From the author: This story was written during an earlier, and much less dangerous, pandemic. The ideas underlying it are far too relevant. It's based on my personal superstition that if I worry about something it won't happen. That is, of course, ridiculous, but the fact that I know that doesn't keep me from worrying and hoping that worrying will be enough. Stay home if you can, wash your hands, and keep your distance if you must go outside.
“The Mexican government closed all schools in Mexico City until May 6.”
Coral stops in the middle of chopping garlic and stares at the radio. The swine flu outbreak is getting worse. She hasn’t been worrying much about it, instead devoting her concern to the economic collapse (“Experts Warn the Recession Might Last Years”), environmental issues (“Group Sounds Alarm on European Bee Industry”), and her mother’s health (the biopsy was inconclusive).
Is this it, Coral asks herself? Is swine flu the worldwide disaster everyone is always predicting, a pandemic that spreads everywhere, kills millions, destroys families, cities, whole societies? Or is it just a blip, a minor crisis, real and damaging enough for the people who are unlucky enough to catch the flu, perhaps yet an another time when a government will prove incapable of taking care of its citizens as it should, but ultimately just a lot of people getting sick at once?
How much should she worry?
“The virus is a combination of swine, avian and human flu.”
Coral wants to shut off the radio, but doesn’t. It is your duty, she tells herself, to learn as much as you can about this illness. If you’re going to worry about it, worry about it properly. Worrying about the wrong thing doesn’t help.
“New York reports eight people in Queens suffering from swine flu. They had recently traveled to Mexico.”
“You should stop listening to the news,” her friend Aimee tells her. Aimee meditates an hour each day and teaches yoga. She never turns on a radio or reads a paper, hardly spends any time online except to check her email and update her blog on compassion.
Coral would deride Aimee as a stereotype of the New Age, except that Aimee really is happy and at peace. She never seems to get sick, and Coral can imagine Aimee facing her own death with the same equanimity with which she addresses traffic jams and bureaucratic snafus.
But Coral is not Aimee. If she were to stop listening to the news, she would still know that the dreadful things of the world – hurricanes, wars, torture – had not stopped, that people were still suffering, that at any moment something could happen, something she hadn’t worried about enough to prevent, or at least ameliorate. Coral hasn’t stopped any crises, but so far she’s kept things from escalating beyond the point of no return.
“A twenty-three month old child in Texas has died from swine flu.”
Her friend John rubs his hands with glee as he – a doctor, a student of infectious disease – confirms that this might well be the first of the really disastrous pandemics.
“It’s not that deadly yet, but it could still mutate into something much more lethal. My God, think of all the international travel through Mexico City. It will be worldwide in no time.”
John believes that rampant disease (with the help, perhaps, of war) will kill not just millions, but billions over the next century. “It’s the only way we’ll get rid of the excess population,” he says.
“But it could kill us,” Coral says, a little ashamed of her selfishness. But she does not want to be killed by some out-of-control virus. A peaceful death at an advanced age, that’s what she’s always wanted, not to die bleeding from every orifice because she was unlucky enough to sit next to the wrong person on a bus.
John shrugs. In his angry way, he is as calm in the face of disaster as Aimee. “We have brought this on ourselves; we must accept it.”
Coral cannot argue with that. No question that there are too many people, that Earth is straining at the seams, that overpopulation is at the heart of the climate crisis. Probably she should listen to John and stop worrying, let the pandemics come and take whomever they please. Horrible as it sounds, it might be the only real solution.
But the thought of billions dying randomly and prematurely haunts her. (The thought that she and people she loves might be among them haunts her.) She can’t help but worry.
“U.S. declares a public health emergency due to swine flu.”
Coral knows she’ll never be able to worry enough. Some things will always slip by her – look at the Asian tsunami in 2004. But she can at least worry about swine flu.
“The danger of a swine flu pandemic has passed, authorities say. But cases of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis are on the rise.”
This story originally appeared in Flashes of Illumination.
When we started Book View Cafe, I posted a flash fiction every week. About half of them were reprints, but the other half were written on deadline. This collection includes all of them.
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