We heard another sound through the wall today.
To the naked mortal ear it seemed erratic, sporadic, almost. But not to me. In a fortuitous twist of fate, I was proficient in Morse code, and after several days of non-melodic taps, I trickled into the realisation that they weren’t random knocks and bumps, but snippets of communication.
I’d gleaned from yesterday’s scrapes and raps the word ‘inside’, but to you I’d waved them off as the accidental pattings of the fumbling buffoons one room over. I could not draw your attention to my possible discovery.
When today’s nonverbal delivery arrived, I tilted my head towards the wall, contorting my face in a way that felt blasé and casual.
“Are you okay?”
“Shouldn’t your eyes be closed, or something?”
You were right.
“Yes, you’re right.” I shut my eyes and was granted a universe of mental clarity. I followed the drums and pauses.
Caution thrown to the wind, I ran to the corner of the room, unscrewed the light bulb and found it. I beat you. I was officially the 2020 Global Escape Room Champion, albeit with the illegal assistance of my aural accomplice. I screamed EUREKA as the doors parted to a blare of cheering.
We heard another sound through the wall today.
We usually hear him shouting, late at night. Swearing. Vitriol oozing through the walls, contaminating our home with its sticky presence. Sticking to us, making us shout. Swear.
He lives in there by himself, or at least we have never seen anyone else in the 9 months we have lived here. We don’t know who he is shouting at. The walls are thick enough that you can hear the violence, but not the specifics.
This was different though. Another sound. A different sound. The sound of smashing. Shattering. Splintering. Breaking. Like he was taking a hammer to the wall dividing us. We exchanged a quiet glance. Straining to listen. Straining to penetrate the brickwork. Straining to understand.
It stopped as quickly as it had started. Unease settled on us like falling dust. We conferred. Should we go round and check on him? Isabelle said we should go round, make sure he was alright. I said it was late and we didn’t want to disturb him, he probably just knocked something off the counter. I knew I was lying.
We awoke the next day to the sound of an ambulance.
It was almost time for the harvest.
My calloused hands hadn’t recovered from last year’s efforts, still burning with a fear of what was to come, subconsciously twitching at any casual mention of crops, clenching whenever I looked out from the peak of The Hill towards the fields that splayed themselves below.
The town got to planning and was abuzz with activity - this was the most important week of the year; treated with such reverence that I was sure we had all lost our minds years ago. Our schedule was announced: work, prepare, rest, Harvest, feast. Excitement lived like a gluttonous parasite, latching on to - and feeding off of - every one of us. I loathed its presence.
Suddenly it was Harvest’s Eve, I hadn’t slept since preparations had commenced and my insomniatic demon led me to the edge of the field. By this point my palms housed an inferno that yearned for liberty. The corn caught alight with such ease that I wondered why I hadn’t done it years sooner, saving myself an annual subscription of agony.
As the sun rose I heard the first screams as jets of panicked hydration soothed me in their futile attempts of recovery. I sighed freedom as the first blow landed.
It was almost time for the harvest.
She stared intensely at the screen in front of her, watching the rows and rows of data flicker past her screen. She was frowning - something wasn’t right.
The lab was dark aside from the screen in front of her, bathing her in an ethereal glow. The occupancy sensors had clicked the lights off hours ago, unaware of her motionless body.
She glanced at the time. 11 minutes until the first ever in-vitro brain was harvested and implanted into a body, but the data in front of her was clear. The brain was conscious.
If it was conscious then it could feel pain and the harvesting process would be unimaginable agony. They had never thought to use anaesthesia on this lump of fleshy matter.
Her hand hovered over the telephone. She knew she should stop the procedure, but this would kill her funding for sure. That would set her back years.
There must be sacrifices for science, she reasoned, bringing her hand back from the phone, this was the right thing to do. Sensing her movement the lights flicked back on, illuminating her in its harsh, unforgiving light.
He awoke and realised two things simultaneously.
One. It was too dark to be morning. Two. He couldn’t move.
What is happening? What the fuck is happening to me?!
Furiously still, he could twitch no limb. Not even his left pinkie rose, though he willed it with all his might. Was he having a stroke? Had his brain caved in? His brain didn’t feel at all painful - he didn’t think it did, anyway; with a chill he realised that he couldn’t feel anything. His eyes could scurry with fervor, but aside from that, he was merely a consciousness, entirely trapped within a limp shell that hung in the dense universe.
With each second, with every realisation, his shallow breath sped and shallowed further still. He could feel panic rising in his chest, a conscious nightmare swallowing him whole.
Calm down. Just calm down. This is just some weird dream.
Suddenly his ears blared to life and the circular lights above him shot on with a bang, illuminating the room with horror.
“Okay, let’s begin the procedure.”
Figures descended, robed in shades of a deep azure. With every fibre of strength he screamed, attempting to throw himself forwards; nothing moved.
“Just an amputation, simple enough.”
Oh Jesus, NO!
He awoke and realised two things simultaneously.
There was someone in the house and he knew where his father had hidden the map. He strained his ears, desperately trying to hear over the sound of his pounding heart. There! The scrape of a wooden drawer being eased open. Someone was searching through the dresser downstairs.
He eased himself slowly off the bed, still fully dressed. Since his parents had passed away he had fallen asleep most nights readings their correspondence from when his father’s time in the Pacific Research Institute.
