"The Smell of Lilacs" by Jeremy Althof
"It’s just a quick prick, and then we can get your paperwork squared away, "said the Food and Beverage manager. He was a heavyset man, with watery brown eyes visible over his N95 mask. His was a bright Marriott red and looked both expensive and effective.
“I turned in my paperwork when I applied. It had all my numbers and clearances’, "Shane said. It’s true – he had gotten the full workup before applying for this job dropping plates as a cater waiter for weddings, work functions, and the occasional bar mitzvah. That meant he had paid out of his own pocket for a doctor’s visit, blood work, mouth swab, nasal swab, and stool sample. The exact same stuff he had done before he started driving for Uber.
“This function has asked for ‘Elevated’ screenings. That means we prick and scan everyone before they go out on the floor; no exceptions. If it was up to me, you wouldn’t even by allowed on the property until we did a P and S on everyone. "
“I should talk to the shop steward...”
“Feel free to talk to him, but you ain’t in the union and this is covered in the contract even if you were. This is going to be more and more standard, so you might as well get used to it. Do you want to get someone sick? Do you want to be liable for that?”
“I feel fine.”
“So, get scanned and go about your day. It’s kind of a status thing with some people. They want to be able to say that they know that Grampa is not going to catch Trips and that every person they interact with as clean as a mountain stream. It’s actually being courteous. If you have something, do you want to be the one that puts Gramps in the hospital?”
Shane sighed. “I hate needles.” He lifted the seat guard and sat down in the medchair.
“Then you were born in the wrong era.”
A tone rang out from the chair, clear and minimalist.
“Please move your arms away from the testing area” Two long, anime-style arms emerged from the back of the chair. “Spraying to commence”
The hentai-style tentacles sprayed down the entire chair, the clean scent of lemon mixed with the hospital tang of bleach. “Place your arms in the testing areas.” The chair chimed brightly. Shane slid his arms into place.
“Testing to commence” He felt a slight pressure on the tips of his middle fingers.
“Can’t even feel it, right?”
The med-chair whirled audibly. Stopped. Whirled again. Stopped.
He felt more pressure on his fingertips, and the chair’s internal symphony kicked up a notch. Paused and crescendo-ed.
“Testing complete. Healthy and ready for close contact.”
“Get your stuff on. We drop apps in 45 minutes." The manager said.
The catering kitchen was a place of pure chaos, and Shane loved it. The sounds, the smells, the hum of energy as the chefs went about their tasks of stirring, cutting, decorating.
It was a medium-sized wedding – about 200 people in the main hall. The group of waiters stood by, ready for the first batch of appetizers to come out. The chefs sweated hard in their PPE suits. Each one was completely wrapped in a tightly fighting jumpsuit with a mask and balaclava that covered their hair, nose, and mouth. Shiny, stressed-out eyes showed behind clear plastic visors.
The wait staff was wearing the longtime uniform of the cater-waiters. Black shoes, black pants, and white dress shirts. All the outfits had been washed, scanned, and wrapped in plastic until right before they had changed into them. They had red Marriot masks over their nose and mouths. The F&B Manager gave them a once-over, while the Head Chef, only slightly more recognizable from the rest of the cooks by his slightly beaten up chef toque that he had affixed to his head with several rubber bands.
“Let’s go over service, please. Remember, this is an ‘Elevated’ service function. They want their service on time, but they want to make sure that we are complying with the highest standards of service. No contact at all and every piece of food scanned before it drops. Do we understand?”
“Yes, chef.” the waiters dutifully intoned.
“Ok – let’s wrap up, then. Hands, and faces. "
The Pureil NOSKIN SEAL spray applies a thin layer of invisible protection between skin and anything else. It felt like sunscreen spraying on. They said it allowed your skin to breathe, but the hotel mandated at least a 6 inch square of exposed flesh on the neck to prevent a ‘Goldfinger’ type situation. Every other piece of skin – face, hands, exposed parts of the chest and legs, needed to be sealed.
