By: Afamefuna G. Onyebadi
Major: Combined Sciences, English Minor
Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya
I couldn’t figure out whether the answer to question five was “blue with a tinge of black” or “red with a tinge of yellow.” Often Mrs. Bloomfield went on and on about the importance of distinguishing the two, and often my mind wandered off. Her lessons were always so boring. I looked at the clock; half an hour till the test was over. Everybody was busy writing away. The sound of their pencils scratching on paper giving the impression they knew the answers to everything. I hated the sound of pencil on paper. It felt like ants, their sharp, sticky legs crawling within the crevices of my brain. “Question five isn’t going to answer itself,” I thought. After all, the better I did in class, the higher likelihood I had of the administration picking me for their trial program.
Rachel yawned. Her desk was directly to the left of mine, right by the window looking out onto the school grounds. She was incredibly smart, and I took her yawn as an indication she was already done with the test. I checked to see if Mrs. Bloomfield was watching me. She wasn’t. The light from her phone illuminated her face so that the lines around her eyes looked more pronounced. I craned my neck to see what Rachel had written down for question five.
Strange, she was still yawning.
Her mouth kept growing wider and wider till it was possible to see her wisdom teeth from where I sat. She gripped the front of her desk so that her arms blocked her paper and made it impossible for me to see what she’d written. Her tongue lolled to one side of her mouth, and saliva slowly started dripping from the tip of her tongue on to her paper. She started making incoherent grunting noises prompting the whole class to turn around and look at her. Mrs. Bloomfield looked up from her phone, the sides of her mouth slightly twitching with annoyance. She absolutely hated disruption in class.
Rachel’s neck was shrunk back, tilting her head backwards, her blonde hair sprawled haphazardly over Angie’s paper. Her eyes were bloodshot and wide with terror, tears streaming down her cheeks and mixing with the clear fluid that came from her nose so that everything flowed from her chin down her neck—everybody died differently, but their eyes always turned red right before they passed. Rachel began to kick her legs furiously, causing her desk to move up and down, noisily penetrating the eerie silence that enveloped the class. The kicking continued for about a minute before she suddenly stopped and slumped low in her seat, her chest moving up and down as rapidly as an athlete’s would after a marathon.
Her mouth, still open, began to tear at the sides as both jaws kept stretching further and further apart as though an imaginary force repelled them from each other. She squirmed in her seat, I imagine in intense pain as blood dripped from the corners of her mouth onto the wooden classroom floor. The grunting noise she had been making was now replaced with a piercing squeal that oddly reminded me of the worn-out kettle I used to make coffee in the morning.
At this sound, Mrs. Bloomfield stood up. She looked impatient and glanced at her watch. She was about to say something when Rachel began kicking again. This time harder and louder. Her hands now firmly gripped the sides of her desk. Her knuckles white as paper. I could see the tension in her pale cheeks give, as her extended yawn grew wider allowing me to see her uvula swing in tandem with her squirms. Both jaws reached their stretching limit, and with an unpleasant crack finally unhinged so that her mouth, attached to the rest of her face now only by skin and muscle, sort of just hung there. Her tongue was a magnificent pink. Much larger than I envisioned tongues were, now that I could see it right from its root.
She was motionless and had stopped breathing. I guess the pain had finally killed her. The blood, I noticed, had begun to congeal on the floor. Surprisingly less than I anticipated. “This is good for whoever’s turn it is to clean the classroom,” I thought to myself.
More good news: I could finally see the answer to question five.
All twenty-five of us were silent, a few students turning back to finish the test. Mrs. Bloomfield announced we had twenty minutes left. Her voice sounding strained as she simultaneously groped under her table for the button that summoned the men in hazmat suits (The administration insisted on the prompt disposal of bodies). Successful, she gave a triumphant sigh, smoothed out the creases in her sweater and settled back to her phone.
I turned to look at Angie who was busy grabbing the bottom edge of her paper attempting to tug it out from underneath Rachel’s hair, careful at the same time not to touch any strand. She knew as well as I did that as-long-as you didn’t touch any part of them after they died, you’d be fine, at least for the foreseeable future. Watching her reminded me of the time, many months ago when the class had at least a hundred students or so, Tommy died and Stephan —to be funny—lifted him on his shoulders and used Tommy’s limp arm to slap unsuspecting students on the backs of their heads.
