“Bad Air and Bitter Herbs” by Jonny Eberle

Every afternoon, I go for a walk. I like the ritual of pulling on battered running shoes caked with mud, zipping up my fleece jacket, turning the key in the brass lock. I try not to think of the invisible fog of contaminated air hanging over the city, sickening hundreds. The world is a chaotic, formless void, except for those twenty minutes once a day when I step out for my walk around the neighborhood.

Today, there is a doctor outside the house next door. My neighborhood Facebook group has been buzzing with news of the doctors hired by the city to contain the plague. It isn’t the fact that they’re going door-to-door that’s attracted attention — it’s the uniform. It’s like something out of a steampunk fever dream: a black overcoat, wide-brimmed hat, leather gloves, a long-beaked mask and tinted goggles. A photo of one inspecting a downtown apartment building inspired a dozen ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ memes. But I’m not laughing anymore. Two weeks ago, the doctors ordered a duplex sealed off — with the inhabitants trapped inside. That’s when I felt the first tremors of fear.

“This will contain the miasma and prevent the infected residents from continuing to sicken this area,” the doctor told the evening news.

I’ve never seen one up close before. The mask is less cartoonish in person and more grotesque. You can see where it’s carefully sewn to the doctor’s head covering each day. He’s using a wooden staff to point to windows on the house next door. Two city workers in white coveralls stand nearby, nodding and taking notes.

“See where the upstairs window is cracked?” he says. “The pestilence is spreading from there.”  I turn the other way and put in my earbuds. I don’t want to see him order my neighbors shut inside. The plague moves through the air, they say. The doctors claim to see the spread through leaky windowpanes and off-kilter doors. Mostly old houses in poor parts of town where people can’t afford the cost of maintenance.

I start playing a podcast.

It’s a beautiful spring day and cherry blossoms flutter through the air like snowflakes. It doesn’t feel like the world is ending, despite the knot in my stomach that clenches when I see the doctors on TV or read about a possible second wave. No, the end of the world feels like the ground bucking and heaving. It feels like a cup of coffee rattling on the table. It feels like counting seconds to calculate the magnitude of the quake. It feels like your translator running for the exit without a word to explain what’s happening. It feels like being unable to move as the earth tries to shake you loose.

The earthquake lasted ninety seconds. This slow-motion apocalypse is worse. The plague has dragged on for weeks and it will be months (or years) before it’s safe to go outside. There is nothing to do but wait and cling to moments of sanity — doing laundry, baking bread, going for a walk.

I’m walking faster now. My fight or flight response urges me to flee, but from what? There is no escaping the bad air. Day after day, my brain bathes in stress hormones as if a sabretooth tiger were lurking in every hedge and blossoming peony. It gnaws at me constantly. I’d rather be riding out an earthquake.

I jog for a few blocks. In my earbuds, Roman Mars is explaining the toilet paper shortage, but I’m having a hard time paying attention. I slow down. My breath is sharp in my chest and I wonder morbidly if I have the plague or if I’m simply out of shape.

I turn the corner to complete my loop and stop. I’m face-to-face with the doctor. I can smell the herbs and flowers they use to fill the beak of the mask. It’s floral and earthy, bitter and woody. Supposedly, it wards off the bad air to keep the doctor from getting sick. He stands very close to me. His every labored breath expels the pungent odor of herbs between stitches in the leather mask. Through the thick, dark glass of his goggles, I see human eyes looking me over, searching for signs of infection. I freeze, hoping he’ll pass over me.

There is a broken window in my house. It faces the backyard where no one can see. The wood around the frame split sometime during the winter, surrendering to a hundred years of abuse from the elements. It was too expensive to fix properly. The persistent draft in the kitchen reminds me that duct tape and rags are not enough.

“Is this your residence?” the doctor asks, his voice muffled. The city workers clench their pencils. I nod. “Your humors are out of balance.”

“I feel fine. I’ve been running, that’s all.”

“Now is not a good time to be outside,” the doctor says. “Everyone is at risk from the miasma. We must be vigilant.”

I’m wearing a cloth face mask. I wipe down my doorknobs, faucets, counters. I wash my hands obsessively. But I know he isn’t talking about those precautions. He’s talking about the house and shaming me for letting it fall into disrepair. The house is old, and it shows, from the peeling paint to the leaning front steps. In this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, mine is one of only a few houses that haven’t been gutted and remodeled.

“I’ll need to inspect your doors and window seals,” he says. “Just to be safe.”

I turn and run. The doctor shouts and I can hear the city workers’ footsteps behind me. I know it isn’t their fault; it’s no one’s fault. After all, this is not an earthquake. The plague is a slow-moving disaster, a heavy weight pulling me under by inches. But like an earthquake, there is no way to stop it. As I round the corner, I glance down at my watch and start counting seconds until the upheaval ends.

Jonny Eberle lives in Tacoma, WA with his wife, three typewriters, and a puppy. His fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Creative Colloquy and Grit City Magazine. Learn more at jweberle.com.