He crept slowly to the door way and looked towards the stairs leading down. The bottom was briefly illuminated and he froze, before the torch beam swept away again and he edged out towards his father’s study.
The door clicked softly behind him and he allowed himself to breathe. He quickly crossed the room and took down the frame hanging on the far wall, placing it on the desk. Grabbing a letter opener he eased the back of the frame off. There it was, the map that his father had alluded to in his letters. He grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket as he heard the handle on the door behind him turn.
We queued in an orderly fashion.
You could spot a first-timer a mile off - they simply reeked of newness. By this point I was an old pro, I’d waited in this exact line eleven times. Granted, I’d never made it past the gates, but I could feel in my depths that this was my moment.
As I looked around at all my fellow queuers, I recognised someone I’d met over 30 years ago in this very spot.
“Oh, hey, Roy - it’s me, Jimmy!”
“Jimmy? Ah, yeah, yeah, hi - we saw each other the last time around, right?”
“Sure did - so, back again? Think you’ll make it through this time?”
“I have to - I shot three nuns outside a Catholic school, I don’t know what more I can do. What about you?”
“Yeah I feel good about this one, I blew up a zoo - families and all.”
“Nice - good luck, looks like you’re up.”
I was ushered forward by the gatekeeper and I bragged about all the slaughtered animals, mothers, and children, the heat of the fiery brimstone fuelling my bloodthirsty rage.
“Sorry Jimmy, according to the log it looks like you helped an old lady cross the street back in 2009 - try again next death. NEXT!”
We queued in an orderly fashion.
My whole life is spent standing in queues now: we queue for food; we queue for medicine; we queue for clothes. Some days I feel like I am queuing for the grave. Just waiting in an orderly line for my turn to step delicately into a coffin, asking the undertaker to not use too many nails for I haven’t much money.
Not that money counts for much anymore. Money requires trust, and trust, like everything these days, is in short supply. Ration coupons are all that matter now, if you live outside the walls that is. With us, The Vulnerable.
On the other side of the wall live The Immune. After the great pandemic, society split into two: those who caught the virus and gained immunity, and those who caught it and didn’t. We can always be carriers; we can catch it again.
So they built the walls to keep themselves safe, God be dammed anyone who might be stupid enough to not carry the right antibodies. Too fucking lazy to produce Immunoglobulin G.
Almost no-one is willing to cross the wall to bring us supplies now, so we obey what the loudhailers spew: “Please queue in an orderly fashion”.
I screamed silently into my pillow.
After a few seconds I pulled my strained face away, waiting for the noises to die down, but they were as loud as they had been before. That’s strange, I thought to myself, I normally feel like my outside self again after a successful silent scream, but this time the soft murmurs of despair still lingered as I continued to remove the pillow from my face. Did I do it wrong?
I tried again. I screamed harder this time. Longer. Veins pulsed and throbbed with every passing second. I could feel the blood shooting from my heart, filling my head, which swam with a dizzying high. I stretched my mouth wider, pushing more oxygen from my frame. I made sure a peep never escaped my lips - silence was key - but my throat tensed and my nostrils flared as if I was hollering into an abyss, a passionate war cry hurtling towards the canyon before me.
Again, it didn’t work, my foggy head was still dense with thunder. I was perplexed. Thinking backwards I ran through every second leading me to this point to make sure nothing was amiss. There was every second that had taken place this morning, there was the second before the moment, the moment itself and then there was right now. Nothing out of the ordinary, except this moment, of course. What was I doing that had driven this episode of hysteria to a level deeper than any of those that had come before?
Then it hit me. The trigger was the memory of her. In the second before the moment, I was acutely aware that she would have been there - should have been there. The moment it dawned on me that she wasn’t coming, that’s when the noises started with a volume and velocity that they’ve never exuded before. We were all there - him, them, me - but no her. There would forever be an empty seat at the table for her. Taking myself back to that moment now, I could hear the noises rising, their choral efforts becoming more pronounced, more defined, more ominous. I felt my chest tighten with panic; I’d never been this deep into the fog before.
I gave it one final go. Taking a slow, deliberate inhale, I clenched the pillow in my fists with all my might, and at the peak of my breath I threw my head and my hands together, the collision causing a muffled thud to reverberate around the room. This time I forced every particle to expel from my body - from my mouth, my eyes, my ears, I could feel life fleeing forth. As the excruciating seconds passed, a single exclamation escaped my mouth. A pained cry of her name; something I never intended to speak aloud again.
Just like that, silence crept in. Through the darkness of my vice-tight eyelids I saw an outline of her face, her eyes, her smile. I winced, expecting the noise to immediately flood over me. Nothing came. I was free.
I screamed silently into my pillow.
I screamed in frustration. I screamed in confusion. I turned and lay on my back. The incessant stream cascaded upon me unabated. The frothy, writhing mass of my mind seethed in this rapid, raging, stampeding succession of thoughts. Jagged and jumbled, the tumble across my consciousness. It's later. I lie awake. I feel tight like a coiled spring. My chest feels tight. I can't take a full breath. My thoughts spill out of my head to pool on my chest, weighing it down. It never stops. I can't uncoil the spring and it just winds tighter and tighter and tighter. I can't sleep. His body flashes across my mind. My body feels clammy under the light bedcovers. I try and lie still and calm my breathing. Focus on the breath. Try and quash the swell of anxiety each time I cannot expand my lungs fully. Drowning. Chest too tight. Too many thoughts bleed out of my head, suffocating me. How did he know? Shallow breath. Focus on the shallow breath. I focus. I try and lie still. Focus on sleep, focus on the calming breath. I lie still. The photograph. I lie still. Breath. Breath. Breathe. Slow frustration begins to infect my limbs. It tells me that I must move, I must turn over. I cannot lay still. I ignore it. It screams at me. I cannot lay still.
