Author’s Note: I finished this in September 2019 for a contest, leaving it off my blog until the results. Now I’ve decided to post it. I don’t usually include warnings for stories, but given the current state of the world and how the coronavirus is impacting everyone, it only seemed right.
This story is about an epidemic.
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 worst time of year. The plastic that shielded our village also 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 was it 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 halved.
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. It’s not like we have to worry about rain.”
Tabitha ran to the fence waving her arms. “Mathew! Mathew!”
“Don’t run, Tabitha.” I said as she skidded to a stop.
“Hey, chickpea.” He ruffled her hair and turned back 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, 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, or so I thought.
“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. 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 without me.”
He had no family inside the village. 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.
Raindrops slid down plastic walls the day of Mathew’s funeral, catching the sunset in their watery traps. That night I slept for an hour. The heat clung to my throat, suffocating me, and the fear…
I didn’t sleep until 5am. I was convinced I wouldn’t, that my handshake condemned me. I woke to a dawn too bright and reminded myself to be grateful I could still sleep. My eyelids stung when I blinked. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to lie in my sweat and forget the funeral, the handshake, and the plague.
I dragged myself downstairs to make Tabitha’s breakfast. Sitting at the back of the house, the kitchen was sheltered from dawn and soothingly dark. I glanced at the hall. No sign of Tabitha yet, though these days a mother could hardly find fault with a child who overslept. Not when the plague robbed it from you, stealing those strange peaceful hours we didn’t understand but readily accepted. Unfortunately, it was a school day so I couldn’t let her sleep in for long.
I counted our rations. Only one tin of fruit left. That would have to do for Tabitha’s breakfast. I’ll have to get creative tomorrow. Hopefully the garden vegetables were ready.
When Tabitha crept into the kitchen, she was hugging her chest and staring at the floor with pinched eyebrows. Her eyes were tight at the edges.
“How did you sleep?” A once innocent question made my heart jolt whenever I asked.
She started to cry.
Mathew had lied about not having enough pills. We found packets and packets of them. All empty. At the time, that comforted me. Maybe it wasn’t the plague. Maybe everything had gotten too much. Our lives were strict, and only became stricter after that. Not out of some dictatorship, like people years ago used to fear, but out of choice. We chose to go out for no more than an hour at a time. We chose to use at least one hour a week to check the perimeter for rips and punctures, though no one ever found any.
I didn’t take Tabitha to school that day, just in case the infection spread to the other students. Just in case. There was a chance she was fine, wasn’t there? There was still time to be proven wrong.
She pressed her tears into my chest as I carried her upstairs. “You just need to try again, that’s all.” I wished I believed the words I was saying. “It was warm last night and that wouldn’t have helped.”
Tabitha’s room was on the same side of the house as the kitchen, dark and soothing. I stepped on three toy cars, screwing my face up in pain and pressing my lips together so I wouldn’t cry out. Why hadn’t I worn slippers?
“You squashed my car.”
“I’ll just have to squash you too!” I tossed Tabitha onto the bed and tickled her.
She squealed. “That’s. Not…” A giggle. “That’s tickling!”
“Is it? Oh dear I’ve gotten all mixed up.” I pulled a blanket over her and kissed her forehead. “Now, you try get some sleep and try to relax. Sometimes when we get very scared or worried about something, it stops us sleeping.” Careful not to step on any more toys, I hung a spare bedsheet over the curtains for when the sun rounded the house. “There’s nothing to be worried about. If you close your eyes and pretend to sleep, it soon becomes real.”
“Don’t leave me alone.”
“I won’t.” There was no point. I couldn’t. Both of us had been exposed. A handshake. A hand in her hair. Her countdown had started, and I wanted mine to match.
“Are you ready to go, sweetie?”
Sitting at the top of the stairs, Tabitha wrinkled her nose and pressed her face between the banister spindles. “I don’t wanna go. It’s nice here. Nicer than anything.”
“Sometimes we have to go places we don’t want to.” I turned the house keys over and over on my palm. “Don’t make me sling you over my shoulder.”
“You can’t carry anythin’. You’re rubbish.”
