What do you get when you cross Halloween + Ebola crisis + Chuck Wendig‘s weekly flash fiction challenge?
Why, diseased horror flash fiction, of course!
I stare at the vault door, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the rug in front of it. I’ve done this every afternoon for as long as I can remember. What’s it like on the other side of that door?
I imagine opening it and seeing people running and playing in the sunshine.
Dad says the door protects us from a wasteland, with virus-consumed bodies littering the streets and the city returning to nature. I once asked him how he could possibly know; our tiny window to the outside has been covered by dirt for the last eight years. He says the disappearing radio signal is proof enough.
It’s not really a vault door; it just looks like one. I know from the pictures in the books my mom stashed before my dad sealed us down here with the five other families. We’ll be humanity’s only hope, he’d said.
That was ten years ago. This bunker has been my home since the day my mom pulled me from kindergarten, the day all schools closed. It was a sunny day, and nothing seemed unusual to my six-year-old senses. But Mom said the virus had reached our city, our fears confirmed after a year or paranoia.
I haven’t seen sunshine since that day.
What’s on the other side of that door?
“Seth, stop staring at the door and come help with dinner,” my mom’s voice says from the back of the bunker, where the kitchen is.
Knowing she would ask, I stop in the grow room on the way and pick some lettuce and vegetables for the salad. They thrive under the grow lights. Mom says it was never this easy in our backyard garden. I don’t remember a backyard garden.
I retrieve a large bowl and start tearing lettuce. “Even if the virus killed everyone, wouldn’t it be safe to go back out now?” I ask, continuing our years-long conversation.
“Are we really talking about this again?” Mom sighs and stirs something in a pot set on our camping stove.
“It’s been ten years. I don’t think viruses can live that long.”
“We’ve been down here for ten years. We don’t know when the last person died or how long the virus could live without a host.”
“So how long? Should we just pick a number?” I take my frustration out on the lettuce. I hadn’t realized how desperate I was to see the outside.
What would sunshine on my skin feel like? Or unfiltered air smell like? Or unrecycled water taste like?
“I don’t know. That’s your father’s decision.”
I tear the greens into much smaller pieces than I need to. I look at them in my hands.
What if everything outside is normal? What if the virus didn’t take everyone out, and people are out there, living their lives, unaware that we’re buried in the side of a hill? What if we could grow lettuce in a garden?
How can we not find out?
I put down the lettuce and tromp to the vault door. I unlock it and put my hands on the wheel. Turn it, and I can’t come back, according to my dad.
I stand in place, staring at my hands on the wheel.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Dad’s voice says from behind me.
My hands are shaking now. This could be it. The answer. Either I die out there from the virus, or we all return to normal lives on the outside. “I can’t stay here anymore.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying. This is all you know.”
“It’s not! I remember what it’s like!” I start to turn the wheel.
“Seth, stop. You know what will happen if you walk out that door.”
I face him without moving my hands. “I have to know.”
The wheel clicks after a quarter turn, and I pull open the door.
Dad rushes to me and shoves me through the narrow opening. The door slams shut behind me; the clanging metal of the lock seals my fate.
Cool water falls on my skin – rain. I remember rain. I run my hand across my bare arm, spreading the moisture.
It takes a moment for me to turn around.
The city is a collection of building shells surrounded by vines, and trees grow where streets once were, some sprouting through car remains. Thousands of bodies – mostly skeletons, but some still decomposing, litter the landscape.
Then the smell hits me.
Dad was right.
I turn and run back to the door, screaming and banging on it. “Let me in! Please!”
I bang until my fists are bruised.
They won’t let me in. They can’t. What if the virus is somehow still alive, and now I have it?
I can’t hear through the door. Are they crying? For years, they’d warned us kids that if we left, we’d be dead to them. No turning back.
At least they know what’s out here.
I walk back into the now-pouring rain. It washes over me and the bodies in equal measure.
I’m the only one alive.