I get up and walk to the sink in my little room, guided by the moonlight slanting in. The smooth wooden floor feels cold underfoot, almost like stone. I focus on the sensation, ignoring the gnawing anxiety in the pit of my twisted stomach. I fill a glass with water and gulp it down, relinquish any hope of sleep this night. I fill another glass and place it on the tiny desk by the window, lighting a candle to give me some light before I try to coax the glowing embers of the fire back into life.
Eventually it's meagre warmth slowly and hesitantly spreads into the room. I sit at the uncomfortable wooden chair at my desk and pick up the captain's diary again, staring at it. The captain was dead. I had seen his bloated corpse with my own eyes. His boat was found drifting, completely unscathed. It made no sense. The diary though. It's entries carried onto the end of the year, months past when the man died. There was no way he could have known about the bushfires in April or the death of his daughter in July. I pulled out the photograph again. Sandwiched between some pages towards the back, there was a photo of two men, smiling at the camera. They were standing at the foredeck of the boat that had been found drifting. It was dated November of this year, and I had immediately recognised the other man, though he had died before I was born.
The captain was standing with my father.
He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.
8:55, on the dot, like utter clockwork - the route had been so meticulously planned to ensure he was always where he needed to be - he’d never missed a week before. For the last three visits he’d brought something new, they were starting to run out of the regular stuff and demand was increasingly high. I couldn’t risk not getting a fix for weeks on end, so I decided to branch out and experiment with new hallucinogens. Like his timekeeping, his recommendations of non-prescription drugs was something of a perfected skill, and each week I had been taken on a new journey; found a new ecstasy.
8:56, it was only 60 seconds, nothing to panic about. Maybe my watch was running a minute fast, it wouldn’t be the first time. I talked myself into believing just this and my racing mind settled. He knew what this meant to me, what it meant to all of his customers - his regiment gave us regiment. Granted, it was one meagre, sober day of the week, but it was something. For the first time in a few days I took a deep inhale of the clean air around me. It was such a shock to my rotting system that I spluttered on its clarity.
8:57, maybe the lights weren’t in his favour, or he got stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, the furiously ignorant driver unaware of the delicate timekeeping the human behind them was trying to follow. Maybe he’d turned on me, or turned me in. I’d heard rumours of dealers handing their wasted followers over to the police in exchange for one more chance at freedom. Maybe this was my time; I was going to be this week’s wasted follower, betrayed by my saviour in a pathetic attempt to save their own skin. I was repulsed. Choking once more on my own breath, a flash of concern for the neighbourhood’s air quality jumped through my mind before being replaced with a fervent fury once more.
8:58, my skin started to turn cold and my brow became increasingly clammy. The tremor was returning to my hands and my legs felt weak, an invisible weight forcing my body down. A tic found its way to my eye and a cluster of spots formed before me. I felt the spiders.
8:59, a noise to my left made me freeze. He never came from the left. He always came front-on so I could see him coming. He knew he had to do that. He knew what would happen if he didn’t. Slowly, I twisted my neck round, my legs frozen on the spot. A figure emerged from the shadows and any remaining colour drained from my face. This was it.
“Chris, Viktor, what’s happened to you?” With a pained exhalation, I realised it was just my neighbour, not a policeman in sight.
“Harrison, shit, you scared me. I’ve been waiting here for four fucking minutes. Where is he?”
9:00. “Didn’t you hear?”
He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.
He would sit at the window table and have a café con leche with a sweet almond pastry, while reading the day's newspaper. He would then pay, always in exact change left on the corner of the table, tipping his hat to the waitresses on the way out.
One of those girls was Maria. She had been working at the cafe for most of the summer and she liked the funny old man. He was kind, and sweet and reminded her of her own grandfather. She would always choose him the best pastry from the cabinet and make sure his coffee was brewed extra strong, just as he liked it.
Much to Maria's dismay, he didn't show up last Tuesday. The other girls told her he was probably ill or perhaps he had gone to another cafe, but she was worried. When he didn't show up again today Maria felt an uneasiness build in the pit of her stomach - something was wrong, she just knew it. At the end of her shift she wrapped up three of the leftover pastries in a napkin and walked to his house. He had ordered cakes for a party last year, so they had his address in their order book.
The old man's house was not far from the cafe and so shortly she was standing on his doorstep feeling foolish. She looked up and down the cobbled street to see if she could ask a neighbour or a passer by if they had seen him, but it was deserted. It was Friday evening so everyone would be down at the piazza drinking wine, eating tapas and generally not skulking on doorsteps. Her stomach rumbled and she steeled herself to knock on the door.
I must interject here dear reader, and let you know a little more about Señor Raol Ferreira. While the elderly gentleman was indeed kindly he was also a criminal, quite a good one. On the other side of the door on which Maria will imminently knock there are three men, with guns, waiting for the elderly man to return home. As it is when dealing with most men with guns, he owed them money. Now you are better acquainted with him, it is my duty to tell you that presently Señor Ferreira was rounding the corner at the end of the street.
