ORIGINALLY WRITTEN/RECORDED 03/2020. Hey guys. I’ll tell you right up front, I struggled with the idea of even posting this story, because, yes, it’s a plague story. It’s a very common theme in sci-fi, the plague-that-wipes-out-humanity theme, but I’ve never written one, so it just kind of popped into my head a few weeks ago, before the poop really started to his the fan, as my subconscious had already started working overtime on this whole Coronavirus thing. Anyway, I finished it, and put it on the shelf, thinking that nerve might be just too raw for folks right now. But the story kept pushing itself off the shelf and into the front of my brain, and, well, here it is. If you’re not up for a plague story right now, I completely understand, just leave it for later, or never read/listen to it, no worries at all (I’m doing that with most news these days, btw). If you’re into it, though, I really like how this story turned out, and I think you actually might find something nice in here.
Listen to the Audio (23 min):
Read the Story (3,500 words / 13-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
Yup. Sounds stupid, right?
But it was the chopsticks that did it.
It happened so fast the news never really put all the pieces of the puzzle together before it was too late. Not that it would have changed anything if they finished the puzzle. It would’ve just been a nice, complete puzzle with no one left to look at it.
The last I heard was something about cross-contamination between the Chinese factory making dried bat miracle powders – we laughed here in the West, but apparently they take that shit very seriously in the East – and the neighboring factory churning out billions of chopsticks for use around the world. Somehow the Chijing bat virus, hiding, biding its time, was dried along with its host and atomized, and over months and months enough molecules of it impregnated and corrupted the neighboring wood stocks of XianGo Manufacturing. Stamped into chopsticks, now containing the dormant virus, the chopsticks were shipped to over a hundred countries, including the United States. From there, all it took to reactivate the Chijing – by the way, “Chijing” is Chinese for “Surprise!” – all it took was a drop or two of human saliva, which, of course, is exactly what you get when you shove a chunk of General Tso’s chicken into your mouth, held aloft by a pair of imported XianGo Manufacturing chopsticks.
Now, that whole story could’ve been conjecture, the news people were dropping like flies, like everyone else, and sources of information were getting spotty even then, only two weeks after the first cases were reported. But they seemed certain it started with the Chijing and the chopsticks, and like I said, it doesn’t really matter at this point. Once people started getting sick, it didn’t make a difference if you never touched a chopstick in your life. All it took was a cough or a sneeze or the touch of a subway turnstile, or just being in the same room as one of the infected. And God forbid you stepped into a hospital for help – then you were basically asking for it. In fact, the hospitals were the first to shut down, they could do nothing to stop the Chijing. It had happened too fast. All the medicine and technology in the world could do nothing. Nothing.
It would’ve been funny, if it weren’t so fucking bizarre and soul-crushing, to see how fast people turned their faith then from science back to God. Within another week the churches here in Manhattan were filled with the faithful, all the poor souls who knew the end was coming and had nowhere else to go for a miracle.
And that’s where I am right now, tending to the infected. Well, calling it tending is a stretch, there’s nothing I can do of course, but I hold their hands and pray with them, and in two and a half weeks when they pass I help place them into body bags and move them into Fifth Avenue where the dozers are still at work, collecting the bodies and pushing them onto barges in the East River to be sent out to sea, another of those last futile attempts to keep this thing under control, keep the streets open, keep the stench of death from becoming overwhelming.
It’s an old man, feverish, he’s in the second week, so he’s starting to hallucinate. He calls me Father Tim, they all do now, but the truth is I’m just some guy living in an apartment a couple of blocks down from Saint Patrick’s, and I’m not a father, or a priest, or whatever they think I am. I just happened to be passing the massive front doors last week, and a women fell on her way in, so I helped her get to her feet. She looked up at me, searching. I was wearing my black pants and black shirt, coming off my last-ever shift at Delmonico’s. “Thank you, Father.”
“No. I’m a waiter.”
She shook her head, and kissed me on the hand and chuckled. “And thank you for making an old woman laugh, Father.”
“No. I’m a waiter. Really. Well, I’m a playwright, or an aspiring one, as all waiters aspire to something, I guess. But-”
And she was gone, into the throngs crowding the pews, to rest and to hope, or to at least make peace at the end, and then two young men, teenagers, approached me as they led who must’ve been their mother through the doors. “Excuse me, Father. Is there a process to this?”
