It started as a cough.
Just a cough. Nothing more.
It was so benign, so unobtrusive, that he couldn't even remember when it began. There had been no time to think about it, no reason to pay it any mind.
But as long days and cold nights passed, it grew more frequent. Loud enough to make the others grimace and look away.
Still, he told himself it was nothing to be concerned about. He didn't have time to dwell on it. If he stopped long enough to let himself worry, they'd all starve to death.
The blood came in the early spring, just a few bright red flecks, and with it he allowed himself to feel the first icy tendrils of fear that went curling down his spine.
But then he pushed it away again. There was no time. They needed food. They needed shelter. They needed him.
It became a mantra to be repeated in his head.
Food, shelter, food, shelter…
By autumn, it could no longer be ignored. It was debilitating, a deep, bone-rattling hacking sound that had to be buried in a blanket lest it draw in walkers. There was more blood, too much blood, thick and dark and shiny like syrup.
The fear took root, grew wings, spread through him like wildfire. He had no choice but to stop now, to worry, regardless of how much they needed him.
The mantra changed.
Don't die, don't die, don't die…
He took to praying again, begging and pleading and bargaining with God for more time. But in the end, it didn't matter. None of it mattered.
As it always does, time ran out.
She left him on a cool, crisp morning when the leaves were just beginning to fall from the trees.
It was quiet. Just the two of them.
He held her as she drew her last, labored breath, felt her soul slip away as her body grew still in his arms.
The gunshot echoed out over the hills and frightened the birds from the trees. They winged their way across the cloudless blue sky, singing and warbling to one another like it was any other day.
Like his world hadn't just ended.
They buried her high on the hill overlooking the empty fields, where the sun would peek up over her grave and warm the ground every morning.
He thought she'd like it there but he didn't know.
There was so much he didn't know, so much he'd never know now. There just hadn't been time.
But now, now that it was useless to him, time was all he had left.