illustration by Toeken

Zombies in Winter

Naomi Kritzer

I bought “Zombies in Winter” by Naomi Kritzer because it’s centered on a beautiful example of compassion, and of a close, platonic, male friendship. After I accepted it, Naomi told me that this story was based on a friend of hers, Kent, who had been diagnosed with early-onset frontotemporal dementia in his mid-40s: “He needed a guardian, and his best friend, Dave, agreed to do it. At some point a few years later I was talking with Dave about this and he said, ‘the way I look at it is, I promised my best friend that I would care for his zombie. The person I knew and loved has been dead for years.’

“Kent died in December of 2015, just a few weeks short of his 50th birthday. The character of Tom—his opinions, his tastes, his love for sharing good food with friends—is explicitly based on Kent.”

The zombie plague lasted three weeks, and didn’t end civilization as we knew it. I hid out in my house for most of it, following the news on the Internet, and when that went down, on TV. I lived off reconstituted OJ and the frozen quarter of a cow my college friend Tom had talked me into buying. (Direct from a farmer! Free range and grass fed! Possibly massaged daily with oil, or at least Tom seemed to think it was getting special coddling . . .anyway, what really mattered right then was that it was in my house.) The government handled things better than anyone would have expected: they had the National Guard helping out where they were needed and making sure essential workers were still able to get to work. So the power never went out, my furnace still worked, and the nuclear plant 50 miles down the river from us didn’t melt down. I holed up inside, and waited.

The government didn’t call it a zombie plague, of course; it was “infectious rapid-onset dementia,” IROD, which people pronounced eye-rod, except mostly they just called it the zombie plague. The zombies weren’t supernaturally strong and they died just like anyone else if you shot them, and in Minnesota, where I lived, they mostly froze to death. Because it was January, and the ability to check a weather report and bring a coat is apparently a higher brain function. I didn’t stay inside because I was afraid of roving zombie hordes, but because I was freaked out by the rioters. Later, my street wasn’t getting plowed, so I was house-bound anyway unless I wanted to go out on foot.

At the end of the three weeks about a billion people had died worldwide, mostly due to riots rather than the disease. (The worst bloodbaths occurred in some regions that probably never saw a single actual zombie.) Only about ten million of those were in the U.S. The cold snap really did help, along with the fact that so many Americans could essentially barricade their houses and stay inside until it was safe to come out, same as I did. The CDC rolled out a vaccine: it had originally been developed for something else and was already in production. It worked against IROD, too. They shipped it out on heavily protected trucks, and I walked up the road to the vaccine center and stood in the long, shivering, paranoid line and got my shot and my little dog tag saying I’d had the vaccine. I went home, basking in my immunity. Warmed up and had lunch. And then put on my warmest boots and dry clothes and went out to check on Tom.

We’d been keeping in touch by text message. The cell networks were working, but they were overloaded and phone calls were spotty at best. Texts usually went through. Tom hadn’t texted me in about a week, though, and I was concerned that his power was out and his battery drained. It was also entirely possible that he’d drowned his phone again. Tom had lost three separate phones that way over the years and yet never got around to buying a waterproof case. It was also possible his phone had just quit working, because after destroying three cell phones he stuck with the cheapest smartphones on the market, and the current one had never worked very well.

On the way over, I dropped food off with Diego, one of my other good friends. He had gone in on the cow, too, but he had two kids and a wife and I knew from his last text they were running really low on food. His wife Nicky got all weepy when I unloaded the packages of rump roast and hamburger in their living room, along with two 12-ounce cans of frozen orange juice. They’d gotten their vaccines yesterday—children and parents got it first—but there wasn’t anywhere to go buy food, since the stores were all still closed and empty. There’d been Food Distribution Centers back that first week, but Nicky and Diego had checked their cabinets and stayed home, same as I had. It had paid off better for me.

“You’re the best, Lars,” Nicky said, and gave me a hug while Diego put the hamburger into the freezer.

“Text me if you need more,” I said. “That was all I could carry in my backpack.”

Diego looked out the window, nervously. “I can’t believe you walked. Do you want to spend the night here?”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to Tom’s. Have you heard from him?”

“Not since Wednesday.”

“It’s not really that surprising,” I said, catching Nicky’s worried look. “You know Tom and phones.”

“Yeah,” Nicky said. “Remember the time he dropped it in chicken stock?”

