Members of the queue shuffled from one foot to the other, stretching out their backs and necks now and again to relieve aching muscles and weary joints. Ripples of movement passed through the line which snaked out of the doctor’s practice, down the street, and around two corners. It was only getting longer, but those who joined the back were well aware that by now, their waiting could be in vain.
Syed thought of them, imagining the screams and shouts and violence that would inevitably break out later in the day when they were told stocks had been depleted. He was grateful that his employer had been gracious enough to allow his staff to make the pickup; he knew of others who had refused, and had friends and relatives who could only join the line at the end of their workday. He didn’t like to think of what would become of them, but he couldn’t stop his imagination from running wild.
There were two people ahead of him. He knew he’d been early enough to get the vials he needed, but the unease wouldn’t leave him until they were safely in his hands. Even then, it would probably still remain. Or perhaps it would increase.
He tried to distract himself by listening to the conversation of two women behind him. It was spoken in hushed tones, but the pair whispered as noisily as they could have talked.
“They say it’s getting worse.”
“Course it is – hospital is overrun now.”
“No, I mean the sickness is getting worse. More symptoms, more painful, all that. Like it’s evolving. And it’s taking even longer to kill people when it gets them.”
“Poor sods. I can’t imagine.”
The person at the dispensary counter moved away, slipping small vials into his pockets as he did so. Police officers guided him out of the back entrance. Going out the same way he came in risked him being mugged for his wares by the unlucky folk at the back of the line.
The women in front of Syed stepped forward to the counter. It was almost his turn. He should have felt better the closer he became to the dispensary, but he only felt more anxious. Even with the vials in his hands it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. Taking them home would be dangerous. For all the latecomers to the line who were unlikely to get their hands on the medicine, there were hundreds more across the city who hadn’t even received prescriptions. Their only option was to beg, borrow or steal, and since few were willing to give their vials up, theft was inevitable.
Sayed shuffled the prescriptions in his hands and glanced at the names on each. He’d checked the papers dozens of times, but he still felt he wanted to be sure. Him, his wife, and their two daughters. They were all catered for.
He let out a long sigh as the woman in front of him moved away from the counter, then quickly took her place. He handed over the prescriptions and watched the pharmacist tap away at the computer. Within a few moments, a buzz and a click marked the opening of a safe beneath the counter and the pharmacist removed four vials and placed them before Sayed.
“Thank you,” he said, though he couldn’t bring himself to smile with gratitude. The pharmacist understood and simply nodded in reply.
Sayed pocketed the vials and followed a police officer’s hand towards the back exit. His apartment was close by and he was thankful to not be faced with a risky trek halfway across the city. Nonetheless, he walked as quickly as possible, knowing he’d feel safer once he was home.
He took a left turn and then a right, and it was there that he saw a body slumped on the ground.
Sayed assumed it was dead, but he checked up on it nonetheless. He glanced up and down the street, his initial instinct that this was a trap and he’d be jumped upon by a gang of thieves. But the street looked clear, and he knew he wouldn’t forgive himself if he didn’t stop and check on the heap on the floor.
He approached the body and peered at its vile face. Swathes of skin were peeling away, revealing vivid red muscle and stringy sinew underneath. Patches of yellow pus demonstrated infection, and lines of dried blood hung around beneath eyes and nostrils.
The eyes opened and darted from Sayed to the street around him. The whites of the eyes were stained red.
“Thought I was dead,” said the body, its throat dry and hoarse.
“Can I take you to the hospital.”
“Too late. No point.”
Sayed nodded. “I’ve just picked up some medicine. I can give you a vial.”
The body eyed him suspiciously. “Why?”
“You’re in pain. Let me help.”
“Isn’t it meant for somebody?”
Sayed shrugged. “Me. But I have a gun,” he lied, as he removed a vial from his pocket and held it out. “Take it.”
The body nodded. “Could you?”
Sayed crouched and unscrewed the vial’s lid. He held it to the body’s lips and gently tipped the red liquid into its mouth.
The body swallowed and shuddered, then closed its eyes and allowed the poison to do its work.
“See you on the other side, buddy,” Sayed muttered.