Dawn of the Dedicated – I. Rachel


Rachel zips her small carry-on bag after hastily stuffing it with several changes of clothes. Gazing at the black leather shell through reddened, puffy eyes, she’s hardly concerned about having enough outfits to last her entire stay. And packing the bare minimum won’t magically shorten her time. The facility will provide toiletries and scrubs to wear. For certain testing, she’ll likely don a hospital gown with her ass cheeks catching a draft. The bloated bag drops to the floor with a thud.

Rachel stops 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. Once satisfied with her appearance, she revisits her mental checklist. AC adjusted. Window shades closed. Trash emptied. Stove off. Alarm set. Some part of Rachel will still remain in this apartment, awaiting her return as this shell of herself exits.

During the drive, Rachel’s cluttered brain is a jumble of disjointed thoughts. Brain fog–an early symptom. Although many thoughts are fleeting sparks, one flashes like a neon sign. Her brother and his wife will never forgive her for what she did. The shame caused her to leave her two boys behind without so much as a goodbye. The urge to return to that house to place a kiss on each of their foreheads invokes a tingling sensation on her lips.

She startles herself back to lucidity upon realizing she has no memory of driving the past few miles. The SUV swerves between highway lanes in response to her sudden reaction. Thankfully, the only other cars on the road appear as twinkles in the distance.

Driving too long on autopilot can lead to dire consequences. The same goes for what she did to her brother, but she can’t call that autopilot. 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. The disorienting disconnect and willful loss of control were terrifying.

Desolation punctuates the rest of the drive. Since people are 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 possible lawsuits. Rachel worked at a massage parlor, so her job was one of the first to go.

Still on the freeway, she passes a massive field that hosts the annual car show. They’ll have to cancel this year’s event, just as they had the last. Dozens of vehicles surround four bright work lights illuminating a large yellowish tent. The boring minivans and mildly neglected sedans are definitely not 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 the university.

Rachel takes an exit that routes her to the inner loop, an older part of the city’s freeway system. Ka-thump. Ka-thump. The rhythm of her tires on the irregular surface is the percussion accompaniment to her inner music. She’s surprised she managed to drive so long without turning on her music app or the radio. She pushes the power button and tunes into a local news 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 melodic symphony is so soothing that she must be careful of highway hypnosis again.

When she reaches the university campus, it’s every bit as desolate as the highway. Lights dimly illuminate sparse intervals of the streets and fields. 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 and 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 a hint of irritation.

“Huh? Oh, it just gets boring out here at night. We sometimes need to entertain ourselves.”

“Well, 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 much 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 after returning her license.

Rachel kind of wishes he wouldn’t end every other sentence with ma’am. 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.”

The man rushes ahead to open the extra barricade after the tall one enters the booth to raise the gate. The young 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, ‘Goliath’ gives her a nod. She nods back before proceeding down the lonely lane.

Several white tents, identical to the ones she saw on the way there, are set up near the dorms where people can quarantine. 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 four people to sit comfortably and is enclosed by Plexiglas 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 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 lengthy form 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 is comforting about the way it rolled off her tongue. Growing up in the South, Rachel had rarely 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 assembled cubicles, separated by glass rising to the ceiling. She takes a seat and applies one of the masks, which was made for someone with a much larger head. The elastic bands end up on either side 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 ’cause 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 detect 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.”

“Really, it’s–”

“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 patients but doesn’t comment on it. “Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful…um… What’s your name?”

The young woman 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 a click of the magnetic lock. After everything that’s happened, this is the first time she has thought seriously about the grotesque monstrosity she might become. Most of her previous thoughts were about the effects on her friends and family. Her brother is the only one who knows, and he found out the worst way possible. It’s likely that she even infected him. Maybe she won’t tell anyone else until her health worsens. It will be hard to refrain from scrutinizing every random discomfort and ailment as a possible symptom.

So far, very little is known about how the infected change over an extended time. Many people commit suicide or are killed by others before the disease can 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 is 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. Actually hurting her family would be unforgivable.

Copyright 2023, Darrell Winfrey

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