Moment Seventeen: The Great Escape

We get down to the lab; Aeiou doesn’t say a thing as I let him hook me up to pulse and blood pressure monitors then slap a thermometer onto my forehead.

It is only now that it occurs to me to wonder what he is going to do with me. From what I can gather, he wants to induce an emotion-attack. Great. I bounce the gumball beneath my tongue. Then almost choke.

From behind a curtain pads Tyler Matthews, a cub taking its first steps in the shadow of its father.

I gasp and my body immediately responds to the shock as Tyler throws himself down into a chair opposite and Aeiou hurriedly attaches wires that are twins of mine. Immediately, his pulse rate spikes, a mountain range on the black backdrop.

Amidst my own panic, I vaguely wonder what he’s feeling.

Tyler is rocking on his chair, moving it in tiny leaps away from me.

Aw, I think instinctively, he’s nervous. I must smile because he looks even more terrified than ever, sweat dripping down his round nose. Okay. Focus, Saffron, focus. Conjure the anger. I struggle to cast my mind to Ms Stapleton’s surprise attack on me yesterday. “I’ve never liked her.” I accidently blurt out loud, causing the two Matthews to look at me funny. They must not have realised what I said however, because within seconds the scene is rewound back to its previous frame.

I clench my fists, topping up my rage with thoughts of our prolonged deprivation of the cure and of Aeiou’s treating us like lab rats; the saliva in my mouth boils, hardening the gum like a kiln does clay. Now my mind is skipping towards the weeks without Kitty, Thom’s worry for Luca – even Helen’s well-established and undeserved reputation. Then to Cosmo, as good as dead. Then, finally, to all the lost love the cure will cause me now that the virus has taken root. Strangely, this is the most devastating, that one of the bundle of nerves that makes up my human nature will be cut from me.

My internal surfaces are being licked with fire; the misshapen sphere beneath my tongue is rock solid. This is it. I suck in, carefully, for what seems like a lifetime. Then, before I choke on my weapon, I let rip.

As I watch the tiny makeshift missile fly its path through the air between Aeiou and Tyler’s heads and collide with the shelved glass behind, my eyes cross so that I can barely make out the image. The sound of the container shattering is unexpectedly musical – like the tinkling of a music box – a perverse theme tune cheering me on as I grab the package of needles.

Fuelled by adrenaline, I make a dash for it before my company can begin to work out what has just happened. Halfway to the door I encounter Sam, rushing inside to hinder them enough to buy us an extra few minutes. He shakes a blurry hand at me as he passes. I trust that he has already alerted the others to break out through the upstairs window. My fingers cross, on both hands.

I am out in the dark hallway, glancing in every direction at rooms that might provide an opportunity for escape. The front door would be too obvious – bound to be watched by cameras and the guards behind them – and I’m pretty sure that I can see a keypad, which means it’s coded. To the background groans and thud of limbs next door, I spot a kitchen window, perfectly placed above a countertop and leading out to the side street from which we came. I mark it mentally as the one.

Now I am forced to focus on the matter of Sam’s safety. My heart starts up a buzz in my chest and I imagine him flitting out of that room, victorious, wiry arms raised in triumph. He’s done well to keep them busy this long; he’ll hold out ‘til the end for sure. I glance down at the needles I am carrying: the plastic tub has moulded to the shape of my sweating hands. We can pretend to be confident but our nervous system will always betray us – especially mine.

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Moment Sixteen: Human Specimen

On reaching the laboratory, miraculously without me either tripping or setting Aeiou’s suit on fire, I notice with relief that it looks exactly the same as yesterday: desk and office chair rubbing up against a wall to the right of the door, an extra chair floating in the general area on the anterior side of the desk, opposite his. The periphery of the room is decorated with linen-clothed tables. Except now I realise that they’re not tablecloths but bedsheets, like the ones we have upstairs. And whatever objects they’re hiding are too bumpy to be tables.

Aeiou strides right across the shadowy expanse of ground to a cloaked sibling at the far end. He turns rapidly to face me, whipping off the covering with a flourish and a prideful “Voila! My CT scanner!”

I’d laugh at the puerile joy in his expression if I weren’t so stunned. The device is a large white tube – very new-looking – preceded by an equally space-aged white platform. It is a white hole from which my scrambled brains will be blasted out, out into the galaxy. “Am – am I going in that?” I ask, unable to suppress a tiny stutter. I’ve never been enclosed in such a thing before.

“Yes but don’t worry; it won’t take long. I just want to take a look at your brain.”

