Taeyong thought he was prepared.
In some ways, he was more prepared than the average person for a global pandemic. Four years had passed since COVID-19 had delayed his last semester in college. Now, Taeyong brought his pandemic stash, as he called it, to every subsequent place he had lived in since then. In the spotless, bright apartment he shared with his roommate Sicheng, Taeyong kept the small pantry stocked with his collection of emergency toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer. Just knowing it was there made him feel a little safer.
But, as they say now, every pandemic is unhappy in its own way.
This time, the Incheon airport shut down only a few hours after news of the pandemic broke on broadcast television.
Taeyong’s eyes were glued to his laptop that night when Sicheng came home from work long past dark, as usual.
“Epidemiologists have traced the virus back to a concentrated animal feeding operation in Kentucky. The United States is contesting these claims, but authorities confirm it originated in U.S. cattle…”
“Taeyong, if there’s about to be another pandemic, you should eat a little healthier,” remarked Sicheng quietly.
“Hmm, you already heard about it?” Taeyong slurped happily at his instant noodles. “What are they saying at the hospital?” He craned his neck around to the kitchen, where his roommate was starting to steam some vegetables. Taeyong couldn’t help but notice the dark circles beneath Sicheng’s warm brown eyes.
The tall man sighed. “Just that it’s going to be bad.”
Sicheng came home from work later and later. A week after the first cases were confirmed in South Korea, Taeyong began to grow nervous.
That night as he microwaved his instant noodles, he confronted Sicheng.
“Hospital workers are at a higher risk, right? Are you going to like, bring home germs?”
Sicheng gave him a weary look. “It’s not like that. The testing is really advanced now. We get scanned when we arrive at and leave work.”
“How contagious is it, exactly?”
Taeyong squirmed. It was just like COVID-19. He still remembered how entire schools, conferences, cruise ships fell ill.
“Aren’t you worried? About getting sick yourself?”
Sicheng smiled calmly at him. “When I became a nurse, I promised to take care of the sick. It’s my job, and the patients need me now. More than ever.”
Taeyong felt a bit guilty for pressing him earlier. His roommate was out there saving people, and he had only boredom to fight.
Taeyong bet that Sicheng was sleeping soundly over in his room. It was the nurse’s one day off this week, and he had looked exhausted last night, practically swaying on his feet as he prepared himself a quick meal.
Taeyong felt listless. Yesterday, he had barely moved. Dance videos from his crew were slowing down in their group chat.
An idea struck him. He would cook something nice for Sicheng. The man was an everyday hero, after all. On the front lines and all that.
Taeyong opened his laptop to search for a recipe.
Two hours later, Sicheng emerged from his room, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Is something burning?” he asked groggily.
Taeyong squeaked and rushed back to the frying pan. The kimchi pancake he had made was completely blackened on one side. He scraped it out of the pan and flopped it onto a plate. It looked like charred rubber.
“Are you… cooking?”
Taeyong hung his head. “I thought I would try to support you. By cooking something. At least I have more batter, I’ll try again.”
Sicheng moved into the kitchen. “For me?” His eyes widened, looking positively Bambi-like. Taeyong had only moved in a few months ago, but he was already used to Sicheng’s deer-in-the-headlights expressions.
“Yes, now go away so I can finish.”
Sicheng gave a slight smile and inspected the bowl of batter. “Did you add…” – he searched for the word in Korean – “… baking powder?”
“Huh? Uh, no…”
“And did you put oil in the pan?”
Taeyong pressed his mouth into a line and tried to ignore his roommate. But Sicheng closed his hand over Taeyong’s, and he froze. “I appreciate you,” hummed Sicheng. “But just give me that.” Taeyong looked down at the spatula in his hand.
That was how Taeyong learned to make kimchi pancakes.
The night was growing late, but the two roommates were sprawled across the couch, idly watching the steadily worsening news. Many nights, as long as Sicheng could stay awake, they rambled to each other about everything and nothing.
