HCV 541-35-1998

By Bernard J. Hughes

Artwork by Jose Baetas.

February 4, 8:19am

You walk down the garage ramp of 1600 SW Second Avenue. As you walk past the cars parked, you remember the old Porsche dealership that had stood there where you were a child. You get near the elevators. You are dressed in a nice, professional, off-the-rack black suit, a plaid scarf in the colors of Autumn, a specially modified pair of gloves, and a stocking cap. You dip your gloved-hand in the pocket of your coat. It comes out with a layer of light colored powder on the fingers. You touch the up button with your left hand, despite the fact that you are right-handed.

When you get on the elevator, you drag your left gloved-hand along the left-hand rows of buttons lighting up several of them and leaving little, nearly imperceptible traces of the powder you have in a little plastic baggy in your coat pocket. The motion cannot be seen by the security cam located above and behind you. You press the first floor with your right hand. The doors close. The elevator begins to move up. The doors open again. You are allowed out by a group of people arriving for their Friday morning day at the office. As you pass a tall, light-haired man eyes you. You keep walking. You're sowing this morning. But you remember him for this afternoon. You might try a lunch here.

You walk out of the building and back onto Second. Despite the lack of clouds and the sun hanging above the mountains in the east, a gloom still fills the February sky.

You move on to the next building.


February 4, 11:14am

You have just spent a half an hour at a cafe nearby. Sitting quietly, browsing the web. You went home. You ditched the bag and the gloves and now you're back at 1600 Second Avenue.

This time, you walk right through the front doors. You walk directly up to the security desk.

"How's it going?" You ask him.

"Oh, pretty good. Man, pretty good. How about you?"

"Great." You answer.

He looks at you and points tentatively with a look of mild bewilderment on his face. He doesn't need to ask.

"John." You tell him.

"Right. Good to see you."

"Good to see you." You are now leaning against the security desk. You look at your watch. "I think he said he'd be down here at about eleven thirty. I'm a little early."

"Do you wanna go up?"

"Nah. It's a hassle, they have to call back to him. I'll just wait down here."

"No problem, man, no problem."

His face shows the all the effort involved in recalling a memory he doesn't possess and never did.

Fuck it. You decide.

"You remember who I am, right?"

"I know I know you."

"It was that night we all went out."

"Oh, yeah! Was it... Where was it?"

"I don't remember the name of the place. But I do remember we had a great time."

"It was with the girls on 7, right?"


"Oh my god, those girls can drink."

"I burned through my liver and my wallet that night."

He laughs. You join him.

"Beautiful day, huh?" You change the subject.

"Yeah." He says.


He starts thinking with his face, again.

"Do I owe you some money from that night?"

"Don't worry about it." You say to him.

"No, really. Do I?"

"It wasn't a lot. Don't worry about it."

"No, seriously..."

"It wasn't a lot. I picked up the tab and put what's-her-name in a cab."

"Seriously, how much was it?"

"It was like forty bucks. It's no big deal."

He reaches into the drawer in his security desk and pulls out his wallet.

"Really, it was so long ago..." Your fake protests continue.

He pulls out two twenties and hands them to you.

You put your hand up as if to say no.

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. Here. I had totally forgotten."

"Okay..." You take the money. "Thanks man. I appreciate it."

"No, man. Thank you for taking care of her."

You pull out your phone and pretend to get a call. "Just one second." You say to him, putting the money in your coat pocket.

You walk to the other side of the lobby faking a work conversation. Someone walks up and asks the security officer a question. You see the tall light-haired man from this morning emerge from the elevator bank talking on his cell. You put yours away and walk out the doors ahead of him. As he exits the building you hear him talking about pushing back launches with someone named Rolf. You walk ahead of him, using his voice to guide you. You descend the steps that lead up to the building. You sense his call is about to end. You stop and turn toward him.

He sees you.

You smile.

He gives you a "one minute" gesture with his right forefinger.

He finishes his call with a demand that Rolf "get on the fucking ball" and hangs up.

"Hey dude." He says. "How's it been?"

"Good, man. Good."

He gives you a slightly puzzled look.


"Right, right, man. How have you been?"

"I've been good."

"Awesome." He pauses. "Remind me." He pauses.

"We went out that night with what's his name."

He searches his memory. "Sam and Caitlin." He looks like he just won at the slots.

"Right. Oh, my god, that night was epic."

