I wrote this story in answer to the Fabulous Chuck Wendig’s (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/) Friday Flash Fiction challenge: “Diseased Horror”. In his words, ‘write 1000 words of flash fiction. It should be horror. It should feature disease as an axis of that horror. That’s it. That’s the mission.’
So I did. I remember when the term computer virus was actually more of a metaphor. When the computer itself had the annoying virus. When your machine would whir, click, and rev up like a crazed mini lawn mower and then … bfzzt!
The blue screen of death.
I’ve lived long enough to observe how words I used to use when I was young now mean different things—cool used to be a temperature, gay was happy, and fag was a cigarette. And now … the meaning of computer virus will be changed forever, for me at least.
You might say I was lucky on that day. One-11 they’re calling it, in dubious honor of binary code.
I had an early morning fight with my wife and stormed out of the house, went for a drive to the nearest overlook with a bottle of rye whiskey. Drank half of it before lunch, just to spite her. Naturally, I didn’t touch a keyboard when I got back. Too smashed to even see the monitor. I just went to bed.
But she did.
My wife, Crissy.
Touch the keyboard, I mean.
So did my kids.
Beth—the fresh-faced teenager with a quick white smile—constantly online, plugged in, connected. Cyn—the 12-year old jockette—not much for tweeting or LOL-ing, but always checking her soccer and basketball schedules. Little 6-year old Finn—so bright and toothy—who loved playing Power Rangers and Hot Wheels and God knows what else for hours on end, it seemed.
I would give anything to watch their fingers fly again. Give anything to watch them waste time. Because then it would mean they had the time to waste.
I would give anything to fight with Crissy one more time. This time I would apologize. I would kiss her. I would make up.
Oh, I was anything but lucky on that day.
I noticed the smell first. In that hypersensitive state only a hangover can imbue, I detected a fetid and putrid odor before my foot hit the top stair. Bonus round to the hangover, I couldn’t figure out what the smell was.
It was unbearably bright in the kitchen. The sunlight knifed through the window and stabbed my eyes. I looked for coffee. The coffeepot wasn’t in its cradle. Blinking a hundred times to adjust to the glare, I finally made out the slim lines of my beautiful wife’s body as she lay unmoving on the tiled floor. Her face and lips were puffy and purple, eyes bulging. A slimy, pink liquid congealed on the floor under her mouth. The glass coffeepot lay shattered a foot away from her outstretched right hand. A dark substance—I realized dimly was dried blood—trailed out from a gash on her palm. I knew then that the odor was death and feces.
I heard coughing from the living room and headed there in a daze, to see Beth draped listlessly on the couch. Even in my stupor, I could see her life force ebbing fast. Gasping for breath, her body shuddered with each spasmodic, bubbling cough. Pinkish fluid frothed from her nose and mouth. Beth’s normally shiny blonde hair hung lank on her face as her head lolled over the edge of the couch. Gouts of blood had flowed from her nose at some point in the night; the carpet directly below her head was soaked red.
Just as I got to her, Beth made a mewling sound and shivered violently for a few seconds that seemed like hours, until a final prolonged coughing fit exploded in sprays of blood and mucous.
Then she lay horribly still. I stared down at her. I was too late.
I turned back towards the kitchen. Too late for Crissy.
I turned back to Beth. Reached down and picked up her head, rolling her over onto her back and stroking away the wet hair from her face. Her lips were blue. Her eyes glistened. Her cheeks were wet. I closed her eyelids, thinking how I must be in a movie or dreaming.
My head pounded. Where were Cyn and Finn?
After a few dull moments, I forced myself back up the stairs.
Cyn was in her bed, almost peaceful. My heart leapt at that, until I saw the telltale pink froth on the pillow … on the sheets … on her nose and mouth.
And Finn … little Finn. I prayed he was alive almost as hard as I prayed he was already gone. I wandered to his room reluctantly and peered around the edge of his bedroom door. His nightlight—a purple conch shell we had brought back from Hawaii—was still on, casting a needless purple pallor to his face. I could not bear to enter.
Today, knowing so much more, I find myself sitting at my computer desk—in my small office in my empty house—thinking about how foreign the concept of germs would have been to the millions of people who died puking, shitting and bleeding from every orifice during the Black Death.
It was the vengeance of God or the work of Satan. Or magic.
Today—even in this technologically advanced world—how foreign is the idea of microscopic machines.
Intellectually, we know about them. I suppose some can imagine them, to an extent. Very few can actually describe them and even fewer can build them.
Microscopic machines. Tiny travelers. Venomous vectors.
Sounds like germs to me. Or magic. Or Satan.
The irony is that the group claiming the deed was a splinter cell of the Mother Gaia movement. You know the ones who think mankind is a virus on mother earth that should be exterminated so the earth can live on in peace and harmony until an asteroid takes her out. It’s not ironic that the group virtually (no pun intended) achieved its goal. It’s ironic they used mankind’s technology to accomplish it.
Brilliant, deluded techies recruited or extorted by the Earth Firsters; they did it.
They made the tiniest nanobots that could swim through cables and fibreoptics. In the burgeoning wireless world, I never realized that cables still connect us all in some way.
These nanobots carried two little surprises. The first was a secretion of microbes that inflicted a slightly modified—meaning fast, vicious and antibiotic immune—strain of the Spanish flu. The second was a parasite that caused sterility in anyone who happened, by genetic chance, to survive the flu. I can tell you there were not many of those survivors; the nanobots rejigged the influenza microbes as they traveled, using the viruses’ innate ability to grow stronger and defeat their host’s immunities.
The bastards programmed the nanos to head to computer keyboards.
Me … I survived that day because I got shit-faced and stayed off the Internet, and I didn’t feel like hitting up Facebook when I woke up and stumbled downstairs the next morning. Never touched my keyboard, where the malevolent, disease-covered parasite-ridden little bastards were lurking; waiting to transfer to the skin of anyone who wanted to play Minecraft.
Today is a different day. It’s only a few weeks later and I am alone.
I mean alone.
I sit, foot tapping, gazing at the dark monitor in front of me. A photograph of Crissy stands beside it. We were on our honeymoon. She looks happy in this picture.
“Thanks for sharing everything with me, good and bad, Crissy, my love. Thanks for my wonderful kids,” I whisper to her. “Now it’s my turn.”
My fingers tremble at first, but by the time I tap out the end of the farewell letter that no one will read, they are rock-steady.