LEFTOVERS or (A TAPEWORM IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST) [excerpt] – J.A. Rodriguez
April 6, 2020
“The Mobb comes equipped for warfare, beware.”
Shook Ones, Part II
Everything’s different and everything’s the same. It’s tangible—palpable. Something tactile in the air like humidity. Something you feel weighted on your body but can’t see. Collin sits at his computer and writes. Kills time. The longer he’s immured in his house, the longer he’s forced to interact with his family and girlfriend for extended periods of time, the more he feels like he’s unspooling. Like he’s coming undone. Everyone’s tolerable until you have to interact with them. Like, genuinely interface with them. And then even the way they blink their eyes is enraging. The sun is out and the sky is gilded like the world was a mausoleum. An ornate construct intended to deliver them all to death. Like it was a Kamikaze aircraft pimped out by Xzibit. The pollen in the air irritates Collin’s lungs and nose and eyes. It makes him sneeze and tickles his throat. The entire time he suspects he’s next. He just doesn’t tell anyone. Because then what would happen? He’d go to the doctor and, best-case, the doctor would walk out in their long white gown of a jacket, staring inscrutably at a clipboard for a dramatically protracted period of time, and tell him he overreacted. And worst-case, he’d get the diagnosis. At worst, diagnostics reify the most terrifying and neurotic suspicions; at best, you’re prescribed an elongated tenure on this planet. It’s something worse than lose-lose.
Collin stays home from work. Everyone does. No one leaves the house if they can help it. Collin still lives with his parents—it’s the source of unending conflict. His dad says he’s lazy and chicken shit. That he graduated university and should be out on his own by now. That it’s time to be self-sufficient. That only three things are guaranteed in life: death, taxes, and struggle, and he better get used to each pole—this triangulation of existence. His dad says the world isn’t gonna wait around for him; he has to go out and take it by the balls—grab it by the pussy if he wants to do anything with his life at all. The street outside his house is empty. Decanted. A shale. But that’s not much different than it was before and somehow the only difference is people are slowly warping beneath the white-hot deluge of news. The panic proliferated by this pandemic. Lungs failing and everyone replete with distrust. He writes stories and textbooks and articles.
He first welcomed it as a much needed reprieve, but now he can’t sleep. He stays up all night because he sits around all day. His body has surplus energy and there’s no way to expend it except to stare at the ceiling and slowly let it out, like a gas leak. This succession of sleepless nights is taking a toll. Surplus breeds instability, savagery—converse to what most expect—in some fucked up way, it’s an insatiable thing. The more you have the more you want. It’s the defining disorder of the human condition—the paradox that’s the big bang to all suffering. And eventually, he’ll default. Snap. Like his sanity was mortgaged and he overestimated his solvency. He sends in assignments and gets paid and then wonders what’s the point of having money if you’re stuck at home. His girlfriend’s getting ready for work. She’s a server at a restaurant. She needs the money to pay for school and doesn’t have health insurance. What fucking choice does she have? She’ll get fired if she doesn’t show up. It’d be inexcusable because she can’t afford the excuses. It’s another instance of cash money insulating them from the dangers of the world. Exempting them from being subjected to suffering, from being conscripted to the front lines. Subservient. But she’s mostly unperturbed by the whole thing.
“I really think you should stay home,” Collin says. “This is more serious than we’re realizing. You could bring the virus in here and we’ll all be fucked. I don’t think this is some lax thing. You shouldn’t be so flippant. It endangers everyone in the house.”
“Have you been outside?” She asks, lighting a cigarette and pulling on her jeans. They have empty bottles of beer on every surface of their room like a desolate metropolis. An atrophying skyline. “I don’t think you get it.”
“No, I haven’t,” Collin says it like an admission—a confession—with all the attendant guilt that accompanies it. “I’ve been cooped up since God knows when. I don’t even know how many weeks or days it’s been. I’ve stopped keeping track.”
“Exactly,” she says. “You haven’t left the house in weeks and you’re telling me what it’s like out there?”
“Still,” he sips coffee and rubs his eyes. He feels hung-over and lethargic. Most days spent at home are spent drinking and interfacing with screens, surfing the Internet and feeling it pulverize his brain with each fissile impact—conflicted and divided like a splitting cell. A devastating dichotomy of worry and dismissal. Of impending doom and cool composure. Everything feels real and nothing feels real at all. He contracts panic like it was its own disease—its own pandemic. “If you come into contact with it and bring it in here, then what? Then me and my parents will get sick. My parents are older and I had that surgery on my lung when it collapsed. This thing is respiratory—it affects the lungs. We’re compromised. You start feeling like you’re drowning. We could die.”
“Everyone feels like they’re drowning,” she says. “Even when there’s not some virus to freak out about.”
“Just be careful.”
“Not everyone has the luxury of working from home.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You’re paranoid,” she says. “Acting erratic. You should see your eyes—they’re bulging out of your skull and you look manic. You shouldn’t stare at screens all day. You’re changing. It’s like you and everyone else is schizophrenic.”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Read a book or something.”
She leaves for work and Collin takes a shit and washes his hands—something he does obsessively, like it were some kind of psychological condition. Ablution—absolution. A baptism—rebirth. But every rebirth is just another avenue toward the same destination, another way to die. Besides, survival is a psychological condition. It’s pathological. His stomach is sour and he wants more coffee. He needs food, too. He has a cigarette on the shitter and can hear the news blaring downstairs. More dispatches detailing some kind of collapse. The collapse of what is unclear. The missives are vague and ambiguous in the worst way. In a way that instills uncertainty. And uncertainty is the biggest progenitor of fear. All those fuckers on TV do is dredge up dread when they deliver news. Self-imposed quarantine. Self-imposed isolation. Something about it feels so natural it doesn’t even strike Collin or anyone else as some kind of aberration. They’d been existing like that since God knows when. Their solitude just kind of calcified around them like a stockade. They’re in a vacuum. It’s impenetrable and immutable. Anxious dread swells around them like static on a TV screen.