Above then, the machine whirled and the anime-tentacles emerged from the ceiling. Red lights flashed over their bodies, as the machine looked for any stray bit of flesh that had not been hermetically sealed.
The was a beep and the chipper tone of a passed scan.
“Scan complete. Ok…the first dish is salmon canapes. Pickup in five.”
Shane was halfway through dropping the salad service when it happened. The bride, who did look quite lovely in a white gown, black hair piled high on her doll-like face, was speaking on the mic, thanking her family.
There was the first one, muted behind an arm or into the crook of an elbow. The second one was louder, a car backfire in the now-silent hall. A wet sniffle followed in the quiet.
One of the waiters – Thomas, Shane thought. It was Thomas – had his hand up.
“Sorry. So so sorry. It’s probably just hay fever or a bit of allergies." He was British and the apologies came naturally.
“GET.HIM.OUT.OF HERE.” the bride screeched into the mic. The FB Manager appeared as if summoned by the offending sneeze. He hustled the unlucky, soon-to-be employed Thomas out of the hall. From above, there was the sound of machines whirring, as the scanning tentacles came down.
“We will hold of the cutting of the cake for us to ensure the room is clean, and then we will start with the first dance.”
The smell of disinfectant filled the hall, over-powering the smell of cut lilacs from the arrangements.
“That was crazy!” Sheryl said. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?” She handed him the tube, and he took a long pull. Mango and kush. They had trash duties and were hauling out the garbage to the giant compactors in the back of the hotel. It felt quiet and very private after the bustle and drama of the evening.
“I felt horrible for him. There is something so British about apologizing for sneezing as you ruin a wedding.”
Sheryl laughed. She had a good one – clear and confident.
“So where are you going to take me tonight, champ? I want to burn through some of that sweet cater-waiter cash."
“Well, we can either go to Sweeney’s – which is a shitty Irish bar. Or we can to Maria Bonita’s, which is sort of a shitty Mexican bar-restaurant.”
“Those are some pretty exciting options. But I will always default to the option of tacos, especially before what feels like our first official date.”
“Tacos are not very romantic, huh?”
“Neither are giant dumpsters, usually. I guess it is what you make of it. " She reached out and touched his hand, and looked up at him, her blue eyes bright and alive. They kissed, for the first time. Softly at first, but with more urgency as Sheryl slipped her tongue into his mouth.
They had been friendly and flirty since their first catering job three months ago, but Shane had thought that Sheryl was just being collegial. There was nothing collegial (or maybe there was) about the way she slipped her hand down the front of his pants. There was a bumping sound, as one of the other waiters were coming out laden with more garbage and they broke apart.
“Tacos it is,” she said.
Tacos were not sexy, but they didn’t let that stop them. They started with a taco platter and beer, moved to margaritas, and then finally shots. Somehow they found themselves at her place, after annoying her roommate by stumbling around the kitchen looking for water, they were in her room, in her bed.
“You are beautiful,” Shane said, and she was.
“I know,” she said, unhooking her bra and sliding it over her head and smiling up to him. “Let’s get those pants off of you." Her hands worked at his zipper, and he felt his eyes start to roll back in his head. Somehow she had managed to slide off her own clothes, and was on her stomach, rummaging through a drawer by the side of her bed.
She made a triumphant noise and rolled back to him. A smart condom. Like all connected condoms, it would scan for STIs and other health risk markers. It would also ping the National Wellness Board and return all your vital stats. Its packaging looked like something from the Apple Store – sleek, minimalist, and expensive-looking.
“My mom got them for me as a birthday present,” she said, opening it with effortless pinch and pull.’ No awkward use of the teeth here. “She is very health-conscious, and also has some boundary issues."
Shane tried to nod sympathetically, as she rolled the condom over him. Her hands worked eagerly and Shane moaned for her.
Her hands and mouth worked faster, and then he heard a muted beep.
They both looked down and saw it. The dreaded red warning ring, standing out against the white of the condom and the pink of his cock.
