Saturday, September 3, 2011

Violet Cigarettes by Chris Castle

Violet Cigarettes by Chris Castle

No-one knew how it begun and now everyone was dead. Dominic checked the bar across the front door for the hundredth time and then looked back out to the street. It looked odd, seeing it empty. Without the cars it looked shapeless somehow, as if the vehicles had given the roads its form and structure. Without the children playing outside, running, checking their phones, eating and talking, it looked sad and joyless. Lifeless, a part of him whispered and he knew that was the truth.

“Mr. Bingham?” the voice drew him back from the door to the little girl. Petra Capsi looked up at him, her eyes straining past him and looking out to the street. He stepped forward, trying to block out as much as he could with his body. She gave up trying to see what was out there and looked at him.

“Is there anything out there?” she asked. Her voice was naturally quiet but now, after everything, it was barely a whisper.

“I can’t see anything, Petra,” he answered, glad to be able to tell the truth. As soon as he started the gig, he’d learnt students picked up on lies just as easy as the teachers.

“There’s no-one else out there?” She was searching him now, looking for a sign, a crack. Her voice was devoid of curiosity though; there was only fear.

“It’s still,” Dominic said, ushering her back to the classroom. “Now, I want you to finish the exercises we talked about while I try and find out what’s going on, okay?”

“It’s all empty,” she said, as she took her seat. He knew she wasn’t talking about the classroom but he glanced around nevertheless. Without realising it, he looked up to the back door of the classroom that led outside to check the key was still turned in the lock.

“I’ll find something out, I promise.” Dominic touched the book and then turned the pages. “Three pages before I come back, okay?” As he walked out, he saw the CCTV in the top left hand corner of the room and felt his heart flicker. Petra coughed as he stepped out into the corridor, trying not to run.

What had he really seen? As he sat in the office and played back the cameras on the screen, Dominic really thought about it. In the break between class, he had stood on the balcony and smoked a cigarette, looking down at the small village. Since moving to the country a few months before, the balcony was always his favourite spot. True, he still didn’t know the language but it had started to feel like a home; the boss below him on the second floor, the school itself one level further down. It was enough for him, he had remembered thinking.

Smoking reminded him of his late mother; how every weekend she would dye her cigarettes to match her new dress. It was the most vivid memory of her that he had; violet cigarettes in a small, discreet tin and his mother looking like a movie star. Once, he had kept a list of all the colours in his diary; July and the height of summer was his favourite: emerald, magenta, turquoise and olive. A noise distracted him, bringing him back.

At first he couldn’t believe his eyes: an old woman ran across the street and leapt onto a man’s back. He actually laughed, not quite being able to believe what he had seen. Two people had come out of the local shop to break it up and then suddenly turned on each other. Dominic remembered having to shift his position and tilt over the balcony to see the rest of it. A pane of glass burst and another woman rolled out onto the street, joining the chaos.

The cigarette had burned down to the nub and scorched his fingers, bringing him back to himself. He looked down to his finger and then the small drift of smoke in-front of him. Oh god, he suddenly thought, it’s in the air. He turned and ran inside, slamming the doors closed, stumbling back and falling on his ass. For a second he sat where he had landed, waiting; waiting for something to happen, something in him to…change? Snap? He had no idea. He felt his heart drumming but knew that was only panic and fear. Seconds passed, a minute. When nothing happened, a new jolt of panic ran through him as he remembered her sitting downstairs: Petra.

Dominic sprinted down the stairs and found her sitting in the classroom, looking through her text book; it was dumb luck that she always chose not to go outside during their private lessons. As she looked up, he tried to compose himself and then turned and jogged to the front door. The people in the street had disappeared from view and he wondered where they were, if they were still fighting of it they had…stilled. He looked over the door, saw it was sealed and ran into the office to the computer. As it whirled into life, he reached into his pocket and tried to call his boss, who was on holiday but saw the phone was unable to connect: the two of them were alone.

The cameras went back as far as that morning. Isolating the one positioned over the back door, he wound through it, flickering lines running across the image of the steps and the flower pots. There was no time code to track, so he simply kept winding it on and on until he found something. A shift in the pattern, as the gate suddenly swung into back and a flower pot toppled onto the concrete, breaking and spilling dirt onto the concrete. The shopkeeper came into view, then the old lady, one on top of the other. What made it hard to follow was the speed with which they moved; it was as if Dominic had speeded up the tape, when in fact he had slowed it down. By the time he had managed to see them without any blurring, he noticed the playback was almost on pause. He peered closer to the screen, one question throbbing through his mind; what made them move so fast?

He watched as they tore into each other and then after, what came next. This is not possible, his mind whispered, as he watched the image. He looked at it; the steps, the gate, the broken pots and the…heap in the centre of things. Dominic drew back in the seat and was aware there were the facts of what was happening and what his heart was saying could not be. The dark mass seemed to twitch and Dominic thought for sure he was going to be sick. He left the monitor running in one corner for any more…movement and went back to the news sites. Out of the bedlam of what he’d seen, there was only one thing he’d understood; what he had seen on the cameras were not people anymore but…creatures.

The news came up and to his horror he saw the same scenes being repeated over and over on the screen. Most of it was shaky handheld footage, taken on phones probably, showing the same jerky movements, the same speed and violence. Some of them looked like apes, the way they swung and moved, while others seemed to move quicker than seemed possible, swooping down like birds in a blink of an eye.

The reporters replayed the events, each of them visibly shaking at they did. Information ran along the bottom of the screen, first denied, then dismissed, then finally acknowledged as the truth. This is hell, one newscaster, said, clearly unaware his mike was still on; hell in a handcart. It was such a quaint phrase, it almost made Dominic smile. A new banner headline came up across the screen, one word, which ran across the centre of the screen: FRENZY

“Mr. Bingham?” He looked over to her and saw she was clutching her book to her chest.

“Yes, Petra?” He waited for her to tell him the news; that she had called her parents and gotten no answer; that her friends had told her some horror story that was probably not that far from the truth. Instead, she simply unfurled her book.

“I’ve finished those pages. Would you like me to continue with the exercises?” Somehow, it still matters, he thought wonderingly, looking briefly at her before taking the book from her hands. He marked her answers and skimmed the next few pages, circling each corner.

“Try and finish those pages and we’ll see where we go from there, okay?” He looked up and saw the hurt expression in her face. At first he looked out to see if anything had happened on the street. It remained clear and he peered back down to the book, where she was looking. He realised her book was pristine and all her answers were in pencil; he had circled the book in red pen and somehow ruined it for her. She was probably planning to re-sell it, or just keep it nice. In amongst everything, the look on her face right then made his heart sink.

Petra, I’m sorry…I could white it out, maybe…” he saw as her disappointment turned to embarrassment that he had figured out her reasons. Without realising it, she hid the pencil from view and silently reached out, waiting for the book to be returned. He handed it over, not knowing what else to say and watched as she quietly made her way back to the classroom, without looking back, either to him or the street. A part of him wanted to go after her, to talk with her and somehow make it better. Dominic rose and then sat, the headlines drawing him back.

A third box appeared as he accessed the social sites. The amount of chatter was huge and for a moment, he was surprised the systems were not crashing left, right and centre. He skimmed through the messages, trying to find some evidence behind all the expressions and abbreviations of panic. A bolt of something hit him and he realised in that moment, how lucky he was to be alone. Every message mentioned family, lovers, all the things he no longer had. Dominic read on, thinking one thing; what world is this becoming, when the lonely are the fortunate ones?

Everything was conflicting; contaminated water seemed to be a common thread, even as it was being dismissed by the news agencies; incredibly, conspiracy theorists were already at work, laying blame and accusing those in power. The amount of sheer hysteria overwhelmed him to the point where he shut it down, leaving only the news box and the CCTV.  A sudden weariness rode over him; it could be anything, he realised; it could be in the computer screen, the water, the air. Maybe our own fears have finally made us crazy, he thought. Dominic closed his eyes and for a perfect second everything stopped. It was only the sudden furore on the news report that brought him back.

The announcement was as brief as it was incredible; just a collection of warnings, really, a hell’s-own shopping list. Dominic felt his jaw go slack as they described the symptoms. If it wasn’t for the man reading it, the man who could destroy the world at the touch of a button, he wouldn’t have believed it. As it was, the list went on; ten points of possible ‘extremities’ or ‘points of physical occupation.’ It was finally there, the point of confirmation that it was really happening. When it was over, even the press were stunned into a moment’s silence; then the flood of questions began.

Dominic clicked on another site and read the newly issued symptoms back. The language was awkward; ‘ability to reveal information not previously known’, he assumed, meant mind reading. ‘Removal of necessary layers of clothing’-was stripping. It was only as he read it for the third time, that he actually realised he was not displaying any of the warnings signs; Petra, too, was unaffected. It was only after he went back to the news conference that he realised one thing; no-one had mentioned a time scale for any of it; when it began and if it would ever be over.

Petra, it looks like we might have to wait here for a little while.” Dominic looked at the girl and saw her nod, almost imperceptibly. “Have you spoken to anyone this afternoon?”     

“No,” she said and he noticed she was blushing again. On the desk was her book, a notepad and a bottle of water. She didn’t have a mobile phone.

“Would you like to use mine? It would be no problem, if you’d like to speak to someone, your mother…” he let the words trail away.

“I’m fine, thank you.” She looked at him and waited for a few seconds. “Would you like me to write an essay from the book?”

“Yes, Petra, that’s a good idea. If you could go to unit one and choose either the formal or informal letter. I’ll be in the office working a few things out. I’ll correct it when you’re done, okay?” He watched her the whole time; was he looking for a reaction or a symptom?

“Okay.” Her voice stayed the same, quiet without being timid. Dominic looked away as she glanced up to him. He walked to the door and paused to check on her; she had already begun to write.

