Tag Archives: short story

April alone

April like to be alone. Not lonely, that was different, that felt unasked for, unchosen, but alone was fine. This felt lonely.

She had been unconscious for three weeks. There was an old Joe Strummer song she liked called Coma Girl that she’d sung afterwards; nobody else seemed to find it as funny as her but nobody else was carrying as much darkness as she was. Too many dark secrets. In some ways she’d preferred it when she was in the coma. It was more honest at least.

They’d brought her back as her blood levels had stabilised, when they were sure her organs weren’t about to shut down. They’d flustered around her, treated her with kid gloves as if scared that they might break her again but she knew it was less about her and more about what she represented to them. She was vaccine. And based on her first conversations about what happened next she was vaccine and not heard. She’d signed the papers to save Aps, waived her rights, offered up her immunity, and agreed to submit to whatever was required to produce the cure. They said it was for her own protection, that it would be too much of a burden to be known publicly as the girl-that-saved-humanity (her embellishment, they’d said something slightly drier). She wasn’t entirely convinced that Vaccine Girl would be joining the celebrity ranks of the Avengers any time soon but was more inclined to believe their other arguments, notably that she might receive a lot of unwelcome attention from the anti-vax movement. It was still a minority fringe but the idea that the virus was a result of mankind’s desire to immunise itself against disease had picked up some traction. All of the test facilities and labs were anonymous now. And it looked like she was too.

They wouldn’t make promises but said they’d probably need her for a year. Maybe eighteen months to be sure. They weren’t really apologetic about it – there’s nobody else that has shown your immune response so we’ve got no choice – but had said that they would be able to open up her contacts, electronically, as long as she stuck to the script. She could continue with her studies remotely, it had all been arranged, most of the lectures were recorded anyway for people that struggled to make it to campus to fulfil their difficult five hours a week schedule. April hadn’t been one of those people. She didn’t mind about the lectures but she knew she would miss the arguments in her tutorials, the smell of books and the silence in the library which had an almost tangible quality, not just the absence of noise but the particular sound of people consciously not making noise. She would miss the walk down to the University and the bustle of the Union bar on a Friday afternoon and the smell of spilt beer on pub floors and the feeling of dancing through dry ice in a club.

Mostly she would miss her friends. It surprised her how much this was true, how much it had become true in the last few months since they’d met as strangers, shared a house, and formed their little coven. She knew no-one except her was calling it a coven. She wanted Leah’s standard greeting, an exaggerated kiss on both cheeks; she wanted Cora to  braid her hair, feel her tease out her tangles and smooth down the strands; she wanted to walk arm in arm with Aps, listening to her talk and talk and talk. She wanted to touch Aps most of all, to feel that she was really there, that she really came back, that she really did save her. She’d seen them all, part of her new video call friendship community but it didn’t feel real until she could hold and be held.

Her captors (again, her embellishment but, hey, this one was broadly true) tried to sell her on her sacrifice. You stay here, they get to go out, and maybe we get to stop this whole thing. She couldn’t argue with it, with its relentless rationale and logic. She could live with that but still couldn’t live with the deception and the cost. Aps had nearly died. If they’d just asked her then she’d have signed up for whatever they needed. She was sure she would. Mostly she was sure she would.

April, you alone can help us with this. Nobody else has your blood profile, your immune response. The whole program rests on you, so we had no choice. You alone.

Her phone rang. April hesitated before picking up, the screen announcing that it was Aps calling which meant that it would be all of them. This was how they usually called. She pressed the button to answer, turned her face to the screen, the small, circular camera, and waited. There was a brief pause as they connected.

“Hey April, it’s us, we see you… we still see you.”

Baptism

I was running on hard packed sand, bare feet flying, skirting the shoreline as the tide rose and fell. I felt fine mists of sea spray on my face, the wind whipping my hair in a tangle behind my head. A kind of baptism. I ran until my legs ached and I could feel each step pound up through my heels and my toes. I ran until my lungs burned and I had to slow, double over and gulp at the air to catch my breath.

I was almost gone. That was what they told me later. Not in those first moments when I came back around, swimming up into consciousness, surfacing for air, catching a few snatches of words, and then slipping back into sleep again. When I slept I ran. Always running until my muscles throbbed and my chest tightened and I gasped for air. I never had any sense of where I was running and I never looked back. I just ran until it hurt too much to carry on.

Those first few hours were all like that. Eyes flickering open, feeling the heaviness of my head in a pillow, the impossibility of movement, hearing voices, fragments of sentences, and then giving in again to the weight of sleep. After a while it was the pain that kept me conscious until someone adjusted something on a machine next to me and it receded enough for the weight to pull me back down again. Back down for my body to rest but my mind to run.

They must have told me several times what had happened. I could tell, when I was finally able to hear their words, process the sentences, that they’d said all of this before. They were patient but it was too fluent, too rehearsed. I did process the sentences but I don’t think, then, that I really grasped what they were saying; I was drifting in and out of a dream and surely the story about a girl who caught a virus and developed complications and almost died couldn’t be real. Could it? And yet the evidence was all there for me to feel in my ravaged body, in each rasping, ragged breath, in each attempt to move my legs or my head.

