Epidemic

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Realisation

Since I had no destination in mind, I let Vaux drive us wherever he’d decided we were going. He tried to make conversation, but his fascist outlook hacked at my patience until it snapped and I drowned him out with the radio.

Increasingly frantic warnings about Fortis were on repeat; apparently fifty thousand people were thought to be infected, and those were only the ones who’d turned themselves in to the infection camps. Most people, I believed, wouldn’t bother to tie their hands when they deemed themselves to finally be free. Look at Vaux. Look at me. Neither of us wanted to spend a minute of our lives held back from indulging ourselves. We’d rather stay in each other’s company, with our many injuries, and take the chance that we’d hurt one another.


The number of infected, according to breaking news three hours later, had climbed by twenty thousand, and there were cases of Fortis-related violence being reported from Calais, New York, Dubai, Amsterdam and Barcelona. It was only a matter of time until it conquered the world. We were too connected nowadays for it to be confined to one country.

There was talk of closing borders, a concept our government seemed to be behind if the direction of the talks was an indication. It wouldn’t do any good, not now that Fortis had already made its way overseas, but I admired their resolve to protect the rest of the world. Most people wouldn’t see it like that. Closing our borders would seem like a personal affront – like the government had abandoned hope of saving the United Kingdom but the rest of the world didn’t have to go down with us.

By the time we reached Vaux’s destination, a sprawling village with detached, brick housing estates, a stained-glass windowed church, an extensive children’s play area and a collection of cosy shops, the radio was spewing breaking news every five minutes, reporting one atrocity or another and warning those who were uninfected to remain in their homes with the doors and windows locked. There were no assurances of a cure, or that the situation was being handled. There was no mention of security measures, or who to contact in an emergency.

“We shouldn’t be here,” I told Vaux as we pulled onto a long, gravel drive and stopped in front of a cream garage door. He smiled at me.

“This is exactly where we should be. No one’s going to come looking for me, not with everything else going on.”

“You’d be surprised what the police might prioritise. What if they tell the girl’s family your name? Protocol is probably damned by this point, especially if members of the police force have been infected. You could have vengeful parents coming after you, with a background you know nothing about.”

I could tell from his shining eyes that my words hadn’t penetrated the thick wall around his confidence. He wouldn’t be deterred from his current path, no matter how many warnings I spewed out of my mouth.

The best thing I could do was to abandon him. Take what I could from his home and get out of here before chaos descended. No one could blame me for that – it was a self-preservation basic: always take care of yourself first.

“Trust me, Sasha.” He patted my arm. “We can be alone here. Recuperate in peace.”

“What about your parents?”

“If they’re not infected themselves, we’ll take care of them.”

I frowned. My confidence was no longer what it used to be, not since Vaux had managed to sock me in the gut back at the motorway services. Then he’d stolen my knife. I knew I wasn’t strong, not in the literal sense of the word, and I had no idea what kind of body type Vaux’s parents had. What if his dad was the same size as mine had been? Unless we caught him by surprise, we’d never take him down. And if we failed in our first attempt…the whole plan was a risk.

Was it worth it? To recover from my wounds in a house with plumbing, heating, and easy access to food would do an endless world of good for my health. It was regretful that Vaux would be there, bothering me with his presence, but it was a necessary evil. When I was back to full strength and armed, I could deal with him, but until then, I’d keep him at bay with warnings.

“You think too much,” Vaux said, watching as my brow crinkled under the weight of my thoughts. I could feel the furrow in it, the one that appeared when I was over thinking something. His own face was smooth, with no outlet to his inner emotions to mar it. “Neither of us has a long-term plan, and we’re not going to get far without one. Until we know what we’re shooting for, we’ll crash here. There’s nothing more to it than that. If someone gets in our way, or recognises one of us, we’ll deal with it as and when it happens.”

“And how do we deal with it? Leaving bodies up and down the country is a sure-fire way to get caught.”

“Then we burn them after we’re done.”

I hated the detachment in his voice. It made me feel…responsible, as if I’d stripped him of his positivity and instilled him with something darker. “That’s cold, and needless. I wasn’t serious when I said we should leave bodies everywhere. It’s messy, irresponsible and disrespectful. There are alternatives. Cut off a hand. Cut out a tongue. Sever that spot behind the knees which disables the legs.”

He shut off the car’s engine and rested his arms on the steering wheel. “And you’re accusing me of being cold? You’re advocating torture. Think about that for a second. At least I want to deal with people in one swift swoop.”

“There’s no need to kill people. There’s no coming back from that.”

He nodded. “That’s what this is about. You’re trying to scare me straight. You’ve murdered people, innocent people, and despite how you’ve justified it to yourself, you feel guilty. You feel so guilty that it has somehow burrowed its way out from under Fortis and made you feel it.”

“I don’t regret the lives I took, but yes, I regret going down that path. When you’ve murdered once, it suddenly becomes a viable option to any situation. You lose respect for the…fragile nature of life, and start seeing opportunity. You realise how easy it is to shut someone up forever, to deal with a problem permanently. And no, Vaux, I don’t feel guilty. That’s the problem. I’ve gotten away with it. I’m not beating myself up. I don’t wake up screaming because I see their faces in my dreams. I know that if I take someone’s life, there are no consequences. And without that fear, taking a life becomes immensely easy.”

“Are you lecturing me on the preciousness of life?” He did not sound amused.

“I’m telling you not to take a life, because it’ll change you.”

“I’ve changed already. I’m not the kid I was before this started. I have no fear, no self-consciousness, nothing to hold me back. And I like it that way. Everything’s so much easier. And if you think I’m going to let you tell me what I can and can’t do, you’re nuts.”

Before I could reply to that rousing rejection, he opened his door and climbed out. I grudgingly followed him, slinging my bag over my shoulder as soon as I was stood up. The front door was locked, but he used a key from his pocket to open it. As soon as we stepped inside, a woman stuck her head out of the kitchen.

“Vaux, honey, I didn’t think we’d be seeing you for another couple of months.” Her immensely orange face, something I made no effort not to snort at, appraised me and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. “Who’s your friend, honey? She seems a little…” her lips puckered, and her smile soured, “unkempt?”

“Living on the road will do that to you.” I answered before her son had the chance to. “But don’t worry. I plan on getting into tip-top shape again by staying here. Vaux said I could.”

An over plucked eyebrow raised itself. “Did he?”

“I did.” Vauxhall closed the front door, kicked off his shoes and hung his jacket up on a hook in the entryway. When he’d finished, he walked over to his mother and kissed her on the cheek. “I’d have asked permission but somebody chucked my phone out of the car window.”

She put a delicate hand on his bicep. “You don’t have a car, honey.”

“I do now. I stole it from a car park.”

Her entire face fell. “Honey, we raised you better than that. You know not to steal. It’s wrong.”

“The world doesn’t care about right and wrong, mum. It’s all about the survival of the fittest. We needed a car, so we took one.”

“Count yourself lucky it’s a car he stole,” I told her. “When I met him, he was trying to kidnap a little girl.”

I had to admit, I only shared that titbit because I wanted to see her eyes bulge, and bulge they did. She looked like a cat being dangled above a bathtub.

“Tell me she’s lying, Vauxhall. Tell me right now that you wouldn’t kidnap a child.”

“Not for me. For Ford. She was the spitting image of Abby, mum. The spitting image.”

“Oh, Vauxhall.” With a quivering hand pressed to her mouth, she backed into the kitchen, up to the breakfast bar, and dropped onto a stool. We followed her, Vaux with startled bemusement on his face.

“Why do you look so horrified? I wasn’t going to hurt her. I was going to give her to a loving family, people who’d risk their lives for her, who’d set aside their own happiness for hers. Any kid would be privileged to get that kind of upbringing.”

Rather than dignify him with a response (if he didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, no explanation would make it dawn on him), she opened a cupboard by her foot and drew out a bottle. Whisky, from the looks of the amber liquid inside. With no consideration for appearances, she unscrewed the cap and downed a mouthful. Then she looked at her son, the boy she’d raised, and downed some more.

“I understand the alcoholic comment now,” I told Vauxhall, before taking the bottle from her tight-fingered grip and pouring it down the sink. When I turned back around, she had another bottle clutched in her grip, this one transparent. I rolled my eyes. “Yes, because vodka makes everything better. No wonder your son thought kidnapping a child was a viable option. He didn’t stand a chance with you raising him.”

A hand settled on my arm. “That’s my mum you’re abusing.”

“The mother you insulted, and offered to lock in a closet.” I freed myself from his grip and jabbed a finger into his chest. “Don’t touch me without permission. And stop pretending that you give a damn about her opinion. Fortis took that away, Vauxhall.” With renewed vigour, I jabbed him again. “You can disappoint her, disobey her, hate her, and you won’t feel a thing. It doesn’t matter if she’s horrified by what you’ve done. What you’re going to do. What you want to do. None of that matters any more.”

“Why do you care?”

“Because you’re lying.” I put a hand on my chest. “To me, to yourself, and to her.” I pointed to his hiccuping mother.

“It’s not a lie. I feel shame, and pride, and desire. I’ve lost the ability to feel pain and fear, not all my emotions. I see her face and I want to make her proud; I want her to look at me, and I want her to smile. Hurting the woman who raised me, despite everything, hurts me.” His confession emerged like a dirty secret, and he certainly looked like he’d admitted to one. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes were wide and he was staring at his mother. “It’s true.” He reiterated. “I’m not scared of disappointing her but I don’t want to. I care about her opinion of me. Oh, God.” Wrapping his arms around her upper body, he put his mouth to the nape of her neck and breathed on her. It was creepy. “I’m so sorry,” he said into her hair. “I know what I did upset you. I’ll repent for it. I’ll ask God for forgiveness.”

She raised the bottle and drank. It took her twice as long, since she had her blubbering son clinging to her neck like a python.