Three things then happened almost simultaneously. First, Raol, distracted by the girl on the doorstep, stood on the tail of a cat, which screeched violently. Second, the sound of the cat startled one of men inside who squeezed the trigger of his gun, blasting a hole in the ceiling. Third and most egregiously, Maria, startled by both the shot and the cat, dropped her pastries.
They did not know it then, but this bundle of pastries on the floor would inextricably tie the lives of Maria and Raol together and lead them on an adventure around the world. That, however, is a tale for another day.
The fish swam past him lazily.
Its fins were lightning yellow - not that he’d ever seen lightning with his own eyes before, merely something he’d heard whispered from the rumour mill. Its delicate scales lined a sleek, if somewhat short, body that glistened in shades of aqua. They were quite remarkable in the low afternoon sun, the gentle stream of water reflecting and refracting rays of light all around him. He was lying in the shallows of a creek, not far away from home - a long-standing morning ritual to connect himself to the miracle of nature. He had never seen a fish like this in his pocket of the globe before. It must be on an adventure, one of its own life quests, exploring uncharted territory, paving the way for future pioneers of its kind.
“Hey!” He called out. “Where are you going?”
The fish turned toward him with a lethargic swivel that started from the tip of its face and slowly rolled down their flank until its entire body had finally rotated in his direction. What a dance, he thought to himself, impressed with the control of this specimen.
“There is nowhere to go anymore, I am simply moving to give myself something to do.”
Stunned, he realised this fish was on no adventure. He was lost, both geographically and spiritually. Something about the apathy of the fish moved him, made him think of his Brother, who he had not seen in over a decade. A joyous creature himself, he had never understood this nonchalance towards life, choosing instead to seek pleasure wherever he could - pain never crossed his threshold.
“Little fish,” he tried to remain calm, non-patronising. “There are so many places to go, so much to see and live for in this world.”
“I respect your efforts, but they are wasted on my tired soul.”
“What about your shimmering coat? Can you not see its kaleidoscopic world of colours reflecting across the sea floor as you swim onwards? You’re dazzling!”
“I am not dazzled, but blinded. So plagued by bright colours all my life that have slowly chipped away at my vision - I can barely make out your features through my withered sight.”
“Well, I’m devilishly handsome.” Not big-headed, he believed, but honest, and correct.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that. ‘Handsome’ is not a word I associate with my life. ‘Handsome’ I am not.”
“Of course you are - if you can’t see it in your colours, can you see it in your svelte form, in your graceful maneuvers through the rapidly flowing ravines, rivers and oceans? There must be some time you saw love, some time you felt love in yourself?”
He could see the fish think - genuinely think - and reach back through life to its past, to a moment where they maybe once felt joy, felt good enough.
“There may have been a moment, many years ago-”
The sky broke before our dear fish found peace, a malevolent bolt diving towards Earth, and he finally saw lightning yellow.
It was beautiful.
The fish swam past him lazily.
It swam past the faux seaweed and the faux coral and the faux deep sea diver and he wondered if it knew it was in a tank in a second rate doctors surgery in this second rate town. He wondered if it would care. Perhaps it had dreams of being in some enormous tank in some big shot executives office on the 47th floor of some Manhattan high-rise. He wondered if this fish dreamt of being let loose in the ocean, or perhaps he wouldn't know what to do. He wouldn’t know what to do if he was set free.
The fish swam past him lazily.
He lay face down over the side of the pier watching them shimmer gracefully beneath him. He wondered why you never saw fish bumping into one another. He could feel the salt water dry on his skin under the hot sun, making it feel tight and uncomfortable, but he wanted to see the jellyfish again that he saw yesterday so he lay there as the old rotted wood pushed uncomfortably into his chest.
The fish swam past him lazily.
His heavy head swayed uncomfortably on his neck as it might do if he was living underwater like the fish that was swimming in front of him with its big eyes watching him greedily but he knew he had to keep watching it or it would start eating his fingers and he needed them to write that essay later that was due on Tuesday but it was only Saturday now and he was at her house but this stuff was really strong and he started to feel uncomfortable watching the fish swim into her gaping wet mouth as she laughed and laughed and laughed and he wondered what she looked like naked.
The fish swam past him lazily.
His body was face down in the icy stream that cut across the lush meadow. His body was pale and his extremities were tinged with blue. His spirit lingered, watching the fish watch his body. It swam close then swam away before turning around and swimming close again, like it was plucking up the courage to remind the boy that his place was on the land and whilst he didn’t mind if he visited now and again, this was really too much.
He swam past the fish lazily.
He was a strong swimmer and he had a good set of lungs so he was lackadaisical in his underwater strokes. Watching the fish watch him watch them, enjoying the way he could make them scurry for cover, even though he was an imposter in their world. He loved feeling his powerful arms carve through the water and thought that if anyone was watching him they would comment on his remarkably good technique even though he had never had any training. He turned over and looked up at the sky, thinking about the fish in the enormous fish tank in his office on the 47th floor of a Manhattan high-rise.
The trees were taller than I remembered.
Surely they can't have grown this much since last winter? I frowned, staring up at the canopy high above - so thick that only a dusky twilight pervaded despite it being nearly midday. I lay my hand on the bark of the closest tree whilst the other two drank from their canteens, but pulled it away with a jolt. The tree felt wrong in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I shivered and signalled to the others to keep moving.
