Monday, July 18
I stare at Dad’s text, but it takes ages for the words to make sense. I see them—passed away in the early hours—but I can’t get a grasp on what they really mean. I know people die every day, several every second even, but my mind can’t seem to reconcile the sudden end of my neighbor, how he could be laughing and talking with me a few days ago and then be suddenly gone, like someone hit the “off” button on his remote control and threw away the batteries. It doesn’t add up. He was young—younger than my parents by a long way—and healthy. He was a doctor, for goodness sake! I force my mind to picture him dead, lying in hospital, the life gone out of him, but each time he sits up and grins as if he’s just pulled the best prank ever. What scares me most of all is, if this could happen to Dr. Spencer, it could happen to anyone. We’re all just a flick of a switch from oblivion, every single one of us. I feel as if someone has performed one of those tricks where they yank away a tablecloth, leaving the plates and cups in place. From a distance, it looks as if only the cloth has been moved, but everything on the table has felt the silent friction of its departure.
I brush my hands across my face to rub away these shaky thoughts. I need something solid and logical to grasp onto, something that makes some sort of sense. I text Deb.
You hear about Dr Spencer?
I wait an unacceptable length of time before Deb responds. I love my best friend, but she is stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to electronic communication. No, she replies, at last. What?
I fill her in on what I know about Dr. Spencer’s illness and unexpected demise. Flu, I write. How do you die of flu?
A second later, Deb FaceTimes me. Even at this early hour, she is dressed in black. Black isn’t a statement for Deb, it’s a matter of practicality. “My brain has more important things to think about than what to wear,” she likes to say.
“Are you sure it was the flu?” Deb asks.
“That’s what I heard, but people don’t usually die of the flu, do they?”
“Not from the common strains, no,” Deb says, switching to her talking encyclopedia voice. “Maybe the very old and very young, people with compromised immune systems.”
“Doesn’t sound like him.”
“But then there was the Spanish flu. Completely different animal. I won’t bore you with the details, but basically it killed off the young and strong.”
“Oh, great,” I say, trying to ignore the creeping fingers of worry that ripple across my stomach. “That’s us.”
“Well, it’s you. That particular strain had a thing for strong immune systems, so for once, I’d be among the least likely to get it.”
Deb is notorious for getting every cold and bug that comes around, and coupled with her asthma, they wreak havoc. I blame it on the fact that she spends way too much time in her room, hunched over her books. On the other hand, that’s the reason she’ll be heading off to Oxford after the summer and why someday my best friend will insist I call her “Dr. Elliot.”
“Do you think that’s what he had?” I ask, not sure I want to hear the answer. A chill sense of dread flares up inside me. “What if it’s not the flu? What if it’s something worse, like Zika or Ebola or some new thing and we’re the first to get it?”
The look Deb gives me will come in handy for telling her patients in a kind, comforting, but no-nonsense way not to get their knickers in a twist over nothing. “It’s too cold for those kinds of mosquitos here, and I can’t think of a single person in this village who’s been anywhere near Africa lately. Can you?”
I shake my head.
“Most likely he had something else going on that hadn’t been diagnosed.”
“Are you telling me I shouldn’t worry?”
“I am. But keep your hands washed, don’t touch your face, and don’t go around kissing too many people, just in case.”
My face flushes as thoughts of Ro and last night come rushing in. “It’s a bit late for that,” I say.
“Oh, Salty,” Deb sighs, my nickname rolling off her tongue. “No need to ask who the lucky recipient was, I suppose.”
Deb—Pepper because some bright spark thought my blond and her dark hair made us look like salt and pepper pots—listens as I relay my adventures from the night before. I tell her about my daring descent from the window, about noticing the light on at Dr. Spencer’s, but not knowing then what it meant. I tell her about the ambulance and the terrible look on Dr. Spencer’s face, and about Dad all but ignoring the fact that I was there. And I tell her about my decision to go to London, with or without my parents’ consent.
“You never want to do anything the easy way, do you?” she says with an admiring smile. “If you’re adamant about going, why not wait another month until you can get a job that could actually support you?”
I love my friend, but sometimes we are more like chalk and cheese than salt and pepper. Even though it was our differences that brought us together in the first place, it’s still hard to explain to someone on a trajectory to a brilliant career in medicine that I’d rather take my chances and risk living on the edge of poverty than bury my dreams for the sake of security.
“I’m tired of waiting for something to happen. I can’t stand to be stuck here for one more month.”
“You don’t have to explain that to me,” she says.
During the first nine years of her life, Deb lived in Canada…and Brazil and Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. When her dad finally got sick of trailing his family around after his wife’s career, he moved Deb and her brother here, to (and I quote) “a nice quiet place to raise kids.” A newcomer to our school was a rare novelty, and Deb’s exotic background made her a flashing red target for the mean kids. But to me, she was like a precious jewel in a heap of dull gray pebbles, and I immediately felt protective of her. Her defense cost me a torn uniform and a trip to the headmistress, but our friendship was cemented. And even though we’re now on different paths, we share a common goal: To live our lives anywhere but here.
“But why the rush?” she says. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“Dr. Spencer probably thought the same thing.”
Deb nods that she knows I’m right. “And what does Ro think about all this?”
I answer with a coy smile.
Deb sighs and twists her mouth across to one side of her face, a sure sign she’s contemplating something profound. “If anybody can pull off an insane plan like this, it’s you,” she says. “But not everyone has the stomach for risk. Go with Ro, if you must, but make sure you can support yourself if you have to. That’s all I’m saying.”
I could protest her suggestion that Ro might get cold feet, but I know she has my best interests at heart. She isn’t saying I shouldn’t trust Ro, only that I should hang my own safety net first. A niggling feeling I don’t want to voice tells me my friend has good advice.
Building a safety net means keeping my summer job for two more weeks, which means keeping my boss happy. Unfortunately, my boss is also my dad, and with Mum off at Auntie Margie’s with my little sister for another ten days, I’m Dad’s right-hand woman. In an attempt to get—and stay—on his good side, I button my army green work shirt up to the neck before slipping into the brown sleeveless jacket that makes me look as if I’m heading out on safari instead of guiding old ladies around the historical highlights of Eyam. Everything about my uniform screams “boring” and “safe,” just as Dad likes it. I tuck my purple hair streak out of sight, pinning it with a girlie clip, and trade my trusty pink special edition Doc Martens—the ones that make me feel like I can kick any of life’s obstacle aside—for sensible brown walking shoes. I look like a drab, middle-aged version of myself. I look like my dad.
Dad still isn’t home by the time I’m ready, so I use the spare hour or so before work to dash off an email accepting the job, put in an application for the room, and fill Ro in on the events of the previous night and my close call with Dad. I don’t press him about London. I’ll wait until he brings it up. But, with Deb’s warning to remain independent pinging around in my brain, I search around a website, inappropriately named A Bit on the Side, listing hundreds of gigs in the city. I add lunch delivery person, bicycle courier, and even human billboard to my list of possible ways to make some extra cash. On the next page, I spot a listing for part-time tour guides. Over my dead body, I think, and turn my attention instead to packing.
I’m almost ready to leave the house when Dad phones. “You’ll have to manage on your own today. I need to stay with Louise until her folks can get here.”
This is my dad in a nutshell. He always has to have his nose in everybody else’s business. This is exactly the sort of thing I want to get away from. But as he seems to have forgotten about me being out last night, I opt not to poke the tiger.
“Dad,” I say, gathering my resolve to break my own news about leaving. “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”
“Do you feel ill?” he asks.
“What?” His question shocks me into temporary silence. Does he know something he’s not telling me? “No. Why?”
“Then if it’s not urgent, it will have to wait until tonight.”
With that, he goes back to his business, leaving me feeling as if I’ve walked into a freshly washed window and wondering why I didn’t see it.
At the village green, the same cluster of neighbors has regrouped to tittle-tattle about Dr. Spencer’s untimely departure. I consider slipping in to see if I can glean more information about this flu thing, but a familiar rumble stops me. Seconds later, a red minibus with “Oldfield View Residential Facility” emblazoned on the side trundles around the hairpin bend by the stone “Welcome to Eyam” sign and disgorges a haphazard clump of elderly ladies. I force a welcoming smile, and the ladies fall in line like waddling ducklings, their collapsible metal walking sticks clicking in a syncopated beat beneath a twitter of excitable chatter. It’s a slow procession to the churchyard, the ladies stopping every ten steps to fumble with cameras and snap photos. I wish they’d hurry up so I can get this over with, although now that the rain has stopped, leaving a pristine blue sky in its wake, even I have to admit that the village is postcard perfect. The flowers have pushed through in tubs and hanging baskets around the doors of our neighbors’ cottages, adding a sunny charm that the tourists flock to enjoy. Every square of front garden is ready to burst with blooms—hollyhocks, roses, fuchsia, and sunflowers, rambling Scarlet Runners, and brilliant displays of petunias and chrysanthemums. It’s all too jolly and sunny, and in complete contrast to the gray cloud of unease that hangs over me.
The tour gets off to a rocky start. I know the spiel by heart, but I can’t focus on the story I’m supposed to tell. My thoughts flit from the Dead Syddalls to Dr. Spencer to my troubling conversation with Deb until finally landing on my exodus to London and the big talk I still have to have with Dad. The old ladies don’t seem to notice my stammering. They cluck and ooh with every tidbit of history, and a small, round woman gushes, “Aren’t you lucky living in a lovely place like this? No wonder your family’s never wanted to leave.”
I hold my smile in place for her benefit, but inside I’m thinking, Lady, you are wronger than wrong.
As the troupe waddles off to the tea rooms for refreshments, I have a vision of myself years from now, no longer seventeen, but middle-aged, like my dad. I’m standing right here, proudly spouting about the dullness of my family tree. The enormity of that fate hits me, my alternate future staring me in the face. In keeping my dreams of moving to London to myself, my parents have assumed I will stay. If I don’t pluck up the courage to tell Dad about my plans, I may as well join the Dead Syddalls and rot away for all eternity in the only place I’ve ever called home.
My thoughts lurch to a halt when a bright yellow ambulance swings around the village green and pulls up outside the Coopers’ house, next door to the Spencers’. A new uneasiness grows as, minutes later, the paramedics emerge carrying Karen Cooper, who moved here with her husband a few months earlier. She is sitting up and talking, but her face has the same yellowish pallor as Dr. Spencer’s.
Deb assured me I shouldn’t worry just yet, but three deaths in the space of two weeks isn’t exactly normal. If Karen has the same thing, it means it’s catching, and there is no way I’m waiting around to find out if it’s coming for me.
As the ambulance pulls away, I race home, taking the stairs to my room two at a time. I hammer out a resignation letter to Dad, leaving it on the kitchen table for whenever he gets home. Then I type up everything I must do to get to London. I save the file as “The Beginning of the Rest of My Life.”