I looked around, it was chaos, who would’ve expected it to be anything else, and several other faces looked to mine. “Listen. I’m not who you think…”
But it had just happened. I was no longer a waiter. Or an aspiring playwright. I would never be any of those things again.
Now I’m Father.
“Okay, in and to the left. There’s more room on the left.”
After three days, there did seem to be order germinating from the chaos. We would bring the first week infecteds to the front, closer to the podium, better to listen to the actual, legitimate priests offering comfort, as it was all they could offer, and the aid workers who weren’t yet sick prepared food for them to the right of the altar. The second week infecteds were moved to the back, as they could no longer eat and barely make sense of their surroundings. This also brought them closer to the main doors, where it would be easier and more discreet to move them into the side street and the bulldozers when their time came. The streets were still clear through to my apartment building, and I did manage to get home a couple of times a day and take care of things there.
It’s the old man again. Almost pleading.
“You are real, yes? I am not imagining you?”
“Yes. I’m real, Arnold.” I take his hand so he can feel the realness, the pressure of my touch.
“Then why aren’t you getting sick?”
He wasn’t the first one to ask me this. As the infecteds came and went, by the thousands, there were a few of us, myself and maybe five of the aid workers, who just didn’t succumb to the Chijing. No fever, no sweats, no nausea, nothing. I actually felt better than ever.
“I’m not special, Arnold. It’s something random. I don’t know why I’m not sick.”
“Ah, but I do know why.”
I open my mouth to protest, but he starts babbling. Semi-words, mumbles. He’s getting closer to the end. There’s no point in arguing. But then the clarity moment: “I know why you’ve been spared, Father Tim. Because you are the Second Coming.”
I recoil and rise, practically tearing my hand loose from Arnold’s, and rush to the exit. “No.”
I run the two blocks home, my mind racing with Arnold’s words. Who is he to say something like that? Jesus Christ, no offense, but I don’t even know if I believe in any of that. And I definitely don’t believe in some judgment at the end, and really, if there even were one, I definitely wouldn’t be a central figure. I’d be the guy bussing the dishes in the upper room after the Last Supper, clearing the table and getting it ready for the next party of twelve. I wouldn’t even make it into Davinci’s painting as an extra. Second coming. Arnold, do you have any idea how much you just freaked me out?
I leap up the stairs to my place, two at a time, to the fourth floor. Open the door to 4B, quietly, breathing heavy, tiptoeing to the kitchen. I open a can of chicken noodle soup, pouring just the broth into a bowl, and microwave it for a minute. Then I make my way, silent as possible, to the second bedroom. I lean into the door, and it creaks, and the first thing I see are two bowls of broth, untouched. And there in the bed, eyes closed, smiling at God-knows-what, she lay.
I whisper, “Mom?”
She opens her eyes, looking a bit unsure if I’m there, or something she’s imagining. “Timmy? Are you really here?”
“Yes, Mom.” I approach, and set down the third bowl, knowing now that food will never pass her lips again. “Mom, you’re not hungry?”
“Oh, I just ate. You feed me too much. Look how fat I’m getting.” She smiles, and pushes out her belly beneath the blankets, using her arms to amplify the effect.
I laugh. “Man. We’re going to have to put you on a diet.” And I move to take the bowls away.
“No. Timmy. Don’t leave. It’s getting late, love.”
Oh no. The last phase. Beyond the hallucinations. In the final few hours, infecteds gain a blazing clarity, an understanding, almost premonition. She knows it’s coming for her. And I know. But somehow I’m still not ready. Can you ever be ready?
“Um, okay.” So I sit there, like a little kid, with no answers, waiting for her to give me one. She always had the answers.
“Do you remember, when you were small, Timmy?”
“Yes, of course. Well, some stuff.”
“Do you remember the finger dances?”
I smile, and take her hand from beneath the blankets, and prop my index and middle finger up on her belly, like legs, and I lean them forward, in a bow. She mirrors my movements, with a finger lady of her own, but adds a little curtsy at the end.
“May I have this dance, young lady?”
“You certainly may, young man. Play After You’ve Gone.”
And my little finger man approaches her little finger lady, and as I sing, the two figures waltz around on the blanket on her belly: “After you’ve gone, and left me crying, after you’ve gone, there’s no denying, you’ll feel blue, you’ll feel sad… you’ll miss the dearest pal that you’ve ever had… and there’ll come a time, now don’t forget it…”
And slowly, as she smiles and moves in time with my finger man, she closes her eyes, and hums along, and then her hand rests back down to her heart, and her humming stops.
