A dull thud caught Anya Macklin by surprise. She turned to the heavy oak door just as her mother, Grace, got to her feet.
‘Who’s calling at this hour?’ said Grace.
Evan stood up, too. For a moment they were both rooted to the spot.
He took a step forward. The creaky floorboard two steps from the door broke the silence.
‘No!’ Grace whispered. ‘It’s them. They’ve finally come.’
Evan took another step forward.
‘Don’t answer it!’
‘I have to, Grace, love. They’ll only keep coming back until I do.’
Anya flashed a look at her brother, Jason. Their mother was usually a dramatist at the best of times, but this felt different. Jason shrugged.
‘She needs to leave, now.’ Grace pointed a slender finger at Anya, but her attention was on her husband. The word ‘she’ was laced with contempt.
Anya was wrong. Everything was familiar. Grace never made a secret of the fact that she hated her only daughter. But now she was admitting it in front of witnesses who also wanted rid of her. She’d never despised her mother more.
To her surprise, her father placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She stood up, and he guided her past the worn red sofa towards her bedroom.
‘Anya, remember we used to play hide-and-seek when you were younger? Well, you’re seventeen now, and I’m afraid the time for games is over.’
‘Why do I have to hide? What about Jason?’
The second knock was heavier, like it was made with a fist. Anya frowned, careful to avoid her mother’s withering look.
Grace took a few steps away from the door.
‘Get rid of her. Now!’
Yeah, yeah. I’m going, Anya wanted to hiss. Grace had been trying to offload her for as long as she could remember.
Evan grabbed the wooden leg of her bed and pulled it out from the wall.
‘This will go faster if you help me, Anya.’
The bottom half of the wall was clad in strips of varnished pine. The top half was painted a warm yellow, the exact colour of her mother’s tulips in the garden.
‘Who’s at the door, Dad? Who are you and Grace so scared of?’
Anya could ignore her mother’s dramatics, but her father’s obvious fear worried her. There were rumours the rebellion against Praesidium’s rules was edging closer to the towns, trying to teach the residents a lesson. But what lesson? Don’t listen to the capital, which has provided you with medicine and technology and better farming techniques over the years, and all will be well?
Evan shook his head and smiled. ‘Nobody you need to worry about. Come on. We don’t have much time.’
He loosened a large section of panelling he had made accessible some time ago. There was a small air-vent at the bottom, and the gap between the walls was clean and dry.
Thump, thump, thump.
‘Open up or we’re coming in!’
He pushed down on her shoulders. ‘Behind the wall, out of sight. Just like we practised when you were younger.’
‘He can look after himself.’
‘So can I, Dad. Please! Let me help.’
‘No arguments. Your mother and I need this.’
Anya’s stomach lurched at the thought of helping Grace. But she trusted her father.
She squeezed into the wall-space as she had done many times as a child. She remembered it being bigger back then. Evan replaced the panel and she lay down with her face near the air gap. There was a short, flat sound as he moved the bed back into position.
She watched him dash out of the room. He never closed the door during their little games; he said she needed her sight. Through the gap she could clearly see the front door and her mother’s stockinged feet. As Grace pressed forward onto her toes, Anya imagined her fake-smiling and smoothing down her hair, as she often did when they had company.
Her father opened the door and two sets of male feet entered and hovered near the sofa. The men wore black trousers and black leather shoes. Sturdy, practical.
‘I’m so sorry. We didn’t hear—’
‘Where is she?’ said one of the men.
Grace forced a laugh. ‘Who?’ She stepped back, partially blocking Anya’s view.
‘Oh,’ her father said, as if surprised. ‘She’s not here.’
‘Hand her over and you get to live today,’ said the second man. He idled near the door, by the sideboard with a collection of framed photos, including a family group shot featuring Anya.
‘It’s the right house,’ said the second man.
The first man pushed past Grace.
‘I told you she’s not here!’
She stepped to the side, blocking the second man from passing. He slid around the other way, moving further into the room and out of Anya’s view.
‘You can’t take her!’ said Grace. ‘She’s matched!’
A sudden shriek pierced the air, followed by a loud thud. Grace slumped to the floor; shaken, but not unconscious. She shielded the top of her head with her hand. Anya stifled a scream and clamped a hand over her mouth.
No sound. Never let them know where you are.
She saw her father rush to Grace’s side. She stared up into his eyes, frightened and a little dazed. He smeared his thumb through a trickle of crimson blood that was working its way down her face. She flashed a look to the hiding place. Anya held as still as possible, but she was shivering with fear.
One of the men grabbed her father and yanked him away from Grace.
‘Please!’ he said. ‘We’re telling you the truth.’
There was a dull clunk and her father dropped to his knees.
‘Stop it! Don’t hurt them!’ yelled Jason.