His proposition and the prospect of being trapped in close confinement cause me to do just that. Even as I lay myself down on the surprisingly well-cushioned platform, my entire body sweats and trembles like I am running a fever. I am relieved, now, for Aeiou’s being covered up, for I would not want to maximise the eagerness that is glinting across what I can see of his retina.

My head cradled by an ovular dip, I enter the scanner. It quickly begins clicking and whirring as the brain imaging begins and I experience what I imagine to be the sensation of being inside a time-travelling vehicle: a twirling stomach and flittering eyes, attempting to keep up with the lights rotating above my head.

When the half-hour is up, Aeiou passes me a plastic cup of water, distorted in my dizziness, then disappears behind the connecting monitor; I am abandoned, still prostate, on the platform. Once recovered minutes later, I scramble to a sitting position, legs dangling over the side.

“Mmm…abnormal cells in the…that makes sense.” He murmurs to himself, then flicks his eyes up to mine. “Well, it’s definitely a neural virus and for you it’s residing in the prefrontal area of the frontal lobe, which controls emotions, problem solving, decision making et cetera. So if you start making crazy decisions based entirely off of your feelings, come straight to me!” He chuckles.

If he were in my shoes, however, he wouldn’t be laughing. Like Zaid said, we’re doomed – cured or not – and all thanks to a bunch of reckless ex-scientists.

Moment Fifteen: Stuck

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.”

“Yep.”

Moment Fourteen: Transparency 

When one ferry after a dozen is finally ready for us to board, I watch Helen guide Luca to a seat at the centre of the lower deck, where there is the least chance of acquiring motion sickness. I make to follow them, however Sam grabs me, making my hand tingle, and near-begs with glazed pupils: “please – please can you come to the top with me?” Then he explains bashfully. “I want to see everything.”

Perhaps it is my surprise and strange sense of pride at his having spoken so assertively to me that makes me smile and say, “show me.”

I severely underestimated the strength in those frail arms; I am hauled, tripping, up the stairs to the top deck of the boat. The fact that the floor is rocking unflinchingly from side to side does not help my balance, but I manage to seat myself on a shiny, smooth sheet of red plastic without any great disaster.

Sam is leaning forth inside his identical bowl, focus flitting from deck – to beach – to sea – and back again. Simultaneously, with well-refined coordination, he is wriggling his little button nose around, nostrils assaulted by the riot of emotional smells – my own the strongest: a gripping anticipation for the boat to begin its course towards our fate.

It is on this boat that I realise a phobia of mine.

On the whole it cruises smoothly, froth cascading from the helm to the rear down below. The sky is crispy-clear and cloudless, with a wind capable of cupping your jaw but not pummelling it, combing your hair yet not yanking. There is that one terrifying time though, when a rogue wave trips the vessel into a motion most closely resembling a wheelie, metal slapping the vast volume of fluid beneath it.

In that wet and shivery moment, I cannot help but freak out a little – well a lot, thanks to the virus. “Oh my fuck – don’t look at me!” I order an equally dripping Sam fiercely. I have ripped off my jacket to inspect the damage, leaving me in a now transparent white t-shirt.

Samuel is frozen on the edge of his seat, as if he had been when the torrent hit, torn between clinging to the bolts where its legs meet the floor and fleeing. Sluggishly, cautiously, as though his face is the first to thaw, a grin creeps its way around his mouth, entwining it. Then his thin lips begin to peel apart, revealing miniature off-white jags and boulders, so small I am convinced that they are milk teeth. I have my arms crossed across my torso as Sam laughs, a sound first reminiscent of the cawing seabirds surfing the ocean and then the spluttering of the boat’s engine as it picks up pace again, a thunderous orchestra piece.

“Oh, shut up!” I tell him. This is so embarrassing. “I feel so self-conscious.” If it weren’t for the wetness, I’m pretty sure that something would’ve caught on fire, what with the hot flush that’s just beginning to subside.

“Ah, sorry. “ Sam apologises, suddenly solemn. “I understand. I get self-conscious too. Very.”

What? Did I say that out loud? I open my mouth to comment but am distracted by a teetering Helen, swaying atop a step in the middle of the staircase. She is pale and dizzy, moisture gleaming on her forehead as though the water smashed the windows on the bottom floor and she too got soaked. These factors alone, without the urgent beckoning gesture of the head, would have been enough to make me come running.

Moment Thirteen: Untouchable

The remainder of the now even tenser evening is passed with stilted, small-talk-style conversation and theatrical gagging on my part, following my discovery that mackerel pretty much tastes like those cod liver oil capsules that my mum used to give me. I end up just eating the rice and asparagus, all the while wishing that I’d just gone with my usual safe prawn dish. Thanks to my Latin heritage, I’ve grown up around a lot of seafood, but I guess I now know the reason why our parents never subjected us to such an atrocity as mackerel. Thomas’ regular old pizza is beginning to look extremely appealing.

