(My contribution to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: Diseased Horror. It was actually easier than I expected to write, I’m normally not that good at horror but this one just flew onto the page. In any case, considering the time of year, let’s call this an early Halloween present. Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoy it.)
“Jesus fucking Christ.” The words were breathed against the mask of the isolation suit. A horrified whisper at the scene. The children lay slumped, limbs contorted in absurd ways that even in death seemed to animate them. Long red lines meandered along the arms, legs and faces of the children. Blood, piss, vomit and shit crusted the floor. The single adult in the room, the teacher, was limp in the chair, eyes rolled back in her head, story book still open on her lap. It was a picture postcard for the Scratch.
The metaphor was made all the more literal by the photographer, eagerly snapping pictures of the destruction. Pictures that would doubtless be used on the propaganda billboards, news segments and magazine articles that were now plastered everywhere, warning people of the dangers of the Scratch. Most of the general public thought the images were faked, exaggerated photoshops of an ordinary tragedy to aid in the fearmongering. The general public were wrong.
At first she had found it disgusting, perhaps even more disgusting than the mangled bodies she was forced to clean up, that the CDC would use actual photos of the victims in their public service announcements. These days, however, it was just a part of the job. Some freelance journalist or photographer would tag along to collect more nightmare fuel while Amanda and her team just got on with the job.
“Well,” she clapped her gloved hands together in a business-like fashion, ignoring her co-worker’s quiet horror. “This mess isn’t gonna clean itself.” At her words the team snapped out of their initial shock and got to work. Body bags were carried in, filled with small corpses, and carried out. All of it was surprisingly quick and efficient. None of them stopped to grieve the lost children, there simply wasn’t time. There were likely a hundred scenes like this in this school alone. A whole school, teachers, students, admin workers, all of them dead within the space of four hours. That was the horror of the Scratch.
When the room was clear of corpses, the carpet was ripped up, labelled a biohazard and removed. Then the walls were scrubbed with a disinfectant that stripped the paint off in one stroke, and whose fumes even reached inside the respirator. The team had shifts, two minutes with three layers of rubber gloves, then sit in the plastic tent outside for ten minutes, then back in.
By the end of it, Amanda was dizzy, nauseous and absolutely exhausted. The shower tent was the only way to the outside world, and she was determined to get there first.
Stripping down she placed her personal protection equipment to be burned and spent fifteen minutes vigorously scrubbing herself with the medical grade soap. Emerging into the dusk, she was as pink and clean a newborn chi- No. She must not think of children. Children were dead. She must not think of it.
Outside, the photographer was bickering with the boss of the whole operation.
“Listen, Mr Jensen, I realise the need for security, but this film is the only copy of the photographs.”
Jensen rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers, then abruptly stopped as if jerking himself out of a bad habit.
“Mr. Davis, I must insist that the camera and film alike be burned. You were given a disposable camera to use that would send the digital files directly to the CDC headquarters. I still don’t understand why you would endanger yourself and others by ignoring your clear instructions.”
Davis smiled condescendingly.
“Come come now, Mr Jensen, I think that surely everyone must agree that within the realm of art, any and all instructions can be ignored in favour of the most desirable result. Film is such a superior medium that-”
“Not when those instructions are in place to keep both you and others alive! Do you realise just how many people you’ve put at risk by taking that camera outside the secure perimeter? Not only that, Mr Davis, but this is not art! These are photos of children who have died a frightening painful death. If it weren’t for the CDC themselves ordering that you accompany us I would not have you here at all. As it is…” The man took a breath, and unconsciously raised a hand to rub his face, but the motion was stopped almost as automatically. “As it is Mr. Davis, I am going to have to ask you to agree to be isolated until we can ascertain whether or not you have contracted the illness.”
Davis stared in shock.
“But… But I was suited up just like the rest of them! I couldn’t have-”
“I really must insist, Mr Davis. After which, if you are found to be healthy, you will be transported to a suitable detainment facility while you await trial.”
“By disobeying the orders of the CDC and the Government in this matter you have violated several health and safety regulations, which I need not tell you, are now treated as law. However, it will be the duty of the police to inform you exactly which laws you have broken. For now, Mr Davis, every second you spend outside isolation is a second during which you could infect my crew. If you do not comply I will be forced to involuntarily admit you.”
“But… But.. But I-”
“Mr Davis! I am a very busy man, and I have spent more than enough time on this matter. If you do not comply immediately I will be forced to take drastic measures.”
Davis held up his hands in surrender.
“Fine! Fine. I’ll go.” He slowly walked backwards towards the portable isolation chambers. Three already contained occupants, two women and a man. The parents who discovered the carnage inside the school. Somewhere, inside those countless too-small body bags, were their children. One of the women was screaming as she tried to beat her way through the walls of the chamber.
“LET ME OUT!! LET ME OUT, DAMMIT!! MY SON!! I NEED TO SEE MY SON!!” Soon she folded into her grief. Amanda, passing the chamber on her way to see Jensen in his temporary office, heard her mumbling to herself between rib-shaking sobs. “Charlie… Oh, my baby boy…. Charlie… Come home, baby. Please… Come home to Mummy. I can make you all better… Charlie. Please… just come home… I’ll put you in bed and read you stories and make you hot pumpkin soup… It’s your favourite, remember? Just come home, baby. Please, Charlie. Please, Mummy needs you, baby. My baby boy….”
The other woman was staring straight ahead, her eyes blank, her body limp. She looked freakishly like the dead teacher in the chair, slumped and lifeless and blank. The man was crying quietly into his hands.
Amanda knocked on the office door and entered, Jensen was collapsed onto his desk, head pillowed on his arm. For a moment, Amanda was stunned with panic.
“Neil?” She softly called, waiting with bated breath for him to respond. Thankfully, he jerked his head up and looked around. His face relaxed into a smile when he saw her.
“Sorry, Amy, nodded off there for a second. You ready to go?”
“Yeah. I better drive. Let’s get junk for dinner on the way home.”
He sighed as if the very thought of hot, salty grease soothed him.
“And people say these office romances never work out.”
“It stopped being an office romance when you married me.” She smiled at the memory.
“I suppose, but-” He looked at her. His eyes snapped to her arm. His face suddenly cautious. “Amanda, what are you doing?”
She looked down at her arm and the itch she didn’t even realise she had been scratching. Her fingernails broke the skin of their own accord, and her nightmare began.