but it was enough to soak our clothes. By the end of it, our clothes were heavy and dirty and there was smears of green and black on our faces.
Our final task was putting the wooden markers down. Names and dates. At the end, is that all that life is: A beginning and an end with a blurry middle section?
As is our habit, we took a full minute in front of the markers, silent, staring at the fresh plots and wondering who these people were. What was their favorite song? What did they like to watch on TV? Who did they love?
It started to get cold. We wore windbreakers and heavy pants. Then gloves and scarves and coats. It reminded me of the hazmat suits from the early days of our work. Layers between us and them, the bodies.
Every morning, the city texted us names and addresses. We went block by block. No days off, no weekends.
Occasionally we’d see another extraction team wheeling a stretcher out of a building or a townhouse. We exchanged no words, but a nod of understanding, of mutual compassion.
It weighed on us. Tommy didn’t talk much these days. He cried himself to sleep. One night, I let myself into his room and into his bed. I held him for a long time.
After a while, I did more than just hold him. He initiated the first kiss and I kissed him back. I never felt anything for a man, but it was different now. Everything was different now. And it was Tommy. He needed me.
We held each other under layers of blankets as it snowed for days. No trucks would plow the snow. Big cities like New York became known around the world as Ghost Cities. Only a few bodgeas were still open. Everyone left to smaller towns to be around living people. The only people left in the city were us, the clean up crew.
The half dead.
One night, I held Tommy while we watched the sunrise. We didn’t sleep much these days.
He wiped a tear from his right eye and said, “You know, I’ve never been in love. Isn’t that pathetic?”
He did that sort of embarrassed laugh he does.
“I don’t think it’s pathetic,” I told him. “Finding love is a lot about timing, you know?”
“Yeah, my timing sucks.”
He snuggled a little closer to me and I expected him to say something sweet, but he didn’t.
After a while, the texts from the city stopped. We’d get one body every few days. Those were long days. It was freezing outside and nothing was open anyway. Our musical instruments gathered dust in a corner. We stayed in. Made soup. Watched Netflix. Had sex. Got on each other’s nerves. Sat in uncomfortable silence. I read. He paced and smoked.
Out of the blue, he said, “I’m going home.”
I was wondering who would be the first to bring it up: moving. Out of the city. Like everyone else.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”
“What do you mean, No?”
“I mean…” He lit another cigarette. “My parents, they wouldn’t approve.”
There was a couple of different layers of sting there. First of all, my parents were gone. Victims of the dying disease. His parents were alive. Second, what fucking decade is this?
“That sounds like bullshit,” I said, not hiding my anger. “Sounds like you’re scared.”
I would have stormed out if it wasn’t zero degrees outside and somehow colder in the hallways of our building. I got up to leave the room.
“You’re right,” he said. His hand pressed on my forearm. He was always warm. “It’s not my parents. It’s you. You and me.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
He stepped away from me and exhaled a thin white cloud. “It’s all this. Everything we’ve been doing. I’m never going to be able to look at you and not think about graves. And dead bodies.” He sat down, tears welling in his eyes. “Doesn’t it bother you?”
I sat beside him on our ugly couch. “Of course it does. But I’m hoping we can move past it. A couple of years, we can forget all this and eventually, be happy.”
He buried his tear-stricken face in his hands. The lit end of his cigarette threatened to catch his hair on fire. “I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think there’s any happiness to be had. Not now, not in a couple of years.” He sniffed back his tears and stood up. “You need to accept the fact that the world ended that morning. We’re just ghosts. And ghosts don’t get to be happy.”
Let me clear up the mystery.
The world doesn’t end in a bang or a whimper. It ends in silence.
It ends with a man sneaking out of an apartment early in the morning. Shuffling around, trying and failing to be quiet, slowly closing the door behind him as if I wouldn’t hear it.
It ends in tears that fall like rain.