She looked up into the sky. The light was escaping at its edges and the moon was just becoming visible. No stars yet. There was a narrowing of the path in front and the crowd slowed down as people filtered through in fewer numbers. She knew this was an ending of something and she was sure there must be other people, in this new night, that felt the same as her.
3009. The number of the newest and most deadliest virus. No known anti-dote.
Three years ago the first serious virus to attack was named simply ‘1’. Some of the viruses since then had been minor enough. Some had been contained and anti-dotes had been found for others. There were, of course, rumours that some, if not all, of them were created.
Her nine to five was computer programming for Epcon, one of the biggest pharmaceutical in the market. Some said it was a perk of the job, some said punishment but all employees were injected with anti-dotes as soon as they became available. Only fully tested anti-dotes, only the best for their staff. Some ex-employees would even try to sneak into their offices on their old ID cards so that they could be injected. They kept their mouths closed and their left arms available, they knew they had a job, what more did they need? In these days it was hard enough to find one of those. It seemed as though her already flawed life was now being played out in a country that was falling apart at the seams. Information, even sometimes true information, was free to all in cyberspace. But she was reluctant to trust any of it. There were government agencies disguised as pharmaceutical companies, pharmaceutical companies disguised as government agencies, gangsters disguised as drug stores. With the level of panic out there people were reading the internet like a modern day bible. Sucking it in and bleeding themselves dry. There was little trust to be given or gained, truth an abstract idea.
She lived in the outskirts of the city, in the house she grew up in with her sister. On their parents first holiday alone together since their honeymoon they were in a car accident. A drunk man got into his articulated lorry and while driving at one hundred kilometres an hour, felt asleep at the wheel and veered onto the wrong side of the road. He ploughed into the car before the truck tumbled off the road and into the forest alongside it. They were killed instantly. The truck driver managed to escape with two broken legs and community service.
She was just over the watershed 18 and was appointed legal guardian for her sister. Identifying and accompanying the bodies home had been the longest trip they had taken in their lives. After that they never left the city or its surrounds again and they never really spoke about it. The grief took over their lives. She trapped it, fermenting it, in a place inside her that was deeper than her gut. A place so deep she didn’t even know it existed within her.
After her sister had contracted 2150, they slowly but surely closed in against the outside world. As a relative of an employee she was given the vaccination, no question asked. She took compassionate leave from work to nurse her sister back to health. It had given her a scare though and she became reluctant if even anxious about leaving the house after that. Panic attacks were a part of her everyday existence.
What started as compassionate leave became full time working from home. Her sister, now also lost to the outside world, dropped out of school. She had missed so much it was a series of repeats or cutting her losses and leaving. It was another financial burden they could do without.
Slowly but surely their ventures outside diminished and soon they only left the house for food. Still eligible for vaccinations a representative would be sent to their house to administer it. This contact, the television and the internet became their only links with the outside world.
On the morning that all of this came to an end she was lying in bed looking at old photographs. Her sister asleep in the other room. She was trying to recognise moments, trying to recognise herself. She looked at events captured, different places, on her own or with family. Not even the clothes she wore triggered anything. A vast empty space occupied where her memories should be. Just as she stirred from the discomfort of her lack, she heard a bang on the door. She sat bolt upright in the bed. Not sure whether she’d actually heard it or imagined it. And then again, another bang. She heard a shout from what seemed to be down the road but couldn’t figure it out.
Her eyes moved around the room, everything around her looked normal. Unsure, she got out of bed, went over to the window and peered out. There were police in riot uniforms moving around, there was a large white truck and she saw people emerging from one or two of the houses on the road, curiously looking at the goings on.
She had received an e-mail from work about a possible evacuation, but she had disregarded it. They had issued notices before and nothing had ever come of them. It was the last resort option, so she didn’t take this one seriously. The banging continued. She went down to open the door to a policeman with his gun slung across his body.
«Are you Sarah Kenny, 5420301 plus one?».
A little shocked, it took her a moment to figure out what he was talking about. Then it dawned on her, her work ID number.
«Yeah, that’s me».
«Evacuating now. Get your stuff together and come with us, bring your ID and your passports». She just looked at him, unsure of what to do and where to start.
«If you choose to stay here it’s at your own risk and the company will not take any responsibility and you will not be able to go to commune after this. We are advising everyone to evacuate». He adjusted his gun.
