If I leave this room, I’m dead.
At the beginning, when people were getting sick and the restaurants were closing and the schools shut down and people were fighting each other for toilet paper, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because it wasn’t real. I just kept going about my business because there was business to do. See, when everything goes to shit, people want their weed. Then they want other shit; coke, pills, heroin, meth. Desperate times and all that. I’m here for them.
Mom would follow me around the room, waving a spray bottle and paper towels in my face. “You’ll get me sick,” she said “You know I can’t get sick.” She works at night. All day, she’s on me. She comes in the house early in the morning, her scrubs all wrinkled up.
Pointing her finger. You need to get a job.
Rolling her eyes. When are you going to learn to be responsible?
Hands on her hips. Did you register for classes yet?
That bitch has no idea what I do at night. While she’s at the hospital, I’m sliding into Keyana’s car, riding all the way to the park with the seat down, my head below the window so no one can see. I’m a ninja, trained by an Xbox, shadowing trees and slithering along the little creek that splits this park in half, one side blue, one side red. There’s no in between, but like I said, everybody wants what I’ve got so they always find me. Keyana waits in the dark, even when the cops roll by, lights off. They know her by now. They used to tell her to be careful, now they just nod and go their way.
Rico is down in the park next to the row of picnic tables where I had my third birthday party, where cold bar-b-ques still smell faintly of family celebrations and rusty staples hold fragments of graduation ribbons, floating in the breeze. He’s a mechanic at a luxury car dealership, left the gang life for the suburbs, a wife and five kids. Fixing rich people’s cars pays the bills, selling them drugs pays for his McMansion, private school.
I ran into him outside of Taco Bell two months ago. “You sell on the internet?” he’d asked. “I’ve got customers who like to be discreet.” And that was that. I’ve always been good at being invisible. Selling dime bags from my car was never my destiny anyway. Rico needs me, I know tech. I weave my way back through the trees, his words following me. Too much heat. You should lay low.
“Hi baby,” Keyana smiles from the darkness of the car. I love her, I do. We’ve known each other since sophomore year, two quiet nerds always uncomfortable with the high school spotlight. I was a linebacker before I hurt my back, she volunteered in the computer lab. We got together the summer after graduation. Now she comes over at night and stays until it’s time for her shift at the natural foods market. They call her a front line worker. “I’m a hero,” she laughs. She’s gone before dawn.
Mom and me, we live in a back house, one room in someone’s converted garage. They’re home all the time now, kids playing at all hours, parents yelling, music pouring from the windows, the dog barking. Andre, Suzelle, Ivan, Cristal their mother shouts, Dinner. It’s spring and the weather is nice. Green blades of grass are trying to come up in the dirt, but the kids keep trampling them down.
Mom sleeps on the other side of the curtain, next to the sink and the stove. It never used to be like this when my dad was around, but two words will tell you everything you need to know about him; Indian Casinos. He lives in Vegas now with his new wife and two kids. “Rent is expensive,” mom says, and she leaves it at that.
We get up at noon. Mom turns on Real Housewives. She says those crazy bitches keep her sane. “The bodies are piling up at the hospital. It’s not safe,” she stares at the TV, then turns to me. “It’s not safe. You have to stay inside.” I surprise her by agreeing.
“Now that’s a smart choice you just made,” she says. “I know you can make smart choices.”
She says this to a grown man.
“They ordered more refrigerators for the morgue yesterday.” She looks tired. “The people, they can’t breathe, you know. They die alone.” Her eyes fill up with tears. “Promise me. Promise me you’ll stay in.”
The kind of death she’s talking about is peaceful, solitary. I don’t want any kind of death, but I would take that one if I had a choice.
“I promise, momma.” She goes back to her coffee and her sandwich. Outside, the dryer buzzes.
If I leave this room I’m dead. It’s there every time I open my eyes, every time I decide to take a walk to the end of the driveway. I watch the cars slowly rolling by, tinted windows opened just a crack. I wonder if they know where I live. Yeah, mom, I’m good for my promises. At least this one.
Mom buys us bread and cold cuts. Cheese and spaghetti noodles from the dollar store. We eat together in silence, but sometimes the words pour out of her like a muddy river overflowing its banks.
He was so young, just came home from Disney World.
She cried for her husband. Then she cried because he was on a screen. At least he was there.
He asked for a shot of whiskey before he lost consciousness.
His brothers played mariachi for him over the phone. He couldn’t hum along but he tried.
I had to order more body bags today.
Summer heat radiates off the roof. We sweat all night, even with the windows open.
“At least you’re safe,” mom says over and over, like a prayer. Her face is lined with angry red marks from her mask. She touches them absentmindedly.
When she leaves, I smoke. She finds the vapes, thinks it’s tobacco, a bad habit. She worries, she nags. We fight. “The virus attacks your lungs,” she clucks. “You’re setting yourself up to get sick.” I tell her to shut up. I use my size against her, but she’s tough. She never backs down.
“I didn’t raise you to be disrespectful,” she spits each word out, then she throws the vapes into the trash. It don’t matter. I can always get new ones.
“Here you go, baby” Keyana hands me a slim pen, we smoke together in the warm back yard under bruised skies with stars that look like needle tracks. “You know Andrea, from the store? She got COVID. Really bad.”
