Gwen froze in the kitchen doorway. Jeff was singing. And cooking bacon. “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?” she asked.
Jeff laughed. Gwen hadn’t realized how much she’d missed that sound. He pressed a plate of French toast into her hands. “Here, sleepyhead. Eat up while it’s still warm.”
“Thanks.” Gwen was glad that he’d broken out of the funk that he’d been in since the move. “How did your trip into the mine go?”
Jeff beamed at her. “It was great. They broke through into this huge subterranean cave formation, and think I got some really good shots of both the cave and the mine’s working conditions. I emailed them to Harry, and he got me an interview with a gallery in the city.”
Gwen buried a wave of unease. Jeff usually showed her his photos before he let anyone else see them. “That’s fantastic! I’m so proud of you!”
At least the news explained his mood.
“Good morning, Doctor!” Gwen’s first patient of the day practically skipped into her office. His skin stretched parchment-thin over his emaciated frame. He had terminal throat cancer, and he’d been despondent the first time Gwen saw him.
“Hello, Jonah. You seem to be in good spirits this morning,” Gwen said.
“Yes, ma’am. I just woke up feeling more cheerful than I have in years. I even made the wife breakfast.”
Gwen nearly dropped his chart. “Oh?”
“She’s always said that I make the best scrambled eggs in the county.” He scratched his head. “She cried when I took her breakfast in. Can’t quite figure out why.”
“Well, your condition affects her life, too.”
“What, the cancer?” Jonah shrugged. “Everybody dies, Doc. I’m just thankful for today.”
Sheriff Dawson scowled as he rolled up his sleeve. “Let’s get this over with.”
His gruff mood steadied Gwen. Whatever was going on, it hadn’t affected everyone. She prepped the sheriff’s rabies vaccine. He stared at the wall while she administered the shot. “I’m going to need to see you again next week.”
“I know the drill,” he growled.
Two of Gwen’s next five patients were oddly cheerful. They’d all been in the mine yesterday–three of them working, Jeff taking pictures.
Maybe there was something in that cave they’d discovered.
Whatever it was, it worked better than any antidepressant on the market. Gwen tried to tell herself it might be a good thing. That maybe if she could figure out what it was, she could sell it to a pharmaceutical company for millions.
She told herself it was silly to be so afraid.
“Honey, could I get a blood sample?” Gwen asked.
Jeff nodded and rolled up his sleeve. “Of course.”
He’d always hated needles–Gwen usually had to bribe him with a lobster dinner to get any blood out of him. He gazed up at her and smiled like an angel while she prepped him for a quick blood draw.
“So, what’s going on with you?” Gwen asked. “Are you just happy about the gallery interview, or is it something else?”
Jeff brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek. “I really was being terrible, wasn’t I? I agreed to move here, but I didn’t try to fit in or make friends. I decided I was going to be lonely and miserable, and I wouldn’t let you do anything to help. Well, I’ve changed my mind.”
Gwen stared at his blood as it filled her sample tube. She wished that it really was that simple. Maybe it was. “Did you see anything odd in the cave?” she asked.
“Just rocks.” He tilted his head to one side. “The air did smell a little funny.”
Gwen’s stomach twisted. If it was in the air, that was a very bad thing. She kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Gwen spent days in her lab, alone. Tom, her physician’s assistant, went down into the mine to set a broken leg, and the next day he was one of them.
Gwen tried to keep herself from thinking of them that way. Her husband was one of them, for heaven’s sake.
It took her days to figure out what was going on. She found elevated levels of an endorphin-like chemical in Jeff’s blood, and his antibodies reacted to HIV and rabies.
It was a virus.
Her fingers shook as she filled a tube with her own blood. She didn’t think she had it. She wasn’t happy.
She examined her blood for an hour before she was satisfied. She was clean. No extra chemicals, no strange antibody reactions.
It wasn’t contagious.
She started keeping a list, of who had it and who didn’t.
“Honey, you assistant called me this afternoon,” Jeff said. He almost looked concerned behind his perpetual good cheer.
Gwen grunted. She just wanted to eat something and to go bed.
“He thinks you’re working too hard. And I’m worried about you, too. You don’t seem happy.”
“I’m fine. Just busy.”
“Busy with what? Tom doesn’t know what you’re working on.”
“It’s none of Tom’s business,” Gwen snapped.
“Is it any of my business?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Gwen said.
“Oh. Well, okay.” Jeff reached over and patted her hand. “Then I won’t ask you about it again. Let’s go to bed. You look tired.”
Gwen stared up at the ceiling and listened to Jeff breathe. She couldn’t sleep. She missed her husband.
“I think it’s like mono,” she whispered. “I can’t find a cure. Once you have it, there’s no getting rid of it.”
“Would you like to see my latest photos?” Jeff asked over apple cinnamon oatmeal.
Gwen forced a smile. “Sure.”
She paged through the prints he handed her. Landscapes, flowers, and a few shots of a puppy. Technically proficient, but this was the kind of stuff he used to make fun of. “They’re pretty,” she offered.
Jeff beamed at her. “I’m glad you think so. I like them too. It’s too bad that the gallery didn’t feel the same way.”
“You sent them these?” Gwen asked.
“Of course,” Jeff said. “Why wouldn’t I?” He shrugged. “They asked for more pictures after they saw the shots from the mine, so I took these. The phone call was a bit unpleasant. Harry said some unkind things.” Jeff shook his head. “But I suppose some people are just like that.”
