Snippet Twenty: Punctured Balloons

I rake my eyes about the room in attempt to glean inspiration to write, an exercise suggested to me by Kitty. Recently I’ve been trawling through my tattered tome of Japanese haikus for some idea – some emotion – with no joy.

However, as I study the space intensely I notice a cluster of multi-coloured balloons climbing the corner of my desk. Kitty recommended that I store them there in case Theo comes in to play. One, baby pink, is shrivelled on the ground beneath the rest; it must have a hole in it somewhere. Theo and I keep taking it in turns to blow it up as large as we can before all the air flows out of it. So far Kit, with her Tardis-like lungs, beat us both into second and third during the one event that she competed. Imagine how enormous we could get it if we could all blow at once I wonder.

Inadvertently, I experience a sort of eureka moment – the kind that you get when inspiration strikes. The idea is a little random but I jot it down anyway:

A punctured balloon                                                                                                                          Can still be reflated if                                                                                                                You’ve got enough breath

And, together, I guess we have.

Snippet Nineteen: The Cure

Luca’s house is our unspoken destination, seeing as all its inhabitants are in the long and twisted loop. Although, Thomas is nowhere to be found, which unsettles me. The four of us crowd into Luca’s bedroom rather than downstairs, should Thom bring anyone home. I hope he doesn’t.

“So, who wants to go first?” Luca queries, rupturing the silence that has fallen.

“Me! Please!” Helen shouts enthusiastically.

I chuckle somewhat waveringly at the child that she has been reduced to.

Said child frowns, snaps “shut up” and holds out a bare upper arm to Luca. The flesh is suitably pale and vulnerable, coated with downy blond hairs.

He slips the cap off the needle he is holding – and jabs. It is over in a heartbeat.

Helen sits back in her spot on Luca’s bed, smiling grimly.

“Who next? Saffron?”

My stomach lurches at the thought of the sharp metal beneath my skin. “What about you?” I respond forcefully.

The question was rhetorical, yet he pauses as if to answer. “I – I don’t think I want it.”

What? “What?”

“I mean, it – it’d be absolutely amazing to be such a prodigy. And there’re worse ways to die. Than being overcome with humanly feeling, I mean.”

I shake my head at him for a full minute. I should be shocked but instead I just feel disappointment; I guess I expected it. As did everyone else, judging by their silence. Or perhaps he’s told them already. “You go.” I say to Sam.

He glances at me, startled, but I plead with my eyes and he sighs in defeat, visibly setting his shoulders in preparation.

I use the delay the mull over my options: permanent hyper-sensitive phenomenon or – with any luck – temporary emotionless curiosity. I know which one my heart would choose. Who gives a crap about my head? The second choice is close to home and full of promise. I hear it calling. By this time, Sam has silently endured the vaccination and I’m as ready as I can be. He winks at me despite the situation; I look away and try not to melt, plainly nodding when Luca approaches me with another needle so that he doesn’t leave me time to think or feel anything other than resignation.

My eyes are closed seconds prior to the sharp pang that pierces my bicep, allowing the instrument to inject me with an alternate fate. Sam’s flirtatious glint flickers as a projection on the backs of my eyelids. Maybe I can still learn to be more in tune with my emotions, I contemplate, overcome with a hopeful happiness as I experience the hot flush dousing my head and chest for the penultimate time.

Snippet Eighteen: A Happy Ending

Sam and I arrive at the main road, taking turns dragging one another into a sprint as we start to tire. We encounter no obstacle, although alarm bells beat all the other background noise out of the air. I turn to Sam, hysterical with relief: like me, he is ruddy-faced and breathing as though his life depends on it. Together, we laugh breathlessly and bend double with dizzy adrenaline.

I feel a sudden impulse to grab the slender hands now flopping beneath him; so I do. Our arms are held out before us like they are our only prize, though they are one of many. The box of needles has fallen to the ground between us, a child kept at a distance yet in sight.

“We did it.” I force from my lungs with a jaw-cracking grin, half-using his weight to hold myself up.

“Yeah.” Sam agrees, crinkling his eyes so that his face is doubly radiant.

I feel weak and sweaty and feverous all of a sudden; I stumble slightly against him. And stay there. I can see his raspberry pink lips and all their indentations, surprisingly moist in the bitter atmosphere. I move closer. Closer –

“Not now Saff, the others are still missing.” He nudges me softly.

I snap out of my trance; I cringe; I wonder if the tender undertone is genuine or just a show of politeness.

When I turn my head, embarrassed, he touches my forearm. “Sorry.” He says apologetically. “I just don’t want to get too happy just yet.

That makes me happy.

Snippet 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.

Snippet Sixteen: A 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.

Snippet 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.”

Snippet Fourteen: Don’t Look At Me

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.