THE SILENCE OF JANE DOE

I was in the grocery earlier today and was ordering something from the deli when I backed up a few steps and bumped into a woman by mistake. She looked so disheveled, so exhausted. Her brown hair was frayed and her dark pits of eyes darted everywhere. I had turned around while mumbling "sorry" and she began to apologize, too, but caught herself before a full syllable could come out. Her eyes grew wide, becoming windows to such guilt as I've never seen, and she dropped the basket she was carrying and fled the store.

This is a dramatic interpretation of the true story of Jane Doe.

The forest chirped and pop played while Jane and her friends howled on the patio. She fished her third beer from the cooler and was only sitting back down when Allen announced, "So Barbara says she saw a freaky CD at the music store." Barbara hid her face, embarrassed. "She thought it was edgy so she took it to the cashier, but it didn't have a price on it and the guy didn't recognize it. So she was like, 'whatever', and said she'd put it back. Except," he added," she didn't. She has it with her in the car, even. But she was too scared to listen to it!"

Barbara defended, "The cover is fucked-up!"

Chris said, "Well, what're we waiting for? Let's see it then!" He received cheers of agreement.

Barbara slinked away and returned shortly after with a CD case. The group held and inspected its cover in turns - solid black, front and back, except for a cartoonish yet detailed image of a shirtless woman with her mouth sewn shut, her abdomen open, holding her leaking bowels in her hands. In the moving shadows Jane could have sworn the blood was flowing, the woman's tears streaming.

"There's no track listing, anything," remarked Allen.

Dan exclaimed, "C'mon! Put it in the player!"

Ellen said, "Hey, I didn't get to see the case. And what's the CD inside even look like?" She swiped it from Allen and pried it open with some difficulty. The disk shimmered at her, unlabeled. She shrugged and gave it back to Allen.

He stopped the player, ejected the pop CD already in it, and dropped the unlabeled disk in. He closed the tray and they waited for it to begin.

A few long seconds passed and Jane asked, "Well? Is it playing?"

"Yeah," Allen confirmed. The time on the player was progressing like it should. He tried fast-forwarding but there was nothing more than silence on all thirteen tracks.

"Creepy," Chris said. The group spent some time discussing it and inventing scary theories, but their conversation soon drifted to other, more familiar topics.

The evening fled and Jane and Dan wished their company goodbye. They retreated to the bedroom and fell asleep quickly.

The world greeted Jane hazily, and with nausea. She slid out of bed and into the bathroom, peed, and splashed her face. Too much to drink, she mused. She glanced at the peaceful Dan and shambled to the kitchen to prepare a late Saturday breakfast. Rummaging through the fridge and pantry, she decided on omelettes.

The eggs and vegetables sizzled in the pan. She swirled them around with a fork, turned up the heat, and went to the bedroom to wake Dan.

She stood in the doorway. "Hey, Dan, breakfast's cooking." When he didn't stir she repeated more loudly. "Dan?"

She came closer and shook him by the shoulder. "Wake up, fuckface!"

Jane realized that Dan wasn't breathing. "Oh god," she murmured to herself. She snatched the phone from the nightstand and dialed for emergency and emulated the CPR she'd always seen but never learned.

She rode in the ambulance with Dan's corpse. There was nothing they could do, the paramedics apologized. They assured her they'd at least find out what it was that did him in.

It was alcohol poisoning, they finally told her. She explained how Dan hadn't even had very much to drink while the doctors insisted that the autopsy was definitive. She called a taxi and then stepped into a strangely empty home that smelled of burned food and sounded like a siren. She ignored the fire alarm and walked through the choking smoke, turned off the burner, and put the pan and the blackened used-to-be omelette into the sink. She ran the faucet over it absently and watched the water flow. It came out, then it went down the drain, she noticed. A steady and sure descent.

She called Barbara, seeking some sort of comfort, wanting to just get it out so maybe she could process the loss. Barbara's boyfriend, Frank, answered the phone, and informed she hadn't come home last night.

Allen? She tried his number but got no answer. Same for Ellen. She tried Chris.

Jane said, "Hello? This is Jane. Is this Chris?"

A voice choked on the other line, "This is his girlfriend. Uh, Chris... uh, he's... he's dead."

"Oh god. What happened?"

"I don't know! He just wouldn't wake up! I didn't know what to do, I thought it could've been the drugs, I..."

Jane, more distressed than she'd ever been in her life, abandoned the phone. She wanted to throw herself into bed but the memory of that morning's Dan held her back. She cried on the floor instead.

Various phone calls over the following days told her that Allen, Barbara, and Ellen had died as well. She couldn't get ahold of Frank or Chris' girlfriend.

She finally composed herself enough to call her mother about what had happened. But she locked up on the phone and only said there was something she needed to know, and she'd come to explain it in person.

She flipped through the channels while she microwaved a cheap lunch and noticed a local news story about a virus claiming the lives of a significant portion of a hospital and the ensuing quarantine. The microwave's beeping stole her attention, though, and she gathered the food and a few necessities and began the two-hour drive to her mother's.

