By Casey Reinhardt
The atmosphere in his mother’s living room was cramped and suffocating. Too many people in too small a place. Rob sat in Dad’s old recliner, staring at the television, sleeping in short bursts. Half the room was snoring, having stuffed their faces with ham and potatoes. Rob never intended to eat much. “I’ll just graze,” he’d say to himself on the way over, like that was possible. Fact was, if he was seen without a full plate, someone would ask what was wrong with him.
“Whatcha on a diet, Robby?” Uncle Phil would say, with his mouth full of food, followed by that big belly laugh and the heaving of his gut.
“No. I just don’t want to be an asshole like you,” he wanted to say, but he couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So he filled his plate and sat in the chair eating leftover rolls and drinking beer after beer.
Giving up any hope of interacting with his family, he announced he’d get more beer. The corner store wasn’t far and winter was transitioning to spring, though the air was still cold enough to see his breath. He figured the walk would help work off some complacency.
The scene at the store wasn’t any better. One person sat behind the counter, forced to work on Easter Sunday without holiday pay because it wasn’t even technically a holiday. Rob didn’t give a shit about Jesus, personally, but he liked food so he never complained. When he was a kid, the people he loved seemed to put effort into establishing a ritual, but that had waned like so much else in adulthood.
He stood in the corner store with a case of beer in his hand. The cashier leaned on the counter with her cell phone in hand, face blank in the middle of an idle scroll.
Rob cleared his throat and set the beer down.
“That it?” she said.
“Yeah.” Rob pulled his wallet out.
Rob handed her a twenty. “Sorry you gotta work today.”
“I don’t mind. Not a Jesus type.”
“Well, me either, really. I’m more in it for the food.”
“Ma’s a shit cook,” she said, “so it doesn’t bother me, really.”
“Doesn’t it get lonely in here?”
“I don’t mind lonely.” Her hair was in a messy bun and he noticed her t-shirt bore the logo of the high school he’d attended.
“Thanks,” he said as she handed back his change. He walked out into the concrete desert but couldn’t help himself from taking a last look inside. It’s hard to recognize people at thirty, but he was sure he’d known her. He wished she didn’t have to work at the corner store, and it bothered him that she didn’t mind. But who was he to judge her, anyway? He sat on his ass all day hawking cell phones to poor folks who couldn’t possibly afford $900 no matter how low the monthly payments.
Without any warning, Rob became overwhelmed. The case of beer was too heavy, and he could feel all that he had drunk sloshing like an unsettled sea in his belly. He set the beer on the ground and himself on the curb, waiting for the sensation and double-vision to pass. He’d never been overly emotional, but he could feel tears stinging his eyes like thorns pricking at the back of his mind. Thorns he didn’t want to explore while sitting on the curb outside the corner store.
“I’m starting to regret lettin’ you buy that.” The cashier sat down next to him, smoothing her shorts down so that her thighs didn’t make contact with the crumbling curb.
He wondered if she was cold. “I’m not drunk, ate too much for that.” He stared across the street at the photography studio. He’d been watching it fall further into disrepair over the years. “I just don’t feel good all of a sudden.”
“Maybe your Ma’s cooking isn’t so good either.”
“Maybe not. I’m kinda dreading going back.”
She sighed. “I know the feeling.”
They sat in silence for a moment, both requiring the company but unsure what to do with it. A thud in the distance made them both look up.
“What was that?” Rob asked.
“Probably a train. Lots of those around here.”
“I never heard one like that before.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He nodded. “I remember you.”
“Yeah, I remember you too.” She hesitated as if she was going to go on, but decided against it. “I feel weird, too, but I don’t know why,” Lauren said.
Another thud, but closer this time.
“That really doesn’t sound like a train.” Rob stood up, scratched the back of his neck. He was getting agitated, like his insides were starting to shift out of order. His heartbeat was too quick.
“I feel, I don’t know, real dizzy,” Lauren tried to take a few deep breaths, “like I can’t breathe all the way.”
Rob took a few breaths and found that he couldn’t get enough into his lungs, either.
The ground shook, and with it a mist colored the air in pale iridescent mauve.
“We should go inside.” Lauren opened the door and he followed her in. They watched the mist thicken from behind the windows.
Rob walked down a few aisles to where the rolls of duct-tape sat on the low shelf and grabbed two. “I got a bad feeling about this.” He handed her the other roll, and they both sealed the gaps as best they could.
Lauren coughed and took a sip of water. “I can breathe a little better now.”
An explosion roared, setting everything off-balance. The air turned blood-red, opaque, solid. They both looked outside. “My family’s out there.”
“Mine too,” Lauren said. “At least they’re inside, like us?”
Rob felt the contents of his stomach start to revolt. He turned to Lauren. “Bathroom?”
She led him toward the back of the store where labeled boxes were stacked and a door sat in the middle of two towers. He barely made it to the toilet before ham and potatoes surged upward with acidic violence.
