So, this is sort of a COVID bummer story. I got to thinking, what if the waves and spikes never stopped? This isn’t supposed to be a prediction or anything and it’s not backed by any science, just a ‘what if’ story, but still: if you’re not in the mood to read about anything related to COVID, maybe skip this one.
“It was supposed to happen fast,” Cara said. She had paused on the sidewalk and broken her rule. Her eyes were scanning the buildings, the windows, the streets, looking for signs of life.
She mentally cursed, and kicked a pebble in front of her so it skidded across to brown grass. She had thought Jessica was too far ahead to hear her. Half a block up, now paused under the shade of a tree and staring back at her.
A few years ago, Jessica wouldn’t have heard her. The cars driving down the road would have drowned out anything that wasn’t at least a half-hearted shout. But the cars that drove the city’s streets now were few and far between. Not totally gone. Thinned out.
“What was?” Jessica asked again as Cara caught up. There was no avoiding the question. Her entire life Jessica had had the worst case of FOMO Cara had ever seen, about everything. If Cara had said something, even if it wasn’t meant for her, Jessica would not stop until she knew what it was.
“The end,” Cara said. “The end of the world was supposed to be fast.”
Jessica stared at her, in that way she had been doing more and more often, before turning up her nose.
“You’re such a fucking pessimist.” Jessica turned on her heel and stomped off down the sidewalk.
Cara sighed – silently – and then trailed after her. Precisely why she hadn’t wanted Jessica to hear. Even now, even after all this, the two of them were still falling into the same trap. Jessica was the bright, bubbly optimist. Cara the quiet, introspective pessimist. True, or self-fulfilling prophecy? Hard to say. Didn’t matter. Either way, the pattern continued.
The only thing that changed was the world around them. In the beginning, Cara had admired Jess’s positivity. Relied on it. The news would proclaim its doom and gloom and Cara would begin reaching for her anti-anxiety medication and there would Jess, right next to her on the couch, snorting her nose and shaking her head.
“These people love reporting on the end of the world,” Jess would say. “Like it happens every week. It’ll be fine. We have processes in place and we know how to take care of ourselves. Telling everyone the sky is falling is a great way to sell umbrellas.”
It helped. It really did. Cara’s anxiety had the tendency to get the better of her. Cloud her mind until she couldn’t see the blue sky anymore. But Jess had always been there, to show her she was overreacting. Worrying for nothing. They were taking precautions. Both of them worked out of their shared apartment, they did curbside pick up for everything and hadn’t seen the inside of a restaurant in years. They weren’t pretending it wasn’t happening. But Jess was the only one who could see it would get better.
“Will you hurry up?” Jessica called from a block up. It was so quiet she could have used her inside voice and Cara would have heard. “I want to get out of this sun, I’m already frying and we have to walk all the way back.”
They were walking the mile and a half to the grocery store because the car was out of gas and, furthermore, the gas stations were out of gas. The same ‘supply chain’ issues they’d been hearing about since the beginning, only now not just stuff like toilet paper and bleach wipes. Everything.
Cara had been wondering all morning what they would even find at the grocery store, but she kept her mouth closed on the subject. She didn’t want to hear it.
The waves had kept coming. Four years of waves, now. Countless the amount of times it looked like everything was finally over. The roll out of the first vaccines. Then, the second vaccine, far more comprehensive and easier to make and ship. Then the boosters. Then, finally, a vaccine so easy to make and ship it could go all around the world within weeks. That time, it should have been it. That time, it should have been all over.
But the entire time, since the very beginning, there were the people who wouldn’t take it.
Religious reasons. Political reasons. Fear of needles. That one always infuriated Cara, more than any of the others. If you’re afraid of a needle in the arm, she would think, wait until you see the tube they’re going to shove down your throat.
Cara cut across the grass between the sidewalk and the parking lot. It was mostly overgrown and dead. It was the middle of summer. Water bans had been going on for months, and surely this little patch of grass didn’t deserve a daily sprinkle over other things.
The parking lot was empty save for four cars and a big camper parked at the back. Two of the cars had clearly been here for weeks, one of them sitting on three flats and the other with its windshield busted in entirely. The other two looked fresh. Driven. Somebody still had gas.
Cara had been terrified of the grocery store being mobbed, but it wasn’t. It was as empty as the rest of the city they had passed. Her new fear, as she crossed the sizzling parking lot like a desperado fumbling his way through the desert, was that it would be closed. The trip would have been for nothing.
Jessica approached the front doors. Cara held her breath.
The doors slid open, just as they would have in a normal world.
Cara relaxed. A little. She pulled her cloth mask out, the one with the bunny rabbits, and put it on out of habit.
Inside was deliciously cool, easily twenty degrees colder than outside. A moist, slick feeling covered her skin from the humidity that for once she didn’t mind. Hopefully they would get what they needed and get out before another brownout.