I remembered the ICU and the night that we’d all sung to each other across our video connection was still vivid. After that, it was fractured, fragments of memory as if someone had torn them up and scattered them through my head, a paper trail of clues. Flicking through old photos, a message to James, fleeting conversation with the girls, trying to disguise my demise, and then a jumble. Images of my trip to South America that might have been from the photos but might have been from a feverish delirium. And then nothing until the sensation of running, running, endless running to exhaustion, to standstill, to waking, to lying in this bed, battered but alive.

When they thought that I’d understood they asked me about the pain. I could scarcely speak which seemed to signal to them that they didn’t need to ask; they administered some sort of sedative and let me slide back into a state of restless rest. That seemed to be us for days, perhaps a week, time lost its grip, and the only cycle I recognised was sedated or not sedated. Minutes vanished in a woozy, dislocated haze; hours evaporated; days passed.

They connected me to my family, holding a video call up on a tablet, my parents wearing their best faces of reassurance but I could see the lines under Mum’s eyes and I heard the worry in Dad’s voice. I don’t know how much they’d been told but it was obvious that this hadn’t been a routine stop in the ICU. I didn’t recognise where they were until they told me they’d driven up to Bristol, were staying in a hotel until they were allowed to see me. They couldn’t visit whilst I was in the HDU. I managed to raise my arm to wave. I was still surprised at how thin, how frail and forlorn it looked. It didn’t look like mine.

When I finally croaked out words I asked the medics about my friends. They told me about Leah and Cora’s release and said they were doing fine. There was a yawning gap in the conversation where April should have been; they seemed reluctant to fill it. I insisted, forcing out a wheezing question: where’s April? They moved to a corner of the room and seemed to confer, exchanging whispers before reaching a consensus. That decision meant a deferral to a different doctor, someone I hadn’t seen before, some older guy who peered down at me through black rimmed glasses.

He told me.

He told me that she saved me. That she was immune and they thought that her blood plasma might contain enough antibodies to manufacture a vaccine. That she had offered herself up, a donation paid in blood, to see if it would work on me, an immediate and massive transfusion to pull me back from the brink. That I would have been lost without her intervention, our connection. That it worked. He told me that she saved me.

Where is she?

He paused, looked away briefly, but then he told me that too. The loss of blood had been too fast, they didn’t really understand the reaction, were still trying to figure out what had happened. They had induced a coma to stabilise her. That’s where she was. Unconscious and alone, here but not here, somewhere between.

I tried to cry out but there was no sound, just the hollow rattle from my healing lungs, and then tears running from the corners of my eyes down into my ears. No wind and spray from the endless beach in my mind, just the thin whistle of air and leaking of water from my body. I didn’t want this baptism. I didn’t want to be reborn if this was the cost.

Transfusion

It helped to think of it as an act of connection. April liked to imagine that they would run a tube from her arm straight over to Aps, joining them together, allowing her blood to flow directly across. She knew it wouldn’t be like that. They had explained it to her as simply as they could, how they’d take her donation and then need to filter it, clean it, then they’d do the transfusion. She preferred to think of it as her giving a part of herself to her friend. An act of connection.

She had signed something to say that she understood the risks. They needed an unusually high volume of blood plasma because of Aps’ worsening condition. It had emerged that the Victory program, as intended, had involved infecting a low risk patient and then testing them with a synthesised vaccine borne from an immune host’s blood. April had listened to the rational, detached description of it all but all she could think was that their low risk patient was currently in high dependency, fighting for her life. Their grand test of whether her immunity was transferable had become pretty binary: Aps lives or Aps dies. In that analysis April weighed all the risks to herself as secondary.

There was more, though, in her blood contract. No disclosure. She wasn’t sure what exactly they would do if she told her story but they gave strong hints that they would just deny and discredit her. Just another hysterical conspiracy theorist to add to the pile. It was true that nobody really fully trusted official sources anymore but they didn’t trust  the alternatives either; truth couldn’t stand buried under lies. She had to submit to an extended stay in the ICU so that they could run more tests, make sure they could successfully develop a vaccine that didn’t rely on permanently draining her of fluid, like she was a bath they had to refill before pulling the plug, sluicing another body full of blood down the drain.

There was a time, not that long ago, where the prospect of the additional stay of isolation wouldn’t have bothered her. Six months, twelve months, make it as many months as you like. She liked being alone and would live inside her own head. It might not always be happy but it was home. It felt different now, it felt like she was giving up a community that she wanted to be part of, people that had coaxed her out of her own head and helped her stand outside, blinking in the sunshine. She knew she could do it, she had the resources to disappear back into herself and hide away, but she wasn’t sure how easy it would be to come back out again. Maybe this would be her last act of connection.

They’d let her see Aps again before they took her to take the blood. She’d stood at the glass and seen a pale facsimile of the person she’d talked and danced and drank and sang and joked with. April closed her eyes and conjured an image of them, the four of them, Leah and Cora were there too. She remembered them walking arm in arm by the harbour in the early evening, winding their way to another pub, laughing about some guy that had just hit on Leah, anticipating another night out. She remembered them in a circle on the dance floor, baiting each other to pull some ridiculous shapes, watching Aps always, always default to the Watusi because she’d seen Uma Thurman do it in some 90s movie. The one time they’d persuaded her to join them in some star jumps she’d slipped over on a stray spillage and had just lay on the floor laughing until they’d helped her up. Movin’ On Up had permanently been rechristened as Fallin’ On Down from that moment on. And look at us now. April opened her eyes. We’ve never been this far down before.

