Updated: Sep 15, 2021
The road stretched into the illimitable darkness. Due west and north the sun was dipping down beneath the horizon. Bryson stared out into the empty highway as the orange light streaked overhead and lost the battle with the coming darkness. The clouds loomed black as pitch. He rubbed his eyes and reached for a container of chewing tobacco. Plopping a gob on the left side of his mouth, a few flakes fell on to his uniform.
Bryson was big, even for the Logan County Sheriff department, which boasted many big fellows. In his youth, a kid called him Lenny. Bryson never understood the literary reference and he didn’t care to. He only knew it was an insult, so he punched the guy’s cheek. It caused a stream of red to pour from his mouth. Bryson learned then and there that he did not enjoy hurting people. Later he and the boy became friends and never discussed the incident, or the meaning of the insult.
He shook his head groggily. Again? He thought. Why can’t I ever remember not to touch my face? He sighed in exasperation at his own forgetfulness as he grabbed a bottle of sanitizer and cleaned his hands.
His hands were barely dry when a car drove by. It was not speeding. The old beater was incapable of speeding. Bryson could tell there was a lone person in the car, unless someone was hidden in the backseat. His eyes bulged at a realization. How could this car be on the highway? It was not essential personnel, not in that vehicle. The universal lockdown had been in effect for five weeks, and this man was breaking the law.
Bryson burst into action, his siren blasted out the familiar sounds of police cars everywhere with its red and blue strobing lights. The Oldsmobile was tottering down the highway at a measured fifty five miles per hour. Once Bryson’s car was behind it, the man put on his right turn signal and slowly got off the road. He had stopped perfectly beside the side barrier, with plenty of room for other vehicles on the road to pass.
Only, there were no other vehicles.
Bryson’s stomach roiled in anticipation of what was inside. He had yet to meet the men who broke quarantine, but this behavior had been explained to him. They acted as if this was not another national lockdown, as though life continued without hiccough. But everything had changed, since the quarantine in early 2020. A universal lockdown meant a universal lockdown. Essential personnel could be identified by special IDs. Their vehicles—mostly trucks and SUVs—were marked by government decals. This began at the close of the second quarantine.
This man had neither. He appeared to be a normal citizen. Bryson had been trained trained to recognize normal threats. It was different these days. Men acted unexpectedly. Interactions during quarantines were almost always heated, even if the person was rational and coherent. Worse were the men who exhibited no emotions. They would pretend as though nothing unusual were occurring. One moment, you were dealing with a routine ticket for breaking quarantine, and the next moment your eyes were being gouged by their keys.
Bryson’s hand went to the walkie on his dash. “I’ve got a Code 2. Lone driver.”
The response was the grating voice of a heavy smoker, “There’s been a break out at Sterling Correctional Facility. Be advised.”
Brysons’ door popped outward and his size fourteen boot crunched the ground near his vehicle. He stepped out and unclasped his side-arm. His wide set shoulders hunched inward as he crept closer to the vehicle in anticipation of action.
He moved to the driver side window, and as he approached he could make out a ragged head of hair. It was hoary and wild, as though the man had been trapped in a cave for many weeks. If he had cooperated with quarantine, then he had been inside for five weeks. Moving closer Bryson could see the thin sallow skin of an invilad or a very old man. He confirmed the latter as he noticed the lines arcing all over his neck and face. The old man breathed calmly. It was the breath of an animal resting, not a man anxious. Yet, listening more carefully, and Bryson thought he could hear a rattle deep in the old man’s esophagus.
“Step out of the vehicle.” Bryson wanted to be calm but something terrified him about the man. Even he and his fellows in law enforcement were told very little about the effects of the newest virus that had caused this new outbreak.
“Walk around to the front of your vehicle.” Bryson said, the attempt to control himself from screaming was a growing challenge.
The old man was insensibly subdued to settled quiet. He took orders without anger or malice or fear or hatred. Bryson moved behind the old man and said, “Now place your hands on the hood of your car.” The figure was lean and his hands were rheumatic. He complied. The way the man moved indicated his body must be feeling pain and yet it did not register on the countenance of the man.
Bryson sauntered around the Oldsmobile. It was rusted. The tires had almost no tread. The exhaust sagged to the ground, as did the carriage. It was a befitting vessel for the old man. Despite its age, it had traveled without complaint.
“Open the trunk!” Bryson found himself yelling for no reason.
The old man unbent his figure and reached into his pocket to retrieve the keys.
“Hold it!” Bryson screamed remembering the tale of keys in eyeballs.
The old man froze.
Bryson came to him, roughly reached into the man’s pocket and retrieved the keys. They clinked rather than jingled. There were just two lonely keys on a lonely chain. A key to open the car and a key to ignite the car. There were no house keys, no mail key, no storage locker key, none of the normal links to life kept precariously in the pockets of men. The man with a skeleton key is trusted with the world. A man without any metallic openers of human portals is a mystery, his past unknown and his future unclear. A man without keys is a man without a present.
Opening the trunk, Bryson had been prepared for anything but only found a few jugs of water and sub sandwiches wrapped in foil.
The old man must be a runner. They always caused problems. This man didn’t seem to be causing problems. Most runners just run without knowing where they are going. This old man knew where he was going.
Bryson returned to the figure who was now lit only by the dirty headlights of his own worn down vehicle. The darkness had overtaken all and nothing but a black ocean surrounded them.
“ID.” He said. Then added “please.” Bryson had relaxed considerably now that he was certain the man was alone and keyless.
The old man moved only slightly quicker than a sloth. It was not done out of spite, but out of the reality of his sallow muscles and brittle bones.
