“What might trigger it? Oh, I don’t know. Comes and goes whenever it wants. Let me think. Definitely, when I’m at the hood and when I have a hundred things to do already and I should be focused on keeping things as sterile as possible so I don’t… I don’t cross-contaminate. Sorry. I mean the tissue hood, the laminar flow hood, and working on my cell cultures. Or when I’m writing. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed thinking. I’ve had it pop up out of nowhere. Uh, no. Doesn’t seem to matter what I’m writing or what I’m thinking. Do you think it’s a subconscious thing?
“So… no trigger, I guess. Unless there’s a trigger there, somewhere; a trigger that’s subtle yet utterly debilitating. Oh, but only for a few moments. It’s not like it’s… taking the wheel of my car or keeping me up all night. Just a momentary freak out. It’s not a serious thing. I called in just to make sure of that, but it’s not, you know, debilitating. I won’t need meds for it. Ha. I just want to try to… figure this out. Seems to be happening more frequently, and I… try to just think of something else or get up and move. Drink something. Anything. I look at my cell. Anything.
“Yes. You’re right. That’s what I do. I distract myself. You could probably gather that from my notes. Not the one I sent by email, but the one on your form that I uploaded last week.
“Um, close. I didn’t have time to write everything down, but you have the jest of it. And, I don’t see the thing pop up in my head. That’s the odd part of this. Really, that’s why I’m here. I see it outside my head… like, here, in front of my eyes. Not floating, per se. I see it and, uh… I’m there seeing this thing and it looks so real. The screen. You know? Oh, excuse me; that’s my dog barking. Let me close the door.
“Ha! Do I think it real? Of course not. I don’t think it’s really in the room with me. Ha. I’m not a loon. It’s just, let me think. It’s not real at all, but it is very... vivid. It pops up and it, uh, hangs there, and then my stomach sinks and I feel panicked, like um… like something terrible is… like it’s the end of the world; is the best way I can describe it. A premonition, kinda -- but not, because I don’t believe in premonitions. I’m a scientist; I believe in science. But, funny enough, I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It feels like… doom. Pardon?
“Apocalyptic. Yes. That’s the word. It’s like the end of the world is coming, in just a matter of days, and I can’t stop it from happening. I just feel that it is, but I can’t… stop it. I try to fool myself, to recircuit this thing… the dread of it all, you know? I try to…. Excuse me. I need to get a kleenex. My mask, it... I need to blot it. I know that sounds gross, but it gets wet around my nose. Terrible feeling. What’s that?
“Ha. Good that it’s not just me who hates a wet mask. Yeah, I hear ya but don’t the cloth ones stay wet? I’d rather use these disposables than a cloth mask. These things dry out a lot faster, I think. I’m a little OCD with a wet mask. Ugh. I pitch them as soon as I feel like I’m drowning in them. What’s that?
“No, I get these from my lab. We’re required to wear masks at all times on campus. Been wearing them since early March, really. I wore them even when others weren’t required to do it yet. I keep some in the car. And, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t consider it stealing precious PPE since I need to get to and from the lab. It’s work-related why I’m even in the car and on campus. So, I don’t buy them from Amazon. Can you even get them? I think they are all back-ordered, probably forever.
“But, you’re right. It’s more economical to wear cloth masks. I’ll…. Yeah, I’ll get one, eventually. Just throw it in the washer. I’m always washing things, so it makes sense. Sterilizing all the groceries… the take out containers. We put everything in the garage and wipe them down now. Did you know that the University gives everyone 70% ethanol? In spray bottles, for each lab, for the pandemic response and -- you know what? We’ve always been provided 70% ethanol, but I’m talking liters of the stuff and not those small spray bottles. Pardon? You’re -- Doctor? You locked up again.
“Well, it’s to sterilize our benches and hoods and gloves. It’s always been that way, but everyone new to the lab or to research might think it’s because of the pandemic. Not true. Sometimes, I make up the stuff myself, if the Building Administrator isn’t keeping up. We can order the ethanol through EHS. Oh, sorry. That’s the university’s Environmental Health and Safety. But, it’s always been provided and used for sterilization. Always. Always.
