The following post is a work of fiction – duh. I’ve toyed off and on over the years with writing a novel. I’ve even hashed out a chapter or two from time to time. This chapter I found amongst some old files and thought i’d post it here, hoping for some motivation. Writing is hard work and I tip my hat to any one that can produce a fully formed novel. Perhaps one day I’ll have a story worth telling and the motivation to get it out there. For now here is a rather morbid prelude to a saga currently confined to my own mind.
The house smells like death. The air conditioning quit along with the power a couple days ago and it must be 46 degrees Celsius outside. That would make it somewhere over fifty in this death trap. There is that word again, death. I’ve never seen a dead person before but mum keeps telling me to be prepared because we are going to see lots of them. I don’t want to think about it but it’s hard to think of anything else. We’ve been trapped inside for 27 days now. At least the water is still running. I wonder what dad is up to… I miss him. Is he safe? He must be coming for us. He must be.
Anna tossed the journal on the coffee table and went back to staring out the closed window. Her mother refused to open the windows and doors despite the heat. Sweat was trickling down her back again and she was thinking of taking another shower. Her mom, Katherine, didn’t like it when she did because they didn’t know if the water supply was still functioning and they could just be wasting the water in their buildings’ holding tanks. The bathtubs were full and they kept all the water bottles topped up just in case. Using the Shower was a compromise. If they couldn’t open the windows and doors then she had to have some way of cooling off.
The couch Anna occupied in front of the large living room window was cluttered with books, paper and candy wrappers. Except for toilet runs and the occasional trip to the kitchen she hadn’t left her mess in days. The candy had actually run out some time back but she couldn’t be bothered to throw the wrappers away. She stared across the street to the big picture window in unit 10. Raji hadn’t come to the window all day and that had Anna worried. Raji and her hit it off the moment they met just 3 months ago. She was from India, someplace in the south. Her dad was a professor at the university and her mom stayed home with Raji and her little brother all the time.
Anna used to wish her mom was one of those stay at home moms. She had this fantasy of her mom always working in the kitchen, stopping only to talk with her over a plate of cookies or to help her with her math homework. She hated math.
That dream was distant now. They had been trapped in that oven posing as a home for too long. They hadn’t shared more than a couple words in weeks and there were definitely no cookies or fresh baked bread in the kitchen. Was Raji’s mother making bread right now? Perhaps that is why she was not at the window today? Maybe they worked out a way to cook with the power out. She suspected they had been out in their backyard using the barbecue a few times. She’d seen Raji eating hot meals at the window.
Their backyards were small but surrounded by 10-foot high walls. They didn’t have a barbecue so there wouldn’t be any outdoor cooking. Even if they did have a barbecue her mother would never allow her to open the door anyway. Her mom was paranoid. What could possibly happen to her in the backyard? Even if the disease was airborne the walls were 10-feet tall. Someone would have to breathe on you or something before you could catch it, she thought. It wasn’t worth the fight; she was tired of fighting.
Anna and her mother had been fighting ever since they left Canada. Anna just finished seventh grade and her parents announced that they were moving to Dubai. To Anna this was the end of the world. Her parents kept telling her that the world was a smaller place now, she could call her friends with the Internet and they would come home for visits every year. They just didn’t get it. She was finally going to leave elementary school. She had imagined going to the big school with her friends Sara and Carmen for forever and now they were going to move to the other side of the planet. Besides, Dubai was in a desert. Deserts had big nasty spiders. She’d seen it on the Discovery Channel.
Anna’s mom was a librarian. When her dad was told the company wanted him in Dubai in six months she started looking for work right away. Katherine always wanted to travel, to see the world but every time she made plans something came along to wreck them. So she was thrilled when everything seemed to just fall into place with their move to Dubai. There was a job opening for a reference librarian at the American University of Sharjah just 15 minutes north of Dubai. She had three videoconference interviews and the job was hers. They wanted her to start work at the beginning of July because all the other librarians wanted to take their vacations in the summer. Anna didn’t understand that until they arrived. It is so hot she wondered how anything survived outside of the range of an air conditioner.
