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Innocent Until Proven Gullible

"One person's cure is another person's weapon..."
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Competition Entry: Spooky Tales

Her yelling annoyed me. It always did. Helicopter moms. Can’t live with them. Dad certainly couldn’t. But until I finished university, I couldn’t live without. Her house. Her rules.

Mom’s nagging, she claimed, was always in everyone's best interest. Dad begged to differ. Reason one hundred and fifty-six for their separation, he’d say. I’m sure that number was significantly higher. But every time I asked, he’d spew a few reasons for the divorce, and its randomly associated number on some moving marriage-ending scale. I suppose it was his way of saying he'd had his reasons and depending on the day, some reasons were more prevalent than others. I think I understood.

She said if I got up when I should, she’d not have to yell. She didn’t want me to be late, especially for my summer job. Not every first year gets to work in a university lab with a professor who’s trying to save humanity. Through microbiology, he claimed that he could cheaply and efficiently cleanse the world’s polluted drinking water. Everyone, he rallied, had a right to clean drinking water. I couldn’t argue against that. But, damn it. Sometimes, I just needed another ten minutes. Maybe twenty. Especially if I was hungover. I’d require a little more under cover reboot time to get my juices flowing and help him save the world. But this time, I was just tired. Or so I thought.

If I yelled back, "Ten more minutes, mom," sometimes she’d shut up. I loved her but today I wanted her to shut the hell up. Occasionally, she’d get the dog to jump on my bed and lick my face. Or she’d use ice. Ice. That wasn't very nice. And until recently, as a last resort, she’d lob the threat of dad. But he wasn’t here anymore. Life was over as I had known it.

“C’mon,” I groaned.

Just a few more minutes.

Mom. Please.

That last whine seemed to work. My room went silent. Sympathy. Success. The quiet allowed my exhausted shell of a body to rest in peace. It wouldn’t take long. Soon, I'd be out. I began to slowly doze away. I wouldn't feel a thing.

Literally. I didn’t feel a thing!

I tried to open my eyes but couldn’t. It was as if I had lost the ability to raise my eyelids. My arms. My legs. My fingers. My toes. Nothing moved. I couldn’t even feel myself breathe. I was an unmoving, frozen stiff, like I was paralyzed. I tried to rock myself in my circa-eighties waterbed, but I made no waves. Not even a ripple. Panic struck. I screamed for my mom. I screamed again. But I heard nothing. She heard nothing. My nagging mother didn’t come to my rescue.

What the hell was going on?

I then heard voices. At least three. One on either side of me and at least one at the foot of my bed. One voice next to me hushed the others, whispering, “Be wary of your words. He might be able to hear. Then, the unmistakable sobs of my mother overtook the room. The other voices quieted again except for my father’s. It sounded like his baritone voice was consoling his ex-wife.

Why was dad here?

Why was mom crying?

Why the bloody hell was everyone in my room?

“We can fix this,” the first voice said. “He knew but last night, he must've not taken the proper precautions.”

I recognized that voice. It was Professor Helmut Schmidt, my boss, my lab supervisor.

“They’ve multiplied too fast,” a fourth voice secretly whispered in Schmidt's direction. “This shouldn’t be happening this quickly.”

“Relax,” Schmidt whispered back. “We’ll investigate once we get his blood work back to the lab. Regardless, it's still a win.” 

The second voice was another professor from the microbiology department. Professor Franz. I thought he was still seconded with WHO investigating the origins of the pandemic.

So many? WHAT shouldn’t be happening this quickly?

I then sensed I was being lifted, like the corner of a steak being checked for doneness on the grill. Yet I felt nothing, only the pressure of my body’s mass and weight of fluids being sloshed in another direction. There was no pain. No feeling. No nothing. I was just being.

Would somebody please tell me what the hell is going on?

I screamed as loud as I could but no one responded. It was like they couldn’t hear me. Or maybe, I only thought I screamed. Maybe I couldn’t speak either. My brain allowed me to think I was screaming but my body didn’t respond. Am I in a coma? A conscious but catatonic state? Holy Jesus, am I dead?