“Pardon? Must I? Ha. Just kidding. Yes, I can describe it. Let me think. Well, it's a screen. Actually, it's more like the large computer screen used in the conference rooms in the building -- my campus research building. Each floor has a conference room and all have a large, wall-sized Surface-like computer on the north wall. We have lab meetings weekly, but hardly anyone is in the building because of the pandemic and -- well, all of our lab meetings have gone virtual since mid-March, so we just use the conference rooms for the screen. You know, the campus has rules that only three people can be in a room at any one time. So, usually, it’s just my student Craig and me going in there anyway. Barb was on maternity until recently. She’s our post-doc. Picked a good time to have a baby, huh? Wow. She went through a lot of stress, a lot of hell. Hospitals had limited space and all kinds of rules. Oh, yes, sorry. Back to the screen-thing.
“Now that I think about it, I think it is the same screen as the ones used in the conference rooms. Let me think. Try to replay this thing. Yeah. Yeah. I think it is the same screen -- but larger. And… I always feel Craig is near me when the, uh, screen appears. I know it’s strange! I feel his presence, off to my left, as the screen appears. I don’t actually see him. Just, you know.... Just he’s there.
“Do I think it’s a flashback? Flashback. Flashback. If so, then I wouldn’t know to when. We’ve used the screen many times. Before and during the pandemic. Nothing out of the ordinary to use it. Geez. We’ve had dozens and dozens of meetings. No scary presentations have occurred as of late. Ha.
“Yes, that’s what I said. We are all virtual now, except for Craig and me. Pardon? Could you repeat that? Oh, yes. Barb returned to lab meetings in May, but she was still virtual at the time. She just had a baby, and she connected from her home. The 27th. Huh?
“Yes. 27th of May. That’s when she called in. Her first meeting since having the baby. I remember that meeting quite well, actually. We were excited to see her -- and the baby, of course. Pardon? Oh, well… I didn’t mean that I could recall that level of detail. Sure. I can try to describe the meeting. Let me think.
“We entered the room about five minutes before the meeting started. It’s half-dark in there, lots of sepia-shadows -- a tea-stained look to it. I remember thinking that. Felt stale. I don’t know why I noted all of this. I think we were the first to use it in a long time. You see, we usually use the conference room upstairs. It’s a scheduling thing. We just sorta decided on that minute to just go across the hall. Why not? We’re practically the only labs working full hours. Anyway, I saw the spray bottles placed on the table and wondered what that was all about. It’s strange to see that stuff outside the labs, you know?
“So, Craig took a seat at the farthest end of the long table from the telescreen. I increased the lights, looked behind me to gauge its strength, and then lowered them a bit to lessen the glare off the center of the table where the spray bottles were set. They had the 70% ethanol label on them and a sheet of paper with all the new social rules on six-feet apart and stuff like that.
“I remember looking over at him. Craig. So innocent. I wondered what he thought of it all, you know? I don’t recall what our conversation was before we entered the conference room. He’s an interesting young scientist, so it suffices to say that it was probably a witty discussion. Craig is an international student. He’s going back in August. Maybe sooner, but I’m not sure. Travel restrictions. This pandemic! But, he was so quiet.
“What did I say? Oh, I did? Funny. But, Craig is quite innocent. He’s a MS student and quite new to science research. As I mentioned, his schooling is messed up because of the pandemic. He’s from the United Kingdom. Poor guy. Extensions… poor communication… lots of uncertainties. He needs to get home. That’s all I meant to say. Did you know he might be stuck here? Stuck here for months? Terrible to not be able to go back home. Where was I….