"Jesus, I couldn't believe how fucking wasted I got."


He cocks his head.

You wait for it.

He looks at you.

You wait for it.

He raises a finger.

You wait for it.

You wait for it.

You wait for it.

"Don't I owe you some money?"

"Yeah," You tilt your head in a self-deprecating style. "But it's no big deal."

"No, seriously." He takes out his wallet.

"It..." You put up your hands as if to protest.

"How much was it?"

"It was about seventy bucks. I paid for that cab, too."

He pulls out four crisp twenties and counts four of them and presses them into your hand. "Seriously, I mean it."

You shrug. "Thanks, bro."

"Are you going to lunch?"

"Nah, I'm actually heading back in."

"Well, cool, we need to go out again."


"Take care, man." You pull out your phone and start heading back up the stairs.

He heads toward the Korean deli on the corner.


February 4, 6:20pm

You're sitting in your apartment. You're sitting in your bathrobe. You're sitting in your apartment in your bathrobe and you're reflecting on your day. You have laid out the money on your bed as you sit in your chair; $780 in twenties, tens and fives. You get up and pull the blue duffel bag out of your closet. You open it. You pull out the short roll from yesterday. You count it. $390. You add $110 in tens and then you make a role of twenties equalling $500. You put the roll back in the bag and put it back in the closet.

You get dressed. You take the remaining $170 and put it into your front jeans pocket. It's a bad habit you have been unable to shake since living in Philly while you were in school.

You are walking down the street toward Chroni's and a gyro and a beer.

You walk in.

"Hey, Sugar." Anita greets you.

"Hey, you." You smile.

She gets you a Heineken from the ice chest.

"Thank you, doll."

"How was work today?"

"Meh. I did alright. I was in downtown today."

"How many tests?"

"Eight." You tell her. You have told her and the other denizens of Chroni's that you administer drug tests.

"Alright!" She says. "You want a shot?"

You decline. Even though you had stopped going to NA meetings once your probation was over, you still felt like you were doing something wrong when you drank. That doesn't prevent you from sipping your Heineken. You are texting Star.


You: Yo

Star: whats up

You: You around?

Star: im always around for u baby

(Attachment: star.jpg)

You: NICE!

Star: haha. come and get it for real

You: be over in 20

After you finish, you leave a nice tip and walk out. You hail a cab. You pass the 15 minute trip to Star's apartment pretending to be engaged in an intense chat. You arrive. You pay your driver. Star buzzes you up. She lets you in.

She's wearing a pink corset with matching stockings and knee-high patent leather boots. You stand directly in front of her.



"How was your day?"

"It was fine, I went shopping with my friend Darcy."

"What did you buy?"

"This." She gestured at her corset. "Do you like it."

"I do." You step closer to her and slip your arm around her waist. Your faces are no more than 6-inches apart. You are practically standing inside her feet. You can feel the heat from the bulge in her panties. She is slightly shorter than you are, but in the heels, she is right at eye level.

You take her hand and interlace her fingers with yours. You love how dark her skin is alongside your own.

You hold her hand in yours in between your faces. She lightly bites your knuckle. You spread your fingers out and she takes your index finger into her mouth. You stare intently at her face as she draws it up and down. You reach down and stroke her. She reciprocates.

You pull your hands away, lean in a little and tilt your head. She closes her eyes and opens her mouth. You kiss her intensely. She wraps her arms around your neck. You pull away from her. You drop to your knees. You pull her panties down, past her thighs, past her knees, past her ankles. She lifts each foot to allow you to remove them entirely. You begin to give her head.


February 4, 8:05pm

You are buttoning up your pants. As you pull your t-shirt over your head, you smell her bed. You love the way it smells. The toilet flushes and Star emerges from the bathroom. She walks over to you and kisses you hard on the lips. She pulls away, flops onto her bed and picks up her phone. You pull out the bills in your pocket and count out nine twenties.

You lay down beside her and wrap your arm around her back and hold the money between her face and her phone. She smiles and takes it.

"There's an extra twenty in there. I had a good day at work."

"Thank you, baby."

You breathe deeply of her comforter one last time before getting up and going home.


February 6, 4:45pm

You sit at the bar at Barringtons. You're wearing a Ralph Loren knit shirt with khakis and brown docker shoes. You're sipping your Jim Beam and Coke. You make eye contact with everyone you can as they walk in. The bartender is named John. He knows you from your harvests here. Since you're only there when things are busy, he's never noticed you working--at least he's never let on that he's noticed. He asks if you need anything. You smile and thank him and say no. Already, you had taken $80 each from two workers from upstairs.

