We collectively shuffle towards what they’ve named “the mess hall.” The chain link fence clinks in the wind, our stomachs growl loud. At first, I think I’m the only one who hears it, the gurgling and churning of acid and digestive fluids in an empty stomach, but the guards tighten their grips on their guns and put another foot between themselves and the fence. It’s cold out, but the air feels good on my skin, cooling the sweat beading on my forehead.
The building in front of us is broken and run down. In its day it would have been beautiful; a tower made of polished glass, jutting out of the city skyline like a monument to human innovation. Now it stands before us cracked and covered in dirt. The front door has been removed from its hinges, leaving the building open and uninviting. We walk in, some slow, some eager, all ravenous. The scent of meat is strong enough to fill the yard and it draws us in. My heart hammers, nostrils flare, and I swallow the saliva pooling in my mouth.
I pass through the entrance, eyeing one of the empty places at a picnic table deep within. The room, what would have once been the lobby, looks as run down as the exterior. Most of the walls are covered in what could pass for Jackson Pollock paintings made of old blood and mud. The original gold paint, what little of it is still showing, is dull. Holes, some with the bullets still lodged inside, hide amongst the stains. The marble floor is cracked and chipped, marked by conflicts past. Where a receptionist once sat is a cage, not to keep things in but to keep us out. The guard inside doesn’t look convinced the cage can hold much back, as he taps on the chain fencing with the butt of his gun when we get too close.
I sit down, the old wood of the bench creaking under my weight. The paper plate in front of me holds a slab of meat grilled enough to feel warm but not enough to be considered rare. I pick it up, licking my dry lips, looking at the people gathered in the centre of the room. They stare at the rest of us, mortified. They’re new to the pens and still hold on to hope that this is just a bad dream. I pick up the beef with my bare hands. They continue to watch, wide eyed, and I try to ignore them as I lift the slab of meat to my mouth.
One of them locks eyes with me and I stare into them.
Then I rip into the flesh, pulling it apart and crushing it between my teeth.
Thin beams of light shine out from between the cracks in the blinds, turning the tips of Philibert’s straw blonde hair golden and making me smile. There hasn’t been sun like this, real sun, in ages. There’s only been the fluorescent glow of the day lamps, which hardly illuminate the smoky city, for a very long time. It makes me happy, warming me from the pit of my stomach to the tips of my fingers.
Today feels like a good day.
I stretch out in the hard bed, waking tired limbs and finding comfort in the rough sheets that scratch my skin. It’s almost time to get up, I know the morning siren’s going to ring any minute now, but I don’t want to leave this spot. I want to spend the day looking at the sunshine from the warmth of my bed. I want to pull off the blinds and soak it all up, absorb as much as I can before it’s gone again.
I push myself closer to Philibert, enjoying the warmth his body radiates in the cold room. He’s hogged most of the blankets, again, and has rolled halfway onto my side of the mattress. He snores lightly, enough to keep me up when I’m trying to fall asleep but not loud enough to wake me once I’m under, and nestles into his pillow. I curl up beside him, pulling on the sheets to better cover myself against the fall cold. He opens his eyes and frowns, rolling himself over to his side of the bed again.
“Your skin’s ice cold, woman,” he says sleepily, “don’t rub up against me with it.” He pushes some of the blankets towards me, warm from his body heat, and I bury myself in them.
He sighs as I cuddle up to his back, tossing an arm over his side and touching his chest lazily. My hand trails slowly down, playing with the waist of his boxers, and I notice the tips of his mouth pull up in a tired smile. He sighs even louder, as the siren to wake the city wails, and interrupts the moment. He grumbles to himself as he gets out of bed, kicking the blankets off and heading to the washroom. I watch him walk, enjoying the way his muscles move under the skin of his lean frame. He crosses the small room, walking quickly on the cold scratched floor and closes the bathroom door behind him. There’s the squeaking of taps then the familiar sound of water beating against the ceramic of the tub.
“Hey!” I call to him through the door, “it’s supposed to be my turn for a shower. You had one yesterday.”
He doesn’t answer me and I realize he probably can’t hear me under all the water. I hop out of the bed, crossing the room in a few quick strides and open the washroom door a crack.
“Philibert, it’s my turn for a shower today. What are you doing?”
“I need one.”
“You had your turn yesterday…”
He doesn’t say anything, just continues to soap up behind the shower doors.
“Can’t you just take yours tomorrow, Tiph? I have to go to work, and I’m all sweaty from helping to rebuild the school in the East district yesterday. You have the day off, so take yours tomorrow. Ok?”
He sounds frustrated, and he does have a point. It’s not like I have anywhere important to be today.
“Sure, yeah, no problem.”
I close the door behind me and head further down the hall to the kitchen. The walls on the way are empty, no photos hung in glass frames. Holes and scratches from nails poorly hammered adorn them instead, the memories safe in our heads and the paper saved for something more useful. Only a finger painting, Philibert’s name and mine in a lopsided heart, hints to some kind of life inside this unit. I walk into the kitchen, stomach growling, and search for something to eat.
The floor is covered in all different tiles, a mosaic of anything that would fit and stick to the ground. The counters are old and stained by older food that wasn’t able to be fully washed off. The doors are off two of the cupboards, and the wooden door of the pantry doesn’t match. I like how it looks, a patchwork kitchen, and how it reminds me of the quilts my mother used to make for me growing up. Bits and pieces of everything around me, all stuck together to make something new.
I pull a box of cereal from the shelf then measure a perfect cup, dumping it into a chipped orange bowl. The cereal is brown and looks like something I may have fed my guinea pig when it was still alive. I then pour a measured cup of powdered milk into the bowl, mix it with a metal spoon, and dig in. Despite the bitter taste it leaves in my mouth, it fills my stomach and meets the minimum requirements for nutritional value.
Once I’m done, I put the bowl in the sink next to the dirty dishes from supper last night, and head back to the bedroom to get changed. Philibert’s nearly done dressing, the brown pants and navy top fresh from the laundry complex. The shirt is too loose on him and the pants are too tight, but there’s nothing he can do but hope that the next batch of uniforms they send fit better. They wash all the soiled uniforms together, and deliver clean ones once a week. All the sizes are standardized, and even though he’s a medium, the uniforms never fit him like they should.
“What are your plans for lunch?” I ask, pulling my civilian clothes out from the bottom drawer of the dresser.
“The same as always. Why?”
“Well I was thinking, maybe we could go over to Sarah’s for lunch? We haven’t seen her in a while, and I know she has the day off… plus her kids will be at school.”
He pulls the shirt tight, making sure it’s neatly tucked into his pants, then runs his fingers over the collar to check it’s properly folded.
“I mean, if you have too much work to do, that’s fine. I’ll go alone or maybe we can see her tonight…”
“No, no, that should be fine,” he says quickly, picking his card key off the nightstand and slipping into his breast pocket. The second siren wails, telling the city the work day is about to being. He crosses the room and kisses me quickly on the lips before rushing off down the hall. Fabric rustles followed by a zipper sliding closed.
“Love you!” I call after him, hoping he heard me over the loud slam of the door.
I head to the washroom and run a cloth under the warm water, careful to use only what I need. Once the hot water tank is empty, it stays empty until the end of the week. I still need a shower tomorrow and dishes still need to get done. I wash myself down and rinse the rag out, leaving it to dry on the edge of the sink. I quickly brush my teeth and try to comb out my long brown waves, eager to spend as much time in the sun as I can before the night comes. The plastic teeth pull painfully at the knots in my hair, making me grimace. I put the comb on the bathroom shelf, tie my locks back in a ponytail, and hurriedly pull my clothes on. The grey pants and t-shirt wash out my already pale skin, but at least they fit me properly. I sit on the edge of the bed and pull on my socks. A beam of light falls across my face, making me smile.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. The cow’s blood stains my skin red but camouflages into my crimson jumper. My stomach is full, but I’m still hungry. I eye the paper plate of the man sitting next to me and clench my jaw. I look away, staring at the ceiling, and run my hand through my hair absentmindedly. Long brown strands come out, sticking to my dirty fingers and my breath catches in my throat. I rub my palm against my thigh, some of my brown hair sticking to my uniform and the rest falling onto the ground. My hands begin to quiver, so I interlace my fingers and place them in my lap, trying to think about anything other than the slab of half-eaten meat next to me or how my body is beginning to shut down.
I must look like Martha did when I saw her last; her curly black hair falling out like a cancer patient in chemo, dark circles under her eyes, jaundice creeping into her olive skin. It was only a few days ago they moved her to Pen B. I wonder if she ever saw her boyfriend again or if he recognized her through his fever. I wonder if Philibert will know me when he sees me again, if he’ll cry at my patchy scalp and blueing nails. I look at the plastic wedding ring he gave me and I hope they let him have it back after I’m dead; I don’t want them to burn it like they do everything else.
“Get off!” someone screams.
It’s the girl who watched me eat, the girl who couldn’t look away. She can’t be older than twelve, maybe thirteen. Her scraggly hair is in two braids and, unlike the rest of us, she looks good in red. Her skin hasn’t yellowed enough to look harsh in the clothes they’ve given us, and if it wasn’t for the fevered look in those brown eyes I’d have thought she was healthy.
