Short Stories

Viral Hysteria

It didn’t take long for the illness to spread. No one was taking it seriously in the way it should have been, and the public had their own ideas on how to combat the spread of the virus. Apparently, everyone on social media thought they knew how to stay safe, and all the medical experts were out to get them. Their wild ideas were only more confirmed as the body count rose, and the ridiculous notion that science didn’t matter was making waves.

“What is the CDC really doing to help us?” a woman shouted into the microphone from behind a bedazzled mask.

​The town hall meeting room reeked of lavender and other conflicting essential oils.​

The middle-aged CDC spokesperson wiped his brow. “I can assure you that they are working as quickly as possible. But with how fast the T13B4 virus mutates, nearly all the vaccines that have been created are obsolete.”​

“Then what’s the point of wasting our money on snake oil?” she said to heavy applause from her town’s people.​

A young doctor named Caroline Avanti leaned into her microphone. “It’s far less snake oil than the shit you have pumping through the vents.” She spoke clearly and precisely at the angry woman. “The problem is, not a single one of you wants to listen to what we have to say. You expect instant results, and that’s not how science works. Half of you will go home tonight and rub some crap under your nose when all you had to do in the beginning was wash your hands, and if you felt the slightest bit ill to stay home so no one would share germs.”​

The bedazzled woman gasped. “I don’t have to take this kind of abuse from the likes of you. You people are probably hiding the cure, and that’s why you’re sitting here unmasked and not living in fear like the rest of us.”

​“Yes, you above all people do need to take this.” Dr. Avanti snapped. “You all have lived such blessed lives that any bit of trouble that may come your way has scared you into a panic. Instead of listening to those who have spent their lives studying and curing viruses, you turn to celebrities and talking heads who are clueless to real answers. This virus would have died out long ago if people just listened and followed directions.”​

Dr. Avanti stared down at the woman until she finally returned to her seat.​

Quickly the town council leader rushed to the podium. “Thank you all for your questions tonight, but we’ve run out of time. If you have any other concerns, please make use of the email address we’ve set up for the virus.”​

The town hall emptied with low murmurs of disgust, but Dr. Avanti did not care. She had enough of the self-righteous upper class Googling the newest holistic remedy.​

The salty-haired CDC official approached Dr. Avanti from behind and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, doctor,” he said curtly. “Next time, would you mind sharing your opinions a little less aggressively?”

​She smiled sweetly. “As soon as they stop Googling about healing crystals.”​

“They are afraid.” The CDC official growled.

​“Of course, they are afraid. Your organization has been silent about the recovery numbers. Cures don’t sell, and fear does.” Caroline growled back. “Maybe if you spent the same amount of time giving the facts of the matter instead of inflating the severity of the situation, people would be less afraid. But then you couldn’t control them, could you?”​

He locked eyes with her. “We don’t want to control anyone.”​

“Could have fooled me.”​

Dr. Avanti left the town hall meeting exhausted. It was her fifth one of the day and twentieth for the county this week. She noticed an unsettling trend that the wealthier the town, the less likely the residents believed their doctors. It was unnerving how people with the best access to medical care avoided it with the same fervor they should have put into following the guidelines on staying healthy.​

She walked a few blocks down the street to her hotel, and like all the others she had stayed at, this one was uncomfortably empty.

​When the virus started to spread, people took advantage of the cheap airlines and cruises, finally booking those long-awaited vacations. But it only took six months for the virus to mutate into a much more virulent strain, and the media unwisely branded it a pandemic. Strands of the virus that could survive in the cold were blending with those from the tropics. It was now a super virus.​

Soon all countries were closing their borders. State lines were guarded by the national guard and staffed with medical professionals who would test all travelers. But it didn’t matter how many people were tested. There were still those who were asymptomatic that would make their way through checkpoints.​

The death count rose nightly but depending on where you looked. The numbers were changing. While certain news outlets would report in the double digits, the CDC kept a tight lid on how many people had lost their lives. Reporters would try to dig and find out if there were any other lining causes to the deaths other than the T13B4 virus, but they would never get a straight answer.​

“Could I get a glass of Johnnie Walker Green?” Caroline asked, taking a seat at the empty bar. “Neat, please.”

​The bartender wore black gloves and a mask with a skull and crossbones on it.​

In the last year, masks had become a fashion statement mirroring a trend that began in Asia years ago. It didn’t matter that, for the most part, they did little to protect the wearer from contracting the virus. The masks gave those who wore them peace of mind.​

The bartender passed the drink through the hole in the plexiglass divider that separated the bartenders from their patrons.​

“Thanks.” She left a tip on her side of the bar.

If he wants it, he can come get it, she thought, sipping her scotch.

​In one year, the world had changed.​

People were more fearful than ever before, making them quick to hate and quick to blame. There was no easy target for them to direct their rage since each region had a different patient zero. It made it hard to fight an enemy you couldn’t see. It was hard to hate the enemy when it didn’t care what you looked like, who you believed in, or how little was in your bank account.

