“Dear Faculty and Students,
There has been a confirmed case of COVID19 on our school property as of March 9th. Because of this, we will be extending the online term by one week. During this time, the school is taking extra precautions to increase sanitation and prevent contagion. We highly recommend maintaining curfew, observing quarantine, and avoiding social gatherings. We hope to update you with more information as more on this virus is released.”
The most exciting thing to happen today was that my house ran out of toilet paper. It was approximately twelve fifty-five in the afternoon. My brother Thomas yelled from the bathroom for another roll. This is usually the part when my Mom would throw one up to the second floor. It’s become such a common occurrence that her accuracy has improved, and I’ve seen her throw the roll directly at my feet.
This time though, my Mom couldn’t even do her wind-up to throw a roll; we were out of toilet paper. As one of the families who hadn’t thought to bulk buy everything in preparation for times of mass quarantine, we were stuck. Stuck in a two story house, with four people inside. And no toilet paper.
Of course Thomas would be the one to use more than his ration of toilet paper. He probably bundled it up into mittens to stay warm, or wrapped it around his head out of boredom. Since his middle school hadn’t been able to resume classes online, quarantine was his infinitely extended spring break. I, on the other hand, had an online class in five minutes. I’ll tell you one thing about online classes: when you’re used to being around people in real time, learning how to whisper through the internet is hard. You can’t exactly have a private conversation in a chat room, or over the video conference that your teacher is about to join. I still had three minutes until class began, so I texted Lynn to log on early to Zoom (the quintessential online teaching platform being used by schools across the nation) so that I could tell her something. “Ok,” she texted back. Lynn’s been cold with me lately, but I would have to process that later. For now: toilet paper.
“Lynn, something happened over here,” I said through the screen.
“Do you have the virus?” she asked, her face dropping. She probably turned up her computer brightness to spot fever sweat on me, or adjusted her volume, waiting for my inevitable cough.
“Thomas used the last of the toilet paper today. We don’t have anymore.”
“Sucks to suck,” Lynn replied. “My mom went out weeks ago to buy an entire stock shelf from Costco. We have so much hand soap and toilet paper here we were thinking of, like, selling it for a profit. A lot of YouTubers are asking for donations for kids without school lunches. The needy, you know?” I knew exactly what Lynn wanted from me now.
“How much for three rolls?”
“Rayenne, please,” Lynn began. “Think about the people who don’t even have food. Do you really need toilet paper from me? Don’t you still have paper towels?” She pursed her lips from behind the screen as three more of our classmates joined. Our teacher’s connection was about to start, and our window of private conversation was about to close.
“Really Lynn?” I asked, exasperated. Lynn looked at her notes, and our biology class began.
Today’s bio class consisted of a lab, which meant I put on my bathrobe (lab coats are held hostage at school) and filled a bowl with water and pepper. My bio teacher, Mrs. Slythe, then instructed us to dip our fingers in soapy water and then place our fingers into the bowl. The pepper quickly floated towards the edge of the bowl, away from our soapy fingers.
“Now, why did this happen?” Mrs. Slythe asked in the online class.
“Like, a chemical reaction?” Lynn offered.
Lynn has always been difficult with any imposed restriction. Not just in school, where she tends to find rapturous joy in each of her classes. She also finds this same endorphin-piquing ecstasy from the energy of anyone around her. While I’ve been home in quarantine for the past three weeks, Lynn managed to squeeze in a trip to Florida with her family before the beaches were shut down. She has had a wine night with friends, invited boys over, and even traveled to New York City just to walk around. Her defense: “I’m young and immune to this disease.” She’s partially correct, but only because no one our age has died from it yet.
Maybe it’s not even her freedom, her sheer independence, that annoys me. Maybe it’s her recklessness, her lack of responsibility, or her general popularity. Compared to her, I’m normal. I have normal brown hair that frizzes up in the heat and boring green eyes. My nose looks like my Mom’s: squished. It compliments my face like the whiskers of a kitten, except no boys really like kittens. Boys like dogs, and Lynn is a Golden Retriever.
“Not exactly, Lynn,” Mrs. Slythe replied. “It’s actually more of a demonstration of — anyone know?”
I noticed that Tristan was also on this Zoom call. Tristan usually skips class since our grades turned to pass/fail when our school delayed the semester. Today, though, his blond hair was practically shimmering in his low-quality webcam.
“Is it similar to how soap works? Like the representation of germs against soap?” my voice timid.
“Exactly,” Mrs. Slythe said, “It shows exactly the properties of soap. Soap has dual molecules: some of the molecules attract fats and proteins and repel water. The other molecules do the exact opposite. Great job Reyanne.”
Tristan saw that, too. My great job. I watched the laggy glitch of blonde hair turn to regard my webcam on the bottom right of the page. Lynn’s webcam paused for a moment, and it reactivated. I saw that her jaw had tensed up, and a cold expression had come over her face.
Mrs. Slythe continued: “This whole lab is to reiterate the reasons we need to wash our hands at a time like this. There have been too many reported cases in China, and then in Italy, and now even in Canada. The disease is already here, and there are only a few things we can do. I am so happy to see all of you socially distancing yourselves. This lab lets us also see how important washing our hands is. When the pepper floats away from your soap, it’s just like the COVID-19 virus leaving our bodies when we wash our hands. Please remember, even if you don’t think that teens are getting the same effects as adults are, that this is a serious disease.”
She’s right; I know it. Ever since the mandated curfew hours and the lack of surgical masks, the world seems manic. Stores are closed unless they are essential. All Americans abroad were sent back home as if being conscripted. Barely anyone goes outside.
After class, Lynn is the one to text me to “stay on.” We wait as Ms. Slythe emails us a lab report while her young kids wail in the background. “For this lab report, I need you to complete it with a partner. You’ll have to set up at least three or four Zoom private calls, and it will be due at the end of the week. Let me know what your partner pairs are by the end of the day tomorrow by sending me an email.”
A few moments afterward, my computer beeps. It jars Mrs. Slythe, who clicks around her own computer to see if it was her. My computer dings again, and I try to find the mute button. “Sorry,” I say to the group.
“No problem Reyanne. Okay! Same time tomorrow. Stay safe!” Mrs. Slythe’s sign-off lags and we all catch a few moments of her turning around to scold her children. It is one of the more interesting parts of my afternoon.
