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Pushcart Nominee, “Cam and the Maskless” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

The following prose by Lisa Allen- Agostini has been nominated by About Place Journal for the 2020 Pushcart Prize.

 

Cam couldn’t stop thinking of the girl’s perfect mouth.

Perfect brown lips. When she laughed: the tender, moist, pink interior. Her straight, wide teeth like Altoids or really big Fresh’Ms.

Did her breath smell like mint?

Oh God. Her nostrils. He’d seen the insides of her nostrils. They were lighter brown than her nose and covered in fine, straight hairs he could see through the plexi when she had thrown her head back and laughed at him. He had even seen her uvula, plumply hanging between her tonsils at the back of her throat.

Cam tweaked the elastic of his mask between his fingertips and tore it from his face as he reentered his apartment. He flung the wistra rectangle into the waste chute by the doorway even before he was fully inside. He shut the door and put down the box the girl had given him. He washed his hands by the door sink for half-a-minute, counting to 30 in his head. He exhaled and stepped through the disinfection bay, squeezing his eyes and mouth shut so he wouldn’t breathe in the cloud of chlorinated mist sprayed from jets overhead and set in the floor. He counted to 60 before inhaling, grabbing the box and reaching blindly for a fresh mask from a shelf next to the door sink before stumbling into the living room.

He was putting on the clean mask with one hand, holding the box in the other, when he heard his mother shouting from the kitchen. “Cam! Did you get it?”

“Yes, Mom. Coming.” He hurried to the sound of her voice. It wasn’t a big apartment so it didn’t take long. “Here you are. Garden fresh.” He put the clear plastic box on the kitchen island and stepped back, hovering by the door in case she wanted him to do something else.

His mom grabbed the container, which, like Cam, was damp and smelled of bleach. She broke the seal with a practiced snap and poured the contents, fat brown mushrooms, into the sink, beginning to scrub them with a brush she dipped in soapy, chlorinated water.

“Mom,” he grumbled, “they’re sterile.” His mother was nuts. She took everything too far. They were the only family he knew that wore HaMa suits indoors. She even disinfected cans of Coke, cans which they knew for a fact had never touched human hands, manufactured and sealed into virus-proof packaging on automated production lines and shipped by autobots. Speaking of Coke, he wanted some. “Fridge,” he said, and she turned off the tap and stood by the other end of the kitchen island as he got the can and popped it open. Wordlessly they pivoted and she resumed scrubbing; he took his place by the door again, sipping recklessly from the can itself. She shot him a look but didn’t comment on the small infraction against protocol. In their home, everything was washed before it touched your skin. Everything. “They irradiate it, the produce. We learned that in geography. All of it gets zapped.”

“They say that. They say a lot of things,” she said darkly, wielding the brush briskly. “Irradiated, my butt.”

“Somebody irradiated your butt? Sounds painful,” he joked. She ignored him and continued preparing dinner. But she was smiling; he could tell from the wrinkles around her eyes when she threw another look at him over the edge of her mask.

Soon the smell of chlorine was supplanted by aromas of basmati rice, lentils, and mushrooms sautéed with onions in butter.  She served the food. For a moment he almost wanted to ask, “Mom, can we eat together?” But of course that was silly. No need to risk anything just because of some stupid girl and her stupid nostrils. But he fiercely missed eating with other people. A memory: He was small he and his sister, their parents and grandparents and cousins had piled up in their cars, overloaded, six of them to a vehicle, driven to the beach and spent the day dipping their hands into things and passing them around, eating salty pelau and greasy stewed chicken and sticky sponge cake and crunchy barbecue-flavoured corn chips, licking their fingers whilst lying draped across each others’ bodies in the sand. Years ago, now. He didn’t even own a swimsuit anymore. Cam sighed, washed his hands in his bathroom and ate his dinner in his bedroom sitting alone at the edge of his bed.

When he was done Cam brushed his teeth in front of his bathroom mirror. He rinsed the toothpaste from his mouth, washed his hands again and straightened, reaching to pull his mask back up. He stopped short and looked at his face. This is what the girl would have seen if his mask had been off: A thin, pale face, with a slightly browner strip from hairline to nose bridge. A black line from ear to ear seemed to cut his face in half. Like everyone else, he had wistra burns. He seldom noticed them anymore. They didn’t hurt, hadn’t since he had first begun to wear a mask and got used to the friction. Besides, who would see them?

