July 28, 2068
I have heard countless versions of Awareness Day; countless recollections from people who lived to tell them. And each story is unique. As unique to every man, woman, and child as their DNA. But no matter how different the versions, no matter how different the people who tell them, when I hear the accounts I know we’re all the same. Wherever we came from, whatever our ambitions, whatever we liked or disliked, whoever we loved or hated; it didn’t matter once that day touched our lives. The memories are there in each of us; never to leave, never to fade. And the most common factor was we never saw it coming. I certainly didn’t.
My version began in my girlfriend’s bed.
I was at the tail’s end of a dream—a very strange dream. I was in a sphere of water, and I was butt-naked and suspended. Imagine a grown-sized clone, gestating in a giant incubator. It was completely dark on the outside, yet somehow, I could still see. There were no tubes or pipes, the water was breathable, and my balance in the center was perfect, as if I were the core holding all together with my gravity. My mood was as calm as a person near death. I had no worries, no anxiety regarding my nakedness, nothing. It was Zen-like. It was beautiful. And still, as beautiful and as bizarre as that dream was, it would have easily been forgotten. It would have disappeared from my memory forever, if it hadn’t been attached to that fateful day.
The dream fell apart with the smell of breakfast. Once that sweet aroma of turkey bacon on the skillet invaded my nostrils, the water disappeared and the calm awareness crumbled. The dream Zen was replaced with a new Zen: The Zen of me eating soon.
Julie was a glorious cook. Every morning at her apartment I woke to the smell of something lovely. An aromatic alarm clock that I could always count on. It was one of the many perks that came with the relationship. Julie’s parents had taught her how to cook at a very young age, and experience was virtue. I didn’t live with my girlfriend. Technically, my residence was a tenement building in Soho. But once I realized I could wake to her breakfast, any given day, living among my pot-head roommates couldn’t compete.
I also loved Julie’s place. She lived in a Post-Municipal Explosion building on 1st Avenue, between 122nd and 123rd Streets. Her apartment was 23F, and there was this fantastic view of the East River and Randall’s Island from her living room window. Everything in her place was very modern. She had a clear, hardened-plastic dining set; a platinum-colored leather couch and matching love seat; a blue-steel entertainment display; and a map screen that rotated on a ball axis. The map screen was my favorite. I could touch, magnify, and rotate on any location in the world.
In her bedroom she had a classic Temper-pedic bed. It was draped with a Venezuelan spread and soft, Egyptian-cotton sheets. (It was so damn hard to get out of that bed sometimes. Especially if I’d drunk wine the night before.) She also had a cherry wood bedroom set made from real cherry wood, and in the dark, a multicolored light display reflected patterns of rippling water against the walls and ceiling.
The hallways were earth-toned, and lined with oil paintings Julie had created herself. She was an artist; she specialized in landscapes. If the paintings weren’t of the city, they were of her native Nebraska.
It had taken three months to convince Julie to date me; but waking to her breakfast, enjoying her company, and staying in her apartment had made it worth the effort.
Daylight flooded the room. I winced and squinted as my eyes made the adjustment. I pushed the sheets off and sat up.
“Television on. Channel five.”
The acrylic screen on the opposite wall came to life. First as a dull, gray blank; and then as the commanded channel.
The bar at the top read: Saturday, July 28th, 2068/ 8:02a.m./ 24 Degrees Celsius/ Sunny with clear skies.
The image on the screen, however, wasn’t of the news anchors, or of the weather man, or of the traffic lady. Instead, it was of the President. The President of East America: Joseph McArthur. As I wiped the crust from my eyes, I thought: What in the hell does he want?
The President was nervous as he waited for his queue. He had on a white, button-down shirt with the buttons undone, revealing a maroon shirt underneath. His face was pale, his eyes were red, and he had a blatant five o’clock shadow.
When the queue was given, he nodded to someone unseen and looked into the camera. He hesitated for a few seconds, then he began.
“My fellow East Americans…” He paused for a moment. He looked as if he was fighting back tears. “My fellow East Americans, it is my somber duty to report that at 6:46 this morning, I received news of a potential, world-wide epidemic. I was told that it is a grave threat to the security of our nation.
I have met with my Members of Cabinet, and the heads of vital departments within our government, and we have decided to take drastic measures. I am hereby enacting my Constitutional Right to declare Martial Law. I am also ordering a nation-wide moratorium of economic activity.
