“It’s happened again.”
Milla ran an ash-covered hand across the heavy lids of her eyes and turned her gaze towards her partner. The reports had been coming in all night long; people, most of them teenagers, all over the city becoming comatose and unresponsive. Not just a few reported incidents, but hundreds of them so far with more coming in every few minutes. Local police and medical were so overwhelmed they were calling in reinforcements from across the city to help. Hence Milla, high-school guidance counselor, and Isla, off-duty nurse.
“Where?” she asked.
Isla put her phone back in her purse, stress lines in her face reflecting the hopelessness that Milla feeling as well. “Two blocks over. We can get there in a minute or two when we’re done here.”
“Yeah, okay.” Milla stood and looked down at the young girl in the bed. She had been smoking a cigarette when …. whatever …. had happened. The bed was still smoking from the fire and third-degree burns covered her legs. That wasn’t the worst part, though.
The worst part was that she was still alive. Her eyes were open, but her jaw was slack and she showed no signs of having felt the pain of flesh boiling off of her body. Milla shuddered and looked away; staring into those eyes for too long, those dead eyes, was like standing at the edge of a cliff. You got that weird sensation of movement like you were going too fast on a swing.
“Let’s catalog this scene while we wait for EMTs to arrive,” she said to Isla.
“Almost identical to the others we’ve seen so far,” Isla replied.
“I know,” Milla nodded, “but let’s go through it anyway.” A lump formed in her throat and she retreated to the window, her breath coming in heavy gasps as she listened to the sirens wailing from numerous points in the distance. So many. So many kids like this. Christ, what was going on?
A soft hand fell on her shoulder; Milla leaned back against Isla and allowed those slender arms to envelope her in a comforting embrace. She cried for a moment.
“You know her, don’t you?” asked Isla.
Trust Isla to immediately understand. The five others they had seen tonight had been strangers. Milla had been able to keep her emotional distance, despite the growing horror that shrouded the entire night. She wasn’t like Isla. She wasn’t a nurse used to seeing and dealing with patients and grief.
It was the parents who made it unbearable. They were inconsolable and looking for answers, for cures, and for reassurance that their babies would be ok. They had called the authorities for help, and Milla had shown up instead. They expected Milla and Isla to take control and make everything better, or at least pretend convincingly that they had everything under control.
Isla was who they naturally gravitated towards. As a nurse, she exuded the air of professionalism and confidence the frenzied parents needed. By dropping just a few pseudo-medical terms in a patient and authoritative voice, Isla was able to at least get in the door, if not gain their trust.
Milla took a deep breath and turned in Isla’s arms, giving her a brief kiss. She felt ashamed for her weakness; what if the parents had seen? Stepping back, she compartmentalized her fear and horror and looked back at the girl on the bed.
“Jessica Anders; eleventh grade. She’s a good student. Into art and plays the clarinet in the band.”
Isla nodded. “If you’re ready, we can review the scene.”
“Okay,” Isla looked at the tablet she was using to take notes, “Victim was alone, like the others. Female, but some have been male.”
“Right,” Milla agreed, “So gender probably isn’t a factor.”
“She was in her bed, but others were in cars or elsewhere in the house.”
“Location as a catalyst: out,” said Milla.
“Her laptop is across the room, and her television is off.”
“Wait a sec,” said Milla. “Her phone’s in her hand.”
“Yeah,” said Isla, consulting her tablet again. “All the others, too.”
“This could be something. All six of our callers tonight have their phones in hand.” Her heart started beating faster. “Call the police coordinator and see if this is significant. Are the others holding their phones too?”
Milla waited in impatient silence as Isla made the call. The sirens outside were getting louder; almost loud enough to drown out the wails of grief that were coming from multiple houses on the block. It was just past eleven o’clock, but Milla felt as if she had been up for a week. She wasn’t sure how many more callers she could take.
“Milla,” Isla’s voice broke into her dark thoughts. “You’re right; the phone is the common denominator. All the victims had phone in hand.”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Call them ‘victims.’ It dehumanizes them somehow. They’re kids. Humans.”
“I’m sorry.” Isla looked at her in both annoyance and concern, “What should I call them?”
“I don’t know.”
Isla puffed out her cheeks and blew hard, “Fine. All the people affected by this phenomenon have been holding phones in their hands. We created quite an uproar with that observation, by the way. The geeks are all over it now, trying to find out why this is important.”
Milla walked over to Jessica’s prone form on the bed, “Let’s find out what she was doing last on her phone. If we can get in without rebooting the device, the app she was last using should be active and running.”
The warm, but dead, hand of Jessica reluctantly relinquished the phone. Milla suppressed a shudder of revulsion at the feel of her skin. It didn’t feel right; it felt alive, yet not. It reminded her of how her grandmother’s arm felt when she had been in a coma before she passed.
“Crap, the phone’s locked.”
Isla rifled through Jessica’s purse and pulled out her license. She took the phone from Milla, “Her birthday’s June seventeenth. Let’s try 0617 as the code.”
“That won’t work,” said Milla.
“It didn’t work.”
“Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Go downstairs and ask the parents. You know they don’t like me.”
Milla waited again, her self-control threatening to leave her as she looked at Jessica’s body on the bed. That’s what it was; it was just a body. Even though she was ostensibly still alive, Milla knew that Jessica wasn’t there any longer. It was just a living, empty, shell. And it was more terrible to behold than anything she had ever seen in her life.
Isla returned with the phone in hand. “She has a boyfriend; Mason.”
“Did you get his birthday?”
“And their anniversary date,” Isla nodded.
“Try them,” said Milla woodenly. She was beginning to feel like an observer. Her compartmentalization was placing her on the outside of events, and that was almost as unsettling as everything else that she had seen this evening.
“Birthday is a bust,” said Isla. Her face lit up, “But the anniversary worked!”
“What app is running?”
Milla grabbed the phone and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her partner. She drew strength from that touch. “Let’s see the last picture she took.”
A touch on the phone brought up the camera roll.
“Of course,” said Isla with a grim chuckle. “A selfie. That’s all kids take nowadays.”
The beginnings of suspicion formed in Milla’s mind. “I bet it’s the same for all of them.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Just call the police coordinator and ask.”
Milla walked over to Jessica as she waited for Isla to make the call. Gritting her teeth, she gently grasped Jessica’s clammy hand. She looked again into her eyes and knew she was right. All the kids affected had been taking selfies. Nothing else explained the dead eyes. The missing essence of the ‘victim’, as Isla called them.
“You’re right,” Isla whispered.
Milla looked away from the abyss that was Jessica’s eyes. “All of them?”
“Yeah,” said Isla, shaken, “They all seem to be taking selfies.”
“She’s gone,” said Milla, glancing at Jessica again. “Not here; her soul is gone.”
“From a picture?” asked Isla incredulously.
“Zoom in on her eyes in the picture,” said Milla, her weariness growing by the moment. “I thought I saw it when we looked the first time.”
Isla’s fingers pinched outwards on the screen. She gasped. “Reflected in her eyes….. Is that a….”
“Holy shit,” whispered Isla. “What do we do with that?”
“I don’t know,” said Milla. “Call a priest?”
She grabbed the phone and placed it gingerly on the bed next to Jessica’s body. “Come on, babe,” she said, grabbing Isla’s hand. “I want to go home.”
“Yeah,” said her partner with a quiet sob, “me too.”