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Drinking Bleach Instead

Drinking Bleach Instead

(first published in The Bleed magazine issue 1)

Sixteen years old and off my face on ecstasy, I down another pint at the bar effortlessly and win my eighteenth race in a row.  A man twice my age curses me as he hands over a £20 note and my friends cheer in approval.  Lighting a Lucky Strike, and catching the eye of a girl that I’ll wake up naked with tomorrow, this the best night of my life.  Everything is perfect and exactly as I remember it until the phone rings and nine years pass me by in a heartbeat.

            “Seriously Vincent, what does it take to wake you up?”

            “Come on,” I moan. “I was at work till 5am, give me a break.”

“You need to collect Rose from school,” Jessicka says. “The headteacher says there’s been an incident.”

            “An incident?  What the hell does that mean?”

“Somebody bit Rose on the arm.  She’s alright, but she needs you.  Go now.”

Only six and she has to put up with this kind of crap at school?  We need to get out of this godforsaken city, Rose and Harry deserve better than this.  All my life, I dreamed about escaping from Newcastle, but that idea fell apart when Jessicka became pregnant.  Nothing less could have kept me here.

            “Daddy!”  Rose has a bandage around her left arm but seems otherwise unharmed when I enter the headteacher’s office.

            “Don’t worry sweetness, I’m here to take you home.  Are you alright?”

“I was playing tag with Sally outside, but when she caught me she bit me on the arm and then the teachers had to hold her down, but she started shaking and they took her away to hospital and I got a lolly.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” says the headmistress. “We don’t know what came over Sally, but I’m sure she didn’t intend to her your daughter.  We hope to know more after she’s received treatment, but the RVI is inundated with people that have fallen victim to this new flu. I understand the World Health Organisation have now officially declared the outbreak as a global pandemic, so under the circumstances I’d strongly advise Rose rests at home until she feels 100%.”

I’m mentally comparing shifts with Jessicka as we leave.  I’ll have to work nights and take care of Rose during the day. There’s no way we can afford for Jess to be at home.  She would have given anything to be a stay at home mother.  Well, anything but take the pill and exercise something resembling control over when to start having children.

            Harry’s classroom is empty as we pass.  Today is his day for PE so he’s probably in the hall dancing around in a vest and plimsolls.  Harry’s only seven; his sympathy for Rose might extend to a brief hug when he hears that she’s been bitten but that will quickly vanish when he discovers that she doesn’t have to go to school tomorrow.  Rose climbs into the backseat of our car and asks if she can have a present for being so brave.  We can’t afford to keep up the rent payments this year but I don’t suppose another DVD will make a difference.

            Rose’s temperature has gone through the roof by the time her mother gets home and I’m so happy to see Jess that I could cry.  I never meant to spend my life with her, but we’ve been together for seven years now and I couldn’t imagine a world without her.

            “I’m so glad that you’re home.  Ibuprofen took the edge off her temperature for an hour, but even with all the windows open it’s creeping up again and I don’t know what to do.”

            “We need to take Rose to a hospital,” Jess tells me.

            “They won’t take us love, I called them already.  This corvine flu has spread so quickly the hospitals have been quarantined until further notice. They won’t even take emergency patients.”

            Jessicka swears and glances in the sitting room.  Harry is watching Mad Monster Party again and absent-mindedly reaching into an empty bowl to see if he has any raisins left.  He doesn’t realise how serious Rose’s condition is and I’d like to keep it that way.

            “They’re rioting in London again,” Jess says, “it’s popping up all over the city.  Everybody is so frightened. They think that the government isn’t doing enough to counter the outbreak.”

            “Well they’re right, aren’t they?  That Botox-faced idiot doesn’t care about anything that his friends can’t profit from.”

            “Vaccines take time Vincent.  I don’t like the Tories any more than you do, but they’ve got just as much to lose as us.  What are we going to do?”

            Seconds tick by like days and Rose’s temperature soars.  I place a straw between her cracked lips, but she doesn’t seem to have the strength to drink.  Her chestnut eyes are watery and weak, pus collecting in her eyelashes every time she blinks.  Jessicka has gone into our bedroom to go online and see what she can find out about the flu.  It isn’t right that a little girl should suffer like this from just a bite.  My life would be nothing without Harry and Rose.  I was going to travel the world, but when we found out that Jessicka was expecting I gave up on that and made a commitment to become somebody that they could rely on.  I love those kids so much.

            “It’s no use,” Jessicka shouts.  “The internet connection is down, I can’t get anything on the computer or my mobile.  Damned Tories, it wasn’t enough for them to restrict social networking, I think they’ve shut down the net to stop the riots from spreading.”

