Pitying eyes follow me everywhere. They peer around tent flaps within the razor-wired walls or look away across the jugs of water and cans of food the trucks bring. Always, they lower for a moment outside the field hospital when I creep away for a few moments’ rest. I shiver under their covert gazes.
“She’s his wife,” one man says.
“They had four children, all of them dead now,” a woman whispers, shaking her head. It would be easier if they hated me, as they hate him. Despised me, as I despise him. But they can’t; they are parents too. Their children – with pus-stained skin and eyes old with fear – sit silent among the stench of excrement and rot. Yet they live, at least for now.
The parents understand the gnawing. The nights when these arms that held my children ache from absence. The sweet talc and play-sweat scents that haunt my fractured sleep. They, too, hear the ghosts of shoving, jostling laughter that float through this darkness.
He came to me, after it had happened. Did I tell you that? In a blue hazard suit. He even brought one for me.
“We have to go,” he said, as our babies lay dead in the children’s rooms.
“At least let me see them buried,” I’d begged.
“There’s nothing we can do now. The others will see to it.” He said this with no pity.
“I won’t leave them.”
He recoiled at the ice in my voice. “You’re a fool, Anna.”
“I’d rather die with them, than live with you.” I spat at him, then, and turned away. That was the last time I saw him.
They took my little ones away as I cried out to hold them one more time. I don’t even know where they’re buried; mass graves, someone said. Then, they brought me here. The lies they told. My God, I believed them. We all did.
“Hurry,” they said, as they came for us. “You’ll be safe until we find a cure.” We trusted them, until it was too late.
Did you know that we parents planned an escape? We dug until our fingers were raw and bloodied. Ten men went under that wall and were gunned down. Twenty more died in reprisal at the hands of the guards. Seven of us were injured in the spray of bullets and left to die.
I felt as if only my body survived. I suppose that’s why the other inmates couldn’t hate me. They knew he sold my life as he did theirs. For money! And his precious reputation.
It was different for the techs. They hated me from the first day they came. Not openly, of course. Their panic-filled eyes, behind the plastic faces of their hazard suits, said what their mouths wouldn’t – that I knew they’d sold us out, too.
They’d understood what could happen; yet they did nothing but assure their own safety and his, when the time came. They understood the dangers I could only posit in nightmares.
Oh, he dismissed my fears with such arrogance, even as he brought the terrifying dreams to life – the experiment gone awry, the lax security, the well-placed terrorist bomb that freed his mutant strain from its laboratory constraints.
They knew groups were forming to stop the experiments, the fear of genetic manipulation spreading. They ignored the threats.
Corporate contempt, scientific pride run amok. With millions of dollars invested, billions to gain, these scions of the new economy were not about to let their mistakes be known. They razed the isolated desert community they’d built around the lab. Interned us behind these walls and waited for the mutant bacteria to bury their secrets with the dead.
How did they explain our absence? I’ve wondered if some died because their silence couldn’t be bought. Or was it just that no one had asked.
Now, their technicians come. Their terrified breaths cloud the sleek, clear masks. They rush to draw blood and snip tissue samples from the dead, the dying and those few of us who seem to be immune – though none of us can be sure. Not to save us, you understand. We’ll die here, one way or another. And their sins, with us. They seek to save themselves, these cowards. My skin still crawls with rage.
“You must forgive,” Father Thomas says, his hands trembling with fatigue, his wrinkled robe anointed with the fluids of the dying. “Maybe it was God’s mercy your own children died so quickly.”
The Sisters – those who haven’t yet succumbed – nod at me with fear-grayed faces. Their fingers run the beads. Their pale lips breathe silent prayers.
It must be Hell, to be constrained by love in the midst of this wretched evil. Father and the Sisters will never feel the lush, if momentary, absolutions of unabashed hate. It’s my sacrament of penance for his sin.
That blessed hate numbs me as I grasp the wandering fingers of a dying child, bathe the small, gaunt body, rest my cheek against his burning face and rock him until he is quiet – or dead.
Through it all, I wait for it to end with a perverse curiosity. Which, I wonder, will kill me at last – the disease, the betrayal, or the pitying eyes?