There wasn't much traffic and Jane arrived at her mother's house sooner than she'd expected. She rang the doorbell and stood on the porch, but nobody answered the door. "Oh god." She seemed to be saying that a lot lately. She continued to ring, more frantically. "Mom!" She shouted and the neighbors peeked out their windows, wondering.

The door opened and Jane gasped. "Mom? Are you okay?"

Her mother was dressed in a bathrobe and dripped water onto the floor. "Of course I am! I was in the shower. Sorry! I thought you would be a little while yet." She said, "Don't just stand there! Come in!"

They went into the living room and Jane sat on a sofa at her mother's direction. Her mother pointed to her damp hair when asked why she didn't sit, too.

"Mom, I insist. I think you need to sit down for this."

She sighed and shook her head, but brought a wooden chair and sat facing her daughter. "What is it?" Before Jane could speak, "Oh! Are you getting married?" Her face lit up.

"No," Jane said. "I... really don't know how to say this. I honestly don't know that I have a grasp of it yet, myself."

"Oh dear. You're pregnant?"

"No, Mom!" She grunted. She struggled, then rushed it out. "My friends died. And Dan, too. All of them." She paused and her mother had no response. "Dan. Allen, Chris, Barbara, Ellen. They're dead. Just... dead."

Her mother found her tongue. "What happened? Was there a car wreck?"

"No," Jane shook her head. "Nothing like that. I think it could have been something in our drinks a few days ago but that doesn't explain why I'm fine. Or why the doctors couldn't see anything wrong beyond just alcohol poisoning. I mean, none of us drank much at all."

The wooden chair creaked as her mother stood up, then leaned to hug her. "I don't know what to say, Jane."

Jane returned home that evening after a dinner like the ones she'd loved as a kid. She had already taken two days off her waitressing job and didn't think she was doing herself any favors allowing herself to ferment at home, so she checked in the next day. She apologized to her supervisor for the days she missed but he assured her it was no problem. "I understand, losing a close friend unexpectedly... it's horrible. Losing several? I can't even imagine. If you need to take a few days off, that's completely fine. Only let me know beforehand if you can. Okay?"

She had just finished her lunch break when he called her out and said someone wanted her on the phone.

She accepted it with a questioning look, her supervisor shrugged his shoulders. She said, "Hello?"

"This is the New Mexico Police Department. We're calling to inform you that your mother passed away at approximately 4:00am this morning."

It made her numb. After she hung up she insisted to her supervisor that she wanted to keep working, but he was adamant. "Go home, Jane. You need to rest."

She walked the several blocks in a stupor, went in her home, and collapsed onto the floor in a heap of sorrow and confusion.

Hours passed before Jane picked herself up and forced herself to eat. She kept the news on while she did.

"A record number of people have died in the past week in our town. Though we've confirmed that the causes of death are, on their surface, largely unrelated, some investigators believe a strange disease may be responsible. If you find yourself or loved ones experiencing unexplainable symptoms, please contact the number on your screen immediately."

That's when the cogs in Jane's mind slid into place. Dan and her friends were dead, and the friends of her friends she'd spoken to afterward we dead. The deaths at a hospital she'd heard of on the news? That's where she'd been when Dan died. And her mother died after she talked to her.

There was a causal link here, she was sure.

When she learned the next day of the death of her supervisor and several coworkers she decided her suspicion had been confirmed.

Life without voice is difficult. But Jane told herself that she could do it. If there were people who could manage being mute, then so could she.

It wasn't so bad for the first few days; she stayed at home and only neglected to answer her phone or the door. But then she started to run out of food. She gave herself a pep talk, chided herself for doing any talking in the first place, and loaded herself into the car.

She grabbed a carry basket from the front of the store and began picking up groceries, checking them off her mental list as she went. She was looking for cheeses near the deli when a man failed to notice her and backed into her. He murmured an apology and Jane began to, too, and only realized what she was doing after sound came out. She panicked, dropped her basket, and ran from the store and into her car.

She clutched the steering wheel hard and tried to calm her breathing. She'd try a different store and forget all about this one. It was okay, she didn't mean it. She shouldn't feel guilty. It was a mistake.

The sunlight scattered in her tears while she drove to another grocer. She tried again and managed to stay silent. She returned home with her groceries and found a car she didn't recognize in her driveway.

Oh, she, realized, of course she didn't recognize it. The owners of any cars she'd have recognized were dead now.

Jane pulled in beside it and lifted herself out of the car, and she heard the door to the other car shut and a tall woman walked to face her. The woman asked, "You're Jane?"

Jane nodded.

"Hi! I'm Gina, a reporter. I'd just like to ask you some questions, if you've got the time."

Jane frowned, shook her head. She started to her door.

Gina stepped to block her way. "Jane, this article is very important to me." The taller woman intimidated her and she hated herself for the temptation to submit to the woman's wishes and just speak. That would teach her, wouldn't it?

Jane said nothing and tried unsuccessfully to cut past the woman. She glared up at the woman and put down the plastic bags of groceries. She searched through her purse for a scrap of paper and found a pen. She scribbled on it, "Fuck off", and held it at the woman's face.

