It wasn’t the amoeba’s fault. The amoeba in question was, in the beginning anyway, an ordinary specimen of Naegleria fowleri—Nigel for short, because Nigel is way less of a mouthful—floating about in warm water and eating bacteria when Sarita came splashing by on her morning swim in Rainbow Lake, which is not in fact made of rainbows, but of water, and is in many ways an astounding lake, not least because it is fed by multiple hot springs and so is open and pleasant to swim in throughout all twelve months of the year, some of which are bitterly cold in Fairbanks, Alaska—as in forty degrees and more below zero.
Nor was it Sarita’s fault. Despite being a relatively small human, she was much, much larger than Nigel and was entirely unaware of its existence in Rainbow Lake.
And so, Sarita and Nigel blamelessly came together one morning, Nigel floating, Sarita splashing, and Nigel getting caught up in the multi-hued mass of Sarita’s hair.
Most summer mornings after swimming, Sarita rode her four-wheeler home, and this morning was no different. Before firing up her wheeler, she wove her pink-and-blue hair into a loose braid held in place with her second favorite hair tie—the John-Deere green one. This kept her hair damp, which kept Nigel alive as Sarita raced for home, skipped a shower, dressed in a flash, and dashed for the airport.
And that is how both Sarita and Nigel ended up in an aisle seat—18D, to be precise—of an Alaska Airlines 737 MAX flying from Fairbanks to Chicago-O’Hare.
Like many people, Sarita thought that the worst thing that could happen flying through a thunderstorm was the plane getting struck by lightning. That might have been the case in the past, but, because it’s happened before with decidedly unhappy results, planes these days have conductive paths built into them, and the bolt that hit the tail of Sarita’s plane moved rapidly down the conductive path to a wing tip and down to earth (and out of this story) somewhere over Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
While all that was going on, Dear Friends, something else was happening, too. You see, lightning bolts produce powerful flashes of gamma rays in the Earth’s atmosphere, and one of those gamma rays made a beeline for seat 18D. Just before the gamma-ray made contact with Sarita’s hair tie, turbulence jostled the plane. The gamma-ray smashed into poor, innocent Nigel, and altered his DNA for him.
As Naegleria fowleri is colloquially known as the “brain-eating amoeba,” this highly unlikely event was not without consequences.
Perhaps none of those consequences would have unfolded had Sarita not decided to re-braid her hair. But she did, and can we blame her? Of course we can’t. A long flight, a crying baby, a thunderstorm, a plane hit by lightning, and the sickly sweet smell that accompanies the use of “in-flight discomfort bags” made her restless. She wanted something to occupy her hands. And so she undid her braid, freeing the mutated Nigel from her flowing locks. After a short trip on the confused air currents common to international airliners, Nigel found himself snorted up the impressively large nose of a commodities broker from Naperville, Illinois.
Lars Bitburger never knew what hit him. One minute he was trying to decide if he should get into lithium or just stick with the agricultural sector, and the next he was fevering. His eyes were burning, his guts were in an absolute uproar, and a merciless headache gripped the back of his skull. Spurred by an ancient instinct he wasn’t aware he had, Lars turned to the passenger next to him—a dentist sitting in 23C—to ask for help.
By then, though, Nigel and his descendants had eaten nearly one-eighth of Lars’s brain, and so instead of perceiving a mild-mannered, balding, and rather paunchy fellow from Skokie, Lars saw an anthropomorphic goose.
Lars had always been terrified of geese, ever since one had chased the family dog at a picnic when Lars was one and a half. Lars gulped a lungful of air to scream, but such was the chaos being wreaked by Nigel and his descendants inside Lars’s brain that, instead of shriek, Lars let loose a great jet of bloody vomit that splattered not only the hapless dentist in 23C, but a very stoned art student from the University of Chicago sitting in 23D, and several other passengers in his immediate area.
At this point, you might imagine there was quite a bit of complaint from Lars’s fellow passengers. Lars was beyond caring—Nigel and his exponentially multiplying kin had consumed much of Lars’s gray matter. What was left of Lars’s brain kept his diaphragm moving, which kept the air moving in and out of his lungs—and every time Lars breathed out, thousands of amoebic spores flowed into the aluminum fuselage hurtling toward the third-largest city in the United States at over five hundred miles an hour.
The effects of releasing massive amounts of a pathogen of such virulence in a confined space were immediate and dramatic. In the space of minutes, three hundred mostly well-behaved humans were reduced to screaming, vomiting, and twitching amoeba factories. Two of the flight attendants locked themselves in the lavatories, which bought them a little time—enough to send some panicked texts—until the spores found them.
The third flight attendant called the cockpit on the intercom to alert to pilot and co-pilot of the sudden outbreak of hallucinations, screaming, and bloody vomiting death. Her report was cut short when her melting brain perceived the handset as the head of a king cobra and took the immediate countermeasure of smashing it into the nearest bulkhead.
The pilot, an Air Force veteran named Ruiz, was not one to overreact. In addition to the worrying report from Angelica, who had been serving drinks at thirty thousand feet for the better part of two decades, Ruiz had heard a lot of unusual noise in the last few minutes.
Ruiz turned to her copilot. “Caleb, you want to open the door and see what’s going on back there?”
Caleb had flown a lot in the civilian world but hadn’t ever been shot at. “Captain, it’s against regulations to unseal the cockpit during flight.”
“Caleb, you quote the book at me again, I’ll beat you senseless with it. Open up and see what the fuck is going on back there. I’ll keep this tin can straight and level while you’re doing it.”
Huffing and puffing a bit, Caleb unbuckled and stood. He opened the door about three inches before he closed it. He staggered a bit as he climbed back to his seat, his face an even paler shade of white than it had been moments before.
Ruiz took one look at him and eased the yoke to the left, toward the lake. After a moment, the autopilot alarmed. Ruiz reached up and flicked a switch, silencing it.
Sweat traced a path down Caleb’s sideburns and reached his jaw. His eyes showed the palest hint of red — the work of Nigel’s great-great-grandamoebas. “What are you doing?”
Ruiz glanced at him. “We’re not landing this plane.” As she started the Mayday call, Ruiz pressed the yoke forward with both hands. The nose dipped down, and all she and Caleb could see was Lake Michigan, as blue as the sky and almost as big.
Prompted by Carrie K (amoeba, hair-tie, aisle seat).
Leave a comment with a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location and I will write a story based on your prompt and tag you when I publish it.
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash