Paints a picture, doesn’t it? But how easy is it to write to that theme when you usually write in a different style? Truth is, it was as challenging for me as turning my hand to Utopia last month. A challenge, yes, but far more productive.
This month was shorter, cutting two/three days down from the writing time-scale, then you’ve got to take into account the week of no writing due to being beyond ill, but words were written and progress made. By the end of the challenge month, I found myself with an unfinished story, with room to move. I am excited to explore it further and see where it takes me. I’m not sure a full novel will come from it, but if you’re lucky, I’ll post regular updates here.
For now, here is the 4,800 words that were managed over February.
N.B – What you are about to see has no title, and is unedited. Please don’t hold that against me.
Those of us that survived the war, and the epidemic that spread like wild fire when nuclear reactors failed, were herded like cattle, and housed in barns. The army told us it was the only form of isolation they could provide, and all our needs would be catered for while we remained lodged here. They then informed us that only when we should show no trace of having the deadly Raxi virus would we be permitted to leave.
One of the soldiers monitoring our situation and progress had let it slip that Raxi was meant to be a weapon of war. It was genetically modified in some laboratory tucked away in the middle of nowhere. He said his source claimed it was a modified version of Anthrax that had deliberately been mixed with Smallpox, and stated it was virtually unstoppable. He was a jittery fellow, our guard, always twitching and looking over his shoulder as though he’d said too much, which we soon found out he had done just that. One afternoon he was telling us that Raxi wasn’t supposed to have been housed in the reactors, and that it was still being tested. Needless to say he was overheard disclosing this information and soon after he was called away by a senior official, and never returned.
When our tests came back negative, and they were certain we showed no signs of being carriers, or being infected were we allowed to re-enter the world. Not the version we had known, for most of it had been destroyed, but a more controlled version of it. We were boarded in sterile accommodations, where everything was either a form of brushed metal or it was strengthened glass. It was clean, but not all that warm. You shouldn’t shake that cold feeling from all the hard surfaces.
They even had observation stations with no obvious access bar the underground paths they keep secret, yet naturally we all know about. Like clockwork two of our caring guards would appear at the top of the tower, on the hour every hour. They always dress in the same white jump-suits and hazard masks. Brandishing clipboards and pens, our every move is recorded. If we linger too long in one place, or groups consisting of four or more people form unexpectedly, they sound off instructions to disperse. A second warning sounds if action isn’t taken. That only ever happened once, and caused the death of one of our own.
Our true names are never used, not even among ourselves. The soldiers, our watchers, insisted on issuing us with serial numbers based on our initials and the dates we were declared virus free. They added other numbers to them but I could only ever assume it referred to how many of us there are. We were also under the assumption life here would be better, would be paradise, and we’d want for nothing. Promises of it being safe for us, and others, were thrown around from the day we arrived at the barns. They lied.
They thought the war had ended when the Raxi virus swept across the globe. They were wrong. The war was only just beginning.
You can call me DK, short for DK-01-10-21-393. Before that, I was known as Daniel Kazarian. I held a respectable position within reasonable job, had loving wife and two beautiful children. That is, until theoretical disaster became reality, before a simple but deadly blunder stole everything from me. Mary, she… she was the first to be hit by Raxi. It raced through her system faster than a Tsunami hitting land, targeting her inferior heart valve. She was one of the lucky ones, showing no symptoms, and going in her sleep. The virus didn’t attack her like it attacked healthy victims. Once it has sussed out her weakness, it homed in and set to work. There wasn’t any time for it to hit any other part of her; her heart was already strained. The children… they weren’t so fortunate….
I was pronounced clear of all signs of Raxi on the 1st of October 2021. I had been housed in their barns for almost a year. In that time I bore witness to so many broken souls that lost all hope, refusing to believe life could go on. We were told when we arrived our clearing process could take some time, that we should get used to our surroundings. They wanted to be absolutely certain we were clean. They weren’t taking any chances. Though there was many times where we all thought they’d be better off just churning us out to fend for ourselves. I’m sure it’s what they wanted to do, but they didn’t. The soldiers at our doors obeyed the orders given to them, and kept us healthy. If any of us grew ill, or weak, they’d take us out and move us elsewhere. Some came back, but others didn’t return.
