Note from the author: This is about the fourth or fifth time that I’ve re-started this story. This time I changed the character’s name, occupation, and even the narrative voice. I’m not certain I’m comfortable with any of this, I actually like third-person better. But I needed something to jump-start me and I thought this might do the trick. I may have to go all George R. R. Martin and have different characters tell different parts of the story, I haven’t decided that yet. Please post in the comments and tell me what you think.
As soon as I heard about the third bonnelly in a month I expected a call, and sure enough, a day or so later, there it was. Everybody into the office.
It was probably time — past time, really, but I’d become so used to working at home that the rigamarole associated with actually leaving my apartment and making my way into an office every morning threw me. I didn’t know how offices worked any more — how did that many people hang out in one space without killing each other?.
But the bonnellies were getting out of hand and the word had obviously come down from on high that this was the way to combat the madness. The last one, a woman, had only killed herself, which was a blessing. Men tended to take a few people with them, like Johnny Bonnell had.
I still shuddered at what Bonnell had done to that family but truth be told, much as the idea of just travelling to and from the office scared me — yeah, I knew Henny Penny had been beaten and the vaccine and the BLT laws made the world outside my apartment as safe as it could be, but my brain was having a hard time convincing its inner lizard that I could be in a room with people and not die — I was closer than I’d have admitted to an act of auto-bonnellification. I mean, I could shake my head with the best of the net pundits at the people who couldn’t handle it, voice my scorn at their weakness and vow I’d never show that fragility of character myself, but when it came right down to it, I knew exactly where they were coming from and I’d suffered enough long dark teatimes of the soul in the past 10 years to know that the only thing that stood between me and that crowd was cowardice, and maybe lack of access to opiates — plus an enduring fear that I’d kill myself and no one would notice for weeks and weeks and I’d be some puffy, gaseous mess (or worse still, mummified, because it could be that long before anyone thought to look for me), stinking up the place and looking like hell when they found me.
And a tiny smidgen of backward optimism — a curious certainty that the day after I killed myself things would change, get better, and I’d have just missed it.
But if that was going to happen, if anything was going to change, I needed to get over my fear of people.
For starters. The other thing, the thing that drove Bonnell and all those others mad, had been nibbling away at the corners of my psyche for a long time, even before Henny Penny if truth be told, so maybe I was better equipped to deal with it than some. But back then I had hope. And even though Neitzsche said hope is the cruellest thing, I say lack of hope rips you apart. If you’re lucky, or, as I said, inured to it, you can shut down enough to continue anyway. For a while, at least. If you’re not, you go insane. Maybe not Bonnell insane, but mad enough to matter.
Funny how when there’s no scarcity you can live without touch for years — perhaps not fully, perhaps not happily, but you can do it because the prospect is always right outside your door, or at the very least right around the corner. Theoretically you can always find a likely somebody and invite that person to touch you and they’ll take you up on it and la la la, life is fine and you go on with it, either with that person or not. That wasn’t precisely how it worked for me before Henny Penny, but something like that happened often enough that I never exploded with despair. Now that it can’t happen — now that I barely open my door and go through it — it’s all I can think about. The lack, the absence. Ten years after Henny Penny was wrestled to the ground, people are still dying, but this time for want of physical human contact, instead of because of it. And I didn’t want to be one of them.
But fuck, that first step…
And it was going to have to be a literal step, because while gas rations weren’t a problem — I hadn’t used my car in ages — I had a flat tire that was going to take forever to get fixed, and my bike chain was broken, with the same prognosis for repair. The regency had put extra cars in the fleet to accommodate the influx of at-home workers needing a ride, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t have to share and I couldn’t bring myself to book one, commit myself to sitting in a closed space with another person.
