Steph felt like she had a cork sitting in the back of her throat the whole dinner. She sat with her parents and her younger sister and fought tears while they laughed about a spelling mistake on Kylie’s test.
‘I was supposed to write “pass” but I wrote “ass” on accident!’ she was saying, and put a hand up to her giggling, food filled mouth as mum and dad burst out laughing. Steph couldn’t help but stare at her. She had lived with this little girl her whole life, her entire life, and yet she couldn’t really remember appreciating her. She was an annoyance who was always crying or screaming high pitched laughter or stealing her clothes or telling their parents that Steph had snuck out of her room to see her friends late at night.
‘And what did you teacher say?’ Steph’s mum asked, still smiling.
Steph had come through the front door, wondering how she was going to tell her family everything, how she was going to convince them to come with her all the way up to Zindel’s house and go through that tiny trapdoor. She had been pondering this carefully when her eyes had wondered over her father’s hands as he ate. He had remarkably long fingernails. And there was something else. A tiny, black cut on the back of his right hand.
‘What happened to you?’ she’d asked when she saw it.
‘Oh, that? I got a splinter today and your mother dug it out for me. Bloody shovelled it out, more like.’
‘Sorry, dear, it was very stubborn.’
‘Stubborn? You went at it like it was your worst enemy!’ Steph’s gaze had moved over her mother’s face as she’d spoken, and she saw it now. So subtle, but it was there alright. Just the slightest pointing of her incisors, the slightest enlargement of her eyes. Perhaps she hadn’t been liberal enough with the fly repellent.
And that, of course, had been that. Problem solved.
‘She said if I ever had trouble spelling I should ass her a question,’ Kylie said, and then erupted in another peal of ear splitting giggles.
Was she really going to die, this girl, Steph wondered, laughing along with them. Was she really going to grow long nails and razor teeth? Were black veins going to appear all over her small body? Would she hurt their parents first, small claws digging at flesh through the bed sheets?
She forked sausage and mashed potato into her mouth without tasting it and looked at her parents, who were talking about the primary school. They’d had parent teacher day.
‘And you haven’t been bullied at all, have you Kylie? Ms. Maree seemed to think there was a lot of fighting and meanness going around lately.’
Kylie shrugged. ‘I saw Mary pull out some of Jessica’s hair and there was blood.’
‘Oh, my God. They don’t have standards at these schools any more.’
‘Too slack on the punishments, I reckon,’ Steph’s dad said. ‘They wouldn’t have taken that stuff in my day. Take a stick to the buggers.’
‘You’re not wrong. Half those kids haven’t been punished in their lives.’
If you only knew. Steph watched her parents, taking in every precious wrinkle in their faces, the way her mother wrinkled her nose at the prospect of badly brought up children, the redness of her father’s face from the tabasco he’d poured all over his mashed potatoes. The people who’d raised her. Were they really going to hurt anyone? Maybe they’d take kitchen knives to each other and slice themselves to raw meat. Or maybe when it got bad enough they’d lock themselves in a room with Kylie. No way. They’d kill themselves before they hurt us. Maybe they would. But the parasite would win in the end, one way or the other, she knew that much. She had a whole empty planet to prove it.
They sent Kylie, kicking and screaming, to bed just after dinner. Normally Steph would disappear into her own room without a word to them for the rest of the night, but this time she stayed in the sitting room with them, sipping at tea and talking and trying so, so hard not to cry.
‘So how was the day, honey?’ her mum asked. ‘You’re a little subdued tonight.’
‘Uh, it was, you know.’ She forced a smile that she was sure her mother saw right through and felt a tear slide down her cheek.
‘Oh, Steph.’ She came over and gave her a hug, her father flashing her a sad smile over her shoulder.
‘Don’t be sorry!’
‘Nah. It was just. It’s just been a bad day that’s all.’
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’
Steph shook her head and then spoke anyway. ‘Just all the violent stuff that’s been going on, you know. Everyone going mad and hurting each other.’
‘I know, honey, but you know none of that’s going to happen to any of us. It’s just the recession taking its toll.’ The lie was clear in her mother’s voice, but Steph appreciated the effort.
‘We’ll just have to be more careful about leaving the house, especially after dark,’ her father put in, when her mother had released her. ‘Glen Warwick just down the road got beaten so badly two days ago he’s still in hospital.’
‘Glen?’ her mother said. ‘God, I didn’t know that.’
‘And it was a group, apparently. Two old guys, a girl, and two young fellas. Now I want to know what the bloody hell kind of gang that is.’
‘Thanks for the comforting words, dad.’ Steph said.
He shrugged. ‘You’ve got to be realistic,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ Steph said, sadly. ‘You do.’
She went over and hugged him, ignoring the look of shock on his face. She hadn’t hugged him since she was ten years old. He gave her an awkward pat on the back. ‘Try not to let it get to you, darlin’. Like your mum says, nothing’s happened to us, we’re gonna be alright.’
‘Thanks, Dad. I better get up to bed.’
She kissed her mother good night and went slowly up the stairs. She felt more helpless than she’d ever felt in her whole life. She was thinking about Glen Warwick, and whether he was starting to dream about stabbing the nurses, or if that came later. She was thinking about all the people who were already acting on those desires, spreading the parasite exponentially.
A man hits his girlfriend in a fit of uncharacteristic rage. She leaves him and moves to another state, where she later assaults her roommate, who goes to a bar a week later and scratches a guy hitting on her, who gets into a brawl with several other guys, one of whom flies back to his native country – America, say – where he starts kidnapping children to torture them. When they arrest him, he attacks several police officers before they’re forced to shoot him. The officers start getting a little more free with the baton… It just went on and on and on. Slow, insidious, inevitable.
‘Steph?’ She realised she’d been standing at the top of the stairs, tears still streaming down her face, for a long time. Her little sister was standing in the door to her bedroom, staring at her.
‘What’s wrong, Steph?’
‘Kylie… you should be in bed.’ Her voice was so shaky she could barely get the words out, and her little sister came to her, dropping Rex, her favourite teddybear, so she could wrap both of her arms around Steph’s waist. In a minute, she was crying also.
‘What’s wrong, Steph?’
‘I’m just sad, Kylie. I love you, you know that? I do.’
‘I love you, too,’ she said simply.
‘You dropped Rex.’
‘I know.’ And then she let her go and gave her a sad smile, wiped her face, picked up Rex, and said: ‘Goodnight, Steph. You’ll feel better tomorrow. Mum always says so.’
Steph stood at the top of the stairs for a few minutes after she closed the door. And then she went down to her own room, feeling completely empty. She had never known it was possible to feel so dark before. She had never known that despair like this existed in the world.
As she lay, propped up in her bed, staring at the half moon hanging in a black sky, she realised that the only thing stopping herself from committing suicide was the knowledge of what it would do to Kylie and their parents. They had enough pain in store for them, after all.
She looked out over the night sky and thought about Earth, ten years from now. Empty, overgrown cities. Starving monsters with wide mouths and all seeing eyes stalking deserted streets, causing pain at every opportunity, spreading parasites to every level of the food chain. Perhaps some would organise. Humans were, after all, so intelligent. Maybe the more capable would make farms out of the less able, immense factories in which pain could be freely harvested, medical science used now to keep crops fresh for as long as possible.
She sat in the dark and thought about the future. It was no longer a question of dread. For Steph Courson, the world had already ended.