Fog banks roll down the hillside as the first rays of winter sun stretch across San Francisco Bay. Gold and amber lights come to life inside houses along the shore.
Everyone on the ship is required to wear a mask, but I don’t do it on our balcony. Who’s going to see me, anyway? I love leaning on the railing a hundred feet above the water, the chilly breeze waking me up. It smells clear and salty in a way that makes me glad to be alive. The world is my own.
The only sounds are the waves lapping against the hull and the gentle creaking of the cruise ship. The city remains disturbingly quiet, its streets empty. No cars. No people. Even from our distance, it’s obvious.
The scariest part is that it’s not just San Francisco. The whole world is shut down in quarantine, same as us aboard the Aria. We are forbidden to dock for fear the heliovirus ravaging so many people on board might spread farther on land where hospitals and morgues are overwhelmed.
Someone coughs nearby. There’s always someone coughing, but this is from our cabin. “Dylan?” Mom asks, her voice muffled by the curtains and glass door. “You out there, honey?”
I pull up my face mask as I enter the cabin, so warm inside, even without the heat cranking. This cabin seemed so much bigger two weeks ago, but there isn’t much besides the bathroom and the main room with the master bed and two bunk beds stacked above it. Mom sits halfway up in the big bed, wearing her fuzzy white pajamas. Dad’s beside her curled up toward the wall, while June rests directly above her on the left bunk, earbuds in, eyes closed, mask on tight.
“Morning,” I say, happy to see Mom’s looking a bit better, although her eyes are still bloodshot. “I didn’t want to wake you. Seems like the sleep helped.”
“A bit,” she says. “Finally feel like I can eat and keep it down.”
“Let me grab the breakfast.” I open the front door but there aren’t any trays. Most of the cabins along the hallway have trays outside, but none of them have our Danger! Risk of Infection! sign stapled to their doors.
Mom says, “What’s wrong?”
I close the door to stop letting in the cold air. “They didn’t drop any food off.”
“They’re an hour late,” Mom says. “Can you go to the buffet deck and get something to tide us over?”
I’m always looking for a chance to escape the coop. “Sure thing.”
Dad rolls over with a groan. “I’d eat cardboard and ketchup right now I’m so hungry.”
I ask, “How you feeling?”
He wipes the sleep from his eyes, which are even redder than Mom’s. “Tired mostly.”
June, who’s two years younger than me but never shy about sharing her opinion, pulls out an earbud and asks Dad, “What’s your temperature?”
Mom says, “Relax, sweetie, he just woke up.”
June sticks her head over the edge of the bunk. “And why isn’t your mask on?” she says, her panic coming out as anger.
Most people would be frustrated by June’s heightened anxiety, but Dad plays it cool and puts up the homemade mask resting on his chest, our high school’s Tigers logo covering his mouth. “I can’t sleep with it on. Plus, you know I never stay sick for long.”
Mom grabs her mask from under her pillow and slips it on before June notices. Both she and June have the legit kind with filters. Mom says, “Yep, another day or two and we’ll both be good as new.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Now if we could only get off this boat. I’m about ready to swim back.”
“We’ll get through this,” Dad says. “In fact, I feel fine enough to get up and help you today.”
“Nah. I’ve got it.” I grab the tag hanging around my neck and say, “Besides, you don’t have one of these.”
The tag has my picture along with a big C superimposed on it, which means I’m clear to walk the civilian areas of the cruise ship. “I need to check in with staff anyway.”
“I hate that this all falls on you,” Mom says.
“It’s no problem,” I say.
Dad stifles his cough and says, “We really appreciate you taking care of us.”
Mom’s always the glue that holds us together, but I can see she’s struggling, her mood shifting with the tide. “They’re treating us worse than animals,” she cries.
Almost to myself, I say, “And to think only a few nights ago we were looking out at the Alaskan shoreline from the captain’s restaurant and eating a five-star meal.”
Dad sits up next to Mom, rubbing his forehead. “What I miss is the coffee. I’ve had a splitting headache from the withdrawal.”
“I can’t believe they aren’t delivering food,” Mom says, sounding a little scared. “What do they expect us to do if everyone in the cabin is infectious?”
“Probably hoping we’ll die,” Dad says, his skin still a few shades too pale. “It’ll be less paperwork for the cruise company.”
