Of course, surveillance was necessary. How else was the government to track the unremitting number of COVID-19 cases? To get life back to the “normal” that everyone was still so desperately clamoring for? It was all about giving the people what they wanted, the government assured. And to do so, “contact tracing” was absolutely essential. The phrase, of course, being a polite way of inferring pervasive digital surveillance so as to be able to connect the dots between one corona sufferer and another. Loretta, who would quickly become known as the neighborhood shut-in from the time she was twenty-two and had returned from some kind of harrowing ordeal that had happened to her at Bennington, was immune to such surveying. And one certainly could never extract information from her verbally either. Case in point, whatever had spooked her at Bennington was something she would never speak of upon completing her diploma, returning to Ithaca in the early weeks of June, after the outbreak had “plateaued.” In large part thanks to the increased use of contact tracing, of insisting everyone in the “First World” download an app on their phone to proudly declare to the CIA anyone and everyone they’ve been in close proximity with. Loretta was oblivious to this latest development.
The elitists, of course, were given a unique QR code to monitor their movements and assure their crossing from one border to another (for only rich people had the money or inclination to travel anyway, and no one much cared what happened to the poor out there in the trenches). Loretta was not among this breed, though she had come from a moneyed family, and still had the inheritance to prove it. Yet she did nothing with this money other than occasionally pay for some exterior upkeep on the gardens of her mansion (which she secretly knew was far superior to the McGraw-Fiske one). She never allowed anyone inside, however, not even maintenance workers. In this way, she was unlike your average debutante, relying solely on herself for repairs thanks to a wealth of time (the kind that only came with monetary wealth before mass quarantine was enforced) and, with it, the ability for her auto-didactic nature to flourish.
Outside, the world raged on, only Loretta didn’t notice that the rage was more pronounced of late, for she didn’t believe in the smartphone. Maintaining only a landline, a select few privy to the number it would take to reach her. Like her only sibling, Marcus (named after Aurelius), seven years her senior, who called her one day in mid-August to ask her if she had been keeping up with the news. Lighting a cigarette and holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear, she could have easily passed for an Old Hollywood screen star acting out a scene, or one simply lounging around her house on an off day (like so many “casual” shots of Lauren Bacall at home). But this was not the carefree time of the late 40s, nor was it a period of economic prosperity. Of course, Loretta was willfully unaware of all this. Part of the reason she refused to have a phone or internet connection was to avoid news. It was never good, after all, and her mental health was already fragile enough as it was after the incident at Bennington. Marcus sighed heavily. He was at his house in Laguna, which opened up to a private beach that his mistress was currently sunbathing on. His wife, Patricia, had taken off for their Catalina residence, likely happy to hole up with her latest cabana boy. Their marriage was an understood arrangement, though occasionally, it depressed Marcus to think of how far they had sunk from their original state of affection.
“What’s the problem?” Loretta prompted.
“The problem, Loretta, is that there’s a virus spreading rapidly throughout the country and the government is on everyone’s dick to download a contact tracing app.”
Loretta remained unmoved as she took another drag from her cigarette. “What’s that got to do with me?”
Marcus chortled. “Only the fact that it has to do with me. The government has been harassing me almost every day trying to get to you. I can’t take it anymore. You need to get a real phone.”
“I have a real phone.”
Marcus ran his hand over the patch of his head where the hair was starting to recede in exasperation. “What don’t you get, Loretta? Do you understand anything I’ve just said or do I need to come out there personally to break it down for you?”
Loretta arched her brow. “They’re letting people fly right now?”
Marcus bit his lip. “Well… rich people.”
Loretta tittered. “I see.”
A silence filled the line for what felt like minutes, Marcus finally breaking it with, “So?”
“So if the government really wants to force me to do something they can knock my door down and make me.” She hung up.
“Loretta? Loretta? Goddammit Loretta!” Marcus threw his phone on the counter in frustration. She had always been like this. Willful to the point of putting the lives of others at risk. But it had gotten so much worse after Bennington. He still didn’t know what happened, but he assumed somehow that it was rape. Just another rape women could use as an excuse for the rest of their lives to be total and complete cunts. Hell, it had happened to his own wife before, which is probably why she was such a pillhead. It all boiled down to “coping.”
And how was Loretta coping? By ignoring the world fall apart all around her. He wouldn’t care if he wasn’t such an important figure in the Republican juggernaut. How did it look, to have such a defiant sister? Someone who wouldn’t cooperate with a tracking method that far outshined the privacy violations of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act. He had never despised her more than in that moment. Not even when he found out that their parents had left the Ithaca mansion to her when they knew full well she was only going to become a haggard spinster in it, taking up all that space. He could’ve used that house to start his family. Maybe things would’ve played out differently between him and Patricia. They might have actually had children. But no, he had been relegated to the life of West Coast malaise, punctuated by the intermittent slapping in the face by an ocean wave to make him remember he was still alive.
