Brian Falkner's short story collection contains stories which are heartbreaking, inspirational, and eye-opening. You view the world as a bully, a brother and sister, a dementia sufferer and a person living in the world which is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. Most of all, you view the world as the person telling the story. That Stubborn Seed of Hope (University of Queensland Press) was chosen as one of our Top YA Books of 2017. This is an extract from the story called The Kiss.
Reproduced with permission, from 'The Kiss'
Samanthah Millah, with an extra H on the end of both of her names, was sweet sixteen, soon to turn seventeen, and she had never been kissed. But there was a reason for that.
It wasn’t that boys weren’t interested in her, or that she lived by herself on a desert island (although it felt like that sometimes), or that she went to an all-girls school or anything like that.
Nobody kissed any more.
Not since Marburg.
Nobody kissed any more. Not since Marburg.
Marburg was a virus, a cousin of the deadly Ebola virus. Like Ebola it had come out of Africa, Angola to be exact. Countries surrounding Angola had shut their borders, but Marburg was smarter than that. It didn’t try to cross the borders; it just flew out on an airliner in the body of a Canadian photo-journalist who had been sent to the country to cover the original outbreak.
For days it slowly multiplied in his bloodstream, before revealing its presence. In that time the journalist infected over seventy-five people. Two weeks later he was dead.
From Canada the disease spread to the United States, and from there it spread to the entire world.
The medical authorities were always three steps behind in trying to contain the outbreak, which had swiftly become an epidemic, and then a pandemic.
Now it was worldwide, and it wasn’t going away. ‘Marburg’: a pretty little name for a microscopic organism that loved nothing better than burrowing into human cells and making lots of little baby viruses.
There was no treatment and no cure. There was only prevention.
In a heartbeat, society changed. Kissing, hand-shaking, hugging had been the first to go.
In a heartbeat, society changed. Kissing, hand-shaking, hugging had been the first to go.
Samanthah could live with that. She had never been much of a hugger anyway, and hand-shaking had always seemed a bit of a male thing, and also a bit dirty to her. Half the time boys at her school had their fingers up their noses, were scratching their butts, or picking at their teeth. Sometimes all three. Who’d want to touch those hands?
They probably didn’t wash them after using the toilet either.
Samanthah took off her face-mask even before she had kicked the front door shut with a flick of her foot. She hung it on the peg with her name on it and gave it a spray from the disinfectant bottle on the table underneath. The stuff smelled revolting when wet, but it would dry quickly.
“I’m home!” she yelled, but got no answer. It was after 5. School had finished at 3 but she’d had chess club after that. She'd won two and lost one, which put her almost at the top of the leader board, second only to Jun Peng.
Her mother was in the TV room with the volume up loud, the sounds of some daytime soap foaming through the walls. Her sister had band practice and wouldn’t be home till later. Her father was still at work.
Samanthah went to the bathroom, peeled off her day-gloves and dropped them into the sanitisation unit.
She showered next, with the antiseptic soap and shampoo. Marburg was not airborne (God help the world if it ever learnt how to fly) but even so it was a sensible precaution to remove the crud of the world from your hair and skin. The atmosphere was a soup, and who knew what you were bringing into the house.
Clean, and feeling fresh, she went straight to her bedroom, opened her computer, and filled out her logbook for the day. Everybody she had met, everybody she had talked to, every place she had been.
Clean, and feeling fresh, she went straight to her bedroom, opened her computer, and filled out her logbook for the day.
That was the law.
Not filling in your logbook correctly, or in full, was a criminal offence.
She could remember a time when it hadn’t been. When there was no logging. She was old enough to remember ‘BTV’, as the kids at school liked to say. Before The Virus. Before Marburg. But that seemed so long ago.
She finished and logged off. There would be more to do after the game tonight, but she’d do that when she got home.
‘What time’s dinner?’ she shouted, and when her voice failed to make an impression on The Bold and the Beautiful, she walked downstairs and into the TV room.
Her mother was a thin, rather severe looking woman in her 40s, with blonde hair but grey roots.
‘What time is dinner?’
‘When your sister gets home,’ her mother said, still smiling.
‘But the game starts at 6.30!’
‘Make yourself something,’ her mother said. ‘You’re quite capable.’
The ads finished and her mother turned the TV sound back on. On the screen a bold man standing behind a beautiful woman started an earnest conversation with the back of her head.
Samanthah shut the door.
