Flash Fiction: The Book Pathogen by Lynsey May

The newest instalment in our series of ultra-short stories

It spread quickly, but it took the scientists a painfully long time to work out how. Researchers rattled through risk factors and potential causes as the population choked, fainted and perished, grasping at one straw after another as the allergen ripped through the country.

People began to stay home, too scared to even say hello to their neighbours. Fears of a complete breakdown in society were rife and internet searches for cyanide pills were at an all-time high before the news broke – they'd discovered the culprit. A new flu strain carried by a rare breed of bookworms, found in nearly all books more than a few weeks old.

They firebombed the libraries and condemned secondhand bookshops. The country was declared saved. People began to leave their houses again and public places were soon paper-free and carried certificates of safety, although a trend for tissue-thin white gloves remained long after most readers were digital and the epidemic was considered somewhat academic.

With most news providers now entirely online, radical presses printed small papers filled with claims of governmental conspiracy. Each bore the notice 'burn after reading' on its cover.

Non-digital reading was declared a health threat, but books did not disappear. In fact, teenagers began to flaunt them on park benches, executives invited co-workers home to unfurl the silky paper surrounding a rare first edition and creatives held reading parties complete with candles and incense.

A general fear surrounding books remained for many years. The fear remained long after inquests into the epidemic found that GM wheat and not books were to blame. Writers and publishers stepped forward to denounce the victimisation of the book, but continued to design ever-bigger warnings for their paperbacks:

Warning, books can contain dangerous elements. Read with extreme caution.

Publishing figures had never been higher.

Lynsey May is the winner of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers' Award.

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