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General

He slipped into the sudden stillness of their homemade decontamination room and closed the door, extinguishing the strobing beacons behind him. Placing the grocery bags on top of the washing machine, he began disrobing according to the guidelines issued by the CDC, back when the CDC still existed.

His coat and the outside of his gloves were contaminated, presumably. He unzipped, then grabbed the front of his coat and pulled away, shaking it inside-out, then rolling it into a bundle. The coat, used to his weekly forays, curled in on itself like a pillbug.

Next, the gloves, definitely polluted. Touching only the inside, he peeled them off, one inside the other, snapping them into the nearby wastebasket. Swish.

His sweater was safe. From the front left pocket, he retrieved a small box wrapped in a cloth bag and set it beside the groceries. 

The goggles were contaminated, no doubt. He reached behind his head and lifted the headband, careful to avoid any contact with the frame or lenses. He dropped them into the recycling bin. Next, the face mask; he grasped the elastic loops on his ears, peeled the humid mask away from his face, and tossed it into the bin as well.

His pants, his shoes, all contaminated. They go into the washing machine. And his socks, for good measure. Just assume.

All that remained was underwear. A little sweaty, maybe, from the final leg home, but nothing to complain about.

A clean t-shirt, shorts, and sweatshirt waited patiently on the wall rack where she had left them. Welcome home, Mister Rogers. Any piano accompaniment would be strictly forbidden after dark, of course. Scratch that. Not forbidden, but foolish.

He was not a burst-through-the-door guy. No need to startle anyone, so he entered his living room as if he was unsure he was in the right place.

“Hello?” he asked.

“You made it,” she said. “I was so worried.” She allowed a tiny doppelganger to wriggle his way off her lap and into his arms.

“Daddy!”

He shushed the boy, picked him up, squeezed him tight, grinned. “Buddy, buddy, buddy.”

The boy kissed him, then rested an arm on his father’s shoulder. He cupped his hand and whispered, “Did you bring me anything?”

“I brought food. Is that what you mean?”

“No.”

“I brought soap, how about that?”

“No, not soap!”

“Clean underwear?”

“Daddy!”

“Well, I don’t know. If it’s not food, soap, or clean underwear, I can’t imagine what else you might need.”

The boy nestled his head against his father’s neck and giggled.

“Look how much you’ve grown,” he said. “How long’s it been? Five years?”

“Not years, daddy, hours.”

“Then you’re growing up faster than I thought.” He tousled the boy’s hair and kissed him on the cheek, then set him down on the floor. “Let your old man stretch out.” He groaned a little as he knelt down, then lay beside the boy, who sat cross-legged among his collection of toy cars.

“Five hours is long,” she said.

“Longer every time. You go next. You’re probably faster anyway.”

“I’m definitely faster, but it doesn’t do any good to outrace the Cullers only to get infected. You really had me scared this time.”

He laughed. “C’mon now. It just took . . . wait a minute.” He felt in his pockets. “Wait. A. Minute. Look at what I found.”

The boy jumped up and clapped his hands. “Car, car, car!”

“And not just any car,” he said as he loosened the drawstring on the bag, gently pulled out the box and opened it. Into his hands rolled a die-cast toy car, sleek and glistening red. Black, yellow, and orange flames raced across the hood to the single faceless, plastic driver. He placed the car into his son’s hands.

“That right there is a Matchbox 1973 Turbo Fury.”

The boy’s smile faded.

“Tell your daddy thank you,” she said.

“Thank you, Daddy,” said the boy. He kissed his father on the cheek, then knelt down to play with his cars, setting the Turbo Fury to the side.

“No, no, don’t you see?” said the dad, putting the car back into play. “Matchbox is classic cool. But they hit some hard times, and they had to compete. So, they came up with the Superfast line, and this was one of the coolest. Look at these fans on the back. See them spin when you move the wheels?”

“Okay,” said the boy. He chased one car after another and added, “Cruisers are cool, too.”

“What did you just say?” said the father.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Earl,” she said. 

The boy sat back on his feet and scowled at her. “Cruisers are cool.”

She was on him in two strides, picking him up by his arms. “Talk back to me? I don’t think so. You know what you’re daddy’s done? Do you know? Getting us food, getting us clothes, getting us bug meds?”

The boy whimpered, but she kept on. “What if the Cullers catch him, huh? What’re we going to do then, huh? Can you tell me that?”

Earl got up on his knees. “Sha, please.” He tenderly pried the boy from her grip and held him close. “Listen here, Junes, stop. Shh, stop. Let me see what I can do.”

“Earl, please, no,” she said.

“Maybe I can find something online.”

“You know we’re not allowed.” 

“I know.” He hugged the boy. “So, a cruiser is cool?”

The boy nodded and sniffled, and his mom fell into the sofa, shaking her head. 

“It’s all right, Sha,” he said. “Times change.”