            Jessicka sits with Rose while I get Harry ready for bed.  He wants to know if his sister is going to be alright so I lie and say that she’ll be fine.  I can’t bear for Harry to worry, he’s more than just my son, Harry is my everything. In bed I read Winnie the Pooh out loud until Harry falls asleep, blonde hair already plastered to his clammy forehead in the heat of the night.  Rolling back his duvet and tucking a stuffed hippo into his arms I rejoin the girls.  Jess is down on her knees by the bed, eyes closed in silent prayer.  Rose is wearing only a pair of flower-fairy knickers, her skin soaked with perspiration and closed eyelids flickering.  We’ve given her all the paracetamol and ibuprofen in the flat but nothing is helping.  I creep out the room and go to check what’s happening on the news.

            Fires blaze in the streets and mobs of people throng against walls of armed police.  The riots must already be spreading because those aren’t the streets of London on the screen, that’s Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester.  I try to listen to the newsreader but she says nothing of consequence, revealing as little as possible about the protestors taking to the streets.  Moving on from the protests the camera shows a quarantined hospital struggling to cope with the pandemic, military figures fighting off crowds of injured people with nowhere to go.  Every image shows the gnashing of teeth, scared and angry people with nothing to lose.

            “Vincent, come quick.”  I run to Rose’s bedroom, a sickening rainbow of emotions trickling down my throat.  Rose’s breath rasps harshly through lungs clogged with mucous.  I take her burning hand and sing to her like I did when she was a baby.  Jess takes the other hand and joins in, tears spilling down her cheeks, but Rose never regains consciousness.  The sun sets and our only daughter stops breathing and slips away from us.  I want to go to Jessicka, to hold her in my arms, but I can’t breathe and no matter how hard I try not to think it I’m just so grateful it wasn’t Harry.

            Jess falls forward onto Rose’s bed with a keening wail and words fail me so I creep out of the room and watch Harry sleep.  Our daughter is gone, but as long as we have Harry there is still hope.  There has to be hope.  I pull Harry’s bedroom door closed and shuffle back into the sitting room.  Something has changed on the screen, the rioting crowds are more savage than before, blood pooling in the streets as soldiers beat back the rioters mercilessly.  The military still have the hospitals cordoned off but their weapons are trained on the doors now as if to stop people from leaving.  How can I care about this puppet theatre when tomorrow I’ll bury my little girl?  What will I tell Harry?  The newsreader’s voice circles my thoughts, gnawing at the edges.  Something about the virus mutating. The virus that stole my baby away from me.  What if Harry is at risk?  The newsreader says it has mutated into something unforeseen, capable of laying dormant within any one of us and living on within its hosts beyond their natural death.  What does that mean?  She says that the infected should be dispatched by any means necessary.  A stranger on the television tells me that the United Kingdom must show bulldog spirit if we hope to stop this contagion, while ragged corpses throw themselves at riot police in waves of teeth and claws.

            “Vincent!”  Jessicka’s voice calls me to Rose’s room.  Jess is beaming with relief, snot and tears smeared across a face that’s immeasurably happy.  Rose is sitting up groggily in the bed, eyes showing nothing but white, flies crawling across her cheeks.  My perfect little dead girl is sitting up in bed, a voice in my ear whispering that the infected must be dispatched by any means necessary…

Part Two

“Vincent!”  Jessicka’s voice calls me to Rose’s room.  Jess is beaming with relief, snot and tears smeared across a face that’s immeasurably happy.  Rose is sitting up groggily in the bed, eyes showing nothing but white, flies crawling across her cheeks.  My perfect little dead girl is sitting up in bed, a voice in my ear whispering that the infected must be dispatched by any means necessary.

“She’s ok honey, she woke up, our little miracle.”  The light in Jessicka’s eyes is unmistakable and I would give almost anything to preserve that happiness but our daughter is dead.  Our daughter is irrefutably, undeniably dead and the newsreader said that the virus would live on within the host beyond their natural death.  That thing sitting up in bed is not my Rose but soon we’ll all be joining her if I don’t act.

            “That’s incredible,” I say, “Why don’t you get her a cold drink while I check her over?  She must be thirsty.”  This feels like a reasonable request to make.  Jessicka wipes snot from her face and leaps up manically.  As Jess leaves Rose lumbers to her feet and stares at me with sallow eyes and pupils rolled into the back of her head.  The room is beginning to smell of spoiled meat.  When she was a baby Rose slept in the crook of my arm at night.  A hot gush of piss splashes on the rug beneath her feet as she bares her milk-teeth and lunges towards me.  I almost allow her to rip my throat out, but then I think of Harry and pick up Rose’s bedside lamp and use it stave in her forehead.  Delicate fingers claw at my throat and she thrashes like an animal as I throw her to the floor.  She snarls as I plant a foot on her throat and press down until her vertebrae grind and crack.  Slight arms slap violently against the bed-frame and I pull out a drawer full of vests and use it to smash her skull until all that remains are unrecognisable chunks of flesh and bone.  Her twitching stops and the sound of glass shattering echoes from the kitchen.

            “Vincent!” Jess screams but she isn’t here yet.  I can’t let her see what I’ve done.  Running from the room I throw the door shut as Jess arrives, her face contorted in fury.

            “Let me see Rose!” she shrieks, flailing to reach the door handle.

            “She’s gone love.”

