“Do you ever dream of touching me?” Evid says, placing her gloved arm atop mine. We’re watching the news for updates on the outbreak in Miami. They should just evacuate that city. Humidity and heat breed havoc on Universal Precautions.
I remove my arm and cup Evid’s face shield. Her brown eyes are huge behind the polycarbonate. “All the time.”
“Skin to skin,” she says, and my hand recoils.
“Don’t joke.” I sweat in my UP suit just thinking about it. That’s how outbreaks start. People think they can ignore CDC guidelines at home. They think decontamination showers and HVAC filters take care of droplet and airborne transmission. They assume if they practice safe touch, they’re fine. They forget about indirect contact. Then someone brings the virus home on a package of processed cheese and the entire complex ends up in isolation, waiting to die, because they couldn’t keep their UPs on. Evid knows this. She’s a phlebotomist in the CDCPD’s Viral Detection Lab. Thinking how close she is to the virus every day sends dread spiraling through my veins. What if an accidental needle stick gives her the disease? Or worse, the virus hops a ride home with her and she passes it to me. It’s a wonder that I can sit on the same couch as her. As it is, I insist she keep her work suits (the ones she wears to work, not at work, those the CDC destroys on site) in the airlock and only wear white UPs at home. I tell her it’s because she’s beautiful in white, which she is, but it’s also easier to spot a pinprick on a white background. I know you can’t see a disease, but if you could, it’d show up better on white.
She twines her glove-swelled fingers with mine. I want to pull away, but that would hurt her feelings. And might tear my suit. I’m wearing the lifestyle model for home use and it’s not as sturdy as an outdoor one. “Zip,” she says, “I’m not infected. They’d never let me come home if there were any unsafe contact. I’d never let me if I’d been exposed. You know that.”
“We can’t risk it.” Not Evid, I think, please not Evid. But this is how it started with my mother. She thought about touching, she touched, then she touched the wrong thing and people died.
“What if I got a new job? I could work from home, too. We’d be together all the time. Me and you. No more super-virus, no more worry, no more ‘inside suits.’” She snuggles closer and I force myself to relax against her body. I’m protected, I tell myself. As long as I don’t puncture my UP suit, I can’t be infected.
“Sounds like a dream.” I smile when she tilts her head to look into my face and we touch face plates. I close my eyes so she can’t see the panic in them. “I love you,” I say and hope it’s enough.
Each morning I check Evid for signs that she has the virus. Or isolation fever, which is almost as dangerous because the compulsion to touch skin to skin always leads to infection. IF doesn’t happen much anymore. Most of us grew up in suits — the big, bulky old HAZMAT ones — so these modern versions feel like a second skin. Evid shouldn’t be affected by IF; she has no memory of life before UP. I was five when I first suited up, and then, only to go outside. By the time my brother was born, everyone suited up all the time if they wanted to stay virus-free. It was his birth that broke my mother. Not being able to hold her baby tore her up. She’d spend hours tracing letters, sometimes images, on my suit, asking me to guess what she drew. We called it connect the lines. That game is probably why I can’t live alone even though it’d be safer, why I need to feel the pressure of another person next to me.
It’s the reason I risk loving Evid.
I don’t notice any new symptoms and Evid doesn’t talk about touching me again. Then I catch her watching me through the observation window in my Personal Quarantine. Her eyes feast on my skin. I hold my suit in front of my body. When I don’t drop it, she turns away.
By the time I finish my ablutions and suit up, she’s left for work. I’m ashamed at how relieved I am. I go to my office and turn on the monitors, all nine of them. I’m the city’s top spotter, but today a slasher pulls a knife before I see him or her. (Sometimes gender is difficult to discern in outdoor UP wear.) S/he slashes someone’s respirator hoses before the orange suits I alert arrive and arrest him/her. The victim — a woman by her body language — is okay, but the near miss unnerves me. I switch feeds and force myself to pay closer attention.
I should have seen this coming. Evid spends her entire day touching people, sometimes seeing their skin. Of course, she’d want something more intimate with me. But the thought of her bare hands on me makes my stomach knot in unpleasant ways. I imagine her leaving a trail of dead skin cells and microbes, of bacteria and urea, of viral RNA on my skin. Touching is out of the question. I should reset the apartment’s security codes and lock her out.
I walk to the front door and peer into her airlock. She’s given me her access codes, but I’d no sooner invade her space than go suitless. She exposes her body in that space. Its surfaces are covered with molecules of her. I start to hyperventilate. Worry about her tracking contagions into our home. I remind myself that this building has a top-of-the-line decontamination unit in the lobby. It doesn’t help. I go find the manual for our apartment’s filtration system and read it over and over until I’m satisfied that it keeps the nasties out.
