The Cough

5 friends take shelter in a place that is, for now, safe from a disaster occurring outside.

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1. Full story

Chapter 1

In the darkness, somebody coughed.

"Who was it?"

Silence reigned.

"Who!?"

A dim light sprang into being. Jade's flashlight barely illuminated the cramped, windowless room and the five girls within. Shadows pooled in the corners, lurking just beyond the reach of the light.

Chloe watched as Jade glared at each of their friends in turn. None spoke. Silhouettes danced along the walls as she moved her hand, causing the light to jerk and shift. Rose huddled near the barred door, eyes wide and uncomprehending as she stared off into an uncertain distance. She twitched slightly. On the room's only bed, Lilly lay next to Amber, her head buried in her shoulder. Lilly shook as she sobbed quietly. Chloe didn't know whether Lilly's distress was because of their situation or because of their hygiene; the room reeked of unwashed bodies, and her hair, like everybody else's, was tangled and knotted and hung heavy with filth. Amber, for her part, merely stared stoically back at Jade her gaze turned to her.

And then those eyes were on Chloe, and on Millie. The two were locked in an embrace; it was the only comfort they had in the room. Chloe found her voice when Millie began to shudder, "What does it matter?"

Jade's brow furrowed, "Get serious, Chloe. It's better for four of us to get through this than none of us. Coughing is the only warning we get."

Millie's whisper carried well enough in the enclosed space, "Couldn't we...um... wait and see? It could just be dust or a cold. Please?"

"I really wish that we could risk it, Millie," Jade said, the sharp edge of her voice softening slightly, "But there's no going back once it reaches the final stage. You saw what happened out there. Do you really want that in here?"

Amber sighed, then spoke up, "She's right. It's not contagious until the end. We got a choice to make -one death, or five."

Chloe gritted her teeth, "Isn't there anything that can be done? Can't you cure it? Stop it? Slow it down?" She paused, then added in a hoarse whisper, "Anything?"

Jade shook her head, "Nobody can cure it. Every carrier has to die. That's the only way the rest of us can be safe. The only way the rest of the world can be safe. You know that, Chloe. Time matters here; why are you stalling?"

Chloe's mouth worked, but no words came forth. Millie's voice, suddenly confident, filled the gap, "I coughed. It was me." Chloe gaped at her, eyes wide with shock and horror. Millie turned to look at her and spoke, once again hesitant, "It's okay. It'll be okay. I couldn't live with myself if any of you died, and I could have prevented it. It's better this way."

Chloe shook her head slowly, and whispered a single, "No."

Amber's voice was grim, "Her mind's made up. It's a tough choice, but Millie's got the strength of an ox, on the inside."

"H...how can we... how is she going to...?" Chloe trailed off.

Jade sighed and slumped to the floor. "We don't have any weapons, and I'm not trained in combat. Even if I were, it can't be me. It has to be you, Chloe."

"What? Why me?"

Jade looked away, "I know you well enough to realize that you'd never just stand aside and let one of us lay a hand on your her. Maybe intellectually you'd know that it's necessary, but your emotions get the better of you. Ask yourself, if it has to be any of us, would you really want anybody but yourself to... to...."

Chloe rose to her feet. "You're right." Her voice was hollow. She took a step away from Millie.

Amber spoke, "Millie, sit up and put your head up against the wall. It'll be.....," she choked back tears, "...quicker."

"I'm so sorry, Chloe. I wish it could be any other way," Jade said.

Chloe looked over her shoulder to meet the eyes of the person she loved. Millie had taken Amber's advice. They stared at each other silently for a moment. Eventually, Chloe found words, as insufficient as they were, "I'm sorry. I-I love you. I'm so sorry."

Millie replied, voice shaking, "I love you too. And I forgive you. It's better this way. Just... make sure you all take care of each other. When everything is back to normal."

Chloe whispered, "I promise." She took careful aim. One kick. It would be quick. Millie deserved that much, at least. When she was sure she'd connect, vision or not, she spoke, "Cut the light, Jade. Nobody should have to see this." The flashlight's glow disappeared.

Years of cardio and gym had honed Chloe's muscles. She stood up, prepared her left fist, gathered all her strength, and punched out. She connected, and a dull thud was accompanied by the sensation of warm droplets of blood splattering across her. It was followed by a high-pitched moan from an agonized Millie infront of her.

Chloe reacted to Millie's continued suffering without thought. She prepared again and punched repeatedly, steadying herself and adding force. On her fourth punch, Millie's screaming stopped with a sickening crunch.

Chloe's foot dropped back to the floor. She stood shaking, her eyes wide and her heart beating nearly out of her chest. Her hair were drenched with sticky blood. She wondered despite herself whether the mess would stain, whether her hair would always bear the red residue of her deed. She wept quietly to herself.

Silence reigned.

In the darkness, somebody coughed.

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