Ho-lee sh…

Light suddenly blinded my left eye as someone pushed up my eyelid. I could smell the unmistakable scent of their latex glove. My eye quickly darted from one side to the other to escape the ceiling light. This caused Professor Franz to gasp and jump back.

“Oh my God,” Franz said. “He’s awake. He’s aware. Helmut, this boy… “

My mother screamed. “Baby, can you hear me? Are you in any pain?”

“I can’t tell for certain,” Professor Schmidt interjected. “But I don’t think so. I suspect his eye movements are just nerves involuntarily reacting to the light. Please, let me assure you. He is not aware. He is not conscious.”

Damn it, yes I am!

“I’m also fairly certain your son is experiencing zero discomfort, ma’am,” Professor Schmidt confidently added as he closed my eye. He wasn’t wrong. I felt nothing.

“Their neurotoxins have already attacked his nervous system,” Franz whispered to Schmidt. “His paralysis and numbed pain receptors indicate that they have colonized and have begun to feed. We can’t allow this to happen in front of his parents.”

“I know, Fritz, I know,” Schmidt whispered back. “Deal with the parents and get those damn blood samples back to the lab. I’ll handle the boy.”

It began to make sense to me. I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t permanently paralyzed. I wasn’t in a coma. My life had been temporarily suspended. I was an unwilling host. It was all true. A thing of well-documented horror told in one of Professor Schmidt’s lectures. The crazy bastard actually did it.

“I’ll see what else he knows,” Schmidt whispered. “Now go. Deal with the parents and the dog and go.” Franz nodded.

As if on queue, my mother’s sobs got louder. Schmidt politely suggested that my parents leave the room as Franz had moved next to them. Professor Schmidt implied that they might not want to hear what was about to be said. I heard my dad grumble but both of my parents reluctantly left. I could hear my mom’s sobs turn to wails as Franz led my parents away. Schmidt’s parting words to Franz were to turn off the light and shut the door.

“Jonathan, now listen carefully. I’m going to open your eyelid again. I think we might be able to communicate by you moving your eye. Look to your right to answer with a yes, and to the left for a no.”

Schmidt opened my right eyelid and I saw his face. The rising sun provided enough light for us to see. My room was empty, devoid of other people. The door was closed. It was quiet again. I quickly scanned my surroundings and saw a couple chairs to the left of my bed. I then returned to Professor Schmidt standing over me on my right.

“Jonathan,” Schmidt began, “Continue looking at me if you can hear me.”

I glared at my lab professor.

“Excellent,” he replied. “Are you experiencing any physical discomfort?”

I looked at the two empty chairs.

“Okay, maybe not yet,” Schmidt said as his voice adopted an unnerving new tone. “But you will soon and it will be excruciating. Jonathan, you've been a bad boy. There is no one left to save you.”

Professor Schmidt rolled back my left eyelid and I stared at him through both forced open eyes with fear and confusion as he moved closer to my face. In his tired, bloodshot gaze, I saw what could only be described as crazy arrogance, the kind expressed by Hitler types and other delusional souls.

“I know what you did, you little pissant” he whispered in a cautious volume. “Did you really think I wouldn’t find out? Did you really think you were saving the world?”

Schmidt looked over his shoulder to ensure no one had entered my room before he unleashed his fury.

“You saw things you shouldn’t have. You were curious. You heard rumours. You felt compelled to investigate. And now you think you know something so you’re trying to expose me and my research. You and your self-righteous, social media-obsessed, millennial ilk have no damned idea. You can’t cancel what is inevitable. Clearly, you don’t understand the dark dangers of the world in which we live. It’s people like me who work to preserve and protect the comforts of your existence. You spoiled, entitled, ungrateful little shit.”

Schmidt paused after hearing a second louder thud in the hall, one that had quickly followed the quieter first. He waited a few more moments before continuing.

