The PVC Imperative
By: Steve Carr
He had a name, but he couldn't recall what it was. He was aged thirty-two, but he didn't remember that either. He knew what city he lived in. Cincinnati. Like most of the big things he recalled he remembered lots of the big stuff the city he lived in was in the United States. It was a big city. Or had been. Geographically the Cincinnati Metropolitan Area was still big, but not monstrously so, but its population was no longer what it had been. That had changed. Rapidly. He also knew the name of the planet that he lived on. Earth. He could tell you how Earth revolved around the sun, that it was the third planet from the sun, and that there were seven continents, and he could even tell you their names. He knew he once lived in a democracy and that the capitol of that democracy was in Washington, D.C. Or it had been. It was difficult to know what still remained from before, and how much longer any of it would last, or even if that mattered anymore. He knew he only had a short time left. He kicked a tin can down the litter-strewn street, happy to remember that tin was a metal. He could read the label on the can. He hadn't lost the ability to read. He wished he recognized the picture of the food on the label.
"What is creamed corn?" he asked, aloud.
It was the small things that everyone forgot first.
He kicked the can into a gutter, left it there, and continued to walk toward the building with the pharmacy sign above its large front plate glass window. Yards away from it he saw the display in the window had been ransacked. Nothing remained but plywood. The door of the pharmacy was wide open and partially ripped away from the frame. A decomposing body of a teenager lay across the threshold. He took a deep breath, stepped over the body, and entered the pharmacy. It had been picked clean. The shelves were empty. The trash that was strewn on the floor was mostly items that no one would have use for. Bottles of suntan lotion. Hair gels. Deflated silvery helium balloons with happy birthday written on them. He kicked aside the debris as he made his way to the back of the pharmacy where the pharmacist once worked. The area behind the counter, where the drugs had been kept until dispensed, was a disaster, as if a bomb had exploded within its confines. Several dead lay among the ruins. He sighed, shook his head, and tried to erase from his head the imagined images of what had happened. Grasped in the hand on one of the corpses was a bottle of aspirin. He peeled the dead man's fingers from around the bottle and shoved it in his pocket.
As he walked out of the pharmacy, he saw the headlines on a piece of a newspaper lying on the ground. It read: PVC Linked to Pandemic.
He walked away from the pharmacy, not recalling what he went there to get.
"Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have discovered a new form of bacteria attached to pieces of plastic retrieved from the Great Pacific garbage patch, an island of floating garbage, mostly plastic items, in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. The bacteria is reportedly resistant to all known forms of antibiotics."
Sitting on the living room floor and building a Lego castle with his six-year old son, Mike, Daniel looked up at the television set in time to see the newscaster, and in a split screen, a clip of a blue, plastic pail floating amidst other debris in the water. "That can't be good," he mumbled.
Mike locked a Lego into place on the top of one of the castle's turrets. "It's all done, Dad," he announced as he waved his hand over the partially completed structure. "Can I go outside and play?"
Daniel gave momentary thought to lecturing his son about the importance of finishing things but saw the bored expression on Mike's face and said, "Go ahead, but stay in the backyard."
Mike jumped up and ran out of the room. A moment later the sound of the back door opening and closing echoed through the house.
Daniel stood, shut off the television, and carried his empty water bottle into the kitchen. He stared at for a few moments, thinking about the newscast, and then tossed it into the overflowing can of recyclables. He looked out the window above the kitchen sink. Mike was digging in the dirt with one of the butter knives, the one that had been missing for a week that they had asked Mike about several times. The boy feigned ignorance about the knife's whereabouts. Daniel was about to go out and get the knife when Haley walked in with two bags of groceries.
She placed the bags on the table. "There's not a decent tomato to be found anywhere in Cincinnati," she said.
Daniel took one of the tomatoes from the top of a bag and examined it closely, squeezing and smelling it. The tomato seemed perfectly fine to him. "They found some new form of bacteria growing on plastic out in the Pacific Ocean," he said.
She began to unpack the bags. "I have bigger things to worry about," she said. "I was thinking about fixing Pacific rockfish for dinner. There was a great sale on it. Is that okay?"
He handed her the tomato. "Sure," he answered with some misgiving.
For a Sunday, and with the spread of bacterial plasticitis, surprisingly the elevator in the Carew Tower was packed, filled mostly with tourists riding up to the observation deck. Their collective mood bordered on jubilant, as if attending their last party, ever. Daniel squeezed in just before the doors closed. Despite ventilation and air conditioning, the air inside the elevator was a noxious mixture of sweat, perfumes and aftershave, despite that he wore a surgical mask, as everyone did,. He got out of the elevator on the twenty-third floor and went to his office located in the suite of the publisher, Holmes and Ruskin, where he worked as an editor. Other than the hum of electrical current feeding the recessed lighting and the muffled sounds of his footsteps on the thick carpeting, it was very quiet. He opened the door to his office and stopped abruptly thinking he saw fish swimming in the aquarium. The tropical fish that had lived in it had been destroyed weeks before. It was rumored that bacterial plasticitis could be transmitted by fish found in the Pacific waters. It was shadows cast by the fluttering drapes behind his desk that gave the impression of movement inside the aquarium that had been completely drained. He sat down at his desk and turned on his computer and began typing in URLs.
The website for the NOAA had crashed. Also down were the websites for the pacific coast states, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Government, and the Centers for Disease Control. The social media sites were still up and running, but sorting fact from fiction was nearly impossible. On the news sites there were reports of riots and military crackdowns of civilian populations in diverse areas of the globe. He found nothing different than what he had seen on cable news: bacterial plasticitis had continued to spread unabated without a cure in sight. The disease, which had similarities to the flu mixed with dementia, was everywhere. Mortality rate was one hundred percent.
He opened the folder he had titled Imperative, and read for the hundredth time a portion of an article written by a bacteriologist that was published just as the outbreak began to take hold.
Samples taken from over four thousand pieces of plastic found in the Pacific Ocean reveal the same thing about the PVC Bacterium. It mimics a common one-celled organism but is derived from polymers, the common molecule found in all plastics. In other words it looks and acts like a living organism, but is in fact as artificial as plastic itself, but as a disease carrier, much more lethal and highly contagious. The contribution of salt water and sunlight to the development of PVC Bacterium will require a great deal more study. The slow breakdown of plastic that is dispersed as microplastic and nanoplastic particles of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and other synthetic polymers in the ocean's water, that are swallowed by fish and carried in the ocean's currents means that the bacterium could spread globally very quickly.
He returned to searching URLs in hopes of finding an agency or government department that could tell him how to protect his wife and son, from the disease, and from other humans. He had secured their home from any possible intruders, purchased guns, stocked can foods, medicines, and water in glass bottles in the basement, and kept Mike in the house. Haley stopped going to her job. So had many others.
Tom Pearson, the Holmes and Ruskin office manager, suddenly appeared in the open doorway to Daniel's office. His clothes were disheveled and his hair was uncombed. There were dark circles around his eyes. "I can't seem to find my way home," he said. "I came here because it was the only place I could remember coming to. I've forgotten where I live."
Startled by Tom's unexpected arrival and by the way he looked, Daniel stared mouth agape at him for a few moments before responding. "You live in Clifton near the university," he said.
"Clifton? University?" Tom said, befuddled.
Daniel shut off his computer. "Would you like me to take you home?"
"Yes, please," Tom replied. "I've forgotten something else."
"My name. The cards in my wallet have Tom Pearson on them. Is that me?"
The elevator on the trip back down to the lobby of the Carew Tower was less crowded, and the passengers in it more subdued as if the realization of what was happening had finally taken hold. Tom began coughing, which drew anxious looks from everyone else. They put their hands over their surgical masks as if adding an extra layer of protection against the PVC germ. When the doors opened, Daniel and Tom were the first to get out. To Daniel, the walk to the parking garage was even more surreal than riding up in the elevator. Hundreds of men and women dressed in macabre costumes, many wearing the robe of the Grim Reaper and carrying scythes just like the Reaper's, crowded the sidewalks. They marched about silently, speaking only in whispers. The streets were cluttered with piles of plastic cups, empty water bottles, plastic utensils and straws. The traffic was at a standstill as the police stood by watching as if unable to comprehend the meaning of what they were seeing.
Tom became more confused almost by the moment. "Is it bedtime?" he asked repeatedly.
Daniel helped him into the car and buckled him in. He drove out of the garage careful to turn a direction where he could get through the downtown area and take Vine Street to Clifton. On the way the bright red flags sticking out of windows or nailed to doors and porches that signified someone with the illness was inside, was ubiquitous. Passing by the University of Cincinnati, Daniel slowed down just enough to watch crowds of students with protest signs demanding government action to stop the spread of the disease, begin to throw rocks and bottles at a far less number of National Guard. When the guardsmen raised their rifles and began to indiscriminately fire at the students, Daniel looked away and sped on. By the time Daniel reached Tom's house Tom was babbling incoherently. He led him from the car to the front door of his house where he pounded on the door.