Sometimes, I miss the easy days back in the barns. Back when I knew where everything was, and what the schedule would be. Other times, you couldn’t put enough distance between me and those wooden sheds. To this day, I still have nightmares, and a singular hatred for the dark. No amount of distance would ever remove those torrential screams of mothers grieving for their children. Nothing can remove the images of silent tears streaming down the most resilient of faces. We didn’t speak of our losses back then, and we still don’t. We use that pain, and hold on to it. It feeds us as the days go on. It keeps us strong, and gives us reason to fight on. We may be silent, but it won’t last forever.
Sometimes I imagine I’m back at home, with the children skittering around the garden, their high pitched squeals and laughter filling the air. “DK-01-10-21-393,” the guard’s voice crackles over the speakers snapping my attention back to reality. Hearing my name echoing overheard fills me with dread. “Please return to your quarters. This is your first warning for loitering.” Every time those speakers sound, I startle. This is no exception. I must have been lingering longer than I thought. I don’t want to be standing here when they come back in five minutes. I’d rather like to keep my life for a little while longer.
I slip around the corner and bump into SM-11-11-21-567. He’s a simple man, hardworking, but just as desperate to gain his freedom as I am. We nod in a silent agreement but he’s on the edge, wanting action before the time is right. He cocks his head to the left and arches a brow. He moves to speak. I shake my head, stopping him from carrying on. “Not here, not yet, we must bide our time if we want to succeed. Patience, I’m on your side.”
“But, DK, we need to –” I cover his mouth with my hand, and lean in closer to whisper in his ear.
“Now isn’t the time, okay? Didn’t you hear them call me out? I can’t be seen standing here. Just leave it for tonight, okay?” I pull back and glance over my shoulder, scanning the outer rim of the observation station. The guards haven’t come back out yet, but I can see them hovering near the window. Watching, waiting, and probably taking notes as always. If I can see them, then they can sure as hell see me. Blood rushes to my ears, and my chest grows tighter. I turn back to SM and bow my head. Brushing past him I waste no time and head straight for our quarters.
We had rooms to ourselves, with space to move – just not enough. Not what we had grown used to before it all changed. Individual quarters were a little close for my liking, but I was grateful for the small amount of privacy they gave us. Not like it was back in the barns. There, we had no privacy, with at least 20 to 30 of us housed in each one. The only space we had was the rickety camping beds they gave us. Having our own space was a step up, it was a touch more freedom, but it still wasn’t adequate.
I could never shake the feeling of being hemmed in like an animal, a savage. Caged, and out of harm’s way. Being locked in each night after sunset certainly didn’t ease that thought. Yes, we had everything we could need for the night – a wash basin, bathroom facilities, food, and bedding – but nothing to read, and TV’s were long gone. We were given an hour maybe two at most, each night to unwind, eat our evening meal, and wash before they killed the lights, plunging us into an oppressive darkness.
I hate that room, and the nightmares that would wake as the lights went out. As I turn the corner and see the door to my quarters at the far end of the long, narrow corridor, I pause. The hairs on the back of my neck rise as I swallow down the urge to be sick. My hands tremble and a cold sheen of sweat clings to my skin. I swipe away the pearls dappling my forehead, and brush the stray drops away from my eyes. My hair clings like a nervous child to my scalp. I don’t want to face the haunting memories behind that door, or the long drawn out nights where the only thoughts crossing my mind are of my children and their bedtime routines. How I would give anything to have one more night where I’d read to them as they fall asleep in my arms. Just one more night where I could kiss them on their tiny little foreheads and tuck them in, and watch them sleep, as their small chests rose and fell while they entered the land of dreams.
I didn’t want to go in, didn’t want to face another long night on my own, but I didn’t have a choice. Standing at the entrance of my quarters, I shudder. I push the door open and flinch as it connects with the steel stopper on the floor. I stare in to the never ending darkness. Fighting the urge to turn and face the guards for disobedience, I stand and wait for the lights to come on. I hear the hum as they come to life, and watch as the blinds are drawn back from the small, singular window in the room.
I recoil, and take a step back. The sight before me is not what I expected. It isn’t good, either. I knew something was adrift when the order sounded, but I couldn’t fathom what. Now I know. I swallow hard and avert my gaze, offering my respect as I hesitate on the threshold.
“You may enter, DK-01-10-21-393.”
I take a deep breath and sway on my heels, clasping my hands as I massage my left palm with my right thumb. I can’t refuse him, but I don’t have to move straight away. Given an option I’d never enter the mouth of hell without warning, though this isn’t hell, but a warning would have been nice none the less.
