Taking a quick break from the novel today to post my response to the Round #3 Flash Fiction challenge. This was a great one as I mentioned the other day as I used to write a fair amount of horror, but haven’t in years. I posted the story I didn’t use last week and now I’ve gotten the go ahead to post the one I did use. I was going for a classic horror story feel. So please enjoy the following.
Location: A Laboratory
Item: A Toy Train.
People always stare the first time. It doesn’t matter how much they think they know or how much they try to pretend. Everyone stops and stares. No one realizes the effect it will have. They think seeing three dozen people asleep will be something easy, an almost nostalgic scene, like something from a summer at camp. No one stops to consider. They don’t realize. It’s different when the people you’re watching can’t ever wake up.
They call it Somnolence; the newest sleeping disorder. It’s so new we don’t even know what causes it, but we do know it’s spreading. More than thirty million people are effected. They fall asleep and they don’t wake up. Ever. It’s not a coma; they still dream. It’s not paralysis; they twitch. That’s all they do. They sleep.
We can’t wake them. We’ve tried drugs, surgery, pain, electric shock. In less developed parts of the world they set the victims on fire, trying to purge them of the demons the local witch doctors say are responsible. Everyone at the lab has watched those videos. We watch them over and over, looking for some sign of life from the stacks of people literally being burned alive. We’ve never seen a thing.
The people in the tour shuffle through sleep ward six the same way every time: quick, quiet, scared. None of them can hide their fear. It’s in every movement and worn on every face. The women clutch at notepads and pens, the men obsessively straighten their ties or the lanyards holding their shiny, plastic-coated badges.
The badges say they’re with the press. That’s why they’re allowed in the sleeper wards. There must have been another outbreak somewhere. Somnolence has struck another city. I wish they weren’t here today. There’s too much to do.
Everyone wants reassurance when the disease strikes somewhere new. They want comfort. At every step of the tour our P.R. guys are telling them that Strike Labs is the most advanced sleep disorder research center on the planet. That we’re working the problem. That a breakthrough could come any day. Those lies will be printed and repeated a thousand times, long enough to convince a very scared world that it’s okay to go to sleep at night. Maybe it is. We don’t really know.
We tell everyone the truth, just not all of it. We are the most advanced sleep research lab on the planet, and we are working the problem. We’ve been studying Somnolence for more than three years, but they aren’t told we’ve made almost zero progress. We don’t know how it’s spreading. We don’t even know if it’s contagious. We know almost nothing. Sometimes I sweep the sleeper labs at the end of the day so I can feel I’ve done something useful. Nothing else I’ve done has made any difference. Until today.
The lab’s leading researcher insists we’re making progress because we’ve identified a few of its patterns: the disease only hits after people fall asleep naturally, it affects women significantly more than men, and, as far as we know, it has only ever affected one child under the age of twelve: Sally Bryant, ten years old. The sole resident of ward nine.
Her body could hold the key. If we can understand why the Somnolence effected her and not other children, if we can find out why she’s different, then maybe we have a chance. She’s been here for months, hooked up to every single piece of monitoring equipment we can find or invent and it’s still not enough. We need more. We need the type of information we can only get the hard way. We need to examine her brain. But Sally is a minor, a beautiful, well-loved little girl whose parents have come to see her every day for almost a year. Every day except today.
Eventually, the press tour shuffles back upstairs. They don’t go past ward nine, there is too much going on in there today. Right now Sally Bryant’s raven curls are being shaved away from her head. Her pajamas are being swapped for a sterile gown, and her favorite toy, the little train, is being boxed up and placed with her other belongings in storage. Sally’s parents didn’t come today.
Sally’s mind could be the key. She’s been locked in a dream for months. Eight months of feeding tubes, sporadic twitches, and her parents showing up every day to read her bedtime stories. Except today. Sally’s parents didn’t come today.
Something had to give. This stalemate has to break. We need answers, but we can’t do the kind of exams we need without hurting her. We’re just not good enough. The science isn’t there. Sally’s parents knew that. No one can blame them for protecting their daughter.
Right now Sally is being prepped. We have to cut into her brain and we can’t give her any anesthetic. We can’t take the chance of missing a conscious response. She won’t survive. We’ve already decided that. Even if she survives, the procedure will do enough damage to leave her a vegetable for the rest of her life. We can’t do that. Not to her. We’ve done enough.
Sally’s parents didn’t wake up this morning. It wasn’t Somnolence. We don’t know enough about the disease to cause it on purpose, but a syringe full of Ketamine tranquilizer looks close enough. No one will be in a rush to perform an autopsy, if one is ever even ordered. So many people die in their sleep these days. Something had to give. I had to do something. I went to their house last night.
Sally’s parents didn’t come visit today. The police found them this morning. She’s a ward of the state now and the courts are desperate enough to move quickly. We had official permission before noon. I’m sorry, Sally. We have to try. One little girl. Two loving parents. I had to. The world is at stake.