pandemic tales from the dark side of dystopia
Tabitha stood in front of the rutabaga display. Her eyes dry as desert drought, her throat sore from screaming. Zig zag kaleidoscope fractals of pedestrians reflected from the street swirled, mingled with blaring horns, bleating voices and fried foody smells that trickled in through the open doors of the bodega in the Upper East.
She caught a flash of herself in the metal edges of the cooler door. The glass mirrored her what showed of her pale skin from the olive and navy paisley mask, under chestnut tangles of loose curls. Unless you looked closely, it was hard to tell. Her left eye was the moss tone of spring, her right had a mint julep cast. Witches eyes, she’d been told. Others said it meant she had a split soul.
She held the door open, let the frosty chill envelop her sweaty torso a moment before reaching in for a water. She held it to her forehead. “Ahhhhh,” The wetter the better. Manhattan was not the place to be stuck during a heat wave in the summer, much less during a pandemic, but here she was.
She cracked open the top and gulped. Why are there so many jars of beets?
Everyone said seven was the tricky one, but six was the slippery one. Edward had been oh, so kind, to do all the shopping since the quarantine began. Even the day he’d left his work computer on, in his haste to get to the market for spaghetti sauce, bleach and paper towels. Since when did he ever clean. She almost hadn’t looked.
A rambunctious gaggle of teens hustled through the narrow produce aisles. One of their coats snagged the display stacked with jars of beets.
A slow splat.
The droplet landed on Tabitha’s boot; a perfect circle of crimson absorbed by the blonde suede.
The crash left behind a scarlet puddle of juices mixed with shards of glass oozing into every linoleum crevice.
The teenagers fled. Disappeared like cockroaches scattering whenever she’d turned on the kitchen light in her first apartment. Many years ago.
Tabitha looked down at the mess. Her whirling brain conjured up tomato soup, the spaghetti sauce Edward had run out to buy but couldn’t find a week ago, splattered brown paint she’d spilled as a child in the garage that she’d gotten a spanking for.
A store clerk came over with a broom. “Are you okay ma’am?”
Tabitha just stared; she couldn’t make words come out over the ringing in her ears. She tried to reply, but couldn’t.
The figure bent down, crappy elastic ties of his face covering straining as he moved to clean up the mess. He glared at her above his white medical mask that was now adorned with a fine mist of beet juice splatter.
Tabitha lowered her eyes, backing away from the glower. Let him think I did it. It’s easier than explaining. She stood, transfixed by the beam of impending misfortune; stunned and helpless as soon to be roadkill.
This Tinder idea is a flop. She’d never been stood up before. In real time. Not once. She gave up roving over the screen of her phone as if it contained answers. Screw you Matty. Your loss. I’m not waiting around anymore.
The water bottle was empty. She grabbed another and paid for both the new one and the empty plastic container, as well as the random groceries she’d scooped up, before she tossed it in the recycle bin on her way out.
Matty pushed his cart through produce lined aisles under fluorescent lights at the market across the street, kitty corner to the one Tabitha was in. “Shit, out of potatoes?” These stock produce shortages are aggravating as hell. He checked his Tinder account again, swiping through all the rejected images of women, for inconsequential traits that reminded him of previous exes he would rather forget.
“Where are you Tabitha?” He murmured. She’d given him the time and location pin for the bodega on the corner. “It’s almost 5 o’clock.” Is she worth breaking the quarantine for? It’s not like he could just go to a bar on a Saturday night and meet someone. Nope. Things were a little more complicated than that these days.
Mushrooms, check. Onions, check. Garlic?
“Seriously… no garlic?” How was he going to cook his grandmother’s secret recipe for spaghetti sauce for Tabitha, so he could win her heart for the night? Grandma’s spaghetti sauce had always been his sure thing. His lucky charm. Worked nearly every time.
