by Brian Sutton
‘THAT’S FUNNY,’ THE WOMAN THOUGHT, putting down her paperback one evening in March of 2020. She stood up and walked from the living room to the bathroom. Even though she had gone only a few steps, she felt fatigued and out of breath. She opened a couple of drawers until she found the thermometer.
‘That’s funny,’ the man said, but for a different reason. He checked his pants pockets, front and back, and then walked from the living room to the kitchen.
On her way back from the bathroom the woman saw the man, roaming anxiously from one room to another. He seemed to stare as she stood there, thermometer in hand.
‘I’m not feeling so good,’ she explained.
‘Hunh,’ he grunted, walking past her. She realized that he hadn’t been staring at her but was searching for something.
After rummaging through the desk he got onto his hands and knees to look under their bed. The dog trotted toward him, tail wagging. He brushed the dog away.
‘Have you seen my cell phone?’ he asked.
‘Not just now,’ she said. ‘When did you have it last?’
‘Just a few minutes ago. I texted Brandon right before I went to the convenience store.’
A wave seemed to pass through her. ‘I’m not feeling so good,’ she repeated.
‘Uh-huh. Listen, could you call my phone?’ Standing again, he jammed his hand into a crack behind a sofa cushion.
‘Sure.’ She coughed into her arm a couple of times, a dry cough, then picked up her phone.
‘I hate it when this happens.’ He was pacing in little circles.
‘It’s ringing on my end.’
He strode through the silent house, the dog at his heels. ‘Shit, shit, shit,’ he muttered.
‘Did you have it on mute?’ She coughed into her arm again.
‘I can’t remember. Jesus Criminy.’ He shook his head. ‘Maybe you should take, like, a cough drop or something.’
‘Thanks. I’m kind of—’
‘I knew I should’ve enabled auto-lock, created a passcode. I’m such an idiot!’ His neck and forehead glistened with a light coating of sweat.
‘Did you take it with you to the convenience store? Maybe it’s there. Or in your car.’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know. Christ.’
‘Sorry, but I need to take my temperature now. So I won’t be—’
She stopped talking when she heard the front door slam shut and felt a puff of the chilly March air outside. The dog came back into the living room and lay down at her feet. She put the thermometer into her mouth and checked her wristwatch for the start of the three minutes.
She didn’t feel so sick now. It occurred to her that she had begun feeling a little better the moment she heard the door close.
As she watched the seconds go by, she thought about what living with the man had been like at first. Give him time, her friends had said. He’ll come around.
She thought about how it had been more recently. The days he never seemed to leave the armchair, never stopped staring at the phone, his left thumb the only body part that moved. The way his replies, when she tried to talk to him, seemed distant. Or annoyed.
Of course the phone was probably just a symptom, not the cause. After all, he hadn’t had the phone just now. But he had certainly been thinking of it, the way an addict going through withdrawal thinks about the drug.
She was definitely starting to feel better. Maybe she had just felt a momentary queasiness, and then her imagination had taken over because of all that publicity lately about the new virus. The dry cough especially—that had probably been just psychological. Or maybe something she had subconsciously done just for attention. Or to see how he’d react. Or if.
She was probably fine. And in any case, she was young and resilient. If she had to be alone for a while, she could do that. She would make it through, no matter what, and come out stronger as a result.
‘Time’s up,’ she thought.
The thermometer read 99.6. A little high, but short of 100.4, the figure she’d seen in all the material about warning signs. She returned to the bathroom, rinsed the thermometer, put it away, returned to the couch in the living room, and picked up the paperback.
Seconds later the man came through the front door.
‘They don’t have it at the convenience store, and I couldn’t find it in my car. Christ! If somebody else has it, they could—’
She looked up to see why he had stopped in mid-sentence. Following his gaze, she saw the phone on the bookshelf, lying on a copy of The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Home Repairs.
‘Right in plain sight!’ he exclaimed, rushing across the room and grabbing the phone. ‘Should’ve seen it—but I never left it there before. I’ll bet I put it there when—’ He went on for a while, the words pouring out of him in his joy and relief.
‘I’m glad you found it.’
‘Me too.’ Sighing deeply, he sank into the armchair and began scrolling. ‘Say, weren’t you feeling kinda like sick or something?’
‘I’m better now.’
‘Good. Woulda been bad if you’d caught that virus.’
‘Especially since they don’t have enough tests. You maybe couldn’t have gotten tested.’
‘Oh, there was a test,’ she said.
‘Wow,’ he said, leaning in for a closer look at something on the cell phone’s screen. After a moment he added, ‘A test? Yeah? It come back negative?’
‘Perfect. And I got my phone back. So everything’s cool.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Sure. I mean, this’ll be over soon. Then things’ll be better.’
‘For now we’ll just shelter in place together.’
‘Negative,’ she said.
Brian Sutton’s work has appeared in Fictive Dream, The Journal, Crack the Spine, Seventeen, and elsewhere. Four of his plays have been produced, including a musical comedy which won the Stage Rights/NYMF Publishing Award after a successful run on 42nd Street in New York, was published by Stage Rights Press, and has now been performed at the high school, college, community-theatre, and professional levels. He has won three Hopwood Awards for creative writing.