Breath From Strangers by Thomas Elson

His hands trembled as he reached for a shopping cart. He had avoided life for the past five weeks. Now, wherever he looked there were threats. He saw it in the way people veered to the left or the right. He saw it in their eyes.

Past sliding doors into an open area designed to protect customers from winter blasts and summer bursts. He walked around stacks of bottled water, boxes of mac and cheese, and sugared cereal, then to a second set of doors. Clerks who had once smiled now resembled bank robbers – their faces covered and eyes swerving. One employee pointed to a sign.

– Stand here.

– Hold out your hands.

A glob of cold gel descended.

– Rub your hands together.

– Have a good day.

There were new rules: Don’t look but stay alert. Eyes down but see what’s in front or sneaking up behind you. No contact. Avoid the other. Don’t touch. Don’t even let them breathe on you.

Follow the signs. Brightly colored cards with bold print. Words. Sentences. Decals.

– Stop.

– Do not move forward until called.

– Only two people beyond this point.

The decals on the floor echoed the signs.

– Wait.

– Stand back.

– Stand here.

More words on signs and decals.

– Don’t …

– You are required to …

– Always …

– Remember …

– Wait until …

Unspoken rules: Avert. Veer. Dodge. Unmentioned rules he had internalized years earlier. Behaviors so ingrained they seemed autonomic. When a familiar face approaches – Stay alert! Should a friend draw near – Be on guard. If a child runs by – Beware. A sneeze, a touch, a rushed exhalation – A problem. Other folks – all folks really – threats, menaces, oppressors maybe, or just something to fear as if dodging bullets or knife thrusts.

The smell of disinfectant blanketed the produce aisle. Fresh produce on the right, pies and cakes on the left, meat counter farther down across from the bread and just before the frozen seafood, then turn left.

– Is the pharmacy open?

Go straight ahead. All the way to the other end and turn left at the milk. Pharmacy at the very end. He walked as if in a fog – cautious, eyes alert, then, at the final moment, mirror the person oncoming and glance away.

Past the cereal and prunes, he sighted the coffee section. He had stocked up on everything except caffeine.

A family of four rounded the corner bunched together. They didn’t stray from one another as in the past, when a husband without the grocery list would mutter items as he wandered to the next aisle while his wife looked at the coffee and their children lagged behind, or ran away to be found later in the candy aisle pleading for some brightly wrapped item.

Walk around the mother, avoid the children, turn head, nod at the father, pretend to look at the coffee pods so his back would be turned when the father passed.

Remain wary of simple touches from those who may have brushed another. He felt intimidated by slight coughs, bullied by breath from strangers. There were asymptomatic carriers everywhere. Cut right, then left as people approached. Zig, then zag. Go straight. Be elusive. Be alert. Recognize pattern. See the gap. Find the hole. Breakaway. Move forward. Stay alert. Repeat.

He approached the pharmacy, refills in hand, ready to repeat words said innumerable times when he needed prescription refilled.

What he saw, he had worked to forget. The pharmacy tech in a blue uniform, name tag prominent, cloth over mouth and nose, voice muffled. His reflection in an acrylic u-shaped barrier – a thirty-inch-high splash guard with a six-inch ledge separating person from person from the threat each carried.

He read the same words as years earlier, when, after months, he was taken from a  small room – a tomb really, led through narrow hallway into smaller rooms with concrete walls, and a window with a ledge. He was directed to wait on the opposite side of the window where a man in a blue uniform, insignia and badge prominent, raised his hand and pointed to a sign.

– Do not move forward until called.

His hands trembled.

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Thomas Elson

Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.