“When the Bough Breaks”

When I close my eyes, I still see it standing there. It was a baby carriage, traditional looking, covered in wicker, framed in oak, trimmed in ribbon. One could tell that it was a girl from the pink blanket that hung over the side.

It was the kind of baby carriage that someone in the United States would consider an heirloom, compared to the plastic and metal monstrosities new American parents surround themselves with these days. But here in the U.K. no one glances at it twice, unless they are interested in what the baby looks like.

I never did see the baby. When I first saw the carriage, I was a hundred feet away and the mother had one hand on the handle, slowly moving the carriage on its wheels back and forth in a rocking motion, while turned and talking to one of the policemen at the barricade. That was before the crowds came.

It was another quiet day in northern England up to that point, and only a few of us had The Panic in the back of our minds. We were here for a field trip and student tour of Hadrian’s Wall and the Hillary Monastery just north of it. Most of the kids were bored with the Wall and even the Monastery, but me being from the States, I’d never seen a monastery much less something as significant in history as Hadrian’s Wall. So even though there really wasn’t much to see—the Angles, the Saxons, the Normans, the English and the Scots all borrowed freely from the Wall to build their own houses and castles—I still paid attention. The original 20-foot-tall structure was down to about four feet now, but hey, it was something that dated from the Roman Empire. You don’t find that kind of stuff in Indiana.

Oswald, my roommate, was more interested in flirting with the girls, always after “a bit of skirt,” according to him, although I’ve never seen him actually strike paydirt when it came to girls. Mostly he just ogles them. While that’s happening, I attract the usual amount of attention from the girls who just adore my Midwestern accent and love to hear me talking about the Hoosiers, my favorite college team. Tina and Brigit especially. Oswald appreciates having me around, just because he know those have a sick crush on me, and he keeps hoping to somehow benefit.

After visiting Hadrian’s Wall, they immediately took us into the monastery for the tour. They even took us in a cool tunnel that ran from the monastery to what used to be a convent about a quarter of a mile away. They said it allowed the nuns to come to Mass without getting rained on, but I imagined it was used once or twice for other purposes. Oswald grinned when it told him that; his mind is always in the gutter anyway.

We ate lunch in the central courtyard of the monastery, then I noticed that Principal Higgins and Master Fentwick were in the corner, talking quietly but excitedly to the head of the monastery. I had a pretty good idea what it was about. Ever since The Panic hit the States and then started showing up in Europe, the news here had started getting weird. It wasn’t that they started getting sensational; just in the opposite, in fact. You have to understand the British; it takes a nuclear holocaust to get them excited about anything, and even when they announced that the world was ending they wouldn’t raise their voice.

I could tell that The Panic was becoming a bigger deal, because the BBC talked about it less and less, and each broadcast was more terse, more restrained. Finally, when they stopped talking about it altogether and were more interested in the football scores (“Manchester United Wins Again!”), I noticed that the light to Mr. Higgins’ office was on late into the night, and the crackle and buzz of a ham radio trickled through the night.

And then there was the sudden field trip. One day we were preparing for Matura exams, the next morning we were all packed into a bus and heading north to Hadrian’s Wall. I’d told Oswald about the ham radio and The Panic, but he blew it off. If it didn’t wear a skirt, he wasn’t interested.

So now I watched the adults, huddling and talking all serious-like, and it didn’t give me any comfort. When this all started happening, I told Mom that I would catch a flight home, but she told me to stay in the U.K., hoping that it wouldn’t get here. Well, guess what, Mom.

I nudged Oswald and gestured to the three men huddled in the corner, but he was keeping an eye on Tina who was in turn keeping an eye on me. I shook my head and stood up. When I did, I heard the sound of a crowd coming from the area outside where we had parked the bus. Curious, I left the courtyard and stepped out front. A moment later, I knew that the world would never be the same.

The police had arrived around the same time we did. Beyond us and the police, there was just a scattering of the usual tourists. While we were getting off the bus, the police started setting up a barricade on the A-5. The land around us was all flat and it wouldn’t take much in a Range Rover to travel cross country here, but at least they would be making some sort of statement. What I didn’t witness while I was touring Hadrian’s Wall was the arrival of another six buses of police in riot gear to make the barricade much more serious.

By the time I got outside after lunch, the hundred or so police officers were confronting ten times that many people who wanted to travel north. It was like Hadrian’s Wall all over again, but in reverse. The barbarians were wanting to go north and the Romans, in full riot gear, were stopping them. And I realized it didn’t look good for the Romans.

Most of the people looked pretty normal, I mean, they could have been from any street in London or anywhere. But as I watched, some microbuses and trucks arrived with some bad looking dudes armed with axes, polearms and cricket paddles. One or two had a pistol. I noticed that the police, at least so far, didn’t have guns, and I was glad I wasn’t one of them.

I saw another Range Rover driving up to the barricade from the north, and heard briefly from a uniformed officer in charge that, “the army was right behind,” and I knew that it was about to get ugly. Just about that time, one of the nasty guys in the back threw a Molotov cocktail.

The bottle broke and flames were everywhere. That was like the trigger to let everything happen at once. The crowd began to surge against the police, and then I heard a roar. Above us flew a formation of fighter jets, really close to the ground. Both police and rioters stopped what they were doing as the jets roared overhead. Ten seconds later, I heard a whoomp and a fireball rose to the south of us. At that point, everyone just lost it. Five second after that, there was no long a barricade, and The Panic was headed straight for me.

That’s when I saw the baby carriage again. This time it was on its side, one back wheel spinning freely. The pink blanket was pulled free from the carriage, one corner of it pointing back toward the south, as if to show who was to blame for the destruction around us. A spot of blood darkened the pink blanket. I didn’t know if it was the baby’s blood. I didn’t care.

They say The Panic is airborne, that the man-made virus stimulates the amygdala, overwhelming the victim with illogical fear. Hence the name. I don’t know if it was the virus or just natural reaction to what I was seeing: a police car being set on fire with men inside of it; a woman being thrown to the ground and trampled; a mass of people turning from something civilized to something out of the Dark Ages. All I know was that I ran.

A brief flash of logic hit my head before fear could consume me. I grabbed Oswald, Tina and Brigit, and ran with them to the tunnel we had traversed just a few minutes before. We ran into the darkness, no light to guide steps. When we stopped running, we slid to the floor and clung together, crying. It was hidden and safe. It would keep us alive for the next few hours.

I couldn’t think about what might happened after that.