Slade didn’t know how long he had been there. Could have been hours could have been days. The light was always the same so it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night. Slade suspected that it was somewhere in between; that he was part of some weird twilight zone existence where reality and dreams merge into one. Man, he had become part of a living breathing horror story without even realising it.
He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, focussing on the warm air touching his throat and working its way down to his stomach. He tried to stop his legs from shaking and tensed and then released each muscle in his body. He felt himself calm down after a time and allowed himself to relax as much as he could. His mind drifted off to distant places and times and he felt his eyes prick with hot tears.
There was a time when Slade had been happy, he was sure of it. He couldn’t remember exactly when or exactly how but he did have vague memories of laughter and hugs and good food and the company of people he loved. Of people who had loved him. Of life…
The train station was as busy as it had always been and Slade was loving every minute of his time there. Sitting by Platform 7, outside of a coffee shop that sold what could only be loosely described as ‘food’, Slade watched the throngs of people passing by.
Slade was in his fifteenth year and could think of nothing more exciting than leaving his hometown. This wasn’t something within his grasp at this moment in time so he had to make do with second best - watching other people leave town.
Greendale, glorious Greendale. With tree lined streets, colonial style homes with white picket fences, a playground full of well dressed toddlers and even better dressed Moms, one gas station and a small mall, Greendale was home to folk who sought country living within spitting distance of the big city.
Quaint and quiet, Greendale was a great place to live. There was a real community feel and everyone knew their neighbour – and regularly shared gossip over the fence. And if they ever got sick of the wide smiles of the townsfolk (though this was rare), they could get on the train and ride into Ferndale or Hewhaven or any of the larger towns in the area. And Clevedon City was only a hop, skip and a jump away on the Northern Line.
Life at 876 Yeardly Avenue was picture perfect. Grace was a first grade teacher and enjoyed visits to the library in her spare time. She was also renowned for making the best apple pie in town and was friend to children and old folk alike as well as to the birds and animals who were brought to her, sick or injured for some tender loving care.
Garth taught driving school and his patience and dedication to the job were admirable without fault. Most of the youngsters around town had been signed up to learn to drive with Garth who was known affectionately as Green Light Garth as his pupils never failed their driving tests.
Carla was the darling of the town. Tall, blonde and slender, Carla was a cheerleader, friend to the needy and hostess with the mostess, always throwing sleepovers and parties. Everyone loved Carla. She had a sunny personality and was never seen to be down or sulky like most of her friends could be at times.
Everything in Slade’s life was perfect. He had the best sister anyone could wish for; his parents were angels and loved him unconditionally. His grandparents were always available at the drop of the hat and invariably showed up with a few dollars in their wrinkled but manicured hands for ‘treats for the kids’. Uncles and aunts all lived nearby complete with toothy children pampered pooches and pools in the yard.
It was an existence that most people could only dream of. Slade had it all. His family could not be faulted. He wanted for nothing. He was allowed his independence whilst knowing that he could count on his parents for their support if he ever got out of line – which he never did. He was never lonely as he had a whole heap of friends, each one as good-looking, funny and cool as the next.
Still, Slade wanted out of Greendale. He wanted to see what life was like outside of this beautiful place. Where he could go and who he could meet. Whether he could make it without the support of his family and the admiration of his friends. He had a crazy, irrational feeling that there was a part of himself out there somewhere and he needed to find what and where it was.
He had been suffering from restless feet for quite some time and the only way he could get by was to sit at the station and to dream of the day he would leave the town for good. He relished the sound of the trains as they roared into life and took people to places he had never been.
He loved the smell of the diesel and the buzz and pace of the platforms as travellers rushed to their compartment, eager to get a good seat on their train so they could watch the world as it raced by on their journey to someplace else.
