The apocalypse began on a Tuesday.
In the heat and humidity of September in Mumbai, a small, white organism grew inside the walls of The Sahil Hotel on Behram Road. The walls were made to resist mold and most fungal growth, yet this persisted. It concentrated most heavily inside Room Two-Twenty-One which had gone unused and uncleaned for a week before being given to Joseph Patel, a business man out of New York in the United States. When he’d gotten the room, he complained that it smelled musty.
That morning, three cleaning women went in while he was out at a meeting and aired it out. They did not notice the spores that floated in the sunlight, mistaking them for dust. Laboring for nearly an hour, they managed to mask the smell that had offended Joseph Patel. When he returned that afternoon, the whole room smelled of lavender and pine and he slept soundly all night.
On the third morning of his stay, Joseph woke in the middle of the night with a headache and he felt like his sinuses was packed with cotton. He took an aspirin and went back to bed. He woke again before dawn and felt a cold coming on. Cursing his luck, he listed every person he met with this week and decided to lay the blame on Andil Vuschel, the salesman from Eramal. Andil had been sneezing through his entire presentation and didn’t cover his mouth once.
Joseph packed his bags and made an early start for the airport.
He shared the elevator with a young woman who smiled at him. She was pretty, with dark, olive skin and the kind of thick, black hair that Joseph would have loved to run his fingers through. She wore a flight attendant’s uniform instead of a more traditional dress and he asked her who she worked for.
“Etihad,” she said, her smile growing. “Are you flying with us today?”
Joseph began to answer but sneezed, hard. When he looked at the back of his hand, it was covered in thick mucus. Embarrassed he turned away and found his handkerchief.
“Sorry,” he said and avoided looking at her. The flight attendant didn’t answer. Joseph hoped Andil suffered long and hard.
At the front desk, he handed the clerk there his credit card and put disinfectant on his hands. Two bellhops, both young boys that Joseph figured to be about thirteen or so, carried his luggage out to meet the cab. When Joseph went to tip them, he began to cough uncontrollably. It took nearly a minute for it to end and he felt drained and terrible afterward. The boys were very valiant and waited it out so he could tip them. He looked around for something to clean his hands with but found nothing.
“It is okay,” one of the boys said with a large grin on his face. His English was broken but he spoke it with pride. “Mother sick always. I not mind! I hold onto his too!”
“It is okay for me too!” the other boy said.
Joseph tipped them each one hundred Rupees and got in the cab. The driver was a middle-aged man who complained incessantly about his sister-in-law and how she meddled in every single decision.
“And my wife, she listens to her! Over me!” the driver cried even as he honked and wove his way through traffic.
Joseph began to cough again. His cold was getting worse. Pressure was building behind his eyes now and they hurt to touch. He felt hot and cold at the same time and he hoped he wasn’t getting the flu. He’d been vaccinated in October so he’d felt safe. He hated traveling. No matter where he went, he always got sick. When he got home, he’d have to recover in the guest room. His wife always exiled him there for a week after these trips. She didn’t want ‘any of those foreign flus.’ Just the thought of the fit she’d throw made him annoyed.
Glancing out the window, he caught a last glimpse of the Hotel and thought of the pretty stewardess who flew with Etihad. If his cold hadn’t come on, he could have delayed his return by a day. Maybe she would have had a drink with him in the lounge? Maybe she would have come back to his room later that night? The fantasy was short-lived as another coughing fit began. He had never cheated on his wife before and he doubt he’d start now, despite their sexless and often hostile relationship. It wasn’t her fault their parents had made such a poor match for them.
By the time they arrived at the airport, Joseph’s head was pounding. He tipped driver and hurried in as fast as he could, wanting out of the heat and humidity. Inside, the red and orange lighting that once calmed him did the opposite. The colors hurt his eyes and made his headache worse. His stomach felt off and he went to the bathroom, thinking he might vomit. Sitting on the toilet, he wiped sweat from his forehead and waited for the nausea to pass. After only a few minutes, it did and he began to feel almost normal. Washing his face, he left the bathroom, breezed through the open-air terminal and made his way to security to check his bags. He could smell the ocean air wafting in as the sun rose, throwing everything in a golden hue.
Maybe it was just the humidity, he thought as he checked his ticket and was cleared through the terminal. Forty minutes later he was boarding a plane bound for the United States. The take off was smooth and for the first few hours, he slept soundly. He dreamed of a luxurious hotel room where a pretty Etihad stewardess waited for him in his bed, but when he came near, he saw that she was his wife.
Waking with terrible vertigo, Joseph’s head was pounding and he felt like he was having an asthma attack. He leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath, as deep as he could, and held it. His lungs didn’t seem to be working right. They felt smaller than before and he began to cough. It was worse than before and it went on and on. His seatmate was a woman in her sixties and called for a stewardess.
“Are you all right?” the stewardess asked him, which Joseph thought was a terribly stupid question. He could only cough an answer. Like in the elevator, thick mucous came up and he spat it into the airsickness bags. In the dim light of the cabin, he saw it was white. It looked like melted vanilla ice cream but it smelled like sickness.
“Miss couldn’t you give me a new seat or something? I’d prefer not to be next to someone who is sick,” his seatmate said.
Joseph was angry but a fresh wave of coughing overcame him. More of the thick, white stuff came up. People were looking at him now as he spat strands of it into the bag. He felt dizzy and nauseated. At some point the older woman left her seat and a stewardess gave him something to take. He swallowed it with water.
In time, his coughing eased and he slept again. When he woke hours later, he felt almost well again. He ate something, drank cognac, and did some work on his laptop. Just before they began to land, the cough returned but it was dry. It felt like something was constantly stuck in the back of his throat and his tongue felt fuzzy.
Reaching up, he turned up the air conditioning, the cool hair blowing on his face. Still, his coughing grew worse until breathing became difficult and the stewardess went into Coach to ask if there were any doctors on board. There were none.
They landed in JFK just after noon. The stewardess asked that he exit the plane first so that ‘he might get help more quickly.’ Joseph didn’t have the strength to argue with anyone and he walked, hunched like an elderly man, to the exit, down the gangway to the terminal. His cough never abated.
He arrived home just after three in the afternoon. His wife was out so he called to make an appointment with his doctor, then lay down in his bed. Joseph didn’t give a damn if his wife hated it. She could sleep on the couch.
Tabitha Patel returned home after six, energized from her tennis lesson and pleased that New York was still warm even in September. She was so deep into conversation with her friend Teddy that she didn’t even see her husband’s luggage piled on the front step until she tripped over it. Stumbling through the open door, she cursed.
“I’ll call you back, he’s home,” she said and pounded her finger on the screen to end the call.
The first thing she noticed was the thick white substance drying on the hardwood floor. When she drew near, the smell made her recoil. It filled the air and smelled like vomit. There was more of it by the stairs and she began to feel uneasy. For a moment, she debated calling her sister and asking her what to do, but if Joe was home that would just cause an argument.
“Joe!” she called, walking past the stairs and looking into the living room. She didn’t see him there, or in the kitchen and went upstairs. When she opened the door to their bedroom, she shrieked.
Her husband lay on the bed, still wearing his clothing. His eyes were open, staring up at the ceiling. They were bloodshot and seeping. His mouth was open, more of the substance filling it. It covered his chest and most of the bed, but unlike downstairs it was stringy and dry like a spider’s nest. He’d defecated on the mattress as well and the whole place was thick with the smell, bitter and sickly sweet, like mold. It was almost worse when he slowly turned his head towards her, drawing a terrible, rasping breath.
She called 911.
And in the rays of sunlight, spores danced like motes of dust.