Three objects sat upon the carpet in Cleo Porter’s living room: an apple core, a human skull, and a package wrapped in red.
It was the last of these that had Cleo well and thoroughly vexed. She lay on her stomach, bare feet waving in the air behind her and chin digging into the back of her hand. Her belly was starting to get itchy from the carpet fibers poking through her shirt, but she just wriggled a bit to scratch it. She’d stare at the glossy box for another hour if she had to, until it either disappeared or made sense.
First there was its color: deep red. Blood red. “Hemoglobin red,” as Cleo would say. Of course, she knew what it meant: the package contained medicine. But she wasn’t sick. Her mom wasn’t sick. Her dad wasn’t sick. And Ms. VAIN? Well, she couldn’t get sick, so there was no reason Cleo could see for them to have medicine.
Then there was the label:
25 MAY 2096
The address was right. Cleo had even sung the silly little song her dad had taught her to remember it (“The number starts with four-one-two: a place to live for me and you! Round it off with two-six-three: safe from influenza D!”).
The date was obviously right.
That was all wrong.
Cleo pulled up to her knees, dug her nails into her belly for a few satisfying seconds, and then reached for her scroll. When she had it unfurled, it clicked into a stiff board, and she propped it against the package. A simple touch in the middle brought the screen to life, and an array of pillowy blue letters appeared:
Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network
Use Voice Recognition to Log On
“Head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” Cleo said quickly. The pudgy letters dissolved instantly, replaced by the fretful face of her teacher, who peered at Cleo over her bifocals.
“You’ve been gone for a good deal more than ‘a few minutes,’ Cleo,” Ms. VAIN observed.
Cleo glanced at the icon behind Ms. VAIN’s right shoulder. The screen zoomed in, replacing the matronly teacher’s face with that of a clock.
“It’s only been seventeen,” Cleo retorted, rolling her eyes. “I can take a little break. The test isn’t until next week.”
Ms. VAIN seized the opportunity to reclaim the screen. “Seventeen minutes is more than enough time to eat an apple. Besides, your test is in five days, darling. Five.”
“And I’ve been studying for it since I was six. That’s half my life!”
Ms. VAIN wagged a virtual finger at her. “Some have been at it longer than that. Now, where’s your skull? We were reviewing the names of the sutures…”
Cleo grabbed the skull and held it in front of her scroll. “Metopic, coronal, sagittal, lambdoid. There. Now can I ask you a question?”
“Always and anything, love.”
“Who is Miriam Wendemore-Adisa?”
Cleo repeated the last name letter-by-letter, just to be sure.
Ms. VAIN blinked—something she did only when consulting the database. Then she shook her head. “Sorry, Cleo. I don’t have information on anyone by that name. I could expand my search to fictional characters and variant spellings, if you like?”
Cleo frowned. “No, thank you. It’s not a historical figure or anyone like that, anyway.”
“Someone contemporary? Ah. Sorry there, love. VAINs don’t have access to the directory. Why do you ask?”
Cleo picked up the scroll and turned it around, letting Ms. VAIN see the package.
“That’s where I got the name.”
Ms. VAIN wore a reassuring smile as Cleo flipped her back. “It’s probably for one of your mother’s patients, yes?”
Cleo squinted skeptically at the package. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like my mom can just give her the medicine. It’s no good here.”
“Best ask her when she’s done with work, then. In the meantime, may I suggest a thorough review of the optic nerve?”
A slowly rotating image of an eyeball replaced Ms. VAIN’s patient face. Cleo’s eyes weren’t on it, though. Instead, she was staring at the door that led into her mother’s office. The seal around the edge pulsed a quiet orange. Her mom was in surgery.
So that was a dead end, then.
“Maybe our tube malfunctioned?” Cleo said suddenly, and she scrambled to her feet. Ms. VAIN’s voice followed her.
“Tubes don’t malfunction, dearie! They’re just tubes. And packages don’t get delivered to the wrong place.”
Cleo ignored her.
The tube jutted into their kitchen like a giant made of glass had shoved its finger through their wall. Cleo and her father had used paints to decorate it like a garden box, and every time a delivery whooshed in, it looked like the flowers and butterflies and bees were alive with light, if only for a second. When she was younger, she’d press her face to the rounded end, watching for deliveries and screaming ecstatically every time the shutter in the wall opened. That was her dad’s cue to slide open the top of the tube and grab the delivery, whether it was food or soap or a replacement scroll.
Cleo peered through the glass the same way now, but Ms. VAIN was right.
It was just a tube. Their tube. It wasn’t broken, and it certainly wasn’t capable of magically manufacturing medicine.
Still, something weird had happened, and it involved that tube. Cleo knew it.
Mostly because, other than the tiny air vents and the compost chute, it was the only way anything got into or out of their apartment.
One day, right after Cleo had turned three, her mother discovered her in her room performing surgery on Elly the Elephant. She had her wild cloud of brown curls tied back as best her little fingers could manage, and she wore a pair of her own underwear over her face like a surgical mask, her serious gray eyes peering through the leg holes. Once they had cleaned up the stuffing and sewn Elly back good as new, Knowles Porter asked her daughter just what exactly she thought she was doing.