A man is hanging on to her arm, saliva dripping from his open mouth on to the marble floor. He pulls her close, the only evidence of the meal that was on his plate a red stain on the white paper. She pulls away from him hard, straining against him, her shoulder being wrenched nearly out of its socket as she tries to get away. We all watch, but none of us move to help her. I don’t know if it’s from apathy or shock, but not one of us come to her aid as the man throws himself at her, teeth digging into her upper arm.
The guards begin to shout instructions to us and at each other. The one in the cage radios to his colleagues that there’s a “situation” in the mess hall. They begin ushering us out of the room, forcing us back the way we came. Everyone around me gets up and begins shambling towards the door. One of the guards fires his gun into the ceiling, spraying us with dust and plaster, bellowing for us to get a move on.
I stay seated and watch the girl, the human in me unable to look away and the monster I’m becoming not wanting to. She’s screaming for me to do something, looking at me with pleading wild eyes. She kicks out, flailing, as the man takes another bite of her arm. He tries to better position himself on top of her, the rubber of his shoe slipping on the wet floor. He pins her down and rips into her throat, pulling away with a mouthful of skin and stringy muscle. She slowly stops fighting, her head turned towards me as she dies.
The room is nearly empty of people when I finally get up and begin to make my way to the doors. More guards enter the room from a staircase in the back, one of them carrying two large black bags. I turn away from them and begin pushing past the last few people, trying to get out of the hall faster now. Their boots thud heavily against the floor, and it reminds me of the beating of a war drum.
Then they stop as suddenly as they started. Two shots are fired fast, then after a moment a third rings out. I stop moving and look over my shoulder. The man is unrecognizable, dead atop the little girl. Even though her head is turned away, gazed fixed on where I sat, I can feel her eyes watching me.
As I move into the yard, I realize the answer to my question is no.
How can I expect Philibert to recognize me, when even I don’t?
The city used to be so beautiful in the fall. The leaves on the trees turning orange and red, squirrels running over lawns in search of food for the winter, the air cool enough for a coat but warm enough for a walk.
Now everything’s cold and grey. Grey and brown really; dry grass, earth and ash. Gardens are empty and starved of water. Dirt and dust coats the buildings, so heavily in places that it’s hard to remember them without tinted windows. I walk carefully, planning out each step before I take it. There isn’t much in the way of rubble to trip on, most of it having been collected and taken away to the waste pile. They try to reuse or recycle as much as they can from the demolished homes, but whatever can’t be given new life sits in the massive garbage heap. The small stones and cracks are what threaten to twist my ankles as I walk. But those always used to trip me up, when I’d wear stilettos and pants a size too tight.
I smile, enjoying the memories of high heels and days gone by.
I roll the sleeves of my jacket up, wanting to keep from the cold but also wanting to feel sun on my skin for the first time in weeks. When the bombs went off during the panic, we couldn’t see the sun in the sky for months. Then, slowly, we began to see the shape of the sun from behind the clouds of smoke and dust. Now it’s starting to peek out from behind the smog, but we all know it’s going to be a long time before the air is clear enough for it to light up the city like it once did. Until then, we’ll live behind the daytime fluorescents that flicker and buzz like fireflies.
I walk through the city districts, careful to keep to the sidewalks as trucks full of guards and supplies speed by. Their wheels kick up dust and make my eyes sting. I weave my way through the maze of streets and city districts. A black truck, with a neon yellow biohazard sign, rushes by and I hold my breath. Inside of the truck it carries the diseased and the dying. It transports the last of the plague out of the city, keeping the rest of us safe from the infection that decimated the population over eight years ago. I watch it speed down the road, taking a sharp turn out of sight. I exhale loud and roll my shoulders, trying to work the sudden tension out of them before continuing my walk.
I turn off the main road that runs through the two largest districts. I begin to roam what would’ve once been a quiet niche of the city. The rich families used to live here. They’d spend money on overpriced homes designed to look like suburban townhouses, while having the luxuries only living in the heart of a metropolis could bring. It’s eerily quiet, almost silent, like I’m the only one in the world left. As I walk further, the air gets thicker and full of ash. Then I hear a crackling on the wind and what sounds like screaming, and I follow it to its source.
One of the houses is being burned to the ground. A group of men stand in front of the home, donning protective gear and flamethrowers. Two fire trucks are parked close by, hoses ready and waiting should the fire get out of hand. I move closer, wanting to get a better view of the flames. The air is warm from the blaze and my hair sticks to the sweat on my skin. As I cross the strip of road to the yard, a gust of wind pushes a cloud of ash into me. The tiny particles force their way past my nostrils and into my lungs. I double over, coughing hard, my throat burning and eyes watering.
