Quantum Quarantine: A Short Story
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CW: domestic abuse
by Maya Prasad
It’s Friday, March 13th at 3:45pm, just minutes after the eighth period bell.
I shuffle down to the basement in building C of Adams High, my bag heavy with textbooks, my anxiety its own formidable weight. As if a supermassive black hole is located in my chest, sucking the whole of the cosmos into one dense point in my heart.
There was supposed to be a biology test last period, but Ms. Rodriguez canceled it.
“All things considered, I don’t think we’re in the right mindset,” she said.
We aren’t. Not with all schools in the state closing for a minimum of six weeks, not with the hopes of a careless spring semester dissolving like sugar in a cappuccino, not with the fate of graduation and college as murky as the puddles that have muddied my boots.
Laughter and chatter swirl around me, my classmates adept at glossing over the unseen menace nipping at our heels, lying in wait on hard surfaces. I wish I could be like them, but I’m cursed with an earnestness that steals into my words like sticky seeds. I lean against my cold metal locker, digging through my purse for my favorite lipstick. A honey gold that glistens against my brown skin, that twinkles with my dark night eyes.
“Adhira.” Limei says my name softly.
“Hey.” I drop the lipstick into the bottomless well of my purse. There’s an odd rattling from the locker at my back, but perhaps that’s just my heart agitating the very air around me.
The high windows lining the hallway filter rainy day light over her delicate face, softening her hot pink eyeliner and jagged bob, imbuing her with an ethereal quality. As if she’s a wisp of a thought that’s about to slip your mind.
Not that she would ever slip from mine.
“I’ll miss you,” she says in that way of hers, where truth and fiction intermingle and combust into irony. I never know what she means.
“So you’re not still…mad?” My words tremble and hiccup.
Her raspberry-glossed lips tighten, but she shakes her head. “What’s the point? You were right. My stepdad is an asshole.”
He really is, but I still shouldn’t have said anything. Limei obviously didn’t want to discuss the kaleidoscope of purple and black painted across her face, her neck, her arms. I’d only seen a glimpse of what lay beneath her makeup because I’d stopped in the bathroom as she touched it up.
“I…I shouldn’t have pushed.” I gulp, swallowing too much sorrowful air. The locker at my back lets out its own hushed breath.
“Yeah, well. Now you know my real life.”
I stare at her, afraid to ask the obvious question. We’re supposed to shelter at home, but what do you do when social distancing means sequestering with him?
“I’ll be fine.” Her tone is hard, maybe even a little dead. “I’ll stay out of the way.”
“Yeah, of course…” My words are not nearly as convincing as hers. That invasive earnestness again.
Her eyes flash, daring me to say more. She froze me out the last two weeks, and I can’t let that happen again. Even if I have to stay quiet. Even if it kills me inside.
“You can check up on me, okay?” she says. “FaceTime.”
I can’t believe she actually relented. I can’t believe she’ll let me care about her. “Of course! Every day.”
Why did I have to add that last part? It’ll scare her away.
“Okay?” My heart is quivers and quakes.
“Yeah. Talk to you later.”
Then Limei is striding away, the stuffed kitty keychain swinging from her indigo backpack, wispy fragments of her words twisting like smoke until they disappear. I should race after her, tell her to run away with me, come up with some fabulous plan to keep her safe even as a pandemic rages.
When I open my locker, there’s a black hole inside plucking papers and books into a great unknowable void. Not metaphorically—an actual black hole, the kind at the center of galaxies, the kind that decimates fire-breathing stars and any other unlucky matter wandering too close. How it came to be there is unimportant, as unimportant as how the virus came to be. It is there—indelible, unavoidable. Inevitable.
I’m unwary matter caught in the grip of the black hole, driven past the event horizon, past the point from which light can escape. It tears me apart, shredding me into slithers of curved spacetime. The course of my life is no longer linear, but splintering into possibilities…
It’s Saturday, August 29th at 10:40am. Nearly six months have passed since I was last tramping over the dewy grass in front of Adams High. The world has twisted and reshaped itself, as volatile matter does. Quaking with infection statistics and field hospitals and a deadly familiar dry cough. Not enough testing and layoffs and stimulus checks and a second wave of infections. Furious protests and teargas and pain in the wake of murdered Black citizens.
It’s been quite a summer.
My fellow students stream eagerly around the school they’d once despised on principle. Now being allowed to return is a victory; those of us who haven’t left for faraway colleges will finally have our caps and gowns and diplomas. Outdoors, with masks and social distancing and hand sanitizer, of course.
As I survey the football field, the sun bakes into my skin. Usually, I’d be darker, toasted and glistening, by the end of August. That hasn’t quite happened. Still, there was one weekend in early July where my siblings and I hiked an empty trail and found an empty beach and got the chance to splash in the heat. It was when I’d felt the most like myself.
I shouldn’t complain, though. So many people lost so much more. And we are here, back at school, back at the place where Limei asked me to call her every day.
