Systemic

This is a short story I wrote early on in the pandemic, when lockdown anxiety made it impossible for me to work on my novel. This story got me back into gear. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to publish it because . . . I mean, ew, we’re living a pandemic, we don’t want to read about one!

But, on the off chance you do, here it is.

a disposable mask lying on a flight of concrete steps
Photo by Linda Holman on Unsplash

I woke to the sound of a light cough. I sat bolt upright, heart pounding. Nothing injects adrenaline into your veins like that sound.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, I just choked on my toothpaste,” came my wife’s voice from the bathroom. She spat in the sink, rinsed it out, coughed lightly a second time. “See? Clear. Sorry I woke you.”

I looked at my phone. 5:57 am. “Doesn’t matter, time for me to get up anyway.” I opened it up, checked the virus reports. Georgia hemorrhagic fever was down today, that was good. Dying out probably. Sao Paolo flu still on the rise, I wouldn’t expect that to peak for weeks yet. Be a long time before anybody could go out for fun again. I kept saying that like I expected it would ever happen. The last lockdown had eventually ended, sure, but each was longer than the last, and the periods between were getting shorter.

Tasha sanitized the sink, the taps, and the doorknobs before coming back out into the bedroom to get into her gear. “I wish I didn’t have to go out today.”

“Lot of people wish they could.”

“Luck of the draw, I guess.” She pulled a pair of latex gloves from the box and put them on, fastening them to her thin vinyl jacket with airtight tape.

I threw the blankets off and began my own routine. It wasn’t luck of the draw, not really, except in how we were born. Some of us were born with resources, grew up with privilege, went to college, and when all this broke out, could quit the jobs that exposed us to the public and find jobs where we could stay home safe. Some of us were not. I had lost six jobs since the viruses started breaking out, but delivery jobs were always available, and warehouse jobs. And, of course, the medical field—though fewer and fewer people were heroic enough to go that route. Not when the lifespan after starting work was about eighteen months.

Tasha left for the local food warehouse. Lots of crates to unpack, sort, and put out for delivery. She had to start early. I had a little more time; time to eat breakfast, check my friends’ feeds to make sure they were all healthy, set up the day’s schoolwork for our daughter. Before I put my mask on at the door, I called back to her, “Make sure all your work is done before you play any games!”

“I will,” she said, not looking up from her phone.

“And don’t open the door for anyone!” 

That got me eye contact, if only so she could roll them at me. “I know, I’m not five.”

I smiled at that. No, she wasn’t five. When she had been five, there had been school to go to. Playdates. She would swing on the jungle gym, completely fearless. I wondered how much of that she even remembered, or whether it did her good or harm to remind her of those days. Kids today just had to grow up different. If it was messing them up, nothing we could really do about that.

I put on my mask, a suffocating torture device that covered mouth, nose, and eyes. They’d had to add goggles after the Paris antibiotic-resistant conjunctivitis. But it was just as well; helped you remember not to touch them. “Bye honey,” I said, voice muffled only a little.

“Bye Mom,” she said. “Be safe.”

Closing the main door, I stood out in the foyer a moment to fog the outside of my gear with sanitizing spray. Be safe. She shouldn’t be wishing me luck. She was twelve; she shouldn’t be worried about anything but her grades. But even with her stuck in the apartment all day, we couldn’t shelter her from everything. Germs, yes. Fear, no.

I met my friend Vanna at the checkpoint. The Sanitary Police were at every major intersection now, taking temperatures and checking work authorizations. I had my card out before we passed, holding it out for them to scan.

“What do you expect with global warming going on?” one guard was saying to the other. I grinned behind my mask. They had this argument every day.

“That’s a hoax!” the other insisted. “It’s the Russians, they’re setting these things loose. Have you noticed how often . . .”

The guard broke off, looking at his forehead thermometer. “Ninety-eight eight. That passes, but you better watch it and check it in an hour. If that goes up, you go home. No exceptions.”

Vanna nodded, her eyes wide. “I will. I just got warm on the way here, I swear.”

“You just keep an eye on it,” said the guard, waving us through.

She let out a shuddering breath as we got out of earshot. “Oh my god, I thought he was going to stop me.”

I gave her a sidelong glance. “Why were you worried?”

She looked away. “Well, you know.”

Grabbing her arm, I stopped in my tracks. “What are you talking about?”

She jerked her arm away and took a few steps sideways. “Six feet, jeez, they’re watching.”

I started walking again. “Vanna, you gotta tell me if you have any symptoms. You’ve got to. We’ve been together all week. I borrowed a box of gloves off you yesterday.”

“You sanitized the outside, though, right? I mean, everything that comes in–” Her voice was high, anxious.

 “Of course I did, but it was an open pack, Vanna, come on!” We were almost to the warehouse where our deliveries started. “Secrecy kills, honesty saves. Remember? It’s all over the damn walls!” I threw up an arm to where those words were blazoned in red and yellow on a poster. Beneath, in smaller print, it read, Report all symptoms immediately to authorities and all your social contacts.

“Fine, okay,” she said in a small voice. “It was a hundred this morning. I took an ibuprofen and it came right down.”

“Are you crazy?”

“It’s just a cold! None of the viruses out right now start like this.”

“You shouldn’t have a cold if you’ve been observing the protocol! There was a breach somewhere, maybe here . . .” I stared at the warehouse, less than half a block away now. If there was something here, it could expose every house for blocks. The whole neighborhood got deliveries from here.

Not that it mattered. Vanna was a personal friend; no matter where she’d gotten a bug, I’d had enough contacts with her to get it. I’d borrowed her gloves–a breach of protocol, you’re supposed to get a fresh box and sanitize the outside, but rent was due and I was almost out and what else was I supposed to do?