“Ma’am,” someone calls.
I look up to see a member of the Patrol approaching. The gas mask he wears muffles his voice, and he moves towards me fast with his hand on the holster of his gun.
“Are you alright ma’am?” he asks slowly.
“Yes, yes,” I sputter through coughs, “ash… breathe…”
The guard removes his hand from his gun and signals for two guards I hadn’t noticed to stand down.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed to be this close. If you could just stand further back, please.”
I nod and step away from him. I spit on the pavement next to me and cough again, this time to try and clear my throat.
“Why aren’t you putting the fire out?” I ask, voice rough.
He looks back at the house, not meeting my gaze.
“We found… signs… of possible contamination with infectious materials. As per standard protocol, we’re eliminating all traces of the biohazard. Now, ma’am , if you’d kindly step ba-”
“I heard screaming,” I cut him off.
He stands straighter, looking me in the eye this time, before answering.
“You must be mistaken. Now, ma’am, I won’t ask you again to stand back.”
I nod and move to the other side of the road, hand on my chest as I watch the fire burn.
I throw up in the corner of the yard, but no one cares. Not even the guards who will have to clean it. Stomach acid and everything I’ve eaten in the last day hits the ground, mixing with the dirt and grass. Some of it splashes onto my uniform and shoes. My stomach churns, hungry for the food I’ve just given up. I lean against the fence and bend over, letting my head hang. The liquefied contents of my stomach slowly fill the cracks and craters of the ground, pooling around the solid chunks.
None of the sick men and women roaming around the yard notice me. None of them seem upset by the incident in the mess hall, like they’ve seen this a hundred times before.
Maybe they have.
I slump to the ground, sweat beading down my face, and unzip the top of my crimson one-piece. The air on my chest feels good, but not enough to cool me down. I unzip the uniform even more, exposing me from the sides of my breasts to my navel. I want to rip the clothing off, to walk through the pen naked. Even though the fabric is thin, it feels as warm as a parka with the blazing fever. I lick my lips, realizing how dry they are and how dry my cracked, yellow, skin is.
The wind ruffles my hair. I take a fistful in my hand and pull slowly, testing its strength. My scalp releases the strands, giving up the brown locks Philibert used to play with. Not all of them come out, some of them clinging to my head. I pull harder, ripping them out. With both hands, I pull, tearing all I can out from the roots. It doesn’t hurt like I know it should.
I slip my right arm out from my uniform, then my left. I let the top of the one-piece hang limp on the ground around me, and pull my legs up to my chest in an attempt to fake modesty and get comfortable. I lie back against the cold metal fence, close my eyes and try to sleep.
Approaching the door, I pull a card key from my back pocket, worried for just a second that it may have fallen out on the jog over, and hand it to the guard stationed out front. He frowns at me, and swipes the card with his handheld reader. It beeps twice, giving me clearance to the building’s inner entrance.
The heavy steel doors open and I walk through. Another officer waits inside and a woman in scrubs sits behind a reception desk.
“Good afternoon,” she says with a bored smile, “how may I help you today?”
“I’m here to see Philibert Cabral. He works upstairs in-“
“Data analysis,” she finishes for me.
I nod as she continues on.
“I’m just going to need some information, if that’s alright?” she asks, opening a binder lined with sign in sheets. She flips to an empty one and waits for me to answer.
I nod again, knowing to refuse is to be escorted out.
“Your name, please.”
“Date of your most recent vaccination?”
“September 17th, 2018. So, yesterday.”
“Wonderful. And, last one, do you have a checkpoint paper from today?”
She jots something down and opens one of the desk drawers, taking out a glass vial with a cotton swab sealed inside. She reaches into a box on her desk, pulling out a pair of plastic gloves and putting them on.
“No problem. I’m just going to need to take a cheek swab to make sure you’re clean, and then you’ll be issued a checkpoint paper that will give you clearance to public buildings for the next three hours. After that, you’ll be required to submit to another swab.”
The receptionist/nurse picks up the vial with the swab and she approaches me. She uncaps the tube and I open my mouth, noticing that the guard has moved closer to me. I wait for her to finish scratching me with the cotton tip, trying not to gag when she puts it in too far. She puts the swab back in the glass and walks back to her desk.
Behind it is a counter, government issued, cluttered with test-tube racks, labels, a few bottles of blue liquid and a disposal unit for hazardous materials. She slides the vial in a holder and pours some of the blue liquid into it, filling just enough to cover the cotton end of the swab. I cross my arms, always annoyed during this procedure; I’ve had my shots kept up to date and there’s no reason for me to need testing. I know what the outcome is going to be, it’s always-
“I’m sorry Mrs. Cabral, but your test results are showing up purple, indicating a trace of infection,” she says slowly.
