Emily stood in front of the coffee pot at the kitchen counter, holding her empty mug and trying to talk herself out of pouring another cup. Her teeth buzzed already, and she’d been having trouble sleeping lately.
She listed all the reasons. The caffeine made her sleep for shit and then that led to her being tired and wanting more coffee the next day. And of course it then fed into her drinking more wine in the evenings just to take the edge off, which was a whole other issue. She’d also read lately that it was especially bad for people with anxiety issues and panic attacks.
The smell of the coffee hung in the air and she peered into her empty mug. She shrugged and poured the last of the pot into her cup, telling herself that she didn’t want to waste it. That she’d remember to make a little less tomorrow, start weaning herself back. For sure.
She took a sip and heard her roommate’s cat, Louie, scratching in the litter box in the laundry room. Emily’s shoulders tightened and her already-thrumming heartbeat picked up a little. The gray Maine coon cat hopped out of the litter box and padded into the kitchen. As he passed through, he twitched a leg to kick off bits of litter that clung to his paw.
Emily closed her eyes and hung her head. Everyone has fucking cats, she assured herself, and they all use litterboxes. It’s fine. It’s not a problem.
But he just took an enormous piss or dump in there and was just like standing in it and touching it with his paws and how he’s trailing that litter that’s soaked in his shit and piss all over the apartment and he’s going to go jump up on my bed or the couch and then he’s going to start “cleaning” himself, licking his own asshole, Jesus fucking Christ. Why the hell would anyone want this animal in their house, I mean seriously, look how long that thing’s hair is, and when he takes a dump there is no Goddamn way that shit isn’t getting in that hair and then if he sits down anywhere before he “cleans” it then it’s just getting matted into the fur, and anyway how much does licking the fur really CLEAN it? I mean they say “oh their saliva is like a natural disinfectant” and “their tongues are like brushes” but if someone took a turd and smashed it onto your head and your cat came and licked your hair for a while, would you be like, “Oh, okay, thanks, now that you licked my head I don’t even need to wash my hair before I go out?”
Emily took a deep breath. She clenched and unclenched her fists.
She ran down the hall, spotted Louie in Chloe’s room, thank God. She shut her own bedroom door then strode through the kitchen and into the laundry room.
Emily stood in front of the litter box, steeling herself, breathing in that ammonia smell of cat pee, cursing the animal for existing. She lifted the lid and wrinkled her nose at the sandy lumps of feces, the dark clumps of urine, the thick stench of it in the air, clinging to her, going into her lungs.
She changed the litterbox, washed her hands, cleaned the doorknob with antibacterial wipes, washed her hands again, and then swept up the stray litter around the box.
When she was done and put the broom back in the closet, she stopped and stared at it there in the corner. If the broom is constantly touching the dirty stuff, the litter which is itself contaminated, then isn’t the broom dirty? I mean, am I not just making the floor dirty, then, by touching it with this dirty broom?
Emily slammed the door shut and leaned forward, resting her head against it. She didn’t have time for this. Her online class would start at 2:00.
She took a shower. Tried to keep it to twenty minutes, but went much longer. When she came out of the bathroom in a towel and walked down the hallway, she stopped and stared at the hardwood floor. Tapping her thumb to her fingertips in a complex, repeating pattern over and over, she shook her head and closed her eyes.
Emily threw on clean shorts and a t-shirt, then got out the broom again and swept the whole apartment. She mopped too, starting at her bedroom and working her way back to the laundry room, so that the mop would touch that section of floor last. And after she was all done, she went back in the bathroom, threw her t-shirt and shorts in the hamper, and took another shower.
She was almost ten minutes late for her Abnormal Psychology class on Zoom. This professor, thankfully, never demanded the students show their faces, so she just joined the session with her camera off, coffee mug in hand. Emily hated to make a bad impression this early in the semester and hoped the professor hadn’t noticed her lateness. As a psych major, she knew she’d have to take more classes with this prof in the future and didn’t want to get on her bad side.
The professor talked about mental illness in broad strokes, outlining a plan to dive deeper into the various types over the coming weeks. OCD. Depression. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Anxiety disorders of various stripes. Hoarding. Phobias. Paranoia. Eating disorders. Substance abuse. Emily sipped the bitter, cold coffee and reeled at all the ways minds break.
But especially shocking was how common the various afflictions were. A certain percentage of the population had this or that mental illness on the long list. When you add it all up, Emily wondered, how many people were actually walking around okay?
And it was all exacerbated, of course, by the pandemic.
Her phone lit up. A message from her older sister.
ugghhhh…just got off the phone with mom…fuck
she admitted she’s basically living off McD’s drive thru now
got in a big fight about it
she’s eating fast food like at least 2X a day
Emily dropped the phone in her lap, took off her glasses, and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. Her mom had always been heavy, but had gained an alarming amount of weight in the four years since Emily’s dad died of a heart attack. She took medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, whatever else.
just talk to her…maybe if it’s coming from both of us?
okay…gotta go…in a class now
call you later
As the class wore on, Emily found herself distracted by a stabbing headache in her forehead just above her eyes. When that class finally ended, she swallowed a couple aspirin with the dregs of her coffee, stretched her tight shoulders, then sat back down for her Theories of Personality lecture.
When school was done for the day, she stood in front of the fridge, eyeing a frozen pizza and arguing with herself. She’d gained seven pounds since the pandemic started. She tried to convince herself that she should eat a salad, something healthy.
She pulled the pizza out, dropped it on the counter, and turned the oven on. The front door opened and her roommate Chloe came in, stripping off her mask and dropping her keys on the table.
“How was work?” Emily tried to sound nonchalant and cheerful, but her mind immediately started playing and replaying images of all the people her roommate must have come into contact with that day, the many possibilities of infection. Contamination.
Chloe rolled her eyes as she trudged into the kitchen. “Everybody’s an asshole, basically.” She grabbed a bottle of wine and took a glass out of the cabinet. “Want some?”
Chloe stood at the living room window, sipping and peering out. Emily put on a chill lofi mix, turned off the lights, and lit candles. She sank into the couch and took gulp of wine.
Chloe leaned closer to the window and pointed at the evening sky. “The air quality is shit.” She cocked her head. “They told us this would be coming later in the century. Like in our kids’ or grandkids’ time.”
Emily was trying to focus on the calming music. Trying to slow her breathing and heartbeat. Trying to coax the black, free-floating blob of anxiety into submission. “What would be coming?”
Chloe gestured vaguely at the world. “Collapse. It’s already starting, so much earlier than expected. Droughts. Floods. One side of the country on fire. The other coast getting slammed by an unprecedented hurricane season. The deforestation, agriculture, factory animal farming, urbanization, destruction of ecosystems—it’s a tinderbox for infectious disease. This pandemic won’t be the last or worst, that’s for sure. Not to mention there’s literally an epic extinction event happening now. Today. A catastrophic loss of species biodiversity that boggles the mind. End of days shit.” She grunted quietly and grimaced. “We’re a cancer. And there are almost eight fucking billion of us.”
Chloe was majoring in environmental science and often joked that the more classes she took, the less friends she had. She shook her head and poured more wine into both of their glasses.
Shouting suddenly erupted from the neighbors’ apartment across the hall. The husband’s curses thumped through the wall, penetrated through the crack under the front door, intruded through the open windows. Emily had never really talked with the middle-aged couple, but had constructed a vague picture of their life. She gathered that the man had a job he hated, anger issues, and a drinking problem. The woman seemed to soothe herself with compulsive online shopping—Emily had noticed that since the pandemic started, there were always new boxes stacked in front of their door.
Chloe’s face clouded. Once when they’d drunk way too much, Chloe had confided in Emily and told her a story about something dark that had happened in her past. Something ugly. The telling of that story had left both of them in tears and explained why Chloe always looked on edge when the husband next door started screaming, why male rage triggered her. Emily turned up the volume and they drank more and after a few minutes the yelling quieted down.
Chloe said, “Did you see the neighbors downstairs moved out?”
Emily thought of the young family, a nice couple with a ridiculously cute, curly-haired little girl. “But they just moved in a couple months ago.”
Chloe nodded and sat on the other end of the couch. “Daughter’s sick. Leukemia. They’re getting slammed with medical bills and can’t afford the place anymore.”
Emily thought of how scared she was of going to the hospital herself, as an adult, and couldn’t imagine what the little girl was going through. And then realized that it must be even worse, in a way, for the young parents. Her thumb tapped her fingertips rapidly, repeatedly. She grabbed her phone to pick a different mix of songs, but opened Facebook out of habit before even realizing she was doing it. She scrolled and scrolled and stopped when she saw a post from her brother. It said, “WE’RE HAVING ANOTHER BABY!!!” The post was a couple hours old. It had 83 likes, most of them hearts, and dozens of enthusiastic comments congratulating him.
Emily wasn’t close with her brother or his family, but she was fairly certain that her sister-in-law suffered from undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. And they already had three little kids. Emily liked her youngest nephew, but thought the two older boys were kind of dicks. Like her brother.
Emily typed “CONGRATS!” Then she erased it. And rewrote it. Deleted it again. Her thumb hovered over the “Like” button, shaking slightly.
Her stomach felt sour. A chorus of police or ambulance sirens wailed in the distance.
Kevin Stadt holds a master’s degree in teaching writing and a doctorate in American literature. He currently teaches writing at Hanyang University. His fiction has appeared in Kzine, Phantaxis, and Stupefying Stories, among others. He lives in South Korea with his wife and sons, who are interdimensional cyborg pirates wanted in a dozen star systems. You can visit him online at kevinstadt.com.