The reaction to the news was incredible; riots started almost immediately and hysteria exploded in the cities. The mis-calculation of giving out the warnings was there to see. Dominic suddenly remembered a moment a month before, when his boss had asked him if he’d seen a mosquito. He hadn’t but from then on, he felt it everywhere. People see what they want to see.

The images showed places burning, fighting and looting. The sight of people being hung from the lampposts were brief; the screen blanked for a second when they realised what was being broadcast before hastily moving to something else, some more recognised form of chaos. Dominic wondered if his boss was okay. He looked out of the window to the stillness all around and wondered what was worse; witnessing everything or seeing nothing at all?

For a long time he stared out of the window, thinking about the children. Over year he had come to care for them in a way he could scarcely believe; it was as if the affection he had felt had crept up in him and tied itself up in his bones. And now; if one of them rushed up to the door and shook it? What would he do; the right thing or the good thing? Thinking about it made him sweat; he began to remove his cardigan and then stopped himself, remembering the signs. As he rolled his sleeves up, he shook his head, almost grinning; paranoia in others was one thing but in yourself? He was pretty sure that added up to simple, flat out craziness. The smile left him as he found himself glancing back to the glass door and thinking about the kids and found himself suddenly glad the roads were deserted. As he walked to the classroom Dominic wondered if it was any less insane to be thankful you were trapped.

“Everything okay, Petra?” he said, craning his head around the door. One sheet of paper was already filled and on his desk. The water bottle remained untouched and had started to fog slightly.

“Yes, thank you. I’m on essay number two now,” she said, barely looking up. She was still formal with him, not like a lot of the other kids; he wondered if it was just because he was a teacher of if that was just her way. Sometimes he forgot how awkward and virtually unbearable it could be to grow up; and what’s going to be left to grow up in? He thought sharply.

“Okay. Well done, Petra. I’ll be in to correct them in a minute or two. Then we’ll do something different, maybe a little speaking, okay?” She looked up for a moment to nod before returning to her work; she was student who was distracted from her work by the bell or the teacher rather than other students. Hell, maybe she’ll be the one to figure it all out, he wondered as he walked back down the hall. 

After a few minutes, he closed the computer down. Dominic watched as the camera faded out, the messages disappearing and the chaos slipping away into black. For a moment he found himself thinking of other, better things; a little kid sitting on a milk crate, smiling at the sun. The way the back of his fingers turned silver like fish scales when he had once taken anti-malaria tablets. The sound of his old friends when they laughed, the impossible hours they used to keep.

A noise came from someplace close and he realised Petra was calling him. Think of her, he thought to himself, as he pulled himself out of the chair. Outside the street was clear, though he had a sudden idea it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. Something was about to happen, though he didn’t know what; the air shifted, the way it did before a storm, even though they were inside. Dominic drew the key from the lock and slipped it into a drawer in the office; somehow hiding the key made him feel safer, though it made no sense at all.  She called again and he headed to the far room.

             Two essays sat on his desk now and he smiled to see her with her head still buried in her book. He checked the clock on the wall and saw their normal lesson was over; had it all happened in less than three hours? It seemed like a short amount of time, for the world to collapse but then what was appropriate?

“How about we do some speaking, Petra?” He asked, as he moved into the chair. Dominic knew she found this the hardest part of the lesson and he tried to keep it for the end to make it as painless as he could for her.

“Okay,” she said flatly.

“Let me just correct these and then we’ll begin.”  Dominic drew on his glasses and looked down to the paper. As he began to read, he checked the door was open far enough for any sounds made against the glass door. After the first paragraph he turned for a moment to check the back door of the classroom was still locked. The key was missing and for a moment, his heart stopped. He patted his pockets but felt nothing in there, save his dead phone. Pushing the papers back, he walked over to the door and checked it was secure; the door knob barely moved, let alone twisted. Dominic returned to his seat and picked the papers back up.

The first essay was fine and he ticked the bottom of the page with a tick and an ‘excellent!’ He turned to the second one and read the letter- a story-and felt his heart cool. ‘It was the last day of the world’, it began. As he read more, his eyes darted up over the top of the page to find her face still buried in the text book. She knew about everything all along, he thought. The sadness he felt crawled over him and something else, too: panic. It gripped him in a rush, the sweat building in fat beads across his forehead.

“Let’s do some speaking, Petra,” he said, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “Some questions and answers from the book, okay?” As he set the paper down, he noticed his fingers had stuck to it and he had to awkwardly un-hook them. He smiled, embarrassed but she didn’t seem to notice. As an afterthought, he saw she’d removed her shoes and they were set neatly to the left of her, the socks stuffed inside and each nail was painted purple

“Okay, question one: ‘What do you like to do with your family at the weekends?’” He said, feeling suddenly idiotic to be pretending now. Her brow furrowed for a moment and then she looked up from the book, looking directly at him in a way she had never done before.

“At weekends I like to watch my mother dye her cigarettes the same colour as the new dress she wears each Saturday night…”

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