Anya couldn’t see her brother. He kept shouting, until his voice became muffled. Her father flashed him a warning look.
‘I won’t ask again.’
The first stranger hovered over her stricken parents.
‘She ... she left with her friends this morning,’ said Evan.
‘I don’t know. From school.’
Grace shuffled closer to her husband’s side. ‘Please! We’re begging you. She’s matched.’
Anya wanted to go to them, to protect them. But she was distracted by Jason’s muffled voice. Two pairs of feet, one resisting, blocked her view of the living room. The second man searched her bedroom, with Jason in tow, before moving back to the living room.
‘No!’ said her father. ‘Please! Leave the boy alone. I can explain…’
‘You’re out of time.’
A double-crack split Anya’s world in half, but she kept her eyes open. She blinked and her parents slumped forward. She blinked again, and the two men left, slamming the front door. Ruby-red blood snaked along the worn wooden floor towards her room.
She blinked a third time, and saw Jason on his knees, shaking Grace, then their father. He lifted his hands and stared at his glistening-red palms.
Anya’s throat tightened and she struggled to draw air as the hot tears came. She pushed her shaking hands against the panel, and the bed groaned in protest as she crawled out of the wall-space and stumbled to the edge of the sofa.
None of it seemed real. The sight of her parents’ lying motionless on the floor. Jason covered in their blood.
‘Are they okay?’
Jason turned sharply to look up at her. ‘What do you think?’ His bloodshot eyes matched the colour of his hands.
More gunfire outside. New bodies falling. Tiny drops of blood slithered down her arm from where she had dug her fingernails into the skin.
Anya tried not to think about the freesias from her mother’s garden in a vase on the coffee table, or the lubricating oil in the kitchen, from Jason’s little electronic projects. They were smells that were once so familiar, but now nauseated her.
She swallowed back the latest bout of heaving. The sickness had weakened her so much she had barely had time to grieve.
A handful of rebels had been caught and interrogated in the days that followed her parents’ deaths. Yesterday, an explosion close to Brookfield had rocked the walls of their little bungalow, and for a moment they had forgotten their sorrow and anger.
The town remained intact, but the sickness soon emerged as a new threat. Whatever few adults remained after the culling were also affected.
Jason held back Anya’s hair while she dry-heaved into the toilet. She couldn’t keep anything down.
She gasped and sat back, her stomach swirling.
‘What’s wrong with me?’
Jason hadn’t escaped the clutches of the sickness, either. His skin was pasty, and sticky with sweat. For a moment it looked like he might need a turn at the bowl, but then he closed his eyes and swallowed.
‘I’d say we should eat something, but the thought of food or water ... I just can’t.’
Anya shakily pulled up her sleeve. She examined the skin lesions that had appeared a few hours earlier. New blemishes, red and scaly, were beginning to form further up her arm.
‘If we can’t eat or drink, what can we do?’
‘We need help,’ said Jason with great effort. ‘One of the other towns.’
She felt so weak. ‘I couldn’t… I can’t.’
‘Not you. Me. You’re too sick.’
Jason hauled himself up onto his feet, but swayed dangerously. His eyes were glassy, his skin blotchy.
Anya tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t work. So she stayed by the toilet, one arm draped over the lid, resting her cheek on the cool plastic seat.
He groaned. ‘One of us has to.’
He stumbled to the living room. Anya heard him trying to put on a coat.
She turned and threw up again. It was the worst kind of sickness. There was no relief.
‘I’ll be back soon.’
Anya was too weak to answer him. She heard the latch on the door turn first, followed by a heavy thud and the sound of shattering glass.
Anya tried to scream, but her voice made no sound. She wiped her brow and pushed back her matted hair. As she crawled on all fours, she felt the sickness threaten to ground her. But she kept going, one hand and one knee at a time. She concentrated on the floor as she turned towards the front door, crawling over her parents’ bloodstains, which she and Jason had vainly tried to scrub away.
The door was still closed, and Jason was slumped against it. His coat was only half-on. His outstretched leg had jolted the sideboard, and the glass in one of the picture frames was scattered on the floor.
Anya crawled over the broken glass, ignoring the stinging in her knees and hands. With barely an ounce of energy to spare, she hauled herself over to Jason, and was relieved to find he was still breathing. She collapsed beside him and tried to catch her breath.
A bright light woke her. Jason was still unconscious by the door. A man in a white protective suit and mask hovered above, his unsmiling face looming large.
‘Don’t worry. You’re safe now.’
Anya stared at him through half-opened eyes.
‘Ionising radiation. The whole town’s been poisoned.’
Her mouth felt dry and she licked her lips to no relief.
‘Who are you?’
‘We’re from Praesidium. We’re here to help.’