30 seconds. That was all Mark needed to reach 15 minutes of fame. That was his life goal, his life's role, as far as he could tell. All those commercials, voice overs, and cameos had to add up to something, especially since he had never made it beyond his brief forays into the world of art and celebrity. It seemed easy, but the 30 seconds had somehow stretched into 30 years, and, at almost 50, it didn't seem likely that that day would ever come. That's why he had been holed up the past 3 years: waiting for that 30 seconds of recorded inspiration and exposure.
He could have remained a recluse indefinitely, since no one else seemed to care or consider him anymore. But he finally had reached his breaking point. It wasn't that he had run out of food. It wasn't the lack of electricity or running water. It wasn't the unpaid bills and the recent eviction notice. It wasn't the darkness, the isolation or the looming sense of failure. Mark had finally realized that he couldn't go on without toilet paper, and he needed some desperately.
In the 3 years since he had descended into isolation, he had only left his apartment for 30 second weekly trash runs to the trash chute 20 feet down the hall. Restricting himself to a self-imposed quarantine was the only way he knew how to deal with the lingering feeling of futility, and not a soul had dared to come near. Even his next door neighbor, who had dutifully continued their arrangement to deliver Mark’s mail to his door, based on the agreement to do so when Mark was out of town, presumed one day Mark would finally emerge from wherever he was and return the favor with the DVDs he promised 3 years ago. Mark was content leaving their exchange indefinitely unsettled.
While Mark had managed to remain undetected for so long, he had begun to reach the limits of reclusive survival. He had already been somewhat of a hoarder and had stashed enough food and water so that he was relatively prepared for his indefinite venture into the life of the unseen. What he failed to anticipate was the soft, gentle comfort of a wipe with plush toilet paper. Even though he questioned the merits of human interaction, he still had a soft spot in his heart for quality bath tissue. Part of him had reached a point where he could have gone on living as such for the rest of his life, bleak as that seemed. When he had run out of toilet paper months ago, he had resorted to newspaper and scrap paper from the mail. Soon after, he winced every time he tried to wipe, sharp corners and harsh edges leaving their mark rather than leaving him clean. Going without, especially when he had been forced to abandon bathing, was just as bad. He had finally reached the limit to how filthy he could feel.
He checked the calendar he had been keeping. It was April 1st. He gently peeled the blinds back. Although his window primarily faced the side of the building next door, if he leaned all the way to the left he could see past the alley into a sliver of life beyond. The sky was blue, the grass in the park behind the building was green. It was surprisingly empty for a Sunday.
Mark rummaged through the pile of clothes in his bedroom and found a coat suitable enough to wear outside, neither completely crusted over nor wreaking of lingering dankness; he didn’t even bother to change out of the sweat suit that served as his perpetual day-and-evening wear. He then rummaged throughout his apartment for loose change, stowing it in his coat pocket. It was his weekly trash run, but after dropping his bag down the chute he continued towards the stairs. He made his first trip down the central stairs in 3 years and with a deep breath of angst opened the door to the outside world. A gentle breeze rustled his gnarled hair and matted beard. He covered his eyes, forgetting how bright the sun was and the necessity of sunglasses at such times. He tried to remember where there was a place to get toilet paper nearby. He figured the Shop Fresh supermarket a few blocks away would be a suitable destination and headed in that direction.
He was surprised to find no one out. One car drove by, its occupants looking startled and avoiding eye contact. He peered into darkened salons, shops and restaurants. They all seemed to relay the same message: "Due to these unprecedented times, we have chosen to close for the safety of our customers." He wondered if some calamity had unfolded while he was in hiding. He caught a glimpse of himself in the glass of a barbershop window and was relieved no one else was out; he looked like a ghost disguised as a dust bunny.
He arrived at the supermarket to find a line of masked, bewildered patrons. He got in line and surveyed the scene.
"Sir, you're too close!" he backed away from the woman in front as she eyed him, nervously adjusting her surgical mask.
"What is this line for?" he asked.
"Cart sanitizing," she answered tersely.
"Oh, ok." Mark got out of line, neither needing a cart nor wanting to enter a new phase of glumness that seemed to possess the other patrons. He entered the store and things seemed relatively normal. As he wandered around, searching for toilet paper, he was surprised to find certain aisles more barren than others. He couldn't figure out what all of the taped x's on the ground were supposed to indicate. This didn't seem a likely place to host an elaborate Easter Egg hunt.
He found what he presumed to be the aisle with toilet paper, but the shelves were bare. An employee happened to be heading down the aisle, eyes fixed ahead, equipped with his personal protection as he leaned on a cart of items to be stocked.
"Excuse me, where is the toilet paper?" Mark asked.
"We're out," the employee replied, forlorn as he continued rolling down the aisle.
"When will you be getting more?" Mark beckoned, the man about to round the corner to head to another aisle.
The man stopped and, without straightening from the cart, turned his head towards Mark. "I have no idea when it will be coming," he replied, ominously. The employee resumed his roll and disappeared from the aisle.
Had something happened while Mark was dealing with his demons? Had he somehow returned to a post-apocalyptic world? He hurried out of the supermarket, continuing in the same direction. He found the Drug Rite pharmacy another few blocks away and went in. It was a small family pharmacy, but he was surprised to find no one inside. The cashier in the front didn't seem to notice him as she was furiously spraying and wiping down the counter, lost in a seeming battle with OCD. The pharmacy was similar to the supermarket: shelves were bare of various staples and comfort foods like canned goods, chips and soft drinks. He found the toilet paper section and was ecstatic to find two six packs of toilet paper. Then he looked at the price.
"20 dollars!" He had only scrounged up a little over 5 dollars in change before heading out. He walked back to the pharmacist. "Is that the only toilet paper you have here?" he asked, still bewildered at what was happening.
"Yes, unfortunately the supply is very limited," she replied, somewhat sympathetic to his plight. "You really should be wearing a mask, though."
He frowned, indignant that somehow he, solely seeking to clean his posterior, was now implicated in this pandemonium he had no idea had been transpiring. He stormed out, trying to figure out where he could find some toilet paper. He wandered the streets looking for hope in a roll, his rear itch intensifying with each step. He rounded a corner and saw a couple walking their dog towards him. They quickly shifted to the opposite side of the street, continuing in the same direction. Was it him? Did he seem too crazed with his hair? Could they smell his coat? He sniffed around his underarm and could detect nothing overly piquant amid the surrounding aromas.
Avoidance be damned, he desperately sought their help. "Um, hello? " he called out to the couple, having started walking into the middle of the street. They had backed away from him, as though he were a homeless zombie about to attack, and he stopped where he was. They froze, startled at the unexpected contact. "Do you know where I can get some toilet paper?"
The woman spoke frantically, but Mark couldn't understand what she was saying through her mask. Her male counterpart detected Mark's confusion and lowered his mask enough to be audible. "Did you try the Shop Fresh?"
"Yes, they're out!" Mark yelled from the middle of the street.
"How about the Drug Rite?"
"I can't afford it."
The man scrunched his face, intent on helping this crazed stranger while leaving as soon as possible. "The Dollar Holler down the street might have some. It's a few blocks that way." The man pointed in the opposite direction Mark was heading.
Mark vaguely recalled passing the dollar store during past outings, never having had much of a reason to enter before. "Thank you!" Mark yelled as the couple nodded, hastily resuming their walk. Mark stared at them briefly, wondering how people with masks made out of skull-adorned fabric could be scared of him. He then hurried in the opposite direction to find the dollar store and relieve himself of his accumulating discomfort. What he failed to anticipate was finding the dollar store in a state similar to the other sites.
"Sir, we're only allowing 10 people in the store at a time. Please wait in line." The woman collecting and wiping carts pointed to the back of the line. He shuffled to the back, counting 22 people as he passed them. As he watched people exit and enter the store, he figured he'd be waiting there at least an hour. Time seemed to slow as people gradually moved forward and more filed to the back. He had no problem keeping his distance given his appearance. When it was finally his turn to enter, he hurried in through the sliding doors.
"Toilet paper?" he asked the cashier.
"Aisle 10." she replied monotonously; he wondered if this was a regular question for her now. He rushed to the aisle and found two rolls of two ply sitting on the bottom shelf. At two dollars a piece, he could easily afford both and puzzled at how something could cost more than a dollar in a dollar store. He quickly snapped out of his analysis when another woman arrived and reached for the rolls.
"Hey, I need a roll!" Mark whined.
"So do I and so does my son!" The woman snapped.