Slade lived for these moments, the times that he could take himself away in his thoughts. He dreamt of a far off life full of adventures and new destinations. Of a new beginning where he could prove himself to be the man he knew he was. He would sit outside that greasy coffee shop for hours and dream all his dreams, mull over the fact that he felt he needed to ‘find himself’ …
But mostly he would sit there and remember the day that she had left…
It had been raining for hours. The type of rain that isn’t heavy but that drenches you to the bone. Slade felt that the rain had even gotten in to his very soul.
Rain in Greendale was a rarity. The township enjoyed year round sunshine, even in the winter. So when Slade woke up to yet another day of rain he felt that it signalled something ominous, something that would alter his life forever.
Sitting on his bed, Slade cradled a picture in his hands – the one picture of her that he had kept, that he hadn’t thrown away or burned in a rage.
He looked out the window as he heard some kids screaming in the street below. They were running to catch a bus and were trying to dodge the raindrops as they fell.
Rain…rain reminded him of the day that she had left, of the day that his life had taken a major twist.
Slade had been 9 years old. He loved life, had fun every day and knew that at night he would be read a story by his favourite person in the world; his mother.
Mom held Slade’s world together. Dad was great but he was away a lot driving and Mom and Slade enjoyed each other’s company. They loved to watch spiders spinning webs and at cats chasing butterflies, at the shapes the clouds made and at the ripples in the pond when they skimmed stones.
Suddenly though, Angie’s mood changed. Up until this point in time she had always had time for her son but over the past few days, Slade had noticed that she had become distant and when she stopped reading him their traditional bedtime story at night, he knew that something was wrong.
One night Slade heard Mom and Dad arguing. Mom was saying something about heading back to where she belonged and that ------ was the man who would have known how to treat her.
Slade cried himself to sleep that night and when he woke up in the morning it was raining and she was gone.
Garth was never able to fully explain to Slade what had happened – perhaps he didn’t know himself – and Slade was left to his own devices for a while as Garth tried to pull his own life back together.
Slade became a loner for some months and took to hiding out in the treehouse at night, looking up at the stars and wondering whether his mother was looking up at the same time and thinking of her son.
As any nine-year old would do, Slade began to think that he had been the cause of his Mom’s abandonment, that maybe he hadn’t been a good enough son that he should have picked up his toys when he had been asked to and not been so cheeky.
Confusion soon turned to anger and rage though as Slade lost hope that Mom was coming back and he got rid of any trace of her from the house and his life – bar one picture.
For some reason, Slade couldn’t bring himself to throw away the picture of Mom when she was pregnant with him. She looked at her most happy then and Slade took some comfort in knowing that at least once in his life he had made her happy.
Grace came into Garth’s life and Slade accepted this new mother figure with open arms – he so desperately needed to feel loved and the nurturing that Grace gave him was the antidote to the poison that had begun to seep into his heart and soul.
And it was great to have a sister to annoy! Slade soon came out of his shell and made friends again, taking pleasure in life.
But he still felt that there was a part of him missing and sometimes in the dead of night he would gaze out the window and wish himself away to another part of the country, to wherever it was that would make him feel whole again…
Slade jumped as he heard a car door slam. He shook himself out of his daydream and brought himself back to today. Even with his eyed closed, Slade knew it was still raining, He could hear the pitter patter of drops on the roof.
He sighed – nothing good on TV, computer being fixed, Mom and Dad out for the day, Carla out getting her hair done…
Making his way up to the attic, Slade laughed to himself as he remembered the last time he had ventured up there. He had been 7 years old and had managed to lock himself in. He had been terrified of the wind whistling through the eaves when Mom had heard his sobs and come rescued him.
When she saw her little son all dressed up in big clothes he had found in the trunks in the attic she had laughed so hard that she tripped up and grazed her knee. Garth had found them then, sitting on the dusty attic floor, both with tears in their eyes as he hugged them tightly. Happy times…
Slade started to open up trunks and boxes, laughing at some of the things he found - old pictures he had drawn when he was young, some of Grandad’s clothes that still smelt of Old Spice and hats that had been in fashion a million years ago.
