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Violet Cigarettes

by Chris Castle

part 1 of 2

No-one knew how it had 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 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 easily 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 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 if they had... stilled.

He looked over the door, saw it was sealed and ran into the office to the computer. As it whirred into life, he reached into his pocket and tried to call his boss, who was on holiday, but he saw the phone was unable to connect: Petra and he 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 rewinding it until he found something.

A shift in the pattern, as the gate suddenly swung 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 more quickly 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 Petra 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 furor 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.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Chris Castle

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