I blinked, surprised at the venom in her tone, but with two sleepless nights and the news I just sprang on her, could I really blame her?
“Tabby, we need to go.” I walked up the stairs slowly, hoping my approach was enough to convince her to do as she was told. “I know you’re tired and scared, but there isn’t a choice in the matter.”
She shook her head and dug her head so deep into the wood her skin turned white.
“You’re going to hurt yourself.” The moment I was in arm’s length of her, she slapped me. “Ouch! Tabitha!”
She pulled on her hair, curling her chest to her knees. “I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry.” She scrubbed her feet on the carpet, “I’m just itchy all over. Don’t touch me.”
“You itch all over?”
She nodded, pressing her forehead against the spindles again, leaving marks on her skin. “Make it stop please, Mummy. Please make it stop.”
“We’re going to see people who will make it stop.” I hated lying to her. I’d never heard anything about a cure, but I couldn’t think of anything else other than taking her to a doctor. “Please, sweetheart.”
She rubbed her arms, scrubbed her feet, her face twisted like she was in pain. “Okay.” She sniffed. There were tears in her eyes.
I kissed her temple and offered her my hand. We scaled the stairs slowly, hands joined, to the front door. Tabitha called the three concrete flags on the garden path Hop, Skip and Jump, what she did every time she crossed them. When we crossed them that day, she swayed off the flags and hit her arm on the gate as she stumbled past it.
Across the road, Sarah and Mia talked and glanced at us. They were talking about us. I’d already been asked why Tabitha hadn’t been in school for the last two days, but I can’t remember what I’d answered.
The sun was at its highest and hottest when we reached the village border. The outside world was hazy through the plastic, though that might have been because of my exhaustion. A windowless building was up ahead. There was a sign on the door, written in bold red letters, readable from a distance away:
PROHIBITED ENTRY UNLESS AUTHORISED
I shuddered. We couldn’t stay and I didn’t dare explain why we had to leave. If people knew we were infected, it’ll cause chaos. We’ll never be let back in.
Tabitha stopped. “I thought we weren’t allowed to go in there.”
“Today we have special permission.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I’d never tried to leave before.
I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I looked once behind me towards home before I opened the door and walked inside. It was dark. I blinked away green splotches from my eyes.
“Can I help you?” A woman in a white uniform sat behind the desk. Her name was Edith, I think.
“Yes. We want to leave.” I winced at the harshness of my tone. She’ll let us go. What am I thinking?
Edith’s look of surprise didn’t sooth my nerves. “Really? …Well, we have a form you’ll need to sign and some coveralls you’ll need to change into.” Her eyebrows raised as her gaze shifted, “You’re…taking your daughter out there?”
I put my arm around Tabitha. “Yes. Is that a problem?”
She scowled, just for a second, before the expression slipped into something inoffensive. “No problem at all.” She pulled out the form and a pen from under the desk and laid them in front of me. It was a check out sheet, with NAME, TIME OUT, TIME BACK and REASON left blank.
I hesitated over the last two options and cursed my cynicism. “I’m not sure what time we’ll be back.”
“You can fill that in after. I just need the reason you’re leaving.”
My words caught in my throat. I wanted to scream, “The village isn’t safe. The plague got in. Mathew, me and Tabitha – we’ve been infected. It’s already too late for everyone.” I couldn’t say any of it. Couldn’t admit everyone was done for.
“She’s taking me to see Daddy.” Tabitha chirped up.
Edith smiled. “That’s nice. Yes, just write that -”
“Tired?” Edith said, “Have you been sleeping?”
My hand shook. My writing wobbled.
“No? Why’s that?”
“All done for you!” I pushed the form back and grabbed Tabitha’s hand, “Come on, sweetie. Let’s go.”
“Hold on a minute.” Edith stepped from behind the desk and came towards us.
My heart hammered against my chest. Tabitha looked dopily at me. She had no idea how much trouble we were in. If I told the truth now, what would happen to us? Would I even be believed? Mathew had denied it in the end. It was hard to accept that all our precautions, our shielded village, our isolation from the outside world, was all for nothing.
Edith brushed past me and unlocked a metal cabinet in the corner of the room. Inside were plastic coveralls on coat hangers. “You’ll need to wear these. If you don’t, we’ll have to burn your clothes when you come back in.”
