Through the window I can see clear across the alley into the apartment facing mine. Mrs. Finch reclines in her armchair by the window, a hand raised in greeting. Rain or shine, she’s always there. Silver hair whisked back into a bun. Usually with a book in her lap. Lately it’s been a mess of yarn and a pair of crochet hooks, although she hasn’t made much progress this month. Whoever’s expecting that hat or scarf or baby blanket will just have to wait. Mrs. Finch is looking thinner. Then I look down my own body — my ribs protruding under my pink sports bra, the winding river of my surgical scar. All of America is on a diet, whether we like it or not.
I grab an MRE from the kitchen. Chicken with egg noodles and freeze-dried vegetables again. As good a breakfast as I’ll get. I unscrew the top of my prescription bottle, shake one small oval into my hand, then wash it down. I fight the urge to yet again count the pills I have left.
I flip open my laptop and log on. Day 1572 flashes across the bottom of my laptop screen. It doesn’t feel much different than Day 1557 (my twenty-ninth birthday), or even Day 1000 for that matter.
You don’t have to know the numbers to track the progress of the world’s first caelivirus. Just listen to the sirens outside, all day and all night. Just read the headlines. During the first month of quarantine, after all the restaurants shut down but before the National Guard came in wearing hazmats, it was 10 Ways to Keep Your Kids Entertained in Quarantine. Midway through stories like 10 Meals to Make Out of Existing Supplies In Your Pantry and How Long Can Leftovers Last Before They’re Unsafe To Eat? made their debut. These days it’s Five Books to Read When You Feel Like Giving Up and How To Make A Homemade Ventilator Out Of Everyday Household Items. Yesterday’s death count from the virus was 3,017. And that’s just in NYC.
I glance out the window. I can’t help but look at the dropbox affixed to Mrs. Finch’s door. It’s delivery day. Soon the drones will glide by, like robotic Santas delivering MREs and in Mrs. Finch’s case, medicine. Mrs. Finch has better insurance than I do. Premium Medicare instead of the crappy Health Choice everyone’s on, in which one’s only real choice is to shut up and die already. She takes the same medical steroid I do. I know because I helped her sign up online for drone delivery that first week of quarantine.
I tear my eyes away from Mrs. Finch’s dropbox and back to the computer. You have to be careful what you share on social media nowadays. To be more precise, you have to be careful that you do share these days. Everyone knows looters comb social media, eyeing that account that’s been inactive for a week or more. You want to post enough to show you’re still alive, although not much else. Don’t give away too much information, like if you’re sick or how much food you have left. I search google images and settle on a meme of Mr. Rogers wearing a hazmat suit. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, the text below the picture says. Click. Post.
Back when we could still go outside, before we were afraid even to open our windows, I spent an afternoon perched in front of Mrs. Finch’s clunky PC– a gift from one of her grown children.
Twitter and Instagram had seemed too complicated. SnapChat? TIkTok? Yeah, right. I finally settled on Facebook, which seemed like it would be the most accessible for her.
“It’ll help you stay in touch with other people,” I explained, pointing out the newsfeed. I sent myself a friend request from her account.
“Dear, that’s what phones are for,” Mrs. Finch smiled. Her eyes crinkled behind her glasses.
“You should get an Amazon account, too,” I told her. “What if the stores stay closed for a long time?” It was before the governor made the lockdown official, but not before we all knew it was coming. According to the satellites, that deadly orange cloud of debris and germs would reach our city in days.
Mrs. Finch just shrugged and smiled.
Mrs. Finch was the first person I met when I moved here. I’d rented this apartment the year after my lung transplant. I’d struggled with the stairs, as I knew I would. After two flights, I’d gasp for breath and my fingers would tingle. Most people — particularly other late twenty-somethings, but really people of all ages — took a step back when I told them about my transplant. Literally, a step back, as if a plane of glass had fallen between us to separate the young and healthy from the young and damned. But not Mrs. Finch. She’d brought over a tray of sugar cookies, cut into heart shapes and slathered with pink frosting.
