The boy’s name was Timmy, and after we filled out all the required paperwork and endured the waiting period, he was able to come visit me in the government-issue bubble that serves as my back porch. 

“Uncle Mark?” he asked me, his eyes alight with curiosity. “What was the world like before the coronavirus?” 

“Oh, it was great, Timmy. Back then, we could go wherever we wanted to, however we wanted to and it didn’t matter what time of day or night.” 

Timmy’s big brown eyes went wide. “No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I assured him. “Why, I would jump on my motorcycle and go for rides in the woods whenever I felt like it. Me and the missus would take off for the beach on weekends, and there would be hundreds of people there. Thousands, if it was a hot and sunny day.” 

The kid looked doubtful. “Get out! And the Isolation Police didn’t bother you?” 

“Nope,” I said. “There weren’t any Isolation Police back then. Just regular police, and they only bothered you if you were getting in fights or stealing stuff and junk like that. There’d be a few hundred people on the beach and no police at all. Almost nobody ever acted up. Too nice out there to cause trouble.” 

Timmy shook his head with wonder. You could tell he still had his doubts. A world in which groups of people were allowed to assemble in public places sounded like the kind of story an old person would make up just for kicks. 

“What about papers?” he asked me. “Did all those people have to carry around their papers on the beach to show they were essential?” 

“Essential!” I spat. “That’s kind of a made-up word, Timmy. Back then, we were all essential, whether we ran companies or cleaned toilets. Nobody cared much about what the other guy did for a living. Didn’t matter who you were or how you made your money. “If you wanted to go to the beach, you went to the beach. Hot-shot bankers would sit on a blanket next to a guy who digs graves for a living or a fellow who had no job at all. They might have shared a cold beer, even, or tossed a Frisbee back and forth.” 

Poor Timmy recoiled in horror.

“What about germs?” he asked, with the disgusted look of a fellow who has found a squirming worm in his apple. “Did they wear gloves, at least? I’ll bet half the people who went to the beach were dead a week later, right?” 

I snorted at this. “Nope. A guy might catch a cold now and then, or maybe the flu. But he didn’t go into hysterics over it. He stayed home for a few days, blowing his nose a lot and watching the tube, but that was about the extent of it. Of course, that was in a time before you could get hauled away to The Camps for sneezing in public.” 

Timmy ruminated over this, absently smearing his hands with SD-2020, the government provided personal sanitizing gel all citizens, young and old, were required to keep on their persons. 

“Gosh,” he said at last. “But where did they get the beer? Where did they get the . . . frosbee, I think you called it?” 

“Frisbee,” I corrected him. “It was just a toy, the kind people used when they were allowed to have personal contact with others. We had baseballs and footballs and lawn darts, too, and we bought those things at the stores.” 

“The U.N. sanctioned depots, you mean?” 

“No!” I said, more angrily than I’d intended. “The United Nations didn’t have anything to do with American business back then. Stores were everywhere and they were owned by just ordinary people. We didn’t have to have our every purchase preapproved, either, or wait for the CDC shuttles to take us there. We just went and bought whatever our hearts desired.” 

“Holy moly,” Timmy said, agog. “Where else could you go, besides the stores and beaches.” 

The question was a painful one. I rubbed my eyes, caught myself doing it, and glanced around to make sure there were no U.N. Certified Informers (Unkees, we call them) peering into my bubble. Those twerps will rat you out for things like face-touching just for the points on their Social Credit System. I didn’t see any of them, but I slathered on some SD-2020 just to be safe. 

“You name it, Timmy. The whole world was at our disposal. Some people liked to go out and climb mountains. Some liked to boat out onto the lakes and fish. There were bowling alleys, bingo parlors, dance halls and baseball stadiums that would be crammed with thousands of people, all drinking beer and eating $9 hot dogs. If you had a thirst and you wanted to socialize, there were bars on every other corner. If you wanted a meal, you could take your whole family out to what we called ‘restaurants,’ and you’d be sitting there stuffing your face next to a dozen other families at a dozen other tables. Those were good times, Timmy. Damn good times.” 

Timmy started out into the night beyond the bubble. Night birds sang. Fireflies flickered their secret messages in the tall grass at the edge of the trees. Maybe someday the boy would be able to go out and catch fireflies so he could fill a jar with them and light up his room. Not tonight, though. I didn’t have enough Social Credit points to apply for that kind of thing. 

“We learned about restaurants on the NEP,” Timmy said distantly. 

Ah, yes. The National Education Programming. Four hours a day, the boy sat alone in front of a state-issued screen in his living room, learning everything the government wanted him to know. 

“You know, when I was a boy your age, we got to sit in big rooms with other kids,” I told them. “Classrooms, we called them where dozens of kids were seated elbow-to-elbow in long rows. We passed notes to one another when the teacher wasn’t looking. At recess, we went outside and played kickball on the playground. Or dodgeball. Or tag or four square. Most of us walked to and from school, and we’d walk in great roving packs of kids, all with school books tucked under their arms. We’d stop and climb trees or look for crayfish in the brook. We’d play Wiffle ball in somebody’s back yard or just go stomping through the woods in search of adventure. A good part of our education took place outside of the school, Timmy. It’s a shame you don’t get that experience.” 

The kid shrugged. He’d been born into the ‘new normal,’ what did he care? For Timmy, it was normal for each new year to be marked by announcements, like clockwork, from world leaders warning of a new and even deadlier virus sweeping across the globe. With each new virus came new and more confining restrictions and the noose drew a little tighter around us. I supposed that for Timmy, the noose seemed perfectly normal, too. Just a part of the world into which he had been born.

“Jeepers,” he said. “With all that stuff to do and the freedom to do it, you must have been outside doing wonderful things all the time. It must have felt like your whole life was an adventure!” 

“Mmmm,” I muttered, pondering. “Well, no. Not really. Now that I think of it, a lot of the time, we just stayed at home, sunk down on the couch with our faces buried in our phones, TVs or video games. A lot of the time, we THOUGHT about going outside and doing fun stuff, but it was real easy to put things off, Timmy. It was real easy to just sit there on the couch, promising ourselves that we’d climb that mountain or kayak that river some other weekend. The way we saw it, we had all the time in the world. The beaches and bars, restaurants and dance clubs would always be there, we figured, so what was the rush?

“Then along came good ol’ COVID-19, and how were we to know that this was only the beginning? How were we to know that this ‘new normal’ would become a forever thing? They got us to go indoors, Timmy, and once we were there, there was no going out again. We locked our doors and shuttered our businesses and now he we are, stuck inside these bubbles and gaping out at a world we can no longer touch.” 

Timmy was looking at me, his eyes wide. To the boy, it all must sound like the incoherent ravings of an old man stuck in another time and place. A dinosaur that doesn’t know enough to sink into the tar pits and die. 

There was so much more I could have told him, but what was the point? Concepts like city parks, libraries, shopping malls, house parties, rock concerts and backyard barbecues would have sounded like pure fantasy to a kid in this new world where isolation is a way of life. 

“Are you crying, Uncle Mark?” Timme asked me. 

“No,” I said. “I just got a little SD-2020 in my eye, that’s all.”


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