Smelling the minty toothpaste he grinned, a bit embarrassed at his earlier fascination with the girl and his imagining the smell of her breath. So what if he’d seen her teeth and tonsils? Who cared? She was just a Maskless anyway. He’d probably never see her again. Who cared what she smelled of? Probably just chlorine. Everything smelled of chlorine. When everything else failed, there was good old bleach. Saving lives since 2019.

He remembered a time before, when his mother’s breath smelled of almonds and her neck smelled of roses and cinnamon. She used to hold him in her arms and he used to breathe her in. A long time ago.

Big, white teeth. He wondered if the girl ate meat. He barely recalled its flavour himself. He’d heard other kids say that the Maskless were carnivores. Maybe that’s why her teeth were so big and wide. But that was a stupid thought, one he immediately dismissed. Species don’t adapt in one generation, and it hadn’t even been that long. Nobody had had time to adapt to anything. The survivors scrambled to relearn living in a hostile environment, that’s all. Meat was infected. Nobody he knew ate it. The Maskless were freaks.

But he wished he hadn’t stopped her singing. It was just a reflex. Nobody sang in public. You just couldn’t. It was irresponsible. And though the plexi had separated them in the vestibule he was so accustomed to “see something, say something” that he had automatically said, “You shouldn’t do that; it’s dangerous.”

“Do what?” Her round black eyes opened wide. On either side of the transparent plexi barrier, they were both shouting, he into the wistra of his mask, she into the open air.

“Sing,” Cam said.

“Sing?”

“Yes, sing.” This girl was frustrating Cam. Everybody knew you ought not to sing in public. It was just not done.

“Do you want me to sing?” she yelled.

“No, I want you to stop—“

And then she’d laughed and laughed and laughed. She’d shoved the mushrooms through the CoSh and taken his points with her phone and left, still laughing. He’d replaced his own phone in his HaMa pocket after checking the points app. He wouldn’t give her a tip, he’d decided. Rude.

She had no wistra burns. Her skin was an even brown, the same colour on her forehead as her chin. Her face was as clear as her voice, which had been so strong it pierced the plexi to reach him from the otherwise empty street.

#

Cam took his dirty dish to the kitchen where his mother was wiping down the counters. “Mom, can I ask you something?” He washed his bowl and spoon, put them on the dish rack and dried his hands with a paper towel that he threw into the kitchen waste chute before he sat on one of the stools by the island.

“Sure.” His mother dragged one of the island’s stools to the other end of the kitchen and sat down to face her son, bleach spray in one hand still.

“Is singing really that bad?” He looked at his hands. They were chapped, red and sore as usual. His right thumbnail was splitting again, he noted without interest as he toyed with its frayed edges.

“Singing is wonderful, darling. You’ve heard me singing. Of course, it’s not bad.”

“I mean in public.”

“Oh.” She put the bottle down. Above the wistra his mother’s gaze softened. “Outside, you mean. You know why it’s bad. Aerosolized virus—”

“Yes, yes,” he muttered. “I know.” He glanced back at his hands. He’d torn the broken nail off too close to the bed and his finger was bleeding.

His mother winced and reached out for his hand but drew back so quickly he almost missed it. “Use the peroxide. There’s some by the—”

Cam stood before she finished talking and fetched the bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the shelf by the sink. He put his hand over the basin, poured a few drops of the clear liquid on his bleeding thumb and watched pink froth bubble from its reaction with the torn flesh. “I saw a girl today. She was singing.” His mother was silent. He looked at her over his shoulder. “When I went for the mushrooms.”

“Maskless?” Hushed, serious. She didn’t meet his eyes.

“Yes.”

“They sing,” she admitted. His mother sounded sad. “They do all kinds of things. You know that.”

“Do they really eat meat?” His curiosity pushed him to ask more, even though he knew she didn’t want to talk about it. When she sounded this sad, she was usually thinking about someone she’d… they’d lost. But mostly he had known the two of them in this apartment. Memories like the family beach outing were few. He didn’t remember his father’s face; he didn’t remember his sister at all. If it wasn’t for photos he wouldn’t even know what his mother’s smile looked like anymore. The taste of meat was a mystery to him, like holding hands or kissing.

“The Maskless are immune. What’s going on with you? Was the deliveryperson singing?”

“Yeah. Forget it.” The frothing peroxide stung his finger sharply. He patted it with a bit of paper towel and sat down again, pinching the wound to stop the bleeding. “I just wondered… never mind.”