“To celebrate your new heart,” Mrs. Finch had said. I didn’t correct her.
She’s still in front of the window, reclining on her armchair. I log into her Facebook account. “Another beautiful sunrise this morning,” I post, then log out. My mouth waters thinking about those cookies now.
By now everyone knows the story of the lab explosion, the smog, the plague that spread across the globe like a viral blitzkrieg. We can recite the symptom like we recite our addresses: first there’s the watery eyes, the hacking cough with blood. Then victims gasp their last breaths, often cracking their ribs in the process. The scientists tell us the germs can live for months on a hard surface like plastic or wood, up from the few hours they said at first. They tell us it adapts quicker than any virus they’ve ever studied. That every time they come close to a vaccine it mutates. That at first they thought the chances of surviving it were ninety- eight percent, but now they’re less than twenty. They tell us everything except what everyone’s dying to know: how to get rid of it. The world has seen coronaviruses, influenzas, SARS, but we’ve never before experienced a caelivirus– the first virus to attach itself to air particles and travel, hostless, for weeks at a time, like some goddamn invisible air zombie. I glance outside as the wind tosses a leaf past my window. What I don’t see is the deadly germs floating along beside it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
By now they’ve adapted filtration systems for AC, but not before entire buildings perished, ribcages rattling one last time as parents clapped their last masks over children’s faces. Most of them are still there four years later, entombed in swanky Park Avenue townhomes cursed with central air rather than window units.
The first year of quarantine, there’d been impromptu hallway parties and sourdough starter swaps. But as food and money diminished, the camaraderie, unusual for New York, had hardened to suspicion, then naked greed. After the first neighbor tried to break in, I moved my dresser in front of my door, then sharpened a knife to keep by my bed.
We’ve all retreated into the safety of the virtual world. Social media is all we have now. A mass of humanity clambering to be seen, to be heard, to share. None of it feels quite real, but we cling to it like it’s our last hug from a loved one we know we’ll never see again. Every one of us is desperate to connect. Too bad a hundred loud voices is no match for an assassin no one can see or hear.
A friend from college likes my post. A friend’s mom has posted a cooking clip. Rachel Ray, that rogue survivalist. With only a few TV channels still functioning, she films her own show from her underground bunker. She’ll make it out of this mess, most likely brandishing a makeshift tuna souffle. I like the post, then keep scrolling.
The first wave of deaths sent everyone scurrying inside. Schools went online. Restaurants closed. Only the hospitals worked overtime. Six months later the second wave washed away thousands — mostly people who just couldn’t take the isolation anymore. Conspiracy theorists who believed the virus was a hoax and wanted to be liberated from lockdown. Liberate themselves they did — right out of this life and into the next. Teenagers sneaking out at night, sharing beer or joints or even just conversation. Suzy Q. Homemaker lured to her death by the allure of a fifty percent off coupon. People who stepped outside, just for a few hours, lured by the siren song of “fresh” air and sunshine. I stand by the window and tip my coffee mug of hot water to the outside. The air and I stare each other down. Those sidewalks have no hold over me, I tell myself.
The fourth wave, which started late year three, was mostly suicides. People came up with all kinds of ways of ending it all. Leaping from their balconies. Swallowing kitchen cleaner. Going for a last leisurely stroll around Central Park. One woman licked her countertops after the virus took her husband and two children. Some of them streamed it, the last facial expression they’ll ever make immortalized in a fifteen second clip.
The most depressed I’ve ever been happened well before quarantine. The year after my transplant, a childhood friend I’d met in the hospital died before she got her new lungs. Crippled by guilt, I hardly left my bed that month. I didn’t shower. I barely ate. But my lungs kept inhaling, drawing in oxygen and transforming it into carbon dioxide. Lungs gifted from another’s body to save my life. “Grieving doesn’t mean giving up,” I’d told myself.
