That summer was so hot the eucalyptus tree in the back garden dripped oil, making the whole neighbourhood smell disinfected and clean. I used to lie underneath it after school, feeling the hot sap on my face and limbs, hoping the little burning drops might purge the fear out of me. The voices of Bee Jones and her gang of girls echoed in my head: Freak. Wimp. Nutter. In those days, they took the piss out of me for my panic attacks.
Back before the whole world started panicking. Before the virus.
When it came, the disease spread through the vibrations of human beings’ words and songs. It was drawn into the delicate conches of the ears and sucked through the tubes of the body, until it reached the brain and festered there. It spread fast – faster by far than the government regulations against it.
At first, only little things were denied us. We were advised not to speak in the evenings, unless our parents let us, and at school only if we had a specific question for the teacher. The teachers, of course, had to be allowed to speak. “Keep chit-chat to a minimum.” That was the first step. But it was hard to do. Fourteen years old and not allowed to gossip. The pain of it! I remember Bee Jones whispering at the back of the class, and we didn’t see her again. Her, or her girl gang. For a while, I thought it was because they’d been expelled, but then I saw Bee’s parents crying through the window of the local funeral home, and I got it. Guess it must’ve been hard to organise her funeral without talking.
On TV, Doctors assured us in government-approved broadcasts that only in-person interactions could be blamed for the pandemic. They reckoned there was something special about a vibration emerging directly from someone’s mouth. Still, mum stopped me using the phone, and I caught Bee’s older brother out the back of school with a can of bright pink spray paint, writing straight on the clapboard: “The disease is in your radio”.
The regulations increased dramatically in the space of a month: live concerts were banned, public talks and networking events curtailed, birthdays and weddings cancelled. Bee’s corpse went to its grave from a silent service, blessed by a sermonless priest and surrounded by us tongue-tied frenemies and relatives. Soon, Bee’s parents followed her, though who’d been infected first wasn’t clear, and Mum got scared enough that she started letting us eat dinner without grace. School got cancelled, after a teacher gave a lecture on the Pythagoras Theorem, and infected an entire Year 9 class. Better not to learn and live, the local counsel reasoned, than know it all and die.
But you couldn’t completely stop small-talks, idle-chats or deep-and-meaningfuls. Our human nature was to put the world to rights, so the whispers and gossip continued, spreading the sickness across the world at great speed. Even mum couldn’t stop herself commenting on the unending heat or the price of fish.
Scientists analysed the symptoms of the disease, my own dad amongst them, and I remember admiring the distance his professional curiosity gave him, as if the world wasn’t falling down around him and he – one the most qualified of us – wasn’t unable to help.
“A slight fever, a tendency towards verbal diarrhoea – that’s how it spreads itself, you see – and that reported shortness of breath which appears to be the killing force,” he said one evening to Mum after about a week’s silence. “Extraordinary! So simple, yet so complex. We just cannot figure it out in the lab.” As if this was a sudoku puzzle, not a civilisation-destroying malady.
The world fell apart in a matter of months, because once you got the virus – this suspirium viridae – you were dead as a doornail. The virus attacked the neuropathways in the brain that controlled how often a person sighed. Who knew that the sigh was actually a life-sustaining force, designed to re-inflate collapsing alveoli in the lungs? That without the ability to sigh, the body eventually failed? Not me, not my teachers, not even Dad.
Yet, there were those who were immune. Turns out, I was one of them. Guess we should’ve figured Dad was infected when he came home from the lab babbling, but we didn’t cotton on. He went first, then Mum, both of them muttering in their beds. There was nowhere to bury them by then, all the plots were full and the gravediggers gone themselves. So I left them to the flies, and went to my eucalyptus tree, laying out and listening to the inconsistent drip of oil. A splash on the crook of my elbow; my big toe; my third eye.
I lay there all day, knowing I was infected and waiting to die, but it never happened. I couldn’t forget to sigh. It took us a while to figure it out, those of us who survived. See, for some of us the sigh wasn’t merely a mechanical in-breath, but an emotional release. It was – is – a coping mechanism for our depression and anxiety. We became the inheritors of the planet, our dark-ringed brigade, who were so often over-looked for our inability to “produce”, and our inherent “weakness”. Our misunderstood strength was recognised only in the last breath of those who hounded us: that living so acutely, we could never forget to breathe.
About the Author
Jasmin Kirkbride is a sci-fi and fantasy writer from the UK. She has had numerous works of non-fiction and short fiction published, and was recently shortlisted for the EVENT Magazine 'Let Your Hair Down Speculative Fiction' contest (TBA). She is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and is working on her first novel with her agent, Sandra Sawicka at Marjacq.
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