I hold the mask over my mouth and nose, the elastic band worn thin and holding itself together by just a few threads. I pass other masked figures on the street, figures missing the bottom halves of their face, covered by masks identical to mine. The crowd is silent. The masks tend to muffle any sound you attempt to make, so it’s best not to speak at all. I pull the sleeves of my sweater over my gloved hands. Barely any skin is shown anymore. Our philosophy is if nothing is visible, nothing can touch you. Or hurt you.
I step carefully, but with purpose, still not willing to give in like everyone else has. They all cower from any other living being, but I still have the temerity to knock elbows with those passing me. I hear someone cough from a few feet away. A loud, abrasive cough. I whip my head around, abandoning my previous confidence and searching for the cough. Everyone else on the street does the same. I find the person in the crowd with my eyes.
His mask is removed. He bends over in another coughing fit, and the people nearest to him quickly back away, almost breaking into a run just to get as far from him as possible. I can almost see the germs rising out of his mouth and dispersing into the air around him.
Everyone around me is horrified. They all shuffle away down the road, desperate to forget what had happened. But I stay. I watch as several large men step out from a side street, advancing on the sick man. They wear masks too, but theirs are much better quality than anyone else’s. They lead the man away, gently placing their hands on his back to guide him. They wear gloves and suits and hats, their masks covering every part of their face. Not an inch of skin is visible.
I had seen them before, on the news. But never in person. They were supposed to be kind, they were supposed to keep us safe from the sick. But all I see now are a couple of lifeless robots, too dead to even look at the man they are about to… Well who knows what they’re going to do to him. They always manage to leave that part out on the news.
I realize I’m still standing on the sidewalk. I realize I’m the only one still standing on the sidewalk, except for the sick man and the dead men. And I realize that they are walking right towards me.
I demand that my feet move, but they have other ideas. I stay where I am, and they inch closer and closer. The sick man stays oddly calm, apparently accepting his fate, even though I’m sure he has no idea what is coming next.
They are right in front of me now, and I step to the side so they can pass. But that’s all my feet are willing to do at the moment.
The dead men don’t even glance at me, at least I don’t think they do. I can’t see their eyes through the visor of their masks, so I have no way of knowing. The sick man looks at me, though. His eyes are red and bloodshot, his skin a thin, yellowed paper. He coughs again, doubling over from the violence of it. I watch the men surrounding him flinch, but they regain composure instantly.
He is still looking at me. I glance at my watch, using it as an excuse to break our eye contact. I continue to keep my eyes glued to the ground, anywhere but his eyes.
Right as they pass me, I feel a hand wrap around my arm. I gasp and look up to see the sick man right in my face, eyes pleading with me.
“Help me, please, help me. Please,” he basically screams. His eyes are welling with tears, and his nose starts to run. “PLEASE.”
He smells stale and rotten, like he’s already dead and decaying. But no, he’s right in front of me, fingers still clinging to my forearm. I’m frantically trying to pull away, but he won’t let go. The men finally spring to action and rip him off of me. They don’t say anything, just continue down the road to wherever they take people like him.
I still hear the man mumbling and crying as they drag him down the street and into an alley.
I shiver, despite the warmth of the sun beating down on my face. I discover that I had removed my mask in the struggle, but now I slap it back over my mouth. I breathe in and out for a few seconds, trying not to think about the sick man’s face so close to mine, his diseased breath entering my lungs.
My heart begins to beat normally after a while, and I walk down the street in the opposite direction of… you know who. But just as I take my first step, a wave of nausea shoots through my stomach. I swallow reflexively. I force the bile rising to my throat back now and try to take another step.
The nausea comes back even more intensely, this time accompanied by a pain in my head. The world goes fuzzy, little colored balls of light floating around in my line of vision. I feel lighter than air, yet at the same time I feel so heavy I sink to my knees and smash my head on the ground. A shudder wracks my body and my mind wanders far away, somewhere I’ve never been before.
I desperately try to stay awake, but it keeps getting harder and harder by the second. More dots appear in front of my eyes, and my stomach flips over and over. I open my mouth to yell for help, but nothing escapes my lips. I can see my mask lying on the ground next to my hand, useless to me now.
I take deep breaths in through my nose, but my heart is beating out of control. Lines of sweat trickle between my eyes and shoulder blades. Everything is on fire, and I can do nothing to douse the flames. I am paralyzed, my brain has disconnected itself from the rest of my body.
I watch as two men in suits and masks step out of the side street they had come from to take away the sick man only minutes before. Then the colored dots eat away the last of my sight and I close my eyes.