Prose Header

Violet Cigarettes

by Chris Castle

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Dominic clicked on another site and read back through the newly issued symptoms. 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 warning 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 miscalculation 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’d felt it everywhere. People see what they want to see.

The images showed places burning, fighting and looting. The sightings of people being hanged from lampposts were brief; the screen blanked for a second when the producers 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 the 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 is 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 amount of time 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 looked to see if the door was open far enough that he could hear 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 to see if it was secure. The doorknob 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 and wrote ‘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 textbook. 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 unhook them awkwardly. He smiled, embarrassed, but she didn’t seem to notice. As an afterthought, he saw she’d removed her shoes. They were set neatly to the left of her with her socks stuffed inside, and each of her toenails was painted purple.

“Okay, question one: ‘What do you like to do with your family at the weekends?’” He suddenly felt 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...”

Copyright © 2012 by Chris Castle

To Challenge 476...

Home Page