They took her to another room in HDU and waited whilst she changed into a loose hospital gown behind a screen, fumbling at tying a bow in the draw strings behind her head. She lay down on a bed in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling, grimacing slightly at a sudden scratch on her arm and the feel of something sliding under the line of her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the chatter of voices from in the room, calls to monitor her blood pressure, someone calling out measurements, litres upon litres. The voices faded as the numbers rose higher.

 

Immunity

As the entered the HDU the doctor was still talking to April but she didn’t hear him, her senses screening out everything except the window in front of her. Behind the glass a girl lay on a bed, a thick, snaking tube lodged in her mouth, her eyes closed. Her chest rose and fell slowly, steadily. Her heartbeat pulsed out in a regular, luminous green line on a monitor next to the bed. April placed her hands and forehead on the window and whispered Aps’ name over and over again.

“She’s stable,” said the doctor. April turned towards him, took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. Tried to think.

“What does that mean?” she said. “Is she going to be alright?”

“It means that her condition isn’t deteriorating at the moment.”

“Is she going to be alright?” repeated April.

The doctor didn’t break her gaze but remained silent for a few moments. He walked over to stand next to April at the window and they stood looking in on Aps. April caught a faint scent of his aftershave, an incongruous soft hint of sandalwood amid the sanitised, sharp bleach smells. She stated to repeat her question a third time but he stopped her.

“We don’t know. Honestly, we don’t know. Her condition was not supposed to worsen like this, it’s not something that we had expected when she was infected…” He paused, “…when we infected her.”

April felt her chest tighten and all of her senses sharpened; it seemed too bright, too loud all of a sudden. The hint of his aftershave filled her nostrils and she was hit with a wave of nausea.

“…what do you mean?” she managed, turning to face him. Her initial shock was rapidly turning to anger. “You can’t be serious? You infected her with this?”

The doctor folded his arms. “What do you know about the vaccination efforts in the last nine years?”

“I don’t give a fuck about the vaccination efforts,” shouted April. “I want you to tell me what you’ve done to my friend, then I want my phone, and then I’m getting out of here and going straight to the police.” She was shaking, close to tears but met with a steady, implacable stare.

“Vaccination Initiative, Covert Transmission. Project Victory. For the past decade we have chased shadows trying to cure the Covid outbreaks, every time we got close it mutated and eluded us again. The longer it has gone on the more people lost faith in medicine to protect them and the fewer and fewer people would come forward for testing programs. Nothing like enough…”

April was shaking her head in disbelief. “…so you give people the virus without them knowing?”

“Put bluntly, yes,” he said. “We are at war. And we are losing. There are choices that we have had to make that none of us would have wanted to but they are necessary.”

“Go tell her they’re necessary,” said April, jabbing her finger at the window. “Now give me my phone.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said the doctor. “Who would you ring? The police? Who do you think manages the covert transmission for us?”

April reached for something to steady herself, she felt the room lurch slightly as she was flooded with another jolt of adrenaline. She remembered them picking Aps up after her arrest. Remembered them all talking later. What tests? What did they do to you? Just bloods I think. Just bloods I think. They hadn’t been testing her for a prior infection, they’d been injecting her with a new one.

“This is unfortunate,” said the doctor. “We were very careful who we arranged to be in the house with you. Everyone had to be the right profile, the right age, previous exposure to the virus without complication, healthy. We didn’t foresee this.”

“What do you mean?” said April. “Why would you arrange people to be in a house with me? What do I have to do with this?”

“You’re the key to the program,” he said. “You have been ever since you left ICU when you were fourteen. We weren’t sure then but later tests confirmed it. You’re immune to every mutation we’ve ever seen and we think that you are the key to the vaccine.”

“I want no part of this,” said April. “I want no part of your experiments. You can’t play games with people’s lives.”

“Then all we can do for your friend is hope.”

April turned back to look at Aps through the glass; almost peaceful, sleeping. She remembered that first time they met, how she’d blundered into the conversation about her childhood ICU time, how April had liked her despite her clumsiness. She’d had a hunch then that there was something honest about her, something decent, and nothing since had changed her mind. Us April’s got to stick together.

She didn’t turn back to face the doctor, she didn’t want to look at him anymore.

“What do I have to do? What do you need from me?”

“Your blood, April. We need your blood.”

Breakout

April had tried to force them to talk to her. At first, when they said they couldn’t tell her anything, she had pleaded, insisted that she just wanted to know what was happening to her friend. It had been almost three days since anyone had heard from Aps. When that didn’t work she grew increasingly angry, pulling repeatedly at her emergency call cord and yelling for someone to speak to her. They stationed a nurse at her door who would peer in through the porthole window to check she was okay; rarely she would key the code to unlock the door, the airtight seal would hiss as the room decompressed, and she would try to reason with her patient.

The next morning April reached for her phone. If they wouldn’t tell her anything then perhaps the others could search Aps’ things, contact the University, try to get hold of her parent’s details and find out from them what was going on. Her phone wasn’t there. She fumbled around on the floor, swept her arm under the bed: nothing. The room was so small it only took a couple of minutes to search. There was no sign of it. She started to slap the window in her door, shouting for attention, until eventually someone came.