Finally, he handed over his ID.
“Ben.” Bryson said.
The old man stared straight ahead. His vehicle behind him lighting the path East. His gaze rested on the direction he had been driving. His face was a testament of serenity. Something stirred in Bryson. An envy at the man’s acceptance of all that was around him, while he maintained the posture of a man about to burst forward in a race. It was the tortoise at the starting line.
“Where are you from? Says Colorado. Do you know that you’re in Sterling, Colorado now? How long have you been traveling?”
Ben’s slumped figure bespoke a man who once had great pride in his body. Could he have stood tall on a mountain, he would appear to bely the mountain. He did not answer any questions until the final.
His voice was full. Or so Bryson thought. Actually his voice was slow and low. He said as to a simpleton, “Many miles.”
“And how much further?” Bryson asked.
“Many more miles.” Ben said.
“You know there’s a universal lockdown in effect? Has been for five weeks. Notice there’s no one else on the road? Only reason I saw you was that there's a jail not far from here and there've been a lot of breakout attempts recently.”
Ben did not answer. He looked into the darkness, due East like a migrating bird waiting to be released to return to its sojourn.
“You’re lucky I pulled you over and not the Red Police. Those boys with their red sashes will kill you if they caught you. You know they’ve been given full authority to act however they see fit, in order to protect the nation during these pandemics. Who knows what they would do to you, sir. Hell, they may even be right. Maybe you’re the one spreading the virus despite our lockdown. Are you a typhoid mary? Ah don't answer. What would it matter? There’s probably not a virus anyway. At least not anymore. Even if you did have it, you’d be the one to die from it, at your age. Don’t you know it's been killing the old like a forest fire burning through sagebrush? So you’re heading east for many more miles. That old vehicle won’t get you many more miles. How many more miles? Ah it doesn’t matter. Who the hell does that red sash bastard think he is giving me orders? This is my county. I’m not going to give you a ticket. What would that even do? What do they expect from me? To beat you up? To throw you in jail so you can be surrounded by the infected? To shoot you? That’s insane. You know if I report you, they’ll never let you go wherever it is you are going. This whole country has gone to pot. I’m at least lucky enough to be able to get out of my house. You hear about these people stuck in their homes going crazy and killing each other? Not everyone is built for prison life. Some thrive on it while others kill their wives. I’ve heard the stories. It's’ an insane asylum. An entire country. Hundreds of millions of people in an enormous insane asylum. No one even reports on it anymore. But I hear about it. We still have water coolers in our department. My god the stories we could tell if a single reporter came in and started recording. Not that we aren’t being recorded. Not the same when big brother does it. He’ll only release the facts convenient to him and his current narrative. Insanity. All right. Been nice talking to you. Don’t get to talk to people much anymore. Best be on your way. Got many miles to go.” Bryson smiled and helped the old man into his vehicle.
He handed the keys to Ben and patted the window door of the car twice, thus giving his blessing and sending the vehicle on its way.
The car’s engine ignited on the first try, and yet Bryson could tell it would not start in a few more tries.
While Ben’s Oldsmobile pulled back onto the highway, Bryson grew extremely tired. His eyes drooped into a sleep as the image of two red dots faded into the blanket of black before him.
Iowa City, Iowa
Burt’s belly was big, but his laugh was bigger. Out of habit he stopped at his favorite truck stop. Cheryl still worked there, despite the lockdown. She was an institution. Nothing could remove her from behind her counter.
The night was long. All the nights seemed endless to Burt, now that there was no one on the road. Occasionally he would pass another truck, but even trucks were seldom. There was no need to batch together in order to avoid traffic, so they spread out into their own schedules. Truckers still frequented their houses by the side of the road, which they called rest stops. Even the rest stops were bare. Truckers traveled at their own pace, fewer and fewer felt the urgency to rush to their destination. Not anymore, now that the regulations stipulated all aspects of their job, from weight of freight to speed. Where some truckers had slowed down, saying they saw no reason to work harder than expected, Burt kept pushing forward as fast as he could.
He maneuvered his big rig down the long flat surface of the station and pulled toward a pump. Under normal circumstances he would have to wait for the other trucks to finish gassing up. Sometimes a confused traveler in a minivan would meander into the trucker’s den; flustered with an anxious wife and frantic children, the driver would navigate through the big hulking machines to the other side of the station. All the kids would burst out of the van like exploding confetti. The family dog bounding after the youngest boy. The station had a rather large field of grass bucking up against the black asphalt of the parking lot. Many trucker stops were operated by lazy folk, who would allow glass and other objects to be tossed to contaminate their pristine verdure. Not Cheryl. She ran a tight ship. The parents walked on the grass and were pleased at its condition. Kids ran around and a flock of birds squawked as they flew away.
No longer, thought Burt. Now it was just him.
After gassing up, he grabbed the hose and started to wash the front of his vehicle. It was dirtier than he would get pre-quarantine, as though the earth had a specified amount of dirt to spread but less individuals on whom to spread it. With the five foot long squeegee, he wiped clean the bugs and earthly excrement from his window. There was no line to use the water hose and so Burt felt no rush to finish. This annoyed him, because he had always had such pride in what he did. People ate, due to his fanatical drive to deliver his goods on time. Industry operated due to his ability to push beyond human limits and deliver a load of essential materials to a diamond plant or a steel manufacturer. Whether tornado, flood, war, and now pestilence, he would deliver his load to its intended destination. He was the blood that coursed through the veins of America. But now the blood was clotted. He felt lachrymose.
