My granddad, used to say that we are the sum of what we endure, and he would have known suffering, as he had polio as a child and experienced pain throughout his life. I was thinking about this on that bleak November morning in the curious half-sleep that visits the anxious, when a terrifying hammering on my front door caused me to sit up sharply, gripped by uncontrollable shaking. The odd thing was that I knew the knock was coming. It had been ten days since they had forced their way into the bedroom and taken Travis … God, I missed him.
It started simply enough; in fact I barely even registered the news article, the first one. It was a quick one line on the scrolling tape and a few short words, I don’t even remember if there had been a picture or footage, just a disembodied voice saying that China appeared to have a small outbreak of some sort of new bird flu. Bird flu! They didn’t even get that right. It wasn’t bird flu, but by the time they had worked that out we all knew about it.
Travis had come home one day saying that half his work-mates were ill. Instead of increasing the hours of the remaining staff they were going to close the call centre for a while. I didn’t believe him at the time, but he insisted, kept on insisting all that night and the next morning. I questioned him right up to the time I watched the small portable TV in the kitchen. I’d been drinking fresh orange at the time. I always had fresh orange in the morning, as it was meant to hold colds at bay. Travis laughed and told me it was a silly idea, especially when we ate so much fruit and veg, but I clung to my superstition. Of course, it does seem to have worked; after all I am still here and Travis is …
So I was watching the television when Travis came and put his arms around me. Such strong arms, and they’d hold me just right, so I felt safe. I leant back and we watched it together. This anchor-man was on the news and I remember saying, “I thought he was retired?” Travis shrugged; I felt it all along my back. Then he was saying that there was a new flu virus going round, and that if anyone felt ill they were to call the number on the screen and not go to the doctor. It was then that Travis twisted away from me and sneezed; a really big one, and I said bless you and he gave me that look.
He never believed in any of the God stuff either. I mean, neither did I, but some things were traditional, and God bless you was one of them. It’s funny now, in a dark way. That saying was first used to bless people with plague and I’d used it for Travis. So funny, can’t you hear me laughing? Strange, how it sounds more like crying. That first sneeze was the beginning. Then came the cough and the temperature, and then he got better. But I’d already called the number, and the doctor and his entourage arrived in those plastic yellow suits, their breathing harsh and sounding like villains in a science fiction film. They had scared me with their mechanical, “don’t panic” and plastic pats on my arm. The feel of their gloves and the smell of that warm rubber was just nasty. You couldn’t get away from it. Because we were quarantined they didn’t want us to open the window, I did though, once they were gone. Just a little. I had to. The smell, not only of the suits but of Travis, was too much. To make matters worse it was also one of the hottest summers I can remember.
Like I said though, I was able to ring them about ten days ago and say that it looked like Travis was getting better. Except it didn’t work like that, not that I knew at the time. Still, I felt that it was a miracle. After days in bed barely moving, he suddenly sat up, looked around and saw me.
“Hey, baby,” he said, smiling, and for a moment I forgot his pallor and the fact that he had lost most of his hair. He was just Travis. “Any chance of a cuppa?”
I tingled all over and said yeah, no problem. I went downstairs to put the kettle on; we still had power then. I called the centre. “Don’t worry,” I said, “he’s getting better.” They just said there would be someone around tomorrow to see if he was still improving and I said that was okay and that he should be fine by then. They said of course and put the phone down. I made the tea and took it to him. I will never forget walking into the room and seeing my man, the person I had pinned all my hopes on, just lying there.
They say hope is hard to kill and I know, because I thought at that time, standing in the stinking room, that he had just lain down to sleep, that he hadn’t wanted to get up and shower that gross smell and stale sweat off him. Hope, it’s unforgiving. I tip-toed to his bedside. He just lay with his eyes open, not seeing anything. I put a hand on his shoulder and shook him. His head wobbled back and forth like a rag doll’s. I don’t remember dropping the cup or holding him, but I did wake up at some point and it was dark outside. I reached over to switch the light on, but it didn’t work. I was holding him, cradling him to my chest and he was cold, completely cold and stiff. That freaked me out. I jumped out of the bed and the smell hit me. I can’t even describe it. I ran to the bathroom and fell over something, I think it was a scrunched up pair of jeans. I fell hard and just lay there for a moment. The smell was less here and I could just make out the flaky scent of dust. They say that dust is mostly skin, dead skin that has just fallen off and been replaced, so in effect I was breathing in my Travis. I cried then; sobbed and wailed at the wrongness of it all.
