This is the polished version of a story I submitted to the Flash Fiction contest over at NYC Midnight. My assignment was to write a thriller that takes place in a laboratory, with a VHS tape making an appearance in the story. It scored second place in its heat.
Grim numbers characterize the outbreak: Survival rate under 3%. Four-day life expectancy upon onset of symptoms. One-third of the country’s population dead. No signs of slowing. As the death toll ticks upward, our work towards creating a vaccine weighs heavier each day. Soon, there may be no one left to save.
Understandably, we’ve had to take special precautions. Each of us has our own private lab – small, but fully stocked, complete with a personal washroom and rest area. All communal areas have been locked. Strict enter/exit protocols for supplies greatly reduce risk, but nothing is really a 100% preventative. Simply existing around other people is risky.
Garrett had a scare last week. A machine malfunctioned and he thought a vial containing the virus had broken inside. He followed protocol, sealed himself in his lab, and we all evacuated to the other wing of the building in case the decontamination protocol was initiated. A mechanic talked him through getting the machine open, and no tubes were broken. All clear; decontamination protocol override, everyone back to work. Just another day at the office.
My lab coat feels tight on my chest today. Nerves? Or have the new washing protocols somehow shrunk the material? No time to worry about that now, I remind myself. I need to focus.
I place the last tube in the centrifuge, and hit “start”. There’s nothing to do now but wait, so I head to the washroom to take off my protective equipment and clean up. I haven’t eaten all day, as usual. The enter/exit protocol for meals is so involved that I usually wave the delivery away so I can stay focused on work. I’ve developed a poor coping strategy.
Checking to make sure no one is in the hallway outside my glass lab door, I slide a homemade granola bar out of my pants pocket. John works in a part of the building with no viral shipments, and occasionally gets to leave and check on our house (after a blood test and quarantined waiting period, of course). He knows I love his snack recipes and somehow always manages to slip me a couple when he returns and we get what we like to call our “conjugal visit.” Obviously, eating in the lab is a terrible idea, but we’re careful. I’m also starving.
I peel away the plastic wrap. My stomach growls as I take the first bite, grateful for the relief to come. I only get halfway through the bar, though, when I’m forced to turn my head into the washroom sink and heave it back up. Shit.
Follow protocol, don’t panic. Push the button. I move quickly out of the washroom, not wanting to give myself time to hesitate, time to think. Just push the button. There. I press it. The siren sounds. The red lights start spinning. Only this time, it is me getting sealed into my lab. I hear a “thwunk” sound at my door, and my stomach churns again. I swallow it down.
The intercom sounds.
“Dana, you ok in there?” My director.
“Vomited, sir,” I tell him, “I have no idea how it happened.” I think about my snacking habit, and my skin goes cold.
“Send me your activity log for the last 72 hours. I’ll get a viral test kit to you.”
“Ok,” I reply weakly. I’m such an idiot.
The siren is deafening. I search the emergency kit for ear plugs and try to ignore the sight of people rushing past my door one-by-one toward the other wing of the building. No ear plugs. Of course.
The stream of people passing my door dwindles, then ends. Everyone must be out. It is only a matter of time, now.
“Dana,” the intercom blasts, “we’ve got a problem.” My breath catches in my throat. “The decontamination timer started from where it left off last week. Something must have gone wrong with the reset.”
Damnit, Garrett, I silently curse. “What can I do?”
“Just be patient,” the director responds, “we’ll figure something out.”
The decontamination timer is a back-up mechanism to prevent human error, or emotions, from allowing the virus out of the building. When the timer runs out, well, “boom”. Everything inside a sealed lab is destroyed – and everyone. It was a controversial decision, but deemed necessary in the end. Can’t take any chances with this epidemic.
The timer is set to sixty minutes. Garrett’s mechanical issue took about forty minutes to resolve. I’m toast…literally.
The clock ticks. Still hungry, I begrudgingly eat the rest of the granola bar in my pocket. The moment I finish the last bite, I’m back in the washroom, vomiting it back up.
“Fuck,” I gurgle, hating myself. My mind flashes back to better times, like the weekend with John just before the outbreak. In a rustic cabin in the mountains, we didn’t have cell service or wi-fi, but we discovered a collection of VHS tapes and picked one to play in the background while we did everything but watch it. I remember his hands on my skin, his body against mine, and…oh my God.
I page my director in the intercom.
“Sir! You have to override the decontamination timer!”
“Dana, we’re not exactly sitting on our hands out here,” he replies, annoyed.
“I think I’m pregnant!” I scream, “bring me a pregnancy test with the viral kit!”
I use my imagination to guess which curses my director is utilizing during the silence that follows.
“Got it!” he finally barks.
More minutes tick by. I estimate I’m down to eight or so. I pace, agitated, until a man in a full-body encapsulated suit appears at my lab door. He has two small boxes in his hand and punches a code into the keypad, but it doesn’t seem to work. Frustrated, I scream at him through the glass, even though I know he can’t hear it. A second man shows up with a handheld machine he plugs into the keypad. He works on the machine for what feels like ages, and then, miraculously, I hear the “thwack!” of the door unsealing. I lunge for it.
“No!” the first suited man yells, quickly leveling a gun at my chest. I see the apologetic yet fearful look in his eyes as I back away. The techie opens the door, tosses the boxes in, closes the door, and punches a code into his machine. “Thwunk!” goes the door, and I am sealed in once again.
No time to waste, I scoop up the boxes and hurry to the washroom, grabbing a beaker on the way. I squat and piss into the glass as quickly as I can, while reading the directions to the viral test. Once the glass is full and my bladder empty, I throw all three pee sticks into it and begin the viral test.
Two minutes later, I am slamming the positive pregnancy tests against the glass lab door for the techie and his friend, and when they demand the viral tests, I throw those results against the glass, too. All clear; I’m just pregnant. False alarm. Decontamination protocol override. Another day at the office.
They let me out into the hallway to ease my panic, and the alarm stops. My director and John, in a surprising but welcome breach of protocol, round a corner and come into view. John runs to me, and we share a tearful embrace. When we part, my director shakes my hand.
“Great job in there, and congratulations,” he says.