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Before This Is Over
Read by Cat Gould
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 28, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In the midst of a devastating epidemic, how far will a desperate mother go to keep her loved ones safe?
Hannah drew the sheet around her face and nose so that it caught a pocket of her breath and warmed the air. She sank into the mattress, as if the bed were wrapped around her, around both of them. She felt Sean’s bulk beside her, impressing his shape down into the bed and up into the bedclothes. Cocooned together. Her dozy mind moved around the house, expanding the cocoon to encompass the boys as well. She tried to pull herself back into sleep, think herself deeper into the bed—but sleep slid away every time she got close.
She leaned over Sean to look at the clock, making nothing more than a pretense of trying not to wake him.
“It’s too late to go back to sleep, hon, too early to wake up.” He whispered but his voice was alert.
“How long have you been awake?”
“Not long. I didn’t want to disturb the boys. Don’t want them up any earlier than they have to be.”
She felt the hyperawareness and nausea of overtiredness. Every time either of the boys went away, sleeplessness broke out. Ever since they were little. Even for a sleepover. She had woken up last night, she couldn’t remember how many times, with some specific dread in mind—a bus crash, a swimming accident, a teacher turning away for a second, Zac following instructions to some terrible conclusion that she just stopped herself from imagining in detail.
Three hours’ drive was too far away.
The teachers seemed competent but she didn’t know them. If there was a crisis, if hard decisions had to be made, Zac would be just another one of the kids.
She ran through a list of warnings for Zac in her mind. About washing his hands and not kissing anyone (not that he showed any signs of being interested in kissing), not following along if his instinct tingled, the numbers to ring in an emergency. It was important he knew she trusted him, but what if the one thing she didn’t tell him was the one thing he needed to know?
And then there were all the things she couldn’t influence, the people she couldn’t give a stern lecture to. The bus driver falling asleep, the air-conditioning in the hotel spreading germs, something Zac would have no control over, something she couldn’t prevent with cautionary words. The luck of where he sat determining how he fared.
“He doesn’t have to go.” It slipped out, so softly she wasn’t sure Sean had heard.
“He’ll be fine,” Sean whispered curtly back. “He’s not a little kid. He went last year, he was fine.”
“The school should have postponed it.”
There was silence for a moment from Sean, an impatient silence. “It’s not like he’s going to Bangkok. There isn’t a single case in Canberra. There isn’t really even a case here yet. Do you want him to be the only kid who doesn’t go?”
“It’s not like this is important.”
Sean’s whisper became sharp. “It is to him.”
Why was it so hard to see the times she should have dug in her heels, except in hindsight? It was Pascal’s wager, the tiniest chance of danger to her kids weighing heavily against a very large chance of looking a bit foolish.
From deep in the house she heard Zac’s bedroom door slam and the sluggish thump of his feet in the hall. Sean dug her in the ribs. “Time to get up.”
As Hannah came down the hall, Zac was in the doorway of the kitchen, silhouetted by the weak rays of the not-quite-risen sun. His edge was clear and solid. Watching him, her eyes relaxed. Yet again he took her by surprise, his slender height filling the door, his arm up, hand lazily touching the lintel. Her round and squidgy boy had been pulled out to a long strand.
Sean was a few paces into the room, his form dark in the shadows of the kitchen. He seemed solid compared to the slight, bright mirror of his son. They were saying the easy, normal, meaningless, repetitive things that had become habit. Words that started and ended everything. Zac’s clear young voice, so light it almost blew away before she could catch it, broke through Sean’s soft, low rumble. As she slid past, Zac pulled closer to the door frame to let her by. He loosely held a piece of toast.
“That’s not all you’re having to eat?”
“It’s too early for food.”
The colors in the room shifted blue as she turned on the light. She made herself a cup of coffee to drink while she made Zac’s lunch, going back to the cupboard for extras—a muesli bar, some crackers, a bag of chips. Just in case. For whatever situation it was she couldn’t foresee. Zac wouldn’t eat any of them, and in five days’ time the lunch bag would come back with the extra food intact.
