Quartz Lamps and Quarantines
Two weeks earlier, I had told my mom everything was going to be fine.
I strolled toward the dining hall for lunch, crossing the quad where numerous students lay on the lush grass enjoying the sunshine. It was rare for Boston weather to be good in February, but the sky was clear and the sun was up. The sunlight warmed my skin.
The cheery clatter of plates and silverware met me at the doors to the dining room. Students and teachers chatted and laughed at their tables. A live soccer game played on the plasma TV. An unseasonably warm breeze entered the open window, carrying with it the sounds of passing cars and birds chirping. I grabbed a salad and a ham and cheese sandwich and dropped into a seat next to my friend Ka Chin.
My phone rang, and seeing that it was my mom, I raised my eyebrows. “Hello?” I said, confused. There was a rustling noise in the background.
“Hey,” my mother replied, her voice tired and muted.
“Isn’t it almost 2 a.m. there?”
“1:47,” my mom confirmed.
“I was just reading some news and wanted to catch you before your afternoon lessons.” I heard water running from a tap. She wasn’t even in bed. She paused for a few seconds, as if not knowing what to say.
“I read the news,” she said, “about the first COVID cases in the US.”
I sighed. I’d known she was going to call at some point.
“I’ll be safe here.”
“It’s spreading quickly. It might be in Boston within the next two days. You can never be sure,” she said.
By the end of lunch, it was already almost 3 a.m. in Kazakhstan, yet my mother continued to talk, refusing to go to sleep. “And buy masks and hand sanitizers.”
“And wash your hands before you eat.”
My mother paused, as if trying to remember whether she’d forgotten anything.
“Anything else?” I asked half sarcastically.
“Please don’t forget to order the masks.”
A screeching siren broke the silence of our quiet suburban neighborhood in Almaty; lights flashed red and blue against the walls in the living room. The siren went silent once the vehicle parked, but the lights kept flashing. My father opened the door to a tall man in paramedic fatigues. He looked at us from behind a face visor and a face mask – through the double covering, it was impossible to read his facial expression. With a gesture, my dad invited him into the room. “Don’t come in!”
The man stopped.
My father gave my mother a stern look.
“We’re here to help,” the man said. “No need to worry.”
His voice was calm and reassuring. His eyes smiled at me. He came over to the couch where I was seated. My father gestured at me to stand up. The paramedic placed his bag on the coffee table, opened it, and pulled out a blue folder with some documents. He ran his finger through them and pulled out a piece of paper.
“You’re Ilya Sergeevich, right?” he asked. I nodded.
“Flew back from Istanbul on the 13th of March?” I nodded again.
The man wrote something on a piece of paper.
“Do you remember your seat number?”
“22B I think.”
“22B,” the man repeated to himself as he wrote it down. He opened his phone and began scrolling.
“Ah, there it is.”
He showed me his screen. The thin face of a woman in her 40s with thick, black hair and pale, wrinkled skin stared back at me.
“Who is she?” I asked.
“Look at the information below.”
I skimmed over the information below the picture. My eyes stopped at the bottom of the screen. Seat: 22C
“This is the woman you sat next to on the airplane. She tested positive for COVID-19.”
My eyes remained locked on the face on the screen. I couldn’t look up at the paramedic or my parents.
“Don’t worry. You might not even be infected. I’ll just measure your temperature and verify your passport number. Then we’ll take you to the hospital to get you quarantined.”
I could hear the reassuring smile in his voice. I nodded. Dad gave him my passport. As he filled in another form, I glanced at my mother. Her hands were wrapped around her stomach and her eyes were swollen from crying; the bright and caring gaze which had met me at the airport days before had been replaced with worry and disappointment. The medic placed the documents and the thermometer back into the bag and produced a facemask out of his side pocket.
“Here,” he said, “put this on for me.”
The Harbinger Prize
Short Story Competition
Submit a short story of no more than 2,000 words considering the prompt:
Create the perfect villain.
