Her veins are hard to find now. Her skin is colder by the day, and paler like she’s becoming transparent. Her arm barely reddens as I slap the area between her bicep and forearm—the place where her vein usually hides between the bruises and track marks.
Until a few days ago, my slapping would spike a blood channel bulging at the surface like a bloated, blue leech. Tonight, I struggle to see anything but a flaccid purple delta snaking beneath the surface.
It’ll have to do.
Carefully, I hold the needle at an acute angle and slide it into her skin. Easy. She doesn’t flinch. I’ve become very good at injecting her, not hurting her any more than she’s hurting already. I hook the needle to the tube that runs up the side of her bed, junction to junction, clamp to clamp, and into the bag of piss coloured venom that dangles from the scaffold overhanging her.
I sigh and look aside at the window blinds. The moon’s half-light, like sheets of aluminium slicing through the gaps. I can’t stomach to watch the venom gush down the tubes and into her body. It’s a harsher poison than the colonies of parasites that’re feeding on her bones, her tissues, her organs, her blood. It has to be worse. It has to kill them. But it’s killing her too, and it’s killing me to watch.
The nurse that came to our house and taught me how to administer the drug warned us not to think of the treatment like a targeted strike on the bacteria.
“It’s more like carpet bombing the enemy,” she apologised. “Similar to chemotherapy, it’ll try to nuke everything it comes into contact with, even healthy cells.”
“Even my beautiful black hair?” cried Mum.
The nurse apologised. Her head dropped limply to one side and her eyes bubbled wider, the way people do when their looking a helpless kitten or demented old person. “I’m afraid so, Miss Alnazry.”
Mum feigned disappointment until the medic looked away. Then she shot me a smirk and wily wink. Mum doesn’t care about a little hair-loss. She carried me starving out of Syria, wrapped to her back in a hessian sack, all the way to England.
“I apologize again for all of this,” said the nurse, as if any of it was her fault. “But the hospitals are overflowing with people that the doctors think… think might still…”
“It’s okay,” said Mum. “I have my strong man to help me. He may only be fifteen, but Jamal has the wisdom of kings.”
The nurse smiled at both of us, and I rolled my eyes. “Miss Alnazry,” she started.
“It’s Alnasseri,” I grumbled before Mum snapped at me in Arabic. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I don’t want Mum to know that I’m forgetting her language so I assume she was calling me out for being rude. I rolled my eyes again and looked elsewhere.
Now, as I perch on the end of Mum’s bed, absent in the half-light, I wonder what the medic would’ve said if we hadn’t interrupted her. “The hospitals are overflowing with people the doctors think might still…”
I wish I could ask Mum what she thinks, but she’s so frail. She needs to sleep. But I wish I could wake her, go get my tablet and watch funny vlogs with her. But that’d be selfish. I wish I could make her sit up, play some old songs for her. But her ears can’t stand the noise anymore. I wish she’d wake up all on her own, notice that I’m not sleeping anymore, smell that I’m not taking care of myself and put me to rights. I wish she’d be Mum.
It comes every night now in the small hours. It hovers in the corner of the basement, a rippling orb of see-through-goo.
I know it’s down there waiting for me. I’ve been feeling its pull each night when I leave my Mum to sleep off the treatment and I walk downstairs to make tea in the dark (there’re rumours on the web that electricity can aggravate the bacteria, so I don’t use the lights unless absolutely necessary). And yeah, it feels like a force-field bending my vision and pulling me sideways as I pass the basement door. After a few nights awake, I’m finally bold enough to investigate.
Step by careful step, I descend from the doorway into the deep dinge. The wooden staircase groans as if miserable to bear my weight. The boiler growls like the ugly Rottweiler that guards my uncle’s scrapyard. The pipes clatter and clunk. But I’m deaf to warnings. My eyes are glued to the anomaly and I nearly trip the last step and fall into the radius of the thing, but instead I fight for my balance and crouch low to the floor. I don’t feel as heavy downwards now. I feel light like a leaf with the wind at my back, ready at any moment to be blown into the orb.
Gravity. I can feel you.
The hypnotic glob curdles just metres away and I notice the chain around my neck—the one that’ll tell the paramedics about my heart if something goes badly wrong for me, which it obviously will (because “my luck” that’s why). The chain’s not dangling the way it should—straight down. It’s curling about 20° upwards towards the orb as if it can’t quite decide which way to fall. Like how I can’t quite decide which way to fall.
Maybe I’m dreaming. Being awake for a long time feels a lot like being asleep. I’m numb. I’m trancing.