Stephan always tried so hard to make us laugh. I remember the day after the “head slapping” incident, asking him why he had to be such a clown all the time.
“When we laugh we’re alive right?” he said.
“Well duh when you cry you’re alive too,” I retorted.
He paused, his brow furrowed, “I’m going to die with a smile” he declared, his eyes brown and wide.
We lost twenty people that week, including Stephan.
Rachel is dead
Jaime still had his eyes on Rachel. I thought he fancied her. From my place at the back, I had watched him stare at her almost every day throughout the year, never courageous enough to say anything but smile at her when she caught him looking. She always smiled back and nervously tucked her hair behind her ear as she did. It was nice watching them. I sometimes longed to feel the same way. A connection that needed no words. Something, anything, to distract me from the inevitability of death.
See, we were all infected.
Everyone in class was probably going to die from the disease. Even after so many months of observation, the administration still didn’t know what it was. All they had come up with so far was the “Trial Program” that everybody was desperate to get into. Those under twenty in the facility had the best chance of recovering from the sickness, but due to lack of funds, only two per age-group could be selected. All our classes were geared toward understanding the disease, and I guess they figured that saving the smartest among us would provide the best odds of finding a cure in the future.
I stared at my test paper, not really seeing the questions, as I felt the terror from two years ago—when the administration rounded up all the families that lived in West-Point— creep back into my subconscious. The spontaneous nature of the deaths and the macabre ways in which they occurred forced the administration to quarantine the approximately two hundred families of West-Point. The facility in which we were placed was a replica of our previous lives. Here we awaited death. “Much like regular life, only worse,” Rachel liked to say. The kids my age spent their days doing mundane everyday activities like going to class, playing sports in the school grounds during break, cleaning the classroom every evening at four, and watching movies in the hall during movie-nights on Saturdays.
There were rumors that hundreds of facilities just like ours existed throughout the country. Knowing that thousands of people were going through what I was going through made it easier. As far as was known so far, the disease immediately killed you only after you touched the body of a person who died. Older people seemed to die more frequently, but everybody that died seemed to die spontaneously. There were no symptoms, only death. No prolonged suffering, just a quick five-minute episode and then you were gone.
Rachel and I would sit on the patch of grass at the edge of the school grounds and talk about what it would be like when we did die. She would always close her eyes as she talked. Her voice trailing as though she actually was dying. Her breathing would slow, and she seemed at ease. She viewed it as ascension. Peaceful. Your soul going up and up and up, till all you could feel was the cold of outer space. I tried to imagine it as she did. But all I could come up with was the gruesome image of Stephan sprawled across the classroom floor, blood oozing out of his ears.
One day, after a particularly cumbersome botany lesson with Mrs. Bloomfield about the properties of blanket flowers, she described the disease to me as heat, and everything else as intense burning. Most times I struggled to follow her train of thought, but whenever she made sense, she always filled me with intense curiosity.
The way she died certainly didn’t seem like ascension, nor did it look peaceful.
Rachel IS dead
Three men in hazmat suits came into the classroom. Their off-white suits were so large they had to duck down to fit in the door frame. Mrs. Bloomfield barely looked at them as they filed in. The first must have been the data collector–he had the iPad-looking device in his right hand. The second and third carried a stretcher between them. They paused by the front row of desks, surveying the situation while the first man furiously made notes on his iPad. We were accustomed to this routine. The notetaking, followed by the pictures, then the customary “Did anyone touch the body,” question. The body would then be put on the stretcher and unceremoniously wheeled off.
Seeing nearly a hundred people die, and in such unique disturbing ways makes you numb. I guess that’s why nobody said anything. Nobody so much as looked at the men in hazmat suits. Their question was answered with a mechanical “No” that sounded rehearsed and unemotional.
RACHEL IS DEAD
Why was this test so important anyway? All for a chance to get into that stupid program? What if the administration was no closer to finding a cure than they had been a year ago? Was this why everybody was still writing? How could Mrs. Bloomfield sit mindlessly scrolling through lord knows what on her phone when a student she’d known for over a year was slumped in her seat, dead, a pool of blood forming around her? Hadn’t Jaime fancied Rachel when she was alive? Why then, did he have that amused expression on his face as the hazmat-men made their way to her body?
I didn’t feel my body move.
But Rachel’s skin, still warm against mine as I embraced her, brought tears to my eyes.