I stand on a chair to unscrew the lightbulb above me so it lasts longer. Last year the one remaining bulb in the kitchen went out. In the rare event I cook, I unscrew a bulb from my bedside lamp and relocate it. If that bulb ever dies, I’ll have to go full on Laura Ingalls Wilder and make myself an oil lamp.
Before my transplant and well before caelivirus was even a blip on the horizon, I used to think having a pile of cash was the key to survival. I’d slept on a friend’s couch for months before the transplant and before my job at the firm, Medicaid hemming and hawing as the hospital bills bled me dry. No way in hell was I ever going back. I got hired as a paralegal at a big firm in Midtown as soon as I was well enough to work. I’d saved my money like crazy. My emergency fund bloomed into three months, then six months, then five years’ worth. More now, since rent has been suspended indefinitely. All my colleagues at the law firm took taxis to their fancy townhomes and tossed back cosmos at swanky nightclubs. I moved into my cramped fifth floor studio. I didn’t know I’d be trapped here for years.
On the evening news once a few months ago they executed a handful of looters. They do that from time to time as a message to the rest of us. Toe the line. Stay inside and starve to death like good citizens. Not that they’re wrong. The alternative is gasping your last breath on a ventilator. One of the looters was a white man in his fifties. Right before the bullet entered his chest I got a look at his face. Scott, the lawyer with an office down the hall from my cubicle.
Nobody thought this would happen in America. The years long martial law. The executions without trials. The suspended elections. But maybe we should have. For all our talk of democracy, we’re not so different from the rest of the world. There’s no depth people won’t stoop to to take one last breath, no matter how miserable.
Those of us left are all part of the same club: the Survivors’ Club. Mrs. Finch, me, whatever neighbors are left to peek through their window curtains. Membership comes with a measly government subsidy each month, not to mention a handful of MREs each week that taste like the foil they’re wrapped in. Canned beans and rice that stare you down when you open the pantry, if you’re lucky enough to have a pantry. Not to mention the dangerous gift of unlimited free time, even for someone like me whose chronic fatigue keeps in bed half the day. Seven years after the transplant and I still need eleven hours of sleep, not to mention rest breaks throughout the day. As a chronically ill person, I thought I’d never see the day when the healthy people in my life were as limited as I am. Death has run its icy finger down our collective spine. No one here has been left untouched.
More than anything, membership in Survivors’ Club requires adaptation. It’s bending a knife into a makeshift screwdriver, then using that screwdriver to bolt your windows shut and pry open a three-year-old can of beans. You find yourself capable of doing things you never imagined.
Delivery day, I think for the hundredth time. Adrenaline jolts through my heart. I picture the package falling into Mrs. Finch’s dropbox, the prescription bottle of little oval pills inside. She hasn’t put down her knitting. She’s so frail, her neck so thin you’d think it might snap.
I pull on some threadbare yoga pants and a T-shirt, then turn the TV to Fox News. I can only bear to watch for a few minutes, but I need to know what they’re saying.
The news anchors have that trapped, panicked look. Just like the rest of us. Food may be scarce, but desperation is in abundance.
“Just the infirm and the elderly are dying,” they told us in the beginning. Just. That’s what everyone always says at first. As if us sick people were just hanging onto our mortality by a thread anyway, waiting for a good stiff breeze to knock us over the edge. As if this virus was doing society a favor by getting rid of us. Normal people everywhere sighed in relief and went back to their CrossFit and backyard barbeques and complaints about their 9 to 5s. And then it started picking them off like flies. Not just the grandmas and cancer patients. The man at the Indian takeout who knows your order and greets you by name. The PTA mom with all the cookies. Your wife. Your son.
“Cull the herd,” Laura Ingram declares from the screen. She’s referring to the pharmaceutical companies that have the audacity to keep producing non-caelivirus medicine. Her face is gaunt, her hair gray instead of bottle blonde. “It’s for the greater good. Why waste resources on people who will die anyway?”