Hanging up the squeegee he walked toward the station store, when something caught his eye. It gave him hope and made him smile.
It was a car. Not much of a car. He was surprised it could drive at all. Its paint was flicking off in the light breeze. The tires appeared deflated. There was a dent on the right side; the under-carriage sagged so far it must have caused sparks when it moved. There was no way, Burt realized, that the driver of that oldsmobile could be essential personnel. He must be one of those Crazies he’d heard about roaming around. Radio and podcasting were allowed, though it was all government run and operated. They announced relevant news. The podcast world was now under the purview of an expanded F.C.C. Most shows were wiped out unless they could get certified. Still, some news got out. Burt had heard the stories of men who went crazy. Some escaped their homes to purposefully spread the virus in the hopes of ensuring the end times. A young man who had heard of a peculiar tactic used by the original settlers, started coughing and sneezing on blankets and giving them as gifts. Other people broke out of their homes and randomly coughed in the face of whoever they could find. Others just made a run for it. They rarely got far.
Quickening his pace, Burt burst through the outer door and then the inner door of the store.
His voice was frantic as he shouted “Cheryl!”
“The hell you yelling for Burty?” Cheryl screamed back. She was rotund. Her belly could match Burt’s pound for pound and burger for burger. Her hair was stringy like spaghetti. But she still smiled and laughed despite the sadness sagging around her eyes.
“Thank god. I’d thought that something might have happened. You see that car out there?”
“Yes. Belongs to some old man. He used the restroom and left.”
“Know where he went?” Burt asked.
“Nope. He was quiet, so I left him alone. He was harmless enough. I liked his look. He seemed the kind you can just sit with and enjoy a beer. Not like you loud mouth truckers. Ooh! Boy do you stink. All the showers are open. Use ‘em all Burty boy. You need it.” Burt laughed.” Thanks Cher.” Wanna join?” He winked.
“Get out of here before I beat you with a mop. Couldn’t handle me anyway.”
“End of days and all. Worth a try.”
“Don’t talk like that! You know I hate it.”
“Right. I’m sorry. Oh. I’ve got a great one for ya. A friend of mine was driving his truck and he stopped at a red light, when the woman behind him jumped out of her car, ran to his door and knocked. My friend lowers the window and looks at her curiously. ‘Hi!,’ she says, ‘My name’s heather and you’re losing some of your load.’
My friend closes the window and when the light turns green, he drives ahead. At the next red light, the girl catches up to him again. She leaps out of her car, runs up and knocks again. He lowers the window. Again, she says, ‘Hi! My name is Heather and you are losing some of your load.’
My friend rolls his eyes and races off to the next light to escape her. When he stops again, this time he bursts out of his truck and runs back to the girl’s car. He knocks on the window, and as she lowers it, he says, ‘Hi! My name is Kevin. It’s winter in Iowa and I’m driving the Salt Truck!”
HAHAHAHAHA. Burt’s belly rumbled with the punchline.
He noticed Cheryl was not laughing. She was crying.
What's wrong? It can’t have been that bad.” “You’ve told that one before. But this time…”
They both caught their breath as they glanced around the vacant gas station.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right. Not a time for a joke. Not saying that that didn’t happen to my friend of course!” HA HA HA HA
Cheryl smiled through her tears. “Lucky number seven. I saved it just for you. Now get out of here. You really do stink.”
Burt left with a bow.
After showering, he ordered a pizza and sat to eat. For a drink he had more of a bucket than a cup. He shoved it under the coca-cola spout and a thick funnel of brown liquid spewed out. It took several long moments to fill.
There was a hush in the store. The shifting ice rumbled in the ice machine. All the usual sounds of a busy gas station were missing: the non-stop bell over the door, the clattering of families in the small diner, the suction from the freezer section, the hiss from a truck stopping.
Burt put his hands over his face and squeezed hard. His fingers gripping into the top of his scalp. He felt the fingernails dig deep. He suppressed the urge to scream. Putting his hands together he pushed his arms into one another as one squeezing a ball between one's hands. This was Burt’s way to gain control over the emotions bubbling inside him.
“Cher. I’m sorry. I have to go.”
The loquacious woman did not speak. She lifted the countertop barrier between her and the store, walked over to Burt and hugged his head. Her enormous bosom enveloped his skull. Neither moved for several long moments.
He stood up and kissed her forehead. He grabbed his drink and refilled it. He started to pile together candy bars, sandwiches and other treats for the road. He placed a hundred dollar bill on the table and left.
Hopping into his truck rejuvenated him. He still had several states to traverse and he would feel better once his tires ate up the road.
Just as he was entering the freeway and ramping up speed, Burt saw a man walking on the side of the freeway. His demeanor was of a man who must be in pain, whose limbs were brittle and yet there was a source within that pushed him to lift one weak limb and then drop it to the ground before him.
He was a man by whom all effort seemed forgotten; one to whom long patience has such mild composure given that patience seems a thing which he no longer needs. Burt thought that the old man must have been a trucker at one point in his life. He had the measured movements of one who has enough experience to know that in the grand scope of a wide traveler too much speed slows you down. Better to move evenly than to greedily eat the road. The truckers who lasted the longest and moved the most goods from one point to the other were the ones with a steady allotment of road to eat. After breakfast, one hundred seventy five miles. Finish lunch and gobble two hundred twenty five miles. Take a nap after dinner and then have another two hundred fifty miles for dessert. Every trucker would be different. Some could handle distances unfathomable to the lay driver. Nonetheless, consistency and planning were the ultimate traits of a good trucker.
This old man was one of them.