“Oh.” I flushed, “Right. No problem.”
Edith passed us two suits and went back behind the counter.
I helped Tabitha get dressed. “Leg up. That’s it.”
Tabitha wobbled as she stepped into the leg of the suit. I pulled it over her body and zipped it up. It was far too big. Sealed around the hands and feet, I couldn’t find a way off rolling them up, leaving her to trail freakishly long dreads of plastic.
“Don’t you look good!” I pulled her hood over her head and bopped her nose. “Very smart!”
She looked at me like I was stupid. “The arms and legs are too long.”
“I’m sorry, baby.” I kept on my smile and quickly finished dressing. The plastic covering my shoes made my feet feel slippery. We shuffled towards the exit. “Careful not to trip.” Was it just through this door?
Edith was on the phone, watching us. “It’s Maisie and her daughter Tabitha.” She smiled and gestured at us to go through. “Yes. Yes, Mathew’s neighbour. That’s the one.”
I panicked. I slammed the door shut hard and pulled Tabitha by the hand through the corridor to a second door. She stumbled, struggling to keep on her feet with all that excess.
I threw open the second door. The light struck my face, much brighter than I thought, much brighter than it was inside our village. Though our walls were clear, they presented us with a world drained and when I looked back it was the village that looked pale. The road ahead was cracked, its painted lines long faded and broken, splintered by roots where the forest on either side spilled over.
The plastic suit rustled as I walked to the bus shelter. Tabitha’s was particularly noisy. I sat down on the rusted bench with a sigh. The shelter was covered in lichen and leaned like a drunk over the pavement. The glass in the roof and left side was missing.
Tabitha crawled onto my lap and I hugged her close. “Tabby? Honey?”
“Why did you tell that lady we were going to see Daddy?”
With her face pressed in my chest, I felt her frown. “Tha’s where we’re going.”
“No, sweetie. We’re going to see a doctor.”
“You said we were going to see Daddy.”
“No. I said doctor.”
“Oh. Can we see Daddy after?”
“I don’t know where Daddy is, sweetheart.”
It was raining when the bus arrived. The road was bathed black and the plastic overalls clung to my skin. Tabitha was shaking. I yawned and stood, wrinkling my nose as the overalls peeled off the seat. Tabitha scowled and covered her ears as the rumbling bus crept closer. It stopped next to us and the doors screeched as they folded open.
I couldn’t see the driver’s face. A canister sat behind him and from it a ringed pipe coiled round and pierced his mouth. Some kind of gas mask?
Maybe it was the way Tabitha ducked behind me, or knowing that no one was around to help, but my fear went quiet and I looked into those blank discs to the human eyes beneath. “We’re going to the hospital in the city.”
The driver didn’t say anything, just gestured to the seats.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
Tabitha scuttled past me and twisted back to stick her tongue out at the driver. I followed her to a seat and grimaced at the sicky feeling as the wet plastic pressed against my backside.
Tabitha picked at the plastic clinging to her chest. “Can we take these off now?”
“But I’m cold and it’s uncomfy.”
“I know, but we might get in trouble if we don’t wear them.”
The bus jerked over a crack in the road. Tabitha watched the window.
“There are so many trees standing together.”
“It’s called a forest. That’s what it means when trees stand together like that. Animals like it in there.”
“I don’t see any.” She wiped the fog off the window and, cupping her eyes, pressed her face to the glass.
“That’s because…” I yawned, “…they are deep, deep, deep in there. Hiding.” I looked at the raindrops on the bus window, the last reminder of home, before I turned to keep an eye on the driver. I couldn’t tell where he was looking with those goggles, but he had to be staring at us at least some of the time. He could be driving us anywhere. And who knew what he would do with us when we got there.
I watched him for a long time. I didn’t know how long. Hours. Hours I’m not sure I’d have spent sleeping even if I could. I didn’t notice that Tabitha climbed over the back of the seat and ran up and down the bus until she rushed into the seat in front of me.
I startled. “What are you doing?”
