Peter was staring at ants. It was an easy thing to do: crouch down and watch as their red and black bodies spun over the pavement like a roller coaster in two dimensions. His breath fogged against his glasses. It wasn't a cold day, far from it, but wearing a medical mask over his nose and mouth had that effect. The elastic straps pulled uncomfortably at his ears. The sun was hot on his neck and gleamed off of the ants' carapaces. Peter pulled out his phone and without looking dialed his friend Celia. After five rings she picked up.
"Yeah, it's me."
"What do you want?"
Celia's voice sounded sleepy. She must have just woken up. Already a night owl, quarantine had turned Celia into a vampire. He hadn't seen her outside in two weeks. Not that he could have seen her anyway. Isolation. A hard word, and a harder thing to do. Over the course of isolation Peter had become profoundly lonely. A loneliness that he felt everywhere, like a hollow in his chest. Peter studied the ants. One of them wasn't moving, either injured or dead. He watched as the antenna of another ant flicked over its body, checking for wounds. The ants weren't affected by quarantine.
"Have you ever really watched ants?"
He heard Celia sigh, then the sound of sheets shifting. "Peter. You called me to ask if I've seen ants? Of course I've seen ants. Every time I go on a picnic I have those suckers running all over my legs and my plate and-"
"They're kind of cool, right?"
"What is quarantine doing to you Peter? Are you outside? Please tell me you're outside. If you have turned your house into an ant farm I am going to be really concerned."
"I'm outside." The ant that had waved its feelers over the sick one was now joined by others. They're little jeweled heads waved like they were conversing. He wondered if ants talked, or if they were telepathic, or if they just understood each other without speak because they were so in tune with each other. "The ants don't seem to be affected by quarantine."
"Can I go back to sleep, Peter?"
Peter didn't answer. The ants were now lifting up their little friend. Peter imagined lifting up a human. Even with friends it was a big ask. There were some people whose job, he knew, was to find dead bodies and carry them out of whatever sticky situation had ended with their death. Never a job he'd envied. He'd only heard about it once. It seemed like one of those dark, secret topics that people hid under their beds, like the spreading of them was a black market activity. He'd heard that if humans had the strength of ants they could lift a car. He imagined lifting a car, feeling its sleek metal underbelly pressing against his arms and back. Celia sighed on the other end of the phone and flopped back onto her pillow.
"There's this one ant," Peter said, "and they're hurt. Or dead. Anyway. All their buddies are coming along to help them over to the ant hill. That's great right? Can you imagine if you or I got sick right now? We wouldn't have friends like that, coming to carry our body back. People would probably just avoid us. People always seem to think of ants as these nuisances, but they're really advanced, I mean they all help each other out, and their society doesn't have any struggles finding leaders and-"
"Peter, are you really going to talk to me about the sociopolitical economic structures of ant society?"
Peter hesitated. "I guess not," he replied. "The ants don't have an economy after all."
Celia laughed. It sounded like someone had dragged it out of her. When had been the last time she laughed?
"You're a real comedian sometimes."
"Tell me something else."
"Okay." Peter looked at the ants for inspiration. They had dragged their buddy in their usual round-a-bout way over to the side of the sidewalk and were carefully lowering them over. "Do you ever wonder why ants walk the way they do? They seem like really organized creatures, so why not take the fastest way there?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Well, what if it's not the fastest way?"
Celia was silent on the other end. Peter held his breath, not completely sure why, then let it out in a slow hot stream. "There could be gravel bumps or other things," he said. "That would be literally why. But what if ants have philosophies? Internalized philosophies? What if they don't take the straightest path because they... they..."
"Don't want to lose energy too fast?"
"Yeah! Zipping everywhere, I mean that would be tiring. But if you take a steady pace then you can find your way around obstacles. It's not exactly path of least resistance though, because being able to compromise, being able to take a step back, to be lose and free and changeable, that takes a lot of purposeful energy. You know?"
Celia laughed, "No. But it sounds true."
"This disease," Peter turned his face to the sky. "What if it is teaching us to slow down?"
"That's pretty drastic. It's like someone hitting you on the head and yelling 'change!'. Not exactly subtle."
The clouds undulated by overhead, buoyed along by wind currents Peter couldn't see. "What if we can't see subtle?"
"You mean like we've become so profit focused that we can't see the not-so-subtle hints that the planet needs us to cooperate and put well-being ahead of competition?"
The way the clouds moved was like the way the ants moved. Or a stream. Or anything in nature, now that he thought about it. It always found a way through, if not always the most direct route. Water always returned to the sea. Plants pushed up through concrete.
"So do you think that this is a natural thing or some kind of government conspiracy?" Celia asked.
"I don't know. Does it really matter?"
"I dunno, if the government has that much control I think I'd want to know about it. I don't relish the thought of being a human puppet controlled by some matrix."
There was a soft, ticklish brush along Peter's leg. He looked down to see a small, shiny ant crawling along his leg hair. It approached his knee, then turned around and taking a lot of switchbacks crawled off his shoe and into the grass. The sick ant and their entourage was no longer in sight.
"Celia," said Peter. "Maybe it's the ants."