She left me to sleep again, despite the encroaching afternoon. By the time I woke up a second time, it was dark outside and she was sat in the rocking chair again, this time with a tray in her lap. I could see steam rising from the bowl, and another chunk of bread. Despite the familiarity of the food, my stomach rumbled and I drawled.
We sat in silence as I ate. Each mouthful I savoured, since I didn’t know when she’d decide to kick me out. She took it away when I was finished, and after a couple of seconds, I kicked off the covers and followed her into the kitchen. Her hands were already in soapy water, my leftovers disposed of. I picked up her dish towel.
“You’ll have to tell me where everything goes.” Her smile, when it came, warmed me inside.
“That won’t be a problem.”
We worked in tandem, her washing and me drying. When she’d directed me to the last cupboard, I folded the cloth and draped it over the draining board. She let the plug out of the sink and stared at the water as it sped away down the drain. I watched her, waiting for the silence to break, for her to explain why she’d let me stay, for her to admit that she’d told her carer about me and the police were on their way. All that emerged when she did finally speak, however, was: “come with me. I want to show you something.”
She led me into the living room, which was as immaculate as the rest of the house. There was a sofa, and an armchair, both positioned to face a small, but modern, television.
“My carer had it installed it for me.” She explained, catching my stare, as she turned on the news.
The caption on the bottom of the screen immediately floored me: pioneering new drug deemed contagious. A reporter, the same one who’d stood at the place of ma’s death, was stood outside the laboratory where I’d undergone the clinical trial.
“Scientists from the facility,” she recited into the microphone, with a serious look on her face, “have claimed that the effects of the drug would permit such an action, but urge the public not to panic. Three of the original volunteers from the clinical trial are in quarantine, and the remaining three are being located.” My picture, Cole’s, and Thomson’s, appeared on the screen, along with our names and a number in easy-to-read font along the bottom. “If anyone has any information regarding these individuals, please phone the number below. They are considered dangerous, so do not approach them.”
She continued speaking, the scene switching to the hospital where my bullet wound had been stitched up. It showed a ward blocked by yellow tape, and a scurry of nurses and doctors in hazmat suits gliding from one room to another. Eighteen people believed to have been infected by Miss Burns have been quarantined, the ribbon along the screen announced. The screen flipped again, flaunting a picture of ma and of our grimy flat, then it moved to Saeed’s house, where a picture of the blonde girl I’d killed popped up, and then it settled on Jack’s, and I saw his parents again, smiling out at me from their wedding photo.
“Sasha Burns is suspected of four accounts of first degree murder, as well as the murder of a family pet.” A minimised picture of the husky I’d killed flashed up for a second, and then disappeared. That, more than anything, made me feel guilty. CCTV footage, blurry but workable, played next of the hospital reception. “She is also suspected of assaulting a member of the public with the intent to do harm and of hacking into an official, private system. If anyone has any information regarding her whereabouts, or about any of these events, please contact this number.” A phone number popped up on the screen.
“Did you phone them?” I asked the old lady, not taking my eyes off the television.
“No,” she said.
“Why? I’m not denying any of it. I even admitted last night that I’d killed someone.” With a twist of my lips, I met her hard stare. “I’ve killed multiple people, and when I woke up after fleeing the town I committed those crimes in, the first thing I tried to do was rob and kill a nice family in the layby with me because they had luggage in their boot which I thought might be useful to me.”
Still she didn’t explain her reasoning, no matter how ferociously I stared at her. Agitation boiled in my veins. I spat more words at her: “When my ma was killed, I let myself stop feeling. The drug took away pain and fear, but I stripped away the rest. Without them to hold me back, I was invincible. Mentally, at least. I killed that girl, the blonde one. I slit her throat. She did nothing to me. I did it because the boy whose room she was sneaking into wronged me, and I wanted to hurt him. And I killed that couple, the one in the wedding photo, because their son accidentally killed my mother when he and his friends mugged us. I was the one who fought back, who scared them, who upset him enough to make him pull that trigger. But that didn’t stop me from slaughtering his parents. And his dog. And I beat that receptionist’s head against a hand dryer with no regard for her health, because I needed to find out who had hurt my mother.”
“You let vengeance control you.” She looked out the window at the street outside, at the downward slope, at the little white gate in her tiny fence. A black cat ran across the garden, its tail held high, and she sighed. “I know I shouldn’t help you. What you’ve done is wrong, and you’ve hurt people. And if your actions can’t convince me to surrender you to the authorities, you have a contagious drug in your system that no one truly knows anything about.”
Seconds ticked past. No other words came out of her mouth.
“Would you like to know more?” I asked her.
“Yes,” was her reply.
It took an hour to explain everything that had happened to me: my circumstances, the trial, Panther’s attack and my reaction, ma’s death, my need for revenge, Shooter’s sudden appearance in my life, Saeed’s torture and the murder of his girlfriend, my sudden epiphany that Jack’s parents needed to die to equal the scales, my fleeing of the scene, the stabbing that’d occurred in the layby before the family had escaped, and my discovery of the village. I even included the part where I’d contemplated killing her, an easy mark, to live in her home for a couple of days.
