Contagious – Jing Chin

Roah sees in the foggy distance the overgrown ruins of a place he has travelled long and far to find. He sees the nests of glass and metal reaching up into the sky. He sees the grey-black stones beaten into a smooth flat floor. He sees the Toyotas and Mercedes rusting in their masses on the road, with the shrivelled rotting corpses inside. He sees the Petronas twin towers and knows that this must be Kuala Lumpur. By the time he reaches the city the sun is setting and in this humid amber twilight Kuala Lumpur comes alive. Thick roots shatter the road and pavement into black grey shards. Vines strangle the towers. Trees cleave their way through the structures where the floors and walls are weak or rotten. The putrid stench of the Rafflesia blossom is thick in the air. Thick layers of moss and lichen smother every surface and every crevice. But there are no people. Just room after room of husks, with their bleached bones and shrunken brown flesh, each of them begging Roah to hear their stories from the sunken pits of their eye sockets. There are the ones who curled up and waited for the end, racks of empty ration packs still beside them. There are the ones who met the end on their own terms, the guns still locked in the cold grip of rigor mortis. There are the bodies strung up from the overpasses, the red crosses and winged staves peeling off their tattered uniforms. These were the medicine men who either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Roah is overcome by the urge to check everything. The bullets in his rifle, the lighters in his pocket, the food in his pack, even shakes his clothes off for insects. A lifelong fear buried deep within him now rises to the surface. He might be alone after all.

His search can begin tomorrow. In the hollow of a smaller tower, with his fire bright and crackling, Roah flops down onto a nearby couch. Sleep is instant. Colours and sounds come to him and leave just as quickly. Two vague figures linger, their faces blurry through the haze of years, a man and a woman, a room and a storm. His father, Sai-Wen, grilled whole fish on a steel sheet over a makeshift propane fire pit. His mother, Kurang, placed fruit offerings to the biological hazard symbol stencilled in dripping white paint on the wall of the hotel room. Outside their sixth floor room the monsoon rains rolled across the Hong Kong skyline, flooding the gutters with warm stormwater. All three wore surf shorts coloured in bright pinks, blues, and greens, their ox-leather sandals, kneepads, gloves and accessories thrown in a pile to the side. Kurang pulled her tributes from a massive back pack twice her size. Many times Roah would see her appear over the horizon with a full pack of vegetables taller than herself, standing straight like her shoulders weren’t hurting.

‘The trick,’ she would say with pride, ‘Is I tell myself: the longer I spend out there, the less I have to go.’

He was only five years old then. This was their home, the Hong Kong Sorrento Towers, a home they shared with almost a hundred others. Sai-Wen turned the fish and spoke.

‘You should pray more to Contagion. I hear clan Grand Promenade has one man sick.’

Roah felt a grudge in his father’s cold, measured words. Sai-Wen kept an assault rifle by his side at all times, which he now loaded and unloaded and loaded and unloaded. Kurang had finished her rites and was playing with Roah’s hair, who could only think of how sharp and lethal Contagion’s many spikes looked on the wall.

‘Huang is still your brother,’ Kurang reminded, because it disgusted her to see insincerity in her mate. As the years went on Roah would choose to forget who was related to who, who shared a father with who, who was a cousin to who, and all that webbing which humans seemed obsessed with untangling. Sai-Wen spat.

‘If Contagion has got to take someone, better him than us.’

Roah felt his mother’s fingers scratching his scalp, tilting his head left and right. She was choosing her next words carefully.

‘Huang has been marked for Quarantine.’

She kissed the back of Roah’s head. Sai-Wen stopped loading the rifle. Fish began to burn. That same night Roah ran across the rope and plank bridge between towers to the home of Grandma Sorrento. What was Quarantine?

Grandma Sorrento lived in the penthouse and rarely left. She hobbled from a broken shin which had healed into place long ago. By her fire she kept the skull of the last panda, which she wore to the gatherings of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the clans of Hong Kong, or to pull pranks on small children, depending on her mood. Grandma Sorrento was wide awake when Roah came to visit. Her answers to Roah’s questions were too neat. Too clean.