Since Marburg the television had become her mother’s only friend. That was an epidemic every bit as real as Marburg. It was safer just to stay at home, so that was all a lot of people did. With phones and social media, who really needed to see other people in person? Samanthah sighed and went through into the kitchen. She would look after her own dinner. Again.
Since Marburg the television had become her mother’s only friend ... With phones and social media, who really needed to see other people in person?
Jenny, younger by four years, was obviously her parents’ favourite. But there was no use crying about it. Her boyfriend Darren was playing striker tonight and she didn't want to miss it. If she wasn’t going to starve through the entire game, she’d have to feed herself.
She scanned the contents of the fridge. There was a packet of chicken thighs in a plastic tray at the back of the bottom shelf. She was halfway through slicing them, intending to fry them and make a wrap, when she remembered to check the expiry date.
The chicken went straight in the bin.
She still made the wrap, but replaced the chicken with a little lean ham. A brand-new pack, well before its ‘Best By’ date.
Half an hour later her mask was back in place with new gloves, already disinfected, and she was wheeling her bicycle out of the garage, past the Audi, which her mother barely used.
In the early days of Marburg her father had built a huge stone wall in the front of their house, topped with broken glass. He had also strengthened the fence around their backyard and fortified that with barbed wire. Samanthah had joked that he was expecting The Attack of the Mutant Zombies. Her father just said it was best to be prepared.
Samanthah knew what the wall was really for. If Marburg got out of control there could be a complete breakdown of society. Anarchy. And if that happened it would be everyone for themselves.
The gate was a sturdy metal thing, with sharp spikes on the top. It slid open quickly, and she made sure it shut behind her before heading off to the hockey pitch.
Darren had been lucky. A winger in the school footy team, he had been one of those with the natural ability to make a switch when football, like all other full contact sports, was banned.
Darren’s speed and his hand-eye co-ordination had won him a place on the school hockey team, one of the sports that was still allowed, provided the players wore masks.
The hockey complex was sponsored by a freight removal company and their logo was imprinted on the artificial turf, as well as on the side of the main clubhouse. There were four fields, named after planets for some reason known only to those who had built it.
Darren was playing on Jupiter, the main ground, where they played the rep games on weekends. That was good, the seats were better. Samanthah made her way along the stands to where a group of her friends were sitting. Most of them had boyfriends or brothers in the game, or were in the girls’ team which was playing next.
Hockey, in the age of Marburg, looked like a horror movie. The hockey masks were made of fibreglass with holes for the eyes, nostrils, and smaller holes for breathing, and presumably sweating. There were built-in filters, to prevent infection. Although hockey was not a contact sport, nobody wanted to take any chances. But in the harsh glare of the pole-mounted floodlights, the game looked like a field full of psychotic killers trying to hack each other to death with scythes.
Hockey, in the age of Marburg, looked like a horror movie. ... in the harsh glare of the pole-mounted floodlights, the game looked like a field full of psychotic killers trying to hack each other to death with scythes.
It was cold. It was always cold here, even in summer. Darren had a theory that the sprinklers they used to dampen the turf before games had an effect on the local atmosphere, creating a sub-climate where heat could not penetrate.
Samanthah thought it was just something to do with the way the surrounding hills and the nearby lake channelled the wind across the grounds. Whatever the reason, at night hockey games it was the coldest place in the universe.
But viruses didn’t like the cold either.
The game was exciting, a real nail biter. Locked up with one minute to go, it was Darren who busted open the right wing with a long weaving run, leaving three opposition players in his wake. The defenders blocked him, but he flicked a pass off to Tom, in the centre, then looped around the defenders and received the ball back with only the goalkeeper to beat. He feinted to the right, then tapped to the left and the ball slipped past the keeper’s outstretched feet and hit the backboard with a harsh clack.
The buzzer sounded for the end of the game and the rest of the players were all over Darren, cheering and hugging him, forgetting all about the safety rules. The referee and the side-line umpires were immediately in there, blowing whistles, trying to break up the celebration. Viral Safety came first. Everybody knew that.
When Darren stood up, Samanthah was hardly concerned to see that his mask had come off. It wouldn’t be a problem. Every player was tested weekly. You wanted to play, you had to get tested - simple as that. And there hadn’t been a new case of Marburg in Australia in the past three months. Who cared about a slipped mask.
Darren walked her home, holding her hand, skipping beside her like a small child, full of adrenalin, endorphins and excitement. With her other hand Samanthah pushed her bike.
‘There were scouts at the game,’ he said. ‘National scouts. Of all the games to have a blinder, whoa, it’s just like, whoa.’
