Not in our home, Joe and Katherine agreed, but there’d been some debate about accommodations. Joe wanted luxury while Katherine argued any old rattrap would do. Eventually they compromised – they’d long ago perfected the art – on a deluxe room in mid-priced chain halfway between the city and the airport.
They checked into their room at two and hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the knob before locking the door behind them. Katherine opened the window and tossed out their plastic key card.
“Gimme your phone.”
Joe nodded. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
Out went both phones, cracked dead rectangles now on the sidewalk below.
“What about the room phone?”
“We might want room service.”
They chuckled at the idea, faces hot with tenderness for one another.
Joe disconnected the phone line then settled onto the bed nearer the window. Katherine glanced at its twin, but her eyes stung at the thought of lying too far from her husband. When she turned back to him, he smiled and patted the spot beside him. Katherine climbed in, snuggling into the soft corduroy of his favorite jacket.
“How do you feel?” he whispered.
Joe flipped channels on the TV until he found a sitcom rerun. They’d missed the first ten minutes, but Katherine had seen it before. When the episode was over, another started up. Halfway through, Katherine’s hands began to tremble. A heat was building deep in her belly, and then it rose like mercury in a thermometer up the back of her throat.
She leapt from the bed and raced into the bathroom. She retched four times into the toilet bowl, until she was emptied out, then fell back against the cool tile.
Joe looked on from the doorway, his body filling the frame almost completely. So sturdy, Joe. Those broad shoulders. She remembered nibbling the skin on his left shoulder after they’d made love for the first time, raking her little fingers through the cloud of hair on his chest. She’d laughed that night at the contrast of their bodies, delighted that two specimens of the same species could look so different from one another.
“It starts quicker in women. Ends quicker for men, though.”
“Don’t,” said Katherine.
“It’s okay. It’s true. And you won’t be far behind.”
Joe stepped into the room and flushed away her mess. His big hands took hold of her beneath the shoulders, guiding her to her feet.
It went on like that until around midnight. At the end, Katherine felt so much lighter, nothing left to heave up but acrid air.
“I think I have a fever,” she said with mild surprise.
It came for Joe soon after. He didn’t bother with the toilet, spilled his guts into the room’s little trash can instead.
“Sleep,” he urged Katherine when the first wave had passed.
“I should look after you,” she protested, but her body gave her no choice.
She woke to sunlight and stiff joints, a nest of her own black hair on the pillow case. When she ran a hand along her scalp, more strands slip free. Beside her, Joe slept, one arm encircling the trash can half-filled with his vomit. Vicious little lesions – bright red, seeping – speckled his chest and jawline. Katherine’s fingers skimmed along her own skin and found the same raw marks on the back of her arms. She gave one a curious prod and hissed. At the sound, Joe stirred but didn’t wake. Katherine gathered her hair from the pillow, braided it into a wreath and laid it over her husband’s chest, a talisman to ward off further harm.
That evening, they discovered they could pluck their fingernails loose, easy as flower petals. They arranged them into a garden on the bathroom counter, and within a few hours they’d encircled the garden with a fence built from their broken teeth. Blood dribbled from their mouths as they reminisced about the tulips they’d seen on a trip to Holland years before. Their words were gummy and would’ve been unintelligible to anyone else. They talked until their hearing went then made their eyes say the words instead. Ready, said Joe’s eyes, and Katherine’s answered, Wait. They repeated the words until shapes began to blur and the light in the room grew dim then, blind, dragged themselves back to bed.
There was no way for Katherine to know what time it was when the pain in her ankles woke her. The tendons there had snapped like two guitar strings. A scream clawed its way out of her, shaking the bed with its force. Behind her, Joe quickened, but whether it was her pain or some pain all his own that startled him, Katherine couldn’t know. He buried his face into her neck and kissed her over and over, spilling hot tears into what was left of her hair.
After that, Katherine didn’t sleep again. She pinched Joe’s arm once every few minutes, waited for him to pinch back. She did this until he stopped pinching.
It took Katherine half an hour to strip away their clothes, another hour still to roll Joe into the bathroom and lay him in the tub. He’d been breathing shallowly when she’d begun. By the time she flung herself over the rim, her fall broken by his soft body, he’d stopped breathing altogether.
Her foot inched up the wall, and she toed the faucet handle until the showerhead emitted its lukewarm spray. Water streamed over her face, her belly. It trickled between her legs. Eventually it sought the spaces where her skin met Joe’s, filled those spaces then dissolved them, melding their bodies together until there was no Katherine, no Joe, only one silent mass of bone and flesh and, minutes later, only white bone. In time, the bones dissolved, too, and the whole mess was carried down the drain in a neat little stream, and the water ran clear again.
Sutton Strother is a writer and educator based in New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming at Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She Tweets at @suttonstrother.