‘Your uncle Huang fell through the floor. He was cut by a needle, and Contagion must’ve been waiting in the needle,’ and Grandma Sorrento paused for effect, ‘Because now he is sick.’

Another pause. Long enough that Roah knew it was his turn to speak.

‘But the cure-’

‘Retrovirus’, she corrected, then repeated to herself in contemplation, ‘Retrovirus . . .’

Clan Sorrento had rules. A child was told they would die one day at three years old. A child was told how babies were born at four years old. A child was told about Quarantine whenever they were ready, that Quarantine happened when there were two in the sick room and only retrovirus for one. In that penthouse Grandma Sorrento gave Roah the whole routine, asked him rhetorical questions and allowed him to invent the right answers, so that Roah knew, felt, and believed: Quarantine is a decision.

Roah wakes slowly. It takes a moment for him to remember who and what and where he is. He spends the day following a cassowary. The bird shows him the fresh water springs where rain has pooled in recesses in the ground, it takes him to nests of crunchy insects and verdant groves of exotic fruit. It doesn’t seem to mind sharing so long as Roah shares when it isn’t looking. As he maps the city in his mind he keeps an eye out for signs of human life, even dares to hope for a clan to appear and welcome him officially into this place.  But all he has are husks, and their company is unrelenting. The medicine men from the overpass are not alone. The world before Contagion came had its own brutal form of Quarantine, and Roah runs from them, runs into the darkest shack he can find and blocks out the windows so he can’t feel their gaze on his back. He escapes into sleep.

In his dreams there is a grove, the overgrown Kowloon train station. Its ceiling was collapsed and sunlight gleamed off the rails. In this grove there was a zone, marked by four large concentric circles in red paint on the floor, warnings of Contagion’s many vectors at each threshold. In these circles, at their centre, in the cool shade where no light reached, was a rusted train car draped in seventeen layers of plastic curtains, reeking of antiseptic. In that train car there were four figures. Three of them wore thick yellow rubber clean suits, their breath dragging thin through the gas masks. The last figure lay naked on the seating. The small one was Roah, six years old, come to watch his father say his goodbyes. The second figure was Sai-Wen, assault rifle at his hip, breath caught in his throat, mortified by the writhing brown mass which was supposed to be his brother. The third man was the Keeper of the sick room, a man with no clan. A tiger skull helmet and the shotgun in his lap reminded others of his authority on neutral ground. They were to have their goodbyes and nothing more. He kept a respectful distance.

The dehydrating body spoke: ‘Long time, brother.’

‘Long time, Huang.’

It felt to Roah like all the heat and humidity in Hong Kong was trapped in that car, the rubber of his suit clammy against his skin.

‘Huang, this is my son.’

‘This is Roah? Come closer.’

Roah felt thick rubber fingers on his shoulder.

‘Roah,’ his father cautioned, ‘Stay where you are.’

In the corner of his eye he saw the Keeper’s fingers wrap just a little tighter around the shotgun. Roah struggled with the situation. There were supposed to be two in the sick room.

‘The other sick man is you. Me. All of us, at any time. Your uncle Huang wasn’t our clan anymore. He did nothing with his life, didn’t hunt, didn’t craft, or cook, or gather, or even breed, and the men can barely claim glory for that. He did nothing,’ and now Grandma Sorrento dripped with venom Roah never knew she had, ‘just grew fat and drank and slept in his own piss and shit.’

Kurang was standing in the doorway. Roah looked to her.

‘You’re old enough to know, boy. Grandma Sorrento is right.’

It didn’t feel right. Not to Roah, who was six again and whose father was leaning over the dying man and straining his ears to hear the words being whispered to him.

‘I was always a burden.’

‘That’s not true. Not always.’

‘Did you think Contagion was right to take me?’

Sai-Wen was silent for a while.

‘Yes.’ Sai-Wen swallowed hard.

‘Huang, I didn’t know they’d-’

‘Ah, brother,’ the vowels rattled in Huang’s throat, ‘Thank you. For the truth. Come closer. I have something I need to tell you.’

Sai-Wen looked to the Keeper.

 ‘Don’t be so coy. You owe me a dying wish, don’t you?’

