Station Eleven (Page 4)

“No relation whatsoever. They all just boarded the same flight out of Moscow.”

“The sixteen-year-old …?”

“I don’t think she’ll make it. So there’s this initial group of patients, the Moscow passengers. Then this afternoon, a new patient comes in. Same symptoms, but this one wasn’t on the flight. This one’s just an employee at the airport.”

“I’m not sure what you’re—”

“A gate agent,” Hua said. “I’m saying his only contact with the other patients was speaking with one of them about where to board the hotel shuttle.”

“Oh,” Jeevan said. “That sounds bad.” The streetcar was still trapped behind the stuck car. “So I guess you’re working late tonight?”

“You remember the SARS epidemic?” Hua asked. “That conversation we had?”

“I remember calling you from Los Angeles when I heard your hospital was quarantined, but I don’t remember what I said.”

“You were freaked out. I had to talk you down.”

“Okay, I guess I do remember that. But look, in my defense, they made it sound pretty—”

“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic.”

“I remember.”

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realized. Hua was afraid.

Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport? He was aware of all of them breathing around him.

“I know how paranoid you can get,” Hua said. “Believe me, you’re the last person I’d call if I thought it was nothing, but—” Jeevan banged the palm of his hand on the door’s glass pane. Who had touched the door before him? The driver glared over his shoulder, but let him out. Jeevan stepped into the storm and the doors swished shut behind him.

“But you don’t think it’s nothing.” Jeevan was walking past the stuck car, wheels still spinning uselessly in the snow. Yonge Street was just ahead.

“I’m certain it isn’t nothing. Listen, I have to get back to work.”

“Hua, you’ve been working with these patients all day?”

“I’m fine, Jeevan, I’ll be fine. I have to go. I’ll call you later.”

Jeevan put the phone in his pocket and walked on through the snow, turned south down Yonge Street toward the lake and the tower where his brother lived. Are you fine, Hua my old friend, or will you be fine? He was deeply unsettled. The lights of the Elgin Theatre just ahead. The interior of the theater was darkened now, the posters still advertising King Lear, with Arthur gazing up into blue light with flowers in his hair and the dead Cordelia limp in his arms. Jeevan stood for a while looking at the posters. He walked on slowly, thinking of Hua’s strange call. Yonge Street was all but deserted. He stopped to catch his breath in the doorway of a store that sold suitcases and watched a taxi ease its way slowly down the unplowed street, the storm caught in its headlights, and this vision, snow in lights, transported him back for a moment into the stage-effect storm of the Elgin Theatre. He shook his head to dispel the image of Arthur’s blank stare and moved on in an exhausted daze, through the shadows and orange lights under the Gardiner Expressway to Toronto’s glassy southern edge.

The snowstorm was wilder down on Queens Quay, wind cutting across the lake. Jeevan had finally reached Frank’s building when Hua called again.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Jeevan said. “Is it really—”

“Listen,” Hua said, “you have to get out of the city.”

“What? Tonight? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Jeevan. That’s the short answer. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s a flu, that much is obvious, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It is so fast. It just seems to spread so quickly—”

“It’s getting worse?”

“The ER’s full,” Hua said, “which is a problem, because at this point half of the ER staff are too sick to work.”

“They got sick from the patients?”

In the lobby of Frank’s building, the night doorman flipped through a newspaper, an abstract painting of gray and red lit up on the wall above and behind him, doorman and painting reflected in streaks on the polished floor.

“It’s the fastest incubation period I’ve ever seen. I just saw a patient, she works as an orderly here at the hospital, on duty when the first patients started coming in this morning. She started feeling sick a few hours into her shift, went home early, her boyfriend drove her back in two hours ago and now she’s on a ventilator. You get exposed to this, you’re sick within hours.”

“You think it’s going to spread outside the hospital …?” Jeevan was having some difficulty keeping his thoughts straight.

“No, I know it’s outside the hospital. It’s a full-on epidemic. If it’s spreading here, it’s spreading through the city, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You’re saying I should—”

“I’m saying you should leave now. Or if you can’t leave, at least stock up on food and stay in your apartment. I have to make some more calls.” He hung up. The night doorman turned a newspaper page. If it had been anyone other than Hua, Jeevan wouldn’t have believed it, but he had never known a man with a greater gift for understatement. If Hua said there was an epidemic, then epidemic wasn’t a strong enough word. Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.

It occurred to Jeevan that there might not be much time. He turned away from Frank’s building and passed the darkened coffee shop on the pier, the tiny harbor filled with snow-laden pleasure boats, into the grocery store on the harbor’s other side. He stood just inside for a beat, blinking in the light. Only one or two other customers drifted through the aisles. He felt that he should call someone, but who? Hua was his only close friend. He’d see his brother in a few minutes. His parents were dead, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to talk to Laura. He would wait until he got to Frank’s, he decided, he’d check the news when he got there, and then he’d go through the contacts on his phone and call everyone he knew.

There was a small television mounted above the film development counter, showing closed-captioned news. Jeevan drifted toward it. Shots of a broadcaster standing outside Toronto General in the snow, white text scrolling past her head. Toronto General and two other local hospitals had been placed under isolation. Health Canada was confirming an outbreak of the Georgia Flu. They weren’t releasing numbers at this time, but there had been fatalities and more information would be forthcoming. There were suggestions that Georgian and Russian officials had been somewhat less than transparent about the severity of the crisis there. Officials requested that everyone please try their best to stay calm.

Jeevan’s understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he’d seen a lot of action movies. He started with water, filled one of the oversized shopping carts with as many cases and bottles as he could fit. There was a moment of doubt on the way to the cash registers, straining against the weight of the cart—was he overreacting?—but he was committed, he’d decided, too late to turn back. The clerk raised an eyebrow.

“I’m parked just outside,” Jeevan said. “I’ll bring the cart back.” The clerk nodded, tired. She was young, early twenties probably, with dark bangs that she kept pushing out of her eyes. He forced the impossibly heavy cart outside and half-pushed, half-skidded through the snow at the exit. There was a ramp down into a small parklike arrangement of benches and planters. The cart gained speed on the incline, bogged down in deep snow and slid sideways into a planter.

It was eleven twenty. The supermarket closed in forty minutes. He was imagining how long it would take to bring the cart up to Frank’s apartment, to unload it, the time required for explanations and tedious reassurances of sanity before he could return to the grocery store for more supplies. Could there be any harm in leaving the cart here for the moment? There was no one on the street. He called Hua on his way back into the store.

“What’s happening now?” Jeevan moved quickly through the store while Hua spoke. Another case of water—Jeevan was under the impression that one can never have too much—and then cans and cans of food, all the tuna and beans and soup on the shelf, pasta, anything that looked like it might last a while. The hospital was full of flu patients and the situation was identical at the other hospitals in the city. The ambulance service was overwhelmed. Thirty-seven patients had died now, including every patient who’d been on the Moscow flight and two ER nurses who’d been on duty when the first patients came in. Jeevan was standing by the cash register again, the clerk scanning his cans and packages. Hua said he’d called his wife and told her to take the kids and leave the city tonight, but not by airplane. The part of the evening that had transpired in the Elgin Theatre seemed like possibly a different lifetime. The clerk was moving very slowly. Jeevan passed her a credit card and she scrutinized it as though she hadn’t just seen it five or ten minutes ago.

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