They’ve been primed for this since birth. Like how tribes indigenous to mountains acclimate to those altitudes. For them it’s the ability to make lies accommodate whatever truth they need to sustain themselves. The avoidance of facts and utilization of falsities to cobble together a ramshackle raft to weather any maelstrom that manifests. A raft fit for one because that’s all anyone can truly account for. But recently, it’s more explicit. More jarring—these self-induced psychotic breaks brought on by those devices and their environment. Breaks that uncover undiagnosed mental illnesses and ailments—imposed by being overworked and stressed and consuming poison. Inundated. Stress almost feels like a made up word now—it’s connotations, anyway. It feels like double speak. All that subtext used to convey volumes of necessary servitude. Like living in a cult or under an oppressive totalitarian regime.
They watched it transpire remotely—like they were observing a shooting star or a comet streaking through the sky. Like they were watching a documentary of some event in the distant past. Something that couldn’t touch them and something they couldn’t touch. The past and present are mutually repellent, but the future engulfs them both, absorbs them and shits them out and reconstitutes them into fertilizer for oblivion to grow. They watched it happen and didn’t think anything about it because it didn’t affect them. Because the world operates in solipsistic and myopic ways. It fomented for months and no one did a damn thing. There was a travel ban to critical regions. But no one ordered test kits. No one felt it would be important to be prepared. To be precautious. The health and safety of the general public is rarely a pertinent concern. The luxury of a quality life for them is regarded like installing hot tubs for livestock in a slaughtering house—like sending them to a spa for R&R. Awaiting a slow and painful death that’s still a respite. Sanctuary. People dismissed it as being paranoid. Paranoia and precaution are often close as Siamese Twins—inseparable. And the only time there’s any kind of distinction made between the two is when it’s too late. Nothing matters until we’re affected. Then paranoia is reassessed through the infallible lens of retrospect.
“And you have to wear these pots and pans on your head,” Collin hears as he walks downstairs. His mom is talking to his dad. They’ve been together for years and he’d never seen such a strain on their relationship now that they have to be around each other all the time. Now that they have to talk to each other. There’s no work or daily activity to inhibit interactions. It’s a delicate thing. Without work everyone feels uneasy—almost enervated by the anxiety. A person’s job is their life—without one, they’re basically a cadaver that forgot to fucking die. A failing organ in a body excreting toxicity. It feels like a sin to take a break—they feel like they’re about to be issued a ticket straight to some kind of hell—something punitive for this insolence—this transgression—this malfeasance. “Apparently, the virus can get into fibers and seep through walls, too. It can finesse its way through crevices beneath doors. So you need to stand by the peephole and make sure no one is getting close to the house. Or else we’re all gonna be goners. It’s not like you have anything else to do.”
“Where did you hear this?” His dad is watching TV. He takes a slug of beer. Trying to ignore everything. Empty bottles phalanx the coffee table. His company’s on lockdown. He’s trying to ignore everything by letting it all wash over him—desensitize himself to the feeling of end time’s pandemonium.
“On the Internet.”
“But where on the Internet?”
“It was one of the top stories. Along with how they brought this thing in with them—how we shouldn’t have let them in the country. How this could be one big incursion. This could be bio-terrorism—a new kind of kamikaze. Folks sent in on an unknowing suicide mission. I mean, look at them. Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe.”
“How do they know all the ways it can kill you and all the ways it can infiltrate, but they still don’t know how to cure the thing?”
“Oh, stop it,” she says. “Now you’re being paranoid.”
Downstairs is more orderly—it juxtaposes with the disorderly upstairs Collin and his girlfriend share. The desultory filthy conditions. The cesspool of their lives like spilled liquefied waste. Almost more hazardous than the bug. Bottles and dirty dishes everywhere. Clothes lying limp on the floor like crowds of people dematerialized suddenly and en masse and were reduced to a heap of laundry, deliquescing without a trace. It even smells nicer. Windows and blinds are shut. It’s like living in an end-times bunker. But still—they talk about life outside. Even though they’ve insulated themselves from it. Carved out a piece of oblivion to obfuscate it. His mom is staring at her iPad and his dad starts working on a jack and coke. Everything is covered in cellophane—like she was going to put the entire house in the refrigerator to save for later. Like they were all just leftovers. It’s disarming. Disorienting. From doors to handles to furniture. Even his dad’s swathed in cellophane. Wrapped like some bizarre kind of full body tourniquet. But he doesn’t seem to mind acquiescing if it affords him some peace and quiet, even a few undisturbed moments makes it worth it.
“Morning,” Collin says from the doorway to the living room.
“Good morning, sweetie,” his mom says.
“Morning,” his dad grunts.
“What’s with all this cellophane?” Collin asks. “Why did you wrap the whole house in it? It looks insane.”
“It was recommended on a podcast,” she says. “They said the best way to disinfect and keep things clean is to lather everything in hand sanitizer and then cover it with a coat of cellophane. You have to wrap it tight. It gets a deep clean and then immunizes surfaces to retaining any germs when you remove it. The sanitizer is absorbed by the fibers.”
“How often do you have to do it?”
“Won’t the cellophane just retain the germs?”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Then how does it work?”
“I don’t know, but not like that.”
“Whatever you say, ma.”