The Harbinger Prize 2021
Other than the masks and hand-sanitizer dispensers everywhere, Boston’s Logan Airport seemed the same to me. Most of the TVs in the restaurants and bars streamed sporting events or movies, with only a couple of news channels featuring pundits talking about the virus. While waiting in line for their turn at the check-in desk, passengers talked to each other, laughing and smiling. A female voice periodically announced flight information or called out late passengers, yet the voice was muffled by the conversations around me.
Ablai, another Kazakh studying at Milton, waved as I approached the spot beneath the flight info screens where we’d agreed to meet.
“Does it feel weird to you?” he asked me straightaway in Russian.
“Like calm but almost apocalyptic at the same time? I saw a few flights get cancelled. Think someone was sick?”
“I hope we make it back home.”
“I just said the same thing to my dad,” he laughed, showing me the text on his phone. “He’s pissed that we’re not wearing masks.”
“Yeah, my parents would be too.”
We made it through the check-in and baggage scan surprisingly quickly. Once we entered the airport terminal, I was able to relax. Ablai seemed relaxed too. The stressful part was behind us, and we had another two hours to browse in the duty-free zone. We decided to go to the bookstore first. Usually, the two of us would split up to go wherever we wanted to and meet back at our gate a few minutes before it opened; this time, however, we decided to stick together. As we left the bookstore, I showed Ablai what I’d picked: The Tip of The Iceberg, a book about travelling in Alaska.
“Always wanted to go there,” I explained as he examined the cover.
“Like Kazakhstan isn’t cold enough,” he answered, pushing a surfing magazine under my nose.
“I’m going to a summer camp in Hawaii this summer. Learn to surf.”
I was about to tell him that it might not happen, but I bit my tongue. I guess he was thinking the same thing, because we both went silent. From then on, we avoided any holiday topics.
A few minutes later we reached our gate and waited there, looking at the other passengers passing by. It was almost 11 p.m. when a gate agent invited us to board the plane.
“I’ll miss Milton,” Ablai said all of a sudden as we stood in line, waiting to board. I nodded.
“We’ll get back soon.”
A family passed before us, all four of them wearing not only masks but also face shields and rubber gloves. We fell silent once again. A wave of regret rushed over me. Was it really that hard to listen to my mother? To order the masks instead of stalling until the last moment? Our plane to Istanbul took off without delay. Soon the cabin lights were dimmed and I lay in darkness, staring at the green-lit seatbelt sign above me. I wondered whether in a couple of years, similar symbols would remind me to keep my mask on at all times.
Ten hours from bustling Logan Airport, the Istanbul airport seemed surreally quiet, almost mute. I saw maybe a dozen people in the entire terminal. The shops and restaurants were either empty or closed. The people I did see were tightly covered with masks, gloves and other protective equipment, often improvised. Every single one of them turned away when passing us – some seemed to hold their breath. No eye contact, no nods, they just passed by as quickly as possible.
“Jesus,” Ablai muttered.
“Not what it’s usually like?” It was my first time in Istanbul, but he’d transferred here before.
“Hell no. It’s so empty.”
Ablai and I handed our boarding passes to the flight attendant and made our way to our seats. Ablai was in 11C. I gave him a quick nod and went on to 22B. The entire aisle was still empty. I tossed my bag into the baggage compartment and dropped into the seat. Fighting against the heaviness in my eyelids, I opened WhatsApp.
“About to take off,” I texted my mother.
“We’re all waiting for you!” she replied instantly, as if waiting for my message.
I turned off my phone and tossed it into my backpack. My head felt heavy and my eyelids began closing. I lay my head down onto the headrest and breathed out heavily. I was finally going back home. My eyes began to close, and my vision blurred. As I drifted off, a dry, hacking cough erupted to my right. A woman had taken the seat next to me. Too tired to keep my eyes open, I took a deep breath and fell asleep.