And she exhales, and whispers, “…love you…”
And that is all.
I don’t cry, God I don’t think I have any tears left after these past two weeks. No, I just kiss her on the forehead and smooth her hair a little, and tuck her in, and take the bowls to the kitchen.
It’s time to leave New York.
Five days later, I still haven’t left, but I haven’t been back to the apartment either. I’ve been saying goodbye here at the cathedral, to more people than I thought could fit into the entire city of Manhattan, nevermind Saint Patrick’s. I have known more people in the past month than I knew in my entire previous life, and I’ve now said goodbye to each and every one. The priests are gone now, they’ve whispered their own last rites, the aid workers are gone. Even the one or two that like me somehow escaped the Chijing have fled, I’m assuming to someplace without so much death. After the final infected has exhaled his last, I am alone here now. Alone with death.
I went from never seeing a single person die in my entire life to seeing thousands – maybe tens of thousands? – die right in front of me, all within four weeks. I know I’m still in some form of shock, trying to absorb the incomprehensible, like the prisoners at Auschwitz must’ve felt after their first month – redefining what death meant, what the scale of death could look like when taken to the ultimate extreme. I don’t know what it’s doing to my sanity. At any moment it all threatens to unravel, any last thread I’m miraculously holding onto. I could, easily, just stop, and sit here, in the stench, and put my head down, and babble like one of the infected, and wait for the Grim Reaper to call my name. I don’t think anyone would blame me.
But somehow, somehow, I still hold on to my can opener, wander the supermarket, and force food into my belly, and live within the gossamer-thin guard rails of life, not veering off the cliff into blackness. The slightest touch and those guardrails would disintegrate like a soap bubble, but no – it’s not my time. No. Something compels me to keep my eyes open, look around, assess the situation, think about the future. To plan. Isn’t that crazy? To plan? Plan what?
Well, regardless of plan, or no plan, I find myself walking absently towards the Lincoln Tunnel, away from the awful smell, towards New Jersey, with a shopping cart full of cans and bottles, and three cases of water. I could theoretically drive, I guess, I’ve got my choice of cars, or even military vehicles, but the streets are parking lots now – even a bulldozer wouldn’t get me through one of the tunnels or bridges.
I turn off 31st street, fairly sure it’s the entrance to the tunnel, and hear clanking. Probably dogs, scrounging, or rats, the new dominant species of New York City, I’ve decided. I didn’t bring a gun along, though I could have, I could look like Rambo if I wanted, with grenade launchers strapped across each shoulder. But I always remember what Mom said: “You carry a weapon, Timmy, and nine times out of ten you’re the one it gets used on.” I have no idea how she arrived at this figure, whether it was even true at all, but she had drilled it into the primitive muscle part of my brain, and the belief had gotten me this far, so I didn’t see any reason to abandon it now. I had allowed myself a knife, but a fourth grader with some skills could easily disarm me.
I don’t know what comes over me, some leftover curiosity from Old Tim, and I shout out “Hey!” just to scatter the rats, or whatever they are.
But it’s not a they.
A hooded figure rises from a crouch and turns to face me.
I am paralyzed with fear as the figure removes its hood and takes a step toward me. It’s a woman, sixty maybe, which momentarily eases my paralysis, though I don’t know why, because plenty of sixty-year-old women could kick my ass or worse.
I stammer, “You can take all my stuff. I’m not armed.”
The woman looks up and around, pointing at all the skyscrapers. “All your stuff, my love? There’s more stuff in this godforsaken city than anyone left on Earth could use up. No, you can keep your stuff, Father Tim.”
“You Father Tim, right?”
“I’m a waiter.”
She laughs. “They told me you might say that.”
“Listen, my love. I don’t know if this is your lucky day or just another worst day of your life, but there’s a group of us never-sicks headed out a couple weeks ago, made it to a farm in Waldwick. No stench, plenty of resources, close enough to this hellhole in case we need gas, cars, what have you. Anyways, a bunch of them kept talking about some Father Tim, he’d probably be the last one out of hell, compassionate sucker, and he’s worth going back for.” She looked down and kicked a rat that was sniffing around her backpack, looked back up, impatient. “So just answer me two questions and I’ll be on my way: are you Father Tim? And are you worth coming back for?”
“I don’t know if I’m worth coming back for, but yes.” I take a step forward and offer my hand. “Um, how’d you know I’d be taking the Lincoln Tunnel?”
