Aeiou leads us back up the staircase to the locked door, its keyhole into which he waggles a tiny silver key. “Rest in here for a bit whilst I get things ready.” He is saying as it starts to fall open with the weight of the wood.
As soon as we have all bundled inside through the narrow gap that is allowed, he lets go of the outer handle with which he has been holding it ajar. It slams shut. There is a hasty clanging noise and it is sealed again, leaving us to suffocate in the flood of one another’s company.
Immediately, a cutting voice wafts from one of the four bunk beds pushed up against the corners of the dank room. “Who are you?” It demands defensively.
One great eye, the four of us search for the source, also on our guard. This fellow prisoner is equally as suspicious to us as we are to them.
Unfolding from a bottom bunk on the far side of the cell is a teenage boy – dark hair, pasty brown skin – Indian, perhaps. Turning to look at us, he repeats the question adamantly. “Who are you?” I take notice of a strong Brummie accent, a stark contrast to our mild Surrey dialect.
No one speaks, not wanting to give away what may be too much. The tension grates on me and having adjusted now to the drab setting of the kid-like bed frames, dirty green rug and identical black duvets, I deflect his question back to him. “Who are you, may I ask?”
“I’m Zaid.” He says curtly, squaring up to me from a reasonable distance. I’d have slapped him otherwise.
Without realising it, I have stepped ahead of the other three. Hot blood courses through the veins in my hands and they vibrate strangely; I could throw fire. Probably literally.
Zaid refuses to speak another word and so do I. We stare each other down. His irises are large and whirling, like black holes. His teeth clench so hard they should crumble.
“Leave him be!” Helen cries out suddenly, letting loose her lips. She must believe that revealing her feelings will be of some benefit. “He’s one of us.”
“What?” Us teens splutter simultaneously.
“We all have the virus!” She clarifies, somewhat shrilly.
It must be true; she cannot lie.
“Well, congratulations,” Zaid says, recovering quickly, “you’re doomed like the rest of us.” His tone is dripping with sarcasm. “Cure or no cure – you’re gonna go crazy anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Luca pipes up, finally emerging from the depths of his brain.
Zaid remains mute as he gestures to the top bunk of the bed on the far left.
It looks as if there’s nothing there apart from a mound of fleecy blankets, but when Luca strides forth purposefully to take a look, he reports the layers of fabric to be breathing.
“That’s Cosmo.” Zaid states bitterly. “He was ‘cured’ about a week ago.”
“Wha-what happened?” I ask, only half-wanting an answer.
“The virus spread before the procedure could be carried out. He cannot see. He cannot hear. He cannot speak, move, feel. He is an empty shell. He may as well be dead.” The rage in his voice is like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The emotion runs as magma through the chasm of his body, erupting from his mouth like lava from a volcano.
Touched – overly so – by his anger on behalf of his friend, I rush up and hug him.
He tenses, emitting a surprised “wha-”, but eventually relaxes into it. Though I am sure that Luca, Sam and Helen are witness to his permanent frown, propped up on my right shoulder.
After too long, I release him from my death grip, embarrassed now that the surge of empathy has worn off. I catch sight of Sam staring hard at me from the corner of my eye but stay facing Zaid. “Sorry.” I grimace. “It’s the virus – it gave me mood swings.”
Zaid’s cavernous irises blaze as if a torch is shining from the inside. “Ah.” He replies, an inkling of a smile tugging at his lips. “I get it.”
Maybe he does.
“But -” Helen butts in, her voice quavering slightly, “we need the cure. We have to be cured to be – normal.”
“It’ll kill your brain cells. You’ll never be normal.” Zaid shrugs resignedly.
“Yes but,” she continues, spurting with panic, “if we get it over with before the virus spreads further there’ll be less damage, won’t there? And my brain cells could grow back! It has to be -”
A key clanks in the lock, jarring my ears; within milliseconds the old door is creaking agape.
“Luca Amello.” Aeiou pronounces firmly – imperiously. He sounds like a doctor calling in his patient. This would be reassuring had we never heard from Zaid.
Regardless, Luca gives our sad little party a sweeping nod before turning and leaving with the scientist, unfazed.
In an attempt to prevent myself from being burned away with worry, I turn my attention to gleaning information from Zaid. Samuel is reluctant to say anything, as usual, and Helen appears not to be able to curb her thoughts from the prospect of not receiving a full cure, what with the way she is compressing her bottom teeth against her upper lip. “So if you don’t want the cure, why are you still here?”
“Cosmo can’t walk, remember?” He responds condescendingly; I am almost jealous of the way he makes something so self-sacrificial seem inevitable. “Anyway, I can hardly go home with this potty mouth, can I? I’d be spilling left, right and centre – they’d lock me up in an asylum.”
Oh. My suspicions about his condition are confirmed. It’s sad, to think that he was probably a completely different personality before the virus invaded his brain.
“And all the windows are alarmed. He’d have us wrestled to the ground by body guards in seconds.” He continues his spool of pessimism. Or is it realism?
“Guess we’re stuck here then.”