Gray to Black
She didn’t see the fruit beside the bed. Fumbling sleepily for her slippers after a festive Friday night, Laurel put her bare foot on it. It squashed in a cool spurt of juice, dead ripe. The complex fruity aroma, sweet as summer, fumed up into her nose and filled the sunny bedroom. “Ned? Can you eat your damn nectarines and granola in the kitchen?”
Ned leaned out the bathroom door, half his chin white with shaving gel. “Wasn’t me, babe. Maybe the cat.”
“Right. Like Missy can open the fridge.”
Her old tabby sat on the open windowsill by the bed, peering out at the street. Sirens wailed distantly and honking voices blared over loudspeakers. Laurel yawned, pushing back her blonde hair. The wonderful sugary smell made her too sleepy to investigate. Today was laundry day, so she’d remake the bed anyway. She wiped her sticky foot off on the sheet, almost ready to flop back onto the pillow. But the doorbell pealed discordantly.
“You wanna get that, babe?”
Laurel shuffled barefoot and sticky to the door, Missy scampering ahead of her. Coffee, that’s what she needed — her standard three daily cups of java. She pulled open the apartment door and realized she was still sprawled on the unmade bed asleep. This was a scene from a movie! One of her favorites — ET. She recognized the white plastic sheeting that carpeted the hallway and stair, and the dozens of guys in white spacey suits. Down beyond the lobby mailboxes the plastic tunnel thing was attached to the building exit, and she could hear the scary whooshy air pump on the soundtrack.
She smiled. “Which one of you is the cute FBI guy?”
Somebody flung a plastic sheet over Missy. “Roll it, roll it! Okay, into the cage, quick!”
The cat’s howl of fury made Laurel blink awake for a moment. “Hey!”
“Is that the cyst?”
“She’s barefoot! Jesus.”
“It is the cyst! This is going to be bad — get the CDC guy, stat!”
“What’s going on?” Through their thick plastic face plates she could see them staring at her. At her foot. “I’m not really a slob,” she explained. “I was going to wash the sheets anyway.”
What Laurel hated most about quarantine was the way the doors made her ears pop. Negative pressure, they said — her rooms were deliberately lower in pressure than the rest of the isolation ward, so that air rushed in and never out. The idea made her feel choky and claustrophobic. She had demanded a window — there was one in the wall, tightly sealed over, so it wasn’t like she was being outrageous or anything. A month of escalating demands and nasty emails from her sister Jessie had finally got it unblocked, so that she could peer through the treble thickness of reinforced glass and plastic at the sky.
She sat at the window for hours, stroking her belly and watching the autumn wind thresh and pluck at the sad little pine trees near the sea. The sea. The lovely warm water that would cradle her heavy body and wash away the hospital stink of disinfectant.
She had listened to the explanations that first day, but hadn’t understood them very well. Hookworms she had heard about, about how you stepped on them and then they got inside you and crawled up to your stomach — or was that tapeworms? — and lived there. She had explained that it wasn’t worms but a fruit, one of Ned’s nectarines, but she might as well have talked to the wall.
She had caught up with all the coverage on the Internet. They had picked up her sheets with tongs, and pried up the carpet, and taken all the bedroom furniture away. Everyone in the neighborhood — fifty garden apartment blocks worth of people — had been quarantined. Every square inch of wall and brick and floor was sterilized, and still that wasn’t enough. Their own place, 1201 24th Street, had been dismantled brick by brick, stud by stud, and incinerated.
The news shows went crazy about it. Laurel thought it was disgusting, the way they zoomed in on the details of how the ashes were going to be encased in molten glass and stored under a mountain in Nevada. She and Ned had chosen that bedroom set at Ikea! It was weird to remember how happy they had been that day.
She had not asked what had happened to Missy. One look at Ned’s big stupid face that first day, blank with horror under the smear of shaving cream, and she’d known he wasn’t going to be there for her either. She couldn’t imagine now what she’d seen in him. And the way he had exclaimed, “You mean — aliens? Like the ones Sigourney Weaver fought?” The idea of being with Ned now was vaguely stomach-turning — probably morning sickness.
Instead she’d phoned Jessie right away, before they took her cell phone. And her sister had come through. Jessie was the smart one in the family: the one who knew how to build pages and host web forums and marshal public opinion about the rights of living things. She had zoomed in, strafing like a fighter plane, dressed in a navy-blue business skirt suit, waving her lawyer credentials and yelling, “You! Gestapo! We have a Bill of Rights in this country, you know!”
Jessie had gotten her the laptop, and the webcam, and the window, and the other doctors, the ones on her side. More importantly, she had gone to Bloomingdale’s and bought Laurel the most adorable blue striped Donna Karan tankinis, four sets, sizes ten through sixteen, so that everyone could see and share in Laurel’s development.
“I don’t like to think of it as an invasion,” Laurel had announced with pride for the camera. “It’s more like a pregnancy.”