We hiked on through the forest towards the huddle of low-rise buildings that we knew stood in the centre of this thick mass of trees. It had been over a year since we had evacuated the laboratory, and the whole area went into lockdown. We were risking our jobs coming back, but we had to retrieve our research - it was too valuable to leave to rot in this forest. As we trudged through the undergrowth I couldn't get the feeling of the bark on that tree out of my head - why had it felt so strange?
I spotted a likely place to stop and checked my watch to see if it was too early to do so. I stared at it in confusion. The face read 9pm, but that couldn't possibly be right. There was still light filtering though the canopy and it can't have been more than a few hours at most since we ate lunch. I called out to the others to see what time they had, but both of their watches agreed with mine. Like good scientists we had soon formulated a theory. Some combination of a very bright moon and this weird half-light messing with out sense of time. We made camp.
I dreamt of our last day in the lab. Laughter and joy. 6 years of research finally paying off. Then the readings started spiking. The containment field collapsing. Alarms, running. Blast doors sealing behind them, failing. Invisible particles spewing into the ether making the air flicker red, blue.
I awoke with a start, something had slammed into my tent and was now thrashing about outside. I grabbed my torch by instinct, but realised it was unnecessary as I unzipped the side to see what was making the noise - the same half light still fell across the campsite. A possum had become tangled in the guy lines for our tents and was desperately trying to get free. I slid out my tent and approached it carefully, whispering soothing sounds as I went. One of the ropes had come loose and managed to wrap itself around the creatures leg. I placed my hand on the creatures back to stop it thrashing so I could attempt to remove it.
This is what it had felt like, the bark under my touch. A sense of tremulous anticipation under my fingertips. The connection of one conscious being to another.
What had we done?
The trees were taller than I remembered.
They loomed over me like castle towers - once intended for safety, but increasingly they had made me feel trapped. Our village was planted in the centre of a sprawling woodland - one road in, one road out, and today we were going to use the fortress of trees to escape. Our route firmly outlined, we headed back towards the village. Bonnie scarpered ahead but I took my time, basking in the silence that hung in the air. With all the excitement of planning our adventure over the past few months, I had forgotten to really open my eyes and take it all in. Everything around me had changed with the seasons and I hadn’t noticed any of it. The leaves had grown back a deep, watery green; branches felt fuller, more purposeful. Even the wildlife had transformed into species more mature than those who graced the forest when I last took notice.
Although only slightly warmer than the brutal months of Winter, Spring still brought on a bite of chill as the evening grew; dusk was creeping in from the East. We had to make it home before dark, and when the village lay still, we would finally put our plan into action. The country lanes bent and swerved with the Earth, and we dutifully followed their course. Again I lost myself in the height of the trees and didn’t realise that Bonnie had come to a sudden stop. I connected with her frame with a determined thud.
“Whoa, look out, Crazy!” I feigned a stumble and it didn’t even garner a smile. “Hey, you okay?”
“She knows I’m going to run away.” Her face was cold, entirely deadpan.
“Who knows?” She didn’t respond, but remained frozen. “Come on, Crazy, we’ve not got much time.”
Later that evening, as my family slept, I grabbed my bag when a scream and sudden commotion pulled me to the window where I ripped back the curtain. Before me, a fiery blaze rose among the rooftops, and at once I knew where they were coming from.
“She was right.” I whispered, as my heart raced.
I flew out the front door and ran towards the blaring heat. Everyone had started rushing out of their houses, and I saw Bonnie standing on the edge of the path. My pounding heart slowed. As I diverted towards her I looked down at her quivering hands. My heartbeat spiked once more.
“What did you do?” I grabbed her wrists and pulled her towards me. She dropped a can and lighter fluid spilled on our shoes, its smell contorting my face with displeasure.
“She was going to kill me.” Bonnie’s face was as still and cold as it had been a few hours earlier, but something malignant had grown in her eyes. I looked towards Bonnie’s house and saw her father on his knees, howling at the moon, his wife in his arms. A gentle smoke rose from her torso, and the smell of singed life broke through the gasoline.
The letter arrived 3 days later.
It had simultaneously been the longest and most rapid three days of his existence to date. Conversations blended into a constant stream of dialogue - one in which he was barely a participant - and the only marker of the passing day was the eternally reliable rise and fall of the summer moon. Since the test, he had positioned himself within a very tight radius of the letterbox - at a minimum within perfect earshot, but occasionally he would allow himself to move further away, at all times keeping one eye on that metal flap to the outside world that could change his life in the most profound way. Once standard working hours had passed, he exhaled with a deep disappointment and left his position, raring to take up the spot again once the morning sun replaced the moon.
He couldn’t say for certain what had made him take the test, one day he simply woke up with the knowledge that this was the day he would do it. He believed it to be a feeling, something in his gut - or his third eye - that told him things were not as they seemed. There was always a distance between them that he didn’t feel with any of the others, but his first real notion of doubt crept in one day at the barbers. Usually monthly regulars of old faithful Ray at Eddie’s Barbers just down the street, on this visit a trainee stepped up to His chair and ten words passed this trainee’s lips that tilted his world a couple of degrees off centre.
“My God, he’s so blonde. Are you sure he’s yours?”
Sure, there was more to it than hair colour, which he knew did not dictate a familial bond, but he himself lived with a very specific undertone of copper, and shared that tone with all but one of his children. He had never really taken notice, until this fateful trip to Eddie’s Barbers. His longing for old faithful Ray, who would never make such a casual observation, was palpable.