“So, I search for the correct button on the wall… to turn on the monitor -- the computer. I never know which one, but when I pushed it, the button glowed blue and the screen lit up in an instant. Yes, I put that in the description because I see…. Well, I sometimes see a blue light, that LED, bright blue light when I have my episodes. Oh, geez. Did I just say that? Episodes! I make it sound so drastic. It’s not drastic, though. Really.
“Ah, let’s see. I then took my seat in front of the keypad near the screen and logged us in to the conference call… waited for my cell to ask for confirmation to continue on. Oh, yeah. You see, it’s a duo password system the university has set up. Here’s the app. Can you see that from your end? If we log into something secured, then we have to confirm it from another device… confirm that it’s really us. I know… so futuristic. Look how we’ve become, you know? I mean, look at us; you and me. This is new. One of these days, they’re going to put a chip in our brain to confirm everything is secured… perform instant, real-time DNA confirmation and neurological patterning, etc, etc. just to get anywhere or do anything. All the scary sci-fi stuff will become true someday. Hope not. I pray not. I’ve told Craig these things several times. He doesn’t disagree. But, what would one say? He’s Gen Z, so who knows if he really can fully comprehend the nightmare scenarios of such a spooky world as that. Maybe he thinks it’s -- oh, I don’t know the word… progressive? A natural evolution of the human condition?
“Excuse me. Really sorry. I hate it when my mask gets too wet. Hold your breath while I take this off for a second. Ha. Just kidding. I have another one in my car -- should have brought it in.
“You know what? Maybe he was thinking the same thing I was thinking. You know… the way he watched me set up the call and just waited there silently as those faces popped up one by one by one by one by… each staring into their screen, muted, and… muted, while Craig and I waited in our masks. Patiently.
“What was I thinking? Oh, I was thinking - thinking, ‘Seriously? Seriously? This is normal?’ I mean, how could this be normal in any sense? It’s all surreal! Sanitizers. Blue lights, masks, a big, I don’t know; a huge Orwellian screen coming to life as we wait for five digital faces to appear on it from some other place on Earth… for a freakin’ lab meeting to start?
“Bizarre. A Brave New World, isn’t it? Look. An entire campus research building-- ah, now mostly empty -- and a conference room left to go stale and no longer used for in-person meetings... for actual people in the flesh to meet. I mean, everything’s gone virtual, electronic. Everything! And, for how long? When will it end? Oh I know it will, of course, but I wonder… I fear really that it won’t truly end. I think -- perhaps I’m thinking too much? As a scientist? I think this particular pandemic might be more persistent than we realize. Surely...
“I mean, can a pandemic ever be declared normal background noise? Acceptable deaths, like the flu? Or drownings? Or, will we forever be zeros and ones and-and-and we’re supposed to think this is a normal way to live and communicate?
“He’s a Gen Z! Craig! What’s he thinking of this world? He’s wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask and the spray bottles and a laundry list of rules on keeping apart and only three humans per room and alternating work schedules and 70% ethanol. Then Barb came online and… and she, with her crying… her here it comes. The screen!
“I can’t describe --
“I can’t doctor, I --
“Blue! But the screen is -- I’m talking to her. I’m talking to her, I ask her how she’s doing -- but she’s muted. The blue light is everywhere, but the screen... and her baby! Her baby is crying - top of his lungs and she can’t respond, she can’t answer me, but she is trying, she --- I mean, I mean she is answering me, but I can’t hear her because she’s on mute with the microphone bar across it and-and she’s bouncing the baby in her arms but I can’t hear them! She’s putting him over her shoulder, and his face - the baby! - his head is all red and he’s screaming at the top of his lungs and she’s patting his back -- but I can’t hear them! Craig! He’s there, to the left of me and the blue light drowns him out but I can’t look away from the screen even if I wanted to, Doctor! I see only the screen and Barb and her screaming baby but I can’t hear them and goddamn I know, I know, I know it Doctor! I know it! I know it’s the end! I know it’s all blue!
“Dammit! Let me get my mask from the car, Doctor; please just stay on the screen and let me go get my clean mask, goddammit you, before it all goes blue!