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A Brief Preface
The Covidiot is a novel(la) that I wrote during COVID. As with all my work, it is a work in progress. It’s just a tangent though, and I have a lot of other projects that I need to devote attention to these days. I have written many endings, all of which are tragic. There is also a second half that I have yet to write that dives deeper into the journey between points A & B. It is titled COVID Justice and draws upon my years of studying alternative justice systems, vigilantism, conservative enclave politics, and political violence.
The culprit sat there, head hanging downward, a dark shadow masking any expression of humanity, sympathy for the victims, fear of incarceration, damnation, anything. One light in the cell had gone dark, the one near the entry, and another light flickered from behind every few minutes, pulsing, accentuating the shaded figure before them as the officers watched inquisitively from behind the mirror. The interrogation room had been retrofitted recently, made corona compliant, plexiglass dividing the room between the culprit and where Officer Prichett would be only a few minutes from now. That was the priority, the COVID barriers, and the lights had to wait until brighter days. The barrier was an added layer of distance though, a wider gulf between the officers and the person sitting before them. Lieutenant Boone was standing alongside Prichett, also laser focused, similarly staring into an unknown, a big question mark, a veil between them and the demon, the person, whatever it was that was responsible for what Prichett had witnessed.
“We’re all people, no matter what we’ve done”, Prichett thought to himself then, gazing into the still, illegible culprit. However, as flashes of the crime scene echoed in his mind, he didn’t feel like he was looking at a person. He’d be in there with it, once the time finally came to attempt to dive beneath the surface to find answers. He had to remind himself, “Some people just don’t tick the same way.”
The scene back at the apartment complex was gruesome; in his report, he’d literally used the word “medieval”. None of it made sense though, why it had come to this, not yet at least. Who was this person? What were the antecedents of the barbaric acts that Prichett was tasked with deciphering? Is it always there, the seed of evil? How to get to the root of it all? Where to begin?
Then Prichett heard the door creak behind him, and he swung around as another officer rushed into the room. It was Officer Daily with the latest report from the wider investigation. It was true, the culprit was part of it, probably at least, the first living string in a wider network they’d been investigating for over a month now, maybe longer if they were just an offshoot of something older. One of the others involved definitely was part of it, but he wasn’t talking; he’d never talk again, face down in a pool of blood, the aftermath, his phone and whatever it might lead to his only legacy. He had the number though, the one that connected them all and that same phrase in the messages too.
Officer Daily had more to report though, “I also went through everything on the perp’s phone. Beyond the messages with the dead guy we identified as a member, it’s just a bunch of selfies; there’s some risqué ones too”, he said, raising his eyebrow with a hint of intrigue while leafing through the file to show the photos that he had printed for inclusion.
“Ahhhghhh”, Officer Prichett moaned gutturally, wincing and looking away, “I don’t want to see that. I’ve seen enough of this for one day”, Officer Prichett remarked, disgusted.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Boone snickered inaudibly, her intent focus on peering into the culprit having finally been broken as Prichett’s outburst drew her attention. She turned toward the officers and remained silent though, waiting for Daily to say something that she didn’t already know.
“Ah yea, sorry about that”, Daily replied, shoving the photos back into the file, “but there’s also this video on the phone. It’s that multiple homicide from a couple of months ago, the one on Olive Street. It’s like right across the street from the crime scene.”
“Nothing else to suggest a fixation on the morbid though, right?”, Boone asked brusquely, now fully engaged, waiting like a heron to strike at the incisive questions that might arise.
“No, and it was sent by another person, actually, a neighbor”, Daily clarified, setting the file containing the report down on a table and looking into the cell. “Any luck getting anything out of that… that shell in there?”, Daily asked then, staring into the dark figure beyond the mirror, but it was like staring at an object’s shadow upon a wall and trying to see through it.
“None, not a word when I was in there earlier, right after the perp got in from the hospital. Apparently all that’s been said to anyone else is ‘no’ when they asked about legal counsel, offered a public defender. I played it really nice too, sweetlike, when I was in there”, Lt. Boone said in a cold, suspicious tone, adding, “It’s pretty clear what the reason for the silence is, but we have to find a way in. We might be able to make headway on the whole organization if we can crack this one nut. Who knows what else they’ve got planned…”
“Probably just needed some time to overcome the shock. Might be ready to sing already if you head back in there”, Daily suggested, tilting his head, assessing the shadowy opponent on the other side of the window. “Nothing in here paints a hardened criminal”, he added, tapping the report lightly, still gazing straight ahead at the culprit, squinting, estimating, “give it a little pressure; that’ll do the trick, tell you exactly what happened.”
Prichett glanced over toward Daily then, “you didn’t see that crime scene though. People don’t just snap like that, become capable of that, and there were others involved, people that got away. They’re out there and there’s more to this story…”, he said, trailing off then, looking back into the cell before quietly adding, under his breath and as if only to himself, “there’s no easy answer, and we pulled this one from the thick of it; this one’s not going to be easy to crack. I can feel it.” Indeed, looking into the culprit, despite what the report might have said, he felt something ominous, a vacancy within the person before him he’d never seen and had never felt at work before.
He could still see it all, coming back to him as vividly as when he had first discovered the culprit alive and found himself amidst the surroundings of the crime scene in that apartment. It made him feel rage, a spiking resentment that amplified with each flash of the crime scene in his mind, each flash like a chord struck by an unseen other. It was how one feels anger toward an object though, not like a dog that just hasn’t learned or a person that makes a mistake, no. There was something in the emptiness that he felt within this other person before him, something in the way there was no sign of remorse, those barbaric images, the silence and the shadow before him as it all wandered through his mind. He had never lost touch though, never at work or at home, but something in him was slipping today. He too felt possessed, a sense of something deeper at play, an irrationality that he had to ignore, but couldn’t.
Meanwhile, the investigation was ongoing; behind the scenes more information was being gathered, evidence collected, analyzed, bureaucracy slowly marching, procedure, method, process, order. Right here and now though, in the dimly lit cell, it felt like it was all a puzzle waiting to be solved; outside the room it was still becoming more complex, yet there sat the culprit, a lockbox within which Prichett was confident there existed something, maybe not a human soul, but a solution, an answer to the riddle, the truth of the matter lurking somewhere beyond the façade. He didn’t think pressure would do the trick, but he had to give it a shot.
“I’ll go in”, he said then, resolutely and with outwardly unwavering confidence. He didn’t actually know where to start though. He always knew where and how to start, on the fly and with the standard procedures memorized by heart, internalized. Thus, he went in knowing what to do, but feeling as if there was something novel here, something he couldn’t quite grasp, not just yet. He had to proceed though, act like nothing was different. It was just your ordinary multiple homicide, an ordinary suspect, but it still made his skin crawl like it hadn’t since before he entered the force. He wasn’t sure why though. After years on the force, not even horror flicks made him feel this way anymore.
Then, as he entered the interrogation chamber and walked up to the table, the culprit seated only a few feet away, he saw the face as it looked up at him for a split second, one side illuminated softly, yet only perceptible from here up close, and the other a purer shadow. Yet the face disappeared quickly, darted downward again, toward the table in front of them. “Was it fear? Was it just a defense mechanism? Some way of dissociating from the events that surrounded them?”, it had to be, Prichett knew it, but how to progress? Overwhelm it, apply pressure until something finally cracked? There was no lawyer to worry about, not with this one. Or should he play nice, assuage it, appeal to some humanity that might exist within. Perhaps not the humanity, no, but the ego, the survival instinct, the animal. Yea, nice didn’t work earlier, not with the Lieutenant, and he didn’t feel like playing nice either, not after what he’d seen, not with those memories crawling under his skin and striking at his nerves.
The culprit was right in front of him though, and the time had come to push forward, one way or the other. Thus, he chose a direction, a middle ground, and he started to test the waters, “This doesn’t look good for you. You know that, don’t you?”, he questioned, arms crossed. “The way I see it, you can sit here quietly until we put together the puzzle, the pieces are all out there and we’ve already got the edge pieces, or you can give ‘em up and we make sure you get a comfy cell in the hell that you’ve built for yourself”, Prichett said then without emotion, making a first incision to get under the skin before aggressively amping it up, “you’ve earned yourself a one way ticket and you’re not going to like what you find. You don’t look like somebody that can handle prison. How bad do you want it to be though?”, he questioned then, not expecting an answer, not yet, but just maybe, if anything the dramatic pause might increase the effect of what was coming next. “We know everything about you now. We’ve even got those photos you send out. You show that smut to your mother?”, he questioned then, pausing dramatically before adding, “We can.” He was a little bit satisfied, feeling powerful, watching the culprit for any sign of movement, witnessing only a little fidget; maybe a perturbation, maybe he’d just imagined it though. Still, he thought that he was getting somewhere. He had to keep up the momentum.
“What do you think your family’s going to think if you take the fall for all of this. Bathed in blood like a heathen, those pictures”, he said then, closing his eyes and shaking his head in disgust, groaning, “uhhghh.” Then he looked up again, the culprit was unmoved, he had to continue, try a different strategy, “You’re not that bad though, are you? You’re not like the others. We know the people you’re tangled up with. This goes way beyond you, you’re just a pawn, a tiny little ant to them. You know those ants, slave maker ants, that’s all that you are to them, a patsy they made. They’re just going to let you rot here under our spyglass. You’re going to get burnt too, and you’re not going to like how it smells. You’re just like a fingernail to them, an afterthought.”
“I see you though. I can help you. We can help you. All you have to do is help us too”, he said then, standing still before the culprit, hoping to touch the little squirming worm he could see inside, snatch it and pull it to the surface. He was feeding it, and he thought he could feel it, little twitches and his words like strings. Yet when he paused then, waiting, anticipating, the culprit remained silent and still.
Officer Prichett turned around then, looking back through the one-way mirror, shaking his head, not sure what to do, seeking guidance, but unable to see through to the other side. Thus, he turned around again to face the culprit, culprit beyond guilty, not a suspect, it was a heinous crime. Standing before the silent body, he felt this exasperation, an impotence, a desperation swelling in him; he had to make the culprit speak. He could see himself breaking protocol, playing bad cop. He had to continue though, play by the rules, do his best. “Did you plan it?”, he questioned, restraining an impulse, a pressure building within. Then he paused for a moment before walking up toward the plexiglass so that the table was against his legs where he began angrily and loudly demanding, “Why did you do it? Who the fuck was with you? You didn’t do this all alone and you’re not the fucking mastermind.” Then breathing in, glaring at the culprit, nothing but silence, unmoved, he felt his mind boiling and he bellowed, “Answer me, goddammit!”, as he struck the plexiglass with his fist. It was like a percussionist striking a dull symbol and it vibrated flaccidly.
Still, the culprit remained silent, looking downward, as if catatonic, almost entirely unmoved except for a little flinch at the strike. Prichett was reeling though, in the wake of having lost control. He stepped back a few paces and looked over his shoulder warily, back toward the mirror, but nobody intervened. All that he could see was himself, scared and uncertain in the reflection. He felt small, as if he were deflating, and his muscles suddenly felt less tense. The man in the mirror looked paler too. However, his focus soon shifted; he noticed the room around him, and he began looking searchingly through the mirror at the person seated behind him.
“Was the culprit unable or unwilling?”, Prichett found himself wondering, a surging sense of shared humanity rising from within, like a nicotine craving, “I’d be shaken, unable to process it all, afraid.” Yet not a word, not a single damn word in hours since being placed in this godforsaken cell. That reality sat with Prichett, and the sense that there might be something connecting them quickly evaporated. As he turned around, pacing back and forth, the culprit wouldn’t even look up or make eye contact. Prichett could feel it again, that sense of powerlessness before a monster. He couldn’t reach through the plexiglass and shake it out of the culprit, a confession, all the details, every person involved, the reason for it all. He felt like he would slap it out if he had to; an urge to do so was throbbing each time a memory of the crime scene flared within his mind’s eye.
Yet like a black box, the culprit sat their sullen, maybe sulking. “Why me?”, “why’d I have to get caught?”, Prichett imagined the culprit’s voice echoing within him like a whining child. All he could see was a vacuum though, an empty space, a waste of a human life. It disgusted him, what some people are capable of doing, doing and remaining quiet, doing without remorse. There was none, nothing that he could see, just a phantom, a shadow under the clothing, under the skin; it made him shudder, the silence of the room, the knowledge of what had happened, what he’d seen and the incompleteness of their knowledge about why, who, and how to make sure it never happened again.
He wasn’t getting anywhere though, not yet at least. He figured he would made an impression though, progress toward the cracking point. It’s a process. He knew that. You sweat the onions, you burn the sugar, you brown the meat, then you deglaze and it all comes loose. This one needed to sweat, slow cook a little bit too. Yea, the culprit would be tender soon enough. He’d just been tenderizing the meat. That’s what he decided to believe then as he turned around, having resolved to rejoin the Lieutenant and Officer Daily behind the mirror.
