Stephen McQuiggan

Stephen McQuiggan was the original author of the bible; he vowed never to write again after the publishers removed the dinosaurs and the spectacular alien abduction ending from the final edit. His other, lesser known, novels are A Pig’s View Of Heaven and Trip A Dwarf.

TWO VERSES OF HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

Owen rubbed the sliver of soap over his hands and between his fingers, timing his ablutions by singing two verses of Happy Birthday to himself just like the Public Health notices had advised. It seemed pointless now when everyone was either quarantined or dying of the Krieg, but it had become a habit – a mechanical action he carried out ten, fifteen times a day without conscious thought. Then he returned to his vigil by the window, staring across the deserted street to Katy’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

She always came and waved when she could steal a moment away from her husband. He hadn’t seen her in a few days and he was starting to worry. The last time she had appeared she had looked pale and drawn – just like Heather had before she died. Owen cursed his morbid imagination; another side effect of the isolation that the Krieger 16 virus had forced everyone into adopting.

It was only a few short months, and a long lifetime, ago that the whole outbreak had been a bit of a joke. News reports expressed concern about the proliferation of a new strain that was sweeping Asia – but Asia might as well have been Narnia it was so far away – the reports growing in intensity and hysteria as it made inroads to Europe.

Soon there was talk of non-essential businesses closing, schools too, in what the government termed a ‘delay phase’. People exhibiting even the mildest symptoms were urged to ‘self isolate’, whilst everyone else had to practice ‘social distancing’; buzzwords and catchphrases took the place of coherent medical advice.

Most people didn’t take it seriously – especially not Owen, who joked to the rest of the guys on nightshift that he would lick every door handle in his house in a bid to catch the Krieg and get two weeks off work, paid in full. Others were not so blasé. Social media bred hysteria and soon people were panic buying; locust swarms stripping supermarket shelves of pasta and beans and hand sanitizer. It became impossible to buy a toilet roll.

‘Is diarrhoea a symptom of the Krieg?’ his wife, Heather, asked.

‘No,’ he assured her, ‘people are just shitting themselves at the thought of catching it.’

 But after the first two weeks Owen found it increasingly difficult to wrest any humour from the situation. He could trace the moment when the severity of the situation finally began to sink in to a cough in a cafe.

Some of the local eateries had stayed defiantly open and Owen made a point of taking Heather and their daughter, Louise, out several times a week. He saw these trips as a badge of honour, a symbol of his disdain for the Nanny State and its sheep like citizens who cowered at its every doom laden proclamation.

The little cafe had been busy, a last outpost of sanity (although no-one shook hands and most had brought their own cutlery) – a sanity that was blown away by the dry rattle of Heather’s throat. When she began hacking over her latte the other diners shifted nervously in their seats. When it persisted they fled en masse. Lou was crying, too young to understand but old enough to feel the slight nonetheless. When Owen passed the cafe the following afternoon it was closed, along with every other business in town.

Heather spent the next few days in bed, sweating up a storm. Two females in face masks and Hazmat suits called and administered the test – they rang later to confirm she had contracted the K and to advise the whole family not to leave their home for the next two weeks.

‘Has your wife any underlying health issues?’ they asked.

Owen grunted – diabetes, gallstones, sciatica – you name it, Heather had it. She had always been a sickly girl, more so after Lou was born. That was why he had pursued an affair with his neighbour Katy in the first place; he had felt the need to hold someone vital, someone alive.

‘Will she be okay?’ he had asked the voice on the line. There was a pause, long enough to be telling, long enough to make the eventual reply sound insincere.

‘I’m sure she’ll be fine if you follow all the guidelines.’

‘Daddy?’ The voice grappled him back from the dull throb of his memories. His daughter stood in the doorway in her gingham pinafore – that thing was so drenched in sweat and dirt, Owen thought, it could stand up on its own. He didn’t know how to operate the washing machine, the dishwasher, god knows what else; he’d let things slide since Heather died.

‘Can I go play outside?’ Louise said, immediately adding the caveat, ‘in the back garden, I mean.’

‘You know you can’t, Lou, you know we have to stay indoors a little longer.’

‘But why, Daddy?’ she pouted, stamping her tiny dirt encrusted foot. ‘I’m so bored.’

Owen didn’t have the strength to argue with her anymore but he did all the same, if only to postpone her inevitable next line of questioning. It came regardless, before he could give her the usual rundown of reasons for their confinement.

‘Where’s Mummy? When is she coming back?’

‘We’ve talked about this, honey. Mummy’s not coming back, remember? The bad bug took her, the same way it’ll take you if you go outside. So, we’ve got to stay in here, all safe and warm, until it goes away. It’s what Mummy would have wanted.’

Owen felt like cold shit telling his daughter this; Heather would never have wanted this for Lou. He focused on the lie, savouring it, because it took away some of the guilt he felt at the relief his wife was gone. But that guilt could not be diluted long. All he had to do to awaken it was look at his daughter’s pinched little face and see Heather’s judgemental one staring right back. She had the same translucent pallor as her mother. It suddenly struck him that Lou, as frail as Heather ever was, might not make it through.

