Rachel zips her small carry-on bag after hastily stuffing whatever she could into it. She gazes at the black leather shell through eyes reddened and puffy from crying. She was never one to pack half her closet for a trip, even the extended ones. Taking the bare minimum might magically lessen the need to stay longer than necessary. Basic essentials only. The facility should have toiletries and any other minor items she might have missed. She drops the overstuffed bag to the floor with a thud.
Rachel makes a stop at the bathroom to thoroughly clean her face. Showing up at a quarantine facility with makeup running everywhere is probably expected, but she’s not that far gone yet. Pulling her mahogany brown hair into a ponytail, she takes a moment to inspect her handiwork. Mascara streaks–gone. She always thought her face looked extra round with her hair pulled away from her extra-long neck. Concluding that she’s spent enough time on her appearance, she does a final mental check before exiting the apartment.
During the drive, Rachel’s brain is cluttered with a jumble of disjointed thoughts. Brain fog is one of the early symptoms. Although many thoughts are fleeting, one stands out like a neon sign. Her brother and his wife will never forgive her for what she did. She also had to leave her two boys behind without so much as a goodbye. The urge to go back to place a goodbye kiss on each of their foreheads invokes a tingling sensation on her lips. She startles herself back to reality upon realizing she has no memory of making any turns before entering the freeway. The SUV swerves in response to her sudden reaction. Thankfully, the only other cars on the road appear as twinkles in the distance.
Driving for too long on autopilot can have some dire consequences. The same goes for what she did to her brother, but she can’t call that autopilot. In reality, she was fully aware of every horrible act and the feelings that accompanied them. She wasn’t a spectator; she was a willing participant. It was like a perfect mixture of every conflicting thought and emotion happening all at once. For someone who has been in touch with her feelings her entire life, this recent disconnect and loss of control is terrifying.
Desolation punctuates the rest of the drive. Since people are being encouraged to avoid crowds of any size, very few venture outside their neighborhoods. There’s rarely a reason to. Many businesses have voluntarily closed for fear of sexual harassment lawsuits. Rachel worked at a massage parlor, so her job was one of the first to go.
Still on the freeway, she passes the massive field that hosts the annual car show. They’ll have to cancel the one this year, just as they had the last. Dozens of cars surround four bright work-lights illuminating a large yellowish tent. The boring minivans and mildly neglected sedans definitely aren’t there for a show. It’s probably being set up as yet another quarantine site. Rachel doesn’t consider stopping to find out. It looks too small for them to safely house multiple people anyway. She continues many more miles on the way to her original destination.
The exit Rachel takes routes her to the inner loop, an older part of the city’s freeway system. Ker-thump. Ker-thump. The rhythm of her tires on the irregular surface is the percussion accompaniment to her inner music. She’s surprised that she managed to drive so long without turning on any music or the news. She pushes the power button and tunes into a local talk radio station. There’s only static.
She scans through some of the national stations and stops on the one playing classical music. Before the pandemic, she rarely listened to the radio unless she wanted to check the news for something specific. The music is so soothing that she must be careful of drifting off again.
When she reaches the university campus, it is quite empty. The lights are on at sparse intervals throughout. Gloomy mist hovers. She eventually comes to a gated road with additional barricades further back. Two guards walk up to either side of the car as she slows to a stop. She lowers the driver-side window.
“State your business!” the man barks through his respirator.
Rachel jumps back instinctively. The light behind him makes it impossible to see his eyes while the respirator conceals the rest of his face.
The man chuckles lightly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You should work on your bedside manner,” Rachel replies with some irritation.
“Huh? Oh, it just gets boring out here at night. We sometimes need to entertain ourselves.”
“Well, young man, I didn’t drive all the way out here to serve as your entertainment.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” the man says, dejected. “I apologize.” It’s difficult to detect any sincerity in his voice. “May I scan your ID?”
Rachel searches her purse for her wallet. By the time she looks up, the guard who was on the passenger side is now on her side. He’s much taller and larger than the other one.
“Thank you, ma’am.” The smaller man gives her a wave.
Rachel kind of wishes he wouldn’t call her ma’am after every other sentence. It’s more annoying than when he was treating her with less reverence. She wants to say more to the masked men but decides to conclude with: “You’re welcome.”
One man rushes ahead to open the extra barricade after the tall one enters the booth to raise the gate. The younger man puts up a hand for her to stop. After giving her instructions on where to park and which building to enter, he hands her a small padded envelope. As she passes the gate, the tall man gives her a nod. She nods back and proceeds down the lonely lane.
Several white tents are set up near the dorms where they’re allowing people to quarantine. They are identical to the ones she saw beside the freeway. It’s preparation for the inevitable. A few weeks from now, there will be ten times more.
When Rachel arrives at the front desk to check-in, she’s surprised to see only one lady working it. The desk area has room for about three people to sit comfortably and is enclosed by plexiglass on the front and left side. The young lady looks like she could be a college sophomore, but that might be pushing it. She glances at Rachel before looking back down at her phone. Her hair is purple, fading into lemon yellow on one side and yellow fading into purple on the other side. She definitely has a bedroom filled with unicorn paraphernalia. When it’s clear Rachel needs assistance, the unicorn girl sets her phone down and puts on a blemished surgical mask.