Elaine switched the basket from one arm to the other. Why she still refused to get a cart was a subject that had ended her last two-year long relationship. Her stubborn refusal to accept reality. The bulging basket was heavy enough to bend the plastic handle and she wasn’t nearly done yet. She’d started with three bottles of Côtes du Rhône. Did she really need three bottles? Yes. Her sore arm and the groaning basket begged to differ.
Hush. Her robust rationalization system overrode her prickly conscience. She’d be lucky if she didn’t turn into a raging alcoholic like poor old uncle Alf who everyone avoided. Including her.
Elaine’s phone buzzed. She opened the text. Her sister Gertie. “Hon, if you see any baby wipes grab them for me.” Heart.
Elaine rolled her eyes. How did she always know? Oh, fucking find-my-friends app.
She was done with produce anyway. Elaine thumbs upped the message and slid the iPhone into her pocket.
Spinach, yes, beets, got it. Needed goat cheese and now baby wipes.
She turned around, almost tripped over a fallen rutabaga. “Shit,” she caught herself, “that’s going to kill someone.” She bent to grab it, almost capsizing the overflowing basket when her phone buzzed again. Somehow, she managed to stand up with the fallen rutabaga and not lose the load.
Matty checked his phone again.
Tabitha’s message said, “I’ll be in the produce section standing by the rutabaga.”
“Why rutabaga?” Matty texted back.
“It’s the only thing that always seems to be there.” 😉 wink emoji.
“Ha ha.” Laughing tears emoji.
Matty looked up.
Twin pine whirls of evergreen eyes snared him over mountains of cabbages, carrots and cauliflower. Green eyes dancing over her fuchsia and lemon paisley mask.
She was holding a rutabaga.
He made his way over, smiling beneath his black skull and crossbones mask. She had a paisley mask, tousled dark curls, so it must be her. That tinder picture didn’t do her justice.
Elaine pulled out her phone. Gertie again.
“You still coming up Saturday? David is dying to show off his new grill. I got you filet mignon.”
There goes the weekend. Gertie, her software genius husband and their two adorable little tow-headed boys lived upstate almost three hours away. Too long for a day trip. She always stayed over. Pressing down, she hearted the message, switched the phone off and dropped it into her purse.
Elaine debated putting the rutabaga back with the others. Inspecting for floor dirt, she couldn’t see anything amiss. Poor rutabaga to be cast aside and discriminated against, because of a gravity mishap. People are supposed to sanitize their food nowadays anyway. She placed the rutabaga securely on top of the rutabaga pile.
“Ma’am, I believe you’ve just committed a produce violation.”
Elaine jumped, almost losing the mushrooms from her basket. “I believe it wasn’t attempted suicide, sir. He didn’t jump. He was pushed…”
“Well carry-on then.”
Matty said, “you must be Tabitha?”
“Could be.” Is he worth breaking the quarantine for?
“That sounds like a definite maybe?” His brown eyes sparked.
“You could say that.”
“In the mood for spaghetti?”
“I do make a mean spinach and goat cheese salad,” she hesitated, “with meatballs?”
“If you’re into meat?”
“Definitely.” She smiled.
He looked relieved. “So, you’re ready to go then?” Matty went to reach for the heavy basket. Pulled back and awkwardly gestured toward his cart
“Ha, sure,” she rested the overburdened basket in his cart.
“Just need one more thing!” Elaine darted back toward the aisles.
“Okay, I’ll grab us a spot in line.”
Elaine came back with goat cheese and baby wipes, set them beside the rutabaga in her pile on the register conveyor belt just before it moved out of reach behind the plastic guardrail.
Matty raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything.
Elaine watched his reaction. “Dealbreaker?”
“No, but it does answer the ‘your place or mine’ question,” his lips slid into a half grin behind his mask. His eyes crinkled.
Elaine nodded. Unable to see his mouth, she paid extra attention to his eyes. Warm but sharp, brown laced with golden flecks had a registered a flash of curiosity, followed by uncertainty and settled into a glow of acceptance. She fell under the spell his crisp fall gaze.
“Anyway, they’re for my sister.”
“I wasn’t even going to ask,” he said.