“Please don’t tell,” she begged. “Rent is due and I can’t miss another day. I missed four this month because I was on isolation for ripping a glove. I need to work today.”

I paused. Thinking of my daughter, alone at home, and Tasha’s little cough this morning. I should turn Vanna in. For the good of all us. I had to.

But, dammit, she’d cut me breaks herself. The time I’d thrown up and I knew it was from alcohol but the SanPol would have given me three days isolation. The time I reused the same gloves after lunch as before. Hell, the box of gloves yesterday. She’d shown up for me like a real friend and I had to do the same.

“Fine,” I said. “But you do what that guard said and recheck in an hour. And if you get any more symptoms, report them.”

“I will,” she said. Probably lying. If she was desperate enough to be here, she was desperate enough to lie more times, to more people. But there was nothing I could do about that, except report her later if I needed to.

We parted at the door and I went about my deliveries, pulling a little trolley stacked with boxes. I left them on stoops, on doormats, in lobbies. Once I was gone, the isolated inhabitants could spray down the outsides of the boxes and bring them in. The insides, hopefully, would be clean thanks to the scrupulous efforts of warehouse workers like Vanna.

I saw few people on the streets: postal carriers, SanPol, delivery people like myself. I knew most of them, at least by the names on their jackets or the sounds of their voices. If I met them unmasked at a party, I wouldn’t know who they were. But that would likely never happen. Parties were always forbidden except when the health status was green, and it hadn’t been green for months.

I had lunch at the warehouse, each of us at our own table with the necessary six feet between. Mask carefully stowed under the table, surface freshly sanitized. Vanna picked at her sandwich, cheeks flushed. This was bad, bad, bad, but I couldn’t speak up here and now, could I?

A few tables away, Marcus was in good humor. He was the head of the packing team, usually a grouch, but today he was cheerful, even expansive. “What’d you deliver today, Ann?”

I shrugged. “Gloves and masks and wipes, like always. Paper products. I don’t know what else, I don’t bother trying to read all the codes.”

He grinned. “That’s fine, just gloves and masks is plenty for what I’m thinking.”

I furrowed my brow, puzzled. “What are you thinking?”

Leaning back, he shook his head from side to side. “Oh, you’ll see.” He exchanged a couple glances with other packers. I sighed. I knew sometimes they liked to prank the clients, swapping one item for another, sending joke items, but I was in no mood for that kind of humor. Honestly? For any kind of humor.

“Don’t be a downer,” said Alice, another packer. “They deserve whatever they get. Sitting all snug in their houses, while we brave germs for them. People like you and us are keeping the entire planet running, and they just hide.”

“We’re all doing our part,” I argued. “Just because their work is done remotely doesn’t mean it’s not work. They write the code that helps us get the stuff to the right people, and teach the kids, and . . .” I stopped because I wasn’t sure what else. Stocks and stuff. Advertising?

“Useless garbage,” said Marcus. “We’ll be better off without them.”

I stopped, sandwich halfway to my mouth. Did he say we would or we will? “What did you do?” I demanded.

Just then Vanna screamed, high and piercing. I looked over. She was staring down at her hands. Her skin was blooming into a red rash, spots spreading up over her ungloved hands and over her face.

“Vanna!” I cried, but I didn’t move. Thoughts jammed in my head, pushing me forward and pulling me back. She was my friend. I couldn’t expose myself and risk my family. I had to somehow keep her from contaminating anyone else. But it was too late, wasn’t it? I had borrowed her gloves.

“Vanna, you touched the stuff?” Marcus was on his feet, backing away. “We put it in the boxes, not on the outsides! You were supposed to have gloves on!”

“My glove tore,” she spat. “Earlier this month. Guess you didn’t think to warn me you were putting something in the merchandise.”

My brain continued spitting out data. Rash, fever, long incubation period. Had to be Arctic measles, but Arctic measles was—

“It’s airborne,” I said, leaping to my feet. What was the point now? I couldn’t be more exposed than I was. I moved over to Vanna, helping her shove her mask and gloves back on. No care about sanitizing the insides, it didn’t matter now. She was going into isolation, if I could even get her there safely. A tiny clean room, with the air carefully recycled. Meds passed in through a hatch. No doctors. Why kill the doctor too?

Marcus was crying now, hands hovering by his face as if to wipe away the tears, though long training kept him from touching. “I didn’t mean it to get any of us—I meant it for them—you’ve got to understand—you know how it’s been, a life of exposing myself to this trash for them, while they’re safe—I wanted them to know how it felt—”

People were running from the room, masks left under the tables. Idiots. Selfish idiots, the one thing you never do when infected, like when you’re on fire in a field of tall grass, is run. But it’s the one thing everyone does.

I put on my own mask and gloves, sprayed sanitizer over the outsides of both of us, and led her, trembling with chill now, out into the street.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry, if I had known I would never…”

“I know,” I said. My anger at her was all gone now. “I know.”

I trudged beside her to where the SanPol waited. I knew they weren’t going to let me go, not if I told the truth. And I had to. It was that or take this monster home to my wife and child. By the time I could call, the lockdown would have started in earnest. Code red. People all over the city, whole families, would be taking sick and dying. People starving if they hadn’t prepared, and there were always families too poor to prepare. The iso ward would be full, that was a cheery thought. We wouldn’t be lonely. And the death rate was only 25%. Better than the mutated ebola, at least. I might live.On the bricks outside, another of SanPol’s tattered posters flapped, bearing the cheerful blue slogan, The only way we stay safe is together.

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