Nobody knows how to offend better than the world
The elevator stopped on the third floor, and the nurse led me out into the dark hallway. After a couple of turns we approached a glass door marked with red letters reading “Quarantine Zone!” The letters were reversed. I was inside of the hospital now – I was what the bold red letters warned outsiders about. The nurse stopped and turned to face me.
“This is you, Room 31,” she said, pointing at one of the identical doors spaced along the long hallway. In the dim light I could barely make out the numbers painted in black on the door.
The nurse went on. “You can take your mask off once in the room. For your own safety you are strongly advised against leaving the room unless otherwise instructed or under emergency procedures. Failing to comply might result in an extended quarantine.”
I could tell she’d spoken the lines many times before. After explaining the fire protocol, she closed the door behind me. I sat on the hard single bed, motionless. I listened intently as the muffled footsteps of her rubber boots echoed down the hallway and disappeared into the silence of the hospital. I was alone.
That first evening, a doctor and two nurses visited my room to collect samples. Like everyone else in the hospital, they were dressed in plain white hazmat suits. One of the nurses carried a large blue bag over her shoulder. She dropped it onto the windowsill and removed a plastic tube containing several long cotton swabs. She handed one to the doctor, a tall man with light brown hair sticking out from under his face shield.
“I’ll need you to open your mouth for me,” he said, his voice low and quiet.
He seemed exhausted. His eyes were red and swollen with large bags under them.
I’d heard that the COVID test was unpleasant, but I never expected it to be this bad. The first swab entered my nose. As it probed deeper, I felt my nose burn and itch viciously. My eyes began tearing up, the doctor sitting in front of me becoming a blur. As he took the swab out, I tried as hard as I could not to sneeze, my eyes watering and my nose on fire. The next swab pressed against the back of my throat in a way that made me feel that I was going to cough, throw up, and suffocate, all at the same time. But none of that happened. The pair turned to leave.
“Excuse me,” I said, still blinking back tears.
The doctor turned toward me with one eyebrow raised, as though surprised at being addressed.
“Is there WI-FI here? I have no cellular connection.” The doctor glanced at the nurse. She shook her head.
“The cellular might work now and then. Some people say they like not being able to access the internet for a while.”
With that they walked out of my room, leaving me alone, disconnected from the rest of the world, from my friends, from my family.
I spent the next few days rotating between my bed and the windowsill. The walls were more than three feet thick and the window quite narrow, so there was a niche where I could sit with my back against one wall and my feet on the other. I didn’t need to worry about dirtying the wall, as the room was painted from top to bottom with waterproof paint – off-white with a hint of green. I guessed it made deep cleaning easier, as the room was probably disinfected before a new patient moved in. Combined with the cool, bluish light, the paint made the room appear immaculate but not in the slightest bit cozy.
From the windowsill, if I stretched my neck, I could see a narrow passage between hospital wings and a strip of a busy street with cars driving by slowly and pedestrians on the sidewalk. The sky was enveloped in thick, gray clouds that cast a shadow over the roads and buildings. The world looked bleak; the view seemed to drain me of energy.
I tried opening the window just a tiny bit, to try and get some fresh air and clear my mind. I could now distinctly hear city noises. I sat on the windowsill, listening to ventilators humming, kids riding bikes, someone laughing loudly. I heard two male voices shouting and swearing at one another. No matter how chaotic, the interaction made me miss talking, laughing, even arguing with someone. An ambulance arrived at the hospital, its deafening siren muffling all the other noises.
“On March 25, 1899, a gentleman from New York City arrived unannounced at the Washington, DC, office of natural historian C. Hart Merriam,” I read out loud.
It was the opening of Mark Adams’s Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around the Last Great American Frontier, the book I’d bought at the Boston airport. Since I hadn’t unpacked at home, it was the only book that made it into the hospital with me. Initially I forced myself to read to push sad thoughts away, but the book turned out to be a window to another dimension, a way to enjoy the wildlife and landscapes of a cold, northern state at the other end of the planet, where “the white masses of cruise ships walled off Ketchikan’s downtown and contrasted with the deep green mountains that stood behind, their summits obscured in mist.”
