The spring flu had been going around the school like usual, but some people were sicker than normal. They didn’t just have fever and headache – their faces were blotchy, their eyes bulged, and they all wheezed like they’d just run up ten flights of stairs without stopping. Cara McCormack was the first one who was really serious, though. I had the pleasure of being in bio with her when she opened her mouth to answer a question, but vomited a fountain of blood instead.
She was only the first. Pretty soon, classes were being constantly interrupted by students turning ashen and sprinting out the door, trying to make it to the bathroom before everything came up. The nurse’s office was flooded with wheezing, puking, fainting patients in a matter of hours. Of course, this being 1991, we didn’t have the option of calling parents to pick us up – going to the nurse was the only option. We didn’t know yet the nurses’ calls to the outside weren’t going through, and at that point, no one cared, because halfway through lunch, someone walked into the boys’ bathroom and found Paul Maschhoff lying dead in a puddle of blood and vomit. Unsurprisingly, all hell broke loose.
The panic was indescribable. All pretenses of having classes stopped. Teachers herded us into the gym, but it was impossible to get 700 terrified teenagers to sit quietly when their friends could be dying. Meanwhile, people were still getting sick. I remember gingerly patting someone’s back as she wheezed and tried to catch a breath, imagining that I could see plague germs crawling on her sweater, up my arm, and swarming over my skin. I jerked my hand away, and immediately felt terrible for being so callous.
Just then, a handful of teachers filed back into the gym, wearing lab coats borrowed from the science department. The makeshift masks that covered their mouths and noses transformed them from teachers we’d known for years into nameless robots. They corralled us into lines and called students up one by one. After a hasty examination – no stethoscopes, no thermometers, just a quick once-over – kids were sent outside, or to the back of the gym. In, out, in, in, in, out, out, out. They were separating us, sick from healthy.
As I drew closer to the front of the line, I suddenly felt a hand squeeze mine and practically jumped out of my skin.
“Chill out, it’s just me,” a voice whispered. I relaxed slightly at the sight of my best friend Katie, but her pinched, worried face had me concerned all over again. “Are you sick?” she asked nervously, her eyes searching my face.
“I don’t think so,” I said, realizing that I hadn’t even stopped to think about that all day. I ran through a mental checklist: Chills? No. Fever? No. Wheezing? No. Uncontrollable vomiting? Obviously not. “I guess I’m safe for now. How are you? Are you –”
“Next!” a masked teacher barked, beckoning me up to the front of the line. I meekly stepped up and opened my mouth as instructed. “Auditorium,” he said brusquely, checking something off on his clipboard.
“Why are we going to –” I began, but he cut me off without meeting my eyes.
I slinked off and tried to wait for Katie, but another teacher snapped at me to move along. I stopped and gaped at him. It was my physics teacher, Mr. Claeys, who had seen me every single day for two years, and now he wouldn’t even look at me.
“Mr. Claeys? What’s going on?” I asked, immediately embarrassed by how squeaky and terrified my voice came out. “Why aren’t we being sent home? Where are the sick kids going? Why –”
“I can’t tell you anything. Just get to the auditorium,” he snapped. I gaped at him. What the hell was going on?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katie emerge from the doors, and I felt weak with relief. At least we were still together. We hustled off to the auditorium, where groups of students were huddled together, glancing around wildly every time someone entered the room, looking for their friends. Masked teachers stood around the walls and hushed us every time someone spoke.
I grabbed Katie’s arm and steered her into a row of seats far from the teachers.
“Katie, something’s wrong,” I began, whispering as quietly as possible.
“Did you just notice?!” she snapped hysterically. “Or is this a normal occurrence for you? People dying in the middle of the school day?”
“No, obviously – I mean, something’s wrong with the teachers. Why aren’t they letting us out? They should be sending us home or at least bringing doctors in here, but they’re cooping us up with other sick kids. Do our parents know? What’s happening? We have no way of knowing what’s going on!”
Her eyes widened in horror. “Well… they have us separated? So we should be okay, right?”
