Emily shuddered when her leg bumped an upright headstone. The dark granite color reminded her of the counters in Michael’s apartment: cold, impersonal, and dreary.
“I’m sorry,” she said to damp grass in front of the headstone. She wasn’t a paranoid person but didn’t want to take any chances. Not after everything that had happened the past five years. A man at a nearby grave looked at her quizzically for a moment. He held a bunch of yellow flowers tied with green ribbon. A little boy next to him clutched a single daisy. His red hair was tousled, and he stared somberly at the grave in front of him. He didn’t look up as Emily walked past, but the man nodded politely to her. Emily wasn’t sure of the proper etiquette for socializing in a graveyard, so she nodded slightly back. Both of their expressions were grim.
She hadn’t lost Michael in the pandemic. She’d lost him long before, back when everything felt normal. Normal for Michael was tumultuous, but there was some familiarity to it, some sense of structure. She could tell when he was skipping meetings, knew where to look if he hadn’t been around awhile. She knew she had been lucky that way. Other family members at the meetings sobbed into their tissues that they didn’t know if their person was dead or alive.
She carefully walked to the left side of the cemetery, looking for the small cross that marked where Michael was buried. There were more mourners there than she was used to, but she hadn’t been there in three years, either. She’d been confined to the Standard lab, hall 307, where those who hadn’t contracted the disease in Buffalo were kept in quarantine. The research assistant, a wide-eyed woman in her thirties, insisted there was a genetic protectant against the disease.
Emily had to admit that it was an impressive dormitory. She could interact with anyone on her floor via Doors. It was the most amazing technology she’d ever seen; holographs of the other participants, right in front of her. Exposed to contaminants in a controlled environment to help maintain their immune systems. Artificial sunlight, small areas to maintain gardens in their rooms. A virtual library. Food she didn’t have to prepare. It costs her freedom, but she didn’t have a choice; they issued fines to the people who refused to quarantine. She knew it was shady but the lab provided everything she could possibly need except for human connection. And she decided long ago that she was fine without that.
Those who got the disease were stuck in the real world. Meetings subsided; businesses shut down. Those who had been plagued were shunned. Nobody wanted to get the disease or be reinfected. Anyone who had the Tier I sickness was left with a strange purple tint, most noticeable in the eyes. Scientists were baffled at what caused it. People with lower tier levels of the disease couldn’t be identified immediately, but when they spoke, their words were slightly slurred.
Emily looked out at the other mourners. She recognized one from the lab, a stocky man named Gerome. His wife passed while he was in quarantine, she remembered, and he crouched silently in front of a grave decorated with bright flowers. It looked like he had a photograph and a wad of tissues in his hands. She touched his shoulder as she walked past, and he looked up with a blank stare. He nodded at her with no emotion, and she knew his grief was so deep that he felt nothing. She had been like a zombie when Michael left. When she finally reached his grave, she took off her jacket and laid it on the grass beside the stone.
She sat silently for a moment. “It’s been three weeks since I’ve been out. I should’ve visited you sooner. It’s been an adjustment, finding a new job, remembering how to cook.” She wished he could respond. Eight years of silence was too much.
“I miss you, fucker.” Her voice was quiet, and she fiddled with a blade of grass. The last time she’d seen him, he was clean. She thought he was, anyway, and she could tell about 80% of the time. They met with his stepsister and went to a concert in the city. It had probably been four years since anyone was allowed to have a concert. She missed the excitement of a crowd, the hooking up with random people, feeling the music pulse through her body. She wondered when they would start holding concerts again since the disease was eradicated. Michael’s stepsister hadn’t texted her since the funeral.
Emily fell silent and listened to sirens in the distance. The sky was gray and the clouds looked like they’d burst any moment, but the rain didn’t bother her. She could see the little redheaded boy and his father walking back toward the gravel parking lot. They walked somberly, the little boy picking up flowers that had blown away and putting them back on the graves he assumed they came from. This time, he looked at Emily from across the row, and she noticed his left eye had purple sclera. She waved at the boy, and after a tentative wave back, he grabbed his father’s hand, and they continued.
It was all Emily could take not to cry. She braided a few pieces of grass together, like she’d done as a little girl. The first to die from the disease in Buffalo were Michael’s old friends. It happened in other cities, too, that people with “high-risk lifestyles” were among the first to be affected. She couldn’t help but question why the disease targeted addicts first. This wasn’t her first pandemic, but it was the first time she’d seen a disease like this disproportionately affect that group—and at first, only that group.
It started to rain, and Emily pulled her knees to her chest. “Shit, Mikey, I’m glad you aren’t here. You’d have never made it through this. I wouldn’t have been able to save you. I couldn’t before, either. I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes and let her tears mix with the rainfall.