April knew the protocol. In six months in ICU as a kid she must have seen someone unlock the door, release the seals, pull the door slightly towards themselves and then slide it across. When they knew you, when you’d been there for a while and you weren’t showing symptoms, some of them would get a little lax in sliding the door back behind them and would carry out their checks with it open to the corridor. Some of them never did that, even when they’d gotten to know her. None of them had this time. If April had been thinking straight she probably wouldn’t have even tried but fuelled with rage and worry she jumped straight at the nurse as the slid back the door.

As April moved she had a vague thought that maybe she would be able to duck under an arm, squeeze through the gap between person and doorframe. As the door began to slide open she could already see that wasn’t going to work, the space was barely more than a person wide, designed to be either filled with a shut door or a person. There wasn’t supposed to be a gap. In sheer frustration she jumped at the door as it opened and screamed; a combination of her weight and an instinctive, protective, backward step from the startled nurse carried both of them out into the white-walled corridor. April moved quickly, not knowing which way to go, but heading away from the nurse who had started to shout for help.

They’d brought them in separately. They’d all been taken together to a waiting area and then individually led down to their own ICU rooms. She had no idea where Aps would be. April started to frantically look through windows, aware that the nurse was approaching from behind and two other people, both dressed in blue scrubs, were walking towards her from the other end of the corridor. She remembered coming down from that end when they’d brought her to the room, there was a nursing station further up, at an intersection, she thought it just led back to the waiting area. She wouldn’t be there.

The nurse she’d barged past on escaping her room was close, holding her hands up and reassuring her that everything was okay, that she just needed to calm down and return to her room. April nodded her head and raised her own hands in response and took a step back towards her room. As the nurse lowered her arms April broke into a run, sprinting past her up the corridor. She heard footsteps behind her also break into a run now. She didn’t stop at the windows but pounded down the length of the passage, towards a set of double doors at the end. She pushed through those and a set of plastic strips hanging from the ceiling behind them into a room that seemed to be set up as a disinfectant area, a run of showers along one wall, sets of hazmat suits along another. On the opposite side of the room was another set of doors, above it a biohazard symbol and the letters HDU. She didn’t notice the grey box set in to the wall, a small red light above it. The doors wouldn’t budge. People spilled into the room behind her.

April sank to the floor, her back against the immovable door, and wept. They watched it for a moment, wary, before a doctor she hadn’t seen before crouched down in the middle of the room. He pulled his face mask down from across his mouth and nose. April hadn’t seen him before, older, maybe mid fifties, thick black rimmed glasses. He was staring intently at her, mouth fixed in a straight line, expressionless.

“Just tell me she’s okay,” said April quietly.

He was silent for a long time, eyes never leaving her. Eventually he stood up and walked over to her, pulling an ID card from his pocket and swiping it against the grey box on the wall. April shifted forwards slightly as she felt the doors open behind her. He offered her a hand and helped her up before he pulled his mask back up over his face.

“Come on then,” he said. “Your friend is in high dependency. I can tell you more there.”

April looked at him. “Like this?” She gestured at herself. “Shouldn’t I put a suit on or something. A mask?”

He shook his head. “There’s no need, April. Not for you. You’re immune.”

Suspended

It was harder being out, separated, than being in, isolated. At least before they had shared experience to rally around, something that connected them. This shouldn’t have changed anything, not really, but it didn’t feel like that. Leah and Cora had been allowed to leave quarantine on day seven, neither of them testing positive, neither of them showing any symptoms. They’d both argued against it. None of them had spoken to Aps for two days, everyone repeatedly stone-walled with standard responses when they asked how she was: her condition is stable, we can’t give out more details except to immediate family, her condition is stable, she is getting the best care, her condition is stable, you can’t do anything for her, her condition is stable. April hadn’t been released but she didn’t know why. She was also asymptomatic and testing negative, they’d told her they wanted to run some more diagnostics.

Cora had suggested they go for a walk. They had seemed to swap imposed confinement for self-imposed confinement, the two of them not sure what to do while they waited for news. April had encouraged them to get out: I was built for this, you two flakes need your fresh air and nature and real world stuff, you’re useless living in your own heads. I’ll call you if they tell me anything. I promise. They had relented and set out on a circuit of the Downs, the nearest green space, still dotted with groups of people in the late afternoon sunshine. They didn’t speak much at first, just walked, neither taking the lead. That Spring the four of them had quite often picked their way down past the zoo and sat overlooking the suspension bridge, sometimes taking a bottle of wine, to watch the sky fade into greys and pinks at sunset. By unspoken agreement Leah and Cora retraced those steps and sat down a bank of grass overlooking the brick towers and curved iron chains of the old bridge.

Cora lay on her back, feeling the grass press into her neck, one hand over her eyes against the sun, the other twirling a daisy between her fingers. Leah sat cross-legged looking out at the view over the gorge. She was thinking about the time they’d tried to drag April across but she’d refused to move from the viewing platform by the first tower and watched the three of them traverse the narrow walkway. They’d signalled at each other across the divide when they reached the other side. She couldn’t remember it exactly but she thought they had attempted to spell something out with their hands; April had just blown them a kiss and asked them why they were doing YMCA when they got back.  She took a photo of the view on her phone and sent it to April and Aps as a message accompanied with a waving emoji.

Cora propped herself up on her elbows. “Have you heard anything?”