“Smart wars are no longer fought with bombs and guns, Jonathan. They’re waged with mass spectrum but intimate delivery systems of microscopic weapons that go bite in the night. Delivery systems that I re-engineered and programmed. Like I’ve always said, with good science will come world peace.”

He did say that, almost every lecture. His words inspired us. But I couldn’t believe what I was now hearing. This was James Bond villain stuff. One person’s cure can become another person’s weapon. He occasionally said that too.

“Malaria was an early, undisciplined experiment’s lucky mistake. Ebola. Lab creation. MERS, SARS, and anything ending in pox. Lab. Do you really think this pandemic was random and started in some Asian wet market? It’s a real time, real world experiment. It’s an assault. A shot across the bow. It’s a precursor to war. A foreign hostile government is flexing its muscles to show the world that it can neutralize an enemy, terminate a democratic, free world threat, and assassinate those political figures and citizens that stand between them and world domination. Do you really think people are prepared to handle that kind of information? My God, at the first sign of trouble, people hoarded toilet paper. They couldn’t handle the idea of getting their hands a little dirty. How could they handle the truth? They are sitting quarry. With science and mixed messages, they’ll become collateral damage. Just like you.”

Professor Schmidt suddenly stopped lecturing and smiled. I’d just felt a sharp pain in my lower abdomen, a gnawing feeling like a hunger pang but more intense. It was the first thing I’d felt in what seemed like hours. It seemed like he knew that too. My best guess was that he saw a change in my pupils. That’s probably why he held both of my eyelids open during this unhinged rant. He was anticipating a change.

“As you know, those little buggars are tenacious. Giardia lamblia. Well, to be more accurate, a re-imagined version of them by yours truly, as you now know. A perfectly engineered and prolific parasite delivered through water or food and used to target and terminate from within. No enemy is immune. No person is safe. And those gorgeous creatures are undetectable until it’s too late.”

Oh my God. He couldn’t have. He didn’t.

“Soon, the thinning lining of your stomach wall will have eroded to the point of collapse, flooding your abdomen cavity with hydrochloric acid. Worst ulcer ever.”

Schmidt chucked under his breath. That dark academic joke never seemed to tire for him.

“They are ravenous little bastards too. They’re like microscopic piranhas tearing away at a bovine carcass. And only the victim knows. To everyone else, the person appears to be slumbering in a peaceful coma. No discernible change in breathing or heartbeat or brain activity. But peaceful sleeping, we know they are not. Once the hydrochloric flood gates open, the body’s tissues and organs quickly dissolve until the liquefied innards ooze through the skin. This is a definitive signature. It will be a slow and painful death, Jonathan. Extremely painful. Imagine that. A bioweapon that leaves a calling card and acts as a deterrent. Ingenious, really.”

My stomach now felt like it was being rung out like a soaked towel. Twisting and turning as it fought its invisible enemy. The pain I felt had quickly intensified. It began as a dull, distant throb, but now, it was sharper and radiated throughout my body. I knew I couldn’t see them, but with a microscope, I knew what those carnivorous demons looked like. I swear I could feel their little teeth tearing away at my flesh. I was being eaten alive.

“Jonathan, I’m sorry we have to end things like this. I’d like to say you were a promising young student, but you weren’t. You were a mark. A means to an end. You were intended to be a controlled experiment. But now you’re collateral damage.”

Professor Schmidt rose from my side and let my eyelids drop. The last thing I saw was the smug look on his face. The last thing I heard was the snap of him removing his gloves. I tried but I couldn’t hear my own screams.

“Think of music. Some Bach or Chopin. It’ll help you manage the pain," Schmidt said in a normal conversational volume. "In case you were wondering, we also brought a couple bottles of water for your parents. Those thuds in the hall, well, you now know how this works. We can’t have anyone talking, can we? A slow gas leak and subsequent house obliterating explosion will take care of the rest. Goodbye Jonathan.”

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