Then, as Prichett turned around and headed for the door, the culprit stirred ever so briefly and Lt. Boone caught a glimpse of the eyes looking up and into the mirror, a quick flash as Prichett exited the interrogation cell. Was it relief? Resignation? A challenge? She couldn’t tell what she saw in the culprit’s eyes, but it made her feel despair, if only for a moment. If she were in there, cuffed like the perp, she’d feel small, walls closing in, an itch to scratch, anything to escape, that same worm that Prichett felt was crawling around in there, somewhere just beyond view. She couldn’t read this one though, not really, not with certainty, but she felt that there was probably nothing special about the person in the cell. There just had to be assurances, promises from the others involved, the belief in them at least, to keep this one silent. She had to figure out what they were. They were like invisible threads having sown the lips shut and she had to tug at the culprit’s belief in them until one finally snapped and the rest came loose. She would sever them one by one if she had to.
Thus, finally sitting alone, finally in a quiet room again, the culprit sat there as a giant question mark. Lt. Boone knew not to project, see a person feeling how she would feel if she were the one on the other side, waiting to be judged, locked away, probably for good from the looks of the photos she’d seen of the crime scene… And the silence… She’d have to offer a deal eventually; it felt like she’d be making a deal with the devil though, staring as she was then into an enigmatic abyss. “It might not come to that though”, she assured herself, “Isolation, that’ll do it; let it sink in and it’ll be a whole different story tomorrow. This one’s got a story to tell.”
Then Prichett reentered the room, “Good job in there” she said with authority, nodding toward him before returning to look one last time into the cell. “There’s no sign that the culprit’s been in league with these people for very long. There’s a confidence though. It’s a belief that there’s a way out of this without talking. Give it time; see how long that faith lasts.”
“I’m not sure about that, to be honest”, Prichett admitted, exhaling and looking back into the room in which he’d lost his cool, not intentionally and not having gone too far, but far enough to feel shaken himself.
“Should I go in there?”, Daily questioned, “press a little bit harder?”
“No”, Lt. Boone’s replied sharply before pausing and coldly adding, “we’re done here for now.”
You never know when your story actually begins, the one choice that could have altered your fate. It’s easy to say, “if I’d worn a mask that day, I might not have looked like a Covidiot.” It’s another to wonder from the afterlife, “what was the one choice that I should have made differently so that guy didn’t kill me?”; “what could I have done differently to not have been so alone?”; “why did it come to this?” Some people wonder, “why me?”; they think only about what others have done, but there are those who see a world in which they’re the responsible actor. The people out there, they’re predictable, enmeshed in webs of laws, cause and effect, a navigable system of rights and duties. If I do X, then the neighbor will probably stop doing Y and, if he doesn’t, then I’ll do Z. It’s really that easy when the system works. Yet sometimes the world is beyond us, man never overcame nature, we’re still like babies in her womb, and in 2020, anyone who didn’t believe that got a stark reminder.
In the case of Cheryl in June of 2020, the reminder was still sinking in. Time had begun to flow to a new rhythm—days, weeks, months, a plague of uncertainty. Cheryl felt as if she had become a cavewoman, a prisoner in a posh yet confining cell. There were no bars though, neither prison bars nor bars where she might escape to drown her sorrows, not that she ever did that kind of thing. Rather, the jailer was an invisible menace, neither seen nor heard, but that had crawled under her skin and struck her daily with lashes of fright. There were the sudden worries, “[cough, cough], do I have it?”, and the enduring anxieties, “can I get it if I do X?”, “am I going to live this way for the rest of my life?”, and then there was the slow normalization of the nightmare, the forgetting of what life had once been.
Dinner parties, nights out in the city, attending a show at the concert hall, travelling down the street, near and far, anywhere really. It all felt so distant, a normalcy that had suddenly become unattainable, memories of a distant past like bitter candies in her mouth, candies that were supposed to be sweet, but that had been tainted as if COVID had already struck and altered her taste buds. All the moments that formed these memories of the world before coronavirus, her expectations of life and other people, had been so fruitful, juicy, and like honey, the nectar of delicate flowers. She had never taken any of it for granted. She had savored each and every moment, always seeking to share that joy with the world. Her chipper attitude, a bias toward action, see something that can be done, do it, see someone who’s down, brighten their day, had always been contagious.
Years earlier, she had taken a drab apartment complex and made it fabulous. Where once there were anonymous persons living within a dilapidated building from the 1960s, she had built a community with the newer residents and incentivized new management to take over and refurbish the place. It had grown brighter with each passing year; that is, until coronavirus struck. She had served for years, decades, as the community engagement representative and planned all of the community’s gatherings. Yet as corona seeped into the walls, not just a disease, a mentality that seeped into surfaces, through skin and into hearts and minds, the community grew colder. Cheryl grew colder. “What was the chicken and what was the egg?”, Cheryl asked herself sometimes, looking out upon the world, equally so in summer as in winter, as if upon a barren tundra.
Prior to the virus, she had also made the office a place that one looked forward to, even on Mondays. Throughout the years, she had specifically sought to make the start to each week a more pleasant chairlift ride into the daily grind. She was always first in, brought cookies, brewed the coffee, announced the Wednesday happy hour, and made a point of finding something positive to say to each and every coworker. One day five years ago Jordan came in disheveled, his girlfriend having dumped him the week before, productivity noticeably dwindling, and Cheryl looked around his desk, it was chaos, but she had to find something bright to reflect back for him, like a spark from which his gloomy sadness would suddenly become inspired day. If she knew the right words to say, he’d become productive and pleasant, back to work and on his way. There was this photo of him on vacation, tucked behind paperwork that should have been done Friday, “I bet you’re going to that beach again soon. You’ve got some vacation days coming up, don’t you?”
“Yea, I do actually”, he said then, snapping out of his melancholic daze, perking up and looking at her and then over toward the photo of him and a college friend. “Huh…”, he pondered then, a soft smile upon his face and a resurgent hope for the future growing within. Then he noticed the report, “Oh wow!”, he exclaimed, “You’re a complete lifesaver, Cheryl! I’ve got to get on this. I should probably clean up my desk too, make it more like yours”, he said with a chuckle. Cheryl beamed and laughed too, the Monday ascent beginning as always with a couple of little jams in the chairlift as the team rose together to careen toward the weekend.
She had always felt like a bright star, capable of finding and sharing the levity of being and carrying the weight of it too, leading by example and cherishing the smooth flow of life. However, lately she had felt as if her light had been fading in the twilight of the pandemic. There was this area in her loft apartment that was immaculate. It was what appeared when she participated in Zoom calls for work and with friends. The rest of the house, however, was in shambles; lightly used clothing was draped on chairs, clean clothing sat in a pile in the corner still unfolded, dirty dishes were strewn about the counter tops, and the mail, scribbled upon stationary, there was paper everywhere. Why should she care, it’s not like this was going to resolve itself anytime soon; it’s not like she could have anyone over to her house even if she wanted to. It had been three months since COVID began and she had long since given up hope. It was summer outside, birds chirping, rays shining upon risk acceptant flesh, and some of the restaurants, cafes, bars, etc. were still open, but each stranger was like a deadly gust of frigid wind waiting to strike her.
Sometimes Cheryl resorted to painting within her apartment; they were like cave paintings, and it resonated with her recent sensation of having regressed to a primordial state of being. She had no training or ability really, but similar to the mess that her house had become, normal and tolerable, the kind that one could easily pick up in order to have a presentable house within less than an hour, no one would ever see them.
It was therapeutic for her at first, until she started caring. Then she realized that she couldn’t actually realize her visions. It was like being constipated, artistically feeling a need to produce, but not knowing how; knowing how, brush to paper, but not really producing anything worth producing—an inability to achieve a keenly felt desire. Suddenly, she started having flashbacks to her mother’s criticisms of her childhood art projects every time that she sat to paint or looked at one her pieces. Thus, it became frustrating, beyond frustrating actually, and one day she threw it all in the trash, stopped painting and frantically searched for a new outlet. Meditation, digital writing groups, baking bread, and vision boarding her post COVID life, she tried it all. She bounced from activity to activity, always looking to what worked for other people.
The meditation felt like religious mumbo jumbo. A woman on the screen during a mindfulness Zoom session told her to imagine being seated upon the seafloor and, eyes closed, to push her hands against her cheeks to feel the pressure of the ocean against her. “You are that force; feel it and become it”, the woman coolly suggested to the entranced participants. Cheryl felt ridiculous though, opened her eyes, saw what the others looked like, like a school of fish, and she left the Zoom session immediately. Meanwhile, the writing groups were interesting, but there were professional writers too and she felt as if their encouragements were feigned. It was like the painting, but what was worse, she had to share them while some nuovo Keats was in the group pouring his heart out too, the lyrical contents thereof making her creations appear like a child’s scribbles. With the bread though, it got better, but she eventually resolved to just start buying it from the store again. If she focused and only made one kind, she could maybe be on par with the bakery, almost, but then she’d just have to eat the same loaf of bread over and over again until the disparity between hers and the bakeries’ became starker. Similar to her days in COVID induced confinement, her sourdough became monotonous while her efforts to shake things up only produced dryness, moistness with strange flavors, and entire loaves that weren’t even useable as croutons.
Then there was the vision boarding. She collected photos from office parties, holidays spent travelling, and put them together with clippings from old magazines—Summer days sitting in a crowded park, a mall food court packed to the brim with smiling diners, an orchestra preparing to play to a full audience, and, again, an office building teeming with happy workers. It was as if, inside and out, her mind and heart rejected the present, unable to transplant into the new reality, her every action becoming a lamentation of keenly felt loss and a desire to reclaim a past that felt so near and yet still unattainable.
“This is temporary”, she repeated as a mantra as she gradually found herself with no outlet for her loneliness, her creativity, her sense of being an abandoned zoo creature, and her need to transcend beyond the confines of her solitary enclosure. There was nowhere to go and “This is temporary” began to ring hollow as anxious worries about COVID being forever began to surge within her. “This is temporary… if we make it temporary”, she assured herself, “and I’m doing everything right, making the sacrifices. This is temporary.”
There were other people doing it, transgressing, spreading it, living as if the world hadn’t changed. Cheryl was a woman of the city, roots firmly planted in the brick and asphalt of the buildings and streets that surrounded her. She could see them though, out on the streets beyond her window and hordes of them in other god forsaken places around the country, waltzing about as vectors of the deadly virus. “Why can’t they all just stay in their houses?”, Cheryl shouted out loud to herself when she saw people participating in an outdoor gathering on the news. There was a crowd literally having a concert in the park in the midst of COVID and a woman that she had known in high school had just been interviewed about having been incapacitated and in bed for two weeks after having the virus.
“They have concerts online now”, she thought to herself, “people are dying, and these people are responsible!” Then she began to speak to the television, imagining a captive audience that might actually care, “I can literally attend a concert right now without contributing to global crisis, causing the deaths of innocent people, destroying the global economy, and prolonging the imprisonment of others like me.” Cheryl had never spoken to the television before, and she felt like one of those people at sports bars who shouts at the screen while watching a football game. Thus, she looked around her room, like a hoarder, a witness to the degradation of her life, once bright with dinner parties, fresh flowers picked from a local park that had become too high density for her risk tolerance, and, for a moment while looking out the window into the barren streets, she felt genuine fear of where the further descent into COVID might lead her. She texted a friend then, one that she hadn’t already reached out to recently, “how are you?”, keeping her anxiety under wraps, but seeking a healthy outlet, human connection, sanity… There was no reply.
Yes, time continued to transform and Cheryl with it. In her cave, bubble, prison, Zookeeper’s enclosure, as a warden and inmate, she watched as the world transformed too, like a river reborn every day. Thus, the cruel summer became crueler winter, and, like wax, Cheryl hardened. “We’re all in the same boat though”, she thought to herself, “people like me, taking the precautions, sheltering in place, looking out for our neighbors, our selves, and waiting for the world to return to normal.” There were few people like Cheryl though, taking these extremes, literally never leaving the apartment, everything delivery, the only exercise on a treadmill, the zero risk COVID fallout strategy.
“I’m only twenty-one. If I get it, I’m going to be, like, out of commission for a week, right? I can take a hit; I’m on unemployment, so it’s not like it’s any skin off my back”, Arthur said to his friend on the phone, his voice distracted and muffled by his mask as he simultaneously retrieved his sandwich from the counter.
“Are you seriously at a deli right now?”, Sarah inquired suddenly and pointedly, having overheard the cashier shouting out, “meatball sandwich, extra cheese, for Arthur”, on the other end of the line.
“Yea, but I’m wearing a mask”, he said before coughing, “Sorry, the soda went down the wrong tube; I’m just coughing… it’s not a big deal. Anyhow, I was at this dive bar the other night and there were just a bunch of people in the other corner without masks, playing darts, pool, drinking… like it was 2019; I was watching them, and I don’t even think they all knew each other. I figure that I’m actually being safe, but I can’t be cooped up all day; I’d go insane and who knows what I might end up doing. The way I see it, I figure that I’m doing a public service”, Arthur said, “regulating my sanity and taking ‘restrained risks’.” He felt very sure of himself in that moment, cocksure, his inner world at peace having found an exemplary model of COVID evil through which to define and defend himself as good and just.