“Oh…that’s weird. It’s never happened to me before.”
They both stared down at him. She tapped the base of his cock, where the red ring was pulsing.
“Haha…that’s what they all say. " She tapped him again. “Maybe it’s an error. Like a false positive.”
“Yeah." They slipped another condom on and saw the same red ring. “One more!”
It had the same result. The same red ring around his now somewhat flaccid cock.
“Look, I just got tested last week. I’m fine.”
She reached out and touched his face. “You are fine, but I am not fucking you with a positive flag. Obviously." She rolled over and picked up her phone. " Do you want me to get you an Uber?”
“Place your hand in the device. You may feel a pinch or some discomfort.” Shane was strapped to a chair in the Urgent Care pod. His whole hand was clamped firmly, but comfortably inside a scanning device, that whirled and clicked. Microneedles pricked his fingertips as they drew blood and scanned for anti-bodies.
“Here are your results – you scanned negative for viral, sexual, neural, and immune disorders. " Pause. Whirl sound. “Your public health rating is red – unsafe, use social distancing. Failure to comply can result in fines, and imprisonment of up to five years." Pause. "How would you like to pay for this visit?”
Shane’s heart dropped. A red rating was serious. Very serious. If you rated red, it meant that you were not allowed to have a job that had any contact with other people or be out in public for non-essential business. You were not allowed to have any close contact with sexual partners or friends. He would be out of work, and not allowed to see Sheryl at all.
“I don’t understand."
“I’m sorry – what about your diagnosis is unclear?”
“Why I am clear of viral, sexual, and neural and immune disorders, but still getting a red flag?”
Pause. The system culled data, spooling through his records, his DNA, his blood.
“Your public health rating is red – unsafe, use social distancing. How would you like to pay for this visit?”
“Doctor!” The machined listened.
“Do you want to talk to a live, on-call doctor? There will be an additional charge for this.”
“Doctor!” Shane shouted.
“Confirmed. You are queued to talk to the next available doctor. The wait time will be….30 minutes. You will be charged for your use of the med pod."
The wait time was actually 18 minutes. The doctor was a harried-looking guy about Shane’s age. His University of Phoenix/Johns Hopkins Virtual medical degree hanging prominently on the wall behind him.
“Let me pull up your charts. " He hummed. “Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Your blood looks clear. The top-level DNA stuff looks pretty clear. You have the usual genetic stuff – some probability of diabetes, maybe a little Alzheimer’s, and it looks like you ingest a fair amount of marijuana. So, let me update everything again, and see it that clears it.” His fingers flew across the board, as he reentered Shane’s data. “Hmmm. Trying again. Same result.”
“So, I keep entering in your data, and the red flag is not leaving. I don’t have any control of that, it’s government-mandated. I can just input the data, but the government AI determines the flags.”
“What should I do?”
“I guess go talk to the government? Diagnosis complete. End communication” The screen went blank for a moment, and then switch over the payment options.
“This is bullshit.” He tried to get up from the chair, but the restraints wouldn’t budget.
“Please select a payment option,” the computer intoned.
“For what? That was bullshit.”
“You must select a payment option prior to leaving the medpod.”
“But it didn’t work.”
“You have received a diagnosis from a qualified University of Phoenix/Johns Hopkins Virtual medical doctor. You must remit payment.”
Shane thumbed the payment screen, and he felt the restraints relax.
“Please rate your service – above and beyond, satisfied or unsatisfied.” Shane stretched his arms.
“Unsatisfied, one star!”
“Please state the reason you were unsatisfied – service, cleanliness, payment.”
“I understand – would you like to file a complaint about the payment.”
“Yes!” The machine whirled.
“At this time we are not accepting complaints about our payments. Have a nice, and healthy day. The door to the medpod opened, and Shane went out in the streets with his red flag.
“So…. Sheryl said you were like a dark web guy? Like you know things?”
