Not With A Bang By Finnegan Cole

Barry threw his duffle bag over his shoulder and began running down the terminal at Los Angeles International. What should have been an hour and a half layover had now become a race for Gate 57, Flight 721, headed for Atlanta. The dawdling airplane mechanics in Honolulu be damned.

What had he been thinking, anyway? Vacationing in Hawaii for a week by himself? An introvert like him? By day four, he’d concluded that people were basically the same everywhere; the girls in grass skirts gave it up to the fire-breathers and the surf instructors, just like high school cheerleaders went for boys in letter jackets. Scrawny pale-faces with cowlicks and degrees in advanced genetics may have the superior intellect, he thought, but a larger-than-average frontal lobe won’t get you laid.

Barry began to wheeze. He stopped to find his inhaler, take a puff. Other travelers he’d just passed sidestepped him and made remarks for him to watch where he was standing. A greasy-haired man in a track suit called him a retard.

The voice from the loudspeaker said, “Last call for Mr. Barry Bench. Flight 721 for Atlanta. Your flight has boarded. Again, last call for a Mr. Barry Bench. Please report to Gate 57 to claim your seat.”

Under the Gate 57 sign, Barry watched as a woman with a ponytail and a navy skirt was closing the boarding ramp door. He managed to yelp, “I’m here! Please, wait!” and the woman stopped to see him galloping towards her, his duffle bag thumping into his thigh, his tilted glasses somehow remaining on his nose.

She paused and said, “Mr. Bench?”

“Doctor, actually,” fishing his boarding pass from a pocket and sucking for air. “Doctor Bench.”

“Doctor. Right. Have a nice flight.”

Walking down the ramp, Barry checked his seat assignment. Seat 19D. An aisle seat even though he’d specifically requested a window. He had been very clear on that.

He stepped aboard the plane. The pilot was leaning against the bulkhead door, a stewardess giggling beside him. They glanced at Barry. “Welcome aboard,” flashing phony smiles. And they were talking again.

Barry hurried down the aisle, his duffle bumping seated passengers as he staggered towards row 19. But when he arrived, he discovered that seat 19D was already occupied. There were two seats on that side of the plane – the aisle and the window – the window seat still open. Barry said, “Excuse me miss, but I think you are in my seat.” And there she was. The most beautiful woman he’d seen all trip – incredible, this one – sitting in his seat and looking up at him now with bright eyes and long lashes, the consummate buxom blonde dressed for the beach in a short skirt and a tight top. She didn’t speak. Barry said, “Oh, but you can have the aisle… if that’s what you want.”

The woman cocked her head slightly and smiled. She said, “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer it here.” Not the tone Barry was used to from a woman like that, tan and fit.

Barry stowed his bag in the overhead compartment. Again, he said, “Excuse me,” shuffling past the woman’s knees to the window seat, thinking how things had just taken a pleasant and welcome turn. Then he felt something brush against the inside of his upper thigh. There wasn’t enough room to turn around and look down. Her knee, he thought. She must have shifted her weight and brushed him on accident.

He sat down and glanced at her, finding her smiling directly at him, biting a nail now, her focused eyes shifting across his features. Barry felt heat behind his face. He knew that when he blushed it shone brightly on his pale skin, and so he looked down for a distraction.

His seatbelt, he thought, and he began to fumble for it. The window-side strap, the male end of the buckle, lay beside his right leg. Barry picked it up, holding it poised for insertion. But he didn’t see the female end. Under his left armrest he found the bolt where the strap connected to the seat’s metal framework and he followed the strap until it disappeared underneath the woman beside him. Barry’s eyes took their time on the way up her slender torso, her full chest, until their eyes met.

The woman still smiling at him. The same look.

Barry said, “I think you’re sitting on my… my buckle.”

The stewardess began demonstrating how to connect the male and female ends of the seatbelt now, her dispassionate pantomime a few rows in front of Barry and the woman. Then something about a water landing that faded away.

The woman in seat 19D wasn’t listening either. She had her bedroom eyes on Barry, then looked down to where the strap disappeared beneath her hips. Her eyes returned to Barry’s and she crossed her right leg over her left, leaning into the aisle now to raise herself off of Barry’s belt buckle. She continued like this, raising upwards, further than was necessary to expose her upper thighs and backside to him, her skirt short and contoured against her. She said, “It’s all yours.”

Barry fought an impending sense of paralysis in his arms. He felt shock and exhilaration too, never mind the growing discomfort inside his Bermuda shorts. He forced his hand to the buckle beneath the woman and took it in his palm. It was warm, maybe even hot. Strangely so. He inserted the cold male end into it and said, “Thank you,” saying it louder and more exuberantly than he’d intended.

The woman nodded. “Any time.” And she relaxed back into her seat, sliding a hand onto Barry’s thigh.

When the aircraft reached cruising altitude, the woman next to Barry pressed the overhead button for crew-member assistance and requested a blanket. The stewardess brought a navy blue one. The woman draped it over herself and half over Barry, her hand immediately finding its way over her armrest and back onto Barry’s thigh. Barry froze but didn’t stop her, and she went on, initiating this thing with Barry.

Barry still didn’t even know the woman’s name, but felt this experience would more than make up for his lonely week in Hawaii. And after a moment he calmed down and was fully cooperative. The woman whispered something into his ear, close to him, her breath warm on his skin. And then she was gone down the aisle toward the lavatory and Barry followed after her, soon to be the newest and proudest member of the mile-high club.

Fourteen and a half minutes later, Barry returned to his seat, situating himself there and reclining from the full and upright position. In the lavatory, the woman had said she would need a minute to collect herself, fix her clothes, and that she’d be back shortly. But before she returned, Barry drifted off to sleep, the jet engine humming in his ear, a satisfied grin across his scrawny, pale face.

Barry awoke to the sound of violent coughing. As he came to, he realized that there were faces all around him, aimed in his direction from three sides. The stewardess was crouched beside the woman in seat 19D, who was doubled over and coughing without pause into a sick bag.

Barry sat up straight and fixed his glasses. His hair stuck up where he’d slept on it.

Airsickness, he figured. They must have encountered some turbulence while he was out. He said, “Are you alright?” putting his hand gently on the woman’s back.

The woman turned her face toward Barry and looked at him with panic in her eyes, still coughing.

Barry recoiled. The woman’s face was scarcely recognizable. Blood dripped from her eyes and nose and ran down her face, and Barry could see more blood surge up like hot springs from the corners of her eyelids when she coughed. The woman’s coughing became louder and more powerful still, sounding painfully rough like a seal bark but also wet with the bubbling of air through her blood-obstructed windpipe. As her mouth filled, she spit what she coughed up into the sick bag and swallowed irregularly and gasped for breath. One cough sprayed blood onto the tray table in front of her. Whiplash and the splatter appearing in an instant, as if she’d taken a slug to the back of the head.

The pilot came over the loudspeaker. “This is your pilot speaking. It has come to the attention of the flight crew that there is a woman onboard who is in need of emergency medical care. If anyone onboard is a doctor, EMT, or is otherwise capable of administering emergency medical care, could you please notify one of our flight crew members? Your help would be greatly appreciated.”

No one volunteered.

The woman’s coughing and bleeding went on for another few minutes before the stewardess told the woman in seat 19D about the option of making an unscheduled landing in Denver. “Do you need urgent care, ma’am?”

The woman in seat 19D shook her head no, her coughs continuing on uninterrupted.

Barry heard one man say, “Christ, she’s going to bleed out, they don’t get her to a hospital soon.” Others began to shout, “Land the plane!”

Barry’s concerns grew increasingly inward. He considered the recycled air inside the cabin, everyone breathing and rebreathing the air into which the woman was coughing speckles of bloody sputum. If they were dealing with some kind of airborne virus… Plus, he had just been intimate with this stranger in the lavatory. Caught up in the moment, Barry had neglected to use a condom. She didn’t have any, she’d said. And neither did he. And it was going to happen either way, this thing. She had been awfully forward with him too, Barry thought, and giving. Barry Bench, the introvert. The man who couldn’t get laid during a week’s vacation in Hawaii.

Then, almost as abruptly as the woman’s coughing seemed to have begun, it settled to a stop. She spit once more – red – into the sick bag and twisted it closed, setting it on the floor between her feet. From inside her purse she extracted a white handkerchief with brownish spots. Barry and a handful of passengers watched the woman as she almost routinely dabbed at the insides of her eyes, then wiped clean her nose and mouth and cleared her throat.

The stewardess said, “Ma’am? Are you okay?”

“I have a condition,” she said. “I’ll be fine.” Then she stood and was gone down the aisle toward the lavatory. Never looking at Barry.

The plane landed and taxied toward the gate, Barry saying to the woman, “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

She gave no response.