In a tiny, wise voice, with every word perfectly pronounced, Cleo replied, “Emergency appendectomy, Dr. Porter. Nothing else for it.”
Cleo’s mom decided, then and there, that her daughter would follow in her footsteps as a drone surgeon, even though it meant Cleo would have to start on the medical instruction track by age six, and even though it meant her daughter would face what, by all accounts, was the most rigorous, high-stakes, cold-sweat-and-nightmare-inducing gateway test of any profession, anywhere. To her infinite credit, Cleo dove right in: her new favorite toy became a life-size model of the human skeleton, she could name all the bones of the inner ear by age four, and she could regularly be found tearing through the apartment like a little bug-eyed Frankenstein, her mother’s huge drone goggles covering half her head as she scurried to find the cure for whatever fatal illness her father was feigning at the time.
On her sixth birthday, Cleo had received her prized possession: her scroll. Ms. VAIN was greatly appreciated by child and parents alike; she answered all of Cleo’s questions, which allowed Bowman and Knowles Porter to take a much-needed break from doing the same. And one of the first questions she had asked?
“Where is everyone else?”
“Everyone else, love?” Ms. VAIN had replied.
“Not like Mommy and Daddy. I know where they are. But the people on the screens. The people in my games. The other kids you’re helping. People like that.”
Ms. VAIN blinked several times. Then she cheerfully asked, “Would you like that information in a timeline, an encyclopedia entry, a documentary film, or a story?”
“Story, please. Always story.”
“As you like. Comfy, love?”
The little girl held up a finger, then ran to get her silky blanket and the skull from her model. She set her scroll up stiff, positioned the skull so it too could see, and popped her thumb in her mouth.
“Mind the sucking, Cleo,” Ms. VAIN chirped gently. “Remember what we—”
“Oh, yes. Malocclusion of the central and lateral incisors. Right. I’m still working on it.”
“I know, love.”
Cleo wiped her thumb on the blanket and drew in her cheeks to make fish lips instead. Ms. VAIN began.
“Everyone lives in apartments, just like you do, Cleo. It keeps them safe.”
“These days? Not a great deal. At least, nothing that has been recorded in the database. But it wasn’t always that way.”
“Just so. And that’s where this story begins. The year was 2027, and doctors—”
Ms. VAIN nodded, folding her hands atop her desk. “Sort of like your mother, yes. They discovered that many people, all around the world, were getting very sick, all at about the same time.”
“Did they die?”
Ms. VAIN slipped her bifocals up to sit along the peak of her peppery white hair. It made her look even kinder than usual.
“Yes, Cleo. Many, many did die. And if this is too upsetting, we can play a game instead. I know a delightful dance that helps with the names of the joints.”
Cleo’s wispy eyebrows knotted, and she shook her head. “No. More story, please.”
Ms. VAIN waited until Cleo had gathered up the silky blanket and wrapped herself in it. Then she continued.
“Most of the world got sick, and the doctors couldn’t help them. Just as bad, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Everyone seemed to be ill with different things—just at the same time. And because the doctors, scientists, and politicians couldn’t agree on what was causing the malady, they didn’t find a cure.”
“Not ever, no. In fact, it wasn’t until ten years later that they even discovered what it was: a strain of the flu that changed constantly. It started in livestock, like pigs and cows. Then it spread to humans. The D used to simply denote the strain of flu, but it came to stand for the Greek letter delta, which means ‘change.’ Every time it got passed from one person to another, it altered slightly. We call this ‘mutation.’”
“So there was no medicine.”
Ms. VAIN shook her head. “None. And by that time, so many had passed—”
“Does ‘passed’ mean died?”
“Yes, love. They’re synonyms. So many had died that everyone who was left decided a drastic solution was necessary. They built great structures to protect the remaining healthy people. Those people would be kept separate from each other, each family closed in their own apartment, just in case. And because they were separate, influenza D couldn’t spread. It was a desperate gamble, but it worked. The last recorded case of the flu was in 2043, and no outbreak has ever occurred within one of the buildings.”
“What about outside?”
Ms. VAIN blinked. “I have no data on that. But the very good news is that the people inside, like you and your mommy and daddy, are healthy. In fact, the Great Separation, as it came to be known, is credited with the complete elimination of seventy-three other infectious diseases, too. Given the effects of influenza D, I daresay it was a trade-off that people were willing to make.”
“And people could just meet through screens! Like us, Ms. VAIN!”
Ms. VAIN smiled. “Well, I’m not a person, but yes. And for everything you need in your apartment, there are—”
“Drones!” Cleo finished. “Daddy and I are going to paint the delivery tube like a garden.”
“That will be lovely, dear. Would you like to see some pictures of a garden?”
Of course, six years later, Cleo didn’t have time for pictures of gardens. And she most definitely didn’t have time for a strange package, as Ms. VAIN continued to remind her every time she glanced at it instead of the double bypass surgery she was supposed to be watching.
“Cleo, you know I can tell when your eyes are not focused on me,” Ms. VAIN said.
“I’ve watched this video a hundred times.”
Copyright © 2020 by Jake Burt