I clicked around to see where the beeps were coming from. It must have been a shady text from Lynn about lab partners, but why wouldn’t she have just texted me? And plus, she snaps at me moments after the class has logged off:“Hey. What were those beeps about?”
“I don’t know yet,” I mumble.
“Well -lewk, if you’d like the toilet paper, you’ll have to like come by my house and get it. Times are too dire for negotiations, or refunds. I’ve decided to sell it to you: seventy-five dollars. Each roll is twenty five. I’ll even donate the money to the school lunch charity. It’s like you’re making the donation, except it will be in my name. You should feel good about that.”
That’s the last detail you should know about Lynn: she’s my next-door neighbor. My ex-BFF found her new calling among the TikTok dancers and the celebrity vloggers. Some people say she once did a Muckbang video of her eating an entire bucket of KFC chicken before she turned vegan. They say she has it as “unlisted” and that only her true friends are able to see it.
People say a lot of things about Lynn because people care about Lynn. She speaks with the knowledge that her words have value. She will never have to barter for a consonant or fight for her vowels. When she speaks, people listen. Her words carry eloquence, something that her wealth has afforded her. Her words carry money: the subtle knowledge that everything she wants will be hers, so she might as well ask politely.
I’m about to give up on the Mystery Beeping Sound. I’ll chalk it up to another of the quarentine’s wild pranks. Instead, I see a new green dot by Tristan’s name. I click on it. It’s a profile I’ve visited a lot of times before. This time, when I click into his name, I see two messages. I can’t believe that I didn’t get a notification. It must have been because it was during class time. The messages read: “Hey, so I don’t usually do this but — ” End of message one. Then: “You seem like you know what’s going on. Do you wanna be lab partners for this thing?” It might as well have had a signature and dotted line underneath with the name “Tristan Barry.” I’m beaming now, smiling with my teeth bare and —
“What are you looking at?” Lynn spits. I turn my smile into a social-distance grimace and answer Lynn.
“Sorry, nothing.”
“It was those beeps from class, wasn’t it? It was you.”
“It was just about the lab,” I say.
“From who?” Lynn tilts her head toward me. It’s interesting how I can feel so intimidated while inside my own bedroom.
“Tristan.” Game, set, match. Lynn has had her eye on Tristan ever since she discovered boys. Albeit, she did discover them a few months before I did, and maybe that leg up was what sparked her into overdrive compared to me. Still, this can’t be good for her confidence.
“Gawwt it.” Lynn swivels in her chair back and forth and holds up three-ply of toilet paper. “Listen Reyanne, I know you, like, live in the same room as your brother. I know your family isn’t set up like mine is. Just come and get the toilet paper. It’s what neighbors should do for each other.” This is too clean, too generous. I know what comes next. “I’m so willing to donate these to your house if you need it, but I only ask a small favor. You’ll have to tell Tristan no, so he can be my lab partner.”
Of course this is her plot. She saw the advantages it had for me: three Zoom dates alone with Tristan. We would talk and laugh about our science teacher with her unruly children. He would show me his bedroom, give me a tour. I’d notice the record player he stuck in the back corner, and the vinyl of the “Arctic Monkeys” propped up against the wall. We would sit together and our conversations would start as being science-related and then quickly soar off topic. We must be bored, he would say, and our Zoom calls would extend into the nighttime as we each lay in our beds. There would be none of the usual reservations of a teenage girl: worrying that he might kiss me. I would visualize how to kiss him back. Tristan would tell me about his quarantine, his food supply, and I would tell him the hilarious toilet paper story. Except, when I tell him how I denied the blackmail of Lynn’s offer, he would thank me for choosing him over her ploy of toilet paper. He would actually drive some over himself tomorrow. Wow, I would say. The next day I would wait as he drove up in his 2008 Mercury Milano, a car he must have bought for himself, bargained for, deserved. Unlike every roll of gluttonous toilet paper inside of Lynn’s padded life.
I would know it was him before he even got out of his car: his blonde hair would shimmer through the sunroof. When he handed over the toilet paper, I would be confused whether or not he liked me. His medical mask would block most of his gorgeous smile. His dimples. I would have to guess what he felt for me, until a week later, when he would confess to me over the Zoom call (which we now have decided to schedule ourselves, on our own time) that he has tested negative for the virus and had a test for me. He would come to my house. His car would be a comfortable sight in the foriegn world of pandemic and chaos. My parents would let him inside, too, because he would have his test results in his hand and do mine right at the kitchen table. It would come back negative, because of course it would, and he would lean over. We would kiss, and the combined body heat would make us immune to the disease.
When this whole pandemic is over, we would see each other in person. School would resume right before prom and it would only make sense that our social communion happened in front of the entire school. Lynn would get flustered finding a date, not expecting school to resume so quickly, and I would invite her to dance with us. I would push her aside only during the slow dance, where Tristan would hold me as we swayed to a song with lyrics that echoed the way this virus has affected us.
I wouldn’t feel fear or anxiety. I wouldn’t wake up and not know the next level of restrictions our government would effect. I wouldn’t feel blinded to the death toll. All I could feel, in the dark sanitation of quarantine, are his lips. His tousled blonde hair brushing past my cheek as he kisses my neck. His freckled face —
“Are you sure I can’t just pay you the seventy-five dollars?”
The Situation at Hand-Washing
“Dear Faculty and Students,
In keeping with our promise of updates, we would like to inform our community of the transportation restrictions within the country. All state travel has been banned, and all markets have been closed unless they are deemed a necessity. We hope you are staying healthy and avoiding contact with carriers of the disease. A recent update shows that carriers will show no symptoms for up to fourteen days before symptoms present, so caution and quarantine are as important as ever.”
I promise I’ll walk over to Lynn’s house. Let me just find something to wear.
If my apparent pessimism isn’t already warranted by my standard appearance, I do have other reasons. One reason is that I share a room with Thomas. Somehow, in the master plan of our house’s construction, it came upon no one’s mind to include a seperate room for the oldest girl. Instead, I enjoyed the first three years of my life (years when I was basically unconscious) with a seperate room. Then Thomas came into the world, and the room now has evidence of him all over.
My side of the room is marked by its cleanliness. My papers are stacked inside folders. My computer is the centerpiece of my desk. Otherwise, my side of the room is probably most distinguished for its closet. Since there was only one closet in the bedroom, Thomas graciously offered it to me. My closet is like my safe space. It’s the only door I can close to be in privacy. Sometimes, I can do this in the bathroom, but after too long people start asking questions.
