“You got it?” The hulk of a man, who Hayden knows only by his address, says through the crack of the door.
Hayden hands him a paper sack, the top so bunched up from his grip. It looks like a tightly wrapped Tootsie Roll. The man unrolls it and peers inside to rifle through the contents. One second. Ten seconds. Thirty.
The longer it draws out, the more anxious Hayden becomes, his body keeping time with a pluck of his nerves for every clock tick. Taking a breath in such close proximity to the man felt dangerous. His body tenses, holding the air within him as tightly as he grasped his blanket as a child, fearing the shadows creeping out from the closet.
“Looks good,” the man finally says and hands him some dollars. “Forgot to add this.”
“Thanks,” he says, gingerly pinching the bills. “Enjoy your food.”
He fast walks down the pavement, and as soon as he’s in his car seat, he tosses the money in a plastic bag, and into his palm squirts a heaping pile of sanitizer, as slimy as it is sticky. From his glove compartment, its door dropped agape, he grabs a disinfecting wipe to clean the insulated delivery bag and everything that it has touched.
When Hayden got a job as a delivery driver, there were a few things he thought might encounter. Poor tippers. No-tippers. Angry customers who either throw their words or possibly their order if it took too long to arrive. Docked paychecks when someone complained. The normal kind of stuff.
The streets are nearly barren, so much so he thinks he’s more likely to see a tumbleweed on the road of his Midwestern city than another set of headlights. As he passes houses, all the shades are drawn, the glow of the TVs coloring them blue in the darkness. Everyone is hiding out, trying to escape the insidious enemy.
If this were the zombie brand of apocalypse, at least he’d see it coming, be able to whip his car around Fast and Furious-style and zoom away. If he needed to, he could take out some of the undead without even unlatching his seatbelt.
This. This seemed more terrifying. It was nothing he could see, nothing he could knowingly avoid while still making a living. Each doorstep could be a gateway to infection—although he knows the chances of each one carrying it aren’t too high. Yet.
While he’s not one to look on the bright side much, this hell is forcing him to shine lights into the darkness. Right now, there’s an abundance of bad in the world, and if he focuses only on that, he’ll go crazier faster than Jimmy John’s could bring him a sub.
So, he’s searching clouds for silver linings, and of those he’s found, one is this: The food delivery business has never been busier, which, when his brother is laid-off and can’t completely pay his portion of the bills, is all Hayden can ask for.
At the restaurant, the employees are a flurry of motion, gloved hands flying to put food into bags, and keep counters clean. With the plastic handles marking themselves in the bends of his fingers, he hollers “Thanks!” getting a bunch of heads bobbing at him, and the words repeated to him.
Without the food, he has no way to make money, and without delivery, they have no way to serve people anymore. What did they call that in science class? A mutualistic symbiotic relationship, he thinks.
For the next three hours, he zig-zags around the city, leaving some meals at the doors with nothing more than a knock, while others he passes into waiting hands, as children wave at him from stairways. One person talks to him for 5 minutes, which makes Hayden believe that guy must be alone in his quarantine. It also makes Hayden want a mask, even if they are the required six feet apart.
The person receiving his next delivery couldn’t be more different, calling to Hayden to halt one full body-length away from the door. His feet leave the ground at the voice, and he finds the source in the front window. An elderly woman in a robe, her face somewhat shaded in the shadow of the screen.
“Just put it there, I’ll come in and get it,” she says.
“Are you sure?” he asks, because if he was in his pajamas, he wouldn’t want to leave the house.
“Yes. Please.” Although she uses her manners, her tone is sharp in the same way his grandma scolded Hayden and his brother for bringing their mud-covered puppy into the house. Hayden lowers the grocery bag to the ground, and as he opens his door, he watches her dart out of her own, heave the food up with her mittens, and run inside, the light above her stoop turning out as soon as she disappears.
At least he tries to, but when his disinfecting wipe pulls free from its canister easier than a knife in melted butter, he freezes. He’s out.
“Goddammit,” he says. Even though no one knows when this is going to end, he knows he’s going to need these wipes for a long time.
Tapping on his phone screen, Hayden sees he has 20 minutes until the next delivery is ready, and down the road, the superstore signs shine like a beacon. Most likely, their shelves will be long-emptied of anything sanitizing or disinfecting, at a time like this when cleaning products are valued higher than gold. But, he has to give it a shot, because, stupid as it sounds, having the wipes is one of the only forms of power—and of safety—he possesses in the midst of so much uncertainty.
He fires up his engine and takes off towards the sign. The parking lot is nearly empty, and inside the store, employees scrub displays with rags, rearrange items, and stand stoically at checkouts. Weaving up and down the aisles, Hayden quickly checks every place he can for that prized Lysol canister.
“Can I help you find something?”
At the proper social distance, an employee with the name tag “Aaron” reorganizes the handful of Glade room sprays left in the aisle as he looks at him.
“Probably not. It looks like everything’s gone,” Hayden says, dejectedly, but if the guy’s asking, he might as well exhaust his options. “Unless you have disinfecting wipes in the back. I need them. For work.”
Aaron nods slowly. “We got a shipment in, but we’re not supposed to let anyone have it until we restock tonight.” His gaze lands above Hayden’s head—or more precisely, on his hat from the online delivery service he works for—and his lips slant up. “But I think we can make an exception. Hold on.”
He jogs up the aisle, through a swinging door, and when he returns a couple minutes later with a three-pack, Hayden is still in disbelief. How is this happening? What makes him an exception?
“Here you go,” Aaron says as he reaches his half of the six feet to give them to Hayden.
“Thanks, but why?”
Unlike others who are asked to remain home, Aaron and Hayden, while not doctors or scientists, are part of a group who come out every day to help life still run, offering comfort in some form of normalcy.
“Right,” Hayden says, and clutches the disinfectant as if it might be ripped away from him.
Trying to say what will come from this pandemic is like trying to predict the future with a Magic 8-Ball stuck on “Ask again later.” Hayden doesn’t know where he’ll be in a month or, hell, in a week. He just hopes when the world comes out the other side of this catastrophe, he, Aaron, all of them are still here.
“Stay safe,” he tells Aaron as he moves towards the checkout.