The green star still shone in the sky as Greg walked out into the parking lot that sprawled emptily in front of the Bocacubrir Industries office building. His black Charger was the only car illuminated by the lightposts gridded out among the parking spaces, other than the vehicles belonging to Security, the latter huddled near the Security office.
Greg stared at the green star for a while. Even with the crescent moon overhead the green star dominated his attention with its strange green corona. It was a color he associated with green slime that he played with when he was a kid —green slime he made with the Mad Scientist lab set he had received for his eighth birthday. Now he was a numbers man, an accountant, and in his eyes floated all of the numbers for that quarter which he had been crunching in voluntary overtime that evening, while everyone else went home to celebrate the weekend.
Greg would be going home soon, too. He unlocked his car door, loosened his tie, and swung himself into the Charger with a great sigh of relief. He set his cell phone in the passenger seat and started his car. Rain had fallen earlier that day, before sunset, and now a mist rose into the muggy July night. Greg lit his high beams and started to leave. Then he stopped. With a disgruntled growl he removed his N95 mask that was hanging uselessly from his rearview mirror. It was always in his way. He had been meaning to throw it away.
The mask now beside his cell phone, he drove toward home.
It was official Bocacobrir policy that everyone wear a mask while at work. Yet, no one enforced it. At first everyone obliged. Then, gradually, one person stopped wearing his, and then another stopped wearing his. And then another stopped wearing hers, and another stopped wearing hers also. Now only Security wore their masks, and everyone pretty much disrespected them for it. Greg heard the other guys in the office crack jokes about the “Rent-a-Cops ” and laugh. It was a commonplace and everyday pastime.
The highway toward home was dark and foggy. Mist from the evaporating rain and fog from the river made the dark night seem like a groggy dream. Or perhaps it was Greg ’s grogginess that made it so. He had been suffering from fatigue lately, and breathlessness. Regardless, the green star shone clear through the fog, even while the moon dissolved in it like a skull in a witch ’s cauldron. It was as if the green star was not among the stars at all, but was closer to the earth than the moon itself.
Greg ’s cell phone rang.
“Hello? ” he answered.
“Hey, Greggy-poo! ” Alison chimed. “You coming to the bar or not? ”
“Or not, ” Greg said. “I ’m feeling pretty tired. ”
“Oh poo on you, Greggy-poo! ” Alison puffed. He could hear the pout on her lips as she spoke. “But everybody ’s here! Can ’t you just stop by for a while? You don ’t even have to drink. You can be my ride home… ” Her voice fell to a whisper that was louder than she likely realized. “…if you know what I mean. ”
“How much have you had to drink? ” Greg asked suspiciously.
“Too much, ” she admitted at once. “And Paul keeps offering to take me home. It ’s starting to get creepy as fuuuuuu… ”
Her voice broke with static, and the sounds of music and the cacophony of overlapping voices.
“Please? ” she said, once the static had passed. “Pretty please, with my cherry on top? You know I like to be on top. You like it, too. ”
“I do, ” Greg admitted, though reluctantly. “Is it smart for everybody to be at a bar right now? I mean, with everything that is happening? ”
“Don ’t be a stick in the mud, Greg, ” Alison said. “Get your fine ass over here. ”
“Okay, okay, ” Greg said, slowing his car and turning off into some random driveway. “Where are you all at? ”
“Shenanigans, of course! ” she exclaimed happily. “Now, you better hurry, Greggy-leggy. Don ’t make me beggy. ”
She laughed and the signal distorted her laughter into digital mania. Greg ’s phone dropped the signal.
Sighing, Greg reversed out of the driveway —just as the front porch light came on —and headed out onto the highway in the opposite direction. Southbound toward the city, he could see the faint tinge of light pollution on the dark, fog-cobwebbed horizon of darkness.
“Should be safe by now, ” he said to himself. “They wouldn ’t have reopened the bars unless it was safe. ”
The highway was not very safe. Greg slowed as the fog and mist thickened. There were only a few cars on the road as he drove. A few went slow; a few went fast. Most disappeared at intersections and subdivisions. Lampposts along the highway were wanly white or sickly yellow. Greg had to turn off his high beams, the bright haloes refracting diffusely among the thick vapors and therefore obfuscating rather than illuminating the road. It was easier to see with low beams. He turned his windshield wipers on to clear away the condensation. Afte ra while he turned on the radio, though he was in no mood for music. Many of the stations were eaten with static. As he flipped through them he became restless. A station cut clear through the static infecting the others, and his hand paused a moment at a News station.
“…surging through the Southern states while Northern states are seeing a spike of their own… ”
Instinctively he changed the station, flipping through a while longer until another station cut clean through the static to a song that was in the middle of its chorus, the singer ’s obnoxious voice pealing with a yo-yoing yodel.