Collin goes into the kitchen to get a coffee. Cellophane is wrapped around everything and he has to maneuver around it to get a mug from the cupboard. He wants food but there’s nothing to eat. The last time there was panic was during a tragedy. Something that united everyone in their misery because they shared the same sorrow. The enemy had some kind of face to spit at. But this time it’s different—this time there’s no one to commiserate with because everyone’s terrified of each other. Everyone’s become an enemy. A potential courier of death. Like a bomb delivered discreetly in the mail. The world’s an insensible place that cultivates insensible inhabitants. Everyone feels like they’re being besieged by unidentifiable envoys. Every news story reiterates it. There’s no desisting or variegating approach. We extricated ourselves from the food chain and evolved into our own most dangerous predators. There’s a news broadcast transmitting from the TV. Some old half-senile white man garrulously talking and fumbling words. Incomprehensible in his efforts to appease.
But it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help to have thugs masquerading as leaders in times of crisis and distress. It doesn’t help to have a world—entire countries—degenerated into a riot of looting and murder like they were privy to some disaster no one else was. Countries that orchestrate surprise incursions and raids like an international B&E. It feels like the world runs on bank heists. The late-stages of a collapsing empire and all the attendant hedonism, that atavistic and primordial human facet, concealed for a century by industrial advancement like cosmetic surgery. The instinct to misconstrue domination and exploitation with survival and self-preservation; the final nail being tapped into the coffin one excruciating tap at a time before it’s wrenched out, only to be reinserted in some kind of tragi-comical recursive loop of existence. Like they existed in a glitch. Collin hasn’t showered. He can smell himself. His BO. The sweat from his balls. Last night’s beer exuded by his pores. His shitty breath. But what’s the point? What’s the point of any kind of decency at all. Decency never did anyone any favors. Not in his experience, anyway.
“I don’t want you guys touching things,” his mom says. “When Brit gets back home, you need to make her stand ten feet away from the door and then hose her down. Use a thimble of bleach and disinfectant. Get a deep clean.”
“I’m not gonna hose her down, ma,” Collin’s irritated but he acquiesces mostly because he’s staying in their home rent free. It’s the only reason he tolerates it. Well, that and his lack of cojones. “Besides, if I use bleach or any disinfectant, I could hurt her. I don’t think that’s such a good idea. It might be more dangerous than the virus itself.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion on the matter—this is the kind of thing we have to do to protect ourselves from the outside world. The outside world just infests our private life. It’s like living in an empty septic tank, adrift on an ocean of shit and piss and discharge that’s trying to sink us. This is nonnegotiable.”
“Sure thing, ma,” Collin sighs.
“And stop drinking all my beer,” his dad says. “We’re gonna be cooped up in here for a while and I’d like to enjoy some of it, too.”
“I think I can see the bug hanging in the air,” his mom’s voice is shrill and panicked. “I can see the granules!”
“That’s just dust, ma.”
“Oh,” she says. “Maybe. I’m going downstairs just to be safe.”
Collin goes upstairs and takes a shower. He sits back down at his computer and gets to work. He has a beer because fuck it. But something feels different. Outside, the sky is changed but not changed, like how they say AI will become almost indistinguishable from human beings, the differences will be nearly undetectable, but there will be something off. A feeling in the gut that alerts you to the distinction. To the delineation. He lights a cigarette and starts typing, wondering what his mom will put a moratorium on next. His girlfriend comes home, and they get drunk and baked and watch TV and then fuck but neither of them manage to get off, which is a nice semblance of normalcy when the world’s on the precipice of the apocalypse. It’s practically routine. And it almost feels like a holiday. Except it isn’t. The bruit is inexorable and the seams start tearing. And the next day’s when the descent begins—though it comes on slowly and gradually. But once it starts it’s implacable. And it marks the only time in Collin’s life he ever regretted telling his girlfriend, I told you so.
“Collin!” his mom hollers at him. “Stop smoking those cigarettes! It’ll compromise your lungs if you contract the thing.”
“Ah, what difference does it make if he stops now?” His dad hollers. “They’re already compromised. Fuck it.”
“Yeah,” Collin screams back, “fuck it.”
The monolithic silence and tension between them shrugs its shoulders. It’s an apathetic intermediary. Impartial at best. This dread handles them like a predator handling its prey. Toying with them before gorging itself on their writhing bodies. Preparing itself to eviscerate them while they’re still alive. Anticipating it like it’s one of life’s few pleasures to partake in.
It happens at night. The sound of their doorknob jiggling. The sound of scraping and digging in the backyard. It all travels through the house like a degenerate nighttime marauder. The sound of things being dragged followed by belabored breaths. There’s someone in the backyard and Collin wakes up disoriented, in a somnambulant daze. Eyes straining through the darkness and only making out the vague contours of things. Amorphous shapes that shift and change. Then things start coming into focus—his fear sharpens his aperture. Somehow he’s the only one that hears it. His girlfriend is asleep, snoring—the only one in the house who’s done a hard day of work in weeks. The only one who can work. Earn money. Collin’s writing isn’t exactly a cash cow. It’s insubstantial in comparison. Rent and bills are still due—abstract and ethereal entities. Like specters unaffected by what’s happening.
New loan operations open every day. They offer loans called subsistence loans to sustain people while they wait this thing out. So they don’t get sick. To avoid leaving the house and exposure to the bug. Capitalizing on vulnerable people in shitty circumstances. Predatory—it’s so human it’s enough to make you cry. Like bail bonds or cash-4-gold. Loans to support yourself with unsustainable interest. Codified in indecipherable legal jargon—like an incantation that alchemizes and summons debt and unadulterated destitution. And somehow Brit’s working appends an air of apprehension that surrounds her; everyone’s worried she’ll be an unwitting virus mule. At first, Collin thinks the noise is some indiscreet animal making a racket. Some animal that wandered in and will continue along its way soon enough, but the noise doesn’t desist. Besides, that wouldn’t really be any better. Apparently the bug was first harbored in animals and somehow evolved—was somehow transmitted to humans. Collin sighs and his heart is beating in such rapid palpitations that it sounds like there’s a rave being hosted inside his body. And he feels like his organs are even jostling in time. Like some kind of End Time’s bash. He has to shit and feels nauseous.