Burt pulled over and the old man took a long minute to arrive at the passenger door of the truck.
Burt hopped out and said, “hiya old timer. That your car back at the station? Yeah it must have been. You ain’t gonna give me trouble are you? No, I don’t think you will. If I give you a lift it’s illegal you know. How’d you get out here. Oh don’t answer that. I saw the car. Eaten anything? Good. I’ve got food. I’ve always got plenty of food, even for the end of the world! Where you headed?” “New York City.” The old man said, while his body was pointed like a compass in the direction he sought to go.
“I’m sorry but I can’t help you there. No way I’m going to that place. Not unless they triple my pay. You know it's under martial law? This whole country's gone crazy but New York City is its epicenter. What reason you got for going there? Trying to end your days in mayhem? No offense. I’ve heard some stories you know. Truckers talk and though I don’t believe half of what’s sprayed over the radio waves these days, if even half of half of it is true we will never be the America of my youth. . . . Let alone yours. Makes me sad. I can’t believe this is happening. And you know what? People still spit on truckers, like we’re vermin who drink too much Coca-Cola. Well I like coke dammit! It helps me deliver all this food in my truck. You know they actually believe truckers can be replaced. By what, these robots? That will ruin our country worse than it already is. Robots can never be trusted during a crisis. Robots have limits. Men have no limits. When disaster struck and all the gas stations were closed, we found a way to persevere. Try to have a robot figure that out. But the powers that be will replace my job with a bucket of screws. Then no one will know how to drive these rigs when they need it the most. I’d be mad if it all weren’t so sad. . . . Wife died ya know. After the second quarantine. No, I don’t know what happened. I was on the road. Just came back to a dead wife. I get lonely sometimes. I can’t go to New York City. They wouldn’t let me in if I could. This load will get to the city, but they inspect it so i can’t smuggle you in. Wait. Why are you leaving? What are you going to walk from Iowa to New York? My god. I hope you’re not a Crazy. You don’t seem like one. Unless determined really is crazy. Oh stop talking so much old man and hop in. I can get you to Newark, New jersey.”
The two men settled into the rig and Burt laughed. He looked sheepishly at the man and began singing “Hey you know what. . . we’re Breakin’ the law, breakin the law!” Burt’s voice was softer than he looked as he continued “So much for the golden future, I can’t even start, I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart. You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue. If you did you’d find yourself doing the same thing too.
“Breakin’ the law, breaking the law!”
Newark, New Jersey
“ID Sir.” The soldier was much too old to be checking IDs and the envy dripped over the edge of every line upon his face. He took the card and spittle flew from his mouth when he said “Abbey,” he paused and looked at the man sitting in his car.
“Actually it’s Abhay, like uh buh y.” “Yeah whatever abbey. Says you’re a scientist. Best be on your way then.” He tossed the ID back at Abhay, who rolled up his window and entered the tunnel.
Abhay was used to insolence, but not to the sense of aimlessness he personally felt. He had always been so focused on his work as to not notice when someone was rude. He noticed it now. Or, perhaps the world had grown more cruel.
The tunnel was like the river styx. It was deep and dark. Not all the lights were in operation. Up ahead one light burst and he was propelled further into darkness. There had always been a romanticism about the Lincoln tunnel into New York City. No matter how many times he had traveled its corridor, he felt he was going to or leaving from a land of magic.
The land was rotted to him now, like discovering the tree one built a fort from in youth was rotted from the core and would topple at any minute.
The aimlessness bothered Abhay even more. He did not know what to do about it, so he decided to drive wherever the road took him.
He lived in New Jersey. Going home felt impossible to him now. He had heard friends from the south talk about the joys of just driving—going crazy—they had called it. “Where you going? He would ask them. “Crazy!” and later he heard they went on a multi-state road trip. He was born in Pittsburgh to immigrant parents. Though he adopted most Americanisms happily this was one he never understood. Until today that is. Driving cleared his mind. He wanted to understand the events of his day. He desired to know but had little means by which to assess the disease that had gripped the minds of his fellow Americans.
As a researcher and medical doctor, Abhay had dealt with human fear; his own and others. It was rare to see a man completely at peace with the reality of his impending doom. Some could fake it in front of others, but broke down in private. Other’s pretended it wasn’t happening at all. Fear made sense to Abhay. It is rational to be afraid.
But this fear? The fear of a virus that might affect less than a percent of the population. Maybe. For that Americans dropped to their knees and allowed themselves to be shackled to their supposed protectors?
THe protectors made more sense to the Abhay then the protected. Except he knew more than most. He knew the secret that no one would believe were he to tell them.
Men in his profession were used to this. They were the Cassandras of society. The organization he worked for had warned the government of their lack of preparation for a pandemic since the 1990s.
No one wanted to hear it.
He shook his head. Ahead of him was a stop light. For no reason in particular, he turned left. Everywhere was darkened roads, each equal to the others.
He slammed on his breaks. Before him was a coyote. He had never seen one like this so close to the city. It stood in the beam of Abhay’s headlights glaring at him. The man felt for the first time in his life like he was the intruder in the animal's territory, rather than the other way around. The animal urinated on the road and moved haughty away.
The homo-sapien left, still bewildered at the state of the world. In no possible scenario had he imagined such a minor outbreak to be the catalyst to topple an empire. It did. Rome had fallen, and he knew it. No one else would know it. Not for a thousand years.
For two hours Abhay turned down road after road in New Jersey. He could have headed home but did not know how to face his wife. What would they do? She was stuck home but he knew the truth. This would be their life, forever.
Was there even a purpose to his profession anymore?