After the first ten pages or so I realized that I was on pace to finish the book in a day or two, a timeframe way too short given the full two weeks I was going to spend in the hospital. Its 360 pages had to last me another 13 days, so I had to read no more than – here I helped myself with a calculator on my phone, one of few things it was still useful for – 28 pages a day. I took a ballpoint pen from the bag and began carefully annotating every page, deciding to highlight captivating statistics and write my own thoughts on the journey, making sure that I covered the book in depth and thus spent more time reading it. Soon, a hectic mess of absurd drawings and notes swallowed the pages, making the book almost impossible to reread.
“Wake up,” came a voice above me, “breakfast is ready.” I was still half-asleep despite the blinding daylight streaming through my window, striking me in the eyes and forcing me to bury my head under my thin hospital blanket. I heard the loud metallic sound of the stainless-steel food trolley entering my room. The noise of the clanging cutlery and shaking plates set my teeth on edge. Two nurses stood above me, both wearing their hazmat suits. One nudged me, trying to wake me up, while the other stood next to the food trolly, staring at me.
“Come on, Ilya,” said the nurse. “Get up, breakfast is being served.” I could tell by her voice and her using my real name that she was The Nice One. I slowly sat up on my bed, rubbing my eyes.
“You could have at least knocked,” I whispered to myself.
What was the point of waking me up at 7 a.m. just to let me rot in the room for the rest of the day? I looked over at the food trolley to see what was for breakfast today. Oh no, I thought to myself, not again.
It was porridge. The hundredth porridge in less than a week. But at least it was The Nice One delivering it. She was younger than the rest of the nurses, and I’d quickly learned she was different in other ways too. She smiled and tried to talk to you instead of treating you like just another patient to be dealt with. The Nice One also called me Ilya while the other nurses didn’t bother themselves with remembering my name. The others still cared, perhaps, but The Nice One cared enough to see you as an individual. She wanted to make you feel safe.
“Ilya, I have some news,” said The Nice One the next day. “Your test results came back this morning.” Smiling, she showed me a piece of paper. My name was in bold at the top; below it was the word “Negative (-),” written in bold. The rest of the page was filled with bleak rows and columns of letters and figures. A weight fell from my shoulders. My head felt lighter, and I smiled. Instinctively, I grabbed my phone to call my mother but quickly realized that it was useless. My sudden smile faded then, and I felt like crying.
“We’ve already informed your parents about the results,” said The Nice One.
She was aware of lack of service on the quarantine block and had already twice taken my phone to a part of the building that did get a patchy connection. I wasn’t sure whether she’d broken the rules for me in doing so, and I didn’t dare to ask. This time she didn’t offer to help me communicate. Her steps echoed down the corridor as she walked away.
I remained on the windowsill and stared at the document she’d left behind. Slowly my smile returned. I felt relieved to know that I hadn’t spread COVID to anyone. I thought about people who tested positive and how their loved ones had most likely caught it, some even dying. It isn’t your fault, but it must be difficult not to blame yourself. Imagining a scenario where my results came back positive made my stomach twist and turn. I knew that the first test was the most important, but I had two more to pass; even if all three came out negative, however, I wouldn’t be released from quarantine earlier – I had to do a full two weeks.
About five days had passed since my arrival when The Nice One walked into the room, her blue bag with all of her documents and equipment slung over her shoulder. Her eyes crinkled behind her face shield and beneath her mask in the way that by now, well into the new pandemic world, I easily read as a smile. I smiled back. It was getting dark; the sun had already set, and only a faint orange glow remained in the purple sky.
“How are you?” she asked as she set her bag onto the windowsill.
“Not bad,” I replied. She continued unpacking her things and setting them onto the table behind her. “The book I’m reading is pretty good,” I added.
“That’s great.” She was rifling through her documents, a stack of paper almost as thick as the book I was reading.
