First, the news: everyone claiming a bat had done it, though we were all as in the dark as each other. This was initially considered part of the problem—the darkness, I mean—and it wasn’t long before indoor venues were using the hyper-bright lighting recommended by the government; panes of glass at every entrance. People filed one by one, glancing anxiously at their reflection. Afraid to see themselves changed, or not see themselves at all.
It’s laughable to think of a time when mirror tests were all the rage, but in those days laughing was the last thing on our minds. We brushed past each other mutely like hurried ghosts. We filled our shopping bags with mindless efficiency, turning our faces from our closest friends, because it felt safer than risking the truth. Nobody wanted to be the one who could doom us. Nobody wanted to see what their neighbour might have become.
I was working checkout at the time, and I remember the paralysing calm that preceded the chaos. Everything was coated in this glaze of unreality. People wandered the aisles with their heads down, only communicating with family through troubled looks. It was my co-worker Lena who showed me why, handing me her phone wordlessly. Wordlessness wasn’t like Lena.
I skimmed the reports from overseas media, all teeming with the same impossible claims, the same unbelievable footage. A spate of attacks was happening on every continent and no group inside or outside the law could say why. Then the living victims came forward. Then clearer photos emerged of the culprits, and it became chillingly clear what they were, and what they wanted.
Naturally, we never thought that kind of thing would come to us, in our small and civilised corner of the globe. It sounded so primeval, something suggesting night-time stakings and ritual remedies. Something surely banished by modern science. And yet two thousand people still suffer the Black Death every year; no vaccine available. It’s a vain little myth, that Nature ever steps aside.
When the first reports sprang up here, we were told to stay safe and sit tight. That was easier said than done, knowing what we did now—that Police were no match for the creatures’ stealth, and that attacks could happen at any moment, to anyone. Those with bad luck would wind up dead; those with worse luck wouldn’t stay that way. For them, the symptoms were sudden and devastating: Unusual pallor. Dental changes. Uncontrollable thirst for blood.
Solemn expert panels were formed. Religious leaders spoke their piece. It was clear we were floundering in this newfound peril, official advice lost in a slurry of fact and fake news. Unsurprisingly, the government’s early concerns were about vigilante action; civilians taking it on themselves to rid us of this contagion (now given a scientific name to distance it from the folktales). Yet people were jarringly tame if anything, apparently choosing sense over anarchy.
This did not apply to their behaviour at the supermarket. We were inundated with shoppers almost overnight, thrusting their trolleys through the crowds with reckless abandon. I narrowly missed being mowed down not once but twice. Lena, meanwhile, had to negotiate a dispute between two middle-aged women over the last bag of garlic. (Her efforts to explain its ineffectiveness were roundly ignored.) Some customers had taken the cue from zombie flicks and converted their baches into bunkers, while others purchased food in bulk to store in panic rooms at home, and all were swarming the shops to restock their DIY forts.
Lena and I started crouching in the staff closet when we had a moment’s respite. We wondered what figures the ministers would unveil at press time, or scrolled YouTube to distract us from wondering. State-sponsored warnings blinked on in every ad break: cover your neck, keep in groups, stay in the light. It was summer, and these last two instructions led to something of a beach party boom, though whether crowd settings were preferable to isolation was still up for debate. It was logical to believe in safety in numbers, but hadn’t all our old assurances been proven wrong? For every discovery about the thing we were fighting, there was new research contradicting it. For every expert opinion, there were the deniers, the internet trolls, the fear-mongering fanatics, sticking to them like gum on a park bench.
Between navigating the deluge of customers and managing calls from my parents, I found my free time disappearing. The leisure time I had was spent performing the preventative measures like I was angling for an Oscar. Cover your neck, keep in groups, stay in the light. I went to clubs with dance floors lit hospital-bright, neck swaddled in the scarf my mother had mailed me. There, amid the throng of bodies, you could almost let yourself forget it. You could indulge yourself in some other reality where walking home in the evening wasn’t a journey filled with dread, where a friend who looked marginally paler than usual wasn’t nervously avoided; our compassion overridden by our fear.
(“You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?” Lena asked me. “If it happened to you?”
“I guess. I hope so.”
“I mean, I’d know,” she went on, as if I hadn’t spoken. Her voice conveyed a confidence I knew she didn’t feel. “I’d know if you weren’t you.”)
Months passed, and we were one of few countries able to keep our enemy at bay, though the paranoia would flare up every now and again. New and virulent strains kept cropping up overseas. Signs like sensitivity to light and diminished reflectivity were no longer consistent in the infected, and even alterations to appearance could be minimal. Our leaders told us that they had expected those mutations, that we were ready for whatever was coming. We had technology adept at identifying the creatures, and now a vaccine was in the works to prevent infection after attack. There was experimental medicine, too. Drugs to ameliorate the more severe effects of transformation, with the aim of returning victims to their former selves. But what if there was no way back—and what about the long-term effects on those who found it? Personality shifts, excessive appetite, the inability to look at your loved ones as you once did. It sounded like a terrible way to lose yourself.
It was no wonder people wanted protection, placebo or not. Word from my religious aunt was crucifixes weren’t coming cheap, which she messaged me along with links to several dubious ebay listings (each featuring an image of a rusty cross with captions like “REAL transylvanian silver, 100% effective!!!!!”). I guess people will always cling to fictions in the face of what they can’t confront. A friend working at a two-dollar store described full priest costumes being looted from their Halloween aisle, presumably by people wielding “holy water” that had never seen a church.
It was places like those—two-dollar stores, fast food joints and supermarkets—that continued to be the busiest. Some people were there just for the security of the crowds, especially those who lived alone. There was something poignant in that; the seeking out of humanity. After all, hadn’t I been doing the same?
Though the levels of panic-buying had decreased, it was still rare to see an elderly woman pushing a trolley that was all but bare. She gave me a smile as she unloaded its contents; a real smile, not the unfocused semi-grimace you usually get in retail. I braced myself for another rant on how the government ought to adopt more brutal methods of “dealing with the buggers”, from staking to burning and worse. I’d had my fair share of those from mouthy old men. But this woman only waited politely as I fumbled to find a price tag. She was probably in her eighties, with a shrewd sort of face. No doubt she’d lived through worse times than these.
She smiled again as she paid, reassuring and a little conspiratorial. “Don’t worry. It’ll get worse before it gets better.”
I thought of her words the next time I stocked the vegetable aisle. It’ll get worse before it gets better. She was right, of course. We’d have garlic shortages for months.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anuja Mitra lives in Auckland. Her work has appeared in places like Cordite, Starling, Poetry NZ and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys patting her small colony of cats and frequenting indie bookstores for beautiful editions of books she already owns.