front row seats to the end of the world
Like most threats, it came quietly. It was a sweeping disease that felt more like hysteria.
Farah was concerned, but she wasn't scared; having survived university, having spent surrounded by foreign students and constant new sicknesses. She felt she had coughed every cough, blew every coloured phlegm from her nose, suppressed every headache. She was over being ill. She was tired of it. She felt immune after four years.
However, when her parents shoved their phones into her face, believing in the most outrages things, Farah wondered how they could. They went to university too, didn't they? Is it truly an acceptance of the worst-case scenario, or blind panic, or wisdom being shrugged off by the youth?
Sweeping her brown eyes over to her sister, Farah smiles at Ana.
Ana rolls her eyes and chews into her bread just so she doesn't need to talk.
"Don't go out as much, okay?" Their Mama says. "Come straight home after work and school, and stay inside. If you need anything, I can get it from the store for you."
Their Papa grunts to indicate to his daughters not to be sassy.
Ana nods mutely and Farah voice out an "Okay." She isn't an asshole; she knows when to follow the rules, when to stay at home.
They bought what was needed. In between, she washes her hands, eats her multi-vitamin pills to boost her immune system and stretches in her bedroom.
It came in waves. Social media spoke for everyone's behalf. Some said it was 97% curable, most ate the news and fought each other in supermarkets.
Two old ladies had a fistfight over toilet paper. Her sister texts her when she's out helping their Mama with all the groceries.
(And no, they weren't one of the hoarders buying all the toilet paper, they had bidets at home. This is why bidets are superior.
Unless the water shuts down, that is. Then they're all fucked when all their supplies run out.)
Who won? Farah texts back.
No one. Security broke them up. Ana answers.
Farah huffs and tosses her phone on her bed.
She was getting increasingly worried about the old and the young. Most of her family lived elsewhere, but her grandfather lived not so far away. He'd ignore all the warnings, saying he's lived through enough lies to not believe them.
But they weren't lies, were they? At least, not all of them were. Old folks were collapsing. Middle-aged people dying in self-isolation. People were being admitted into hospitals despite there not being a cure yet, and funerals were put on hold.
What's happening is real. Real. And she can't ignore it now.
"Just stay with us, I don't want you getting infected," Her Papa had said to her grandfather when the older man had dropped by, a daily routine of his.
"You don't need to worry about me, I'm fine," Her grandfather says.
Ana looks up from her phone, studying the wrinkles and white hair on the old man's face. "I can stay in Farah's room and you can take mine,"
Farah raises a brow but doesn't frown. Ana's not one to spiral into fear.
"You want my old man smell on your stuff?" Her grandfather replies cheekily.
"I wouldn't mind," Ana answers. And doesn't add, 'It's better than seeing you dead.'
"Are we really binge-watching a movie about a pandemic?" Farah asks when Ana flops on her bed and pauses a pirated version of Contagion on her laptop screen.
"I just want to know how it spreads and what we could do to not act all crazy." Ana answers. "It's better than relying on zombie movies,"
"I haven't even seen Shaun of the Dead, I don't know why you make it sound like I'm a zombie nut."
"Your favourite book series is about zombies," Ana points out.
Farah frowns. "It's technically Romeo and Juliet in zombie form. R is very intelligent, he's not mindless. His thoughts are very philosophical. He even dresses smartly during an apocalypse. Who wears a red tie during such an event for goodness sake?"
"Shaun wore a red tie."
"Don't," Farah warns and Ana doesn't go further into it.
She just presses play and hopes her laptop doesn't contact any viruses too.
Farah had never been into zombie apocalypse media.
She's seen bits and bobs, had discussions on what to do in fandom boards. But most of her knowledge came from the Warm Bodies series by Isaac Marion. The author's clever words were seldom clumsy and felt like a religion.
But now she thinks even God won't save them.
Like the stock market, they crash. A once almost invincible concept now reduced to rubble. People were running out of their houses, colliding with one another, escaping to who-knows-where.
They fall, she fumbles, grabs a shaking hand and runs blindly until the hand she's holding pulls away.
"Ana," Farah begins, but then she sees it's not Ana. It's some boy with dark brown hair and green eyes. "Where's my sister?" She gasps through the chaos of it all.
He only shakes his head.
Paul never did understand why most characters in entertainment were new when introduced. Why didn't they know each other? Shouldn't there be one familiar face? Relatives who live not-so-far-away? Long lost reunited friends? Acquaintances?
