I remember the day the Fear came. Slowly at first, creeping up on us silently until it overtook us like a tsunami wave. At first, we thought it was for our own good. “Stay inside,” they said, “Protect the vulnerable. Save lives,” they said. And we believed them. We thought life would return to normality, that schools would reopen, and restaurants and shops. We believed that up until they didn’t. Then they simply said, “Stay inside.” No reason that we knew of. But we listened and followed and obeyed. They told us it was for our own good. They told us it would keep us safe. Eventually we stopped asking what from. I haven’t been back to school since year nine. None of us have. We stayed at home, glued to the screens that became our lifeline to the outside world. The novelty of it soon wore off. We no longer FaceTimed and chatted online. We didn’t phone and make plans for ‘after’. Maybe because we always knew there wouldn’t be an ‘after’. Or maybe just because we got tired of pretending after years that something better might happen.
I don’t know why I decided to come back here. I didn’t ever think I would see the inside of this building again. I’m breaking the rules, of course. The rules that say we must not set foot outside our houses. The rules that condemn us for wanting space, wanting to breathe. The rules that left us with empty parks and tracking wristbands. The rules that led to the Fear. I know I’ll be seen. I know I can’t run forever. But maybe it’s worth a try for one last set of memories.
It’s like I remembered it, this building. Same green gates, only the paint is flaking and peeling, and the metal is rusted. They hang open, just like that last day when we all rushed out, not knowing we would ever return. It seems so easy to slip inside, just to take one final look. I’ve come this far. I find myself outside the main block easily. Sneaking in through a fire exit, I nip along corridors as silent as a ghost, glancing through the zoetrope of open doors. Every single classroom stands as empty as tomb. These corridors that were once busy with students and staff and silent. Deserted. I peek into classrooms – the science labs, the high stools tucked under the workstations just like any other normal day. Except it’s not any other normal day. This should have been my last day, the day we should have left school. It’s been four and a half years since we said our rushed goodbyes. We never thought we’d miss this. This should have been a happy day, filled with laughter and memories and joy and colour. Speeches, signed shirts and special celebrations. But the world’s gone grey now. The sun goes on shining and the rain goes on falling, but no one cares anymore. Because what’s the point of life if you can’t go on living?
I run my hand along the banister, and a layer of dust swirls into the air, sending memories whirling. No one has been here, cleaned this place, since we got told there was no going back. The stairs up to the school hall are lined with photos of music concerts and sporting matches and house notices. It’s the younger versions of us staring out of these photos. I find an image of our orchestra and see myself in the midst of instruments and people. Smiling people. Happy faces that seem so wrong. Faces that never guessed what the future held. We lost everything we wanted out of life. We lost our exams, our concerts, matches and assemblies. Things that seemed so trivial when there was no end to them. Until the day we were sent home. I reach into my pocket for my phone. The last photos I have on my camera roll were from that day. Because for the four and a half years since, we’ve had nothing to celebrate. Nothing to share. These photos of me and my best friends are the last memories I have, of life before the Fear.
And that’s when I hear it. The eerie, echoing sound of my wristband. The wristband that tracks us and prevents us from ever exploring what life could be like beyond the four walls of our houses. I look down at my wrist. It flashes red. I know what that means. That means the police are coming. And then I hear them. The crashing and shouting and footsteps that are just outside. Only a door and a flight of stairs away from finding me. Once I would have worried about a detention. Now I have much bigger problems on my mind. Like the Fear. I know my time’s running out. But why run, when the only punishment for breaking lockdown is to be locked up?