If you know me at all, you'll know I'm a stickler for punctuality. Which is only one of the myriad reasons I dutifully (and a little conceitedly, I admit) set my bedside clock ahead one hour on the night of March 30th, 2024.
So many of my colleagues at Brentfield Pharmaceuticals had pitched up either an hour too early or an hour too late on DST change days, I had lost count. Many of them just didn't care, since it was a Sunday and not a mandatory work day. I, on the other hand, was proud to say that I had not ever missed a clock-in time, and I believed I never would.
Another reason was that April 1st was going to be my first day as Head of Virology and Contagious Diseases Research. Yeah, I knew it was a Sunday. Even if I hadn't known that, my family would have very quickly informed my ignorant self of that fact. As it was they wasted no time in reminding me of something that one glance at the calendar had already made abundantly clear to me.
"But Mo-o-o-m!" Louis and Marie dragged out my maternal nom de plume in a pleading whine. (Yes, I named my kids after great scientists of ages past.) "It's our family day on Sundays! You can't go to work on Sunday!" Louis was the more articulate of the two while his sister glared at me with her you're-a-terrible-mother-and-I'm-going-to-have-lifelong-psychological-issues-because-of-it face.
"What's one day? Really, you guys," I needlessly defended my planned actions.
"That's what you always say," Marie sulked.
I contemplated how that wasn't entirely true, but struggled to find any real evidence to put before my eight-year-old judge and jury.
"You know, I'm not really in control of these things. I have... responsibilities..."
"Yeah, well, seems like we don't feature on that list, Mom."
Louis said the last word of his sentence as if he didn't have complete faith in its validity under the circumstances. I blinked, suddenly seeing a young man emerging from the juvenile features of my thirteen-year-old son.
If I had had a comeback to his statement he wouldn't have heard it anyway. When I looked up, my vocabulary floundering like a trout on a riverbank, he and Marie were gone. Their shadows lingered for a brief moment in the doorway.
Still, regardless of what my children believed, I had my responsibilities, or so I told myself that night as I set my clock forward, waiting for the exact minute, down to the second, of twenty-two-hundred hours. My dear, faithful husband, George, reciprocated with an inarticulate grumble when I kissed him in the neck with a, "Sweet dreams, Gorgeous Georgeous." I chuckled to myself indulgently, then snuggled down into my non-allergenic, memory foam pillow, dreaming up all the sweeping changes I would make in the space of the next twenty-four hours.
'A new broom sweeps clean, they say,' I thought to myself quite smugly. I could just imagine the faces of my new underlings when they walked into the lab on Monday morning and were given a list of "The Way Things Will Be Done Around Here From Now On." A delicious sense of satisfaction buoyed me into the deepest, most carefree sleep I had had in years.
There were moments following on that one in which I found myself wishing I could have stayed in my blissful state of unconscious inertia for an indefinite period of time. That, unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on your individual perspective on the ensuing turn of events - was not to be my portion.
A crisp silence held the world in its icy grip when I awakened to the soft pinging of my alarm clock in a still dark room. George's place beside me in the bed was cold and empty. That wasn't unusual; he liked to get his early morning jog and workout, even on Sundays.
I went blithely on with my own waking up routine, keeping an eye on the clock and internally congratulating myself that I had set my time ahead the night before. Grabbing a prepackaged grilled chicken wrap from the refrigerator, I pulled on my boots, coat and gloves, armed myself with my favourite umbrella, and left the house. Thankfully I had managed to not wake the kids. All in all an unusually successful departure.
It was a quiet drive to the lab. The streets were emptier than usual, even for that time of a Sunday morning. I watched the first smatterings of fine drizzle freckling my windscreen while I waited for the lights to change. A strange feeling of desertion filled the normally bustling streets of London. I shivered involuntarily.
The first jolt of true surprise I felt, as I entered Brentfield Pharmaceuticals' clinical glass and gun-metal chromed building, was seeing Arthur's place empty. Arthur never missed a day, or if he did he arranged with our security wing for a replacement. Seeing the door guard chair vacant sent my stomach into an unexpected flip-flop. Still, after a cursory glance around, ensuring that I was by my solitary self, I scanned my access card and watched the elevator doors sliding open.
As the familiar metal box swept me upwards to the eighth floor, I allowed my mind to be consumed by my plans for the lab. There would be more defined teams of experts on each project. I felt like people were not being assigned to research projects that they could be passionate about. Sarah and Blanche had to be kept apart at all costs, and Andrew needed someone on his team to keep him on track as far as the specified goal of the project.