“…we are young. So we set the world on fi-yer. We can burn bri-y-ihter than the sun… ”
Greg hit the power button and welcomed the humming silence of the benighted highway. Taking a deep breath — and feeling a little pinch in his ribs —he sighed. Glancing up at the sky he saw the green star reigning high in the foggy, black sky. Was it larger now? Perhaps it was just his imagination.
His cell phone rang again. He answered.
“Greggy-leggy-poo, ” Alsion said in her singsong drunkenness. “Where are you? ”
“I ’m on my way, ” he said. He added, “Are you sure it ’s safe there? No one ’s coughing are they? ” He asked because he could hear coughing among the music and the voices.
“Just the smokers, Greggy, ” she said. “Don ’t be such a scaredy cat. ”
“Aren ’t you worried about catching it? ” he asked.
“I ’ve had the flu before, Greggy-poo, ” she said. “It ’s no big deal. You gotta ’ live while you can, Greggy-leggy. ”
He heard a familiar voice in the background. The creaking-oak voice was avuncular in its proclamations.
“When you get to be my age you see these ‘pandemics ’ come and go. Yeah, the media drones on and on about it as if the sky is falling, but it never does. They ’re just trying to ‘make it rain ’. Money, I mean. ”
“Is that Jerry? ” Greg asked.
“Yeah, ” Alison said happily. “Jerry ’s here too! ”
“He has a heart condition, ” Greg said.
“Two beers won ’t hurt him, Greggy-poo, ” she cooed.
“That ’s not what I meant, ” Greg said, resentful of her flippancy. “He could contract the… ”
“Woooo, Jerry! ” Alison exclaimed. “Chug that beer, you old fart! ”
Several people cheered as Jerry exhaled in triumphant satisfaction.
“Let me tell you somethin ’ else, ” Jerry slurred. “They want to control you. That ’s what ’s it ’s all about! Take a little freedom here. Take a little freedom there. Bit by bit. Before you know it, you are living in a Communist country! ”
“Preach it, Jerry! ” someone said. Probably Thomas.
“Besides, masks don ’t do anything anyway. I mean, wearing underwear and jeans don ’t keep a fart from leaking out, do they? How ’s a mask do anything? I ’m not no vir…virile…ventriloquist or whatever, but even I know that. ”
A waspish swarm of static swelled and the phone dropped the call. Greg hesitated to put the phone down, and almost dialed Alison ’s number. But he kept hearing her comment “scaredy cat ” and refrained. He drove on through the fog and the shadows.
He hated the console light. It reminded him of the green star. It was unnatural. Artificial. Synthetic. Unreal. Looking toward the South, and the city, he saw that the light pollution seemed tinged green, too. He wished to see the sun, but the sun had been blacked out all day by the rainclouds. Now that the clouds were gone, the night had come, and with it this oppressive fog.
“Paranoid, ” he told himself. “The fog ’s distorting it. ”
He continued Southbound. He continued rationalizing away his fears while suburbia faded in and out of the fog on either side of the highway. The homes were like haunted houses dimmed darkly in the fog, or else phantasms with pale porchlights that were eaten up with distance and shadow and mist. He was a numbers man; an accountant. He knew about percentages and rates and interest and such, and he told himself that numbers were nothing to fear when they at 1%. Even so, watching the houses lurch out of, and dissolve back into, darkness made him uneasy. So many houses. So many people. How many people would accept the odds of dying from something when the reward for the wager was merely the status quo? It was a death sentence everyone agreed to pass on someone randomly; someone they may never see or know in their lifetime.
Then again, he knew that odds were strange things that made allowances for aberrations at unpredictable rates. Various circumstances could exponentially increase the odds of something happening within sectors and conditions. To concentrate numbers, and decrease distance while increasing time, were to multiply the odds that the unlikely scenario would play out. Pascal ’s wager, in other words, was not such a longshot in a universe of infinite possibilities. And besides, odds could also tilt drastically against someone — such as someone attending a church —and suddenly the odds disadvantage all the people in that church because of circumstances and conditions being ripe for such over-leveraging of occurrences. In other words, by risking the odds an individual invites the possibility of maximum loss, even with minimal waging.
Greg thought about what Jerry had said. The problem was that the danger seemed like it was far away, over and beyond the horizon; happening somewhere else, if it was happening at all. There was a delayed sense of impending peril. Like an asteroid in the Milky Way that was supposed to hit earth as it looped around, year after year, but no one could calculate when. And so days go by, and months, and years, and people forget about it. Or stop believing in it. Then, one night, they are looking up at the stars, thinking about the lives they have been habituated to, and all at once a star falls to earth, only it is not a star —it is the asteroid —and they have been staring at it all along, but not recognizing it until, at long last, it comes crashing down upon their complacent heads.
Chicken Little is vindicated, but not in a way that will bring any satisfaction to himself or anyone else.
“The sky is falling, ” Greg said. “Isn ’t it? ”
He frowned down at the N95 mask. He did not know what to think.
His cell phone rang. He answered it.
