It was on a bright, starry night that the traveling circus rolled into town. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to go, but I could hear the distant music through my open window as I lay in bed, trying not to scratch at my chicken pox.
Everyone else in town had gone to watch them raise the big top, even my parents and sisters. Our border collie was my only company. It was very late when they came back and my mother opened my door to check on me.
“How are you feeling, Michael?” she asked. Her voice sounded strange.
“Okay, I guess.” I shrugged and it made my shoulders prickle. “I’m still itchy.”
“Do you need some more calamine lotion?” she asked. This time her voice sounded so hollow that it shocked me.
“No, I’m alright,” I said. She nodded and turned to go. “Mom… are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes, Michael. Goodnight.” She closed the door and went to bed.
In the morning, I found myself alone again. The newspaper hadn’t been delivered and the empty milk bottles were still on the porch, waiting to be picked up. I fed the dog, ate some cereal, and took a bath to ease the itching. I spent the day watching cartoons with the volume up high to drown out the circus music.
When my parents and sisters finally came back, I had already put myself to bed. I listened as they all shuffled up the stairs as one unit. My door opened and my mother stood silhouetted against the hall light. She took a step into the room but stopped when my dog growled.
“How are you feeling, Michael?” she droned.
“Itchy!” I said. “Why were you gone all day?”
Confusion flickered across my mother’s face. “We were at the circus. Would you like to go to the circus?”
“I can’t!” I snapped. “I’m contagious!”
Her confusion returned for another moment. “Goodnaaahght, Michaaahel.” Her pronunciation was off, like her tongue was in the way.
As soon as she was gone, the dog whimpered and licked my face like he did when thunder scared him. I stroked his ears for a while, then I got up and locked my bedroom door.
The next morning, I was alone again. I tried calling Grandma, but the phone wouldn’t work. The dog whimpered continuously and wouldn’t leave my side. I dumped my schoolbooks out of my backpack and filled it with clothes and food. It would take days to get to Grandma’s on my own, but I knew I had to get out of there. I tied my wagon to the back of my bike and loaded it with my backpack, my father’s old sleeping bag, and some dog food. As I peddled out of the driveway and down the road, with the dog at my side, I realized that I’d forgotten the calamine lotion on my dresser. I didn’t dare go back for it.
“And that was my last day inside the quarantine zone.” I finish talking and lean back in my chair as the researcher makes a few notes.
She shakes her head as she writes. “You were a smart boy to get yourself out of there.”
I shrug and rub the stubble on my chin. “Do you really think there’s any hope of saving them?” I ask. “I mean… it’s been so long.”
She sighs and looks at the live-feed monitors that fill the walls around us. Every house in my little town is covered in peeling paint and is surrounded by waist-high, yellow grass and rusted cars. None of the inhabitants seem to notice as they set out on their daily shuffle to the big top. I catch a glimpse of my un-aged mother in the crowd. She’s still wearing the same dress, only now it’s faded and so tattered that I can see her yellowed slip underneath. Her skin is nearly translucent and her eyes have sunk deep into her head.
“Who knows?” the researcher says. “We’ve had some minor successes with the aerial inoculations, but I don’t know how we’ll ever get their memories back when we can’t even figure out why they don’t die.”
Then I notice something different about my mother. I peer at the screen and my eyes well with tears for the first time since the dog and I made it to Grandma’s. The bottle of calamine lotion is sticking out of her dress pocket… and I’m sure it wasn’t there last week.
She remembers me.