(Trigger warnings for graphic descriptions of bodily fluids, needles)
I wake up drowning.
I don’t think; I react. I twist my body over the side of my bed and hurl my head into the trash can. I heave until I’m sure I’ve expunged my own brains out through my nose and mouth. It certainly feels like it. My breath wheezes like wind on a washboard. I stare into the bin: snot and vomit slide off of globs of phlegm. Strings of blood marble the pools.
I am dying.
I don’t have the strength to push myself back into bed, so instead my legs thuhdud to the floor. I roll over onto my back and sink into the carpet. I feel like I will lie there forever; the carpet feels so much more comfortable than it ever has before. The university had found it cheaper to just carpet over the old cement floors when they converted Norcott Hall from a rec center into dorms, and you can tell. Well, usually. My body must be exhausted if even this terrible floor feels like a cloud.
I am sure someone has mistaken my head for a water balloon and pumped it full of liquid, stretch-stretch-stretching me. I want to burst.
My eyes drift from the ceiling to the wooden post of Zasha’s lofted bed. Her familiar Oaknine University sweatshirt – which started our freshman year as a chipper cerulean and was rounding out our junior year as a grey – gloms onto a command hook. I feel a pang of familiarity, but for a moment, I sense something is wrong. Something about the sweatshirt doesn’t make sense.
That’s when I see it: an enormous insect sprawling across Zasha’s bed. Its limbs are a bright, sticky white. Its face blinks at me with two flat, black eyes on a bright blue head. Two spider-like pinchers jut out of its jaw.
It is watching me.
I open my mouth but only produce short, wheezing bursts of air. In my feverous state, the bug seems to multiply as it crawls down the post. I scramble away from its outstretched arms, but my whole body is made of lead, and I am still dying. Its arms come closer— and for the first time, I notice black, rubbery hands at the end—
“Hey! Hey! It’s me, it’s just me!”
Something about the voice soothes me instantly, like holding a warm mug of cocoa. I force myself to stare into the bug’s eyes. The terrifying bug melts away and I see, behind the glass of the mask, Zasha’s brown eyes lined in her trademark blue winged eyeliner. It feels like ages since I’ve seen her, though I’m not sure why. She is still so familiar.
I must have smiled because her eyes crinkle and she sighs.
“Phew! Thought you were going to go full freak-out on me. Guess I’m not so bad in disaster scenarios after all,” she says.
“You usually are the disaster scenario,” I laugh (I croak). “What are you wearing?”
Zasha holds up a hand and wiggles her finger. The black rubber squeaks. “It’s just a costume. From Halloween. I mean, I was going to wear it, and then we all decided to go as Beanie Babies.”
“I didn’t know that,” I murmur. Zasha never seemed like the type to wear this haz-mat monstrosity as a Halloween costume. In fact, she had been pushing for our friend group to go as classic movie stars, but we voted against it.
Thinking makes my head throb, so I brush that aside and instead ask, “So why are you wearing that now?”
Zasha lets her gloved hand fall into her lap. “It’s the best I could do on short notice, since…” She waves to the window, and for the first time, I see that it is snowing. Not just snowing— it’s a full-blown blizzard. Our window is caked with snow around the edges, and it’s coming down so quickly that I can’t see the familiar branches of the knotted elm tree just beyond. It’s all white.
“I’m pretty sick,” Zasha says. “I just realized it. But we’re snowed in and can’t go anywhere. So… I want to make sure you don’t catch it.”
”You’re sick?!” I exclaim. My throat catches and suddenly my lungs are on fire as I cough and cough. I grab for the trash can again, but then the coughs die down. I look at Zasha pointedly. She waves a hand.
“Oh, you have the flu.”
“But there’s blood—”
“It’s a twenty-four-hour thing, everyone gets it this time of year.” Zasha sits back on her heels. “I have the plague.”
“Well, you seem fine.”
“I’m not!” Zasha springs up. “I know my own body, okay?”
She starts pacing the room, her head cocked at a strange angle. Her eyes seem distant, but maybe that is the just the glass of the gas-mask-like contraption on her face. I am too tired to argue. I grab onto my desk and get to my feet. I fix my eyes on the bathroom on the other side of our room and feel a rush of gratitude: I am grateful that our room used to be for RAs, so we get a private bathroom, even if that does mean we’re a bit squished in here; I am grateful that I decided not to loft my bed, or I certainly would have plunged to my death while I groped for a trash can to throw up in; and I am grateful that Zasha is here, and that she is a very healthy-seeming sick person, otherwise—
I grip the doorframe of the bathroom. Amidst the pulses in my body and the fog in my mind, something has just clicked into place.
“Zasha,” I start slowly, “you aren’t supposed to be here.”
