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A Countdown Halved
I squeezed my eyes shut, praying it wouldn’t be me. Worrying didn’t help. It kept me awake. Made me worry more. What if this time I was infected?
The duvet was twisted around my ankles and my back felt wet where it was pressed against the rumpled bed sheet. It was the thick of summer, the worse time of year. The tarpaulin shielding our village trapped the heat.
I could hear Tabitha moving in her room, the hiss of fabric as she threw her blankets onto the floor. Was the heat keeping her awake, or something more terrible? It was worse if it happened to someone you loved. Then the countdown began, each moment agonising, knowing once you hit zero it didn’t matter. You were next and by that time your countdown was half.
Word spread fast when my neighbour, Mathew, planned a neighbourhood picnic. He was a young twenty-something, a once disillusioned city-dweller longing for a tight-knit community, and he took his community duties seriously.
“With music!” The picket fence dividing our gardens peaked at my knee, so I don’t know why he needed to shout over it. “Get everyone together, share our rations, and have a jolly good time. Forget the world is ending for a while. It’s not like we have to worry about rain.”
Tabitha ran to the fence waving her arms. “Mathew! Mathew!”
“Hey, chickpea.” He ruffled her hair and turned to me. “What do you say? I just need help setting out some tables, that’s all.”
I respected youth’s optimism, how it’s reborn after painful teen years, bright and addicting though quick to fizzle. That, and being his neighbour, I couldn’t really refuse. We shook hands like two drug-dealers, with Tabitha giggling into my leg.
The day before the picnic, Mathew rang me. Our village had a private telephone system, the only telephone system left in the world, but it was for emergencies only.
“Hello.” Mathew’s voice was quiet, “Um, do you have any insomnia pills? I’ve run out and with this heat it’s getting hard to sleep.”
“Give me a minute.”
Tabitha was lying on the kitchen floor with her sketchbook, her wax crayons scattered everywhere. Navigating the mess, I opened the cupboard where I kept the medicine. “I have some. Not many since I’ve used some. I’ll bring them over now, if that’s okay with you?”
“Just leave them on the doorstep.”
“On the doorstep?”
“That’s right.” He stifled a yawn, “There. Told you. Oh, and I’m, uh, not going to be at the picnic. Just enjoy it without me. I’ll ring everyone else, just… Letting you know. I want everyone to have fun. Forget the end of the world for a bit.”
What other commitments could he have? “Are you all right? Do you want me to come over?”
“No, I’m fine.” his voice shook, “Just stay away. Please. I don’t want to see anyone.”
Sometimes I think I reach the worst conclusions because I want so badly to be proven wrong, “Are you infected?”
“Oh God.” He sobbed. The denial came too late to be convincing. “No. No, I’m not. I can’t be. It’s just the heat. I’m not infected. I’m fine.”
“Of course. It was silly to ask. Don’t know what I was thinking.” I thought about our conversation by the garden fence. I’d shook his hand without gloves.
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