“You know, Frank, I think it’s our anniversary today. One year exactly since we first walked into this room.” The words came out with a stickiness to them, several letters being reduced to one every time his teeth closed down on his food. The meat had slid cleanly off the bone and was perfectly tender, but he’d torn off a larger piece than he’d planned to and now found himself having to chew exhaustively before swallowing. “I know, I know,” he continued, enunciating much more clearly after having gulped most of it down with some water, “there’s still another month to go, twelve out of thirteen is just some random amount, yadda, yadda, yadda, but mentally or psychologically or whatnot it’s definitely an important moment, dontcha think? A whole year stuck in here! It’s gotta count for somethin’”.
There was no reply. He’d always been the quiet type, Frank. Always thinking, rarely speaking. When he did talk, it was usually to correct someone. A bit pedantic, but there was no meanness to it. It never sounded like criticism either; just him volunteering some information he thought might be helpful. It had bothered some of the others more than once, but Sal didn’t mind it. He’d grown used to it quite quickly and had developed the habit of correcting or clarifying his own words before Frank could do it – the way he’d just done it a second ago with the anniversary thing.
“Mm,” he muttered, cleaning out the remaining strands of meat stuck between his teeth, “we’ve got the cooking time nailed down alright.” He fought the last strand with his tongue for several seconds before pulling it free with his thumb and index. It went down with a smack of his lips. “It’s the salt we never seem to get right, though. Last time there was too much of it, this time it’s bland. Pity.”
He scratched carefully at the scar on his temple – it stung like hell if he wasn’t gentle with it – then reached over to the open jar of pickles by his feet, dunking his greasy fingers into the liquid. They came out holding the end of a short, fat pickle, its shiny, dark green skin topped with a yellow streak. Leaving a trail of vinegar in its wake, he brought it within a couple of inches from his face and held it level with his eyes, the room blurring into the background as he focused on the little spots across its surface. They reminded him of goosebumps on human flesh. It smelled different, though, its pungent odour bypassing his nostrils completely and crawling straight into his brain. His nose wrinkled, but he bit into it anyway. It made a popping sound as he broke the first chunk off, after that settling into a series of crunches as he chewed into it.
The tang made his tongue curl, and soon the saltiness the meat had lacked washed over his taste buds. “Ooh, that’s the stuff, Frank. That’s the stuff.”
He looked down at the jar, the three pickles still in it bobbing around in the vinegar reminding him of fingers. As he examined the label, his mind went back to the first time he’d seen the jars, exactly one year earlier, and to the chain of events leading to their current predicament...
“Oh, man… pickles? I hate pickles! Please don’t tell me all there is in here is pickles and, and…” Sal glanced at the next shelf along. “… tinned peaches? Well, peaches I like. But pickles?”
“Is it all pickles you dislike?”
Sal’s heart skipped a beat and jumped back slightly. The question had been spoken softly, but it had come from deeper within the walk-in pantry and he’d thought he was alone in there. “Jesus, man, how did you get there? You musta sneaked in silent as a snake, I didn’t hear you comin’”.
The man gave only a shrug in reply.
One of Sal’s eyebrows rose, followed by the corner of his mouth. He’d met plenty of guys like him before – the quiet kind, always watching, always thinking, never saying. Usually harmless, although some had a slickness only revealed as the knife slid in between your shoulder blades. Trevor Harness was one of those and the main reason Sal was happy to skip town for a year. This guy, though, struck him as the harmless kind. Still, it wouldn’t do any harm to assert himself before he got any wrong ideas.
“Frank, isn’t it?” The man nodded and Sal turned his head towards the wide open door leading into the pantry. “Hey, guys! It turns out Frank isn’t a mute after all! I just heard him talk!”
“Give him a break, will you? Just because you can’t shut up for two minutes doesn’t mean the rest of us are incapable of it.” It was a woman who’d spoken. One of the twins, he thought, though he didn’t know which. They were hard to tell apart, what with them being identical and all. Same face, same hair, same body, same voice. Even their names sounded similar: Ava and Eva. And they were identically gorgeous. He’d settle for either, really, so he’d let them decide. They’d both scoffed at his charming smile, but he knew they’d come round to him eventually – thirteen months was a long time. Plus, what was their alternative? Frank? Yeah, right.
He turned back to the man, who was peering through his wire-framed glasses into the cardboard boxes on one of the corner shelves. “Hey Frank, what did you ask me just a minute ago? You kinda scared the bajeezus outta me for a second there, so I didn’t quite catch it.”
“Um,” he mumbled, still peering into the boxes, “I asked whether it was all pickles that you disliked.”
“Whatcha mean? Ain’t they all the same? Green and sour as hell?”
Frank shook his head and turned to him, pushing his sagging spectacles up with the index finger of a particularly bony hand. As the man spoke, his eyes remained on the jar in Sal’s hand, reminding him of they way one might avoid eye contact with wolf or a bear to avoid appearing threatening. “A pickle is any kind of food preserved in brine or vinegar. What you’re holding is a jar of pickled cucumbers, but you can have pickled cabbage or pickled radishes, for example. I was wondering whether it was all pickles you disliked or just the cucumber kind.” By the time his short explanation was over, his glasses had slid all the way down to the tip of his nose and he had to push them back up again, giving Sal another look at his bony hand. His eyes were still glued to the jar of pickles – no, pickled cucumbers – in Sal’s hand.
