Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2014.
The Quiet Began with a Panic
by Elisa Fernandes-McDade
The quiet began with a panic, and the panic began with the death of a child.
A boy, eleven years old, Colombian -- his parents panicked when he didn’t come home that night. They set up a search party; they found him in a park he liked to play in. He was at the top of a basketball hoop, hugging a pole so tightly they needed to break bones to remove his body. That was strange, but it wasn’t the strange st thing . The strangest thing was the object sticking out his skull: a leafless sprout, two feet long, yellow - brown. Marking the halfway point, a brown bulb covered with inch - long spikes, like a prickly pear fruit. The boy’s hair seemed to be coated with cobwebs. That was strange. That’s why it made the papers.
Acquaintances would later recall his odd behavior, which had begun about a month prior. Staring glass-eyed into nowhere, not responding when talked to, yelled at, or shaken; fits of gibberish in the middle of conversation, fits of clumsiness in the middle of play. Falling down suddenly, crawling on his knees and falling down again, twisting about like he was swimming on flat ground. Parents had suspected it might have been a brain tumor. If only it had been a tumor.
Other cases popped up in Bogotá. Next Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil. Next the southeastern US. Next wherever the wind or air travel took it. Mostly air travel. It went rapidly.
People started appearing on telephone posts, flag poles, anywhere high they could climb to the top. Knowing who had it was impossible. Once the warning signs showed themselves, it was too late. The thing was already in their brain, the roots wrapped around their cerebellum, squeezing their spinal cord. High could never be high enough.
Everyone panicked. Minds were lost, rationality abandoned. People fled to their homes, their remote mountain getaways, local relief centers. They died. Smart ones turned a profit on panic, built underground safehouses , expanded bomb shelters, opened the doors to the public, for a modest fee. Without sun, the thing stayed dormant in people’s heads.
In the blink of an eye, a wildfire swept the earth, screaming, howling, the stench of fear clouding the air, no visibility in the panic. Wind spread the fear and the feared. The memory of that sickly-sweet smell of fear still lingered, stronger than the smell of death, overpowering, like carrion on a hot day.
Then, they were gone, all gone. Fled to their holes. You can still hear them in certain places, walking, talking as they do.
Even so, the young don’t believe me. Gophers, they say. Why should they believe?
What did they look like? Taller than a heron standing on another heron’s head, faces flat. Imagine vultures without beaks. Bodies naked like newly-hatched robins. Long fur on their crowns, only there. Raccoon hands and feet. The young laugh at me.
I take them to see the ones who remain up high, still hugging, quiet and cobwebby. Bears, they say, dead.
I can still hear mine in that spot, under the quiet road, scuffling underground, talking with the rest of his warren. The thing in his head quiet. Does it tell him to come back up? Does he want to? Or does the panic hug his brain too strong, tell him no? I wait, I shouldn’t, but I wait. The panic lies dormant. Without sun, without air, the quiet will stay. It will stay quiet.