Needless to say, he notices me shooting glances at the thick Hawaiian topping and makes a subtle gesture to the final slice.

I shake my head shyly. No, I couldn’t. Could I?

Our eyes lock in a silent battle, but eventually I figure that mine register defeat because he lifts it tentatively to my mouth, which has slipped open, lubricated by saliva.

Although my heart rate is rising steeply and my skin prickles like it wants to leap away from my internal organs, I fight the feeling. The isosceles triangle approaches, the tip of the cheese teasing my taste buds until I can no longer restrain myself and I bite down. And I chew. I let the flavours drip down my throat.

I am euphoric; I’ve overcome the anxiety – the virus is not stronger than me. Almost shivering, I allow a grin to spread across my jaw.

Thom’s expression is synonymous.

I try not to let that bother me. Maybe I should give this thing a chance.

Reaching out for my hand in slow motion, reality speeds up again as he clasps it; I give it a shake so that we end up swinging our arms back and forth, brushing the side of the table – a rope of skin. It is not love or even lust that I am feeling, but appreciation: deep, untainted, heady gratefulness for his simply being. For his bamboozling desire to make me his. Although he is hardly the counter-weight to my see-saw, the strength of his smile alone keeps me elevated, optimistic. Yet I need him to know the truth – tonight has proved to me that Thom is more delicate than he seems and I cannot take advantage of that.

“I’m so glad that you’re here.” I articulate, trying to let my sincerity shine through. It is difficult to fight against the physical urges to jump up and embrace him – to share the intense warmth that fills me, however I know that I mustn’t let anything spin out of control. If I cannot restrain the heart then I must restrain the head. Unfortunately, I am used to doing quite the opposite. “But I don’t love you.” I say explicitly, still cracking my widest smile.

Thom’s grin doesn’t falter either until, 30 seconds later, he sighs. “I am aware.”

With these four syllables, as if I have been on a sugar high my energy levels plummet and I beseech for him to explain.

He sighs again. “I asked Luca to watch you – how you behaved around me and your aura – so that I could decipher what you truly felt. It’s intrusive I know and I had no right, but I was desperate. All that he reported back was concern, sympathy, anxiety, terror. I guess that tonight was me trying my good fortune in the hope that your desire had somehow manifested itself into all of these.”

I wait for him to continue, but it seems that he’s done.

“I’m sorry.” I apologise pathetically and he cringes at the evident pity. “I’m sorry that I can’t be the one, though I wish you luck in finding her.”

I’ve never been particularly adept at consoling others but with the right mood to work with, the virus changes that. I’m still me, just – exaggerated. Involuntarily, I pick up both feet, one then the other, so that I am shuffling out from my side of the booth and padding over to Thomas’ side.

His irises jitter in a startled manner. He clearly wasn’t expecting this; neither was I.

I lean down to press my lips against the soft cartilage of his left ear. “I can’t bear for you to be upset; you’ve made such an effort and I’m so grateful; you can kiss me if you like.”

I hold my breath but he shakes his head vigorously enough for the light to catch the field of straw atop it, making the strands appear to be flaming – burning – smouldering. “How can I let myself get so close to something that I cannot have?” His tone is such that I am unable to tell whether this question is meant for himself or for me.

“Okay.” I agree softly, trying hard to direct my response towards that of relief rather than offense. “Okay.”

I refuse to muck things up any further.

Moment Twelve: Skater Boy

Getting onto Southbank at around mid-day, it is found that the cramped conditions of central London are ideal for us not to be discovered by Luca’s fellow children’s’-homers. Having agreed not to don our hoodies until we reach the skate arena, instead I nearly crick my neck gazing up at the fairy-lighted London Eye and a luminous Big Ben commanding a sturdy bridge arching the Thames. If there’s anything about my first taste of London that grabs me the most, it’s the sheer scale of things: the mammoth buildings, the crawling crowds, the cloud-shod expanses of sky; even the mingled fragrance of fast-food vans is potent enough to penetrate the nether-tunnels of my nostrils.

At our destination zone, the hum of multilingual chatter makes space for the echoing thud of previously-airborne wheels; in the dingiest corner is a stunted silhouette silently splattering an already rainbow-like wall with a small red spray can. They seem to be crafting an image in the shape of a horizontal almond: an eye. It’s got to be Luca.