“Oh shit, thanks for reminding me.” She digs the military walkie-talkie out of her pack and yells into it. “Got ‘em. Y’all can converge here on me, Lizzy, here at the 31st entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.” Then she puts down the radio and takes my offered hand. “We didn’t know. They had us station one at each exit, Lincoln, Holland, Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg, 59th street, et cetera. Been sitting here in our asses for three days almost. Needless to say, tomorrow we were gonna call it off. So again, lucky day or just another worst day for you, my love.”
“I’ll call it lucky. Hey, do you call everyone my love, or just me?”
She laughs at this, a real cackle, like a witch. “Oh, that’s rich. Yeah, it’s just you, Father Tim. Love at first sight. Can’t keep my eyes off you.”
I just stand there, I guess looking emotionless, I mean I haven’t had a conversation in a week, and can’t remember the last time someone joked with me. Lizzy seems to notice this, and her look softens. “You been through a lot. We all have. More than a lot. The most. The worst damn thing the Big Man coulda come up with. Maybe even worse than the flood. But you done good, Father Tim, from what I heard anyway.” She puts her arm around my shoulder. “It’ll be good to have you around, that’s my prediction.”
“I don’t have any skills.”
“Not what I heard. And it don’t matter anyhow. We’re all gonna learn. Gonna start over. This ain’t the end, my love. It’s the beginning.”
She sits down to wait for the others, and pats the sidewalk for me to join her. I’m struck, suddenly, with how much Lizzy reminds me of my Mom. She doesn’t look like her, and she certainly doesn’t talk like her, but there is something about her, about how life bubbles up inside her and can’t keep itself from coming out, about how love seems to be her favorite word. Like Mom.
“Excuse me, Lizzy, right? While we wait, can I ask you a favor?”
And so I tell her about my Mom, and the finger dances, and for a moment Lizzy looks at me like maybe they shouldn’t have come back for me at all, but then she relents and props her two fingers on the pavement. “You’ll have to lead. Never done this before.”
As I walk my little finger man over to hers, I ask, “Ladies choice on the song.”
Without hesitation, a grin widening her face, she says, “You know, the Louis Armstrong one.”
“Hmm. I only know one verse.”
So I sing, and our hands dance awkwardly. “I see skies of blue, and clouds of white, the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night…” and together we sing the last words, “…and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Lizzy lifts her fingers and cups my face in her hands, and kisses me hard on the cheek, and whispers in my ear, “Maybe someday it’ll be wonderful again, my love.”
I hope you enjoyed that short story. Now, instead of what I usually do here, hawking my books for you to purchases, I’d like to share three thoughts:
One, no matter who you are or what your circumstances during these strange days, I wish you health, and some peace, and a shoulder to cry on when necessary (and if you need another shoulder, email me from the contact page here on listentothesignal.com or over at robdircks.com).
Two, regarding the “my love” phrase that Lizzy keeps repeating, I want to thank the old lady at the Dunkin’ Donuts at the Amtrak station in New York. I was there, just a couple of weeks ago on my way down to DC– though it already seems like a million years ago – pretty anxious already about this whole virus thing, just before the lockdowns, anyway the girl at the counter asks the old lady in front of me, “What I can I get you, my love?” So she orders, and then it’s my turn and I say, “My love? Wow. Can I get one of those? I could use it.” And she says, “Absolutely, my love. What can I get you, my love?” So she showers me with a couple of more “my loves,” which would’ve been cute as heck enough, but then while I’m waiting for my bagel, the old lady goes to leave with her coffee, but she stops and turns, and looks me straight in the eye and says, “You’ll be just fine, my love.” And I gotta tell you, I almost started crying right there at the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Amtrak station.
Finally, I’d like to read you a quote I found about this time we find ourselves living in. I didn’t write it, and if anyone knows who wrote it and wants to email me I’ll give them credit, but here it is:
“I know this: When this ends – AND IT WILL – every game will sell out, every restaurant will have a 2-hour wait, every kid will be glad to be in school, everyone will love their job, the stock market will skyrocket, every other house will get TP’d, and we’ll all embrace and shake hands. That’s gonna be a damn good day.”
Okay, now the book-hawking — thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the science fiction novels Where the Hell is Tesla?, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff!, The Wrong Unit, and my latest release, an Audible Original titled You’re Going to Mars! You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, and find my other books there too, and get in touch here on the contact page or at RobDircks.com.
Copyright ©2020 Rob Dircks