She’d drawn faces and spirals and hearts in the clouded windows. Every inch was covered except for the last two windows closest to the driver. It was impressive, but when the bus stopped and the driver shifted in his seat, I was terrified he was going to throw us off for vandalism.
“Mummy, look!” Tabitha pointed to the front window. A family of deer were crossing the road. She sprang to her feet and ran, only hesitating when she reached the driver. She held back, standing on her toes so she could see.
The deer crossed the road and disappeared into the trees. Tabitha ran back to her seat, scrubbing away her drawings and planting her hands on the window. “Did you see them? I saw them!”
The driver watched us for a moment before he set off again.
Polished letters reflected my plump and ugly face. ROOM 12. I stared, thinking over what I was going to say. I suppose the doctor would already know. Why else would people come to a hospital nowadays? Tabitha and I could only be two of thousands who had made this journey.
“Are we going in now?” Tabitha mumbled around the thumb in her mouth.
I knocked on the door and slowly opened it. I only opened it about halfway, enough to see the desk, computer, and the woman sat in a chair. She wasn’t wearing a mask or coveralls.
“Oh!” I pulled back the door between us as if it would protect her. Too late. I’d done it again. Another person was doomed because of me. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright.” Her voice was gentle. “Please come in.”
Tabitha tried to peek round me, but I pressed her chest to keep her back. “Aren’t you worried about getting infected? We have the plague.”
The floorboard under my foot dipped as the door was tugged from my hand. I couldn’t look at her face, my eyes landing on her name tag. Dr. June Galvin. “You don’t need to worry about me, I promise. Please come in.”
I inched inside, keeping Tabitha at my back. A small electric fan buzzed softly on the desk as it wafted a breeze through the warm room. Tabitha pulled her hand from mine and trotted to the seat. She toppled as she sat down, bouncing into the arm of the chair. She was trying to hide how tired she was, my brave, brave girl. If she could be brave, then so could I.
“Hello.” Doctor June smiled at Tabitha, “What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name.” She scribbled something on her clipboard and looked at me with a smile.
“Madison. Maisie, please.” I was tired and terrified, reverting to automatic responses. Maisie was for neighbours, friends, not strangers.
“And you mentioned you both might have the plague. Have either of you had any itchiness or cravings? Mood swings?”
Tabitha fidgeted in her set, looking everywhere but focusing on nothing. She didn’t know what she’d been asked. I tapped her elbow and she jumped, turning to me. “Tabby, honey, Doctor June is asking what you’ve been feeling these last few days.”
“Tired. Want to sleep but I can’t.”
“You’ve been feeling itchy, haven’t you?”
Tabitha nodded. “All over. In rude places too.”
I sank in my seat.
Doctor June propped her arms on her knees and leant forward, “And have you been feeling sad or angry very quickly?”
Doctor June wrote in her notes and looked at me, “And have you been feeling the same?”
“I can’t sleep. I’m not itchy and I think I’m feeling stable, as much as I can I suppose. No cravings neither.”
“Okay.” Doctor June wrote again. The scratch of her pen made my stomach twist. What conclusions is she coming to? “You must have been worrying quite a bit these past two days. That can make it more difficult to sleep.”
I clasped my hands until my knuckles went pale. “I know people will…” I glanced at Tabitha. She’d zoned out again. Still, I lowered my voice, “I know we’re dying, but I heard the plague only stops sleep. There’s nothing killing us, so we’ll be alright if we can find a way to sleep. That’s right, isn’t it? Please say you can help us.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t a treatment for the virus right now. Sleeping pills, barbiturates – drugs we traditionally used to induce comas – haven’t worked.” She pulled out a prescription sheet, “What I can do is give Tabitha some medication to stop the itching. It should help with her mood swings too. You’re definitely not feeling anything like that?”
“No. None at all.” I leaned forward, “But what good is itch medication? There must be something else. How hard can it be to make someone sleep?”
Doctor June didn’t speak.
How hard could it be? Hadn’t I already tried everything? Hadn’t she already said how drugs to induce comas hadn’t worked? There was a reason the workforce dwindled resulting in hundreds of businesses shutting down. There was a reason there were so many car accidents until the government abolished private transport. And there was certainly a reason for perfectly healthy people dropping dead.
