The economy had been saved but we weren’t. It was 9:51 pm, almost my time slot. I rubbed my aching wrists then cracked a handful of stiff fingers. My eyes were bleary and radiated redness to the point of a dull ache, which had manifested itself along my forehead and temples like a headband. A white glow emitted from the computer screen, staring blankly at me like the face of death. It sneered at my inability to do anything but respond to the constant customer questions that were pouring in email after email. My fingers tapped numbly against the keyboard as my mind ran on auto pilot, generating the same mundane messages over and over. The urge to simply give up and cry bubbled to the top of my emotions once again. An all too familiar choking sensation deep in the pit of my throat had grown from the size of marble to a tennis ball over the past three minutes.
My hands froze, literally paralyzed in that home row position on the keyboard that they teach you back in Elementary school. Hell, I don’t even know what they teach kids in school anymore. Cursive had phased out…so now maybe typing was just another lost skill. They were probably speaking to computers at this point. Crackling sounds erupted as I straightened my back, twisting it ever so slightly. I hardly had any movement left in my spine. The crack provided only a millisecond of relief within an eternity of agony.
“Hey, Allie—what’s your progress on these emails?” my supervisor, Christine, suddenly demanded, snapping me awake from my daze. I looked over at the blinking cursor, which seemed to be pulsing at the same rate as my heart, each passing blink bringing me closer to death. I looked up lazily from my stupor, over to her round, splotchy face.
“I’m just finishing up,” I replied, voice horse and dry, nearly wheezing. The scruff of the cotton mask dug deeper into my flesh as I spoke, the friction exacerbating pain on my raw skin. “But it’s…almost my time slot.” A trickle of moisture had sneaked its way up through my trachea and I let out a weak cough.
Before responding, Christine attempted a hushed sneeze. Though, it appeared ineffective and I took notice to the newly painted red that had splattered her mask from the inside out. “Is it that time of week for you already?” she inquired, her bloodshot eyes still watering from the sneeze. She brought a skin-cracked wrist to her eyes and patted them. A film of crust from the flesh of her wrist had left a slight residue on her gapped, dark eyelashes. It stuck out like a daisy in a row of weeds.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s 9:55 right now…just five more minutes,” I pointed a boney finger over to the small digital clock on my desk. It flashed another new minute, as if death had taken another step towards me. Christine let out another round of raspy, congested coughs, her mask now acquiring a new yellow-red tinted appearance.
“I’ll tell you what,” she choked out. Her face had dropped to a light shade of purple, though, the red splotches were now more pronounced. “How about I let you out a few minutes early? I’m sure authorities won’t check you in a five-minute window.”
“Thank you so much, Christine!” I tried to hold back my tears of enthusiasm, and more importantly, was careful not to exert my voice too much. That could induce another whole five minutes of coughing, which would eat away the minutes of my precious time slot. Newly acquired phlegm had begun to congeal deep in my lungs. It was only a matter of time before I would go into another spewing state of shock, as Christine had currently just recovered from.
“Just be sure you’re back here tomorrow, 9:00 am sharp,” she authorized, giving me a wave, and continuing her slow, stiff trek down the line of cubicles. No kidding I would have to be back here tomorrow at 9:00am…I’d be arrested otherwise, I thought to myself. Possibly put to death. Weakly, I rose to my feet with shaky legs. Every bone in my body creaked and ached as I moved to gather up my supplies. Packing up my bag and slinging it onto my shoulder carefully, a grimaced as a shooting burning sensation erupted down the right side of my arm. “Ok, I just have to make it to the train station. Only a couple of blocks away. I can do this,” I muttered to myself behind clenched teeth.
Exiting the building felt like freedom at its finest. The ice-cold air nipped harshly at my rosy cheeks, but I welcomed it. Small bubbles of shivers started to tickle every inch of my body, but I ignored them. It’s only the fever and chills, I told myself. The weather is colder than it appears. If I gave into the temptation of wrapping myself up in more layers, it would only worsen the fever. Ironically enough, the cold actually provided some relief for my scorched eyes and forehead, despite the fact the rest of my body was tingling in protest.
I hobbled down the dimly lit sidewalk, muscles screaming at me in agony. Five cars. That’s how many I counted on my half-mile walk to the train station. The once bustling street in the heart of New York City was now as quiet as a secluded path within the Alaskan wilderness. My limbs had developed the dreaded tremor by the time I approached the train station. I dug into my pockets stiffly, hardly aware of any feeling in my fingers. Out of memory, I crunched my numbed fingertips around the slip of paper I was looking for.