He ignored the red light and moved ahead, when again an animal crossed in front of him.
He slammed on his breaks at the last second.
The animal was a man. An old man.
His shoes were worn down almost revealing the socks beneath. His brown slacks had holes on both legs, his jacket was dirty and his hair in wild disarray. Bathed in the beam of Abhay’s car, startled the man not at all. He moved lugubriously. He was like the calm movement of a lake. He was by nature led to peace so perfect that Abhay was envious of the old man. It was an envy for a trait the old man did not even notice, no more than a cow chewing the cud contemplates its own ability to sit and stare. One step led to another and eventually the man had crossed the street. He was headed toward New York City.
For the first time in several hours, Abhay took cognizance of his surroundings. The old man was headed toward the Holland Tunnel into New York. At this pace, he would probably get there in fifteen to twenty four hours. There was something in the gait that told Abhay that he would get there. Though there was no longer an outer presence to the man, there was an inner strength that even a crumbling empire could not contend with.
Could this innocuous man be the Barbarian at the Gates? Thought Abhay. There were rumors among the scientific community about another strain of the virus that was even more contagious than the original. Abhay sighed. Did it matter now?
Turning his car, he followed behind the old man, inspecting his demeanor. There were stories circulating about The Crazies who had gone out of quarantine to wreak havoc and die. Others who broke free and didn’t know what to do, so they wandered the city like lost animals. This old man was something unique. There was ideological affliction in the brain causing havoc among the young while the virus obliterated the old. It was a war on two fronts. There was no telling how this old man fit in.
Abhay pulled his car over and stepped out.
“Sir. You can’t go that way.”
The man didn’t stop. He kept moving.
Abhay hopped into his vehicle and drove in front of the old man. Cutting him off from the next street.
He rolled down his window.
“Get in.” He said with the confidence of a doctor prescribing treatment.
The old man ignored him and began walking around the car.
“I’m telling you, you can’t go that way. All entrances into New York are closed, except for The Lincoln Tunnel. You need a decal to get in. Do you have a Decal? Then get in the car.”
Without a word or a sign of acknowledgement, the old man entered the passenger side of the vehicle.
Abhay walked around to the man and looked down at him. There was no sign of pain or fear in his eyes. He was a specimen who accepted his condition in life.
Abhay bent over and put his thumb under the man’s right eye.”
“I’m a doctor,” he said.
Peering into his eye, he saw a flicker of light. But it was just a reflection.
“Where are you going?”
“New York.” “I can see that. But why?”
The old man did not answer.
“Take a deep breath.”
The old man complied. Abhay felt a slight movement of air. There was an audible rattle.
Abhay stood up and crossed his arms. The wind blew behind him, rustling his hair.
“How far have you been traveling?” “Many miles.” Came the response.
“And how much farther?” “A few more miles.”
The young scientist signed for the second time that night. He put his hand in his pocket and took out his phone. There were several messages from his wife. He typed something into his phone and then shut down the machine, pushing it deep into his pocket.
He returned to the driver side. He turned to the old man and said:
“You know don’t you? Maybe no one told you but are you the one everyone is worried about? They shouldn’t worry about you. It doesn’t matter really. You’re not the one. You’re the one. It’s all the same now. I don’t know how to tell my wife though. I've known for sometime and it will break her if I tell her. Maybe I won’t. At least not tonight. You shouldn’t be out here. Not tonight. Not ever. But you’re dying. I’m sure you know that too. I can’t fathom how you have traveled any miles let alone many miles. I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist. The evidence! I always want the facts and proof and argumentation and experimentation. That has not been the accepted norm in my profession for decades. It’s worse today. You accept. You’re comfortable. I wish you’d tell me what is fueling you. How are you even alive? No. Don’t tell me. I’m sure the reality won’t match the fantasy. I’d like it to be world changing. I’d like it to be you that pushes everything over the edge. Maybe we can rebuild then. Maybe my wife and I could have a little hope for the future. The world needs to change dramatically. It won’t. Not for the better. Not yet. You know it don’t you? It won’t change in our lifetime. Maybe in the distant future. There will be a day when the desire for liberty outweighs the fear of danger. Life should be dangerous. Otherwise why travel many miles, or even a few miles. I can travel a few miles with you. I can at least get you into the city. There’s no way you’re getting in without me. I’m being a coward, but I don’t care. I can’t tell my wife. I’ll tell you. We’ve had a vaccine for years. We aren’t allowed to use it. Those in power say that it’s untested. But it works! It’s been working. The side-effects are minor. It could cure us all. No one wants to hear it anymore. There’s no going back, they tell us. These periodic quarantines will be annual now. Until a people strong enough to yearn for freedom at the price of death break the chains around their hearts and fight. Not in our lifetime. Maybe my son’s lifetime.
With that Abhay turned the ignition and the car rumbled to life. He smiled and patted his car. He drove off down one dark road that looked like all the others, with the flickering lights of New York City looming before the two passengers.
Central Park, New York City
Second Lieutenant Nick Ayester held a sandwich in one hand and a book in the other as he sat at the base of a statue. The base was wide and over a foot off the ground, making it perfect for a moment’s rest. The statue, however, was more than a place to rest Nick’s feet. It was an old acquaintance. One he had come to appreciate more in recent weeks.
He watched a bird swoop down before him and grab an insect out of thin air. It returned to a branch to savor its victory. Nick was not a man to sneer, but he did now. He returned to his book. After turning page upon page, his hand grew tired from holding the book aloft, so instead of placing the book or the sandwich down, he put the book under his chin and pressed it to his chest. Then he stretched out his hand by balling and opening it as wide as possible. Taking the book from its nook and holding it in front of his face, he returned to his intellectual treat. With his other hand he brought the sandwich to his lips, but missed and hit his nose.