His patience is wearing out. I can hear him growing restless, pacing the narrow width of the room. “DK-01-10-21-393, you were told to enter. Do not refuse me or you will soon regret that course of action. You will enter, and you will sit. You will keep your gaze down unless I tell you otherwise.” I watch his shadow moving across the floor as he steps aside.
I tilt my head forwards slightly as a mark of respect and enter. I move to sit and he moves towards the door, closing it behind me, trapping me inside. I fight the urge to be sick once more, and wipe my hands across the stone cotton of my trousers. My heart beats faster, trying to break free of my chest. I run over the events of today in my head, searching for what I’ve done to warrant his time. I come up with nothing, not even a small trace of wrong doing. I find no reason for his visit, or his coldness towards me, though I’m sure he finds some pleasure from it.
I resist the urge to look him over, to lock eyes with him. Instead, I do as I’m ordered and keep my head down. Watching his restless feet tap and scuff the cement floor tells me this is more than a courtesy call. I have to wait, to stay silent, and just pray it’s nothing serious.
He clears his throat and I startle. My back straightens automatically. We’d grown used to how they wanted us to be. Straight and respecting, yet submissive enough to keep under control. He moves beyond my line of sight, but his tapping continues. “Do you know why you’ve been ordered back to your room?” His question gives nothing away, leaving me to take a guess. It must be a game for him, to watch us worry under his gaze like a mouse preparing to run from a cat. Some of the others here have been known to say it’s akin to torture, but more subtle, and just as terrifying.
“For loitering too long, I’d imagine, Sir.” I can’t think of any other reason for it. Though, come to think of it, even at this hour it’s beyond strange. “I-I got lost in thought, Sir. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. You have my word.” The light flickers. My heart leaps into my throat. I swallow hard, and fight to remain still. I clench my fists and then relax them, imagining the tension leaving my body as I stretch out my hands. Shadows linger just out of sight, waiting for me. A cold chill races up my spine. I shudder. Images flash before my eyes like old photographs. Memories consume me. I lurch forwards, clutching my stomach, and hit the floor hard.
It takes me a moment to register his hands wrapping around my arms, hoisting me back up. It requires every ounce of my self-control not to pull out of his grip. The warmth of his fingers tugs me back to reality, and away from the silent screaming faces within my waking nightmares. I need to get out of here, to put as much distance between the past and those cold, draughty barns. He releases his grip of my left arm and uses his hand to prod the side of my neck. A minute later his hands fall away. I slump forwards, resting my elbows on my thighs. I brush my hands through my hair, not caring for the rules while he’s here. Maybe I should.
I barely hear the crackle of his radio, and his hushed words with someone on the other end. The blood rushing in my ears distorts it beyond comprehension. All I want to do is lie down, but not here. Not this room. Not anywhere near this place. I want to be at home, with those I’ve lost. I need their company more than anything, but I can’t have it. Those days are long gone.
The distinctive clicking noise of the door closing draws my awareness to the presence of another person in my personal space. The hushed sounds of conversation fill the small room with ease. Most of it remains inaudible while small fragments of it catch my attention, “…stress, or fear… emotional breakdown… relocate… check….”
I’d heard enough to know I didn’t agree with, nor like, what I was hearing. “No.” My voice cracked, scratching my throat, and barely registered above a whisper. I’m sure they didn’t hear me, but I could feel their gazes falling upon me.
Keys rattled and heavy boots scrapped across the floor. The conversation stopped, and I could only just hear the door give as it opened, before closing again.
“Dk-01-10-21-393,” I startled, not recognising the voice it came from. It sounded distant, and yet so near. I wanted to look up, but the repercussions far outweighed the urge. “Can you sit up straight for me?” This definitely wasn’t the same person. His query didn’t come with the voice of authority behind it. His tone was far warmer. “Don’t worry, it’s just us. The commander has stepped out for a few moments. He called me to come and sit with you, said you shouldn’t be on your own right now. What do you think?”
A softer, more familiar voice weaves in behind his. The air grows warmer, and a light breeze tousles my hair. “Daniel….” I freeze. No one calls me that anymore. “Lift your head, sweetheart. Don’t hide away. You need to be strong now.”
A shiver ripples through me. I lift my head and realisation hits home. I’m not in my room, the cold metal and glass has been replaced with my old furnishings. Paintings hang on the walls, and fresh drawings are scattered on the small coffee table. Coloured pencils lay askew upon the illustrations, and broken crayons cast aside are left discarded on the carpet. Some were smudged on the fabric, trampled into pieces, now unusable.