That first morning I looked at myself — judged myself — in a way I hadn’t bothered with in years.My wardrobe, my hair, my nails, the full pelt on my legs — all of them proclaimed me an at-home worker. I cut my hair myself, and the result was as could be expected. I’d started to go grey but had never really paid attention to what it looked like — we see ourselves at least partly through others’ eyes, and when no one you care about is there to see you, you become a bit blind to the things you care about others caring about. Some people go grey in a pretty way. I am not one of them. A carb-heavy diet proclaimed itself from my middle and thighs and skin. My clothes were new because they had to be — or at least they were relatively new and very rarely worn because I hated the virus-impervious fabrics that were all we were allowed to wear in public any more. No matter what the fabric had started life as — cotton, linen, silk — its pores were clogged with some substance that rejected the free riders that had killed so many people 10 years ago. I had no idea whether they were in fashion, but fortunately I’d never given a shit. Did anyone even care about being in fashion — did such a thing even exist — after Henny Penny? I honestly didn’t know.
I thought about makeup but my lipsticks and eyeshadows were all dry and cracked, and my foundation smelled vaguely rotten. Just as well, no one was going to see my face anyway. Or my fingernails. I’d never been a girly girl, although I suppose if I had been I maybe would have found a way — or a reason — to find these things.
I slid the elastics of the mask behind my ears, pulled on my gloves, shucked into my backpack, which held my laptop, my wallet and my lunch and a book to read at lunchtime, took a deep breath and opened the door. And screamed, scaring the hell out of the neighbour I hadn’t expected to see walking past my door at that moment. I’d never laid eyes on her before, and I apologized as she scurried past, not stopping to become better acquainted. Another person not used to the morning commute.
The thing about being an at-home slug is you — obviously — don’t get out a lot. But since you move easily around your own environment you don’t consider the ramifications of that lack of activity. I hadn’t gone much further than the corner market, where I bought my food and other necessities of life, in ages. Every so often I’d get an urge to get out and walk around but the panic attacks — or if not a full-on attack, the endless second-guessing about the wisdom of my actions — would always start within a few blocks and I’d high-tail it home again.
Why I thought I’d be fine walking the five kilometres to the office … (slaps self in forehead) Or that it would only take me half an hour… Sedentary people don’t think of themselves as sedentary, they think of themselves as prospective athletes who are just taking a break. Unless there’s an actual disability. I wasn’t much of an athlete before Henny Penny, and after it wasn’t much of a walker (see above) or even a cyclist, and yet for some reason five kilometres in 30 minutes seemed eminently doable for the first five blooks. I was so miserable for the rest of it that I barely noticed my surroundings. There weren’t many people and not much traffic, despite the back-to-work edict. Relatively speaking of course. I felt positively terrorized by the number of people on the sidewalk with me, but pre-Henny Penny it would have been a quiet Sunday walk. True to the nature of the city, though, no one met another’s eye, or said hello. Even a world-changing pandemic can’t change human nature. And the masks meant we couldn’t smile at each other even if we’d been so inclined. We were supposed to be going to work to feel less isolated, and I was feeling more isolated than I did alone in my apartment — water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink. It was a cruel tease.
My office was still in the pre-pandemic space — on the third floor of a five-storey building downtown. It was a fortuitous floor in a good address — low enough to be useful when the elevators weren’t working; and close enough to the city centre to have continued to be serviced all through the pandemic and its aftermath. I stood in the stairwell halfway up the last flight of stairs, panting, hoping no one would come along and catch me.
Finally I had enough control of my lungs to open the door. I stood still while the blue light of the nuker ran up and down my body, then stepped inside the office and greeted the new — to me — receptionist.
‘Hi, I’m Lily King,’ I said.
‘Lily! Hi! I’m Ellen,’ she said, excited, jumping up and for a minute I thought she was going to hug me, but she stopped herself short of that. ‘Nice to finally get to meet you in person.’
‘You too,’ I said. ‘Nice to finally put a face to the name of the person who makes sure I get paid. Half a face anyway.’
Half a face, but what a face. Ellen had obviously had no trouble finding makeup — the half of her face that was visible above her mask was elaborately made up to look like a Venetian carnival mask, with dramatic shading and gold glitter everywhere.
Ellen laughed. ‘It’s been like a parade this morning, all these people I’ve been emailing for years, getting to meet them. Bob did an orientation for them but … You’re a little late…’
‘Yeah, I walked and didn’t realize how long it would take.’
