The clock beside his bed turned 4:00. The silence invaded the floor and the ceiling. The only sound was that of the rustling wind outside. He was lying in his bed, his eyes firmly shut. He wasn’t asleep. He was desperately trying to deafen out the silence. Two hours had passed.
The silence had infected people’s lives more than the virus. They called it a pandemic, ten years ago, sounding like an exciting plot twist to their lives. Now it had become a reality. Nobody seemed surprised by lockdowns, quarantines and curfews anymore. Initially, nobody paid attention to the silence either. They tried to evade it by keeping themselves busy. But after a while, it got to them. Especially in the early morning hours, the silence haunted them. Thoughts plagued their neural circuitry. Anxiety followed. Then came frustration. Fear. Pain. Depression.
His grandfather had told him, “It’s a disease, like every other disease. You have to treat it. Close your eyes. Pull the brake on those thoughts. Like your mum used to.”
His mom was the calmest person he’d known. She suffered from an autoimmune condition that caused fluid to build up in her lungs and resulted in difficulty breathing. Despite that, she strived to lead a healthy, active life. Every morning, she spent forty minutes on the yoga mat. Her session would end with her sitting in the lotus. Her eyes closed. Sometimes, he’d be up early and run around the house, only to halt abruptly at the peaceful sight of his mother sitting in deep meditation.
He suddenly opened his eyes, struck by the thought of his mother. She passed away ten years ago due to the virus. Her condition had made her more vulnerable than others. He rose up and sat still on the corner of his bed, staring dead ahead, remembering vividly the scene at the hospital as the doctors like space astronauts in full protection suits, took his mom away on a stretcher into the critical care unit. He never saw her again.
A few months after his mother’s death, he found his father hanging from the ceiling. His father had started drinking heavily, trying to cope with everything that was going on at the time in their lives. But he gave up, while his son was eight years old. He was raised by his grandfather since. The virus changed everyone’s lives forever. Society would never be the same.
His flat looked like a minimalistic prison cell that was kept clean to the tiniest speck of dust. There was an alcohol sanitizer next to every single device, on the dining table, and next to the main door. On a shelf of his wardrobe was a stock of many small sanitizers that he’d slip into the pocket of his jacket before heading out of the house. He mopped the flat twice daily and showered three times, each time after coming back to the flat.
Four months had passed since he moved into this flat in the city. The online classes at the university that he started in fall required a high speed internet for the long, elaborate zoom sessions in the morning and evening. Sometimes the classes were even scheduled into the night when professors were in another time zone. He had lived all this while at his grandfather’s place in the outskirts, where he had a small table set up for his online classes from school. He needed a bigger work place now since he turned eighteen and enrolled into a university.
He slowly rolled out of his bed and turned on his phone and the Wi-Fi. He then made a cup of coffee, sterilized his hands and sat down at his desk. Every night before going to sleep, he used to empty his cache and sign out of all online accounts. He especially turned off the internet. The software companies had recently developed an algorithm to track the amount of REM sleep and dreaming patterns of an individual. This information would help model behaviour profiles of an individual that would subsequently influence advertising patterns that the individual encountered online. As he turned on his laptop, repeating the elaborate process of logging in to all the accounts, he was greeted by half a dozen notifications from a software he had installed to specifically block targeted ads.
“The virus is not the only thing we have to immunize ourselves against,” prophesized his grandfather years ago. “They are coming for us. The virus attacks the body, but the body is built to resist it by nature. But the mind is not resistant. We need to be conscious to try and develop it. You have to train your senses to recognize anything that borders on being bait,” said his grandfather with conviction. “They are seeing what we see. They are listening to us. And they will feed us what they want.”
His mom used to joke about his grandfather’s conspiracy theories before, but since the pandemic, people just didn’t know what to believe in anymore. Truth had indeed become stranger than fiction. Every month was unfolding like a thriller TV series. They were no longer surprised by new developments, a new spikes in deaths, or a new law enforcing restrictions. Nothing startled them anymore. The state had taken over and democracy was no longer existent. People’s rights were secondary to global health safety. Every individual was restricted to their two-meter radius bubble, but nobody was entitled to his or her privacy.
