Rachel left work late, cursing her luck as she stepped outside into a heavy downpour. She was panicking, wondering if Chris would wait. A bus had already arrived at the stop a block away. She flipped up her hood and started to run. Please wait, don’t go without me.
She abruptly slowed as she approached Cornwall Avenue. Traffic was backed up in both directions. Cops had appeared from nowhere and surrounded the bus. Passengers were banging on the windows and doors to be let out, but the cops had their weapons drawn as one officer clamped the doors. Others in HAZMAT suits were placing quarantine stickers on the windows. People on the sidewalk were angrily shouting at the cops in protest.
Rachel stared with growing horror, rain cascading down her jacket. She was close enough now to see the passengers had crowded towards the front, screaming abuse at the driver. At the rear was one, very dead, distended purple face, covered in vomit, pressed up against a window.
It was the first time she’d seen death close up. Totally Gross. She felt pity for the angry commuters trapped on the bus. Their lives could be over already.
‘Move away. Move along.’ A cop was yelling at everyone. ‘Nothing to see here.’
Rachel didn’t need any encouragement. She’d have to get downtown on foot, pray and hope Chris would still be there. Heart pounding, feet sliding in sodden shoes, she ran. Ahead, the city towers and mountains beyond them disappeared behind thick rain clouds.
* * *
Rachel finally arrived at her destination, almost forty minutes late. She could see Chris staring forlornly out of the rain-streaked window. Her heart lifted; relieved and slightly amazed he was still there. A speeding ambulance went by, sirens blaring, then another. She barely registered them. She was drenched, still freaked out by what she’d witnessed at the bus stop.
Act normal. Try to be calm. Be happy he waited.
Drake Street Café was a haunt for off-duty cabbies and cops, and their secret favorite place in the city, so old school with rickety tables, homemade soups and apple pies, it was almost cool. Standing dripping on the threshold, she paused a moment to catch her breath, then pushed the squeaky door open, stepping into the deep fried warmth of the café.
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ tumbled out of her mouth, as she shook the rain out of her blonde streaked hair. Smiling nervously behind her facemask, she joined him at the tatty red booth by the window. Saw he’d been doodling on the napkins. He quickly crumpled them up, registering with alarm just how wet and bedraggled she looked.
‘Omigod, you’re soaked, Rach. You should have called. I would have come for you.’
She held up her phone with frustration. ‘Stupid signal. I swear it happens every time it rains.’
Rachel waved at Margi, the Korean owner, who shuffled over, placing two steaming herbal teas in front of them.
‘You no eat? You should eat. Both too skinny.’
Chris glanced at her to check if she was hungry, but she shook her head. Her stomach was in knots.
‘Tea’s good,’ he told Margi.
Rachel watched her go and leaned in to hurriedly whisper the gory details about the bus incident. It still didn’t seem real to her.
As she talked Chris stared back at her in shock. He could have lost her so easily.
‘I was lucky to be running late. Happened so fast I still can’t believe it.’
‘Jeez, Rach, you were lucky. Poor bastards, they’ll never get out of quarantine alive.’ He watched her peel off her wet jacket. ‘You can’t ever use the bus or Skytrain again. You know that, right? You need wheels, you call me.’
Rachel nodded. She had no intention staying in the city at all. She’d been trying to get Chris to leave with her for days now. She finally relaxed, pushed up her rain-soaked facemask to her forehead and stretched out a hand to his. Fingers entwined across the table, they stared with shy affection at each other as they drank their teas.
She studied Chris with his nut-brown eyes and perfect Greek complexion. He looked way older than seventeen. She still couldn’t believe he’d chosen her.
Chris, of course, loved everything about her. From her perfect delicate hands, to the intensity of her wide pale blue eyes, even the worried frown on her forehead. He didn’t share her faith in facemasks though and rarely wore his. Besides, here they were holding hands – that too was supposed to be taboo.
‘No one turned up for class again,’ he said. ‘Half the students are too scared to come in, instructors too.’
‘Ditto at my school.’ Rachel said. ‘We got our last orders of flowers in today.’
Their noses were practically touching over the narrow wooden table. She felt steam rising from the hot tea under her chin; it felt oddly calming. She worked part-time in the flower shop after school. That’s how they’d met, him ordering birthday flowers for another girl whose name he’d already forgotten.
‘Last orders?’ He asked.
‘They can’t get pickers anymore. It’s the same for the farms out in the Okanagan. The stores are running out of fresh food. No way this is just ‘summer flu’. Your skin turns purple, Chris. I saw it. No one sends flowers. All I do is make up wreaths.’
Chris glanced up at a cabbie entering the café, shaking the rain off his jacket. He flopped himself down at the counter with a huge sigh. He looked tired, but well. That was how it was now; you checked everyone to see if they were showing any symptoms.
‘How many is normal?’ Chris asked, whispering.
‘About fifty a week,’ Rachel replied; glancing over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t being overhead. ‘We got notice of nearly five hundred deaths in the last four days, Chris. The crematorium is running twenty-four hour shifts. It’s all secret. They don’t want business to shut down. My boss tried to ship white lilies in from Seattle, but nothing is allowed across the border. We can’t get fresh flowers at all. Did you know the cops could just quarantine people like that? It’s scary.’
