Something. Way out in the whitedark. Between the trees, moving where the thickets swarm. You can see it from the roof, the way the brush bends around it as it rustles to the ocean.
That size, it’s probably swine, one of the big ones hitting shoulder high. Tusks as long as my arm. I know because I found one once, the end of it just poking through the fence. Took it back and hid it under my bed.
One more crash through the brush, and then the stillness again. Across the roof deck, by the chimney, there’s Byatt, and she lowers her gun, rests it on the railing. Road clear.
I keep mine up, keep the sight raised to my left eye. The other eye’s dead, gone dark in a flare-up last season. Left a scar across it the length of my fist.
It’s like that, with all of us here. Sick, strange, and we don’t know why. Things bursting out of us, bits missing and pieces sloughing off, and then we harden and smooth over.
Through the sight, the woods stretch out to the island’s edge, ocean beyond. This time of year the trees should be bare but the green still comes, new leaves budding before the old ones are dead and buried. Woven tight, a canopy stiff with frost. From here we can see across the island to where the radio antenna breaks through, useless now that the signal’s out.
Up the road someone yells, and below us a guard girl runs to open the gate for the boat shift coming home. It’s only a few who can make the trip, all the way across the island to where the army delivers rations and clothes. The rest of us stay behind the fence, pray they make it home safe.
Boat shift come stumbling in, cheeks red from the cold. All three of them back and all three of them bent under the weight of the cans and the meats and the sugar cubes. There’s Miss Welch, the tallest, turning to watch the gate close behind her. She’s the youngest teacher. Used to live in the dorms with us, count us every night and look the other way when somebody missed curfew.
She waves to give the all-clear, and Byatt waves back, but I’m still watching close with my good eye, just in case. I’m gate, and Byatt’s road. Sometimes we switch but my eye doesn’t do well looking far, so it never takes.
The last boat girl steps under the porch and out of sight and that’s the end of our shift. Unload the rifles. Stick the casings in the box for the next girl. Keep one in your pocket, just in case.
The roof slopes gently away from the flattop deck, third floor to second. From there we swing over the edge and through the open window into the house. In the skirts and socks we used to wear it was harder, something in us still telling us to keep our knees closed. Now, in our ragged jeans, there’s nothing to mind.
Byatt climbs in behind me, leaving another set of scuff marks on the window ledge. She pushes her hair over one shoulder. Straight, not like mine, and a bright living brown, just darker than my skin. And clean. Even when there’s no bread there’s always shampoo.
“What’d you see?” she asks me.
Shrug. “The same.”
I’m feeling the shake of hunger in my limbs and I know Byatt is too, so we’re quick as we head downstairs to the main floor, to the hall, with its big high ceilings. Scarred, tilting tables, a fireplace, and tall-backed couches, stuffing ripped out to bare the springs. And us, full of us. All together, all humming and alive.
There were about a hundred girls when it started, and twenty teachers, enough altogether to fill both wings off the old house. These days we only need one.
The group comes banging in the front doors, letting their bags drop, and there’s a scramble for the food. They send us canned foods, mostly, and sometimes packs of dried jerky. Barely ever anything fresh, and never enough for everyone, so Headmistress keeps her hands clean, doesn’t bother with rationing and just lets us fight for it.
Byatt and me, though, we don’t have to. Reese is right by the door and she drags a bag off to the side for us. Somebody else, and people would mind, but it’s Reese, bad hand and sharp metal glove, so everyone keeps quiet.
It grew on its own, the glove. From the start her fingers were nearly rocketing off her, full of crackle and spark, and they took her upstairs and waited for it to kill her, but it didn’t. One day she’s holed up in the third floor infirmary and the next she’s got sheets of silver wrapped around her hand, and she’s filing them into claws.
Reese pulls the bag over and she lets me and Byatt root through it. My stomach clenching, spit thick around my tongue. Anything, I’d take anything. But we picked a bad bag. Thread. Soap. Matches. A box of pens. And then, at the bottom, an orange, a real live orange, rot only starting to nip at the peel.
We snatch. Reese’s bad hand grabs my collar, heat roiling under the glove but I’ve got my knee on the side of her face. Bear down, trap Byatt’s neck between my shoulder and my forearm. One of them kicks, I don’t know which. Clocks me in the back of the head and I’m careening onto the stairs, nose against the edge with a crack. Pain fizzing white. Around us, the other girls yelling, hemming in.