Leah shook her head. “Sorry, no, I was just taking a picture. Thought I’d send them something to try and cheer them up.”

“April refusing to come across with us?”

“Yeah,” said Leah. “What were we trying to signal to her from the other side? I’m not sure if I’ve remembered it right.”

“We were trying to spell out ‘loser’ but no-one could agree on how to do the ‘s’,” said Cora.

“I was hoping it was something more supportive than that but that sounds like us,” said Leah.

Cora rolled the stem of the daisy between her fingers, watching the petals spin, before she flicked it towards Leah. “It’s okay, she knows we love her. And besides didn’t she drink most of the wine while she was waiting for us to cross back? I think she knew what she was doing the whole time.”

“She usually does,” said Leah.

They sat in silence for a while before heading back to the house. As they approached they could see someone standing on their doorstep, he’d rung the bell a couple of times and as they turned into the pathway up to their front door he was bending down, leaving something by the matt on the floor.

“Isn’t that James?” said Leah to Cora, leaning in towards her as they walked. Without waiting for confirmation she called out. “Hey, James. It is James, right?”

He stood up and tugged at his fringe. Leah fully recognised him then. Aps had told them about this habit he had of smoothing his hair when he was nervous, as if he could tease his curls straight if he pulled them enough. It fell back into its unruly tangle.

“Hi, yeah I’m James. You’re Aps’ housemates, aren’t you? Maybe you can help me.”

“Did you just get out?” said Cora. He looked blankly at her. “Like us,” she added. “Did you just get out of ICU?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said. “I haven’t been in isolation. Has something happened?”

“You must have been in,” said Leah. “Standard protocol on a contact trace.”

James held up his hands, gestured that they should slow down. “Hold up, I’m not following. I just came round to drop Aps’ Medlet back.” He held up her old health tracker. “She left it at mine after… after, well after she stayed over. She said she’d call. I thought she was playing it cool, you know first few days, but then I didn’t hear anything and wasn’t sure where I stood. She tried to contact me a couple of days ago but I missed the calls and then she just sent me a weird message apologising.”

Leah moved past him and opened the front door. “You’d better come in. Aps is in ICU, she’s got the virus, and we’ve only just been released from quarantine. It was the day after she spent the night at yours. They must have contacted you.”

James shook his head and followed them into the house. He held up his wrist and showed them his own Medlet. “I’ve been green all week, nothing has changed. I found her tracker later that morning. It was still green too. I think they hold a three hour memory of your last reading so she must have been fine when she left mine.”

“Why didn’t you call her?” asked Cora. “When you found her Medlet?”

He looked away, down at the floor. “I’m sorry. I thought she’d call if she didn’t have a spare. I figured she’d have a back-up, everyone does. Listen, honestly, I’m not too good at starting things with people. I like her. I’d wanted everything to be perfect that night but I don’t know. She seemed a bit off in the morning. I felt a bit embarrassed about calling…”

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Leah. “She got tested at the police station and she was clean. Then she picks it up in the afternoon and they don’t isolate someone she literally slept with the night before.”

“The police station?” said James.

“They picked her up walking home from yours,” said Cora. “No Medlet so they took her in for a standard check. She was lucky she just got a caution.” She touched his arm. “Listen, that’s not your fault.”

“You could have called though,” said Leah. “Whatever, that doesn’t help us now. I think we should contact April, get her to tell them that something might have been missed, that they might have not done the contact tracing properly.” Cora nodded. James looked apprehensive, he had started running his fingers through his hair again.

Leah’s phone vibrated. April had replied to her message, the picture of the bridge, with an ‘x’ and a bottle of wine emoji.

“Yes, let’s ring her,” said Leah, making up her mind. “April will know what to do.”

 

Fever

I had tried to call James. It was always going to be a bit awkward but me being in quarantine calling him, presumably also in quarantine because they’d contract traced him back from me, just dialled the discomfort up several notches. I didn’t want to see him again but I hadn’t planned on letting him down by having to apologise for, at best, a couple of weeks in isolation and, at worst, giving him the virus. He didn’t pick up. I didn’t really blame him and it was a relief, to be honest. I messaged him an apology.

I was finding it hard in the ICU. I wasn’t cut out for solitude and I felt claustrophobic, pacing the floor, counting steps from one side of the room to the other, each time hoping there would be something after the sixth stride. When I wasn’t connected to the others on a call or reassuring my parents that everything was okay I looked through old photographs, mostly the shots from my trip last year. I kept coming back to the pictures of Salar de Uyuni, the endless stretches of the cracked, white salt flats unrolling to the horizon. On my last day a local lake overflowed and the surface salt got covered in a thin film of water; it was as if someone had polished the earth, the sky mirrored perfectly on itself in the ground. There was a photo of me standing, arms outstretched to the canopy of blue above, in perfect symmetry with my own reflection. I looked like I was suspended in an infinite azure canvas.

I stated to feel tired on day five. I hadn’t done a good job hiding how breathless I was after Cora’s karaoke; I laughed it off as the fact that I was the only one that picked something with any kind of tempo, joked that when we got out we were going to find a proper karaoke bar, neck tequila slammers, and shout our way through ‘Like A Prayer’. (Leah had smirked that she knew I couldn’t do ‘Like A Virgin’ after the other night; I had ignored her). I started coughing in the night and a nurse came to check on me, said it was nothing to worry about, it always started near the end of the first week and usually blew itself out in a few days at my age.  My temperature was up. It was one of the few readings on my bedside monitor I understood.

