From the author: When Kiara gets sick in the middle of a pandemic, she has to search beyond the failed US healthcare system for a chance at survival.
August in the city brings the sticky heat. The buildings soak it up and hold it, baking everybody. My window unit died last week. Nights are miserable with only a fan. Last night, I opened the window, praying for a breeze. No luck. Instead, I get an 8 a.m. wake up from the truck delivering to the liquor store. Bottles clanging, men yelling. I can’t get a break.
I roll over, yawn. Why am I shivering?
Goosebumps on my arms, my legs prickling with the dark stubble of a few days' growth. It's gotta be 80 degrees in here and I’m freezing. I grope around for my phone, find it under the pillow, and tap my symptoms into Google.
I hope for a cold, maybe the flu. Exhaustion would work, too. No. I scroll through the results: Tremarella.
You don't know when you're first infected with Tremarella. Stage one lasts a week: the virus works its way through your body, sets up shop, and prepares for the havoc to follow. Maybe you're a little tired or extra thirsty. Hard to tell after you worked two shifts in a day and feel like shit anyway.
Stage two starts with shivering. Chills at first, a nippy breeze creeping up your back. Then all the time. After a week or two, stage three leaves you bedridden, delirious, and fading away. People only last a few days at stage three.
I'm shuddering, bones shaking outta my body. I get up and pull on the warmest clothes I can find in my room—three sweaters, plus fleece tights under my jeans. The hall closet has a stack of blankets, so I build a mound. After I tighten the silk scarf around my braids, I climb back in bed. I lie still; the extra weight is cozy. But the faded orange quilt on top vibrates from my shivers.
I call off work, tell them I'm hungover and puking. The shift-lead threatens a demerit on my employee record. I take it. Not because I'm worried about infecting people like they warn in the PSAs. No, if they suspect I have the Trema, they'll put me on unpaid leave and won't let me back in the store until I bring certified test results from a doctor showing I'm treated and cured.
I haven't been to a doctor since I was eight, before the last charity clinic in Chicago closed. It takes two month's pay for the test and treatment. And if you don't have a clinic membership, they want cash up front. My wallet's empty. If I walked into a doctor's office right now without cash, they'd look at me and call the quarantine vans. No one comes back from quarantine.
Mom checks in before work. She stands in the doorway in her heels and the low-cut green shirt she swears gets her the good tips. "Kiara, time to get up." She pauses, folding her arms in front of her. "Are you sick?"
"It's nothing." I sink under the covers so she can only see my face. "Just a cold. I'm tired."
The arch of her eyebrow says she doesn't believe me. Hopefully, she thinks I'm hungover. "There's cereal and milk on the table. I'll cut an orange. Vitamin C will cure anything." Mom leaves the door open.
I push the blankets away but my hands are shaking like I'm possessed. What is this?
Back to Google.
Tremarella isn't the easiest disease to catch. You can't breathe it. You get it from spit, blood, that stuff, but after several minutes outside the body, the virus dies. Unless someone sneezes directly into your mouth or you're hooking up with strangers, you're safe. But nobody sneezed in my mouth and I haven't gotten laid in months. None of my friends have been carted off to quarantine either.
But that sick guy… I ride the train every day: to work, to the store, to the bar on Morse with the cheap beer specials. The paranoid wear masks and gloves on the train—disposable non-latex gloves that smell like talcum powder and privilege. Weird shit happens on the L. I live my life and don't worry.
This guy, he was getting off when I got on. The stench of his B.O. kept me back. He was shaking and sniffling, grasping a pole to keep steady. No open seats on the train, I grabbed the pole too. Did I rub my eyes? Cough and touch my mouth? Scratch my nose?
Could it be that simple?
Once Mom leaves for work, I creep to the kitchen. I put the milk in the fridge and take the box of Sugar-Os and the orange. Back in my room, I close the doors and windows. Heat builds up like an oven. I'm still shivering.
I find a video, some guy sitting on his bed touting the Surefire Home Test for Tremarella. He talks for twenty minutes, but I get the gist.
He wants me to make a drink, so I go to the kitchen. I wobble on a chair and dig through the cabinets. Apple cider vinegar, sugar, cayenne pepper, grape juice, baking soda. No cayenne pepper, so I add a dash of hot sauce.
I pinch my nose and gag it down. Next, you wait until you piss it out. If it's green or blue, you're sick.
I pace from the bedroom to the toilet and back. Each step shakes my body. This is ridiculous.
I collapse on the bed and cry into the musty quilt.
Fuck. Twenty-one is too young to die. I've gotta see a doctor.