* * *

Later, with their son dozing soundly in a sleeping bag at the foot of their futon, they held on to each other. She stroked his hair, kissed his forehead, teased him about his beard. He laughed softly.

“He should know better,” she said at last.

“He’s five. He’s stubborn. He’s you.”

She smiled.“Promise me you’ll let it go.”

“Already gone.”

“How much was it?”

“It was just a trade. I got it from Franny.”

She sat up. “Earl. What did it cost?”

He propped himself up on an elbow. “The Pluto.”

“No,” she said.

“Yeah, but before you get crazy on me . . .”

“It was our safest, our fastest way out!”

“Shh, you’ll wake him.” 

“The Pluto was fast and clean. And it was ours.” 

“It was living on borrowed time. Besides, it’s getting better out there.”

“You think so?”

“I know it.”

A blaze of red and blue lights from the street below flooded their room, and they ducked down. A woman screamed, and a man shouted, “I’m clean, I’m clean!” His voice was drowned out by more shouts, more screams, a row of pop-pops, and a baying siren. A voice from the apartment above them shouted out, “Run!”

Bullets splatted upward against the wall toward the voice. One pierced their bedroom window and lodged in the wall opposite, but the couple scrambled to cover their child with their bodies. The boy’s eyes widened, but with their hands over his mouth, he knew to be still.

“Chemspray next,” Sha said.

Earl nodded and snagged the blanket from their bed. They covered themselves as a hose sprayed the side of the building. His nostrils flared, searching for the distinctive odor of antitoxins. Cleansing, yes, but deadly in large doses. The Cullers, with their fire hoses, operated without delicacy.

They waited for the noises to die out. Earl peeked tentatively over the blanket. Their lone window had survived the hose, and only a few drops of the chemspray dripped through the bullet hole. The room seemed safe, and they nodded at each other as they slowed their breathing. 

Junior was already back asleep, and they crawled back to their bed. Sha looked at her husband.

He nodded. “Worst timing ever.”

“Tell me there’s another way.”

“There is. I’ve seen it. It’s faster, cleaner, and there are no Cullers anywhere near. I can get my trades and get home jackrabbit-fast. It’s perfect.”

“Uh-huh. This perfect way got a name?”

“I’m naming it after you this time.”

“Aww, baby, you’re so sweet,” she said, wrapping him in her arms. “The Sha. I like it.”

“I was thinking more like The Goofy.”

She punched him in the arm and they stifled their laughter in each other’s hair. 

* * *

Earl waited until he heard the sound of snoring relayed back and forth between mother, low and restless, beside him, and son, high and wheezing at the foot of the bed. The reds and blues were long gone. Fingers of chemspray residue trickled down the window, but they were safe for now.

He would deal with the bullet tomorrow. But first, he had a job to do. He could get Franny to trade, no problem. Cruisers were cheap. He might even score a jar or two of that moisturizer Sha loved. He would try to return before they awoke, but if she caught him, he sure as hell better come back with something.

He rolled out of bed and gazed at his son. The boy was sleeping unapologetically in the dark, unbothered by the encroaching walls, the stench of chemicals, the tyranny of privation. In his world, cruisers were cool. And that thought made Earl feel light.

“Yeah,” Earl whispered. “They are kinda cool.”

He found his way in the dark to the decontamination room. Time for Mister Rogers to leave. 

Again, from the former CDC: Cover the torso, secure the mask, bend the flexible band to fit the shape of the nose, pull snug to face and below the chin, cover the eyes with the goggles. Extend the gloves to cover the wrist of his jacket. 

He took one last deep breath before opening the door. 

Relax the arms. Keep the knees flexible, the feet springy. Be alert and fleet. Sprint out into the infected night.

# # #


June 06, 2020 00:03

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8 comments

Robin Owens
15:02 Jun 11, 2020

I kept reading faster and faster. The ending gave me goosebumps. Really enjoyed this. I liked Laura's word: unsettling.

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Steve Stigler
15:12 Jun 11, 2020

Thanks for the feedback, Robin. I'm glad you liked it!

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Elle Clark
22:27 Jun 09, 2020

This has a very unsettling feel of prophecy to it - a little too real at the moment! I enjoyed reading it though, thanks for sharing!

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Steve Stigler
14:29 Jun 10, 2020

Thanks for the feedback, Laura - I appreciate it!

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Elle Clark
14:44 Jun 10, 2020

I read this yesterday and am still thinking about it. Just wanted to let you know!

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Steve Stigler
20:36 Jun 10, 2020

Thank you! That response means more than any prize, truly.

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Sarah Heroman
23:05 Jul 31, 2020

Loved this! Really clean writing. The domestic happiness in a horrific setting is a great contrast. It is, as Laura said, an unsettling yet hopeful story.

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Steve Stigler
00:09 Aug 01, 2020

Cool, I'm glad you liked it!

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