Sometimes, he couldn’t resist the baits. He would find himself on his phone scrolling for hours, sitting on the toilet seat. He would only think about it while lying awake in bed. That’s when he become mindful of the digital addiction that had become widespread in society, which most often needed psychiatric treatment. Sitting on the toilet seat between a break from his online classes, he scrolled to video about a new airborne strain. “Researchers claim that the new mutant strain has a lesser mortality rate but can manifest with vision and hearing deficits that last up to 12 weeks. Pharmacological firms are yet again in a race to find a vaccine.” Since the pandemic began, there had been 268 documented mutations and a hundred others that were probably never discovered.
As he flushed the toilet, stood up and elaborately washed his hands and his face, he noticed a small papule over his left shoulder. It was perhaps a mild allergic reaction to the new vaccine he’d been given two days ago. He needed to get a booster after the weekend again. Every six months a new vaccine rolled out for the new mutations that were rising. He was one of the few, who was lucky to have been regularly vaccinated. In the last ten years, he had had about 20 vaccinations already. Millions around the world were still behind on their vaccination schedule. They had probably developed herd immunity, but without a seal in their vaccine passports their movement was severely restricted. A black market had emerged since a few years that was actually responsible for numerous STDs and infections. Unsterilized needles and probably a second-rate flu shot was being sold illegally as a vaccine. People were desperate. The fear of being locked in like an animal was greater than the virulence of a dangerously mutated strain. He sanitized his hands, and decided to get dressed up. He was feeling dizzy and nauseous. He really needed some air.
Escaping the house was a mission. It wasn’t easy. He was required to wear two FFP medical standard masks that were WHO-grade. The only ones that passed the WHO standards were the ones manufactured and sold by one of the pharma giants. An ingenious move that worked out finely for both parties and shareholders. Aside from the two FFP masks, he also needed to wear a face shield indoors in public places. Random stops and checks for temperature were expected, and those who didn’t comply were first subjected to a rapid viral test, and then arrested and sent for a PCR. Even a false positive result could mean ending up in an isolation camp for at least two weeks, sometimes longer.
As he sanitized his hands for the last time before leaving his apartment and picked up his keys, He heard the neighbour in front unlock the door and step outside. He held himself from opening his door yet. The space in the corridor outside flats was less than two metres, and if the CCTV noticed people getting closer, they could get into unnecessary trouble. He listened closely as the neighbour locked the door and walked towards the stairs across the corridor. As the footsteps grew fainter, he finally opened his door and stepped out. He became aware of his neighbour’s profile across the hallway. It was a blonde girl, roughly about his age, with short hair and a trim waistline. She had headphones plugged into her ears and a leather bag over her shoulder. He couldn’t notice her face behind the masks, before she disappeared down the flight of stairs. He didn’t know who she was, and had never spoken to her.
It was quiet outside despite being the middle of a workday. It was bright and humid too, and he perspired behind his masks. He walked with a brisk pace. He wanted to get to the store early, or else the queue would be long and would extend out onto the streets until the bridge, with each person standing two metres from the other. He cut through a couple of blocks and finally reached the street where the store was, only to find out he needed to wait in queue. He shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and made it to the back of the line, heaving a deep breath.
He pulled out his phone for entertainment. The only friends people really had during the days were ‘followers’ on social. They often viewed each other’s stories or videos and responded by emojis. The rush of gaining a new follower had replaced the basic human necessity to socialise. People began communicating even more vigorously over social platforms since the lockdowns were enforced even stricter, but he had grown tired of texting. If he wasn’t actively connecting to his followers through chats, they could easily forget that he existed. Initially people video-called each other a lot often, especially their families, but over time they had just become more insensitive and superficial. Mindful of a compulsive scrolling habit again, he locked his phone and slid it back into his pocket. He stared blankly at his shadow on the ground as the queue moved forward at a painfully slow pace.
Under the bridge he noticed some homeless people. Some of them were lying down, some were drinking. They would often ignore the two meter protocol and the police would arrive and take them away. Asocial behaviour had become the norm in society — an unconscious trend for a decade. Socialising was perceived as an activity that people of lower classes indulged in. The capitalistic universe had plenty of ways to keep the middle-class engaged. Connected to the internet, socially networked, psychologically and physically profiled and idiosyncratically fed his or her share of daily feeds to make him or her feel purposeful. The lockdowns and restrictions had become an opportunistic platform to engage the masses in advertising gluttony and keep them sedated.
“Excuse me, are you still in line?”