He said, “Do you live here in Atlanta? I have a car at airport parking. I could give you a ride. Uh, to the hospital?”

The woman said, “I don’t need a ride. I’m fine. You’ll see.”

The plane deboarded, the woman walking single-file ahead of Barry, Barry thinking how beautiful she had been. How shapely and how unexpected, and was she very sick? A pair of medics waited at the aircraft’s exit door and the stewardess directed them to the woman, who declined treatment with a wave and kept walking. The medics followed her up the exit ramp, urging her to reconsider until she breached the airport terminal and slipped into the crowd. Barry followed several steps behind.

The woman veered towards an airport bar called Taste of the South, found an empty barstool and ordered a drink. A cocktail, rocks.

Barry paused, standing still amidst the to-and-fro bustle of foot traffic in the terminal, eyes fixed on the woman. One more try, why not? He worked up the courage to get moving again, set on offering to buy her that drink. He was approaching her from behind when he saw something that made him lurch to a stop. The woman slid her hand onto the thigh of the man beside her. High up on his leg, close to him. This balding man in a business suit. The businessman jolted at first, but then put his eyes on her, seeing the woman who could be a runway model there, cleaned up again with fresh makeup and a nice smile on. He swiveled his barstool toward her and said something, and she leaned in towards his ear and Barry saw her lips move. The man raised his eyebrows and checked his watch.

Barry turned away and allowed himself to be swept back into the flow of traffic, his high hopes returned to earth. His head feeling a little swimmy. He’d better get checked out, he thought.

Barry found his car outside in the long-term lot. It was dark out already but he didn’t feel like going home. He felt strangely invigorated, energized. Warmth began to surge through his body as he drove, and he became gradually overwhelmed with a feeling of intense lust for no one in particular.

Barry spotted a hotel he recognized, an upscale building with a dynamic exterior that complemented the skyline. Inside, there would be women at the bar.

He was wrong on his first guess, the woman slapping him, saying, “I am not a prostitute, you creep!” Barry backing off and saying he was sorry, that he’d never done this before. The woman stormed off, making a scene and leaving Barry standing there by the hotel bar holding his cocktail. But when he sat down to finish his drink a different woman approached him, this one friendlier and good-looking, way out of his league in a chesty black evening dress, asking him what he did for a living. Making it clear for him. He put his hand on her thigh and she didn’t pull away.

She said, “What do you say we move the party upstairs.”

Barry said, “I’ve never done this before,” the woman smiling and nodding already.

She said, “Don’t worry about a thing.”

Two hours later they were sitting up in bed, Barry sharing the woman’s cigarette. The naked woman who’d been wearing the evening dress setting her hand on Barry’s scrawny, pale chest. She said, “Honey, in all my days… That was something else.”

Barry looked down at her saying, “Do you want to stay for another hour?” His mind on one thing only.

The woman told him he was not at all what she’d expected and she’d give him a deal for the entire night. And they were back under the covers.

She ordered room service in the morning, telling Barry breakfast was on the house. Barry was in the bathroom when the food arrived, the woman asking through the door if he took cream and sugar. Barry finished brushing his teeth, cleared his throat and spit into the bathroom sink.

Red.

He said, “Cream and sugar.” Then he hocked up another one and spit again, red again and the metallic taste of blood.

Barry’s expression remained calm. He leaned closer to the mirror and pulled down one eyelid. The veins beneath his iris were dark and inflamed.

The woman said, “It’s gonna get cold.”

Barry wiped his mouth and came out of the bathroom, the woman telling him he looked tired.

She had the television set to the morning news. She said, “This is so terrible. I swear to God not a week goes by you don’t hear about some new disease that’s supposed to be the next Bubonic plague.”

Barry said, “Turn it up,” and took the remote out of the woman’s hand and turned up the volume. He sat on the edge of the bed next to the prostitute and listened to the special announcement, the pretty, young newscaster warning of the next viral outbreak. This disease they were calling “The Love Bug.”

The newscaster said, “Here to tell us a little more about The Love Bug is our Senior Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sparsh Patel from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Dr. Patel, thanks for being with us.”

“Glad to be here, Amy.”

“At this point, Dr. Patel, from what you’ve seen, is it too soon to call this an outbreak?”

“Well we have about two dozen confirmed cases inside the continental United States. Plus there are 31 confirmed cases abroad, that we know about. We still aren’t sure where the virus originated, but based on the speed with which it has spread around the globe and its roughly seventy two-hour kill rate, we believe that The Love Bug has already made it through innumerable major international airports. So the answer to your question is yes, it appears that we have an outbreak on our hands.”