“Yes, thank you, I am sure.” The lack of conviction in his words reddened his cheeks and he spent the rest of their visit in a mortified silence, mulling over the trainee’s flippant remark. It took weeks to banish the thought from his mind, but unfortunately as the Boy grew, so did his doubt.
Of their three children, He had always been the most defiant. He and his Wife had originally put it down to middle child syndrome, but as the years painfully dragged on, he started to suspect it was something that bordered on malignant. After a while he could not deny that there was an underlying intention of destruction. For his eldest son’s tenth birthday they had hired a bouncy castle - it had taken up almost every square inch of their back garden, but had brought him so much joy. Halfway through the afternoon, he realised they hadn’t seen Him in a while, and that unanswerable knot in his stomach tightened. Bolting inside, he found Him hiding behind the sofa, twisting a girl’s arm behind her back.
“Let go!” He barked. “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?” Even with all of the rage behind the delivery of these words, He didn’t flinch.
“We’re just playing. Aren’t we?” The little girl nodded through teary eyes as He released her from His grip. Looking at his son in this moment, he couldn’t quite believe the measure of disdain and fear he felt towards Him.
While waiting for his letter to arrive, he found himself constantly thinking back to moments like these, moments where he felt absolutely certain that this Boy was not formed from his genes. Kindness, empathy, and an unwavering desire to help those less fortunate were the self-proclaimed best qualities that he possessed. But the malice, the ease at which He caused others pain, these traits could not have come from him. During a painful daydream on the third day, as 13:10 hit and the letterbox eased open at its chrome hinge, he noticed an envelope thicker than the average correspondence.
“It’s here.” He said aloud. “It’s finally here.” He hadn’t meant to say anything of note, not wanting to alert the household to his 72-hour mission, but the anticipation overrode his cautiousness and the mask slipped.
“What’s here?” His Wife asked, though he barely registered the noise making its way towards him as he swiftly moved away from her. With each step towards the front door, his rising heartbeat became more and more audible, and he was sure he could physically see a tremor in his chest.
“Oh, nothing.” That familiar lack of conviction once more. “I think it’s the car insurance renewal.” He snatched the envelope from the pile on the floor and ran upstairs, ripping it open as he closed his bedroom door behind him. As the severity of the situation hit him, within a few seconds he lost his vision, a dizzying blur taking over from the periphery that caused him to stumble into the wall. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing, trying to force his heartbeat back to a regular rhythm.
Several minutes passed before he dared open his eyes, his brow now covered with a gentle layer of perspiration. Only when he was sure his vision had sufficiently returned, he finished prising open the envelope and started to scan the letter -
‘Thank you for-’;
‘Having tested both-’.
Then, there it was, the line he was looking for perfectly printed in solid block capitals, a black darker than black, using a typeface that emoted neither warmth nor sadness. The word itself, however, could only muster one over the other.
He was, as suspected, not the Boy’s father. With one debilitating question answered, he then realised with a blow that three far more crippling questions immediately took its place.
Who was She?
What had She done?
How could he ever think about talking to Her now?
The letter arrived 3 days later.
They had all heard the announcement of course, but this was the confirmation, the details of the curfew. No-one allowed out of their houses until they have been tested — effective immediately. All shops were to be closed. There would be a food van once a week, and you were given a time and a voucher and they would provide you with what you needed.
She waited anxiously by the door with her coat on and her voucher clutched firmly in her hand. She watched the minutes click past until she could leave. At exactly 11:10 she hurried out into the street, feeling the cool air on her face for the first time in days. The van would be parked at the end of the victorian terrace and she could collect her box of food. She hurried down to the end of the road, looking fervently left and right, feeling sick in her stomach. Where was the van? She checked her voucher for the umpteenth time. It was definitely 11:10. It was definitely Thursday. Her breathing quickened and she stepped out into the road to see if she could see it, but there was no sign.
Perhaps it was running late? She nervously waited, glancing around. There were penalties for being outside without good reason, and everyone was allocated 5 minutes to go and collect their food. It was now 11:14 and there was still no van in sight. She wrung her hands and turned to head back down her road. It was her civic duty to keep everyone safe. She couldn't risk bumping into the next person going out to the van or she might spread the infection. She had heard that there were supercarriers of the disease, that they could stay infected without getting symptoms but still pass it on. That's why they were going round testing to ensure everyone remained safe, there was no other way.
Hurrying down the street she nearly collided with the man exiting through the gate from Mr Patel's. It was a police officer.
"What are you doing out?" He demanded. She gaped at him, startled by his presence and his question. "Well?" he said, narrowing his eyes.
"I - I just went to get my food" She stammered.
"Where is it then?" His colleague had joined him, cutting in before she could explain. "You are putting everyone's lives at danger by being on the street like this." He scolded.
She went to explain but he waved his had to silence her. "Just get back in your house. Now."
She nodded, shaking, and carried on to her door just a few doors down. As she was fumbling with her keys she noticed Mr Patel's door. Bright yellow biohazard tape stretched across it in a large cross. She glanced down the row of houses and noticed other doors crossed in a similar fashion — the Banmeke family, the Rayasam's, Mrs Thanki. She frowned, worrying, but managed to get the key in the lock and into the house.