Zasha looks up at me. “What?”
“You’re abroad,” I say. “You’re abroad, you’re in Japan. Yes you are. January through May of our junior year. It’s February. You aren’t supposed to be here.”
I realize that I’m starting to get hysterical but Zasha doesn’t seem concerned.
“There were complications with the program,” Zasha says. “Boring paperwork stuff. They sent us all home. I’m finishing my semester here. I came back, remember? Just a couple days ago.”
I nod. I don’t remember, but then, I don’t remember getting sick. Last I remember… I guess I remember sitting in Latin class, tearing up a little pink paper heart advertising the Oaknine Valentine’s Day Gala. I don’t have anything against the Oaknine Valentine’s Day Gala; I was just bored.
There were flurries.
I stumble over the sink and run the water. My face is so swollen that my eyes look like two nuts somebody placed in a pile of dough. I wash my face and a few strands of hair that are covered in dried drool or snot or something.
“I should go to the hospital,” I decide.
“You just need liquids and rest,” Zasha intones. She has climbed to the top of her lofted bed again.
“This isn’t normal… this… I feel like I’m going to explode and shrivel up at the same time.”
Zasha sighs. I hear her book fall to her lap in a sharp, exasperated movement. “Yeah, no one said the flu was fun. Besides, if we could go to the hospital, don’t you think I’d be there instead of wearing this dumb thing? We’re totally snowed in.”
“But the power is on…”
“Go back to bed,” Zasha says. “You can learn all about power grids and backup generators when you wake up.”
I’m getting annoyed with how dismissive Zasha is being, but I crawl back into bed and cocoon myself in my comforter. I drag my laptop to my bed and open Netflix.
“Internet’s down,” Zasha says without lifting her eyes from her book.
I groan and collapse onto my bed in my warm cocoon. The one good thing about being sick has just been stripped from me. Helpless and feeling sorry for myself, I lie motionless in bed and watch the blizzard outside.
The white flecks are hypnotic.
Snow clumps on the glass and breaks away.
The streaks of white are so fast, they’re nearly horizontal.
I wonder what angle that is, exactly…
“Zash! Zasha, did you see that?!”
My heart pounds against my sore lungs. I try to take back control of my breathing.
“It’s— ” I feel like an idiot for even thinking it, but the image replays in my mind. “I saw a shadow. It looked just like a person. It moved across the glass.”
Of course, Zasha is not alarmed.
“It’s a branch. That tree’s like, right outside,” she says.
“No, I saw a person, I saw something with a head and arms and legs— they walked right outside our window.”
“Jill. You know I love you. But you sound crazy right now,” Zasha says patiently. “We are three stories up.”
I nod, I nod, I nod… I know. But it looks just like a person, and I can’t shake the feeling that something is outside, very close, while we are trapped in here.
I pull my comforter around me and stare at the snow until it lulls me back to sleep.
I dream about old Norcott Hall, about ghosts who drift past the windows, looking for their old place of rest and only finding students. In my dream, I walk into my dorm room and step inside, but I fall into a pool. As I sink, the ghosts watch me and applaud.
I wake up drowning.
I dry heave over the trash but nothing comes out. I use a Kleenex to clean up my face, but I realize that I haven’t woken up because I am sick; I have woken up because Zasha is panicking.
She paces across the floor, her head at that same strange angle. She mutters words I can’t make out until she repeats them— which she does, over and over.
“It’s happening, I can feel it, it’s happening.” She coughs. It sounds like my cough.
Zasha notices me and starts to jog in place. “You, you, you… they said it wouldn’t happen to me, they said I couldn’t catch it now, I had the shots, I had the suit, but you you you—” She runs to the window and screams, “I don’t care!”
“Zasha, you’re freaking me out.”
Zasha collapses to the floor and begins sobbing. She pulls off pieces of her haz-mat suit one by one. Sweat has matted her hair down, and the rubber gloves come off so quickly that they leave red patches on her arms.
“What’s the point?” she sobs. “What’s the point if I’m just going to die? They said all my loans would be forgiven if I came back, if I made you think this was all normal… But you don’t really think this is normal, do you?”
She looks right at me. I can tell that she expects me to say no, no, I’m smarter than that, of course I don’t. But… I don’t know what she’s talking about. I mean, she’s acting strange, and then there’s my really intense flu, and also that shadow man I saw in the window… but she shrugged all those off.
“What isn’t normal?”
Zasha’s eyes are bloodshot around the pupils. She stares at me, and everything is still except for the snow.
“Jill… where are we right now?”
I hear a buzzing… It’s faint, but then it gets louder, more shrill. Zasha’s head snaps to the mask she ripped off. I notice a small earpiece inside, and I am sure the sound is coming from there. It almost sounds like the words “Zasha, remain calm” on repeat— but not repeated mechanically. Repeated like someone really, really needs her to understand.
