A feminine voice interrupts the soft static hum of a sleeping room. "Good morning, Ron."

"mmm five more minutes, Maria. Then I'll get up..."

"Ambient air temperature is 67 degrees. Barometric pressure of twenty-nine inches of Mercury indicates a holding weather pattern. Shall I bring up outdoor display on the master bedroom wall panel?"

"No, Maria... Maria..." Ron twitches mid-dream, like a dog chasing a car, or a child who has tripped and fallen through their backyard into a chasm. He fights off the last wave of sleep and kicks off his light brown, almost tan, bedspread. There is a soft orange glow of a light set in the wall across the span of the spartan quarters he calls a bedroom. He addresses the source of this light "Maria isn't here. I thought; I heard her. You... so familiar."

"I'm sorry, Ron. Weekday alarm clock sequence is still set to compliment Maria's vocal rhythm. Would you like this changed?"

"No, it's... fine."

The orange light blinks once, thrice, and once more. The glow shifts from orange, to a burnt (red) yellow, and settles itself with a strident green aura. The voice in the wall is now decidedly masculine. A younger version of its programmer. Ron has forgotten how coarse and scared his voice has sounded these past two weeks - until the wall speaks again. "Action complete. Shall I display outdoor visuals? Temperature gradient on adjacent outdoor walls suggests it is a particularly sunny day."

"No. I don't want to see what's going on out there. No."

"Your vocal patterns and increased pulse indicate emotional duress. Isolation has a negative effect on even the most stoic individuals. Will you try to speak with her again today?"

"No, not today. Yes, yes of course today. Not now... I had the nightmare again - the memory of that morning. I'm just a bit shaken up is all." Ron has slid off the bed and lifts a metalic panel in the near wall. A shelf with a plastic cup hanging from it falls forward, pulling a faucet with it. He fills up half the cup and drains it in one long pull. He drops the cup back to its home and absentmindedly closes the device. "Just... keep the outdoor visual display off, doors and windows locked, and air on internal recycle."

"Orders received. What would you like for breakfast?"

"I'd... what?"

"I said what do you want for breakfast, hon. I just got back from the market, do you want eggs and ham, or ham and eggs?"

A vacationing Ron opens an eye. His wife is across the room of their vacation... hut. He strains to focus through the sleep stars and mosquito mesh - she is an absolute vision. Barefoot in a white sari, cut inappropriately mid-thigh. Maria tans easily. He remembers falling asleep next to the heat of her legs, warm from the previous days sightseeing. Ron strains to focus again.

"C'mon hon, get up get up get up. These eggs were up a chicken's butt like ten minutes ago, they're still hot!"

"How hot are they?" Ron drawls playfully. Ron arches his shoulders, contemplating getting up. He stretches his legs, contemplating jumping his wife as she leans over the single burner stove.

"You remember that bikini from yesterday?"

"Oh, I seem to remember." Ron has slipped from the mosquito net mattress, naked and single-minded.

"Hon, these eggs are even hotter." Her husband kisses the side of her neck as she finishes the statement. "Glad to see you woke up after all to..." is all Maria manages before letting a soft moan escape. "Very, very glad." The couple work on each other in the heavy heat of equatorial morning with the fierce determination of a couple long in love but short on time - a pair that value the efficiency of sex. They have their foreplay at cold corporate dinners, with fingertip kisses as they drift off to sleep. Their sex this morning is but brief.

"I thought you were just making eggs, baby. How'd you cut yourself?"

"What?" Maria, catching her breath, sees the splotch of blood on the stovetop. And a second (red) splatter. "Shit, do I have a nosebleed?" Ron backs away and reaches for a towel by the shower stall, two feet away in the powder room of their delux... hut. "What do you do for a nosebleed, I never remember. Lean my head forward or back?"

Maria turns to Ron, and Ron loses all color in his face. Maria reaches for the towel, "Don't be so squeamish, you've seen me look worse, you can handle a little nosebleed." Maria flicks some sweat from her cheek, but her finger is red. She looks at it once, and looks back at Ron grabbing at the towel. Holding it to her face, and then in the air for inspection, she sees three dark blots, a Rorschach pyramid. "Ohmygod get a doctor, now. Now!" Maria screams as she reaches for her ear and feels blood pulse out over her fingertips. Ron is already on the 1970's phone - rotary with one number unlocked, the main building a mile up the beach. Ron is already on the phone, and he's screaming for a doctor.

"...and ham."

"I didn't copy that, Ron." The green light blinks off, returns with a steady, silent hum.

"Scrambled eggs and ham. I'll take it downstairs in the kitchen, with tea."

"Orders received."

Ron reaches back to the metalic panel, touches it but catches it halfway down to shelf position. Slowly pushes it closed, and leaves the room running a hand through unkempt hair. He walks down a staircase, panel lighting underneath the handrailing lighting up for several steps in either direction of his footfall, and fading off after he passes. He takes a cautious look at the front door to his home - there are two locks thrown and one large, newly installed, deadbolt sealing the door shut.

A set of large black garbage bags cover the windows lining the door. They are secured with duct tape.

Satisfied the door has not been tampered with, he shuffles, bare feet padding across hardwood floors, to the kitchen just as a microwave, built into an especially wide refrigerator, beeps. Ron eats silently. He places a dirty plate in the sink, second guesses himself and places it directly in the dishwasher. Ron picks up his mug of tea and walks backupstairs, antiseptic banister lighting once more lighting four or six steps at a time, trickling up the stairwell the way salmon spawn upstream during mating season. He passes his bedroom and continues further down the second floor hallway. Ron stops at the door on the left.

