Sneeze - A Short Story
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She froze as the consequences of her lapse engulfed her like a storm cloud rolling in from the east. She darted glances in all directions, trying to look as if nothing happened. Perhaps nobody noticed. No, she could see an old lady--well, relatively old, Tara’s peripheral vision estimated early 50s--looking at her, aghast. She was doomed.
Quickly, she gathered what was left of her carefully packed lunch, and for a moment debated whether she had time to grab her coat from her office. She had left it at her desk when she went down to eat her lunch basking in the crisp sunny day, the first warm day in months. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
No, she decided, she didn’t have that luxury. By the time she goes up, the lady would have called the IDCU and the whole building would be quarantined. Then it was just a matter of time before the lady identified her, and the IDCU took her to the Healing Centre. No one came back from the Healing Centre.
Instead, she threw the scraps of her lunch onto the pavement. She had already attracted attention and figured she might as well delay the pursuit. Then, she shouldered her bag and strode down the street, her heels clicking noisily as she exited the square and the almost budding trees. She made herself stay calm, resisted running, as a pack of wild dogs descended on the discarded meal behind her. She kept walking at a brisk pace, not paying attention to the direction just yet. Her thoughts swirled around her head like debris in a spring storm, and she tried to sort them out. Her mind kept reprimanding her, and she tried to turn off the no longer useful admonitions. Yes, she should have noticed the sneeze coming and resisted it, but she was enjoying the first buds of spring. Now was not the time for guilt. Now was time for actions. She focused on what she needed to do. She didn’t have much time. Sooner or later, someone would notice she didn’t come back from her lunch break, and shortly after that, someone will make the connection with the health hazard sneezing in the square below. But she had a few hours. Perhaps even until sunset.
She looked around, then aimed for Oxford Circus. It wasn’t the closest station, but Tara’s plan was swiftly forming. When she arrived at the station, she tapped in and then pried her phone out of its case and surreptitiously dropped it in the bin. She took a deep breath, and then the escalator down into the bowels of the city.
When the helpful PA announced the Tooting Bec station, she squared her shoulders and walked calmly towards the gates. Her mind was on high alert. Was that guard looking at her suspiciously? Was it possible that her picture was already circulating? The IDCU were known for their lightning response, but could they be that quick? It’s only been 45 minutes, and she had hoped the phone signal from Oxford Circus would lull them into thinking she was still there, perhaps deciding what to do. Her mind returned to the admonitions, and now she had a thousand alternative, better plans. She should have chucked her phone in a taxi while pretending to hail it. She should have called Simon before she dropped her phone. She should have called Simon from a payphone. She should have called work and let them know she was taking the rest of the day off. Enough, she told her mind firmly. This was as good a plan as any, and the worst thing to do is to change strategy midway. It was her first time dodging, but she had read stories, passed on from her friend Ameena, with strict instructions to burn the paper after she’d read it.
She took a deep breath and did her best to look surprised when her empty phone case didn’t make the little light go green. She looked around in what she hoped was a helpless-damsel-in-distress look. The guard approached her, and she was sure he would soon ask her why her heart was pumping so loudly. Instead, he gestured at the yellow panel. She tried again to tap out, without success. He frowned, looked at the screen, and sighed.
“Sorry, ma’am, it’s been giving us trouble all week. Hopefully, they’ll come fix it soon. Here,” he tapped his card on the other side, and the gates swung open. She smiled and thanked him and climbed up the stairs despite her jelly legs’ protests. After a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of IT, she directed her steps home.
She didn’t have a kit ready like Ameena told her to. To be honest, she never thought it would come to that. She marvelled at the way people normalised everything, even pandemics. Now she thought about Simon, and how they didn’t have a way to contact each other in case one of them got infected. Or, as was the situation now, suspected of being infected. These days it was just as bad.
She felt a pang of guilt for Simon. He’ll be quarantined for sure, but with any luck, he can persuade them that he was in a typical relationship, and so didn’t have close contact with his wife in the last two weeks. Also, had she been more organised, she would have left him instructions as to how to operate the house if something happened to her. Now poor Simon was on his own against the dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer, none of which he ever ran.
She found that she did have a kit, really, just not packed neatly like Ameena’s. She changed to comfy clothes and shoes, collected a first aid kit, some bottles of water, some food--enough to last her for a couple of days plus some extra for the people underground. Her only way to survive was to find one of the communities of infected or suspected people Ameena had told her about, people who were on the run from the IDCU. People like her.
She made sure she tidied everything up, to make it look like she was never there. Simon would notice the absence of her toothbrush, but she hoped he’d be quick enough to shut up about it. She picked up the book he was reading, found the page he was on, and wrote in the margin: “sorry,” and beneath that, “allergies”.
Her hiker backpack ready, she heaved it onto her back. She looked back at the door, just for a moment, and left. She was never one for sentimental goodbyes. She decided to take the familiar route through the park, assuming she won’t see the light of day for the next month at least. In a month, she can probably go back, if she’s still alive.
She stood behind a hedge, close enough to hear the children’s whispers behind the shed. Her eyes found him. Noah was playing football with his friends, the centre of attention, blissfully oblivious. She still debated. Until this very second, she deliberately didn’t decide. Every nerve in her body wanted to hug him. Every muscle was straining to go to the office, say there’s been a family emergency, see his face light up, just one more time, when he sees her through the glass doors.
Her knuckles were white from holding on to the fence. Slowly, as if moving underwater, she released them. Tears flooded her eyes, left streaks of mascara down her cheeks, as she turned and left. The playground squeals followed her for a long time.
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