He doesn’t turn around as the three of us dodge-saunter across the young lads riding stunt bikes, scooters and skateboards, dressed in our new apparel. It’s a miracle that we don’t get hit, or even falter in our ridiculous performance. I realise now that, to see his face, we’ll have to travel right round in front of him, possibly sacrificing ourselves to chemical burns. Thankfully though, Luca has heard us, putting down his can and stepping aside just as we reach a distance of inches.

“So here’s the plan.” He begins straight away, not even double-checking our identities first. We aren’t given the chance to do anything other than listen. “I’ve been checking out the property, and the owner’s daughter always leaves the back gate open when she leaves for school. Closed, just not locked.” He clarifies. “I figured if we find a way to get him out of the house, we can easily sneak in and sift through any suspicious documents or artefacts.” Luca sounds so eager and content with his achievements that it is difficult to imagine that he feels any remorse for having left home at all.

My thoughts flick to Thomas, but quickly return to the surreal reality of the skate park. Now is not the time, I admonish myself.

Luca is bundling a ball of black material into Ms Stapleton’s arms. “That’s your policewoman’s uniform.” He indicates to her with a nod.

“Uhh…what?” She responds, representing the confusion of the majority.

“You’re the diversion.” His explanation elicits the flash of genius that overcomes his pupils from beneath the hood. They are the roaring blue flame of a Bunsen burner: dangerous, enchanting. “You are going to pretend that you are going round the houses to take surveys about the effectiveness of the local police force. Meanwhile, Saffron and Sam -” His animated face darts towards us. “- will carry out the search, grab what we need, and run.”

“Wait, why aren’t you coming?” I put forth in an accusatory tone.

“They won’t let me go out on my own yet.” He mutters, uncharacteristically sour.

Well, it’s his own fault, I can’t help but surmise.

“Hey, how’s it going at the children’s home?” Sam whispers politely, putting my bitter reaction to shame.

“Mm, it’s okay.” Luca replies unenthusiastically, then admits “I don’t get a moment’s peace – not even at night: my roommate’s a snorer.” He says that last bit with his hand cupping the side of his mouth theatrically. “I’ve had to lock all my science equipment in a safe so that it doesn’t get destroyed by rampaging 11-year-olds.” The 10-year-old says. “Since it’s my first fortnight, I’m not even allowed out by myself. Today is a risk too – as soon as they realise I’ve been a half hour in the bookshop I said I wanted to look in, they’ll send out a search party.” He sounds mournful now. “I seriously do wish that I could come with everyone but I fear that, after this, I’ll be captive for yet another two weeks.”

Moment Eleven: Never Too Late

When Miss Adams calls the register, I swear I am the only one to realise that Florence’s name is missing. I bolt upright and whip my head about the classroom – frantic.

“What’s up?” Kitty asks, confused; the violent flagellation of my hair causes her to have to dodge its attack.

“Florence…isn’t here.” I mumble distractedly.

“Who?” She queries, touching her chin.

“New girl. Tallish. Blonde.”

“Ah, right, the one that got beaten up. Come to think of it, I heard you packed a punch of your own. Was that…the virus?”

“I – yeah. You see – I got to know Floss, you know, while you were away.”

Kitty is silent.

In a tenth scan of the classroom I pick out a tuft of discoloured hair belonging to the one other being who might give a crap about what’s happened to Floss. The bell rings and I scoot in front of her before she can leave the room, Kitty trailing, bewildered, after me. “Hey. Adalyn.”

“Uh, Saffron? C-can I help?” She has every right to her degree of perplexity. I only newly exist in her world, as she in mine.

“Yes actually. I was just wondering if you know where Florence is.”

After a momentary hesitation, she confides in a whisper: “She’s not coming back here.”

“Oh.” Comes my deflated response. I don’t ask why; I think I can deduce that for myself.

“Uh.” Adalyn says, fiddling with her hands. “If you want to – you know – say farewell and stuff, I could give you her number?” Her voice goes all high-pitched at the end, as if she’s sure that I’ll say no.

But I am determined to prove her wrong. “You can?” I exclaim gently, appreciating her courageous geniality. “That’d be amazing, thanks. I’d be really grateful.”

While Adalyn mumbles Floss’s number, I punch the digits into my phone, thanking her again. I make a mental note to talk to her more often in future.

Turning back round, I am confronted with a tilt-headed Kitty, scrutinising as if she doesn’t quite recognise me.

“I didn’t know that you and Adalyn were on speaking terms.” She states, incredulous.

“Um, yeah, recently – not a lot though.” I instinctively feel embarrassed by my friend’s observation; it must show on my face because, straight away, Kitty reassures me.

“No, no – I’m proud of you. You’re branching out.” She says sincerely.

“Ah, OK then. Thank you.” I accept the backhanded compliment with an addled smile.