Venom & Vanilla (The Venom Trilogy #1)


by Shannon Mayer

CHAPTER 1

“Alena, do you remember the conversation we had about what I should do after you die?” Roger’s voice was distorted behind the mask and full-body protective suit. Every time he took a breath, the air wheezed in and out as though he were Darth Vader having a particularly bad day. I half expected him to pull out a lightsaber and point it at me, demanding that I reveal the rebel base. Then again, maybe that was the painkillers making me delusional. It surely would not be the first time I’d gotten loopy on the drugs.

I blinked up at my husband from the hospital bed. “What do you mean? That was only last week.”

“Well, I know. But . . . the doctors said this Aegrus disease would move fast. I . . . didn’t want to assume anything day-to-day. I want to talk to you while I still can, and while you still understand me. You know?”

I ran my hands across the overstarched sheet, finding the tiny hole I’d been picking at for the last few hours. The loose threads were about the only amusement I had. Our ward wasn’t allowed any technology, not even a TV. I don’t know what they thought we were going to do, looking at a TV. Maybe get excited and press our nurse buttons repeatedly?

“Roger, I’m not going to lose my mind, honey. That isn’t how this works.” I thought for a moment. “It’s more like a cake that falls in the middle of baking. I’m going to just puff out of existence.”

He turned his head away, and the biohazard suit crinkled like parchment paper being shoved into a baking pan.

I wanted to think about anything but dying, anything that would take me away from the brutal reality in front of me for at least a few minutes. I would take Roger away from it too, if I could. We’d both suffered so much already, and we had very little time left to us. I wanted to make it memorable in the best way—to go out on a high note, as it were, and to make him forget that I was contagious. To make him remember that I was his beloved wife no matter how horrendous the disease made me look. “Do you remember when we met?”

Roger turned back to face me, his eyes wide. “You want to talk about that?”

I smiled up at him but kept my lips closed. No need to show him how many teeth had fallen out. “Yes. Because that was the day I fell for you, and I want to hold that to me right now. Even if I can’t hold you, I can remember, and know that what we had was meant to be. No matter how it ends.”

I closed my eyes, the scene as vivid to me as if we were there again, at the edge of Kerry Park. All around me, the summer rose up like a slow-moving dream in full bloom. The smell of green living things and sweet floral fragrances heavy in the air taunted me to shed my shoes and run wild through the forest as I’d done as a child. The rush of wind through the few stray hairs that had slipped my tight, conservative braid, the tickle of grass against my ankles, even through the nylons—all of it imprinted in my brain. All of it was a part of the day my life changed.

I’d gone with my mother to preach the good word, and Roger had been there in the park playing Frisbee with a small group of his friends. They’d laughed at us as we strode toward them. Pamphlets in hand, I’d walked with confidence, knowing what I did was right, that if they would listen, they would be so much happier. Of course, we’d talked to the whole group about sinning right off the bat. The shorts they wore showed off their legs, and some of them even had taken off their shirts, including Roger. He was the first man I’d seen topless, besides the occasional glimpse of my father or brother, and I’d struggled to focus on anything but the sight of his trim body.

Like a knife through hot butter, he’d cut through the words I’d been raised to believe without question.

Pointed out the inconsistencies.

The hypocrisy.

I’d followed him to a coffee shop to set him straight, my mother urging me to save his soul, which I’d completely agreed with her about. In the end, we’d stayed for hours. We’d argued philosophy while he drank coffee and I drank decaffeinated tea, no sugar, no cream.

“I’ll save you yet,” I’d told him, staring into those eyes that so fascinated me. He had such a different view on the world, and I couldn’t help but want to know more.

“Not if I save you first.” He’d kissed me then, my first real kiss, and my fate was sealed. My knight in shining armor, he’d been the one to open my eyes to the truth of the world.

“Do you remember yelling at my mom, telling her she was blind as a bat when it came to understanding the world? That if she was too stupid to see what was right in front of her, it wasn’t worth arguing about?”

He grunted. “Didn’t exactly endear her to me, did it?”

I laughed, the sound odd in the small room. “No, but then, she might have forgiven you someday if you hadn’t blurted out—in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner no less—that you’d taken my virginity before we were married.”

He laughed and his helmet wobbled, tipping precariously to one side. His hand snaked up and grabbed it before the clips came apart. “Wow. That was close. Would suck to . . .”

He stared at me and I stared right back, unable to even blink for fear I’d lose control of myself. I gathered my words, like scooping out a measure of flour, counting it off in my head.

“Get sick? Yes, rather,” I murmured, doing my best to keep the sting out of my words.

As hard as dying was on me, I knew my fate. His was far more uncertain, and I wasn’t sure I could watch him break down again. The first few weeks had been rough: crying jags over the phone late at night when I was still allowed that much contact. You only were allowed to use the phone up until the final stage of the disease. At that point, you were completely cut off from the outside world. The phone calls were brutal. All I could do was listen to Roger weep. I couldn’t even cry with him, because my tear ducts dried up within days of my diagnosis.

That was before I was shipped to the End Stage Ward, here on Whidbey Island. The hospital was one of only four in North America that was designed for dealing with the Aegrus virus. Which really only meant it was set up to help people die at a rapid, pain-filled pace.

Really, people died from the virus so fast it wasn’t a surprise that beds opened up at the rate they did. I’d only had to wait in the lockdown ward in Virginia Mason Hospital for a little less than a week.

So now, either someone saw me in person or they didn’t talk to me at all. There weren’t very many people who would take the chance of stepping into an End Stage Ward and take the risk of catching the deadly virus. Besides, they all knew the outcome. We humans all did.