“Are you alright, Jack?”
Jack glanced up, surprised to be called by name, until a second later he re-noticed the large badge on his chest. It was the girl who had been sat in front of him for the tutorial. Jess, he gleaned from staring (not for too long) at her chest.
“Ah I’m fine. I miss them, you know, but so does everyone else.”
She nodded, smiling a mouth-closed smile. “Well I do. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one though. People are so good at soldiering on, aren’t they?”
“You’d be surprised.” The gruff voice came from over Jess’s shoulder; neither of them had seen their tutor approach as his students departed. Paul. He would have been old before to Jack’s eyes, middle-aged to a more generous observer, but now in this reshaped society he was positively ancient. Neither of the youths spoke, flustered that they had been overheard, wondering if they had transgressed.
“It’s alright to miss them, I certainly do, I don’t think you could be human if you didn’t. Who’s ‘them’ for you two then?”
Jack looked at Jess, but she was still smiling the same smile, looking down at Paul’s knees with wobbling eyes.
“Just my mates. My whole family got in, it was Dad that made us take the vaccinations. But the guys from school…” He trailed off; there was no need to finish the sentence. Paul nodded solemnly; everyone was as practiced as a funeral director nowadays. After an appropriate pause he turned to Jess.
“My mum.” She sobbed as she spoke, holding back tears. She gulped and bit her lip. “The whole family actually, but my Dad left when I was ten, and I never got to know my step-brothers.” She paused again. “I suppose I should have, really.”
The statement hung over all of them. Paul looked at Jess’s dripping eyes and swayed slightly towards her, as if he wanted to give her hug but wasn’t quite sure it was a good idea. He rescued himself by speaking.
“My son, Luke. And his wife. They… I don’t know.”
Their secret guilt spilt, there was another pause; it seemed unspeakably cruel to say anything to disrupt the lurking presence of the absent. Once again it was Paul who spoke.
“I don’t know if its worse to remember or to forget. It feels selfish, doesn’t it, just…” He searched for a word that would make sense of it, but the three of them knew any word would do. “It’s all for the best though. It doesn’t help to say it, I know, but its true.”
There was another silence. Only a minute earlier it would have been awkward, but with their newly shared history it was different, Jack thought, maybe even peaceful. Nonetheless he felt compelled to speak, to say something, to thank them both, but he didn’t quite know what for. Instead, he smiled quickly, picked up his bag and left.
What the rush had been for, he wasn’t quite sure, because he had nowhere to go. His parents would not be home yet, they were old enough to have more responsibilities, which meant more emergency tutorials. His mother did something in advertising, he’d never quite understood what, but since ‘gone viral’ had taken on its new meaning she would need to find a new way to contribute. His father, a doctor, was away most of the time, and when he did come to their new home he was duty-bound to wear a bio-suit.
If home was to be empty, he would have to fill this rare free time some other way. Most of the week since they had arrived had been spent in the endless tutorials. English and Sociology had been replaced by Physical Tests, Agriculture and First Aid, although the latter was mainly chillingly simple – if anyone shows symptoms, run. The basics covered, next week would seem them diversify: some would guard the perimeter wall, others would be assigned farmland or animals, others would be builders. More glamourous, less specified jobs were rumoured to be coming soon. The reason he was free this afternoon was so the tutors could assign them to their respective roles.
The evenings had also been busy, surprisingly so. The EQC (Emergency Quarantine Council, or perhaps Committee) had organised events each night to ‘foster community morale’, and everyone was keenly aware it needed fostering. After medical screenings that made the old airport security look like a VIP welcome (it would be silly, to be fair, to rescue all these people just to throw them together to infect one another), everyone gathered in the central hub.
Perhaps with an unlimited budget there would have been an extravagant audio-visual show; live bands would have played, films would have been shown on huge screens. But with the resources that could be scrabbled in those few panicked days, that was out of the question. So it had been simple pleasures – shared meals, a barn dance one night for those near Jack’s family, interminable rounds of party games he had used to loathe at Christmas.
But, he would have to admit, here it had been different. The men who distributed the awful gruel always managed to do it with a smile, whenever anyone joked (generally about the gruel) everyone made an effort to laugh, and everyone always banded together to support the shell-shocked children as they struggled to successfully act out ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. It was a rather odd place to find such Christmas spirit.
As Jack mused he had wandered down Main Street. To either side of him was a sea of tents, interrupted only very rarely by more solid structures, resembling the temporary classrooms that had always leaked at school. They were very lucky to have one, it was clear, Jack guessed it was because of his Father’s work. Back on the other side of the teaching centre was where the main building projects were taking place – a hospital, and a command centre, and other buildings for functions Jack had not bothered to imagine.
It was mostly deserted – the majority of the residents would still be in classes. Even young children were taken care of – their mothers could not be wasted, so they were dropped off each morning at the central nursery. With a small smile Jack wondered if they taught them how to mime ‘Pulp Fiction’.
