The Outbreak

His sneeze was so quiet I almost mistook it for a sigh, as if he were annoyed by something small like a poorly written scene in a TV show or a dropped piece of cookie on the gritty carpet. “Honey?” he asked. It was not a question, but a command. I stood, holding my breath. I only exhaled after I walked down the hall to the far end of our bedroom. His Rolex shined from the top of his dresser. A bowl of change sat next to his half-drunk glass of water. A half hour before I would have felt tied to those everyday things, the reassuring signs of his presence in my life. But I walked wide around them and lifted the overfull backpack from the bottom of our closet.

When I returned to the couch, his cheeks and forehead were already the color of a bruised plum. He noticed my quick pause. “Grab the ventilator.” He watched as I did what he said. Through the plastic cup over his mouth he reassured me as genuinely as he could. Nothing I hadn’t heard before. But his words in my head sounded like Darth Vader so I exaggerated my inhalations to mimic him. The smallest of smiles fidgeted on his lips. “Help me up, please.” He needed a break to catch his breath in the middle of the sentence.

We drove in silence. The unsettling flush of his face had quickly spread to his arms, below his elbows. Every time he gets sick, the speed of it surprises me. He put a plastic glove on and placed a hand gently on my thigh just below the hem of my shorts, his thumb circling in the hair. The lead singer of the Neon Trees growled and flirted from the speakers; I skipped to an Aimee Mann song. His favorite. He leaned his head against the window as he listened. I heard his wheezes getting shallower.

The clinic was squat and jammed between a chiropractor and a eyebrow threading place. I helped him out of the car after I parked. He pointed to the parking meter to remind me to pay. Other purple-faced men, women, and children met our eyes as we walked through the door. I found Doctor Juno, who put a finger up when he saw us. One minute. I nodded, even though my heart was spinning. My boyfriend dug for something at the bottom of his backpack. When the outbreak first started, the doctor had to treat me for panic attacks right after he’d administered the shot to my boyfriend. With every recurrence, I’d gotten better at coping with the idea of losing him, and, once again, I started the process of reassuring myself this wasn’t that day.

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23 thoughts on “The Outbreak

  1. Have you read “Never Let Me Go?” This reminded me of that, with all the unsettling details of the infection hinting at something way worse going on in the background. The fact that the doctor recognized them was especially chilling. I also got the feeling that maybe the narrator’s attempts at avoiding contagious items hinted at his distancing himself emotionally from what was happening to his boyfriend.

      1. I just read it when I started seeing the movie trailers, but I also loved it. The slow reveal of things being deeply wrong was so well done, and something I try to emulate.

  2. The details shine, perfectly chosen. I especially appreciate the light humor of the opening lines, and the way the narrator’s later attempt at humor becomes the outward defense of the inner fear. I got an interesting sense in the first couple of paragraphs that the narrator either felt emotionally distant or was trying to distance himself…part of the defense?

  3. I loved all the little details here that pulled me right in. The rolex, the bowl of change, the Amy Mann song. Such a tight little piece. Very skilfully crafted!

  4. Whoa, Nate. I just loved this little snapshot of a dystopian setting. You made all of the details feel so real and true that I was surprised once I realized he wasn’t old or dying of a lung disease or something. Wonderful work!

  5. All the little bits that say “this is real” in your writing – reach out and grab me solidly, making me forget that it’s just words, and I am the shadow beside your characters – you have a great gift Nate.

  6. I love disease as a tool in fiction. It’s so powerful, exposes so many emotions and leaves so much to the writer’s imagination. This flash piece really encapsulated this for me – I loved the details that you chose to focus on, and the rawness of the situation.

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