Once bitten...

Miriam English

I wake to the sound of screaming. It sounds like someone screaming in fear of their life, but I know it isn't. It's my neighbor, dear old Mrs Harris. I've known her for years. I can't imagine a more gentle and happy soul. She must have been the sweetest person I knew, and she is screaming in a murderous rage.

I wonder if she's killed anyone or is just in a fury at being unable to go outside to hurt someone or something. She can't move around without her walking frame, but in her current condition she won't remember that. I imagine her crawling about inside her house, unable to reach the doorknob to the front door, and screaming and clawing at it with with tears of rage.

The need to go and help her gnaws at me, but I know there's nothing I can do. She'll be dead soon anyway. And it's still too dangerous to venture out.

Most of the other houses are empty now. I heard more shrieks from further down the street during the night. They are all dying. Soon they'll all be gone.

There hasn't been any mains electricity for days, and before that the radio and TV stations ceased transmitting. All the trappings of civilisation unravelling, and it has been only a couple of weeks since the first signs, though it must have really started months before that. Now it's engulfing the whole planet.

Will anybody remain in another couple of weeks? Probably not. It seems to have one hundred percent mortality... not just for humans, but all mammals. And all the birds too. A couple of weeks! Time stretches ahead, heavy with the weight of the present.

I can imagine the whole world cleared of humans -- cities, still and lifeless, waiting to be reclaimed by plants, insects, and reptiles. All the dogs, the pigeons, the seagulls, gone. No sounds of traffic, no machinery ever to move again -- no humans for the machines to serve. No kangaroos or emus. No cattle or sheep. All dead. How long till the cities crumble? If some visitors from the stars ever stumble upon Earth a million years from now, will anything remain? Will they wonder how so much life could have ceased so suddenly? All this pain and horror will be just an academic puzzle, the way we see the end of the dinosaurs.

Billions of people swarming over the entire planet, paving perhaps a tenth of its land surface with concrete and tar, changing the chemistry of the vast atmosphere and ocean, mastering the most arcane secrets of nature. We stood so proud and became drunk on our achievements and our capability. Our ingenuity seemed endless, certainly our destructiveness had few bounds. Some stupidly called us the pinnacle of creation, when in the end, we were always just another animal.

I hear glass smashing across the street. I thought the McAndrews were all dead. Puzzled I creep to the lounge room window and peek out between the curtains, careful not to move them or let myself be seen. It's a looter. He won't last long. The panicky edge to his actions may already be the first signs. If so, it will only be a few hours.

I realise Mrs Harris isn't screaming anymore. It is hard to keep from my mind the images of muscles locked in painful rictus, straining almost to breaking as all the nerves indulge in a final series of torrential overloads till death. So much for keeping the images away! I shake my head, disgusted at myself. That's how Diane, my partner died. I watched, helpless. She convulsed over and over again, till in the end her body was rigid, bowed backwards, hands clenched, face in a ghastly grimace.

It's like rabies, or like the flyspray used to kill hapless insects. It's almost like revenge. How many insects did we all kill that way? Now the insects are wiping out the human race the same way. I'm sure it's the insects... well not the insects themselves, but they're the main carriers, and a bite transfers it.

I wonder, not for the first time, where the disease came from. Did it arise naturally? Or is it manmade? I doubt it's natural. Even with modern transport to help spread it, it seems to have propagated too quickly to be natural. And the long incubation time -- perhaps a month, maybe two... that's unusual. Then the sudden, horrible death. What kind of monster would unleash this on all the children, the dogs, the pelicans, the horses, the possums, the lions, the bears, the eagles...? But then perhaps it was manmade but unintentional. Maybe it was made to control rabbits or mice. No. I'm going in circles.

Is it starting? Am I getting paranoid? I'm suddenly alarmed and go into the bedroom to pop a tablet out its foil pack. Pausing with it almost in my mouth, I look at myself in the mirror. I look normal... dishevelled, but normal. Exhaling a shaky breath I put the tablet on the dressing table and go back to the livingroom window to peer out at the street. The looter is nowhere to be seen. All is quiet. He must have moved on.

No! A creak from the front gate. Moving to the side, I can see him enter the driveway. I frantically look around for some kind of weapon. Nothing. I can't let him break a window or open the door to expose me to the biting flies. Suddenly I realise the answer and I scream at the top of my lungs, long and loud. Bloodcurdling. I peek through the curtain again. He has stopped and is looking apprehensively at the house. My throat hurts from the unaccustomed volume, but I scream a couple more times. He turns and walks back out the gate. There are plenty of other houses, why bother with one that poses danger?

He's gone. Exhaling with relief, I collapse into an armchair and hold my head in my hands. Yes, he's gone, but what difference does it make in the long term? I'm still going to die, eventually.

"Well, hell!" I shout at myself. "Everybody dies!" I'm on my feet and pacing the room.

But there are ways to die. I'm not going to live till eighty and wink out in a heart attack. I can expect an excruciating death after a quick spiral through madness.

Maybe not though. I've lasted this long. Perhaps it won't progress with me. Maybe it doesn't kill everybody.

The little red dot on the back of my hand is almost gone now. I was bitten last month, almost 5 weeks ago, by a little biting fly. It didn't get a chance to bite properly, even so a little blister swelled there. I'd burst it, cleaned it up with peroxide, and forgotten about it until more recently... when everything started going crazy, attacking everything else and dying horribly.

I close my eyes not wanting to remember those first days of the epidemic. At first there were news reports of a few dogs that attacked people and the occasional person who went violently nuts. But it only took a couple of days to realise the scale of the disaster when tens of thousands of people everywhere were destroying everything around them before collapsing into seizures. In a few days it was millions.

Desolation threatens to overwhelm me. Even if I survive the epidemic, what then? Civilisation is gone. The complacent days of sitting in front of a TV watching a comedy and complaining about the news, of getting in the car to drive to shops, of picking up the phone to talk to someone, of logging onto the internet to post my blog and read my friends', of strolling in the park, safe and relaxed... those days are gone. Perhaps it would have been better if I had been taken by the disease. I don't know if I want to see what the future holds... especially without Diane at my side. I'm a coward at heart.

And so I find myself at the dressing table again, looking at myself in the mirror. This time I'm not looking for signs of madness. My reflection looks tired,resigned. I have popped an entire sheet of tablets out and they are before me on the dresser top. I push them off the table into my hand and cram the handful into my mouth, then pick up a bottle of coffee liquor and take a swig of the sweet, thick alcohol to wash it down. A few more gulps of liquor to seal it, but not too much to risk vomiting it up.

I lie down on the bed next to Diane's body to wait for the end.