"Why won't you talk to me?"

Jane shoved it even closer to Gina's wary eyes and she finally backed off a pace. "Okay, okay. Jesus." She retreated to her car, eyes on Jane the whole short way, then drove away.

Jane permitted a sigh, collected her bags, and unloaded the food into the kitchen.

Gina returned the following day, with a vengeance. This time she brought with her a fleet of vans and an infantry of photographers and other, even more rabid reporters, as though such beasts were possible. Gina may have been the first to notice the eye of the storm of local deaths, but damn it all if she wasn't going to get her story somehow. Intimidation? A beautiful tactic! She wanted to pat herself on the back, to compliment her ingenuity.

Jane stared out the window, incredulous, then drew the blinds. She'd seen Gina. Of all the vile, conniving cunts!

She didn't know what to do. She didn't expect that waiting them out would do much good. This was a seige.

She gave it a try, though, for a few hours. She became restless and felt confined. She stole another look out of the window. The army had only grown.

Gina grinned. She couldn't stay in there forever.

And she didn't have to wait very long. Jane swung the door open and strutted until she was toe-to-toe with the tall woman. The grimace she wore would have turned any lesser person to stone. She held a notebook and a pen. She jotted, "What do you want?"

"I know you can talk," Gina demanded.

Jane wrote, "Fuck you." She jabbed her finger at her first question.

"I just want an interview, that's all."

"Only if it's written, and if you leave me the hell alone after." She wrote "hell" in especially large, threatening letters.

Gina rolled her eyes. "Fine. Just get in the car with me and I'll get you clear of these other idiots." Jane complied.

She wanted to interrogate her driver about their destination. They'd been driving for almost twenty minutes already. They had passed plenty of places that were sufficiently private for an interview.

Then, as her revelations always came, it slowly dawned on Jane why she had sensed a familiarity in Gina's features. She wasn't a journalist for a newspaper or magazine or website, and she wasn't obscure. She was a reporter for one of the local news channels. She cursed herself for only having paid any attention to the television recently. She had the urge to throw herself out of the car just then. She didn't expect it would do her very much good. And, after all, it'd only give Gina an even more attractive story. There was no way would she willfully give the woman that.

So Jane bided until they arrived at something that looked like a warehouse, but with trailers and vans surrounding it. Gina instructed that Jane follow. She didn't see that she had a lot of choice. She'd let herself get all the way out here and she couldn't very well walk back, and she couldn't call a cab.

She resigned. She got out of the car and allowed herself to be led by the reporter. They entered the air-conditioned, perspiration-heavy air inside the warehouse and navigated hallways until they came to one set suited for one-on-one interviews. Gina took the seat on the right and she directed Jane to the opposite.

Gina explained, "Okay, Jane. I'm just going to ask you some simple questions and I want you to answer honestly and the best you can."

Jane only shook her head.

"Look, this is going to be live, so you'd better snap out of this uncooperative spat of yours right away."

Jane glared at her. She shook her head.

"Just look. If you make yourself look like an idiot on air then it's not on me, it's on you."

A man called out, "Live in ten seconds!" Gina smoothed out imaginary wrinkles in her suit and stared at the camera until the silent countdown reached one.

"Hello, I'm Gina Smith with Channel 7 News, bringing you an exclusive interview with the 'Eye of the Storm' herself, Jane Doe." She looked to Jane. "My first question for you, Jane, is how this has been hitting you emotionally. Almost everyone you're close to has died in the past few weeks. How are you taking it?"

Jane stared at Gina and the camera in turn. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the glaring stage lights.

Everyone, everything there was silent, all waiting for her reply. She grabbed for her pen and noticed she'd lost her paper along the way - or perhaps Gina took it from her - and felt an uneasiness begin to fester in her gut.

She began to sweat as much from nerves as the heat cast on her by the lights.

Jane held the pen out in front of her and stared at it. Gina's furrowed gaze pierced her, a nonverbal gesture refined by a reporter accustomed to tormenting people in order to extract what she wanted.

Gina said, "Jane?"

Jane opened and closed her mouth repeatedly as though to speak, but she didn't take her eyes off the pen.

She popped the cap off with her thumb and spun it around in her hand.

"Jane. Should I repeat the question? Jane?"

A trickle of red squirted out from where Jane plunged the pen into her stomach. Her throat trembled in a silent scream and she tugged it out and thrust it in again.

Gina cried, "Medic! Get the medic on set!" She launched herself from the chair and seemed torn between her desire to keep a source alive until it could talk and her hesitation to bloody her own hands. Meanwhile, the pen continued to piston in and out, in and out. Gina cringed at the squelching, puckering sound every time it was inserted and removed. She shouted again, "Get the medic!"

The rest of the crew scrambled in a mess of shock and confusion. Eventually the medic found his puzzled way to the bleeding, silent, dead body of Jane Doe and concentrated against the macabre display of leaking guts on holding down his lunch.

"Yeah," he mumbled, "she's dead alright. Always said you'd drive someone to suicide, Gina. Never really believed it, though."

Written by Sophie Kirschner