to remove dead flower heads and limbs from (a plant) to encourage blooming and growth.
It emerged small and localized.
I didn’t think much of it; just another outbreak of a vague sickness
in some remote, unpronounceable part of the world. Like every other remote, intangible tragedy, it registered no perceptible effect on the inertia of my life. I wasn’t a terrible human, but there was only so much emotional bandwidth I could spare on lousy shit happening to strangers on the other side of the planet.
Then, people got sick in places I’d heard of, clicking up my attention level a notch.
A photo circulated online, allegedly of an infected person. At first,
I thought it was fake; an internet reprobate having some depraved fun with a screen grab from an obscure torture-porn flick. It was blurry and gave the impression it was taken in haste, or the photographer was operating through a cumbersome hazmat suit.
I couldn’t discern if the patient was male or female. The face was... corrupted. The photo depicted the person lying on a hospital bed, the sheets wet and darkened by sweat or blood or some other greasy fluid. Their eyes bulged, inhibiting the eyelids from closing entirely, with the whites peeking from underneath the lids, giving the impression of a creepy trance. The skin on the face was sallow and drawn; it slid down toward one side as though the skull’s connective tissue had dissolved. The hands and feet were balled into tight fists with the forearm muscles bulging from tension.
The photo made its rounds on social media, provoking several conspiracy theories: bioterrorism, government cover-up, cellphone radiation. It was standard stuff. Clickbait fodder. I didn’t care about any of the conspiracy crap; I just hoped it was fake.
But it wasn’t fake.
A disgruntled military doctor, no longer willing to conceal and suppress the sickness, had leaked the photo.
More images surfaced, each more horrifying than the last. The reality of the situation dawned on the entire planet.
Flipping through photo after photo of disfigured and contorted victims, I hoped the people in the images were long dead. I was unequipped to accept a reality where a person could be alive and suffering to such a terrifying degree.
Soon, it wasn’t just towns and cities being quarantined; entire countries were blocked off, with travel between them forbidden by force
of tanks, planes, and warships. The only options for visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal was to be deputized as a field agent of the World Health Organization or to enlist in the military.
My normal life of alternating between work and marathoning television programs had ceased to exist. The status quo was news, news, news. My eyeballs were glued to recycled commentary and endless B-roll footage highlighting dirty, overrun hospitals, loose-tied officials making bleak statements about containment, mountains of bodies burning in browned crop fields.
The only common thread was the anonymous figures arrayed in boxy white hazmat suits, a visual I only ever thought endemic to far-fetched popcorn movies. Talking heads delivered constant assurances that the sickness hadn’t breached our borders. But the idea that we could stay free and clear of the epidemic became more absurd by the hour.
Mom called once a day in a jittery panic. It became laborious, talking her down off a ledge after the news had reported the latest death tally or featured another leaked video. She lived in Middle, NW, where there was nothing better to do than torment herself and her friends over the pending Armageddon while sharing freeze-dried coffee and ambiguous fruit pie. I told her she was more likely to die of electrocution by firefly.
Still, I stockpiled frozen dinners and peanut butter cups, in case the situation escalated and people got skittish. Also, it was an excuse to eat frozen dinners and peanut butter cups. I tended to use crisis as grounds to eat like a five-year-old.
The likelihood of catching the sickness felt remote, even if it penetrated the borders. We were good at these types of things, right? It might take us a second, but we always got our shit together by throwing mountains of money at the problem. Regardless, I liked peanut butter cups, so even the slight possibility of a temporary shortage would be disproportionately traumatic for me.
And then the world ended.
The first wave of infections emerged on both coasts simultaneously, followed by widespread panic. Work was canceled indefinitely. Life was canceled indefinitely.
I defrosted plastic trays of grayish food and munched on peanut butter cups, watching news footage of people raiding grocery stores. Gasoline became scarce. And even if you could find a working station that hadn’t run dry, the price per gallon was astronomical. Skirmishes broke out over bottles of water, and people started shooting each other over cans of baked beans.
Not me, though. I’d acquired my provisions early and seldomly left my apartment. I filled my bathtub—and any other vessel fit to hold water—to the brim, and I maintained a sizable cache of provisions. There was no need to venture outside, risking a knife fight over a can of tuna.
I wasn’t one who typically succumbed to mass hysteria, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of apprehension when the National Guard patrols the streets, enforcing a curfew. Whenever I peeked through my window shades, I saw a sea of faces anonymized by white surgical masks.
It was a shitshow, but I was still sure it was temporary. The country had been through crises more extreme and excessive, and we’d always managed. Reactionary? Yes. Ineffective? No. It was just a matter of time before the ship was righted.
Mom stopped calling, but I hadn’t noticed until after the phones stopped working. I hoped she was okay. But, in all honesty, I was happy for the break from tempering her conspiratorial hijinks. And I couldn’t imagine anything too horrifying happening to a town whose GDP was rivaled by modest football stadiums.
I hadn’t left the house in weeks, relying on my ability to eat terrible food while sitting in my adequately comfortable man chair. I’d settled into the predictable routine of wake up, eat, watch the news, eat, watch the news some more, fall asleep, repeat.
I was too cheap to spring for cable or satellite, so I used HD rabbit
ears to catch all the major news networks over the air. When one network stopped broadcasting, I’d switch to another one. My phone still technically had internet access, but it had become so sluggish I stopped bothering. When every network went silent, I dusted off my trusty DVD box sets, drowning out the helicopters and sirens outside with those emitting from my television.
More weeks rolled by, and my awareness of passing time dulled, especially when my only remaining responsibility was remembering not to piss myself.
Never once in my furlough of gluttony did it register that not taking this whole thing seriously would result in such destructive and devastating consequence.