‘Want me to show you to your office?’
‘Oh.’ I was nonplussed. ‘I have an office?’
‘We had them built – the pods really didn’t work any more. We needed doorways for the nukers, and since there were so many fewer people…
‘Sure, sure….’ Life had gone on while I wasn’t there. Silly of me not to think of that. I followed as she led me to an office down a long hallway that was in the middle of what had once been our open-plan, bustling newsroom. Doors along the hallway were closed.
Ellen looked around and shrugged apologetically. ‘As much of the stuff that you left here that we could save is all here,’ she said. ‘The chair’s new, of course, and everything’s gone through the nuker.’ She gestured for me to enter and as I did the nuker inside my office door ran me up and down. ‘Every office has them. The supply cupboard is across the hall and the kitchen is where it always was.’
She looked around again. ‘Why don’t you get settled and I’ll tell Bob you’re here.’
I sat in my new chair — leather, of course — and surveyed the space. Same desk, but the drawers were mostly empty. A couple toys, a few pens, a pair of reference books that someone, Ellen probably, would have had to painstakingly nuke page by page. All of my files had been scanned onto portable storage ages ago; everything I needed to do the job I’d been doing for the past 10 years was either on my laptop or in my head.
Henny Penny had done me a favour in a roundabout way — after I burned out and nearly died covering the pandemic, I came back to a world that didn’t really need my services. Or there were other people better equipped to provide them, not as traumatized as I had been. But what it turned out there was need for was storytelling. And I could do that — had always wanted to do that, and now my former employer was willing to pay me to do that. Circle closed. I became a Charles Dickens for the post-Henny Penny age, writing stories that were serialized weekly in net zines and journals, most of them about a magical time when the world hadn’t been terrorized by a pandemic that had taken a huge chunk out of its population. That doesn’t take a lot of research.
I’d known war reporters who’d needed more than one brush with death to deter them from their course, but that’s all it had taken for me. I missed news — I missed the newsroom, more like, the back-and-forth between interesting people doing interesting things, the adrenaline, the feeling that you had your finger on the pulse of something alive. But storytelling was safer. My mind wasn’t about to kill me — except maybe in the very darkest hours before dawn, and so far I’d managed to best it.
‘Lily!’ Bob was in the doorway. ‘I’d give you a hug but … I’ll do this instead.’ He lifted his gloved fingertips to his mask (plain, unlike Ellen’s) gave a loud smack then mimed sending a kiss my way.
‘That’s probably the most sterile bit of affection I’ve ever received,’ I said, returning the virtual embrace.
Bob stood for the nuker then came in and sat down in my guest chair. ‘So?’
‘This is very weird.’
‘Ten years is a long time, kid. You should have come back ages ago.’
‘Yeah, well… you know.’
‘I know. How’ve you been keeping? What are you doing for fun these days?’
‘Did the regency tell you to ask that?’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact, though you weren’t supposed to be able to tell. I’m also interested.’
‘You’re the only person I’ve been in constant contact with since …’ I waved my hand, a gesture meant to encompass the past decade. ‘Believe me, if I’d had anything to tell I’d have told you. I stay home, I eat pasta, I write stories on deadline, and I watch serials on the net.’
‘Why, what do you do that’s so different? There are no restaurants, there’s no theatre, no one’s making movies…’
What I didn’t say, the words that lay between us on my perfectly bare desk were, ‘and everybody’s dead.’
‘I come to work, I see people… My wife and kids — we have a life. We even have a social life, a small one. People we trust.’
‘Yes, well.’ I shrugged.
‘You can’t have no one,’ Bob said, appalled. ‘What about…’ and then that penny dropped and he remembered that my friends from the newsroom were dead, and maybe he even remembered me telling him that my best friend had simply disappeared a few months after the BLT laws were enacted, saying she couldn’t take it anymore. She went to ground and I hadn’t heard from her since. ‘You never found her?’ he asked, finally.
‘What else does the regency want you to find out about me?’
