The hospital hummed with machines, running, measuring, inserting, and drawing out. Linda emerged from her bubble and reached out her hand to touch the nurse, drawing it back quickly. She could not touch another human, not yet. The bubble protected them from her. She had caught the adenovirus, Adeno-26, the one so infectious they rushed all its victims into bubbles. Linda was dangerous and needed to be sealed off from everyone.
The doctor declared Linda’s visit over; she was no longer contagious; she could come out. But she wanted to stay. She did not feel the same as she did before Adeno. What if she still had some of the disease hanging on to her? She missed her pottery wheel and decent coffee, but she did not want to leave the hospital. She still felt dangerous.
“It is over,” Greg said, rifling through the reusable bags. “Everyone is getting vaccinated. Most people are wearing masks and staying six feet from each other. You can go out. I will help you. How about a run to the grocery store?”
Linda shook her head, “no”. She gazed at her hands. They looked normal, but she knew they were not entirely human anymore. They showed a paleness, as if it were deep winter. The hands did not always do what she asked of them. They now were “the hands” and not “her hands” as they slipped further from her conscious control. She did not trust them outside, around strangers. “No, you go on. I will stay here and do the dishes.”
“You’re going to have to leave sometime.” Greg grabbed a mask off the peg on the wall. “The longer we wait, the tougher it will get for you.”
Linda knew people would stare at her. They had to. She had so obviously become something different. It had to show on her face or on her skin. She could not look Greg in the eyes anymore. How could she raise her eyes and chit-chat about football with strangers? How did strangers talk about sports when massive changes were ripping through her body and the world?
When she plunged her hands into the soapy water, her left hand went immediately to a knife. She willed the hand to drop it, and, after a few moments, it did. Concentrating hard on doing the dishes, Linda rubbed plates with a cloth. She wanted to break them, but she kept control. She focused entirely on making her hands go through the steps of washing dishes. Washing the knives was tricky. A new mantra rose in her mind, “Do not break and do not stab.”
Something new rooted in her lizard brain. Her fight-or-flight mechanism had turned on fight. Her urges said, “smash”, “wound”, “make them hurt as much as you do.” Looking around her bedroom, she saw mirrors “shatter”, hangers “mangle”, and a pen on her bedstand which she stabbed deep into the mattress. She felt a dip in her stomach and ran into the bathroom to vomit.
Greg was the only other person around, and Linda’s likeliest target. She forced herself to control it because she loved him, but it took a lot of time and energy. When she was focusing on not stabbing Greg, she had little energy left to sweep the floor or do a crossword puzzle. She spent a lot of time in bed, both to recover from subduing her urges and to keep her hands and lizard brain away from temptation. She asked Greg to take down the mirrors.
When she dragged herself out of bed, Linda disappeared into her pottery studio. It was her place away from the world, where what mattered was clay, glaze, and hands. The hands broke everything that recently came out of the kiln. She destroyed bowls and pitchers and shattered that set of mugs she was trying the new glaze on. It was satisfying. The broken bits of hard clay trembled, shook, and some rose off the ground. She fled her studio with the mess still in place.
Some days, her feet would try to pull her away from the house. On other days, she would grit her teeth all day. Her murderous hands were the worst. They led her post-Adeno urges out of her body and toward someone else. Infect them or hurt them, Linda was not entirely sure, and she did not want to find out. She fought to keep everything inside and pretend she was normal. Acid built up in her stomach, fed by every wild emotion she felt. It hurt to submerge her feelings behind a facade that might not even be her anymore. Linda went back to bed.
Linda phoned for help, trying to explain that she needed to come back to the hospital. She needed isolation and more treatment. The hospital gently explained that they needed the beds for other patients who were at critical stages. Her general practitioner suggested she see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist could offer her an appointment in three months. Her insurance said they might cover it.