“If you are an employee of vital importance, such as in the fields of health, news, or public services, we need you to continue your…”
I slumped into the bed and put the sheets over my head.
As I write this, it’s hard to believe that I could have been so ridiculous. Here was the President—the President of my country: Addressing us all and looking an uncharacteristic mess; shutting down commerce throughout the entire nation; clearly displaying that he did not want to be the man in charge. And I had the nerve to put the television on mute.
Perhaps it was sub-conscious denial. Perhaps some part of me knew that this was going to be bad, and that part was prolonging the inevitable. Perhaps that part was seeking one last moment of normalcy. Normalcy before the hell started. That reasoning makes sense. That reasoning is reason. But the actual thought that went through my mind was: This is another one of those damn influenza outbreaks.
They occurred at least once a year. The outbreaks killed a few thousand people in various parts of the world; then either a vaccine was created, or the things simply died out. The colds had names just as Hurricanes did, and they brought a flurry of media coverage and mass paranoia. But ultimately, they were nothing to warrant shutting down the entire country. In the bed that morning, I thought to myself: This jerk is putting on a show because it’s an election year.
Julie walked into the room. She had on her pink lavender robe, and her brunette hair was still wet from a shower she had taken while I was dead to the world. The light from outside gave her skin an admirable glow. She was a vibrant, fleshy, Midwestern woman, with a beautiful, slightly freckled face, and blue eyes sparkling and true . At 5’11, she was virtually the same height as me.
Julie had wanted me to propose to her. We had been steady for eleven months by that point. I did spend most of my time with her, and we were compatible in a lot of ways; but when it came to marriage, I had cold feet. She was convenient, she had her perks, and I was even going to move in with her by the end of that August; but when it came to the next step, when it came to a ring, I probably would have been on the fence for a very long time.
“Breakfast is ready,” Julie said, on her way to the bathroom. “Is that the President? What is he talking about?”
“I think he’s saying the world’s about to end,” I said. “But let’s eat breakfast. If we’re all going to die, let’s not go on an empty stomach.”
“XXXhole,” she said.
We both laughed. Then I lunged from the bed and chased my girlfriend into the bathroom, grabbing for her XXX.
I’ll always remember that breakfast; the last moment before it all changed. As we ate, Julie and I discussed what we were going to do that day. It was a Saturday, and on Saturdays, we always went to a park or beach, weather permitting. I wanted to go to Riverbank Park, which was on the other side of Harlem. Julie wanted to go to Carl Schurz Park, which was forty blocks to our south. We also discussed what to send her father for a birthday present. Should it be the usual shirt and tie, or should we just say to hell with it and send him a gift credit card? His birthday was a week away, and Julie constantly stressed over such things.
Now that I recall, we didn’t have the television or the radio on, which was unusual. Instead, we only sat and talked, and enjoyed our turkey bacon and eggs with hash brown. I drank peach juice while Julie helped herself to prune juice (her latest diet experiment). It was nice. It was a frozen moment in time.
Every now and then, I’ll close my eyes and imagine. I’ll imagine that I’m right there—right at the edge.
Just as we finished breakfast, the first call came through. Julie picked the phone up from the table and answered.
She winced and held the phone from her ear.
“Mom!” Julie looked at the phone with surprise. She waited a few seconds and tried again.
“Mom! You have to calm down…Calm down! Tell me what happened?”
Julie held the phone with both hands as her mother spoke, and I couldn’t make out a single word. Mrs. Silver’s voice was a frantic rove on the other line. But as Mrs. Silver went on, Julie’s look transformed. Her eyes began to water. Her hands began to tremble. And she shook her head slowly in disbelief. After a minute, Julie finally broke her silence. Her voice was a quiver.
“Everyone…How can everyone have it? How can you, Papa, Jodi, Lenard and all the kids have it? How the XXXX can everyone have it?! How does that even happen…?”
Tears streamed down Julie’s cheeks. Her face was a distressed red. And she made squealing noises of agony.
I was mortified. In all my time of knowing Julie, she had never cried in front of me. I began to tremble myself. I could feel my chest tighten. Julie dropped the phone, then she collapsed to the floor. I wanted to walk over. To find out what the hell happened. But the intensity of the moment had left me timid. Then I heard my PCD (Personal Communication Device) in the bedroom.
Off impulse I ran to answer it, as Julie wailed in devastation where she fell.