A noise startled him from his reverie. It was just a squirrel. It jumped from the dirt onto the thick trunk of a tree. Nick had always enjoyed the relative quiet of central park, but this was different. He felt the animals glaring at him expectantly awaiting him to leave their sanctuary.
A native New Yorker, he had always believed Central Park was his city’s way of building a Garden of Eden on earth. Immigrants from all over the world invested the wealth they made in America in order to build the perfect place on earth. A garden of the gods. Surrounded as it was by the men and women who moved the world, that would be a fitting title in Nick’s mind. Or it had been. Man had fallen once again. He felt evicted from paradise. Only birds and squirrels were able to enjoy it. And the bird droppings on his most beloved statue was evidence of their animal kingdom’s feelings toward the achievements of Man.
Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, he pushed from his mind the isolation he felt, despite being one of the few who were able to leave home.
His eyes returned to his book and his sandwich returned to his mouth.
This time he heard nothing. Instead, something inside him stirred. A warning of a potential threat, like a primeval radar built within him. Slowly lowering the book, his eyes peered over the top pages like peeking over a gate. In the distance he noticed a figure moving like a wounded animal. He could not help but feel pity. He did not know why.
There was a row of birds pecking on the walking path before the stooping figure. Nick was astounded that these birds regarded him not. He watched as a bird allowed the man’s foot to move within inches of its body. He was all animal in automatic journey. Yet he moved with purpose. His legs could never stretch straight, for he was permanently stooped. Gravity bore down on the figure more than on most earthlings. Time takes away much more than it leaves behind. This was a man with much taken and little remaining. His eyes stared ahead as far as he could muster, for his head drooped so deep that his chin hovered inches from his chest.
Though all sensationalism had been squeezed from the man like a grapefruit, leaving but the husk, Nick was impressed by his determination. Martial law, Red Sashers, plague, Crazies, none had stopped the old man. Nick knew he wasn’t a Crazy, but he could be infected. If he was, then he was a real threat to the lives of others. This was the reason for men like Nick to be in New York City. He looked around the empty park. Well, the old man could be a threat to him at least.
On Nick’s back was strapped a head mask to protect him from infection. He put it on and tried to grab his rifle. He was still holding his book. As the man who searches for his keys that are in his front pocket, he searched for his book mark. Another one lost. Plucking a leaf from the ground, he put it in his book and then picked up his rifle.
It took a full two minutes for the old man to arrive at Nick’s temporary base of operations. The man’s hair was a ragged mess. There were a few green leaves that had dropped from the canopy above onto his head, making him look like an ancient forest nymph from one of Nick’s stories. The fabric of his pants had exposed stitching like exposed tendons on a wounded man. There was little remaining of the material of his shoes. Yet, he walked. Nick could not fathom what moved the man. His head whipped around to the book he had left at the base of the statue.
Returning his attention to the old man he yelled
“Stop!,” as he held up his rifle toward the man.
Ben stared straight past the trembling rife and continued to walk. His glance now turning to the right as he planned a route around the obstacle of the statue and the soldier.
Nick lowered his weapon. He took two steps toward the old man and more firmly said, “Sir. You need to stop. You’re breaking quarantine and putting people at risk. If you do not cease, I’ll be forced to arrest you.”
The old man, now within a few feet of Nick and his statue, stopped. He leaned forward as though about to topple. It seemed to Nick that this man was close to his destination.
“Where are you headed.” The old man took one step NorthEast, preparing to return to his journey. Nick stepped in front of him.
“Show me your ID.” Nick said.
Ben put his hand in his pocket and extracted a thin yellow card with his face on it.
“You’ve got a yellow card. You know what that means? Yes I know you do. You’re even more restricted. You’re the most vulnerable! This picture barely looks like you. How long have you been traveling?”
“Many miles.” “How far do you have to go?” “One.”
“One more! I was right. I thought you were a man at the finish line. It says here you’re from Colorado. You can’t possibly have walked from Colorado to New York City. No Red Sasher caught you? That’s courage man. Real courage. I’m Nick Ayester. Lieutenant Ayester, technically, but who cares. I’d joined The National Guard at the outset of the second quarantine. Do my part, ya know? I’d admire courage like yours. You know what I had to do? They made me push a woman from my own neighborhood during this quarantine. No they didn’t make me. I did it. It was me. My cowardice. I love women. Always wanted to be married. This girl was so beautiful and so fierce. She just wanted to get to her brother. My orders were to keep everyone inside after six P.M. My men were watching so I used my rifle to push her back inside her house. She spit on me. Can’t blame her. I could have married that girl right then. Still would. Never saw her again.”
Nick paused and noticed Ben staring at something in the distance.
“You’re heading to the hospital aren’t you? You’ll never make it. Too crowded. Mt. Sinai is the epicenter. It’s like a military war zone. It is a military war zone! Lots of people believe there never was a virus. Oh there’s a virus all right. I suspect it isn’t a global killer, but my superiors have a hard time surrendering power once given to them. They know best and all. Even a minor cough is an excuse to execute a city block. In your condition, you’ll never get within… Well within a mile!
Nick stooped to pick up his book.