"Please!" his eyes pleaded for sympathy. She had none. As she turned to make her way to the checkout, Mark grabbed the arm that had the rolls and her shopping basket.
"Give it to me or else!" He growled. His mangy appearance finally had merit and, in disgust, she tossed a roll behind her, tearing away her arm as she disappeared down the aisle. He lunged at the roll as it rolled away and clutched it with both hands, hungrily carrying it to the checkout lanes. When he arrived, the woman who had taken the roll was checking out. She gathered her bags and glared at him before turning towards the doors.
"That's it?" asked the cashier, surprised that a seemingly homeless man would be so desperate for toilet paper.
"Yes." he replied.
"That will be 2 dollars and 12 cents." Mark counted out his change as the patrons behind him began to let out exasperated sighs. He handed the change to the cashier, also disappointed as she dropped it from her gloved hands into the respective register slots. She tore off the receipt and thrust it towards him.
"Have a nice day." she said, solemnly.
"You too!" It was the first time Mark had felt cheerful in over 3 years. As he left the store and made his way past the line, he began to feel the lightness of hope. A teenage boy in a hoodie stood at the end of the line, eyeing Mark suspiciously as he passed. Mark smiled and continued on his way. He didn't know how long his roll would last or what he would do next, but he was finally starting to feel like he was emerging from the darkness that had consumed him and entering a newer, cleaner, brighter phase of life.
As he rounded the corner to return to his apartment, a car raced past him down the street and stopped at the end. It was a one-way street and the car was going the wrong way; Mark slowed, wondering if something bad was happening. As he turned to check over his shoulder, the boy who he had passed on his way out raced past him, snatching the roll from his hands. Mark tried to chase after him, but 3 days without eating had left him exhausted. The boy quickly reached the car parked at the end of the street and jumped into the passenger side. It raced away, and Mark thought he saw the woman who had surrendered the roll.
Had Mark not become so immediately frenzied at the situation, he might have been able to at least note the car's license plate. All he felt now was an even greater despair and fear for the future than when he had entered his solitude. He stopped, wondering what he would do, could do, or should do. He felt fragile and hopeless, realizing that he was no better off in the middle of the street as he was back in his apartment. As he meandered through the streets, he saw a police station and figured they might be able to at least track down the suspect if not offer some spare toilet paper. As he approached the steps that led up to the station, an officer emerged from behind the glass doors.
"I'm sorry sir, but only essential personnel are allowed in at this time." He announced through his authoritative, black mask.
"Someone just stole a roll of toilet paper from me!" Mark pleaded. Under other circumstances, the officer might have laughed and returned to his post, offering Mark some snide reassurance that the roll would turn up; given the uncertainty of these times, he at least managed some tact.
"Well sir, do you have a description of who stole it?"
"I'm not really sure. I can't remember his face," he lamented, his mind fading due to nerves and fatigue, "and I only saw the back of the boy in the hoodie before he got in the car."
"Do you have the license plate number?"
"Did you see who was driving?"
"I'm not sure. I couldn't really see." Mark sighed, exasperated at his plight, uncertain of whether to accuse the woman from the store.
"Well, I'm sorry sir, but unless you want to file a police report there isn't much we can do, especially regarding a roll of toilet paper."
Mark was beginning to wonder if this was all a part of some ill-conceived April fool's prank. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He turned to return to his apartment.
"You know, they probably have some toilet paper at the Shop Fresh!" the officer yelled as he retreated to his original post behind the entrance doors.
"They're out." Mark mumbled to himself. No point explaining the hardship of trying to acquire toilet paper at the present time. He walked the rest of the way back to his apartment feeling even emptier than when he had left. Part of him felt like he was caught in some bizarre hoax and the other part felt like he was still living in a nightmare. The world seemed to have gone mad while he was avoiding the world.
Mark opened the door of his apartment, shuffled over to his sofa and began to cry.
"I'm not even essential!" he wailed. "What am I good for? Do I even matter?" He had finally reached the point he had never imagined reaching. He now had fewer than five dollars to his name and a couple weeks until he would be evicted. What little worth he had had vanished with that roll.
He looked at the window and saw a wall. That was it, his life as cold, stationary and hardened as bricks and mortar. He got up and leaned to the left to look out the window. The sky was now overcast. He couldn't take the darkness anymore and went out to the hall. He went up the stairs to the roof top patio, where he had occasionally gone in years past to get some fresh air and perspective. He opened the door and felt the splatter of a rain drop.