“For how long?” I whispered back. “Yeah, we’re separated, but we’ve all been exposed. Just you wait, pretty soon someone in the “healthy” room with us is going to start spewing. We can’t stay away from it. Katie, we’re all going to get it, we’re all going to die! We need to get out of here!”
“Quiet down, now!” a voice barked. I hadn’t even realized that my voice was escalating in panic. The room started to swirl and I couldn’t slow down my breathing. Oh my god, was I getting sick? I’m going to die, my brain was screaming. I’m going to die, I’m going to die!
“Emily, you need to calm the hell down,” Katie said. “Come on, breathe. In and out. In and out. We’re going to be fine, we’re going to get out of here and everything will be okay.”
I nodded weakly and put my head between my knees. Breathe in, breathe out. Katie rubbed my back gently.
“Everything will be okay,” she murmured again.
She was wrong.
Kids in the auditorium with us started getting sick, just like I predicted. It started with heavy wheezing as they struggled to get air into their lungs. Their faces turned pasty and blotchy, and they shivered violently like leaves in a high wind. Friends of the sick kids tried to shield them from the teachers, but they couldn’t hide the inevitable vomit and blood. Teachers grabbed the sick ones by the elbows and marched them out – to where, we didn’t know. Katie and I huddled in a corner. At some point, I realized I was crying, but couldn’t remember when I had started.
I don’t know how long we were in that auditorium – it felt but years, but was probably just a few hours – before the vice principal poked her head in and beckoned for the teachers to go outside. Everyone looked around at each other nervously, afraid to talk for fear that the teachers would come back in and scream at us. But they didn’t come back. Finally, one senior boy stood up.
“I’m going out,” he said, voice shaking. “We’re right by the front doors, we can get out. Come on, who’s with me? This is insane!”
We were all frozen on the spot. He stared us down until finally a few others slowly stood and walked to the doors to join him. They peeked out the doors and quietly tiptoed out into the hall. The rest of us sat in terrified silence, waiting… and then there was a scream.
“THE DOORS ARE LOCKED! WE CAN’T GET OUT!”
It was a match that lit us on fire. Suddenly we weren’t frozen to the spot and silent anymore – we leaped over chairs and ran out of the room to the massive glass doors. Hysteria took over. Kids were banging on the doors, screaming, throwing heavy objects at them, but the thick glass wouldn’t give.
Oh my god, we were all going to die! What was happening?! I had to be dreaming. This wasn’t possible. The teachers had locked us in here!
Someone shouted a warning as a group of teachers rounded the corner. Katie seized my hand, and we took off at a dead run. Kids fanned out all over the school trying to escape. We banged on every door, but to no avail – they were locked and blocked off. I saw Mr. Claeys running full-tilt towards us, so I panicked and dragged Katie into the first open classroom I saw, and we piled chairs against the door to keep him out.
Then, breathing heavily, we turned around.
Bodies were stacked everywhere.
My head reeled and I almost blacked out. There were so many – at least 15 kids – and I know some of them. There was Lily, and Danny, and Jennifer, and that girl who sat beside me in calculus and copied my homework… oh my god, they were all dead. They were dead. They were dead. I couldn’t stop repeating the phrase in my mind.
A high-pitched noise was building louder and louder. It took me a minute to realize it was Katie, screaming her lungs out. I lunged at her and slapped her, shocking her into silence.
“Pull it together,” I hissed, acutely aware that I myself was far from pulled together.
“I CAN’T!” she yelled hysterically. “I just came to school today and like usual and now I’m going to die – we’re all going to die! We’re all going to die in a puddle of our own blood while the teachers lock us in! What the hell is going on? What’s happening? Why is this happening?” She crumpled to the ground and sobbed.
Somehow, seeing her fall apart gave me a steely resolve. One of us had to stay sane, and for now, it was going to be me. I jerked her roughly to her feet.
“Come on, we’re getting out of here!” I ordered. There was no way we were going to hide in a room full of bodies – I’d find somewhere else to wait while we figured out a plan. We crept out the door and tiptoed down the hall to the next classroom. I pulled the handle and flung myself inside.
Bodies everywhere, covered in blood. The stench was already setting in. All of their eyes were open.
