“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.”