He was woken from his deep chain of thought by the person behind him in queue. He had forgotten to move forward for a while.
He finally managed to enter after waiting outside for about 25 minutes. There were two security guards in black inspecting the customers for honing proper protection and checking their temperature before entering. Inside the store, he went about looking for supplies in his face shield like everyone else. They hardly paid attention to each other and moved about like robots with their push-karts, each one two metres from the other. Nobody made any eye contact and just went about mechanically picking their supplies from shelves. As he pushed his kart along one of the aisles, he slowed down to a halt. He found himself lost in thought again. His pulse started to rise sharply. He looked around and no one took any notice. Soon, he started to feel dizzy and short of breath. He was gasping for air behind his masks. His chest was pounding and he could feel his heart palpitating. A high pitched monotone began to ring between his ears, and he slowly lowered himself to the ground. The lights of the store began to dim and his vision started to blur. He heard some voices, but they were unrecognisable and incomprehensible. He noticed a tug on his arm and a blurry profile of an individual in front of him in black. He didn’t remember anything after that.
He slowly opened his eyes and sensed some commotion around him. Personnel in full protective suits, similar to the ones who took his mom away, were walking around. As he regained his cognition and awareness, he noticed a police vehicle in front with two officers. He looked around him and realised he was in the back of an ambulance. A nurse came to him with a syringe and grabbed his arm. As she drew his blood, a paramedic came up to him to take a swab and engage him in the first interaction he had made since long.
“How are you feeling?” “You must have experienced a panic attack. Are you on any medication?”
He shook his head.
“Your vitals look perfectly normal. However, by protocol we had to do a rapid test and it was positive.”
He was alarmed. He pulled out his vaccination passport from his pocket to prove that he was up to date with the latest schedule.
“It could be a false positive, but to confirm, we will need to perform a PCR. Until then, the officers will escort you to the closest isolation camp.”
The camp was erected in the middle of the city but it looked more like a temporary detention facility. The officers escorted him through a series of doors and scanning machines that detected heat signatures. They finally reached a large hall where many people, like the homeless ones he had seen under the bridge, were herded in by the officers. They sometimes used force to separate the individuals who stood closer than two metres. It was noisy. He heard a woman scream as her child was taken away, and she was dragged into one of the units. The units were 5 square metre cubicles. Inside each unit was a small mattress on the floor, and a desk and chair. Each unit had a large window to the hall outside. There were 25 units in a block and 20 blocks spread in the entire camp. It was like a big exhibition, for human beings.
One of the workers took down his details and showed him which unit he was assigned. She said to him, “I see that your PCR test has been registered in the system, which means the lab is running it at the moment. You can wait here until we get your results. If you need something, just push the button over the desk.” As she shut the door behind him, he walked slowly to the chair trying to review the dramatic turn of events that had taken him suddenly. He sat on the chair with a hand holding his head.
He could do nothing other than wait for the door to open with the results of the PCR. He posted a story on his social of the cubicle and himself. The uncertainty was terrifying. He began thinking about the situation that he found himself in. What if the result was indeed positive and he would have to be taken away into another dark place like his mother. As he thought longer, he imagined the state of the people on the other side of the walls. How long had they been in there? What was their fate?
Several hours passed. It was late into the evening. He grew more accustomed to the uncertainty. He had 300 views on his story, but not a single reaction. None of his followers really cared. All he was, was entertainment to them, just as they were to him. Everyone out there in the world was probably hooked on to their own bait, feeding onto their digital dosage. Was there anybody actually alive? Or were they all living dead? Bearing the weight of these thoughts for hours, his eyes were moist. He stared coldly at the wall ahead, and a single tear trickled down his cheek.
The door creaked open, finally.
“Your results are negative.”
“The rapid test must have been a false positive indeed. You’re lucky it arrived quicker than usual. You are free to go. Do look out for any symptoms in the following days, though. And you know how to reach us.”