He snatched her up in his arms and spun her around as he buried his head in her ratty curls to hide his tears. He spun her faster and faster, something that always made her laugh, but when he set her back down her face was set in stone.

‘Now I’m gonna have to wash my hands again,’ she huffed, leaving him alone with only the fetid stench of her.

He turned back to the window. If only he could catch a glimpse of Katy that would brighten up the day, give him something to build on. A wave from her, a furtive kiss blown across the bacteria filled street, would be enough to keep him keeping on. He would go downstairs and wash the dishes, do some laundry, hell he’d even take the vacuum out if only he could see her.

Carl must be keeping her on a tight rein.

The thought of Katy’s husband made his gut roil in an acid tumble. Trapped all alone over there with no-one to mediate, what tortures might Katy suffer at his hands? She had detailed the level of his abuse to Owen before, most of it of the emotional persuasion, but now, with no-one to check his excess, how far would he go? If Carl ever found out she’d been having an affair … would he kill her?

Owen sucked in a shaky breath. Carl was certainly capable. He had witnessed him raging in public at the smallest of perceived slights – in private, unleashed and uninhibited, what were his boundaries? He could murder Katy and say the Krieg got her, then burn the body just like the Public Health advised and who would be the wiser.

As if his thoughts could birth reality, the stench of burning meat wafted through the open pane. The smoke was rising in a black totem against the cerulean blue of the day, far back and to the west. It must be coming from the old tyre yard out on Dobbin Road, Owen reckoned, the one they had requisitioned as a temporary mortuary around the time Heather had come down with the K. He doubted they were tyres that were burning now.

He closed the window to block out the barbecue; it didn’t offend him, it made him salivate. There wasn’t much food left in the cupboards and God alone knew if the delivery truck would show up this week to leave bread and beans on his doorstep. The reports said they would – the reports said everything was just fine and dandy – you just couldn’t trust the damn reports.

The smell of cooked flesh still hung tantalisingly in the air. Owen couldn’t remember the last piece of meat he’d eaten (he’d no idea at the time it would be his last and so had accorded it no significance) but Christ, he could recall the taste. He wondered if anyone on the street had any left – the O’Neill’s on the corner had a massive freezer in their garage – when it suddenly struck him that he hadn’t heard a dog bark in an age. Maybe the patrols had shot them all, but he’d heard no gunfire.

He had been forever chasing cats out of his garden, but when was the last time he’d seen one of them either? If only Heather had let Lou have a pet (but no, Heather was allergic) he and his daughter could be sitting down to a cracking roast right now.

The guttural roar of the police truck brought him back to the window. It was late. Usually you could set the clock by it, every half hour on the dot, but the last few days their routine had been unpredictable. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination; he would have heard it for one thing. That baleful, amplified voice Please remain indoors. Isolation Breakers will be subject to fatal measures for their own protection – haunted his dreams. Maybe the cops, with all their safety gear, were susceptible too – their numbers depleted, their morale destroyed. Maybe there weren’t enough of them left to police the lockdown anymore.

If that was the case there would soon be anarchy, people returning to the streets in droves to rape and kill and loot before they died. A chalk mark on your front door would be no protection any longer. He glanced over at Katy’s, squinting to make sure there was none there. Not that that meant anything. The rain had washed his own off weeks ago and there seemed little point in replacing it. The whole world must be sick by now.

He saw a shadow behind the door’s bevelled glass, the first movement he’d caught there in days. Owen pressed his nose up against the window, his own excited breath obstructing his view. He wiped it off quickly and saw Katy appear like a ghost through the mist. She stared back at him, her mouth moving soundlessly.

‘Katy,’ he said aloud, as if she could hear him.

She placed her hand up onto the glass the way she always did, a gesture of wordless love, but this time it was different, this time it was wrong. Her hand was bloody, sliding down the pane, as her mouth opened and closed like a landed fish. She fell forward, her hair sticking to the scarlet smear as she slipped slowly out of sight.

‘Katy!’

‘What are you shouting for, Daddy?’ His daughter was standing in the hallway, her face all puckered up when she saw the panic in his.

‘Go back to your room, Lou.’ He turned his back on her, peering out the window again; no sign of Katy, just a bloody stain visible against the powder blue curtain. He saw movement, a glimpse of Carl stooping below the sill, and made up his mind. ‘Go to your room now, Lou, don’t have me tell you again!’

He didn’t notice her tears. His rage had blinded him to everything save the smear of Katy’s hand, the soundless movement of her mouth as she tried to convey a last desperate plea. The bastard had murdered her, he had …

It might not yet be too late, Owen told himself as he hurtled down the stairs, she might be still alive, there might still be time.

His hand was on the door before he remembered his situation. He snatched it back as if the latch had stung him and tried to gather himself. He needed to be in control, he needed to be calm.

