By Rowan Keller Smith,
The End Days kicked off like any other, with a walk to work. Headphones in, NPR on. The story of a dying toddler, and her mother and her father and her brother. One after another their lungs gave out. A silent prayer for all of them, the thought “God, that’s awful.”
I started my day and the thought of her and her family quickly left my mind as if I had never heard it, to begin with. I made espresso shots and chai lattes for yuppies on their way to work. I shot the shit with my coworker, Chris. We complained about our manager Vanessa, our healthcare plan, the government. We threw around words like bourgeois and contemplated unionizing. I was always in charge of the cafe’s music. I would put on one of my meticulously crafted playlists and bask in the superiority complex it gave me. For some reason, on that specific day, the indie rock felt tired. We put on the radio instead.
We heard about the normal stuff– tension in the Middle East, party divides, and sex scandals. Then, the story of the toddler came on. I said another silent prayer for the girl and her mother and her father and her brother. I once again thought God, that’s awful. And then, just like before, I let it slip from my mind.
I left work, walked home in the rain, and showered off the steamed almond milk that I had spilled on myself, leaving small burn marks on my hands. I put on a face mask, convincing myself that “self-care” would fix me, and I fell asleep never bothering to wash it off.
My alarm went off at 5:30 am, just like every other day. But here, we were starting to get closer to The End Days, maybe this was the real start.
Just like the day before, and the weeks and months and years before, I went to work. I made espresso shots and chai lattes, and the yuppies came in, and Chris and I complained and contemplated unionizing. And once again, I fell tired of the music and felt inclined to turn on the radio. First, we listened to the same old over-saturated pop, became annoyed, and put on NPR.
And for the third time, I heard the story of the toddler and her mother and her father and her brother, the story about their lungs shutting down. And once again, I said a silent prayer, thought God, that’s awful, and let it slip my mind. But this time it stayed tucked away, stored in the grey matter, waiting to be brought back to the surface again.
I guess if I was to trace it, to put together a history of the whole thing, the third day is when it truly started– when The End Days were ushered in. There was the Sisyphean walk to work, the lattes, the espresso, the yuppies. There was Chris and the music and the radio. There was the girl and her mother and her father and her brother and their lungs. And then there were more, more dying lungs.
“Did you ever see that movie about that pandemic?” Chris asked. “The one with Matt Damon and that chic from Titanic.”
“Yeah, Contagion!” He seemed a bit too giddy. “This feels like that.”
“Doesn’t society collapse in that one?”
“I mean yeah, that obviously won’t happen here,” he said naively. “But doesn’t this feel like a movie?”
It did, only if the movie was about two twenty-something baristas making minimum wage.
Chris and I kept working as we listened to NPR. As time went on, everyone seemed to forget about the toddler and her family. They moved on to the story of a plane, full of sick passengers forced to quarantine on the LAX tarmac. They moved on to stories of family pets dropping dead, stories of entire kindergarten classes coming down with the “Virginia Flu.” The toddler had been from Virginia. What a way to go, I thought. Having a whole disease named in your honor. Chris and I turned off NPR and tried to switch to channels, but it was no use. All people could talk about was plague.
“You guys hear about this so-called ‘pandemic’?”
I looked up from my mindless latte making to see one of those yuppies standing in front of the register.
“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty scary.”
“I don’t know,” the trust fund baby said. “Everyone seems to be overreacting. It’s just a bad flu. I’m sure everything will go back to normal in a few weeks.”
I took his order, I made his drink, and I wished him farewell.
“Hey!” I heard a door swing open. Shit. Vanessa. “Corporates having us where these,” she dropped a box of surgical masks on the counter. “You should probably put on gloves too.”
All I could do was stare at the masks.
“It’s all bullshit if you ask me. Everyone’s overreacting.”
I tried to tune her out, my gaze staying on the box in front of me.
“It’s just a bad flu,” she continued. “Everything’ll be back to normal in a few weeks.”
With that, she left, leaving me and Chris to fend for ourselves.
I opened that dreadful box and pulled out two masks, handing one to Chris. We both just stared at them for a moment. Pale blue and sterile. Slipping it on felt like admitting defeat, it felt like recognizing that this was actually happening. We stood there in silence, locking eyes, faces obscured.
We stayed silent for most of our shift.
“Jessica?” Chris broke the silence.
“Yeah?” My eyes stayed on the dishes I was cleaning for the third time.
“Is this actually happening?”
“I think so. Yeah.”
For the first time ever, we hugged each other goodbye. We were friends, but not that close of friends. Perhaps hugging for the first time as a plague spread was bad timing, but we didnt seem to care.
Then came the fourth day. 5:30 alarm, walk, NPR, lattes, espresso. The yuppies never came. Chris and I stayed silent. No complaining, not about our manager, our healthcare plan, or the government. No talk of unionizing, it was too late. And we didn’t dare to put on the radio, we knew it was bad. So we worked in silence, in our empty cafe. And of course, we wore those masks, we even wore gloves this time. I would’ve worn a hazmat suit if I could’ve.
Only two customers came in that day. The first– a woman with her scarf wrapped around her face, just under her eyes. She was jittery and ordered her drink while making sure to stand six or so feet away from me and Chris. She asked if we could put another set of gloves on. We did.
Our second and final customer was a man– forty or so, with an American flag bandana tied around his face. He didn’t take the same precautions.
“They making you wear those masks?” His closeness in comparison to the woman before made me uneasy.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Fucking liberals,” he said. “You hear about the stay-at-home order?”
“The what?” Chris and I shot each other a panic look.
“Yeah, they’re closing down everything. No one can leave their homes, and businesses gotta close. They policing the streets!”
“Wow,” I said. I hoped that the man was paranoid, psychotic, some Qanon conspiracy theorist.
It wasn’t until an hour or so after he left that I mustered up the courage to turn on the radio.
We changed the station.
And again, and again, and again all we got was static.
“Maybe we should close early,” is all I managed to say to Chris who was already on his way to lock the door and shut the windows. We tried to clean everything. We sanitized the counters, the tables, the chairs, the counters again.
Ding! Chris’s phone went off. I saw his face, I knew he was hoping for a text from his boyfriend, an “I’m coming to get you” text. His face fell as he saw what it was, turning the phone so I could see it.
Don’t leave the store. Don’t go into the streets.
It was our godforsaken manager. And just like that, for the first time, we didn’t dare to complain about her orders.
“We shouldn’t have come in,” I said, sitting on the floor of the storage room.
“I tried to stay home,” Chris said. “But that soul-sucking bitch told me I’d get fired.”
“We should’ve unionized while we had the chance.”
Rowan Keller Smith is a poet, essayist, and overall hack from Los Angeles. They are currently studying creative writing and psychology at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. Their poetry is going to appear in a 2024 anthology of queer poetry and prose, by Beyond Queer Words.