“I don’t know. If I could help there, yes.”
“Maybe there are still ferries.”
Sicheng made a skeptical noise. “I don’t think there have ever been ferries to Wenzhou from Incheon.”
“But hypothetically, if you could magically go home....”
“No, I would stay here. My patients need me.”
Taeyong looked over at his unflappable, angelic roommate, a familiar wave of envy and awe washing over him.
“OK, your turn,” said Sicheng, rolling his head back on the couch. “If it were the end of the world, what would you do?”
The question struck Taeyong as inappropriately morbid, given the current situation. But he tried to humor his roommate. “Hmm… dance a lot. And probably try to get laid, I guess.” He laughed nervously. Sicheng just smiled, considering Taeyong’s words.
Taeyong put his phone down and massaged his temples. His heart contracted painfully with anxiety. He looked out the window at the green buds starting to push out of the tree branches, and wished more than anything to go outside and touch them. To brush his fingers against them, coax them out into the world. Live. Please live.
Then he noticed Sicheng slumped on the couch, head buried in his arms.
“Hey. What is it?”
Sicheng didn’t move.
Finally, he raised his head. His doe-like eyes were wet. “I can’t reach my parents.”
Taeyong sat down next to him. Taeyong felt guilty knowing that his own family was OK. They just didn’t have much time to talk because his dad was a doctor and his mom was taking care of several nieces and nephews since their own parents had fallen ill. “That could be for any reason. Maybe they didn’t charge their phones.”
Sicheng shook his head miserably. “None of my other family members have been able to reach them either. My dad was coughing when I last talked to him…” He scrunched his face up, unable to continue.
Taeyong reached out to offer a hug, and was surprised as the lanky man practically jumped into his arms, burying his face in Taeyong’s chest. Sicheng had always been quite touchy, Taeyong recalled, and tried to humor his roommate’s need for affection, gently rubbing his back in small circles.
“I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation. Just be patient.”
Sicheng sighed, and Taeyong felt his warm breath. “You’ve heard about the two strains?” Taeyong nodded uncertainly. “One is similar to COVID-19 in lethality and recovery rates. The other is like… a brain infection. Transmitted by prions. Everything just shuts down.” He shuddered. “It happens so quickly. Just today… two of my patients…” he trailed off.
Taeyong knew. He tried to avoid the news now, but it was impossible not to hear about the two strains. And how there was no way to tell which one a patient had until it was too late. You just had to wait and see if you died.
Taeyong pulled Sicheng closer, but he wasn’t sure if it was for his roommate’s comfort or his own.
The group chat with his dance crew, meanwhile, was a rapid downward spiral. He let the phone slip out of his hand, and it clattered onto the floor.
Taeyong had the strangest feeling that maybe this was all a bad dream, and if he could just fall asleep deeply enough, when he next woke, he would be in his old dorm room back at the university. He would step out into the daylight, take a deep breath, look up at the blue sky – hello, sun! – and set about his normal day.
But he always awoke here, in the bright, white apartment, high above the city, alone, isolated, suffocated.
He opened his eyes and saw Sicheng hovering over him. His roommate’s full lips were pursed in concern.
“What is it?”
Sicheng frowned. “You haven’t come out of your room in two days. I was worried about you.”
“No… you’re the one who was gone for two days.” Taeyong’s senses were dulled, confused. How long had it been since he’d seen Sicheng’s text? He looked down. He was tangled up in his sheets, still wearing the same jeans as a few days ago.
“I’ve been back several times since then, Taeyong.” Taeyong felt a fresh wave of despair as he realized he didn’t even know what day it was anymore. The only thing anchoring him to reality was Sicheng.
The man hovering over him reached out and felt his forehead. “No fever, but…” His pretty eyes looked worried, and Taeyong didn’t like that. He was forgetting everything else, but he knew he didn’t like when Sicheng was sad.