Meanwhile, he had paused obliviously at the front door while remembering the bar scene and convincing himself that he was the good guy in the story, innocent in the grander scheme. He did so, however, without noticing that he was obstructing the entry as a couple stared at him, bewildered, wanting to enter, but not wanting to get too close to the human roadblock before them. He looked up though after speaking into the phone and saw them staring at him, blinking, squinting, tilting their heads perplexed, and he understood, sort of, but not really. He quickly exited the building and recommenced his self-delusion, “I mean, have you heard the news about those antimaskers in Texas? I’m like a saint!”
Arthur couldn’t see, but Sarah was scowling, fiercely. “Do you even know how many close contacts you had today? Go to the park, order take out, delivery, stay at home, stop being an idiot…”, the friend said before sighing and pondering how best to really get the point across. “You’re officially not invited to my imaginary dinner parties that we have to have now because of people like you.”
“Because of people like me? Look, there’s like two people without masks walking across the street and you think I’m the fucking problem?”, he said, pausing, noticing that their t-shirts endorsed the 2020 Trump campaign. “It’s all Trump’s fault, you know. Hillary would have had this mess cleaned up before it ever started. It’s the fucking patriarchy, that’s the real disease here—old men and Trump supporters”, he said without thinking at all.
The sudden wave of confusion stunned Sarah, “yes, yes, but no”, she thought to herself in a haze, the tactic ultimately proving ineffective. Thus, after taking a moment to process it all, she assertively delivered her response, “Arthur, you can’t just change the subject and distract me with what I want to hear. As far as I’m concerned, you might as well be a Trump supporter; you’re literally on their level right now for me, rhetorically and in your whole out and about when you could just order take out thing you’ve got going on right now.”
He didn’t even pause. “Woah, hyperbole much”, he responded before scoffing loudly, “I can’t even believe that you would…”
“No! Listen to me”, Sarah interrupted forcefully. “I need to write down what you’ve been saying and have you reassess it and comment on it in a day or two; like actually take time to think about what you’ve been saying Arthur. You’re just spewing bullshit right now… think… be honest with yourself…”
Arthur’s initial spike of defensive, mindless anger to Sarah’s prior comment was still brewing within him, but the conversation had grown cumbersome, and, therefore, his inner feelings expressed themselves in a mutated fashion, “Okay, whatever, yea, thanks Sarah, let’s just talk later. I’ll send the link for the theater thing I was talking about earlier when I get home. It’s online, support the arts, woopdidoo… I’ve got a sandwich to eat.” [click].
Thus, Sarah reeled from the phone in disgust and indignation, “That’s the last time. I have self-respect.” Then, as she leaned back in her desk chair, shaking her head, mulling over the events of their conversation—the (cov)idiocy, passive aggressiveness, self-obsession, and lack of awareness—she felt sorry for her friend, a hopeless case, gradually, despite her interventions, the time spent listening and respectfully critiquing, there had been no positive changes. He was still delving deeper into a pit where she would never follow or wish to hear about, especially with his new attitude. He hadn’t even taken the time to ask her about her day, to listen to her story about a recent encounter with covidiots, or to actually talk about the play that she no longer wanted to attend with him.
“Dear Arthur”, began her latest journal entry, “I will resolutely never speak to you again…”
They had been fast friends since college, but Arthur had drifted throughout the years. Without the externally provided structure, he had become lazier, content with his salary, no longer seeking to achieve anything, and was always talking about casual sex all the time. She knew that even if they watched the play together, he wouldn’t be interesting to actually have a conversation with, not like back when their friendship had been forged.
She still wanted to see the play though. “That’s the beauty of COVID”, she thought to herself before closing her journal, “I can attend the event on Zoom without him ever knowing.” Thus, the book was closed, [clap], and Sarah rose from her chair and looked out the window upon the setting sun—purple, pink, orange, and shades of clouds amidst bouts of blue peeking through.
Life had always been so bright and cheerful. Cheryl loved lunch at the office. She was one of those people who always smiled, never a dull day for her, and it was always in good measure, in touch with the others around her. Everyone enjoyed her company as she brightened each and every day. She made people actually want to come to the office, like there was something to look forward to during the workday. Lunches to happy hours, water cooler to office parties, during meetings and beyond, Cheryl was that coworker.
This one day at the office, Jordan was watching her, admiring her over his shoulder as he washed dishes after completing his lunch, wishing that he’d taken his break a little bit later so that he could have sat and eaten his lunch with her. She was always impromptu whereas he always ate lunch promptly at noon. It was impossible to know when to catch her. He paused though on that day, the water still running, and watched as she giggled softly. A fly was perched upon her nose and her eyes had zoomed downward, her irises comically hovering as she attempted to remain still amidst her faint laughter. The fly took flight then and landed upon her lunch, its front legs milling about, camouflaged in the dark almost black mole sauce on her enchiladas. She remained transfixed though, staying her hand, and a minute later, the fly took flight once more, upwards, guiding her eyes toward Jordan’s. Yet only a second after their eyes locked, he quickly turned around and returned to the sink, realizing that the water had been on the whole time.
Cheryl returned to her lunch then, quickly removing the portion that the fly had landed upon, pushing it to the side of her plate, and without noticing as Jordan left the room. She had noticed him looking once in a while, throughout the years, but she never thought much about it. Also, she had a boyfriend, going on two months now. Jordan didn’t know that though; he was just a casual admirer, had been for years now, and had never gone so far as to pry into her life or to mention his interest to others at the office.
Tina entered the room shortly after Jordan left, then Carol entered, and Stephen too. They all sat at the table, chatting, eating, and Cheryl remained, listening, chatting too.
“I finally booked it, Athens while the kids are on Spring break in March”, Tina announced proudly.
“You really want to take the kids though?”, Carol, the single childless woman, interjected with a scoff tinged with revulsion.
“I don’t really have that option, Carol”, Tina responded, rolling her eyes before Cheryl interrupted her.
“I think what Carol meant was…”, then Cheryl paused and caught herself, always the diplomat, “um, well, never mind… Tina, what will the kids be doing while you get your personal time?”
“Yea, thank you, it’s not like I’m going to be pent up in a hotel room with them. The hubby and I made a deal. I get two days, only me. He wants to build sandcastles with them, and he gets his little trip with his frat brothers from college in June. It’s a win win”, she announced proudly.
“Laura and I do something like that”, Stephen mentioned, looking up from his pasta, nodding in approval while signaling that he was actually participating in the conversation, if only halfheartedly.
“Yea, those are relationship goals right there, people”, Cheryl announced to everyone, looking around the table while beaming, and Tina smiled proudly in return. Then Cheryl changed the subject, “If anyone wants to go on a vacation before March, there’s this great new Ethiopian place on 51st that I’m dying to try. Who’s with me?”
“Don’t you have to eat everything with your hands”, Carol asked, scrunching her face at the thought.
Stephen perked up then, “well, you don’t have to be so traditional, I’m sure they will let you use a fork.”
“Yea”, Cheryl interjected with a chipper tone and genuine smile, “you should come with me; no judgement, it’s like not wanting to be the one person at the table that can’t use chop sticks at the Chinese restaurant.”
Carol’s eyes tightened for a moment as she thought it through, “Ok, but I get to pick the next outing. There’s this band in town three weeks from now, La Rains, they’re playing at the winery out in the suburbs. I’m going early to drink, and I would really appreciate not being alone. I’ll send you all the link on social media.”
“I’m totally down!”, Cheryl announced before adding, “I don’t really use social media though, so you’ll have to email me the info. I’m really behind on the times.”
“I’ll ask the hubby. Maybe we can get a babysitter this time”, Tina added.
“Send me an email and I’ll sort of decide the day before. Laura might be interested, but it’s not like it’s the last opportunity for us to go to a concert, so it’ll depend on her”, Stephen said, leaning back into his chair for a moment and musing to himself, “La Rains… they’re that group that sings Heavy Drops, right? I liked that album.” However, before anyone could respond, he suddenly jolted forward in his seat. “It’s already 1:30, what are we still doing here?”, he questioned, smiling and looking at Cheryl. “This always happens when she’s here”, he said, shaking his head, laughing, and getting up from the table to rush back to work.
The others scrambled around too, but Cheryl took a moment to pause, catching Tina’s attention for a moment just as she was about to walk out the door. “Athens in March! It’s only four months away now!”, she exclaimed, her eyes glowing with delight. Tina sighed for a moment, as if daydreaming, smiled, and then hurried out the door and down the hallway. Cheryl followed suit, another wonderful lunch with colleagues, friends really, and she remembered that she had a date that night at her favorite cocktail bar. Thus, she sat down at her cubicle feeling fulfilled, excited to make progress at work, and at one with the moment. She felt light, in tune, and hummed softly to herself as she dove into a report that had a five pm deadline.
The sandwich was alright, Arthur thought to himself, two months having passed since Sara had stopped speaking to him while his behavior remained almost completely unchanged. The meatballs seemed day old today though, tougher than usual, but the bread was on point. It might have been day old too, but the sauce made it soggy against the crisp outer crust. Meanwhile, the provolone had an extra bite today. That’s why he always got the extra cheese. The boldness of the sauce always masked it if you didn’t get just the right amount. Thus, seated in the park along the southern shore of the river in the shade of a tree, the sun at high noon, he pondered the lingering flavors and textures. As he did so, people walked by, the river flowed, and he just sort of hung out, forgetting to put his mask back on after completing his meal.
A man approached him then, asking him about the book sticking out of his messenger bag. It was Escape from Freedom, a book from an Authoritarianism course he had taken in college. He wasn’t sure why, but he thought that he might revisit it; it was sitting on his bookshelf, seemed like an important book to revisit during the country’s flirtation with illiberalism, and he figured that sitting along the riverside with a book might be a great way to meet women. The whole “will to submit” thing kind of creeped him out, the idea of it, it was the most memorable part of the book, but he agreed with the author about a lot: overcoming mindless authority, achieving individuation, spontaneous love, finding a way not to be an automaton.
“I think that I read that book once. We’ve got to defend what god gave us”, the other man said with a sly smirk as he walked closer. It was then that he realized that the man wasn’t wearing a mask and it appeared as if he was approaching to sit at his side. Thus, Arthur grew uncomfortable, inched over toward the edge of the picnic table, and hesitatingly replied, “oh yea, I agree, you know, you have to stand up to the authoritarians, not succumb to control, endure the difficulties of independence, if we can really be independent…” He got lost in his thoughts as he spoke, flustered as he felt a growing pressure and confusion while attempting to decipher why the man was getting closer.
He sat then on the other end of the picnic table, looking forward and up at the buildings on the other side of the river. “So, what do you make of all these lemmings? Look at ‘em, like dogs wearing muzzles…”, he said, shaking his head. Arthur’s eyes grew wide as the man continued. “It’s good to see that there are more of us out here. I’m not afraid. I know what’s happening. We all know where this is going. Violence in the streets, the people imprisoned like animals, ‘wear a mask or else’, ‘stay home or else’, ‘stop supporting local business or else’”, he said, his gaze still straight forward, his voice still low, yet crescendoing, terrifying Arthur. He wanted to run away, his muscles tightened, and yet he remained still; he couldn’t believe this was actually happening, torn between the urge to flee and the fascination with what was unfolding before him. And then the man completed his statement, “it’s communism. We’re ready though, ready for them try to steal it from us, our country. There’ll be more violence, you know”, he said, before sharply looking directly into Arthur’s eyes, “We have to stick together.”
“Oh yea”, Arthur said softly, nodding, lost thoughtlessly within the moment, as if it weren’t real. Then the man nodded in return and looked toward the lake again without noticing that Arthur’s eyes were actually spewing uncertainty and confusion. You see, our humble protagonist, perhaps not a protagonist, but certainly a protagonist compared to that stranger by the lake, depending upon your situation, felt overwhelmed; the man clearly hadn’t actually read the book and, what was worse, he was clearly a member of the far right, the more absurd elements. He sounded more like an authoritarian than Trump himself. Thus, Arthur stood up then, only a moment later, seeking a way to quickly run away without running away, and the man’s stern gaze darted toward him again. As soon as he was on his feet, the man grew instantly suspicious; Arthur could see it in his eyes, a sudden alertness and a searching glare.
“I… I have to go…”, Arthur stuttered, anxiously stepping backwards while mindlessly reaching into his pocket to grab his mask. The man saw it right away, and a darker scowl overtook his face. Only a second later, and before our protagonist had a moment to turn around and begin his retreat, the man spat at him, actually managing to hit his shoes. Then, without a word, he leaned back and turned his gaze to look up into the skyline of the city on the other side of the river once more.
Thus, Arthur scurried along back toward his apartment as his friend’s words resonated in his mind, “you might as well be a Trump supporter… you’re literally on their level…” The whole interaction kept replaying in his mind too and he finally had to take a moment to sit and process it all, regain his composure. Sitting then on a different bench, he thought about the perversion of the book; if the man had ever actually read it. He thought to himself then that a book could be very dangerous in the hands of an unruly interpreter. “This is why we have seminars, universities, debates, authorities with knowledge, methods, and transparency…”, he thought to himself. A moment later, he felt a sudden lightness, began to laugh at himself, and he looked out upon the river. The sky above had begun to transition and the darker blues that the sky had already become were fading to black upon the horizon before him.