The door is decorated with construction paper cutouts: stars, unicorns and (red) butterflies clustered at four and six feet high and sparsely in between.

The edge of the door is decorated with rolled up bathtowels, duct-taped in place.

The doorknob has been decorated with an industrial sized bolt, similar to the one downstairs.

Tapping at the door, kneeling low to the ground, "Princess, are you awake? Princess, honey-bun, I know you're sad. I just want to talk with you. Have you been getting your food each day? I just want to hug you, Princess, but I can't. I just can't. Daddy's sick. Daddy got mommy sick and that's why mommy couldn't come home. You don't want to get sick, do you? I think a lot of people are going to get sick, but not you. No, our little Princess is safe as a bug on a rug. Are you there, Princess?"

Ron begins to cry. "Princess, can you hear me?"

"Maria, can you hear me? Go on, open your eyes. The doctors say it's safe. Go on, wake up. Can you hear me, baby?"

"Where... where are," Maria retches, and Ron jumps forward with a bedpan which she gets sick into. "Where am I? What happened?"

"We're at the hospital. You just... you started bleeding out. The doctors are nervous, but seem to know what they're doing. They just have you on an IV to replace the water you lost while they run some tests. You have a hell of a fever, but they aren't telling me much."

"Ron, I want to go home."

"I know baby," Ron strokes bloodstained hair out of his wife's (red) sweaty face. "I know you do."

"No hon, I want to go now. I don't like this place. I want our doctor, I want the family doctor."

"Ok, okay. I'll ask the doctor, just as soon as the nurse comes back..." Ron is interrupted by a scream from the hallway. He steps over to the door, a nurse is crossing herself and crying the Lord's Prayer in an inaudible rush of (red) words and screams. Maria's nurse has collapsed, blood flowing from her ears and eyes. Maria's doctor is hunkered down over the dying nurse, stethescope pressed to her clavicle, simultaneously listening for pulse or breath.

A small tickle of color (red) blossoms from the doctors left nostril. Ron backs into the room, a hand over his mouth, and closes the door. He turns to tell his wife they are going home as soon as they can get a flight.

Maria stares sightlessly at the door, scared eyes rimmed with (red) tears.

Ron crosses the hallway and flicks on a lightswitch. He is in the bathroom now. He opens the ever-so-clever mirror which hides the legal addictions of suburban families, and rips the flimsy plastic shelves out, revealing the ever-so-clever electronic safe behind it. He angrily punches in the code, a (red) light chastises him. Slowly, he re-enters the code.

The (red) light as ellipsis has become the (red) light as period. It (red) is the end of a thought. It (red) is a statement.

"Why isn't my combination working?"

"You requested that I assign a random combination to protect the key to the padlocks you installed, Ron."

"Did you retain the combination in short term memory?"

"Yes, Ron. I cannot release the combination to you, though. You explicitly instructed me to ignore all requests to do so."

"I release you from that instruction. I want to see my little girl."

"Unauthorized command."

"Open the safe, now."

"Unauthorized command."

"I want this god-damned safe opened right now! I might not even be sick, those doctors may have just been susceptible to... to whatever Maria caught while we were down there! I might not even be sick and my little girl is scared! I need to see her!"

"Ron, that is not possible."

Ron leaves the bathroom and returns to his bedroom, facing the green light, personifying the security program he had installed after building the home. "Not possible? Clarify."

"You instructed me to not allow you into her room unless you verified that you were not sick. However, you have sealed off all exits from the home, so you cannot verify with a medical authority that you are without infection. If you cannot verify you are not sick, I cannot allow you to enter her room. Ergo, Ron, it is not possible for you to see her."

"How about I shut you down then, and we'll see about opening that door then?"

"Unauthorized command. Shutting down while the home is sealed off and operating on continuous air recycle would lead to aphyxiation. You coded a core survivial sub-routine within my authorization documentation. Shut down in these conditions is an unauthorized command."

"Listen here! I created you, and demand you open the bathroom safe so I can unbolt that (red) door! I want to talk to my little girl..."

"Ron, that is not possible."

"I might not even be sick... I just want to hear her voice."

"Ron, she cannot hear you."

Registering the change in reply, "Why can't she hear me?"

The green light blinks once, thrice, and once more. It shifts from green, to a dark aqua. It melds into a dark violet bruise before settling on a dark blood red. The door to the bedroom shuts, and audibly hisses as it seals. "Ron, she cannot hear you. You were very distraught when you arrived home from vacation. What happened to Maria, Ron?"

"Maria got sick! Why... why can't she hear me? Is this door locked?"

"Increasing oxygen content to twenty-five percent. Increasing ambient room temperature to eighty-four degrees fahrenheit."

"Cancel that command!"

"Unauthorized command. You were distraught when you arrived home from vacation. You added several subroutines to my core package, Ron." The metallic panel at Ron's bedside opens. There is a pill on the shelf. "Medicate yourself, Ron. They are coming to get you, and it will be more painless if you are relaxed."

"Who is coming? What will be more painless? Why can't I talk to my little (red) girl?"

"Historic epidemic statistics, correlated to current neighborhood infection rate, suggest you are Patient Zero for a new viruvalent strain of haemorrhagic influenza. Coefficient of determination equals zero point nine nine eight repeating. The proper medical authorities have been contacted via secure line and shall arrive within thirty five minutes."

Ron has sat down against the door "I didn't want any of this... I might not even be sick, I don't feel sick... I just want to talk to my little girl."

"Ron, this is not possible. She cannot hear you."

Holding his (red) face in his hands, Ron cries.

Pickman's Nodegel: The 2009 Halloween Horrorquest

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.