Her interest in the whole thing was obvious. Her face remained expressionless but she leant forward in her seat, and kept eye contact the whole time. She asked questions at every turn, and when I was finished, she asked more. So many that another hour passed before I could so much as consider what my next move should be.
When she did finally run out of steam, and I posed the question, she scoffed. “I’m not going to throw you to the wolves, Sasha.”
My eyes widened. “You’re not?”
“You aren’t responsible for what you’ve done. The drug in your system does more than block your synapses: it saps free will. Think about it. You’ve had two doses of the stuff, five of you original testers. If one dose blocked the ability to feel pain and fear, what did the second have left to do? I think it somehow blocked other emotions, or offset the chemical balance in your brain. I don’t think you had a choice in anything that you did. Maybe it felt like you did, and maybe it still feels like you do, but I don’t believe it.” Her theory, strange as it was, made a funny kind of sense.
“You think that the second dose of Fortis impacted on my conscience? Messed with my morality?”
“I don’t know about that. Morality and conscience aren’t physical. No, I think it increased something, and when you attacked the receptionist in the hospital, that imbalance or upset increased, and the momentum carried you into more atrocious acts. Acts that you couldn't stop yourself doing. And I believe that that momentum has been interrupted now, which is why you’re upset by what you've done. It no longer seems justifiable to you.”
“Who says I don’t think it’s justifiable? They killed my mother.”
“By accident. Because you startled them and fought back.”
“They deserved everything I did to them.”
“That’s why you haven’t given a thought to going after the other two?”
Halt. I’m thrown off course by her comment. “The other two? Jack was the one with the gun. Why would I go after them?”
“You hurt Saeed, and killed his girlfriend, because of what happened to your mother. That wasn’t your initial intention when you visited him, though. It was an epiphany you had while you were questioning him. Do you expect me to believe that that epiphany wouldn’t have demanded that you condemn the other two once you were done with Jack and Saeed? Revenge isn’t fair, Sasha. Hurting Jack, making him pay, wouldn’t have been enough. It’d have left you empty, and you’d have gone after his accomplices, no matter how innocent they were.”
“I did what was right,” I stubbornly insisted, and she sighed at my obstinacy.
“Believe what you will, Sasha. But listen to me when I tell you that this can be controlled. If you establish a spectrum of socially acceptable behaviour, and force yourself to react to events the way in which it tells you to, you can stop yourself from hurting people. We are stronger than science. Stronger than the drugs they pump into us.”
I remained in her home, comfortably, for three days. She fed me soup and crackers, provided me with a constant stream of antiseptic and clean bandages, and spent the best part of each day sat in the room with me, except for the time every day when her carer visited, at which point I was abandoned for forty five minutes and left to stew in my own silent company.
We talked about the drug. About fighting its effects, and how it felt racing through my bloodstream. She pitched me scenarios, an endless cascade of them, and asked me how I would react to each one. The majority of my answers were acceptable, but a few caused a frown to grow on her lips and I’d had to modify my answers.
She told me about herself, the scarcest titbits: she was an only child, raised right here in this village until the death of both her parents when she was eight, at which point her uncle took her away to live with him. Her husband, a man she’d met whilst volunteering overseas, had passed away from cancer eight years ago, and her adopted daughter, a fire-fighter in New York, had perished in nine eleven, helping to save civilians from the falling towers.
Her whole story made me pity her – to have lost so much, - but she insisted that it was better to have loved and lost, then not to have loved at all, but the words had rung hollow as she said them.
On day four, I woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare. I registered, without full comprehension, that she was stood above me, the tip of a sharp knife pressed against her tongue.
“Justine?” I blinked blearily up at her. “What are you doing?”
She jumped, the knife shaking in her hand. “Go back to sleep, Sasha. I was checking on you, that’s all.”
Crooking an eyebrow, I sat up. “With a knife? I don’t think so. I’ll ask again – what are you doing in here?” I happened to look down at my arms, and I scowled. The bandage on my left arm had been removed, and a shallow cut had been made over my wrist. Two similar slashes lay beneath it. “Are you drinking my blood?”
Running a hand down her face, Justine finally dropped into her signature chair and put the knife on the floor. “You don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand?” With aggravated gestures, I kicked off the covers and climbed out of the bed. My possessions had swelled from her generosity, and I felt no guilt at snatching up everything she’d given me and arranging it on the bed. I took the duffel bag she'd endowed me with, and began shoving everything inside. I spoke over my shoulder as I worked. “I thought you understood what this drug was doing to me. I thought you wanted to help me. I was a fool for believing that, I guess. No one helps someone in this world without expecting something in return, whether or not they ask for it up front. What I can’t believe is that you’ve been sneaking into my room while I sleep to cut me. What could this drug possibly offer you?” I snapped, stopping in my packing to glare at her. “You’ll be dead in the space of a few months. Do you want to go on a killing spree before you die? Is that it?”