It was my father. His picture flashed in and out on my screen. I answered, bracing for whatever he was about to say.
“Martin! Thank God! We have been trying to reach you all morning! Where are you? Did you hear the news?”
I thought of the television, and how I had put the damn thing on mute. A strong sense of embarrassment flashed over me.
“No. But I saw the President. He said there was some kind of epidemic and he declared Martial Law. What the hell is…”
“Did you get tested?”
“Get tested? No. Julie and I just had breakfast. What is all this testing…”
“Son! You have to get tested. Get tested and get out of the city. Get a mask. Get a mask as soon as you can.” It started to register.
“Dad. Are you telling me this thing is air-borne?”
“Yes it’s XXXXing air-borne! What? Did you and Julie listen to the first thirty seconds and cut off the TV?” I chose not to answer. “Son, this is an emergency,” he continued. “Get a mask and get out of the city. It’s the goddamn end of the world. Your mother and I are going to die.”
I dropped the PCD. I felt lightheaded. A jolt ran through my body, and my vision became blurry. My legs became wobbly. I was tackled. Blindsided. That was the moment. The President disheveled wasn’t it. Julie imploding in grief wasn’t it. But when my father told me I was about to become parentless, that was when the gut wrenching truth had finally set in: This XXXX was serious, and it was going to touch everyone.
“Marty! Son! Are you there?”
I could hear my father’s voice clearly. The PCD was face-up on the floor. I bent to retrieve it, feeling as if I was doing the bravest thing in life.
“Dad, tell me what happened.”
“Your mother and I saw the news last night. It started as a rumor on the ten o’clock news. We kept watching. Then they showed the lines at the health clinics and hospitals. All over the world people were in line—getting tested. Your mother and I tried to call you. We tried to call your brother and your sisters. But the phones were already over-run.
“This morning, there was an emergency broadcast. It told us to head to South Hampton Hospital. So your mother and I went. And the line was long. Virtually everyone in the town was there by the time we made it. The NHC [National Health Commission] workers gave us masks as we waited to take the test. They had this breathalyzer. If the result was green, you were clear and told to go home. But if it was red, you were infected with some goddamn Cancer! Damn near everyone was red, son!”
“Cancer?” I had a sliver of hope. “But Dad, isn’t Cancer treatable? They have pills for Cancer. How the hell is something treatable going to kill you?”
“It’s different son. The workers told us the thing adapts. Chemo doesn’t work. Surgery doesn’t work. They said the pills will cause the Cancer to become stronger—a defense mechanism. They told us the only option was to let it run its course. They told us that will give us the most time.”
“That doesn’t make any goddamn sense! How could this be determined so fast? Who’s to say they won’t find a cure within a couple of days, like they always do? They always find a cure!” I said.
My father didn’t share my optimism. I only heard the stressed breathing of a devastated and defeated man. Then he spoke once more.
“Martin. Son. Please…Just get tested and get out of the city.”
“Where’s Mom? Please…put Mom on the phone,” I said.
As I waited for my mother’s voice, I heard footsteps, then a stifled conversation. The interlude of twenty seconds felt like an eternity—going back and forth. My body had grown tight with anticipation.
“Martin,” she said.
It was the only word that escaped. All that anticipation, and now I was frozen.
“Martin, I love you so much, son. I want you to know that I’m proud of you. I’m proud of all of you.” I couldn’t even breathe. “You, and your brother and sisters have been the stars in my sky.”
The phone went dead.
Without hesitation I tried calling them back. I dialed and dialed and dialed again. But I only got the goddamn buzz. The devastating, monotone buzz.
After seven attempts I dropped the PCD on the bed. My initial shock had given way. The practical side took over. I wanted to get tested. To find out what the hell this was. I left the room burning with self-anger, upset that the only thing I could say to my mother was Mom.
In the living room Julie was still on the floor, paralyzed in grief.
“Julie? We have to go, Julie.”
She didn’t acknowledge me at all. She was as still as a bag of dirt, and staring at the ceiling. I knelt beside her and attempted to pick her up. She was dead weight.
“Julie!” I said. “We have to go and get tested.”
After a few minutes of nudging, yelling, pulling, and begging outright, it was evident she wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t flinch. I don’t recall if she blinked her eyes.
