Toxic – by Marie Maurer

Primrose Hill Short Story Entry

Can you catch it from a stare? There’s a challenge in her eyes: you turn away (of course you do). You can’t see it but a smile creeps across her face, dimpling her cheeks deceptively.

Tara is one of those people who is known of, but never known. You tried once. At a party in Primrose Hill – usual crowd, one too many, trying not to wake Milo and Molly sleeping upstairs.

She was in the kitchen, leaning. (She was always leaning, as if gravity alone couldn’t take her force.) You said hi, or something equally innocuous. She sniffed.

‘How do you know Andrew and Clare?’
‘Around’
‘Ah’
‘Anyone know if there’s any whiskey?’ (She addressed the room, although you were the only people in it.)
‘I don’t drink’
‘Of course you don’t’

You were not someone people took an immediate liking to – but you’d never thought of yourself as being someone people didn’t like, either. Neutral, like Switzerland or tonic water. Her dismissal burned.

‘Maybe the pantry?’ you simpered, a pathetic shot at approval.

That stare. She rolled her eyes, unleaned herself like a polarised magnet; exited in search of something stronger. It wouldn’t bother you, except her presence exerted such force that being on the wrong end of it causes physical discomfort.

Now of course, times are different. Everyone has grown more distant; wary. It somewhat negates Tara’s point of difference, except for one thing: there isn’t a trace of fear about her. Like right now, as she leans against the shuttered flower shop, passers-by anxiously clutching carrier bags or face masks – darting into traffic preferable to walking too close to another human. But Tara moves for nobody. Does she have some secret immunity?

You walk home, wondering. The heat threatens blisters on the back of your neck. When you get in you drink two full glasses of water, one after the other, spilling droplets onto the stained countertop. Your head is buzzing. Please, not the virus.

The next day and your head and the thoughts bouncing around inside it have eased. It’s raining and you feel refreshed; Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann soothes you on the stereo. You get out your yoga mat and start stretching. Child’s pose. Warrior something, what was it? You can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. It feels good to move your stiff body.

There’s a knock on the door. Odd, because you never have visitors. Even before the lockdown, the only person who came to see you was your mother: every Sunday, armed with Tupperware towers of frozen food she’d prepared so you can feed yourself, even though you order Chinese food every night and the freezer is crammed with homemade beef stew that you don’t have the heart to tell her to stop making.

You count to three and open the door. It’s Tara.

‘Can I come in?’

She pushes past you, sits on your IKEA sofa with its faded throw. Her eyes follow you as you close the door behind her.

‘I need a favour’
‘How do you know where I live?’

She gestures at the kitchen.

‘Whiskey’ Not a question.
‘I don’t –’
‘Right, you don’t drink’
‘I might have some champagne somewhere?’

She eyes you for a moment.

‘Fine’

You retrieve the bottle of Moët your boss gave you for winning Employee of the Month six years ago. She takes it from you, pops the cork and pours it incongruously into the Sports Direct mug you hand her. At this point, you’ve stopped feeling shame at your surroundings and started feeling something closer to… curiosity?

‘I need you to infect me’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘I need you to infect me with the virus’

Remnants of a migraine tease your temples.

‘I don’t understand’
‘You don’t need to. I need to be infected, like now. And you have to help.
There’s a man who has the injection. Meet him in one hour on Erskine Road behind the Post Office. He’ll give it to you, and then you need to come back here and inject me.’

And then, as if by way of explanation: ‘I can’t do it myself. I’m afraid of needles.’

The questions crowd behind your eyes.

‘If I’m going to do this for you’ you venture, ‘I need to know why’.

She nods. You hadn’t anticipated acquiescence.

‘When you’ve done it, I’ll tell you.’

Why aren’t you immediately saying no? Why aren’t you turfing her out of your flat? Why haven’t you called the police yet?

‘And don’t even think about calling the police. I’ll know.’

You stare at her. She looks almost fragile up close; massive mug of champagne in her unmanicured hands, nails like spikes. There’s a moment, unspoken acceptance of the situation. You’re a character in her story, and you have to follow the plot line.

The pick-up goes relatively smoothly – the man is there when you arrive, hands you a brown padded envelope. You grip it close to your stomach and walk straight home without looking at anyone. When you return she’s leaning against the arm of your sofa, staring at the ceiling.

You fumble with the envelope. Inside is a single syringe.

‘Should I – should I sanitise it first?’ you ask, aware of the absurdity.

Tara holds out her left arm.

Suddenly everything is swimming around you. Your vision is blurred and there’s a vile burning, a roaring fire in your throat chest lungs. A flourescent flicker above your head, the scent of disinfectant. Something’s not right. Where are you?

In the next 24 hours you are de-intubated and the ventilator is sent for specialist cleaning, ready for the next patient.

Your mother is there when you awake, both of you unable to speak for different reasons.

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