He pushed himself up and into Sicheng’s arms. His roommate made a surprised sound, but held him all the same. “Don’t leave again.” Taeyong’s voice was muffled behind Sicheng’s sleeve.
“Taeyong.” Sicheng disentangled himself and held Taeyong by the shoulders. Taeyong averted his eyes from that limpid gaze. Taeyong used to be the cool guy, composed, aloof, in control. Now he was a useless sack of flesh rotting away in this apartment. “Taeyong, I think you’re… depressed.”
Taeyong scoffed, but Sicheng pressed on. “Seriously. You’re not taking care of yourself. Mental health is just as important.”
“Thanks, nurse. I’m fine. I just…” Taeyong didn’t know how to explain his outburst.
“It’s OK.” Sicheng sat down on the bed next to him, then pulled his legs up onto the bed. “Can I…?”
Taeyong just nodded numbly. Sicheng curled up like he belonged there, and patted the space next to him. Taeyong laid down too, and for a moment they huddled there, knee to knee, just looking at each other.
“I think you should come with me,” said Sicheng.
“To the hospital.”
“I know it’s dangerous. I can’t tell you it’s not. We have really advanced personal protective equipment from last time, but it’s still very contagious. But they’ve asked for volunteers. Any able-bodied people who can help move supplies and construct the new ward.”
Sicheng’s words hung in the air. He wasn’t pushy. He was giving Taeyong an option.
Taeyong didn’t want to be stuck inside any longer. Wherever Sicheng went, he would follow. So he nodded.
“Really?” Sicheng gave him the Bambi eyes. Taeyong nodded again. His mind went blank with resolve. It was the only thing to do. It was the right thing to do.
Sicheng smiled, showing his adorably crooked teeth. Then he yawned. “Today was such a long day, Tae.”
Sicheng didn’t need further coaxing. He closed his eyes, right there, unperturbed by the world outside, safe in Taeyong’s bed. Taeyong watched him for a while, marveling at how comfortable he seemed when Taeyong’s own heart was racing. But soon, his roommate’s soft puffs of breath lulled him to sleep.
Taeyong went to the hospital every other day, while Sicheng now worked every day. On the days they both worked, Taeyong waited for Sicheng outside the medical ward until his shift ended. Then they would strip off the protective gear, disinfect, get tested, go home, disinfect again, and collapse in exhaustion. Taeyong was slowly getting better at cooking, practicing on his days off as he slowly re-built a healthy routine.
And Sicheng still slept in his bed. They didn’t talk about it. Sicheng just shyly asked Taeyong if it was OK each night, then crawled in and immediately fell asleep. Taeyong knew Sicheng had come from a humble background, had probably shared a bed his whole life, so he told himself this must be how his roommate sought comfort.
“We have to make hard choices…”
“Not one life less…”
“No matter what it takes…”
Taeyong watched the debate for the special election descend into chaos. The current president had fallen ill, and rumor had it that she had passed away already.
Sicheng stepped in front of the television. “Taeyong. You’ve been watching this for hours. Maybe take a break?” He cocked his head irresistibly, finally getting Taeyong’s attention.
Sicheng must have seen his vacant expression, because he gently took the remote from Taeyong, turned off the TV, and knelt down in front of him. “I’m so sorry, Tae.”
Taeyong had learned yesterday that one of the dance crew members had passed away. He was still in shock, had skipped his shift at the hospital. Taeyong turned his head away from Sicheng, but Sicheng grabbed his hand and pressed it forcefully.
“We all know people who have died, OK? And there will be more,” he said fervently. “Many more will die, even more, unless we can get the new equipment assembled. Please, Taeyong,” he said, still trying to catch Taeyong’s gaze.
“Maybe we should all just stop trying,” Taeyong said, and his own voice sounded far away. “Just go inside and die, like that one candidate said.”