‘Well, that was actually the most important thing. And now that I know it, I am required to send you to a therapeutic touch clinic. And you’re going to have to go at least twice a week.’
‘Therapeutic touch clinic?’
‘The regency just finished a pilot program, they’re actually very effective. They’re rolling them out across the country now. It’s essentially a massage.’
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘Nope. A massage by a licensed practitioner, courtesy of the regency. Everyone without an intimate in their life is required to attend at least once a week; people who’ve had no intimate contact in the last year or more must go twice a week.’
‘They think that getting strangers to rub people down will stop the bonnellies?’
‘The results of the pilot project were very promising.’
‘You’re going. And you’re going to write about the experience for me.’
‘The regency wants us to get the word out.’
‘So even if I don’t like it I can’t say so?’
‘Call it an advertorial. But I don’t think it will be a problem. I even went to one. It was nice.’
‘So now that I’m back you want me to start reporting again?’ A little chill of fear ran through me at the thought.
‘Depends on what you want to do. Your stories are still the most popular thing we run so I’m in no rush to put an end to them. On the other hand, I have an idea for a series and I think you’d be perfect to write it. We’ll talk in a few weeks, after you’ve settled in.’
‘OK.’ Bob got up to leave. ‘How many came back today?’
‘You’re one of eight people who’s been working from home more or less full time. We’ve had five or six in the office all along.’
‘Anyone I know?’
Bob shook his head. ‘A couple of bylines you might be familiar with, but no one you’ve ever worked with.’
‘Great. And they’re all kids, I suppose.’ Even 10 years ago I’d been one of the oldest reporters in the newsroom, only Bob and a couple of the other editors had any real time on me.
‘Mostly,’ Bob smiled. ‘You can be momma Lily, mentoring all the cub reporters.’
‘If I had anything on my desk to throw at you, I’d throw it…’
Bob scurried out the door. ‘Settle in, and I’ll take you around to meet them later. And Ellen will let you know when your first touch clinic appointment is. There’s one in the building, so it’s all easy-peasy.’ Bob shut the door on the way out.
I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Between the walk, and the terrors of the walk, and talking to Ellen and Bob, I’d had more interactions with people in the past two hours than I’d had in a decade, and I was exhausted, my brain dry and limp from the effort. And I was going to have to meet more people later. And I was going to have to do this every day. ‘Kill me now,’ I said, which was, you know, ironic.
That was no massage.
I’d had massages, used to get them regularly, nice long deep-tissue explorations of my shoulders and back, usually not bothering with legs and feet because all those hours of sitting hunched over a computer keyboard made the back the target — sometimes the gluteus maximus if I felt like shaking it up a bit. I’d get off the table an hour later a little quivery, a little spacey, blissed out from the endorphin release and smiling every time I moved and it felt like my muscles were bruised. That to me was the sign of a successful massage.
That was no massage.
I sat in my new leather chair behind my new desk in my new office and tried to write about the experience I’d just had at the therapeutic touch clinic and collapsed into tears again. I’d never been violated like that, ripped open and exposed in all my vulnerability, all my tendernesses open to the air.
Jesus, how was I going to write about that?
I’d had to go up to the fifth floor for my appointment. After walking through the nuker I followed directions into a room with beige walls, a sink, a massage table — just the table with its hard leather surface, no sheets or pillows. The dim lighting and soft music were the only holdovers from my therapeutic massage experiences in the past.
The receptionist had told me to leave my mask and gloves on and when the technician came in she was similarly covered. She told me that she would remain that way throughout the procedure. I got on the table fully clothed except for my shoes, and lay down on my back. ‘Close your eyes,’ she said, and I did.
And then she touched me.
And it wasn’t a massage, in fact I’d been disappointed when she told me to lay down on my back instead of on my stomach, where most therapeutic massages start out, but I soon realized that this was not a massage at all. She just touched me. Bursts of warmth against my clothes and skin. At first it was simply a laying-on of hands, she’d rest them in a spot, let that spot grow warm, and then move them to another spot, which might or might not be adjacent, and warm it up, and then move again.