Collin turns to his girlfriend one last time, hoping she’ll wake up. Hoping she’ll accompany him downstairs to see what the noise is. He doesn’t know what to do in situations like this. He never learned anything really useful—all he has in his brain is a battery of knowledge that reiterates what now seems falsified. It fortifies a status quo that now seems maladaptive under the circumstances. Conditions that necessitate self-reliance. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s a matter of perspective; one person’s weakness is another person’s opportunity. So maybe this is exactly what was intended. A lack of any kind of unity—this pervasive isolation and alienation—it makes them tractable. Unity is a refractory and recalcitrant thing. But whatever—there are more pressing concerns that eclipse this paranoid suspicion of mass control. Collin sits up and lights a cigarette. He bought several cartons before there was a full-fledged lockdown. It took priority over everything else. Over food and water, even. And in a moment like this, it feels like it was the right decision. His head hurts from the beers and he feels a residual high from the pot.
“Hey, Brit,” he says, shaking his girlfriend. Trying to wake her up. Galvanize her. She’s always exhibited exceptional fortitude under duress. Unlike Collin, who’s usually reduced to a pitiable and ineffectual heap of a man. “Wake up. Do you hear that? I think someone’s outside the house.”
Brit stirs and grunts before rolling over, further away. Doubling down in her apathy. Shoring it up. But that’s the most ineffectual deterrent. “Brit,” Collin says again, not even agitated at being ignored—just freaked the fuck out, anticipating the eventuality of implacable and unavoidable disaster. Programmed in him since birth. His mom has always overreacted. He either learned it or was burdened with it in his genetics. A shared onus. He’s practically supplicant for Brit to wake up and help. “C’mon. Wake up—do you hear that?”
“You’re always hearing things,” she says. “Especially when you’re stoned.”
“I’m not stoned.”
“You’re a lightweight. You’ll be stoned for weeks after everything we smoked. You won’t sober up until everything settles down. Take solace in the blessing in that. Now go to bed. It’s nothing.”
“I’m not imagining things.”
“Jesus Christ. Collin,” she’s practically imploring him to fuck off, “you’re always waking me up saying you see people in the room. You hear things. And it’s always the fan blowing things or your imagination. Now let me sleep. I don’t get to stay home—and I have to go in early to be sprayed down and have my entire body disinfected. It’s an added unpaid hour spent at that shithole. I need at least a few hours of rest.”
Collin nods even though she’s not looking at him. He’s arrested by fear—manhandled like a dirty cop planting evidence on him. Even if she looked at him, it would be too dark for her to see him nodding. His face a catatonic slab. The noise persists downstairs and Collin swallows hard. He gets out of bed slowly and pulls on his jeans. They’re snug now, after spending weeks eating junk food and drinking beer. After spending weeks vegetating in the house and letting the Internet warp his brain like how conditions impose evolution—precipitate adaptation and mutation. Rationale is a vestige of his former iteration—like nipples on a man. The longer he stays holed up, the more paranoid he becomes. The more he suspects everyone and everything. From the government to proxies of some kind of nefarious ruling conglomerate to his own family and girlfriend. He feels like everything’s out to get him the longer he isolates. All anyone’s capable of is catastrophizing. Prolonged solitude is like dehydration, and the surrogate of online connectivity is like drinking salt water to satiate the thirst—eventually you just end up delirious and immobile. You think you’re sustaining yourself but you’re really just accelerating your demise.
Collin walks out of the room—creeps out. But he doesn’t know why. Brit doesn’t care. She’s probably doing internal somersaults in celebration. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense that they’re together. All they convey is mutual repugnance. But these aren’t the times to reassess compatibility. When you’re trying to survive, nothing else matters and everything that isn’t death is tolerable. He didn’t realize it until this pandemic. The luxury of emotion. How emotion has superseded instinct and rationale. How feelings are like rust on the chassis of a bicycle left in storage too long. How feelings are like moldy leftovers spoiling in the fridge. Because there’s always too much until there isn’t. But Collin knows this is different. He feels it in his gut—the tangible immediacy of danger crackling in the air like sparks in these critical and decisive frenetic moments. He’s never felt so microscopically small. Now he realizes all he is and all he’s capable of. How diminutive that capacity is. Like trying to fill a one-ounce cup with sixty-nine pounds of shit. His incontrovertible helplessness. He walks down the stairs slowly, and the noise gets louder. The breath is animalistic—he sees a contour through the back window. The knob is jiggling. He wonders if they can see him in the darkness. He’s holding an empty beer bottle he grabbed off the windowsill in their room. It was the only weapon available. He grips it tight by the neck like he’s strangling it.
“Mom, dad?” his voice is a hushed whisper as he approaches. He’s hoping someone’s asleep in the living room. Usually his mom sleeps in there. His parents don’t sleep in the same bed since everything started going to shit. Anxiety apprehends him with the brute force of a cop abusing their station. Imagining resistance to justify inexplicable contempt. Alchemizing charges and reasons. Sweat trickles down his face. He hopes they wake up, but his whole family’s heavy sleepers, so he’s not holding his breath. “Is anyone awake?”
There’s no response. He hears someone snoring in the living room. He hears someone fart. Somehow it registers as his mother. “Mom,” he whispers. “Hey, mom!”