“It wasn’t chicken stock,” I said. “It was Anthony Bourdain’s ‘ersatz demi-glace.’”

“I thought the paint can was a better story anyway,” Diego said. “I was like, dude, can’t you drop your iPhone in the toilet like a normal person?”

“Oh, he did that, too,” I said. “I think that one got put in a bag of rice and survived, though.”

Walking the rest of the way to Tom’s house, I remembered that there was also a phone that went into chicken stock. Tom wasn’t a chef or anything like that—he did computer support for an insurance company—he just liked cooking and eating, and he had opinions about food. Like that cow, which had required multiple Wikipedia links in the e-mail where he was trying to talk me into it. I hadn’t clicked on any of them, I’d just checked the price, heaved a sigh, and said, “Sure. Why not? Count me in.”

Tom didn’t answer his door. I rang and I knocked and then grabbed the spare key from its hiding place under the hedge and let myself in.

The house was warm, dim, and quiet.

None of Tom’s lights were on, and I felt a wave of relief, thinking it was just the loss of power that had kept him from answering my texts. But the heat was still on, and when I flipped the switch, the entry light came on as well. “Tom?” I called. “It’s Lars. Tom, are you here? Are you okay?”

I heard a faint, wordless moan.

Tom was in the dining room, sitting at the table, staring into space.

“Tom?” I said again, but he didn’t look up, and I knew the vaccine had come too late for him.

I wasn’t afraid, because I had the vaccine, but also—this was Tom, and I couldn’t imagine being afraid of Tom.

There was one image everyone saw early on where a zombie went for the camera guy. That was when people really started to panic. But what the experts said was that the disease didn’t make people violent; it removed their inhibitions against violence. They weren’t entirely sure if it made you want to bite people, or if it was more that the victims of the disease were ravenously hungry and knew that you were made of meat.

But anyway—this was Tom. Even with all restraint gone, even at his most basic level, I knew Tom wasn’t a violent person. I sat down across from him at his table and looked at him. His brow was furrowed.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

He moaned again.

“I’ll get you something,” I said.

Tom’s kitchen was a wreck, which was sort of a shock because he was always meticulous about his kitchen. It looked like he’d tried to cook, had burned something to the pot, and had tried to eat it anyway, possibly with his bare hands. There were cans scattered around the kitchen, ripped-open bags of dried mushrooms and rice noodles, and about ten pounds of basmati rice in a heap on the floor, the burlap sack from the Asian grocery store sitting unzipped and half-flopped-over on the counter above.

What I really wanted was to find something quick and easy to prepare, like a microwaveable meal, but he never kept those around. So I dug out a pound of ground beef, thawed it in the microwave, and made him the same sort of meal I’d been making for myself: plain ground hamburger with a little ketchup for flavor. He had some frozen vegetables still, so I added a half cup of peas. When I put the plate in front of Tom, he started eating it with his hands. “Hang on, buddy,” I said, getting a fork. He didn’t stop, but once I’d put the fork in his hand, he used it. So there was that, at least.

I met both Tom and Diego in college, freshman year. I’d been a groomsman at both their weddings. But in Tom’s case I also flew out to California to help him load up his truck after the divorce. He brought me a bottle of scotch when I lost my job a few years back. Normal friends bring beer or maybe whiskey so of course Tom brought 15-year-old Dalwhinnie. He house-sat when I had to fly out of town because my Mom was dying, and when my roof started leaking due to ice dams he spent an entire day making phone calls trying to find someone to steam the ice dams off, and finally rented a snow rake and tried to fix the problem himself. Above and beyond, man.

In his dim, quiet house, I ate the rest of the hamburger out of the frying pan. I’d actually come over for hamburgers here in late fall, when it was still just warm enough to do a little outdoor cooking. Tom had grilled hamburgers over a wood fire, with some sort of fancy cheese melted on top and slices of the best damn bacon I’d ever had. It had this crisp, delicate texture, like a bacon-fat cloud. He made extra so we could munch on slices of it along with our burgers. He’d bought the buns from a bread bakery and the result was something that tasted almost too good to be something as prosaic as a bacon cheeseburger.

One of his beer glasses was in the dish drainer. I put it away in the cabinet and the washed the dishes and tried to clean up the kitchen a bit. I put the spilled rice in a separate container, because I had no idea when there’d be food back in the grocery stores again and if it came down to it, I’d rather eat rice that had been on Tom’s floor than go hungry. The cans went back in the cabinet, the ripped-open rice noodles went into a zip-lock, and I left the burned pot to soak in the sink.