I stayed off the video call as much as I could the next morning. I didn’t want to worry the others but that didn’t work out so well; my phone just filled up with messages asking if I was alright and why I wouldn’t pick up. When I did join they did varying jobs of masking their reaction to my appearance: April managed it best, barely registering any change in her expression, whereas Cora almost burst into tears and ended up pretending to have dropped something so she could duck out of shot and compose herself. I blamed it on the medical strip lighting bouncing back off a lot of white walls but they weren’t buying it. It would have helped if Leah wasn’t still rocking her usual olive skinned, Mediterranean thing. April broke the silence and said I should leave the pale and ghostly vibe to the professionals.

Decisions were made for me in the afternoon. There was a steady procession of doctors and nurses, a flurry of activity in inverse relation to my own. They told me to go back to bed but they needn’t have bothered, I was drained and just wanted to close my eyes and try to sleep. I dozed, drifting in and out of consciousness. At some point I felt someone lift my hand and slip something on to the end of my finger, the monitor readings by the bed updated. The temperature number went up. I sank further down.

Nothing was clear. My body coiled under hospital sheets, kicking them off, burning. Someone would come in, say something that didn’t really register, and tuck me back in. I kicked them off again. Sleeping. Waking. Sleeping. I slipped between those states, occupied somewhere in between, here but not here. I walked the salt flats in Peru. Remembered drinking in Buenos Aires, cold beers under a South American sun. I lay on the beaches of Rio. Danced the carnival. Exchanged halting Spanish with a guy in a club, distant memory of the pounding bass feeling like my heart thumping, accelerated in my chest. It was hot. In the club. In this bed. In the club. Pounding, pounding, pounding.

I think I slept. I think I was awake. There was a mask over my mouth and nose and I could hear the sound of my own breath; a ragged, rasping sound supplemented with a hiss of artificial air. There was something in my hand, wires and tubes over my head.

I thought of the others. They slipped in and out of focus. Cora’s resolve, her underlying sadness. Leah’s spirit and joy. April. Clever, perceptive, lonely April. I tried to tell them that I was okay, that it was all going to be okay. I tried to tell them about Peru. How I was safe, frozen in the limitless canopy of sky and lake, suspended from harm in a dream and not writhing, feverish, delirious, on a bed in an isolation unit, shackled to an oxygen tube that was inflating my lungs.

I see you

Seconds ticked into minutes which unfolded into hours that seeped into days. They were apart, locked away in their separate containment units, but together, each of them almost permanently in contact on a four way group video chat. Sometimes nobody even spoke, it just felt reassuring that they could see each other, a slice of the familiar amongst the unfamiliar tangle of tubes, machines, injections and monitors. Something messy and imprecise to break up the clinical precision and routine. Four days compressing ninety six hours folding up five thousand odd minutes tocking hundreds of thousands of seconds.

On the third day Cora had set them all a challenge, something, anything, to keep their attention away from the swirl of questions that nobody seemed to be able to answer for them: how long will we be here, is Aps okay, will we get sick? She’d called it quarantine karaoke, acknowledged that the title needed some work, and told them the rules. One song, each, that they had to sing to each other over the group chat. Original song as backing track accompaniment allowed. Scores awarded based on song selection, vocals, and performance. April had been reluctant but acquiesced on Aps’ insistence that it would cheer her up. Are you guilt tripping me? Yep, 100% but I’ve got the virus so shut up and sing.

Taking it in turns, they sang. None of them had quite known what to expect and it felt strangely raw, intimate, singing to each other through the small screens of their phones. Leah dedicated her song to her dad, said it reminded her of something he used to sing if they caught the early morning ferry down to Como, days when they needed to visit the larger town. Little darlin’, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. She sang it quietly, not really looking directly at them through the screen until they started to join her on the chorus, here comes the sun, and then she stopped, watching them finish it for her, smiling.

Cora declared that she’d only picked her choice for one line, it was the bit in Hotel California about checking out anytime but you can never leave. At the last minute she changed her mind and did a Lewis Capaldi song from when she was a kid. This time none of the others joined in. Cora kept her eyes closed throughout and they sensed, implicitly, that she was singing a lament for Rob, that they were being let in on something private. As she finished Leah blew her a kiss and April clapped her hands quietly. Jesus, Cora, that was beautiful but you’ve made me like Lewis Capaldi. I don’t know whether I should love you or hate you. Cora shook her head and mouthed you-love-it at the screen.

It was Aps that broke up their back-and-forth. The others watched as she sashayed back and forth belting out Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’, pointing at every indication of her infection in her room to accentuate the chorus. Red. Warning light on her Medlet. Red. Biohazard symbol on her door. Red. Virus positive written in the notes hung over the end of her bed. She clowned it up, pirouetting between her bed and the solitary chair that all of the ICUs had, ducked her face out of view before reappearing in extreme close up. It was gloriously funny and inappropriate, the others weren’t sure initially how to react but found themselves caught up in the dark joy of it. They were all laughing so much by the end that it took them a few moments to notice quite how breathless Aps was, ironically how red her cheeks were. She insisted she was okay. No more skipping Spin City when I get out. She nodded at April. Come on, best ’til last.