I conceded, and gently lowered my girlfriend to the floor. Then I raced to the bedroom. I threw on a random T-shirt and stepped into my brown loafers. I didn’t bother to change out of my pajama bottoms. I’m sure my appearance was rather tacky, but who the XXXX cares at a moment such as this.
Once I arrived at the front door, I took a last look at Julie. She was right where I had left her: stone-still, and in her own devastated world. I thought to try and rouse her one last time, but said to hell with it. I took a deep breath and left. It was time to face this world. The world that had changed so suddenly.
I saw no one in the hallway. No one rode with me in the elevator on the way down. Even the lobby was vacant. If anything, I would have seen the doorman. He was nowhere to be found. But once I walked through the front door, once I stepped outside, Martial Law was right there to greet me.
Organized chaos was everywhere. It was a scene right out of a movie. It was as if the whole Harlem was on our block. People were in the middle of the street and on the sidewalks, and soldiers were scattered throughout the crowd. The soldiers were clad in fatigues. They had on round, tan colored helmets. They had automatic weapons in hand. And they were barking through clear masks, telling people where to go. Overhead, two hovercopters were flying south toward midtown. I could hear the whiz of their engines in sharp clarity. I stood just outside the doorway, hesitant to move.
A driverless vehicle with the East American insignia rode south down 1st Avenue—in the wrong direction. People and soldiers moved out of its way. There was a screen on the vehicle’s side. It displayed:
Everyone in this vicinity is to report to the Zone 7 Health Clinic, located at 2262 Obama Boulevard. Everyone must know their status. Masks will be distributed as you approach the line. Once you know your status, you are to return home. Please watch your television for further instructions.
The message displayed in Spanish, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese, before returning to English.
I felt utter confusion. The night before, Julie and I had stayed in. We had planned to go to a restaurant called Knowles Cafe in Times Square; but instead, we ordered Chinese food, had sex, and went to bed early. As I stood there, I thought: We might have been secluded last night, but were we this XXXXing secluded?
A man walked by on the sidewalk in front of me. He was in his late forties or early fifties by my guess. He had a round, leathery face and a nappy, salt and pepper beard. He wore tattered clothing. He had a home-made poster in his hands. And the poster was covered with newspaper cutouts. The man began yelling to anyone who would listen.
“You have turned your back on the Church, and this is what it has come to! You have turned your back on Jesus and he has turned his back on you! Repent! Repent! Your bodies are condemned, but he may have mercy on your souls! Repe…”
A couple of soldiers had grabbed the man by his arms. The poster fluttered to the sidewalk as the soldiers dragged him away. And the man was kicking and screaming with all his might.
One of the soldiers noticed me. He let the others drag the man away and then he approached.
I stood my ground, looking at him wide-eyed, unsure of what he was about to do. He stopped within two meters of where I was standing.
“Sir, you need to come with me,” the soldier said. He was almost a foot taller than I was, his skin was ebony, and he was well built under his uniform. His voice was slightly muffled behind his clear mask.
“We need to get you a mask, immediately.”
“Um…Ok.” I said.
I walked with the soldier as we weaved our way through the chaos. Some people were plodding around aimlessly in a daze; others were arguing with whoever they could find in a uniform. One lady threw her mask to the ground and yelled, “XXXX the mask! The XXXX is this supposed to do?!” I was at the soldier’s side, similar to a shy child clinging to his parent.
Eventually, we approached a mobile NHC booth, right in the middle of 124th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. The soldier went away as I stood before a middle-aged Asian lady—she was on the other side of a glassless window. She had on a gray, full-body suit, and a helmet that reminded me of an upside down fish bowl.
“Sir, how many masks do you need?” the lady asked.
“Two.” I said.
My throat was dry, and I was already sweating. It was a very hot morning, typical for late July. The lady reached behind her and retrieved two clear masks. She placed one on the counter in front of her and handed me the other.
“Put it to your face,” she said.
I touched my face with the mask and it made a suction noise. I jumped a little. The edges had clung to my jaws, there was a little hiss, and that was it: I was breathing filtered air.
“Now, if you want to take it off, you simply grab both sides and squeeze. Only take it off in private, or when you know the status of everyone in your household. You see that building across the street?” She pointed to an apartment building. It had an arched entranceway that led to a courtyard. “Go there to get tested. Once you know your status, go home and await further instructions. Good luck.”
She handed me the other mask and I was on my way.