She smiled. “You didn’t have to.”
Eddie sat down hard on the overstuffed leather chair. The sun had faded on the horizon of their view over Central Park. The sides of his shirt above his pants billowed out like a clown suit. Crimson laced amber light reflected off the skyscrapers in the distance, filling the silent bedroom with unspent volatile rays glaring against the screen of his phone.
The flashing series of comments from the post kept popping, one after another. There must be at least a hundred by now. It didn’t matter at this point. He would never work again, not in the small niche production world he lived in. It was too cut throat competitive, especially now. She’s going to pay.
He opened the desk drawer, pushed aside a tic tac container full of multicolored pills, some with imprint codes identifying the Rx by the pharmaceutical manufacturer, some without. He reached under various venue brochures, backstage checklists and stadium specs from all over the world and grabbed the gun. A Smith and Wesson revolver .38 caliber. He put it by the pillows at the head of the bed.
He opened the door to the walk-in closet. His small section of tees, a few mismatched blazers that no longer fit and jeans were smooshed between Tabitha’s haute couture, collected since college days when they’d had time to enjoy the city life, unworn for at least a decade. A massive collection of scrubs hung neatly in plastic, immaculate.
Eddie yanked down the one good collared shirt that hadn’t found itself buried in a graveyard of wrinkled slightly sweaty piles on the floor. He couldn’t remember when she’d stopped doing his laundry; sometime between Tabby’s dry-cleaning days that started when residency ended. The dust bunnies accumulated only on his side, far from her cherrywood shoe shelves that appeared overnight when he pretended to be on tour longer than he really was working.
That bitch, fucking jealous old hag. She’d been beautiful when they met. But now her long nights of hospital rotations had done a number. It wasn’t just the cold pasty frigid ice of her skin; it was the rigid glare that met him after his tours. Greeted. Ha. Stonewalled.
Every time he walked through the door, wheeling his road case into the foyer after tours of grueling hard days and long nights, she hurled complaints and accusations about his inept communication. Something was broken. An unexpected bill had arrived in the mail.
He was never enough. Everything that went wrong was his fault. Including the salary that paled in comparison to hers. He never mentioned the medical school bills they still payed. Or the outrageous malpractice insurance. It didn’t matter anymore…
The monitor screen at Edward’s work station displayed the ongoing activity.
One hundred and fifty-six comments.
He pulled out the roll of cellophane he’d bought, spread it out on the floor. First thing’s first. He picked up his phone, checked the find my friends app again to see where she was. Good. Just down the street.
His hand was stiff, wrapped around the gun he’d stashed in his desk drawer. The one his father had left him from Vietnam that he had kept above the mantle in a mahogany box. She hadn’t even noticed it was missing. Tabby won’t have the last word this time. I will.
Tabitha’s boot heels ricocheted through the angry silence of the hallway. She let the door slam shut behind her. Her brain tilted.
Edward would be waiting for her. He’s gonna to be so pissed about what I did… Maybe I shouldn’t have sent it to every single contact, but he shouldn’t have done what he did either.
She dropped her bag from the bodega and poured a tumbler of bourbon before proceeding. Pappy Van Winkle, her daddy’s brand. Right next to the Humidor, but that was for celebrating. This was for strength.
Sure enough. His computer screen glowed from across the room. The lights were off.
Tabitha reached over and pulled the beaded metal string hanging from her Tiffany lamp.
Light flooded the room.
He wasn’t at his makeshift workstation in what used to be their breakfast nook.
“Eddie, it’s a little early to be passed out, don’t ya think?”
Tabitha set her glass on the mantle, noticing the wooden box of his fathers was ajar. “I know you’re here Eddie.” She inhaled sharply, nudged it open. Empty.
She folded her arms and stalked over to the workstation. The computer monitor showed the posts and reactions that kept filling up the page.
“I’m so sorry I posted that, babe…” She looked at the screen and grabbed the mouse. Closed the browser window.