“Gwen, I think you should come down to the mine,” Jeff said. He squeezed her hand. “A bunch of us have been talking, and we figured out that everyone who’s unhappy hasn’t been down there. I–I want you to be happy, Gwen. I hate seeing you like this.”
“No you don’t,” Gwen said. “You’re too complacent for anything to bother you.”
“Gwen, I love you.”
“Then love me for who I am. Don’t ask me to change.”
Strong hands grabbed Gwen’s wrists and ankles and lifted her off the bed. She screamed and struggled, but more hands clutched at her. “It’s okay, Gwen!” Jeff shouted. “We’re doing this for your own good! You’ll see!”
Jeff, Tom, and Jonah shoved her into the backseat of a car. Jeff climbed in beside her and wrapped his arms around her. “Shhh, shhh. It’ll be better soon.”
She trembled and fought not to cry. There had to be something she could do. Some way she could escape. She didn’t want to trade her dreams away for cow-like happiness. “Please don’t do this. Misery is part of the human condition,” she said. “I can’t be a doctor if I can’t understand it.”
Jeff kissed her forehead. “That’s just a lie you tell yourself because you’ve had to deal with unhappiness your whole life.”
Maybe she was crazy to not want what they had.
But she’d rather die than go down into that mine. The car pulled to a stop. “We’re here,” Jeff whispered.
She kicked him as hard as she could, jerked the car door open, and jumped out.
She was barefoot, and wearing just an old t-shirt and a ratty pair of sweatpants. Rocks bit into the bottoms of her feet as she ran. “Honey, come back!” Jeff shouted.
She spotted a truck and sprinted to it. The door was unlocked, and the keys were dangling from the ignition. She drove as fast as she could.
She couldn’t let them force anyone else down that hole, either.
She was going to blow the damn thing up, bury the virus’s source beneath tons of earth.
She had no idea how she was going to do that.
Sheriff Dawson hadn’t had any reason to go into the mine, but two of his deputies had, so Gwen avoided the police station. She ditched the truck and hid in the bushes outside the sheriff’s house.
She grabbed his sleeve as he walked out to his car.
“Doc? What the hell?” He took in her bleeding feet, tangled hair, and torn clothes. “Are you okay?”
Gwen shook her head. “There’s a virus down in the mine. It–it changes people. Jeff, Tom, and Jonah tried to drag me down there last night.”
The sheriff scratched his head. “Two of my boys were trying to talk me into coming down into the mine. Said it would cheer me up.”
He believed her. Gwen sagged with relief. “We have to destroy it,” she said. “Blow up the mine, bury it.”
“You sure that blowing up the mine is the only way to keep it from spreading?” he asked. “That’s a whole lot of private property. And the town’s livelihood.”
“They outnumber us. Do you want to get dragged down there?” Gwen asked.
The sheriff shook his head. “Being happy all the time shouldn’t sound all that bad. But no. I don’t.”
The sheriff drove her to her house, where she grabbed a pair of shoes and a jacket. Then the drove back to the mine. It looked deserted.
He handed her his handgun. “I’m going into the storage office, where they keep the explosives. You stay out here, keep watch.”
Gwen had never held a gun before. It was heavier than she thought it would be. She took a deep breath.
“Gwen!” Jeff came out of one of the buildings and beamed at her. “You came back!”
Gwen brought the pistol up, just like they did in the movies. “Stay away from me!” she shouted.
Jeff held his hands up, palms out. “Hey, hey. Calm down.”
“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down! You kidnapped me!”
“I’m sorry about that. I see now that it was too pushy. I shouldn’t have tried to force you. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“I don’t trust you,” Gwen said.
“I was hoping you came back to go down into the mine willingly,” Jeff said. “I–I would be very happy if you would.”
“I’d rather die,” Gwen snarled.
“Then what are you doing here?” Jeff asked.
The sheriff came out with a dolly of boxes. They were carefully labeled DYNAMITE in large red letters. Gwen stepped between him and Jeff, and waved the sheriff toward the mine’s service elevator.
Jeff looked at the boxes, then up at Gwen. A tiny frown creased his face. “I don’t understand.”
“We’re going to blow up the mine,” Gwen said.
Jeff blinked. “Oh.” He scratched his head. “I suppose it’s a good thing that there’s nobody down there right now.”
“You’re not going to try to stop us?” Gwen asked.
“You’ve got a gun. And I love you. If you really want to do this, of course I’ll support you. I just want you to be happy.”
“It’s ready,” the sheriff called.
Jeff smiled at her.
“Do it,” Gwen said.
The elevator groaned as it lowered into the earth. After about sixty seconds, there was a muffled boom, and the ground shuddered beneath her feet.
“There. Now, will you put that gun down? Let’s go home,” Jeff said.
The sheriff took his gun back gravely. “Is it really over?” he asked. “Just like that?”
“I hope so,” Gwen said.
“Do you want to go home with–him?” the sheriff asked.
Gwen nodded. “It’s okay, now, I think. It’s not like he wanted to hurt me. And he can’t drag me down there now.”
The sheriff grunted. “Well, keep the gun.”
The next morning, Gwen woke up in the best mood. She hummed as she got out of bed. Maybe she’d make breakfast.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has been published by over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction, and she has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine, works as an assistant editor at Electric Velocipede, and helped edit the Triangulation Annual Anthology from 2008 to 2011. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.