A multi-part work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
Jason – twelve years old, slender but short for his age, close-cropped blonde hair, blue eyes – stared out the living-room window of his cottage at the end of his village’s Main Street, wrapped in the window curtains, waiting for the quarantine patrol.
The quarantine patrol had passed through the village every day for as long as Jason could remember. It might contain five men, or twenty – always, they were men, always they wore camouflage fatigues, including soft camouflage caps. And always, they wore latex gloves on their hands, and dust masks on their faces – although lately, some of them had taken to letting the masks dangle on their chests.
They might be on foot, marching in columns, or they might be in one or more armored vehicles, each with a machine gun and gunner over the cab. Sometimes the vehicles had wheels, sometimes treads. In Jason’s earliest memories, and in some of the pictures in his mother Wendy’s photo album, the main street over which they marched or drove had been a smooth strip of black. Now, the black had crumbled, and the road was more than half dirt.
They might show up once a day, or seven times in a day. They might appear at any hour of the day or night, and most of the time, there was no telling when. But their first appearance, every day without fail, was in the first half hour after dawn. It was this first appearance on a day in early June on which Jason was spying. Spying, because his mother never – NEVER – allowed her seven children to leave their bedrooms until after the dawn quarantine patrol had passed. And she had never explained why, except to say “Because it’s quarantine.” Jason idolized his mother, the only parent he had ever known, and his stomach was tied up in knots because he was disobeying her. But he had made up his mind that he was going to see the dawn patrol, and find out what they did.
Jason heard the patrol before he saw it, in part because it was just after dawn, and in part because, on this morning, the patrol was in a personnel carrier with treads. There were seven men in the patrol, the driver and a passenger in front, the machine gunner, and four men armed with rifles in the back. The carrier crawled along the road until it came to the path leading to the front door of their house. It stopped, and the driver shut off the engine. The passenger got out, barked something to the men in the back, and then strode purposefully to their front door. The man’s fatigues had stripes on them, he was evidently some sort of commander. Jason made himself as small as possible in the window curtains.
The man – a short man, with brown skin and eyes, closed-cropped curly black hair, and a black mustache – rapped on their door. Five times, with an assertiveness that bordered on ferocity. From the kitchen, his mother double-timed to the door, opened it. Jason’s jaw dropped, for his mother was wearing a tight front-buttoned dress with a plunging neckline that he had never seen before. Wendy was perhaps 30 years old, slender and shapely (the dress announced), with long straight hair the same color as Jason’s and the same blue eyes. Where Jason had previously seen ‘Mom’, he now, with sudden shock, saw a gorgeous doll whose hair, skin, eyes, and clothes had been rolled in the dirt of the street, and imperfectly cleaned.
“Good morning, sergeant”, his mother spoke warily. “Thank you for your service.”
“Thank you, Ms Klein”, the sergeant replied, teaching Jason his mother’s surname in a thinly-padded iron voice. “Routine service, and we hope it may so remain. How are you all?”
“No change from yesterday, sergeant. Mildred has recovered fully from her 24-hour grippe three days ago. No sign of pestilence, as there has been none for many years now.”
“That is why we serve, madam, and it is only because of that service that we remain free. Speaking of service …”
Wendy, expressionless, reached her left hand to her cleavage, reached for the top button of her dress. The sergeant placed his own right hand on her left, pressed both against her breasts, then, gently, slowly at first, but then firmly, lifted her hand up and returned it to her side.
“Not today”, the sergeant declared; there might almost have been a hint of compassion buried beneath the dominant gruff authority. “Our duties are too many and too pressing. Fear not”, he said, catching the sudden fright in Wendy’s face, “your service is remembered and will be called upon. You need have no concerns about provisions for you and your family for the foreseeable future. Are you in immediate need?”
“We have seven-day supplies of everything except the antivirals”, Wendy intoned. “Of those, only a two-day supply remains. And,” her voice became apprehensive, “the taps in our shower stall leak.”
The sergeant reached his left hand to his belt, opened a pouch, retrieved a small, thin, black box. He stabbed at its surface with his right index finger, then, satisfied, returned the box to its pouch. “You will receive a delivery, and a service detail will repair those taps, today. Or you will tell me otherwise tomorrow morning and”, the padding came off, “I will know the reasons why.” He then drew himself up, as if to deliver an oft-rehearsed speech. “As we both know, Ms Klein, this neighborhood has indeed been very fortunate. Yet, as other neighborhoods have found to their cost, our peril remains extremely high. Our nation’s enemies would dearly love for us to relax our guard, so that the plagues that they have designed for us may gain entry and lay us low. We shall not help them, they shall not win. Keep quarantine, and all will be well.” He raised his right arm, straight and stiff, almost touching Wendy’s nose. “Hail victory!”
Wendy raised her arm to match his, and in a voice that struggled to conceal its dispirited weariness, repeated “Hail victory”. “Until tomorrow, then, Ms Klein.” The sergeant spun on his heel, opened the door, marched out, closing the door behind him firmly but without slamming it. As he strode to the personnel carrier, its engine started up. He marched to the right side of the machine, and, barking orders, climbed into his seat. The men in the back took their seats; some of them laughed crudely at words from their leader. The carrier began to roll, past the last three houses on the street and then into the woods surrounding the village, where it promptly disappeared from view.
Down a road that Jason had never been on, had never seen what lay beyond …