She continues snoring. Everything has cellophane wrapping. It makes his grotesque big feet stick to the floor with each step. He peels them off every time he takes a stride. It almost makes him trip. He glances in the living room and sees his mom, encased in a cocoon of cellophane and cardboard like she was going to mail herself to some safe haven. Each snore, and each excretion of methane—each time her body exiles that incorrigible and ignoble human exhaust like smog from a tail pipe—is a kind of verification of her life. Assurance that, if nothing else, she hasn’t died yet, and that’s all anyone can hope for at the end of the day. All anyone can aspire to is exiting out the other end of each day alive. He hears his dad’s disembodied snoring through the downstairs door leading to their room, too. And, if he listens really hard—strains and cups his ear—he can hear his girlfriend upstairs, like a distant siren or a car alarm you hear blocks away in a city. His entire body is tremulous and he grips his beer bottle tighter. He takes a circuitous route to the back door, one that enables him to stop in the kitchen and acquire a knife. But even with a more effective weapon, he feels ill-equipped.
“C’mon—come the fuck on. Why isn’t it opening? We need this.”
He hears a voice outside the door. It’s panicked. It’s not the gruff thuggish voice of an intruder. It’s the innocent voice of an incidental interloper. It sounds familiar. They keep shaking the doorknob and Collin wonders why it’s not opening. He wonders if this guy is freighted with the virus. If he’s going to break in and infect the whole place like an envoy of chaos—like even the reaper has fallen on hard times and had his job outsourced and automated, and is stuck doing B&Es to make end’s meet. He wonders if they’re going to infiltrate and infect this insulated bubble they’ve managed to haphazardly erect—to construct like homeless folk building a shanty town. He didn’t realize how much he appreciated the paranoid precautions his mom took until now. Precautions aren’t appreciated until they’re jeopardized. Collin swallows hard and creeps toward the door, hoping to get a good look at the son of a bitch before any kind of confrontation. Before an encounter. To size him up. Though, it won’t make much of a difference whether he’s able to evaluate him or not. The moonlight pouring in refracts off the cellophane and renders their home iridescent—incandescent—a resplendent funhouse. Nothing feels real and Collin wonders if anything has ever felt real in the first place. But it all still feels the same. Collin counts down.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck—why won’t this fucking door open?”
“We need this. We need this.”
Collin leaps out in front of the door, affecting feral defensive unpredictability. Like a wild animal whose territory is encroached on. He looks up and sees his neighbor in a robe and wife beater. He’s tall and bald with a pudgy protruding midsection. He has a scarf wrapped around his face. He’s jiggling the door, but he’s stopped—stunned and shocked at the sight of Collin, clutching a knife and bottle. Like he wasn’t expecting this. And Collin looks down and sees that somehow cellophane is keeping the door sealed shut. It’s the only thing keeping the door from opening. Unintentional fortification. He owes his mom some kind of apology. Because maybe she’s onto something. The tense silence between them screeches, like whistles that blare noises at high register only dogs are capable of attuning to.
“Bill,” Collin says, “what the fuck are you doing? Why are you trying to break into our house?”
“We’re out of toilet paper,” he says. “And the water’s out. We’re almost out of supplies and we know you guys have a stockpile. We saw you hoarding them. We saw you taking them all for yourself. We need some.”
“You can’t just come in here like this. You should have asked.”
“I did. And your mom rebuked us. We can’t afford to stockpile like that. We have student loans to pay and a mortgage and car payments and our kids’ tuition. By the time we went shopping, the shelves were stripped bare. Like they were being sold for parts.”
“Well, we need it, too. And you need to leave.”
“Fuck it,” Bill says. “You’re not giving me any other choice.” And then he backs up, cocks his leg, and kicks in the door. It splinters off its hinges and Collin leaps back, barely avoiding being hit by the swinging wooden slab.
“Jesus!” Collin screams.
“Collin, stop being so fucking loud!” His mom says from the living room. “We’re trying to sleep. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Shut the fuck up, Collin!” His girlfriend screams from upstairs. “Some of us have to work tomorrow.”
“Don’t make me come up there!” His dad screams.
Collin doesn’t know how to formulate some kind of warning. How to communicate to them what happened. Before he can even attempt to—before any words at all arrange themselves in his head—Bill charges forth, propelled by desperation. Propelled by the only human purpose—survival. Because it’s all anyone’s put on earth to do—and the fatalistic truth is that, no matter what you do here on earth, you’re fated to fail. Because the totality of a life is squelched by death like it was pimple popped on the face of a pubescent God, no matter what you’ve accomplished or who you are. And that instinct does a lot more bad than good, like all we are is maladies on the world. Billions of afflictions. Fleas biting and irritating a dog’s fur. A virus. And in the blink of an eye, Bill is on top of Collin, but his eyes are glassy and lifeless, and Collin can’t process what’s happening. It felt like a shitty edit in a video. No transition. A jarring cut. One second he was being assailed, and the next he was plunging the knife forward and feeling it sink into Bill’s gut as he barreled into him and took him to the ground in a clean hit compliant with NFL regulations.
He looks down and half-expects Bill’s stomach to be deflated, like it was a balloon. Filled with air. But despite their gaseous emissions, people are filled with water and blood and guts. He’s speechless and breathing hard and Bill’s face is an astonished rictus. Like this wasn’t what he expected to happen. He just expected to sneak in and sneak out with supplies. Bill gets it—he’d be surprised too if he was confronted with himself and couldn’t even overcome the pitiful impediment he poses. And outside something’s different. Now that the door’s opened, he hears it for the first time. The sound of people roving through the neighborhoods. Kicking in doors. Glass shattering and pugilistic grunts of exertion. A cacophony of chaos reaching a deplorable crescendo. His head is spinning. The moon’s distended and the stars in the sky swirl and make it look concaved. Collin feels like his spirit is prolapsed—his verve and soul—and he struggles to stuff it back in himself. To recompose himself. Like trying to put ketchup back in the bottle.