Back where she first decided to let me in.
She’s leaning against a tree, her black gown flapping around her, the cap’s tassel dangling with silver strands. Her sharp bob isn’t as sharp as it once had been, her face a little rounder, her signature hot pink eyeliner eschewed for a drizzle of dark lilac that brings planets orbiting within her irises.
“You called. Every day.” As always, her voice is lilting with notes of irony and nonchalance, the darkness of the edges of an expanding universe.
“Yeah.” I’m an overprivileged jerk because what we endured was nothing the same.
“Even when you were sick,” she adds.
Dad had symptoms first, then Mom. They say young people recover faster but my parents proved resilient against it, functioning even as my three siblings were lain to waste for nearly a month. We conjectured that their antibodies had been worked to efficiency in their India days, while ours have softened in this country. That’s obviously not scientific, but it’s true that I didn’t leave my bed from mid-July to mid-August. Eventually, though, I recovered.
And I called Limei. Every day.
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” I finally say, bleeding with sticky earnestness, hoping she’ll forgive it.
“Me too, Adhira.” The darkness of an ever expanding universe swells. Though she didn’t bother to hide her bruises these past months on FaceTime, there is no evidence of them now. The makeup is back. She gestures to the field where chairs have been spread out, six feet apart. “Ready?”
I fiddle with my gown. “Yeah, sure.”
She adjusts my cap, then pulls down her mask momentarily to press a (non-social-distanced) kiss against my cheek, her lips like spring blossoms cascading across a breeze. If sickness comes again tomorrow, I know I’ll be locked in a fever dream of raspberry gloss.
It’s Saturday, August 29th at 10:40am. Nearly six months have passed since I was last tramping over the dewy grass in front of Adams High. The world has twisted and reshaped itself, as volatile matter does. The sun peeks out from the clouds, glimmering in the windows of the deserted school. No one even walks their dogs anymore, not with the new, super aggressive strain that has sent us scurrying back into isolation.
So much for college. It’s not happening, even virtually, at least not for me. We’re broke. Instead, I do what I can to help Dad. I’m now an “essential worker.” In other words, I bag groceries.
But I hadn’t packed the heavy paper bags currently in my arms, and they’re awkward and overfilled. With an ominous rip, several oranges drop according to Newton’s laws and roll along the cracked sidewalk to find a resting place under a parked car. A bejeweled fuchsia sneaker stops the next one, though three others are lost.
Limei blinks at me, a specter, a wisp, the brink of a premonition. Though she’s real enough to chase down the remaining oranges that ricochet off one another like frenzied electrons searching for stability.
I set down my bags and we toss the attempted escapees in with the eggs and cheese and bread, while managing to stay six feet apart from each other.
“You said you’d call every day.” Her voice is muffled by the ugly plaid patterned scarf she’s wearing. It hides her lilac lips and obscures the lilting irony in her voice.
Mom is gone, Mom is gone, Mom is gone…
I haven’t told her, haven’t said it out loud. I didn’t speak at the immediate-family-only funeral rites, a surreal daze of modified Hindu traditions. Even now, I try to say the words, but they’re overpowered by a cacophony of deadly coughing and fever dreams and last breaths and unseeing eyes. Things best forgotten that come creeping back in the night.
My solemn earnestness not withstanding, I did fail Limei. I wanted to call, but something stopped me each time I picked up the phone.
“It’s okay,” she says, her masked voice in a quantum state of both detached and disappointed. “My mom finally kicked him out. I’m okay.”
Relief explodes in my veins, superseding the numbness. She did fine without me. My fingers tremble, my knees can’t hold me. Limei picks up the grocery bags, and her sparkling sneakers pick their way over mud and trash, commanding the center of the road as if it is hers alone. Which, for the moment it is.
“Adhira.” She says my name as if it’s everything at once: a ballad, a tender piece of fruit, a star hung in the sky. “You coming?”
My mind is an aching mess, my body a heavy weightless thing. But I follow.
It’s Saturday, August 29th at 10:40am. Nearly six months have passed since I was last tramping over the dewy grass in front of Adams High. The world has twisted and reshaped itself, as volatile matter does. I barely give the eerily deserted school a glance as I hurry past, my heartbeat frenzied and ferocious as I jog the last four blocks to the freeway. Tucked into the space beneath the onramp, I find a kid’s tent decorated with brightly colored butterflies.
“Limei?” I call uncertainly, though among all the questions hovering like storm clouds, her presence seems the most certain.
This is where she’d texted she’d be, whether or not I can accept her reality. She unzips the entrance, surfing along a sea of granola bar wrappers and graphic novels. Like me, she has a scarf tied tightly around her face.
“Home sweet ho—” A terrible, familiar cough interrupts her.
I hesitate under the grim freeway shadows. My grandparents are stranded at our house, both well over seventy. They were visiting just before things started heating up. Six months later, and it still isn’t safe for them to fly home. Not until there’s a vaccine.