I nod. “Well, at least you won’t get it from me.” We laugh and laugh. She leaves early, I retreat to my side of the room, computer screen glowing, new orders streaming in. I’m making a fortune in bitcoin, business never slows down. People need me more than ever. In these four walls, I’m the king of an empire built on blockchain. Little bits of data that are gonna make me rich. Lay low a little longer, Rico texts. I’ll get you your share. I’m gonna buy a car first and then a house for mom. We all have dreams.
In September, the heat explodes into flames that tear down mountains and race across the state, eating up homes, throwing ash into the hot wind. “We’re homeless,” Keyana says, white vapor curling around her face. “Landlord raised the rent. Asshole kicked us out.” Her family is living in a motel off the interstate, with prostitutes and drug addicts for neighbors. “It’s only temporary,” she says. I let her stay as often as she likes. I live closer to the market.
By December, mom is coughing, deep heaving barks that make her whole body shudder. I open cans of soup and check her temperature. “I can’t stay here,” she whispers. “Can’t get you sick.”
The next day, she gets a test, checks herself into a hotel near the hospital. “It’s COVID,” she rasps over the phone. “Stay home. I’ll be OK. Just don’t leave.” She muffles another cough and mumbles something about sleep. I clean the whole apartment, over and over. I take the trash cans down to the street and come back again, do some laundry, check the laptop. Keyana brings me bags of fast food, we eat in silence under a blanket of dread.
My phone rings. It’s nine in the morning on Christmas Eve. I look at it like it’s alive, afraid to touch it. The fear pours through me from the inside out, like a demon clawing, clawing. I let it ring until a green bubble pops onto the screen, a message. “I’m calling regarding Heather Johnson,” says a disembodied voice. “She’s staying with us. She hasn’t paid.”
Rico says he’s good for the money, I find it in my PayPal account the next day. I send it to the hotel, enough to get mom through. I haven’t heard from her. The woman from the phone says that she hasn’t left the room, but she’s seen people dropping off groceries. I let her words calm my churning insides. Finally, mom calls. “I’m getting better,” her voice is tinny, tired. “I should be home soon.” I’ve never felt so relieved.
She’s back to work just as the rains come. I warn her to stay dry, not to get too cold. “You can’t get sick,” I remind her, hanging on to threads of hope. She can’t get sick again, can she? She’s always working now, sleeping, working, sleeping working. My worry is so deep, I clean, I pace around the room, walk to the end of the driveway with bags of trash and come back, a constant loop. It’s dark outside at noon. Keyana has stopped coming. “My mom needs the car now that it’s raining,” she explains. “I have to drive her to work.”
Finally the rains let up and the sun comes through the windows. I think about cleaning them. The trees clinging to sandy parkway dirt are blooming pink, edging tired houses and weedy lawns with cotton candy.
The old people living in the front house emerge, blinking in the light. Tengo una cita! says their daughter through the screen. “Vacunas! Manana.” They drive off to the stadium, where thousands of people wait for the prick of a needle in their arms. They come back bubbling with happiness.
“Is it over yet?” asks the smallest boy. “No mija,” his mother replies. Not quite yet.”
Their voices bring me out of a deep sleep. I check the clock. It’s noon. I decide to take a walk to the end of the driveway. No one’s going to find me, I’ve been gone a year. I stretch and turn my face to the sun. Birds sing along with the sounds of kids playing.
A car slides by, then another. You know Rico? The words send a bolt of lightning through me. The car is a blur, windows open. Faces, obscured by masks, circled by hoods. I don’t see the gun, but the sound of shots is deafening.
I twist my body to run back inside, but the kids are behind me, hopping in wobbly boxes written on concrete in pastel chalk, singing, counting. As I turn the other way, heat sears through my stomach. It doesn’t hurt. My leg, my shoulder, the bullets sear through my flesh. I’m on the ground, crawling, grasping for the chain link fence, scooting my body towards the safety of the neighbor’s hedge as pain slams into me. The blood rushes in my ears, mixing with screaming, the thunder of a police helicopter. The dog is barking, barking. I hear my mother’s voice, “Cody! Cody! Please God, no,” She sobs. “Please, he’s just a kid. Please. My baby.”
I’m ok, momma. I'm floating with the helicopters, my words lost in the churning wind. News channel three and sky chopper eight have joined the police now. We hover in the sky like ravens. I see my mother bent over me, her sweatshirt pressed to my body. A dark pool of blood forms on the sidewalk, sirens wail, children cry from the driveway, a scooter lies abandoned on the sidewalk.
Andre, Andre! screams another mother, gathering her boy in her arms.
I watch as men in blue uniforms load us into ambulances, two gurneys, side by side. One big body and one small. A child's shoe sits on the driveway. Flashing lights burn my eyelids, then darkness.
The sound of constant beeping scratches the inside of my skull. I open my eyes to a room filled with sunshine, sterile, white. A police officer stands outside my doorway eating take out from a Styrofoam container, chatting easily with a nurse. Mom is asleep in an unforgiving chair, her scrubs wrinkled, her hair greasy.
“Momma?” My throat burns.
My mother’s eyes fly open and fill with tears. “Yes, baby,” she says, grabbing my hand. Pain. I wince. “You’re ok, the surgery went well. Andre too, he’s ok. He made it.” Her voice is filled with relief edged in anger.
I feel my heart beating, the warmth of my mother’s hand, the prick of a needle in my arm, numbing the pain. I’m not dead, I’m not dead, I'm not dead...I open my mouth and I say it out loud.