Anna was pretty upset when her parents told her about the move. She was crying when her dad came to tuck her into bed that night. “Anna dear, don’t cry,” he said in that way that told her he was really concerned. They talked forever that night. She loved talking to her dad. By the end of that conversation she knew they had to move because it would make her dad happy. The company needed her dad and he really wanted to go, she could tell. So she told herself to be happy for him and tried really hard not to complain about the move. Then her mom got this job at the university and it was no longer about dad. It was all about mom. So dad was staying behind while Anna and her mom were going to Sharjah all alone. Dad would join them in a few months.
The university provided them housing on campus. Anna let her mind roll over that first day in the United Arab Emirates, the UAE. She had been tired from all the travelling and the time change. She was so tired she felt sick. The town-house, they called it a villa here, was nice though. It had a grand sweeping staircase and big bedrooms. The walls were bare and institutional but the cool air-conditioned breeze coming from the vents in the ceiling was heaven sent. The thought of it pushed her off the couch and down the hall to the bathroom. She didn’t bother to remove her shorts or t-shirt as she stepped into the shower.
Where was her dad? The last they talked he said he was coming for them. He hadn’t said how though. When the TV was still showing the news they said all planes had been grounded and some countries were shooting down any planes that dared to disobey. They said it was to stop the spread of the disease. If they stopped the planes would they stop ships too? How was he coming for them? When was he coming? She shut the water off and sat in the bottom of the shower wondering how everything had gone so wrong so fast.
She was still wet when she climbed back onto the couch but she didn’t care. She went back to staring across the street at Raji’s place. There was a red cloth tied around the door handle of Raji’s neighbor to the left and a red piece of paper stapled to the door to the right. The mark indicated that someone in the house had the disease, which really meant that everyone in the house had the disease. No one inside those homes would ever come out again.
Raji’s front door opened. Anna was startled. It was Raji’s dad. He looked small, thinner than she remembered him. His clothes hung off him and he had a coarse black beard. He looked straight at Anna but he didn’t see her. The windows were tinted but he probably would have missed her if she’d been standing right in front of him. He turned and closed the door and then walked around his block of homes, gone from her view.
“Mom, mom.” Louder, “Mom!” Katherine was next to her.
“What is it, hun? Are you OK?” Katherine stared out the window trying to see what Anna was seeing. “What is it?”
“Raji’s dad, he just left the house and walked that way.” Anna wasn’t sure whether she should be scared or excited. Something was happening.
They stood at the window and waited. Katherine was worried. She thought again about hanging the red t-shirt on the front door. If the Multanis were out of food and he thought the disease had passed her and Anna bye would he think it worth the risk to come for their food? Could she spare him any if he did? Would he take it by force if she refused him? They had little enough as it was. They hardly ate anything now and she practically had to force Anna to eat. She thought they could last another 3 weeks. After that they would have to leave the house. They could maybe last a few more days but if they waited too long they wouldn’t have the energy to find food once they did go.
He was back. Katherine realized that she didn’t know professor Multani’s first name. She had spoken with him several times but never asked him. In his hand was a shovel. He stepped off the curb before he reached the path to his door and began to cross the traffic circle toward them. Katherine slipped her arm around Anna’s shoulder and focused on her breathing. The middle of the square block of row homes all faced the traffic circle, which was, lined with spaces for residents’ cars. The middle of the traffic circle was a large patch of grass. A place where the neighborhood boys played soccer… or football, she reminded herself, in the evenings. At least they did before all this began. Professor Multani stopped now in the middle of the circle and stared, hollow eyed, at their window.
He couldn’t see them, could he? Katherine thought. His eyes moved back and forth across the homes in their row. Were there red marks on the doors of her neighbors’ homes? She hadn’t really met any of them in the few short months they had been there. She had been too busy. She only knew Professor Multani because Anna and his daughter had become friends. She could never be too busy to know what was happening in Anna’s world. Katherine almost smiled at the memory of Anna and Raji running off to the faculty pool together the first day they met. Anna was usually so shy and Katherine had been worried that she would have a hard time making friends but Raji had a beautiful disarming smile and was the opposite of shy. Raji had pulled Anna out of her shell immediately.