Tom had moved into the living room, and was sitting in his recliner, staring at the TV, which was off. I turned it on for him and then went to see if his Internet was working. It was.

My Internet had gone out—except for my cell phone’s data network, which was having so many problems that it mostly wasn’t worth it. So I’d relied on the TV and the radio for my news. Which was frustrating, because they didn’t always answer the questions I had.

They had said that if one person in a household was infected, that person should be isolated to prevent the disease spreading—for instance, by locking them into a spare bedroom or a large closet. “If you need to nail a door shut, use the longest nails you have,” the reporter had said, holding up a six-inch-long spike to show what she meant. Watching TV last week I’d wanted to know whether anyone was actually doing this, or if everyone with infected family members was just shoving them out into the cold.

And what I wanted to know now was, had they figured out any way to reverse the disease? Or just prevent it? And what should I do with a zombie, now that I no longer had to worry about the zombie giving me the disease?

Tom’s computer was on and his browser was open. I poked through, feeling queasy about snooping but also thinking this might tell me how long ago he got sick. It didn’t, though; he’d given up on sending e-mail messages when everyone else’s Internet went out, so I had a text from him more recent than his last e-mail. I checked his hard drive but there wasn’t anything like a document saying, “Running a fever; hoping it’s just the flu” or “Instructions to anyone who comes in and finds me a zombie” or anything like that.

I searched for information on Tom’s condition. Tom was still able to follow directions. He could even use a fork, if I put it in his hand, and he wasn’t trying to bite me and he seemed to know who I was, so if this was reversible at all then clearly he’d be a good candidate, right?

I found a bunch of sites saying that the brain damage caused by the disease was “probably irreversible.” But they did say probably. Also, half the Internet sites I wanted to look at were down—Google was still working (slowly!) but Facebook wasn’t. Twitter was, bizarrely. I hate Twitter but I gritted my teeth and asked my question in 140 characters or less: @CDCgov I’ve had the vaccine and checked on a friend. He seems to be a zombie. Non-violent, passive, mute. Advice? #zombieapocalypse

I got up and checked on Tom. He was sitting in the living room, staring blankly at an episode of M*A*S*H. I put my hand on his shoulder, tentatively. “Tom, I’m going to walk you to bed,” I said. “Just like I did that time when you were wasted. Okay?”

He responded to my voice—he really did know me, I thought. He looked at me. And he did what I told him to do. I walked him to his bedroom, only to discovered he’d soiled his sheets at some point. It had probably happened before he’d completely lost it, because he’d also pulled them off the bed, but he hadn’t managed to re-make the bed. Then, unfortunately, he’d soiled the mattress.

I cleaned it up as much as I could, Tom standing in the corner, shifting from foot to foot. I flipped the mattress and made it all up with clean sheets. Then I sent him to the bathroom to take care of business before I carried all the sheets to the washer and shoved them in.

He came out of the bathroom naked, and I handed him some clean pajamas. He put them on, and lay down where I pointed.

I covered him up, and switched off the lights, and only then wondered whether zombies slept.

It didn’t really matter, though: he was at least lying in his bed. I got back on the computer. The Twitter advice had started coming in.

Head shot. #zombieapocalypse #onlythingyoucando

Aren’t you in MN? Put him outside #zombieapocalypse #wouldyouwantolivelikethat

Got whiskey? 30 shots ought to do it #zombieapocalypse #howidwanttogo

I closed the browser angrily and went to sleep in Tom’s guest room.

But I couldn’t sleep, and I got up a while later and pulled up the browser again and had this:

Same here: got vax, checked on sis, found zombie. Fed her and put her to bed. Don’t know what else to do.

I wasn’t the only one with this problem, as it turned out.

The damage couldn’t be fixed, despite the waffly-sounding “probably irreversible” I was still seeing everywhere. I didn’t want to accept it, but the CDC was not hedging its words anymore: there was nothing that could be done. They’d hoped that it might be possible to arrest the disease in its early stages, but that didn’t seem to be the case, either. The disease worked its way through your brain like moths chewing apart a wool sweater, leaving gaps in memory, personality, impulse control, all of it.

Now that there was a vaccine, people were prying nails out of guest room doors and checking to see if their family members were still alive. In warmer areas, people were sometimes finding loved ones they’d thrown out and bringing them home again. (There were also people who were just leaving those nails in and waiting until the noises had stopped.)

