This here is a little story I wrote today. It was one of the story ideas I got from my challenge I issued a few weeks ago about taking something mundane and making it scary. It’s basically flash fiction, just over 1,000 words. I’m not super happy with the end, but I never expected it to be fantastic. Plus I like the rest of it, so that’s good. It’s a story about sneezing twice. That was my prompt. Sneezing twice. Let’s see how I did.
Twice – by, E.W. Morrow
The entire room fell deathly silent as the sharp, sudden sound reverberated off the gray concrete walls. Only the dull, mechanical whir of recycled air pumping through the vents disturbed the silence. Almost as one the children turned and stared at the figure in the center of the room that had made the noise. At the head of the class Mrs McCormick’s hands disappeared behind the lecturne. She was a young woman and had only held the post of fully certified teacher for three and a half years, but those years had been hard. They had stripped the shine of idealism from her eyes and etched deep lines across her brow. Her hands barely shook as she rested the tips of her fingers on the tiny red button that would trigger the alarm. Everyone in the room held their breath as they waited and watched. But no one held theirs as tightly as the young girl in the center of the room, the girl who had suddenly become the focus of such universally apprehensive attention.
Maribeth Carter gripped the edges of her desk in terror and bit down on her lower lip. No matter how many times it happened to her it never got any easier. Her heart always pounded in her chest until the pulse throbbed along her entire body and echoed in her skull. Tears always welled up in the corners of her eyes until she screwed them up in moist concentration. And every single time the urge to let go, to give in and let it happen, was just as strong as always. Today was no different, but still she fought it. She knew the rules and she’d seen those who were too weak, or unlucky, to resist the temptation.
Once. That was all you were allowed. One sneeze was all anyone was ever allowed. For several minutes after your first everyone around you became your enemy. Betrayed by your own body the into raising an alarm against yourself the sound told everyone in the vicinity to watch you. Watch you and wait. And pray. Nobody every sneezed twice anymore. At least, nobody sneezed twice more than once.
Maribeth felt the tingle at the tip of her nose spread back down along the nostrils until she could almost feel it buzzing in her lungs like a diseased insect with it’s dripping stinger poised to destroy her from the inside out. She struggled to hold her breath or at least not draw air through her nose, but every few seconds a disturbance in the air would drive her nearly to the edge of control. Vainly she wished that there were something she could do, some mantra she could have been taught to steady herself. But there was nothing. Nobody talked about it. Better to ignore it while you could.
As she trembled in her chair Maribeth imagined herself in a different world, a better world. She was too young to remember the world as it had been before sickness and the compounds. Most people were too young to remember. Sometimes the elders would speak of it late at night in words she knew the meaning of but didn’t understand. Wind. Sunshine. Winter. Garden. Later she would take those words with her into the dark, sometimes in her bed late at night, but more often in dark behind her eyelids on days like today, whenever she needed them the most, and would try to imagine what they would be like. What would the wind taste like? How much sunshine would she gather up and bring home to her mother? What would it feel like to dance on the ocean as the moonlight tickled her neck and played with her hair? She had never seen or heard or felt those things, but she imagined a world in which one day she would. Maybe one day things would be like they were, before the plants had been changed and our immune systems had failed and every tiny spore floating invisibly through the air was a death sentence. Maribeth prayed for the day when the hastily constructed hermetically sealed bunkers and compounds of the world would open up and set her free. On days like today she would settle for a world in which she didn’t have to struggle just to stop her body from killing itself.
Slowly the tingling sensation faded. Maribeth opened her eyes and blinked away the tears. She still didn’t trust herself with anything as extreme as deep breathing, so she settled instead for short, quick breaths through her mouth that left her feeling dizzy at the end. One by one the other students in the room turned back to their own desks, though most of them shot glances at her whenever they thought she wasn’t looking. Mrs McCormick cleared her throat and resumed the days lesson, though only one of her hands was ever above the lectern at a time. Within a few minutes the class was almost back to normal.
There was a single, sharp sound of someone sneezing.
A few students jumped in their seats and most looked at Maribeth in horror before realizing that the sound hadn’t come from her. Then their gazes drifted toward the back corner of the room to little Havier who’s eyes were wide in stark panic. Maribeth watched him, amazed at how much everything seemed to slow down like it did when she had been the one in danger only not nearly as much. After what seemed like a minute but was probably only a few seconds, Havier’s mouth dropped open, his left eye twitched and his head arched back.
And then he sneezed.
Time, which had seemed to stretch itself out a split second before, crashed in on itself in a confusing rush of events. Red lights dropped from the ceiling and an alarm shrieked somewhere in the hallway beyond the battered door. Havier’s body shook with convulsions that grew stronger with each wave. Mrs. McCormick called to the children in a pained, wailing tone of voice that was lost in the chaos. A few children broke down into tears but most, especially those closest to Havier, scrambled from their seats, knocking desks over as they fled. Streams of white mist pour from the vents in the ceiling, showering the room in a sharp, stinging liquid that burned slightly as it sterilized the room. Maribeth stared at Havier, completely transfixed on the boy she’d known her entire life, and so she didn’t see the response team kick in the door and fan out as they entered the room. She heard it though, heard the thump of thick black boots pounding on the linoleum floor. Strong, rough hands in thick black gloves grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from her chair. A large, stocky man spun her around and picked her up, so she had a brief, spinning glance around the room. A dozen men covered from head to toe in black army fatigues with rubber gas masks over their faces were rounding up the children and hurrying them through the swinging door. The burly man then hoisted her up on his shoulder and kicked a desk out of the way as he made for the exit. The last thing Maribeth saw before the door banged shut behind her was Havier vomiting blood over his desk as three men approached him cautiously. Two had a large plastic bag poised to snare the shaking boy, and the other had a long, simple wooden truncheon raised over his head. Then the door bang shut in her face and she saw nothing else. Maribeth wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but over the sound of the sirens and the cries of her classmates, she thought she heard a dull, wet sound repeat several times in rapid succession as she was borne away to the scouring chamber for further sterilization.