You open your phone and scroll through the pics you have saved of Star. You open Candy's folder on your phone. You haven't seen her in months. The eight photos she shared with you are now very familiar. You love black girls. You loved her. She was perfect. She had a perfect everything. You are looking at a pic of her in jeans and a bra as a middle-aged man sits down beside you.

You are caught off guard. You put the phone down.

He raises his hands. "Don't mind me." He says. You smile back at him.

"I know you." He says.

"Yeah." You say reflexively.

He looks at you like he can't quite place your face.

"Chris." You say to him.

"Right." He says. "From that night."


"I was recovering for a week. How've you been?"

"Good. Busy. You?"

"Oh my God. I can't believe what I've got in the pipeline right now, and I've had to shelve it all to work on this one project for a client."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. It could be huge. So, Here I am. You know, I dropped everything and when the man said 'Jump!' I jumped."

"I do know."

Uncertainty fills his face.

"Say, don't I owe you some money?"

"Yeah, but it's no big deal."


"Yeah, I mean, I had a great time, that night, so it's cool."

"How much?"

"I think it was like eighty dollars. 'Cause I got that second cab ride also."

"Oh no, I insist." He pulls out his his Coach black leather wallet and removes a one-hundred dollar bill.

"Really, it's no big deal. I don't have change anyway."

"Oh no. If I owe you the money, I'm gonna pay you back." He presses the c-note toward you. "Don't worry about the change."

You reach out, feigning resignation.

"Okay, but this round's on me."

"Outstanding." He said, smiling. "Except..." He pulls back the money. "It's funny that I owe you this money, and that we went out drinking together, because I've never been to this city in my life. It's also funny that those other two guys who were in here earlier also had gone out with you and owed you money as well. And, it's even funnier that they and I all owe you exactly eighty dollars each. And even funnier still that you said your name was 'Mike' to one, and 'Bob' to the other.

"You see, I know that I don't owe you the money, because I'm not infected."

That last word hangs in your mind. You feel like you're trying to keep it from falling. You feel like it's slowly slipping out of your grip and it's going to crash to the ground at any moment. Like no matter what you do, it will keep slipping until it just drops away and crashes onto floor and sends the shards of your life scattering in an unfixable spray pattern. It will take you, take your life, take the bag of money, take Chroni's take Star, take everything.

Your heart races. It pounds in your head. Each beat feels like it's going to rupture your eardrums. A voice inside you says "It's okay. It's going to be okay." It's you. You're saying that to yourself. You're full of shit. You don't believe it. You try to believe it. You keep your dry mouth shut as the man continues.

"Now, if I were a police detective, who had been called by someone and tipped off to someone grifting people down here, I might have observed you taking money from two different people and I might have then tried to see if you'd try to take money off me. But this is your lucky day. Because I'm not a cop. Instead, I'm the answer to your prayers. I'm gonna take you away from this little scam of yours and make you so rich you never have to work again. All you have to do, is walk out with me, right now, and get in my car. So what's it gonna be? Are you gonna come with me? Or, am I gonna make that phone call to the police and put an end to your whole game?"

It takes you a moment to realize he is waiting for a response. You look into his face. Do you have a choice? Can you run? Should you run? Who is this guy?

No answers, just questions. But one thing becomes clear to you. He knows what's going on. He knows what you're up to. He has you, dead to rights.

"Let's go."

"Great." He puts the $100 back in his pocket and allows you to go first. A tall, broad shouldered man in a suit joins you both and walks alongside you too closely for comfort.

You exit the bar and the door to a Lincoln town car opens directly in front of Barrington's entrance.

You climb in.


February 6, 7:20pm

You sit in the room at the Hilton. It is a corner room. It is a suite. You are sitting at the table in the corner. Looking out at the street below. When you arrived, the tall man put on a pair of surgical gloves and frisked you. He took your phone, your watch, your wallet, your keys. You didn't protest. They left the $190 in your pocket.

You sat down at the table. The two men left. After an hour, you helped yourself to a Heineken from the the minibar. You drank it. You sat looking out the window.

You waited.

You're still waiting.

You hear a click in the card key lock.