“Sussudio” by Phil Collins was playing overhead. Cara pulled a wipe out from the dispenser, wiped down a basket, and tossed it at a little wastebasket overflowing with the little white sheets. Then she took her basket and walked in.
For a few seconds, she could pretend everything was normal. The lights were on, the air was cold, the poppiest of eighties rock was playing over poorly maintained speakers. Visions of younger times, as a kid, teens, college, going grocery shopping every weekend. The way you do. The way everyone does.
The spell was broken quickly. As soon as she turned into the produce section and was faced with empty shelves. She stood next to a square stand that according to the sign should have been filled with watermelon and stared. Back muscles around her spine started to contract. Her heart fell into her stomach and started to cook in the acid. The store began to swim a little.
Not a single piece of produce was left. Nothing. Leafy greens, carrots, potato, onions, tomato. Fruit. No fruit. No watermelon, or berries.
Fake thunder rolled and then the sprinklers started watering the shelves, creating puddles that spilled out onto the floor.
“Jeff was supposed to turn that off.”
Cara jumped but managed to keep from screaming. Behind her, a young man was frowning at the growing mess. He caught her staring and shrugged.
“Nothing fresh, but I think there’s still some canned stuff left if you want,” he said.
Cara knew full well what happened, but she needed to hear someone else say it.
He shrugged again. “We haven’t seen a produce truck in…weeks, I guess. Supply chain issues.”
She winced at the phrase. It wasn’t quite right and she knew it. But they all kept saying it. Without another word she wandered off to find Jessica.
The bakery was the same as the produce section. Deli, too. She found a handful of other people, wandering the aisles, staring at the great big heaps of nothing and wondering what to take. They were all wearing masks. All the ones left wore masks, now.
Wave after wave, and with each one the population went down just a little bit more. At first, it was easy to miss. Or pretend it hadn’t happened. After the first year a couple million people died. Double that by the end of the second year. Newspapers kept running pieces about the great worker shortage. No one wants to work anymore, they would say, the younger generations are coddled. The airlines had to cut flights, busses couldn’t run, restaurants closed early. Signs on the doors. We will be closing at eight because no one knows what a work ethic is anymore.
Cara would stare at those signs. At those headlines. At the talking heads on the news. And she would wonder, do they really not know how many died? Or are they pretending?
Speaking of pretending, she found Jessica down the cookie aisle, staring at the single package of Oreos on the shelf. Her basket was filled with a couple other things. Eggs, a mushed loaf of bread, a pack of frozen French fries.
“What are you doing?” Cara asked.
“Making sure they don’t have any Double Stuf,” Jessica said.
Besides the single pack of regular Oreos the shelf was empty. There were other, less popular cookies still sitting there, but on either side of this regular pack of Oreos was at least a foot, maybe two, of empty shelf.
“Looks like it’s the one package left, Jess,” Cara said, very careful of her tone.
“I have to be sure,” Jessica said. “I don’t want to come back.”
They stood there for a few seconds. “Sussudio” had finished, replaced with “3 AM” by Matchbox Twenty. If Cara stared at the section of store brand wafer cookies, she could pretend everything was normal.
But she didn’t want to do that anymore. It was getting harder and harder to leave that pretend-land and come back to reality. The shelf was chock full of wafer cookies because nobody fucking liked wafer cookies. Most everything else had been taken.
Jess was doing a lot more than pretending.
“Just take the cookies,” Cara said. They might be the last ones you ever have.
But Jess shook her head, her pony tail swinging. “I don’t like regular ones. The ratio is off. I’ll wait until next time. They’ll have Double Stuf by then.”
Jessica walked off down the aisle like she had somewhere to be.
The package crinkled in Cara’s hands as put it in her basket. She liked the Double Stuf better, too.
The last few waves had been brutal. Everyone had thought it was all over, you see. Even Cara had been getting looser with her own restrictions. She and Jessica had met with friends to eat at a restaurant. Even sitting outside – even fully vaccinated – her heart had been in her throat. They’d gone to the beach, a theme park, and even to a mostly-empty theater. Once.
Then a new strain. One that dodged the vaccines with a sort of efficiency that was hard not to characterize as calculated. The numbers started to go up. But no one wanted to go back.
Cara sort of understood. She didn’t want to go back, either. But when looking at the other option…
This is a very small wave. But people were testing at home and not reporting their positives. Wastewater testing showed a wave much, much larger than even the first one. No one talked about it.
People can’t get it again, they become super-immune! But they could, and they didn’t. This wasn’t the chickenpox, this was the cold or the flu, constantly mutating. One of Jessica’s coworkers got it on three separate occasions, before finally…
If you’re vaccinated, why worry? Because it was mutating away from the version they had all been vaccinated for. Because a new vaccination would take months to create and roll out and by then it would have mutated again.
We can’t live in fear anymore! Well, she didn’t know about anyone else, but Cara had been living in fear her entire life and didn’t really see the problem.