The Keeper nodded. Sai-Wen brought his face closer. With a hideous wheezing, Huang channelled the last of his strength into his arm and wrenched the gas mask off Sai-Wen’s face. Sai-Wen gasped; inhaled. Huang cackled:

‘We meet it together,’ and continued to cackle as thunder cracked and a shotgun slug splattered red on white. Roah dropped to the floor; body flat, hands on head, waiting for an adult. Sai-Wen froze. The Keeper levelled the weapon at the back of Sai-Wen’s head.

‘Roah,’ Sai-Wen’s voice quivered as he thumbed the safety on his rifle, ‘Are you down?’

‘Don’t do it, Sorrento man,’ warned the Keeper. ‘We can still get your boy out of here.’ He held the shotgun steady.

When the thunderstorm in the sick room was over Sai-Wen was dead, his body slumped over his brother’s and two slugs in his chest. Wisps of gunpowder wafted in the still air. The Keeper clutched a bullet wound in his thigh. Roah lay on the floor, his ears were ringing, his face was hurting, still waiting for an adult.

‘Get up, boy.’ Roah got up.

‘Are you breached?’ Roah didn’t move.

‘It’s okay. It’s okay, I wouldn’t. I’d never. Not to a child.’ He panted the words, tossed his shotgun to the side. Roah turned around slowly with both arms raised. The Keeper laughed.

‘No breaches. Oh, that’s good, that’s really good. I wasn’t ready. I could never.’ he closed his eyes and breathed the words to the ceiling.

‘Go home, boy. Tell Grandma Sorrento the sick room is compromised. And give thanks to Contagion for your good fortune.’

When Roah closed the plastic curtains behind him he heard one last dull, muted thunder crack.

Roah was pulling potatoes from the earth again, sixteen years old and alone with his mother. They found the bodies in the sick room and for the last ten years Kurang and Roah had carried Sai-Wen’s failure, his inability to meet Contagion with grace and dignity. Grandma Sorrento would visit just to lecture them when she was feeling malicious.

‘That wicked man had something to prove. He wanted to show that even the best people, even Sai-Wen, could be wicked too, when faced with Contagion.’

She chewed on a stem of sugar cane for a moment, relishing the gravity of the conversation and her position in it before she finished.

‘And he was absolutely right.’

As Roah shook dirt from carrots on the hillside he sensed his mother had something to say.

‘Roah, let me tell you a secret.’

They watched the ocean lapping at the feet of the harbour.

‘The longer I spend out here, the less I have to be back there.’

She had a fine Swiss army knife and handgun with her, which she now placed in Roah’s open hands. Roah wasn’t at all surprised. Sometimes someone, somewhere, would start running and never stop. They ran and ran until they either fell over dead or they found a place where they belonged, and this is how clans were born. Kurang gave Roah one last push.

‘These aren’t your people anymore.’

So Roah was running, running through the thick jungle, cutting his ankles on thorns and not once looking back because he knew from all the fireside stories that it was harder for her than it was for him. He ran through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and into Malaysia, he ran for years.

The embers in his fire are cold; he has overslept. As Roah climbs the Petronas towers he finds the story of clan Petronas long finished, a story told in overturned tables and bullet holes and broken, charred husks, some with their arm around a hostage and a bullet hole through both from those who didn’t care. At the top of the tower is the last husk, hiding in its penthouse behind a barricade of furniture, clutching a small metal suitcase to its chest. The suitcase bears the winged staff in red and the words in clean block letters, ‘VIP Only’. All the time he is haunted by his image in the mirrors, thrown back at him with such awful clarity, every wrinkle and pore of every wiry limb, flesh sagging off the bones under the arms, cheeks, and eyes. Even as he wrestles and hacks the suitcase away at the brown wrist joints, even as he opens the case and finds a single, flawless glass capsule resting in grey foam, all he cares to do is to guess on one hand the years remaining.

Jing Chin

Jing Chin is a Writing Major at Macquarie University, keen to make a name for himself. He finds inspiration in video games, movies and animation. Jing believes that even the richest fantasy and most incredible sci-fi is drawn from human emotion. He aspires to become a graphic novelist, and is taking courses outside of university to further that goal.

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