Mucky fingerprints made with paint trail up the stairs towards the bedrooms. A light echoing laugher fills the air. A smile creeps across my face as I trace the small trail with my fingers. The stairs creak under my weight. I was supposed to have them fixed, but never got to them.
A faint hint of rose perfume catches my attention. My heart rate quickens as more laughter, and chatter drift towards me, pulling me further up the stairs. Whispers and hushes, a game of hide and seek; only I’m the seeker now.
“Here comes Daddy, ready or not.” I move slower, taking each step lightly. Their laughter quietens into little squeals. They can’t help themselves. I know exactly where they are hiding, but I don’t go straight towards them. That would ruin it for them. “I know…you’re hiding behind the door,” I say, calling aloud and sweeping the door wide open.
“Huh, you moved, you sneaky little things. Hmm, are you…under the bed?” I kneel down and lift the covers up, listening to their squeals as they wait for me to find them. “Oh dear, I can’t find my children. Perhaps Mummy knows where to look?” That sets them off again, bringing a bigger smile to my face. “Now, where can they be? They aren’t behind the door, and they aren’t under the bed. Oh I know…” I move towards the wardrobe, making as much noise as I can. “Found you…” I say, but they aren’t there either.
I leave their room, taking care not to step on the wooden train or the dolls. Closing the door behind me, I turn and make my way towards our master bedroom, listening to their whispers of delight as I near the door. My hand skims across the silver door handle and I pause. A lump grows in my throat. I try to shake it off, but it refuses to leave. My legs tremble beneath me. I turn the handle and ease the door open slowly. The whispers have gone. Only silence remains.
I see her, Mary, under the covers and facing our private bathroom. She doesn’t move, doesn’t stir to the sound of my footsteps. “Mary, sweetheart, it’s time to wake up. It’s gone noon now.” I nudge her foot lightly and await her usual protesting moans, but they don’t come. I give her a moment and move to open the windows, hoping the cold breeze would rouse her. It doesn’t. “Come on, Mary, the kids want their mum. They need you. You’ve got to wake up.”
I kneel by the bed, waiting for her to turn over and push me away. I nudge her shoulder, watching her head rock slightly, but still no response. “Please…please, wake up.” What was it the news reported this morning? What was it they said about people falling asleep? I can’t remember. This can’t be happening. Not to Mary, not to us. “Wake up, love. It’s a beautiful day out there, the sun is shining and the birds are singing. They sing for you love, come on, wake up.” I nudge her a little harder. But there’s still no response. I watch her chest, hoping for that magical rise and fall, but it’s not there. Panic floods me. Strength evades me. I collapse against the side dresser, burying my head in my hands, allowing the tears to fall.
Time passes and I’ve yet to move. I can’t bear to move away from her. In desperation I rise and remember I never checked for a pulse. I feel for the pressure point on her neck and pray hard. Not even a flutter makes it to my fingers. I clamber over her and wrap my arms around her, whispering to her. “You can’t leave me, not like this. Please, come back to me. Our beautiful children need you. It shouldn’t be you. It was never meant to be you.”
I bury my head against her neck, and hold her tight. “It should have been me, why wasn’t it me? It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It should have been me….”
I barely register a light tap to my shoulder. The tap is followed by a small white light being shone into my eyes. It takes a moment for me to realise where I am. Clutching my pillow tightly I use it catch the stray tears on my cheeks. Somehow, I’d ended up in the foetal position on the bed. “DK-01-10-21-393, what just happened there? What wasn’t supposed to be what way?”
Just hearing my name like that makes me bolt upright, shoving the pillow back where it belongs. I keep my head low and avoid all eye contact. I can’t decide whether to answer the question or not, and opt for saying nothing.
“It’s just us here, like I said, the Commander has stepped out for now. You aren’t obliged to follow the code of conduct while I’m here. You can look at me, DK-O1-10-21-393. You can talk to me and have the assurance nothing will go beyond this room.”
Do I risk it, or do I not? For all I know, it could be another cruel test they’ve drawn up. One that was designed to draw out the weak and inferior among us, I wouldn’t put it past them. The commander could be right outside that door, waiting for a code-word, or a crackle on the radio. He’d love that.
If I told him, if I spoke out about what happened, he’d probably hold it against me. He’d never let me live it down that I fell apart in his presence. Any moment now that door will open and I’ll be removed from here like so many before me. I’ll be removed and no one will ever see me again. I’m certain of it.