My parents have been extra vigilant, thoroughly washing every banana that we bring home. Exposing myself is the same as exposing them. But I can’t abandon Limei here, either. She spent the night in a tent under the freeway.
“What did he do?” I ask, though the anxiety pressing at my chest already knows the answer.
Limei shrugs. “Mom started using too. Without her to run interference…”
A song of silence screams between us, a violent melody.
“I have some money,” I say. It was supposed to be for college, yet the idea of tomorrow and beyond is a nebulous prospect. Best left forgotten like an old birthday card.
“Keep it. I’m fine.” Her voice, as always, intermingles truth and fiction with frustrating chemistry, irony filming along the sides of an unseen tube.
“You can’t do this alone. Not with everything the way it is.” I don’t regret the earnestness bleeding onto the dirt now. It’s the only thing I have that might seep through her prickle-berry bush barriers.
When she doesn’t answer, I start running as if a life depends on it. (It does.) I dash to the nearest ATM but it rejects my first attempt to empty my bank account. There’s a daily limit, of course. I punch a new number, just $200. It spits out the cash, which I stuff into my pocket before rubbing hand sanitizer over my chapped hands.
When I return, her tent’s gone, vanished like a dying universe. Footprints in the gravel offer a clue, and I spot her sheltered at a bus stop across the street, frantically stuffing her tent into her backpack. The dark blue of public transit lumbers toward her. The whoosh of the doors is a whistle, a warning, a wake. My heart thrums as I race around it.
Her black bob and indigo backpack bounce up the mid-bus entrance. The few souls onboard stake their spaces with steely silver eyes and masked faces. I tiptoe past their invisible walls and invisible germs and meet Limei in the last row.
“I can’t go home now,” I tell her. “I’m probably infected just by standing here.”
“Okay.” Shaggy bangs fall across her starlit eye, her pupils darker than the expanding universe in which we’re suddenly, irreversibly together.
And we are very much suddenly, irreversibly together.
It’s Saturday, August 29th at 10:40am. Nearly six months have passed since I was last tramping over the dewy grass in front of Adams High. The world has twisted and reshaped itself, as volatile matter does. A tent hospital has been set up on the football field, and I’m carrying a box full of donations for the healthcare workers: hand sanitizers, masks, clean towel strips, snacks, water bottles.
The faint notes of upbeat pop music, a time-traveling oldie, emanate from inside the tent. A nurse opens the doorflap, humming along.
“Thank you, my dear.”
She walks the box over to a nearby table, where volunteers in haphazardly constructed protective gear cheerfully disinfect the materials that will go within. Limei works among them. She waves to me with gloved hands, her hot pink eyeliner visible through goggles. I wave back, keeping my distance. It takes everything I have in me to walk away, to not plant a kiss on her masked lips.
During the day, I’m able to keep moving, keep busy. Poetry and puppy snuggles and pieces of pie. Dishes and homework and helping my little brother with his summer school assignments. But at night I lie in bed, my lungs flooded with existential dread, a pessimistic pneumonia. I was supposed to leave for college this coming week, but that was a dream from another lifetime. This is life, and sometimes it hurts so much to think of what we’ve lost that I can’t breathe. A gravity well sucks the weight of a burning world into my chest.
At 10pm, my phone buzzes. Limei’s uncanny intuition for when I need her has proved as important as antibody tests and cheek swabs.
“You okay?” she asks, her voice as always intermingling truth and fiction, combusting with irony. There are new compounds in the ether as well. Relief, purpose. Since her mom kicked out her stepdad, she’s become a different kind of strong.
“What do you have for me?” I ask.
She’s always got the latest in hilarious memes. Today’s is a disgruntled pug who is absolutely DONE with her unwashed, ungroomed hooman’s taste in reality TV. The look of unquestionable superiority is palpable on the pup’s adorable mug.
“You’re the best,” I tell Limei.
“I know.” She blows me a kiss with raspberry-glossed lips, soft as sunshine, lush like lilacs.
If I focus on her purring laugh, the gravity well in my chest feels slightly more like a tiny Earth than a supermassive black hole. And maybe, maybe, maybe I’ll make it through one more night and one more day.
TIMELINES [N, Infinity]
The endless expanse of the cosmos presses into my chest, a universe in a universe of many universes. I am everywhere and everytime at once, I am ubiquitous, I am torn and reborn.
There are timelines where we don’t exist, timelines where the virus doesn’t exist, timelines where the dominant species on our planet evolved from lobsters and crayfish.
Those are not the ones I can see.
For me, there is always a pandemic, swelling like a red star until it’s about to burst. There is always an entire swirling galaxy of fear and death and hardship. There is always dark matter and unbearable uncertainty and surprising heroism and plenty of farcical ineptitude as well. There is always truth and always fiction, always a thin film of irony along the unseen sides.
Sometimes I save Limei, sometimes she saves me. Sometimes we save each other.
Somewhere within the expanding darkness of the universe, whether we are human or star particles, there is always us.