But “supportive care,” that was what the government was recommending by the end of Week Four. Supportive care was basically what I was doing. Putting food in front of Tom, and a fork in his hand. Walking him to the bathroom, tucking him into bed, and waiting for the disease to make its way to his brain stem, at which point he’d die. Or, if I wanted, I could stop cutting up his food and putting the fork in his hand, and let him die more quickly. It was not, in fact, legal to put a gun to his head and shoot him, unless I wanted to claim later that he’d lunged at me and I’d feared he was going to try to rip my throat out. It didn’t sound like that story was exactly going to be questioned.

And there were no shortage of people in situations like mine.

Tom’s house was more familiar to him, and it had Internet, and he had plenty of food squirreled away, so I just stayed there for a while, and things quickly fell into a routine. I got up, I got Tom up, I sat him at the table, I made us breakfast—he had a big container of oatmeal, so usually I made oatmeal with brown sugar and cinnamon. He was low on brown sugar, and I thought about feeding him the plain oatmeal and saving the sugar for myself, but that seemed unfair, so I gave him his fair share and switched to white sugar when we ran out of brown.

Some mornings he ate his breakfast; sometimes I had to feed him. I read him the news, since he seemed to like the sound of my voice, or maybe it was just that I felt like this way we were connecting. Then I put him in the living room and turned on the TV for him to watch and I went online and looked for information about what was going on, whether there was a cure instead of just a preventive, whether there was a work for me to go back to, all of it.

Nicky and Diego came over for a visit one evening. They didn’t bring their kids. I watched Tom’s face when Diego came in, hoping for some flicker of recognition or something. He did seem to want to sit with us, so maybe there was some part of him that knew he was with friends. We all sat around the dining room table—Diego silently watching Tom, Nicky trying to make conversation about their kids, her family, when she might be able to go back to work, some plumbing problem they’d had but had managed to fix. “We’ll visit again soon,” she said, when they left.

Things were slowly, very slowly, getting back to normal. It was harder in the areas where zombies were still roaming around, because some of them were violent, though Tom never was, ever. But In Minnesota it was still winter; zombies outside just froze. So that was one problem we didn’t have.

We did have paranoid people who didn’t want to leave the house to get the vaccine, and paranoid people who were convinced the whole thing (from the disease to the vaccine) was a government plot. Though everyone I knew did eventually get it. The next-most-urgent problem was food. A lot of the large grocery stores had been looted; during the plague, no one was going to leave their house to go sweep up and replace broken glass. So then snow had drifted in and the stores were a mess. The food processors were all shut down, the warehouses were also all shut down, and some of the warehouses had also been looted.

In the early days of the plague, the government had set up trucks around neighborhoods as distribution centers, and they started those up again. Tom and I weren’t going hungry yet, but he’d run completely out of vegetables and was hoping for something with Vitamin C in it. I didn’t want to leave Tom alone, so I took him with me. I had to zip his coat and tie his boots.

In line, I realized I was going to have to show them my vaccination dog tag for the ration. Tom hadn’t had the vaccine; I didn’t see much point. They had a little tent off to the side with shots for people who hadn’t had it yet, so I led him inside and started taking off his coat so we could roll up his sleeve.

“Hang on,” the nurse said, looking at his slack face. “He’s already had the disease, hasn’t he.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But they won’t give him a food ration without a tag, so…”

The nurse shook her head. “Painful stimuli can result in bites. I’m not equipped for this, I’d need straps or at least assistants. Not doing it.”

I looked at Tom’s slack face. He’d still never been violent. “You’ve had the vaccine!”

“No vaccine is perfect.”

“Can he get his food ration without a vaccine tag, then?”

“You’ll have to ask the guys with the food convoy,” she said.

“Look,” I said. “If you load up the syringe and tell me where to stick it, I’LL give him the shot.”

She gave me a narrow-eyed look. “Have you ever given someone a shot before?”

“No,” I said. “But how hard can it be?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t possibly let you do that,” she said.

“Why not?” My hands were shaking and I could hear my voice getting unsteady. I couldn’t properly hear her answer over the pounding in my ears, but I didn’t have to. I wanted to shout, scream, threaten to bite her myself, but there were police officers right on site and I knew she wouldn’t hesitate to have me arrested. And then what would happen to Tom? I clenched my teeth and my fists and turned away.