Zasha kicks the mask away. “I need to get out of here.”
She scrambles across the room and reaches for our door. She grabs the handle— and immediately goes limp.
My roommate seems to fall in slow motion: first her knees go soft, then her head tilts, then her spine becomes jelly— then hips shoulders jaw everything is up then down and crack, her head hits the corner of our mini fridge.
“Zash!” I squeak. I shake her shoulders but she doesn’t move. “Zash?!”
I keep shaking her shoulders as I start to sob. I should call someone, but I can’t remember where my phone is, and I have a bad feeling about leaving her for even a second. But then our door opens. I know, I can feel it, that no one good can be coming into our room.
My lungs are burning my body up from the inside. I can’t make out the figures through my sticky tears, but they look just like the Norcott ghosts from my dream. My head is on fire and Zash won’t move and the ghosts are coming to drown me once and for all—
I grab my lamp. I need to cool down. I need to escape the ghosts. I can’t let them catch me, too.
I break the glass with the lamp.
White flecks pour into the room and I expect icy wind, but I feel no different. I need to get out; I need to be in the blizzard. I scrape more glass away from the window and crawl onto the frame. An edge that I didn’t clear well enough cuts my forearm, and blood drips off of my elbow. I can’t feel the snow yet, but I can sense the ghosts behind me. If I leap far enough, maybe I can grab onto the tree branch. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.
I leap out the window.
I grasp the air.
I don’t feel the tree branch.
I am on the ground in the blink of an eye.
I hit a sheet, a fan, concrete. I hit a pile of soft tissues torn into a trillion pieces. My wrist tangles in an extension cord. Hands in black rubber pick me up. I come face to face with my window, but I am standing on the ground. I am surrounded by ghosts—no, bugs— no, people in haz-mat suits.
And my first thought is: everyone is being that for Halloween. Zasha just didn’t want to conform.
One of the haz-mat people picks me up and carries me through a dark hallway, around and around, until they reach a glowing light. I see two more haz-mats carrying Zasha out of the glowing light. I am led toward this beacon and I see that it comes from the door into my room. But my room is not in my hallway, and I don’t understand.
My haz-mat person cocks his head and touches his earpiece. He keeps a hand on my shoulder and says, “Yes, I’ve got her. Yes, Operation Locked Door is aborted. Operation Open Door is a go.”
He leads me back into my room and picks me up. I land softly on my bed.
“Where am I?” I ask.
A few other haz-mats— doctors, from their equipment – buzz about me. Their metal instruments cool my skin.
“You’re in a research facility in Houston,” the first haz-mat says.
“Houston’s not in Nebraska,” I reply. My eyes can barely stay open.
“No, no, it’s not,” he chuckles.
“But Oaknine’s in Neb—”
“Miss Grotinhaus,” he sighs, “the kind of stress you’ve found yourself in today is exactly what we were trying to avoid. This is a brand new disease, so it was best if we observed you in as natural a state as possible. That’s why we recreated your dorm room in our research facility. That’s why we bribed Zasha to come back and participate. And why we sequestered you in your room with a fake blizzard. But since our cover is blown anyway, secrets will now only serve to increase your stress.”
“Where am I?” I repeat.
He crosses and uncrosses his legs. He leans forward, leans back. It seems like there is no position that will make his news more comfortable.
“Everyone at Oaknine is dead. Everyone except for students who were abroad, obviously, and… for some reason, you.”
His words don’t sink in, but they trigger another question: “Is Zasha okay?”
He coughs lightly. “Uh, despite our best efforts, she seems to have contracted the same illness. We tried to protect her, even though it risked giving away our operation. She covered well with that “plague” and Halloween costume story. Poor girl... Ironic that she pretended to be sick and now…”
He notices that I’m hyperventilating before I do. The doctors close in tighter.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” the verbose haz-mat assures me. “The breakout has been… largely contained, thanks to a quarantining of Oaknine University. But a deadly disease like this will spread. And our best hope at curing it is a living specimen. Especially one it can’t seem to kill.”
I am a specimen. I don’t believe anything he says and yet this isn’t my life, this feels all wrong. I want them all gone. I want them out of my room. I want to go to sleep, I want to forget everything he told me, I want to go back to Oaknine with Zasha and all of my friends.
Everyone at Oaknine is dead.
The doctors plunge a needle into my arm and mutter test results to each other.
I am not drowning.
But oh how I want to die.
Story entries for the October (2015) Sixpenceee Story Contest can be found here. Simply submit a story to enter. Stories don't necessarily have to be creepy, for example, thought provoking stories or stories with a twist are definitely acceptable.
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