No one ever thinks they’re the one getting culled. Watch the beginning coverage of the virus and yesterday’s story back to back and you’d be shocked. But watch each video in the progression and it will start to feel almost rational.
People underestimate the hanging-by-a-thread crowd. We’re the original Survivors’ Club. The founding members. I’ve been sick long enough to know a life spent hanging by a thread just means I have a better grip.
Before and after my transplant, pumped full of anti-rejection drugs and immunosuppressants, I’d whiled away the months reading alone in my room. Away from the world and all its germs. I’ve been in quarantine long before most people, and I’ll be here long after they’re gone. Sick people won’t straight up tell you, but I think most of us feel this way. Quarantine is the world as we’re used to it. Everyone else is just visiting here. We’ve been down this road before, and damn if we don’t know where all the potholes are.
“Those with respiratory issues won’t survive this,” a guest doctor on Fox and Friends said in the beginning.
I snorted. Like I haven’t heard that one before.
In retrospect, I should have seen that letter coming from a mile away.
I plucked it out of the dropbox in my door two months ago. The stylized letters “HC” inside of a heart stared back at me. My health insurance company’s logo. I’d figured a thin envelope couldn’t impart any life-changing information. Probably just a summary of benefits that month or a list of money spent on my medication.
Then I opened it.
The words jumped out at me. Like they wanted to leap off the page and strangle me themselves.
I sat there on my IKEA chair in my sun-soaked kitchen, the letter trembling in my hand. I stared at the wall. Painted yellow. An HGTV Magazine article at the beginning of quarantine had promised light colors would visually expand a room while creating the illusion of light.
HGTV lied. My apartment is 500 square feet and no amount of lead-free specialty paint in Here Comes The Sun is going to change that.
I set the letter down on my red checkered tablecloth. I looked at the cracked blue teapot with the flowers on the side and thought “so this is how it ends.”
I dislodged a dusty bottle of wine from the very back of the pantry. A cheap red, although it would go for much more now. Three glasses in and that reliable tangle of neurons and synapses in my skull spit out some semblance of a plan, like it always does.
Then I drunk-dialled the insurance company.
I interrupted the automated system by repeating “Speak to a representative” over and over. An hour wait later and a cool female voice answered. I gave her my policy number, then asked about the letter. “There must be some mistake,” I said with false confidence.
“There’s no mistake. Your medication– pred…pred…prednisone? And Cell…cept?” she tripped over the names, “are no longer approved for lung transplant patients. It’s a new government mandate. Drug companies are only offering caelivirus treatments now, unless you’re over sixty-five.”
“But I need them to survive,” I said flatly.
“It’s for the greater good.” I heard the click of her pen over the line.
“Yeah, here’s the thing: I didn’t sign up to be your sacrificial lamb–”
“Sorry, we can’t help you.”
The greater good! Can’t you understand? The goddamn greater good!
“I’m a lawyer!” I yelled into the phone. Click.
I poured more wine to dampen this fresh wave of despair. And despite my alcohol-induced blurred vision, I saw the world more clearly than I ever had. I can stuff my kitchen to the gills with food. I can sock away a nest egg that would birth an ostrich. I can do everything not just right, but better than everyone. But this is a game I was never meant to win.
One letter. Just one letter. That fortress I thought I’d built? It’s nothing but a straw house.
The drone delivery to Mrs. Finch’s house shook me out of my funk. It had been at least a month since I last heard from her. She hadn’t answered or returned my last few calls. I watched, transfixed, as a nondescript white box tumbled into the dropbox affixed to her window. I stared at that box for a long time that day.
I set aside the mug of hot water I was pretending was coffee. Then I shake my head as if to permanently dislodge the memory of that phone call.
In preparation for deliveries, the Sanitrucks were all over the city this morning, spraying foamy white disinfectant over the buildings. The repurposed fire trucks hit the tallest buildings, like the ones in midtown Manhattan. For the rest of the day, clusters of white bubbles dripped onto the street, as if the entire city were really just toys in a giant baby’s bubble bath.