I was tense when I went in, not knowing what to expect, but with each little warming I relaxed a bit more, I opened a bit more. I did that. Five minutes in I had laid myself bare, had let down the walls that had been inviolate for a decade, that had protected me from the reality of my situation, from the true extent of my loneliness and my unwanted solitude, and she crossed over the rubble and touched my weaknesses. Standing at the head of the table she started stroking lightly down my arms. Then she had me roll over and she started again on my back, stroking lightly, rhythmically, and I started thinking, ‘this is where I begin, and this is where I end. I go this far and no further. I am here.’ And that was a mind-blowing thought. I mean, I’d been me, and I’d been there all along, but somewhere I’d lost of my sense of ‘I’ and the physical space of my being. And being reminded that I was I and I was here and that SOMEONE ELSE HAD TAKEN NOTE OF MY PRESENCE … I just curled up into a ball and … bawled. Cried like I hadn’t cried in years — hadn’t allowed myself to cry because I knew that once those walls crack, there’s no fixing them. Once that self-awareness takes you by the neck and starts wringing, you can choke on it. And I did. I was a great big heaving, choking, bawling mess of self-awareness.
She told me later she always makes first-timers her last clients of the day because there’s no telling how long the appointment will take. My reaction was a little extreme but I wasn’t the first to have it, won’t be the last. Muscles store memory, she says, and they know the difference between good and bad memories. They’ll avoid the bad ones. Being touched for the first time in a decade brought back good muscle memory, but bad brain memories – for every memory of touch I had had more memories of not being touched. My brain and my body warred with each other, leaving me dazed and weak.
I was in a certain amount of pain when I got up from the table and she told me that wasn’t unusual either — while this hadn’t been a deep-tissue massage in the usual sense, letting go, opening up released a tension I hadn’t known existed (my walls, I guess) and with that release and that relief I felt the stress of having held it in place for so long.
‘I don’t know if I can walk,’ I said. ‘What did you do to me?’
‘I showed you what was missing, that’s all,’ she said. ‘How are you getting home?’
‘I was going to walk…’
‘I’ll call a car for you. And I’ll make you another appointment for the day after tomorrow. Same time.’
I could only nod because at the thought of being touched again I started to cry once more, and that for the moment was worse than the thought of being alone in a car with another person.
‘Will this stop?’ I asked her, embarrassed, accepting her offer of a handkerchief in a sterile wrapper.
‘Eventually, but it may take a while,’ she admitted. ‘I have you down for twice a week but that may not be enough. You’ve been out of the game for a very long time.’
I managed not to throw up until I got home, which was one small blessing.
I decided to put off writing my article until the second visit, but it was as bad as the first. And the third was only marginally better. Bob started asking for the article, asking whether I was keeping my apppointments. I didn’t know how to explain to him… Told him I couldn’t find the lede. He reminded me that this was a damned advertorial, not a chef d’oeuvre, I just had to write something nice about the experience, and I couldn’t explain to him why that was impossible for me.
‘Why isn’t this getting any better?’ I asked her in despair after the third visit, when I lay curled in the fetal position on the floor snivelling and snotty, with all the dignity of a three-year-old whose blankie is in the dryer.
‘Better is subjective,’ she said, maddeningly vague. ‘You have a lot of crap stored in your muscles. A lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of rejection, a lot of refusal to admit there’s a problem. Every time you come here a little more of that is released. This could be a long process.’ She shrugged. ‘Do you have anyone to talk to?’
‘You think I need psychiatric therapy too?’
‘Don’t you? You’re functional, but I can tell without doing anything but touch you that you’re deeply depressed. It might help to talk to someone. I’ll give you a couple of names.’
We only talked at the end of these sessions, which allowed me to concentrate on the sensation. It was weird, being in this intimate space with another person, and giving that person the freedom to explore my body — mostly its extremities. And though there was never anything remotely sexual – even if I’d been in a headspace to be seduced by a woman in surgical mask and gloves – my body reacted as it would to a touch with far more seductive intent.