As he walked further onto the patio, he saw a woman standing on the edge, clutching herself. There was a man on the top of the building next door, talking to her across the alley. Mark, stopped, not sure what was happening. Was she trying to jump, too? Could he not even lament and succumb to his own grief in private?
Almost instantly, his despair morphed into rage, jealousy and disgust. He was through with people, with their conniving ways. He wasn't going to be undone by some witless twit in a black dress. What did she have to complain about anyway? As he walked to the edge, he felt his heart pound. How was he going to stop this? He had to say something!
"Enough! Get down from there now!" he shouted, his anger channeling his waning reserves of energy. The woman and her attempted rescuer froze, neither expecting anyone to intrude in this intervention. The woman turned slightly, then slipped backwards off the ledge. While it seemed that she would have safely landed onto the patio, her contact with a safer surface was followed by a crack and crash as she disappeared through the roof.
"Oh my God, oh my God!" shouted her impromptu crisis interventionist, clutching himself hysterically. "What did you do?" he shouted at Mark. Mark looked at the man with an emotionless face. What had he done? The man began to pace hysterically, uncertain of how to now resolve the situation with an alley and a roof between him and this mysterious woman. Mark rushed over. The man took out his phone and frantically dialed for the police.
Mark stared down this bizarrely placed shaft, and vaguely recalled the skylight that was positioned over the stairwells. Some of the apartments had balconies that extended into this stairwell and the woman had miraculously landed on this balcony. As Mark peered down, he saw her frantically banging on the door to the balcony. No one was answering.
"Are you okay?" he shouted. The brief rain had stopped and the sky was clearing. Some sun was protruding through the clouds and, as the afflicted woman looked up, all she saw was Mark's long, bedraggled hair illuminated by the light. She had never had much faith in anything before, but it seemed that her guardian angel might have arrived.
"I'm stuck!" she answered. Mark looked around. The balcony was too high to get her down from the stairwell, but the railing around it could help.
"Don't do anything, the police are coming!" shouted the man across the way. For some reason, he waved his arms frantically, as though he would get their attention with Mark turned away from him and the woman out of sight.
Mark had to do something. "Here, if you climb onto the railing, I can pull you up."
"What?" You're going to get me killed!" she shouted. Mark frowned, flustered that now her life was stopping her from taking action.
"Come on, you can do it!" Mark leaned through the hole, his legs wrapped around a vent protruding a few feet away. As his arms dangled, the woman eyed him nervously. For some reason, she feared this fall more than the one that awaited her moments before.
She approached the railing and cautiously lifted one leg onto the railing. The balcony was not high, only 10 feet above the floor below, but there was another railing directly underneath. The known seemed more treacherous than the unknown. She reached up and caught one of Mark's hands, then stepped up with her other foot. She felt herself slipping and flailed, clutching his other hand.
Mark squeezed his body with all his might. "I got you, let's go!"
Sirens had preceded the arrival of emergency personnel as Mark was in the midst of the rescue. A few police officers and 2 EMTs, all masked and gloved, rushed onto the patio and turned towards Mark. The man on the other building couldn't believe what was happening and turned his phone to film, in case anyone needed any damning evidence.
As Mark pulled, an officer arrived and grabbed her arm with both of his. Another arrived to grab her other arm and she seemed to float onto the patio as Mark crumpled backwards to accommodate. He let go and looked up, her dress barely obscuring her genitals. It was the closest he had come to such a heavenly view in a long time.
"Ma'am, are you okay?" It was the officer from the station.
"Yes, yes, I mean, oh my God," she didn't know what to say, and could only stare at Mark in disbelief, "you saved me!"
The man across the way put his phone down, 15 seconds in. He whimpered, defeated that he would not be credited with saving her life. He stifled his tears, wondering if he would ever again get a chance to be a hero.
The officer looked down at Mark, the lowly figure he had encountered before.
"Sir, how did you get here?" The officer thought he was stalking the woman.
"I live here!" he replied indignantly. The officer's eyebrows raised, perplexed at that arrangement.
He looked at the woman. She was miraculously unscathed, no scratches, bruises or any damage. "Ma'am, what happened here? Do you want to file a police report?"