I text my cousin Mike. He's more like a brother. His mom died when he was ten and my dad died when I was thirteen. We grew up together, shuffling between each other's apartment, based on which parent was working. Mike's a good guy, but he's never had a straight job in his life. I tell him I need cash and want to pawn some stuff, ask if he knows someone with a good price. Mike asks me how much. I text him the cost for the doctor's appointment.
He sends a video request. I deny it—can't let him see me like this. It pops up again with a message:
Cant talk that $$$ in txts
His pixelated face appears on my screen, close up like he's inspecting me. His worn Sox cap shadows his dark features so they blur into blackness, but the whites of his eyes are wide with concern.
"What's up?" he asks. "Why you need so much money?"
"I want to sell some stuff."
"You in trouble? I can't see you straight—you're blurry."
My hand is shaking, so I wedge the phone into the pile of blankets. "I'm sick. I think it's the Trema."
Mike's face drops. He watches me for a moment. "Are you sure?"
"Dunno. No fever. No nausea. I'm just quakin' to death."
"Shit." He wipes his hand over his mouth, looking around. "I could get the money, but it takes time. Too much time."
A tear slides down my cheek and I swipe it away. "What do I do? Huh?"
"Look, I know a guy. Doc. He has the treatment at a quarter of the price."
"He's got connections, just doesn't like the system. I can hook you up, but we've gotta pawn your stuff for cash today."
Mike has me take my phone around the room and show him what I've got: a pair of designer heels I scored at the thrift shop, an old tablet, a gold heart necklace from my ex. He tells me what'll sell and has me gather it up in a box.
A couple hours later he's in the hall outside my apartment, wearing basketball shorts and a baggy T, sweat dripping off his forehead. He stands as far back in the hallway as he can without tumbling down the stairs but I can still smell his cologne.
"This'll be enough." He holds out an envelope. We exchange fast, and he steps back, clutching the box with both arms.
I thumb across the bills. He gave me more than my stuff is worth and I want to hug him, but I don't.
"Thanks," I say. "Sorry for the trouble."
"It's nothin'. You get better."
"It's good though? This stuff from your friend?"
"Yeah. Doc's got connections. His stuff's good as any fancy doctor, with a better price. Meet him tonight at 11, the alley behind Suds Wash."
When Mike leaves, my body feels heavy and exhausted. My stomach is a rock. I retreat to the bedroom and my pile of blankets. I try to sleep, but my mind won't stop. What if the drug doesn't work and I die? What if I'm picked up for quarantine before I even get it? What if Mom gets sick? What if I already infected her? And what will she do if I'm gone?
I'm all she has left since Dad died. He had the flu. The flu. We didn't have a clinic membership, and he didn't have paid time off, so he took some cold medicine and went to work at the warehouse. They say he had chest pains and asked his supervisor to take a break. He passed out before he could even clock out. No one called an ambulance. Uncle Trey thinks it's because he was black, but Mom thinks he told them not to—we couldn't afford it. A co-worker drove him to the hospital. He was dead before they brought out the stretcher.
Things were different then—he actually had a chance. That was before the laws changed and gave doctors and hospitals the right to deny service to people who couldn't pay. The clinics put up "Members Only" signs and now the ER scans your credit card before they let you in the door.
Mom blamed herself for years, wished she hadn't nagged him so much about money. I can't tell her I'm sick. She has enough to worry about.
When Mom comes home from work, she peeks her head in to check on me. I pretend to sleep.
Soon the apartment is quiet, the hallway dark, and I assume Mom's in bed. Time to make my move. My sneakiness is useless; Mom is at the kitchen table. She's stripped to an undershirt, sweat glistening on her arms as she leans over her scratched tablet, pecking with her index fingers. I think about going back to my room, but I have to leave.
"What are you doing?" I ask, sitting across from her and wrapping my arms around my sides to keep still.
She looks up for a moment, fingers still moving. "How do you spell it? Two R's?"
I want to play dumb, but there's no point. "How'd you figure it out?"
"Trey called, said Mike said you were sick and looking for money."
No secrets in this family.
Mom returns to the screen. The one bulb left in the ceiling light is enough to make the random gray hairs glitter in her tight, short curls. I lean across the table and read the upside down letters: Application for Low Income Health Treatment Grants.
"Please stop," I say.
"No. We can't go to a clinic, but I'm doing what I can."
I want to grab her hands and stop her but can't risk infection. "The applications are useless. No one reads them."
Mom stands up, scrunching her eyes shut. She's only taller when I'm sitting, making me like a child again. "This is what the fund is for—people that need care and can't afford it. They just take time to process the applications."
