What if…? might be one of my favourite questions.
It holds such promise and possibility. What if I just do… and then… now this… oh, look, we’ve invented the wheel. Developed the abacus or sculpted The Thinker.
It’s a question that encourages new thinking and exploration, boundaries being put aside.
It underpins creativity.
And, when you’re a writer on the hunt for stories, what if is a question that turns the mundane, the tedious or even the unpleasant of everyday minutiae into a fizzing mass of potential and imagination.
Today, I’d like to share a story I wrote a couple of years ago after a hospital appointment. Giving blood or having injections is always a palaver for me, as my veins are shy, as nurses describe it. They think they have found a perfect one but even as they insert the needle, the vein slithers and slinks out of reach!
The worst occasion was a year or so ago, when I needed IV treatment, and it took several nurses and seven attempts to get a canula in.
I don’t usually write horror, but somehow the what ifs that occurred that day lent themselves to exactly that genre. Hope you enjoy the story…
by Trish Veltman
Seven times this morning, they’ve stuck me with needles, searching for my veins. Bruises flower like black thumbprints on my arms. I lift my face to the picture of the First Blood-giver, and recite a silent prayer.
The nurse mimes lifting a glass to drink. We must not talk; careless talk costs lives, spreads germs which infiltrate our purity. I nod. Every morning, a jug of ice-cold water is delivered to our rooms. I always drink it all. I’ve had to report my peers, when I spy them pouring theirs down the toilet. I stroke the cloth badges stitched to my robe beneath my number. Badges for honesty, observance, duty, for responsibility. The nurse smiles at my devotion and pushes the sleeves of my robe further up, fingers probing my upper arm. A swift sting, a click of the canula sliding into place, and my dark red blood flows into the plastic tube, swirling down into the pouch. The nurse raises a thumb, and strides off to the next ward of waiting Givers.
Since the Contamination, every drop of clean blood has been drained, for transfusions to keep the Contaminated contained in their human form. The Contaminated. When the glaciers and icebergs disintegrated into the sea and the oceans rose, beaches and low-lying lands became submerged. The darkest, coldest part of the ocean rose up from the deep, infiltrating the fish people ate, the water they drank. Bacteria no human had encountered before entered their systems, and over-burdened immune-systems turned rogue. People weren’t just getting sick. They were turning.
At night, when the moon was full and the tide was high, the infected grew hungry. Their voices filled the dark sky with horror, howls that sent shivers down the sturdiest of spines. Sinewy tentacles and grasping suckers sprouted where human limbs had been. Barbed teeth, and sinuous tails burst through gums and skin. They gathered in gangs and hunted human flesh. No chain could hold them in, no lock and key was strong enough to keep them out. Nothing could kill them. They were the wer-wolves of the ocean. Mer-wolves.
All that could protect them was pure blood. My ancestors were mountain people. They saw the waters rising, but they never got their own feet wet. They still drank and bathed in clear, pure mountain water, still ate the birds and animals hunted in the forests. I don’t know how it was discovered that their blood was an antidote to the contamination, but a pint of it pumped through the veins of the contaminated could stop them turning for several tides.
I was born a Blood-giver. We are kept safe in sterilised classrooms and disinfected dormitories until our blood becomes ripe and our life’s work can begin.
Every day we give thanks to the First, turning our masked faces to his picture on the wall. We recite our heritage, the chain of names linking us all back to the First. We learn of brave sacrifices made by previous Givers. If anyone ever breathes a complaint, that we are never allowed outside, or we are always swathed in hospital gowns, they are reminded of the honour of Blood-Giving, of the dangers the Contaminated pose to us all. We have never seen outside. I’ve never wanted to; all my life, I only wished to honour the First, by becoming, as I did, the youngest giver, and still I pledge to become the most productive.
‘You need to escape from this place now.’
I’m watching the blood snake from my arm when the sharp whisper rustles across the space between me and the next blood-giver and scythes into my thoughts. I snatch a glance at the number on the speaker’s badgeless chest. My fingers stray to my badges again, lingering on the embroidered canula of my ten year anniversary badge.
‘Those badges won’t help you now. Not where they’ll be taking you.’
Taking me? What does that even mean? Right after this I will be taking myself to the Leader to request extra guidance for number 33096, for talking when I gave my daily blood. Then I will return to my rooms, for a nourishing meal and my afternoon nap, to replenish my veins with their liquid treasure.
‘I know what you’re thinking but reporting me won’t save you. You’re expendable now your veins aren’t co-operating. Meet me at bathroom five, straight after supper. I’ll help you escape.’
This is worse than talk; this is madness, delusion. 33096 is insane. I know what I must do.
The Leader is signing papers when I am released. I stand a few feet from the desk, head bowed in the direction of the First’s portrait above the fireplace.
‘So, you have seen something?’ A hand beckons me closer. I nod, and explain.
‘You’ve served the First well, 84215.’
I am dismissed then, and float on the glow of praise, wondering what my 100th badge will represent. Integrity? There’ll be a ceremony, my fourth. Applause, cheers, soar in in my ears and I almost skip to my room.
Meals are taken alone in our rooms, to limit germ-spread when we remove our masks to eat. I leave my door ajar, for my dinner tray, and sit with my hands folded in my lap. The First gazes down at me, and I whisper my thanks. Footsteps in the corridor. My stomach rumbles.
Black-uniformed figures loom. Rough hands vice my arms, squeezing my bruises. I am thrown in a metal box, doors clang. An engine roars and the room begins to jolt, so fast I might be sick. I curl on the metal floor, whispering my name-chain, over and over.
I am hauled from the box, hurled to the floor. It slithers beneath me. Cold, salty air scrapes my skin. The engine roars again, fades into the distance. I am alone.
Above my head, in the black roof, a silver disc slides out from behind a dark shadow. In the falling splash of light, no more than a hand’s reach away, rows of barbed teeth gleam.
~ ~ ~
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