Shane had pleaded his case to Sheryl. She wasn’t willing to see him again ‘like that’, but she was nice enough to give him the contact info of ‘dark web’ guy. They had met in a public park. The dark web guy wore khaki pants, a dark fleece vest, and expensive-looking glasses. He looked less like a basement-dwelling code hacker, and more like an HR recruiter.
They were sitting on a bench in the park. Dark web guy was pecking at the device on his lap.
“So….it looks like you have been hacked.”
“Yep, someone was able to access your personal health info, and it looks they were able to steal your health score. Some Moldovian hackers. Probably sold it via some crypto-market in Busan, and that’s that. It’s gone. It’s not different from stealing your social security info, or credit information. It’s pretty simple, really.”
“How did that happen?”
“Well, lots of ways. Have you ever swiped your print at a sketchy place? Gone to a cheap med pod? Paid for porn?”
“I’ve done all those things. Those are some of the main things I do!” Shane sighed. “So, are you able to just change it back?”
“Oh, yeah man – there is no way I can do that.”
“I thought you were like a dark web guy?”
“I work in IT for a data security company. I am not a wizard. The move/add/replace stuff is locked down by the government. And once it locked, it’s locked. Sorry.”
“But what should I do about my actual health id. Like do I need to report it?”
“You should definitely report it! It’s not super uncommon getting hacked. So, report it."
“Ok, and what happens after I report it?”
“You’ll just be immediately be put in quarantine while your case is being adjudicated. Ankle bracelet, phone tracking, drones, the whole deal.”
“How long does it take to, uh, adjudicate it?”
“To investigate? Do you have any of the expedited stuff? Global Entry? Universal Health? No?” he shrugged. “I guess it could take a while.”
Shane sighed. There were not a lot of options. Maybe he could take it up with the Health Freedom movement. He had heard of these cases and the stories of compounds of the unvaccinated in the shittier parts of Idaho and Alabama. It was not for him.
“Isn’t there a way to fake it? Like get me a new health stamp?"
“Are you talking about faking your Health ID? That’s both extremely illegal and extremely expensive.”
Shane shrugged. He didn’t have a lot of options.
“How much does it cost?”
“How much do you have”
Shane laughed, but the Dark Web guy stared at him unblinkingly. Oh.
Shane swiped up his bank account. It was not a high number.
“You get what you pay for, you know that, right? You still want it?”
Shane still wanted it.
There was an adjustment period. He still felt a nervous tingle when he left his apartment. Would it work? But so far he had been able to ease into his life. When he was scanned the light flashed green.
He had a catering gig today, his third of the week. The first time he walked in sweat poured off him, and the moment between the scan and the green light had felt like an eternity. But the green light came, and soon he found himself handing out appetizers and filling up coffee cups.
There was a line of other cater waiters waiting at the back door to get into the kitchens. The Food and Beverage manager was pricking their hands and scanning them. Fuck….
He saw Sheryl waiting in line, and she waved him over.
“We should talk.” She said. It had unsurprisingly awkward after their ‘missed encounter’ last week. He had thrown out a few trial balloon texts to her and she responded with long silences, or brief, non-flirty messages.
“I’d love to talk, " he said, walking over. But before he could commence with the awkward flirting, the Food and Beverage manager appeared next to them, his red Marriott mask bobbing excitedly.
“You two love birds are good to go. Your paperwork is expedited."
“Oh, we are not love-birds,” Shane said.
“Definitely not,” Sheryl said.
They walked through the doors where they were immediately greeted by a pair of masked Health Police officers. They were large and didn’t look amused. Between them was the Dark Web guy, dressed in the same khaki and fleece combo, but with a Health Police badge hanging off a lanyard around his neck.
“You guys are in trouble," he said, as the Health Police goons slid the black bags over their faces. “Creating a false Health ID is a felony."
They buckled them both in a van. Through the black hood, Shane could smell the harsh and floral scent of lilac disinfectant.
Jeremy lives near the beach (and also the mall) on the Island of Oahu with two kids and a small collection of scotch. This is the first story he has had published in nearly 20 years.