Isolation by vegetables
The cloth man was already there in the morning, when the first of the cleaners came in. Some of the police station kept working through the night, but not this bit– it was dark as the sky outside when the first of the strip lights flicked on. The whole place would be like this soon, the cleaner thought. Even the police couldn’t function well in a pandemic.
He liked his jokes, the cleaner, so he wasn’t alarmed when he saw it. He laughed with the figure as it stood there, yellow-white in the middle of the office. Like it wasn’t odd to find it there at all; silent and alone in a place with the lights off– and in something like a full-body plaster cast, like a human husk formed out of paper maché. No, the cleaner went up to that figure like he thought it was really a person, said at least now he knew who’d been buying up all of the toilet paper! And the figure said nothing in response to him, and after that the cleaner was less full of smiles.
You saw people like this in the movies, he thought. Mentalists. The people who’d gone mad enough that nurses strapped them down. Maybe this one had escaped and come down to a police station. Thought their thoughts were being listened into, like the police cared what anyone would think.
The figure towered over him, silent. Like a statue that wasn’t alive. And if he’d known much more about aliens the cleaner would have run for it, then. He’d have known how many people had died in a place just like this, killed by something so strange and stupid you wouldn’t ever think it was deadly. But he was lucky as well as ignorant, at least. The figure wasn’t looking for his blood.
The cloth man stood unmoving in a silence. The cleaner stared at its face, hard as a grave.
The water in his bucket felt like it was getting cold.
“Right,” said the cleaner. “If we’re not going to bother each other. Live and let live, eh? At a time like this.”
The cloth man was silent, which presumably meant it agreed. He cleaned around it as best he could, wiped down everywhere the virus could be. Then he cleaned the rest of the office just the same, and when he left he put the strange figure out of his mind. There had been so much to try and ignore this last week, after all. What was one plaster man, compared to that?
When the first of the police officers came in they joked with the figure, too. Laughed at it as if it was slightly unusual, because they didn’t know how to deal with anything more. And they spoke to it and it didn’t respond, and it kept not responding when the laughs faded into aggression. And in the end they put it in the cells, and hoped that if they did it might go away. Like so many problems, nowadays. Like the virus might, if everyone hoped just enough.
And so it was hope that didn’t tell Yasmin Khan what was coming for her, as she sat down at her desk on that day at the start of spring.
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