Then, as he stood once more and continued to make his way home, clouds came rolling in and the night came quickly. His path was illuminated only by unnatural light, without a single star in the sky. The river was dark, but he could still see the reflections of buildings glinting upon the surface, and, eventually, he turned to walk up a hill toward his apartment. Upon entering the door, taking the stairs, and once he stood before his door, he reflected upon the fact that he hadn’t seen his neighbors, not even a hello in weeks. They had always been so friendly, people had hung out in the lobby, and there was one woman, the woman next door, who had always organized all the apartment’s social gatherings. “Where has she gone? Is she even alive?”, he thought to himself, looking over toward her door before turning the key and entering his apartment.
“Hey Arthur!”, Cheryl shouted while popping her head out the door of her apartment, catching him just as he was entering his own one bedroom, a smaller unit in the corner of the building alongside her own. Arthur was startled at first, but he smiled, said hello in return, and stepped back into the hallway. “I thought that was you that I heard outside a moment ago”, Cheryl said cheerfully.
“Oh yea, I’m just getting home from work, about to do dinner”, Arthur responded in return before questioning, “How are you? Anything newsy?”
“Nothing new with me. About to do dinner here too, sushi with my friend”, she responded before pausing, smiling, and mentioning, “I’m glad that I caught you though.” Then she took another moment to pause dramatically before announcing, “I’m burning with a question to ask you”, beaming and giggling to herself girlishly, “You’re coming to the winter bonfire that I organized on Tuesday, right? We’ll be on the lakeshore down the hill.” However, before he could respond, she started excitedly pointing to the wall where she had posted a flyer of a flame emoji with the details. Her eyebrows were lifting up and down comically, and Arthur nodded, albeit with a look of concern.
“Thanks Cheryl, I’ll try and make it. It sounds really fun”, he said, attempting to sound genuine, genuinely interested, but genuinely concerned, and genuinely wanting to retreat into his own apartment. He never actually went to the community events, except the ones with free booze, and even then, rarely, but when cornered, always, he always said that he would.
“Sushi sounds nice too! I hope that you have a lovely evening!”, Arthur said, prepared to turn around and dart into his apartment. He could feel a hunger pang striking to augment his discomfort.
“Well, have a great night!”, Cheryl shouted
It was like a wave of relief and, with a smile, he turned around to enter his unit. However, it was at that moment that a memory struck him, and he looked back as Cheryl was similarly about to enter her apartment. “Actually, Cheryl, did you hear anything about that shooting down the street today?” he asked inquisitively, capturing her attention before rapidly adding, “I saw all the police this morning, but I didn’t see anything on the news about what actually happened yet, just that it was a shooting. The police were everywhere, and news vehicles too, which is the really strange part. There weren’t any details in the articles that I saw.” He was sure that Cheryl, the most gregarious person that he had ever encountered, would certainly know the answer, if not from the more recent news than from word of mouth.
Her usually chipper appearance became more somber upon hearing his question, as if a shadow had suddenly been cast upon her face. Then she nodded, “Yea, I saw that…”, she said quietly, trailing off, her eyes becoming those of a sleuth. She looked around then, the hall was empty, but she clearly felt uncomfortable. After examining their surroundings, she walked toward him to speak more privately. It was clearly a solemn matter, as all shootings are. She had never actually done this before. Shouting loudly down the hallways had always been her style for all the years that he had been her neighbor. Then she came to rest only a few feet away from him, leaning in against the wall and toward him.
She was speaking hush hush now, and somberly, “Apparently it was a couple. One got jealous of the other cheating before they broke up, like she just found out, and listened to a few too many songs about getting revenge after the other cheats. Then, early this morning, she and her friends decided to trash his car, broke in, and he just came outside and shot them all. Apparently, two are dead and three are critically injured. They were trespassing on his property, they were technically armed, and they say that he might actually get away with it, like it could be self-defense. It’s really brutal though”, she said before pausing, cringing as the memory washed over her, “One of the neighbors, the strange older woman that just moved in down the hall, Ms. Arach, she sent me a video from the street. It was horrible. There was blood everywhere, dripping out of the garage into the driveway. It makes you wonder if he knew before he caught them.”
“Oh shit!”, Arthur replied, fascinated and with a perverse smile. “Do you still have the video?”, he inquired then, without tempering his curiosity at all.
Cheryl grimaced at the request, “no… no”, she said, shaking her head, “I deleted it.” She didn’t notice the nefarious smile, but she already found the request to be strange. Thinking more about the story though, she began looking into the distance, and her eyes glazed over a little bit, “I mean, I just got dumped, but I know how to process disappointment and to get over things like an adult. Go have sushi with a friend and move on…”, she said with a sigh, looking down at the ground for a moment before perking up, “Also, clearly the guy had a problem; if I was hellbent on revenge, I’d think twice before attacking my ex if I knew that he was an NRA nut. I looked into the garage and there were guns everywhere, big ones. Trump signs in the yard too”, she said, her eyes growing larger as she remembered the excessive collection of arms mounted upon the walls.
“Yea, I wouldn’t fuck with someone like that”, Arthur added, noticing Cheryl wince at the word fuck. “Oh, sorry, Cheryl…”, he said suddenly, his eyes also widening in alarm, “you know me, I say that a lot”, he said, allowing a slight chuckle to escape him that nullified any perceived genuineness that there might have been in his sincere apology.
She took a deep breath then and said, “yeaaaah…”, and continued nodding for a moment in the wake of her response. Then she found a way to change the subject, returning to the prior from which they had arrived, “I would never do anything like that. I’d probably just say mean things if I was really angry. I’d just call the cops if I was the guy; that’s why we have police. I can’t imagine what would drive a person to be like those people, so spiteful and violent when there’s so much wonder in the world”, she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Yea, Cheryl, you know, some people just can’t handle their shit”, he said with an air of resignation and sheer disregard for the loss of life, the proximity thereof, and how his insensitivity might be perceived by others. “This is what happens to them though, the people who do stupid shit; it’s like cosmic justice”, he said without thinking much, still in touch with the detached part of himself that primarily found the whole ordeal to be entertaining, as if assessing it aesthetically. It all felt so light, as if it weren’t real, simply too absurd.
“There’s no justice in it”, she said point blank, her voice soft and her face having grown sterner, concerned, confused by the emotional gulf between them. “It’s just tragedy. It all could have been avoided; none of it had to happen. There was…”, she said, pausing, her eyes actually welling up as she thought about the events, looking into the man before her, but not actually seeing him, “There was no need for blood…” Her head was shaking then as she continued to look into the man, disbelief and a searching attempt to find intersubjective understanding having overcome her.
Yet he remained silent, his expression unintelligible, no longer smiling, but still not appearing to have been as emotionally overcome as she had been, not in the same way at least. In truth though, he could tell that Cheryl was deeply impacted and, after a moment, catching himself, he managed to restrain his fascination temporarily. His pondering smile becoming a hardened empathetic gaze.
Then, having noticed the shift, Cheryl’s mind drifted inward, and she mumbled, “I’ve never seen anything like that before…” Suddenly she had a flashback of a car accident from when she was a teenager. It was the only other time that she had ever seen so much blood. Additionally, beyond the blood, today was actually the first time that Cheryl had ever personally witnessed death so close and personal; it was on video, but it was right across the street, as if it had been in her own apartment complex. It felt as if she had been there herself, within the video. The whole experience for her was concrete, tangible, and crawled under her skin, equally so now as when she had first seen it.
She had to push it out of mind though; she shook her body, blinked repeatedly, and let the thoughts dissipate. Then a new thought came to her, and with a sigh, she changed the subject, “Anyhow, the trash chute was clogged last week. It had your name on it”, she paused for a moment, almost said “again” and then continued, perking up and suddenly feeling bright and shiny again, “so please be more considerate for the rest of us!”
He suddenly stood upright, shocked, his eyes having grown wide, “Oh yea! Sorry about that Cheryl. It won’t happen again. I promise”, he said reflexively, the way that a child makes promises to its mother without intending to actually follow through on them.
She knew that, the insincerity and automaticity of his reaction; it was literally, verbatim, exactly what he had said last time. However, today, as always, it wasn’t a big deal, not in the grander scheme. There were people dying across the street. It was just some trash, a minor inconvenience. Besides, Arthur was just a kid, seemed to be kind too; he cussed a lot, but he mostly minded his own business. Cheryl felt that way about everyone. Whenever she was in a situation, she thought back to when she had done the exact same thing. This one time, back when she had a roommate before moving into the complex, she had left the faucet running and the water spilled out into the kitchen and then into her roommate’s bedroom. It was just like that, she thought to herself. None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes. “At the end of the day, we all have to live together and staying positive, acting always with love and kindness… it’s contagious”, she reminded herself.
Yes, Cheryl felt as if she loved all people, Arthur included, as a mother does, unconditionally. As members of the community within the complex though, she always expected people to feel as connected to the place and to the others as she did. It was their shared home, like a college dorm, but they weren’t in college anymore. It was so easy to just mindfully look into the trash and to ensure that it wasn’t clogged, but maybe he was busy. Cheryl felt busy sometimes. It was understandable, probably just an accident. Thus, she resolved to accept the apology, his commitment not to repeat the error, and she felt better.
And with a deep breath through her nose, lifting both eyebrows, and breathing out, she knew just what to say, “Don’t worry too much about it. Just be more careful! Imagine what the world would be like if we were all just a little bit more mindful!”
“Yea, you’re completely right. I must have just been in a hurry. I’m really sorry about it. Won’t happen again!”, he reiterated.
“Well, have a great rest of your day. I have to go get ready for sushi!”, she said then, realizing that she was actually running late now. She turned around in a hurry then and disappeared into her loft.
Arthur followed suit, disappearing into his apartment. However, as he entered his room, he reflected upon their past interactions, thinking about Cheryl, he found her so enigmatic, why she was always so friendly. Cheryl had always been consistent, so kind and chipper, like one of those overly gregarious employees at smoothie joint. Every interaction was similar and predictable. The memories washed over him as he processed their latest interaction. It had all become so regular, Cheryl inviting him to an event that he didn’t want to attend, and he was really nice about it and said that he would come. Then there was Cheryl mentioning another of his slight transgressions, but, as always, it wasn’t actually a big deal; “that’s why we have maintenance staff here. There’s no reason that she should be bringing it up to me”, he thought to himself, puzzled as to why she cared so much, “it’s an apartment complex; we’re all just supposed to be random strangers.”
Then he thought back to their conversation, the shooting down the street. He could picture it all, the whole scene unfolding, the woman and her friends with baseball bats angrily beating a classic car, hearing the music that had led them like a siren to their demise. Maybe they were playing it on their cell phones, literally listening to it when it happened. Then the guy jumps out from around the corner, he had been there waiting, someone tipped him off, and they’re all screaming. Then the music plays hauntingly as he leaves them there and walks back into his house. It’s mise en scene and the viewer has to watch as the door slams off screen, the music continues, and the blood begins to pool and then to drip down the driveway as the music is gradually overcome by the sound of actual sirens.
He could picture it all, like a projector within his own mind running parallel to his lived reality. Thus, having closed the door behind him, he found himself imagining it all on repeat, each time a little bit more refined, with finer details. It continued to play like a broken record as he grabbed the leftover orange chicken and fried rice from the fridge before tossing it carelessly into the microwave.
The flames roared high, a collection of small Christmas trees, some big ones too, providing the fuel for Cheryl’s latest successful gathering of the complex dwellers. Their shadows danced about upon the surface of the river, the surrounding hedges, and upon the hillside that led up to their apartment complex. She had negotiated with the city, marketed the event throughout the complex for weeks, secured all of the food and beverages, and had even provided her own tree. She had selected an extra-large one this year with the bonfire in mind. There were some hurdles though.
When she arrived to retrieve the grocery order, they had mixed up the entire order. People had spent weeks filling out a survey and she had taken great pains to fulfill everyone’s dietary restrictions and to ensure the inclusion, to the maximum degree possible, of each attendee’s preferred beverages. Compiling the beer order had been especially tricky—an assortment of IPA from five different brewers, two wheat beers from a local brewery, a sour, and a farmhouse ale from a small batch only brewer that was put on special order. Yet, what awaited her was nothing like the list that she had provided.
There had been a supply chain crisis, a recent shipment had been in an accident. They had to do their best, but it was just a bunch of the same multipack from a major brewer, the kind that they disguise to make look like craft beer. It had an IPA, two pilsners, a wheat, and a stout, but it was just ordinary. No one knew how much work Cheryl had put into making this happen, to make it extraordinary, neither the employees nor the guests, but it was understandable. There had been a crisis, and it was not like specialty luxury items were really all that important in the grander scheme of things. The rest of the order was still intact too, more or less, a few annoying substitutions here or there due to the accident, but nothing to make a fuss about. Thus, rather than get upset, Cheryl saw the bright side, there would still be wonderful beer, and no one would be the wiser. It was also a lot cheaper, providing funds for the next event to be extra special.
Standing there alongside the fire, the heat from the flame caressed Cheryl’s skin as she took a moment to admire the people attending the party. They were huddled in disparate small groups along the lake shore. Some were closer to the bonfire while others lurked in the shadows. They all appeared to be having a wonderful evening and the sky was cloudless and dotted with twinkling stars. Travis, one of the residents from downstairs, approached her then. “Cheryl! You have to meet my girlfriend Liza”, he said, walking closer, looking over toward an unfamiliar yet friendly woman with bright eyes. “Liza, this is the woman who puts these together all the time. This place would be miserable without her!”, he said toward the blonde woman before looking toward Cheryl again with a smile. He tripped slightly though as he walked closer, but he caught himself and only spilled a little splash of beer onto the ground. He chuckled for a moment, and it became clear that he was already a little bit intoxicated.
