We are fortunate to be able to present “Michigan Quarantine: A Satirical Tale of Chaos and Civil Disobedience,” a tale of COVID-19 panic and reaction, in serialized form thanks to author Lilchika Rose.
The Lansing Capital Building, April 12th, 2020
A Church in Rural Michigan, April 13th, 2020
“I think we should confiscate their cell phones.” Jenna Smith whispered to her husband. He scratched his neck uncomfortably.
“Come on, Jenna. That’d be an insult.”
“They’ll understand! We can’t risk anyone snitching.” Stressed lines straddled Jenna’s forehead. She’d never experienced anything like this. She scribbled on a notepad, then compulsively ripped the paper and scribbled again.
Collin and Jenna Smith sat in the front pew of their empty countryside church. Jenna was planning a meeting including the closely-knit community members in order to solidify an emergency plan. The pastor wouldn’t attend; he was quarantined due to high-risk vulnerability for the virus.
The church was a humble building now; the walls were bare except a simple cross above the baptismal. There were no lights, and Collin and Jenna moved around only with the assistance of a flashlight. The windows were boarded over.
Although in an unpopulated area, Jenna often jumped, turning suspiciously to the shuttered windows.
“Why would anyone snitch?” Collin used his calming voice normally reserved for children. Jenna found it patronizing.
“To benefit themselves. It’ll be dog-eat-dog soon.” Ironically, a distant howl erupted at that moment; Jenna stiffened and flinched. She was relentlessly suspicious.
“So what exactly would they be snitching about?” Collin had two negotiation tactics: “agree and amplify” and “deny and minimize.” He was starting “deny and minimize” mode.
“Which of the governor’s new restrictions should I begin at? There’s a shelter-in-place order, and we’re planning an in-person meeting.”
“Meetings of ten people or less could occur before this update.” Collin reminded her. Jenna mused.
“We could split the meeting into shifts. Three shifts of fewer than ten people. That at least follows the first mandate, which limits meetings larger than ten people. We can say news of the new mandate never reached us. They need to cut their lights and engines as soon as possible when they get on the property.” Jenna’s stress lines reappeared. “I don’t want any attention. They all need to park in the back, with their cars not visible from the road.”
The Governor’s Mansion, Lansing, April 13th, 2020
Governor Agnes Koch lounged in her house sauna. The governor’s mansion suited her. She’d been living there almost two years and must admit, it had charm. “Thanks, Michigan.” She whispered smugly.
The sauna led out to an immaculate indoor pool and jacuzzi walled by pristine glass. Outside the glass Agnes had several plants imported for her garden (the staff had some plants covered due to concern over possible sleet.) Agnes strolled through the pool area and snatched her beeping cell phone. It was Agnes Koch’s house manager.
“Mrs. Cullington’s here. She’s arrived in the foyer.”
Ahhhh, Cullington. Governor Agnes’ lip twitched smugly. Cullington was exactly who she needed.
“Please ask Mrs. Cullington to meet me in the study.” Governor Agnes directed. She sauntered gingerly in the direction of the study herself. She still wore slippers and a white robe with her hair tightly restrained by a towel. When she arrived at the study she seated herself in the power place at the long mahogany table and began filing her nails. The chaise-lounge would have been more comfortable, but Agnes must occupy any power seat in any room.
Cullington arrived out of breath. She hadn’t changed, Agnes noted, since she was an unremarkable brunette college student who bartered her way into Agnes’ 2018 campaign for the governorship. And Cullington was never a mistake. Her keen interpersonal politics and awareness of social trends made her invaluable as Agnes’ chief advisor.
Today, Cullington was flustered. “Governor Agnes.” Cullington began eagerly, entering the study and gripping a mahogany chair. She stared blankly at the walls of decorative books. Neither woman wore a mask.
“Please, Rachel.” Agnes waved her to sit on her right side. It was an appropriate symbol: Cullington was to be her right-hand advisor.
“Would you like some water?” Agnes continued smoothly, referencing a water carafe maintained in the study by Agnes’ staff. Rachel Cullington drank greedily.
“I certainly hope you’re not ill.” Agnes murmured darkly. It was a wicked joke in the time of a global pandemic, and Cullington paled.
“No.” She murmured, sitting at the desk, then inching further away from the governor. She reached into her leather briefcase with trembling hands. “I have much to tell you.”
“Please begin.” Agnes was still filing her nails.
Cullington began. “People are upset..”
“And?” Agnes blew on her nails. Cullington cleared her throat.
“There could be some instability.”
“Oh, really.” Agnes lowered her filer and rolled her eyes. “So I’ll call the national guard; I can’t imagine anyone getting out of line under those circumstances.”
“The state is big. The national guard can’t control everything at all times.”
“If anyone tries something we’ll make an example of them.” She said casually.
“Governor, I think you should consider something. Many people consider the terms of your executive mandates unnecessarily draconian. Petty. Targeting rural areas.”
“And that’s by accident?”
Cullington raised her eyebrows. “I don’t see the benefit of antagonizing constituents.”
“Ah, but that is the heart of the matter.” Agnes jabbed her nail file and swiveled in her chair. “It depends which constituents are antagonized. Avoid antagonizing those who voted for you, and take free range on the rest.”
Cullington’s fingers trembled over her computer. “Yes, but people have noticed that you’ve disproportionately penalized rural communities while propping up urban corporations and constituents, besides not sufficiently focusing on the urban epicenters.”
“And I hope they don’t forget it.” Agnes chuckled. Power wasn’t only intoxicating; it was also amusing.
Cullington let out a deep sigh. She was much more cautious than Agnes; that’s part of the reason Agnes kept her around.
