“The Wasting”

a short story by Steve Mandes

 

“I do not have time to dick-around with this, Trevor.”  That’s my mom. She’s grabbing my coat out of the closet and forcing me to take it as I shove the rest of my oatmeal down my throat.

    “I’m not dickin’ around,” I say between shovelfuls. “Uncle Greggor doesn’t think I need a stupid flu shot and I don’t think so either.”

“Uncle Greggor had lice,” says Mom.  She pours her coffee in her thermos, tightens the lid, then grabs her shoulder bag. “Let’s go.”

“If I lived at campus, I’d be there,” I say, protesting again.

Mom rolls her eyes. “If you lived at school, you’d be dead.”

 

We’re in her car going West on Route 100. Mom misses the breaking pothole in the center lane after exit 2, and skirts down past the townhouses that glisten the freeway like a graveyard. I can see the billboard posted off the exit that reads “Towns for the low 200’s.” Six years ago Dad feared he’d have to find a new way for a sign to say half a million. He says The Wasting killed the market’s gut. With prices trimmer, he bought two new homes this year to rent to students near the college. Mom always says “that’s not right” whenever Dad or Uncle Greggor mentions a positive effect of The Wasting, the flu that wasted its victims to death five years ago during the winter of ‘17. Mom was wasted in the flu and then recovered, her body, not her mind. She thinks Uncle Greggor was wasted, his mind, not his body.  She’s crazy.

“I’m not getting a shot this year,” I say.

“You will, Trevor. Do not put me through this. I can’t go through this again.”

“Per Mary Sturgeon, the CDC says shots are not recommended since The Wasting has been eradicated. Even my comp professor says we’re supposed to build some natural immunity.”

“When your comp professor is a medical doctor, then you can listen to him.  And Jane Sturgeon’s taking Mary to get the shot. And you can never listen to that girl. Do you sit next to her? She doesn’t wash her hair.”

“Just because someone has cornrows does not mean her hair is unwashed. I need immunity.  The healthy are to build a natural immunity.”

“The healthy and those in the sample. You are not either.”

“I’m healthy.”

“You’re nineteen.”  She says, then takes a deep breath. Her hands clench the steering wheel. I see the recitation wave about to break.  “The Wasting sucked out nineteen and twenty year olds in particular because they were unhealthy and had no physical activity.  Also, they had a belief that their flu was not the flu and therefore did not do anything preventative to prevent it.”

Every year. She recites cause and effect stats like some internet medical chat room Doctor Spock. But I press on.  “Uncle Greggor says he misses vomiting and misses the gritty taste of a hot cup of thera-flu. I don’t remember vomiting. Ever.”

“Because you always got a flu shot. You vomited the year of the Wasting. I have it on video. I can not believe you are even questioning this.”  Her palm pounds repeatedly against the steering wheel. Her blue eyes look up in the rearview mirror. Fright shows. “I thought your father talked to you,” she says.  

Voop!

I fidget. I do not remember the Wasting except for the videos that I really believe Mom made to remember Ralph and Carl. Carl died from the Wasting, and Ralph had the brain fever and was put to sleep the next spring. I alone survived, along with Mom, Dad, Uncle Greggor and nearly everyone else in the world except twenty hundred million people, many of whom were unfortunate enough to own homes along the 95 or in third world countries like Africa. 

Mom thinks Carl got it at the gym, but of course, that contradicts her unhealthy nineteen year old story so usually she blames Ralph and then we’re not allowed to go there.  Everything Carl owned has been burned.

 

Howard Community College. I’m here an hour early which Mom knows gives me time to head to the Nursing Building and get my flu shot. I really want to get an earring. Mom won’t allow earrings as a piercing invites germs. I’m not allowed in a movie theatre— germs and lice. Not allowed to play a contact sport like football or lacrosse because Mom thinks I’ll pick up a staph infection from a gym towel. “You will not die because of bad hygiene. I do not have time to deal with that,” she said, throwing away the permission slip this past September which warned of possible staph infections from intramural sports.

“You’re crazy, Sue,” Uncle Greggor said. “They just don’t want lawsuits.”

“My husband is not an ambulance chaser,” she said while rebleaching  the  kitchen counters.

 

I’m in line to get the shot. Mom will check my arms for the shot mark. Worse, they mail your house to confirm that you’ve been shot. Privacy has faded. Mom has threatened to quarantine me in my room if I do not get the shot. So here I am, shot selecting, and there, in line, at least is Mary Sturgeon.  The top two buttons of her blush blouse hang open. Folds of soft, loose material take my eye to her boobs. They look bigger.  “Hey, Mary,” I say, walking towards her, jumping others in line.

“I thought you were building immunity,” she says.  I lift my glance from her boobs and meet her eyes with a succumbing smile. Her cornrows look less dirty. When Mom finds out who I’ve been kissing, I’ll get bleached.