Liza’s face scrunched for a moment, but then she chuckled too. “You know in the Andes they make these little sacrifices to Mother Earth, Pachamama, every time they drink. Let’s just imagine that’s what just happened”, she said before pouring a little bit of her own drink onto the ground right in front of Cheryl, and raising her glass, “To Pachamama!”. She took a deep breath then, shrugging slightly as she did so and then she leaned forward, “Cheryl, right?”, she questioned.
“Yea! That’s me!”, she replied quickly and with a heightened energy, smiling. However, her face soon became slightly more inquisitive, “I didn’t know that about the Andes. I’ve never been. Do they do that everywhere?”
“No, but it’s a pretty popular tradition throughout the region. They do it in rural areas and in the cities too. It’s sort of like how indigenous languages hybridize with the colonial one. Some ritual practices travel while others remain confined to the hinterlands”, Liza explained with allure and intrigue.
“That’s absolutely fascinating. Have you been?”, Cheryl asked in return.
“Yes! I lived there, in Bolivia, for a while with my mother when I younger. She took my brother and I into the countryside a lot where we played with the other kids, but we couldn’t understand anything that they said; it was always Aymara and Quechua. She just always gave us bubbles to play with. They’re like a universal language”, she said before suddenly wincing, shielding her face from a wave of heat that emanated like a muffled explosion from the fire.
A large dry Christmas tree had just been added to the pyre and erupted in a sudden, shocking burst of energy. Cheryl and Travis were similarly caught off guard. They had all been standing only five feet away and they could feel the heat from the sudden pulse lingering upon their cheeks.
“Now that was awesome”, Travis interjected, staring back into the bonfire now, its flames having risen a couple of feet, licking out beyond the containment structure that Cheryl had built, living chaos dancing before them in the wind.
Cheryl didn’t notice Travis’s comment though. She was suddenly alarmed, tremendously engrossed in the moment, seeking to ensure that the flames weren’t going to escape and cause havoc. For a brief period of time, there was only her and the flame. Then, suddenly, she could see her, Ms. Arach, the elderly woman from down the hall, staring right at her from the other side of the flame, standing there with her platinum hair glowing in a preternatural light. Yet, only a second later, she disappeared; Cheryl gasped, looked around, her gaze darting left and right, but she couldn’t see her anymore amongst the indistinct shadows nor alongside the pyre. Then, gradually, the flame returned to stability, safely within the containment field that Cheryl had built, yet she remained enrapt. Her own tree hadn’t produced such a massive burst of energy, but this especially dry one had been something particularly terrifying.
Meanwhile, Ginger, a fellow resident from the fifth floor, began walking over from the table of appetizers to join them, appalled by what she was witnessing. “Cheryl, you’re the one in charge here, right?”, she shouted pointedly, shocking Cheryl back to an awareness of those that were around her. “It’s just abominable to have a bonfire in this day and age, but do you all really have to flaunt it? I didn’t say anything until now, I had my reservations, but entire trees!? Aren’t there organizations that collect these and put them to good environmentally sustainable use?”, she exclaimed, the most recent addition to the pyre having clearly crossed a threshold for her.
Cheryl hesitated to react, knowing that she had to tread carefully, but entirely unsure about how to take the first step in this dance. She glanced from Travis to Liza and then back to Ginger, almost on the verge of stuttering; fortunately, however, Liza interjected before Cheryl had to chance a stumble, looking first to Ginger and then guiding her gaze into the flame as she spoke, “It’s not like we do this every night. It’s spectacular. The way it feels, it’s not like a propane heater… it’s natural… watch it dance, smell it in the air, listen to it crackle. Sometimes when you have a smaller flame, you can hear the logs whining when the flame is working its way into them. It sounds like snakes hissing”, Liza said, mesmerized.
Meanwhile, Ginger was looking back into Liza, a mere stranger to her, with an expression of pure confusion and disgust, her head having reeled backward and twitching as she continued to process what Liza had just said.
Then Cheryl pounced, calmly and with confidence, “it’s just once a year, Ginger. It’s not like we’re causing global warming with one little fire”, she said, before leaning forward and speaking empathetically, “but I understand your concerns. We can have a volunteer event in May to clean up the neighborhood and contribute to the environment!” The idea sounded foolproof to Cheryl as it passed through her mind, but Ginger merely continued to scowl.
However, after a minute Ginger began to grumble with a low tone, shook her head, looked over toward Cheryl as her eyes homed in, and then said, “I don’t want to be a party pooper, I do so enjoy all the other events that you organize. It’s just so wasteful and unnecessary. Perhaps it could be smaller next year, just firewood and not these whole trees? Keep my idea in mind please. I’ll be reminding you when the time is right.”
“Yea, but the trees ARE the spectacular part”, Travis interjected immediately, not sensing that the conversation had just about reached a satisfactory culmination, chuckling, and drawing an alarmed grimace from Liza, “it’s basically what makes this exceptional. People do actually have fires every night.”
“Yes, I know! That’s the point. We need to change the culture, the whole damn culture!”, Ginger snapped back indignantly.
Liza chimed in next, seeking to somehow creatively recover from Travis’s misstep on the fly, “I see where you’re going with this, but let me tell you, fire will always be beautiful. We can’t just get rid of it. It’s like saying that fashion is harmful to the environment. This bonfire is a statement. We can rein in the excesses; we have a permit to do this”, she said confidently before pausing and immediately looking over toward Cheryl with a sudden expression of uncertainty. “We do, right?”
“Yea, absolutely! Of course”, Cheryl said, nodding, breathing in through her nose while her eyes grew wider, impressed and yet slightly concerned about how animated and adamant Liza had become in her defense of the bonfire.
“So, I think the fire is here to stay”, Liza said then, resting her case, looking back toward Ginger with a single nod. A second later though, she hurriedly qualified her statement, “but that’s just my vote. I don’t actually live here”, she said, chuckling before looking over toward Travis with a gleam in her eye, “yet.”
It startled him and he took a big swig of his drink without replying.
“Well, I can see that we vehemently disagree, but one must choose their battles. I’ll have to look into the city’s policies to see what can be done”, Ginger retorted slyly and with a smile.
Then Darlene, a fellow resident from Cheryl’s floor, stumbled into their conversation. “Hello everyone!” she shouted cheerfully, cutting in and raising her glass. “How is everyone’s night going?”
Ginger nodded with a low toned, grumbling, “mmm”, and focused her eyes on Darlene, assessing her. Upon observing Ginger, Cheryl figured that they probably hadn’t met before. Darlene was new to the complex. Meanwhile, Travis raised his beer can to toast with Darlene’s, proclaiming, “the fire is bright, the drinks are flowing, and the people are splendid!”
“Cheers to that!”, Cheryl added, also toasting her beer can against the other’s drinks.
“Cin cin”, Liza added with a smile, joining in the toasting. Ginger joined in then too, a glass of red wine raised to toast with the others.
“What’s been going on over here?”, Darlene inquired then, “I’ve been bouncing about talking to everyone. The flame’s a huge hit, by the way.”
“That’s actually what we’ve been talking about”, Ginger muttered then, sensing that she would encounter similar fortune in her persuasive attempts to combat future events featuring such brazen displays of the destruction of nature. “I’m personally highly opposed to the entire idea of this event”, she added, “There are so many alternatives to having a bonfire. Why can’t we just have outdoor heaters and live music?”
“We do that too. There’s going to be one in April”, Cheryl reminded Ginger immediately.
“Yes, but there could be one tonight instead of this. That’s all that I’m trying to say”, Ginger said with resignation.
Darlene nodded, processing Ginger’s concerns, before remembering one of her earlier conversations. “Did you know that they used to have mass gatherings in Europe to just burn cats? They would throw them alive into a giant pit like that one”, she said, pointing over to the flame, “They’re called cat pyres. This woman over there…”, she said, now pointing over into the shadows on the other side of the flames before realizing that there was no one there anymore, “well, she was over there… but she was telling me all about them, cats escaping from the flames, the sound of it all, the people sorting into those who watched and those who covered their eyes.”
Ginger shuddered in horror at the thought, emitting a nasally noise, “mnnnnnn”, and shaking her head to attempt to forget what she was hearing. Cheryl too reacted with disbelief and disgust at the idea as Darlene continued.
She was looking into the flame now, into her memory of the strange interaction. “The old woman seemed fascinated”, she said, shaking her head, “she kept describing the ‘spectacle’ of it, and she made it sound fascinating too, alluring and maybe a little bit comical, like this can’t be real, until you realize that they actually used to be real.”
And then Liza spoke, “That’s actually a really incredible ritual; I mean the fact that that existed. It’s like trials by poison, combat, ordeal”, then she caught herself and pondered what she had just said before adding, “If I were born two hundred years ago, they’d probably try to see if I could float after the shit that I’ve said tonight.”
“They’d have built that fire just for you, honey”, Travis assured her.
Meanwhile, Ginger had been standing there determining whether to make a quick french exit or to find the soonest opportunity to cut in with her goodbye. However, after laughing at Travis’s joke, the others had continued to engage in what she felt to be inane banter and every time she tried to politely interject, “I…”, raising a hand, “I…”, she went unheard and felt unseen. Her eyes darted toward the drink station and back toward the happily chatting neighbors, back and forth as her muscles grew tighter and her mind began to panic. It felt too impolite to simply disappear and Ginger knew that she always had to be the more noble woman, especially in person. Thus, she was relieved when there was finally a pause in the conversation and she leapt at the opportunity, “I can see that this conversation is only going to get worse. I bid you all adieu!” She had spoken rapidly though, and without caring whether anyone was actually listening prior to hurrying away and toward the table where the wine and beer were located. Ginger had felt an urgent need for another drink ever since the conversation’s latest turn. It had only grown more intense while she was anxiously awaiting her opportunity to escape the confines of sociality.
Only Travis had noticed though, and no one had an opportunity to say goodbye. Ginger had vanished quickly and without waiting for a response. However, once she noticed that Ginger had disappeared, Cheryl chimed in to the others, “The fire stays, forever and always! It’s not like we’re sacrificing living animals to it like those barbaric medieval people.”
“Ah yes”, Liza chimed in then, “Cavafy—“those [barbarians] were a kind of solution.” She looked very satisfied, nodding to herself, squinting, looking around to the others. No one in the group understood the reference though. “It’s a poem, forget about it”, she added upon seeing the others’ faces.
“Anyhow”, Darlene jumped in, “speaking of barbarians, how many different women have you seen coming out of Arthur’s apartment during the past few months?” She was looking at Cheryl at first, and then looked to the others, “I’ve seen fifteen, and that’s just me.”
“Oh, I’ve only seen about five or seven, but I always hear them”, Cheryl added, wincing a little at the memory. “I always just turn on music though”, she added, “so I haven’t had to say anything yet.”
“Apparently he just got out of a relationship after a couple of years and he’s been cutting loose. It’s always a different girl though and he’s been going strong for a while”, Travis explained, apparently possessing knowledge of the case.
“Was it like a really long relationship?”, Liza questioned, her voice lowered, a look of intrigue upon her smiling face.
“Yea, maybe five or six years”, Travis added.
“Ah that makes sense”, she said, nodding, “I give it another month or two and then he’ll calm down.”
“That’s a huge relief”, Cheryl shouted, laughing.
“Hey, there he is over there”, Darlene added hush hush, pointing to him with a nod and the movement of her eyes. There he was, sneaking in for only a moment grab a drink with a couple of friends that didn’t even live at the complex.
“I’ll give you ten bucks if he even says hello to anyone that actually lives here”, Travis said, smiling and laughing at the scene.
“No way I’m going to take you up on that”, Darlene said.
“Me neither!”, Cheryl muttered, shaking her head and looking over toward him with a quizzical stare, attempting to make sense of him.
Surely enough, drinks in hand, Arthur and his friends weaved through the crowd near the food and drinks without a single hello. Then Cheryl observed as they walked toward the other side of the fire where they all appeared to be engrossed in some video on Arthur’s cellphone, watching it again and again. Yet, only a moment later, there was another sudden gust of heat, and Cheryl and the others had to look away, shield their eyes. Sparks were flying and the wind was shifting directions. Another dry tree had been thrust into the fire pit, and, as soon as the burst had passed, the smoke began to billow toward Cheryl and the others. They all had to quickly find a new location and scattered in different directions before reconvening on the other side of the flame where Arthur had been. He and his friends were nowhere to be seen though.
“That caught us by surprise!”, Travis noted.
“Hmm… yes, we should have somebody on lookout duty”, Liza suggested.
“We could just move a little bit further from the flame though. That’s probably the best solution”, Darlene retorted.
“Yea, but then it’s like slightly chilly”, Cheryl added as their conversation returned to normal chit chat while they remained nearby the flame. They all talked about restaurants, upcoming travel plans, and debriefed their Christmas and holiday celebrations. Cheryl had travelled to a ski resort with a singles group. Everyone else that she knew was busy and she rarely ever visited her family unless it was absolutely necessary.
