My parents were the first to fall violently ill from the sickness we now know as XoRax, I can vividly recall my father lying on his bed while his muscles spasmed and he chocked on his own vomit. I stood as his side, frozen in place and refusing to leave as I held back sobs, his pupils dilating until his entire eye was like an inky blackness. He tried to speak, turning his head toward me but opening his mouth only brought forth another torrent of vomit.
I remember saying something, but that detail is lost on me now. I remember staring into his glazed eyes as his shuddering became less pronounced and he was suddenly very still. I let out a wail and ran into my room, unprepared and unwilling to face the truth. My mother was the first to pass, then my older brother who had just turned 17, and finally my father.
I had not considered that I could have caught the disease myself – if it were in fact contagious – I just thought myself lucky, though tragically lucky at that. I fell asleep in the corner, huddled in the blanket that previously kept my mother warm, her perfume made the putrid aroma somewhat tolerable, perhaps just enough so that I could drift off.
I remember a persistent banging next, a series of muffled inquiries from the opposite side of my locked door. They were shouting for survivors, looking fervently for anyone who was still alive despite the breakout. I rushed to the door and unlocked it to face what I would come to identify as the Day-Crew.
Their faces were obscured by large gas masks fitted with some sort of capsule on either side of their cheeks, their breathing was slow and monitored, their voices made nearly impossible to hear over their mechanical wheezing. They were covered from heat to toe in black regulation hazmat material with orange text reading DAY-CREW on their backs.
They ordered me out into the main hall where I managed to catch sight of fourteen other children around my age being told directions and filed into a line-up. Once the entire group had been examined, we began our trek out into the streets which was a vision of chaos and destruction. We had heard the noises of looting and desperation from our homes, but we hadn’t ventured off into the outside world for weeks for fear of catching the sickness ourselves.
There were even more Day-Crew that were burning the bodies that had fallen to the streets , trying to purge the earth while trying to keep away from the resulting fumes. We were silently ushered into the back of a large truck that took us to the south, away from the cities and suburbs and into the dense growth of the forest.
When the van came to a screeching halt, the doors swung open to reveal more Day-Crew, who ushered us out into a forest clearing. We were interrogated about our exposure to anyone with XoRax, and if we felt any symptoms like nausea or vertigo; though we had all witnessed our family members falling ill, and had tried in vain to treat them, we were all perfectly fine in any physical sense.
The Day-Crew initially told us that they were perplexed about our immunity to the sickness, as anyone who came in contact with it was sure to fall ill just hours later, so it was a shock to see some of us that had been living this nightmare for weeks on end. As they administered more tests and asked more questions however, we were told that the immunity was tied with a hormone cell that the disease was using to compromise the immune system, and since we were all too young to have properly developed it, the disease was unable to make us fall ill.
We were told that the Day-Crew wanted to study us, that we would live under the cover of the forest in quarantine, they would hope to extract a cure from our group that could be used to heal the world and rid it of XoRax Disease.
They tried their best to sound positive in light of the situation, but it was obvious that even they were doubtful of their efforts, and that there was no guarantee for any of their tests to follow through.
Still, they kept the mood optimistic and promised us that we would save countless lives with our efforts. They built a secluded village in the woods, providing us each with a make-shift house carved into the tree trunks around the area, I was led to a simple treehouse that had a single bed on the far end and a table in the middle. We were told that first thing the next morning we would be getting blood taken, so we weren’t allowed to eat anything until then. I was fine with that, I hadn’t been hungry for days, the image of my mother, father and brother crowded my thoughts instead. I didn’t get much sleep, the forest was chirping with crickets, and the muffled bickering of the Night-Crew kept me up into the early hours.
We were woken the next day and filed into a single line up to have blood drawn, while the needles were prepared for us we were told that we would have to receive a vaccination that would prevent us from going through puberty to preserve the hormone that might led to a cure. It was never elaborated on at the time that we would never be able to grow up, or have children, but it was unlikely to live beyond the first few hours of infection, nevermind the next few years, so our adulthood was seen as necessary sacrifice.
This continued for a few weeks, we would continue to receive vaccinations and assured that a cure would soon arise, but times were getting desperate. I took to listening in on the muffled conversations of the Night-Crew during the night, it became easier to make out what they were saying over time as they sat beneath my bedroom window next to a crackling fire.
I discovered that our encampment was only one of many in the surrounding area, and that they deduced that XoRax originally came from the sea to the West. They passed around horror stories of the people that lived by the shore that were hit the worst, that they had gone completely pale and that they began to sprout growths off of their elbows, hips and their toes. They had to be kept constantly hydrated or else their skin would begin to flake and peel. Their pupils had dilated and their entire eye was colored black, at this bit I thought back to my father, sitting on the couch and writhing in pain.
There was food in the mountains, one assured another, they were gathering it in droves, perhaps to keep it from spoiling. Another spoke up, revealing that they had managed to find expecting women who weren’t exposed to XoraX, and that they were being kept in the mountains to birth their young away from the sickness. The topic came back to their present situation and they began to discuss our encampment, that our results – while promising – weren’t being worked on fast enough. There were accusations claimed, and fingers pointed, but at last they settled on keeping their mood positive, that something would come along eventually, that we just needed some more time.
Discussion drifted back to the horror stories of the West coast, which clearly sparked sick interest in the group as they talked of the corpses that had been found along the waters and drifted ashore, each with deep black eyes.
I rolled over in my bed, unable to listen to any more of the stories without images of my own family. Staring up towards the ceiling, praying that we would manage to find a cure soon, and that I wouldn’t have to hear about the people of the West any more.
It had been nearly a month of testing when something went wrong – a few short hours after our latest vaccination several kids began complaining of distorted vision. They could see trailing lights in the air, making their way across the plains. While their faces were covered with their masks, I could sense the worry that played out across their faces.
We were told that this would just a visual hallucination, and that they would subside in a few hours. When I awoke the next day and glimpsed outside I too could see the trailing lights drifting through the air, the forbid anyone to discuss the lights any further, though it was clear that everyone could see them.
As we lined up to have blood drawn, one of the Day-Crew became terribly ill, and began to vomit through his gas mask. In a frenzied panic we were ordered back into our homes as they led the sick member away into the woods. We were told to come out and organize ourselves into a line for decontamination. After covering everyone with a chalk-like substance, they began to scrub away at it with some foul smelling liquid until they were assured that we were safe to deal with once more. This exercise became a part of our daily regimen, and it’s how we started calling them “The Scrubs” rather than their official titles, we were disillusioned, and it was obvious that they were as well.
The visual hallucinations began to worsen, even though we had stopped taking vaccinations long ago. Some kids began to befriend imaginary creatures in the air, speaking to the trails of light. I was horrified that I might start losing my sanity as well.
I didn’t want to eavesdrop to the discussion over the fire that night, which had gradually worsened which each passing week. With a trailing desperation in their voice, the Night-Crew began to exchange information about the other areas.
The food in the mountain had been contaminated, and rumors began to surface that all of the births had resulted in defects, with each child being well-over a healthy birth weight with their eyes far apart. They would likely succumb to the disease and perish as well, it was decided. The cure that had been tested on the XoRax-ridden patients hadn’t shown any signs of preventing the sickness, but rather had simply slowed the progress of the sickness so that it claimed lives in days rather than hours.
While this was a bit of good news, they focused on how little was accomplished over such a large span of time, and how anyone with the sickness shouldn’t be kept stringing along, but rather, destroyed so that they couldn’t contaminate anyone else. There was a coldness in their voice.
I rolled over in my bed to watch the lights play across my vision, dancing across my eyes until I fell asleep.
The Scrubs were gone the next day, leaving us as their failed experiment behind. The other children seemed unaware of this and decided to continue befriending imaginary creatures, in a depression I sulked off to bed, only to suffer a violent burst of spasms and shivering in the process. I drifted in and out of sleep that night, having one recurring nightmare after another. When I awoke, I heard something pass through my doorway, something that couldn’t possibly be there. Rolling over I reluctantly looked up into the air to watch a trailing ball of light float around my house before descending toward my bed.
“Hello, Link. Wake up. The Great Deku Tree has summoned you!”