She turned the radio down low so as not to wake Oscar. A case in Sydney would have been the lead story, but there wasn’t one. All she got was Newcastle and no change, more people sick but no confirmed cases since that lone woman last week. And Thailand and Britain. Actual cases but too far away to be the justification she needed to cancel Zac’s trip. Too far away, too hard to grasp, meaningless numbers. There would be nothing official from China, yet again.
When Sean and Zac paused in their conversation, she found herself saying, “Do you have your phone?”
“Is it on and charged?”
“Yes, Mum.” A slightly impatient smile.
“Okay then.” But she couldn’t just let him go. “Be careful.”
“I always am.”
“Do you have some money, just in case?”
Sean, leaning against the wall, swiveled to her. “I gave him money. He’s fine.”
“Don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”
Zac turned back to face her, his smile wider now, and good-natured. “I’m not going to be running around in the middle of the night, Mum. I promise.”
“Of course not. Just stay safe.” She watched him as he rifled through his bag, checking against a list from the school. His face was pinker now, so alive, as the sun took over from the cold fluorescent light. All she had to do to make this feeling disappear was tell him he couldn’t go.
Sean watched Zac. “What’s the holdup? I thought I’d be rid of you by now.”
“I haven’t got my MP3 player.”
“I thought they said no electronics.”
“Yeah, but they didn’t mean it. It’s not like it’s worth anything.” He rolled his eyes as he closed up the bag, then threw it over one shoulder and loped through the door to the hall.
“Quietly,” Hannah whispered loudly to his back. “Oscar’s still asleep.”
“He’s fine, you’re fine, we’re fine. So relax.” Sean leaned back against the door frame.
“I know, but…”
“No but.” He looked her in the eye. “If you hurry back we might even get in a cup of coffee before Oscar wakes up. A whole cup of coffee with no kids actually in the room.”
She pushed past him and he followed her in silence until she paused at the front door, reluctant to let the day officially begin. “So, I should drive really fast.”
“That’s right, safely and really fast.” He swung open the front door and stepped back to let Zac through.
“And if I had a real phone I’d have music because Mum says I have to take my phone. So, you should write me a note, ’cause if I get in trouble it’s your fault.”
“Not a hope. Behave yourself and do all the stuff your mum said.”
Hannah gave Sean a quick kiss. As she got in the car, she turned for one more look, but the door was closed.
They drove to the school in comfortable silence. Zac was absorbed in his inner world. Just a couple of years ago it was hard to get a word in edgewise, but now he kept his thoughts to himself until they were well-ordered. He’d done his own packing and she was tempted to check whether he’d had the foresight to take a fleece. It had been on the list and he knew it was a few degrees colder in Canberra. It would be a learning experience—no one ever died of getting a bit chilly, although, at the moment…no, they really didn’t.
She couldn’t help herself. Some things were too important. “Don’t forget the hand goo.”
“Use it a lot.”
“I will.” He wasn’t really paying attention, but she’d said it.
The streets were still empty. It felt odd to pull into a parking space straight in front of the school, as if she were taking something not rightfully hers. Two hours from now the buildings would look the way she was used to, hidden behind double-parked cars as kids jumped out and ran for the gate.
Zac pulled his backpack out of the car as he stood up. He waited for her to come around to the curb, and they walked together into the asphalt yard and stood side by side. A knot of kids congregated in front of the waiting bus, their high, chirrupy teenage voices drowning out the muted murmur coming from the small clusters of parents. She looked around for a friendly face, but if she was being honest with herself, she didn’t really know any of Zac’s friends’ parents.
Zac stood facing no particular direction, as if he didn’t know whether to join the clump of kids or be with her. The two of them were matched in their awkwardness. She wanted to push him towards the group, but he had his own pace. His body had started to mature, but every emotion was still expressed, unfiltered, on his face and in the way he stood.