Professor Multani pushed the shovel into the sod and turned it over. With slow methodic movements he broke the ground. Katherine was confused for a moment but only a moment.
“Mum, what is he doing?” Anna broke her eyes away from the window to search her mother’s face.
“I don’t think you want to watch this, sweetie.” Katherine made to pull her back from the window gently.
“No, I don’t understand, just leave me.” Anna pulled away slowly and took a grip on the back of the couch. Katherine made no further attempts to move her. They stared fixedly on the gaunt, disheveled man digging in the grass. Katherine was in shock. She had seen images on the news in the first weeks of the pandemic of bodies in the streets, of crying mothers and distraught children. The images would not leave her. Until now the death that must be all around them was hidden behind closed doors. It was represented by pieces of red cloth or paper. She watched with stoicism as he turned every shovel-full over.
It was late afternoon but the sun and the heat was relentless. Sweat ran off the professor’s face and flattened his thin hair against his head. The most difficult part was removing the sod. He was afraid he would not be able to complete the grim task. His body and mind were numb though and he hardly noticed his rapidly failing strength. Katherine wondered what she could do for him. It was too soon to leave the house. She dared not risk it…
“Professor Multani” Anna said. Then again, a little louder, “Professor.”
He paused and looked up from his work. It took him a few moments to understand what he was looking at. Raji’s friend was standing beside him holding a milk jug filled with water and a red shirt.
“I brought you some water.” She said. “I would help you dig but you have the only shovel.” Anna opened the milk jug and poured water over the red shirt before handing it to him. “This should keep your head cool.”
He reached slowly for the shirt doing his best not to touch the girl. He waited until she set the jug on the ground before he reached to take a drink. He could not remember the girl’s name and that pained him. He did not bother to ask it now though. “Thank you,” he offered weakly as he removed the jug from his lips and tied the cool wet shirt around his head. He went back to shoveling. Now that the sod was gone the digging was much easier. The sod was brown and dead too but the roots still held the little soil together. He arranged the blocks of sod to the right of the hole and began to throw the fine sand it rested on in a pile to the left.
“If I could find a couple more shovels could Raji and I help you dig?” Anna asked tentatively. Anna suspected why he was digging but wasn’t sure. She could not bring herself to ask directly.
“No, child, this is a task only I can do.” He didn’t know how else to respond to her. He concentrated on his digging and let the slow rhythmic motion shield him from his thoughts. Blisters rose on his hands almost instantly. It had been too long since he’d done this sort of work. The sand found its way into a few of his freshly opened sores. He imagined the sand turning in circles like it does in a riverbed slowly eroding holes in the rocky bottom. Would it do the same to him?
The sun was too much for Anna. She sensed that the professor would not say anything more. She did not want him to. Turning slowly she started back toward the house. Her mom waited in the doorway.
Katherine wanted to slap her. She wanted to hug her too. She was angry with Anna but ashamed that she did not think to bring water. Ashamed that she did not have the courage to act where Anna did. Was it courage? Was Anna courageous or just naïve? She could see the determined look on Anna’s face as she approached the door, the defiance. Naivety yes, but courage too.
“Did he touch you, Anna?” Katherine asked softly not really wanting an answer. Anna didn’t give her one. Katherine stepped aside to let her in the house and they walked back to the couch and the window. In a few hours the professor was standing chest deep in a long narrow hole and only the soft glow of the sun remained. The stars would soon be out in all of their majesty. With the power out it was truly dark when night came on.
Anna was asleep. A mercy, Katherine thought. She would miss what came next. Katherine wished she could sleep, could give up control of her mind for just a while. Images of her bedroom in Canada drifted in. She could feel the soft linens on her bed against her skin. Mark was asleep beside her. She could feel the rise and fall of his chest as it pressed against her back. She did not need protection then but she had it though she had never thought of it that way. Where was Mark now? There last conversation was weeks ago. The Internet failed before the power did. She had fallen asleep talking with him and when she awoke the connection was gone. She had imagined that when they were old, very old, they would fall asleep together one night and when she awoke she would find him passed away in their bed. She might live a few more years but would join him sooner than later. She checked the network every hour after the connection failed until the blackout.
