Sam had thought the hospital was hell on earth when they had first arrived. The rows of hacking, moaning people, the lines of wrapped dead, the foetid smells of unwashed bodies always lurking behind the sharper overtones of bile. It was a makeshift affair that the government had scrapped together in the face of the epidemic; the timbers forming the frame of the tent still smelled faintly of sawdust.
It had taken all of Sam's strength to get his father here. It was hard to split the family, leave Mother and Lily, but it had been becoming too hard to hide his father's sickness from the neighbours. If they stayed at home the house would have been flagged as diseased and knocked down. Sam had given a false address to the hospital officials, and this way he hoped to save both his father and their home.
For a while he feared they'd never leave, and the draughty tent became his entire world, consuming every waking moment between rising and trudging back to Aunty Beth's. But then gradually, Father's colour improved, his temperature fell, his gaze became more focused. Soon, the family would be reunited, he thought, smiling as he folded a paper horse for Lily.
"Samuel! Samuel Kent!" a shrill voice called, cutting through the hubbub of suffering and treatment. It could only be Enid, that voice. And sure enough her body soon followed, pushing through the orderlies and scanning the spaces around Sam as if he was hiding something.
"They're not here?" she asked, and her voice was not the usual confident, bossy bluster.
"Who?" Sam asked patiently. One had to be patient with Enid else you inadvertently start a war of escalating pique.
"Your Mother and Lily." Her hands had twisted her kerchief taught and her eyes were bulgey.
"They're demolishing today and they're nowhere to be found…" Enid was getting more and more worked up, and her sentences more and more difficult to understand, but Sam understood one thing. Golden Grove was being demolished, and his mother and Lily were missing.
He remembered nothing of the run through the city, just the dreadful feeling squeezing his chest, and the air sharply cold digging into it as he ran.
He slowed a little as he got closer; the noise of horses' straining steps and breaking timber could be heard from blocks away, piercing the roar of his ragged breathing in his ears. He redoubled his pace.
The demolition had already started.
Teams of draft horses hauled on chains, and the wooden shanties collapsed like houses of cards. The men wore handkerchiefs tied across their faces like bandits. Through the dust, shouting, and rubble, Sam couldn't find who was in charge, who he needed to make listen.
"Please!" he shouted randomly, "my sister!"
"Not allowed in here, lad," a kerchiefed workman said, blocking his way.
"But my sister-" Sam was shoving against him, trying to force his way through.
"Sorry lad," Beefy fellows sidled closer, "Contagion. New rules."
Sam backed away, then turned and ran. There was a million ways into Golden Grove, and they couldn't guard them all. He sprinted down back alleys, over fences, through yards until he finally came to their street. He looked around twice, but it was gone. All the houses were flattened, nothing but rubbish, broken wood amid shards of pots, scraps of muddy clothing, toys. Their house was an almost indistinguishable pile of destruction amongst all the others. But he knew it was theirs, because a few potato plants still struggled to stand beneath a thick coat of dust in what remained of the front yard. Gingerly, feeling like he was in a dream, he climbed the mound of debris that was all that was left of his home.
"Lily?" he whispered, fingering pieces of roof and wall and floor, all jumbled together. Then his fingers caught at a scrap of material, and he recognized his mother's dress. "Lily! Mother!" he shouted, digging frantically, pulling and ripping at the rubble til his heads were grazed and raw. He stopped when he came to a hand, white, cold, hard. His mother's hand, the wedding ring still hollowing a ditch round her stiff fingers. He sat back on his haunches, feeling grief threaten to drown him. They were dead. Father was the sick one, but… they were dead.
The sun rose higher and beat at his shoulders, the day finally starting to thaw, and after a while the sound of houses collapsing came back into his world. With shaky limbs he climbed down from the pile of junk that used to be his home, and walked listlessly, his feet following the street towards the noise, for lack of any direction from his mind.
The horses strained against their straps, sweat darkening their coats and glistening on the leather of the harnesses, lathering white where they chafed. Sam watched the house lean, unable to withstand their endless, herculean strength, and then slowly collapse into nothingness. As the dust rose and drifted, the shapes of the horses disappeared and reappeared through the haze, waiting quietly while the men unhitched them from the ruin. Through the settling dust, he saw a small child run up to the horses, stroking them gently on the nose, the huge beasts staring at her, as gentle as cows.
"Lily?" he whispered. The dust sank to the ground and her shape became recognizable.
"Lily!" he shouted. She started at her name, her hand frozen above the horse's nose, then she was running towards him.
"Sammo! I woke up with the noises, and I heard the horses coming, and I they said it was ok, the men, they said, when they're not pulling, I can pat them-"
But he heard nothing of her muddled, gasping explanations. He just held her tight, kneeling in the centre of the road, even as the horses went back to work, and the houses crashed down around them, bathing them in regular clouds of sunlit dust.