None of them knew it but it didn’t matter. A solitary guitar chord, a run of bass notes, and then the rumble of a baritone, April whispering over the top of the words, her eyes never leaving Aps through the screen. She told them afterwards that it was Nick Cave, ‘Straight To You’, and that he’d pretty much got her through her isolation first time round. None of them knew it but they heard what it was: a love song, a love-despite-anything song, a towering love-above-all song. Sad songs you can dance to, right? said April at the end. When all this is done I’m going to waltz you round our living room to this. Us April’s got to stick together. Aps just nodded at her. Deal? Aps nodded again.

Day four. Night four. They went to bed, separate in their own contained, isolated rooms, but they left their phones plugged in, switched on, and left the video chat open. They fell asleep to the soft light of backlit mobile screens and the virtual presence of each other.

 

Isolate

April watched the Community Trace Officer work; she had gone straight to Aps and was talking her calmly through the standard protocol. Spot test, assess, isolate, full diagnostic.  It was essentially the same process that April had been through as a kid, except then, without the early warning indication through the Medlet you only got picked up through the regular spot testing that they ran with high risk groups. She’d registered a high temperature that she was pretty sure was just a combination of her period and a regular flu bug that had been doing the rounds. They’d run the blood tests and found a viral infection. Later they recorded it as Covid-27.

The CTO was peeling apart a plastic, airtight package, shaking free a syringe. She was working precisely, quickly, clearly moving through steps that had become routine. She pulled up Aps’ sleeve and wrapped an elasticated blue band around her upper arm. April looked away as she inserted the needle, pulled back the plunger and filled the syringe with blood. Aps had looked away as well. Leah was asking questions about the test which the CTO was answering, her responses polite but not straying much beyond a yes or no. They were clear despite her mask. Yes, this was a spot test. Yes, it was safe. Yes, it was authorised in law. No, she hadn’t heard anyone call it the bad lover. Fast, small prick, unreliable, clarified Leah. No, we don’t call it that. But yes, it’s not completely reliable.

They waited. Aps’ sample had been spread across a thin slip of paper and inserted into a small machine, it looked a bit like a baby monitor that April had once found when she was helping her parents clear out some old things from the loft. Just a large LCD screen a couple of large push buttons, and a slot to push the paper into. Her old baby monitor had just shown room temperature and picked up noise; it would light up like a firework display if she’d either started crying or the ambient climate in her nursery had risen half a degree. She had no idea what this machine would show. Leah was evidently thinking much the same as she continued with her questions. So, when do we get the puff of white smoke? What are we looking for here? Cora was silent but had moved across to Aps’ side and was holding her arm. The CTO ignored them all and just stared at the blood test machine.

Something changed on the LCD. There was no flashing light or shrill alarm, just a few symbols and numbers that appeared. The CTO pulled a phone from her pocket and dialled a contact, holding up her other hand to signal that they should hold their questions. CTO attending case 29, 687, on the A4176. Female, 19 years old. April Daniels. Request immediate dispatch of ICA for four. Need pick up on Miss Daniels and her housemates. Case positive. I repeat, case positive. She hung up the phone and told them to pack some clothes.

“This must be a mistake,” said Aps. “You need to check the machine again.”

“I’m sorry,” said the CTO. “It’s just the spot test so it could be a false positive but the readings are very clear, I haven’t seen one like this that has turned out to be wrong. We need to get you somewhere safe, make sure you’re looked after.”

“I was tested this morning,” said Aps. “Literally this morning. At the police station. They wouldn’t have let me go if their test had come back with anything.”

“A few hours can be a long time in viral infection. I’m sorry but you really should pack some things. The ICA will be here soon and they’ll want to get you all into containment as quickly as they can.”

They all packed, cramming clothes and essentials into bags. Leah had whispered to April: What’s an ICA? Isolation Containment Ambulance, April had shot back. She remembered the one that had taken her to ICU the last time. It had seemed like a normal ambulance to her if she was honest, just with ICA embossed on its side alongside one of those biohazard symbols. At the time she’d thought that bit was pretty cool but it had been during her black metal phase. A couple of years after she’d come out of isolation she’d toyed with getting it inked on her arm, to cover up all the scratches from her testing, but she’d seen a couple of tattooists and they’d said it wouldn’t take properly on her scar tissue. Now she just thought they over dramatised the whole thing, giving everything its own acronym, its own special virus status. The sign served no purpose. Unless the CTOs were going to start projecting it in to the sky every time they picked up a positive to call in an ICA, like the bat signal. Maybe not the bat signal. No-one remembered much of that DC stuff now, it was all Marvel.

When they came back downstairs there were two men, full hazmat suits, waiting for them. The CTO had disappeared. They were gestured towards the front door which was open but as they stepped through it wasn’t into the short path down to the street but into a temporarily erected tunnel, plastic walls supported by flexible rods snapped into rectangles. The tunnel ran straight, just twenty feet or so, directly into the back of the ambulance. It smelt faintly of disinfectant. They were told to move.

April remembered her first time. They’d given her a sweet, told her not to worry about anything, a nurse had held her hand. She’d worn gloves but still, she had held her hand. The same nurse had asked her about her friends, about school, about what subjects she liked, what she wanted to do when she was older. She was just a child and they’d treated her like one. They’d explained everything. She hadn’t known enough to be scared.