We got in line for the food. I figured that at least I could get my allotment. I thought about trying to talk the guy checking tags into letting Tom have a share, but didn’t think I could take another refusal without snapping, so in the end I just showed him my tag and took my bag of food. It contained a five-pound sack of flour, a two pound block of really terrible cheese, and ten 14-ounce cans of peaches in light syrup. At least the peaches would have vitamin C in them. It takes a month without vitamin C for scurvy to develop—I’d looked that up—but it takes a lot less than a month to start craving things like fresh-peeled crunchy carrot sticks.

Coming home, I slipped on the ice and twisted my ankle. “Give me a hand up,” I said to Tom, as I tried to struggle to my feet with the bag of food. Tom stood there, unresponsive. “Come on, buddy,” I said. “Come over here and let me grab your arm, at least?” Nothing. I let out a stream of furious profanity, all the words I’d wanted to say to that idiot nurse earlier. From the house next to us I saw a curtain flutter—someone was watching us. That neighbor wasn’t going to come out and help me up because of course it wasn’t safe what with the zombie.

I could use one of those cans of peaches like a rock—hurl it at their window. I wondered if I could smash the window or if it would just bounce off. I stared at the curtain, furious at the person behind it, and then set down the sack and laboriously climbed to my feet.

I couldn’t lean on Tom, limping home; I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t just topple over. I couldn’t make him carry the bag. I shot one last furious look at the house next to us. Then I took Tom’s hand in mine, and a deep breath.

“We’ll have peaches,” I said. “As soon as we get back to your house.”

The next week, I didn’t try to bring Tom; I just walked over by myself, quickly, to get whatever they were handing out. This time there were canned tomatoes and canned beans, as well as sacks of frozen corn. The following week the sack included canned tuna, jars of peanut butter, and a single Honeycrisp apple; when I got home, I cut it into slices, giving Tom half of them. I cut my slices thin, to make them last longer, and ate them one delicate, tart, juicy piece at a time. The week after that, the grocery stores re-opened.

Spring came.

My employer never called me back because they folded. Two of the partners had caught the disease and died, though they might have folded anyway after going all those weeks with no client money coming. I sold my car and used Tom’s, instead, since I couldn’t imagine he’d object. I didn’t sell my house, because the housing market had gone straight to hell; I just quit making payments, figuring it would take a good long time for them to finish the foreclosure proceedings and in the meantime maybe I’d find a new job.

Diego and Nicky didn’t visit again.

When I dream about Tom now he’s always a zombie.

That wasn’t always true. Back in February, when I first moved into his house to take care of him, I’d have dreams where he was talking and laughing and acting like the same slightly annoying awesome asshole he’d always been.

They say some people are “maximizers,” they’re determined to always figure out the best option for every last thing—best car! best computer! best sheets!—and that maximizers are doomed to never be happy. Tom was a maximizer, but he was a happy maximizer because he was always certain he knew what the best thing was. A Toyota Camry! A Mac Air! Those Turkish cotton million-thread-count sheets made by some linen connoisseurs place I’d never heard of…you know, I have to admit that those actually really are awesome sheets. After sleeping on them for months, I used some sheets I’d grabbed from my own house, and Tom’s sheets were much better.

Tom didn’t always have the best. The best champagne, for instance, was always financially out of his reach. But he always had an opinion about what the best thing was and he would defend it to the grave. I mean I think he cared whether you agreed that this particular French-style organic grass-fed butter was the best butter ever.

I found some of that butter in the freezer, when I moved in.

The last time I dreamed about waking up and finding him normal was near the end of the summer. I dreamed that he was yelling at me about the sheets. I bought cheap sheets for his bed, after a while, because he always soaks through his diaper. When I make it up, I put down a plastic sheet, then a cotton sheet, then another plastic sheet, and then another cotton sheet. When I wake up and hear him moaning, I can just get him up, strip all the wet stuff off, and put him back to bed. Anyway, one night I dreamed that I heard a noise and when I got out of bed and came to his room, he started yelling at me about the crappy cheap poly-cotton sheets I’d put on his bed.

And then I woke up for real and found him moaning in the wet laundry and I ripped it all off and put him in dry PJs and put him back to bed.