"They created it so they could get re-elected—so they didn't have to fix the problems."
Her hands tremble and I worry she has it too, but she's just crying. "We can't do nothing."
"I can't sit around and wait."
I pull the envelope from my pocket and toss it on the table. A few bills peek out the flap.
"I pawned a few things."
She grabs it with both hands, pulling the envelope open and trying to estimate the amount. "Enough for a doctor?"
"No. Not even close."
Mom closes the envelope, pressing it between her palms as if to protect it. "Then what is it for?"
"Mike hooked me up with a guy with connections—"
"No!" Mom drops the envelope on the table and grasps my shoulders.
"It's the only chance. You know that!"
"It's too risky. That stuff you get on the street—it's not real. Poison even. The people who make it don't know what they're doing. They don't care, they just want money."
"Mike says he's good. He doesn't make it—he gets real meds."
"It doesn't matter. Mike says we can trust him."
"You could die." Her fingers dig into my shoulders.
"If I wait for help from the government, I will die!" I pull away, grabbing the envelope and heading for the door.
"I'll be back later!" I shout as the screen slams shut behind me.
Out on the street, the night is humid. I'm warmer with my legs moving. The shaking's not so bad now, but it won't last. My layers of clothing look suspicious and the last thing I need is a cop or concerned citizen calling in and reporting me for quarantine.
The side streets are mostly empty as long as I stay away from the ones near L stops. I head east toward the lake, hustling by rundown residential walk-ups that pack the blocks between the Red Line and the expensive high-rises that line the lake like a fence.
When I hit Sheridan, I go north. This street is more alive and most of the businesses aren't boarded up. On the corner is a tiny takeout joint called Ray's Chicken and Sandwiches. Two Latino guys are standing in the doorway, sipping soda as they wait for their order. I try not to look at them, clutching my arms to stay still. But I can feel their eyes on me, watching me shake. Their conversation stops.
I keep walking.
"What's wrong with you? Are you sick?"
They're both looking at me. The guy behind the counter is leaning on his arms, chomping gum open mouthed as he gawks.
"I'm fine. Long day at work." I pick up the pace.
Past the laundromat, I swing around the corner. I'm a few minutes late and I hope Mike's buddy isn't impatient. If he bounced, I'm screwed. In the darkened alley, a man loiters near the dumpster, like he's considering popping the lid.
"You Doc?" I ask, staying a few feet away.
He turns, narrows his eyes at me. He's a small, stocky white man, wearing knee-length shorts with a long, stained trench coat that reeks like it's never been washed.
"You Mike's cousin?" he asks.
He motions for me to follow him before shuffling deeper into the alley. I'm queasy. Many of Mike's friends are slick, well-groomed, and consider themselves classy even though the work they do is technically criminal. This guy—he could be any random on the street. He could be worse.
A car drives by on the road behind me, headlights illuminating the alley. I hurry to catch up to Doc. He stops with his back against the wall and pulls a long white box from the inside of his jacket. He turns on the light on his phone so I can see it. His hands are grimy, fingernails outlined in dirt.
"Is that the treatment?" I ask.
"This shot will cure your Trema."
"Do you work in the labs where they make it?"
"I'm more in distribution." He grins, a homemade tooth glinting unnaturally under the curl of his lips.
"Where do you get it from? A clinic?"
Doc shrugs. "I know a guy who knows a guy."
I swallow. My mouth is suddenly very dry. "Is it good quality? Is it safe?"
"Oh yeah. Sold one of these to a woman last week. Saw her jogging in the park yesterday."
I want to believe him, but it's like there's rocks banging in my stomach. I glance over my shoulder. I can be around the corner in under thirty seconds and back home in ten minutes.
"I can see you're in a bad way, but I don't got all night." Doc shakes the box in front of me, something rattling inside. "You want?"
"Yeah," I say, but my voice is so quiet I don't think he hears me. I pull out the envelope of cash.
Before I can extend my hand, Doc snatches it from me and presses his box into my palm. He leafs through the money, counting each bill, then folds it up before it disappears into his coat.
"It's one dose. Just stab it in your thigh." He points at my leg.
"How long does it take to work?"
"Should feel somethin' after a couple minutes. You'll be good as new in a few days. Hydrate, rest, et cetera." He waves his hand in a circle. "Any more questions for the pharmacist?"
I shake my head.
Doc bows dramatically, holding out the bottom edges of his jacket like he's spreading a skirt to curtsey. "A pleasure doing business with you." His steps echo as he disappears into the night.
I close my hand around the box, the cardboard giving a little under my grasp. I don't feel relieved.