But he's here, holding onto the elbow of a hysteric brown girl yelling, "Ana! Ana!"
He feels bad for her, he should have let go earlier, but he was scared. And she was leading him, and he found that comforting. In some way, he thinks she saved him. He doesn't know if he would have gotten up if she hadn't yanked at his arm.
"Let go of me! I have to find my sister! My parents are safe at my grandfather's house, but Ana's not! Let go!"
"You won't find her in this mess!" Paul yells back at her through the shouting and the screams. "You should stay in one spot then call your sister! I know a place, trust me!"
She resists but Paul manages to bring her to a porch where he starts pounding on the front door.
A man opens the door, looking dishevelled and worried. "Paul?"
"Get inside," Eric urges, then spots the woman Paul is holding. "Who's this?"
"Does it matter?" Paul asks and they both stumble indoors.
Right now, Malcolm's hiding in the kitchen of the diner he frequents; with a waitress whom he knows by name, the tag pinned to her chest does all the work for him, and a girl in pink, a regular who he's grown used to seeing. The owners of the eatery are a pair of brothers who look like they'd turn on everyone and then each other.
Honestly, Malcolm's fine with the idea of getting rid of them. He's grown up within a difficult family consisting of a baker's dozen. He's used to rowdy. He's also the youngest, the runt, he knows how to take a punch.
But the reason question is: Is he going to become a murderer today? Will the blood on his hands ever wash away?
His phone blows up with back-to-back messages from the family group chat. Funny how they only care when a few of them are going to die. He's tempted to answer when the double doors shake, startling him.
A girl appears on the other side, looking young and afraid, her hijab sliding off her head. She must be no older than twenty-one.
"We have to let her in," A girl in pink says. Her blue eyes are innocent.
"Don't you dare. She might be diseased, haven't you heard the news?" One of the restaurant owners says. His moustache makes him look cartoonishly evil.
"This isn't a zombie movie! All of us heard screaming on the streets then hid. We don't even know what we're hiding from! Everyone here is a coward!" The girl in pink argues and marches to unlock the entryway.
The waitress helps her, opening the double doors and letting the brown girl in.
"Thanks," She says, shaking. "I'm Ana,"
The girl in pinks begins introducing herself when one of the owners reaches out and pulls the waitress into a headlock, his eyes burning with anger and fury and murder.
The waitress cries out. Malcolm stands, ready to fight, when the sickening crunch of a skull collapsing stops him.
Being hit on the head does not look like the cartoons he's watched in his childhood. There is no comical funny face, no flying stars or slurred nonsense. There is just a bloodied dent in one's head.
The other owner flees while Ana pulls the waitress aside to safety. And the girl who had done it, who had used a frying pan as self-defence, trembles, and drops her weapon at her feet before curling into a ball and cries into her pink skirt.
"I was going to go to art school," She states, because — who's going to accept her now that she's taken a life?
Ana and the waitress reach out, comforts the girl, brushing away blonde hair and patting a hand on her freckled shoulder.
Malcolm looks like he doesn't want to be there, but has now delegated himself with responsibility. He does not think he's the oldest person here, but he isn't selfish enough to let others suffer. He's seen enough of that.
The city is always screaming or groaning or crying.
Farah can't help but think of how her family — her lineage of immigrants — had moved here for a better life. Settled down in a foreign place where they're looked down upon; when all her family ever asked for was a chance to live. Not survive. Live.
And they had, for five generations. And just when she thought they had made a breakthrough with their grandfather being the first to go off to university, this happens. And they're forced back to square one. Forced back to surviving.
It's not fair.
It's. not. fair.
By the way Malcolm walks, Ana can tell he grew up too quickly and forgave little. He had this stiffness in his shoulders. He wasn't afraid to stare death in the face.
But she also knows by the way he acts, he cares. He's a strict man, raised from his self-made, self-inflicting rules. His problems are his to deal with, but now he's made their problems his own as well.
"We stick together," Malcolm says. Then he asks, "Do you want to stay here? There's food and water, bathrooms and electricity," And music, even if it plays the same songs on repeat.
"There's also a dead body here," June whispers, her nametag cast aside and apron covering the owner's face.
There was a lot of quiet. A lot of contemplation and unsaid things.
The five of them are secured or quarantined or whatever the fuck anyone wants to call it. She and Paul lie in the living room because there's nowhere else to sleep. There are no other rooms to sleep in this one-floor, two-bedroom house. She's on the sofa and he's on an air mattress.
"Who is Eric's girlfriend? Ariel or Marcy?" Farah asks in the dark.