"Well, I was," she drifted off, staring at her now-departing, aspiring crisis counselor, "in a bad place and then I fell through the glass. He saved me!" She beamed. Mark just sat and stared, his eyes slowly creeping up to meet hers.
"Well, sir, congratulations." The officer extended his gloved hand towards Mark and, as Mark took his, he lifted him to his feet.
"Thanks, I guess." He smiled, not knowing exactly how to feel.
The officers exchanged a few words, then spoke to the EMTs. "Ma'am, we're going to take you to the hospital to make sure everything's okay, okay?"
"I feel fine." The sun was shining on them and she was squinting as she wiped away tears.
The officer from the station was doing his best to stay calm in this confusing situation. "Ma'am, it's just procedure. It's for your best." He gently placed a hand on her elbow and gently tugged her away from the glass and towards the door to the patio. Two other officers remained to document the scene as Mark just stared at those departing.
Something compelled him to follow. As the door closed on the officer and EMTs, Mark jumped to his feet and raced to the door. He followed them down the stairs until he reached his floor, another officer hurrying after him. He lingered in the stairwell as he watched them descend.
The officer from the station, realizing that Mark was following them, turned as the group continued down the stairs. "Make sure you follow social distancing." The officer reminded him. Mark couldn't believe it. He had just helped to save a life, and now he was being told to stay away from other people.
"What's your name?" He called to the girl he saved. The group of emergency personnel slowed and looked at each other, confused as to who Mark was addressing.
"Emily!" She yelled as she, the officer and the EMTs disappeared down the stairwell. Mark stared down the empty stairwell and tried to recall what had just happened. Was he a hero? It was hard to feel like one when he still needed some toilet paper.
10 days passed. After his rescue, Mark had discovered some crackers and tuna stowed away in the bottom of his bathroom closet. How and why they had ended up there, he had no idea. His final rations only lasted him a week. With his leftover change, he debated whether to get food or to try and get some toilet paper, too. Without food, he really didn't need toilet paper; without food, toilet paper was the least of his worries.
His stomach finally had enough. He was lean, mean and needed something to eat. He scrounged through is clothes pile once again, settling on some crispy jeans and a long-ago worn flannel. He peered out his window to check the weather. It was another, surprisingly sunny day; at least Mother nature was still cheerful.
As he was putting on his coat, there was a knock on the door. He winced. His eviction notice was nearing its limit. He supposed it was the apartment manager with the police. He didn't know what he was going to do. Maybe he could plead for their mercy so he could at least get something to eat. Perhaps starvation yielded more sympathy than toilet paper theft.
As he put his arms through his coat, he peered through the fisheye. There was a well-dressed woman with a mask and a microphone and a man with a mask and a camera. Another well-dressed woman with a police officer were spaced apart further away down the hall. He stepped back. Was he being set up? Mark opened the door and they stepped back.
"Oh, sorry, wrong apartment." said the woman, turning to flee from Mark's haggard state.
"No, Donna. I think he's the guy. From the video." replied the camera guy.
"From the video?" asked Mark. He wasn't sure whether he should clarify if they were the eviction team; it was a conversation he didn't need to start.
"Oh, yeah." said the woman, wincing at the stale dankness emanating from Mark's darkened hovel. He closed the door and she seemed somewhat relieved. "Alright Jake, are we ready to roll?"
"Yup, ready when you are." Jake, the camera guy, steadied his camera on his shoulder.
"We are here with the mysterious rooftop hero from last week's daring rescue. Sir, could you just tell us your name?"
"Um, Mark Kram."
"Mark, what was going through your mind in that moment when you decided, and this is with social distancing in the back of your mind I'm sure, when you decided to reach through a broken skylight and rescue Emily Yemil, your fellow tenant?"
Everyone stared. Should he tell them that he had reached a point of oblivion only moments before and had contemplated the same fate as Emily, only to then find himself enraged that he couldn't even find peace in that moment? How could he then explain his subconscious drive to help Emily who, in their brief time together, had captured his heart? "Well, I don't know, I just thought I should do something."
"Well Mark, that was certainly an impressive thing to do. Were you concerned at all given the health advisories regarding the recent pandemic?"
"Pandemic? I don't know what you're talking about." He wasn't sure how he could explain the disconnect resulting from intentionally isolating himself from the world for the past 3 years. Donna and Jake just looked at each other, puzzled.