Another car passes the alley, blue lights flashing. Cops.
I shove the box down the front of my sweater and scurry the other way.
My phone buzzes, but I ignore the call. Hands are shaking again. I ram them in my pockets, the box pinned between my arm and my side as I walk toward the high-rises—less cops on patrol.
After a couple of blocks, I slip into an alley, watching for any sign of movement. No bums sleeping here tonight—not even a rat skitters out as I approach the dumpsters. It's too hot. They're by the lake, hoping for a cool breeze.
Behind the dumpsters is a stack of crates. I re-arrange them into a bench. The rotting garbage stench from the trash makes me heave, but I'm too tired to find somewhere else. As I ease down my phone buzzes. I pull it out, find texts from Mom:
finished the app. 3 days til response.
plz dont take the drug. just wait. ull be fine.
Three days. And then what? A reject email? More paperwork? Three days is a lifetime once you hit stage two. In three days, I could be stage three. I never met anyone who came back from stage three.
Another text from Mom with a link. Some blog against "unlicensed medicine" warning not to take illegal Tremarella treatments.
If the medicine is faulty, it leaves you blind or messes with your brain. In the long run, it doesn't matter because the faulty meds never cure, so you still die on Trema's timeline. In the worst case you die from the treatment: maybe after a few minutes or a few hours. Some even feel better before their hearts stop.
I pull the box out of my sweater, holding it in both hands as I turn it over. Unmarked: no brand name, no instructions. But it's sealed and I have to rip the flap off the box. Inside is a small unlabeled silver cylinder, no bigger than a pen. I pop the cap off with my thumb, revealing a short needle.
One dose. Is it a fifty-fifty chance the meds work? No way to know without taking it.
If Mom's funding comes through and I see a doctor before the third stage, my odds are good. Not 100% but close. But what are the odds that the grant is real—that I even qualify? Why should I trust them to save me now? Dad died under their rules. So did Aunt Cindy. I don't want to die in quarantine.
I unbutton my pants, pushing them down far enough to show the top of my thigh. Clenching the cylinder in my fist, I hold it a couple inches away from my leg. I take a deep breath. My hand shakes. My leg shakes. I plunge the needle into my flesh.
The shot releases with a soft hiss. I toss it away and it clatters out of sight. Lightheaded, I lean back against the bricks and rub my thigh. Deep breaths. The pain fades into a dull throb.
I'm still shivering, but the adrenaline is making it worse. To get a little warmth, I pull up my pants. My phone buzzes in my pocket. Mom again:
I work to calm my hands, grasping the phone in both, struggling to keep my fingers steady as I tap a reply:
heading home now
Once I finish typing my fingers hover over the screen. My shaking arms calm. I'm chilly but my body is almost still.
In the distance a siren wails.
Something sour stirs in my stomach and pain taps the back of my skull. I close my eyes, trying to feel each new sensation in my body, trying to figure what they mean.
My phone buzzes again, but I keep my eyes closed. I need a minute to rest, to see what happens next.
It's like waking up from a nap. Everything around me is quiet. I stretch, feeling out my body. I'm not cold, not hot either, but there's no shivers. I stand up and my vision goes black, so I grab the edge of the dumpster. Too fast.
But shit, am I actually okay?
My phone is buzzing—text after text from Mom. I shove it in my pocket and head for the street. I'll let her bitch at me when I'm home. Then bed. A solid night’s sleep sounds so good. Hah! I'm actually excited about going to work tomorrow.
When I turned the corner a siren whoops behind me. I want to run, but I know not to. They might not be for me.
The car screeches at the curb and two men get out.
"Hey, you!" His flashlight blinds me. "What are you doing?"
"Heading home from a friend's." I shield my eyes with one hand, holding the other out so he can see it's empty.
"Why you dressed like that?" the other shouts. "It's hotter 'en hell."
Fuck. I gotta get away. "It's how I like to dress."
"We got a call about a sick girl." He tilts the light down and I see them. Regular cop uniforms plus masks and gloves.
A van turns the corner, yellow lights flashing. Quarantine.
I turn but the other officer cuts me off, grabs my arm and kicks my leg out from under me.
"No!" I pull but he's stronger, wrenching my arms behind my back. "I'm not sick! I swear to God! I'm not sick!"
I’m pinned to the ground, grit digging into my cheek. The van door opens.
"Don’t worry," the cop hisses in my ear. "They’ll make you all better in quarantine."
Then I’m in the back, door shut behind me. It’s dark and hot, just like an August night should be.
This story originally appeared in the anthology "If This Goes On" from Parvus Press.