However, as they continued to shoot the breeze and the conversation shifted to apartment gossip, a couple was standing a few feet away and their conversation captured Liza’s attention. Her mind drifted suddenly to the gruesome tale of a recent happening within the vicinity. Thus, she had to ask the question, “Guys, that revenge murder, the guy that shot up his ex-girlfriend on the news was here, like right across the street?”
“Oh yea! I didn’t mention that?”, Travis responded, a quizzical expression upon his face, searching within to figure out why he hadn’t already mentioned it to her. “It was like yesterday, right?”, he questioned then.
Darlene cringed at the thought, her head and shoulder shaking as she scrunched her head rightward and into her shoulder, “yeahhh… that was absolutely awful. I didn’t see it, but I heard about it on the news. The cat pyre lady mentioned it too. She asked me if I wanted to see the video, but I don’t know why anyone would actually want to see that in detail.” Liza and Travis similarly grimaced at the thought of the grisly scene, not yet having seen the video themselves, but able to imagine it vividly. Liza also imagined the type of people that got a thrill out of videos like that and felt comforted that she had finally found something morbid and strange from their conversations that evening that did not interest her at all. It’s always nice to have people further toward the antipodes than one’s self.
Then, still pondering these people, many of whom she realized were lurking in the shadows that surrounded them, actually finding herself interested in knowing more about them despite her own personal disinterest in the video itself, Liza suddenly noticed that Cheryl had disappeared. “Did anyone see Cheryl leave”, she questioned then, looking around the surroundings without spotting her in the crowd, and Darlene and Travis looked around to without any luck.
Cheryl was long gone and back up in her apartment. She had darted away at the first mention of the bloody events that had haunted her. They were still haunting her. They had finally just begun to gradually recede into the forgetting where most of life evaporated, and yet they were suddenly made so fresh and new as if Liza’s words had been a bolt of lightning jumpstarting their ability to joyride throughout her mind with reckless abandon. Thus, alone again in her apartment, she nursed her nausea and fell asleep early.
Cheryl could see it in her dreams that night after the bonfire, the blood dripping. Why did they have to mention it? She had managed to forget it all until that moment. However, now almost six months later, it still came back to her from time to time. It was dripping down the walls again tonight, the walls of her apartment freshly splattered, and a stream of viscous crimson fluid seeping through the vents. Thus, she woke up suddenly, on the verge of screaming, sweating in the middle of the night. She quickly glanced from wall to wall, still in the same room, but bloodless, and had to rip off the covers. She was still breathing heavily, rapidly, deeply from the fright, but her nerves calmed quickly once the knowledge that the walls were immaculate finally settled in. When the dreams first started, she couldn’t fall back asleep again after waking, but after so much time, it had become like a routine. The blood dripping also wasn’t the only nightmare anymore and it wasn’t the worst of them either.
On this particular night, as she turned over onto her other side, allowing the memory to melt away, she saw that the window was cracked open in the corner and she felt a cool draft pervading the room. The December air felt soothing at first, crisp and tingly; it helped her sleep at night to be in a cold room beneath layers of warm covers, down blankets, and sheets. However, it soon grew frigid, first stinging against her arms and then gradually seeping into the sweat that had soaked into her pajamas. Thus, she dove under the covers once more. It was all a dream, she reminded herself.
Sometimes she wished that COVID was just a fever dream. She liked to dream about being at the office, lunch with colleagues, her cubicle, her commute home, the simple pleasures. She started setting her intention before going to bed each night, imagining those scenes, hoping that they would come to her unconscious mind and ward away the nightmares. Yet, her dreams kept growing darker. There had been a night trapped in a shed with a creature beating against the walls, an afternoon nap with birds beating against the window on repeat, over and over again, and there had also been the night when she was attacked in the street, an unmasked man amidst a crowd of masked passersby suddenly lunged at her, forcing her to defend herself with deadly force. She had snapped his neck before immediately snapping back to consciousness. The dreams all ended that way, with her in this room, alone, the wind gently blowing through the crack in the window.
Yes, for our humble protagonist, perhaps a protagonist to some at least, the outside world within reality and the dream had grown very troublesome, but at least none of the nightmares were real. They had felt that way in the beginning, perhaps even prophetic as her early nightmares of what COVID might become came true. Yet, at this point it had just been months of what had begun to feel like an unending stream of everyday night terrors. Thus, the spiked anxiety of her dreams always faded, her eyes closed once more, and she drifted back to sleep each time, once again awakening alone amidst the morning light, the wind gently blowing through that crack in the window. She was always alone, greeted only by the sounds of the city gently wafting in from beyond and the blaring of her alarm each and every morning in the wake of her nightly visions. They were like memories and manifestations of fear when all Cheryl wanted was to recapture the past. Meanwhile, her every day waking reality existed between those two poles, somewhere between the pleasant memories of the world before COVID, the uncertainty of the future, and the horror of her quarantine induced nightmares.
This particular morning, she had felt especially groggy upon waking. The evening’s interruption was still lingering. Her eyes were heavy, and her body was too. Her muscles felt weak, atrophied. Thus, she dozed back into a pleasant sleep. It was Saturday. There was no reason to worry about work, nowhere to be, nothing. There was nothing, only the hope of a more sound sleep, a more lively wakening, and it all felt within reach. She felt herself slipping. It was warm and she could see these hypnagogic visions of the parks that she once walked to in the mornings on weekends, beautiful geese along the lake. Yet as soon as she slipped back into the embrace of a peaceful bliss, there was a violent knocking on the door.
She jolted upwards, adrenaline pumping. Her racing mind couldn’t remember, she couldn’t divine why a person might be at her door so early on the weekend. However, she quickly calmed down once more upon looking through the peep hole in the door. Contactless delivery, her weekly grocery order a day early; had she scheduled this order for today? She thought that she had ordered it for Sunday. She always ordered her groceries on Sunday. Yet there they were. There he was, waiting to verify receipt, his feet tapping anxiously around the corner.
She was flustered and almost opened the door, but she remembered that she needed to grab a mask. “I’ll be right there”, she shouted frantically before turning around in a hurry, rummaging on the counter to find a face covering, but there were papers everywhere. Then she saw it though, the ties of a mask were popping out from beneath a pile of paper and she snatched it right away.
When she returned to open the door though, she discovered that her groceries remained, yet the man had already disappeared. Thus, she began to collect them, and it all seemed to be in order. The kale was crisp, her favorite muffins had arrived, cream for her coffee, and a loaf of bread, the artisanal one with herbs and salt. One by one, she carried each of the bags from the hallway to the counter. However, as she set the baked goods upon the counter, she noticed a tiny substitution. Her favorite spice rub had been replaced, the blend of citrus zest and herbs replaced with mere lemon pepper. “How?”, Cheryl shouted angrily into the bag of groceries, as if the bread were a captive audience, “how does anyone think that lemon pepper can be an acceptable substitute? What the fuck am I supposed to do with lemon pepper?” She began shaking her head then, her body tensed up as her mind attempted to simulate what the people on the other side must have been thinking when they decided to ruin her day in this way. Then suddenly, still shaking, she erupted, “uuuuuhg!”, her eyes growing wider as she did so, and she slammed her fist on the counter. However, only a second later, she realized that the door was open still and one final bag awaited her.
The realization shocked her, and an anxiety replaced her anger. Had anyone heard her outburst? Thus, she rushed to the door, looked around the hallway and saw no one. A wave of relief struck then, and she leaned against the door frame to breath in and out, in and out, regaining her composure and looking down into the bag of meat sitting before her. She liked to make meatballs. She made them with pasta for dinner and sandwiches during the subsequent days. You can freeze some of them and have food for several weeks while only having to cook once. She liked to call it staggering—dinner tonight, lunch tomorrow, and then dinners and lunches already ready for weeks to come. Thus, she looked down into a large mass of ground beef and pork, some chicken breasts tucked alongside them, and she felt calmer, imagining the moist, flavorful meatballs, like little bombs of flavor with the acidity and tang of a spicy tomato sauce.
She reached down then to grab the bag, to complete her surprise morning ordeal, breathed a sigh of relief, and then smiled proudly as she grasped the bag, stood upright and entered her loft once more, closing the door softly behind her. It joined the others seated upon the counter, yet as soon as had she placed it, she suddenly noticed the trail of blood, a drip here and there between her and the door. She controlled herself this time, remaining calm as she assessed the damage, breathing in and out methodically. She lifted the bag, tilting it slightly, to discover the bottom doused in blood, thick and burgundy. Revolted, she dropped the bag and, with a swelling nausea, she hurriedly turned around toward the sink, leaning forward, looking down into the drain and feeling as if she was swirling within a funnel, captured by forces beyond her dragging her down into the darkness of the pipes below. Thus, she turned the sink on a moment later and doused her face with cold water. The paleness that she could feel having taken her over gradually gave way to a resurgence of unity with her body. She stood upright once more, breathed in, out, in and out, drank a glass of water, and prepared herself to take on the challenge of cleaning up her nightmare manifest within reality.
There were only a few drips, but suddenly she realized, having seen the counter, that there must be more beyond the confines of her apartment. Breathing in, she nodded then, looking toward the door, imagining it, a dark pool; she could see it shuddering and then suddenly she had a vivid flash of her dream, the walls from the night before, the blood streaking down. She closed her eyes and violently shook her head, attempting to dislodge the insurgent memories. Then, still shaking and now groaning loudly, angrily and with desperation, she covered her eyes with her hands too. As she began pressing her fingers into her eyes, the echo of the dream began to fade, her groans became punctuated, “uhhhhg.. uhhhg, uhg”, each one shorter than the last, and she gradually felt lighter. She stood still then, rubbed her hands along her face, each one toward a cheek, slowly as she released a sigh trailed by an extended exhaling, and she opened her eyes once more.
She looked around the apartment then, an expression of doubt and worry upon her face. The walls were immaculate; nothing had changed. She began rolling her shoulders, breathing in deeply, and reassured herself, “it was just a night terror. I’m just really stressed. It’s COVID and everyone is going through this.” She paused for a moment, not quite relieved, and repeated it all again, “It’s COVID. I’m just really stressed. It was just a nightmare. I’m not alone in this…” Then she rubbed her left hand along her face and forehead as if she had merely just woken from a new dream, and after a final deep breath, she walked toward the panty, grabbed the mop sheets and the mop, turned around and prepared to plunge into the task of cleaning up the blood.
Thus, she began to mop the floor with a simple cloth, armed also with a roll of paper towels with which to take on whatever might be lurking beyond the door. The mess inside disappeared almost instantly, a matter of seconds, and she paused briefly, setting the mop against the wall before opening the door. She took a deep breath, preparing for the worst, but also feeling as if she was ready.
Having already overcome the shock of the blood on the counter and the vision upon the walls, she truly felt prepared for that which she imagined awaited her on the other side. Thus, she opened the door and there it was, sitting before her almost exactly as she imagined, not quite as bad, actually. It was still, a still dark pool, almost black in contrast to the hardwood floor of the hallways. As she walked closer, she looked down into it and saw her reflection. It suddenly didn’t feel as terrifying; the blood was like a puddle of soda, spilt milk, a mere obstacle. She began to unroll the paper towels and to drop them onto the floor, each sheet of the descending ribbon immediately becoming saturated until the pile grew to a foot tall, extending approximately six inches beyond the edge of the pool. There it sat, a large pile of paper towels beneath which the blood was rising, and Cheryl went back into the apartment to grab a trash can, soapy water, and gloves. Setting it alongside the pile, she stooped down to her knees, managing to think not of the blood, but imagining instead that it was just like any other mess that she had had to clean up in the past. Thus, she felt wonderful, certain that she would have much to say to the store manager, but not succumbing to the overwhelming horror that had clutched her in her dream and upon the discovery of the blood on the counter in real life this morning.
Each handful grew wetter, darker, heavier, and they began to drip as if they were themselves fresh cuts of raw meat, tender and juicy. Yet Cheryl combated the association, imagining black cherry soda. With each wave of resurgent thought about the nature of what she was doing, she took a deep breath and said “black cherry soda… [breath] black cherry soda…” slowly repeating it as a mantra, visualizing it as she mindlessly transferred paper from floor to receptacle.
A residue remained and she calmly grabbed the remaining paper towels, wiping thoroughly, methodically, leaving not a single trace. Only a second later, there was none. Thus, she doused the floor with the suds, allowing them to soak, when suddenly people began to emerge from the door to the left. Cheryl looked up, a confused, flabbergast expression upon her face. They were all gabbing loudly, a line of them, like lemmings, a procession, four, five, eight of them. It was surreal. Cheryl couldn’t believe her eyes, her ears couldn’t discern speech, their high pitched, excited, joyful chatter, the winding down of a lovely weekend brunch, it was like her wildest fantasies and most terrifying nightmares woven into one. None of them were wearing masks.
Then he emerged, the neighbor, Arthur, so carelessly, a smile upon his face, leaning against the door frame, shouting after them, something about “hollandaise”, as if the world were still turning as it always had, as if the walls between them were not porous, their breath wafting through the vents to endanger her. Even now, here in the hallway, she felt stricken with fear and retreated into the safety of her home without a word, leaving a puddle in the hallway.