“Time card,” the train station attendant beckoned behind a glass box, similar to one you might see for a public pay phone. He hadn’t been required to wear I mask. Probably because he was the only one in that box, contained in his own bubble of infection. I could see that it wouldn’t be long before the virus would consume him. At most, he probably had about two weeks left. Craters had consumed most of his face, painted with an ooze of yellow congealing over them like lemon flavored Jell-O. Half his jaw had rotted away, exposing decayed teeth roots which were embedded in a burgundy gum tissue caked with volcanoes of pus. Like a ventriloquist, what was remaining of his lips hardly moved as he passed back the bloody printed slip of paper to me, “All set.” I couldn’t see his legs but was assuming they had shriveled to nothingness. Mine had already lost half their mass and now resembled a pair of baseball bats. This, in fact, could be the last long walk I’d be able to make.
But I had to make it count. After all, I had less than twelve hours to go for an hour and half train ride and then make it back in time for work. As expected, the train cart was vacant. Methodically, I walked myself down the aisle, grasping at the sides of the seats, propelling myself forward. I searched for one that hadn’t been bloodied up or would have clots of hair fused into the crevasses of the gray material. After a few minutes of scavenging, I eventually came across one that wasn’t in the best of condition, but at least there wasn’t any sign of blood. Someone had most likely defecated on the seat, however, as I could make out a tint of brown along the bottom of the seat. At least it wasn’t blood, though. Swallowing another heap of foul-tasting phlegm, holding back my disgust, I planted myself wearily in the seat.
My muscles praised me for the rest, but my joints popped grotesquely in protest as I plopped down. A sudden jolt of throbbing pain emitted down my legs and back up my spine as I adjusted into a more comfortable position, no longer caring about avoiding the fecal smudge on the seat. Setting the heavy bag on the seat next to me, I began muddling through the heap in search for my phone. It was so hard to see in this dim light, and with my lack of focus, the images just blurred into one another. Finally, I spotted the blue light of the screen and brought it close to my sweltering eyes. “On my way right now. Be there in about two hours,” I texted, having to repeat punching in nearly every other letter because of how uncoordinated my fingers had become. I couldn’t read what I was typing very well, but I assumed the message was comprehensible. She wasn’t far from the train station, but I decided to give myself an extra half hour to be able to walk there. These days, it was taking me at least twice the time it had originally taken me walking from place to place.
I rested my clammy heated forehead up against the frosty pane of the glass. The temperature difference sent a wave of refreshment into my face. Though, the rest of my body was now quivering in a retaliation to drive my fever up higher. It wasn’t long before my feverish brain drifted off into the alternate reality of dreams as I closed my exhausted, achy eyes.
A sudden gonging sound jolted me awake, “38th street,” announced the robotic voice from the loudspeaker overhead. My ears vibrated, sending a spell of dizziness and fullness to my head as I lifted myself from the crusty seat. I was unable to smell the surroundings of the bus with my heavily congested nasal passages, but I could only imagine how putrid and stagnant it must’ve reeked. Like a combination of mold, mildew, bodily fluids, and lots of iron. A gush of cold air whizzed harshly into my greasy brown locks, creating a tingling sensation all throughout my scalp, as the doors slid open. The second I stepped out onto the icy sidewalk, sliding doors immediately slammed behind me and the train took off with a loud screech.
I tried to clear my sinuses, snorting in as much mucus in as I could, but it appeared to be useless. It was like trying to drink from a clogged straw. Instead, I gave way to a violent cough, loosening up the phlegm that had been lodged in my lungs for the last couple hours. Fluid erupted onto the cloth of mask. Humidity instantly warmed my lips as I drew in another breath. With that cough, I began to drag myself onward, out of the train station and into the still winter night.
No cars on my way to Mom’s house. No noise. Just the steady crunch of my boots along the snow caked sidewalks. My efforts of dressing in double gloves, the scarf, hat, triple-layered sweaters, and jacket proved to be no match for the relentlessness frigidness that scraped against my face. After what seemed like five hours, I finally approached my mother’s perfectly plowed driveway, or at least, that’s what it looked like from the gate I was standing behind.
My fingers were like two chopsticks trying to pull open the frosty call box. It took me about three minutes or so, but I finally managed to wrench it open, pieces of ice flinging into my jacket as I did so. My gloved fingers fumbled over the punch keys of the intercom as I dialed for her. The corresponding ringing sounded as if it was annoyed at my presence. Soon, a brightly-lit image of Mom’s rosy face appeared encircled with her signature straight, chin-length grey hair.
“My Allie,” she answered warmly. I blinked hard, trying to focus on her image. “I’m surprised you came.” She clearly hadn’t looked at the text I’d sent…or the one I thought I had sent. As I began to open my mouth, she cut me off, “don’t bother speaking. I don’t want you wasting energy. I’ll open up the gate and garage for you. And don’t worry…the garage is heated.”