I can’t stop myself. I need to test this thing. I pull an empty epipen from my pocket—a shot of adrenaline for Mum—and improvise an experiment. With my arm outstretched horizontally towards the orb, I drop the epipen and observe as it falls in a swooping arc, like a glider coming in to land, and rattles off the floor and skids towards the orb before resting. A giggle pops from my mouth and I slap my hands over my lips to prevent any more involuntary excitement.
My eyes widen, reflecting the orb—silently warping, existing and not existing, circling like drain water. I repress a suicidal urge to leap headfirst over the horizon to see what’s inside, to see for myself where gravity takes me. Instead, I crawl carefully towards the epipen on my hands and knees, like a bomb disposal soldier. The pull gets stronger the nearer I get. I feel ever lighter on the floor. I stretch my arm and flick the epipen and watch as it clatters towards the orb, towards the orb, faster towards the orb, until it leaps up and touches the gloopy surface and vanishes. Gone.
I hold my breath. The world is nowhere and all that is is me and this unexplainable object.
My heart pumps a fistful of dread as suddenly from the surface of the orb emerges a ball of scrunched paper. I jump like when Paul Sykes shot me in the ass with his pellet gun, and before the ball of paper can drop to the floor I’ve turned and I’m scrambling—two steps at a time—up the rickety staircase and back into the house.
I run all the way back upstairs to Mum’s room. I close the door quietly and sit on the floor by her bed and try to catch my breath. I feel safe up here. One day, she’ll be well enough to tell me off for going crazy.
A meteorite is what you call a lump of space crap—rock, metal, whatever—when it falls through the atmosphere and survives impact with the Earth’s surface. The bits that fall but don’t make it down are called meteors. I know because my newsfeed won’t shut up about it. It’s like there’s nothing else in the world is worth talking about since the incident in October. Maybe there isn’t.
I was in town at the time, shopping for a Halloween costume. What happened next was spookier than any Halloween prank. A vibration like distant thunder. I was too far away to know that it was the percussion of multiple meteors breaking up in the atmosphere, and the explosion of one meteorite whacking into the Asda distribution depot outside of town. But everybody stopped what they were doing, stopped talking, stopped moving. Hundreds of depowered androids gawping at their smart phones and devices, watching the flaming cannonballs streak across the sky. Replay after unnecessary replay. The fall, the fire, the fury of impact as the depot atomised and a cloud of chaff gulped up the sky.
Seems like it took just a few minutes for the first infographics to be widely shared. The anatomy of a fatal impact. Eighty-seven people dead instantly, and the world couldn’t get enough. My feed blew up with live expert interviews and blog alerts. By the time I was able to get a call through to Mum, I already knew that the debris hadn’t come off the tail of a nearby comet or asteroid. They’d fallen from out of nowhere.
“You’re safe, praise God,” cried Mum when she heard my voice. She kept repeating it over and over.
She’d been scheduled to work that day at some pharmaceutical supply place on the same industrial estate as the Asda depot, but she was running late. Man, we were so happy to see each other. We agreed that it was a miracle. I started to believe. I started to feel the hand of God guiding our lives, ushering us from danger.
But that was months ago, before we knew the real danger. The killer in the wind. Maybe it would’ve been better if we’d all died in that distribution depot, same as the eighty-seven. At least we’d have never known what that meteorite was carrying.
She slept all day. I had to feed her through tubes. She’s bloating and there isn’t any new waste to clean, so I think she’s constipated. I wonder if I’m still doing the procedures right. Maybe I should call the nurse and ask, but the last time I tried to call the NHS the line went dead after ninety minutes on hold. I’m scared to watch the news now, but I fear everything’s gotten a lot worse.
I hear screams echoing beyond the windows at night. I can’t tell whether it’s foxes or humans anymore.
That night, I spend an age trying find a vein in Mum’s slack arm. Again I put my faith in God, probe, inject, and turn away as the venom floods Mum’s little body.
I perch on the end of her bed and I’m lost in the middle distance, pretending I can’t hear the glug and dribble of the IV. Sometimes, I spend hours sat here trying to imagine them. The aliens. I always used to imagine extra-terrestrials to be something like me. Maybe a little greener and a little more googly. Maybe an extra arm or two. Something exotic and intelligent. In the human way.
When the aliens finally landed, they were nothing so complex. They were invisible, microscopic, thoughtless, simple and perfect. More like herpes than little green men. Dormant for maybe millions of years, deep frozen in the meteorite, travelling through the cold forever regions of space, just waiting for a new home to inseminate. Tiny and unstoppable. But weird and discriminating, picking and choosing their hosts at random, or working to a rhythm that nobody’s been able to explain. Quarantine is useless. People say the bacteria can live dormant in healthy people, waiting to ignite, or jump from host to host to keep one leap ahead of inoculation (not that we have one). I heard an evolutionary biologist on Sky News call the bacteria a “perfect survivor”.