On the other side of the country, Loretta laughed to herself as she lit another cigarette. She was picturing Marcus sulking. Cursing his fate of having such a misanthropic sister. So be it. She cursed her fate in general. Cursed being brought onto this earth unasked. How could they monitor someone who was barely alive anyway? It’s not as though she ever went outside. She had her groceries delivered (when she wasn’t getting most of what she needed from the garden anyway), sewed her own clothes, canned her own jam. The outside world was superfluous. A haven for the unoriginal and the morally and financially destitute. She didn’t fit in with that category, that “class” (or rather, lack thereof). And as far as she was concerned, if she didn’t have to pay taxes on the house she would be happy to disappear from the grid completely. Alas, the more you seemed to want to hide from the world, the more it seemed to want to hold a microscope over you. Loretta shrugged. Let them, she thought. If they want to buy me a smartphone and forcibly use my hand to download an app just because I happen to be wealthy therefore “traceable,” then I’d like to see them right here, right now.
Crushing some mint leaves with a mortar and pestle to make herself a mint julep (the summer weather absolutely demanded it), she hummed a tune to herself that she could not place. It felt dreamy and timeless, like a Sinatra song. Still, she reckoned it wasn’t. It was something as made up out of nothing as her entire existence.
A couple weeks went by with no further communication from the outside. No further word from her brother, nor any sign of some sinister G-man spying on her from the bushes. She had almost all but forgotten that the world was pocked with the diseased who needed to be traced from one riddled body to another until her grocery goer didn’t show up one day after she had sent him out to do her bidding. To buy a few essentials for a lemon meringue pie she wanted to bake, as well as tampons, among more pressing needs. She was, indeed, so aggravated by him not showing up because she was getting increasingly repulsed by stopping the blood with rags, like some goddamn pioneer woman. When he didn’t materialize, she finally could take it no longer, deciding to do the unthinkable when he didn’t answer his phone: go out herself.
The Studebaker hadn’t been driven in years. But it didn’t matter. Things were made to last back in 1964, and Gracie (as she called the car) started to purr with gratitude when Loretta turned the keys in the ignition. It nearly made her wish she was more the type to go on road trips, but you never knew what sort of hoodlums you might run into on the highways and byways of America. She turned the radio on, an AM station churning out only dead airwaves. She kept flipping the dial, hoping to pick up something. But there was nothing. In fact, she started to realize that there was no one on the streets to flash her vibrant red vehicle any kind of enamored glance. It was strange. It’s not as though it was an off time. And, though it was unknown to her that there had been a lockdown, it had ended roughly a week ago, so there should be no reason for desolation on that front either. It wasn’t until she skidded over something that she wanted to believe was an oversized animal that she couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling that was developing.
She got out of the car to see what she had hit. She placed both hands over her mouth in shock. As though doing so would manage to hold in the gasp that had emitted without her control. It was not one human body, but a string of them. Maybe there were five, or four. It was difficult to tell from the indecipherable intertwinement of guts, of maimed husks that had been arranged like some sadistic ribbon by a serial killer.
Without thinking, she got back into the car, her plan to go to the store abandoned. Speeding back to the house, she raced inside to call Marcus. He picked up after an unconscionable amount of rings. “Hello there, dear sister. Starting to notice some strange changes despite your hermit’s life?”
“Marcus, what the fuck is happening?”
He grinned, by now far removed from the government’s jurisdiction of tracing from his perch on a yacht in the middle of Bermuda. He had set up a system for phone calls to his old number to be re-routed to this one, which he intercepted with a black box of an internet connection. Turns out, knowing some members of the Greek mafia back in L.A. had been useful to his escape. “Oh Loretta, what do you care? Nothing matters outside the confines of your precious mansion, right?”
“It does when someone I hired to do a job goes missing.”
“Yes, sweet Loretta. You’re going to find a lot of people are missing pretty soon. I mean, maybe it’s good that you didn’t listen to my advice about getting a smartphone, though I could have forewarned you of what was to come with my insider information. You could have escaped perfectly well. But no, Loretta must always do things her way, mustn’t she?”
There was no denying Marcus sounded utterly depraved, and she didn’t even want to ask where Patricia was. Likely abandoned for the same destiny as the bodies she had encountered on the road.
“What is going on, just tell me without being smug. Am I in danger?”
Marcus sipped from his already dwindling margarita glass. “Maybe, maybe not. You’re not really of any interest anymore. Not now that I’m off the map.”
Marcus had been a fool to be so arrogant. Of course the government was capable of tracing his call. Enough time on the phone with Loretta had alerted them to his true whereabouts. And before he could say another word, he was effectively vaporized. The “technology” knew he had the symptoms of corona.
It didn’t take Loretta long to piece together that through the contact tracing, a collective death ray had been set off via the phone of anyone identified to have the disease or who had been in proximity to someone with it, killing them instantaneously with a surge of electromagnetic waves tantamount to a lethal lobotomy. Penetrating the flesh, melting their insides just enough to kill.
Apprehending all this, Loretta had never quite been more reassured in her decision to live a J.D. Salinger-inspired existence. And after briefly mourning the loss of her only living relative she resolved to subsist entirely off the fat of her own land, building a towering fence around it. There would be nothing to trace to her, ever–phone or not. There would be no surveying of her activities to inform the government of anything other than her foresight in having dispensed with human contact long ago.