“Please join us, soon, ” Alison pleaded. “Hurry. Paul is being weird. So is Mikey.. He is very handsy. Won ’t keep his distance. ”
“Alison, ” he said seriously, “stay away from them. Do you hear me? Where ’s Rachel? You and Rachel need to look out for each other until I get there. ”
He tried to accelerate his Charger, but the fog was too thick and he almost hit a opossum crossing the road. He swerved, then slowed. Alison was speaking like a child. It was quiet behind her, except for a knocking noise.
“Rachel is with the others, ” she said. “I ’m in the restroom. By myself. I locked the door. People are banging on it. Paul and Mikey won ’t leave me alone. ”
“Alison, do you have your mask? ”
There was a long pause. “No, ” she said, her voice cracking tearfully. “I left it in my car. Or I threw it away. I don ’t remember. ”
“Just…just stay in the restroom, ” Greg said. “And don ’t open it unless it ’s me talking to you. Okay? ”
“Okay, ” she whimpered. There was another long pause. “Greg…I ’m scared… ”
The static swarmed and the signal dropped. Greg ’s heart hammered upon his aching rib cage. He had known Alison for two years now. They had made out once at a company function —while both were serving as bartenders. Nothing else came of it except casual flirtation and friendly conversations. Until recently Greg had been engaged to a young woman he had dated in college. Partying together through college had convinced them that they were a good match. A month of lockdown spent together in the same apartment for 24 hours proved otherwise. When lockdown ended, Greg and his former fiancee bid each other adieu in colorful, uncompromising fashion. It was for the best, in the end. They were not a good couple without other people to distract one another from each others ’ incompatibilities.
When he told Alison about the fallout, she quickly began to pull him in her own direction, culminating in a recent night of bedtime gymnastics.
“She said she gets paranoid when she ’s drunk, ” he reassured himself. “Or when she smokes pot. She probably did a little of both tonight. Just to celebrate the first month free from the lockdown. A lot of people are indulging right now. Going wild. ”
He glanced, irresistibly, up at the green star. He tried to speak aloud again —some trite rationalization involving numbers and odds and such —but his voice died in his throat.
The dilapidated strip malls slowly unfurled out of the fog, and the old fast-food restaurants, the dive bars, and then the newer strip malls, and the newer fast-food restaurants, and then the hipster stores, and wholesale foods, and niche shops. More streetlights bleared sleepily through the fog and mist. The buildings crowded closer together, occasionally giving way to a block of townhouses, a sushi restaurant, a records store. Then the more eccentric bars, and the dance clubs, and lounges, and music halls. Greg told himself that the green tinge to the fog was a result of all of the neon signs for food and beer, and the green traffic lights strung over the roadways, as well as the cars passing by more frequently now, speeding as if they could outstrip Death himself.
But Greg could not ignore the people standing on the sidewalks, and in front of the clubs, and near the outdoor dining areas. They all stared at him through the fog as he passed, their mouths gaping open to spew the fog from within the greenly glowing recesses of their open throats. Slack-jawed, they gaped and spewed. Idiotically they gawped, spreading the fog thickly throughout the city. Greg ’s hand fumbled for his N95 mask, then quickly secured it over his nose and mouth. The green glow of their eyes followed his Charger as he hurried toward Shenanigans.
His cell phone range. He picked it up and answered. The line was digitally fragmented.
“…Greggy-poo…hurry…come to us… ”
The call dropped and he found that he had a hard time breathing. His lungs ached. They had been aching all along.
Shenanigans was overflowing with people. They all stared at Greg as he parked his car down the street. They all spewed the green fog.
Keeping one hand on his mask, Greg walked toward the bar, its bright neon sign dimmed in the fog. Directly overhead the green star glowed bright and sickly. It was bigger than before. Greg tried not to look at it, or the other people crowding the street. He focused on the door.
The crowd parted as he passed. Their green eyes followed, and they never stopped spewing the green fog, but they did not impede him. He soon saw why.
Alison greeted Greg at the door. She was wearing a Summer skirt and a green tanktop. Her blonde hair was permed into lively curls. When she spoke the green fog sputtered from her mouth.
“Join us, ” she said, her voice distorted with static. “There is nothing to fear. Do not live in fear. Do not fall prey to their control. ”
Greg backed away, holding his mask tight to his face, but the crowd closed in around him, blocking his retreat.
“Alison, ” he begged. “Please…you need help. All of you need help… You are infected. ”
“Do not fear, ” Alison said, her voice a digital drone. “Do not live in fear. Live in liberty. Do not be controlled. Think for yourself. Join us. ”
The crowd enclosed her.
“THINK FOR YOURSELF. JOIN US. BE FREE. BE UNAFRAID. ”
The green fog swirled thickly around Greg. He had nowhere to go. The green star reigned above him and beyond him. It grew larger, coming closer, and what was a star became as a sun, its corona making the night as if a day bright with a pestilent color. The green light burned brighter than the sun. His lungs ached. He could not breathe. An iron maiden clamped upon his brain. The mask could do nothing.
He had already been infected.