I wish we could have stayed hidden here on Earth forever.
Panspermia. That’s what the news calls it when stuff is carried from one side of space to another on a comet or rock or something. Twitter says that it’s probably the same way that water and life got to Earth in the first place, piggybacking on some icy rock blasted off of another planet. Some people say that what’s happened is random but inevitable, just how the universe is, almost like we had it coming for surviving this long. The religious people seem to agree we had it coming, although they think it’s a punishment for our sins. I don’t know. Mum isn’t a sinner. She’s always been a good Muslim. I look at her lying there, still as a waxwork, fighting for life, and I don’t want to believe in a God that would be such a bastard.
I’ll never say it out loud though. Just in case God’s still got better plans for us.
I watch her for a long while and hope she stirs, maybe opens her big, inky, saucepan eyes. She doesn’t. I shuffle uneasily. I notice a crinkling in my joggers as I move. Mystified, I pull a ball of screwed up paper from my pocket and for a while I can’t remember where it came from. Then it dawns on me: the orb. I must’ve gone back down into the basement to get the paper during the day. I can’t remember, I’ve been walking around in a daze. All events merge into the overwhelming daydream.
I push myself up from the edge of the bed and spirit over to the window to catch a sliver of moonlight through the blinds. I un-crease the paper and see that it’s a note. I try to bring the writing into focus and it reminds me of my own handwriting, but my vision is hazy nowadays. When did I last eat?
I concentrate and read the note in a whisper: “I don’t know how long the wormhole will be stable. Just know: You’re a good son and it’s okay to be afraid now. But you have to step out of the front door.”
Iced saline in my veins. My guts ring with adrenaline and I am very definitely awake. I pull the blinds aside and look out into the street, expecting to see a scarecrow killer hovering beneath the sodium streetlight. But all I see is empty asphalt, abandoned pavement, motionless cars, and vacuum in the cracks where the moonlight and the lamplight can’t reach.
I tear the note into unreadable bits and lie down in the scatterings, hugging my knees to my chest. Nothing feels right anymore.
It’s all I can think about the next day. The words of the note running around in my mind, senseless ghosts and shifting vapours. Chinese whispers. I’m so tired I start to doubt myself. Maybe I’m not remembering right. Maybe I slept and the words are just gobbledegook from out of nowhere.
I feel poorly.
I take my laptop down to the kitchen and well away from Mum, just in case the electricity really does interfere with the bacteria. I google the one word that I’m sure I remember: “wormhole”. I glance at the results and know for sure that I couldn’t have written the note myself, not even in a dream. I’ve never heard of a wormhole before. It’s some kind of warp in the fabric of the universe, some kind of fold that connect two regions of space and time. Loads of physics. Loads of sci-fi forums. And then I read something that stops me dead: “In theory, gravity and other information can travel instantaneously through a wormhole, regardless of the physical separation in space-time that exists between the two regions.”
Gravity. And other information.
In that very moment, I hear a something fall down in the basement. It literally takes me ten minutes to react. I creep to the basement door and take another ten minutes finding the courage to push down on the handle and open it.
I’m falling in many directions. Migraine?
Down in the dark of the basement, the orb has returned as if it knew I was thinking about it. Floating, silent, liquid motion, extinct and extant. Something and nothing.
Unable to stop myself, I descend the staircase and see that a pen and a slip of paper have fallen to the floor. Wobbly with vertigo, I fall to my hands and knees and shuffle to retrieve the objects without getting sucked into the orb (the wormhole?). I’m confused. The slip of paper is blank. I look at the slip in one hand and the pen in my other. Am I supposed to write something?
Too tired to think of anything clever, I scribble simply: “Hi. Am I awake?”
I screw the paper into a ball and without a second thought, I toss it at the orb where it disappears without a trace after making contact with the warping surface. And I wait. Before I’ve had a chance to wonder how long I’ll have to wait for, another ball of paper flies out of the orb, onto the floor, and immediately starts getting sucked back in. Pure instinct makes me leap for the paper and snatch for it but, in that same instant, the orb and its force disappear from sense as if someone flicked a switch, and I fall on my face.
I kneel in the dark quiet of the basement and unravel the note. Fractured daylight peeks in through a high vent, and I can make out the scribble: “Hi Jamal. We don’t have long. I know that you’re scared, but you have to be brave. Say goodbye and step out of the front door.”
