If we changed the school system to prevent another outbreak
From the “Pandemic” series
“We can protest,” Fey encourages Isabel, before countering herself. “But we don’t have a case. Our school’s health program is not optimal for your allele set.”
Isabel throws pebbles at the lake. She’s angry, but she hides it.
“We can add more programs. Host a second cohort. Disrupt the system. No more genetic segregation!” But Fey thinks and hunches her shoulders. “But lawyers will strike with ‘reality.’ And it’s getting easy to convince judges with spells of coughs, disease, and financial strain.”
Isabel lowers her guard seeing Fey’s furrowed brow. Isabel unclenches her anger. “What’s next?”
Fey gets excited. “We can wait for new results that prove our academy’s equipment is suited for your genes.” She slumps. “But the current results were abstracted from 32 replications.”
Isabel lies down. “I guess my polygenic risk score is not meant for our home by the hills.”
Fey stays silent, looking out at the lake from their grass-filled enclave. “We could drop out of school? Or transfer to a school in Nigeria? I heard they gave up on risk scores because researchers based all present data on white Europeans.”
Isabel laughs, “Or we could just wait two more years, get done with graduation, and meet again.”
Isabel stands up.
“How about we go to the caves? I’ve never been, and I probably won’t see them again.”
“Or… How about we move fully online? We can get out of the cohorts and do school as a pair.”
Isabel clenches her hand. “I can’t afford to pay for the treatments on my own.”
“But we don’t need to get treated!”
“Not yet, but if another outbreak…”
“Isabel, come on, man. If another outbreak hits. The papers say we’re years away from that!”
“There’s a reason why the school exists, Fey.”
“We hide behind our risk scores as a way to feel safer. We become risk-averse when lowering contagion is just a tiny bit better.”
“No,” Isabel stammers. “It ensures we can grow up socially close.”
Isabel softens, sits down, and puts her arm around Fey’s shoulder.
“This schooling system ensures we keep hold of our friends.”
Fey bats Isabel’s hand away. But you’re leaving.
“I cannot stay.”
You haven’t tried to stay.
“No, Isabel. You always wanted to leave.”
“That’s not true.”
Fey rests her head on Isabel’s shoulder, somewhat awkwardly. She’s never rested her head like that before.
“I trusted you,” Fey whispers.
“You can still trust me.”
“Your brother is coming.”
Isabel stands up. “What’s wrong?” She asks.
“Are you packed?”
“No, we have two weeks left for the flight.”
“Well, the flight changed. We’re leaving at midnight.”
A silence extends through the blades of grass.
“Okay,” Isabel says.
“Okay, but let’s go,” her brother implores.
“Give me a sec.”
“Okay, but I’m gonna start packing for you.”
He leaves. Nothing is said.
“Hey,” Isabel whispers.
Fey shakes her head.
“We can still call each other online.”
Isabel grinds her teeth, but she untightens her throat. “There’s still a couple of hours before I really have to go.”
Fey won’t respond.
Isabel sits back down.
“Hey,” Isabel whispers, trying to intercept Fey’s gaze, “I’m also angry that I have to go.”
But you’re leaving, Fey thinks.
“I never planned this.”
But you did not resist.
“We still have a few hours.”
Fey plants her a kiss.
Isabel pulls back, laughing. “Hey, where was the consent in that?”
Fey chuckles, “Sorry.”
Isabel returns the kiss. “There, now we’re even.”
“You know I don’t love you like that, though,” Isabel admits.
“I’m not attracted to girls that way.”
“I know,” Fey repeats, moving her body away from Isabel’s hold.
“But now I have to leave.”
Isabel stands up and offers Fey her hand.
“You’re coming to help me pack?”
Fey looks away, curling a silent goodbye into defensive cells for her toughened back.
Isabel squeezes Fey’s shoulders, stops to speak, but walks away.
Fey doesn’t look at her friend. She plays with the grasses, counting off the times people failed to connect. And in her head, Fey cements the reason why she cannot get close. Because friends are like moving pillars: they’ll support you, but if you press too hard, the foundations crack. And in the pillar’s absence, you’ll counterattack by refusing to rebuild where the pillar used to stand. Life is but a string of contradictions beautifully arranged by a thing called time.
Fey stands up and moves closer to the edge of the lake, father away from where Isabel’s feet used to press.