I pulled the mask's loops around my ears, adjusting my glasses arms around it. My heart pounded as I lifted my bag like it always did. Because it still associated the mask with danger, yet safety.
I had been young enough to be completely terrified of the Virus, but old enough to remember what it had been to live before the Virus. The strange spot, where my childhood was almost over, yet was not. Where I was both the luckiest, for knowing this former peace, and the most cursed, for it was taken away before I knew what I had.
It had a real name, something stupid, and probably Latin, but nobody except news anchors and the scientists called it that. The Virus had come from China, and as far as anyone could tell, it wasn't man-made. Of course, the conspiracy theorists still believed that it was ISIS, or some government trying to wage war, or something equally stupid.
It was like the Black Death, all over again.
It hadn't taken long for the entire thing to spread across the globe, killing hundreds within the first six months. Within a year, that number was nearly a million. A year later, a seventh of the earth's population had been killed. Eight months after that, nearly half of the population was gone.
Three years and two months after the first death, a cure had been found. Vaccines were sent out. It was labelled as something to prevent the outbreak, and almost everyone got in line for it. Those who didn't, who thought they had better chances just by muscling through, were forced into it. Perhaps a violation of ethics, perhaps of morals.
Most people just skimmed over the entire ethics and morals part of it, because it was easier to just… ignore it, and carry on. I was one of them. I didn't want to die. Maybe I was selfish. Maybe not. I couldn't bring myself to care. After you watch your father be dragged from the house, the last remaining family member being the bird in the cage, you tend to change your worldview greatly.
Four years after the Virus had started, it was gone. It was a miracle, everyone said. The government praised scientists, celebrated the end of the purge, but the fear was still there. That the cure wasn't a cure, wasn't a saviour. That everything was just on pause, a cosmic joke, ready to come back, and kick everyone's butts for thinking it had died off.
Five years after the Virus first killed, I still wore my mask outside every day. I still freaked out when someone coughed. I still scanned the news daily, heart pounding. I'd lost my entire family to the Virus. I lived in a foster family now. A family who'd lost all their children to it. We tried not to replace the lost with who had made it.
But it was hard for them not to look at me and see their son, and hard for me not to wake up with a hand on my shoulder and not see my parents.
"Got your panic button?" my foster mother asked, her eyes wide as she fluttered around me, checking everything, from my braid to my jacket zipper. I held up my wrist. A bracelet, a band of dull silver metal that was my safety line. "Good. Be safe."
I nodded at her, words catching in my throat, as I reached for the door, pushing it open. Sunlight landed on my shoes, and I stepped out, for the first time, alone, the door shutting behind me, heart drumming like someone playing hot potato by themself.
Life moves on.
I started to walk.