‘Did they speak to you when it was over?’
He shook his head. ‘No, but they were there, and I had one of the best games of my life. They have to have noticed.’
‘Yay you,’ Samanthah said. She was genuinely happy for him. Hockey was already shaping up as one of the major new television sports. Players were being recruited for outrageous sums of money, some straight out of high school for the big clubs’ development programs. No wonder Darren was excited.
She could feel his grip through the layers of protective rubber, although she couldn’t feel his skin. It would be nice to feel his skin. But nobody did that anymore. Well, almost nobody.
She could feel his grip through the layers of protective rubber, although she couldn’t feel his skin. It would be nice to
feel his skin.
Was it love - what she felt for Darren? The other girls at school were always talking about love. For some of them that was all they talked about. How their love was pure and great. She wasn't so sure. Maybe she was in love with him. She missed him when they weren’t together. Was that love? She sometimes saw his face in her dreams. Was that love? She strongly wanted to kiss him. Maybe that was love.
She’d had a good day, jumping almost to the top of the leader-board at chess club. He’d had a great day too. They were both buzzing.
It was outside her house that it happened. Standing in the shadow of the big stone wall with the broken glass top to keep out the mutant zombies and crazed Marburg killers.
She stopped on the side, where the security cameras her father had installed could not see.
‘Kiss me,’ she said.
He leant forward but she put a hand on his chest and pushed him gently away.
‘Masks off,’ she said.
‘Kiss me,’ she said ... ‘Masks off,’ she said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘You’re not infected,’ she said. ‘I’m not infected. Why not? Other people do it.’
‘Who?’ Darren was still not convinced.
‘Jennifer and Gary,’ Samanthah said. ‘She told me.’
‘Not true,’ he said. ‘I heard about that. They clissed.’
Cling film kissing, or ‘clissing’ had become popular since the outbreak of the disease. A layer of cling film provided protection and it was said to feel almost like the real thing.
‘That’s what Jennifer told her parents, and what she told Gary to say,’ Samanthah said. ‘But I know that after a couple of minutes they threw away the cling film and carried on without it.’
‘But Gary said –’
‘She swore him to secrecy. Doesn’t want her parents to find out. She only told me because I’m her best friend.’ She stopped, reflecting on what she had just said. ‘Don’t you say anything to anyone!’
‘I won’t,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t.’
‘I mean it. Don’t you dare breathe a word! If it got back to her parents -’
‘I won’t,’ he said. ‘Really. I won’t.’
The moment stretched, a bit uncomfortably. She wheeled her bike over to the wall and rested it on the stone surface, then looked around, checking for cars, or passers-by.
On the other side of the street was a small park, deserted at this time of night. The nearest neighbours on that side were a long way down. Nobody could see them. Even so, she took Darren’s gloved hand and pulled him into the deepest shadow of the wall, before slowly slipping her mask down to her neck.
He seemed uncertain, but eventually did the same.
It was amazing to see his lips. Strong lips, not thin or dry like her father’s or soft and coloured like her mother’s. It made her realise how seldom she saw anyone's lips, except those of her own family. Noses, too, were always covered by a medi-mask.
It was amazing to see his lips. Strong lips, not thin or dry like her father’s or soft and coloured like her mother’s.
Darren’s lips looked like a man’s should. His nose was straight, and not too big or small. He was quite handsome underneath his mask. The thought of what she was about to do thrilled her. It wasn’t just about a kiss; it was the thought of breaking all the rules that were making life so sterile and dull.
She looked up at him and parted her lips slightly, waiting. He moved forward and slowly bent down. Closer, closer. Then there was just the lightest brush of skin, bare, unprotected skin, on skin. His lips on hers, a soft warmth that was only there for the time it takes a heart to beat, then it was gone. A butterfly dancing across her face, no more, and now he was pulling back.
‘We shouldn’t do this,’ Darren said. ‘That’s how germs are spread.’
‘But neither of us has any germs.’
‘Even so,’ he said.
‘Even so,’ she agreed, and in some inner place she was relieved. She pulled her face mask up quickly, and gave him a long hug goodbye so he’d know she wasn’t angry with him, then she opened the gate and slipped quickly inside, into their sanitised, isolated home.
She could still feel Darren’s lips on hers as she parked her bike and took off her jacket. She could still smell him.
And taste him.
That Stubborn Seed of Hope
by Brian Falkner
Published by Penguin Random House NZ