What little the governments had done to help stop the spread had ended when the first vaccines came out and never started again. Cara would go into a store and could have counted the amount of others wearing their mask on one hand. Even Jessica had wanted to stop. Cara had pleaded like she never had before in her life. No crying. She knew if she cried Jessica would think she was just being sad, scared Cara again. So she kept her eyes dry. Jessica promised to wear a mask, for her.
The waves from this new strain were worse, but not catastrophic. They’d never make a movie about it, because it wasn’t dramatic enough. After the third year, though, the news reported that a billion people had died worldwide.
Given underreporting, Cara knew the number was more like double that.
They started to feel the effects.
Supply chain issues became the norm. Restaurants were open for half the week, if that. Public transportation slowly died. Schools closed and never reopened.
The amount of people to staff the vast world humanity had built had been thinned almost to the point of failure.
Well, Cara thought, trailing after Jess down empty aisle after empty aisle, I guess it’s not ‘almost’ anymore.
The latest waves had run through entirely unchecked. The news wasn’t even talking about it anymore. The CDC had issued no statements about future vaccines. No one was counting the dead.
“Come on, I think we’ve got enough.”
Both of their baskets were full but Cara couldn’t even remember putting stuff in. It was all random. Lots of cans. A tub of salmon cream cheese. Frozen spinach. Neither of them even liked spinach.
I wonder if I can grow a garden, Cara thought, not for the first time.
The self-checkout machines were all closed. Not just closed, completely turned off. Still, Jessica stalked up to one and started pressing buttons. Trying to get it to come to life.
“The lights are off,” Cara said.
“Conserving energy,” Jessica said, pushing at the next one down the row. “Got to wake it up.”
None of them woke up, of course. They weren’t in some sort of sleep mode. They were completely off. Cara could even see where the plugs had been pulled from the floor sockets.
“Jessica…I think we should just go.”
Besides the young man in the produce section, she hadn’t seen a single employee. None of the manned registers were lit up. As she stood there wishing Jessica would stop punching the touch screen, she watched a mother with a toddler in the cart walk out the front without bothering to find someone. The alarm went off for a few seconds, then stopped. No one came.
“We have to pay,” Jessica said. “We’re not thieves.”
She gave up on the self-checkout machines and went to the manned machines. Looked around, head and eyes swinging wildly. No one stood behind any of the check out counters. The belts were still. The lights were off. The candy boxes were totally empty.
“Hello!” Jessica called, making her wince. “Hello? Customer needs to check out!”
“Hello!” she called louder.
“Hey! A customer wants to check out! My God, does no one want to work anymore?”
Cara could almost feel the snap in her mind.
“They’re all dead!” she practically screamed. Somewhere behind her, someone dropped something. Because of her? Maybe. Probably.
Jessica was staring at her like a deer in headlights. There was something…unhinged in her eyes.
“Who?” she breathed out.
“Everyone!” Cara said, not screaming. But still yelling. “Almost everyone, anyway. Enough that everything is broken. Broken and I don’t think we can fix it.”
Jessica shook her head so hard the tie in her hair lost its grip. It fell down the pony tail and Jessica’s hair bunched around her head, making her look wild.
“It’s always the same fucking thing with you! You always see the worst possible outcome. It’s just a virus, Cara. We’ve dealt with worse before. It’s all almost over, anyway. Everything is almost back to normal. You’re just being your usual, pessimistic self.”
This was the part in the conversation where Cara was supposed to relent. Tell Jessica she was right. Start looking for the brighter future.
“Jessica.” Cara’s voice was quiet, now, and she closed the gap between them. “Look around. The grocery store is empty. The city is empty. Barely any people. No food or gas or…or anything. No one is shipping anything anymore because there aren’t people to drive the trucks or the pilot the ships. No one’s left to pick fruit or bake bread. There’s no one left to stock stores. Or sell people things. Or take people anywhere. I’m not being pessimistic. Not this time. And you’re not being optimistic. If you think the world is going to be able to fix itself after this, you’re being delusional.”
Cara didn’t wait for a response. She took her basket of random food – quite possibly the last food she’d take from a grocery store – and went to the front near the doors. She packed the food into her backpack, careful to put the heavy stuff in first. When everything was in, and the bag was zipped up, she slung the straps over her shoulders and spared a last look.
Jessica was still standing by the checkout lanes. She was wearing a look Cara knew all too well for herself, but had never seen on Jessica. The wide eyes, working jaw, the way her fingers constantly moved as she held the basket or worked on her shirt.
Baby’s first panic attack. And then she chided herself. That was mean. And she’d already been mean enough.
“Come on,” Cara said, taking the basket from her. She repeated herself with Jessica’s backpack, and then helped her put it on.
Above them, the lights flickered and then died. The ambient noise of the air through the ducts quit.
“Let’s go home,” Cara said, pulling gently on Jessica’s arm. She was almost hyperventilating.
Jessica clung to Cara’s shoulder.
“It’s not over,” she whispered.
Cara patted her hand. “Yes, it is. But we’ll deal with that later.”