Final stages, 11pm
When the disease hit me my family divided forever: something to do with the hiccups. I harbour no resentment over the matter. Everyone has their breaking point and when the cracks appeared in family ties they simply weren’t to be fixed. I imagine it was the same for all the people down here, though I haven’t yet asked anyone their story. There must be hundreds in this remote bunker, each infected to the point of little or no control, no doubt musing over the one symptom that made family loyalty conditional. For my family I’m sure it was the hiccups.
We built our bunker deep in the city beach sand dunes as a smallish sort of quarantine. It’s not so small that hundreds can’t fit inside but it is small. Pretty small. Up top it has a smooth, level finish and nice, evenly shaped purports where the whirly birds go in. No one can tell me why they aren’t turning or why we’re running out of air, but again, I haven’t asked.
Breaking glass and wailing car alarms can be heard outside; it’s hard to know who is suffering from the disease and who from hysteria. Mayhem rules in any case and we can do nothing to stop it. Between the hundreds here, there is an unspoken agreement not to surface, a pact of sorts. If my psychiatrist were here I’d tell her I have a purpose now. I can’t go back. And it was definitely the hiccups that settled it.
The main street is crowded and the people are in frenzy. I try not to blame myself for their fear and walk quickly towards the other end, looking for a taxi that hasn’t yet left for the airport. Parked cars and local businesses alike are being broken into with blunt objects and I try not to blame myself for their frustrations either. Across the road in front of the fish market a mother throws her keys, then her mints, then her hair clip at the feet of her two children and yells about how they take up so much of her time and how they’re always making mistakes.
I dodge a Volvo that has mounted the footpath and avoid eye contact with two men dragging a middle-aged couple from the front seats. The men apologize repeatedly for the inconvenience and promise to buy the couple a new one in the future if they really want, then drive away. The former Volvo-driver grabs my arm and explains how he and his wife lost everything bar the car in the fire and I express my regret at also being money-less as I spot a distant taxi and pry his hand from my arm.
The woman from the fish market crosses my path with the scent of Atlantic salmon wafting from her handbag and a ladder in her hands and starts swinging at mailboxes. I walk faster past a man and woman sitting in the gutter emphatically discussing their best friend and how she never stops talking about herself and how they just can’t believe it. The gutter-man pulls a gun from his ankle holster and shoots out the tyre of a passing Tarago and it swerves and he jumps but it hits the gutter-woman he is with and it’s hard but I try not to blame myself for their suffering. The Tarago reverses and the tyres squeal and another two ‘Sorry’s’ at least are heard before it’s gone and the gunman pleads over the bleeding body to the ladder lady now sorting through envelopes and she tells him she’s just a little busy right now and the Volvo-less couple shrug in agreement.
I run towards the taxi but the Volvo-less couple are surprisingly spry and as the gutter-man aligns the barrel with my ear and coaxes thousands and a ruby necklace from my jacket pocket even though he’s positive I’m a great person I watch them beat me to the taxi and drive away. I’m hit in the head with what appears to be a spirit level and I turn to see a man standing on a crate in the middle of the street waving a whirly bird and spade in the air. He’s singing a sort of limerick about kings and rascals and claiming no-ones better at building sandcastles and the challenge sounds exciting and I can tell by the way the ladder lady and the gunman stop and listen that they think so too.
The hair is taunting me and I’m standing still and she’s moving forward and I have to do it. I don’t want to do it but I push the nose of my trolley in front of the old lady’s because she and that hair on her chin are taunting me. There have been hostilities in every aisle, war in the condiments and now she thinks she should be served first.
She crashes her trolley into mine, screaming in some language or other, and I think we need to play a little game of chicken. I reverse my trolley for heightened impact and the checkout boy says he thinks it might be good if I move behind the nice lady and wait my turn. I coolly do as he says and console myself with the fact that it’s getting dark out and I’ll meet the nice lady again in the car park.
I wait. Now it’s my turn.
“All transactions are to cease. I repeat all transactions will cease immediately,” sound the checkout speakers.
The hair looks back at me as she exits the store, her ruby necklace briefly catching the disappearing sun, and I urge the checkout boy to hurry and finish while he can. He apologizes and tells me once again I’ll have to wait and a person in the same maroon uniform locks the front doors out of which the hair has disappeared. The voices of anxious customers rise and it’s not long before maroon vests are fleeing to the back of the store. I spot a man with slicked-back hair in a suspiciously white shirt move to a side door and pull a dark object from his pocket and I duck as a large flat screen comes on above our heads. Everyone turns to look as the local news lady speaks in solemn tones. The man at the side door is gone.
“It is not yet known whether the emotional and or behavioural disease is contagious, hereditary or even terminal but after sources revealed its existence to us today, studies were conducted showing a shocking two out of three adults spend their lives ailing without ever knowing. Symptoms include lying, egotism, cheating, enmity, stealing and a sullenness resulting in complex digestive and or respiratory conditions such as hiccuping. Drug companies are working overtime to provide a cure, predicting it will be on shelves tomorrow and people will be able to regain control. The prime minister pleads with the public to stay calm as he will be addressing the nation within the hour.”
I knew it. I knew I was right and what’s more I realize exactly why I egged my parents’ house this afternoon when they told me I’d been cut out of the will.
Over a jingle for cold and flu tablets the still crowd around me becomes slave to mass hysteria. People shake the exits and the hypochondriacs start breaking open cash registers. An organized group rams a large shelf into the storefront windows and on the third count they shatter and people push past each other to get outside. The shelves are let fall and an unnoticed automated teller machine is crushed beneath it.
“I’m a bad person,” I say, hiccuping and throwing myself back in the reclining chair.
“You’re not a bad person,” Doctor Davenport lulls. She’s the best psychiatrist I’ve ever had and I never feel quite so free as when I’m sitting in her plush office, chatting easily about the things that are wrong in my life. She doesn’t need prompting to continue. “You think you don’t deserve nice things so you sabotage the things you do have, like your relationships with your family, your partner and all your friends. It’s self-sacrifice more than anything.”
“I was thinking about how Mum and Dad think Gabriel and her career and her family are all better when I keyed their cars yesterday,” I say, nodding.
“That’s exactly the problem. The only reason you’ve been lying to everyone you care about is because you’re feeling insecure, like the truth is somehow less than adequate. These things are not your fault.” She emphasizes every word. I can tell through her glasses. She’s one of those sincere types. “Sometimes emotions take control and make us do things we don’t want to. They are a temporary but serious condition and the only thing we can do is treat them. Repeat after me . . . ”
Therapy is particularly useful today. I have a revelation. It’s not the kind where you figure out the meaning of life or anything but it’s something that makes the burden a little lighter, the limits a touch wider and it’s not because of what I am or what I’ve done but what I know.
I pay at the desk as usual and pick up a new prescription. I smile at the receptionist; she is always so friendly. I was going to go straight to the store today but I decide to take a detour, to share my news. I must help those who can’t afford to help themselves. So they’ll know not to blame themselves.
I must go to the media.