And then, buried deep inside a pocket of a pair of Dad’s jeans, Slade came across a letter…
Slade crumpled the letter in his hand.
Another child, Angie had another child.
Slade couldn’t believe it. His mother, his best friend in the entire world – she had a whole life away from him and his father. Not only a whole life but a whole separate family…
A siren woke Slade from his dreams.
Another ambulance taking another person to the holding zone.
It wouldn’t do them any good, Slade thought to himself, the Virus got them all in the end…
Garth was the first one to go. Always fit as a fiddle, Garth was the last person anyone would expect to be struck down with a debilitating illness. The large man was soon a shadow of his former self and almost overnight, Slade had to come to terms with the fact that his father was dying.
At first they thought it was meningitis. Garth had been plagued by horrendous headaches for a week and had cancelled all of his driving lessons as he could hardly even see because of the pain.
The doctor was evasive and whilst he took vials and vials of blood from Garth he offered no reassurance or insight as to what could be the problem.
Carla came home one evening with eyes as wide as saucers. Her boyfriend’s Mom had just been taken away to a ‘holding area’ and the family had been quarantined. She said that the symptoms were similar to Garth’s.
Slade wanted to know what exactly a ‘holding area’ was supposed to be and got really angry in thinking that Jim’s mother was not being taken to a hospital for appropriate treatment. But he was interrupted by a knock at the door and soon it was his own father who was being taken away to the ‘holding area’.
Carla and Slade demanded to know what was happening and what the deal was with the ‘holding area’. The Paramedic couldn’t give any information and told them to try and relax, that there was going to be an announcement by the President the next morning…
After a long night of worrying, wondering and a lot of pacing up and down, Slade and what was left of his family sat down to watch the broadcast. The President told the nation that something big was happening, that things would never be the same again.
Slade spent the rest of the day in a daze. He went to the train station to try and relax, to make some sense of what he had just found out.
But the station was full of parents sending their young children away. The first of the evacuations. Kids were crying all over the place, mothers hysterical, fathers shouting at the military men who bundled the kids onto the train, the military men themselves barking orders one minute and then wiping a tear away the next.
Slade shook his head in disbelief. He wondered if he might be having some kind of crazy nightmare but he knew he wasn’t. This was what the world had come to, this was real.
Back at home, things weren’t much better. Carla had been arrested along with her boyfriend Jim for trying to break into the holding area. Grace was beside herself with worry for both Carla and Garth. There had been no news whatsoever of her husband and she had just found out that her brother had also been taken away.
Starting to get hysterical herself, Grace confided in Slade that she was suffering herself from an excruciating headache.
Grace wanted to see the doctor to get some pills but Slade wouldn’t let her. He told her that she would end up in the holding area if she wasn’t careful and there was no way on earth that he was going to lose another member of his family.
Slade got Grace to lie down on her bed and he wiped her forehead with a cold cloth. How this was happening, he couldn’t comprehend. It was as if the world had turned upside down and the sky was caving in, everything had gone wild…
People were screaming in the street below. Slade ran to the window to see what was happening and wasn’t surprised to see their neighbour Brian being taken away in an ambulance whilst his wife Claire lost the plot.
People would lose the plot – who could blame them when life had taken a dive into the unknown, into a nightmare that was actually reality?
Slade sat down beside the woman he called Mom and held her hand tightly, vowing that he would do something, anything to make some sense of what was happening around him…
The sound of riots ringing in his ears, Slade crouched down behind some garbage cans. He caught his breath then poked his head around one of the cans – the gangs were throwing rocks through windows, running away with TV sets and stereos, hurling abuse at the raggedy group of army cadets that were valiantly trying to gain control of the situation.
Slade looked around – he was desperately tired. Everything hurt, his stomach was rumbling and he couldn’t remember when he last slept.
Curling up on the floor, surrounded by garbage, Slade closed his eyes…
Talk about a skeleton in the closet – as Slade read through the letter in the attic, he found that his family could put on a Broadway Show with the amount of skeletons that he found hiding amongst the lines on the page.
