An anchorman with a square jaw and an anchor lady in a cobalt blazer scowled at her through her TV screen. “How can you help stop the spread of this dangerous pandemic?” they asked. “More on that, after the break.” The news went to commercial for some prescription medication. A happy family chased a golden retriever through a sun-dappled park while a female voice spoke soothingly about potential side effects.
“Suicidal thoughts have been reported.”
Her palms felt sweaty and she wiped them on the armrest of the cushy couch that enveloped her, sucking her deeper into its cozy crevasse. “Ask your doctor before trying Ladoxapine.” Her heart began to race. She saw late afternoon sun streaming through gauzy curtains. Outside, the world looked just like the idyllic park from the commercial, where sick people were chasing their fake dog, presumably trying to outrun their suicidal thoughts.
This pandemic is so overblown, she thought. It couldn’t be as bad as they said. There was just no way. Everyone she knew was fine. Mostly everyone. Some people claimed to have met people who had been impacted. People were struggling financially, which was bad too. But it wasn’t as serious as those scowling anchorpeople on the news wanted her to believe. They were just corporate shills and fear-mongers, trying to scare her into buying Ladoxapine, or a new car, or skinny margarita mix. They just wanted her to feel bad. It was their job. They weren’t her friends, even if they did visit every night.
She remembered something her aunt used to say, on the darker days, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” her aunt would cough, and she would laugh it off as kooky old lady talk. But her aunt was gone now. Someday she’d be gone too. The news came back from commercial.
“Death rates rise in the state today, as the governor releases his 5-step plan to support the state in these unprecedented times. John?”
“Thanks, Diane. 555 people are dead in the state as hospitals struggle to keep up with demand.”
They cut to stock footage of a body being wheeled from some facility, covered in a white sheet.
They’re just trying to scare me, she thought. Her skin was tingling. She remembered the baby behind in her line at the grocery store the other day, crying and coughing into a mask with a minion on it, and the mom looking around nervously with apologies in her eyes. She sunk more deeply into the couch and reached for her phone, opening the news to drown out the memory.
“Death rates rise.” Scroll.
“How the government is lying about the death rate.” Scroll.
“What you should buy to protect yourself from this deadly virus.” Scroll.
Her chest was tight as she scanned the one-note headlines that seemed intent on convincing her of some impending doom at the hands of deadly diseases and oppressive governments.
Over on Instagram, her feed was full of at-home workouts, DIY craft projects, friends and family sharing lessons learned while stuck inside. An ad blinked brightly in the corner of her screen. “We’re in this together,” it reminded her, “#StayHome.”
She looked past the glowing TV with its upsetting stock footage and scowling news readers, to a crystal vase resting emptily on the bookshelf. She liked the clear crystal against the clean lines of her white walls, but the room could probably use a little color.
Hauling herself out of the heavy comfort of her couch, she stood and her head swam. She’d eaten nothing but beef jerky and dark chocolate for days now. Not for any reason, other than it was easy. She felt sluggish, depleted. Her skin flushed hot and her arms broke out in goosebumps against the icy breeze of her AC.
She hadn’t been to work, hadn’t gone to the gym, or seen her friends in weeks. No one had. In that way, they were, in fact, “in this together.” She felt weak, a little bloated. Was that a symptom? No, the disease maybe wasn’t even real. She didn’t know anyone who really had it. Well, maybe a few friends who traveled a lot, but that could have been anything. They were probably just hung over.
She blinked until the room stopped spinning then grabbed the empty vase. Empty, like her home, except for her, the concerned voices of the news team, and a thousand chocolate wrappers. Empty like her womb, like her aunt used to joke. “No vacancy there, right hon? Heh heh.”
Outside, the sun dipped behind the trees and cast a golden glow on the spring grass. After the crisp cold of her house, the thick, verdant air made her head throb. Birds chirped high in the trees, more scattered from her feeders as she shut the door behind her. The feeders were getting low. She needed to buy birdseed, but was it worth the risk? Was there actually any risk? Whatever. It’s annoying out there, she thought, picturing that crying baby’s wet and anguished face. The world couldn’t stay gross forever. The birds could wait.
She crossed the lawn to the overgrown field next door. It was lush and full of wildflowers and as she stepped closer she noticed the clear boundary between the wildness of this vacant lot and her lawn, which she kept tightly trimmed like a fairway. It was important to her that the lawn stayed orderly because messy, overgrown grass made her brain itch, which, she thought, was probably also a side effect of Ladoxapine.
Pollen floated in a thick cloud above the overgrown grass, catching the sun and glowing like flecks of gold leaf. She waded a few feet in and was surrounded by hundreds of wildflowers. Fat bees buzzed impossibly from pistil to pistil, unbothered. She hoped the cell phone in her pocket wasn’t wrecking their signal.
A butterfly flickered past. She took a breath and tried to watch it, making sure to note and appreciate the magic of its bright wispy wings. She pondered the butterfly’s important role as a pollinator, considered the beautifully applicable symbolism of its transformation from a caterpillar. Yes, she thought, there is a better world on the other side of all of this. She was sure of it. She let her shoulders drop from her ears and took a few steps further into the field. Sirens erupted in the distance, bouncing off the houses and empty streets.
She turned on the police scanner app on her phone to see if she could hear what was going on. Static. She refocused on the empty vase under her arm, the mission. She plucked some milkweed, a few wild lilies, made her way toward some Indian paintbrush in the distance. She stepped further into the wild field, toward the sound of the sirens, uprooting wildflowers that caught her eye and filling the vase with a wild, fragrant bouquet that erupted from the crystal like barely-contained fireworks.
The sirens subsided as she returned to the house. Light from the kitchen poured onto the grass on a square in the creeping evening gloom. The AC hit her bare shoulders and she shivered as she opened the door.
The TV was still on, loud laugh tracks bouncing off the bare walls. It made her home feel crude like a waiting room at the doctor’s office where they keep the TV on at full blast to pacify the waiting patients. It did not feel like the “sanctuary” a handcrafted wooden sign above the door advertised. She shut the TV off and let the silence sink into her skin.
In the kitchen, she put water in the vase. She was proud of herself. Picking wildflowers, being in nature, watching the bees. Those were all objectively good things to do. She could say she committed a dedicated act of self-care, she thought, as she positioned the flowers in the center of the otherwise bare countertop. Yes, this was a life-affirming activity. She should do more life-affirming things. She would read more inspirational books, she thought, maybe take a class, when the world stopped being so weird.
The house was too quiet.
She held her breath and listened to the silence against her quickened heartbeat. Her brain was just trying to scare her, keep her on her toes, just like those awful people on the news. She turned on a podcast to fill the emptiness, and let the conversation between two strangers keep her company. Podcasts are life-affirming too, she thought. She was chasing the flowerpicking high.
She didn’t sleep well that night. The full moon shone through the picture window, drenching her in moonlight like a spotlight. She felt painfully aware of herself, the darkness, and the solitude of her house in the middle of the night. She let her mind fly from one thought to the next, pollinating each with her attention. She should keep bettering herself during the mandated time at home. It seemed like everyone else was doing self-improvement, learning to bake, deepening their relationships. She was picking flowers and trying not to think of that frantic baby and its mother in their masks.
She turned on the TV and let the voices lull her to sleep.
In the morning, deer munched on the hostas in her garden, as mist rose from the tightly trimmed lawn. The wildflowers in the vase had wilted, the yellow daisies pointed downward in shame. The lilies had collapsed in on themselves, dripping globs of sticky pollen on her countertops. Her act to affirm her life had taken theirs. She made coffee. Sirens sounded in the distance.