Paul's cousins have different eye colours, as well as a different head of hair; but it was obvious they're related, they had the same face.
"Ariel." Paul answers.
"Wait, their names are Ariel and Eric? Like The Little Mermaid couple?"
"I didn't name them. It's just faith, or whatever."
Farah turns her head and tries to look into his eyes; a forest of green.
Everything's gone to shit. And Farah knows it's selfish, but what she wouldn't give to worry about small things like dishes in the sink and an unsent e-mail or a deadline instead of death and rot and ruin.
"What are you thinking about?" She asks after a moment.
"Ariel." Paul answers honestly. "I'm trying to think about how this disaster will affect her. She walks with a small limp on most days, but sometimes she uses a cane and on particularly painful days, she uses her wheelchair, which is study. It folds well and can handle a lot. But ... there's still a possibility that it'll break. Eric is strong enough to lift Ariel in an emergency where we need to run. I can carry Ariel too, but what if there's no one around to help her? What if Eric and Marcy can't help even if they want to? What if they're fighting for their lives, or dead?"
Farah keeps quiet. Suddenly she feels horrible for her earlier thoughts. Here she is, claiming dishes and deadlines as small things, when she didn't even consider other people's struggles. Her small things could be big things to someone else.
"You're never leaving this house, are you?" Farah asks.
"Not if I can help it," Paul answers. It's not cowardice, it's practicality for the people he loves.
"I managed to call my parents, you saw me crying earlier, but I can't reach Ana. Maybe she lost her phone, maybe it's the signal, I don't know, but I do know that I have to find her. I don't have a solid plan, but I think the best-case scenario is for me to travel to my grandfather's house. I'll go first thing tomorrow morning,"
Paul nods in the dark. "I wish I could help. I wish I could go with you,"
"Don't feel bad. You care about family just as much as I do. Sometimes, the best thing to do is staying put. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do but wait and hope."
"Maybe this is where I end?" Winnie says, thinking of all the bad decisions she's made as she blinks her blue eyes.
She wonders if the transformation goes faster if there is no resistance? No fight? Like a person who's sick and accepts their mortality? The doctor gives a person X amount of time to live, some defy the deadline, some crumble faster.
"Don't talk like that," June scolds, handing Winnie a paper napkin.
Ana curls in one of the booth, trying to sleep and block out sounds. Malcolm eats a sandwich, trying to decide how to handle such a situation before pushing the untouched slices of his meal to Winnie.
"Eat," He says. "You need your strength." Against the virus and the people not afraid to hurt others.
Winnie lets out a sniff, fingers curling around the wet tissue and the hem of her skirt.
"I'm sorry, for what happened. But he attacked first, it was self-defence. I'm sorry I didn't act first. I should have kicked his ass," Malcolm says.
Winnie lifts her eyes and tries to give him a thankful grin at his attempt to comfort her.
They avoid looking out the diner windows, the world is ending.
Then Ana rises, "Can I borrow someone's phone?" She doesn't know why it's taken her this long to ask, may it was due to the shock.
Malcolm slides his phone into her hand without question. "Who are you going to call? Family?"
"Yes." Ana nods, punching in the memorised number. "My big sister, Farah."
Farah thinks the fact that she's separated from her family is chicken shit to an already shitty situation, but she won't rest until she's united with her sister.
He appears like how she believes most survivors who are tossed into pandæmonium would look like — covered in dirt, bundled in rags, dishevelled hair and confused eyes.
No one stands out among each other anyone, everyone blurs into one, shuffling to another day.
She meets him — a mountain of a man who travels with an axe in one hand and the leash of his big dog in the other.
"Farah," She introduces, between her weapon tucked in her jeans.
"Henry Young," He answers with his own name.
She wonders if it'll even make a difference, he might be dead by tomorrow. He might betray her in a couple of hours or eat her sister's heart in a blink on an eye.
Farah is glad to see the dog for some reason. Maybe because it hints at Henry's trustworthiness. Maybe because most apocalypse media don't include pet dogs and she always wondered, always thought what happens to domestic animals. Realistically, pets are likely left trapped in locked houses or left to fend for themselves. Most would die.
The dog could die, not that death isn't uncommon, it applies to her or every other human too. But, God, Farah hopes not. Not the dog. Not the fucking dog.
"Don't worry, he'll protect us," Henry lets out a laugh.
And she smiles, knowing she won't die. Not yet.
Notes: I miss writing pointless, short, ambiguous original works.
— 20 March 2020