“No, Tae. We have to keep trying. That’s what it means to live.” Sicheng squeezed Taeyong’s hand again. “There’s still hope. We’ve found that some people are immune. That means maybe they can help us develop a cure.”
Taeyong finally looked up at him. “Are you immune?”
Sicheng smiled crookedly. “No. They checked all of the nurses who haven’t gotten sick yet. I’m just lucky so far.”
Taeyong sighed and closed his eyes. Tried not to think of the short but growing list of people he knew who had succumbed.
“Hey,” whispered Sicheng. “I have something that might make you feel better.” He stood up and drifted over to the kitchen, out of sight. After a few moments he returned, hands behind his back.
Taeyong was confused. Sicheng looked fidgety, which was out of character for the calm, graceful man.
With a flourish, Sicheng whipped out a large box with a single rose on top. Taeyong’s eyes widened. “Open it,” Sicheng urged.
It was a freshly baked cake. But not just any cake – a beautifully decorated, multi-tier cake. “How…” breathed Taeyong. Flour and sugar were being rationed, and his sweet tooth was sorely deprived.
“Some businesses have been donating to the hospital. Some might call it dumping, now that there’s hardly anyone who can buy it. There were so many donations today, I thought no one would notice if a hard-working nurse took a bit…” Sicheng winked.
That didn’t explain the rose though. “I don’t know, Sicheng, this is kind of romantic,” Taeyong laughed. Then he stopped laughing because he saw Sicheng’s face. His roommate was blushing, hard.
Oh. He hardly dared to breathe as Sicheng sat down next to him. “When I said I chose your roommate application because I thought you were cute, I wasn’t kidding,” said Sicheng, then bit his lip. “Sorry, I don’t want to be creepy. I never planned to act on it, but…”
Taeyong still didn’t say anything, just kept staring at Sicheng, drinking him in. “… but, I thought maybe…after all this… there is a feeling? Between us?” He stumbled over the words. “If not, just… have the cake…”
Before Sicheng could stammer any more, Taeyong leaned forward and kissed him. Their lips bumped together awkwardly, but Taeyong raised his hand and gently held Sicheng’s head until they found each other. Sicheng’s lips were impossibly full and soft, just like Taeyong had imagined.
They pulled apart, each equally surprised. “Are you sure… you’re not just doing this because we’re trapped inside together and the world is possibly ending?” asked Taeyong.
Sicheng just shrugged. “I feel what I feel,” he said simply.
“I feel the same way, then.”
Taeyong thought he was prepared.
He had long since donated most of his pandemic stash to the hospital. They needed it more. He had told his family he was volunteering there, was committed to riding it out here, wouldn’t be coming home until it was over.
But in truth, he refused to consider leaving Sicheng, not when they had just discovered something so special. What they had was a precious light, like the flickering flame of a candle, and it had to be tended carefully inside that spotless apartment.
And when he kissed Sicheng, it was like the fire burned ever more brightly.
Today was Taeyong’s day off, and he spent most of it trying to figure out how to turn their ration of eggplant, cucumber, tofu, and Wonderbread into something tasty. He settled on a sandwich.
Sicheng was late to return. After 9PM, Taeyong sent him a text. At 10PM, he sent him another text.
At 10:01PM, Sicheng called him.
He heard yelling and sirens in the background. “Tae, I only have a second… I got it. I tested positive today. There’s no more beds here, so I have to isolate myself in the apartment. You have to leave now. They’re sending me back in an ambulance, I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Take all of your stuff and leave now.”
“Tae… I don’t have time to argue with you. You know you’ll get it too if I’m there.”
“Fine. I go where you go. I get what you get.”
“Taeyong!” Sicheng yelled. It was the only time Taeyong ever heard him raise his voice. “Leave! Now!”
“You’re a healthcare worker. Don’t they have a bed for you?” Taeyong asked desperately. He knew there was some kind of prioritization scheme. People with the most life years left, critical workers.