“Huh, I never knew that,” he replied, observing him with curiosity, wondering why he might have volunteered for the project. Sal had done it purely for the money, of course. Food and a bed for thirteen months plus a wad of cash at the end of it? Easiest money he’d ever make. It didn’t do any harm to steer clear of Trevor and his goons either, given the state he’d left the bar in. But this guy? He looked smarter than the other twelve put together, what with his glasses and his pickled cucumbers. Why on Earth would he want to spend over a year in here?
Sal considered his options and decided it would do no harm to put up with him. Might even learn something useful from him. And it might help him get on the good side of whichever twin had just defended him…
“This disease is in the air, then? Won’t it get in through the vents?”
“Actually, technically it isn’t the disease that’s airborne, but-”
“Shut up, Frank,” cut in Ava. “Now is not the time.”
“Don’t treat him like that,” replied her sister. Sal felt her hand squeezing his harder as she spoke. “He has as much a right to speak as anyone else here.”
Edgar, always the diplomat, intervened before it could escalate any further. “Ladies, please. Frank. Let’s listen to what Dr. Grayson has to say.”
“Thank you, Edgar,” said the Doctor, who sounded as loud and clear through the loudspeakers as everyone else, despite the two layers of inch-thick glass separating her from them. “This new virus has only just been classified, so we expect it will be a while before we know everything there is to know about it. Initial observations do seem to suggest it can be airborne, but only for an hour, two at the most. Your ventilation system is well equipped to deal with worse than this, so you don’t have to worry about it getting in.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Sal. “That’s a good one. We’re in here so you can test your virus and now it turns out there’s another one out there that might make this the safest place there is! Isn’t that sarcastic?”
“That’s the one, Frank.”
The Doctor didn’t comment on Sal’s remark. “This will change things a bit for you. Of course, you will still be provided with food and other necessities, although the decontamination process will now occur in both directions, to prevent our study from being disrupted. Visits will be discontinued, I’m afraid. Government guidelines prevent us from having anyone here who isn’t essential to the project.”
There were a few moans among the small group, but most of them didn’t react in any way to the news. He certainly wasn’t bothered – nobody knew he was here, anyway. And he had all he needed, he thought, squeezing Eva’s hand gently. She squeezed back...
She’d been quiet now for ten minutes, but her screams still echoed inside his head. She’d called out his name at first, the terror in her voice squeezing in through the fingers clamped over his ears, but after realising he wasn’t going to help her she’d switched to her sister’s name, who was fighting like a bull for her. It had taken three people to restrain her while Eva was… processed. Sal had kept his distance, knowing he would be unable to help them this time.
What else could he have done? All thirteen of them had agreed to stick to the rules. Unpleasant as they were, they all knew they were necessary. A few weeks after the Doctor had told them about the other virus, she’d stopped paying them any visits. Soon after, the supplies had stopped coming too. Once the last delivery had been exhausted, they’d had to rely on the tins and jars in the pantry. It had been Frank – who else? – who had pointed out the uncomfortable truth they all knew already: the pantry would be empty in a question of weeks if they didn’t procure… an alternative, he’d called it.
Eva hadn’t been the first one; Harriet had. As the eldest by far in the group, she’d reckoned she didn’t have many chances even if she did make it out, so had actually volunteered. After that, they’d had to draw straws. Hank had been surprisingly stoic. Nick hadn’t. But neither of the twins had said or tried anything after each draw – not even after Tessa’s turn, with whom they’d become good friends. Apparently, though, they’d had an unwritten rule in case one of them was unlucky.
Determined not to feel guilty about it, he decided he needed to put Eva out of his mind – easier said than done, of course, with her identical twin still around. He turned to look at the bawling, curled up ball that was now Ava. She was nursing her hand, which was spattered with blood. His blood. He increased the pressure of the bandage to his temple as he watched her, feeling the sting through the wet gauze.
He felt no guilt for his reaction, but he didn’t hate her for hers either. How could he? It was her sister, after all…
Sal was brought back to the present by a wet feeling on his leg and looked down to find the pickle had been dripping vinegar on him. He took a second bite, then held it to one side while he tore off another strip of tender meat and popped it into his mouth, mixing in the fatty, smoky flavour with the sour saltiness of the pickled cucumber.
“You know, Frank? I don’t think I ever did answer your question. The one about pickles. It was pickled cucumbers that I didn’t like. I’ve come round to them now, though.”
A red, angry face popped out from behind one of the bedroom doors. Ava. He still felt a wistful pang every time he saw her face, even though he knew it wasn’t her sister. The scar on his temple, on the other hand, flared up painfully at the sight of her, as if recognising its creator.
“Will you shut the hell up, Sal?” she spat out. “You’re getting on my nerves.”
“What? I’m just havin’ a conversation.”
She sighed heavily, then rolled her eyes. “There’s just the two of us left, Sal, and I’m in my room,” she replied before slamming her door shut.
He frowned, then looked at the severed hand he’d just torn the piece of meat from, wispy tendrils of steam doing a wavy dance as they streamed out from the exposed bone and disappeared into the air. He remembered thinking how bony it was the first time he’d seen it, but he’d never thought he’d actually see the bones underneath.
“And that thing you said about diseases not being airborne? You never did clear that one up, Frank...”