The door opens. The two men come in along with a third man. The third man sits down in front of you. The tall man goes to the room with the bed and sits down next to it. The other man, the one who first spoke to you in the bar, throws away your Heineken bottle and gets a water from the minibar and gives it to the third man.

"Thank you, Arthur." He says.

Arthur goes to the bathroom and comes back with a plastic cup. The third man opens the water and pours it into the cup.

"Would you like something to drink?"

You shake your head no.

"I want to tell you a story. This story starts for me about two months ago. I, or rather, someone who works for me was reading the releases from the CDC on newly discovered HCV79-2015. This is no ordinary virus. It features... unique structures. It can only attach to three very specific receptors, only found in the human brain, which is curious, because it's a coronavirus, none of which have ever been known to attack the brain. One region is in the parietal lobe, in a mass of cells responsible for visuospatial processing. The second area is responsible for memory and recognition. The last area it affects is the Right Temporoparietal Junction. This area has a very specific function. There was a fascinating study conducted in cottontop tamarin monkeys a few years ago. These monkeys share food, but they'll share more with the other monkeys who have shared with them in the past. It was like they remembered that they owed something to those monkeys that had shared with them before. So, if Monkey A had given half-a-banana to Monkey B on Monday, Monkey B would give that monkey half his banana on Tuesday. But if Monkey A hadn't given Monkey B anything..." He shrugged. "Monkey B might give him nothing, or a bite, but not a whole half-a-banana.

"But the researches found that if you damaged this area of the brain. The Right Temporoparietal Junction, some monkeys never shared. Some monkeys would just randomly share with the other monkeys. But a couple of the monkeys actually starved to death because they gave away all their bananas.

"Now, people that work for me were convinced that HCV79-2015 was engineered. I'm no scientist, but it had something to do with something they called the 'protein spread' and 'pixelation' which, I guess can be examined and can be an indicator of deliberate tampering with a genome. So we start to look at its pattern of prevalence. That's a fancy way to say 'where the infection has been found'. It was almost entirely found here, in this city. We were able to dig a little deeper, and found several infected subjects. They all worked in offices in this district. In fact, two of them worked in the same building.

"Now back to that study. There were thirteen researchers involved. Twelve of them are working in their respective fields, none of them here, by the way. But there was one researcher who was a biochemical engineer earning his PhD. But that researcher isn't working in his field. That PhD candidate was later arrested for drug violations. He was caught manufacturing an MDMA-like drug and then selling it.

"He was sentenced to two-years probation. After that probation was completed, he kind of disappeared. But he did buy a plane ticket. In fact, that plane ticket is nearly the only record of himself he's produced since then. A plane ticket from Philadelphia International to here.

"It only took us a week to find you."

He takes a drink of his water. The two other men sat quietly looking on.

"Now. That's where we stand. Here's what we'd like to do about it. You will help us to develop an airborne strain of HCV79-2015. We will then test its effectiveness in the population at large. In exchange for your assistance, you will be paid very well. We'll call that Plan 'A'. Plan 'B' is this: we turn you into the police. It becomes public that you've been infecting people with a virus you made, yourself. It's all over the news. You get charged with a biological weapon crime and spend the rest of your life in a very unpleasant place." He pauses for effect. "So, what's it gonna be?"

What choice do you have?


July 10, 7:40pm

You are sitting in your apartment for the first time in over four months. You have spent the last hour gathering your things. Your clothes, your toiletries, your laptop, the blue duffel bag from the closet. They are on the floor next to the briefcase which contains a little less than one million dollars in crisp, new one-hundred-dollar bills. Right after the meeting with Mr. Elias, Arthur had come by and paid the rent for three months and removed everything related to the virus. You are eager to see Star again. You haven't seen her since the meeting.

The TV is on. Wheel of Fortune cuts to commercial. Your face appears with a number below it. "Do you owe money?" The voice-over asks. "Call now to settle your debt. We have operators standing by." The picture is you smiling, with a suit on. They took it the other day. It was not your suit. You didn't like it, particularly. After they took the photo, they took it back and allowed you to put your t-shirt back on.

The lab you went to was about six hours away in the desert. Once you got there, you worked with their people. Together, you were able to substitute an airborne virus' DNA for the coronavirus you had used before. They brought you there and back to the city in a van with no windows. This afternoon, when they opened the side door, you were right back at the hotel, with Mr. Elias in his car waiting for you right next to the van.