Thomas’ side is rancid. His clothes became a cesspool of sweatpants and t-shirts, with strange tube socks that never match. It’s as if Thomas comes home and melts into his sheets. Over time, his clothes-pile has almost reached up to form a nightstand.
Now that we are quarantined together, he has no reason to go outside, and therefore no reason to change clothes. This brings me to my next point: the smell.
Thomas “traps.” I don’t really look into his private life, but I do notice when certain things become a correlation. He started picking up words that don’t fit the shape of his face. Words like “dope” and “deadass” spew out from him as if in an exorcism. And then there’s the synthetic smell. One of burnt rubber and evergreen. He insists what he sells is odorless, but I’ve begun investing in essential oil diffusers. When our parents enter the room the overall scent is of a sanitary elderly home. Too much perfume.
I’ve never been one too interested in the private dealings of druggies, but I do wonder what demand there is for drugs during this apocalypse. Do people really need Thomas’ synthetic depressant to soothe their minds, or is this pandemic a moment of clarity for people who otherwise live within a fog?
More than usual, though, Thomas’ small business has made him lethargic. He feels perfectly happy staying in bed for entire days, and part of me is envious. Thomas is a middle-schooler who adapted entirely to the rules of a quarantine. He has no qualms with staying in bed and planning his schedules around online meet-ups. If anything, he has taken to inhaling more of his burnt evergreens. It must distract him, distort him, and maybe make him feel less lonely.
My loneliness cure is my closet, and I need it before I walk over to Lynn’s house. I’ve been presented with two options: one, say no to Tristan without any explanation other than cyber-peer pressure. The other option is to sell out, quite literally, and trade my dignity for a three-ply of bath tissue. Without the quarantine in place, this might have possibly been an easy choice. For now, though, I feel grateful to have something to occupy my mind with.
If Tristan’s lab-partner request was the best chance I have at dating, I should just take it. I live in an age where the majority of people’s Tinder profiles are them correcting their own age. Facetiming is not the same as going to see your friends, and if you need proof, just take a look at how stale Jimmy Fallon seems while recording on his iPhone. Lynn might not even be a friend, but a small part of me still wants to be on her good side.
My best friend was inside her somewhere. Lynn’s perfect body was like a petri dish that her virulent vibrance would occupy. Apparently, we had the same disease, because our friendship was once perfect. Long days were spent lounging on the nearby golf course until a worker would kick us off. Once, we found a cooler filled with beer cans, and we stuffed as many as we could into our tank tops. They were still cold when the sun went down over the treetops, and we didn’t speak. She must have truly been ill. Now she’s found a cure to me: validation. Whatever perfect, shiny, significant virus was inside of her during our formative years has now left. Lynn’s vaccine is her popularity, taken in doses of TikTok and Instagram. She felt fine then, and feels fine now. The side effect: me.
Before I leave my house, I need to prepare. I strap tube socks over top of my jeans like Thomas would. I put on a long sleeve thermal shirt and hat. Finally, I wiggle inside a plastic painters get-up that serves as a faux-hazmat suit until the real ones come back in stock. My mom won’t let me go outside without gloves and a surgical mask. She hesitates before even letting me out. “We don’t have this many N-95s to just use like this!”
I have a trump card though. “Lynn offered to give us three rolls of toilet paper since we ran out.”
“Oh, well in that case, just come back quickly.” Honestly, however this exchange with Lynn goes, I’m just happy I am able to go outside for a minute.
From outside my screen door, the world is brighter. You never realize how detached human beings can become when inside for too long. The sun is assaulting my eyes with its powerful beams. I instantly feel sweat forming under my thermal wear. My breaths get more watery. Still, it’s gorgeous outside. The sun is setting over the nearby golf course, now devoid of its purpose. A non-essential commodity.
I text Lynn to tell her I’m walking over. Although she lives next to me, her house is significantly larger than my own. Her tiered shutters are sparkling where mine are rusted and brown. Last year, her family added a detached garage to cater to their new Tesla. Before the car was ordered, I remember hearing the unrepentant sounds of underage drinking. Lynn threw a party with her close-knit group of followers inside the new garage. At one of my weaker moments, I walked by to see that the garage had been laid out with pillowcases and blankets on the floor. I could only assume the night’s itinerary was stiff drinking and deep sleeping. Nonessential commodities.
Lynn’s parents aren’t home, so Lynn will use the back door to greet me. “Greet” might be too kind a word, because when she comes out in her surgical mask, somehow personalized with her name on it, she barely waves hello. Instead, she throws me the three rolls of toilet paper from six feet away and yells, “You’ve always been good to me Rayenne.”
“So I know you’ll just decline Tristan’s lab invite. You wouldn’t want to work with him anyway. He’d probably make you do all of the work.” She pauses. “So you’ll be saying no?”.
I am unsure how to reply. So I don’t. I pick up the toilet paper rolls from her driveway as she turns her skinny back to me. How were we ever best friends?
It’s interactions like that which remind me what pandemics actually feel like: Supreme loneliness. Utter loneliness. The type that creeps into your arms and makes you shiver. It infects your head and makes you weep. It attaches to your body and gives you COVID-19. That last part isn’t true, but how can quarantine really be so helpful when it makes us feel sick on the inside?
As I walk home, I try to focus on the falling sun. I see how the first blooms of spring are peeking out from twigs. I notice the lights come on inside of neighborhood houses as they prepare for another “quarent-routine.” I see the heads of gaming teens and the eyes of reading fathers. The foreheads of cooking mothers who add water to their soups to last longer.
Food hasn’t been an issue back home, but Lynn’s family is not like mine. Food, like toilet paper, is now something to be grateful for. Her mom works as a business consultant. She is perfectly capable of handling her consulting from the comfort of her vegan home with children as detached as her garage. My mom isn’t as lucky, as restaurant owners can’t exactly feed people over Facetime.
My mom has taken to being optimistic. She hangs onto any news with a deadline for this quarantine. She will read aloud reports of cures or discharges, and each time her voice trembles a bit more. For Thomas and me, it just means we are cut off from her take-home trays of chicken marsala or ribeye steak. It has been almost a month since a shrimp dish has entered our home; now our diet focuses more on sustainable proteins like beans and veggies. If anything, I think it makes me fit into my hazmat suit a little better.
“Dear Faculty and Students,
We have received reports that some of our online instructors have tested positive for the virus, so some online classes are being suspended. For unaffected subjects, teachers have offered to teach dual courses while the infected are in intensive care. Please take this time to review hygiene guidelines and only admit yourself to hospitals if you are showing symptoms of the virus. This includes a dry cough and fever. If not, please stay home, as hospitals are currently over-capacity and unable to process increased demands. Let’s do our best to ensure the speedy recovery of our teachers.”
When we log onto Zoom the next morning, I know Lynn will continue to hate me. Even when I do what she asks. Add Tristan to the list. He will know how frail I am for giving no explanation for a flaky answer. Ms. Slythe gives some sort of news report on current events five minutes before class begins, but I’m distracted looking at the profile pictures of Lynn, and then Tristan, and then Lynn.
They look like they should be together. Her deep tan and his freckles. Her dip-dyed hair and his shimmering blond head. These two people should be the ones connecting, not someone who showed up with three toilet paper rolls and was rewarded with extra chicken breast for dinner. Not someone who went to sleep in a smoke-filled room after a weak promise from Thomas to stop after he finishes his stash. Not someone who feels this supreme loneliness.
“I wanted to give you all an update from our school principal,” Ms. Slythe reads from her computer. “We have officially decided to suspend all in-person meetings due to the continuing spread of the coronavirus around America. This means that the rest of the year, officially, will be held online. All arrangements for college planning, social events, and club activities will be dealt with by their respective committees.”
I see it now: our prom held online. Thomas sitting next to me as I video chat in my Mom’s old dress, the only one that looked acceptable with all the tailors closed. The chat room would lag. Tristan wouldn’t show up.
Graduation: we are emailed diplomas without being able to hug our best friends goodbye before we are shipped across the country. My diploma is emailed to me in a slimy PDF that insults and undercuts everything I have worked for.
No longer will there be school lunches. I see my future of apocalyptic feasts with chicken carcassess and kidney beans.
There is no more time to experience a high-school crush. No more time to act as the underdog to a bully, to slide down the hallways on my back like they do in that Vine video. It all changed when Ms. Slythe so calmly made her speech on a webcam. The stakes, to her, are nothing. She will care only for her children, knowing that their senior proms and dates will be uninterrupted by a new world with a cure. Her snotty children will laugh with her as they pretend to remember the days spent indoors during their youth, filling their heads with Ms. Slythe’s memories rather than their own.
And now, this woman has the audacity to start asking for the partner match-ups.
“So Tom and Damon emailed me yesterday, and so did Jordan and Matti. We’ve got Tamir and Kayla, Sophie and Arnold, and then the only four I didn’t get an email from was Lynn, Rayenne, Tris-
I hesitated. I can’t believe she had to say my name like that: padded between Lynn’s and Tristan’s like a foreign invader. I didn’t know what to do, so I let the virus into me. Some deep, dark well of viral urge struck me inside of my decomposing human heart. I clicked Lynn’s profile on Zoom, and removed her from the chat. Her little square popped away from the screen, making a boop. The teacher paused.
“Did something happen?” Ms. Slythe asks.
Something did happen. When I left Lynn’s house the other day, some innate element bonded to me. It might have been hatred, jealousy, or spite. I didn’t message Tristan like I told her I would. I sent her a fake screenshot, and went to bed thinking I’d delay the problem for when I had a clearer mind.
I only had a few moments left before Lynn would come back online. “Mrs. Slythe, excuse me?” I wind through the chattering robotic voices on screen. “Excuse me, Lynn just texted me to tell me her Wifi went down, but that she wants to work with Cody.”
“Okay,” Ms. Slythe replies. “So that leaves you and Tristan together.” Trisan nods, and his hair wobbles. I wobble in response.
The stakes, to Ms. Slythe, are nothing.
Lynn comes back online just in time for me to see her expressive neck veins pop through her pixelated camera. She is reborn. “Next class I want Part A of the report done. This means that over the weekend I want you to make at least two Zoom calls to your partner and organize your thoughts. I’ll see you all Monday. Stay safe.” I swear I could hear one of Ms. Slythe’s infants vomiting behind her.
As for me: I’ve found a new hobby. His name is Tristan, and as of today we are contractually obligated to go on internet dates over the weekend.
Also, I lied to Lynn. I did send a message back to Tristan the other night. My response: Hell yes.
My phone beeps continuously with the sound of Lynn’s texts. Stay online after class. STAY ON. STAY ONLINE AFTER CLASS. I close my laptop and roll back in my chair. I have no idea what will happen next.
Someone might, though. I call up Bobby.
Bobby means a great deal to a very small number of people. He was rushed home on a private flight from London when he heard news of the pandemic. Bobby, although only seventeen and without a driver’s license, used his own funds to whisk himself back for protection. To me, Bobby has been like a brother without the smoky byproduct. I listen downstairs where Thomas insists he has to go outside to walk around. Bobby is content to stay home and watch the world burn.
As a kid, I met Bobby through Lynn. He would show up as the contingency to his parents’ socializing with her parents. Lynn hated his vibe, and refused to acknowledge him. I didn’t mind him. Bobby had a thick chin and bulky thighs. He seemed stuck in the prepubescent phase where chubby middle schoolers decide their baby fat is less apparent beneath a basketball jersey. Now in high school, Bobby’s flabbiness hadn’t subsided. Instead, it has added to his wisdom.
I remember when he left school before winter break and didn’t re-enroll himself. Something about his “mutual fund” needing his full attention. This boy had never really cared for the shimmer of celebrity or the perfectly tousled hair. His hair is always unkempt, or hidden under a baseball cap. What he lacks in appearance he makes up for in prediction.
While I never truly believe in magic, there are some things that fool me today. I remember going to a magic show with Thomas when he was still cute and watching a magician take out a notebook. Some woman, who looked reliable enough, wrote down her favorite word on the pad and kept it pressed against her chest. There was nothing else to it: the magician knew the word.
Later, he let other audience members try. He wanted to increase his sample size and make us all believers. All it took was the pad pressed against someone’s heart for him to comprehend the word on the page, no matter how exotic. By the end of the act, words like “fortitude,” “masochism,” and “conniption” were as easy to reveal as “red,” “truck,” and “olive.”
Bobby has this same power; he’s just not as mystical. He never touched a tarot deck, in the same way the magician never had to touch the notebook pages. Bobby simply knows things.
I dial his number and wait for him to respond. He will respond. The screen flashes to black. It takes me a moment to realize that Bobby is sitting at his PC with only the light of the router highlighting his face. He looks like a vampire.
“You’ll err wannagetalotta food now. They’re err probbly gonna close all the stores starting Mondee.”
Bobby hasn’t found a lot of friends. It’s because not everyone can keep his pace of life. He starts a conversation like a track race. If you mess up on the starting line, there’s not many ways for you to recover. Few people feel they can launch into Bobby’s mind and make it out sane. My method: I try to keep my objective fixed like an army officer.
“Bobby, I need you to tell me what to do.”
“What yewneedta do is buy nonperishables. Invest when the DOW reaches 2500, never before. Invest in companies that will err sustain. Live. You ever err think about liquidating your college funds? We might be issued tuition refunds if this lasts until next year — ”
“Bobby, Lynn blackmailed me for toilet paper and I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. What can she do to me?” I cut him off. Everything Bobby says is important. He just has so much to say.
Bobby left school when his mutual fund gained so much revenue that he saw no need in doing yoga during gym period and woodworking in a lab. Now he sits behind his custom-built PC and predicts how the world will end. People from Russia have been asking for Zoom consultations with hourly rates exceeding what my Mom makes in a single year. I feel no jealousy toward him. When Rebecca Woodreed told our economics class that her family needed to refinance their home, Bobby recommended his accountant. If Larry Beckdenstien needed his transmission fixed, Bobby moved around his financial tarot cards and set up an investment fund that not only paid for Larry’s transmission, but also his Airpods. Bobby can do amazing things for the people he likes, you just have to get past the —
“The err trend in world stock is that our country is ten days behind Italy. We have ten days to hold before stock options get better. Make some money if you can. Ya’ever place a put on stock? You said Lynn made money off you? Not good — ”
“No, the bargain was more relationship-based.”
“Oh, inthacase the prior intent is most important. If acted in malice upon the completion of the task. For example, murder — ”
“I’m not trying to murder anyone, Bobby.”
“Good, it would violate quarantine laws anyway. Err, so I would just be on the lookout for a rebuttal. Put it in her hands. When the stock market crashes, we wait until it reaches its lowest point and then invest. Wait until she reaches her lowest point.”
“Her lowest point? What if she already has?”
“Rayenne, stay healthy. I’ve gotta shareholder’s meeting now. Thank you for, err, saying hi. It gets lonely in here sometimes.”
Bobby clicks off the screen and his facial shadow disappears. I sort of wish he had a less prophetic recommendation. I know Lynn well enough to already assume my answer.
Lynn is predictable. She phrases sentences that she wants to hear aloud, like yelling “Are you saying you need me to help you with your makeup?” Lynn will flaunt her body on camera but will complain about it in person. She can never take compliments; she refuses them outright. Socially, each part of an activity has to be preplanned to cover all faults. When Lynn shops for a dress, she makes the tailor fit it for her to dance in, but also to run, cook, sprint, jump, and climb in. Lynn leaves no stone unturned. This time, though, she was played like a puppet.
An evil nausea creeps into my stomach. The sick feeling of success. The reviling aura of revenge. Her house is now an island, untouchable and cold. I look outside my window to see Thomas walking outside. This must be permissible by Mom. He walks towards Lynn’s house and then stops at the garage and waits. The garage door opens, and he steps in. What?
I look at my phone. Thirteen missed texts from Lynn. What is going on? Thomas’ shape gets eaten by the garage door. It swallows him as it closes. I read Lynn’s messages:
I know it was you, bitch.
I can see right through you.
If you think you can play me, then just wait.
I hope you enjoy your little quarantine dates. They won’t last for long.
A slew of capitalized curses culminate into a single, final thought: Thomas still sells, right?
She’s outmatched me. I feel myself sinking. I don’t know what she plans to do.. I can’t predict the stock market like Bobby, or maintain my cool like Tristan. There is too much variability in life, even when I’m trapped inside.
What are they doing in that house? My mind wanders to the worst: she could be killing him. Lynn could be recording their interaction and getting Thomas arrested, to rot in an infected jail over misdemeanor charges. She could be making a crooked deal with him: exploiting what he wants for the small price of his soul. I’m terrified not knowing. I have to get out of this house.
When I run downstairs and strap on my painter’s suit, my Mom bites back. “Thomas is outside, you can’t go too.”
“What, is this like some sort of ‘use the bathroom when he gets back’ thing?” I add, “I’ll stand six feet away from him if I see him outside.”
“Why can’t you wait?”
“I think my eyes are going blind from being inside, Mom. Please?” She sees I’ve already strapped on my N-95, the ones that she’s been saving for necessary use.
“Since you’ve already taken one of the masks, I guess so. Don’t do this again without planning it. We are living in a pandemic, Rayenne!” I squeeze out the door and jog over to Lynn’s house.
When I get to her garage, Thomas stands outside as the last sliver closes behind him. I missed it. “What did she do to you?” Thomas stands still for a moment, smiling.
“Actually, nothing. She wanted to see if we needed food.”
“What? Did she mention me?”
“Why would she mention you? No, she was like worried if we were stocked up before the stores close for the apocalypse.”
“That’s it?”
Thomas smirks, “Yeah, that’s it.”
As we walk back, I try to think about why she needed to see Thomas. People have so many reasons for believing what they do; multi-faceted reasons for their decisions. Novellas of their conclusions; encyclopedias for their ethics.
I might never know why Lynn invited Thomas over, or why he has a devilish grin on his face that makes his eyes crinkle through his medical mask. We walk home together, and I wonder if I should distance myself from the brother I share a room with. Something about him feels foreign after his trip to Lynn’s house. Something feels “off.”
I whip out my phone to text Lynn: What did you do?
As we walk in silence, I think back to what Bobby said. He regards this whole pandemic as something economic, monetary, as if it could all be explained away by money. Can Lynn be explained away by her money? Lynn only asked Thomas over to secure her hold over my entire family. She knows we can’t afford to live comfortably in this time of panic, and she probably flaunted her food supply just knowing Thomas would report back to me. Maybe this has been her lowest point. She reminded me again that money rules the world, and I am on the low rung. I have nothing to show for it but the cheap prize of an online date through the laggy connection of my shared bedroom.
The last time I had been outside without a hazmat suit had been in a car. Mom drove me home from school and I saw my last glimpses of people on the streets. This was back when social distancing was only a buzzword, and fathers could gather outside six feet apart and talk about the novelty of these newfound practices. I remember looking out the car window and thinking how odd it is that my neighborhood thought twice about standing next to each other. Everyone thought the virus would pass over us like a wave that never crashed.
Thomas and I strip our hazmat suits and march to the shower upon our mom’s order. Apparently, two people outside might overload our small household, so I take the first shower and Thomas gets cold water. He deserves it after how he betrayed me. Even if he didn’t know it was a betrayal.
Still, something doesn’t feel balanced. Bobby’s psychic powers are a failsafe, and even failsafes should work when the world is crumbling. Right? Either that, or he was wrong, and Lynn’s plan was purely a psychological one: reminding me of just how futile my life is.
I wake up the next morning feeling haggard and nauseated just at the thought of facing another sordid day. My online classes start at eight in the morning, and I doubt that even half the class will show up. It is only when Lynn displays her face on screen that my day changes. As she positions herself, I can’t help but notice her cheeks are redder than usual, and she has bags over her eyes. Through her pixelated webcam I hear a clipped cough. A hack that spills its phlegm onto her computer camera.
It was on Monday that Lynn tested positive for coronavirus.
“Dear Faculty and Students,
Updates: As our school has just been informed, another one of our community has tested positive for COVID19. Today, even the necessity marketplaces have closed due to the governor’s decree. This may mean a rationing process for your family, or donations. I ask that you share with others what you possess in excess, and continue practicing good hygiene. This quarantine stops if we all work together. Additionally, if symptoms of the COVID-19 virus present, please seek medical attention only if it does not cure itself. Please stay healthy.”
Today I have a Zoom call with Tristan, and even though the world is over, I might as well look nice. It’s the first time in two weeks that I do my makeup and hair. I make my brittle strands of hair look uniform and straight, and even put a bit of makeup on to ease the camera. It won’t matter anyway: my computer webcam has the megapixel output of a microwave. Still, it’s Tristan, and in any other instance I’d be speechless around him. Thankfully, we have serious business to talk about.
“So if you write the method section, I’ll list the supplies and the hypothesis section of the report,” Tristan says.
It’s two in the afternoon, and he looks like he just woke up. His hair is tucked inside of a fluffy sweatshirt that I’m not invited into. Hot take: he looks a bit less attractive when I can’t see his hair.
“Sure, and did you want to split up the discussion section?”
“Yeah, I mean we should talk about how the pepper moving is like washing our hands and then probably talk about the whole disease.”
“It’s all fake,” he says out of nowhere.
“This whole pandemic. I think they talk about it like it’s such a huge deal. Did you know that the oceans are becoming less polluted now that people are indoors? And dolphins are swimming closer to shores. This might just be a giant plot for human beings to stop being so harmful.”
“You don’t think the disease is real?”
“There are diseases everywhere, all the time. The only thing that makes this one any different is that it came from China and everyone is being ethnocentric about it.”
The way he says “ethnocentric” makes me more attracted to him. When he talks to me, he makes direct eye contact with his webcam, not his screen, as if he is trying to seduce me through the screen. Meanwhile, I can’t help but move the reflection of my video to the top right corner so I can check it often. I want to appear like I’m listening without judging, and understanding while also looking dateable.
“I think the disease will wash over when the news finds something else to care about. This has happened with Ebola, and AIDS, and every other disease when it began. We’re all here for a short time anyway. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be in-person right now.”
Did he just suggest that we meet up in person? Tristan, the cupid with blond hair, just phrased his sentence in a way that meant ‘Why haven’t we hung out more, in the real world, around everyone who judges you in our cliquey school?’I took his statement for all the meaning it was worth.
“If the disease is nothing, though, then how did two people in our school — ”
“I didn’t say it was fake,” Tristan responds, “it’s definitely a new disease. I just don’t know what makes it more deadly than cancer or bronchitis.”
“I know who has it from our school.” I exhale because I am weak. Telling Tristan that Lynn has the virus will probably make him run over to her castle until she lets down her hair. I tell him anyway.
“Whoa, and doesn’t she live right next to you? Weren’t you two, like, best friends?”
“Yes and no. She does live next to me.”
“Not best friends, got it. Whew. You should definitely stay away from her.”
“Way ahead of you.”
“Listen, I gotta run. My grandparents are gonna do one more trip to the grocery store during Senior Hours before they close up for the week. Finish this up tomorrow?”
“Cool. This is gonna be easy now that we’re together. Way easier.”
He clicks off the Zoom call, and I’m left looking at my made-up expression on the black screen. I see the grin of a high-school crush. My makeup fits my face like a newborn with a temporary tattoo. I don’t look mature enough for a face that needs highlighting. My jaw doesn’t have the structure to seek definition. Still, things will be “easy now that we’re together.” I float on top of these words and grip my laptop to my chest. My entire body heaves over the side of my bed and onto the floor. I hug myself, because no one else is here to hug me. On the other end of the room, Thomas fidgets.
“Rayenne, can I talk to you about something?”
“What Thomas?” He probably overheard my call with Tristan and is going to make fun of my makeup. I should have gone inside my closet.
“Do you think the virus could be fake?”
“No, it’s definitely real. People are dying at high rates all over the world. It’s serious.”
“And you know Lynn has it?” I don’t know exactly how he heard this. Bobby was the first to report it to me when Lynn’s parents called his parents to ask for advice. Bobby heard the call over the phone as Lynn’s parents described the symptoms and yelled, “Yep, that’s, er, that’s COVID-19.” And since Bobby’s word is gold, they took it. How Thomas got the news, I’ll never know.
“So, if she tested positive today, how long do you think she had it for?” Thomas asks. His conversational tone strikes me as strange. He must have softened up because of the quarantine.
“Apparently a person can show no symptoms for the first two weeks before testing positive.”
“Listen Rayenne, I need to tell ya something about yesterday. At Lynn’s house: she kissed me.”
“She texted me to come over and I had no idea why but she pulled me inside and we made out. I just thought it was cool.”
“Was she coughing?”
“Maybe a little, now that I think about it.”
I immediately step away from Thomas. He has it. The disease. coronavirus. COVID-19. There’s no way he doesn’t have it. This was Lynn’s plan after all; the lowest any human being could possibly go. She thinks I took Tristan away from her, and now she’s risking my family’s life. Who knows how she got it? She purposely transmitted it to my household. She wants me to rot like she will. She wants us to get sick in tandem and rekindle our friendship as we draw our last breaths in hospital beds.
Lynn flung her droplets where I would be most vulnerable: my little brother. She might as well have given me the kiss of death. Thomas sleeps next to me, and our beds can’t even be separated by more than six feet in this depressing middle-income home. I am, unmistakably, showered with his putrid droplets daily.
What do I do now? Should I tell Mom? I ran into my closet and shut the door. I put my hand over my mouth, using the sleeve of my sweater as the world’s-worst-respirator. Thomas has never stepped foot inside of here. Maybe I could live out the rest of my days in my closet. There are not many left. I will become part of the exponential curve of fatalities that characterizes this whole pandemic because I never thought an online action might have real-world repercussions.
Thomas must feel an immense guilt which cannot possibly equal the finite pleasure of kissing Lynn. I know Thomas has a soft side, and he will be grappling with his own infection as it takes over his body. He will think of his family even as he finishes off the toilet paper supply and coughs into the open air. He shouldn’t have been doomed to this disease. Not because of me.
I wonder if Lynn had somehow persuaded him to kiss her. Thomas might have put up a fight, but I doubt it. I’d like to assume — as Thomas grows weaker by the hour — that a small part of him fought back. I imagine him resisting her initial lean, and then succumbing only after juggling the options in his mind. It’s not entirely Thomas’ fault.
I should have known Lynn had such a maniacal side to her. This satanic version of her would come out when we were friends. I must have been blinded to it. Now, people say things about how Lynn might have hooked up with a foreign leader, and how her uncle once took her backstage at an Ed Sheeran concert.
I know the real Lynn, and the confirmed cases. She did make a muckbang video of her eating an entire bucket of KFC chicken. I know because I made it with her. In our weakest moments, we sat outside on her porch when muckbang was at the height of its popularity and ordered KFC. “You’ve never tried it?” she said. “You have to try it once. It’s an American staple.”We decided to split a bucket for the sake of the tradition. We ate it outside, together, in a time when doing so would not have been illegal.
I miss some things like that: the feeling of sharing each other’s germs. The privilege of our heightened human experience, no matter how truly disgusting it may be. Like kissing. How rancid and gross. Lynn stuck her slimy bacterial tongue into my brother’s mouth and ruined the immune systems of my whole family. Thomas doesn’t cough lightly; no, if he gets sick, the rest of the family does too.
I have to tell Mom. Thomas will tell on me, but I went outside yesterday with an actual purpose: the toilet paper. Thomas played Judas for the devil’s booty call and he must have known it, too. Mom needs to be told, because Thomas has to self-isolate. It is what the CDC would recommend. It is our best chance of survival. Unless- —
“You have to tell Mom about this,’ I snap through the closet door.
“What would I say?”
“That Lynn kissed you when you saw her and that you are a carrier of the virus. This is serious, Thomas. You need to protect her.”
“Do you have a mask?”
“Use a shirt,” I respond.
“Rayenne, am I going to die?”
“People have recovered.”
“I know, but… you know I smoke. I sell the stuff. My lungs aren’t, you know, as good maybe. Why did she kiss me?”
“I don’t know,” I lie. I do know why she kissed him. It was because of me. Because I am selfish, and I virtually killed my brother to get after Lynn. It is my fault he has the disease. He is perfectly innocent.
“I’ll tell Mom it was my fault. That I told you to get more toilet paper and Lynn coughed on you. Blame it on me.” It’s the least I can do, and I might as well. We all have a curse on our lungs now.
I walk downstairs and fashion a shirt around my mouth. It’s funny, when disease looks you square in the eyes, how your perspective changes. Maybe Thomas had the right idea, self-medicating with his evergreen relaxers and constant clear smoke. I would like a bit of distorted reality, too. The real world is hell.
The Supreme Loneliness washes over me again. I have no one left to confide in: Lynn is possessed, Bobby is too smart, and Tristan doesn’t care about me. Even in the real world I was quarantined. This feeling has always been inside me, waiting for a situation like COVID19 to show me how sad my life is.
I hold the bannister to see my Mom cooking up ground beef for dinner. My Dad sits on the couch, which is his preferred spot for almost any hour of the day. Thomas takes after my father in that way. I wait by the bannister for a moment. I want them to be happy for a few minutes longer.
When Lynn and I made our muckbang video on her white-washed back porch during middle school, she filmed us together. We made stupid, disgusting sounds with the chicken skin. We ate unapologetically, casting radical statements about the taste and oil content of the bucket. We dared each other to eat the last one, after we both set the camera to face her porch deck and lay supine next to each other. I remember laughing but not wanting to laugh, lest I threw up an entire bucket of chicken.
After that summer, Lynn would text me less and less. She started counting exactly how many calories were in her foods. I saw her scan the barcodes of the snacks she brought to lunch, and equate them with WeightWatcher’s points. When I made comments about her obsession, she moved her table to where the girls welcomed diet comparisons.
Later in the year, I was feeling nostalgic and browsing YouTube, looking for our muckbang video to show a friend. I couldn’t find it. The rumor started spreading that it contained some ghastly amount of food; too much for two teen girls to eat. Lynn brushed off the rumor when confronted in class. Instead, she told everyone to talk to me for more information. She insisted that she had only filmed the video at my perverse request, and that, if you were to see the video, you would have seen me gorge on an entire bucket of chicken while I laughed. Grinning fangs and slurping oil. The stories grew to where people would look at my stomach when they passed by, wanting to know if it was possible my gut could take such a beating. I started wearing sweatshirts.
This is the same girl who turned the camera down and laid next to me on the porch. We let the summer sun warm our bodies and coax us into sleep. We giggled about the video the next day. Lynn is the same girl who offered to sell me toilet paper at an exorbitant rate, and then changed her stance when she saw an opportunity to make a new connection.
This is the same girl who infected my family.
Tristan is a hard nut to crack. He has only ever heard Lynn’s side of the story, from Lynn’s side of the world, with sparkles and shadows and snakes in the trees. If this is his worldview, his viewpoint, I won’t disturb it. I can only suggest something: please see both sides, Tristan.
We may not know each other as well as you think, but I know who you are. You’re someone like me. I know that you don’t show up to class because you hate feeling inferior listening to something you don’t care about. I notice when your eyes glaze over and you give up. You think of more important things like the environment and the medical community. You’re a conspiracist, Tristan, so here is our conspiracy:
Things are “easier with us together,” and since I don’t think that’s going to last very long, I want you to know my side of the story. How Lynn infected my family, how I fought hard just to have you notice me, and how I spent my last days during the pandemic.
The world is not in agreement about anything: this virus, the death toll, or the cure. I want to present you my truth, Tristan, so that when you come out of this Armageddon you can sift through the wreckage. You and Lynn are people who can outmatch this disease. Her power is money. Your power is being comfortable in isolation. I am weaker than you both, and I flew too close to the sun.
So, Tristan, here is my tome. The full account of our meeting, and the eventual dialogue I would have hoped to tell you through our online calls. I would have asked for your advice. I would have headed to your counsel. Now, I think it’s time I cut that short.
I might send you this manuscript if my situation becomes more dire, or if I feel the end is inevitable. For now, I’m standing at the bannister, waiting to tell my parents about Thomas’ infection. Would you even care? What would you say?
It may not even be you exactly, Tristan. It may be what you represent: outside-ness. Someone outside myself. I hate to end things like this, but you’re blond hair only carries so much weight on me. Maybe we would click in the real world, maybe I would find that we don’t. Regardless, you’re a beacon for me right now. A fixation. I am fixated. It’s easier when we’re together and I’m actually losing my mind in quarantine. I’m writing to a boy who doesn’t like me and I might not even like him.
I’ve started to stink. We’ve run out of deodorant today. That’s the most eventful thing of my day before Thomas’ infection. I had to rub soap over my armpits and now my sweat is soaking through my shirt. Humans are absolutely animals, Tristan, and I’ve seen it now. Even when we’re in captivity, nothing can keep us apart. We deserve to be caged. We are the virus.
I walk away from the bannister and hold my face.
“Mom,” I utter, “Thomas has the virus. And I accidentally let him get it.”
The room is lit only by the dim, glowing screen. My dress loses saturation with time, but comes through like a colorful avatar on screen. This is virtual prom, a meeting of fifty online students. We are scattered across households, either dressed or in pajamas, and playing songs from the collaborative Spotify playlist made by the young woodworking teacher without a wife. Mostly, the prom happens over Facetime, not Zoom. Different friend groups Facetime each other on iPhones while still in the public Zoom call. They each have their conversations by the punch bowl of their own homes. My screen is the equivalent of dancing with Bobby. We speak pessimistically about how Tristan wouldn’t show, or how the ‘food here sucks.’ My mom made a special spinach and artichoke dip that mainly tastes like cream. She placed it by my desk and garnished my room with streamers before I got embarrassed and made her leave.
Thomas left the house today to find medical treatment at a hospital. Dad agreed to take him, and I prayed there were still enough ventilators for him to have one. He started presenting symptoms the week before prom and self-isolated to the basement. It only got worse. At the worst parts of the night, I could hear his dry heaves turn into sobs. I never wanted this for him, and somehow I feel that Lynn’s actions were my fault. As for Lynn, I’m sure they brought an entire hospital to her bedroom, where she has gold-studded respirators and a higher likelihood of full recovery. Mom tells me it’s possible: some woman in Italy was the first to naturally recover from the disease. I try not to think of it now.
When Thomas left for the hospital, he wasn’t even worried. We were able to get some sort of antibiotic from the local pharmacy that treats the side effects of his cough. He seemed elevated. High. In his natural state. I prayed that he never stopped feeling this way.
I’ve come to think we all need life to be distorted in some way. Some people find it through drugs like caffeine or sugar. Some people find it through online personalities and TikTok stardom. I haven’t found my distortion yet. The world is strikingly clear. It sharpens when I go outside for long walks. I look over to Lynn’s garage and think about the time before it was built, when we were still friends. Does she still think about that?
My world is pessimistic and brutal. I see through most people’s online personas even though it is all they are left with.
The quarantine isn’t stopping anytime soon. I see that clearly now.
“I think, err, thismightbe the most efficient way to do a prom. No one likes proms anyway. Remember junior prom when everyone thought the DJ was an imposter?”
“He was so old!”
“And then the, err, president that year just took over the turntable. That was pretty weird. I feel bad for the old guy, being objectified by his age.”
“Of course you’d feel that way.”
After a moment, I see a small square pop up on our chat. It’s Tristan, wearing a teal blazer his father must have binder-clipped from behind to make fit. His hair is styled with gel, and he sits at the computer desk with a newfound purpose. I see him play an ethnographer as he observes the event. It makes him seem so vulnerable not understanding the status-quo of online prom: he should have brought a Facetime date. Instead, he looks around the chatrooms like a meerkat peeking out of his hole. After a few moments, I invite him to Facetime along with Bobby.
“You invited another person. Err, are they necessary and reliable with insider information?”
“It’s Tristan, the whole reason I got blackmailed. Can you please not talk to him about stocks?”
“Everyone should know about stocks. Especially when the market is getting lower every minute and, err — ”
I cut him off instead, because Tristan still hasn’t answered. I see him look towards his phone and then back at the computer screen. Is he deciding whether or not to speak with me? After we had been so “easy now that we’re together” and I made his time “way easier?”
I turn my brightness off. I don’t want to see prom right now, which is a small luxury that real life doesn’t afford. Instead, I look at my laptop screen and see…me. Normal brown hair, and normal green eyes. The current survivor of a worldwide pandemic that spread its wings into my own home, courtesy of my ex-best-friend. I don’t know what will end this apocalypse. Maybe nothing will.
I believe the virus exists. I also believe that what Tristan said is true: quarantine doesn’t just affect public health. It affects mental health, too. I’ve never spent more time inside my own head. Never before have I thought to such an extent about how my decisions might affect other people, or how I’m perceived when the rest of the world has to view each other through tunnel holes.
Sometimes my own personal virus spreads over my body. It acts in strange ways, letting me know that something is wrong, or making impulsive decisions. I’ve decided I don’t want a cure.
Standing in the center of my virtual prom, and existing only within my own head, I begin to think: I don’t mind it in here.
Dear Faculty and Students,
The pandemic is in full force. No one must leave their quarantines, and self-isolation is absolutely necessary. Buy stocks now. Remain safe, as the future looks bleak for the pessimist and long-delayed for the optimist. This is a time to start caring about yourself. Stay healthy.
World Counsel Ambassador/ Community Consultant,

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