The line of traffic slowed to a steady crawl. Caleb had fallen asleep. His presence in the car was diminished. It gave Tam space to think about what was really going on here.
Caleb was her opposite number and the only one who could keep her in line. They fit together. It had been decided, in her mind, that this was the man she would spend her life with. He was burly and good with people, especially kids, and he was deeply in love with her and would do anything for her. At the age of 25, she had known what her life held.
Until two weeks ago. Now that plan had derailed, exploded, plunged off a bridge, hit the water and been washed down the river to the sea. No survivors. There was nothing left of her old life, nothing at all. She was alternating between chronic shock and an absurd sense of calm that seemed to belong to the veteran soldier she may have been in another life. It felt as though there was only one thing she could do. She had her orders, so there was nothing to think about. Even if he was dying. Even if dying was just the start of the horror. They were going to Keep Calm and Carry On. This was the only move in a game they had already lost.
She thought about how long it had been since her last toke on the bottle of Cognac. Long enough. She uncorked the bottle and had a short snap of it. It pumped straight through her brain and vapourised any doubt. Magic.
He stirred. When he opened his eyes, he looked at the road ahead with no comprehension for a second. In that second Tamara ran through a sequence of events that involved pepper spray, screaming and running. But he was still alive. He looked at her and smiled.
“We got any water?”
They had picked up a couple of little glass bottles of water at the bar, at extortionate cost. The money was not a big concern at the moment. She passed him a bottle. Completely out of the blue, Caleb howled like a nightmare was catching up with him. It was loud and weird and unexpected and Tamara veered off the road and dropped the bottle before she got control again. She stopped somewhere between the middle of the road and the side. He was staring at his own hands. She looked at his hands. They were not any different as far as she could see…
“What the fuck?” he gasped. “What the fuck happened? What’s going on? What is this?” Tam was suddenly very afraid. She had no idea what was wrong with him but it seemed as if he might be hallucinating.
“Where are my hands?” he said, and looked at her with complete sincerity. Like she was responsible for something that had happened while he was asleep.
“Nothing, honey! They’re right there!” She grabbed his hands. A blind spot. He might be going blind. He couldn’t see the hands in front of his face. She rubbed his palms gently. His skin was clammy. “Can you feel that?” He nodded. “Can you see this?” she said, feeling justifiably idiotic. She actually took his hand between her two and held it up to him. He nodded again.
“But it’s not mine,” he said.
He drew his hand away from her and turned it over, inspecting it. He looked at the other one and did the same. “What happened to them? Where are they? Where did these come from?”
“What? Honey, those are your hands.”
“No they’re not.”
Tamara’s mind was like a pinball bouncing through memories for information, and she found it in something that was on the news and what Imsam, that doctor, had said. This was a symptom. He was not hallucinating. He actually thought that his hands belonged to someone else. He could feel them and see them but somehow did not recognise them. It was there in his eyes. A look of disgust. He was holding the alien hands away from his body. He looked as if he wanted to chop them off. Cars steered around them, their occupants stared at the emergency with curiosity and fear. Without slowing.
She didn’t know what else to do, so she rolled down the windows and took out the pepper spray. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath, honey,” she said. Then she sprayed his hands, like she was putting fake tan on him.