CHAPTER ONE - (Dec 4 2020 Friday)
I was in the bathroom when my cell rang, fighting with my curly hair that everyone else loved because they didn’t know the pain and torture of trying to comb it out. A sigh left my lips as I ran to answer the phone.
“Hello?” I asked, out of habit more than anything, since I knew exactly who it was.
“Good morning!” Jen sang as she did every Monday and Friday at 7am.
Cradling the phone with my shoulder, I started pulling on a pair of black tights under a cute little wool dress. Well, cute by my standards. It had a Peter Pan collar and cap sleeves that made me look like a 1950’s housewife, but I loved it. “That sounds like an oxymoron,” I responded tiredly.
“Oh, don’t be a grouch, Cata. Did you look outside?”
“Why?” I asked, even as I walked to my living room window and pulled aside the drapes. A thin blanket of white fluff covered the city. It glared up at me from under a contradicting sun and a sheet of blue sky. “Snow.”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jen was the sister I’d never had, the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer when she decides to be your friend. We met just over a year ago when I came to the city and got a receptionist job where she worked as an analyst doing third-party administration for company retirement funds. Even though complete opposites, somehow her constant brightness didn’t bother me.
And my dim perspective hadn’t driven her away. “You know I have to walk in this?”
“My boots are suede,” I grumbled, tossing the curtains closed.
“Just think about the coffee,” she hinted, since Monday was the day I bought us lattes. (Friday, she treated us, which might be ridiculous – but it was tradition). “I’m calling to place my order.”
I rushed around the condo, finished getting ready in two minutes flat, as Jen tallied off her requirements for the perfecto Caramel Macchiato. “Venti, double cupped, extra hot, non-fat, two and a half pumps of syrup, with foam and those cinnamon sprinkle things…” Yada, yada. By now, I had it memorized.
“Got it,” I told her. “See you there.”
Outside, I buttoned my dress-coat against the chill. It was still weird – the symphony of traffic, all those glass buildings crammed together like teeth in a mouth too small to hold them. The noise, the hurry. So different from home which was farmlands surrounding one dinky town where everyone knew your name. And gave you sympathetic glances in passing. Poor thing…
Here, nobody knew a thing about me, and none of them would care anyway. They were too occupied with perfecting their own lives to delve into mine. They barely had time to look at each other, let alone talk. At home, meddling ran rampant, here it was narcissism. The only thing both places had in common was this ridiculous holiday.
Thanksgiving was barely over, yet the city was drenched in Christmas decor. Lights on every tree, music in the stores, everything red and green and white. The endless commercials: Spend your money! Spend your money! Don’t you love Jesus? Then the public’s frantic rush into another year of debt. All that fucking holiday spirit.
I crossed the street even though the figure on the sign was blinking red. Snowflakes clung to my lashes. It was five till eight when I rushed into Starbucks, a chiming doorbell as warning to my entrance, and there was no line!
“Hey, Olivia,” I greeted the tiny girl behind the counter. She had blue hair today. And I knew from previous conversations that she was studying to be an accountant. Math nerd turned punk.
“Hi!” She grabbed a cup and started writing on the side. “Peppermint Mocha today?”
I nodded and stomped snow-clad boots on the welcome mat only slightly irritated that my toes were starting to feel wet. My fault for moving to Seattle without a completely waterproof wardrobe.
She grabbed a second cup and rattled off, from memory, Jen’s very specific order.
I approached the counter. “Where are all the customers?”
“I don’t know.” Olivia shrugged a shoulder and started foaming milk. “Probably sick. Half the staff called in this morning. I’m in charge.” She grinned.
I widened my eyes. Wow. Just then four people arrived and got into a nice neat line. One woman had her child with her. She was showing him the juices and saying, “Juice”.
And he was answering with, “No”.
The mom would repeat herself, “Juice”.
“Say juice,” she prompted again.
“Do you want juice?”
“Venti Peppermint Mocha!” Olivia put my drink on the bar. “Venti Caramel Macchiato!”
“Thanks.” I told her. “Good luck!”
She gave me a feigned look of panic then laughed. “I’ll live.”
By the time I put my purse under my desk and settled in, it was eight-oh-nine.
Not bad, I thought and took a sip of my coffee. The phone rang.
As the receptionist, my job was pretty much filing and answering the phones. Plus a little data-entry and party planning. And Solitaire - when nobody was looking. “Hello?”
Cata was short for Catalina, the only gift from a mother who whisked into town and stayed just long enough to have a kid. I never blamed her for leaving. Plus, Dad and I were fine – right up until he died.
“It’s Liz. I’m not coming in today, I’m sick.” The voice of my boss was scratchy. “Could you send me to my voice mail?”
“Sure, feel better,” I told her. As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. Two lights lit up, letting me know there were two callers. The first was John, my other boss. The second was Barry, the company lawyer. Both of them were sick.
“’Tis the season,” Barry joked. “Jingle bells and runny noses.”
After that, there were four more calls. All from sick employees ditching for the day. When I hung up the phone, there was heaviness in the air and a strange feeling in my stomach. But I pressed it aside, leaned over and turned on my radio to hear Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…
Most of the week passed that way. With the snow coming down, people calling in sick or not calling at all, and the news telling everyone to remember their flu shot. By Friday afternoon, even Jen was freaked out by the whole thing, and usually nothing got her down.
She found her way to the front of the office and my desk. “Did Liz call again?”
“Nope.” I scrolled through the Amazon listings on my phone. Something I wouldn’t normally be doing during work hours. But there wasn’t much to accomplish aside from hanging out at my desk, feet resting on the space-heater, waiting for a phone that long since stopped ringing.
“So, you’re not sick, huh?” she alluded, leaning on the front of my desk that was basically a counter for holding little jars of candy. She idly grabbed a mint and started playing with the wrapper.
“I called the Tai restaurant to order some lunch,” she went on. “And nobody even answered.”
Neither of us was in danger of starving, but soup certainly sounded good. “That sucks.”
“It more than sucks. People are dropping like flies. Have you been watching the news?”
“What if it’s not just a cold? What if it’s, like…”
My eyes drifted up to her face; a quirky smile played at my lips. “Another black plague?”
She bit her lip. “It could be, you know.”
“Not in America.” I scrolled again, clicked a picture of jeans I wanted. “Stuff like that only happens in countries with poor sanitation.”
“Maybe it starts in those countries – but it could spread like that.” She snapped her fingers.
I was nodding patronizingly when Samantha came through the front door, shivering and rubbing her arms. “Wow. It’s quiet in here. I can’t believe how many people are sick,” she mentioned in her signature sugary voice. “They’re calling it epidemic.”
Jen about freaked out. “Seriously!?”
I rolled my eyes. “Epidemic is just a fancy way of saying that more people than normal are affected. Wait ’till they call it pandemic,” I warned.
Samantha looked confused. “They must think it’s serious, the clinic is offering free flu shots.”
Jen ate her candy and reached for another. “Yeah, I got mine yesterday. They were even handing out those face mask things. I should have grabbed one.”
Randy showed up then, ditching his office and coming down the hall in a hurry. My desk was often where people went when they needed a break. Or a candy. “Hear anything from Liz or John?” He coughed into his hand and helped himself to a chocolate.
“Not since Monday,” I answered after a quick glance at the phone. No lights, no calls, not for two days straight. “Should I try calling them?”
“Naw, I’ll do it.” He grabbed another handful of chocolates and went back to his office.
Jen watched him with a weird expression. Then Samantha sneezed on her and she jumped. “Seriously, cover your mouth!”
“Sorry,” answered Samantha as she took a tissue from my desk and blew her nose. “Is it cold in here?” she asked rhetorically before heading down the hall. “I’ll be in my office.”
As soon as she was out of range, Jen took the jar of chocolates and dumped the rest into the trash next to my desk. Then pulled a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer from her pocket and began to smear half its contents on her hands and arms. “We should just leave early,” she told me. “There’s nothing to do here.”