“Yes, but your reelection statistics have nosedived. Sure, many constituents reside in the city, but not the majority. Besides, you’ve angered rural constituents enough to influence them to vote in uncharacteristically high numbers.” Cullington stopped, unwilling to speak further. She was distracted by how intimidating the governor was.
“This is a win-win.” Agnes leaned back, sticking her jaw out. “Either I’ll be reelected governor or I’m Vice-President.” She was counting on her recent behavior to gain national media coverage, which was always helpful in obtaining rising polls numbers. Her most recent fiasco was a carefully calculated publicity ploy to catapult her into the national consciousness.
Cullington licked her lips. “I’m afraid it may be either-or.” Tell the truth. She ordered herself. Agnes promoted you because you tell the truth. “It may even be neither/neither. There’s so much negative publicity propagated among Michigan… even national negative publicity….”
“You of all people must realize there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” Agnes interrupted carelessly.
“That’s for celebrities, not politicians.” Cullington pressed her flattened palms against the table. After she moved her hands, sweaty fingerprints remained on the surface. Cullington’s fate depended on the governor making the right decisions. Agnes could take Cullington down with her.
“The people will forget before the next election.”
“There’s no guarantee of that. There have been recall petitions circulating. Sure, you’ve become a national name, but that doesn’t help when we have signatures gushing in from across the country to have you removed….to the tune of millions.” Cullington reached for the petition copies, but Agnes stopped her with a dismissive wave. But her attitude was slowly morphing. She was becoming angry, and Cullington couldn’t determine which most frightened her, the governor’s carelessness or emerging aggression.
“Please, just be more careful.” Cullington begged. “At least follow your own guidelines. The most incendiary petitions propagate photos of you carousing with other officials and party leaders, breaking your own mandated six-foot barrier and limitations of gathering numbers. It’s difficult to minimize this.”
Agnes’ tight smile faded. She knew Cullington was right, but the idea of following her own draconian rules set off an internal conflict between how wrong she was to defiantly want to have her cake, eat it, and proscribe it to the underclass simultaneously.
“I’ll take everything into consideration.” Cullington was dismissed.
General Care Hospital, Lansing, April 13th, 2020
Doctor Jessica Amarati delicately covered the dead face of patient #45. These days she could only keep track of them by number. Amarati checked her watch. It was almost noon.
Dr. Amarati exited to the reception area. “The patient in room 45 died.” She said flatly, adjusting her facial protective shield. The receptionist’s red fingernails clanked on her keyboard for a moment, then she muttered the name of patient #45.
“So Elizabeth Braxton is another virus victim.”
“Wait a minute.” Dr. Amarati perked from her stupor. “She wasn’t tested for the virus.”
The receptionist looked up. “She had some breathing issues, didn’t she?” The receptionist monotoned. There was no way Amarati would memorize the receptionist’s name when she didn’t even know her dead patients’ names.
“Well, yes, but it could be another issue…”
“We have clear instructions. Deaths connected with breathing issues are to be classified as virus-related deaths.”
Was the receptionist chewing gum behind her annoying pink cloth mask? Amarati was down to her last nerve.
“I’m going on break.” She announced. “I’ll be in the lounge.”
Why did Amarati become a doctor? Sure, there would be money (eventually.) But after she passed her board examinations by the skin of her teeth, and became riddled by hundreds of thousands of student loan debt, she was dumped in a global pandemic for the first year of her clinicals.
She’d been working seventy hour weeks, and it never stopped. Amarati slumped in the lounge, wishing to disappear.
In the corner of the lounge the two hospital “Karens” were going at it. Karen one was short, blonde and spunky; Karen two was taller, a bit overweight, and cumbersome. Amarati sighed. She could almost predict every word before it was uttered.
Karen 2 was insisting the governor’s stay at home order was FOR EVERYONE’S GOOD don’t you know. The governor was the greatest leader ever; by issuing detailed laws of what everyone could and could not buy, she was saving them from the totalitarian dictator who is the “orange president.”
Karen 1 was indignant with each bob of her perfectly styled pony tail. Why didn’t the governor shut down Detroit? Almost all the cases were in Detroit, but nooo, the governor must pander to Detroit because they’re democrats. The governor wanted to harm rural areas, shutting down their businesses in counties that had no cases, just out of spite because those rural areas didn’t vote for her. Besides, wasn’t Karen 2 angry the governor didn’t provide the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) the nurses and doctors needed? How could Karen 2 blame that on the president? Why did the governor not take responsibility for having more cases per capita than almost any other state?
“Tough crowd?” Jen, another first-year clinical doctor, pulled up a chair across from Amarati.
Amarati twitched. “Golly, Jen.” Amarati murmured. “They’re crazy out there.”
“Out there?” Jen sat next to Amarati.
“Can they just do that? Just write down the death was virus related when there was no testing?”
“A little birdie told me,” Jen’s lips twitched mysteriously, “There’s some serious power-that-is benefitting from the numbers appearing higher than they are.”
“That doesn’t make sense to me.” Amarati mumbled. There was a reason she didn’t study political science. “Doesn’t more deaths make the powers in control look bad? Incompetent?”
“Maybe it’s an excuse.” Jen loved conspiracies. She really should have been in politics. “If you want to seize authoritarian control you always need to start with an excuse…”
“A catastrophe.” Amarati rubbed her temples. “This stuff is sounding less crazy every minute I spend in this crazy hospital.”
“Wait till you finish clinicals.” Jen laughed. “Doctors are just psych residents who didn’t crack from the stress.”
Amarati smiled ruefully. Sometimes Jen made a little too much sense.