As she stared into the distance, the figure of a woman walking towards her impinged on her thoughts. Someone familiar, someone she had met before, although she couldn’t quite place where or who. Possibly Daniel’s mother, she thought. She hoped. They had definitely met more times than could justify Hannah’s not remembering her name. The woman came to a stop next to her, and side by side, in the moment before either felt compelled to say something, they looked at the kids. Hannah leaned slightly back, trying to retrieve an air gap between them.
“Is Zac as disorganized as Daniel?”
One right at least. “If there are undies in his bag, it’ll be pure chance.”
“This is embarrassing, but I’ve forgotten your name.”
Thank Christ. “Hannah.”
Hannah stared at the gaggle. Zac had moved to the outskirts, watching. She could see him unconsciously matching his body language to the other kids’, laughing at something as the others laughed. The group had widened, fanned out just enough to include him, and while he relaxed a little, he stayed listening, head to one side. Her heart jumped and she realized she was smiling, almost like she was in love.
Susan’s hand bumped the back of hers. Cold fingers. The touch was so light that normally it wouldn’t register at all. Susan was clearly unaware she’d done it. “Isn’t it terrible, the news from overseas?”
“Oh, yes, horrible.” Hannah tried to think of something more salient to say, but she couldn’t get her mind off the spot on her hand, the spot that had been touched. It could be the cold morning, but she felt a lingering sensation of damp. A wet touch would transfer germs better than a dry one. She had to fight the urge to rub the cold away with her other hand. Even if it didn’t look strange, it would do nothing but spread the germs.
She edged slightly away. On the Internet it said that she should keep a meter between herself and anyone else. Surely that wasn’t enough. Surely a cough or a sneeze could travel farther, but it might at least reduce the accidental bumps and incidental spit.
“What about Thailand? We were there at Christmas. Graeme got sick—Bali belly, and then he was dehydrated—but the hospital was terrific. Last night, there it was on the news. You could barely recognize it, there were people dying in the corridors. And it was so clean and normal when we were there. We were right there.”
Now Hannah’s hand was hanging. She fixated on it, couldn’t take her thoughts from it long enough for it to move freely. There was a wipe in her bag, but pulling it out to clean her hand now would seem rude.
Zac had broken away from the larger group. He was chatting and laughing easily with two other boys, then stopped to look around. His eyes landed on her, looking for her. He walked over self-consciously and stood slightly too far away.
“Well, bye, Mum.” He generously allowed her to hug him.
“Be good, enjoy yourself, try to learn something.”
Everyone else was lining up in front of the bus doors. If he didn’t hurry, he would be last and end up next to some kid he didn’t really know for the next three hours.
His back was pressed against the glass of the bus window. The boy on the other half of his seat was almost touching him. Another two on the seat in front and two behind. At least five kids within a meter of Zac. He leaned closer to the boy in front to say something, breathing the same air. She had forgotten to tell him about the one-meter rule, and even if she had, there wasn’t enough room on the bus to keep his distance.
He looked so capable, suddenly so much his own person. She had made him and now there he was—complete, whole, independent.
The bus lurched forward. The kids, some despite themselves, looked out the windows to their parents. Some waved, some just looked. Zac was still talking to his friends and didn’t look back, only raising a hand slightly and giving her his confident smile once the bus had almost pulled away. She stood and watched until they were out of sight.
The narrow school gate was clogged with leaving parents who had stopped in groups to talk. She had to weave through, trying not to be touched and not to breathe too hard.
She skirted a toddler hanging on to the tether of his mother with one hand and smearing his snotty nose with the other. Her pulse skipped again. But it was a cold morning—that made noses run. She looked for anything else that might be a symptom, even the memory of a cough or a sneeze. There was no way she would have missed it if someone coughed. The chance that she was looking at the first case in Sydney was minuscule.