“We can’t leave early, we’ll get in trouble.” Even though she had a point, I didn’t want to risk losing my job over a couple measly hours.
“Those two,” she pointed worriedly down the hall, “are sick. I don’t wanna catch this. I’m going home.”
My phone buzzed, letting me know that someone in the office wanted to talk to me. Randy’s name was lit up. I put him on speaker. “Yep?”
“Just talked to John. He said we could take off early. And he’s sure he’ll be in on Monday. Things should be back to normal by then.”
“Have a great weekend.”
I could hear him coughing both over the phone and from down the hall.
“Great, let’s go!” Jen had her coat and purse in twenty seconds; she waited with her finger on the elevator’s down-arrow as I closed the front door behind me. “I’m going to Cyrek’s tonight. You wanna come?”
We stepped into the elevator.
“Is that the guy who brought like five different gaming machines and spent all night begging people to play?” I asked.
“No, that was Mark,” she chuckled. “Cyrek’s the one with the red, curly hair. Tall guy who never stops talking?”
“Oh, right,” I remembered.
“Anyway, a bunch of people will be there. We’re doing a Mexican potluck. It’ll be fun!”
I hesitated, unsure of how to decline without hurting her feelings. Jen was cool, but my idea of a fun night included a great puzzle, a glass of merlot, and some alone time. “I don’t know…”
“You can’t just hole up in your condo forever. It’s been what, two years? You need to live again.” She was trying to be gentle in her implication, but the words were like poison daggers. Pinging against my heart. All day, every day, I worked to forget. Or just not to think about how… “He would want you to live.”
The pain of remembering gave me courage. “No thanks. Not yet.”
“Come on. Good company, good food. Cyrek makes the best salsa. Goes well with wine…” she hinted, bumping my shoulder.
“No, it doesn’t,” I told her.
“Well, you would know,” she laughed.
“I have an errand to run and this project to finish...”
“Alright.” Jen looked disappointed but understanding. “Call if you change your mind, okay?”
The doors opened into the lobby. A small crowd of people were heading through, and we followed them into another dark and chilly evening. More chilly than usual, though I couldn’t pinpoint the reason. Jen and I parted ways on 4th and Stewart. I continued the five blocks up to Whole Foods, where quality came at a price.
Inside, the doors whooshed closed, and I was accosted by the feral scents of produce and herbs, supplements and essential oils. This was the place to shop in Seattle. Where everyone scoffed at parabens and silicones. Where everyone brought their own reusable sacks. Because if you didn’t, the guy checking you out would bite his lip with icy judgment as he snapped open a paper bag… Doesn’t she care about the environment? Doesn’t she know how many fractions of a tree were used to make this bag?
With my little basket, I wandered the isles in search of something appetizing. I found some whole-wheat pasta, a can of black olives, and some garlic bread. A little ground sausage wrapped in butcher paper. Some lavender shampoo and conditioner. My hand grabbed hold of a jar of spaghetti sauce when it started.
Screaming from the front of the store. “Is he okay!? Is he okay!? He was just standing here and…” The woman’s voice became muffled, possibly by her own hand. Others assured they were calling 911.
Two people in my isle ran toward the commotion, looking eager to see some drama.
There was an older woman next to me, fifty or sixty, thin and frail looking with rosy cheeks red-rimmed turquoise eyes. Her cart was filled with vegetables and fruits. As she reached for a jar of coconut manna, she paused and then just keeled over. It was a slow and graceful decent as she skimmed the shelves, pulling several jars down with her. Then she was still.
With shock freezing my face mid-smile, I simply stared. What in the world..? The sound of a siren darted through the city, growing louder as an ambulance approached.
“Um, hello? Could someone help me please!?” I rushed to the front of the isle, then back to the woman. I leaned down to check her pulse the way they do in the movies. Something I’d never needed to do before. Her skin was soft and doughy, beneath which there was no bleating heart. Nothing, just stillness.
Shit, shit, shit…