“You a reader? No I would guess not. Not many of those anymore. Hell I haven’t met many readers in all my life. I’ve always loved to read. Don’t even know why at times. It appears the people around me have more fun than I do. I guess I had hoped fun could be something more. . . well fun! I’m reading The Scarlet Pimpernel. You might have seen the movie. Given your age and all. No offense. It’s a great book. Makes me think about this whole situation we're in right now. Oh! Do you know this statue? It’s the seventh Regiment Memorial. He’s like me. Sort of. A citizen soldier. Did you know that these guys fought at Gettysburg and then were called to New York City to put down the Draft Riots of 1863. That whole era seems like a fantasy. All of history feels like a fantasy sometimes, but I guess we’re living it now. I didn’t think there was any way a soldier could battle his brothers to the south and return home to battle his next door neighbors. But that was a Just war. I think about that a lot. You know the big difference between those times and our own? Americans barely rioted against our current regime. Some people got sick and died and everyone just. . . capitulated. The 1863 Draft Riots remains the largest civil disobedience display in American history. Hundreds died. Whole sections of New York City burned. Hell the New York Times had to fight people off with a gatling gun. Imagine those sissy’s with a gun today! Well. Now they’re run by Uncle Sam anyway. I hated myself for pushing that woman. I think I fell in love with her. You see this young man here? The memorial. Look at his face. He’s tired. Tired of fighting a battle on two fronts. He did his duty. His duty at least was justified. They ended slavery. I bet he never pushed any women. What about us today? No today we push women who just want to get to their brothers.”
He took of his mask and took a few steps toward Ben. “Not anymore. Come with me.” He put his arm on Ben and began to march in the direction Ben’s body was pointed in.
They took two steps forward, when they heard it. The sound of a man moving behind the tree.
Nick’s whole body broke into a sweat.
Emerging from behind the trunk of the same tree the squirrel had jumped onto only minutes before was a man in a blue uniform with a red sash draped diagonally across his chest. He was taller than Nick by several inches and more heavily muscled. There was a vacancy in his eyes that was more terrifying than the red sash. This was a man warped into zealotry by many singular steps along a path. By some force within the three figures, their roads had converged here in Central Park, during a quarantine, on a beautiful New York spring afternoon.
“Nice speech,” The Red Sasher spoke as a man does after eating a large meal. “I like the part about the woman. Don’t move.” his teeth gritted.
“Hand the prisoner over. I’ll take him from here,” the Red Sasher continued. Nick’s eyes darted to the man’s gun.
“Best if I take him in. Wouldn’t want you reds to get all the credit for clearing the streets.” Nick said, plastering a smile on his face.
“That there is a rat. Your job is to help us find them. We determine what happens to the rat.” “Sorry friend, We got off on the wrong foot. I’m Lieutenant Ayester. This here is Ben. He’s my prisoner. I’m taking him to HQ.”
“Friend I’ll take your corpse to HQ.” Nick swallowed.
“Ha… Well if you put it that way. Here.” As he pushed the old man gently in the direction of the red sasher, Nick leaped through the air like a leopard, tackling the bigger man to the ground. Forgetting all his training, Nick began pummeling the man’s face like a school yard fight. One punch landed after another until the being beneath him no longer moved.
“Ouch! God that hurt,” Nick said while panting and holding his fists under his armpits.
He checked the man’s breathing.
Nick took a moment with his hat at his heart, while he looked over to the statue of the tired soldier. “Sir. Look away.” Saying this he put on a glove, took out the red sasher’s gun, and stepped back. He aimed at the man’s face and eviscerated the creature. The blast from the gun finally awoke the forest. The living creatures were reminded of Man’s presence, and fled.
“Come on.” He said, a growl on his lips. “It was him or us. You don’t know how bad things have gotten. I’m getting you to that hospital whatever the hell your reason.” The old man moved as slow as ever, his hand wrapped into the crook of the young soldier’s arm, the pair walked the short distance to their mutual destination.
Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York City
Susan clucked her tongue at what she was witnessing. She was a nurse practitioner of dominating presence if small stature. Her blonde hair was tied tight in an efficient bun. Her lips a thin line across her face.
“Miss Low,” she spoke not above a whisper. The sound from Nurse Susan broke the reverie of the doctor and the cute young nurse who he was flirting with.
Flirtation had always occurred between nurses and doctors. Susan herself could name several doctors in her youth. This did not bother her. She, however, would not tolerate this level of mutual touching in the room of a dying patient. The two birds wore masks but had neglected utilizing their full focus on their daily rounds.
Susan shook her head. Nurses and doctors alike grew more incompetent with each new batch, as the world ushered more quarantines and more oversight into her profession. That was a laugh, Susan knew more than most the fallacy that adding layer upon layer of bureaucracy would make for a better run hospital. She told anyone who would listen, “that’s like having ten scalpels and no surgeons!.”
Nurses were now more interested in a doctor’s sexual appetites than caring for patients. Susan’s job was a losing battle against their unchecked hormones and the deteriorating patients.
When Miss Low finally stepped up to her superior, Susan said, “Don’t you two have a break coming up? Why don’t you get it over with and get back to work?” The doctor did not ask questions, he took the young nurse's hand and led her to his office, squealing like school children.
Susan knew fighting them was making it worse. She had learned that things could get done, or at least in the mediocre way possible these days, if she, on occasion, capitulated. They rarely took very long. She walked into the patient's room, lifted his chart and began inspecting his numbers. She made several corrections from the doctor’s notes.
Continuing her rounds, Susan’s keen penetrating eye spied the goings on of everyone in her purview and many who were not. She knew many disliked her harsh ways, but she put patients first. They seemed to lose no matter what happened in staffing.
