Della wiped the outcropping of books from her brow. Damned things were appearing more frequently. She flicked aside a copy of Jeffrey Kline’s autobiography as small as the nail on her little finger. She wouldn’t have minded so much if she sweated classics, but the trash that came from her pores was just embarrassing. Worst of all, she had no idea why it kept happening. The bin by the side of her desk was full of the miniscule paperback tomes. Yesterday she had wiped at least fifty copies of the chat show host’s autobiography from her neck and under her arms. She didn’t even watch his chat show Talking Life.
In the supermarket, she searched the shelves for possible remedies, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t have a shelf dedicated to curing the sweating of trashy literature. Would paracetamol stop the fever? Worth a try. She threw some boxes into her basket, along with several cans of deodorant. She’d sprayed herself in the stuff before leaving the house, and now her face itched.
She wandered past the book aisle and blanched as she saw Jeffrey’s all too familiar squeaky-clean face duplicated across the shelves: orange skin, white teeth, a haircut so perfect it looked like plastic removable hair that came with Lego characters. Flipping her middle finger at the fixed, laughing faces, she hurried past.
At the checkout, a burning sensation ripped along her throat. She coughed quietly. The last thing she wanted was for people to notice what was happening to her. She’d never be able to live down the embarrassment. The burn turned into a fire, roaring its way up her windpipe, eating into the soft sides of her gullet. Her eyes watered with the pain of it. The woman in front of her turned around, eyes wide. Della tried to cover her mouth, but a book fell out before she could stop it, followed by a rush of others. She spewed the books onto the floor, staring with horror at the shining, saliva coated face of Jeffrey Kline. Eyes blinded with tears, she rushed out of the shop.
She drove her car straight to the hospital, hiccupping down hard mouthfuls of books along the way. It was getting worse, and she didn’t know how to stop it.
The nurse at the desk rushed her straight through to the doctor’s office, cutting through the usual crowd of head injuries, people clutching their arms. Della would have swapped places with any of them in a heartbeat.
The doctor’s face turned as white as his coat when he examined her mouth. He wiped a gobbet of books and saliva into a towel and threw it away, and then he sat silently on his chair, frowning.
“Will I be ok?” Della asked between vomiting.
The doctor didn’t answer. “I’m going to take a blood sample,” he said, shakily pushing his glasses up his nose. He fumbled about with the packets, preparing the needle and tube. He managed to keep a professional attitude right up until the moment when he removed the needle from Della’s arm and took a close look at the tube containing her blood. He jumped back, almost falling off his chair.
“What’s wrong?” Della said.
“I need to call in an expert.” The doctor explained as he dropped the vial and ran from the room.
Della stared down at the tube rolling near her feet. When she picked it up, she could see tiny red covered autobiographies swirling in her blood.
The experts came and surrounded her bed, jabbering but unable to do anything else. Somehow, the media caught wind of the story and camped their camera crews around the hospital. Camera clicks echoed outside her windows as photographers tried to catch sight of her. After the first day, they had to move to her to a room with no windows.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen on the news,” Della’s mother said. She sat eating the grapes Della couldn’t keep down. “Jeffrey Kline’s publicist has been contacted by the press and by the hospital but they’ve denied having anything to do with your…illness.”
Della shifted onto her side. She didn’t care about publicists or anything else. She just wanted to be able to sleep again. She couldn’t even shut her eyes without that perfect, mocking face swimming at her out of the darkness behind her own eyelids.
“Perhaps you should read it?” her mother suggested, moving aside another bowl of glossy new paperbacks. “I’ve read a bit. It’s not too bad.”
Della turned her head away. Reading it was the last thing she wanted to do. She wanted to burn every last copy. She opened her mouth to say this. “When I indulged in alcohol, I initiated my own decline.” She snapped her mouth shut. Where had that come from?
“What did you say?” her mum approached the bed.
Della shook her head and opened her mouth again. “Talking Life has been the hardest, most rewarding part of my life to date.” None of the words were her own. They wrenched themselves from her voicebox. Scrabbling at her table, she scribbled down what’s happening to me?
“I think…I think you’re saying lines from his autobiography,” her mother whispered.
It was the last straw. Della stuffed the corner of her bed sheet into her mouth and refused to move until her mother had left. Then, ripping out her cannula, pouring little red covered book droplets along the hospital corridor, she called a taxi and had it drive her to Westgrange Studios.
She waited, shivering in the cold hedges in the thin hospital gown. He would have to pass her at some point. She’d make him stop whatever he was doing to her. Hours passed. Hours spent forcing out hard, cuboid tears. Alien thoughts drifted inside her head like clouds of smog, dashing away her own memories, replacing them with strange conversations she’d never had. Images of audiences bombarded her, jeering, laughing. Her head filled with their faces, their cruel staring.
Finally, Jeffrey Kline appeared from the revolving doors, jogged down the steps and fumbled in his trouser pockets for his car keys. He looked just like he did on all those books: fake, unreal.
“What have you done to me?” she said, stumbling out of the bush. Her voice was back, but it sounded sharp, out of control.
Jeffrey Kline, his smart grey suit jacket tossed casually over one arm, backed up against the door of his car. To the right, two security guards raced down the steps, but she waved the knife at them and they stopped, pacing on the edges of her vision.
Books fell one after the other onto the floor with greater frequency, their pages blowing open in the wind. “Look at me!” She said words, any words, as long as they were her own. The knife point drew back to Jeffrey, hovering near his neck.
His eyes were blue, creased around the edges, open wide but never so wide that books would fall out. “There’s no need to do this. Whatever problem you’re having, we can talk about it.” His voice was sickly smooth, full of himself, full of his own words.
She screamed and plunged the knife into his neck.
Mark raised his hand for a high-five. “Awesome, I never thought science could be so much fun. You’re great, babe.”
Lisa slapped his hand impatiently then focused back on the slide under her microscope. It was important she finish up with her samples, the work she should have been doing for the past month instead of indulging Mark in his revenge. If she didn’t get her work in on time, the lab was going to get suspicious and start asking questions.
She had no idea why she’d agreed to do it in the first place. Mark wasn’t even that attractive. She glanced at his stupid, grinning face. She’d only met him two months ago, and the advertising virus she’d been working on seemed like the perfect line to impress him with when he’d been moaning about his appearance on the chat show.
“My girlfriend – ex-girlfriend now, thanks to that bastard – made me go on the show. I took a lie detector test. They must be rigged or something, because I swear I never cheated on her.” Mark had complained, scowling at his drink and clenching his hand round it as if it were a neck.
“How awful,” Lisa remembered saying as she sipped on her drink and eyed up Mark’s burnished arm muscles.
The night was all a bit fuzzy after that. She recalled undoing her top button, leaning in towards him, winking.“I work in a lab. I’m developing an oxyvendo complex.”
“Oh, right.” He scratched his chin.
She laughed at his blank expression. “It’s a virus which turns your body into a walking advertisement. I could fix you up something to infect a few people with Kline merchandise. They’ll be so angry; they’ll assume it’s all Kline’s fault!”
“You can do that?” A slow grin crawled over his mouth. He had such perfect teeth.
The sex had been amazing but not worth all the hassle. She’d never expected Kline to get killed.
Copyright © 2013 Laura-Marie Steele
Laura-Marie Steele lives in Canterbury, England with her partner and a beribboned porcelain fox. She enjoys drinking tea, reading a good fantasy and watching the gulls from her window. She has written fantasy and speculative fiction for many years, taking inspiration from chance phrases and the relationships between people and inanimate objects. She has a masters degree in English and American Literature. This is her first speculative fiction publication.