My stomach clenches. Soon the drones will start buzzing by. That little box will land in Mrs. Finch’s drop box.
After Mrs. Finch’s husband died of cancer ten years ago, she told me the pharmacy continued sending his immunosuppressant for nearly a year. CellCept — the same one I’m on, which my insurance company also cancelled. Because Mrs. Finch couldn’t bear to call and cancel, she just stacked them in the medicine cabinet. As if she’d wake up tomorrow and Mr. Finch would be sitting at the kitchen table, wanting a cup of black coffee to wash those pills down.
I know they’re still there. Expired, but in all likelihood still effective. Certainly better than nothing. Mrs. Finch isn’t the type to throw things out.
MRE deliveries from the government bring out the looters. The looters look ridiculous in their homemade hazmat suits, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear them. Garbage bags duct taped to their bodies. Goggles and scuba masks over their faces. I once saw a guy with a fishbowl over his head — no joke. The criminals of the past dressed in black, slunk out under the cover of night, fitted their gun barrels with silencers. It makes you wonder how Hollywood will cast bad guys in the future.
If there is a future.
I open my closet and push through shirts and old dresses until my hand touches the plastic of the hazmat suit my friend wore to visit me in the hospital when he came to visit after my transplant. He’d wanted to throw it away, but I kept it instead. “It’s bad luck,” I said. Every sick person knows as soon as you throw away your hospital gown or comfy socks, you’re going to need them again.
I pull the hazmat suit on over my clothes. My hands shake. Nothing good could come of this. Everything could come of this.
I’ve always been good at remembering statistics. Fifty percent of patients will survive 5-10 years after a lung transplant. In every ten meters of air, there are approximately twenty caelivirus particles. In the twelve hours after the Sanitrucks make their rounds, this number decreases to two — meaning the odds of infection from opening a window briefly hover just around 6%. 6% is not 0, but I’ll take my chances.
I’m standing near the fire escape, window still closed, when the flashback slams into me. I double over, gasping for breath. Because this isn’t the first time I’ve made the trip over to Mrs. Finch’s.
Delivery day, last month. I’d climbed down the fire escape with trembling fingers. No front doors for me, with their ID scanners, armed guards, and series of airlock doors. The cool breeze had enveloped me, dangerous yet somehow comforting– a reminder of walks in the park and car rides with the window open. Mrs. Finch’s fire escape creaked as I climbed it. A few minutes at her window with my screwdriver and I slip in, shutting the window quickly behind me in one fluid motion.
My heart pounded. I didn’t bother to call out Mrs. Finch’s name. Over the past six weeks, I’d watched her prized African violets wither into nothingness, her curtains hang still. Phone calls went straight to a full voicemail box. I’d never seen a dead body before. I think that scared me even more than the virus.
I pulled Mrs. Finch’s curtains closed, then flipped on the light switch. Dirty dishes piled in the sink, the food petrified and rancid. A single teacup sat on the counter, a fly floating in the film that had formed over the top.
I was near the bathroom when I heard it. A whisper. Weak, barely audible, but unmistakable. I tiptoed back to the bedroom and opened the door.
A wave of musty air hit me. Even through the hazmat suit, the room reeked of mildew and urine. A lump under the blankets moved. I turned on the lamp on the bedside table. Mrs. Finch’s hand was soft and dry. A wave of something like warmth crashed over me. Grief and longing with an undercurrent of joy, oddly enough. It was intense, so intense my eyes burned, and I’ve never been a crier. That’s when I realized: I hadn’t physically touched another person in over four years. Not a single soul.
I don’t know how long I sat there, holding her hand and speaking in soft tones to her. Then I filled a bucket with warm water and soap. I washed her hair with shampoo, then peeled off her sweat-soaked nightgown. Mrs. Finch whimpered in pain, even though I was gentle. But because I’d always known Mrs. Finch to be someone who needs things to be clean, I kept going. Sure enough, she thanked me in the end with a voice that sounded like dead leaves on the sidewalk.