She looked in horror upon the vents in walls that separated them. “How long had they been there? Do they just walk around without masks willy nilly? How often does he do this?”, she found herself questioning. In the depths of panic, perhaps she had a fever already, she thought; perhaps that was why she had grown nauseous, she was sweating, she felt dizzy. She rushed to the pantry, grabbed foil, and began to cover the vents, all of them between him and her, while thinking to herself, “we will have to have truth and reconciliation meetings after COVID is over. What these people are doing is criminal. It’s inhumane.”
Then, upon establishing her forcefield, an absurd and yet emotionally effective contraption, she felt a renewed sense of calm and peeked her head out the door to verify that the hallway was clear. Then she returned to quickly dry the floor. Suddenly, it was as if the blood had never been there, as if it had all been a seamless nightmare, and yet a scar remained beyond the memory of all that had happened—little pieces of tin foil like the fillings in a cavity. Yes, Arthur had become like an infection that needed to be cured, she thought to herself, not just a filling, a root canal.
Thus, Cheryl put pen to paper. She called management. She mustered the courage to emerge from her apartment and travel further down the hallway beyond her sanctuary than she ever had before. She placed a letter upon his door and then she returned to her lair where she waited for her plan to unfold. The letter was clear, to the point, respectful, and demanding of respect.
I would appreciate if, due to the ongoing global health crisis and the risks that it presents to our health and literal survival, you would please refrain from having guests until the world returns to normal. I, personally, have not left my dwelling since March and this crisis would already be over if more people would similarly just stay home. Thus, I was deeply alarmed to see that you were having guests, how many of them there were, and that none of them were wearing masks. I have called management and I assume that you will be hearing from them. I cannot stress enough the gravity of this situation to me, to yourself, to your friends and family who might be visiting, and to the rest of humanity. Please stop, wear a mask, stay home, order contactless deliveries, attend virtual events, and do not put the rest of us in harm’s way for the sake of your own comfort and enjoyment.
Cheryl P. Halder
Yes, Cheryl’s note hung there upon the door, ominously waiting, flapping gently in the cool draft within the hallway, a thin piece of tape adhering it to the door, holding strong, adhesive, ensuring that Arthur would receive the message. Meanwhile, inside the apartment, Arthur and his friend Vinny were cleaning up the remaining dishes and spilt mimosas while tidying up in the wake of the latest influx of socialization.
Arthur waltzed about the living room collecting the champagne flutes scattered around, atop the tables, the bookshelf, the counters, and the windowsill. He looked up and toward the kitchen for a moment where Vinny was doing all the dishes himself. “It’s always so nice when people stay after the brunch and actually help out”, he thought to himself, temporarily forgetting about the state of the world, “If more people did that, I could do this more often. I could literally have dinner parties every day.” Then, and with a hopeful sigh, he returned to collecting the flutes until a sudden interruption came from the kitchen.
“What a waste”, Vinny commented from across the room as he poured a heaping mound of uneaten scrambled eggs into the trash beneath the sink.
Arthur perked up and turned around then, “Yea, but the eggs don’t save though and they’re kind of cold at this point. They’re just eggs”, he asserted before questioning, “Who gives a fuck?”, and downing one of the still almost full mimosas that had been left by one of the other guests.
“Yea, but they’re not just eggs”, Vinny responded with earnest concern, “There was gruyere in those, dude. Who brought those?”
“Ah, it was Trish. She always does that, brings fancy shit and insists on cooking it on location”, Arthur replied flippantly.
“Ok, but why can’t she just make a quiche or a frittata or something that we don’t have to throw away?”, Vinny questioned.
“You should tell her that. I dare you”, Arthur challenged.
“Point taken”, Vinny retorted immediately and with a chuckle. Trish had always been stubborn, taking everything slightly offensively, even when well intentioned. Thus, he paused then before adding, “Now that I think about it, they’re probably really expensive eggs too, like she literally went out to the organic farm to get this stuff.”
“That’s exactly what she did”, Arthur responded laughing to himself, “You didn’t hear her going on and on about it? Apparently, she’s been going out there like every weekend and buying all of her groceries in this little town’s farmers’ market. She also thinks it’s safer”, he said, squinting his eyes, attempting to find the logic that Trish found in her weekend excursions.
“Huh”, Vinny responded, setting a dish down and looking up over Arthur’s shoulder with a puzzled expression upon his face, “I only overheard her say something about how she was going out to stay at some cabin a lot recently.”
“Yea, it’s her parents’, but she can’t invite any of us to actually stay the weekend there because of COVID and all”, Arthur replied snarkily. Then his eyes lit up, a memory had just struck, “Get this though”, he said with a twisted smile, “Heather was telling me that she went out there for the day with Trish to hit up the farmers’ market a couple of weeks ago. Apparently, there were a bunch of people without masks, but Trish went on about the food still being ‘purer’, like the corona hasn’t soaked into it or some cooky bullshit like that.”
“What?”, Vinny responded, laughing and smiling with disbelief. “That’s one of the wilder COVID theories that I’ve heard recently. It’s up there with the bleach. That was my favorite”, he said before taking a breath, honing his eyes while looking toward the television, as if it was striking a memory, “Also, did you hear that story about the antimasker bar, the place on 45th that stayed open after the mayor ordered all the bars and restaurants citywide closed? There was this Trump supporter on the news, back when they forced them to shut it down, saying, and I shit you not, ‘This is our Stonewall’.”
“What?!”, Arthur exclaimed. All that he could do was laugh; it was one of those nasal laughs, caught in his throat, vibrating, like there was phlegm or something in the way, but then he suddenly started coughing. It was unexpected, and he quickly turned to shield the outburst with his left arm, catching the subsequent bout with his sleeve. A moment later though, recovered, he shook his head a little bit, blinked, and inhaled through his nose. “Sorry about that, I don’t know where that came from…” he said, still a little bit dazed, “I also don’t know how I ever missed that news clip. That has to have become a meme.”
“Yea it was a fire storm with all the gays. You know us. Maybe you should actually pay attention to social media, like other people’s posts and not just your own. I literally posted it twice a while back, the original and the musical rendition. I’ll can send it to you later, but we should probably get this all cleaned up”, he said, eyebrows raised as he scanned the room and returned to make eye contact before adding, “I’ve got shit to do this afternoon.”
“Yea, yea, of course”, Arthur said then, looking around and assessing what remained to be completed, “We don’t have to clean everything. You can get out of here whenever you want”, he assured Vinny.
“Yea, but I’m going to finish the dishes though”, Vinny replied, “Grab those and then give me a hand drying them all? I’ll head out after that.”
“Sounds good!”, Arthur responded, setting a handful of glasses upon the counter alongside the sink and heading back around the apartment to grab the remaining flutes and glasses that might be lingering about.
It went quickly and only ten minutes later, the final glass had been washed, dried, and placed in the cupboard, every detected spill of mimosa cleaned, and Arthur’s messenger bag packed for his own excursion beyond the confines of the apartment complex. Once they were both preparing to leave, Arthur figured that he would ask, “are you heading back to your place or toward the river? I’m heading that way if you’re interested in heading out together.”
“Oh cool, yea, um..”, Vinny responded pensively, “I’m just heading up North to pick up a grocery order, the delivery fees are way too expensive, so if you’re heading to the river, I’d be down. I’m a little bit late though so we have to go right now.”,
“Are you walking or driving?”
“Cool, me too. Let’s do it!”, Arthur responded gleefully, grabbing his messenger bag and heading toward the door with haste. It swung open rapidly and Vinny rushed out the door, Arthur behind him, all in a whirl, a piece of paper dangling, waving about unnoticed, the tape peeling, as if the sudden gust from their movement might dislodge it, and yet holding on by a sticky thread prior to grasping the door once more. There it remained, flitting about and yet still secure in the smooth draft that travelled throughout the hallway as the men disappeared down the stairs.
They walked swiftly, Vinny in the lead with Arthur keeping lockstep, shooting the breeze, “We have like this joint COVID/STD bubble. I’m effectively banished from it because of coming to your gathering, I’ll have you know. It’s the COVID, but I know you…”, he said, looking over toward Arthur with his eyes focused, a serious expression, “it could be both… fortunately for me, that’s just not how STIs work.”
“Oh no, poor you”, Arthur responded sarcastically, “what are you going to do now? Mope around for two weeks until they let you back in?”
“No, there’s this couple I was hanging out with before”, he responded, speaking as quickly as he was walking, “I actually started messaging them again during brunch today once I realized that I had to tell everyone about going to your party”, he paused then, casting side eye at Arthur, “Heather coughed, you coughed, she said, ‘it went down the wrong tube’, like she’d just sipped her drink the wrong way.”
“Yea, that’s totally what happened with me too, don’t worry about it”, Arthur interjected immediately, a nervous expression upon his face.
Vinny rolled his eyes and continued his statement, now speaking allegro again, “Ok, yea, but this is COVID; we can’t take chances like that. I have to, at the very least, inform the bubble. It would be like a chain reaction and then they’d trace it to me, you know, ‘he was the only one who went to a party’, they’d find out, point fingers, and I’ll like never have a social life again, even once corona is over.”
“Yea, that makes sense. You can always come hang out with me, no bubble here to worry about”, Arthur added, attempting to assuage concerns.
“Yea, that’s kind of the problem, Arthur. I love you to death, but you should also probably create a bubble. It’s like getting really serious now. Someone that I actually know finally got it and she said it was terrible. Even though she didn’t have any symptoms, she couldn’t leave her tiny studio for almost two weeks and had to order all of her groceries, [emphatic] everything, delivery.”
“I’d lose my fucking mind if I couldn’t be out here every day”, Arthur responded, sighing, shaking his head, looking forward, his eyes wide, imagining it as they approached an intersection and Vinny began to turn toward the right.
“Oh shit!”, Vinny shouted, suddenly shoving Arthur toward the crosswalk that had been right in front of them just as he was rounding the corner. A group of five maskless persons was approaching them, travelling southbound in a pack. Vinny and Arthur weren’t wearing masks either, not yet at least.
This part of town was kind of sleepy, not too many people around until one started getting closer to the river and the city center. “Who needs a mask when the streets are always so empty, like my own little playground”, Arthur always thought to himself, a mask tied around his neck for easy retrieval and the illusion of caring. They were growing closer to downtown now though, and Vinny led them forward across the street from where he had intended to turn northward, Arthur still a little bit startled, but keeping pace. The sidewalk ahead was empty though and the two men pushed forward as Vinny complained about the realities of COVID, “there are just too many fucking people around here. Maybe we should just all go out to the mountains wherever Trish has been going and set up our own little colony until all of this blows over.”
“I’m not sure that that’s actually going to be any better. There are still people out there. You just have to find the bright side no matter where you are”, he replied coolly before being overcome with excitement, “Get this, sometimes I think of it like a game. It’s like that one with the frog, but with people. The covidiots walk right up to you without a mask, but your mission is to cross the street to consistently maintain social distancing while avoiding oncoming traffic. Sometimes there are people and their dogs on the other side of the street. Thus, you have to devise creative strategies of maintaining social distance. There is also a high probability that, if you have one with you, your dog will pause to go poop, leaving you vulnerable to any oncoming Covidiot that might be coming your way. You can never be sure of the other player’s type, not until they are up close and personal. Thus, one must assume that all players are covidiots unless masked.”
“Ok, but what if you’re wearing a mask? Doesn’t that solve all of the problems?”, the friend asked in return, suddenly realizing that he wasn’t wearing one either and grabbing it immediately from his pocket.
“Yea, ok, but who actually wears a mask all the time. It’s not like I’m going to wear a mask while I’m walking in the park, in the streets at night, or when no one else is around.”
“I guess that you still have to avoid the Covidiots even when you’re wearing one”, Vinny replied then, having already donned his mask. Then he too perked up, an idea having come to him, “Ok, imagine this, if it were an actual game, there would be more powerful Covidiots out there, the ones that like walk up to you and start coughing on you. Also, some of them start following you and you have to run and seek shelter.”
“That’s legitimately within the realm of possibility these days. I’d defend myself though”, Arthur countered.
“Yea, but then you get COVID. You just have to fucking run”, Vinny retorted, laughing, and then pausing to stand on the street corner, now only a couple of blocks away from the river. “Anyhow, I’m heading up that way”, Vinny said, motioning toward one of the bridges that traffic was driving along into the heart of the city.
“Cool, I’ll probably keep heading up this way toward Schetle park”, he said, motioning forward, “you know, where that statue of the eagles fighting along the river is?”
“Ah, ok, sounds good! I ride my bike around there sometimes. Have fun!”, Vinny said then.
“Yea, you too, man. Also, we should make this brunch happen again sometime soon. I’ll make eggs benny next time”, Arthur suggested eagerly.
“Ok”, Vinny responded with a laugh. “We’ll see how I feel whenever that pops up. It’s hard to tell these days with the rona and all. I kind of want to get back into the bubble that I was in though; that was a lot of fun…”, he said then, as if musing to himself wistfully and scrunching his face with a smile.
