Updated: Apr 17
River Talbot stood on the corner of Fulton Street and Main at 2:30 in the afternoon, October 10, 2021. She pretended to play with her mobile phone. Whether her act convinced anyone, she didn’t know and didn’t care. She wanted only to blend in and not be noticed on the busy street.
Busy. She made a cynical laughing sound to herself. This wasn’t busy. When she used to walk this street to her position at the city’s Chamber of Commerce, she couldn’t help but zig and zag and weave to miss people on the streets. Now . . . she’d heard numbers, something like the streets conveyed 20% of the pedestrians and shoppers it used to. Busy had been redefined. Like everything.
She checked her watch. He was late. Crap. What if she’d been scammed? She’d been told to trust “Brian,” so she’d Pay Palled him the $1000 he demanded. Yes, demanded was the word. In the first contact she made with him through the subtext app and the untraceable beater phone she’d acquired, he’d been charming enough. She only texted him because of what Tonya said, and then Kenneth backed Tonya up. The product was good, they said. It worked for both of them. They’d been able to find work. They’d passed the employers blood test and proved they were immune.
On her second text with Brian, he told her it would be $1000. Who had $1000 now? Well, plenty of people did, a few she knew, but not her. Those who had saved before March a year ago and then withdrawn their money, slowly, from the banks, so as not to raise suspicions. Those who had not been sick when the feds were fumbling with what to do, saying it would soon be over and there would be a vaccine before it got bad again.
She sighed. No reason to think about how things were back then, when she had a great job two years out of college and her own apartment and car payments on a late model Accord. The apartment went first when she was cut to part-time. Then the health insurance, but that didn’t matter now anyway. You took the health care you were given from the state governments. Then no hours at her job at all, and only some money freelancing with her graphic design skills and trying to learn coding over YouTube.
Even when the extreme quarantining lifted, people stayed hunkered down. Young people went out for drinks and parties, those who had survived it and earned the antibodies through their suffering or those who believed themselves invincible.
Why had she never gotten sick? How had all the tests registered negative, those twice-yearly breathalyzers that allegedly showed the presence of the virus within ten seconds, faster than a pregnancy or UTI test?
Why was she so darn healthy?
Because she was white. Because she was young, and female and middle class and well fed all her life, and had never been pregnant and had Type O blood and many other theoretical reasons the charts hypothesized. And she lived alone and followed all the rules at the beginning, and still did. She fit all the right categories.
And now, she fell into the worst. Unemployable.
Only survivors could go out freely: whether they had been mildly ill or had been placed on a ventilator or presumably at death’s door, only they could get jobs. Only the once sick could attend a movie or concert.
She was not deemed a survivor. She and millions of others. In this reversed world, the healthiest were the disadvantaged. They had not proven they could carry the invader and make it through alive.
“Brian” offered hope. In their second texting conversation, he gave his pitch.
Hello, River. Are you a girl River or a Boy River?
She thought about lying. He’d treat her differently if he believed her to be male, but he’d eventually find out anyway, Tonya said, because they’d have to meet for the drop off.
OK. I know I’m not supposed to ask a woman this
But what’s your age and weight?
Seriously? What is this, Tinder? She paused. He picked up on the reluctance.
Sorry. It’s for the dosage.
Again, she wanted to fudge, but that would be deadly. She didn’t how this whole thing worked—was it a pill, a liquid? Tonya was sketchy on that—but she’d better be honest.
26. 140, give or take.
That weight was at least semi-acceptable for her 5’7” height. She’d gained twenty pounds back at the beginning—no gym, too much sitting around, too much depression, too many Dove Bars. But she at least could find gratification in getting her weight down, largely because they’d had to go to two meals a day at her parents house, where she now lived.
He paused this time. She wondered what he was doing. Why was her heart pounding over a text?
You’ll need a capsule with 20 mgs.
What exactly does this do?
It synthetically activates parts of your brain and
Tricks you body into producing chemicals in your
Blood that will fool the antibodies test.
Capsules. She’d rather take a shot. She hated swallowing pills. Get over it, River.
That will be $1000.
Tonya had said she paid $800, but that was a while back. Who had $1000? Maybe she could bargain. He might get angry about it.
I can pay $800.
No. $1000 firm.
She couldn’t answer yet. Her most valuable possession was the set of real pearls her great grandmother had left her, and second, that first edition of Faulkner’s Sound and Fury Aunt Polly had given her and River had never read. At the time, college graduation, her only thought was, “Aunt Polly doesn’t get it.” Polly would want to see it again some time. But that was then. This was now. She’d have to pawn them.
Stop wasting my time.
Creep. She understood the meaning of extortion now. But he could charge more if people had it.
OK. When do I get it?
I’ll get back to you.
Yeah, but when?
48 hours or so. Out.
He texted back in 47 hours and 30 minutes, saying to text him a face shot for ID and to send the money to a PayPal account within 60 minutes. She balked. This could be a trap. But she complied. She waited 55 minutes before snapping a selfie and logging into the PayPal account. She felt sick to her stomach. At least she could make minimum payments on her credit card. The freelancing hadn’t dried up entirely yet. She wasn’t at the point of driving a LUBER.
