A Prolonged Breath

Abandoned sofa on a vacant lot

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.

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Image credit: srok09 @ deviantART

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56 thoughts on “A Prolonged Breath

  1. Absolutely chilling and expertly crafted. My heart is in my throat. I really like the debunking of the usual zombie/infection stories, it makes the narrator’s tale more real, more believable and more intimate. And the eyes being the telltale sign was a great way to use the prompt.

    1. Thank you for your great comment, Silverleaf! I’m really happy you picked up on the intimacy, which is one of the things I was hoping to pull off with this. 🙂

    1. No kidding. I can’t imagine having to make that decision – especially when it means you’re left on your own. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Janna. 🙂

  2. Oh, my! This is terrific. Compelling and complete! I especially liked this: ” 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.”

  3. My hearts still pounding! You wove this tale beautifully and the ending was like a punch to the gut – heart-breaking. I think I’m going to look at pictures of puppies now!

  4. Loved the line ‘it would somehow respect international borders and remain in faraway places, where we sent monthly donations to alleviate our guilt.’ So true! This is a chilling and wonderfully crafted story.

  5. Oy! What a harsh ending. I love the way you didn’t make this like so many other stories. It was more subtle, believable. The way the ending linked back to the beginning is beautiful. Another fabulous story, Suzanne!

    1. Aw, thank you for such a great comment, Eric! I wanted it to be a bit like a loop, so I’m glad you noticed the connection between the beginning and the ending. 🙂

  6. What a beautiful and haunting story, Suzanne. I love how you well you wove the social commentary (like others, I love the “guilt” line) in with the personal. I know I mentioned Mira Grant’s Feed before – one of the reasons I love that book is that there is a brother-and-sister team dealing with a world of zombies. Your story has the same wonderful emotional quality. I always look forward to your writing!

  7. I have a soft spot for these kinds of stories. This fit in nicely with the genre, but was unique, well-paced for the length, and packed a lot of info and emotion without straying into infodump/melodrama territory. Awesome!!!

    I just did a reread of Stephen King’s The Stand (if you haven’t read it, it is worth the time – the uncut edition is quite long!), which inspired me to write an apocalyptic piece for 1:1000 (you can check it out here if you are interested – http://www.oneforonethousand.com/2014/06/new-american-dream.html)

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Justice! I did read The Stand – a very long time ago. And I will definitely check out your story. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction are very dear to my heart. 🙂

  8. Wow. I loved reading this, expecting that one of them would become infected sooner or later. It’s in the eyes, as I remember the invasion of the body snatchers and screamed at the people in the movie to look at the eyes! You brought that feeling of horror and inevitability with your beautifully crafted story.

  9. This was better than World War Z. And I read World War Z, so I should know. 🙂 I liked your more realistic approach to the zombie apocalypse; it made it more believable and yet terrifying. Very nicely done.

  10. Great stuff, naturally – and just when I thought there weren’t many new takes on the zombie apocalypse left! I’m just sad that I didn’t get to yours in time to vote for it (alas, just not enough time in the workday to read everything on the grid before 10). But really great writing, Suzanne! Nailed it.

  11. Sitting side by side on someone else’s couch… a lot said in a few words… good line. parasite at the helm… I liked that too. I was wondering who ‘he’ would turn out to be… I found out.

  12. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you have such skill taking stories whose histories are prolific and still making me care about it like it’s a brand new idea. I still felt the helplessness of the dwindling numbers, and the punch in the gut when she pulled the trigger on her family without hesitation. Really well done.

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