She explained what had happened to her husband who sighed. They had enough food to last until next week, although barely. He made them a cup of tea with powdered milk and they watched the news. Apparently there had been a breakthrough — some scientists had developed an algorithm which could detect who was a supercarrier just by scanning their face. They were feeding it photos from the passport and driving license databases and were able to ensure that those people were isolated from the community and taken to field hospitals where they would be treated. For everyone's safety the army would step in to provide the manpower to get it done quickly. There was no other way.
That night she awoke to blue lights flashing through the gap in the curtains. Her husband was asleep. She slipped out of the covers and crept to the window. People filled the street, in-between the police cars and military ambulances. There were police officers, men in military uniform, paramedics and amongst them all, standing shivering in their nightclothes, were those who had had their houses marked. Some speaking to police officers, others being tested by paramedics. She could see Mr Patel being ushered into the back of one of the ambulances. One by one the others joined them, looking scared and cold. She thought that things must be getting really serious if they had to wake them up in the night. She silently thanked her neighbours for their sacrifice.
Within a few weeks the restrictions lifted. They were confident that they had contained the outbreak and the supercarriers were getting treatment to ensure that they were no long a threat to their communities. Everyone slowly returned to normal, feeling sorry for the ones who had to be quarantined but they knew that this is what they had to do. Sometimes there have to be sacrifices for the rest of society.
She tried to remember to water Mr Patel's plants for the first month or so, but then as time went on she kept on forgetting, until they all withered. The news updated them daily on the progress of their recovery, then weekly, then nothing.
Three months later she was out for a walk with her husband and their dog, Jess, in one of their favourite spots. The weather was cold and the trees on the leaves in the wood had long since fallen. The sky was a sullen grey and it reflected back from the puddles, leaving a sense that all colour was leeching away. She stood and watched the tree line waiting for Jess to return. As her eyes wandered she caught sight of a yellow cross on a tree and she remembered the doors of her neighbours. She now knew what they reminded her of, like trees in a wood, waiting to be felled.
The peak of the hill was covered in grass.
Frederique lay back on it and gazed at the sky. His eyes tracked the few
light clouds drifting lackadaisically across it, as though they too had adapted to the slow pace of this isolated island. Frederique had arrived a few days earlier from the mainland to set up a temporary vaccination clinic and he was already feeling the stress ooze from his bones; his anxiety flaking off him in shards, leaving their jagged little pieces littered across the town.
He daydreamed about the waitress he saw in the cafe that morning. The way her thick black hair flowed around her shoulders; the way she said good morning and held his gaze; the way that her hand brushed against his lightly when she gave him his change. He wallowed contentedly in his warm thoughts, teetering on the brink of consciousness.
He must have fallen asleep as was jolted awake by an older woman standing over him. She was wearing an apron and brandishing a broom, waving it at him threateningly.
"What are you doing? The presumptuousness of the young! You are sleeping on his grave! Imagine, sleeping on someone's grave... no-one ever slept on anyone's grave back in my day, I can't believe it!" She shouted angrily looking down at him, gesticulating at him with the broom. She then started to make brushing movements with it as though to brush him off. "Well, shoo shoo! Get up, stop sleeping on his grave! Oh, the young, the young..."
He gathered his senses and leapt up, apologizing profusely, although somewhat confusedly. "I am awfully sorry, I didn't see there was a grave on this hill..."
She cut him off abruptly. "A grave ON the hill? A grave ON the hill? The hill is the grave! Oh the indolence of the youth." She began brushing him off the hill again, shooing him back down. He apologized all the way to the bottom, where she pointed incredulously at a small gravestone.
"See!" She read off the gravestone, somewhat triumphantly as though he was doubting her, "'Here lies Alfonso Perez, former mayor and savior of this town. May he always be remembered.' I told you, this is a grave.'" She gave him a tut, and began sweeping the gravestone and around the base of the hill. He offered a feeble, confused apology to her retreating back and headed back to his lodgings in town.
The next day he went back the cafe with the waitress. He ordered his coffee and pastry and when it arrived he asked the waitress about the woman who shouted at him: in part of relieve him of his curiosity, in part as an excuse to talk to her. To his delight, she agreed. Glancing at the counter to make sure no-one else needed serving she sat down at the table beside him.
"The woman you met was almost definitely Maria Perez, the late mayors wife. She goes out twice a day to tidy up the grave. Once in the morning and once in the evening, though she does a terrible job of it."
"That's what I don't understand, you both described the hill as a grave."
"It is a grave. Look, I don't have time now, but if you come back at the end of my shift I will explain properly. I finish at 6." Not waiting for an answer, she got up and hurried back to the counter greeting one of the regulars loudly.
He returned at 6 and waited outside whilst she shut up the cafe. They wandered through the warm night air in comfortable silence, before stopping at a small taverna. She went inside and got wine and gossiped with the barman for a bit, before returning, pouring them each a glass and carrying on with her story.
"Many years before I was born, the island was in a real state. We were in drought and the olive harvests were very poor. The young people where leaving the island in droves, looking for a better life on the mainland. Then the plague hit. The mayor told us of the terrible disease ravaging the mainland so he closed off the port and didn't allow anyone in or out. He had to protect the island. We were locked down like that for decades. It was hard for us, but I can't imagine how hard it must of been for all you on the mainland." She placed her hand on his and gave him a sympathetic look. A chill ran up his spine.
"My parents talk of how hard it was, food and medicine shortages, especially in the first few years. But they learned to return to the old ways and life became somewhat normal. The community came together and were strong. They were so glad the clever mayor had acted so quickly to make sure were were all safe."