My thoughts would have scurried down a million more rabbit holes, if I had not stepped out of the elevator to find my floor looking like an unimaginative Halloween party, with every conceivable bit of equipment shrouded in white or silver coverings. The glass-doored sample refrigerators all revealed darkened, empty interiors. The whiteboard, normally crawling with lists, notes, and reminders of deadlines, mocked me with bland disdain.
It has to be an early April Fool joke, I thought, pursing my lips as a parade of possible culprits passed before my mind's eye. I moved over to where I knew the HoD's desk was. Horace had said he would leave a list of running and upcoming trials to be conducted. I wanted to get to work on those and see who could be assigned and reassigned, promoted and demoted.
The desk was as clean as the whiteboard. A quick search of the drawers confirmed that it had all been cleared out. Every last file, note, piece of stationery, the works. I felt my blood pressure rising. Whoever had given birth to this ill conceived practical joke was going to roast in no small way.
Suddenly, the ping of the elevator, followed by the echo of footsteps in the corridor outside spun me around from where I stood hunched over my new desk. A figure entered. It was fairly small, and shrouded in the same protective material swathed all over the technology in the room. It was peering shortsightedly at a clipboard in its hands.
The figure lifted its head and I saw a silver face mask, leaving only the eyes visible, covered with what seemed to be a perspex sheet from which protruded two black, round air filters. I had seen suits like this before. They were all too common in our lab, considering the nasty bugs we worked with on a daily basis, but this one seemed different somehow.
"Oh! Holy Mary and the Saints!" the figure cried out in a muffled voice. "Shirley? What are you doing up here? You half scared me to death!"
"If anyone is asking questions around here, I think it should be me," I retorted, recognising the voice and expressions of my new next in charge, Louise Schaeffer. "What's all this?" I waved an arm at the spooky contents of my deserted lab.
Louise paused, seeming genuinely puzzled. She came closer, peering at me through her ridiculous mask get-up. "You ordered the shutdown more than a month ago?" she said carefully, as if suddenly doubting her own conviction that her words were true.
"I did no such thing! How could I? I wasn't even..." I choked on my own words, anger constricting my throat. Now things were really getting out of hand, and it seemed cruel to me that they used Louise, the most saintly of all people that I knew, to perpetuate the deception like this.
Now Louise stopped in her tracks. Instead of coming closer, she seemed to shrink back. "Oh, okay, I'm sorry. I guess I had it wrong," she said passively, but I could tell she was treating me like a wild animal about to attack. I relented. There was no need to take it all out on her.
"That's okay, Lou, I didn't mean to snap at you, I just..." I broke off and looked around me again. "I just wanted to come in and get things straightened out before the takeover tomorrow. Silly way to spend a Sunday, I guess, but there it is, the perfectionist in me."
Louise had visibly relaxed, but my second last phrase hit a nerve. "Sunday?"
"Yeah, Sunday. The day of the week that is today?" I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
"It's... Thursday today, Shirley." She was talking carefully again, as one would to a crazy person who just might do something irresponsible if you accidentally hit their trigger.
I stared at her, wondering if she was the one who had lost her mind. She raised both hands.
"I'm going to take my phone out of my pocket," she said, keeping eye contact with me. I felt like I was in a movie, but I had completely lost the plot. Louise did as she had promised and held up her mobile for me to see the lock screen. Thursday 23 May 2024 the luminescent white digits almost screamed at me.
There was no hint of deception on Louise's face. And she had tried to lie to me before, just little white lies, but the guilt written all over her face had given her away before she could even open her mouth. Even through the perspex covering her face I could see tender concern filling her eyes. Now I began to doubt my own sanity.
"Louise," I took a deep breath, "Tell me what's going on."
I sat my 2IC down and looked her in the eyes. "The whole truth," I said flatly, "From the beginning." A faint, gnawing worry had begun to make itself felt in my insides. George. Marie. Louis. Where were they? Were they okay? I beat the fear down and forced my buzzing ears to focus on Louise's voice.
"The day before you started as HoD, that's when it began. It was so sudden, like. None of us was prepared. Not a one." Louise paused, as if reliving the shock of that terrible day. She took a deep breath and continued.
"There were a few of us here at the lab. You and me; and Andrew. Sarah had just walked in when Nigel ran in behind her, his face as white as a sheet, it was. Told us we couldn't leave the lab, there was a killer on the streets. It was comical, actually, to see him like that. We laughed, all of us. But then the sirens started and we looked out the window and there were people going bonkers, like, and running their cars into buildings, and falling down in the street convulsing till they lay still, all crumpled and twisted."