Linda tore a picture off the wall and slammed it into the coffee table. Glass went everywhere. The murderous hands went for a large piece, and she sliced her fingers trying to set it back down. Her brain whirled, spinning like a cyclone, unable to focus on anything. Her stomach upended with acid climbing her esophagus. She ran to her bedroom, locked her door, and cried herself to sleep.
Later, she awoke to a soft knock on the door. “Honey? Are you okay? Please let me in.”
“Just a moment,” Linda called. Looking at the bloodstains slashing across the bed, nothing was going to make this any easier. She opened the door.
Greg immediately went into emergency mode. He dragged her into the bathroom and poured hydrogen peroxide on her fingers. “Was this an accident? Or were you trying to hurt yourself?”
Linda could only cry as an answer. He gently and efficiently bandaged her fingers. Sitting her on the toilet, Greg returned to pull the sheets off the bed and put new ones in place. He walked her back to the bed and went to clean up the living room. Then he took down all the glass-fronted pictures in the house and hid them in the attic.
He was always quiet about his emotions. She could only imagine what he must think about her. Spoiled brat, drama-queen, attention-hog. Soon, he would have to leave her and divorce her. What else could he do? She hadn’t really given him any other choices. He would get sick of her acting up and leave her. It was only a matter of when.
Staying inside could not last forever. One night, Linda broke three plates while attempting to set the table. Greg demanded that she go with him to Kohl’s, to select some new dishes to replace the ones she had broken. He put the rest of her handmade dinnerware onto the top shelf that she could not reach.
She masked up and shoved her hands deep into her pockets. Maybe she could tie the hands down so they could not get out and do what they wanted. Did Amazon sell restraint devices? Would she have to get them at a specialty store? Would they come with a free gimp mask? She went back to her mantra, “Do not break and do not stab.”
In the store, she and Greg discussed the merits of Fiestaware, if plates were going to be broken at the current rate. How would Cobalt look alongside Twilight and Lapis? Linda looked around. Boxes of prettily packaged plates with Paprika cups and Sunflower bowls piled around her. They made a maze of Meadow, Shamrock, and Lemongrass. Which color had been radioactive? Those dishes might be more appropriate. Beyond the maze, the store contained many strangers, scattered at a distance from each other. So far, all was safe. She nodded at the Fiestaware and asked Greg to put some in the cart. She growled when he suggested she help.
Now, a strange woman was closer to them. She was in the cookware department looking at the knives. A tall, blonde woman wearing a red jacket. Was it Scarlet or Poppy? While the stranger was looking at one set, Linda saw her right-hand inch toward a butcher’s knife. The hand reached for the knife and grabbed it. The stranger turned to it and slowly put the knife down.
Linda broke a cup without even know she was doing it. Clang! And a bright Turquoise piece of broken Fiestaware saucer fell to her feet. Greg was saying something about having to buy the dish, but she was no longer paying attention to him.
The woman looked over at Linda and pointed at her. Linda nodded. The stranger moved closer. They reached out their hands toward each other and when they touched fingers, Linda felt an electric shock. The butcher’s knife flew into the air and two more dishes broke.
The woman said, “You still have Adeno.”
“You too,” Linda replied.
Three knives and several broken pieces of dinnerware started floating around the two women. Meadow and Lapis. Paprika and Poppy. Silver.
“I don’t want this to happen,” Linda said.
And the knives and brightly colored potsherds whirled faster. Linda tried to gain control of her breath, to slow things down. But her lizard brain was enjoying it too much when the shards and knives swirled together like a dust devil. Their creation set to roaming through the store. It was beautiful, in an evil and destructive kind of way.
Greg ran. That was wise.
Break and stab.
Johanna Haas lives in a cottage in the middle of the United States. She used to be a professor teaching environmental studies. But she broke, and now writes from home. She has fiction published in Bewildering Stories, and has work being anthologized in 42 Words and Where the Wind Blows.
I really enjoyed this story and its clean, straightforward language. Cool premise, too.
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