Someone has my hair in her fist, tugging up, out. I twist, I bite where the tendons push against her skin, and she whines. My grip loosens. So does hers, and we scrabble away from each other.
I shake the blood out of my eyes. Reese is sprawled halfway up the staircase, the orange in her hand. She wins.
We call it the Tox, and for the first few months they tried to make it a lesson. Viral Outbreaks in Western Civ, a History. The Biology of Infectious Disease. Pharmaceutical Regulations in the State of North Carolina. School like always, teachers standing at the board with blood on their clothes, scheduling quizzes like we’d all still be there a week later.
Breakfast in the dining hall. Math, English, French. Lunch, shooting. Physicals and first aid, Miss Welch bandaging wounds and Headmistress pricking needles. All together for dinner and evening mass, and then locked inside to last the night. No, I don’t know what’s making you sick, Welch would tell us. Yes, you’ll be fine. Yes, you’ll go home again soon. Yes, rules are still rules.
One night, though, we went to sleep and fifteen of us never woke up. Boat shift carried the bodies out and buried them deep. We waited for someone to come, for the sky to fill up with cameras and lights. People cared on the mainland, that’s what Welch always said. They were looking for a cure, looking for a way to end the quarantine. They were trying to help. But nothing.
Reese digs a silver fingernail into the orange and starts peeling, and I force myself to look away. When food’s fresh like that we fight for it. She says it’s the only fair way to settle things. No handouts, no pity. She’d never take it if it didn’t feel earned.
Around us the other girls are gathering in whorls of high laughter, digging through the clothing that spills out of every bag. They still send us enough for the full number. Shirts and tiny boots we don’t have anybody small enough for.
And jackets. They never stop sending jackets. Not since the frost began to coat the grass. It stayed a regular Carolina kind of warm, for the first couple months, but then everything rounded a corner. Now the cold we get is so heavy and raw it must come from somewhere else.
“You’ve got blood on you,” Byatt says. Reese slices off the tail of her shirt and tosses it onto my face. I press. My nose squelches.
A scrape above us, on the balcony. We all look up. It’s Mona, red hair and a pointed chin, back from being taken upstairs. I don’t know Mona that well, because she’s the year ahead of me and even now, that still matters, but I remember how her face steamed and cracked. They carried her to the infirmary with a sheet over her like she was already dead.
“Hey,” she says, unsteady on her feet, and her friends run over, all fluttering hands and smiles, plenty of space between them. It’s not contagion we’re afraid of – we all have it already, whatever it is. It’s seeing her break apart again. Knowing someday soon it’ll happen to us. Knowing all we can do is hope we make it through.
“Mona,” they say, “so glad you’re okay.” But when her friends drift out into the last daylight hours, she’s stranded on the couches staring at her knees.
Byatt gets up from where she and Reese were kicking at the same splinter in the stairs. “Wait here,” she says, and she goes over to Mona.
They talk for a minute, the two of them, Byatt bending so her voice can slide right in Mona’s ear. And then she straightens and Mona presses her thumb against the inside of Byatt’s forearm. They both flinch. Just a little, but I’m watching, and I see.
“How’s she doing?”
I turn around. It’s Headmistress, the angles in her face even sharper now than they used to be. Buttoned up tight in her collared shirts, the hems tucked in smooth. We used to see her every day, before, but now she stays in her office, or guards the bottom of the stairs up to the infirmary.
“Mona?” I say.
Byatt hasn’t had a flare-up in a while, not since the summer. I don’t know much about it, only that it was bad and that Byatt screamed so loud we could hear her from the second floor. She doesn’t look any different and she won’t say what happened, not even when it’s just the two of us. I don’t know why Headmistress is asking, but I know how I’m supposed to answer her question, and I smile big like Byatt told me to.
“She’s great,” I say. Behind me, Reese lets out a slow breath. “Doing well.”
“Good,” Headmistress says. She starts across the main hall, to where her office is hidden away. “Glad to hear it.”
The door’s shutting and locking behind her when Byatt comes over to us. “What was that?” she asks.
“Nothing.” Reese gets up. “Let’s go.”
Rory Power was published in this year’s UEA Creative Writing MA Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction