Tam didn’t particluarly want her picture taken by some old pervert, but she gave him the benefit of the doubt long enough to ask, “Why?” He said that he was going to write a book when this whole thing was over. She gave in reluctantly. He used an unspecial digital automatic. He took the picture fast and without giving her instructions about how she should pose, which was reassuring. He introduced himself as Ollie. His voice implied barbeques, many barbeques.
She felt she had to debate what he had said, even if it was just for the sake of the girl to her other side who was now standing with her arms folded, looking huffy. “Don’t you think you’re a bit pessimistic, Ollie?” she said.
“Not a jot, my friend,” said Ollie. “Far as I know there’s no cure, and the chance of survival is, well, a bit like climbing out of a black hole. So, what ya gonna do?”
“Well, you could sugar-coat it, Mister,” said the teenager. The kid was angry. Her t-shirt was baby blue with a cartoon of a broken egg and the words ‘Didn’t See That Coming’ in chunky white letters.
Nobody spoke for a while, since the conversation had effectively been killed. Tam soaked up the room. People were crying, eating, walking, praying, smoking, arguing. In pairs, in groups, alone. Some were asleep in their seats. Anyone not otherwise engaged was staring at the numbers on the board. A few looked like they were arriving with supplies, or interviewing for the papers. It was like an employment expo in a third-world country. A guy with a cardboard box came over and asked Tam if she wanted beer, cigarettes or Twinkies. She told him where to get off.
“Taking advantage of people’s misery,” she muttered.
“Some people have been here a long time,” said Ollie. “They’re glad of it. You don’t see METMA handing out pizza.”
Tam had to concede the point. “Well, I don’t think this is the kind of environment that’s helped by drinking beer,” she said to save face.
Again, they stood and watched. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. And it smelled like mouldy body odour. She felt uneasy, possibly because she was a control freak and couldn’t think what to do next. Eventually, the girl in the egg t-shirt said, “Who’s your victim?”
Tam decyphered her meaning before answering. “My boyfriend,” she said. “Partner, really. How about you?”
“My brother,” she said, and sighed as if he was always causing her this kind of trouble. Tam was about to ask Ollie the question but she felt an unidentifiable tension coming from the girl. Maybe she didn’t want him included in their conversation. Tam felt awkward about it. She tried to compromise by including him but changing the subject.
“They’ve got to let us see them if we ask, right?” she said.
Ollie sucked in a breath as if she had suggested popping blisters. “Ixnay on the isitvay,” he said. “You don’t have to like me but you should listen to me. Whoever you’ve sent in there, you’re not seeing them again. The Wrecks are popping up like weeds in there and if they’re anywhere near a civilian, it’s game over.” Tam remembered what Caleb had said about the bodies. She remembered the smoking chimney. If Ollie was right she would never see him again, even as a corpse.
“Well for Christ’s sake, what are they doing in there?” she said. “This is supposed to be a Treatment Centre.”
“Uh, since when?” said Ollie. “Trauma Centre. Nobody ever said ‘treatment’. There’s a big difference.” With that he folded his arms and scanned the crowd studiously. Tam’s breathing got shallow and she forced herself to calm down. Some cobwebs cleared in her mind. She had got used to calling it a Treatment Centre, but that was false. There was no treatment. She had let Caleb go without even a word.
“So what was the point?” she shouted like it was someone else. “We could have gone to the mountains! We could have spent our last days by a lake together. I could have burned him myself when he died. What the fuck are we doing here? Why did I let him go?”
People stopped talking nearby. Things came into sharp focus. Some kids were being entertained by an amateur magician. A nurse was attending to a man who had fainted. Somebody was playing guitar. A soldier was looking right at Tam and walking towards her, very slowly, with his hand on his rifle.
“Anybody got a cigarette?” she said. She didn’t smoke but right now looked like a good time to start. Ollie, God bless him, waved to a vendor and got her a pack of something. The soldier seemed to nod to Tam infinitesimally, then he turned and walked away.