"Mark, had you known Emily before your heroic rescue?"
"Well Mark, your act of kindness has certainly inspired a lot of people during these challenging times. Mark is there anything you'd like to say for people who want to know how they can help others?"
Mark deliberated for a few seconds. "No, I'm just hungry and need toilet paper."
"Well, that certainly is the concern of many of us these days." Everyone chuckled except Mark. "Mark, thank you for your service. And, to commemorate this event, we are here with Mayor Royam and Officer Reciffo to present this civic honor."
Donna stepped aside as the Mayor stepped forward, careful to maintain six feet of separation. "I know we can't shake hands to congratulate you, but we just wanted to present you with this certificate of appreciation to recognize your heroic act. We also have a 100 dollar gift card for Shop Fresh since we were told you are among those struggling during these times."
Mark's eyes widened in amazement. This was almost as good as winning the lottery. He could eat! They might even have toilet paper! He was so happy he reached to hug the Mayor, who froze, not wanting to break the social distancing protocol. Mark stopped, recognizing the apparently overzealous awkwardness and gladly took the envelope containing the gift certificate and gift card from the Mayor's grabber.
"Wow, thank you so much!" he beamed.
Donna stepped in so she could wrap up the story and move onto something more interesting. "Mayor is there anything you'd like to share to inspire the struggling citizens today?"
The Mayor, tactful and unfazed by Mark's oblivion, stepped a little closer while trying to be distant enough. "Sorry, just trying to be distant," she laughed, "I just want to congratulate Mark on his acts and remind everyone that we're all in this together. Whatever you can do, whenever you can do it, just do it. Thank you, to everyone, for your service."
"Thank you Mayor. And there you have it, we can all still be heroes in these difficult times. From news you can use, I'm Donna Annod.
"Got it. You're good." said Jake as he stared through the camera before lowering it.
Relieved of recognizing this unexpected, reclusive hero, everyone turned to leave. Mark was curious to know why this had happened.
"Why is everyone so distant?" He asked as the news team and the Mayor were walking away.
"The virus?" offered Jake, figuring that was sensible enough.
"Virus? Oh." Mark didn't want to reveal too much ignorance.
"Where's this Emily?"
"Last we heard she's in the hospital. She tested positive for the virus." replied Officer Reciffo.
"Faith Regional." the officer nodded.
Mark nodded as well. "And how long was that shot?" he asked Jake.
"Um, I'd say it was about 45 seconds or so. Give or take a few."
Mark's eyes began to widen. His day was getting even better.
"I did it. I did it! I'm free!!" Mark shot his arms up into the air.
Everyone stared at each other, then at Mark. They weren't sure if he was celebrating their departure or Emily's downfall, but no one was interested in asking further. Donna broke the awkward tension. "Hey Mark, great job. If you have any more questions, just contact the station. Action news, ok?" She nodded, then turned, and everyone followed suit.
Mark was so elated he forgot that he was hungry. He did it! He finally did IT! He had finally reached the only milestone he had ever set for himself. Now he was free and could spend his days in contentment, liberated from pursuing the limelight. But what about Emily?
Mark turned to go into his apartment, figuring he might put something else on to go to the hospital. Then he realized that he didn't have any other suitable options and turned again. Did he need anything? Was he going to be allowed inside with all of this unexpected pandemonium?
He hurried down the stairs and the street was still. Everything was beginning to make sense now. It wasn't a post-apocalyptic world. It was just a crazed world on pause. He was so energized he began to jog, his memory returning of the city. Faith Regional was a good 20 minute walk away. He started to slow down, his body retracting from his lack of reserves. He walked briskly and arrived at the hospital, staring up at its looming bleakness.
As he was about to turn down the walkway that led to the emergency room, he was stopped by a security officer.
"Sir, no visitors allowed at this time."
"None? What about Emily?" Apparently, Mark’s recent fame hadn’t reached everyone.
"Sir, you will have to contact the hospital. They will put you in touch with her."
Mark stared, dazed at his stalled luck. Perhaps that was all he would extract from this moment: the culmination of an accumulated 15 minutes of fame and a gift card. No love though. Maybe his new fame would keep the eviction at bay, he hoped.
As he turned to walk back, a car pulled up beside the vacant curb. "Mark, is that you?"