It takes me a moment to decipher her words and once I do, it takes me even longer to figure out how to react to them.
“Your results have turned up positive for potential infection.”
“But it’s blue.”
“No, ma’am, that’s purple,” she insists, showing me the tube as proof.
“I don’t mean that’s blue. I mean my results are always blue. Always.”
I can feel sweat on the back of my neck and my hands feel unsteady. The room tilts a bit to the left and I wonder if I should brace myself against a wall to keep from falling. It’s a mistake. It has to be. She probably poured the wrong liquid in. All the blue solutions are unmarked, so how’s she supposed to tell the right one apart from the rest?
“Yes, but because of th-“
“I’m not infected. I’m clearly not rabid,” I tell her matter-of-factly.
I can hear the guard muttering under his breath and from the corner of my eye I realize he’s holding a walkie. His free hand is resting on the stun-gun in his holster, his eyes fixed on me.
“Please, ma’am, if you’d just relax a moment and take a deep breath. These in-house results are never conclusive. They only show that you have bacteria in your blood similar to that of the disease which, in your case, could be the result of a fresh inoculation,” she tells me in a soothing voice.
“So then what’s the problem? If you know it’s from my shot just let me in,” I try and reason, drumming my fingers restlessly against my thigh.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, standard procedure is that we isolate the source of potential infection, have a full medical exam administered, and upon a clean bill of health you’ll be released.”
“Released? So I’m a prisoner now?” I ask, throat much too tight.
“A patient if you’re sick and an inconvenienced citizen if you’re not. It’s just a precaution to ensure public safety, ma’am. If you’d just follow Clay, he’ll escort you to a waiting area until the proper transport arrives.”
“Alone? What about Philibert? He’s going to wonder where I am. He’ll be worried. He’ll want to know what’s being done.”
“We’ll inform him immediately and he’ll be brought down to the holding bay to accompany you to the appropriate facility. If you’d just please follow Clay…”
The guard comes up beside me, his hand now resting directly on the stun gun, and leads me to a side door I hadn’t noticed before. Of course there’d be a side door; if I was rabid, they wouldn’t want me back on the streets to become a roamer, but they wouldn’t want me in the building either. He slides a card key in the reader and it gives a shrill beep before the lock releases. He pushes the thick steel door open to reveal a sitting room that could’ve come from an old IKEA catalogue.
Crisp white walls, squishy sofas, and some chairs that look more like art than they do comfortable, all circle a long white coffee table stacked with books. The door clangs shut behind me, and I spin on my heel. The guard has sealed me in, alone, and I take a seat on one of the couches. From this angle, a thin gap between the curtains is visible and I notice a strip of silver.
My heart’s pounding so hard that I think my ribs are rattling. I fold my arms across my chest and cross my left leg over my right. I can’t have the infection. I can’t because I just took my shots. The vaccine keeps the virus away, keeps us from going rabid, from turning cannibal, from the devastation the world survived.
But what if I’m sick?
But I’m not.
Why is this room so warm?
I wait for what feels like years until I hear the now familiar sound of a lock unlocking. I look over my shoulder at the door and see my husband, escorted by the less than pleasant guard.
“Philibert!” I say his name like it’s the most beautiful word I’ve ever said. I stand up quickly and turn towards him.
He takes a step away from me, like something’s pushed him back. His gaze darts around the room quickly, constantly shifting from me to his surroundings. The guard raises his hand, palm towards me and hand open.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to stay back.”
I stare at the guard, my eyes stinging and I try not to look as upset as I feel. None of us speak for a moment. The Philibert gives me a big smile, his lips stretched too tight and too wide, trying to diffuse the tension.
“Hey, Tiph,” he says much too gently, “how’re you feeling?”
“Fine. I’m feeling perfectly fine and this is all bullshit. You have to know that. Please tell me you know that.”
“Of course, babe. Of course it is and we’re going to get all of this straightened out, I promise.”
I raise my eyebrow and shake my head, looking anywhere but at him.
“You’ve never, in your life, called me ‘babe’ so don’t start now. Don’t try to fucking pacify me with a pet name, ok?” I say loudly.
The guard moves forward, ready to jump between us should I suddenly spring forward and attack.
“I’m sorry,” I say taking a step back, “I’m just really stressed, ok?”
“Yeah, Tiph, I know. But you’re going to be fine. The transport is going to be here soon, they’ll run a few tests, ask you a few questions and I’ll meet you there in a couple hours,” he tells me, stepping out from behind the guard.