‘Chicken soup?’ Margi shouted to the cabbie from behind the counter. ‘Chicken guaranteed disease free. Soup’s good protection against virus.’
‘You never noticed, Margi, but I never get sick.’
‘Or wear mask.’ She remonstrated from behind her grease-stained and completely useless mask.
‘Can’t eat with a friggin’ mask. Got any coffee?’
Margi angrily threw her hands up in the air. ‘You know we got no coffee. No one got coffee anymore. Or milk. Have the soup.’
Rachel sipped her tea. Everyone talked at the top of their voices in this place; part of its charm really. She shivered in her damp clothes, wondered if Chris was taking in what she was telling him. She’d been on strict instructions not to talk about it of course, but she was genuinely scared now.
‘They say I got to close next week.’ Margi told everyone, wiping down the server counter with extra strength disinfectant.
The cabbie frowned; he hated the smell of disinfectant around his food. ‘Why? Where will we all eat if you close?’
‘They close all cafés. Heard it on TV. Bad business.’
The cabbie was looking around the restaurant. He nodded at Chris and Rachel, glad to see at least some couples still held hands. He called out to them with a friendly wave. ‘Brave young lovers. Don’t give into the panic guys. Keep holding hands.’
Rachel blushed, embarrassed. Chris rolled his eyes, making her laugh.
The cabbie was talking loudly to Margi again. ‘Did you hear about Gordy? Got a fare to Pitt River, right. The woman had a nosebleed in the back of his cab. He had a headache when he got there. By the time he got back to the city his nose was bleeding too. He called it in, said he couldn’t drive. When they got there he was dead. They wouldn’t even open the cab to get him out. Ginny was all for burning it. Frickin’ virus is lethal man. One hour and he’s stone dead. Like the damn plague.’
Rachel paled. It confirmed everything she feared. ‘We have to get out of the city now. I mean it.’
Chris nodded. They’d discussed this all Sunday. He hadn’t realized it was so urgent till now.
‘I can’t ask my ma.’ Rachel was saying. ‘She won’t ever leave her cats.’
Chris made a decision. ‘Then don’t ask.’
‘Your dad won’t be mad if we take his boat?’
‘Yeah, but he’s in China on business. And he’s always lecturing me on ‘taking the initiative’.’
Rachel needed to know Chris was as committed about quitting as she was. ‘When?’ She asked, urgently, squeezing his hand tight. ‘When can we go?’
Chris was thinking about the angry passengers on that bus heading for quarantine and oblivion.
‘I’ll fuel up tonight. We’ll go at first thing.’
Rachel squeezed his hands. ‘Promise?’
Chris squeezed back. ‘Promise. I’ll get food and water and some cash. You should sleep over tonight.’
‘I wish, but Ma would freak.’
‘We’ll be gone tomorrow anyway.’
‘I don’t want a scene. Besides I bought emergency stuff. We’ll need it.’
‘Hide your stuff in the garage. I’ll be there early.’
‘You sure you want to do this? Just you and me on that boat? You won’t get bored? Miss your friends? It could be months before we can come back, mister.’
‘Joe is already hiding out in Whistler anyway’ Chris suddenly grinned. ‘Let me see, there’s just you, one double bunk. I think I can work out something to do.’
Rachel wrinkled her nose, withdrawing her hand. ‘The world’s coming to an end and all you can think about is sex?’
Chris laughed. ‘Pretty much.’ He stood, placed cash on the table and nodded to Margi.
‘You should say goodbye to your mother,’ Rachel told him, as she struggled to get her damp jacket back on.
‘She left, Rach. Damn Redeemers suckered her in. Can’t believe my mother believes any of that end of the world stuff. She’s a doctor for god’s sake.’
Rachel knew his mother had abandoned him to join Prophet Arnold’s end of the world cult on his sixteenth birthday.
Outside on the sidewalk they sheltered from the rain a moment. Chris held her tight, lifting her mask and tenderly kissing her on the lips. ‘Let’s do this, Rach. I swear I’ll never leave you… ever.’
Rachel gripped his arms and kissed him back, closing her eyes, praying that he meant it. ‘Love you.’ She whispered, letting the words vibrate on his pale red lips.
He re-adjusted her mask and grinned. ‘And don’t pack any clothes,’ he added, making her laugh.
‘Ha. You wish, Christopher Lakis. A girl has to pack very carefully for the end of the world, don’t y’know?’ She hooked his arm, a more confident smile on her lips. She turned up her collar, felt cold rain trickle down her back and shivered.
They ran to the parking lot. A drunk lurched out of a nearby bar and threw up right there on the sidewalk; then fell up against the wall, sliding all the way down, dazed and shaken. Rachel looked away with disgust. So many people took to drink now – as if that would save them.
© Sam Hawksmoor & Sam North 2017
More extracts from Another Place To Die:
‘In life we have three choices: the discipline of self-sacrifice, the congregation we choose to be with, the laws we choose to obey.’
The Word according to Prophet Arnold