“You checking in or dropping off?” The unicorn girl sounds confidently bored.
“I… I’m checking in,” Rachel says with unexpected timidness.
“You should have a mask on.”
“Oh?” Rachel inquires.
“New guidelines. They should have given you one along with instructions at the gate.”
That’s probably what was in the little packet she left in the car. “They didn’t mention it.”
“There are also a couple of signs on the door,” the unicorn girl says as she points to the outward-facing signs.
Rachel is not in the mood to be chided by a child for not noticing something in the dark.
“Don’t worry, I have some for you,” the girl says while ducking down to rummage through a drawer. She pops back up with a pack of N-100 masks and a paper attached to a clipboard. She puts them in a drawer and closes the cover. There’s a suctioning noise for a few seconds before a motor slowly pushes the drawer toward Rachel. A nauseating chemical odor wafts upward when it opens.
Rachel thanks her and sits down on one of the benches to complete the form.
“Sweetie, you can use the room off to the left. It has desks and might be more comfortable than out here.”
Already irritated about the sign thing, Rachel wants to correct the girl for calling her sweetie, but something was comforting about the way it rolled off her tongue. Growing up in the South, Rachel has never given a second thought about terms of endearment. Lately, very minor annoyances have become amplified, and Rachel is not sure why.
The sliding door opens, and the light turns on when she walks in. The smell of new plastic fills the air. It appears that the room was once a computer lab. It’s now filled with freshly made cubicles, separated by plexiglass rising to the ceiling. She takes a seat and applies one of the masks, which were made for someone with a much larger head. The elastic bands end up on the outside of her ponytail to ensure a snug seal.
When she’s done filling out the form, she brings it to the unicorn girl, who looks it over briefly along with Rachel’s ID.
“OK, sweetie, you’ll be in room 213. I’ll contact one of the security people to take you there. Don’t get too comfortable ‘cuz you’ll only stay in this building until you get your test results. This is an all-women’s dorm, and we try to keep the population pretty low.”
“Are the quarantine buildings getting full?” Rachel asks.
“No, not yet. But you only go there if the test says you’re a zombie. Hopefully, you won’t get a chance…” Something about Rachel’s face makes unicorn girl break off abruptly.
Rachel stares at the girl in bewilderment. It doesn’t take long for her to feel water streaming down her face, soaking her mask. Rachel doesn’t feel like she should be crying. She’s not even sad, but the tears flow steadily, distorting her vision.
“Shit!” the girl exclaims. “Sorry! I’m not supposed to say that. Shit! I mean. I’m not supposed to say that either… uh… but I’m really not supposed to say the z-word.”
Rachel feels like some kind of freak, so she forces herself to make a crying face to match her tears. She puts her head down while covering her already covered mouth. Her body shakes with periodic tremors but not from crying. She’s silently laughing uncontrollably. She can’t even begin to explain what’s happening to her right now. After wiping her eyes on her sleeve, Rachel regains composure.
Unicorn girl is standing with one hand pressed against the glass and a wad of tissue in the other. She wears a genuine look of distress on her face. “So, so sorry. Do you need a Kleenex?”
“No, I’ll be f–”
“I don’t know why I said that. I’m really sorry.”
“Please don’t tell the doctors or RAs.” The girl is clearly about to lose it. “If I lose another job, my boyfriend is gonna kill me. We have a kid.”
Rachel straightens up her face with ease. After wiping her eyes a few more times, she flutters her eyelids. “Look. See. I’m all better.” She’s still concerned about why it happened in the first place.
“You sure you’re not gonna tell anybody?”
“Tell ’em what?” Rachel manages a weak smile.
Unicorn girl appears to smile behind her mask. “Uh… I can, like, help with your bag. Get settled in and stuff?”
“It’s OK. I’ll be fine. Thanks for offering, though.” Rachel is pretty sure the girl is not supposed to have any direct contact with the patients but doesn’t comment on it. “Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful… um… What’s your name?”
She appears more at ease as she sits down. “Hanna. It’s Hannigan, but everyone calls me Hanna.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you, Hanna.”
As Rachel walks toward the door, she hears the click of the magnetic lock. After everything that’s happened, this is the first time she has thought seriously about the grotesque thing she might become. Most of her thoughts were about the effects on her friends and family. But those have been frequently overshadowed by scrutiny of random discomforts and ailments as possible symptoms.
So far, very little is known about how the infected change over time. Many people commit suicide or are killed by others before the disease has had a chance to fully progress. Some have criticized the quarantine facilities as nothing but labs designed to watch people suffer as the infection runs its course. Even if this was true, Rachel couldn’t imagine remaining in society and gradually losing control of her own actions until she no longer has any self-awareness.
The thought of hurting an innocent person is incomprehensible. The thought of hurting her family is unforgivable.