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Here, There, and Everywhere
Why bother washing your hands when the silver sink handles are dirty? When the towel dispenser has been touched by countless hands with countless mutant strains of virus? When the door handle out of the bathroom is undoubtedly coated with an invisible poison? Sometimes, the girl wonders about that. She wonders as she looks in the mirror and sees two blue-gray eyes that appear sunken under the oppressive fluorescent lights in the bathroom.
She wonders, but yet, she always washes her hands anyway, before popping open the bathroom door with an elbow or a too-long-but-also-the-perfect-length coat sleeve. She knows that her worries don't change the way she sees the world, but the way she touches it. This is a war where the enemy is constantly changing shape. It is a war against sickness, and against her own mind. It is not a war, but it can be every bit as fatal.
The girl sits next to her sister on the wooden bench at school, waiting for a periwinkle blue Subaru Forrester to arrive and whisk them away, out of school and all its fluorescent darkness, and to take them home. Winter is coming, with all its soft lights and warm nights and cups of cocoa. It’s also flu season, something which is constantly at the back of the girl’s mind as she tries to go about her day. The entire world is about to rain, and the corners of the rooms are still damp from when water came down from the clouds in buckets yesterday and the day before that. It feels like the eternal beginning of a cold.
“What are you writing about for your social studies final?” she hears herself ask.
“I don’t know yet.” Her sister grunts in response.
“You never know,” the girl complains. She unzips her bulky turquoise backpack, almost without thinking, and surveys its contents: latex gloves - a soothing shade of medical blue, band-aids, hand sanitizer, Neosporin, a face mask. These items weigh only about 1.3 pounds together, but they also weigh a ton. Slathering on hand sanitizer is a mindless exercise, as automatic as eating, as spooning tasteless mush into one’s mouth and chewing and swallowing it.
“You’re so paranoid,” comments the sister.
“Well, how else am I supposed to be?” Before the sister can respond, the periwinkle blue Subaru Forrester arrives to take them away.
Spanish class the next day is a symphony of sick sounds, and there is a thick, sickly yellow cloud of congestion hovering threateningly low over the students. It is thick, like pea soup. Brenden Campbell is hacking up a lung 3 feet to the right and his breath is ragged and strained when he speaks. His cheeks are flushed, and his eyes are glazed over and dull like flickering lightbulbs. Kathryn Thomas showers the whole room with invisible shrapnel when she sneezes. The girl with blue-gray eyes counts every single sneeze. Kathryn Thomas sneezes twice, and then three times a minute later, then 4 times one more minute later. After that, the girl stops counting. They are the enemy, but somehow they are also prisoners of war; they are also victims.
“I am not contagious,” they say. The girl wishes everyone would go home. She doesn’t want to miss anything. She tries so hard not to miss anything that she misses everything. The sick kids watch her lean as far away as the small table will allow, they watch her try to hide her face in her hair. Their eyes darken and harden and their cheeks flush, and they exchange hurt glances. Out of their school bags, they slide thin boxes that glow and chatter, and mutter in to them, talking to invisible officers, microscopic higher-ups, taking wordless orders from the faceless warmongers. They glance up at the girl periodically, with accusatory stares. She feels her spine begin to itch, and their eyes follow her left hand as it chases the itch up and down her back, never catching it. She feels exposed, because she knows they are looking for holes in her defenses: for nostrils and eyes and ears and a mouth and open cuts. They exchange knowing glances and close in on her.
“Don’t look now,” says Brenden Campbell, motioning to her hand. The girl looks down and feels her blood freeze. There is a thin, long cut on the pointer finger of her right hand, dripping blood. She doesn’t stop to think about the true severity of the cut, because all she can see is glaring, painfully bright crimson, all she can see is a gaping hole in her defensive line. She panics. She runs, and the door slams behind her as she is past the classroom, and into the hallway. It is a wave of fear like a tsunami that crashes over her. She thinks of Brenden Campbell and Kathryn Thomas, and she thinks that maybe this is a war she can win if she surrenders, if she stops fighting so hard and lets her guard down for one second, for one single breath. She arrives at the bathroom door, tucked into an alcove in the hallway and bathed in harsh shadows. Surely, deliberately, she grasps the cold, quicksilver door handle with the palm and fingers of her left hand. She grips the handle as tightly as she can and pulls, and enters the bathroom. She clears her throat loudly.
“You better watch this,” she calls out to nobody in particular. She walks into one of the stalls and flushes the toilet, with her fingers and not her foot, and tries not to imagine to bacteria swirling around her, seeping into the thin, long cut on the pointer finger of her right hand and she leaves without washing her hands and she opens the door with her bare hand and she walks back into the Spanish classroom. She doesn’t move, doesn’t even blink as Brenden Campbell and Kathryn Thomas shower the room, and her, with their germs. She can feel the sickness descending on her, can feel a sneeze rising in her throat.
“I won.” Brenden and Kathryn glance at her with looks of confusion, and then look away, absorbed in their textbooks.
The next morning, she wakes up with a burning headache and a dripping nose and a cough so dry that it that rattles bone and it feels better than ever and she can’t stop smiling.
The months pass and she gets healthy and she doesn’t get well, and the symphony of sick sounds becomes a whisper. Flu season turns into allergy season. Brenden Campbell and Kathryn Thomas get healthy like nothing ever happened. Their faces look brighter, as if they had just been introduced to sunlight. In the hallway, conversation is lively.
“Hey, did you see Endgame?”
“Wait, Wait, no spoilers!” Says Jack Monty to Brenden Campbell. He sneezes. The girl with blue-gray eyes gets up silently and goes to wash her hands.