A short story about a strangely divided world
Kyle unlocked the front door and skipped two hurried steps backward. With the menagerie of baffles and awnings he erected around his house’s entrance, there was no way the mid-afternoon sun could sneak in, but force of habit, survival instinct, and a better-safe-than-sorry philosophy guided him.
“Come in!” His high-decibel call easily penetrated the hardwood door.
Dale let himself in. He carried a cardboard box tucked under his arm, and a small tablet hung from his belt. The drops of sweat that beaded his forehead evaporated instantaneously in the dry, air conditioned air of Kyle’s house.
The front hall mirror reflected two men of approximately equal height, curly black hair, rounded chins, broad shoulders, and deep-set eyes. Both in their mid-forties, they could have been twins, save for the tan that covered Dale’s face and paper-white paleness of Kyle’s.
Kyle extended his arms, palms up. Dale handed him the package. “How’s it going, Dale?” Kyle asked.
“Good, thanks.” He tugged on his shirt to pull out the wrinkles. “UPS keeps me busy and fit, and feeds the family.”
Kyle cradled the Amazon box. A canyon-sized smile stretched across his face.
“The Anzen Virtual Reality headset. Top of the line. I’ve been delivering a hundred a day ever since they came out last month. I think you’re going to like it.” Dale passed the tablet to Kyle, who removed the stylus, signed the screen, and returned it to Dale. “Where are you going virtual reality wise?”
“We haven’t decided yet. Emma wants to experience Hawaii, but I’m in the mood for hanging out in a pub in Scotland. She’s already picked out a bathing suit to put on, so I have a feeling Oahu is in the cards, then maybe Edinburgh. Or perhaps we’ll settle on something entirely different, like a safari.”
“You’ve got enough processor power in that Anzen to experience any place on the planet. I’m sure wherever you go will feel real enough.”
Kyle shrugged. He carefully rested the box that contained the two virtual reality headsets on the hallway table.
For eighteen months, Kyle and Emma had remained inside, like everyone else who could afford to. Staying home was the surest way to stay alive. They telecommuted, dined courtesy of Uber Eats, clothes shopped via their phones, practised telemedicine, received prescriptions by mail, communed with online stores, and did everything possible to not contract Desert Virus, a pathogen that killed one in twelve.
UPS, FedEx, Uber, Amazon, DHL, the Postal Service, and other delivery people were the soldiers of the pandemic. Tens of thousands lost their lives so lawyers and psychiatrists like Kyle and Emma didn’t have to risk theirs.
When the world’s governments simultaneously announced a vaccine, billions raced to clinics, hospitals, and doctors’ offices.
The vaccine worked, but the virus had an unforeseen effect. Anyone who had stayed inside during the pandemic spontaneously combusted, the sunshine igniting them with the violence and speed of a match to a kerosene-soaked log. While they could safely go out at night, avoiding the sun meant no more travel, no more vacations, no more daytime walks.
Delivery people, police officers, firefighters, ambulance drivers, bike messengers, and others whose work had kept them outside during the pandemic didn’t burn.
Kyle looked at the reflections in the hallway mirror again and saw two people who could not be more different. His past and future lives delivered a tandem one-two punch to his gut, erupting bile into his throat.
“We have plenty of time to try both Hawaii and Scotland,” Kyle said, his voice flat. “Yeah, maybe I can convince Emma we should visit Edinburgh first, so Hawaii feels even warmer afterwards.” He exhaled barely a whisper of a breath. “Something like that.”
“That’s the spirit. Just like the ad says, ‘Go anywhere, do anything with VR.’” Dale glanced at his watch. “Speaking of time, I’ve got a truckload of deliveries to make.” Dale pivoted toward the door, then spun back toward Kyle. “Almost forgot. I won’t be seeing you for ten days because I’m on vacation. Me and the missus are in Paris starting tomorrow. We’ve always wanted to go.”