The Last Ride

Tonight I sent out PDF copies of the anthology to all authors, but my email is looking a bit dodgy. So if you didn’t get one, let me know.

Meanwhile, here’s a preview story to get you in the mood.

The Last Ride

Jenny Armitage settled herself in the vaccination chair. “Didn’t this used to be monthly? I remember the time when there was longer between shots”

The doctor consulted his notes. “It seems your father went off the rails and disappeared. I hope that’s not hereditary.”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Do we have to do the whole ‘sins of the fathers’ thing every time? My dad went crazy. When I was a toddler. Ran off to join some nomad antivax nutters, I was told. It doesn’t mean I’m going to. I just asked a simple question.”

The doctor placed his notes on the table. “Well, we have to be sure. It’s procedure.” He avoided eye contact. “Yes, the boosters used to be further apart but the Theta variant is picking up steam and we have to get vaccinated more often now.”

“Every two weeks though? It’s seriously cutting into my social life.” Jenny pulled the left sleeve of her T-shirt to her shoulder.

The doctor filled his syringe. “It seems it will be weekly soon. Otherwise the next variant could kill us all.”

Jenny looked away as the needle went in. “Last year it was monthly. The year before, three-monthly. Is it going to end up as daily?”

“Well.” The doctor pressed a swab to Jenny’s arm. “There is likely to be an implantable chip very soon. It can release a measured dose at timed intervals. They say you’d only need to reload the chip once a year.”

“Oh, that would be brilliant.” Jenny checked the sticking plaster over her latest jab and rolled down her sleeve to cover it. “Can they do it for all the other jabs too so I don’t have to get a perforated arm any more?”

The doctor chuckled. “The research plans to put everything on the new Medichip. All your vaccinations, all your medical records, and it will even automatically call the medics if it detects something wrong with you. You’ll never have to worry about getting sick again, the chip will call in before you even know you’re ill. It has GPS too, so the ambulance will know exactly where you are.”

“Wow.” Jenny blew a long breath. “I hope it will be ready before Earth Day. I’d love to spend that day, for once, without side effects.”

The doctor snorted. “Earth Day is in three weeks. I doubt they can finish it by then. Next year though, it should be all set to go.” He tilted his head towards the door. “As are you. Fifteen minutes in the waiting area and as long as you don’t show any bad reactions, you’re done.”

“The reaction shows up a couple of days later. I feel like hell for a day and then it’s done.” Jenny picked up her bag and headed for the door. “Gets me a day off college, every time.”

“Fifteen minutes in the waiting area anyway. Just to be sure.” The doctor waved her away.

“Okay.” Jenny closed the door and resigned herself to fifteen minutes of boredom. Unless one of the others keeled over. She’d seen quite a few by now. Sometimes they just passed out. Sometimes they lay there shaking like they were being electrocuted. Sometimes their faces looked like they were melting, just sagging all down one side. There was always a stack of stretchers against the wall, just in case.

She took a seat and noted the time on the clock. There had been a time, she was sure, when these strange reactions made the news. Still, when things get to be common, the news isn’t much interested any more. Neither was anyone else, really. The commonplace isn’t interesting. It’s the new and sensational that gets noticed.

Jenny, like all the others in the waiting area, sat in silence. Nobody made eye contact nor did they acknowledge the existence of the others. They had, like Jenny, been raised properly, taught never to invade the personal space of a stranger. It’s just rude.

Companions in an empty room. I taste their victory and sin.

A snippet of an old, old song came into Jenny’s head. It was something she had heard as a child, from her grandfather’s collection of what he called ‘music’. Music had fallen out of fashion after Grandad’s time and nobody bothered with it any more. Grandad died in a nursing home, before any of the family could be contacted. Her father had visited him the day before he died, and within a week Dad had disappeared too. There were a lot of shouty fights between him and her mother after Grandad died. She never knew what they were about.

She frowned, ducking her head to hide the emotion on her face in case somebody saw. It wasn’t nice to make other people worry about you. Music, she remembered, was nice. It had made her feel good, even when the song was slow and sad. Head down, she tried to remember more of the song.

To work it out I let them in. All the good guys and the bad guys that I’ve been.

There was so much more. Was it still there, buried in that childhood memory, or was it forgotten forever? Grandad’s music collection was sent to recycling when he died.

I wander through an angry crowd. Wonder what’s become of me.

The line was out of place. Jenny forced her face to relax, forced the frown away. Someone might think she had a bad reaction to the vaccine and she didn’t want the attention. She looked up at the clock. Seven more minutes. She glanced around the room.

Face to face I greet the cast. Set in silence we begin.

She stifled a cough. It felt as though something in her mind had brought the song back as a message. Like it was trying to tell her something. She needed to go back to her room, where she could concentrate. Maybe write down the bits of the song she remembered and see if she could put it back together.

Half asleep I hear a voice. Is it only in my mind?

Or is it someone calling me? Someone I failed and left behind.

