‘My heart’s racing, my palms are sweaty… I feel the rush, what is this pill that I’ve taken? The music’s pumping – dance!’
‘It’s Xanax, stop shouting.’ someone called from behind a screen.
But he staggered around in the Emergency Department, flailing dance moves.
‘Go back to your cubicle,’ snapped one of the nurses, as his arm swiped across a counter-top of papers. Patients’ charts, forms, pens cascaded to the floor. A telephone dangled by its cable.
People turned and looked. An orderly went to his side.
‘Come on son. Come on Cillian.’
We all knew Cillian. He was a frequent flyer. His mum wouldn’t come in for him any more, wouldn’t even answer the phone. Every Saturday night the police or the paramedics dumped him on us with barely a word.
‘Let go of me.’ Cillian lashed out. ‘I wanna dance.’
The orderly had just managed to grab his fist before it hit a nurse.
‘Hey babe,’ Cillian said to the nurse.
The night manager was there and a row broke out about where to put Cillian so he wouldn’t upset the other patients.
‘If this was London he’d be out on the streets,’ I muttered. But I picked up the phone and left a voicemail for the duty social work team.
We eventually persuaded him to go to the men’s ward. After all, he was only fourteen. On Sunday morning he sobered up and went home.
I did not know that he was a symptom of a greater malaise, until the spaceship came.
Life in my town had been simple. I had a job at the hospital, a house, a husband. We paid our taxes and sent our daughter to school. It was a community where people did things for the good of others, to make the town a better place. There was creativity, imagination, art. We had books to read, films, theatre, TV. In the summer we could go to the beach or picnic in the parks.
We didn’t know anything was there at first.
My husband started to complain about muggy weather.
‘I thought that was me having hot flushes,’ I joked.
‘But have you noticed, there’s a green tinge to the dawn,’ Martin frowned, ‘and a purple tinge to the dusk? Last night I thought I saw a gap in the stars, as if something was blotting them out.’
‘No.’ I smiled. ‘Maybe you should get your eyes tested.’
‘You never take me seriously.’ He turned away.
After that, we started to argue over nothing, as if that trivial conversation had been some kind of tipping point.
It was not just us. Work became fraught: colleagues unhelpful, patients frustrated, complaining, downright rude. The ambulances started to bring in young men with stab wounds. First one, then a another. One a month became one a week and then one or two a day, not just men but youths, even schoolkids. Then the shootings, a road rage murder, domestic violence. People sent each other messages filled with hate. The homeless were cast out and strangers were shunned. It became a crime to be poor.
Our daughter turned in on herself, poring over her smartphone, going out at night and coming back from the town with vacant eyes. I was powerless to reason with her; Martin’s shouting did no good. The drugs made Natasha aggressive and irrational, like Cillian, so that I feared her. She would scream, kick the doors, scratch me, slap me.
I could not believe how much it hurt when she punched me for the first time. We had stopped paying for her phone. Natasha went into a meltdown which only stopped when I sat down at the computer to reinstate the payments. My hands were shaking so badly that I could not log on.
Martin and I became like Cillian’s mother, staying out of the way, afraid to answer the phone at night.
The teachers abandoned the high school; the beaches and the parks were strewn with plastic garbage. The cinema closed down and all the TV showed was repeats. Our politicians became openly corrupt.
There were rumours of shortages. We hoarded goods so that the shops ran out and people left work early to queue for bread. Each of us was at his neighbour’s throat. People starved and babies were still-born.
When we were no longer able to resist, the spaceship came in broad daylight. It was vast and black, the size of a cruise liner. It made long slow sweeps over the rooftops.
It hovered above the hospital car park emitting a rhythmic hum.
Cillian, who had installed his sleeping bag in a corner of the bus shelter, sat up when he heard it. He rose, staggered between the cars and held up his arms, like a baby wanting to be picked up. He danced to the hum, his limbs jerking like a marionette. Beams of coloured light shone down on him from the spaceship so that he stood glittering at the convergence of them all. His body slowly darkened, then became transparent. He spiralled upwards as though the beams were working against gravity. Then he vanished.
He was the first to go. The spaceship continued its slow sweeping orbits of the town.
I phoned Natasha. No reply. I had to get home to her. The Emergency Department was heaving but I told the shift leader I had a migraine. It was almost true. I drove home, weaving my way around abandoned cars and people wandering mindlessly like ants disturbed from a nest.
‘Where is she?’ Martin was pacing the hallway, up and down the stairs as if trying to locate a lost object. ‘Where is she?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. She’s not answering her phone.’
‘Her phone’s here.’ Martin pointed to the hall table where the smartphone lay with its screen cracked.
I picked it up. It was switched off. I couldn’t switch it on.
‘Dead,’ I said. My eyes met Martin’s, full of horror. ‘I saw the spaceship.’
‘I saw it too,’ he said.
It was too late for anger now. We clung to each other and wept. We tried to plan: how we would stay inside the house, how we would rescue Natasha, how we would face death when the moment came. It was futile. One by one our people were absorbed by the black monstrosity and were never seen again.