He went into the living room and checked the street for any sign of a patrol. He saw, and heard, nothing. It’s now or never, he thought, as he bolted back out to the hall. Lou was on the stairs, clutching her Teddy, soaking its mawkish head with her snot and brine. She had started calling the ratty old thing ‘Heather’ after her mother, a fact which caused Owen’s fury to almost overwhelm him.

‘Get back to your room, you little bitch,’ he snarled.

‘But I want to go with you,’ she pleaded.

He made a half-hearted lunge for her, knowing she would dart out of his range, though part of him wanted to drag her over to Katy’s and let her watch him rip Carl limb from limb, and then scream in her face (so wan, like her cursed mother’s), ‘You wanna be with me now, huh?’

He waited until she had scuttled around the first floor landing before heading outside. He paused on the porch to reconnoitre – no sound of an engine, no sign of a cop, but it paid to be careful. It was a good thing the phones were down or some of his neighbours might report him. There were bushes and trees at the far end of the road that could hide all manner of spies; he would need to be fast.

He drew in a deep breath and sprinted across the street. It wasn’t far but he felt horribly exposed. Somewhere in the distance a horn blared and Owen let out a strangled yelp, convinced he had been spotted. He reached Katy’s house on spaghetti legs, waiting on a strident megaphone to order him to the ground.

He hit her door running – it was open, no-one locked them anymore – and found himself in her hallway, sucking air into his burning lungs, waiting for his heart to stop its thrashing. The house smelt of forests and freshness; the house smelt of her. He launched himself up the staircase, reaching the bedroom just as he realised he had no weapon, no inkling of what he was here to do.

Owen burst in, saw Katy by the radiator with a lurid red patch on the belly of her white blouse – pale, frightened, but still alive. Her eyes gleamed with a fierce delight at the sight of him and Owen grew strength from her faith in him.

‘What the fuck…?’ Carl was behind him, close enough to feel the heat of his beery breath on his neck. Owen spun without thinking, and punched him as hard as he could. Carl went down, more with the shock than the force of the blow.

‘Kill him, kill him!’ Katy was screaming as her husband staggered back to his feet. Carl’s face was red, but with anger not blood. ‘Kill him before he murders us both!’

Owen looked frantically around for a weapon, grasping a steel nail file from the dresser in his panic. As Carl came for him he jammed it in his eye. Carl’s whole body jolted as if the file had been wired up to the mains, then he slumped to the floor emitting a high-pitched keening that vibrated Owen’s fillings.

Katy leapt on her husband, pounding a pair of scissors into his back, her fist a blur, until the savage keening stopped and Carl toppled face down on the carpet. Katy panted ferociously, her eyes rabid, her lips twisted in a grotesque approximation of a smile. ‘We’ll burn him,’ she said. ‘No-one need ever know.’

Owen said nothing. He started at the thick puddle seeping out of Carl’s head into the beige, its vibrant colour so shocking, so redolent of life and death, and so different to the muted one on Katy’s blouse.

‘Are you hurt?’ he asked, shock rendering his voice robotic and cold. He pointed to her belly as she continued to smile that awful smile. ‘He hurt you, I saw him.’

Katy rose to her feet, dropping the scissors onto her husband’s punctured body. ‘This?’ She raised up her blouse in a parody of seduction; her stomach was flat, toned, unmarked. ‘I had to get you over here somehow. I was going crazy. It was the only way I could think how.’

Owen turned from her and walked to the window, running a finger into the clotted smear on the glass. ‘We’ll put this all behind us. The quarantine will be over soon, we can start afresh,’ she was saying, as he put the tip of his finger into his mouth and sucked: ketchup. ‘We can finally be together, we can –’

Her voice was drowned out by the roar of a patrol truck. Owen saw its armoured bulk picking up pace as it turned the corner, then saw his daughter, her raggedy Teddy clutched in her spindly arms, come skipping from their porch. Her eyes were on his, not the truck. She was calling for her Daddy, calling for him. He tried to shout a warning but the blast of an automatic rifle silenced him. The truck never stopped nor slowed, but it seemed an eternity before it passed by.

He saw her Teddy first, lying in the road. Lou was sprawled in a cloud of exhaust fumes, crumpled and broken, her grimy little legs splayed out at unnatural angles. She looked so much smaller than she had only a few brief moments before.

‘Oh my god, don’t go out there, there’s nothing you can do, they’ll shoot –’

But Owen wasn’t listening. Katy had ceased to exist, just as Carl had ceased to exist, in the blink of a wicked, uncaring eye. He pushed her from him, was out on the street cradling his daughter. He stooped to retrieve her beloved old bear, then he carried her inside and brought her upstairs and laid her on her bed. He covered her up in her Tigger duvet so that he wouldn’t have to see the ragged hole in her chest.

He went into his own bedroom. Katy was at her window, her palms beating on the glass as she screamed, her voice inconsequential to him; a wasp trapped in a bottle. He drew the curtains and returned to Lou, placed a wet kiss on her cold forehead. ‘Sleep tight, my sweet.’

Then Owen went to the bathroom to clean up. He sang two verses of Happy Birthday to himself as he scrubbed his daughter’s blood from his hands.

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