That was how the song started. Grandad played that song often and sometimes there were tears in his eyes. Then they took him away to the nursing home and nobody in the house ever played music again.

Four minutes left. Jenny struggled to keep her face impassive. It felt like a dam bursting in her mind, so many thoughts, so many memories. All pushing through, all wanting to be first. She really needed to be home.

Her pulse pounded in her head. Was this a bad reaction to the vaccine? Was she about to be one of those who passed out, or who lay shaking on the ground? Is this what happened to them?

I want to take you all with me. We have to get away from here.

Her father’s voice, shouting. Her mother shouting back ‘No, you’re insane’. Her father at the bathroom sink, cutting his hand, taking out his ID chip. Jenny stared at her own left hand, where the chip rested silently until the scanners activated it. She had never questioned it. Somehow, she had blanked out so many memories, or thought she had. Seems she only put them away in a drawer somewhere, and now her brain was opening all the drawers and throwing the contents out into her consciousness.

Should she alert someone? Tell them she thought she was having a bad reaction? Hell no, she’d get sectioned at once. Is that why the bad reactions so often pass out – because they are too afraid to ask for help?

I defend my soul to those who would accuse me.

Another snippet of the song. Almost as if her mind was telling her ‘It’s okay, you’re not going mad’.

Jenny checked the clock. It seemed blurry through her eyes. She rubbed at them, her hand came away wet, but the clock looked a little clearer. One more minute. She considered just leaving now, but that might raise suspicions. One more minute. She could wait it out. She closed her eyes.

In her mind’s eye, her father’s bandaged hand lifted his small bag. His other hand stroked her face, tears in his eyes as he said goodbye. He so wanted to take her, and her mother and little brother, along with him but he could not. He could not stay either, not once he had heard his own father’s story.

Like a circus on parade. Seldom close enough to see.

A story she had heard, and pushed away at her mother’s insistence over the years. She had to believe he had cracked up, that he had joined an antivaxxer group living outside of civilisation, in the climate-change-charred wilderness. He had not. They were not anti-vaxxers. They were free people, thinking for themselves, living outside the tightly controlled world she inhabited. It was in her memory, in the arguments between Dad and Mum, in the words her brain had filed away as ‘wrong’.

His shouted words came back as clear as when he first uttered them. You get on the vaccine train and you can never get off. Booster after booster and it never ends. It’s like getting on a roller coaster that just goes around and around and goes faster and faster and never stops. The last ride you will ever take.

She checked the clock. Time’s up. Jenny stood, reached for her bag and concentrated on quelling the tremble in her hands. It might look like a vaccine reaction and she didn’t want to get taken for treatment. Very few came back from treatment.

Outside, Jenny took a moment to breathe the air and try to grasp what had just happened. It was a song. An old song, now lost to almost everyone, that had triggered her memories. It was a song that had set her on a new path, a path so very, very different from her life as she knew it. Was it sensible, or was it really only the ‘sins of the fathers’ manifesting in her? Had she inherited her father’s madness, or his sanity?

I share the famine and the feast.

The song would not go away. Should she see the doctors about how she felt? Should she discuss it with her mother? Hell no! She’d be sectioned at once. Her own mother had called the authorities when her father left. Jenny took a breath. It wasn’t malice. If her mother had not reported her father’s aberration, they would all now be under permanent observation as accomplices. Possibly even in jail. No, she could not really blame her mother – but she couldn’t trust her with these thoughts either.

Jenny knew she had to leave this city. Get out into the barren wilderness beyond. Like her father. Find the wandering people and try to join them. She stared at her left hand. Would she have the courage to cut the chip out, as her father had?

Well, she would soon find out. Her mind had decided that she would not turn up for her next injection in two weeks’ time. Earth Day was one week after that and missing a shot would put her on Green Santa’s naughty list. She would hear the bells.

Jenny gritted her teeth and whispered the mantra she had been taught. “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee.”

If she missed the next shot, she would be classed as ‘anti-vaxxer’ and Green Santa would take her to some unknown oblivion. It was terrifying, but now she had seen how her world really was, now she had finally seen the circus parade close up, it was terrifying to stay within it too. Running into the wilderness was also terrifying. Basically, she had a choice of terrors. Which to choose?

Jenny headed to her room, only a short walk away from the campus medical centre. She had an enormous decision to make and only a short time in which to make it. If she chose to stay, she would just take the shot in two weeks’ time. If she chose to leave, she would have to do that very soon. As soon as she missed that next appointment she’d be on the naughty list and then she’d be watched closely.

“Well.” Jenny placed her hand on the door to her student accommodation block and watched the door swing open. “Seems I finally have to make an adult decision.” She stepped inside and watched the door swing closed. “I just wish I knew how.”

The song’s closing lines played in her mind.

All the devils that disturbed me and the angels that defeated them somehow.

Come together in me now.

———————————————-

(The song, if anyone is interested, is by Paul Williams and is one of the excellent pieces of music from a film called ‘The Phantom of the Paradise’, a film I heartily recommend.)

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