The 21st century; an age of scientific breakthrough, progressive social liberalism, and an unrivalled freedom of expression. We are adapting our world to our demands so quickly that we think we’ve moved past the need for cautionary tales and folklore. We’ve become complacent about the stability of our progress. We earnestly believe in our ability to discern reality from superstition; we forget that everyone who ever lived did, too.
Every generation has broken through the restraints of its predecessors to forge a new and better era. To our modern minds, fear and suffering belong to the past. We feel indestructible at our core, and liberated at our edges. Superior.
So, despite all our advances, why are we still scared to look in the mirror in the dark?
With all our capacity to restrain danger, why does our subconscious create it, sustain it, search for it?
Because really, we know the truth.
We are always our own cautionary tale; we are the danger we can’t escape. We never move on from folklore because it doesn’t exist outside of us.
And it was never folklore we were scared of.
It was never silly monsters and sprites.
It was us. It’s always us.
Dr Laura Harville strode calmly through the throng of panicked people.
“It’s fine, it’s alright. Move aside, please.”
Though grown men sobbed and children shook, the crowd parted; they were lost sheep, desperate for guidance. Eyes clung to her.
“That’s it, easy does it now. That’s it.”
Laura made her way towards a voice as calm as her own. Police directed people towards first aid tents and ambulances; anywhere away from the scene of chaos. Gradually, the crowd submitted in relief; they were safe.
Laura looked down at the stretcher, struggling to maintain an impassive expression. The helpless thing laying there didn’t even look human anymore; gender and age were completely indiscernible. Its skin had bubbled and warped as though it were made of plastic, and its mouth gaped open in shameless, frozen agony. Blood was congealed on the torso, head and every limb from cracks formed by increased internal pressure. The skeleton was so deformed that the poor soul must have been paralysed. Laura wasn’t religious, but in this moment she prayed that paralysis might have stopped some of the suffering. She turned away from the pitiful, shrunken thing. It terrified her.
This time, the disease had taken hundreds. One by one, the passengers packed on the peak-time train had been infected with it. In turn, those on the platform had realised. The doors had been locked. There was nothing anyone could do. Blackened limbs had grasped at windows that had been sealed, airtight, to reduce outside contamination. People had panicked as they realised they couldn’t be saved, that they weren’t supposed to be saved. Sealing the trains had just been a news story, hadn’t it? A safeguard to put everyone’s minds at rest, to reassure them it wouldn’t happen again – it was just a news story!
Families, friends, and strangers watched on helplessly, horrified as the disease’s symptoms struck again. Bodies twisted and writhed, deforming and contracting as the mystery illness flooded their veins. There had been the Black Plague in the Middle Ages; the White Plague-disguised tuberculosis. This was just called the Death. No one wanted to acknowledge, or even remember, that the Death was as out of control as two of the most terrifying epidemics in human history. It was compared to Ebola or malaria by authorities clutching at anything to reassure that something could be done. But the Death took more than those viruses ever had. Hundreds of thousands at a time suffered hellishly, without relief, as the world’s most trusted doctors and scientists staggered after it in vain. Usually, the Death took them as well. Many people turned to religion, desperate for consolation, some big-picture explanation. Perhaps this was a punishment for all our consumerism and immorality. Ten minutes before the Death first struck, superstition had been a thing of the past; now it reclaimed its place, sustaining a single candle of hope in the darkness of the unknown.
Those standing on the platform rushed and shouted and wept, trying desperately to help. Some banged on windows madly, trying to pull them open; some tried to phone the police, and received an infuriating voicemail advising them that help was on the way. Where the hell were they, then? The HAZMAT teams, the doctors that happened to be commuting and carrying cures in their briefcase – where were they? The people hurried and yelled instructions in spite of themselves. There was nothing else to do. Within minutes of horrific agony, all 1224 people on the train were dead. The last was a young woman. Drawing painstakingly desperate breaths from behind the glass, her bloodshot eyes widened, pleading. She coughed violently, spit and blood spattering from her cracked, yellowed lips onto the window. There was a bang as her head fell forward.
After that, even the living were silent. Death had taken all.
It’s been a long time since the last of the Death took place. Humanity suffered as it had never suffered in living memory, and perhaps that’s the worst part. Perhaps if we’d remembered the tales told by our predecessors, we would have understood the reality; that the potential for widespread, uncontrollable calamity is always present. We truly are our own cautionary tale, and we always will be, though we won’t listen next time either. Our pride is too strong, our sense of superiority growing stronger with every success. But if the next generation learns anything from the mistakes of one which felt perennial, let it be this: Ours are not new wounds. Their scars will split to bleed again.