“Meet me there? Aren’t you coming with me?”
Philibert clears his throat and straightens his shirt before answering. His face seems flushed and he won’t meet my gaze.
“They need me to answer a few questions about you, to help them retrace your steps. What you do, who you’ve been with the last 24 hours, that kind of stuff. The second they’re done, I’ll head right over.”
“Why would they ask you where I’ve been? You’ve been here all day, it’s not like you’re going to know. And who I’ve been with? Sexually? Just you and you know that.”
He shifts his weight from foot to foot.
“Tiph, I know, but that’s what they want so I’m going to be as helpful as I can. Anything to help you get better is my priori-”
“I’m not sick!”
The guard points the stun gun directly at my chest.
“I know. I know you’re not, Tiph. We’ll get this all sorted and you’ll be out in no time. Promise.”
Philibert walks away from me and heads to the door. The guard backs up, not turning his back to me and swipes his card key in the reader. The door opens with another beep.
“I’ll see you in a bit, Tiph,” Philibert says as he steps through to the other side.
The guard follows him through, gun still raised, and shuts the door behind them.
I wake up in a room as naked as I feel. No single piece of furniture adorns the small quarters. The light fixtures are flat and too high for me to reach, and there’s no doorknob where the door is. Three of the walls are white and, like everything else in these pens, show signs of a struggle. Old stains peak out from under hasty paint jobs. Scratches cover the floor and dig deep into the plaster on the walls. The fourth wall is made of glass, and I see another room like this one on the other side.
I’m curled in the fetal position, my crimson jumper replaced by a white hospital gown, my wedding band still on my finger. For the first time since being infected, I don’t feel warm. My skin isn’t hot or too tight on my body. I feel healthy again. I feel better. I push myself into a sitting position and smile as the wood underneath me feels cold. Cold. I run my hands over my scalp and the skin is smooth and soft. I inspect my arms, my legs and I even pull my gown up to run my hands over my chest. The scars and marks that littered my body are gone.
I feel like me again.
In the other room the door opens and Philibert walks in.
“Mrs. Cabral?” a man asks from the door behind the drapes, pushing them aside with his clipboard.
“Yes,” I seethe from my spot on the sofa.
As though there’s anyone else in here.
“If you’d kindly bring all your personal belongings and follow me.”
He leads me through a narrow tunnel to an alleyway. A black truck bearing the yellow biohazard sign is parked and waiting. I stop dead in my tracks, not wanting to get a step closer to the vehicle. The guard looks at me and waits patiently for me continue onwards. I swallow hard and keep moving. It’s just a mix up and I need to be brave. No, not brave; complacent. I’ve had my vaccination and there’s no need to be brave when I’m immune.
Inside are seats fastened to the walls with harnesses to keep people secured. Two of the seats are already occupied. One of them is a woman, late fifties, who looks as frightened as I feel. She looks at me and recoils, shrinking back in her chair. The other one, a boy in his late teens, doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening, and his eyes look wide and unfocused. His skin’s pale, yellowing in patches, and I know he’ll be rabid soon.
He looks like every poster for the disease that I’d ever seen; warning us to report any and all roamers, listing the signs of infection beside the photo of someone who used to be human. Fever, bloodshot eyes, yellowing skin, incoherent speech, sexual aggression, violent outbursts, rage and hunger. Philibert used to say the rabid want only the three animal Fs; to feed, fuck, and fight.
The man mutters something, trying to lean forward. He’s watching me now, and his eyes are void of intelligent thought.
“I’m not getting in this thing with him in here,” I tell the officer, eyes fixed on the boy.
“Ma’am, the harnesses will keep him restrained, and I’ll put you next to the woman on the opposite wall. I promise you, we take security measures to prevent patients from getting free. Now, if you’ll just take a seat,” he tells me, pointing to a chair near the old woman.
I climb the steps of the truck and sit. The officer ties me in and I feel like a prisoner. Each hand is fastened to the opposite shoulder, my legs are strapped to the floor of the truck, and my body is secured in a harness that looks more like a straitjacket than anything close to seatbelt. The journey to the medical centre is a long one. It’s at least an hour’s drive away and isolated from the city.
Along the way, we pick up more people. Two middle aged men, both yellow around the edges, and a woman who can’t be much older than I am. She’s harnessed in next to me. She doesn’t seem sick, but doesn’t seem worried either.
“I’d shake your hand if I had one free,” she jokes.
I can’t help but chuckle, even if it feels a bit strange for me to be laughing at a time like this.
“Martha,” she says, winking.
