Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Alone

Helen O’Neill

 flat lemonade 

 “Stay Inside.” The instruction was clear. But what the letter didn’t do was explain why or for how long, so I discarded it with the other junk mail and reached across the kitchen island to pour a large glass of Malbec. It had been a long day in the office and I wriggled my grateful toes as I freed them from their stiletto confines. The microwave purred in the background. Our cleaner was always chastising me for wasting the expansive kitchen and I’m sure that part of the reason she left food for me at the end of her shift, was to enjoy the pleasure of cooking in it. It was an arrangement that suited us both and when David was travelling for business, I was particularly grateful. I savoured the relaxing warmth of my first mouthful of wine and booted up the laptop; America would be waking up soon.  
Finally satisfied that the day’s work was complete, I headed to the living room and sank into the leather sofa, flicking on the news. The images were compiled from clips recorded on people’s phones, hastily edited together to provide a visual backdrop to a message that elaborated on the letter I’d so easily ignored. The words were repeated,
“Stay inside, lock the doors and the quarantine evaluation team will be with you shortly.”
People were fleeing in panic and the army was struggling to keep control. There were burning buildings and looting. Roads were gridlocked and fights were breaking out on the streets. The images were terrifying. It made it real. It made me comply.
I reached for my mobile and swiped for social media, only to find that it wouldn’t connect. I tried calling David and, in the process, confirmed that the phone lines were down too. I considered my choices and with the news still pumping out images of mayhem, I did as I’d been instructed and calmly packed a bag of essentials, leaving it by the front door that I checked to make sure it was secure. I poured the last of the wine and watched the images increase in intensity until my eyes closed and I slipped into sleep. I didn’t notice when the television and all the lights in the house went off.

A week is a long time to be in a house on your own. I’m reluctant to leave the sanctuary of the master suite, but as the low, angry growl of my stomach contracting becomes more persistent, I sit up and look over instinctively at the clock, its once familiar red digits still truant. I’m fully clothed under the Egyptian cotton spread, my jeans soft from days of wear and my sweater hood pulled up over lank hair. My movements echo in the unnatural silence as I reluctantly pull the covers aside and stand, finding that I am quite terrified of going downstairs; as if the monsters are down there waiting for me.
In the stairwell I no longer bother trying the light switch for my decent. At the bottom, I catch my toe on the holdall and swear. The door is still locked from the inside with the chain on and the bolt pulled across for protection, but whether it’s me being protected from the world or the other way around, I’m not so sure.
In the kitchen, all the cupboard has to offer is a bag of dried pasta and a sorry looking row of tinned food. I choose a can at random. The label worn and the rim an aged orange, and then I search the cutlery draw for an opener to defeat the lid. After a struggle, my efforts are rewarded with bland beans in watery ketchup. I pick up the same fork I’ve used every day and wiped clean after every meal. It feels unnatural to eat from a tin and not fill the dishwasher when I’m done, but the water stopped running on day two, so reusing a fork is the least of my hygiene worries.
I try the taps anyway and the pipes bang angrily at me. I regret not filling up pans, the bath. I thought they would be here by now. I didn’t expect to have to ration food and water. I don’t know what I did expect.
The fridge has a strange smell. In the dark, it holds the last bottles of lemonade that will save me from dehydration. I take one and carry it with me to the living room where I sit crossed legged on the rug. I twist the cap and listen to the pathetic sound of carbon escaping. The beans taste metallic as I place them individually into my mouth washing them down with the flat lemonade. I eat slowly, and I wait.
I can’t hear anyone in the house next door. David and I used to complain about the children as they rushed up and down the stairs or in circles around each other in the garden. I find I miss it now. As I sit, the semi-dark becomes complete dark, so I light a candle on the mantelpiece and watch as the flame flickers. It’s rose scented and casts a comforting glow, but as the candle burns and marks the passing of another day, I know the time for waiting is through. Tomorrow, I’ll have to go outside.
I run my finger along the edge of the shelf looking for a street map, collecting dust I hadn’t realised was there and wiping it on my jeans. The collection of books is limited to celebrity chiefs and assorted titles of unwanted gifts. We preferred digital information but I’m sure I had an old map somewhere, one of those items that we just hadn’t got around to throwing away.
When I find it, its pages are difficult to navigate. I’ve become used to electronic applications that only require the slightest intervention. I’m looking for inspiration, for a sign telling me where will be safe, and as my eyes scan the pages it’s the public buildings that seem the most sensible choice.
I’m feeling more optimistic than I have in days; decision and activity have reinvigorated me. Emptying out the contents of the holdall, I ridicule my earlier choices and kick the pile to the side. I line the bottom of the bag with the remaining cans and tuck the opener into the side pocket. I pack extra layers of clothes, warm sensible ones rather than smart impractical ones. I leave the electronic devices on the floor next to my make-up bag and replace them with the map and the last of the candles along with a box of matches. I pause and pick up the frame holding a picture of David and I on holiday last year and the realisation strikes me that I may never see him again. I remove the frame and add the picture to the bag; some things are too valuable to leave behind.
If I’m going outside, I should get some rest. I tell myself I will sleep one last time in my own bed, then, in the morning, I’ll change my clothes and make myself as presentable as possible. I’d hate to be turned away from salvation. My mind is racing with all the possibilities tomorrow might bring, playing out scenarios, both good and bad. I don’t sleep well. As I drift in and out of consciousness my mind wanders to places I don’t want to be.
I dream that morning has arrived and I have my hand on the door as I work up the courage to open it when there is a loud knock from the other side. I fumble with the lock and pull the door open. There is a limousine waiting at the bottom of the driveway, so I pick up my bag and make my way towards it. I climb inside and David hands me a china cup filled with the sweetest tea I’ve ever tasted. The radio is playing a song I don’t recognise, but I find myself tapping my fingers to the calming beat.
Sitting up with the stark realisation that the taping is not in the dream, but coming from the window, my body floods with adrenalin and I rush over to pull back the drapes, then immediately cower from the bright light that rushes into the room. My hands shield my eyes and I peer through my fingers, not sure if I want to see what’s on the other side. There is a drone hovering behind the glass and its electronic eye is scanning me. I take the stairs in pairs, not wanting whoever sent the drone to miss me and forgetting the holdall I’d so carefully prepared, I fall onto the driveway.
Above the house is a plastic dome. The drone hovers above my head and showers me with a fine mist that smells of disinfectant and contrasts with the stale air. It lowers to face me and I see my reflection, barely recognisable in its lens, then there is a flash and it flies away leaving me in solitude once more.
I walk across the brown lawn to the place where the dome touches the floor and I cup my hands to its translucent covering. I can make out the shapes of vehicles and what I think must be people on the other side, but it’s like trying to watch a film without my glasses on.  I walk the circumference of the dome looking for a way out, for my rescue. When I reach the driveway, I see an envelope on the ground and kneeling on the cold concrete I slip my finger under its seal. It contains printed commands,
“Stay inside. Successful quarantine confirmed. Evacuation imminent.” And beneath the formal text a hand written sentence,
“Stay safe, love David.”
And I know I am no longer alone.

About the author 

Helen is a short story writer and aspiring novelist based in South East London. Her fiction has been published in the UK and the USA and she has recently launched findthewritingwell.com  where she blogs. She definitely prefers her dystopia to be fictional.


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