Not every sneeze was Manba, that was what she had to keep telling herself. But not everyone who had Manba had symptoms. Any of these healthy-looking people could be in the early stages—or be an asymptomatic carrier—and you wouldn’t know.
This was how bad things happened—by ignoring her instincts. If something went wrong, she would always know she’d had a choice to stop him from going. She had to hold herself back from running after the bus.
Every kid did this. All the kids went, the teachers would look after them, Zac was safe. She knew that. She told herself that. But still Hannah felt she had failed him.
It was too late now. It was done.
The cold nip of the car door handle took her by surprise. She glanced at the clock—seven thirty, even though the bus was supposed to leave by seven. Still enough time to get home and get Oscar ready. As much out of habit as anything, she turned on the radio for the news. She felt jumpy, maybe just eager to get home.
There was more traffic on the road now. As she passed Oscar’s school, kids were already arriving. A harried-looking father dropped two small girls at the gate of the before-school care center.
The voice from the radio pushed itself to the front of her attention. “…organizers believe they have now identified all attendees. However, a small number have still not been located. The World Health Organization has offered assistance to any government whose citizens attended the conference…”
The wind had picked up a little, and the kids looked like small blue-and-white bundles with their arms wrapped around themselves.
“…on farms all over Britain, thousands of animals have already been put down. Protesters gathered in London are claiming that the cull will do nothing to reduce the spread of Manba without a significant drive to identify wild animal vectors. Wide-scale testing of nondomestic animals in the Manchester area has begun…”
Gwen had asked her yesterday if their cat caught birds. She’d explained that Mr. Moon certainly recognized birds as a source of food, but if it didn’t come out of a can, it wasn’t worth his effort. Gwen had looked unconvinced. Hannah hadn’t bothered to point out that Manba wasn’t bird flu and she should worry instead about whether Mr. Moon caught bats.
“…reports that airport employees are refusing to unload passengers from a plane originating in Bangkok. A short time ago, the minister for immigration said a decision would be made soon on whether the passengers will be allowed to enter the country. In the meantime, the plane is being supplied with food and water…”
She thought of all those people returning from holidays. So close to being home after such a long flight, but still stuck in a metal tube. Imagine being sent back to a forced vacation in a disease zone. Well, at least it wasn’t summer, so the plane wouldn’t heat up too fast as it sat.
“…is advising anyone planning overseas travel to postpone their journey. People who must travel are advised to stay away from areas where large groups congregate, including tourist attractions and conferences…”
No one she knew would get sick, she had to believe that. The outbreaks overseas would die out. And everyone would complain about panicky scientists, who would insist that we still needed to be prepared for next time. And that would be it.
Or it wouldn’t.
And she was prepared. Except that in three hours Zac would be three hours away and she had no control over Newcastle Hospital, airport security, government policy, or viruses.
The news continued—a story about a film star, sports, and weather. She switched it off.
As the car turned onto the driveway, she noticed again the way the facade spanned the property, presenting a united front with Gwen’s half of the semidetached house. Its thick front door deadened the sound from the street. Even the side passage between their house and Natalie and Stuart’s was barred by a tall wooden gate. An unbroken barrier to keep out noise, dust, draft, people, and germs.
The solidarity was broken only by the paint. Heritage hues of Brunswick green and Indian red on their side abruptly changed to a particularly powdery shade of lavender on Gwen’s. Otherwise, they were mirrors.
As she walked through the front door, she could hear the happiness in Oscar’s high voice, carried all the way from the back. Sunlight through the kitchen window washed the room in a golden glow. At the stove, Sean leaned over a sandwich toasting in the frying pan.
“You call that breakfast?”
“I see four food groups here, if you count fat.” He lifted the corner of the sandwich with a spatula and a trickle of melted cheese oozed out. “I’ll make you one if you’re nice to me.”