You had never really loved the scam. You didn't mind it, and, at times, you felt good about taking money from yuppie assholes. But at other times, you felt like shit taking it away from working stiffs. But you justified it in your mind. You told yourself that this was just your niche. You can't hate a lion for eating a gazelle. You can't hate a spider for eating a fly. You had just found a way to get a meal. They were just the meal. And it's not like you killed them, you were just taking a few bucks.

You think about Mr. Elias. You and he are alike. He doesn't judge you and you don't judge him. He is just a bigger lion, a bigger spider. He could eat you. But he didn't. He paid you, instead. Now he will eat, not yuppie assholes, not even working stiffs, but old ladies watching Wheel of Fortune. Or he won't. Perhaps the new virus won't work.

You and the other researcher you had met had not been sure if the visual image on the commercial would be sufficient. They had recorded a moving image as well to use just in case the still image wouldn't work.

Your phone buzzes. It is Star.

Star: Where have you been?

You: You wouldn't believe me if I told you

Star: I missed you! When are you gonna come see me again?

(Attachment: pink.jpg)

You: I'm just getting my shit togther right now. Do you have plans for the weekend?

Star: Just work

You: You wanna take a trip with me?

Star: Where 2?

You: Where do you wanna go?

Star: Serious?

(Attachment: couch.jpg)

You: Yup

Star: :-)

You: Pack a bag, I'll be by to pick you up in about 2 hours

Star: k


July 10, 10:56pm

You pull up in the taxi outside of Star's apartment. You text her that you are here. A moment later, she emerges from her building. The driver gets out and opens the trunk and takes her small roll-aboard and loads it into the trunk.

She climbs into the car and kisses you hard on the lips. You let her.

The cab driver awkwardly asks you where to now. You tell him you're going to need a room downtown. "Anywhere but the Hilton." You tell him.

Star continues to molest you in the backseat.

Your cab pulls up at the Hyatt. You pay him with a crisp, new $100 bill and tell him to keep the change. He almost cries with gratitude.

You check in. You book a suite for two weeks. You put the bag with the hundreds in the safe deposit box. You take your own cash up to the room along with Star. You spend all night fucking, eating, drinking, planning. In the morning, you go together to the airport. You buy two tickets in cash.


July 12 11:17am

You are lying on the beach. It is hot. It is sunny. You and Star are under an umbrella. The water is not far away. Several people are playing in the waves. Star is laying on her stomach with her bikini string undone. You are sitting up, sipping a very cold, very large, very alcoholic drink.

Star sits up, careful not to reveal too much of her breasts. She ties her top and stands over you. You look up into her face. She bends down and kisses you hard on the mouth. Despite the rum and the hangover and the heat and the long sessions of sex over the last two days, you still respond.

"I'm gonna go in the water." She says.

You watch as her ass jiggles in the trunks she's wearing. She looks back over her shoulder at you as she gets about halfway to the water.

You hear footsteps behind you.

"Pardon me, sir." You turn toward the sun and see the short hotel worker who had served you drinks on Friday.


"Is there anything I can get you?"

You shake your head. "No thanks. My drink's good and we have been having a great time."

"Very good, sir." He pauses for a moment. "It's just that... I think I forgot something from the other night."

Your stomach drops. "No, you didn't forget anything. Everything has been fine since we got here."

"Are you sure I don't owe you something? Did I forget to give you back your change?"

"No. You don't owe me anything."

"Very good, sir."

You turn back to the water as you hear his footsteps receding. Star is standing chest deep. She waves at you.


July 13, 2:31pm

The flight back was uneventful. You are still worrying about the hotel worker. You are now at the Hyatt, waiting to get your briefcase. Star is texting someone. She had buried her nose in her Iphone the moment you had deplaned. The desk clerk brings you out your bag. "Thank you, sir. Here is your bag."

"Thank you."

He looks at you. "I think we owe you some money."

Your heart starts pounding. "No, you don't owe me anything."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm quite certain we owe you a refund for the three days you did not keep the room."

"Oh, of course."

"It is not normally our practice to give cash refunds. I could give you a Visa gift card in the amount of the refund."

"That'll be fine."

You turn around.

Star is gone.

You look around. You try to call her. It rings to her voice mail. you text her.

You: Where did you go?

Star: heading home

You: ? I had something to give you...

Star: It's cool

Star: I owe you anyway

You close your eyes. Trying to block out the last message. Trying to un-see it. Trying to forget it.

"Here is your Visa gift card, sir."