In no time at all he was coming closer to the perimeter fence. They called it a fence, because originally that was all it had been, but this had been the first building project. There was a wall which dwarfed everything else in the compound except the central hub, with a raised walkway running behind it. It looked like something from an old castle, except for the men with machine guns that patrolled the top.
On the other side, so his Dad had told them, were two barbed wire fences. He hadn’t mentioned what happened to those who attempted to cross them, but the armed watchmen seemed to answer that question.
Ahead of him was the huge tent which had been used for quarantine, up until three days ago. It was here he had waited each night, after the activities were over, hoping that Max, Jess or Hannah would come through. It was here he had heard the shouts, the screams, and occasionally the shots and the silence. It was here he had seen, only once or twice each evening, a lonely figure make their way blinkingly into the evening light, looking back over their shoulder, screaming, weeping, or dead in the eyes. The news of its closure had not come as a surprise.
He looked up. A figure in uniform was advancing towards him, as close to waving as was possible with a two-handed gun in hand. After a second he realised who it was – Mike, from school. Mike had been a few years older than Jack, but they had played cricket together – he had left the previous year, to join the army, Jack thought.
“How’s it going buddy? You got in!” He was grinning from ear to ear. “I can’t believe you’re here. I thought… I guess…” His words faded back into the grin, but there were tears in his eyes, and Jack realised there were tears in his own too. If he hadn’t been terrified of the gun he would have hugged him.
“Yeah, my Dad was with the vaccine team… Got lucky I guess.”
He smiled. “It’s not luck, man. You can’t keep telling yourself that. Everyone had a chance. Remember those first few days, where everyone was saying they didn’t want the vaccine?”
Those first few days. Riots on the streets. Fires all around the horizon. Voices on the television telling us to keep calm, until their studio burnt around them. The vaccine had been released, it was true, but so had the rumours it was another lie, released to keep everyone from noticing they were in hell.
“I guess,” Jack replied. “I just don’t feel I deserve it.”
“Hell, you probably don’t. But you got it, cos you were smart enough to take it when it was there.” There was a long pause, Jack was looking out away into the wilderness, his eyes damp. “And besides, there’s nothing to be done now.”
Jack didn’t answer. Mike followed his gaze, and then swallowed. At first, the view was eerily mundane. The fortress had been built in parkland, on the edge of woodland, and about forty yards away the trees began to gather, the leaves mostly still green, although there were scatterings of gold beginning to appear. If you looked further into the distance and over to the right you could see the edge of civilisation: a village, which was quiet in a way the untrained eye might have thought charmingly rustic.
Only Jack didn’t look further into the distance. He didn’t even look at the trees, except at the bases of those on the edge of the woodland, where the corpses rotted. The whole expanse of open ground which was shaded by the trees was filled, before the swarm thinned out as it approached the first of two barbed wire fences, on which were impaled the remains of those who had dared to get a little further.
But it was the smell that got to him. The same smell as filled the burning streets. The smell that overpowered him when he was sent to bring the vaccine to Mrs Daniels next door. When he had read about death he had always assumed the smell was just a trope, something used to connote the abstract horror. He felt sick.
“We didn’t shoot most of them.” All the confidence was gone from Mike’s voice now, his eyes kept wandering back behind the wall as he realised the stupidity of letting Jack up here. “They come to the edge of the forest, and they see the bodies, and most of them just give up and lie down.” His voice faded, empty, excuseless. The only sound was the buzzing of the flies.
Then, on the edge of the forest, Jack saw a flicker of movement. He blinked, sure that the tears in his eyes had momentarily blurred his vision. He looked closer now. There was someone, something, crouched behind a tree. Mike saw his look and raised his weapon.
Then, as if responding to a silent starter’s pistol, the figure burst out into the sunlight. The explosive energy almost distracted Jack from noticing the hunched gait, the torn clothes, the deathly pale but strangely familiar face.
It all happened so fast. Jess looked up, caught his eye, stopped, and was just in the process of calling out when her cry was masked by the deafening blast from Jack’s left. It was loud enough that he had to close his eyes, and when he looked back down, there was no body standing.
Jack scanned through the bodies where she had last stood. Was that her black top? He had already forgotten: was her hair still long and blonde, or might it be that cropped bloodied scalp? Slowly, painfully, he became aware that Mike was talking to him, shaking him.
“What did she say?”
Jack pulled away, stepped slightly further along the walkway, casting his mind back to the first day of school, when he had sat down in alphabetical order as instructed and found himself next to Jack Sampson. You couldn’t have two Jacks in a row, that was stupid. So, of course, he had found a new name, which everyone had called him, right up until he had registered into the quarantine zone with a kindly elderly woman with a form that had space for a first name and a surname, and sorry but the first name went on the badge.
“She shouted Smithy.”