I watch his boots and his shadow as he moves in front of me. He pauses by the window then paces back. He stops before me, and kneels down. His trousers aren’t the black of the Commanders; instead his is more of an off white with a hint of blue. The bottoms of his trousers are tucked inside his high laced boots. I drop my head a little lower, making sure I can’t see his face. I’m still not certain I can take him for face value. Trust isn’t something I’m willing to give out so lightly, especially not in this place.
“What’s got you so rattled, DK-01-10-21-393?”
“Daniel,” I say, testing the waters, unable to hold back any longer.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
I shake my head slightly, and clench my fists until I can see the whites of my knuckles. “My name…is…Daniel. I’m not a serial number. I’m not just another statistic in your sadistic game of cat and mouse. I’m a person, and my name is Daniel. If you want me to believe that he’s not outside the door, then I’d like to you show me the respect I deserve.”
He inhales sharply then clears his throat. “You know I can’t call you that.” He stands up and moves towards the door. “I swear to you he isn’t there, but I can’t take the risk of reverting to old, forbidden names.”
I rub the inside of my left wrist with my right thumb, feeling the nail graze across the skin. It’s almost soothing, but it draws an itch that only deepens further.
“I can prove to you he isn’t there, if only you talk with me. It doesn’t have to be a conversation here, we can go somewhere more open, but it will still be just the two of us. If that helps, we’ll do it. What do you say?” I hear the handle of the door click has he holds it, waiting for an answer.
What can I say? I could say no, then sit here in insufferable silence to await the dreams I’d rather avoid. Or I could agree to what he wants. I could give him the nod, the door would open, and then what? Would it be a sign of weakness if I show longing to leave this room, or would it show compliance for an easy life? If I go, I may never return. I would be lost to this place, but who’s to say where I’d end up. I could be discarded like an unwanted toy, thrown out like a piece of trash.
Trust him, Daniel. Those soft, silky words cause me to snap my head to the right, following the voice I know so well. My heart sinks even before I allow an ounce of hope to rise. She’s gone. Her voice is a mere memory now, and yet, it was so close, so real.
Trust him, how can I? Being locked in at night like criminals, trapped in cells for all eternity, offers little in the way of trust. I shake my head. “I don’t think I can, my love.” My response to her distant voice slips past me before I realise what I’ve done.
“Pardon?” he says, letting the door handle go.
“Nothing,” I say, staring at the window.
The radio crackles. I startle, and shudder. My shoulders tense, and my back straightens instantly. I wait expectantly for the door to open, and for the Commander to return. But when the door doesn’t open, and no orders sound from his radio, I relax into myself.
“It’s rather clear he has some effect over you, DK….” He clears his throat. “Daniel,” he whispers, after pausing. “Come with me, leave this room. At least leave it for one night. I’m going to open this door okay? I’m opening the door and I’m stepping out into the corridor. If you want some relief from whatever haunts you in here, you’ll follow.” I listen as his hand brushes across the handle, followed by the soft snick as the door opens.
The hair on the back of my neck bristles. Goosebumps race up my arms. My chest tightens, and my vision blurs at the edges. “No…wait,” I say, stretching one arm out towards him without looking. “What if… he….”
“You still think he’s standing outside?”
I shake my head slowly, and swallow hard. “It’s not that.” I clear my throat, finding the courage within I raise my head. I still don’t look his way. “What happens if he comes back, and I’m not here? What happens if he sees me out of my room after being ordered to return? What then?”
A muffled chuckle erupts from his direction. “Relax, that’s all covered. Do you trust me?”
“No, I don’t trust you.” I shift my weight on the thin bed, and turn towards him, breaking almost every rule in the book. I cast my eyes over him and frown. He’s wearing a light tunic to match the off white of his trousers. A small badge is clipped to the pocket on his chest. A silver chord hangs around his neck, with an ID card attached to it. He’s younger than I expected, almost the same age as me, perhaps a little younger. His hair is raven black, kept short and tidy. His eyes tilt upwards as he smiles at me. “Who are you? I’ve not seen you around here.” I say, fighting the urge to drop my gaze. He pulls his left hand up towards his chin. The light glints off a thick banded silver ring, catching my attention. My curious nature gets the best of me. “Are you married?” I ask, focusing on the ring, and automatically reaching for my own.
My apologies for the rather long post. Please don’t be afraid to tell me what worked, and what doesn’t. How did you fair this past month in your writing?
Until next time, happy writing!