A plague doc performs a retest

Photo by Kuma Kum on Unsplash

Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 35

March 28, 2031

Everything I needed to know for doing my job was summarized for me on my first day in about ten seconds. A white chalk square meant no-go; the diagonal slash of viridian meant the household was clean. Administering the test was easy. The thing that caused me the most angst was the retest. But they didn’t tell us about the retest protocol until the very last day of training. By that point, we were legally required to complete two years of service to the government.

Most of us remember the days of Covid-19. Then Covid-23, which was about five times worse. Covid-27 we thought was going to be awful, but in the end, it was the only novel coronavirus that one could legitimately compare to the flu; people died from it, but nowhere near as bad as its predecessors.

When Covid-30 was discovered earlier this year (after the Brussels consortium showed conclusive proof that the explosion of coronaviruses had a causal connection to climate change), we just sort of all collapsed under the collective fatigue of trying to be positive for so long. It was no longer a coronavirus; it was the plague.

They call us plague-docs; the thousands of us that do this job in each city are the modern-day equivalent of plague doctors. We even wear the medieval bird mask. (Though ours aren’t filled with aromatics. They are full of the best sub-micron filters, air cooling, humidity control, the works!) We go door-to-door, empowered by the government, we enter and administer the test for Covid-30.

One quick nasal swab, then pop it into the electronic analyzer, and poof! Thirty seconds later, we know who is sick and who isn’t.

On our way out of each house, we mark the front door. A white chalk mark means the family is infected, stay away. A splash of green viridian shows the household is healthy (so far!).

It is hard times. We are fighting the deadliest virus of all time. Establishing herd immunity is paramount. Toward completing that goal, we have adopted a rather harsh set of operational guidelines and procedures.

Everyone in the household must be tested together. Almost everyone is usually at home, with martial law, mandatory curfews, food distribution networks; it’s the new norm. Humans! When we venture out, we just make each other sick anymore, it seems.

If any family member required ‘retesting,’ then the whole family had to be retested; it is the only path to herd immunity.

I carry a leather bag with only a handful of items, the electronic testing unit, a sack of disposable collection swabs, disinfectant to wipe down the machine between tests, a thick hunk of white chalk, a plastic bottle of viridian paint, and the retest swabs.

The difference between the two sets of cotton swabs is subtle. We keep the first test swabs in a clear plastic bag; the retest swabs bag is slightly opaque. That tiny difference marks the difference between life and death.

As I said, I hate administering the retest; everyone that worked as a plague doc hates the retest. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Experts cautioned us; we must reach herd immunity by December. If not, it will be too late at that point.

So, in response, the government, with all the characteristic compassion one might expect from a body of conniving politicians, came up with the ‘retest.’

‘ … we just make each other sick anymore, it seems.’

“So is that everyone?” I ask. I thought I remembered there being seven occupants listed for this house.

I just cleared six of them. Everyone tested negative. I breathe easy; I’ve almost finished here.

“Suzy’s playing in the basement, but she’s just six. I reckon she don’t need no test,” an elderly, bent woman, Suzy’s grandmother, says.

“Sorry, folks. That exception was eliminated with Covid-27. I could show you the directive if you need to see it,” I say as I gesture at my tablet computer.

“Ain’t necessary, mister. Ma, call Suzy up. We all passed, and she ain’t bin nowhere we ain’t. Sure she’s fine,” her father, Dwight, says to his wife, Karen.

Karen goes to the kitchen, opens a door, and shouts for Suzy to come upstairs.

A kinetic bundle of energy tumbles into the room. Suzy is an adorable little girl; she is all smiles and laughter and play and joy.

My bird mask captivates Suzy, and she gazes at it as I take a sample from the mucous membrane in her nasal passage.

Pop the swab in the tester. I’m anticipating being back home with my wife and daughter; this is my last stop for the day.

The little blinking red light on the front of the unit isn’t visible to any of the others in the room. The label beneath the status light simply says ‘RE-CALIBRATE.’ The label lies.

Damn! Damn! Damn!

Six people all over the age of thirty and the only one to test positive in the whole damn house is the six-year-old who just stole my heart.

I shove down everything I’m feeling as hard as I can.

“Sorry, folks. The unit is having some technical difficulties. I’m going to need to retest everyone! Yeah! I know! These machines suck, but I promise I’ll be out of your hair in just five more minutes,” I say as genuinely as I can manage.

No one notices as I switch the sack of swabs for those in the slightly opaque plastic bag.

They tell me it doesn’t hurt, but then again, why would they tell the truth?


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