Michelle arrived in her mother’s office in their newspaper, The Mississauga Exposé, about an hour after Peter had arrived in his parents’ office. “Hi, Mom,” she said as she walked through the doorway.
“Hi, sweetie,” her mom said. “How’s everything? How’s Peter?”
Wearing masks, they don’t get close to each other.
“Oh, he’s fine,” Michelle said. “Still anti-mask, as usual. How are you?”
“Oh, good,” her mom said. “You know, there’s a new virus we need to worry about.”
“That’s what we’re calling it. Our reporter, Ann Carleton, thought up the name. Stroke of genius on her part. All the other media outlets are using the term, too–all over the world.”
“Peter doesn’t believe it’s real.”
“He doesn’t believe any virus is real,” her mom said.
“I know, but this new one sounds a bit on the unbelievable side to me, too, to be honest. I mean, seriously? People’s bodies split and break into pieces as soon as they’re infected?”
“I know it sounds incredible, but Ann was on the spot at the time a paramedic’s body split into fifty pieces right in front of her.”
“And you believe her?” Michelle asked with a slight sneer.
“She’s been a trusted journalist for over ten years, eight of which she’s worked for me. She’s never once reported a story we needed to retract.”
“Yeah, but this virus sounds a little…out there. It’s the kind of thing that feeds easily into Peter’s paranoid government conspiracy theories.”
“What do you think?” her mom asked. “That we made it all up? That Ann was high on drugs or something? Look, I’ll agree with you that this is a pretty wild new virus. It’s unlike anything anyone has ever encountered. It seems like something from outer space or something.”
“That’s what Peter said it sounded like.”
“Still, there were witnesses who confirmed what Ann saw and heard, including the wife of the CFO of MedicinaTech, a company we hardly have any sympathy for, as you know. We rule our district far more humanely than they do theirs. The lockdown and mask rules aren’t so strict here, and income inequality isn’t as bad.”
“Mom, that fact that you and Dad rule our district is precisely what makes it not done so humanely,” Michelle said. “There I find myself in solid agreement with Peter over all this corporate government. Income inequality isn’t as bad, but it isn’t all that much better here, either.”
“Oh, the idealism of young adulthood,” her mother said. “We do the best we can here.”
“Mom, we can do much better.”
Her mom sighed in annoyance. “Anyway, the CFO’s wife, Hannah Gould, has been quarantined, for though she’s infected and a carrier, it isn’t killing her. Doctors can learn more about The Splits: what kind of virus it is, where it came from, why some are susceptible to dying from it, and why others aren’t. Our reporting on this research can do a lot of good for everyone, while MedicinaTech will just profit from selling vaccines of questionable worth to treat The Splits.”
This paper profits from the news stories, too, Mom, Michelle thought.
A masked woman in her thirties entered the office.
“Ann, there you are,” Michelle’s mother said. “She’s the one who got the scoop for us on The Splits story.”
“Here’s the report on those tests you were asking about, Siobhan,” Ann said, handing her the papers.
“Thank you, Ann.”
Ann scratched at her afro, just above her right ear, then little dots of white light flew out of her eyes and at Siobhan’s chest.
“Ungh!” Siobhan grunted, then she staggered and fell to the floor, shaking and screaming in pain. The papers flew all over the floor.
“Mom?” Michelle said, bending down to see her.
“Don’t get close to her,” Ann said with surprisingly little emotion. “Or to me. I’d better go into quarantine myself. I’m so sorry, Siobhan.” Ann ran out of the office, putting out her hands and warning the staff out there, “Don’t come near me!”
“Mom!” Michelle screamed, her eyes watering up.
Siobhan’s body had red cracks all over it, which opened and closed, over and over again, as she was shaking and grunting on the floor in agony.
“Somebody get a doctor!” Michelle screamed out the wide-open office door. “My mom’s in trouble!” Why didn’t Ann call a doctor? she thought, then, Why haven’t I? Stupid! She took out her smartphone and called 9-1-1.
Shaking almost as much as her mother was, Michelle looked down at her. Her eyes and mouth widened to see those red cracks opening and closing, back and forth and back and forth, like many mouths speaking but making no sound. It was hard for her to speak coherently on the phone, making articulate words through her sobs and trembling voice.
To keep her self-control, she had to look away from her mother while explaining the emergency. After finishing her 9-1-1 call, she looked back down at her mother. The cracks kept opening…and closing.
It seemed to Michelle that her mother was fighting the virus. “Keep fighting, Mom,” she sobbed. “Don’t let it kill you.”
Her father was hurrying over to the office, having heard from an employee what had happened to Siobhan. Michelle looked over and saw him coming.
“No, Dad!” she screamed. “Don’t come in here!” She closed the door in his face.
He froze in front of the closed door, standing there with a stupefied, helpless expression.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“She has The Splits!” Michelle yelled. “It’s contagious! I could have it. Paramedics are on the way. Keep out!”
In five minutes, paramedics in decontamination suits arrived. Siobhan was put on a stretcher in her own decontamination suit, with a bag valve mask on her face. Michelle and her father stood back, separate from each other for fear that she was a carrier, as they watched the paramedics take Siobhan out of the building.
Michelle went up to one of the paramedics just before he was to leave the office.
“I was nearby when the virus was passed on to my mother,” she said. “I could be a carrier showing no symptoms.”
“Come with us,” he said. “We’ll have you tested. Let me get a decontamination suit for you to wear.”
Why couldn’t Ann have gone into quarantine before? Michelle wondered.