Mark turned and scrunched his face at the familiar face ducking down behind a partially opened passenger window to be seen and to see him. "Leslie?"
"Mark? You don't even say hello to your mother?"
"Mom?" He had overlooked her in the passenger seat? She was just as sour as the last time they had spoken.
"We’ve been trying to track you down. We just saw you on the news. We had no idea where you were." Leslie reported.
"How can a son do that to his mother? Not even talk to her for 3 years?" he was surprised at the tears welling up in her eyes. She had never seemed to care about his presence before his absence.
Mark was beginning to find himself in the same position he had been in 3 years ago when Leslie had left and his mother had continued her campaign to remind him of his life's failures. In an inexplicable sequence of events, she had moved in with Leslie whose presence did little to dampen the angst between her and her son. He wasn’t sure why she had joined Leslie on this trip, but her mask and gloves somewhat dampened the harshness of the scowl that surely lurked beneath.
"What are you doing here anyway?" asked Leslie, turning off the car.
"I came here to see Emily."
"Emily who?" Leslie was surprised that anyone named Emily would be involved with Mark in his present state.
"Emily, Emily," he tried to remember the name they mentioned, "Mealy? Yammy-"
"Yemil? You know Emily Yemil?"
"Well, not really, but that's the name of the girl I saved." He nodded, proud despite their complete lack of significant connection.
"Emily is my half sister! She's supposed to be getting out of the hospital today."
Mark's eyebrows raised in disbelief. "Well that's strange -"
Before he could elaborate further, the doors to the emergency room opened and a woman in a wheelchair being pushed by what looked like a woman wrapped in plastic wrap emerged. The security attendant pointed in Leslie and Mark's direction, and the wrapped woman began wheeling the patient to them.
"Emily!" Leslie called out, recognizing and waving. She was too excited and nervous to internalize that Emily was not in the mood for waving or any arm raising.
Mark watched in disbelief as Emily was wheeled towards the street where the car waited. Leslie hurried around the car, putting on gloves and a face mask, as she quickly opened the door. Mark stepped back to accommodate, startled by how quickly Emily had gone from vital and vibrant, albeit less than mentally sound, to pallid and exhausted.
The nurse's aide parked the wheelchair in front of the open back seat and gingerly helped Emily out of the wheelchair and into the back seat. The aide then retrieved some disinfectant wipes stashed in the back of the wheelchair and began furiously wiping it down before beginning the trek back to the hospital. As Leslie began to close the door, Emily turned slightly towards Mark.
"How could you. You gave me the virus! You almost killed me!! I'll never forgive you!!!" Her voice was weak and raspy but direct as Mark stood, startled. What virus? How could he give her a virus? They had barely interacted!
Leslie closed the door and hurried around to the driver’s side. Mark moved towards the passenger side, but his mother sat behind a closed door and window.
"Mom? Are you going with them?" He wasn't sure what to do in this situation, not having anticipated encountering his mother as well as his former flame and the most recent object of his affection, now an apparent adversary.
His mother sat shaking her head, not even making eye contact. "I don't want to talk to you. I'm ashamed! You make me sick!" Her moans were muffled by the mask and the glass.
"Sorry for the rush. Let's talk soon, okay?" Leslie added delicately given all that was just exchanged. She slipped into the driver's seat and closed the door. The car started and they were off, disappearing from Mark's life as quickly as they had just entered it.
Mark stood, alone on the sidewalk, uncertain where to go now. He was as alone as when he had started the day, more certain about the fate of that which had been uncertain but unsure about that which was exposed. Having at least fulfilled his life-time goal of 15 minutes of camera time, and whatever fame that suggested, he could at least move onto other things. He could finally emerge from his reclusive refuge and put the past behind him. Then again, amid his own downfall, near demise and his contribution to the woes of others, he wondered how much better things could get.
The only thing that matched the intensity of his present life's frustrations was the discomfort of his backside. He felt the gift card in his pocket and immediately felt his stomach rumble. He would buy some groceries, buy some toilet paper, enjoy what food he could fill himself with, and then contemplate what else was left to do with his life. He turned and headed towards the Shop Fresh and his apartment, the oncoming clouds dappled with the palette of the setting sun. Life wasn't so bad, he mused. He just needed a new direction. More importantly, as he was reminded by each step, he needed some toilet paper.