Grace had been Garth’s first love and Carla and Slade were born when Grace and Garth were just kids themselves – young, in love - and unmarried.
Grace’s parents had tried everything they could to control the situation and after both babies had been born, put their collective foot down and demanded that Grace attend teacher college.
Taking on Carla themselves, Grace and Garth’s parents decided that Garth needed some responsibility and it was decided that he should look after his son, Slade.
Garth loved his children and saw Carla as often as he could. He pined for Grace and love letters flowed back and forth from state to state.
Grace and Garth’s parents both tolerated their children seeing each other during vacations but as time passed, visits became more infrequent as both Grace and Garth grew used to life without each other and before the year was out, they kept in touch only to find out how their kids were doing.
Garth met Angie when he was out buying diapers. In the grocery store, little Slade was always reaching out to pull things off shelves and Angie happened to be right in the firing line of a huge pile of diapers, which bounced off her head – and her pregnant belly.
It might not have been love at first sight as such but Angie and Garth found out they had a lot in common…
Angie went to the same teachers college as Grace. Hung out with Grace and her boyfriend Andreas along with her own boyfriend, Jackson. And now she found herself expecting a baby.
Sent to stay with her aunt in Greendale, Angie became close friends with Garth and when her baby was born, it was Garth who drove Angie and her baby son back to Jackson.
Angie couldn’t settle after her time with Garth. She felt torn between her love of Jackson and her friendship with Garth, the only man she felt could understand her fully. She was a self-proclaimed gypsy and felt that she was meant to spend her life wandering.
She did develop relationships and she had real feelings for people and places but she just couldn’t stay in one place with one person for long. After a time her feet started to itch and she felt like running. Running from what or to where she didn’t know – but she knew she had to run.
Dividing her time between Jackson and Garth, Angie lived a lie for many years. Part of the time she lived with Garth and Slade. And then she would return to Jackson. Always running.
As far as Garth was concerned, Angie was spending time with her son. And as far as Jackson was concerned, Angie was helping to nurse her sick aunt.
Angie loved all of the men in her life – Garth and Slade; Jackson and Mega. But when Jackson went away to war, Angie felt it was time to return to her son and she left Garth and Slade behind for good, her gypsy ways stifled for a time.
As if the stars had realigned in the sky or an act of magic occurred, Grace miraculously came back into Garth’s life just when it was in tatters after Angie’s departure.
The couple were reunited and lived together as the family that they really were. Garth and Grace, not wanting to jinx the luck that brought them back together, decided to keep their secrets and just enjoy being as one finally…
Slade felt himself being dragged from the ground. He couldn’t see anything and realised he was blindfolded.
Hauled away by rough hands, Slade didn’t have the strength or the will to struggle.
The fight had gone out of him. He allowed himself to be dragged through the streets of the city and didn’t once try to struggle. Blindfolded, he was aware of the different smells, sounds and feelings of the city as he passed through it. There was all the usual noise of glass smashing, fires being lit and kids shouting at each other as they jostled for position in the place that was once home to them all.
Slade could feel the change in terrain as his feet stumbled first through garbage and the paved streets of the city and then out into the countryside. Stopping a few times for a break during which time Slade was slung roughly to the floor and given a sip of dirty water from a bottle, the group eventually made their way up some rocky slopes and into what Slade could tell was a cave.
There was a distinct dampness in the air and an enclosed, eerie feeling. The group who until this time had only uttered a few grunts at each other settled in the cave and spoke of their journey and of what goods they would receive for their bounty. Slade was left in a corner, cold and uneasy, his sense of fear growing at the talk of this bounty and wondered what was in store for him.
Still blindfolded, he could sense the change in light as a fire was lit and he stretched his legs out as far as he could to benefit from what little warmth emanated his way. He drifted off into an uneasy sleep and spent the rest of the night shivering, with visions of terror in his head.