His mother sighed. “Maskless are immune. You know that. They live different lives. Yes, they can eat meat. And, yes, they do sing in public.”

“What else can they do?” He asked it the same way he had torn the nail from his finger, absently; but his mother’s eyes narrowed.

“Don’t get any ideas now, Cam. You know you can’t go out there. It’s too—”

“Yeah, Mom. I know.” He got up and went back to his room and didn’t see his mother’s wistra mask soaking up her tears.

But he lay on his back in bed with his fingers interlaced on his chest and thought about the girl’s teeth for the rest of the night until he fell into a restless sleep.

#

School the next morning was boring, with Mcallister making fart sounds all through geography while pretending to be innocent on the ZoomSchool screen. Cam knew it was Mcallister; the other boy had done it in Maths the day before. It drove the teacher crazy but there was nothing she could do and no way to pinpoint who was making noise when she had 15 other students to worry about, so she continued talking about locust infestations in Sub-Saharan Africa over the squeaky farts. When she was fed up she muted everyone and gave them a multiple-choice pop quiz on the collapse of the oil industry. Everyone failed.

Cam went up to the rooftop after classes. The empty city spread out below him stretched from the jewel-green Savannah to the shining blue waters of the Gulf, six or so square miles of concrete, glass and steel. Here and there he saw people on bicycles, mostly Maskless, though everyone was in their blue virus-repellant wistra HaMa suits. In old photos, he saw his mom and dad and grandparents going out in real clothes, jackets and dresses and shirts and trousers. Different colours, patterned cloth, different styles for church, for school, for parties. Even made of different fabrics, not just the finely woven wistra, which came in blue, blue and blue. At home his friends wore normal clothes, but his mom insisted on the HaMa suits indoors and outdoors because “you never know how infected those jeans will be even after you wash them. With wistra you’re sure.”

At lunchtime, his mother texted him to collect his BeyondBurger and fries from the kitchen. He washed his hands before he went for it. He noticed his thumb was throbbing but didn’t pay it any mind, biting into the sandwich and chewing absently while he sat by his window looking down. It wasn’t that he was looking for the girl, he told himself.

By dinnertime Cam was twitchy, like his blood was on fire. It was a strange feeling, so he mentioned it to his mother. She disinfected a thermometer and slid it to him over the kitchen island. He had a fever. She gave him two PainNo tablets and told him to drink extra apple juice. Four am found his whole right hand swollen, hot, and painful. His eyes hurt, too. He washed his hands as soon as he got out of bed, crying out softly when the cold water touched his fiery skin. Mom, I’m sick, he texted her. Think my finger is infected.

Check Dr Wi, she replied. I’ll get you juice and meds.

Cam took a photo of his red thumb, grotesquely fat on his throbbing, swollen hand. He uploaded it, along with his age and the circumstances of the injury, to the Dr Wi app and waited for it to diagnose him.

Mom, it’s bad. Dr Wi says I have to go to the clinic, he texted his mother.

It was a long while before she responded. OK Cam. Go get ready. I’ll meet you in the living room.

When was the last time he’d been in a car with his mother? He didn’t remember. A long time ago. She went out to work three days a week like this: out the apartment and into the elevator, out the elevator and into her car, in which she drove out of the underground parking garage and onto the street. He hadn’t left the building in what felt like years. He got his sunshine on the roof. Everything else he needed came to him, delivered through the plexi CoSh by deliverypersons. Clean wistra masks and HaMa suits, food, medicine, chlorine bleach.

Outside the clinic, they waited in line on the pavement. There were only a handful of people, all standing in pairs, all Masked like them, jiggling from foot to HaMa-bootied foot, each pair six feet apart from the next. Most were adults with children, though there was one elderly couple; they were wrinkly and grey and clung to one another in the lightening pre-dawn air. Cam watched them jealously. His mother was standing as far away from him as possible while maintaining her distance from the others in line.

At the clinic door a security guard gruffly scanned Cam’s medical records off his phone before pointing the boy and his mother to a cubicle draped in blue wistra. A short while later, a woman bustled in, sweeping the drapes aside with a sharp rattle of the steel curtain hooks. “Cam Weston? An infected finger, is it? What have you been touching, young man?” The doctor chuckled and checked her tablet, scrolling with a gloved finger as she talked through her wistra mask. “Mum, I see he had MSIS?” She said “emsis,” pronouncing it like a word instead of saying Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome or pronouncing each letter M S I S. Cam thought emsis sounded much nicer than the alternatives.