Mom swats his arm. “Harold!”
June sides with Mom, just as mad. “Don’t say that!”
“Shuuush, honey.” Mom points at the wall behind her. “You’ll wake the Bordens.”
June puts in her earbud and lies down, blanket over her face. “Well, don’t talk about dying.”
We’ve probably all lost loved ones, but June’s the only one who knows for sure — her best friend and her entire family confirmed dead before communication was cut.
Dad says, “Sorry, June. I won’t talk about it anymore.”
Mom takes his hand and holds it on her lap. “We’ll get through this.”
“Yep. Glad I got you guys.” Dad looks at me and says, “Be careful out there, kiddo,” the final oh triggering a bout of deep coughing.
Even though he puts a fist to his mouth, I head for the door. “I’m outta here.”
The blast of fresh air makes me feel cleansed and safe. It’s fairly early, but this time last week, there would have been plenty of people walking the corridors. Now all I see are a couple of gray-haired folk hurrying to their cabin.
Even having never been a huge people person, I am a little unsettled by the emptiness of the ship. There are three thousand of us, no telling how many sick or dead, the captain keeping everything hush-hush, probably to quell any mutiny.
The hallway tilts just a bit. We are anchored, but we’re still a ship, subject to currents and tides. I’m just glad none of us gets seasick.
I’d never admit this to any guys on the team, but I recognize all the small decorative additions to the ship. Everything is opera based. Up ahead on the left is a framed photo of Placido Domingo singing full force. A few cabins down is the Floating Dancing Couple statue. I’m getting close to the checkpoint when I pass my favorite: an alabaster relief of the Comedy and Tragedy drama masks, representing the two extremes of the human psyche.
A middle-aged man and teenage daughter, turn the corner, headed my way, cardboard boxes in hand. I stick to the right of the hallway to give them a wide berth and nod hello. Neither one acknowledges me, eyes straight ahead like they couldn’t be bothered. Social distancing has made everyone toss manners overboard, that’s for sure.
Around the corner, the hall opens onto a large inner deck. There’s Beethoven’s––a bar-slash-restaurant. It’s dark, save for the video machines on its exterior. They’re still set up to let us gamble, aren’t they? That still works. Naturally.
Past the unattended customer service desk along the starboard railing, there’s a line of spread out passengers waiting to be examined and passed for travel within the Aria. We’re advised to keep at least two arm lengths between each person, but it’s a bit more squished, people anxious to get through. Everyone’s wearing face masks with the majority also wearing surgical gloves. I freeze, thinking I’d forgotten my mask before I realize I’m wearing it. This is becoming too normal.
I take my place behind an elderly couple. There’re about a dozen people ahead of them. The medical team is at a table, all wearing protective masks and gloves. The man working the line raises a gunlike thermometer to a woman’s forehead and presses the trigger. It beeps. He looks at the LCD display, nods, checks a mark on a list, then takes another scanner out. The woman shows her ID badge and the tech scans it. Giving her the thumbs-up, she nods, thanks them, and carries onward to the dining area, where I’m guessing most of us are headed.
Most people in line are occupied with their phones, killing time with games. Mine’s been in my drawer since wi-fi went out, no need for the reminder of how useless it is.
There is one guy with his mask down, but I’m not surprised. It’s the same meathead who was being obnoxious in the arcade last week. He’s college-aged but looks more like a dropout. He’s wearing a tank top despite it being so cold; any chance to show off his muscles.
The guy’s saying something to the person in a baggy blue hoodie in front of him. They don’t respond so he taps their shoulder.
When the person turns around, I see it’s Amy, a couple strands of her curly red hair sticking out from beneath the hoodie. Instead of the beautiful smile she’s shared with me, she gives the guy nothing but a blank stare above her mask, her baby blue eyes red and watery like she’s been crying.
The meathead gives a little wave and Amy turns back around. Because he’s a moron who doesn’t understand social cues, the guy taps her shoulder again.
Amy’s dealing with enough and shouldn’t have to put up with this. If I ask him to back off, I can just about guarantee he’ll cause a scene. If I ask Amy to come back with me, there’s a good chance she’ll think I’m a coward.
A - Remind him about his mask and point out that Amy would like her space.
B - Ask Amy to join me at the end of the line and let security deal with the guy.