A Prolonged Breath
He taught me how to read people’s eyes. And he taught me how to shoot a gun. Two crucial skills in this fucked-up world we now inhabit.
When the infection first showed up, it was nothing like the movies would have you believe. It didn’t spread like wildfire. It didn’t wipe out technology or turn us into savages. It was like any other outbreak. There was news coverage of the places that were hit, panels of media pundits debating CDC specialists about how the infection would spread, immunologists discussing the possibility of a cure, and footage of various fringe groups declaring that the end was nigh.
We watched it spread on the television and on our computers and smartphones. We were so cocky back then. All of us. We thought we could beat it, or that it would somehow respect international borders and remain in faraway places, where we sent monthly donations to alleviate our guilt.
Late one night, as we watched footage of the infected, he nudged me and pointed at the screen. “You can see it in their eyes.”
He was right.
The movies were also wrong about how the infection worked. You couldn’t tell if someone was infected right after they were bitten. The parasite had to make its way into your bloodstream and then across the blood-brain barrier, where it burrowed into your prefrontal cortex and got to work. You would only know four to eight hours later if someone was infected, and even then, the parasite was very good at manipulating its host. Infected people didn’t walk slowly. They didn’t foam at the mouth. They weren’t undead and they didn’t stink of decay. But they did want to tear you apart and consume your flesh. And the parasite at the helm did everything it could to get its host close enough to do just that.
Infected people didn’t talk. That was one way to identify them. But we tend to make excuses when it comes to the people we care about. You might let a silent person get too close. And then it’s too late.
But if you look in their eyes.
“There’s no person in those eyes,” he said. He’d printed a dozen images from the Internet, laid them side-by-side. Infected next to non-infected. “Do you see how vacant their eyes are? See how dilated their pupils are?”
I must have studied those pictures a hundred times before the infection crossed the water. When it finally reached our town, we were ready.
We stayed alive, joining forces with our neighbors and other survivors. We moved when we had to and holed up whenever we could. Over time, our numbers grew smaller and smaller, until it was just us again. Sitting side by side on someone else’s couch, a thousand miles from home, and so many more from the life we used to know.
He begins to stir, dragging my attention back to the present. I watch him awaken, stretching his feet like he always does. My breath catches in my throat and I wait. He sits up and turns to look at me. But he’s not there.
Before the tears can blur my vision, I steady my gun and shoot my brother in the head.
This is my response to this week’s speakeasy,
over at yeah write, where we had to make some
reference to M. C. Escher’s lithograph, Waterfall,
and use the sentence “He taught me how to read
people’s eyes.” as the first line in our piece.
Click the badge to read the other submissions or to learn more about
the speakeasy creative writing challenge.