You turn and take it from him.

You walk toward the exit alone.


July 21, 4:01pm.

Star stopped returning your calls. You tried and tried. She hasn't responded to your texts or voicemails. You stopped by her place. Her lights were on. She didn't answer the door.

You are in a cab going to meet Candy. After a long break, you called her and met up last week. The cab cuts through the warm rain as it crosses the bridge.

"So you were gone for a while, there." Says Mohammed, the cab driver.

You are distracted and you don't respond.

"What were you doing?"

"I was doing some work out of town."

He nods his head.

You pull up at Candy's apartment building.

Mohammed turns around. "So, I owe you something, don't I?"

"No, you don't owe me anything." You respond failing to keep the weariness out of your voice. You pay him with a twenty and tell him to keep the change. You get out of the cab. Raquel is waiting just inside her apartment building's door. She lets you in and locks the door behind you as you climb the stairs to the second floor.

"I wasn't sure if you were gonna call me back after last week."

"Why not?"

"It had just been so long, before."

You don't have an answer for her. The truth is, that you had been going to Star exclusively and were only back with Candy because Star had left.

You walk into the apartment. She offers you a drink. You decline. The sex is good, but you're distracted. You can't finish. She does, but you just can't. You have too much on your mind.

Afterwards. You pull out $200. You hand it to her. She looks at you.

Do not ask her if anything is wrong.

Do not do it.

"Okay?" You ask.

"It's just that...


"I think I owe you, don't I?"

"No." You say with a sadness. "You don't owe me anything."


July 22, 11:18am

You get out of the cab and walk into the airport. You walk up to the first ticketing counter. It's USAir. You tell the ticketing agent you want to fly to Thailand. She taps away at her keyboard. You patiently watch. Occasionally, she glances up at you. She tells you that you can catch a connecting ANA flight in Seattle with a stop in Kansai International and then arrives in Bangkok tomorrow at 11pm local time.

You hand the girl $2,600.

Ticket in hand, you head toward the security check.

As you approach, the TSA worker greets you.

"Hey, man. How's it going?"


"How you been?"

"I've been fine, thanks."

You know that look in his eyes. He's trying to remember how he knows you. You look down. You keep emptying your pockets into the gray plastic tub.

You pass through the checkpoint.

"Take care, man." The guard shouts at you.

You keep walking.

You stand to the side of the people mover, facing the arriving passengers. One man is looking at you. Then it's a woman. "Hey!" An avuncular man with a sunburn says warmly as you approach him. You get off the people mover and walk toward your gate: A8. Several Mormons are standing around the bookseller. One of them notices you.

"Hey, I know you."

"I don't think so."

"Are you sure?" He says it like he thinks you might be messing with him.

"No. You do not know me." The hardness of your tone attracts the attention of another Elder nearby.

Just keep walking.

You arrive at the gate. You check in. You sit down.

It's crowded.

You go to the restroom. You keep your eyes down at the ground the entire time. You return to your seat at the gate.

You look up.

There are eight seats across from you. Seven of them are filled. A late-middle-aged couple, a woman with two tweens and a two men in cowboy gear.

They are all looking at you. There is a look of excitement in some of their eyes.

"So where do I know you from?" The late-middle-aged man asks. "Are you a singer, Or an actor? Or a politician" Everyone is looking at you. Even the the two guys in cowboy gear. The children. The children are looking at you with that unmistakable look of recognition. You know it too well. A little boy and a little girl wearing shorts and matching Adidas. They are SURE they know you.

You get up. You go to the ticket counter.

"I need to get my bag pulled. I won't be flying today."


October 3, 5:10pm

You are sitting in your chair in your apartment. The television is on. You haven't left the building in over two months. There is a stack of Chinese food containers that is over three feet high. You haven't shaved. The last shower you took was... you can't remember when. The local news is on. The teaser for the weather just told you that there would be at least one more day of rain. You stare absently at the screen, flanked on either side by empty shipping boxes that had been filled with electronic upgrades to your entertainment center. The news comes back on.

"A suicide is always a tragedy. But three local men who killed themselves recently have raised the interest of local authorities, not because of how they took their own lives, but because of the strange similarities in 'why' they did it. Mariessa Wolf has the story."

There's a shot of the bridge. The camera's focal point draws from it to a small collection of candles and flowers in the foreground. "The family of Ron Katz are struggling to deal with the loss of this father of four." Mariessa said. "Last Tuesday, Katz walked to the center of the bridge where he threw himself over the handrail and fell over one hundred and sixty feet to his death in the water below.