She planted a swift kiss on his cheek. “Will that do?”
“Payment in full.”
The top half of the room was warm and humid, filled with steam from the kettle, but air from outside still crept in under the back door. Oscar sat at the table in his frog-covered flannel pajamas, one size too big. Unlike Zac at the same age, for Oscar five was still young enough not to think they were uncool. He had rosy spots on his cheeks, but his naked feet were pinched with cold.
“Did you see him leave? We wouldn’t want him to sneak back.” Sean winked at Oscar, who giggled.
“He was fine. The bus was late but they eventually left.”
“And no one was panicking. They breathed in, they breathed out, the world is the same as it was yesterday, isn’t it?” She chose to ignore him. “Isn’t it? Oscar, ask Mummy if the world has changed.”
“Mummy, has the world…”
“No, it hasn’t, the world hasn’t changed.” She begrudged him a smile. “No disaster struck, the bus left, everything is the same. Today. But tomorrow…”
“Tomorrow is tomorrow. Today, nothing has changed.” He slid her toasted sandwich onto a plate and held it out to her. “Breathe. You’re the only one panicking. He’s fine.” He stopped with the spatula hovering over his sandwich. “What date is it?”
“Are you sure? Crap, I missed my sister’s birthday.”
“It’s still yesterday there.”
“I’ll ring her from work. What’s the time difference?”
“I don’t know. Day is night, use the Internet.”
She got to the hospital just before her appointment time. The main building was new—all glass and exposed concrete. Wide public spaces that meant you might be on time when you arrived on the grounds but were late by the time you walked through the front door.
Her doctor was housed in a side wing, an old building that had somehow escaped being knocked down. Its entrance was homier, less grand than the main entrance, but today it was covered by a large red X of electrical tape, holding in place a sign that read CLINIC OPEN. USE MAIN ENTRANCE.
The main entrance was impersonal and, regardless of the weather or the signs forbidding smoking within ten meters of the doors, there was always a knot of gowned patients, cigarettes in hand, just to one side. As she reached the edifice, she noticed that the contingent was larger than usual and all gathered around one door, the only door that wasn’t covered with more red tape. Thicker smoke to walk through.
The crowd jostled for position in front of a harried individual wearing a hi-vis yellow vest. A disgruntled woman walking past Hannah said, “They tell me I can’t see my brand-new grandchild. What a lot of nonsense over nothing.”
It became clear as Hannah waded into the crowd that it formed a kind of disordered line. The man in the vest held up his hand to the person in front, who seemed to be berating him, and called out, “Anyone with an appointment?” Hannah put up her hand tentatively. “Fill in the form, then go to one of the desks inside.” He went back to his argument.
The form consisted of a plain A4 page printed in black. “Do you have an appointment today? Have you returned from overseas in the last two months? Have you developed a cough in the last week? Have you had a fever in the last week?” She ticked them off.
Inside, the normally spacious foyer was cut in half by a dotted barrier of white desks. They demarcated the normal soup of life and germs she had left outside from an unaccustomedly empty and sterile world of illness. She handed her filled-in form to the woman at the nearest desk. The woman addressed herself to the form, as if Hannah were a bystander. “Have you been away in the last few weeks?”
“Have you been unwell in any way this week?”
“Is this your signature?”
The woman gestured to a pump bottle of hand sanitizer on the desk. “You have to clean your hands before you go through.”
Hannah hesitated. “Has something happened at the hospital? Is that why all the extra fuss?”
The woman looked up. “We should be doing this all the time, if you ask me, not just when there’s some crisis overseas.”
Past the desks, it was suddenly quiet. In the long corridor through the main building to the clinic wing, she passed only purposeful staff and others like her, late for appointments.
The waiting room was as full as always but eerily silent. Even in normal times, she had noticed, people spoke to each other in whispers. Most came with a companion but they rarely chatted, as if they couldn’t find words up to the task of conveying any more than what had to be said. The dominant sounds were usually the crash of trolleys and nurses calling or laughing, but today even those were muted.