Usually after the 4 a.m. laundry call I go right back to sleep, but I felt shaken after that one, and weirdly guilty about the crappy sheets, and after lying awake in bed for a while I got up. I wandered around Tom’s house in the dim light of the hallway night lights, looking at the pictures he’d hung in his hallway, the games on his shelves, the books on his bookcases. He had a whole bookcase full of cookbooks in the kitchen, and I pulled down the most battered one and flipped through it.

You can always tell which recipes are people’s favorites, because those are the pages that are stained with food splatters. Tom also made notes by his recipes. This is really good but substitute wine for 1 cup of the water. And then in a different pen: RED wine. Or, Either resign yourself to a heart attack or don’t make this one. Definitely do not substitute milk for the cream, ugh. There was a recipe for crème brulee where he’d circled the instructions for making it under a broiler, instead of with a kitchen torch, and written, LIES!!!

There was a chicken recipe marked, “Nicky’s favorite” and a beef burgundy with a note, “Lars says ‘best thing I have ever eaten’ but said the same thing about the chili.” I wondered if anything in the bookcase was marked as Tom’s favorite, but when the sun came up, I hadn’t found it.

One of the big local news sites had an article last week about the families still caring for zombies.

People don’t know why we do it. They say, “I don’t know how you do it!” but a lot of the time they mean, why. Why? Why don’t you just let him out, accidentally, some cold night? Or “offer food without insisting he eat it,” that’s the way some people put it, although that’s risky because a hungry zombie is more often a violent zombie. But you’re allowed to tie them down, if you have to, if they’re agitated and trying to bite; that’s called “using restraints.” Or you can drug them, and if you accidentally give them too much, no one cares.

So if you’re doing what I’m doing—what millions of other people are doing—they think you’re being a martyr.

So, why? Denial, that’s their next guess. That I think he’s coming back.

I know my friend is dead.

I know he’s not in there. Tom died last winter, sometime early during Week Three of the Zombie Apocalypse that wasn’t an apocalypse, I know that.

Tom is gone.

But I also know that if I’d been the one to get sick and he’d been the one to find me, he’d be taking care of me right now, changing my diapers and my sheets. Making beef burgundy and chili for me. Putting a fork in my hand. Or, when that failed, spooning the food into my mouth.

The disease is still progressive. Eventually, the CDC says, all the victims of IROD will die from it. It could take as little as six months. It could take as long as five years.

I go to a caregiver support group, sometimes. It’s run through the big downtown hospital and they have a drop-in care center for the IROD patients so we don’t have to leave them unsupervised if we don’t feel that’s safe. Almost all the other caregivers in the group are women. One of the women described IROD caregiving as life between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, where the the disease was the devil and fear and stigma were the deep blue sea. Of course someone else launched into Jesus talk because that’s how she copes with her stress. The facilitator managed to head her off eventually.

I learned to make Tom’s beef burgundy recipe, the one he said I liked. I think it was better when Tom made it, but it’s still pretty good, and it’s a good way to use the big chuck roasts I’d had to move out of my own freezer when I found a tenant for my old house.

Every morning, when I go to wake Tom for breakfast, I wonder if this is the morning I’ll find him dead. But every day he gets up, lets me dress him, and follows me downstairs for breakfast.

On Thanksgiving I made a feast.

Not turkey, because Tom never much liked turkey. There was a beef tenderloin from that quarter steer—Tom had eaten his right away, but I’d saved mine during those weeks of living off hamburger because I was thinking, I don’t want to eat this alone, it’s too good a cut of meat to eat alone. I thawed it out and roasted it slowly just until it was rare. I made roasted Brussels sprouts at really high temperature so they got crisp and I served fresh bread with that beautiful French-style grass-fed butter from the freezer, and I opened a bottle of wine from his basement, wine I knew he’d been saving because it had best written on a sticker on the bottle. I fed Tom, and ate, and then fed him a bit more.

Tom didn’t eat any more than he usually did, and he didn’t seem to enjoy it any more than he usually did, although honestly, he does seem to enjoy eating. He smiles, sometimes. And stops when he’s full.

I enjoyed the meal a lot. It was delicious, and he was right, that really was the best butter. The best butter ever. The wine, well, he’d probably saved it for too long, unfortunately.

Tom was done eating; I walked him to the living room and put him in front of the football game. Then I came back and picked up Tom’s glass. I’d poured him wine, but he hadn’t reached for it, and his glass was still full. His glass tasted better than mine, either because it had improved with some air or because that’s just the way wine is.

I clinked his glass gently against mine.

“To friendship,” I said softly.

• • •