The ticker across the bottom of the television screen immediately read, “Dr. Patel of the CDC on The Love Bug virus: ‘We have an outbreak on our hands.’”

The newscaster said, “And in your opinion, what is most important about this virus that the public needs to know at this time?”

Dr. Patel explained how the virus could be spread. “Once the virus is introduced into the bloodstream, it reacts with the adrenal glands, testes in men, and ovaries in women to raise libido to extremely high levels. Nothing like what you would expect to find in a healthy individual.”

“For the viewers at home, when you say ‘libido,’ you’re essentially referring to sex drive. Is that correct?”

“That is correct. The Love Bug causes an unnatural spike in sex drive. In addition, we have determined that the virus systematically attacks the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This has several effects. For one, the host will run a severe fever as the immune system attempts to respond. But more importantly, the host will experience a disruption of his or her normal inhibitions. You see, inhibitions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex. And with one’s inhibitions compromised and one’s libido in virtual overdrive, what we are seeing is that the infected eventually become overwhelmed by the desire to fornicate.”

The newscaster said, “But this is not as sexy as it sounds, is it Doctor?” A coy grin on her face.

“No, it is not, Amy,” smiling back at first. “The Love Bug is not communicable by air – or at least, not that we have found. But it is communicable via the exchange of bodily fluids, much like, say, AIDS. So sharing hypodermic needles, if you were to come into direct contact with the blood of someone who was infected, or if you were to have unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who was infected, all these are ways to contract the virus.”

“So the virus is like an intelligent STD?”

“Kind of. Not really in the sense that it has any intelligence of its own, of course, but perhaps you could look at it that way, in that the virus has found an ingenious way to survive, passing itself along from host to host before it kills.”

“Like AIDS on steroids.”

“You could say that, I suppose. Except-”

The newscaster interrupted him. “And that brings me to my last point. This disease is ultimately fatal.”

“That’s right. My team is working on a solution. There are some theories. But currently there is no cure.”

“Could you walk us through how The Love Bug kills its host, exactly?”

“It ultimately causes massive internal bleeding, hemorrhaging inside the brain and other internal organs. We are seeing causes of death ranging from suffocation – victims choking on their own blood – to aneurism, where the prefrontal cortex has been attacked so severely that a blood vessel opens inside the brain, causing death.”

The newscaster said, “Wow, some scary stuff. Well thank you very much for being here, Dr. Patel.”

“Thank you for having me, Amy,” smiling.

“We’ll have more on this story as it develops. In the meantime, we’d like to remind everyone to take ample precaution when making the decision to engage in sexual intercourse. Senior News Analyst Louis Mortensen has this report on safe sex and what you need to know to protect yourself.”

Barry turned off the television and the prostitute beside him giggled. She swallowed her bite of toast and shrugged, saying, “Too late for that report, huh?”

Barry looking down and nodding.

The woman said, “You asked for the girlfriend experience. Better hope I didn’t give you The Love Bug.” She waited but Barry didn’t laugh. She chewed another bite of toast, then said, “So this Love Bug thingy kills in seventy two hours. What’s that, like three days? So basically, if the whole human race could just keep their pants on for three days, this killer plague would blow right over.” She paused before saying, “So I guess we’re all screwed.”

Barry looked at her.

She said, “This is how the world ends, then. Not with a bang, but with a moan.” Giggling, “Though I guess there’s a bang involved too.” She chewed and swallowed. “Isn’t that something, though? I mean, if you really think about it? The impulse to, you know, get it on, to reproduce, that thing that helps our species survive, causing all that death. Seems kind of backwards. Don’tcha think?”

Then Barry put his eyes back on her body.

She said, “Easy, fella. We still have some business to settle up before you go making that face again.”

Barry said, “I saw an ATM in the hotel lobby.”

She said, “Okay, but here’s the deal. You leave this room without paying first, I hold your car keys in case you get a case of the runs.” She paused. “You know what I mean.”

Barry said, “Fine,” and threw her his keys. “I’ll be back in two minutes.”

The woman looked at him, then sat up straight, stiff now. She said, “Honey, your nose. It’s bleeding.” She stood up and took a step back and looked at the television screen. She said, “Where did you say you were from again?”

“Here,” said Barry. “I’m from here.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and looked at it. “I have a condition. I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

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