But it can’t keep out the memories of my mother. The last time I saw her. I was in my bedroom playing trucks, suit off so I could grip them better. She stood in the doorway, the light of the hallway behind her, a shadow of her suited self. She crouched down and played with the tow truck. Her eyes were wet with tears. She wore a blue and green plaid skirt and a white sweater. “Love you, Zip,” she said and kissed me on the forehead, damp lips on my skin. I didn’t say ‘I love you’ back. All I could think about was the virus and how we weren’t supposed to touch. I waited for her to leave, then ran to the bathroom (they weren’t PQs yet) and scrubbed myself with bleach. Later that night I snuck out of bed and, using Dad’s work gloves, put my trucks in the garbage. A few days later, Mom went outside without her suit and was arrested. She tested positive and the CDC quarantined us. I lied when doctors asked if my mother touched me. “Only through my suit,” I’d say, and wait for their tests to prove me wrong. Dad didn’t make it. Since then, the only time my suit comes off is in my PQ.
My brother tells me I’m an idiot for living with another person. That I’m just waiting to be infected. Perhaps he’s right.
I let Evid talk me into a walk in the park. “You never leave the house, Zip. It’s a beautiful world out there.” I disagree, but go anyways. I am storing up memories of her for when she’s gone.
There aren’t many people on the street. It’s a weekend and everybody’s safe inside. We have the entire sidewalk to ourselves. I hold her gloved hand in mine. I can’t feel her as well as when we’re at home — these suits have Kevlar in them, a protection against slashers, and everything feels disconnected. I hear her sigh in my ear. I smile because I made her happy. But it also makes my eyes water because I know we are nearing the end.
Her hand slips from my bulky grasp, but I hardly notice. We are almost at the park when she stops walking. Evid pulls off her glove and reaches her bare hand towards me. I step out of reach. “Put it back on,” I say. “Someone might see.” I glance down the street. People are staring out windows. It’s only a matter of moments before the orange suits arrive.
“Please, Zip. Take my hand.” She drops her glove to the pavement. “Walk to the park with me, hand in hand. Like they do in the movies.”
I cover her bare skin with my protected arm and worry about pore breathability and saturation rates. My heart trembles. I think it is breaking.
“Touch me. Really touch me. Just once, Zip.”
I pick up her glove. “Put it on, Evid, you have to put it back on.” She won’t take the glove. I wrap it around her exposed skin. It looks soft and vulnerable. I start to drag her down the street, away from the park. “We have to go home. We have to go now.” Before someone spots us. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the virus isn’t lurking in this neighborhood. Maybe the decontamination unit will wash the virus off before it can seep into her pores and replicate. There’s a chance she could be okay.
She pulls her arm from mine. “I love you, Zip,” she says and unhooks her helmet. I jam it back on her head before she can take it off. If she breathes in unfiltered air, it’s all over. We waltz across the sidewalk, struggling against each other. Sirens whoop, closer and closer.
Everything goes silent. Our suits’ communication devices have been overridden. Orange suits, their face shields polarized so you can’t see their eyes, tear us apart. I am pulled away, then released. A man’s voice broadcasts in my helmet. “Sir, stay back. We have everything under control.”
She struggles, no match for the suits that have surrounded her. “She’s not infected,” I say. “It’s IF.” I don’t know if they’re listening. I stare at Evid’s arm, rising out of the mass of orange. It is the first time I’ve seen her bare skin. Her pale fingers stretch and grasp. She’s reaching for me. I whisper, “I love you, Evid. Remember that.” But my voice can’t carry through my suit and I weep.
“Don’t hurt her.” Even though I can’t hear her, I know she’s calling my name. Her helmet rolls onto the sidewalk. The CDCPD knocked it off in their attempts to herd her into the paddy wagon.
Her hand falters. She’s giving up and my heart lurches. My visor fogs up, although that isn’t supposed to happen. None of this is supposed to happen. But I suppose this is what happened to my mother, too. The house was so quiet after my mother left. I imagine our apartment without Evid. The empty PQ, the abandoned airlock, the lonely couch.
I rip off my glove and throw myself into the mass of orange. Reach for her hand. Orange gloves clamp on me. They force me back, away from her. My helmet is torn off and suddenly I can hear Evid’s cries and the world around me surges into focus. I fight free, my suit tearing under the assault, and hurl myself towards her. She reaches for me, fighting once more, and my fingertips kiss hers, a merest brush, skin on skin, as the orange suits bear us down to the cement sidewalk.
H.L. Fullerton’s work has appeared in Buzzy, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction.