A PANIC ATTACK PANDEMIC STORY
BY DERRICK CANTWELL
The back balcony garbage was surrounded by flies. The sun was scorching down on the trash, creating some form of sick summertime stew. I pushed my foot on one of the bags and a rancid-looking yellowish-brown liquid leaked out onto the balcony.
I had missed the last two garbage days. A direct result of the drink. I was beginning to lose track of the days, getting so drunk that I was passing out all around the house, and waking up in puddles of piss and puke.
There was nothing else to do. I had lost my job and was sitting around the house all day with only the news on my phone and the thoughts in my head. Which was evidently a chaotic combination.
Numbers, numbers, numbers. They were always talking about the numbers. Rising numbers. Soaring numbers. Numbers, numbers, numbers. And in my head, I started to believe that it was only a matter of time.
Any day now, I would be a number. I would catch this thing and die. Dead and gone, a casualty of the corona-germ. The numbers created panic. And panic created sweat. And sweat created dehydration. And dehydration created water… with whiskey.
And nothing happened. All day that day, nothing happened. I sat around drinking, melting into the fabric of the couch. I couldn’t afford the cost of an air-conditioned electricity bill, so I burned in the bright daylight of the August heat.
Even when the sun set, committing its nightly suicide, the heat didn’t subside. The air remained thick, almost like smoke from a fire. And if anyone had the virus, surely their lungs would lose this fight against the thick-headed summer season.
On the internet, everyone had an opinion. There was caution and concern. Conspiracy theories and anti-government movements. A worldwide war on the Web, where memes were used as military attack mechanisms.
And I didn’t know what to believe. Part of me wanted to side with those making a fuss about the virus being fake. I wanted to side with them and say that the numbers were inflated, or downright wrong. But I wasn’t wired that way.
I was the kid in high school who wore gloves in May, just to avoid touching the polls on the public bus with my bare hands. I opened door knobs with my sleeve and flushed toilets with my foot. And now they were talking about a widespread virus.
My hands looked like something you might find in a butcher shop’s meat window. They were off-colored, scabbed, and cracked from excessive hand-washing. Especially after a trip to the supermarket, where the droplet-doomed public would preside.
Fruits and vegetables were off the table, unless they were bagged and frozen, or watered and canned. There were too many risks involved with grabbing loose lemons and limes, or a previously touched tomato.
So I started shopping in the frozen aisle, picking up a variety of pizzas and microwave dinners. Imitation waffles that you place in the toaster. Ice cream by the tub. And French fries in colorful bags.
Once home, it was time for everything to be scrubbed clean. Each box, bag, and booze bottle, wiped down. My hands lathered repeatedly, until they were raw. Heavy-breathing from the masked mayhem of what was once everyday errands.
And then, when sanitation was complete, there was nothing else to do but sit around and wonder. I wondered when I would work again. I wondered when I would be with a woman again. I wondered when I would walk again without worry.
On the back balcony, where the summer stew continued to seep through the trash bag I had stepped on, a dirty white cat was licking at the juices, in search of sustenance. I was a little loaded on liquor when I noticed him, or her.
Somewhere in the back of my cupboard I had a can of tuna. I remembered buying it back in January, before the world went ballistic. I knocked over beans and old boxes of stale cereal, some of which had been hanging around that cupboard since 2017.
When I found the tuna, I opened it up and dumped it into a bowl. Then I poured some water… with whiskey. When I opened the door, the cat ran to the staircase, but it didn’t flee the scene completely.
So I placed the bowl down on the balcony, left the kitchen door open, and took a seat at the table, sweating. I sipped the whiskey-water while watching the cat slowly creep back into sight, like a stealthy scene from a movie.
The cat sniffed around the bowl, examining every inch of it, before finally taking a bite of the tuna. Realizing that the cat also needed something to drink, I filled another bowl with water… no whiskey.
As I approached, the cat ran back to the staircase, far enough from my reach to feel safe. I placed the water bowl down beside the tuna bowl and went back to the table. And I sat watching, sweating, drinking.
The cat ate and took its own drink before locking eyes with me. The door was open, but I could tell it wouldn’t come inside. Of course, I never would have touched it, even if it had come inside, but I still felt bad about its miserable existence.
After its meal, the cat got comfortable, or at least comfortable enough. It rested its belly on the balcony, keeping its eyes locked on me the entire time. I think the cat was trying to trust me, but the stray-life situation kept it on-guard at all times.
“If you come in here, you can’t go on the furniture,” I said to the cat, drunk and seemingly delirious now. “How do I know that you’re not some kind of COVID-carrying cat, eh? How do I know that? How do I know anything anymore?”
The cat yawned, but wouldn’t sleep. It feared being grabbed by the neck and brought inside for supper. The cat was just as cautious as I was with the rest of what was now a society of never-ending sickness.
I stood up and the cat repositioned itself, ready to run as soon as I came anywhere near the balcony. And sure enough, it did. I stepped outside and walked toward the staircase, and it ran down the steps with that laser-like animal speed.
I stood at the edge of the spiral staircase, the moon hanging high, and the cat disappearing in the distance. Fed and a little fatter than it was before. A loner on the run, hitting up lonely maniacs for back balcony meals, and then taking off again.
In the mirror, my face was melting. I wet it and watched as my reflection began to morph. And I thought about an old English teacher who said that it was much too cliché to tell stories in the mirror. But what did she know about anyone’s reflection? Or story?
Did she know that one day millions of people would have nothing else at home but the reflection in the mirror? During the peak of the pandemic, my reflection was the closest thing I had to human intimacy.
I could place my hand on the mirror and mimic touching the skin of another living soul. I could pretend that the person looking back at me wasn’t so ugly. Wasn’t so me. But this technique didn’t work when my face was morphing. It was definitely me.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar morph. I had seen it before, thanks to the presence of psychedelic drugs. But I didn’t take anything that day. I was wound up, there was no denying that, but only on water… with whiskey.
The bathroom itself was a hotbox from Hell. The kind of room in which Satan and his buddies gang-banged each other. A sweaty, semen-soaked room full of evil spirits and men morphing into mythical-like creatures of themselves in the mirror.
I pulled off my shirt, which was practically attached to my skin. I struggled to get it over my head, and almost found myself suffocated by cotton. I wet my face again and left the bathroom. I think I needed to piss, but I didn’t.
And I could hear myself breathing. Heavy, amplified breaths, ringing through my head, drowning out all other sounds. It felt like my face was pressed up against a speaker at a heavy metal concert. Each chord crashing through my skull and beating on my brain.
There was a sudden pain in my chest. Sudden and sharp. A poking kind of pain. And all I could think about was the numbers. All the numbers. Daily numbers. Each and every news media outlet, offering up new numbers. Numbers, numbers, numbers.
I picked up my phone but the screen was blurry. I could barely get my shaking thumb to pound on the number pad. I typed in my passcode as best I could, but it was wrong. And then wrong again. I wanted to call someone, anyone, but I couldn’t.
So I poured some more water… with whiskey. I swear I could feel my blood coming to a boil inside my body. I was flushed and frightened, and sweating. I sat on the couch and hoped to calm down, to cool off and not die alone.
And if only that tuna-scam cat came back and let me pet it, maybe I would feel better. Even if it was covered with fleas and ticks and other torturous little creatures. Maybe it could have saved me from the insanity inside my head.
I drank the whiskey-water and turned on the television. There was a hockey game on. A hockey game in August. It didn’t make sense. I knew why there was hockey in August, but it still didn’t make sense. Everything was out of order.
“It’s too hot for hockey!” I screamed. “Too hot for hockey!”
Something about the skate-scratch puck-slap sounds from the television was too much to handle. No one should watch hockey in a heat wave. Hockey is not a heat wave sport. But there it was: hockey in August.
And I was panting. Trying hard to breathe. I could feel the couch warming up beneath me, so I stood and stalked the television, freaked out by the hot-night hockey. Fearing this would be the end of me, and maybe even the world.
“It’s too hot for hockey!” I screamed again.
And suddenly it felt like the air had been sucked from the room. And I was frozen while melting, a complete contradiction caused by COVID chaos. Sweat stained my eyes but I saw someone score a goal before passing out.