We Hear Voices
Berkley Books, 2020
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Kids have imaginary friends. Rachel knows this. So when her young son, Billy, miraculously recovers from a horrible flu that has proven fatal for many, she thinks nothing of Delfy, his new invisible friend. After all, her family is healthy and that's all that matters.
But soon Delfy is telling Billy what to do, and the boy is acting up and lashing out in ways he never has before. As Delfy's influence is growing stranger and more sinister by the day, and rising tensions threaten to tear Rachel's family apart, she clings to one purpose: to protect her children at any cost--even from themselves.
Rachel threw the medical mask on the floor, climbed out of the stupid quarantine suit, and took her son in her arms. He was so light and bony that it was like picking up a stray cat. She buried her face in his hair. He smelled like sickness and plague.
Billy had been sick for a month. For almost all of that time she had believed he would get better, but tonight she knew he wouldn't. Rachel was living in a single moment: she felt it had lasted a thousand years, and she wanted to stretch it to infinity, because she couldn't bear to step into the moment that would come next. She bargained with the universe. She would take any future it could throw at her as long as it involved Billy staying alive.
She was supposed to wear her full mask and quarantine suit, and she had done it until now. She had followed the rules to the letter, trusted the government, done everything she was supposed to do to take care of her boy, and none of it had worked.
She sat on his bed and shuffled back so she was leaning on the wall with Billy lying in her arms. Downstairs, she could hear Al talking to Beth, and Henry talking to Nina. She loosened her grip a little, because she didn't want to hurt Billy, and she kissed him all over his face, but he didn't respond. He was breathing, though. Those sickly breaths were still coming.
Billy's bedroom was tiny, with a single bed, a bedside table, a chair, and a chest of drawers. The walls were a dirty white (the landlord wouldn't let her paint them, and when she tried to clean them, the paint rubbed off), but she and Billy had covered them with drawings, posters, things he liked. All that was gone now. Rachel had taken it all down and put it into a box, then washed the walls with disinfectant, like the rules said. Once, a million years ago, the room had been a giant mess, with Legos and dirty clothes and drawings and books all over the floor. Now it was sterile, pristine. The government guide to dealing with the pandemic was on the bedside table, along with a glass of the powdered drink that had come in sachets with the guidelines, with a metal straw and a pile of medication that was mainly placebo.
She had done everything by the book. She had sent Nina to live with her dad, even though that had almost killed her. This room was separated from the rest of the house with two sets of the plastic sheets the government had sent out, and the only person who ever walked through them was Rachel, and then (until now) only in her quarantine suit and mask. It had been logistically difficult, with baby Beth, but she had done it.
Tonight, though, they had taken turns using the suit. She had lent it to her ex-husband so that he could say good-bye to Billy, their son. She had sat downstairs with a cup of tea while Henry spent an hour with him. Then Al, and then Nina had gone in, one by one, and now there were only Rachel and Billy in the world. She was glad she had ditched the suit and the mask. She was just herself now, wearing her baggy sweater and pajama trousers, holding her child. Billy needed to see his mother as he died, rather than a figure in a space suit, and he was hardly going to be infectious now. She picked up his toy rabbit from the pillow and put it on his chest.
He took a breath in. Nothing happened. He breathed out. Still alive. Billy is alive, she thought. Still Billy right now.
She would carry on living after this, because she had to. She had to do it for Beth and for Nina. She thought of the times she had shouted at Billy for being slow or had been cross with him for being cheeky or for his table manners. What, she wondered, had been the point? What had been the fucking point? If she could go back, she would let him spend all six years climbing trees and watching telly and eating cake. She would grant him six years of perfect happiness, even though she supposed that might have mean staying with Henry for longer than she would have liked.
Billy was so pale that his face was a bluish green color. His hair was slicked back with sweat. His temperature soared while he shivered. She waited for the next breath. When it didn't come, she pulled him tighter against her chest, trying to use her heart to jump-start his.
"Billy," she whispered into his hair. "Billy, it's Mum. Stay. Stay with me." She looked up, her child in her arms. "Universe," she muttered. "God," she added, hedging her bets. "Allah. Whoever you are. Give me Billy back. Give me my Billy, and I promise I will do anything. I'll sell my soul to anyone. Let me keep him."
Millions of people had died. Billy would add one to the number of casualties. Children under ten were particularly at risk. Plus one for the children-under-ten statistics.
"Please," she said. She kissed his head one more time. One more. One more. "I love you, Billy." She pushed her face into his and rubbed her warm cheek on his cooling one and tried to imagine her life without him.
He wasn't moving. He wasn't breathing. He had...
"Let me keep him," she said. "I don't care what else. Let me have Billy."
His body jerked in her arms, and he opened his eyes, just a fraction. She felt his lungs expand. She heard him exhale, felt the sour breath on her face. He inhaled again with a rattling noise, a vibration. He was breathing.
"Mumma," he said, his eyes still closed.
Downstairs, the baby started to cry.
