Posted on: July 5, 2016
The caravan stopped again.
“Two more,” someone near the door shouted. The passengers all groaned and huddled even closer together. Most had been left behind before. Days, weeks, even months spent walking down deserted streets, desperate for a ride to the camp, only to watch their potential salvation speed past, cries of “full up” trailing behind. So they make room now, though it means sitting on laps, and on the floor, and not being able to sit at all.
How did Jonah put it? “Packed in like cattle off to slaughter.” Alec tried to remember if he had ever learned about cattle back in school, but couldn’t summon the image. Perhaps that was what he would have learned in second tier, he thought. He’d never know now. Jonah says that the cattle died off long ago anyway. That’s why being compared to them made Alec uncomfortable, he was afraid he’d share the same fate. Jonah smiled at him when he confessed this secret fear and told him he was a worrier like their mother had been. Alec didn’t like this comparison any better. He did not want to share her fate either.
As the truck began to move again, Alec wondered about the new arrivals, what their lives had been like before. It was a game he played to pass the time and to distract himself from the fear that had started to grow in his belly. The lady was a doctor, he decided. And the man was a baker. No, not a baker. His mother had been a baker and it was best not to think of her. Because if he thought about her too much, he remembered how his mother looked the last time he saw her; tears in her eyes, but not on her face, trying to be strong. How she had told him to be brave and that she loved him and told Jonah to care for him. He remembered how her arm reached out to touch him one last time, before she realized what she was doing and recoiled into herself. There would be no hug goodbye. No kiss. They couldn’t risk it. So it was with a wave that Alec had said goodbye to his sick mother and started on the long walk with Jonah. They were lucky, climbing aboard the then half-full caravan after only a week on the road.
A cough interrupted Alec’s thoughts. The whole truck went still. Another cough. The brakes slammed so hard they fishtailed in the sandy road before coming to a stop. Light filled the truck as someone swung open the doors.
“Who was it?” came a booming voice. Alec recognized the gruff accent of the Commander that had interviewed Jonah and him before their intake. He was a large man with hair covering his face but none on his head. Not even eyebrows. “See, mom was right,” Jonah had whispered to Alec when they had first seen the Commander. “It’s from the treatment!”
Now, Alec ran his hand over his own bare head, a nervous tick he had developed, and waited to hear what would happen next.
“No one’s gonna own up to it huh? Fine then, everybody out. Everybody,” ordered the Commander.
Slowly the mass of people spilled out of the truck. They were separated, the vaccinated, or Baldies, as the Commander called them, on one side of the road, the Untreated, on the other. Still no one had admitted to the cough.
“Look around you. Look at all the people you are putting at risk. You know the cough is the first sign. You know it will progress quickly, that it will begin to spread. And still you stay silent. Coward!” the Commander bellowed. He addressed only the Untreated, the ones that weren’t lucky enough, or rich enough, to get the vaccine. Still, no one came forward.
“Then you leave me no choice. Obviously the scanner we have doesn’t work. Everyone registered clean before we let you on the truck. I cannot bring an infected to the camp. And since I do not know who is sick, I have no other option but to leave you all behind. Baldies in the truck”.
The Untreated began to panic. Children sobbed, men and women began to accuse each other of being the cause for their banishment. An old man simply sat down, defeated, in the dirt on the side of the road.
Then, finally, Alec watched as a man stepped forward, wrenching himself from his wife’s grasp. “It was me. I coughed. I’m sick. Just me though. There is no fever yet, you can feel my head. I have no rash. I am not contagious. My family is not ill, I couldn’t have infected any of the others yet. Please, just leave me behind.”
The Commander himself went to feel the man’s head. He looked him over for the rash. Satisfied, the Commander nodded once at the man. “Fine,” said the Commander. “Everyone back in the truck. But your family sticks by me. The first sign that they’re sick too and it‘s over, you hear? Let’s move.”
The man nodded to his wife, and whispered something to his children. They reached for him but his wife held them back. They would only get a wave as well.
As they boarded the truck, each member of the caravan nodded to the man and wished him well, knowing that he wouldn’t be and that the virus would take him slowly and painfully. They’d all seen it. But for the man’s sake they pretended they hadn’t and said their goodbyes. All but Alec, who avoided the man’s eyes as he boarded the truck behind his brother.
Later, after Jonah had fallen asleep, and the whole truck was quiet, Alec sat up rubbing his head. Over and over he repeated to himself what his mother had said before they left, as she showed Jonah how to shave their heads to look like the Baldies. “You just need to make it to the camp. They have the vaccine there. You just have to make it to the camp. Whatever it takes….”
“Whatever it takes,” Alec whispered to himself, running his hand over the stubble on his burning head. He’d need Jonah to shave it again tomorrow. Alec spent the night watching the now fatherless children sleep, telling himself they would be at the camp soon. They’d all be safe soon. “Whatever it takes”, he whispered again, burying his head into his arm to suppress another cough. Whatever it takes.
Written by: Lindsay Sakatch
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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