“Tip of the Iceberg,” I said, pulling it out from under my bed. “It’s about exploring Alaska. Keeps me occupied during the day.” She glanced at the cover, then plopped her stack of documents down and leaned closer.
“Is that English?” she asked with an incredulous note in her voice. I nodded. “You never told me you know English.”
I smiled. “You can take a look if you want to.” She picked up the book and held it up to her face. She flipped through the pages, seemingly scanning the foreign words before her.
“This is amazing,” she finally said, her eyes still stuck on the pages. She continued flipping pages. “I have a ten-year-old, you know? I always wanted him to learn English so he could study abroad.” I noticed a sudden change in her tone, and the smile in her eyes seemingly disappeared. Her gaze drifted toward the window as she closed the book and handed it back to me.
“I’m sure you miss him a lot,” I said. My mind flashed to my own family. To my home, to my mother’s food.
“I do. I’m very proud of him. He understands that I have to leave, and he behaves himself back home with my mother.” “You can have the book once I’m done reading.” I tapped my fingers gently against the plastic cover of the book. “It’s got a lot of my notes and drawings in it, but I think he’ll like it.”
The Nice One’s eyes turned from the window to me, what I imagined to be her bright smile reappearing behind the face mask.
“I couldn’t – ”
I raised my palms toward her. “Keep it after I leave. I really want him to have it.”
The Nice One finished with her tests and measurements and left, taking her hidden smile with her. The door clicked shut behind her, leaving me alone once again. It took me a moment to realize that something felt different. Thinking about The Nice One and imagining her little boy receiving the book, I didn’t feel quite so alone.
The next days blurred together. I performed the routines of hospital life mechanically. After breakfast I would go into the tiny bathroom, brush my teeth, wash my face, and take a quick shower. It required a bit of creativity, as the shower was at chest level and water barely dripped from the faucet. After a week I accepted that no matter how I turned the taps, sometimes the water was boiling hot and at other times merely scalding hot. Cold showers weren’t an option. At 9:30 a.m. I was either on my bed staring at the ceiling or sitting on the windowsill, waiting for the knock. When it came, I stepped into the corridor as a nurse went in with a quartz lamp. The UV light from the lamp was supposed to kill airborne viruses. I had no idea whether it worked, but waiting out the daily treatment became one more thing I did without thinking about it, like a robot completing its tasks.
As my schedule hardened into a repetitive cycle, my days revolved even more around The Nice One and her visits. They were the only thing I looked forward to. She stopped for a chat whenever she brought me food, checked my temperature, or quartzed the room. When she was away, I sat motionlessly on the windowsill and looked down at the street below. Every so often, I glanced back to the clock on the wall, watching the hands creep toward our next meeting.
On the seventh day, I realized that despite the perfect summer weather, the atmosphere outside my window carried less noise. Almaty was slowing down: there were fewer cars passing and barely any traffic jams. The sounds of pedestrians talking and laughing and children playing had been replaced with silence, punctuated by the occasional wails of ambulance sirens.
One day – the ninth? The eleventh? – news reached me. The Nice One once again smuggled my phone out of the room so that it caught service and downloaded three days of headlines. In addition to a couple of supportive messages from friends and a message from my mom indicating that my third test had come out negative as well – no one in the hospital had bothered to tell me – I received a push notification from a Kazakh news site:
“Strict Quarantine Across Kazakhstan.” The report was over a day old.
I climbed back onto the windowsill. The sun was shining and the sky was clear – the perfect kind of day for hiking in the hills above the city. When I peeked down, however, the square was empty, the streets deserted. I decided to open the window to catch whatever remained of the city’s buzz. I turned the handle and a limp breeze entered, carrying no sound with it. No people shouting, no cars honking: there was only the warm air and the silence.
What day was it? Every day was a mirror of the previous one. I settled into the corner of the windowsill, bringing my knees up under my chin. Maybe my parents would pick me up tomorrow. Or would it be today? I had no idea how long I’d been stuck in quarantine, or how long it would be until I would finally get to leave.