I feel like I’m going to cry. Then a rage like magma bubbles up through my pipes and I scream: “No! Fuck you!” And I rip that note to shreds and crease over in agony, gripped by cramps. I’ll never leave my Mum. Who the hell would ask me to do such a thing?
In a Dark, Dark Night
How many nights have passed? How long have we been alone in this house? I don’t hear the neighbor kids fighting anymore. I don’t hear the house-music boom when the guy across the street starts his car either. My own house doesn’t breathe anymore. All that exists is the distant wail of sirens, intermittent. The howls of a new born species. A circle of beasts closing in.
All these things I invent and ignore.
I smack her arm to raise a vein but she’s not listening. I slap her harder. Harder. No veins swell, no skin reddens, and she’s just not listening. I slap her harder and harder and harder and I’m crying now and my tears are pattering on her stiff skin but nothing stirs and I don’t give a fuck if I wake her or if she’s mad or if she shouts at me and calls me names in that deadly language of hers that I already forgot. And I’m such a shitty son. Tell me what a shitty son I am, please.
“Please,” I scream through the phlegm and suffering. “Wake up, Mum. Please wake up a minute, please.”
And I’m slapping her twiglet arm again and again and nothing happens until it breaks. Crack. And it falls at wrong angles in my hand.
I am held in stasis. My jaw hangs and for a merciful moment I feel nothing, hear nothing, breathe nothing, am nothing.
“Mum,” I whimper, as much a child as I’ve ever been.
Mum doesn’t answer. Mum doesn’t move.
The Wormhole in the Basement
“Who are you?” I yell into the lensing orb. I venture so close that it sucks the tears from my eyes and the fringe forward off my forehead. “Who are you? Speak to me!”
I pull a slip of paper and a pen from my pocket and I scribble something and toss the information in. Go ahead, wormhole, take that to whoever is on the other side. Moments later, a reply flies out and hits me in the chest.
“Calm down, Jamal. I’m trying to help you.”
“Who are you?” I write. “Why are you trying to make me leave my Mum and my home?”
I throw the message into the rippling orb and it ceases to exist here, now. I wait. I wait. I wait for moments and days, and sleep snatches at me. Forks of lightening-pain zap across my scalp. Eventually, a note flies out at me. I read the first line over and over and over, as if I can’t read anything beyond those words.
“I’m who you become if you step out of the front door, Jamal… I’m who you become if you step out of the front door, Jamal… I’m who you become if you step out of the front door, Jamal. She loved us. And we were good to her. But she’s been gone a long while, mate. You know this.”
A cold breeze riddles inside me. Tears spill from my eyes.
“If you stay, Jamal, they’ll come after you too, and your time will end. I don’t know if you become me eventually, or if there are many worlds where the many possibilities of our life become reality. All I know is that I accepted what I already knew and, instead of staying, I took one step out of the front door. And that one step led to two, led to three, led to more time and more life, more love, and more survival until we found a way to live with the disease. Be brave, Jamal.”
“She’s gone,” I whisper to myself. And the orb flickers out.
The Universe outside My House
I linger by the front door. It’s so dark now. The streetlamps have all given up except one that blinks at the end of our driveway. It’s okay. I don’t need to see anymore. My eyes are tacky and red and I am dead to emotion now.
If I turn away from the front door, I know I’ll make out or imagine the contours of the hallway stairs that lead up into my Mum’s room. I’m so lonely that I know I won’t be able to stop myself running up those stairs and sitting with her. But even if I stay, I’ll still be alone.
Mum’s not coming back.
Before another thought can reach my brain, I unlock my front door and step outside of my house for the last time. The deathly still air freezes me to the core as the door slams behind me. With remorse, I post my keys back through the letterbox and walk away down the driveway until I reach the curb and my legs buckle and I collapse to my ass.
I won’t cry, or turn back. I’ll just sit here and breathe some.
That breath I breathed felt like no other. Sharp, cold, pure and wild. My teeth begin to chatter, my hair follicles tighten, I can hear the heartbeat in my head. I look up at the limitless shores of the universe overhead, and I imagine I see many millions of shooting stars, zipping this way and that, panspermia carrying living information to every corner of the galaxy and beyond. My Mum was information, and maybe she lives on, carried on comets to some new home. And what if one day I could fold space and time and poke a hole through into another reality? Where would I go? Would I go speak to Mum one more time? Or would I speak to myself twenty-minutes-ago? Would I tell him that it’s not so bad out here in the cold and the quiet? Would I tell him to be brave and take a chance outside?
And then the snow fell, white from black.