Nina was downstairs, waiting. Her father and stepfather were waiting. Their stilted conversation had long since dried up. Dad had never been in this house before, and he would, she knew, have raised an eyebrow at its shabbiness under normal circumstances. But these circumstances were not normal. Right now Al was getting Beth ready for bed, and Dad and Nina were staring at their phones because it was easier to sit in silence if you had something to look at.
"Cup of tea?" she said.
"Sure," said Dad, forcing a smile. "Thanks."
Billy was going to die. She knew (because how could you not?) that the trajectory he had taken would end that way. That was how it went. The pandemic had arrived, and the people were dying, and somehow she, Nina Stevens, was waiting for her mother or her stepfather to walk into the room and tell her that her brother was dead.
Everyone knew people who had died. From her observations, about one in five people who caught the J5X virus died from it. That was what had happened at school, and as the illness was no respecter of money or class, it was about the same at her boyfriend's very much more exclusive school. Even Princess Louisa, the heir to the throne, had disappeared from view a few months ago; she had been only a little older than Billy and had obviously died, although it had been kept secret because of public morale, et cetera. People got ill, with a soaring fever, and quite a lot of them died. Schools had closed, opened again, closed, and then opened. Nothing really seemed to change the way the virus traveled.
Nina had been reading about the bubonic plague. If you'd caught the plague in this same city, nearly seven hundred years earlier, your chances of dying would have been more than half. There had been other pandemics since then over the years, some more severe than others. No one seemed to know quite why this one was called J5X, and most people ignored that name. As it became more familiar, it had become almost universally known as "flu."
She had seen her brother tonight for the first time since the beginning of December, last year. But it had not been Billy. He had been a husk, barely there at all. In a sense, to Nina, he was already dead. It had been the worst Christmas ever.
Mum had called her yesterday. "Come over," she'd said, her voice husky. "And... I think you need to bring Dad. Billy won't last the night. You need to see Billy to say..." She hadn't been able to say the word. Nina had tried to be strong, but as soon as the call ended, she had cried and cried and cried. She went to Dad for comfort because he was all she had, and he hugged her and pretended that Billy would be fine. Then he agreed that they should both go to Mum's house to see him, and now here they were, in the rented house with its drafts and its peeling paint, letting their tea go cold.
But Mum stayed upstairs until after midnight, and then when she did come down, the news was different.
On that same night, in a different part of London, a man was sitting at his wife's bedside. Her face was waxy, her skin white, with blotches that sometimes looked pink, sometimes almost blue. She was sixty-seven years old and she, too, was dying of the flu. He pushed the hair back from her face and talked without stopping.
"Imogen," he said. "Immy, I've been an idiot. You are the most wonderful person in the world. I love you. Please, don't go. Please. Please. Please, don't, darling. Please, stay and let me look after you. I'll make it up to you, I swear. Please, stay with me."
He said it all, and he meant every word of it.
Two days later, Al came home furious. He walked straight into the living room, switched the television on, and flicked around with the remote until he found the news.
"Sorry," he said to Rachel. He was still standing up, and he paused and kissed her. "So rude. I'm really sorry. How's Billy? Where's Beth?"
Al and Billy had lived in the same house for all these weeks, but they had barely seen each other since the terrible night when they'd realized Billy was sick. Billy had lived in his tiny sterile zone, and until they had taken turns to go in and say good-bye two nights ago, it was always just Rachel who put on the suit to go in.
"Billy's sitting up in bed," she said, smiling. "He's watching cartoons. Beth's in the kitchen playing with bricks. What's the matter?"
"I saw a news flash on a screen," Al said, sitting down to watch. "He got off! The bastard got away with it! That's what it said."
She went to fetch Beth, who shouted in delight at the sight of her father. Al set her on his lap, and they watched the news report together.
They had been following this trial through Billy's illness; it had been a landmark case. This man, Ben Alford, was probably not much older than Rachel was, but he had the red face and the air of entitlement of a powerful man from any era. He could have been a Victorian mill owner, a medieval baron, a disaster capitalist from the more recent past. The gist of the case had been that he employed many thousands of people in this city and had invented a new scheme whereby he was gleefully paying them nothing at all.
For the past few years, Starcom had been buying up housing all over London. They would aggressively step in and make impossible-to-refuse offers for whole terraces, blocks of flats, anything at all. Then they would rebuild the property as "workers' accommodation." They gave their workers a place to live and paid them in vouchers and free things. "Cash-free living," he called it, as if that were a positive. A group of citizens had crowdfunded to challenge the legality of the "worklifeplus" scheme, and now, it seemed, they had lost.
Al, who worked with the homeless and saw exactly what happened when you bought up all the affordable housing from a city that was already struggling, had been desperate for Alford to lose.
"Mr. Alford is delighted to be vindicated," said a spokeswoman with shiny hair and a steely smile. "He looks forward to expanding the worklifeplus program across the city and beyond."
"Our landlord is going to sell to Alford," said Al. "I know he is. That's why he's letting the place fall apart around our ears."
Copyright © 2020 by Evie Green
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