            “What did you to her you monster?  What have you done to my girl?!?”

            “She never woke up Jess, that wasn’t her.”  Jessicka deserves better than this but my hands are coated with gore from our youngest child and I don’t seem to have a voice, so I ignore her screams and drag her to the television, where the dead are walking the streets and soldiers burn mounds of convulsing corpses with flamethrowers.  Jess tries to blame me for everything, alternating between roars of rage and misery, but eventually she stops fighting and just curls up into a ball of pain.  I’d like to join her there but Harry walks into the room rubbing his eyes and asks me what’s wrong.

            Floor.  I’m on the kitchen floor, a pool of saliva gathering around my mouth and cheek.  Vomit builds in my throat but I swallow it down and open my eyes.  Vodka.  How much did I drink?  Cheap shit, like paint stripper, permeating my every pore like formaldehyde.  I’m never buying from that off license again.  I don’t even remember what…no, I do remember.  I remember everything.  Rose is dead.  I bashed her brains in then Harry cried himself to sleep and Jessicka wouldn’t speak to me so I drank until I passed out.  I stumble to the window to gauge what time of day it is but the sky is thick with smoke.  Even with the windows shut the air smells the same as it did during the foot and mouth crisis when farmers were burning their cattle in mass graves.  Cars are abandoned in the street, people milling up and down Westgate Road aimlessly, limbs jutting out at awkward angles.

            Harry and Jessicka need me.  I can’t believe that I let them down like this, I gave up on all of my dreams when Harry was born so that I would be there for him.  How could I have fallen back onto my old ways so easily?

            The sitting room is empty.  Everybody must still be asleep so I creep to Harry’s room.  His bed is empty, clean clothes laid out on his dresser.  He must be with Jessicka.  He slept in our bed every night until he was four years old.  People said that we were crazy, but I knew that one day he’d be too old to share a bed with us, so what was the harm?  Silently I open my bedroom door.  Closed curtains block out most of the light but I can make out Jessicka’s silhouette, not in bed but sitting in a chair, holding something.  The bed is empty and something is wrong.  My eyes adjust and I can see Jessicka more clearly now, holding Harry in her arms.  Our son isn’t moving.

            “Jess?”  I should turn on the light but I’m too afraid.  Harry’s head lolls backwards.  Jessicka is clutching something long and thin, like a knitting needle.

            “It’s better this way.  If something happened to us he could never have taken care of himself.”  Tears start rolling down my cheeks and I know that they will never stop.

            “What were you thinking?  I would have taken care of you both.  He was all we had left.”

            “You don’t have to lie to me anymore,” Jess says, her voice breaking up.  “You were going to leave me, remember?  The week that we found out I was pregnant.  You wanted to see the world.  I’ll always be grateful that you stood by us, but that’s over now, we’ll never hold you back again.”

            Harry looks so peaceful that he could be sleeping.  A trickle of something black drips from his ear.  Nothing in this world has ever been as important to me as that boy.  Once when we were feeding the ducks he kicked a goose that was hissing at him and it bit him on the hand.  He cried so much that I didn’t know how we would ever explain it to Jessicka.  We do everything together.

            “You’ve got it all wrong.  It took me time to adjust, you’re right, but you three were everything to me, you were my world.”  I choke up.

            “I’m sorry that I could only ever be second best to you Vincent, but part of me hates you for lying to me even now.  You tried so hard to give me the things that I deserved, but you know what I deserved?  I deserved for you to love me as much as I loved you.  I don’t know why I loved you so much.  I wish that I hadn’t.”

            She stands and passes Harry to me, heavier than I thought possible, blue lips sighing as I squeeze the air from his tiny body.  I cradle my perfect dead son and Jess turns her back on us and runs towards the window, launching herself between the curtains and out through the glass, three storeys above the street.  Her scream cuts off with a thunk.  With Harry safely in my arms I walk to the window and peer out of the broken glass.  Jess is lying on the stone steps leading up to our door, limbs twisted and torn by jutting bone.  As she stands dark fluids gush from her abdomen, then she walks towards our front door and begins banging her mangled hands on the glass.

            I do what I can to maintain some semblance of routine for Harry, bathing him tenderly and dressing him in freshly ironed pyjamas before putting him to bed and closing his eyelids with a kiss.  Somebody on the street outside yells for help but their pleas are soon punctuated by a scream.  My children are dead and my wife died convinced that I stayed with her out of duty, not love.  I’ll never be able to convince her otherwise and I don’t even know if she was wrong.

            No reason now not to indulge myself.  At the kitchen table I fill a pint glass of ice with all the vodka that we have left.  No reason to wake up tomorrow morning.  Wondering how Harry and Rose might have looked when they grew up I drink my life away, one swallow at a time.  When the glass is empty it occurs to me this probably won’t be enough to finish me off.  There are no spirits left so I open the cupboard under the kitchen sink and take out a bottle of bleach.  My eyes water as I fill the glass and wonder what sort of a god would allow something like this to happen.  Then I tip the glass to my numb lips and go to meet him.

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