She gives me a once over, frowning.
“You look too young to be a wife.”
She nods to my left hand, where a plastic ring from a costume shop rests around my finger.
“Either you put that on the wrong hand this morning, or your husband made do with what he had.”
I close my eyes and smile, nodding to her. “You know how it was; people thought the end was nigh and figured it was their last chance to get hitched. Suddenly standards didn’t matter and people took what they could get,” I explain.
“You seem happy about settling, though.”
“I am. Well, I didn’t really settle, but I probably wouldn’t have gotten married to him at 16 either,” I admit.
Martha nods, understanding. She looks around the truck and hums to herself. She’s comfortable here, at ease, and her courage makes me strong.
Philibert walks close to the glass partition, watching me. He hasn’t shaven in a while, the stubble on his chin longer than it was when we last spoke. He’s in his grey civilian uniform, but the shirt looks wrinkled and dirty. He puts a hand against the glass and smiles at me, eyes dull.
I put my hand on the glass and smile back, leaning my head on the window.
He pulls away for a moment, before putting his hand back and leaning in close.
“Why do you look so upset? I mean, I know you weren’t expecting me to be bald, I wasn’t expecting me to go bald, but I’m better.”
My voice catches in my throat and I feel my eyes sting as the words hang in the air.
“I’m better,” I whisper this time.
I try and relax into my chair, but the straps pull uncomfortably on my chest. I wiggle in them, huffing and puffing. With all the people, and the harness around me, it’s hot in the truck.
“Ugh, these straps are biting into my skin; I think they’re cutting off my circulation. Hey,” I shout in hopes someone will hear me, “can you loosen these, please? It’s too tight.”
No one from the front cabin of the truck answers so I call even louder.
“I think they’re used to hearing people yell. It’s probably why they aren’t answering,” Martha tells me.
I frown, but know she’s right.
“So, how’d you end up here? Get bitten by a roamer?” she asks casually, like two friends talking over a drink at a bar.
“Oh, I’m not sick,” I tell her quickly, “this is just a mistake.”
“No, really. I had my shot yesterday, so my test showed signs of possible infection. I’m not actually rabid,” I laugh. “And you? Did they screw up your vaccine too?”
“Oh, no. I’m definitely infected.”
“What?” I ask, unsure I heard her properly.
“How? I mean, you can’t be sure. Everyone’s been given shots, the antivirus. I mean, it could just be a mist-“
“My boyfriend came home from the plant last night. A roamer had attacked him and bit one of his fingers off. The vaccines can only do so much, you know? So we knew he was done for. A dead man walking kind of thing,” she tells me in a matter of fact tone. “Anyways, we wait the night, hoping that maybe he’ll be able to fight off the infection. He wasn’t. He started turning around breakfast. I don’t want to be here without him, and I don’t want him dying alone and afraid. So I slept with him for the last time.”
“You what?” I ask horrified.
“Slept with him,” she says calmly. “They came and got him early this afternoon, while I was out. When I got home and he wasn’t there, I called them to come collect me.”
“No, no. It’s brilliant. This way we’ll be in the pens together. We’ll both turn and won’t be alone.”
“You’re fucking crazy,” I hiss, pulling as far away from her as I can.
I’d heard rumours of suicide by roamer, but never believed them. Who would choose this for themselves? What was she thinking? The teen across from us begins wailing, beating the back of his head against the truck wall.
“Crazy? Crazy would have been to go on without him, to keep on fighting. Giving in is the sanest thing we can do.”
He looks like he hasn’t slept in a very long time. There’s a knocking, and then the door to Philibert’s room opens a crack.
“Sir, my name is Dr. Stephenson. I’ve been charting your wife’s condition since her admission to the facility. May I come in? It’s important I speak with you.”
Philibert nods. The door opens to grant access to a man in a white lab coat. Under it he wears the regulated purple uniform of a healthcare worker and carries a clear plastic clipboard. He watches me, expression blank, and flips to a page in his notes. I pull myself off the window and smile to the doctor.
“It’s nice to finally meet you. They told me a physician was assigned to me, but they never said who.”
“How did she contract it?” Philibert asks bluntly.
The doctor looks back down at his paper, jots something down, and turns his attention to Philibert.
“She told the admissions nurse she’d accidentally inhaled fresh ash at the scene of a decontamination fire. She hadn’t been wearing a protective mask and likely ingested biohazardous material.” After a moment of silence passes between them, the doctor continues.
“We need to discuss her options.”
Philibert doesn’t bother looking up, but rather he continues to stare at me. He furrows his brow and exhales deeply, his warm breath leaving a mark on the glass.
“What options?” I ask, my attention now on the doctor.