As soon as she’d found the picture Stacia had sent Eddie, buried in the sext messages on his Whats App attached a quip about the marmalade smothered English muffins they’d enjoyed for breakfast that had reminded her of the London hotel. It had been from a business trip in February, one of his last shows in London before the lockdown. Or so he’d said. He’d spent the week fucking, not working.
It was a shot in a hotel mirror, on a king-sized bed, with a view out the open doors of a balcony overlooking Big Ben behind them. That must’ve cost a fortune. British pounds for every meter squared added up quickly.
Tabitha had messaged her husband’s entire contact list with a post containing the image of Stacia’s naked body wrapped around her husband, his hand on her ass, entitled, ‘marmalade and English muffin – yum.’ She’d posted the image from his account on Facebook. She’d copied and repeated in Instagram and LinkedIn just to be sure no one was left out.
At some point on her walk afterwards, to clear her head and figure out what to do, the Tinder account she’d set up to see if Edward had one, pinged her. She’d arranged to meet someone called Matty at the corner market. Give Eddie a taste of his own medicine. Her plan had been to stay out all night. That hadn’t worked out.
“We’ll take it down, hon. I’ll say it was a joke…”
Tabitha felt as though she were hovering on the precipice of an abys. One mildly reminiscent of her little Percocet problem from residency.
She’d sunk into a deep void of apathy the first time she discovered Eddie cheated on her. Using drugs to dull the pain until she could bear it, she’d thrown herself into work. Reverting to medical terms and practical acerbic ponderings. They’d started their life together the way young people believe themselves to be invincible, invulnerable to all the shit that drags you down. Especially now, with COVID-19 rampaging the city. Him, out of work. Her, on leave because she’d tested positive. No big surprise, considering. Then negative. Then positive for antibodies.
She caught a whiff of iron, the bedroom door beckoned. The only room she hadn’t checked yet. She moved toward the gaping wound of the doorway. The light from the west facing window glowed crimson, burnt umber, reflected in the mirrors it created an inferno.
“Don’t be such a baby. Stop hiding.”
First thing that hit her was the smell. The sickening smell of death; excrement and urine mixed in the still spreading pool of blood beneath his body.
He was laying on the bed, his chin lolled on his chest under the pillows. The body was motionless. Slack and unmoving beneath the bedsheet that half covered his bloated belly.
His neck twisted, buried under the dark navy pillow that had moved back at a funny angle, but not turned over, when he’d shot himself. She saw the rusty soup of congealing blood and clumps like overcooked tomatoes breaking apart, seeping in between the covers, sheets and the bed frame, dripping onto the hardwood floors.
Emptiness. She clung to it.
The desolation of the apartment echoed the sirens and sounds of the city. It enveloped her in a tomb of dirty sheets and a broken hole where a heart should be. Shock has a way of playing tricks on your mind. Time slows to a crawl. The hollowness of nothing triggers physiological reactions, like tears and bodily discharges, but inside…a barren void.
Steeling herself, Tabitha forced her mind on the many corpses she’d autopsied in med school. Stay empty. She crept closer, gingerly lifted the edge of the feather strewn pillowcase. There was a mashed meaty hole in the back of his skull.
M-T. Stay empty. M-T.
Tabitha flung herself at his body and pulled at his chest. “No, no, no, no! Eddie noooooooooooo!” M-T. M-T.
She felt a spreading warmth. Blood spatter and brain tissue covered the headboard and seeped down toward the mattress. Shaking and pulling him only succeeded in making the pool of blood arc in a wider circle. M-T. M-T. M-T.
His feces, blood and urine were caught in the sheath of plastic he’d laid out beneath himself. She swallowed back the heave in her stomach with a dry cough.
M… Tabitha ran to the master bedroom sink, made it just in time. Vomit flooded the drain. She spat in the sink, ran the water.
After what felt like an eternity within a microsecond, she raised her head and looked in the mirror. Her eyes sizzled like craters on mars. Acid singed her raw throat.
“Oh shit.” Do I have it?