The electric gate slowly began to back away, revealing the secluded driveway. An even blanket of snow carpeted the yard and the driveway was lit by a solo lamp, styled after an 1800s model. Warm, yellow light flooded out of the cozy converted-garage’s glass enclosure. I walked up the driveway as briskly as my numb, stiff legs would carry me. Relief washed over me as the feeling of heat poured onto my face after opening the garage door. I shut it abruptly, then looked around for a place to rest my agonized body. My weight crunched over the stiff plastic of the couch. Inspecting the room more intently, I could see that the couch wasn't the only piece of furniture dressed in plastic. In fact, the only item left untouched was a lone bamboo plant in the corner of the glass enclosure. Bamboos can live for a long time and under many conditions, or so I’ve read.
I stared through the glass into the quaint living room of her home. The Christmas tree had been set up meticulously and glimmered with a false message of happiness. Colored lights wrapped around it joyfully and traditional candy canes were hanging from the branches, spaced out evenly. A warm, cozy fireplace was crackling in the background peacefully. I began to reminisce all the Christmases I had in this house. How I would run downstairs, enthused that Santa had come. But, like this setup, there was always this false sense of happiness in the air. Sure, I’d have the presents, Mom, and my brother…but never Dad.
For a moment, I had almost forgotten about the pain that was crushing my chest, as each breath had become a challenge over these last couple weeks. Mom soon entered the picturesque room with a cup of, what I assumed to be, tea. “Hey, dear,” she announced, tapping on the pane of glass that separated us. Her breath left a residual fog on the window and her expression then turned solemn. “Do you need a new mask?”
I didn’t want to look at my own reflection. Every day, I dreaded the site of the hideous transformation my body was currently undergoing. “How are you doing? All alone, that is?” I asked, genuinely concerned.
“Oh, I’m living the best I’ve ever lived. I go for walks outside every day. It’s a little chilly, but it’s so nice how crisp and clean the air is now. With everyone off the streets, the outdoors has never been so beautiful. And don’t you worry, I’m still keeping busy with my art. I’ve sold three paintings online this week,” she responded happily, blowing on her hot cup of tea and taking a sip. I could tell she was uneasy looking at me, as her eyes were constantly darting away, looking up at the beautifully lit Christmas tree. She paused for another sip of tea, then started, “How are the kids?”
I let out a quivering sigh. That was the last thing I wanted to discuss. I couldn’t fathom what they were going through right now or if they were still alive, for that matter. “They’re in school. They aren’t allowed outside, though, of course. Haven’t seen them since the quarantine was reinstated…but I’m sure they’re safe,” my voice squeaked. I grimaced, holding in my tears from the anxieties that were racing through my mind. It always seemed the pain brought on from my thoughts were far worse than any physical discomfort I was enduring. Her bright, healthy blue eyes studied me for a second.
“I know I’ve said this before,” she started reluctantly. “But you had the same choice as me: stay quarantined at work or stay quarantined at home.”
“We didn’t have the same choice as you!” I cut in, angrily, spewing out droplets of mucus onto my mask. “The economy needs us to stay afloat. The government made a unanimous decision that we were all required to go back to work…to quarantine at the workplace. Otherwise, no pay. It’s as simple as that.”
“I understand that,” Mom said, placing down her tea up onto the wooden coffee table and motioning her hands, attempting to calm me down. “But are you really living? Or just concerned with making a living? What exactly will you spend your money on? You can’t return to your house. You’re literally working yourself to the death!”
“I thought we could have a nice Christmas,” I muttered, shaking my head and lowering my gaze to the stone floor of the garage. “But at least I have social connections. I mean look at you. You won’t see anyone face to face. You’re going to spend Christmas alone.”
She shrugged, unbothered by my comment. “So, what? I like being alone. Its simpler that way.”
“This is why Dad couldn’t stand you,” I growled, tearing up. “As humans, we need social connection. You are become more and more selfish living this way.”
She kept her gaze on the tree, still remaining unmoved. “You could have chosen to quarantine yourself, like me. I have no constraints, I can go outside as much as I like. I still make ends meet…it may not be much, but I make just enough to pay the bills. Plus, it’s something I enjoy: artwork. I’ve never had more freedom, Allie. Most importantly, I’m healthy.” With that last sentence, I could tell by her solemn expression, she wished she had taken that remark back.
“Are you though?” I murmured under my breath. Hesitantly, I glared into my own reflection among the large glass window, catching a glimpse of a ghostly pale complexion, my mask patterned with the same yellow-red tint that Christine’s had. My hair was matted and stringy, my limbs twig-like. I didn’t dare remove any item of clothing I had on for the dread of what my flesh would reveal from beneath. “The economy is saved, that’s what matters,” I responded in a breathless whisper.
As if she were reading my mind, she added, “Yes, but it’s not COVID-19 that’s killing you. I’ll see you in the zoom call on Christmas morning.”