Cam’s mother nodded nervously. “Yes, when he was six.”

The doctor nodded and reached for a swab kit. “Just routine.” She beckoned Cam and he pulled down his mask, tilting his head back so she could stab the swab painfully deep into his nostril. While he fixed the mask back into place, she smeared the swab on a tester and pushed a few buttons. There was a short beep. “Yup, positive. But, of course, that has nothing to do with this, does it?” The doctor gently took his swollen hand into hers, poring over the small tear in his nail bed. “This is definitely bacterial. Don’t worry, Mum. We’ll get him all fixed up.” She did another swab, of his thumb this time, then prepared an injection and jabbed Cam’s upper arm with the needle, plunging ice into his veins. He flinched. “Just a little stick, Cam. You’ll live,” the doctor said. “A hundred years ago this infection would have killed you.”

On the way back home, they stopped for breakfast at a micro-raunt. Sitting across from his mother in their plexi dining booth, Cam took one of the pills the doctor had prescribed for the pain and washed it down with apple juice. He made a face.

“What’s the matter?” his mother quickly asked. “Is it bad?”

He shook his head. “I just don’t like apple juice, that’s all. Wish we still had oranges.”

“You remember oranges?” She smiled. “They used to be my favourite, too. Mummy and Daddy had a tree.”

“An orange tree?” Cam was intrigued. He didn’t know about trees. “Did you climb it?”

His mother laughed. “You couldn’t climb an orange tree. They had long pickers on them. Thorns, you know. Like spikes. You had to take a rod and hit the oranges off the tree. We’d collect them by the bags and squeeze them to make juice, me and my sisters…”

“And you gave oranges to your neighbours, too?” he guessed.

“Yes,” she said softly, and then was silent.

His mother sent out for fresh masks and suits when they got home, muttering in annoyance that she had forgotten to order last week. “Why didn’t you tell me we were low on masks, Cam? Do I have to remember everything?” she called out to him, but he was sleepy and went straight to bed. He dreamed something about a tree and a wave and things pricking his fingers. He slept until that night.

His mother said that Cam’s hand looked normal when he came to collect his dinner. “And your fever’s gone. You’ll be all right, my boy,” she said with a jolly laugh. He knew she had been worried, more worried than she had shown. MSIS caused all kinds of post-infection complications for years afterwards in those who survived it. You just never knew. His friend Ho had died of a heart attack at 12; his sister Lola had died of a stroke at 15. You just never knew.

#

The delivery of masks and HaMa suits came the next day. His mother was at work; Cam, still a bit drowsy from the painkillers the doctor had prescribed, had gone down to collect it in the vestibule. The deliveryperson stood in the doorway behind the plexi, carrying a large plastic box. It looked heavy but Cam knew wistra weighed very little, so it was probably just because it was awkward to heft a big container in one arm while holding your bike and phone with the other hand. When the deliveryperson turned around, Cam said, “You!” It was the singing girl. But she wasn’t singing; she was scowling.

“You,” she retorted. “Mr No-Tip. I got a ticket for singing in public. You reported me, didn’t you?”

“Me!” Cam was offended. He wouldn’t snitch to police, even on a Maskless. “I didn’t!”

“Hmm.” She snorted. “I believe you. Sure, I believe you.” She took her points and left the box on the pavement. “It’s too big to slide through the COVID-Chute,” she explained; he had seen her try to push it into the hatch and it really couldn’t fit through the CoSh. When he hesitated to breach the plexi door to pick it up, she taunted him. “Oh, come on. I don’t bite.” Cam nervously pulled the door open and stretched one arm to grab the package. “Boo!” The girl shrieked with laughter when he fell to his bottom, startled.

“You can’t do things like that,” Cam shouted. “You Maskless feel you can do anything you like! Well, you can’t! This time I will report you!”

The girl’s laughter dried up. “Don’t. Oh gosh. Please. I need this job. It’s not like I live in a fancy government apartment with my mommy like you. I have to pay rent. Buy food. And HaMa suits aren’t free.” She put out a hand to help him to his feet.

Cam, still on his bottom in the open doorway, recoiled.

“Right,” the girl said, dropping her hand. “I gone.” She jumped on her bike and rode away quickly.

Cam took his phone from his HaMa suit pocket. Rate this deliveryperson, the app invited. Cam gave her one star. But he did leave a tip. He scrambled clumsily to his feet, took the package and retreated to the elevator.

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