I leaned back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap…”
“It’s okay to be afraid.”
Was that the prelude to a rehearsed speech about how long we had left to live?
She surprised me when she said, “There’s an experimental drug that begins trialling tomorrow, designed to manage the symptoms and help get the body to sleep. But before you consider signing on, you need to do some tests.”
I opened the door, gaze down, thoughts far from where I was. I didn’t notice Tabitha until she collided into me. She wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed.
“Oh, hey. Sweetie. Honey?” I crouched so I was her height, holding her by her arms. She’d gotten thinner. I swept my thumb over her skin, avoiding the place where the injection went in. The doctors have injected her with all sorts since we arrived at the clinic two days ago. “Are you okay? Was everything alright while I was gone?”
“Yeah. Fine.” She blinked, white flesh slipping over red eyes. She has been awake for six days. “Can we go home now?”
“No, we can’t.” I said, “I’m sorry. The doctors want to keep giving you the medicine. You’re not better yet.”
There was a line-up of toys on the carpet. A nice lady had brought them for Tabitha and said they once belonged to another child who came to the clinic. “What are all those toys doing over there?”
“Oh.” Tabitha scowled at them, “One of them stole the muffins. I lined them all up to find out who. Now you’re here, they’ll have to tell.”
“I’ll get them to talk.” I squatted in front of the toys, throwing myself into the role of interrogator. I couldn’t say how convincing the act was. My thoughts kept flitting back to my conversation with Doctor June. About an hour ago, I’d met her in the lobby to talk about the results of the tests I’d done. I was eager since I couldn’t take part in the drug trial until the results came back.
Doctor June sat down next to me. “I have some good news.” She said it steadily, like she knew I wouldn’t take it as good news. “You’re not showing any symptoms of the virus. That is, you’re not infected.”
She didn’t need to emphasise the ‘you’ for me to ask, “And Tabitha?”
“We’ll keep her in the trial, if you’re okay with it.”
“I don’t understand. I’ve been with her all this time. How can she be infected and not me?”
Doctor June spoke gently, “When the outbreak started, no one knew what was happening or where it came from. People did whatever they could to stop it from spreading. Some people moved to less populated areas, some built shelters, some wore masks. And today still, people tell me they caught the plague on the bus or from a neighbour. It’s a common misconception.”
“Then how? Why did this happen to us?”
“Viruses have been infecting humans for millennia, all throughout our evolution. There’s a lot of evidence to support that our greatest attributes came from ancient viruses, viruses that have stayed with us and…changed us. Only this recent change has started to hurt us instead of help us.”
“So you’re saying it’s always been inside us? Th-that’s ridiculous. We – I – Tabitha – well, she was only infected days ago. And if it’s always been there, then why am I not affected?”
“We’re all different. The symptoms show up at different times. For some, it takes years and for others it takes days.”
Everything I had known was wrong. The plague wasn’t really a plague, like we called it in the village. It was more like a cancer, growing with every generation since the beginning of humanity until there was not a person in the world who wouldn’t, at some point, suffer from it.
I wanted my countdown to match Tabitha’s, but there was nothing I could do to make it so. If the drug trial wasn’t successful, she would slip away from me like her father did. My time with her, playing with toys on a carpet pounded hard, could run out fast.
“I want to try again.” Tabitha tugged my shirt, “I want to get better and go home.”
The village didn’t feel like home to me anymore, just a place I’d indulged in lies and false comforts. From our ridiculous plastic tent to having our rations delivered outside so only a few of us would ever leave, all of it was pointless. Mathew wasn’t the only young man to die in our village. Why hadn’t I questioned it before? I felt numb.
“You know… we don’t have to go back.” I brush hair out of her face, “We could go see the forest. Or travel all around the world. In the old days, people would go to the beach this time of year. They would swim in the ocean and build castles out of sand.”
“That sounds fun, but I really, really want to go home.” She clambered onto the bed. “I miss my cars.”
I pulled the covers to her chin and kissed her forehead. “Remember what you need to do?” Maybe the drug worked. Maybe tonight she sleeps. Maybe. “Just close your eyes and pretend.”