For a moment she hesitated, her first thought – how can we leave our safety here? What about their stuff, their things? Memories, photographs, clothes, books. Then suddenly she thought about a black pack that she had at the back of her wardrobe. The money that she had stashed underneath the television.
This was it. Her opportunity; their opportunity.
She ran up the stairs two at a time throwing open her sister’s bedroom door.
«Kelly. It’s time. Pack. Let’s go».
Her sister was sitting up in bed. Not even waiting for a reaction she made her way back into her own room. She heard the policeman’s uniform rustling as he stepped inside the house. She looked down the stairs and could just see his visored head. In her room she got the backpack and put in socks, underpants, a jumper, a pair of jeans and soap, wrapping in carefully in her shower cap. Not able to think of anything else she pulled her nightdress off over her head. Pulled on pants, jeans, a t-shirt and a hoody. Tied her long unkempt hair back and slipped her feet into her runners, grabbed the bag and left the room. She called to her sister and stopped at the top of the stairs, turned around and went back into the room and picked up the picture at the top of the pile. It was her as a child. Sitting on the beach in her swimsuit, sun in her eyes, spade in one hand and sand in the other. Although she was the only one in the picture she was sitting in the shadow of her father. Just as she picked up the picture she remembered. She must have been about 10. They couldn’t afford to take a holiday that year, so they went to the local beach everyday for a week, come rain or shine. It was a cold day, the wind blowing sand into her eyes and ears. Kelly was being taught how to swim by her mother. She and her father were digging holes in the sand. She watched her mother and sister turn into dots as the tide moved out. She put the photo into her backpack and went downstairs.
The policeman had moved back outside and was waiting in the garden. She went into the sitting room, and looking over her shoulder to make sure the policeman wasn’t in sight, lifted the television and took the envelope that was under it and put it into her backpack pushing it down to the bottom. She went into the kitchen and took a few bottles of water and some bars of chocolate. Looking around for anything else she called out to her sister who was making her way down the stairs with a bag in her hand, with just a sweatshirt on over her pyjamas; her silence was complicit as she waited sleepily by the door.
Walking back into the hall she grabbed their coats from the stand and lifted the house keys from the dish and left. Taking one last look she close the door and locked it.
«This way», the policeman said as he walked towards the large white truck. As they got closer to it they saw that there were people already in it. In the few minutes it took to get ready more people had appeared on the street. They had started to ask questions and make noise so they closed the truck doors quickly and drove on. She didn’t recognise any of the other people there.
«Who do you work for?», she asked a lady next to her. The lady named a company she heard of.
There were dim lights on overhead in the truck but no windows so they couldn’t see where they were going. But having lived there their whole lives they both had a sense of where they were headed, with a mere glance they both knew they were thinking the same thing. There was a large public park about three hours outside the city; they had probably set up tents and supplies there. They travelled on in relative silence. She had no sense of time and had forgotten to pack her watch. Some hours had definitely passed and they shared a chocolate bar and drank some of water.
For some time they stopped and started as though in traffic until eventually they came to a complete stop and there was a bang on the door from the outside. When the doors were opened dusk tried to make its way in. They were taken off, lined up and taken into a tent.
There were computers set up at what appeared to be a security station. They got up the top of the line after a few minutes. She handed over her ID card which they scanned and handed back to her. Then their passports. They were scanned and then they ripped the photo pages from them and threw them into a box. Stunned, she asked: «What are you doing?».
«You don’t need this for now. When you leave we’ll give it back to you… Next».
They were shuffled along by another policeman. Unsure now what to make of what was going on she panicked for a moment. Her sister looking at her in silence with wide-questioning eyes. She hardly said a word since they left. But they didn’t have time to stop. They were pushed on by the people behind them. When they went through the door at the other side of the tent they saw people everywhere. All of them heading in the direction of a large gate. Police, bulky with protection, lined the edges of the crowd. Their torsos decorated with machine guns, like sashes.
They moved with the crowd of people. Then she felt faceless and free. Her movement was beyond her control. Her legs moving simply to follow the person in front. Kelly followed. For such a huge crowd of people there was strange stillness in the air. As though the air was resting on their shoulders in a way it never had before. And once she was truly within the body of the crowd, she felt it.
She saw freedom in the darkness in front of her. It enveloped her like a light. And she saw a new life stretch out in front of her into the darkness.
This short story is taken from the book: