Twenty years in the future, an orphan boy tries to find his place in a world permanently altered by COVID-19
The boy dragged his metal wagon down the crumbled pavement.
Thump, thump, thump. The cart wobbled every time it hit a piece of loose asphalt. Each package in it was wrapped securely in plastic to keep the contents from sliding out during the unstable journey. Each week, the boy distributed such parcels, often to the rich.
Pulling the wagon to a stop at his next destination, the boy rapped on the metal structure at the edge of the road. The structure had lines splitting it into thirty boxes. Immediately, the small camera installed on the top of the structure swiveled down to look at the boy, and after a minute, the boxes swung open.
He took out his list, which had names and numbers, then stuffed the packages into their corresponding boxes. He repeated these actions at each stop until the wagon was empty.
* * *
When the boy reached his city, he saw people milling around: shopkeepers, shoppers, and a few security guards to make sure everyone was wearing their mask and that they were at least six feet apart to avoid infection from close contact. There were guidelines along the sidewalks and on posters to keep everyone “distanced and safe.”
The boy hauled the wagon to a large building. This building was owned by the government, his employer. He left the wagon at the entrance to be refilled with packages for the next day. These packages were from all over the world. Sometimes, the packages clinked with toys or shifted with clothes from China. Other times, rich scents wafted from the packages, like cinnamon from Sri Lanka or coffee from Colombia.
Strolling down the smooth, paved city streets, the boy glanced at the shops that he passed. Every shop had notices tacked to its wooden doors. One said, “No mask? No entry!” Another read “Limit of 4 persons.”
Everyone was touching—holding hands, knees knocking together when they moved, elbows bumping, backs pressed against each other. No masks.
As he walked, the boy thought of the thing that had brought him into this situation. COVID-19, named after the year it had first infected the human race, was a virus that had never stopped terrorizing the world. Ever since he could remember, the cardinal rule was to wear his mask everywhere. As time passed, social-distancing guidelines became more strict. People started avoiding going out until certain times in the day, and they slowly fell into a routine. A curfew was enforced to make sure nobody snuck out of their homes to meet secretly. There was also a time limit for how long the boy was allowed to spend on deliveries. He had to be back at a certain time and couldn’t leave the city after that.
The boy was born in 2026, a year after the Split happened. The Split was a plan, contrived by Congress, to separate the rich and the poor. As the pandemic had grown worse, tensions had risen between the middle and lower classes over race, politics, medical care, and money. The elite sat idly by, watching with contented smiles as their “inferiors” tore each other apart. They felt no need to help them.
The boy was lucky he wasn’t alive during those fights. He had heard about how gruesome they were. His parents probably had had to face that, but it didn’t matter: they were dead now anyway. He had never met them and only knew the orphanage in which he grew up. Because of his low status, he had ended up in an unimportant city and was essentially stuck at the bottom of the societal food chain.
The boy had no significance, so he was given the menial job of delivering goods to close cities. Since no one else could work with the boy because of safety regulations, he was always isolated, day and night, with no friends or even acquaintances.
* * *
The next day found the boy up and running before the sun.
After dropping off the packages, the boy delivered his wagon back to his city and left to take his evening stroll.
The city sat by the edge of a forest that eventually gave way to a highway. No one used it anymore, save for the occasional little critter. The boy had always wondered what was on the other side, but he had never had the courage to break the rules and leave the city unless it was for his job. But now he was in his adolescent years, reaching a state of rebellious attitude and independence.
When the boy crossed the highway, he could see an old city that had been abandoned. That city had once been populated by rich businessmen and their families, who would travel there to their winter or summer homes. They had been transported to safer cities during the Split.
Amidst the buildings on the outskirts of the city was a large box with an opening on one side. It led to a series of steps. The boy descended the steps carefully. He did not realize how deep underground he was until he became aware of the chilliness and wetness of his surroundings.
The passage the boy was walking along had flickering lights that hung from the high ceiling. Everything, including the walls and the graffiti on them, looked old.
The boy didn’t know how long he had been walking through various winding passages when he began to hear voices. They sounded different than the occasional voice he would hear in the city, although he couldn’t place what made them so different. Curious about why people were out this far from a city, the boy decided to investigate.
As he walked down a final set of stairs, the space around him opened up into a big room. There were tunnels on both the far right and left sides of the room. Tracks that looked much like the railroad tracks that the boy sometimes had to cross while he was working were laid down at the bottom. Long strips of lights were attached above the tunnels.
Although the boy saw this, his attention was immediately drawn toward the people sitting on a set of stairs on the opposite side of the room.
Here was the boy’s analysis of the odd group: Everyone was touching— holding hands, knees knocking together when they moved, elbows bumping, backs pressed against each other. No masks.
They obviously opposed the Split. The boy remembered hearing a bit about this group before. He dimly recalled hearing about riots and protests from a group of people the president had dubbed “Peacebreakers.” They were given this name to symbolize them as outcasts to the public and to show that they were destroying the peace that the Split brought. They weren’t rich or poor, but a mix of both who shared a common belief: to oppose the Split and show that life would be better if humans stuck together.
At the beginning of the Split, the Peacebreakers had stayed hidden, to protect themselves from prejudice and malicious actions and comments. Now as people thought less of others and more of their own safety, the Peacebreakers were left alone. Although they did not matter anymore to anyone, they could not expose themselves to a world they knew nothing of. They would be vulnerable to more attacks if they were rediscovered.
Something inside the boy felt elated that he had discovered this population. An unprecedented way of living, an unexpected harmony among people.
The boy was curious, but also frightened. Instead of protective masks or face shields, the boy saw wrinkled and young faces alike. The noses and mouths that were twitching and moving scared him.
“Hello, boy. Who are you? Where do you come from?” an old man rumbled.
As the man opened his mouth to speak, the boy imagined large green particles in his spittle flying across the room, their dangerous red protein spikes reaching for a place to infect him.
He moved his mouth, but no sound came out. His face flushed a bright red that was mostly covered by his mask. He was overwhelmed by his senses. First, the voices. Then, the smell of mildew and rotting garbage. Then, the blinding lights.
By now, everyone had stood up, and there was only about three feet between them and the boy. This was less than the boy was comfortable with, but the crowd kept pushing forward.
I’m gonna suffocate. I’m gonna drown among bodies. Lonely, but not alone, the boy thought. Among strangers, he would die. A new world discovered, only to be trampled.
The boy squeezed his eyes shut but didn’t feel a wave of crashing limbs. Instead, when he opened his eyes, he saw curiosity on the people’s faces. It was like they had never seen another person before.
Although nobody took another step forward, the old man extended his hand.
What is this? The boy mirrored the man’s gesture and looked oddly at his own hand. Chuckling, the old man said, “It’s a greeting, son. Shake my hand.”
Instead, the boy shook his head. The old man’s smile faltered. He looked disappointed, but understood the boy’s discomfort.
Though the boy felt wary, he also felt like these people accepted him like one of their own. It was against his nature and everything he had been taught to be mingling with these strangers, but the boy felt a connection and that somehow he had to help them and learn about their movement.
After refusing the old man’s greeting, the boy nodded his head and took off without a second thought. He only stopped running when he reached the box-like structure. He looked down into the darkness and stood confused for a while. What did this all mean? Why did it matter? What was he going to do about it?
On his way back to his city, the boy hesitantly took off his mask for the first time outside of his home. With no one around, the boy breathed in the cool air and felt it fill his lungs in a way masks would not allow. He felt refreshed. This must be how the Peacebreakers feel all the time, he thought. How wonderful . . .
* * *
That night, as the boy lay in his bed, he peeked at the mask that he had thrown on his table. Was it really necessary to keep everyone safe, or was it just a useless precaution? After all, the boy had seen the consequence of taking off a mask and it wasn’t at all as he had imagined.
After his next day of work, the boy stood on the edge of the highway. From this far away he could not see the Peacebreakers’ lair, but he knew it was there. A little smile could be seen on his uncovered face. His mask lay a few feet behind him, completely forgotten.
Even though his visit underground had been short, he felt a renewed energy, with the hope that he might one day be reunited with this newly discovered secret society.