THE COUGH

Growing up, I heard stories about my great grandparents back in the twenties. How people died because of tuberculosis. Mass outbreaks. Shipping you off sanitariums to drown in your own blood as the bacteria ruptured your own blood vessels. Hundreds of thousands of all ages died all around the world. But that was nothing compared to now.

I was there, right at Ground Zero as the CDC called it later in one of their reports. Right there when the first infected person coughed his brains out in the Northwestern Train Station in downtown Chicago. Well, not quite his brains, his lungs maybe.

I was working late that night and ran down to the McDonald’s to get a Coke. As I was paying the cashier, then waiting a moment while she filled a medium cup size with a half and half mix of regular and diet Coke, a fat guy standing in front of the Arby’s counter coughed. Didn’t even notice it the first time or two. But then he kept coughing, louder, faster, more chokingly. Continuously. His fat face got bright read. Then frantic gasps for air, struggling to breath in, getting louder and louder.

People looked up from whatever crappy food they were eating, conversations stopped in mid-sentence. All eyes on the guy coughing and choking. For a moment, it was like a frozen moment of time. No one moved or even breathed except for the fat guy choking, coughing, dying in front of us like bad dinner theater.

The few others in the immediate area shifted away from him, trying to act like they hadn’t noticed. I grabbed a napkin, held it up to my face and took a deep breath and held it. I walked toward the escalators as quickly as I could.

Near the edge of the food court, I turned to look one last time. One woman foolishly stepped forward to offer help. That’s when whatever disease or sickness, whatever evil was in him, spewed out in tiny droplets of mucus and spit. Propelled by the man’s lungs, the droplets sailed across the food court. Everyone in the food court was presumed to have been exposed.

I called my team leader right away as I stood on the up-escalator, watching everyone in the food court. I realized what it was and what needed to be done, so no, I don’t feel guilty about calling it in. I did the right thing. But…I, ah, I didn’t know that they’d really round everyone up and incinerate them. After they collected tissue samples, of course.

No, I feel guilty because I never told them that I was right there. Technically, I should have been sampled and incinerated, too, but I wasn’t. But — why should I if I’m not infected? I don’t have the Cough. If I did, it would have shown up by now.

And I’m not a carrier. I’m pretty certain of that. But really, nothings for sure any more. Not since they cultured whatever it is that grows inside our bodies then bursts forth.

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