Patient Zero

Nino Fiorelli had never so much as seen an Asian person on TV, let alone talked to one in person. And certainly, he had never set foot onto the continent. He was a bona fide, through and through Italian patriot–which tended to mean that so long as there was a plate of pasta in front of him at lunch, he would remain committed to his paese. Would never dream of placing so much as a chin hair outside of it when everything he needed was right here. There had even been an offer from a friend’s parents when they graduated from high school to send them to Thailand together by way of a three-day stopover in Hong Kong, but Nino firmly declined, said he wouldn’t dream of being apart from his mother’s cooking for more than a day. Elio rather abruptly stopped being friends with him after that, finding him to be a sorry excuse for a northerner.

Even if Elio had said this to Nino out loud, Nino wouldn’t have cared. He was complacent. Perfectly content to remain within the bubble of Somaglia, where the only thing that ever happened was a church sermon. No, it wasn’t all excitement and action in the Lombardy region for those who lived outside of Milan, even if only a paltry fifty kilometers away. And anyway, Milan was a place Nino didn’t much care to fraternize with either. Not even when any of his friends or acquaintances tried to invite him along for a weekend excursion. He was a Somaglia boy and that was it. But perhaps he ought to have gleaned that living in a town pronounced like “Somalia” might have ultimately spelled danger of some kind. In Nino’s mind, however, Somaglia was untouchable–impenetrable to the events and cataclysms of the outside world.

Maybe that’s why he was so reckless as a rule, putting James Dean’s character in Rebel Without A Cause to shame as he tore through the streets on his motorcycle after spending hours drinking at his favorite locale, Lo Stivale Nero. Who knows, it could have been all the drinking that wore down his immune system, made him susceptible to something others in town weren’t–even though, like all Italian milieus, it was chock full of elderly denizens. Which is precisely how Nino inflicted the spread. Maybe it was simply karmic retribution from all the havoc he had wrought over the years, the proverbial gods cursing him for his insolence, paying him back tenfold by also making him the very source of infection for everyone he pretended not to care about. Though, of course, he never put up a façade about ardently caring for his mother.

Concetta, in turn, expressed a more stoic devotion, rarely saying much more to him than, “Fai il bravo.” At twenty-three, he had done little to adhere to that request, unless one counts eating everything on his plate each time they sat down to a pranzo or cena as “il bravo.” Clearly, however, this vacuum-like tendency of his mouth wasn’t enough to quell the universe’s thirst for reprisal. For something in the air–some particle, even though minute–decided to travel through the distances of the various topographies to settle upon Nino. Nino whose only other act of “il bravo” was visiting his two decrepit great aunts on the other side, past the dividing line of just about the only bar/restaurant to speak of, Bar Trattoria Al Semaforo. The only thing that compelled him to do this other than his mother’s unceasing harassment about it was that they lived near the Castello Cavazzi, which had a lovely little park next to it–the Parco Vasca–that Nino enjoyed smoking some of his “herbs” in. Smoking in his mother’s house had grown too insufferable to bother. She was a bloodhound determined to sniff out any relaxation and pleasure he might have in his small universe. Even if he had made it small of his own volition in refusing to ever leave the confines.

In the next few days, everyone else would be subject to the same homebound affliction as Nino, though not yet knowing why until the proverbial government-issued health officials appeared in their full-body protective suits and surgical masks (some even wearing goggles for a heightened apocalyptic effect). Going from door to door, the word spread quickly: coronavirus. Naturally it was fated to take root in Italy–after all, “corona” is the word for “crown.” Placed atop the head of the iconic boot shape that formed this land.

Nino, still having no idea that he was the source of the spread, continued to muck about the streets, visiting his aunts once more as a guise to smoke clandestinely in the park. He seemed to pay no mind to the fact that both of his aunts looked especially worse for the wear as they coughed and hacked, gasping for breath until finally spitting it back onto him. He cut the visit short in response. He had brought the lenticchie to them anyway, his job was complete. Now he had another one to do: get high and forget about the men in suits crawling all over town like a plague worse than the virus itself.

***

At a shoddily set up lab in an abandoned gas station just outside of town, Stefano incredulously examined the sample. “We don’t know how he got it. He’s never left town. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“My bet had been on the old man that just came back from going to New York to see his grandson. That fucking city is crawling with cinesi.”

“New York is filled with too many rich people to be a risk. Maybe this is just how it is now. Anyone can get it. Like the flu. Like–”

“Bad luck?”

Stefano rolled his eyes at Tiziano. “Be serious. This one little fucker has caused a national crisis.”

“We don’t know for certain he’s Patient Zero.”

Stefano tinkered a bit more with the swab sample he had collected from one of Nino’s stolen blunts. “Someone has to be. And it might as well be a young person. He can make a recovery from any probing in quarantine that we do.”

“A physical one, sure. But what about the emotional trauma he’ll have to deal with for the rest of his life?”

“It’s him, Tiziano. I can fucking sense it.”

“There’s no concrete proof.”

“This is a country of faith.”

***

Nino had been in lockdown for almost three weeks now, suddenly wishing that he had decided to leave Somaglia like all the rest of the peers he had gone to school with. This town was now a petri dish and he was the primary specimen under the microscope. He tried to tell them none of this was his fault. That it couldn’t possibly have been. And all the while they just kept faux placating with promises of “a final round” of tests. The “final round” had been coming every day, and he had had more needles poked in him than even the most voracious heroin addict. Concetta wouldn’t even come to visit him, she was so upset. Furious, really. For Nino had killed the aunts. They succumbed to the virus just two days after he was plucked from the house and quarantined, adding to her shame and embarrassment. She refused to leave her room, saying she was nothing but a disgrace to the town, though everyone assured her none of this was her fault. She had done everything she could to raise her son correctly, it was his own cervello stupido that had wrought this. But Concetta could not be consoled. She would rather expire in her room from hunger and sadness than go outside and die of humiliation.

Nino himself felt as though something in him was dying out as well. That tends to happen when you become a lab rat. An unremitting source of testing fodder. Nino reckoned there would soon be nothing left of him to test. He would either die of this virus or be “cured.” Some part of him was convinced they knew how to do it, but were merely withholding the panacea as a means to see how they could manipulate the illness inside of him. Or was he simply going crazy? Crazy enough to come up with such a conspiracy theory.

***

As Stefano and Tiziano observed him from behind a glass window, they spoke of releasing him back into the world.

“He isn’t recovered,” Tiziano noted.

“That’s the point,” Stefano tersely declared as he looked at Tiziano in annoyance. “Do you know what we actually do here?”

Tiziano shrugged. “Sure.”

“Then you’ll understand we need him to spread the virus farther.”

“That’s what The Boss said?”

“Precisely. We’ll tell him he’s better, release him today and he’ll still be the fall guy no matter what. Patient Zero.”

“Oh, he’s less than zero all right, that’s why we chose him, isn’t it?” Tiziano chuckled, thinking that mediocrity is perfectly comfortable until it makes you just another disposable member of society. A prop to be wielded until another comes along. Manipulated all along by a hierarchy with some alternate plan for your otherwise lackluster destiny.

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