The words of an overworked news anchor echoed through the house, the sound bouncing from hardwood floors to gypsum boards and off a patchwork ceiling. Around corners, through walls and hollow doors, nowhere in the house was not painted with the grey voice of monotony, the rasping siren of apathetic paranoia.
The words hadn’t stopped in months, the world had been gripped by some abstract catastrophe.
Jimmy, a small boy, was the type to only really watch Television when his father played an action movie or turned on the war channel. When he looked out his window, he imagined a Blitzkrieg of tanks and trucks and gas masks with guns falling from planes and marching through town towards his house and steam rolling over his school (he only knew so many places, and he very much enjoyed not having to go to the latter anymore).
Sitting in the living room with his mother in front of the TV, he asked with every earnest intention of fueling his imagination, “Mommy, is it the Russians or the Germans this time?”
Turning and speaking impatiently, his mother only said “No, it isn’t anyone. It’s the Coronavirus. Aren’t you watching?” before turning back to face the screen.
Jimmy, who didn’t know how to say “coronavirus,” didn’t understand his mother, but he didn’t ask any more questions. The way she sounded when she spoke made him feel upset.
Besides, he heard about the Chinese somewhere, so he could use Chinese men in tanks to populate his next daydream.
Jimmy’s mother lay motionless on the sofa, watching the news. A talking head took up the left side of the screen, but the entire right side was dominated by a permanent counter:
CONFIRMED CASES (World): 11,342,000 +
DEATHS (World): 251,437
All day long she watched the numbers tick up, up, and up, never down. A month ago, she was depressed because she lost her job. The same words that echoed across the world and took her livelihood from her also reverberated within her home and kept her trapped, constantly reminded of her immovable state, forced by an immutable enemy.
Oh look, she thought. There they are again, crawling on the bottom like ants:
FEDERAL GOV’T ISSUES MANDATORY CURFEW. SOCIAL DISTANCING . . .
Molding her body into the shape of a couch cushion, there she sat, as if serenaded by the hoarse anchorman.
In the innermost section of the house, the father sat in his home office — a formerly unfurnished gym. After laying down a rug, putting in a desk and a chair and some cabinets, he found that the noise from the newswire was almost completely muffled. Almost. It was nearly extinguished by the whispery whine of the fan inside his laptop, but he still noticed the familiar cadence of the teleprompted speech wriggling its way through the walls of his home whenever he lost focus on his work.
As it turns out, after months of trying to accomplish the same tasks he would have easily done with a face-to-face conversation through the inadequate portal of his work computer, struggling with the irksome machine and all of its freezes, crashes, buffers and lagses . . . he started to lose focus quite often.
In fact, his work ethic had totally decayed. For the better part of everyday, he would sit in his office chair, maybe pace back and forth between the cramped walls or venture out into the hallway for a stroll, agonize over digitized paperwork and get aggravated in throttled video calls and group calls and conference calls and all the different blasted calls that had replaced conversation, all to get next to nothing done.
The charisma he had once relied on for sales didn’t work through the computer, and damn near nobody wanted to buy anything at a time like this, but he had to keep trying. He had to keep working, because the mortgage payments certainly weren’t going to keep their distance for anything like the plague.
Sometimes he felt like he was working too much, that he should be spending more time with his family. Then he thought better of it, “It ain’t like I’m missing much. What are they doing, anyway?”
Aging in a cave and curling in front of the screen, there he sat, trapped in ways he would never admit.
On the opposite end of the house from the rest of her family, in her room — her corner of the house that was hers — Lyla lay on her bed, covers strewn and unkempt, phone in her hand. Lyla found that the boring news anchors could be drowned out totally by a slammed door and some headphones.
For a while, she felt like she was finally living her dream. The schools and teachers had been taken especially off guard by the pandemic, so her school district’s digital replacement for learning had been rushed, to say the least.
Between never having to wake up early or get out of bed, being able to do all her assignments (or blatantly copy someone else’s with ease) within minutes, and never having to put up with the horde of noise and attitude that is the student body, she had never found school easier.
Nobody was insulting her clothes or her hair, nobody was telling her to read or do anything boring, nobody was telling her to get into debt at college, and nobody was telling her to get a job.
The peace and quiet was nice for a change.
But after weeks of silence, Lyla started to miss the noise. She missed bumping around and cracking jokes with the few friends she had, she missed checking out the cute girls in her classes, and she even missed a couple of her teachers.
Nobody was saying anything to her now. She had nowhere to go.
All she had was the stuffy air of her room, her own must to stew in, the empty bottle of vape juice to miss, a phone to stare at, and wires with plastic to plug her ears with more soothing sounds.
At first, she had no complaints. But the feeling of filth was starting to seal her within her sheets, the ghosts on the phone screen there to offer a memory of companionship as she withered and wasted her youth in bed. The restless agitation of cold turkey with limited distraction, maybe even some urge for teenage rebellion, was fighting her apathy and failing, leaving her as a cramped and enseamed mass of angst wrapped in polyester.
Outside, it was late evening, though the family never noticed. Mockingbirds and songbirds sang in excess amidst the absence of humans. Squirrels and rats ran unabashed across the roads and sidewalks, snatched up by a proud osprey. Cars lined the curbs and filled up the driveways, all the drivers stuck inside the houses. Everything covered in dust, pollen, leaves, and bird droppings — road signs stolen or disrespected, novice graffiti easily spotted.
Only two people were out in the neighborhood. A young couple were holding hands and walking through the deserted streets. Under them, leaves and seeds crumpled and scraped along the asphalt as they walked, the sound echoing off into an empty distance. Above them, a painted sky prepared itself for the highlights of sunset.
It was warm yet, but a gentle breeze blew past the couple, sending a butterfly and a bee bustling and buzzing past them.
The girl coughed, and the boy, who had been holding in a cough for a while, finally let out a guttural and phlegm-laden hack or two, or four. The girl began whooping as well, and for a few moments they were lost together in the throws of the great plague of their shared time.
The girl and the boy finally cleared their airways. Red in the face and short of breath, they looked at each other. It was an earnest look, the kind of look lovers use to communicate hours in an instant during dark times.
Suddenly, they were lost again to erratic breathing, the healing whoop: laughter. They couldn’t help but laugh as much as they couldn’t help but cough. They laughed for a long while, staggering back and forth and catching each other (staggering mostly to be caught), then started again on their leisurely stroll.
When the sun crept down a little farther, and started to guild the edges of the western clouds with its signature spectrum of ambers and fuchsias, the boy turned to the girl and said with a smile “Hey look, the sunset is nearly as beautiful as you,” as she began to blush again.