​The local news channels kept an updated ticker running with the regional hospitals’ wait times and availability. Funerals had been replaced with cremation ceremonies. There was no evidence of the virus spreading through the ground and into the water from the dead, but a random Facebook post frightened the public enough that overnight cremation became the status quo.​

Before Caroline crawled into bed, she sprayed the room with perfume, trying to mask the scent of bleach. She finally relaxed when her phone vibrated.​

“Hello, my love,” her husband greeted her. “How’s Pleasantville?”

​“Terrifying. The step-ford wives were out in full force tonight.” She snuggled deep into the blankets. “They want the vaccine, and they don’t care about the side effects. It’s hard to explain to them that more people have recovered from the virus when all they see and hear about are those who die.”​

“You have the data to back it up.” he reminded her gently. “Caroline, you know I’ll support you no matter what you decide to do, but I really think you should publish your findings.”

“I can’t just have numbers. I need someone to talk to the media.” She sighed. “I need to find someone who’s recovered and willing to put their face out there. I don’t know if many people are willing to face that kind of harassment.”​

“If anyone can convince people to talk, it’s you.”​She rolled over and flicked the light off. “I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

​“I’ll be there before the plane even lands,” he promised. “Why does this tour of torment feel longer than your last?”

​“This one was longer, 27 days, 6 hours, and 47 minutes longer.” She sighed. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too. Get some sleep. You sound exhausted.”​

“I don’t know if it’s from the press conferences that I’ve been doing or the uptight people I’ve met, but I really miss you, home, and the simplicity of everything.” She barely managed to get it all out between her yawns. “Good night, I love you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”​

When Caroline’s taxi pulled up to the airport, she could see masks and bleach wipes for sale outside.

​“This is ridiculous,” she muttered as she passed the $30 sale sign.

​Caroline waited in line to check her bag. A few other travelers waited behind her keeping their distance. One benefit from this whole fiasco was the new use of personal space. But the judgmental side-eyed glances and rude comments that people were making under their breath at her unmasked face were enough to ensure that she would never return to this God-forsaken state.​

“Good morning, ma’am. How many bags?” the friendly airline customer service representative asked her with a genuine smile.​

“Just the one.” Caroline placed her bag into the plexiglass box, and a disinfectant spray fumigated her bag before releasing it to the conveyor belt.​

“You’ll be boarding last,” she said, slipping me the ticket with a wink. “I hope you enjoy your flight, Doctor.”​

Caroline glanced down at her ticket, looking for her gate number, when she noticed that the woman had bumped her up to first class. She looked back to wave, but the representative was already helping another traveler.​

The body scanners once used to search for hidden weapons had been altered to check body temperatures. Anyone with a temperature over 99 degrees was not allowed to board. Because of the virus, travelers no longer needed to take off their shoes, and the bins for their personal belongings were stacked and taken to be cleaned every fifteen minutes.

Caroline grabbed her jacket and purses just as an alarm started to blare, and everyone froze as a hazmat team stormed into the terminal. The team walked inside the portable virus prevention box next to a stretcher. Caroline didn’t need to look to know by their lack of urgency that their patient was dead.​

“Why aren’t they wearing their masks?” A woman whispered to the man standing next to them.​

“If they are taking that risk, there is a huge possibility that he didn’t die from the virus,” Caroline said, trying to assure her.​

The woman rolled her eyes. “That’s still irresponsible.”​

The alarm shut off as they passed security and out of the airport.

I can’t get out of here fast enough. She thought as she easily found a seat next to her gate.

​When the plane landed and its passengers disembarked, no one stood up to leave immediately. It had become common knowledge that it would take at least an hour before the plane was disinfected up to industry standards. Caroline watched from the window as the line servicemen loaded the luggage into the belly of the aircraft. Even in the sweltering summer heat, they all wore long sleeves, thick pants, and gloves. She could only see their eyes on some of the men because they wore both a hat and face mask.

Well, at least the seats won’t be sticky. She thought as the cleaners left the plane.​ The flight attendant in charge of calling the rows picked up the mic. “Due to the ongoing battle of the T13B4 virus, we ask you to please only board when called. Any early boarding will result in the aircraft needing to be re-cleaned, causing a much longer delay.”​

Caroline counted how many people were waiting. Twenty-seven, only twenty-seven people were traveling today. This was a large number compared to the rest of the time she traveled this month. Before today the top number was fifteen.​

A click came over the speaker. “The last group we’d like to welcome onto our flight today are our first class and diamond star members.”​

Caroline picked up her purse and walked to the jetway.​

“Excuse me, ma’am, but if you have misplaced your mask, I do have a few extras for no charge.” The attendant offered passive-aggressively.​

“No, thank you,” Caroline smiled back. “I will just have to resist the urge of licking my seat or neighbor no matter how tasty they may look.”​

Caroline’s laugh was lost in the blast of air as she entered the jetway. She waited at the plane’s door for the flight attendant to check her ticket.​

“Sarah,” called the attendant to the other waiting down the aisle. “You can close the door to business and coach. She’s first class.”​

Sarah heaved the heavy door shut and bolted it. As she made her way to the front of the plane, she unzipped the protective plastic wall that kept the first-class seats sterilized.​The flight attendant handed Caroline a glass of champagne and directed her to her seat. “Enjoy the flight.”

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