Patient Zero

The first thing you do when you wake up is peel your eyelids open with your fingers.

Your lashes are gummy, and almost stick together again when you squint against the too-bright light. Your tongue feels parched and furry, clinging to the roof of your mouth. When you work your jaws there’s the distinct sting of flesh parting. You taste something metallic, like blood, but thick and rancid. Sweat slicks your forehead, oily and cold.

Cold. You fumble the back of your hand across your forehead and yes, your skin is cool. Your fever must have broken.

Annalise had been sick at the office party last night, or at least she’d complained of feeling unwell. So had Brian and Tamsin, separately; Brian had said his kids had come home from school aching. Some sort of crud, you’d all agreed, something going around. They’d decided to go home early. You’d felt fine at the time, but talking to them had left a psychosomatic scratchiness in your throat.

Or at least you’d thought it was psychosomatic. By the time you’d pulled into your own driveway, you could feel the swell of your tonsils every time you swallowed, and your skin had felt like parchment paper left in an oven too long; brittle and scorched around the edges. You’d choked down water and ibuprofen in the kitchen, then stumbled out of your stilettos and staggered to the bedroom where, vision blurring and hands beginning to shake, you’d read your temperature on the digital thermometer as a hundred and four.

I’ll go to the ER, you’d told yourself dizzily. Right after I just lie here a few minutes.

But that had been last night, or so you think. You’re still in the cocktail dress you’d worn to the party, and as you struggle upright, limbs heavy and joints crackling in protest, you catch sight of the bruises in the creases of both your elbows, large and slate-blue. The skin around them is grey, and panic twists heavily in your chest as you scrabble the thermometer from the bedside table and shove it beneath your stiff tongue. In a few seconds the thermometer’s alarm shrills, and you pull it free, squinting harder; the skin of your forehead creases and splits with the effort.

Eighty-five degrees.

You can’t feel your heartbeat.

Something is very, very wrong.

Standing is difficult; your knees have locked almost completely, nearly pitching you straight forward onto the floor. But you catch yourself against the nightstand and totter into the bathroom, holding onto the fixtures, the furniture, the walls. You grip the edges of the sink and haul yourself in front of the mirror and scream, except you don’t. The noise that comes out as you stare at yourself is airless and soft.

The skin of your face is ash grey. Your eyes are sunken and semi-opaque, surrounded by deep purple lids. You pull back your lips and see blackened gums shriveling away from your teeth. Shuddering, you hug yourself and rub your icy forearms, and a flap of skin drops away from one limb like a discarded glove.

Whatever this is, you don’t think the ER can help you now.

~ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright 2019 Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

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