“What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck,” Collin repeats it like a mantra. People scream in the background. “Mom! Dad! Brit!” He screams. “Wake up now. You have to wake up now! This isn’t a joke.”
Everything is transpiring off in the distance and it almost feels like none of it is actually happening. The way it reverberates through the town. Like everything’s different but it’s still all the same. Like nothing’s really changed. He pushes Bill off of himself, knife sticking out of his gut like he had an appointment with a sadistic murderous acupuncturist. Collin’s covered in blood. He goes to the sink and tries to turn on the tap. But no water flows from the spigot. He goes to the kitchen and tries to turn on the light. But darkness retains its arrogation. It refuses to be usurped—it suppresses the industrial coup. There’s a body in their dining room and suddenly a virus feels secondary. Suddenly there’s a contagion of something more insidious. Something human that a disease could never replicate or match in devastation.
And eventually he hears it—the first explosion. Some kind of bomb detonated in the distance. And it functions as a kind of Big Bang. Because nothing’s the same afterwards. It spawns a kind of universe of dread and devastation and desolation. And all Collin can do is open the beer he brought down and take a long draught, and then he reaches in his jeans pocket and lights a cigarette. He leans against the kitchen counter and listens to it all happening outside, riveted—enraptured. Like it was God himself coming down to talk to him. To deliver a revelation. To reveal a diagnosis in that affected way physicians have to mitigate impact. To provide a prognosis after conducting palpations. Eventually everyone emerges. His mom and dad and girlfriend. They stand around their slain neighbor. A little disconcerted—with a dollop of consternation. Perplexed. Like he was the crux of some insoluble math equation they’d spent a lifetime trying to crack. And Collin feels it, too. Nothing feels real.
“Maybe this means no work for a while,” is all Brit says.
Collin nods and no one says another word the rest of the night. They all go back to their respective rooms like it was just some minor disruption. But Collin sits and tries to reconcile what happened. What he did. What it means. The magnitude of this moment.
Bill lays by the door all night. Eyes wide and vacant like two marbles stuck in his skull. Neither Collin nor Brit know what to do. His mom doesn’t know what to do. His dad thinks he knows what to do—but that’s just generational. The reductive boomer stereotype that amounts to nothing more than self-appeasement. Faux self-assuredness as an antidote to this unapologetically meaningless existence. Self consolation and the avoidance of everyone’s inherent inability and dysfunction. The ineffectuality of man. His parents eat their pills to ameliorate something—but it’s not entirely clear what that is. After a few years of consuming them they started feeling absent, like the only time they were ever present was when they were seized by some manic detachment. Reality simultaneously suspended and descended. It’s funny how elation is so adjacent to numbness that all it takes is one wrong turn to end up mired in it. Nothing feels real. The raucous looting outside doesn’t stop. The noises are practically played on a loop. They intensify and then there’s a slump—a decline. But still, it’s unceasing and recursive. Like when a baby cries. How it subsides for a few minutes and then ramps up after it consolidates its energy. Recentralizes the uncouth gumption. So it can make some kind of concerted effort. Bill lays gutted and it almost looks sacrificial. Like an errant immolation. Like the cosmos chose the wrong guy to make a martyr. Every movement and cause is makeshift at best. The world’s replete with causeless martyrs. It’s a self-sustaining industry. The only viable and feasible market in this imploding economy.
Collin stares at him and can’t jettison the thought that maybe it would be a good story for his feed on one of his sundry social media accounts. He knows it’s wrong, but he can’t help it. Like he’s been possessed. Like it’s an unrestrainable impulse—a compulsion he’s been conditioned to feed into.They don’t have weapons—Collin was very adamant that they shouldn’t bring a gun into the house. He was convinced it would perpetuate some kind of cannibalistic nature that started surfacing. Because survival necessitates some kind of struggle—the contention between prey and predator. And when there’s no external depredation, it just becomes internal. Everyone invariably starts eating their own until even the term apex predator becomes horrifyingly meta. Collin smokes cigarettes and drinks beer by Bill’s body, staring down at it. He contemplates his fitful approach to firearms. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so combative. Maybe he should have given it even a morsel of consideration. His mom goes back to sleep. His dad does, too. Brit can’t but tries, and eventually returns with a fat spliff and they smoke it right next to the body. Passing it back and forth in ritualistic rotation. Suppressing coughs. Staring down at the body submerged in a pool of blood and moonlight, lurid and vermillion like the moon was a giant neon sign in the sky consecrating the corpse. Knife sticking out like an artificial appendage implanted in some third world country. Discount surgery. God only knows how much that’d cost domestically—how you’d have to pay an arm and a leg to get an arm and a leg. How it’s neutralized. There’s a wretched balance to everything. Smoke curls into the sky. Scarifies it like terrestrial self-flagellations.
They’re stoned but that doesn’t help. It makes it worse. Because they’re already on edge, anxious—there’s already an impending sense of doom. Tangible. Electric. Popping and sparking in the air. And it’s just exacerbated by the pot. It makes them not want to go outside ever again. It amplifies the hopelessness. Turns it up to 11. “It’s not dying down out there,” Collin says eventually. “What do you think will happen? Do you think they’re coming here next? I can’t tell how far away it all is.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “But my manager just texted the group chat.”
“We still have work tomorrow,” she sighs. “We’re just going to have to be careful. She’s going to give us knives. She has a gun she’ll leave at the restaurant. But only supervisors have access to weapons. You need a special key and special privileges.”