Even in her state, she knew exactly why I was there.
“The medicine cabinet,” she whispered, even though I didn’t ask. As if she wasn’t the type to wash her dishes every night and fold her underwear into perfect little squares. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Eighty-nine but still sharp as a tack. This awareness pierced my heart like a needle. No mind numbing drugs or dementia to guard Mrs. Finch from the truth. She knew she was almost gone.
“Monday,” she whispered. “Once a month. The armchair. By the window. Leave me here. Buy yourself some time.”
And that’s when the fantasy started. I could hoist her onto my back and carry her to my place. Climb the fire escape with her. Feed her chicken broth and nurse her back to health. Or maybe I could move in with her. Pack up my laptop and some clothes, and the few MREs left in the pantry. Words spilled out of my mouth like water from a dam.
A ghost of a smile crossed Mrs. Finch’s lips. I had to lean in to hear her. “That’s nice, dear.”
Her words sent reality crashing back like a piano dropped on my head. Even in her frail state, she was too heavy. We’d never make it across the alley and up the stairs. I could barely make it alone.
And if the authorities found out I was living in an apartment that wasn’t mine and figured me for a looter? I shuddered.
I carried her to the armchair facing the window. I spread a blanket over her lap, along with a half-knitted scarf, knitting needles still attached. I watered her African violets, knowing no amount of love could save them. Then I sat beside Mrs. Finch. I held her hand through the night. Screw the looters. When her breath became shallow and her pulse faint, I stood. As the sun started to rise, I washed her dishes and wiped her counters. I stuffed the contents of the medicine cabinet into my backpack. I brushed the hair away from her face, swallowing the lump in my throat.
Tears burned my eyes as I zipped up my hazmat. I sobbed the whole trip down the fire escape, across the street, up my fire escape. I repeated the words over and over like a mantra to beat the weakness out of myself. Don’t touch your eyes. Don’t you touch your eyes. Don’t you dare touch your eyes.
I stood by my window a long time as the sun rose. Chest heaving, lungs burning. I didn’t care if I looked like a target, like some poor sap who’s finally cracked. Just before I turned to head to bed, Mrs. Finch lifted a frail hand as if in greeting. She propped it up against the back of the chair. That hand was still there in the morning. That’s how I knew she was really gone.
The flashback subsides. I wait for my hands to stop shaking. Then I swallow the rest of the water in my coffee mug, even though it’s cold now. I look out at Mrs. Finch as the sun dips below the horizon, sucking the light from the sky. I pull the hood over my hazmat suit.
I think of the years leading up to my lung transplant. “Fighters keep swinging. Steppers keep stepping,” my favorite nurse used to say as I lay in my hospital bed, my skin tinged blue from lack of oxygen. The first time she said it, I’d tried not to laugh. I couldn’t even take one step. But over time, the words sunk in. They became the rhythm I moved through life to, the armor that grew around me like a second skin. Sometimes you can be so focused on your next step that that’s all you know how to do anymore, and then you walk right past the reason you’re stepping in the first place.
There are still people out there who will reach out to catch others without ever thinking of the germs their extended hand might touch. I can be the strongest of the strong, tougher than tough, and still need other humans. People can build up tolerance to depravity, to scarcity, to cruelty, but all it takes is a second of kindness to bring us to our knees.
The sun is gone, leaving nothing but darkness pierced by neon lights. Mrs. Finch’s key burns in my pocket. I spray the air inside with bleach as a precaution, then square my shoulders before resting a hand on the window latch. Chin up. Hands steady. Don’t look down.
Meghan Beaudry began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Ravishly, Folks at Pillpack, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017 and was selected as winner of the 2020 Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest in fiction. She lives in Houston with her two rescue dogs.