"On September twenty ninth, forty-two-year-old Thomas Slavin, IV parked his car in a remote location, took a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol and was found dead the next morning.

"And on September twenty first, the Tranh family returned from a camping trip to find forty-year-old Duc Tranh dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The camera showed Mariessa now walking along the bridge. "Three suicides, three strangers, no apparent connection. And that's the way it would have stayed, But the Portland Police detective investigating the Katz case just happened to be the same one who investigated the Tranh case."

Detective Ameer Furkan is on the screen. "...Usually when you're investigating a suicide you don't get too far into the motives, unless there's a question as to whether it truly was a suicide or not. In the case of Mr. Katz, he threw himself off a bridge, there was a witness, there was no question..."

"But then something that Katz's wife said, caught the investigator's ear."

"...she said 'he insisted that he owed all this money, we couldn't convince him it wasn't true.'"

The screen shows a video of a middle-aged woman speaking into the camera, as Mariessa continued. "For weeks, Katz had been telling his wife he didn't know how he was going to pay back all the money he owed. She would argue with him, insisting that they didn't owe anything."

"I literally had the bank pull our credit report and showed it to him." Mrs. Katz said. She began to cry. "We had paid everything off when we cashed in his 401K."

"As strange as this sounds, it sounded familiar to Detective Furkan."

"There was a note that Mr. Tranh left, which cited debt as the reason he had killed himself. We had dug a little deeper, because of the circumstances of his death, and we couldn't find any debts and the family didn't know anything about any money that he owed."

"Then Furkan heard about Slavin, the married carriage driver who also had been under the false belief that he owed money to someone and couldn't afford to pay it back."

Back to the studio: "Well, since reporting that story at noon, Police told Mariessa that they have found at least nine other so-called 'debt-free suicides' nationwide.

"And now for sports, Chuck."


November 30, 6:40pm

You stand outside of Chroni's. It is closed. It is a warm Friday evening and there is no one on the street. You left the apartment for the first time since you were at the airport and things are much worse than you had thought.

You live above a row of stores. Normally, all but the travel agent next to Chroni's would be open at this hour. There is a watch repair, an LP store, a salon, a vintage clothing store and a cafe.

They are all closed.

On the window of the LP store, a sign proclaims: "business for sale."

A car drives by. You notice, because you have been outside walking to the corner and have been standing, looking into Chroni's through its bay window, looking at the neon lights, all turned out, looking at the register, with its drawer open, looking at the now empty liquor shelves behind the bar. You have been outside for several minutes and you have not seen anyone and you have only just seen one car, speeding by.

It's worse than you thought. It's worse than you had heard on the news. This afternoon, the news reported that this was officially the worst Black Friday in history. They reported that consumer confidence was at an all-time low.

A police car pulls up alongside the curb. You turn and look. The officer with the crew cut and dark sunglasses has his window down.

"Don't get any ideas." He says sternly.

You turn and walk back toward your building.

"Don't think I don't remember you." He shouts at you as you walk away.


January 4, 10:55pm

You flip through the channels. Several of them are not on the air. You can't watch the news anymore. The desperation is just too much.

The only business that is still open in the neighborhood is the Safeway. It is under 24-hour continuous armed guard. Ever since that day you walked outside, the day that they stopped answering the phone at the Chinese delivery, you had been getting your groceries from there. Now, when you walk down the aisle, people dodge your eyes. They avoid you. At first you thought it was directed at you alone. Then you realized that they are treating everyone the same. Everyone is dodging everyone else.

Businesses are closed.

Commerce has collapsed.

People never leave their homes.


January 14, 6:05am

There are flies in your room. They seem to be coming from the garbage room. Today there is a new smell. The smell of rotting meat. The smell of a dead animal. It is coming from the hall. It is coming from the apartment across from yours. The Albanian man with whom you had never had more than a few conversations lives there. Outside his door is the clear stench of death. The flies are thicker in the hall than in your apartment.

Your still-brand-new television is receiving no programming. You have lost all the extra pounds you gained in September and October from General Tso's chicken twice a day. You have lost more. You await the inevitable. You go back into your room and sit back in your chair. You look at the screen. It has a message for you.

"No Signal or Weak Signal."

January 30, 11:16am.

You die.