Moment 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.

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Moment Seven: Revolutionary Revelations

“So, erm.” Sam’s uncle is saying, twisting his hands together in a startlingly similar manner to his nephew.

I wonder if Theo or Erin or I have inherited any body language from Mum or Dad.

“Okay, I’m just gonna say it but, be warned, it’s a laaang story.” A Caribbean twang slips into his sentence, disrupting the uniformity of his otherwise English accent. He takes a breath that appears to wobble as his lungs fill with oxygen and deflate before he is ready to speak. “Alright. You guys aren’t normal.”

My eyebrows jump up involuntarily. Well, duh I think and notice Luca and Ms Stapleton looking equally unimpressed – Sam embarrassed.

“And it’s all my fault.” He tacks on, staring at the fluffy white rug cuddling our feet like the fists of a dozen tiny babies.

Well, that changes things.

“Yes, so, basically, uh, about seven years ago, myself and two of my colleagues, we thought ourselves clever enough to alter the, er, genetic make-up of an existing virus in order to manufacture an entirely new one. The problem was, we were fairly sure that, for the virus to take hold, we needed to test it on those who’d not yet built up antibodies against the original. I.e. children.” His hands are trembling so much that he jams them into his pockets to trap them in position. “And – and then when Sam broke his leg and was admitted to hospital – I – I saw the perfect opportunity.”

“No!” I shout, outraged, ready to launch into an onslaught before Luca shushes me. A blaze has started up in my chest, using the criminal confessions for fuel. Oh God, oh God, oh God. Shit. I’ve heard in Science lessons that these manipulations are possible, but never have I considered them to be taking place unregulated. I almost don’t want to hear what’s coming next.

“I walked straight into that A and E ward pretending to be visiting Sam and while I was there I released seven of the new viruses into the cups of water on each of the bedside tables.”

Automatically, my mind is transported back to the time when I was seven and in agony from an arm I’d broken swinging from tree branches in someone’s garden. I hadn’t taken much notice of the other patients, excepting Jade, who was in the bed to my left, and the frail girl to my right, who’d looked like death. Even then, I’d been too absorbed in self-pity and the activities of my own brain.

“So what exactly does this virus do?” Ms Stapleton demands.

Sam’s uncle is stunned as he takes her in for what seems like the first time. “I – I don’t recall ever seeing you on the ward, ma’am. How can you have been affected? Forgive me, I don’t understand.”

“I was accompanying my sick niece.” She answers coldly. “Jessica was scared to drink the hospital’s water so I took a sip just to show her that it wasn’t deadly. But it seems that she was right, after all.” She frowns, giving Luca just enough leeway to interject.

“What’s your name?” He queries, fishing out his notepad.

“Oh, um, Jaimes.” Sam’s uncle responds distractedly, then returns to addressing the headmistress. “The thing is Miss…”

“Helen.” She supplies, and, out of the blue, I feel ashamed for never bothering to ask for her name myself.

I rush to quash the guilt before it sparks across my skin, repeating to myself like a mantra: Stay neutral, stay neutral, stay neutral.

“Helen.” Jaimes echoes. “Well, I don’t actually know what the long-term effects of the infection are. That’s why we needed to test it. We had an idea of what we wanted it to do, but there was no telling if it…actually worked. I fled Rosenham the moment I came to terms with what I’d done. All I can say is that it was supposed to make one more attuned to others’ emotions – more empathetic, you might say.”

“I wouldn’t.” Helen Stapleton mutters bitterly. “The neighbours keep me up all night with their songs of passion.”

I almost choke at the implications of that statement, composing myself in time for Jaimes to ask, his tone inflected with curiosity: “So, what exactly does the virus do? If you don’t mind sharing.”

“I can see emotions.” Luca pipes up eagerly. “Like colours emanating from a person.”

“I can hear them.” Helen stresses unhappily.

Upon an expectant glance from his uncle, Samuel, head down, whispers “Smell.”

I feel overwhelmed all of a sudden as I realise that this visit has solved nothing: “I have no idea what this virus has done to me. All I’ve got are mood swings. And I can sometimes set things on fire.” I add, registering how abnormal that is as I say it. Luca flicks his head to me in surprise, then immediately starts scrawling. I guess I should’ve told him that.

“Jaimes’ eyes widen, but he maintains his cool and nods slowly. “I’m sorry -” He begins.

However, something about his repentant stance irks me and before I know it my innards are up in flames and I am jumping in with a fiery cry. “Well it’s no good apologising now!” Both my palms are cupped, as though I am praying. “The damage is done. Congratulations, you’ve ruined four perfectly good lives.”

His face contorts.

“There are more of us, aren’t there?” I comprehend, no longer angry but weary.

“I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but the guilt was gnawing at me from the core and I knew I had to tell someone. I can help fix it.”

We all stare at him, chewing various parts of our mouths and waiting for him to complete his soliloquy.

“I fled when it was done. It was instant, brutal shame that fuelled my move from Rosenham and my family and friends. I did not deserve to live among those I’d corrupted.” His voice is weighted with regret, the voice of a man deep-set in his melancholy. “Straight away, I started to work on a cure. I enlisted the help of my accomplices, feeding them the line that it was ‘just in case’.” He glances up to his audience, though doesn’t look at anyone directly. “They didn’t wish to see their hard work go down the drain.”

“So there is a cure?” Helen prompts. She cannot restrain her hopefulness.

Jaimes, the centre of attention, looks startled – a deer caught in headlights. “N-no. I managed to let slip that I intended to use the finished product on our test subjects; after that they refused to work with me and destroyed the mixture that we had concocted so far. I never saw them again.” He draws a nail across his bald head. “Without our combined knowledge and resources, I’ve found it impossible to recreate even a base solution. Believe me, I tried. Eventually, I gave up and attempted to charge all my moral strain into sprucing up this place.” Jaimes gestures vaguely around the room. “Evidently, it didn’t work.”

What is Mood Swings?

Mood Swings is a science-fiction novel for young adults. Over 27 chapters and an epilogue, it tells the tale of 15-year-old Saffron Cooper’s development of a neural viral infection and the peculiar friendships that it brings about. Saffron discovers that she is not alone in her illness, which exaggerates her emotions to the point of fever, but that each of her allies is affected somewhat differently: one can hear emotions; one can see them; one can smell them. Once the four have met, they set about searching for the cause of their disease and the possibility of a cure. For Saffron, however, the factor with the most transformational impact on her life is not the virus but the people that she unwillingly accepts into it.

Enthralled by my then new knowledge of viral pathogens and genetic engineering, as well as my reading of Sophie Mackenzie’s The Medusa Project series, I began writing Mood Swings in 2013. Another source of inspiration were the emotionally-charged teenagers whom I encountered almost every day in secondary school. Being a very calm person myself, I couldn’t help but wonder: what could have made them this way? What if there were an external force that elicited the infamous adolescent volatility? Mood Swings is my answer to that.