Mostly, Susan was angry. There was nothing to cause her happiness these days. The incompetence of her superiors and inferiors infuriated her. The amount of times she had saved a patient's life by double checking a doctor’s orders had grown more rapidly than the virus. Susan proved the only one capable of even questioning a doctor's orders. Every day she told nurses to check and double check a doctor’s work and not to fear repercussions. Everyday she told them the same stories of her youth when nurses were more courageous in their questioning of doctors, because they knew that even great doctors make mistakes. No one is omniscient. And every day the doctors’ offices were closed with squealing little nurses behind them. No one listened and patients suffered.
Susan felt enraged at the injustices. There was even a construction worker who had fallen off a hospital he was repairing. Broke his spine and cracked his skull. Due to the hospital's inefficiency, he was placed in a utility closet. She still couldn’t believe the man was alive. They had a bare minimum of equipment, and no doctors even bothered to look after him. Susan alone kept him alive. It was these patients that gave her a sense of purpose. Not only their injuries but almost worse, their aloneness.
This man, forty-seven years old, had no visitors. Of course, for five weeks almost none of these patients had visitors. Some, like the construction worker, laid in bed staring ahead hour upon hour waiting for death. It was Susan who tried to comfort them the best she could.
She was angry and her anger made her tired. Anger rarely solves problems, but in the right soul it can push a person to incredible heights. Susan’s actions comforted, soothed, saved many lives, despite those around her. And for a moment, she decided to sit and allow herself to rest.
The halls were quiet. The steady whoosh of ventilators had dissipated from her mind, so accustomed to them had she grown. Closing her eyes for the briefest of moments brought to her attention something terrible. It was the feeling one gets after finishing a day’s work and recalling that one has forgotten something. It’s the mechanic who wakes up and recalls he had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts on a customer’s tires; the surgeon who jumps up from bed and slaps his forehead, realizing he had left a sponge inside a patient; a chemist who suddenly remembers he left the burners on.
Cautiously, Susan opened her eyes. Everything was as it should be. Yet the feeling remained. She sat bolt upright, like a cat preparing for a threat.
The man was at the end of the hallway. He did not walk so much as shuffle. People do not simply enter hospitals during quarantine, unless they were a Crazy meaning to do harm. How on earth did he get past security? she thought to herself. She saw he was very old. If he were here due to the virus, he would have to be so sick he would be unable to walk. Even in those circumstances, patients were sent to the tents outside the hospitals. Here patients were approved before they arrived. Supposedly the best care was inside, though Susan suspected the front line nurses and doctors were doing superior work these days.
As he approached, Susan saw his ragged appearance. His shoes were worn down so his toes emerged like little turtles from their shells. In her youth she had been told tales of a hooded figure who came to hospitals in order to relieve nurses from the need to care for the living. He was the reaper of souls. Upon closer inspection, she realized he was just an old man. In these times an old man could bring down the system. Were he the wrong kind of old man.
“What are you doing here?” Susan asked in her authoritative voice. The man kept moving toward her. She noticed his head turning as he passed by the hospital rooms.
“Are you looking for someone?” The man shuffled to the next room, again his head turning to read the patient’s name on the door.
“How did you get in here? There are no visitors allowed. I’m calling security.” At that, Susan’s body lifted from the chair as though pulled from above by a string. She jumped to the telephone, nearby and pushed a button.
“Wait.” The man’s voice gripped her. She had the same feeling she did when in the ocean and overtaken by a large wave, unsure when she would be released for air. Her arm drifted through the air and she hung up the phone.
Her body turned toward the old man’s and she walked to him. Her instincts were still intact enough to put on a mask and gloves.
Standing inches from the man, she grabbed his wrist and then put a stethoscope to his chest.
“Breath,” she commanded.
She heard the rattle deep in his lungs.
“Have you traveled far?” “Many miles,” he said.
“And you came here?”
His eyelids drooped. The orbs behind the curtains stared straight into her. This was a man unlike any she had encountered for many years.
Decades earlier she had encountered a doctor who everyone in the profession called callous and evil, because he would not sob at dead patients. Instead, he worked. Hour upon hour. Day after day. He did not marry. He had no relationship of any kind. Rumor had it he did not eat or sleep or drink. He studied. He researched. He discovered more about the human body than any two great scientists who preceded him. Not millions but billions were affected by his work. At conferences people pretended to admire him. In secret his fellows chided him for his bedside manner.
Susan knew that doctor had died. Men like that cannot exist in times like these. This old man had the same eyes as her doctor did.
“You’ve traveled many miles. How much further?” “A few more feet.”
“You were looking for someone. Me?” The old man’s eyes continued to bore down on her.
“No not me. A patient here.” He spoke with more enthusiasm then she thought possible for one so old. His energy was boundless if his body were limited. “Ma’am I have come many miles to take a last leave of my son, a construction worker, who has been brought here and who lies dying in your bed.”
Susan was astonished. She held onto her composure and brought the old man down the hall, to the utility closet that held his son. The old man did not judge her or yell at her as she might have expected from most family members of a sick patient shoved in a closet. He entered quietly and with his same steady slow pace. He sat beside his son.
The closet did not have a Television. Susan had brought her patient magazines, but he did not read them. His bed was in disarray, the younger man was merely a lump under the sheets. Some tubes twirled around him and long thin wires entered the skin of his neck and held his head in place. She had rarely seen him move. Now his hand twitched at the sight of his father.
As she closed the portal on the family reunion, a singular image would stick in her mind; it was one she had feared since childhood; one in which she was the catalyst to some great evil; it drove her to always do good and to fight for the living; the door creaked shut and father held his son’s hand as he breathed his last breath.
The old man coughed.