“Cool, well, I’ll send you an invite anyways. Now that I think about it though, brunch might have been much more interesting if it had been more like that bubble you were talking about. You’ve given me ideas, dear friend”, Arthur said than, his eyes lighting up, thoughts firing within him.
“Yea… mmm”, Vinny said then squinting, shaking his head. “I probably don’t want to be a part of that, to be honest, but I fully support you and anyone who joins you. I love the girls, but no… just no”, he added as his visualization of the scene transitioned from visceral reaction to laughter.
Arthur laughed too and then they parted ways, Vinny heading northward and Arthur toward the park further west along the river. The sidewalks were fairly empty as Arthur continued his stroll, only a few dog walkers, people on the patios in the apartment buildings rising above him, and trash eerily blowing in the wind in the streets between them. It was a different story when he reached the park though. It was teeming with life—children flying kites, sunbathers, socially distanced Pilates classes, and myriad persons exercising, having picnics, enjoying the abnormally sunny winter day. All that one had to do was locate an open spot along the grass, the trail, the riverside and set up camp.
He found one quickly, on the edge of the grass, along the trail, overlooking the river and he sat to read and write. Joggers, bikers, walkers, young and old, passed by him in a steady stream as he sat there reading a novel and jotting down ideas, thoughts, memories that came to him within his journal. He’d done this for years, since high school actually, watching the world around him and within the pages, “It’s strange to me that the description of the book is nothing like what people say it’s about. It’s supposed to be all about trying to get into this castle, but the character never actually tries to get in, he just flounders”, he wrote before pondering and adding, “It’s like me talking about having sexy brunches, but never doing anything about it.”
Inspired by his observation, Arthur sent out a carefully selected flurry of feelers to persons that he felt might be interested in realizing the vision, creating such a bubble, and together enjoying some bubbly mimosas and more. He sent it to a few other people too, just for shits and giggles, imagining that Sara and others who he knew would never attend might at least see the beauty in it. Responses were slow to come in, though a few swift rejections arrived as he attempted to dive back into the book. Try as he might to reenter the pages, his attention had shifted from the book to a low intensity anxiety about who might express legitimate interest in making it all happen, his own little fantasy castle world amidst global crisis. One response came from a friend, “Not interested, but I kind of want to hear about it. It makes me think about this hurricane that I was in and how everyone just started wanting to bang after it was over, like a biological response or something like that. Power to you guys!”
“Yes, yes”, Arthur thought to himself semisarcastically, “if only we could just write about these experiences without living them”, prior to drafting and sending his response, “You shall live vicariously through me, attendance in spirit, though absolute pleasure will be mine. I will send updates as we delve further into the madness.” Satisfied then, with his cleverness at least, he awaited further replies while encountering nothing but silence. Yet the book too remained impenetrable, dense, and kind of boring to him. Thus, he had to look around him as the flow of passersby continued uninterrupted, constantly flowing until he detected a strange anomaly on the other side of the stream of persons. They were like stones protruding from a stream.
It was a huddle of men in the shade of a tree along the river, like a pack passionately arguing, emphatically moving their hands as they did. Already quite enthralled to imagine what they must have been talking about, he suddenly recognized one of them, the antimasker he had encountered previously along the lake, the one who had spat upon him. Thus, he reached for his notebook to begin scripting his imagined version of their conversation. He had always believed that hate crime, voter intimidation, domestic terrorist, and coup planning went on behind closed doors, in dark basements like dungeons and makeshift military bases, yet here it all was unfolding before him.
Thus, as one man in a cutoff t-shirt with bald eagles on it vehemently shook his open palms in the air, shouting toward the man that Arthur had met, he imagined himself as a tiny insect sitting upon a shoulder, eavesdropping as, in Arthur’s mind, the man was explaining his devious proposal to preserve the current regime, “We just have to send people with coronavirus into their gatherings. It’s that simple. Make them scared to congregate, disempowerment in numbers.”
Then as another unmasked man in a Hawaiian t-shirt appeared to intervene calmly, his hands extended, similarly open, palms down, bouncing gently, like the down signal, as if playing the voice of reason, he imagined him saying, “we can’t do that; that’s essentially biological warfare. We can, however, tell them that someone is going to do that… make them believe.” He could see the man’s eyes homing in as he sought to persuade the others to take this less perilous middle ground.
And then, just as he had hoped, his friend stepped forward to speak, “Yes, that’s perfect, because coronavirus isn’t real, [dramatic pause] but they believe that it is.”
They appeared to continue talking, but Arthur was already extremely satisfied with himself, his imagined version of events, and thus, he leaned backward to look up into the sky and watch the clouds float by, slowly, shapelessly, like gentle waves along the seashore. The birds flitted about too, tiny sparrows, and then a falcon circling as the sun peaked in and out of the clouds above. He grew drowsy as he observed the world turning around him, mimosa still swimming within him, but the sun’s rays continued striking every so often between waves of cumulus culminating in layers of haze that were growing thicker. If he’d stayed any longer, the light gradually diminishing, he might have fallen asleep then and there, but he rose, noticed that others were leaving the park, the conspirators beneath the tree had similarly vanished, and it felt as if something in the air had suddenly shifted. It was about to rain.
Yes, it began raining only two minutes later as he was gingerly walking along the grass toward the streets to return to the apartment complex. Thus, he sheltered his books within the messenger bag beneath his shirt, like a beer belly. It was pouring, soaking him, and the torrential downpour would have seeped into his bag and into their pages, but he leaned forward, hunching as he walked amidst the storm to return home, thunder echoing behind him.
And as he entered the lobby of the complex, emerging just past the welcome mat and onto the tile in the center, he heaved a sigh of relief as a puddle began to form around him. As he stood there, he also realized that his legs, especially his toes, the extremities, had grown numb and tingly. He moved them a little bit, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wiggled his toes, grew accustomed to the fleeting sensation, and then he took the messenger bag out, finding that it was mostly dry, the books preserved. Then, having achieved his mission, he looked around and had to decide whether he should take the stairs or the elevator. The stairs would be slippery, what with him already having formed a lake within the lobby, he’d probably have to call management about that lest other residents slip, and with his toes like phantom limbs he realized that it had to be the elevator. The stairs would simply be too risky.
Then, as he waited for the elevator to descend, he noticed a small yellow folding sign leaning against the mailboxes, “Caution. Wet Floor”, and he decided to be a good neighbor. Thus, he grabbed it and placed it there in the middle of the lobby amidst the puddle that he had created. Yet, as he was doing so, the elevator dinged behind him and he turned around, almost slipping, as Marcus, a friendly older man with a walker from Arthur’s floor, emerged. Marcus was smiling too, and his eyes lit up as if he was excited to see him.
“Arthur!”, he shouted, “What have you done this time?”
“It’s just some water from the rain”, he responded, “I’m really sorry about that.” He straightened his posture immediately and felt cornered, hoping that Marcus wasn’t going to report him to management.
“No, no, Arthur, it ain’t that”, he clarified with a drawl, shaking his head, grinning, and then adding, “I take it you didn’t see that note Cheryl left for you yet, did you?”
“No, it wasn’t there when I left a couple of hours ago”, Arthur responded, confused, running through the memory, uncertain about why Cheryl would have put a note on his door, “I literally haven’t even been in the building.” Then the answer came to him, “It’s probably just about an apartment event.”
“No, it ain’t”, Marcus said, chuckling and shaking his head again, “I didn’t get one. No one I talked to got one. You musta done sometin’ real special. And you hear me, word on the street is that she actually doesn’t even take a single step outside her apartment no more, hasn’t for months, like she’s hardcore fallout, you know…”
“Yea, weird, I haven’t actually seen or heard from her since like April or something like that, if even. Thanks for the heads up though”, Arthur said, still wondering what Cheryl might have written in the letter.
“You keep yourself outta trouble kid”, Marcus said then in fatherly manner, “corona’s gettin’ neath the skin on some of these people, you know? And Cheryl, she was always uppity too, but rare form, rare form when I was in a complex online meetin’; I haven’t seen you at those. You shoulda seen her though, like she owns the damn place…”, and then he muttered to himself, “uppity.”
“Huh”, Arthur responded, mystified, grinning and nodding, imagining it, and laughing. “Ok, well you have great day Mr. Santos, sir. It was really nice to see you. Be careful with the puddle here!”
Marcus, Mr. Santos to Arthur, nodded in approval then, Arthur had always seemed so respectful, and, thus, he continued along, making his way toward the entryway, donning his mask and disappearing out the door. As he did so, Arthur entered the elevator and felt a subtle tremor as his phone began to vibrate again within the messenger bag. It was now safe to check it and he was shocked to discover interested responses to his invitations from earlier, approximately five of them, and a voicemail from an unknown number.
However, the correspondences had to wait. He was freezing, still dripping as if he himself were a tiny raincloud, and his hands were also a little bit numb as he fumbled with the phone without dropping it before putting it away again and grabbing for his keys. Thus, when he exited the elevator, he rushed toward the door and saw the letter hanging there, but his hands were full, so he rushed right on in without grabbing it, determined to read all the messages on his phone. Cheryl’s letter could wait.
Then, once safely within his apartment again, the door closed behind him, he began stripping the layers of wet clothing from his body and stood there naked amidst the warmth within. His whole body was adjusting to the temperature shift and his legs, now bright red, were especially itchy as if they were being eaten alive by ants. Thus, he turned on the shower, high heat, but he knew that he had to wait a few minutes or the shock would be too intense. Instead, he sat there in the thickening steam, his legs driving him crazy, but scratching them only made it worse, and he read the messages, growing more excited with each one and gradually forgetting about the discomfort his body was experiencing and the letter hanging patiently just outside his door.
Then he remembered the voicemail, not sure of who would have had a reason to call him. Perhaps people had been sending his idea down the grapevine. It wasn’t really for other people to know, but hey, “it could interesting”, he thought to himself. Then he heard it.
“Dear Mr. Trakotsky, Marlite Management recently received a complaint from one of your fellow residents that you are in violation of the emergency occupancy limits. The six-person limit is to permit the reunion of families for the purpose of holidays, which, given the existence of birthdays, technically occur 365 days a year. While we maintain the six-person limit at all times to ensure that our residents are able to be with their loved ones, especially on special days, we request that you do respect the extraordinary circumstances for the sake of the community. We have a list of venues that can be contracted for larger family gatherings. We apologize for the inconvenience.
This is a first warning about the occupancy limit for your unit, and we are not taking action against you at this time. However, should the infraction occur again, there will be a $500 penalty and subsequent violations may result in an eviction. Thank you for your understanding. As always, we at Marlite Management care deeply about the health and safety of our communities as we seek to give you and your fellow residents the elite experience in city living. Have a wonderful day. [click]”
It was really obvious who was behind this. It was Cheryl. “It’s not like we were all up in her apartment or something. We were just in here minding our own business”, he thought to himself. “Is she spying on me?”, he questioned then. He grew frustrated, angry, thinking to himself, “It’s COVID and I shouldn’t have to put up with this bullshit. She probably just doesn’t have anything better to do and it makes her feel big or something to mess with other people’s good time. Yea, she’s always been a consistent pain in my ass. This isn’t anything new, it’s just the same stream of NIMBY do-gooder bullshit.” Then, as his train of thought evolved and his convictions hardened, he had a moment of inspiration.
One of the messages hadn’t just been interest in the future sexy brunch party, but had a mention of, “down for tonight too after the storm.” Thus, right before jumping into the hot shower, Arthur delivered his response, “What are you doing right now? I feel like being really loud.”
* * *
I felt that this was a good point at which to end the sharing of the piece. I have written a lot more, but it gets rough after this point. Chapter 10 is very long and recounts the entire journey of Cheryl to the evening of Arthur’s loudness in greater depth, the multiple points where the people push her, whether knowingly or unknowingly, willfully or unintentionally, to become a phoenix reborn. If you only read until the end of chapter nine, it’s not ambiguous about who the culprit might be. It seems like Arthur just gets really loud and Cheryl snaps. That’s not what happens though. This is merely the beginning, the rendering of Cheryl into ash. However, her rebirth is silent and invisible. She becomes the flame that operates through many bodies, seeking to establish a new regime of COVID Justice throughout the world. Meanwhile, Arthur and other Covidiots find themselves amidst a chaotic world, buffeted by thousands of subtle cuts emanating from an unknown source. Thus, Arthur forms a partnership with the antimaskers from the riverside who are experiencing similar patterns of psychological attack, though they believe the reason to be political and partisan. Thus, further chaos ensues as Cheryl seeks to birth a new world order.
I have questioned the tastefulness of the passage in which Arthur imagines the musical and bloody scene at the neighbors. The idea, and why I chose to maintain it, is that it comes full circle at the time of his own death in the first version that I wrote. There is music that melds with the moment as the officers investigate and I imagined it playing at the time when the culprit enters in a fit of passion. I also wanted to make Arthur rather contemptible, to be totally honest. I feel as if I accomplished that.
Thank you to my parents, Lynn and Anthony Elliott, and to my family. I also wish to thank professor Roberto Rocha, who introduced me to the poetry of Kostantinos Kavafis. Beyond those brief acknowledgements, I also wish to thank all the people who have educated me throughout the years, invested into my studies, and provided support to my continued writing and art practice.
Copyright: Thomas Christopher Elliott, 2021