I haven't taken part in the #whimword prompt for a while, so thought I'd jump in again with this one. As always, while you're here, take a look at my Unbound page and pledge to pre-order my debut novel (http://unbound.co.uk/books/abernathy).
“What is it this time?” Doris asked, without looking up. She didn’t much care what the answer was. She kept her eyes firmly on her desk, and waited.
“Labyrinthitis,” Bill said. “Inflammation of the inner ear. He claims he can’t stand up without feeling dizzy.” Doris sighed, and got up.
“All right,” she said, wearily. “Let me have a look at him.”
Eric was waiting for her in his quarters, eyes closed. He was supine on the top bunk, a pile of his laundry on the lower one. This was the third ailment he’d claimed to be suffering from in as many weeks, but he knew she’d come. He knew they were stuck with each other. It was just as he’d planned it.
Doris weaved her way through the maze of interlinking corridors towards the staff quarters. Eric was a world-class shirker, but she couldn’t get rid of him. Company rules prohibited letting anyone go who was actively unwell, regardless of the symptoms. They weren’t concerned about unfair dismissal: no one would come after them for that. They simply couldn’t be seen to be the source of any kind of outbreak. They were already in a precarious position, and a burnout would ruin them.
“If you can’t get up without feeling dizzy,” Doris said, “how did you get up there?”
“Slept here. Woke up feeling like this,” Eric said. He kept his eyes shut, hands folded neatly on his stomach. Doris clenched and unclenched her fists.
“Why do you do this?” she asked.
“Do what?” Eric opened his eyes at last and swivelled his head ever so slightly in her direction.
“This!” She gestured around the room, which, bar the unfolded laundry, was neat as a pin. “Pretend to be sick, lock yourself up in here! What do you get out of it?” Eric closed his eyes again. He’d barely been in the lab since he’d started a month earlier, and had instead focused solely on making Doris’s life miserable, as far as she could tell.
“I’m not pretending,” he said.
“No, of course not. This isn’t a ploy to get paid for doing nothing because you know I can’t stop you. That would be ridiculous,” Doris growled, jaw tightening.
“If you don’t think I’m sick,” Eric said, “fire me. Nobody would blame you.”
“Yes, they would! Knowing my luck, there’d be an outbreak the minute you set foot outside, and if they found out I’d let you go, you know who they’d blame, whether it was you that started it or not!” Doris shouted. Eric sat up slightly, and looked her in the eye for the first time.
“So what?” he said. Doris stared at him.
“So what? So what? This company is the last one left with the resources to fund this compound. We’re the only ones studying this damn disease. If they burn us out, there’s no cure, no treatment. That’s it. We’re done. We’re all done.”
“Well, then,” Eric said, “looks like you’re stuck with me."