As I crossed the street, people were walking briskly without rhyme or reason. They looked as if they had had their lives ripped—right out from under them. There was an animated soldier right in the middle of it all. Without compassion, and as loud as he could, he yelled, “Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” There was also this small Black child who clinged to her mother as they both sat on the curb. The daughter was being comforted by her mother. The mother was saying, “It’s ok, baby. It’s ok.”
Once in the courtyard I entered the line. There were a few hundred people in front of me, but the line moved swiftly and grew behind me at a steady clip. At the front were two NHC workers, flanked by armed soldiers. They both held breathalyzers just as my father had described.
The guy in front of me turned around. He flashed me a warm smile.
“Hey there, fella. Crazy day, right?”
The guy spoke with a country twang. He was about 5’6, with a heavily freckled face and sunburned skin. His hair was red, and he was wearing a security guard’s uniform. I XXXumed he must have moved to New York from somewhere down south.
“Yeah,” I said. “How the hell did this happen so fast?”
“I don’t know, fella. I woke up this morning and watched the news like everyone else. All hell has broken loose everywhere. They are already rioting in some parts of the world.” The Southerner shook his head and let out a little laugh. “Well, at least the soldiers are keeping it in check here.”
I looked at him, dumbfounded by his upbeat attitude. Then I thought: Well, if he watched the news, he has a better idea of what’s going on.
“What did the news say about this thing that’s spreading?” I asked.
The Southerner gave me an unbelieving look.
“You don’t know?” he said. I gave him a look that said: Of course, I don’t XXXXing know! Then he took a deep breath and began.
“Well, it didn’t start this morning; it was just revealed to the public this morning. It’s some kind of man-made virus. It’s air-borne, and at first, it transpired through exhaled smoke. Cigarette smoke, weed smoke, nutmeg smoke, you name it. Now, they say you can catch it by simply breathing other people’s air.”
I looked at him as if he had an XXX for a head and just farted.
“What?” I said.
“Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. The news said it feeds off carbon monoxide in the blood. If you’re a smoker, once it goes active, you’re supposed to die quick. If you’re a non-smoker, you might live a little longer, about a month or so, but you’re still gonna die. The cancer cells generate in the lungs. They restrict your ability to breathe. There’s no cure for the thi…”
“I know,” I said, cutting the guy off.
In New York City alone, a person ran into a cloud of smoke at every turn. Walking on the sidewalk. Being around family and friends. Hanging out in public, period. I had read an article in the New York E a few months prior. It stated that there were some 3.5 billion smokers world-wide out of a population of 10 billion humans. My father was a smoker, so was my brother, and one of my sisters. I didn’t smoke cigarettes, but damn sure smoked weed on occasion (when I was around my roommates it was unavoidable). I thought to myself: If this thing transpires through breathing and smoke, it has touched not just everyone in my family, but virtually everyone on the planet.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead.
A lady walked by. She had just received her result, and it was not good. She had a shell-shocked look on her face. She stared ahead as if she were a zombie. She muttered, “It’s the end of the world. The end of the world. The end of the world…” She repeated this over and over as she left the courtyard for the street.
Then my attention turned toward the front. A man was taking the test and we were close enough to see everything. He was instructed to remove his mask and breathe into the funnel. The man hesitated for a moment, then he did what was asked.
After a few seconds a red positive flashed on the acrylic screen up top.
“We’re sorry, sir. You are positive. Please return home as soon as possible and await further instructions,” the worker said. But the man wasn’t having it.
“XXXX that! XXXX that! You did this. You knew. You’re letting us all die. Goddamn you all to Hell!”
The man pulled a small pistol from his waist. But before he could get a good aim, the soldiers opened fire! The man took a shot to each side of his chest. The gun flew from his hand. He did a half-turn as if trying to run, but instead, he crumpled to the ground. Everyone in the line scattered, the Southerner and I included. Panicked people screeched like wild monkeys. Kids began to cry. It was hell on top of hell.
Two soldiers stepped in and dragged the dead man away by his feet. The other soldiers had us surrounded. Our exit through the courtyard was blocked.
With expert training, the soldiers corralled us in line. It took a few minutes, but we all were back in the same place.
The NHC workers were still flushed. Their cheeks were red, their eyes were wide, and the breathalyzers shook violently in their hands. But they had gathered enough of their composure to continue. The one on the left adjusted his mask with his free hand. And once the mask was in place, he took three deep breaths, he stood upright, then he calmly called, “Next.”