I was disgusted with his weakness. How could he insult himself by pretending to repent? What game was he playing? I knew how Fortis worked; I knew that fear and pain weren’t the only things it took away. Vauxhall couldn’t feel other emotions. He couldn’t. It wasn’t fair.

My thoughts halted in their tracks. It wasn’t fair. Why on earth would I think such a thing? Fortis had saved me from a life of conformity and poverty. I’d lost things, that much was true, but it’d given me so much in return. I had it to thank, not to resent. And even if Vauxhall was feeling things that I no longer could, how was it possible?

“Who infected you?” I asked his back. When I received no reply, I unplugged the toaster, picked it up from the counter and clocked him around the head with it.

He slowly turned to face me. “What was that for?”

“How did you get infected?”

He picked crumbs off his shirt. “I don’t know.”

“When did you notice that you weren’t feeling fear or pain?”

“I was in a pub, flirting with a pretty waitress. Her boyfriend warned me off, but I wasn’t intimidated by him.” He pulled up his right sleeve and showed me a small pinprick near the crook of his elbow. “The guy stuck a dart in my arm without the slightest provocation.”

It was impossible to know if Thomson had somehow spiked his drink, or if Vaux had used one of Thomson’s infected door handles. He could have been infected by someone else, someone Thomson or I had infected. Was that why Fortis’s effects weren’t as strong for him? Had the drug been…diluted by its multiple hosts, so when it’d made its way into Vaux’s bloodstream, its effects had been reduced? What other emotions had he been left with?

Why does it matter? The question came from the bitter voice inside my head. I grabbed it by the throat and shook it. Because he gets to live without fear and pain, I screamed at it, but he gets to keep what I’ve lost. He gets to keep curiosity, and joy, and pride. He gets to keep all manner of feelings that make life worth living while I have to pretend that I’m not dead inside.

“I’m leaving,” I said, recognising in my gut that it was the right thing to do. The chance of me butchering Vaux in his sleep was too damn high. Envy was one thing Fortis hadn’t stolen from me. Anger was another. I wanted him to suffer for his good fortune. I wanted to crack open his skull and pick out the emotions I wanted, one by one.

“What?” Vaux separated from his mother, stepped over the toaster and strode to my side. I took a step back, to maintain a suitable distance between us, but he took no heed. Soon he was so close I could feel his breath on my nose. “Nothing’s changed, Sasha. We’re going to spend the next few weeks keeping a low profile, coming up with a master plan, figuring out what we can do with this gift.”

“That’s why I’m leaving.” His eyes crinkled, but I put up a hand before he could ask the question that was so clearly on his mind. “This is a gift to you because it’s taken away the bad things but left you with the good. It took away more than that with me. You said it in the car earlier: I’m a psychopath. Fortis didn’t just take fear and pain; it took everything. That’s why I killed those people, why I don’t give a crap about human life, and why the thought of torture doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I can’t feel any more.”

I felt like I’d finally put my finger on a mystery that’d been eluding me. That was why I’d committed the atrocities I had. I’d been dosed with Fortis multiple times – that had to have impacted negatively on my body. If the first dose had done its job, what did that leave the second one to do? What if it’d found other emotions to block, to override, to destroy? That had to be why Thomson was manic, despite the Fortis in his bloodstream. He’d refused the second dose. He wasn’t like me – he wasn’t a hollow shell.

Or was he? Had I infected him again? Was it possible to infect someone a second time if it wasn’t done orally, or with a direct shot into the bloodstream? Was that why Emma, Grey and the Filipino were being detained?

“Why are you complaining? I’d kill for what you’ve been given.” Vaux sounded peeved. He was pacing, avoiding eye contact with me and his mother. For her part, she was doing her damned hardest to drink herself into oblivion and out of this conversation.

I leant back against the counter, and reached blindly behind me, hoping to come across a weapon. Vaux was giving off a bad vibe. He was not going to get the jump on me.

He came closer. My fingers locked around something hard, and I snatched it up and brandished it in front of me with no regard for what it could be. A bad idea, since a quick look revealed it was the handle of a plastic spatula.

He snorted. “You don’t deserve this gift. I should take it from you. Hold you down and slit your throat. Drink the blood that pours out.”

“Stay back,” I warned him, waving my spatula threateningly, at least until he took it and threw it over his shoulder. I renewed my search efforts, and came up with a plate. Before I could lift it, he knocked it out of my hands. It smashed on the floor, and he stepped over the pieces with careless disregard.

I could see his mother behind him, watching him with glassy eyes. The bottle she’d been drinking from was half-empty.

“You really want to do this with your mother sitting right there?”

“She’s drunk enough that she probably doesn’t recognise her own name. I doubt she’ll kick up a fuss if I make a mess in her kitchen.”

Knowing my luck, she’d kick up a fuss if I made a mess in her kitchen. That didn’t stop me from going straight for his eyes, however, in a startlingly disconcerting bout of déjà vu.

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