Tom's wife, Carrie, opened it.
"Tom found his way to the office," Daniel said.
She looked at both men with a puzzled expression. "Who is he?" she asked.
The first sign that Mike had bacterial plasticitis was when they were all in the kitchen and he had a coughing spell that lasted for ten minutes. At the end of it he threw up. Frantically, Haley scooped him in her arms and rushed to the front door.
"Where are you going?" Daniel asked, following behind.
"To the hospital," she screamed.
Without closing the door behind them, the pair ran from the house to Daniel's car sitting in the driveway where it had sat in the five days since returning from his trip to his office. He hadn't told her about seeing Tom and Carrie. The two couples had gone out together a few times, and telling her that Tom and Carrie were probably already dead or dying not knowing who each other were, seemed like an senseless act of cruelty. He also didn't mention that he used his time at the office to try to get updated information about the pandemic. He could have done that at home, but that too felt cruel. She was in constant panic mode, fearing that Mike would come down with the disease. He looked over at his son being cradled in his wife's arms and didn't want to tell her what she already knew, there was no recovery from bacterial plasticitis.
The ride to the hospital was swift, despite having to take detours caused by streets blocked by stalled vehicles or piles of garbage. The hospital was surrounded for two blocks by a sea of vehicles; everyone having the same idea, that if you think you have the disease or have a sick loved one with the plasticitis symptoms, you go to the hospital. He parked in the middle of the street on the edge of the expanded parking lot and took Mike in his arms. They ran to the open glass doors of the emergency room. Bodies were stacked like cords of wood on both sides of the entrance, inside and out. The stench of human waste and death flowed out of the hospital.
A nurse wearing blue scrubs came to the door holding a dead infant and stared blankly at them. "Is this mine?" she asked blandly and then turned and went back inside. Haley fell to her knees and screamed, a long drawn-out scream that turned to a high pitched wail that caused Mike to begin to cry.
From the kitchen window, Daniel stared at the mound of dirt where Mike's swing set had stood. Fall arrived with such suddenness that the appearance of dead leaves on his son's grave was as shocking as the silence that had overtaken the world. Anything that was operated by the use of electricity no longer worked. It was as if a switch had been flipped and everything was turned off, for good. Satellites that controlled how communication was transmitted continued to send the signals, but there was no remaining way to use the signals. Cellphones were dead. Landline phones stopped working as soon as everyone stopped going to work. Fires started and spread without abatement. Anyone who traveled to remote areas to escape what was happening to civilization carried the disease with them.
Haley hadn't said a single word since Mike's death. Not one word. The day of his death she took everything made from plastic out of the house and formed several piles, poured kerosene on them, and stood motionless watching as black smoke from the fires rose into the air. She went back inside, laid down on Mike's bed and remained there, silently awaiting her own death.
There were still plenty of people about. Daniel heard and saw them as they walked or drove down the street, but their number decreased every day. He talked to no one, hoping that by some miracle he and Haley had escaped being infected.
It was while watching a squirrel scurry across Mike's grave Daniel heard Haley coughing.
Being alone had its advantages. Daniel tinkered with his motorcycle for hours on end without being disturbed. It had been a week since Haley died, not recognizing who he was, or knowing her name. Dogs had already begun to form into packs that roamed the neighborhood, but they kept their distance, for the time being anyway. Other people were no longer seen or heard. He used the pistol he had purchased for defense of his family to target shoot at plastic items he found in the homes of his dead neighbors. He particularly liked shooting water bottles that he lined up on the tops of his wife and son's graves.
The illness struck him at the beginning in the same way it had everyone else, with a wracking cough and a bout of throwing up. Knowing that death wasn't that far off, he considered using the pistol to blow his brains out. But then he would begin to feel a little better, and other than forgetting small things, it felt okay to be alive. With no real purpose in mind, he got out of bed soon after sunrise one morning, left his house, and headed off to find a pharmacy. His head felt clearer than he ever remembered it feeling, as if it had been cleansed of useless information. He had the sense he should care about something, or someone, but he couldn't think what or who it should be. The word pharmacy played over and over in his head on a continuous loop. He remembered how to get to the street where he knew a pharmacy was located. He could recall things like that. But he couldn't remember his name.