A SCARLET VIRUS, A SCARLET WORLD
‘I can’t see it,’ Sarah said.
‘Over there on the left. Do you see it now?’
Sarah gave a yelp of excitement, signifying that she had just seen the unthinkable through my Efil military-issue binoculars. What she had seen was what appeared to be a settlement – a group of weatherworn shacks stood in the distance. We were absolutely sure of the fact that there would actually be no people within the town: you see, three years ago, the world died!
Nevertheless, we took courage, for we knew a town meant a source for much needed supplies. My flask’s lightness confirmed to me that its contents were finished. Let me stop here for now and go back to what I said before. Like I said: three years ago, the world died, overcome by what became known as the scarlet virus – an infection that manifested as a scarlet cloud and filled our world. The scarlet mist was heavier than air and so it never dissipated. Instead, the mist spread and continued spreading until it had covered the entire planet, killing every life form it came into contact with. To survive, we had to wear protective chemical suits and haul a weighty breathing apparatus on our backs. The breathing apparatus had to be worn all the time, even while eating. This was made possible by attaching a canteen to the breathing apparatus, thus enabling the wearer to drink whilst wearing it. It was an ingenious device and is the reason why Sarah and I have survived this long. However, I sometimes wonder how we must look now under these suits. I wonder about Sarah; I loved her once – before the scarlet virus. I wonder at this moment, under this beautiful sky, if she still looks as beautiful as she once did. I know that this is impossible – we have been trudging around these three years with nothing but liquid for food. We are skeletons in the mist. I feel sick and desperately thin and I know that Sarah does, too. How we must look! If the time ever comes when we abandon these masks, I know that we will look upon one another with affection and kindness – but oh, what a sight it will be!
‘We should refill our canteens in the town; mine’s empty.’ I said.
‘Mine too, but are you sure it’s safe?’ Sarah replied.
I shrugged my shoulders in reply and took the Efil from Sarah. I looked through them and set my gaze at the town, straining to see any signs of life or of danger.
‘It looks deserted; we may as well risk it.’
Sarah said nothing, but I imagined that she would be frowning under her mask. Her frown was one of the things that most displeased me when we first met many years ago.
‘It’s a risk we’re going to have to take, Sarah; otherwise, we’ll die of starvation.’ I said defensively.
‘If you think that’s what we have to do, then that’s what we’ll do.’
‘Alright, then,’ I said, rather annoyed that I couldn’t see the expression on Sarah’s face to determine if she was angry with me or just concordant, as her words suggested. It’s a funny thing, the human face – capable of telling us what a person really thinks, as opposed to what their words trick us into thinking. I started down the hill we were on and headed toward the village. Sarah followed closely behind.
The ground was devoid of any vegetation or living creatures. And as we walked toward the settlement, I started to think how unlike the creation all this was – in the creation, man was the last thing to be created, but now at the close of civilization, he would be the last thing to be destroyed.
Even as we walked, the scarlet mist surrounded us. Like a medieval warlord besieging an ancient city to plunder it of its wealth, the mist hung over us, waiting for us to run out of oxygen. ‘Oxygen!’ I said out loud, kicking in frustration the blanket of scarlet dust that lay around us.
‘What did you say?’ asked Sarah.
‘I said we need oxygen.’ I replied, irritated that such an obviously important and vital thing had skipped my mind: but it is hard to remember anything on such empty stomachs; I had learnt long ago to ignore the hunger pangs – the groaning of my belly – but there were other things, like my reasoning, that could not be ignored so successfully.
‘That’s what I meant earlier when I asked if it was safe to proceed,’ Sarah now said.
‘That’s not what you meant.’ I protested.
‘It was! I knew we needed to get to Zion city to refill our oxygen canisters; this detour will only delay us.’ Zion city was the last bastion of human hope, made by and for those that survived after the wars and the virus. It was the one place that we could feel secure: with its high, well-armed towers, no terror could reach us to cause harm. And it was the only sure place we could restock on much needed supplies; it was the only place we could get a bath – a cold bath! – but a bath nonetheless.
‘Well, we’re already here,’ I said, anxious to end the argument before it got any worse.
We slowed down almost instinctively and continued at an excruciatingly slow pace, submitting to the caution taught by experience.
‘What do we do now?’ Sarah whispered.
‘Why are you whispering? There’s no one here.’ I whispered in reply.
‘Really! Then why are you whispering?’ Sarah retorted, not abandoning the whisper, and yet her voice harsh with criticism.
‘Hello!’ I shouted suddenly. And I heard my voice reverberate in the still air.
‘What are you doing?’ Sarah said, panicking. She held tightly on to my arm.
‘See, there’s no one here. I told you,’ I replied, quite pleased with myself at the courage I was displaying.
Farther on we found the place deserted, a ghost town. Sarah and I trudged through the scarlet sands of the town and finally stopped at a bar with a neon sign – now unlit – hanging over the door. We entered and immediately applied ourselves to filling our canteens with whatever liquor we could find – the scarlet virus was airborne and not water borne, so it was fine to drink whatever we found. We had just finished filling our flasks with our alcoholic elixirs when we heard a blood-curdling scream. A thousand vague fancies gripped my soul and I stood motionless for a time and a half.
‘What was that?’ Sarah said, her voice unsteady.
‘We better not wait to find out.’ I said scampering out of the bar. I fled, not knowing where my legs carried me, but nevertheless content that they would not fail me in this time of distress. I had just reached a place between here and there when I realised that Sarah was not with me. ‘Sarah,’ I called into the night, fearful. But there was no reply and by now I was overcome with worry. In spite of myself, I found myself hurrying back to the bar where I had last seen her.
A SCARLET VIRUS, A SCARLET WORLD