He heard Sicheng sigh. “I’m one year above the age cutoff.”
Taeyong cursed. He felt the cruelty of the world wash over him. Sicheng was so young. Who could condemn him based on an arbitrary threshold? He wiped a sleeve across his eyes and hung up the phone.
“You’re still here,” Sicheng said hoarsely. “You should have left.” He looked around wildly. “Go into your room. I’ll go into mine. Then you can still get out…”
“No.” Taeyong stood up.
Sicheng backed against the door. “Stop, Taeyong.” He was reaching for the handle when Taeyong caught up to him and slammed his hand against the door.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. He leaned forward and pressed a defiant kiss against Sicheng’s lips. “There. It’s too late now.”
Sicheng sank down onto the floor. “I was stupid. You should have left a long time ago. What if I was already carrying it…”
Taeyong reached down and hoisted Sicheng up, pulled him into an embrace. The slim man was surprisingly light, and Taeyong felt an overwhelming urge to feed him.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Tired. Maybe a little hot,” he sighed, his voice catching, and Taeyong realized Sicheng was crying.
“Come to bed,” he said, guiding Sicheng gently.
“I feel fine…”
Taeyong shoved the bowl in front of his face.
“I let my patients down.” Sicheng looked down at his lap. “They need every last nurse there is, and I…”
“Stop. Just have the soup. It’s getting cold.” Taeyong stroked Sicheng’s honey-brown hair as he drank the soup. “The best thing you can do right now is focus on your own health.”
Sicheng finished, set the bowl down, and held his arms out. Taeyong sighed and climbed into bed next to him.
When Sicheng coughed, his back arched painfully against the bed. Taeyong felt helpless.
Now that the inevitable had happened, he was no longer scared for himself. He only worried about Sicheng.
Taeyong was scrolling through his phone when Sicheng awoke from his nap. Few media sites were even updating any more, but Taeyong was trying to glean information from random tweets. He felt Sicheng’s hand on his and looked over at the beautiful man next to him.
“You… didn’t go for your shift today.”
“You need someone to take care of you,” he said matter-of-factly. Taeyong didn’t voice his true reason. That if things got really bad, he wasn’t going to spend one more second than he needed to away from Sicheng.
Taeyong hardly slept that night between listening miserably to Sicheng’s coughing, brewing soothing tea, and trying to search online for home remedies. The door of their apartment had been taped now that a confirmed case was inside, so he couldn’t even go get medicine. He measured out their remaining dry food, trying to guess how much they would need each day.
Eventually, Sicheng’s fever broke. Taeyong helped him out to the couch, where he took shallow gulps of cool air, his bare chest heaving up and down. They held each other and Taeyong pressed his tongue into Sicheng’s mouth, prayed to get sick only after Sicheng was better. Taeyong felt Sicheng’s hands on his waist, didn’t know if he was pushing him away or pulling him closer.
He awoke on the couch a few hours later. Sicheng’s breathing sounded labored. Taeyong picked him up bridal-style and carried him back to the bedroom. He felt light.
That night he dreamed of carrying Sicheng through a forest. Low-hanging boughs dipped down to brush against them as they walked toward an unknown destination. Taeyong realized with a start that tendrils of ivy were growing around Sicheng, from within him, crowning his head and entwining his arms. It was beautiful, and terrifying. Delicate buds emerged from the vines, then blossomed, releasing a soothing golden pollen that suffused the air and smelled like honey.
Sicheng laughed, but the laugh turned into a cough. When it passed, he just said, “The world is not ending.” His voice was quiet but filled with certainty.
“But it’s like, the collapse of human civilization.” Taeyong thought of the panicked videos on social media, all pain and grief, begging for help, in contrast to the increasing silence from the government.
“We got through it before. We’ll get through it again. Things will change, but…” Sicheng trailed off. Between each sentence, he had to take a shaky breath. After resting for a moment, he started again. “You’re not looking closely enough out the window, Tae.”