She received one last text to say he’d received the money and where to meet and when. He did not respond to her replies. Drug dealers weren’t known for etiquette.
She’d told no one, not even Tonya, about the “buy.” If she were going to commit a crime, she’d keep it to herself. So here she stood, she thought. She checked her watch again. He was ten minutes late. Drug dealers weren’t known for punctuality either, she guessed.
She felt a presence behind her. It was odd to feel a stranger so near. Her phone buzzed.
She didn’t look around.
It’s at a PO Box two blocks away on Nunnelly Street. The number is 410. The electronic
pincode is 91214. Get it now.
She did not respond and only looked down the street toward the post office.
The blue capsule sat before her on the work desk she used in the basement of her parents’ house. A tumbler of water sat there too. She stared. Why was she hesitating? She’d picked up the pill two hours before. Man, she hated pills, and this was a big one. She needed to loosen her throat. She stretched her neck, yawned, hoping to relax her throat muscles. Do it.
She popped the capsule in her mouth, closed her eyes, guzzled he water, and made a face.
Tonya claimed there were no side effects. Kenneth said he felt a little tired for a day or so. Google didn’t help. The big tech companies had agreed to scrub all access to “false remedies” in the summer of 2020. She tried to keep it out of her mind and work on her one freelance job in the pipeline: a website for a new company that sold robotic dogs and cats for companionship. Real pets had become impossible to find and even what passed for shelter mutts before now cost in the thousands.
Tonya and Kenneth were full of it. In two days her fever spiked—for the afternoon. By 5:00 her temp sank to 97.9, the new average. She took a nap. The episode was over and she felt normal.
Two weeks later she interviewed for a job in community relations with the United Way in a city an hour away. If she got it, she’d commute for a while, but the driving would be worth being employed.
“We like your credentials, and that you’ve tried to keep working since the . . . start,” Hank Blevins, the director of staffing said. “But you’ve only freelanced for 18 months. Any reason?” He looked at her over his reading glasses.
“My parents wanted me to come home and take care of them. They’ve had a lot of problems. Never really recovered,” she lied.
“You know we have to test you. It’s legal and on our website; it was in the job posting. . .”
“Yes, I know, no problem. I had it in April 2020. Not as bad as some people, but I was out of commission for ten days. Awful.”
“No problem since?” He took off his glasses and looked straight at her.
“No, I’ve felt really well for months,” she said, but wanted to add, “Except for the weight gain, the depression, the grief over losing both sets of grandparents and my mentor from college, the bottoming out of most of my bank account and credit score, and the mounting debt.”
Instead she smiled and continued. “The testing will be fine. I’m in good shape.”
She was sent to a former kitchenette disguised as a lab. A grinning middle-aged woman took a blood sample, following all the precautions.
“Do you work here?” River said.
“Oh, no. I travel place to place, to do these tests. Good job for me.”
“How long . . .?”
“It’s like a hemoglobin test. Pretty quick.”
River found herself holding her breath. If “Brian” had scammed her, she’d be in major trouble for lying in the interview about being a survivor. But what would have explained the afternoon of fever?
Beep. “It’s positive. You’re good. Lots of antibodies. You must have had a bad case with it.”
“Uh, yeah. Miserable.”
River loved her new job. She didn’t care that the drive was long and the hours extended and the CEO took advantage of her youth and open schedule. She was employed. She had a paycheck. She bought back the pearls and the Faulkner with her first two paychecks. Mom and Dad treated her like an adult again but didn’t pressure her to move out, not yet.
She’d been so busy that she’d neglected friends for months.
“Hey, Tonya,” she said after she heard the pickup.
“Who is this?”
“River, River Talbot. Of course.” How could Tonya not have seen her name on the Caller ID? “Who did you think it was?”
“I don’t know a River.”
“What are you talking about? Stop messing with me, Tonya. We graduated together eight years ago from Banksley High. We were in band together. You’re one of my best friends.
“How many Rivers do you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“So, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean, how’s life? How’s Hunter, your job?”
“Oh. I don’t think I see him anymore.”
“What, you broke up?”
“I guess. Who did you say this was?”
“Tonya, have you been drinking?”
“No. I . . . sorry, I’m hanging up.”
A buzz confirmed the end of the call. She found Kenneth on her contacts and called.
“Who is this?”
“Oh. I think I know you. Do you . . . have brown hair?”
“Well, yeah. What are you talking about?”
“I’m having some memory problems.”
“You sound like Tonya. I just called her and she sounded like she was on something.”
“Oh. Listen. I’m not much of a talker.”
“Kenneth, you are the world’s biggest extrovert. We have to tell you to stop talking! What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I just . . . .I can’t talk. Bye.”
He ended the call as abruptly as Tonya had. She found the beater phone and texted the number catalogued as Brian.
Hey. What is going on? My two friends
Who took that same pill you gave me have
Lost their minds. Reply, now!
She set the phone down, waiting for a response.
She checked her watch. Three minutes had passed, since . . .
Why was she sitting there staring at her phone? What was it she was waiting for?