“What about you guys getting infected? Shouldn’t that still be addressed? You said they haven’t really talked about it. They avoid the topic.”
“All of a sudden, that doesn’t seem like a top-tier concern.”
“What do we do about Bill?” Collin asks eventually. His hands tremble. His body trembles. He’s never killed anyone before—he always secretly assumed he’d handle it with stoic dignity. A kind of stolid integrity. Everything he’d watched and read and heard made him assume if he had to, it would be something he could do. But having to do something doesn’t make it any easier. “I didn’t mean to kill him, but what the fuck else was I supposed to do? He charged me and was going to loot the fucking house. Who knows what else would happen? Should I go next door to tell his family? I feel like I owe them an apology.”
“How do you expect that conversation to go?”
“He’s dead, Collin. You killed him. Regardless of the situation, an apology won’t change anything. You know that.”
“I guess not.”
“What was he doing in here?”
“He said they ran out of supplies. He wanted to take care of his family and was gonna come in here and take what he could.”
“Why didn’t he just ask?”
“My mom wasn’t budging.”
“It’s bad out there, you know. Every second, it’s getting worse. Everyone’s turning into freelance criminals.”
“I didn’t wanna read about it. I thought if I read about it, it would just make me paranoid. It would get in my brain like an insurgent, a sleeper cell.”
“My parents talked about it and the news broadcasted all those stories. It was hard to escape. It’s all we could do—sit around and listen to these missives from a collapsing society. People getting shot and stabbed and beaten over toilet paper and disinfectant at grocery stores. Someone was butchered over a peach. The chaos and pandemonium. There was even a Wal-Mart that was taken over. Like some kind of prison riot. Like the Branch Davidians in their Waco compound. They held their ground. It was mostly families. Men and women who just wanted to take care of their children. Some homeless folk. They refused to relinquish ground, so they set the whole thing on fire. They said they were all compromised. Probably infected anyway. Incinerating them was the only way to contain transmission of what was viral a cesspool. Like preventing a septic tank from leaking and contaminating the rest of the world. That’s what they said anyway, on the news. Their hands were tied, so to speak. What else were they supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” Collin says. “Both, I guess.”
“Remember before this happened. All the news stories?”
“What about them?”
“It was all about immigrants and refugees. Coming in to spoil and sully what we’ve built. Coming from desolated countries, seeking reprieve. And now look at us.”
“Don’t get me started.”
“We didn’t need them to come in and decimate our home. To burn it to the ground. We’re fully capable. There’s no need to outsource our self-destruction.”
“I don’t know,” Collin sighs and butts a cigarette and then immediately lights another. He leans back and finishes his beer. He’s stoned and maudlin. “But I’m not entirely sure this is a counterargument to that. I still don’t trust them. I mean, who do you think brought this disease in—who do you think precipitated this all? It wasn’t us. I can tell you that much. The proof is in the pudding.”
“Fuck off, Collin,” Brit says. “You sound just like your parents. I can’t take this shit right now. Things are divided enough. Besides, there are plenty of people suspecting it was rich assholes—there’s plenty of evidence that suggests there’s some correlation between when they returned from gallivanting overseas and the first diagnosed cases of the bug here. They were off attending fashion weeks or on ski-resort holidays in Italy. Which are both truly imperatives. Because they felt invulnerable. And they are, I guess. The waiting list for the vaccine when it’s developed was leaked recently, and there’s not a single person who isn’t a millionaire anywhere near the top. They’re handling it like the release of new Yeezys or something. But there’s plenty of speculation and a fair deal of corroboration that they brought it back with them. That’s all I’m saying.”
Collin shrugs, and they sit for a while in silence. Moonlight and the raucous racket of devastation pouring in. Filling out the room like a deluge of floodwater in a hurricane. Drowning them like the virus. People cry and cry. Brit puts her head on Collin’s shoulder and he feels so tired he wishes he could sleep for a week. For a month. He wishes he could fall asleep and wake up when everything has blown over. Which is what they were doing in a way. Trying to simulate a coma, overloading their brains with news and stimuli and poison. To induce unconsciousness—a lapse in existence. But it hasn’t worked. Because they have to feel this. It feels like an imperative they can’t avoid. A bizarre recompense—something that builds character, as his dad so commonly espouses. But how much character do you really need? How much does character really help? It seems like character doesn’t really ever do anyone any good. Everyone with any character or decency dies the same death as the most deplorable and abhorrent scumbags. So what difference does it make, anyway? Just get yours and keep it pushing.
And then they hear it. A loud fissile boom that rattles their house like an earthquake. Pictures drop and shatter on the ground. Everyone’s jarred awake—he practically feels the neighborhood stir and galvanize in their respective homes. The neighborhood yawns to life. Even Bill spasms with one last gyration of life. It feels like something bigger shatters, something more foundational and essential to the integrity of them all, but it’s not clear what. Brit’s jarred awake and Collin leaps up. The lingering high that hung over them both like some kind of morning mist is burned away by the light of revelation. Collin reaches into the crate of beer on the kitchen table and opens a bottle. He lights a cigarette and looks around. He wonders if it was something that happened to their house but quickly realizes his home is relatively untouched. Apart from the broken backdoor and cellophane covering everything and dead body on the floor. They’re just shook ones. Then he realizes nothing’s untouched. Reality’s suffused over everything. It’s left indentations and scarifications like it was clinging and clawing to it all for dear life. Brit’s looking around helplessly. Then her eyes gravitate toward Bill’s corpse splayed out on the floor. Eyes always gravitate toward it—like he’s some masterpiece, some magnum opus, harbored in a museum that’s otherwise mediocre.