Taeyong lifted his gaze from Sicheng to out the window. The other apartment buildings were full of people, he supposed. He just hadn’t thought about much outside the walls of his own apartment for a while. He saw a little girl playing on a balcony down the street.
Below them, the trees swayed gently in the early summer breeze. The flowers were in full bloom, and Taeyong tasted the bitterness of being unable to go out and enjoy them with Sicheng.
“Tae.” Sicheng entwined his fingers with Taeyong’s. “Even if it is… the collapse of human civilization…” – he struggled with the difficult Korean words – “… the world will still go on. Isn’t it nice to think of how nature will grow without us? It will be so beautiful…” He trailed off.
“You did. You said it.”
Taeyong hadn’t danced since he’d lost one of his own dancers. Hadn’t even wanted to think about it. “Are you sure?”
Sicheng craned his head up at Taeyong. “Please dance, Taeyong. I want to see you dance.”
“You’ve seen plenty of my videos.”
Taeyong sighed. Whatever Sicheng wished, he would grant. “Here?”
“OK, let me make breakfast first.”
Sicheng pulled back from him. “You’re breathing heavily,” he said, frowning.
Taeyong grinned. “Yeah, I mean, that was like, the whole choreo.”
“Do you feel any tightness in your lungs? Have you coughed at all?”
Sicheng stared at him uncertainly. “It’s definitely been longer than the incubation period.”
“I mean, we’ve been sharing fluids and everything,” continued Sicheng.
“Sicheng, that’s not very romantic…” he protested.
“I’m a nurse, OK? It is what it is. You should be sick now too. Unless…”
Sicheng’s eyes widened. “Tae, maybe you’re immune.”
“Yeah, right,” said Taeyong uncertainly. True, he rarely got sick despite having eaten like garbage for much of his adult life. But before he could protest more, he saw Sicheng’s hand twitching.
Sicheng looked down, saw the fingers scrabbling uncontrollably. He turned to Taeyong, his eyes shining. “Tae, I’m so sorry…”
For a day and a night, he held Sicheng trembling in his arms. Taeyong told him stories, the story of his life, the story of how he had liked Sicheng and then loved him, nonsense stories until he was just rambling pretty words that came into his mind.
Whenever Sicheng was asleep, Taeyong went into the other room and called every hospital he could, but mostly the lines were busy. The one person he got a hold of just said, “No space. No ambulances.” He called the police, and they told him to call the hospital. “Y’know," the policewoman said, "That second strain, it's...” Taeyong hung up.
Sicheng could barely talk any more. His vocal cords wouldn’t obey him. Taeyong kissed Sicheng’s neck as he tried to speak, throat seizing up, gently ran his fingers down the smooth skin until Sicheng was able to relax and sound out what he wanted to say. “Definitely immune, Tae… go… you have to tell them.”
Sicheng just smiled and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Tae.”
“I’m sorry it had to be this way. I wish…”
But Sicheng pressed a shaking hand to Taeyong’s mouth. “Me too.”
Taeyong buried his face in Sicheng’s silky hair. “I want to go with you.”
Sicheng didn’t, couldn’t say more.
Carefully, he dressed Sicheng in his scrubs, the protective outer suit, gloves, mask. A reverse of their former ritual.
He lifted Sicheng up. It was pathetically easy.
Grunting, Taeyong fumbled with the handle to the door and pulled it open. The yellow caution tape fell away, spiraling down to his feet. The apartment complex was quiet.
It was a long walk to the hospital. He rested at quiet spots he thought Sicheng might have enjoyed, held him in his lap.
The streets were empty. A paper bag blew by in the wind. A flock of ducks rounded the corner in front of him, paying him no mind as they waddled down the middle of the street.
Taeyong could hear helicopters as he neared the hospital. He looked up at the impossibly blue sky for a moment, holding Sicheng tighter, then continued on into the new world.