The digging stopped. Professor Multani opened the front door to his home and disappeared inside. He left the door wide open. The moon had crested the rooftops and cast a faint light on the block. In a few moments he emerged from the doorway. In his arms, judging by the size, he carried his wife wrapped tightly in a white sheet. She was a slight woman with a soft voice Katherine recalled. He struggled to carry her now and awkwardly lowered her into her resting place. Then he returned to the house, the door still wide open. Katherine prayed silently that Anna would remain asleep.
He lowered Raji’s lifeless frame slowly until she lay next to her mother. He did not stop then else he may not have the strength for what was left. He returned to the house for the last time. The small body of his son was carefully wrapped and cradled in his arms. The boy was 2 or possibly 3 years old. Katherine had seen him only a few times and now regretted having never paid him any attention. The professor struggled into the hole he had dug to place the body of his son with the rest of his small family. He then struggled out of the hole to sit on its edge and stare down at his life irrevocably taken from him. He desperately wanted to believe in a god or the gods then. He wasn’t after solace but someone, something to blame. In the end he blamed himself though he knew that was as irrational as believing in the gods.
Katherine could no longer bear to watch. She wanted to do something for the man but what comfort could she possibly offer. Standing she drew the curtains closed and then laid down on the rug in front of the couch. She could not think and could not stop thinking. She forced herself to concentrate on her breathing until she could no longer sense the passage of time. She slept, mercifully a dreamless and deep sleep.
As the early morning light crept through the edges of the curtains Anna woke. It took her a few moments to realize where she was and when she did she wanted to be asleep again. She couldn’t sleep though. The memory of Raji’s father digging was a wedge holding her in reality. She made to stand up and noticed her mother lying on the carpet. Looking at her mother’s face, the worry lines relaxed, she suddenly regretted the tension that had existed between them these last few months. Slowly she drew herself from the couch and made her way to the front door.
The professor did not appear to be outside. The door to the Multani’s stood open but she could see no one around the home. There was a large pile of dirt next to the hole he had dug and there were crows perched all around the excavation. Cautiously Anna approached it. The birds scattered at her approach and argued loudly at her intrusion. She caught a faint unpleasant odor as she drew nearer. She feared what she was about to see but could not turn aside. Lying in the bottom of the hole were three bodies wrapped tightly in white sheets and the professor. His eyes were wide open and his face marked by the birds she had scattered. Anna turned aside then and wretched. Her whole body convulsed and forced her onto her knees.
The air was muggy and oppressive and the stench of her vomit almost forced her to vomit again. She dry heaved as she backed away from the mess. Anna felt strangely ashamed at her puking. Raji was in that hole, that grave. Rolling onto her back she lay still for some time, too still. The birds began to return. This made her angry. Staggering up she grabbed the shovel and swung it violently at the foul creatures. The birds evaded her but did not go far.
Slowly Anna began to shovel the sand into the grave. She did not watch the sand land on the bodies but kept her eyes fixed on the pile before her. Her mother appeared after some time with an extra shovel and they worked together on the grave. When it was full they dragged the dry sod as best they could back into place.
Anna and Katherine stood at the grave in reflection for only a short time before the heat of the sun forced them into the shade. “Mom I think there is something wrong with me.” Anna said as they went inside.
“What!” Katherine cupped Anna’s face in her hands and looked into her eyes.
“I have not cried, mom. I cannot cry.” She said weakly.
“Oh dear, those will come.” Katherine pulled her into her arms and fought her own need to cry. She escorted Anna to the table and poured her a glass of water. “Now, Anna, we must talk about what it is that we are to do.”
Today I buried my friend Raji, her little brother and her mom and dad. Mom says we cannot stay here much longer. We are alone.