“I know it’s difficult to talk about, Mr. Cabral, but it’s important that we know what to do during this final stage.”
“What final stage?” I ask.
When both are silent, I knock on the glass. Both of them take a step back from the window and Philibert looks unsettled.
“As you’ve been explained, those infected have a terminal prognosis. Tiphany is degenerating steadily, and if she continues at this rate she’ll, regrettably, pass on within the week.”
“What the hell do you mean by ‘pass on’? I’m fine!” I shout, banging my open hand against the window.
“Right now, her brain is shutting down. She’s lost the proper function of her kidneys and liver, her respiratory rate is much too high and her pulse much too low. She’s losing circulation in her extremities, as you can see by her blue fingers and toes,” the doctor lies.
I look at my body, my skin pink and healthy, my fingers intact and nails well groomed.
Why is he lying to Philibert?
I’m healthy, I’m cured, and I just want to go home.
“From what we’re able to tell,” he continues, “she’s also lost the ability to reason. Two guards found her huddled in the yard, naked, and ripping out her hair. Lu-“
“Liar! It fell out! My hair, it fell out! Stop it!” I shout, slapping my hands against the glass, “Phil, can’t you see he’s lying?”
Why can’t they hear me?
“-ckily they were able to tranquilize her and bring her here without the use of excessive force. We had to shave her head for her own protection and we’ve done the best we can with her self-inflicted wounds. As you can see, she’s unable to communicate using language and we don’t believe she’s able to understand it either.”
Philibert turns away from me.
“What can you do?”
“We can either keep her isolated like she is and let the infection take its course or…”
“Or?” Philibert and I ask in unison.
“Or there’s always euthanasia.”
Philibert’s shoulders tense and he folds his arms over his chest.
“The hell there is,” I yell.
“I know it isn’t what you want to hear,” the doctor says in a soothing tone, “but there’s nothing else we can do for her. It’s the humane option for those in her state. It’s quick, painless, and allows those infected to keep their integrity.”
The hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“If you need some time to think about it, I can always come back later… I understand this isn’t an easy decision.”
The doctor clicks his pen, retracting the ballpoint back into the plastic shaft and slipping it into his breast pocket. He pulls a walkie from his lab coat with his free hand and presses down on a button, bringing it close to his mouth to speak.
“No, wait,” Philibert cuts in. His voice is thick and he looks back at me, not bothering to fake a smile. “I… I don’t want her to suffer like this. You’re sure she won’t feel anything?” he asks.
“No! No!” I yell, beating my fists against the glass, willing the window to break.
This can’t be happening. I’m fine, I’m fine!
“Just the prick of a needle, like a booster shot or a vaccine.”
The truck begins to bounce up and down as we drive over what can only be a gravel driveway. I shout for them to get me out of here, that there’s a mistake. Don’t they know there’s a mistake? I’m not like the others, I’m not sick. I’m not insane. I’m not rabid. Can’t they see that?
“If your husband was sick,” she says over the boy’s screaming, “if your husband was dying, what would you have done?”
There’s a sickening crunch and a gurgling sound that follows. The teen has cracked his head open against the wall, blood dripping onto the floor below him. Yet still, he thwacks his head against the truck, beating his brains in, shouting, until he’s finally quiet.
The truck comes to a halt. The back doors squeal in protest as the guards open them. Sounds of men talking, people screaming, a gun firing all rush in and greet us.
We’re finally at the pens.
I wake up to bright lights and the smell of disinfectant. My eyes sting and my throat feels like it’s been rubbed down with sandpaper. My head hurts and the room is spinning. They’ve wheeled a gurney into the white room and tied me to it. I turn my head towards the glass wall and see Philibert watching me. There are crow’s feet where smooth skin used to be. His straw coloured hair looks like dry grass and his bright eyes are dark.
Two men enter my room. One’s carrying a sheet and the other, the doctor, a syringe.
“How’d this one contract it?” the orderly asks.
“She was recently vaccinated with batch 19,” the doctor explains as he pricks my skin with the tip of the needle and shoots fire up my arm.
In the other room, a man walks in and gives Philibert a small brown envelope. He turns the package open and my wedding band slides into his open hand. He looks at me one last time before turning away, not wanting to watch me die. He walks to the door and pushes it open.
“If they’re not careful,” the orderly mumbles, “they’re going to have another outbreak on their hands.”
I feel tired, groggy. It’s getting harder to hear them and the lights seem brighter, making my eyes hurt.
“I know. She’s the seventh subject that’s been brought in post-inoculation. But at least we know this test batch was a failure.”
I watch the door shut behind Philibert and I close my eyes.