For fun and practice, several of us in my writing group have decided to write flash fiction every Friday–one-thousand words or less, incorporating a prompt. Sometimes, if I like how they turn out, I might share them here. This week, we used a random prompt generator that gave us three words: madness, underwater, and salesman. I’m really happy with this one. And so I present to you:
by Megan Paasch
As soon as the bubbles clear, I sense trouble. I don’t know what it is that’s tipped me off. There’s just this sense that something isn’t right. My knuckles whiten against the console as I watch the waterline slowly work its way down the windshield of my sub.
[Windshield: An archaic holdover of the Pre-Aquatic Era when glass was required on vehicles to keep a form of air-flow called “wind” off the driver’s face. They were often equipped with “windshield wipers”—long rubberized bars that would move back and forth to clear rain (water that falls from the sky) from the glass, thus increasing visibility.]
My ears pop as the air seal reengages and the pressure normalizes.
“Hello?” I try through the comm. There’s a click and some static. “Hello?” I try again.
Finally, a tinny response: “State your purpose.”
My stomach drops. That’s never a good sign. But not completely unusual. Many of these places in the Deep Trench are more on the suspicious side than up in the Shallows. And still—something is off. What is it?
“I’m here as a representative of Encyclopedia Atlantica. You might find me in your logs from, uh . . .” I take a quick glance at my own log. “About a year ago. Last March.”
“We aren’t interested.”
“You—what all of you?” There must be at least ten thousand people living in this town. I think back. Yes, at least that many. Sure, it’s not nearly as large as, say, New Brooklyn, but there have to be some residents in need of the most recent edition of Encyclopedia Atlantica.
[Brooklyn: A section, referred to as a borough, of the Pre-Aquatic city of New York, known for its tall, rectangular buildings dubbed “sky-scrapers.” It was still inhabited as late as the early Semi-Aquatic until it was finally decimated by one of the massive tsunamis the period was known for, thus ushering in the Modern Aquatic Age.]
The knot in my gut is telling me to just take their word for it. Just leave. Move on to the next town. But I’m already short on my quota due to the Oceanic Encyclopedic Co. edging in on my territory. And according to my log, I managed to sell fifty encyclopedia sets here last year. Again, not nearly as many as I might sell in, say, Mariana City, but I’ll take anything I can get right now. Even, a little voice in the back of my head asks me, if it means risking your inventory? Or your freedom? Or . . . Even the whispering in my head doesn’t want to go that far.
“It’s for-kthkzkthz-own protection,” the voice over the comm states. It buzzes in my eardrums like tiny scratches. I instinctively put my fingers to my ears, and when I pull them away, the bits of wax are red, bloody. I grimace at them, then reach across the seat for a tissue to wipe them clean.
“Is everything all right in there? Maybe I can offer some assistance.” I squint, bracing myself for another painfully scratchy answer over the comm.
But there’s no response. Just static. Though I might have caught the word “scan” in there.
Go. I tell myself. Just leave. I can make up the deficit elsewhere. It’s obvious now what’s happening here. The delayed, roundabout responses. Answers that aren’t answers. No one wants to talk about it. That’s how it was back at—which town was that?
That’s the problem with life as a traveling salesman. You hit so many towns, you start to lose track. I pinch the bridge of my nose and squeeze my eyes shut. That itching between my ears returns, deep between my ears. My head buzzes, buzzes, then stops. I take a breath. I wipe the trickle of moisture from below my right ear, then rub the sticky red on the tissue.
“All right. Preparing for re-submersion.” I hope the comm works well enough to send my message through.
“Terribly sorry. We can’t let you-kthz-out there.”
And there it is. There’s my proof. The Madness has them. And if I can’t get them to let me go, the Madness will soon have me too.
[The Madness: Begins with paranoia, then quickly progresses to auditory hallucinations and confusion, rage, and hemorrhaging. Believed highly contagious, this rapidly progressing illness has been known to decimate entire communities, causing massive quarantines, affecting communication, trade, and political stability. There is still no known cause, though some theories suggest it may not be caused by a virus after all, but mass exposure to an as-yet-to-be-identified mold or bacteria.]
“So you won’t let me into your town, but you also won’t let me go.” I’m stalling. Suddenly all of my convincing salesman tactics have left me. Probably because of the buzzing in my head. So much buzzing.
“What if . . .” I stumble out of my chair, clutching my ear with one hand while fumbling with the latch to the truck’s storage bay with the other. “What if I leave you with—with uh—a lifetime supply of these, wonderful. . . .”
The buzzing goddamnit. You know what? They probably don’t have the madness after all. This is all some kind of con to get me to hand over all of my supply. With the Madness panic screwing with the economy, some towns have turned to piracy.
I get the door open and wade through the flooded cargo hold. I still need to get that leak fixed.
“Sir-kthzkthzz-main calm. We must follow proto-kthzkthz-already hit hard. We’re sending some-kthz-escort you to quarantine.”
Oh no. Oh no no no. They’re not holding me when I have encyclopedias to sell. The box’s flap tears in my grip, soggy, speckled black with mold from the damp. I pull out the thickest book and hold it up, ready to swing. Knock ’em out, grab their badges, use them to open the bay doors. I’ve got this. I’ve done this before.