“You gonna be ok?”
“Well, what are we supposed to do?” Lauren asked. Her hair stood upright at the edge of her hairline. He felt an urge to pat it down, to comfort her, but who was he kidding? He couldn’t even comfort himself. On the best of days, Rob fought his own urges to end things. Now it seemed absurd that he would have this sudden rush of self-preservation. He wished he could summon that tempered nihilism he normally kept.
Lauren’s voice wound toward him from the hallway. “Talk to me. What’s going on.”
“Nothing, I just need to clear my head is all.”
“Well the radio is on, you might want to get out here.”
Lauren sat with her knees pulled in, back against the wood paneled wall. All the lights were out except a flashlight on the ground. She turned up the radio so they both could hear.
“—source of the chemical attack unclear. Albert Norwalk from the Department of Homeland Security is with us in the station to talk about what they’ve learned so far.”
“Thanks Chris. We have not yet discovered the source. We have FEMA scientists out in the field right now taking samples. It doesn’t seem to be any chemical compound we’re familiar with. We do know that it’s infectious. Once the substance is in your lungs, it can spread to those in close proximity. Effects range, but the subject will experience difficulty breathing. A migraine focused in the frontal lobe. We’ve had reports of people turning suddenly violent. Do not engage. They will combust, once the infection has completed its course.”
“Can you speculate on where this attack originated?”
“We have heard rumors that it is alien. Can you neither confirm nor—” the radio cut off and they were left in the hallway with static for comfort in the gloom.
“Do you believe him?” Lauren asked.
Rob thought for a moment, picking up the flashlight. “I don’t see what good it would do to consider believing or not,” Rob answered.
“What if we’re infected?”
“What could we do about it?”
“All I know,” Lauren said, “is that I’m getting these visions, colors, hallucinations. Hills and valleys. Whenever I walk I can’t see straight. I see everything. An open field, but it’s all technicolor and strange.”
Rob sipped his beer and said nothing.
“And there is this violence in me, too. This urge to jump. I’m fighting it, but I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold it off.”
“We need to call someone.”
“You heard him. I need to lock myself in a room before I explode.”
“How can you be so calm, anyway? I’d be freaking the fuck out and you’re just sitting there like you took one too many hits of acid or something. Like you’re just waiting for the come down.”
“It isn’t unlike that.” She looked up at him, expectant, wanting him to understand that despite everything, she felt good. Even the wild violent spasms that seemed to run through her weren’t unpleasant. Despite the sweat and convulsions she had to fight against, there was a kernel of peace set in the center. A pearl she found herself intent on honing. After fighting her way through another long burst, she got up and walked to the stockroom and locked the door behind.
“Lauren, don’t do this.” Rob shouted through the door, trying to fight back his own unwillingness to acknowledge anything she’d just said. He didn’t want to be alone. “Come out, please. I’ll call someone.”
“There’s no point in any of that now. You barely know me. Just let go.” Within the stockroom Lauren began writhing. She held her hand out in front of her and watched it shake. Her skin, covered in gooseflesh and with an alien shine to it, roiled as if a substance beneath was searching for a way out. She could feel it, at the core of herself, this pulsating thing that valued itself more than her body. Lauren began to believe that it was more important, too. She pressed her forehead against the door. “Call someone if you want, but I’m not opening this door. Maybe you’re not infected.”
“How could you be infected and not me? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don’t know, but I don’t have long.” Her tone was placid, accepting, and it scared him more than anything had so far. Rob found the landline in the store and dialed 911, but it was dead like their phones. No way to reach anyone. No way to get outside. He could take the risk, get to his car and drive her somewhere. But where? He turned the radio back on, grinding his teeth through the doomsday news, waiting for them to reveal some safe place with doctors that could help Lauren.
An explosion within the store room shook the store. Potato chips and cigarettes cascaded to the ground. The world seized and sputtered. Rob blinked until the world came back into focus.
“Lauren?” He shouted, banging his fists on the door, shaking the door knob. “Lauren, answer me!”
He found the keys under the tray in the register and unlocked the door. Lauren lay in scattered pieces, covered in a green speckled substance, which had erupted from her body. A single, pulsating organism sat in the center. Glistening green, bioluminescent, and beautiful.
He closed the door and rested his forehead against the cool metal whispering her name until the pain hardened into a solid form within.
Rob walked to the front door in a daze, duct-tape still holding the blood-fog at a distance. He pulled it open. One foot, and then another, into the rouge-tinged mist until his lungs seized and his body failed, just a few feet from the front door of his mother’s house.
Casey Reinhardt is a writer from Buffalo, New York where she dreams up madness, most of which makes its way into a story or poem. Some will remain in the dream-realm for all eternity. Her work can be found in Apparition Lit and the TL;DR Press Women’s Anthology. Find her on twitter @yoscully.