Red on Yellow

Thriller / A laboratory / A VHS tape / 981w

Flash Fiction Challenge 2017 Round 1 Entry

The needle slipped into my flesh with ease. It reminded me of my mother testing cakes for doneness: a toothpick plunged into the steaming center and drawn out, moist and clean.

Red on yellow, kill a fellow.

The strawberry-blonde who emptied the syringe into my arm did so swiftly, smirking as the plunger fell. She was a stranger – or was she? Hadn’t I seen her outside the lab for the past few weeks, picketing and hollering with the other protestors? I built a persona for her: the kind of bleeding-heart, tender-skinned urbanite for whom pain and death and even science were abstractions, someone Pap would have disdainfully called a “ninny.” But this one had the fire of real belief in her cause, on top of the self-righteousness. What else could have made her so sure, so unhesitating, in how she came up behind me and seized my arm?

“We wanted you to know how it feels,” she whispered to me. “’Just a little pain,’ right? ‘Twelve hours, closely monitored’?”

The empty syringe clattered to the floor by our feet. I stared at the scarlet pinprick it left behind.

“You’re fucking crazy.” I yanked my arm away. “You just fucking killed me.”

If she actually understood our work, she would have known this would happen. The dose had been meant for Charlotte, our six-year-old chestnut mare. She was gorgeous and docile and accommodating, and also invaluable. Inside her body, diluted venom triggered the production of immunoglobulin, to be separated from her blood, then freeze-dried, powdered, and shipped, in a year’s time, to thousands of hospitals awaiting the new generation of antivenin. To us, Charlotte was an Eve. To this stranger and her compatriots, she was a victim. And we her victimizers.

What the stranger didn’t understand was that while Charlotte’s 1,800 pounds tolerated the injection with few symptoms, 50 CCs of eastern coral snake venom solution, even diluted, would kill me. Quickly.

The stranger’s satisfaction flickered. “You aren’t going to die,” she spat.

But I could already feel the sizzling of neurotoxicity cooking my cells. The numbness followed closely.

 

When I was eleven, I got bit by a coral snake on the weedy hillside behind Grandmam and Pap’s house, in western North Carolina. It lunged, a flash of color, while I was rooting around for a piece of quartz more impressive than the one Mike Sherman had brought to school that week. Shrieking, I half-ran, half-tumbled down to the house. Pap, figuring the perverted neighbor boys, emerged from the garage with a crowbar. When he saw my punctured hand, he swept me back in and sat me on the greasy concrete.

Pap’s knowledge of snakebite treatment was fifty years out of date, but he applied it expertly. With a pocketknife, he made an x-incision across each of the shallow fang wounds. Then, over my howling, he yelled for Grandmam to bring him his old kit and some water. A few minutes later I was shaking in Grandmam’s arms while Pap mixed a salve with Condy’s crystals and spread it over the bite. Potassium permanganate wasn’t an antivenin – only a disinfectant, and in the case of Pap’s ancient Scouting kit, an expired one.

“She’s too little,” Pap said to Grandmam as I lay sweating and groaning on their bedraggled sofa. “Town’s too far. Ain’t nothing to do but wait and pray.”

I’m pretty sure he did the waiting and she did the praying. I survived.

“Must’ve just nipped,” Pap said later on, affecting nonchalance. “Little nip won’t kill ya.”

Soon after, he sat me down and made me learn the same thing his pa had taught him when he was young, growing up in that hill country. “Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, friend of Jack. Lisa? You got that? Say it back now.”

 

Red on yellow. The coral snake is deadliest snake in North America. The venom attacks nerves, inducing paralysis. For several centuries, old folk rhymes were our only defense. Then Bill Haast spent three years and 69,000 milkings obtaining a pint of venom for the first generation of antivenin. Six months before my lab’s work started, the scant amount left of that antivenin had expired. We were, with Charlotte, in the painstaking process of manufacturing its replacement.

The stranger did not take well to murder. “You’re fucking lying,” she snarled, pale nonetheless. “You think I’m going to have sympathy for you? You abuse animals for a living.”

I ripped open our fridge. I wasn’t sure we had enough vials on hand, or if it could counteract the massive dose, or of anything, really. But expired antivenin was better than no antivenin.

The envenoming felt nothing like the taipan’s, in graduate school, or the monocled cobra’s, during my research in India. This was rapid and suffocating, clawing its way up my arm. It was the panic of Pap’s garage, the reek of oil, the bloodied knife, all over again.

In a yellowed box, the last of Haast’s first generation. Blessedly, it was the instant-mix formula. With a shaking left hand, I broke the seal between the two chambers, shook the powder into a solution, and plunged all ten syringefuls into my armpit.

The young stranger had begun to look horrified.

“Call 911,” I said. “I’m going to stop breathing soon.” I was lightheaded, which meant the muscles around my lungs were paralyzing.

That frightened her. She took a shaky step backward and stumbled over a box of old VHS tapes, recordings of live venom extractions from the 80’s and 90’s. We had been digitizing our records – out with the old.

At that moment, though, all I had was the old, the decades-old antivenin washing into my blood, penetrating, hopefully, stopping, maybe, the spread of red on yellow, the collective nightmare of Pap’s parents and their parents and their parents, too.

Nothing to do but wait and pray.

(Rather long) Writer’s Note

Amazingly, a year’s already passed since the last NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Round 1 took place this past weekend, so I spent all day Saturday writing this, and revising Sunday to submit by midnight.

This was one of those stories that I learned a TON from working on. I’ve always found snakes to be pretty interesting. For this, I did a bunch of reading on snakes, snakebites, venom, antivenin production, and famous people in the field (Bill Haast, candidate for Most Interesting Man in the World). And since the coral snake ranges all the way into NC, I was able to work my home state in there.

I’m relying on the urgency of the snakebite to keep this in thriller territory. I realized pretty last minute that the narrator’s first line of dialogue wasn’t nearly upset enough, and changed it to what it is now. But I’m still not sure. What the hell do you say when you’re in shock and facing almost certain death?

I’m happy with the flashback and the overall arc of the story, though. When I studied abroad in Oxford, there was a lab on campus using animals for research. Every day there were protestors outside with gruesome images of lab animals. That’s what I thought of when I wrote this.

Also, disclaimer: X SHAPED WOUNDS AND POTASSIUM PERMANGANATE ARE NOT EFFECTIVE TREATMENTS FOR SNAKEBITE. But that was how Haast treated his first ever bite as a kid, and he apparently survived.

If you’re bitten by a venomous snake, keep the wound below your heart and get to a hospital with antivenin immediately.

 

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