Next classroom. More dead kids. They were everywhere, and I lost count of how many were dead. This plague, or whatever it was, was moving fast. How many people were left alive? I finally slumped to the floor in the third classroom we entered, trying not to look at the bodies. My inner strength drained out rapidly, and I gave into tears.
Suddenly, Katie hushed me. “Listen,” she whispered, pressing her ear against the door.
Out in the hall, I could hear two teachers’ voices. I thought I could tell that one of them was Mr. Claeys. I didn’t recognize the other one. She was weeping and her voice cracked on every word.
“Why is this happening?” she choked out. “Why can’t we get out? Who’s doing this to us? I can’t do this anymore, I can’t see any more kids die!”
I stared at Katie. Maybe… maybe the teachers weren’t the ones locking us in. Maybe it was someone else. But why couldn’t they do something about it? They could call 911, and the police could get us out of here! Before I could even open my mouth to whisper to Katie, Mr. Claeys answered my question.
“I don’t know, and the phone lines are dead. I don’t know what’s going on. We’ve lost control of the students. We can’t separate them anymore, and there are so many dying. They’re – I’m – we’re just going to have to…” his voice trailed off incoherently, and he started hyperventilating. Great, now the teachers were losing it too.
We heard footsteps as Mr. Claeys and the other teacher walked away, and then silence. Katie and I fell into a stupor, our heads still leaning against the door. We sat like that until the sky darkened.
Katie stirred slightly. “Our parents will be wondering about us by now,” she murmured. “Or people who have to go to work, or something. They’ll all be late. Someone will find us, right?”
I couldn’t answer. Nothing made sense.
It occurred to me that I desperately had to use the bathroom. Somehow, biological needs didn’t go away amid terror. Katie and I edged down the hallway quietly, heading for the bathroom, but we didn’t even need to bother – no one was around, and the school was silent as the grave. Which was fitting, of course. We wandered the halls in a daze, looking for signs of life, but there were none. Were we the last ones alive? I couldn’t believe the thought. Surely this disease hadn’t killed over 700 people in one day.
We fell asleep in a supply closet – the one place that was free of rotting bodies. I faded in and out of nightmares, listening to Katie’s rhythmic breathing.
Suddenly, I jerked out of my half-slumber. Something was wrong. Katie’s breathing was no longer regular and even – she was gasping for air, as though her throat was slowly closing in on itself. I stared at her in horror and she stared back, starting to shake with chills.
“No, oh my god, no, this can’t be happening! Not you too!” I gabbled breathlessly. Not Katie too. Hadn’t enough people died? I prayed to any god that might be out there to rescue us, but no one came. We were all alone.
I watched Katie’s terrified face transform into red and white patches and felt her skin radiate heat. I held her tightly as she shook uncontrollably, teeth chattering so much that she couldn’t speak. Not Katie, not Katie, not Katie, please God… not Katie… Her rasping breath grew louder and louder, and something in her face changed, like she could see death coming for her.
“Emily, please –” she started to say, but I never found out what she wanted, because the next thing I knew, she was retching blood all over me.
Have you ever held your dying best friend in your arms and watched the light leave her eyes?
Have you ever screamed and sobbed to an empty universe when you felt her heart stop beating?
Have you sat there for hours and felt her skin cool?
I don’t remember how long I was there before the SWAT team came. I don’t know who alerted them or how they got in. I remember wandering the school in a daze, the only living person in a mausoleum.
I do remember being in the hospital for a very long time. I remember not speaking for months. I remember the police and the social workers sitting me down and explaining that one of the biology teachers apparently had a secret lab in his home and had cooked up this virus. No one knew why. No one had ever suspected something like that coming from him.
It didn’t matter. You might be surprised, but I never looked into the case file or found out more about what happened. Nothing mattered. In one day, I had lost everyone. At 16 years old, I knew the horror of staring at body after body of my friends and teachers, until I was utterly numb to the sight. And I have spent the rest of my life wondering why I alone survived.
Even after more than 20 years, when spring flu season comes around, I see one sick person and I’m instantly back at high school, covered in the blood of my dead best friend.
Think about that the next time you come down with what you think is a nasty cold, and be grateful that’s all it is.
Credit: Emily Thurtithrea
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