A short story
She woke early that morning—at least it felt early. There was no way to gauge official time, and without consistent electricity she’d given up resetting the clock. But the chill in the air and the crack of light beneath the shuttered window suggested the beginning of another day—a blessing and a curse.
The boy was still sleeping. Tiptoeing to peer outside, she could just make out her favorite bench under the pine tree. It had been a neighborhood park, in the Before. Before, when there were neighbors and colleagues, family and friends. Before, when life included restaurants and holidays and commuting on the subway. Before the pandemic drove everyone inside and online. Before the After came and pushed away any hope of returning to life.
She sat down at her laptop. They traced days in a cycle of five now; no need for a more complex rhythm. This was the fifth day, the day she used to vid-con with her brother and his family. Seeing their faces, hearing their voices: it had been a sacred ritual, something that kept them human. But even that was taken from her now.
Turning on the screen, the familiar yellow warning greeted her:
“Toxicity Level: SEVERE. Stay Indoors. Keep Your Distance.”
She had seen that announcement every day for seven years. Was that how long it had been, now? Time had shrunk in the Afterward. With each new wave of contagion and violence, place had shrunk, too. Now her world was two rooms, her community reduced to the handful of survivors brave enough to log onto the vid when they grew desperate enough to call for rations.
She was about to check the day’s available resources when a siren split the morning air. Dread filled her. It took effort to push the air from her lungs, even more effort to pull it back in.
“What is it, mom?” the boy asked from his place on the bed.
She cleared her throat and steadied her hands. “Um, that’s…the citywide command to log on. There’s… news.”
News? Good? Even growing up in hell hadn’t entirely squelched the boy’s childlike hope.
“I don’t know. I have to log in and see.”
He sat up, eyes wide. “Can I watch?”
She nodded. He rolled out of bed, so tall. She couldn’t say for sure his birthdate, but she would never forget the day itself, the despair of bringing new life into the world—that year of all years. He grabbed last night’s can of corn off the table and carried it to the desk, standing behind her with his hand on her shoulder. When did his hand get so big? When did his face get so long? He looked so like his father had, in the end.
A red light blinked at the bottom of her screen. In the Before, her browser would connect to servers anywhere around the world. Now, there was only here. Just a string of local network cables offering an occasional lifeline.
When she opened the tab, a middle-aged man was waiting. He looked like men did back when time counted: no beard, combed hair, glasses, shoulders draped in a deep blue blazer. Out of habit she slid on her cotton breathing mask for privacy, but did not turn on the camera. Not yet.
“Good evening, Citizen Survivors. Thank you for heeding our call. I see one hundred and fifty-three users logged on. We’ll wait another moment before we begin. If you wish to remain on this call, you must show your faces.”
“You have to turn it on, mom?”
Other survivors appeared in a grid below the man. She touched the screen, swiping through faces. Most wore masks and seemed to be hesitating.
“When I say ‘show your faces,’ I mean I want to see your whole face. You may use virtual backgrounds, but I want cameras on and masks off, okay?”
She turned to the boy. “You’ll need to stand further back, okay, baby? That’s good.”
There were seven images available for a background: a waterfall, a river, two hummingbirds perched on a feeder. She chose the image of a mountain topped with snow. When she turned the camera on, she sat in front of the mountain while her son was shrouded safely behind it.
The man on the screen adjusted his glasses. “Thank you, User 67. User 12, good. User 145, your mask is still on. Remove it, please?”
She swiped frantically, page after page, looking for her brother’s face. Or her sister-in-law. She had so few chances, and so little time. What if only their children had survived the last wave? Would she even know their faces? Would they know hers?
“User 145? Last warning.”
She gasped when it registered. Her hands fumbled for the strings looping her ears.
“I’m sorry, I forgot" she said, but her mic was muted.
“Very well," the man said. “It’s a privilege to see the faces of such a resilient city. I am the new Minister of Health and Civilization. And today I have the distinct honor,” he paused to emphasize a smile, “of welcoming you back to your community. We have finally developed a working vaccine.”
No one moved. No one even blinked.
“I understand your reticence. But I assure you, this time is different. This time we guarantee you 100% safety.”
She could only sit there like everyone else. Gaping. Disbelieving.
“It is time to begin again. We have started construction of a new city center; each family will be assigned a safe living space and given a job assignment. The nightmare is over. We need all hands on-deck again. We realize this is sudden, but all citizens must gather at the old City Hall by noon.”
A red box appeared around User 32, a black man with a gray beard.
“User 32, you may speak.”
His mic came on. “I lost my wife in the second wave; I lost my daughters to the vaccine that was supposed to stop it.”
“I understand,” the minister said.
“No, you don’t understand. Do you have any idea how they died? I have pictures, do you want me to show you? They’re right…”
His face vanished from the grid.
“As I said, this time will be different. This time you are perfectly safe. But we require your cooperation. Yes, user 87?”
An older man this time, bone-thin and weathered. “What if we refuse?”
The minister’s voice was tight now. “In the interest of public safety, we will destroy all old construction, beginning tonight. Your current homes and hideouts will be razed to the ground. It is imperative that you leave by noon, bringing anything you care to retain.”
Her vision blurred. Leave? Now? She held onto the desk to anchor herself. She saw her husband’s dying face, the yellow skin and bloodshot eyes. She could never forget hearing him cry for death while their baby screamed next to him. The world on fire. Dear God, she couldn’t survive it again.
“Mom? Mom, can we go?”
His voice pulled her back.
She looked back at him, forcing a smile. He leaned in closer, breaking her heart with his look of hope. “I…We’ll see, son,” she whispered.
“User 145? Looks like we have a visitor. Would you step forward, young man? Ma’am...why is this boy not in the child’s quarantine center?”
She spun back to the laptop, horrified. There, in the top corner of the screen, was her son’s face—her hidden, unregistered son—distorted and floating through the digital backdrop.
Panic. She pushed him aside, slammed the computer down. It slid to the floor. She jumped back against the door, hands to her mouth.
“Mom? What— I’m sorry, mom. I didn’t mean to…are we…?” he trailed off in tears.
They had seen him. Seven years of fear sprang to life. She had to think fast. She had to think smart. She began stuffing the most necessary of their few possessions into her pack: cans of food, bottles for water. Blankets. Their one family photo.
Either way, they had to leave. Now. But go where? Could there really be home and safety waiting at noon, today? Could it possibly be true? But how could she risk it, risk him? She doubted she could find a way out of the city. And if she did, where did she have to go? Where could they possibly be safe?
“Get your shoes on honey. And your mask” she said, voice shaking. He was still crying. When his back turned, she reached under the desk and pulled out a gun, stuffing it deep in the bag below the laptop.
They had endured wave after deadly wave in this shelter. All this waiting, the years of fighting to survive. Before, After, it all culminated in now. With one last glance around the room, she started unblocking the door.
“Mom?” The boy asked, his face white. “Where are we going?”
She pulled her mask on. There was no turning back.
Cover image by Scheier .hr.