I must have fallen asleep or passed out, but it was the sun on my face that brought me round. That and the heavy banging on the door. Just like now. Boom, boom. Except that then I scrambled up and ran down the stairs, using the light that filtered through the windows to see through my dusty, ill-used home.
“Where is he?” they asked in their false voices. I just pointed and they stormed upstairs. It seemed like seconds later that they appeared with a body, Travis, in one of those black bags. Then one stopped in front of me. “Did you touch him after he died?” That voice was freaky, it had no inflection. I couldn’t tell if he pitied me or was laughing. His faceplate was just like those you see on spacemen, all gold and reflective. I shrugged. I really didn’t care what happened; my reason for living was leaving in a bag and with him were all my dreams; the house, the babies, everything. But the spaceman wouldn’t leave. He held my arm and shook me.
“Did you…” he started but I didn’t let him finish. Instead I yelled in his face, yes! He took a step back and dropped my arm. Maybe it was because I hadn’t drunk anything in a while, at least twelve hours, but I had a coughing fit. They ran out of the house and I heard them close the door. I was alone. For a moment I just stood there and then looked around. It was dusty inside and the sun coming in through the windows made it look like an abandoned house. I felt abandoned so, I reasoned, why not the house? It was morning and I needed some comfort, something. So I went to the kitchen and to the fridge. It smelt bad; the power had been off for a while and a lot of the food was rotten. The orange juice was fine though. Briefly I wondered what sort of preservatives they used to make it last that long. But really it was just a small thought. I poured a pint of juice and downed half of it. Honestly, that was the best thing I’d ever drunk, ever tasted. I found myself in front of the TV, watching the blank screen, wishing for Travis to put his arms around me and his chin on the top of my head, just like he used to; to hold me safe. He didn’t. For a moment I actually felt angry with him. How dare he leave me? Right then, at that moment, I decided that I wanted to live, that I would live for us both.
Which is why, when they came for me ten days later, I felt fear. I know why they left it so long. It had taken ten days for Travis to die; damn, it had only taken ten days for the whole world to go to hell in a hand-basket. In that time I had cleaned the house and packed. I hoped that they would see I was fine and then leave, but I’d also heard gunshots lately. I mean, this is a middle-class suburb in England; there would have been no guns unless they were military. I didn’t check outside, I didn’t even look, just in case there were scavengers. Instead I lived in my bubble, pretending that I was waiting for Travis to come home. True, it had been hard with no power and maybe I’d lost some weight, but at least I had time, just to say goodbye.
The banging increased and then I heard the door go, a sharp crack of a sound. Then silence. I expected to hear the rasps of their breath and see the yellow suits, but nothing. I remembered my Granddad again, and the fact he always said that what we imagine is far worse than it ever is. I am dressed. I walk down the stairs and there, in the front room, is a man.
“Hello?” I call out and he turns. Travis’s eyes look at me. I sit, there on the stairs I just collapse into a sitting position.
The man takes step toward me. “Emma?”
I cry. He has Travis’s eyes.
“Emma, where is Travis?”
I just shake my head. How can I tell him that his son is dead? It must be something I say or how I look but I see the realisation in his eyes, and then I am engulfed. Travis had been hard and young, his hugs a cage of protection, but his father’s are soft and yet comforting. I feel safe.
“Come on,” he says, pulling away and leading me to the door. “You are coming with me.”
“Where?” I ask.
He smiles and looks down. Travis, as he would have been in twenty years’ time. “Home.”
I nod. I will go; after all I have no other choice. I don’t know why I am still alive but I must live. As we leave I look back and there, on the door, is a white cross. How ironic, I think and the Travis I hold safe in my heart agrees. His father sees me looking.
“They used the same goddamn mark as the 1500’s. Stupid bastards. They sealed people up then too. They are even calling it the Black Plague.”
I blink up at him. “No,” I say, “it isn’t the black plague, it is just fate.”
He blinks at me and I smile. He shakes his head and takes me to a large Landrover. I jump in, careful not to hit my stomach on the door. Fate has a way of taking everything and, just when you know you can’t take it anymore, she gives it back, just a little, just enough to give you hope. I’ll have to tell him, but later. Just for the moment this is my secret, this is my fate, and my hope.
Fate is part of my short story collection ‘Love Just Is’ which is available on Amazon and is free to read with kindle unlimited.