Now they were all adults. Barely. They treated them like adults. Explained nothing and asked nothing, nobody held their hands, nobody gave them sweets. They didn’t know enough but they were still scared.

Trace

Cora remembered getting her first Medlet a little differently to the others. There had been a steady improvement in health tracking devices from ’20 onwards but none of them ever hit critical mass across a big enough part of a population to be useful in contact tracing. Governments argued with technology suppliers, nobody could agree a common platform, and some people just refused to wear them. Cora’s own view as a teenager was a more attenuated version of the prevailing mood in Scotland, sceptical and slightly distrustful. After the big Covid-27 outbreak in ’24 things changed. They mass produced the cheap but reliable Medlets and legislated that everyone should wear one, public mood had changed enough that it didn’t raise much debate. Scottish law changed later, holding out for an aligned approach across the EU that never came; there was a straight fault line between north and south.

Cora’s memory was acute because the moment she’d worn it on her wrist she’d felt nothing but guilt and remorse. She had sat in pubs with Rob, talked about freedom and the state and a whole load of bullshit about how nobody was going to tag and trace her. He’d been more laid back about it all, like he was about everything, but he’d said he’d agreed with her. She sometimes wondered if he’d liked seeing her all fired up like that: you’ve got the spirit in you, right enough, Cora. And he’d smile, watching her. She had been convinced that she was right, convinced in the way that only a seventeen year old can be convinced, all black and white before the world shows you that it’s grey. She was sure. And then he died, without warning, and she wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

They had told her afterwards that there was no guarantee that it would have made any difference. It was just there as an early warning signal. Most times it’d be a false alarm, some usual temperature fluctuation, some mis-read fever. Most times. The sceptics still said that the point of the Medlets was never really about the personal warning, it was about the geo-tagging and the tracing, the links to the MedApp and what it allowed local enforcement to do in isolating and locking down pockets of communities. It wasn’t just the sceptics saying that, the scientists were too: they just disagreed on whether that was a good thing or not. Cora didn’t much care about the civil liberties arguments afterwards, she just wanted Rob back and if she could have made that happen, even if it meant everyone else had to stay at home forever then she wouldn’t have thought twice.

She watched the others freeze at the sight of the flashing red warning light on Aps’ Medlet. She knew they were torn between their impulse to reach for her, enfold her, reassure her that it’d be okay, that it was just a warning, torn between that and their fear. It was this abstract fear that they all had, that there was this thing out there that they couldn’t see and it might kill them, but now it wasn’t abstract: it was her. It was a momentary thing. Almost like the briefest inhalation of breath, a heartbeat, and then it passed. They all rushed over to her and smothered her in a jumble of arms and hands. Leah had come out from her room and had half run, half slipped down the stairs to join them in the solidarity of their embrace.

Within five minutes Aps’ phone rang. They all knew that it should but the efficiency of it still felt strange, intrusive. She picked up and had a short conversation with a Community Trace Officer, answering a standard set of questions about her symptoms (“none”) and where she was now, who she was with. That stuff was just for show, they knew exactly where she was and who she was with.

“CTO?” asked April as the call ended.

Aps nodded. “Yep, they’ve registered the warning and said that we can’t leave the house. They’ve dispatched a mobile unit to come round and assess me.”

“You okay?” said Leah.

“I… yeah, I’m okay. Just a bit shocked. I feel fine, maybe it’s a mistake.” She shook her wrist. “This is the new one they gave me this morning, maybe it’s not calibrated right or it’s faulty or something.”

“At least you weren’t long without one,” said Cora. “It’s better to know, right?”

“I guess,” said Aps. “I don’t understand. James left me a message, saying he’d found my old one and it was all showing ‘green’, everything was okay. How can it change so quickly? Don’t they normally cycle through ‘amber’ and stuff first?”

“They’re pretty sensitive now, I think,” said Cora. “Better to be safe than sorry. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“God, I’m sorry guys,” said Aps. “You should probably all stay away from me or something.”

“Not happening,” said Leah.

“Nope,” said April. “If you’ve got it, we’ve got it. Anyway, I’m Miss Immunity, remember? They tested me practically to destruction so I’m prepared to take my chances on a probably rogue Medlet reading.”

“Do you think I should ring James? Tell him?” said Aps.

“You won’t need to, they’ll do a full contact trace if they follow protocol. Everyone you’ve been near in the last ten days. If you’ve been enough of a social butterfly you might put the whole town back in lockdown.”

“Jesus,” said Aps.

“Really?” said April. “When did you meet him? That’s going to be a bugger to contact trace. At least you know he’ll forgive you.”

“Hey, lapsed Catholic here,” said Leah. “You don’t hear me making jokes about your religion, do you?”

“Satan’s just not that funny,” said April, smirking. “No offence meant. I was just trying to lighten the mood. It’s a new thing I’m trying.”

“Say ten Hail Mary’s and we’ll say nothing else about it,” said Leah.

They saw the flashing lights through the window, the room winking in blues and reds, illuminating their faces as they turned towards the door. The bell rang and Leah, Cora, and April stood first, forming a barrier between Aps and the world outside. The bell rang again, followed by a knock, and a voice calling CTO. 

“It’s okay,” said Aps. “It’s going to be okay.” She slipped in between them and walked to the door, lifting her hand to open it, red light flashing on her wrist.