When Viola got home from school, no one was there.
She entered her four-digit code and let herself in through the garage. It was almost September and the sun streaming through the window above the sink lit the kitchen a buttery yellow.
There was a piece of paper taped to the refrigerator with a note informing Viola that her stepmother, Beverly, had driven over to the vaccination station at the mall to get an updated shot, and that if Viola got home before four, she should ride her bike over and get one too.
Rummaging through the freezer for a snack, Viola sighed. It was almost four now. She might as well wait for tomorrow, but keeping up with the ever-changing courses was starting to seem pointless. Her arm already sported a permanent bruise from the constant barrage of needles and to date, she didn’t know of a single person who had actually gotten sick.
In the family room, she flopped down in front of the TV and reached for the remote. The grim hysterias over this or that latest strain of bird-flu had been alarming at first, but now it was getting old and the hourly newscasts were all starting to repeat themselves. She surfed around until she found a channel that wasn’t overrun by breaking reports, then got out her algebra homework.
By the time Beverly arrived home at five-thirty, Viola was deep in the orderly world of factors.
“How was the spike station?” she called to the footsteps in the front hall, scrubbing at a computation error with the eraser-end of her pencil.
Beverly made a noncommittal noise before she answered. “The line was long again and that B series stuff always makes me achy. I think I’m going to jump in the bath and have nice long soak. If your dad calls, can you bring the phone in? I’ll leave the door cracked.”
Viola winced and rechecked her numbers. Even after two and a half years, she was not remotely accustomed to Beverly’s awkward familiarities.
Outside, the sun sank to a glowing sliver behind the low rooftops of the subdivision. After fifteen minutes of reading word-problems by the glow of the TV, Viola got up and raised the dimmer switch on the wall. Instantly, the family room burst into bright, golden light.
On a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond, the studio audience went into a collective paroxysm of hilarity. Viola thought she heard an answering noise, drifting from down the hall, almost lost behind the bright chatter of the television laugh-track.
She reached for the remote and turned the volume down.
The house was a sprawling ranch-style, all one level. The sound of laughter was clear and shrill, trickling down the hall, echoing from the vast granite bathroom. Viola let the remote fall to the carpet and stood listening for a second before heading cautiously toward the back of the house and the bathroom.
In the hall she paused again, leaning close to the partially-open door. “Beverly?”
There was no answer but the strange, sputtering giggles. Viola pushed gently and the door swung inward.
Beverly was reclining in the oversized tub, submerged in aromatherapy oil and bergamot bubble bath. Candles burned in tidy rows on the windowsill behind her. She turned her head slowly to regard Viola. Her face was set in a rictus of mirth, lips ratcheted back from her teeth. Her eyes were quite empty, but even in her bland, vacant stupor, she was laughing.
For a moment Viola did nothing. The scene was impossible, close to absurd.
Then Beverly started to rise, emerging from the bath like a ravenous Venus, jubilant and predatory. Her hair had come down from the loose knot on top of her head, and now it hung wild and lank in her face.
It occurred to Viola with a splash of horrified fascination that Beverly intended to bite her. Without pausing to consider the sheer illogic of this, she scrambled back and slammed the door.
At once, the knob began to writhe in her grip, threatening to slip free. She reached wildly behind her for the little hall credenza, fumbling for the lace table-runner, sending an arrangement of silk flowers crashing onto the floor. With the toes of her sneakers braced against the baseboard, she looped the runner around the twisting handle and knotted it to the knob of the linen closet. Then she stood with her back against the far wall, and watched.
From out in the family room came the sound of the emergency broadcast signal, followed by a carefully-scripted voice. We interrupt this program . . .
The man’s voice that followed was tight and controlled. “The CDC has issued a request that all citizens refrain from presenting for the B vaccination series. Again, do not participate in the B vaccination series. If someone you know has received vaccination B105 in conjunction with any other B vaccine, you are strongly advised to avoid contact. To repeat, if you know someone to have received multiple courses in the B series, please do not approach or attempt contact with that person . . .”
Viola stood in the hallway, staring at the closed door. From out in the street came the sounds of commotion, punctuated by high, plaintive screams, and laughing.
Viola crossed her arms over her chest, but didn’t look away from the now-motionless doorknob and the knotted runner. In the family room, the newscaster was giving halfhearted instructions for contacting a government facility, but the noise in the street overrode him.
In the bathroom, the dark, gleeful thing just kept laughing.