“I don’t want to die, Sasha, but I can’t stop it, so I would rather greet it without fear, or without feeling any pain. Every morning I wake up in agony, and every night, I lay my head down on my pillow with tears in my eyes. Is it really criminal to want to escape that pain and to live the life that I have left in peace?”
“You should have asked me.” I wouldn’t have given her my blood – even without my ‘socially acceptable’ responses, I knew that wasn’t right. I could have tried to make her comfortable though, waited on her hand and foot for a while. But she’d deprived me of that choice. Of any choice, and all I wanted to do was grab her frail body and shake her until her head tipped to one side and the life slipped right out of her. She’d wronged me, deceived me, and I was offended at that insult. I’d come to trust her, and the whole time she’d been showing me another face.
“I’ve learnt a handful of things in my life, Sasha, but the one I swear by is that it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission, especially if you truly want something. Do not beholden yourself to the whim of someone else.”
“Isn’t that exactly what you’ve done to me? I can’t leave you. Without pain, how are you going to know if you’re having a heart attack? Or if you need to phone your carer because your pills aren’t working, or if your lungs aren’t taking in oxygen fast enough? If I leave you now, you’ll die.”
“Then I die. For the first time in my life, I can look back on what’s happened to me, and I can appreciate everything I’ve been given. I’m not blinded by loss, or anger, or regret. This is the peace of mind I want to die with, and you’ve given me that.”
“You’ve taken it, you mean.”
She threw her hands into the air. “Fine. I crept in like a thief in the night and stole it from you. We both know your feelings aren’t hurt. The only reason you’re upset is because you’re offended that I lied to you. But the logic of why I did it, doesn’t that soften the blow?”
Arguably, it did. Knowing her motivation, her reason for betraying me, gave me insight into her actions, but it didn’t eliminate the blatant insult of what she’d done. I’d come to her at my most vulnerable, and she’d screwed me over.
“I should kill you.” I said.
“Then do it. Add another name to your list of regrets.”
I stared at her, and she stared at me. Neither of us moved, or said a word. It was a tense moment, full of expectation. It felt like the world was holding its breath. When I zipped up my bag, signalling that I wouldn’t make her atone for what she’d done, we both sighed.
“You don’t have to go, Sasha.”
“Yes, I do. I’m doing the right thing by not hurting you, but I want to. And if I stay here with you, I don’t think I’ll be able to restrain myself from plunging a knife into your back or smothering you with a pillow.”
I took a thick coat from the hanger near her front door, along with a hat, a scarf, and gloves. The bag slung over my shoulder had all my original acquisitions, plus clean clothes, leather walking boots, a generous supply of food, a re-stocked first aid kit (and some killer antibiotics to deal with infection), and about seven thousand in cash, stolen from Justine’s bedroom safe. I found it during one of her carer sessions, and cracked it when she told me the story of her daughter. The pin had been two seven (the girl’s age) and nine eleven.
Justine didn’t bother to see me off, and I wasn't angry or hurt by her negligence. She might have shown me kindness, but she also taught me an important truth – that everyone is ultimately self-serving, and we only hide that selfishness behind a mask, a mask that Fortis strips away. That was why the thought of an outbreak terrified people. It’d deprive us our ability to lie to each other.
I waited by the bus stop at the edge of the village, a hood wrapped around my face. It wasn’t the brightest idea to walk around in daylight, but I didn’t want to stay in Justine’s house any longer than I had to. Part of me didn’t want to kill her, and I’d known that if I’d stayed, I would have done it anyway. The distance I put between us would keep her safe.
A grey bus with a red dragon on its side pulled to a stop in front of me. I asked the driver where the last stop was, and bought a ticket to it, before striding to the back of the bus. There were a bunch of teenagers on the back bench, so I sat opposite them and looked out the window. I could feel them staring at me. They were probably annoyed that I’d sat near them when no other seat on the vehicle was occupied. I paid them no mind.
The doors creaked shut, the bus jerked, and the engine under my feet roared. An indicator started to click. Then I spotted him, running out of the pub and towards the bus with frantic, waving hands. The driver took note of him too, and grudgingly stopped to let him on. He walked straight over to me and dropped into the seat on my right with a huff.
The bus set off, scenery speeding by outside, but Thomson and I had eyes only for each other. He had intense, black bags under his bloodshot eyes. His skin was slick with perspiration and coated in muck. The nest of brown hair on his head was greasy. He was skinnier than he’d been during the trial, noticeably so, and his clothes were ridiculously shabby. Is that what I’d looked like when I'd turned up on Justine’s doorstep? Why on earth had she let me in?
“How did you find me?” I asked him.
He waved the question away. “It was easy. You should really learn how to lay a false trail. I engineered a couple for you, to keep the police from sniffing around. We can’t help each other if you’re trapped in a government facility.”
I almost asked about the government facility. Almost. Instead, I said: “what do you want, Thomson?”
“Your help, of course.” He took a stoppered vial from his jacket’s lining. The liquid inside was clumped and red. “We need to start infecting the rest of the country with Fortis if we’re going to protect ourselves from becoming government lab rats.”