Tears had begun streaming down Louise's cheeks, distress haunting her eyes. I reached out and squeezed her arm. "It's okay, stop. You don't have to tell me any more." She shook her head.
"No, I'm okay. You need to know all of it." She paused, sniffed, swallowed and continued. "We all were on our mobiles to our families right away. George had been trying to reach you but your mobile was on silent as it usually is when you're at work. The government put all our families on lockdown and have taken some away. George's last message said he and the kids were being taken to a safe location, but he didn't know where."
"Where are we supposed to be now?" I asked, my mind doing a quick fast forward based on what Louise had just told me.
"We're all in the basement. We're working on figuring out what this thing is and how to fight it. Nobody has seen anything like it before. There's even talk of..." she paused, reluctant to even repeat the words, "extra-terrestrial involvement."
"So. You and me and Andrew and Sarah, eh? Saving the world from the aliens? Who knew?"
Louise looked up at me. She knew me well enough to know that my favourite escape from admitting I was scared was to make a joke about it. She gave me a weak smile and shrugged. "I sure hope so, boss."
What really scared me was how I had got there. How had I driven to work on the 31st of March and walked into my lab on the 23rd of May? Louise had thought I knew about the space in between, and yet I was clueless. When - and more pertinently, how - had I made the jump weeks ahead, when all I wanted was to move ahead one hour?
Louise misinterpreted my thoughtful silence. "I mean, I'm sure we'll beat this thing, it just seems so hopeless right now..."
"No, no," I interrupted, "I was just wondering about George and..." The lump in my throat choked me to silence.
"Oh. Yes. I'm sorry..."
"Have I been here all the time? Since it happened?" I asked. "I haven't seen my family at all?"
"No, not for the last two months. Almost. None of us have." Louise said carefully. I could tell she was still not sure what was going on in my head. Perhaps she thought I had contracted the plague and was in the beginning stages of madness. After all, I was walking around without protective gear. Perhaps she was expecting me to start banging my head against the nearest wall at any moment.
My colleague had no idea how close I was to doing just that, but not for the reasons she might have suspected. The faces of my beloved children swam before me. I had not even greeted them before I left. Their voices echoed in my head, "But Mo-o-o-om! Sunday's a family day... day... day..."
I was a fool. That's what I was. A hard-headed, self absorbed, ignorant fool. I had a husband who adored me, kids who actually wanted to spend time with me, and I chose work over them. Well. Talk about reaping what you sow. Now I had what I wanted. A great big overdose of it.
Maybe I really was going crazy. Maybe I was missing my family so badly that I had blocked out all my memories of the last how many weeks of isolation with a handful of colleagues. Maybe I needed to get some fresh air. I stood up before I realised that a walk outside was not an option. My knees hit the ground before I realised that someone was standing behind me with a very large syringe.
I felt a prick at the base of my skull. It stung like fire. I instinctively swatted at what my neanderthal self told me was a very large aggressive wasp. Then my vision blurred and I watched Louise's gentle face swimming around behind her mask like a distorted goldfish in a warped bowl, while I gripped her shoulders in an effort to stay erect. A moment later I slipped helplessly into the soft, black depths of unconsciousness.
My family swears it was all a dream. I am not so sure. All I know is that when I woke to the rough kiss of day-old stubble on my cheek, then my chin, and finally my mouth, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. George laughed when I asked him something to that effect. "That's a dangerous thing to say to a man when his kids are about to bring his wife breakfast in bed," he said, and kissed me again.
I struggled to sit up, the sun streaming in at the window and blinding me momentarily. "What time is it?" I asked, squinting at my bedside clock.
"Oh, about 8:30, I think," George answered lazily, tucking a stray strand of hair behind my ear.
"And what day is today?"
George laughed again. "Did you hit your head during the night?"
"I'm serious," I scowled at him.
"The 31st of March?"
He grinned cheekily. "Yes, the 31st of March. And we know you reeeeally wanted to go to work today, but you overslept and so we decided to let you have the rest you so badly deserve and..."
"We're all staying home today," I cut in, a little more loudly than what was warranted.
George looked at me quizzically. "Okaaayyy...?" he said. "Any special reason?"
I flushed. "Just a gut feeling." I would tell them later. If it happened. I fingered the spot on my neck where the syringe had got me. It was tender and painful. I had to bite my lip to stop myself crying out. It was not wasp season.
I breathed out slowly as I let my husband envelope me in a huge bear hug, while I nestled into his shoulder. We would hear sirens soon, and probably screeching tyres and tearing metal. Maybe even screaming people. But I was home, so I was okay. As long as I didn't have to face today without my family again.