"Once the danger on the mainland had passed, and the port re-opened everyone was so happy with their way of life that no-one wanted to leave. A few years went by and sadly the old mayor passed away. When it came to his funeral, the whole island turned out, so proud we were of our savior in those hard times. I was just a little girl at the time but I remember the mourners all lined up in a huge line, filing past the grave. As each mourner passed, they scattered a handful of earth on the grave. So loved was our mayor that by the time the last mourner had come past, the dirt had risen up so high as to form that hill you were on yesterday."
As he looked into her beautiful earnest eyes, he realized he could never tell her that there was no plague on the mainland, and out there stood a stood a hill, not a testament to a brave man defending his island, but a folly erected to their captor.
The peak of the hill was covered in grass.
It was everywhere - wild, and long. It had been left to grow untamed, reaching a scrappy height that could only be achieved in the most remote of natural lands, untouched, never stirred. To be here was remarkable, it felt monumental in some strange way, as if sharing a secret with an ancient world that was now long forgotten. To learn that this had once been a site of great spiritual virtue would not come as a surprise; the feeling could only be described as something bordering on Holy.
A gentle morning dew lined the length of each green blade, causing a delicate moisture to hang in the air - not quite heavy enough to feel weighed down by, but its presence was certainly there. It was cooling, and the slight autumn breeze cooled the air further still. The early sun, just rising above the peak of the neighbouring hill, was starting to burn away the clouds that had gathered overnight. Their disbanding was slow, they appeared groggy and dense, but with every passing minute of the sun’s hard labour, they lost their weight to the infinite skies above, revealing an unscathed blue canvas stretching to the corners of the world.
Once the remaining clouds had broken, the sky sang stillness, only sporadically disrupted by passing wings and birdsong. Watching the birds in flight - their colours vivid and magnificent - was quite the sight to behold. Wings moved in slow motion, swathed in black, speckled with hues of deep greens and blues in all sorts of patterns, and the tiniest of motions sent these colourful beings swooping and soaring. Their dance was unrehearsed, yet effortlessly seamless. The airborne twists and turns spoke of love, of hope - the stories of their little lives told through swift and subtle movements. It was easy to envy their choiceless freedom - a freedom to move and glide to wherever felt like home that night, a freedom most would never know. Standing here, however, at this peak covered in grass, brought on the closest feeling to that freedom.
As the sun continued its ascent, it changed the landscape entirely. The deep green of the wild grass transformed into something more golden, emitting a regal glow that was brought out further with the rising light. Shadows were cast at eternally changing angles, illuminating every face of every surface, causing the perspective of their heights and shapes to constantly change. Those tiny beads of dawn’s droplets had evaporated along with the clouds at a barely noticeable rate - present one moment and gone without a trace the next. As the crisp air grew warmer, everything seemed to soften; hard edges were rounded out and the blades of grass drooped slightly, their heads hanging in an afternoon daze, bringing on the desire for a siesta.
While the faces and shapes of the peak’s surroundings changed as the day grew older, the stillness remained the only true, unwavering constant. It brought on a feeling that nothing else existed - as if the Universe had shrunk in its entirety and was now condensed to this peak. The horizons became the edges of the Earth and nothing else existed beyond them. The stillness was undeniably soothing, but left a little too much room for racing thought. In the right headspace, this would be the ideal scene for deep emotional growth, a chance to right the world’s wrongs and become new, rejuvenated. Stillness, however, also has the ability to water the seeds of the darkest of thoughts, allowing them to do nothing but feed and grow. Stillness must be treated with respect, and caution, in equal measures.
On the neighbouring peak stood a solitary tree, its thick roots deep and permanent - a rarity, to see one solo bark rising from the ground without another anywhere in sight. Like the dancing birds, this tree was choiceless in its freedom, but in the most opposite way. Its perpetual placement was decided, its one job in life to simply rise and expand upwards and outwards, to provide a home for some, a resource of food and materials for others. Hundreds of years old, it stood proud, knowing it had achieved everything its life was intended for. Its unwavering strength was simply amazing, there was nothing more that could be expressed without bordering on disingenuous.
Hours had now passed and the early evening was creeping in. Slowly the sun bade a bitter farewell, reluctantly making room for the opal moon, and soon the Earth was cast in a Heavenly glow. The white moonlight further deepened that undeniable spiritual connection to the Great Something. It was humbling. It was awe-inspiring. In a strange way, the night sky did not bring on the stillness that was present with the clarity of day - there was simply too much activity. The once blue canvas above was now painted a dark purple, and with every second a new burning star appeared, littering the infinite ceiling. Countless miles from civilisation, there were no other lights to contend with, and these swarming stars reigned free.
Suddenly it all made sense. Those questions that had been festering for so many years were answered just as the moon reached the peak of its arc. In that moment, everything hung in perfect clarity. The grass, the clouds, the birds, they were free, they lived in a constant state of liberated movement and never settled down. Growing, appearing and disappearing, flying through the world with unabashed recklessness - they screamed change. The sun, the shadows, the tree, while all moving they were also fixed in a reliable constant. Rising, falling, eternally expanding, it was suddenly so apparent that the juxtaposition of ephemeral moments and lifelong permanence held the balance that life needed. Nature was holding the answer all along, it simply had to be experienced, here, over the course of one entire day. It did not matter now. The answers had simply arrived too late.
Stillness once more, sadly watering and feeding the darkest of thoughts that had lived for an eternity.