“What the fuck was that?” His mom screams from the couch.
“Did you guys hear that?” His dad hollers up.
“Collin, what was that?” Brit’s confused. “Did that happen to us?”
“Fuck,” is all Collin can say. “Goddammit. Fuck.” He’s not the most articulate guy despite his vocation.
His ears ring, and he walks away. Nothing feels real but nothing has for a long time. No one responds to anyone. And, truth be told, people have stopped expecting a response. People don’t talk to catalyze conversation. People don’t talk to communicate. They just scream into a vacuum like putting messages in a bottle and hoping the tide carries them and washes them on some distant shore. Like anonymously sending bombs in a mail from a fabricated address. Collin walks toward the balcony protruding from the front of their house. He opens the door and steps out. The evening air is cool. It feels good to be ensconced in it—it’s been weeks. Other neighbors are standing on their balconies staring out, exchanging concerned glances. They regard each other like strangers. Because they essentially are. Across the street, at what feels like the epicenter of their community, a house has a chunk blown out of it. There’s charred debris on the street. Smoke rises in billows. A family spills out. Soot covers their faces. The children are crying. The man is trying to maintain composure. The woman is expressionless. Like a part of her was blown out too. Like some kind of lobotomy.
“Help!” The children scream. “Please help us!”
“Please!” The parents eventually break. “We need help! Someone bombed our house. They blew out the front door and stormed in. They stormed in and took our toilet paper and hand sanitizer. They took our water and food.”
No one says anything. They observe the dejected family—exposed to the virus. Compromised. All anyone’s thinking is if they’re next. They observe the family like interfacing with a screen. Like watching a news story. Remote and far removed. The family implores them. Continues screaming. Collin sucks at a cigarette and cocks his head, turns to the neighbors—Bill’s family, unaware that his body’s in his house—and they exchange a look that conveys shared second-hand embarrassment. Vicarious shame. They shrug and widen their lacquered eyes. Like these people were having some inexcusable public outburst. Collin’s family joins him. No one says anything.
“We don’t have any supplies! Our children need water. They need food. We need toilet paper and we’re compromised now. The virus can get us. We need help!”
“Just get a job,” the landlords hiss from down the street like their house was a sulfuric snake pit. “Get a job and you’ll be fine. Buy supplies. Fix the house. Rent is still due at the beginning of the month. Even if you can’t work or get paid. So I suggest everyone pay it as soon as possible. Before anything unforeseen happens to you, too.”
Suddenly no one cares about what happened because they have their own incursion to weather. They have their own blitzkrieg to overcome, to beat back and abate like some kind of siege. Private worry eclipses public concern.
“But we can’t!”
“You’re just lazy,” one of the neighbors says. “Get a job and handle it.”
“You don’t understand,” the parents try to appeal, but no one’s listening. “We were fired. We both got sick and tried to call out, but we didn’t have sick leave. They said if we don’t show up, we’ll be terminated, but we didn’t want to spread the virus if we contracted it. It was a moral conundrum. We did the right thing and got the can. And when we tried to collect unemployment, the agency contacted our old employers and were informed that we’re not unemployed, we’re just working 0 hours a week. All of a sudden having a conscience is a dysfunction.”
“What do you have left?” Someone asks. “What didn’t they take?”
“What do you mean?”
“What didn’t they take from your house?”
“I don’t know,” they’re flabbergasted—befuddled. Everyone’s devoid of compunction. Guilt’s just dead weight. “Cereal. Milk. Jewelry. Some water and some lunchmeat.”
“I’ll give you ten sheets of toilet paper for the cereal.”
They look around shell-shocked. Another person shouts, “I’ll give you five for a bottle of water.”
Collin and his family decide to go back inside. There’s nothing of interest anymore and they still have their supplies. The auction is arduous to watch. How they’re conceding their livelihood for TP—for basic human dignity. To not be covered in shit. It’s reported there are folks hooked up to ventilators in hospitals crunching numbers—working with the bug while they slowly expire. Because what else can they do? The world didn’t just stop or relent. So no one has much compassion for this family’s lack of hustle. Sponging valuable space and resources. Collin and his family need to protect their reserves. Collin and his father hoist and throw Bill’s corpse over the fence to his family’s backyard. They hammer nails into the backdoor and seal it shut with cellophane. While they do this, Bill’s body is discovered and they hear a dervish outpouring of despair from his family, screeching and weeping in confused devastation. Everyone takes turn standing watch—vigilant for bombers and intruders. Nothing feels real but everything’s changed.
His mom mandates a no affection rule—they can’t even talk to each other too closely. She monitors it with a clothes hangar. She whips them if they share anything or infringe on the necessary six feet apart. It’s domestic martial law. But she relaxes soon enough. Because there’s nothing more characteristic of their epoch or country than self-imposed short-term amnesia. But Brit still leaves for work and everyone’s on edge. Even Collin starts scrutinizing her like unidentifiable pills they take on a whim.
The next day, more houses are bombed. One of the assailants is caught. He says it’s because they don’t want to come in contact with anyone. They don’t want to risk exposure to the virus and need supplies. There’s no other way to get supplies—they have families and are desperate and no one’s sharing. There’s no equity in the distribution. They couldn’t afford to stock up like everyone else. They didn’t have that luxury. Not everyone’s afforded the luxury of life. TP becomes currency—transactions occur regularly and there’s an established market within a day. The landlords accept TP as payment—then they control the market. They determine value. It’s a familiar system. Subjugation is all people know. Collin still can’t sleep and all he does is get high. His parents eat medication. Everything is different but nothing’s changed. Nothing feels real and that’s a sliver of normalcy for them to lean on.