He spent the next weeks locked up in his flat. He was too traumatised to step outside. A recent article claimed that stepping out of the house was riskier than selling drugs during these times. The airborne strain had reinforced state restrictions anyway, yet again. Back in the isolation unit, he endured a wave of emotion as he reflected upon the fate of society, but here, in his flat, the silenced returned to haunt him. He found himself out of ideas, because it was his comfort zone. He didn’t bother to open social. He had lost interest. He felt more disgusted by the idea of indulging in another scrolling session mindlessly for hours. He couldn’t find the purpose in deliberately inflicting a thumb adductor strain. He paced up and down his flat all day, for days. He hadn’t bothered to clean it anymore. He thought about what made his personality so anal-retentive with these habits. Was it just the paranoia of his grandfather and his conspiracy theories, or was it a genuine hygiene ritual for everyone else too? Was this fucking virus even real?
That night he didn’t sleep. Just like the previous night. He stared apathetically at the ceiling, smothered by the silence. The indifference of the officers and everyone in authority who treated people like sheep disturbed him. The docile nature of individuals to accept everything that they were subjected to disappointed him. The absurdity of the behaviour of his followers on social, and the blank screen with names of his fellow colleagues listening to some pedantic professor on zoom classes disgusted him. The helpless screams of the mother at the camp terrified him. The memories of his mother and father tormented him. He questioned his own existence. He wasn’t looking for answers, however; he just wanted to see the light. It was 4:00 in the morning, but he was getting impatient to see the light. A light, so poignant that it sucked the darkest emotion into it. The light that shone behind the image of his mother sitting in peaceful meditation. The light that would instantly end this darkness that he felt he was truly suffering from. The silence had to be put to an end, through permanent silence.
He opened his main door without bothering to wear any mask. He left the door open and stepped outside. He walked towards the stairs, and climbed up, possessed by a singular thought of that light. As he reached the roof of the building, and swung the door open, he saw the light get brighter. His vision was tunnelled. He walked forwards towards the edge, hardly blinking. There was nothing worth leaving behind. He smelt freedom, unrestricted freedom, unlike what had crippled society in the name of the virus. Inside his head echoed a similar monotone that he heard at the store, but a lower pitch — calmer, less ominous. The noise shut out everything outside of him. In the background, he could hear faint sounds of his mom laughing and calling his name, like she did when he was a child. He walked closer and closer to the edge, looking for her face in the light. As he stepped right at the edge, he felt the breeze over the roof sweep his hair, waiting with open arms to carry him out of his hole. He closed his eyes.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
He was startled by a soothing voice that ended his trance. He suddenly opened his eyes.
“I’ve started coming up here too, since they sacked me at work last week. I realised they don’t lock the roof. It’s the only place where you can get some air these days without a mask.”
The monotone ended abruptly, and he felt his feet on the ground again. He turned around. He saw the blonde, with short hair that almost brushed her shoulders. She lit a cigarette.
“Do you want one too?”
He was lost as he looked into her emerald eyes. He noticed the sharp profile of her nose and her round lips. Her cheeks stretched and contracted into fine dimples as she smiled at him.
“Uh… Do you?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes — Sorry! It’s still quite early,” he replied, pretending to sound casual, as he reached out for a cigarette. She held the lighter for him. “Cheers.”
“Ha, it’s okay. Have you ever seen the city skyline from up here?”
This was a strange feeling. A few minutes ago he was consumed in pursuit of absolution and freedom and an abstract sensation oblivous to everything, and now he seemed to enjoy a weird pleasure in a real social connection which he didn’t remember when he last had. He took a long drag of the cigarette and set his gaze upon the edge he was walking to earlier. It was a different view he had been moving towards altogether. Behind the masks that had been chained to his face, like everyone else’s, he couldn’t remember the last time he breathed such freedom. He noticed the sky painted violet with a tinge of orange at the horizon. He noticed the birds flying south chirping wildly. The clouds floated close, almost kissing the city’s tallest buildings. Far into the horizon, he noticed the hills on the outskirts of the city. Below the hills was the airport. The planes lined up in the sky in the distance waiting to land. The streets carved out geometrically over the city landscape designed to intricate perfection. The lights from the cars on the streets glistened like jewels, along with some apartments in the tall buildings where the people were already awake. He sensed a deep perspective of life that was still beating through this city. It was fighting through the darkness into the morning sun, and as long as it was fighting, there was hope.
“Yes. It is beautiful,” he concurred.
“I’m Sara. What’s your name? Oh, and by the way, you forgot to close your door downstairs! But, don’t worry, I shut it close before coming up here,” she reassured him, with a polite smile.
(Photo by Daryan Shamkhali on Unsplash. Design by Roshan Rao)