‘You are a sexually healthy woman,’ she said. She’d asked about my responses to the touch and my blush had responded. ‘When no touch is sexual, all touch is sexual, whether you’d normally be attracted to the person doing the touching or not. There’s a false intimacy here, but when it’s the only one you have, it’s powerful nonetheless.’
‘Is it transference, then?’
‘Not really, because I don’t think you’re falling in love with me. You would likely have that response no matter who caused it.’
Bob finally came to my office. “Where’s my story? You making a life’s work out of it?”
“No, it’s just harder than I expected.”
He came in my office and sat down. “What’s hard?”
“Let’s just say my reaction has surprised me. Not the therapist, who’s seen it all before, but me. It’s harder on me than I expected.”
Bob clearly didn’t understand.
“Bob, when was the last time you went to bed without a goodnight kiss?” He rolled his eyes, but didn’t answer. “For me it’s been over a decade. Not just Henny Penny, but before that too. You can’t even imagine it. Neither could I. But every time I go to that damned clinic I’m forced to confront that reality, and it hurts.”
“Fine. Whatever. Don’t psychoanalyze your response on the page then. Write, “I go to this place twice a week and this is what it looks like and this is what happens ….”
“And then I go home and throw up because it upsets me so much.”
Bob was taken aback by that — not only the idea that I’d throw up after what to him had been a totally benign experience, but that I’d tell him so. Bob and I were co-workers, he was my editor and we were friendly but a professional barrier was always up between us. We simply didn’t share deep personal confessions, unless it was well after the fact and telling all was in aid of a good story. Didn’t particularly want to hear the other’s deepest secrets, or at least had never broached the subject. I’d just given him too much information.
“Shit, Lily… ”
“Sorry, Bob, you didn’t need to know that.”
“No, I think I’m glad you told me. I thought maybe you were just having trouble getting back in the saddle, I had no idea this could actually be hard.”
I shrugged. “Neither did I.”
“OK, so write about it, with as little or as much detail as you want, but I need to have something and I still want you to write it.”
“Why? Surely some of the others who came back …”
“Yeah, but … well, there’s something else I want you to write and while this is required writing for the regency, it’s also a stepping off point for the other thing.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“All in good time, Lily.”
So I wrote my piece, probably not as bright and sunny as the regency might have wanted for its star program, but not as dark as it could have been. The journalist in me wouldn’t let me make up details, and it would have been professionally irresponsible to allow people to think it was all sunshine and lollipops behind the closed doors of the treatment rooms, but the private person I’d always been didn’t want to expose too much of my soul either. Bob gave it a polish, made it presentable.
And eventually it did get better. I stopped throwing up after sessions; I stopped crying like a baby before she even touched me. I never did seek talk therapy either, but I already felt like I was giving away too much of my inner self.
And of course as soon as it started getting better, it stopped being anywhere near enough. I started noticing things I didn’t like about it, or that were not satisfactory — the fact that she remained gloved and I remained clothed all through the sessions. I started to crave the feeling of flesh on flesh. I resented being unable to see her entire face when we spoke after the sessions. Her touch-stroke routine was unvaried each time I went. I’m a little OCD and I started counting the seconds of each touch, it was a remarkably steady 30 seconds everywhere except on my face, where it was 20. I wondered if she was counting too.
I was distracted. When I get distracted, therapy, no matter what it is, no longer works for me.
I started making and going to appointments at other nearby clinics, to see if a new therapist could bring back that initial feeling of release. The regency was offering the service for free, so there was no reason not to. Male, female, old young — they’d all learned at the feet of the same master; all offered the exact same service. It wasn’t enough.
So when Bob came to me with his little pet project, we should have both known it was irresponsible for him to offer it to me — him because while it was free the regency did keep records and they were sent to my employer so he knew exactly how often I was going to the clinics. Neither of us could resist it. He was an editor assigning a reporter he know knew would bring him a helluva story; and to me it looked like an answer to a question I’d been asking for weeks.
“I want you to check out the petting zoos,” Bob said when he finally came to me and asked if I was ready to do some real journalism.