Slade was prodded awake the next morning and was moved into a smaller cave. His blindfold removed, Slade caught a glimpse of his captors for the first time. As he thought, they were big, rough guys, and Slade was left in no doubt that he would have a lot of trouble getting out of this maze of caves.
Left alone, Slade examined his new surroundings. Measuring about 6x6 feet there was little space to do anything other than crouch and Slade could see from the one torch that had been left with him, the crude drawings on the wall that he wasn’t the first prisoner to have called this cave ‘home’.
Slade settled into his new way of life and got used to his routine. Days passed – maybe weeks. Slade couldn’t tell, as he never saw daylight.
Woken every day (or night) by the guards, he was thrown a little stale bread or a handful of berries and some water. Taken out to another larger cave every few hours to toilet himself and to stretch his legs, Slade never saw any other prisoner. But he knew they were there. He could hear them crying in the darkness and Slade gathered from the way the sound echoed through the cave structure that there were many smaller caves housing many other prisoners.
He never spoke. He never struggled. He just listened and took in what he could from the sounds that bounced off the rocky walls.
Slowly over passing time, Slade put the pieces of the jigsaw together and made some kind of sense as to why he was being kept and who his captors were. Perhaps fooled by the fact that Slade was so quiet, the guards started to talk in front of him and Slade learned that he was being held captive by a group of bounty hunters, sent to find people who had a price on their heads. They would stay captive until the price had been met by whoever it was that was looking for that particular prisoner. The gang had accumulated much wealth in terms of food and supplies and there didn’t seem to be any particular leader, just a group of rough kids brought together by greed.
Slade felt sorry for them in a weird kind of way. There had been so much horror, so much loss that he couldn’t really blame anyone for the way in which they behaved. He continued to keep himself to himself and in the time that he spent in this prison, he tried to make peace with his own feelings of loss and pain. It was impossible to make any real sense of what had happened since the Virus struck, let alone of what his family really was – a lie…
Slade was awoken one morning by the guards who said it was time to go out into the big wide world again, that the bounty on his head had been paid and that someone was waiting outside for him.
Blinded by the light outside, Slade couldn’t tell who had paid to have him ‘collected’ from the city and held for them. Led away from the caves by gentle hands, Slade and his mystery companion soon stopped by a river to have a rest, which Slade was glad for, as his legs were very weak after having been cooped up for so long in such small surroundings.
Lying under a tree, Slade found out who his companion was. The soothing voice was unmistakable and as his sight grew more accustomed to the light, Slade was overjoyed to find that it was his sister Carla sitting next to him, mopping his dirty face with a wet rag.
Carla had left the city soon after the Virus had struck. When her parents became sick, Carla couldn’t handle it. She didn’t know how to cope with the grief she was feeling, particularly as she learned the truth of the family and what had happened when her parents were teenagers themselves. When they died, Carla didn’t know what to do. Slade had withdrawn into himself and fear and panic consumed Carla. One night she ran away…
Eventually, seeing all the kids pass through the town she had settled in, all of them devastated with grief, she decided that it was time she found her brother. She shouldn’t be alone and nor should he - the tragedy of the Virus should pull people together, not drive them apart.
After searching for Slade in the city herself and coming face to face with the dangers that now lurked around every corner, Carla came across the gang of bounty hunters and decided that was the easiest and safest way to track Slade down while she made a life for them back in the small town.
Carla nearly lost hope as the weeks passed by and she had to come up with payment for her brother. She did all she could to get food and supplies to pay the bounty hunters and the only thing that got her through was knowing that he was alive and safe.
Slowly, brother and sister made their way through the fields and hills to Carla’s new home. She told Slade that the town was a little rough but that it had nothing of the dangers she witnessed in the city. Slade didn’t care where they were headed so long as it meant he could sleep in a bed again and get cleaned up and regain his strength.
He took one long look behind him as they came to the town, and silently said goodbye to his past – then he looked ahead and taking a long breath, looked up at the sign welcoming him to his new life… Liberty.