The volunteer was missing from the hot drinks trolley. In her place was a piece of printer paper with a handwritten sign reading HELP YOURSELF. Hannah never felt comfortable accepting a drink, especially in recent years. She thought the other patients looked at her, with her head of hair and the spring in her step, questioning whether she qualified for the club. She’d spent so much time waiting in this room that she was no longer a guest—she could make her own coffee. The doctors here gave people great chunks of life that were tithed back in many small appointments.
"When a global epidemic spreads to Sydney, Australia, one mother fights to keep her family alive and together in Hickie's debut thriller.... Quarantined together, Hannah's family faces challenges to their safety and questions about the limits of human empathy as they fight not only to survive, but to keep their own relationships intact. There is no shortage of suspense in Hickie's novel.... There's an effective sense of claustrophobia; once the family goes into quarantine, they have little contact with any other people or any other places, so the reader is trapped with them in their house-and in their roiling emotions. The most wrenching subplot involves a dead neighbor whose little girl is taken in, rather reluctantly, by Hannah's family. Poses the typical challenges to our safe, complacent lives, forcing readers to ask, "What would I do if...."
"A tense debut.... Under these circumstances, how does one cope with entertaining an active child or feeding a growing, whiny teenager, who eats as if supermarkets are still open and refuses to understand why he can't use the Internet? Neighbors turning on neighbors is expected, but society is beyond broken when a family turns on itself. Hickie realistically depicts how isolation and the threat of disease affect one family, especially when electricity, water, and other services break down."
- "Amanda Hickie's debut novel is a gripping look at the way humanity handles crisis."—Chelsea Hassler, Newsweek
"Before This is Over follows the same suspenseful lines as the post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach, which follows the day-to-day experiences of a group of Australians awaiting the fallout from nuclear war - but Hickie finds more to fear in disasters that have already happened than in any abstract threat....chilling."
—Jennifer Kay, Associated Press
"This slow-burn suspense carries a too-healthy dose of realism that will leave readers biting their nails."
—Rebecca Vnuk, Booklist
"Don't think you'll be able to grab a snack once you start Before This Is Over, Amanda Hickie's shatteringly suspenseful debut, because it's impossible not to be super-glued to the page. As the world succumbs to a deadly virus, Hannah, her husband and her two kids are barricaded in their home, on alert for dangerous looters, food thieves, and the contaminated sick. This is a novel that slowly, expertly nudges under your skin, and stays there, even as it raises provocative questions about what price you might pay to keep the ones you love safe. Gorgeously written and so chillingly alive that I was still unnerved hours after finishing the book-and how great is that?"
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow
"Gripping and terrifyingly realistic, Before This Is Over is the story of a mother trapped in the epicenter of a deadly global virus - and the agonizing choices she must make to keep her family alive."
—Sarah Pekkanen, bestselling author of The Perfect Neighbors
"This tale's tight lines of logic and sharp interrogation of the limits of compassion...make for a fascinating read."
—Ed Wright, The Australian
"What would you do in an epidemic?... Utterly fascinating, a little gruesome and impossible to put down.... This is a slow-burn thriller that would make an excellent choice for a book club."
—Jessica Broadbent, Books + Publishing
"A bravely told story of one woman's courage despite terrible odds."
—Nancy Freund, author of Rapeseed
"Before This is Over is a gripping book that feels a hundred percent real. Hannah's point of view is so encompassing, I found myself worrying that I hadn't sanitized the hand rail of the treadmill I was reading on, and I didn't have enough food at home if we got trapped there. Moriarty might have a run for her money with debut novelist and fellow Australian Amanda Hickie, who has stretched the boundary for women's fiction even further."
—Jami Deise, Chick Lit Central
- On Sale
- Mar 28, 2017
- Hachette Audio