Samantha, a young pathology resident reluctantly enters into the ugly reality of mass graves on Hart Island, New York City. Unknown and unwelcome realities meet her and spins her life into chaos. During this unforgiving time of the pandemic, she meets Dr. David Falkner, a medical examiner and opens the unexpected door in her life. Her personal journey settles with understanding her own identity. Storyline is propelled along a timeline, introducing seemingly unrelated characters connected by shocking, intimate experiences. We empathize and experience romance, racism, tragedy, guilt, heroism, and God. Based upon many actual events and scientific facts, people regain their agency in spite of dramatic events. This gripping and engrossing story largely from a female perspective is never predictable. Medical and scientific facts underpin the narrative and are seamlessly woven into the storyline, as we understand COVID-19 from many perspectives and countries. Written by an internationally recognized breast cancer expert, this breakthrough novel provides the reader confidence in knowing what really happened with COVID-19 and how the race for vaccines is done without getting bogged down in deep science. The author also provides salient information for those with a science or medical background. Dr. Apple has scoured current medical and scientific journal articles and research findings from around the globe to provide a concise and unified understanding for all readers.
Ms. Apple is a practicing pathologist…she brings a perspective to the effect of the pandemic that unfortunately is seldom seen, and millions would be enriched and informed by her unique vision…The story begins with a woman intern pathologist arriving on Hart Island to an unimaginable scene of mass burials. The web of relationships and events expands to an international scope. This is a medical but personal story, not a political one. I hope everyone can read and share this book, whose proceeds are going to charity.
—Book reviews on Amazon
Debut novel: Chapter 1
Hart Island March 31, 2020 It was a drizzly and cold rainy day. Samantha was sent to Hart Island for observation during the forensic pathology rotation in her third year of residency. She was dragging her feet as she was asked to report to Hart Island a day early before her rotation started on April 1. She had never been to Hart Island. She was already regretting her decision to be a pathologist, and in residency training during the pandemic with COVID-19. With her luck, her autopsy rotation in April is when the death rate is expected to have a surge.
She had several choices for her autopsy rotation, and she chose the Long Island Hospital associated with the coroner’s office because her friends in residency said it was the least busy morgue and it would be easier than going to any of the other New York City morgues where the death rates were at least 10 times higher. This estimate was during the non-pandemic time. If she had a choice to switch her rotation schedule now, she would jump on it in a heartbeat, but the schedule was done in June of 2019 for the entire year. No one in her class would switch their autopsy rotation with her during the pandemic. Who would have guessed last year that in April 2020 there would be a surge in death rates due to a pandemic in the US?
The boat ride was only three miles, crossing under the Pelham Bay Park Bridge and the City Island Bridge, but it felt an eternity. The boat she took had only five other people, and the captain. They all appeared to be physically fit, rough looking men. She felt out of place. The boat was open without any roof to avoid dreadful rain, so she stood the entire time holding on to her parka hood over her head. Her hands were getting so numb with cold even though she had gloves on. It was dreadful to even think to sit on the cold and wet iron seats in the boat. She had no idea who these men were in the boat with her. They were watching her uncomfortably, likely wondering why an attractive young female was going to Potter’s field, a burial site. That was the same question Samantha had in her mind as she rode in a run-down old peeling-green colored boat with rough looking guys who are probably going there to dig burial sites. Why did she have to go there when she signed up to attend the Long Island Hospital coroner’s office? What would she learn about autopsy there? Would she have a decent and safe place to stay? Where would she stay; in a decrepit old prison? Would she be able to meet her attending doctor from Long Island Hospital? Who in their right mind would ask a pathology resident to join them at Hart Island for training? In fact, no one should do autopsies on the dead due to COVID-19. Why a week there? Why did they summon her a day earlier? No one in her residency could help prepare her or answer her questions because no one had ever gone to Hart Island for an autopsy rotation. The assignment was given to her a day before by her hospital in the Bronx, New York, her home hospital. Let’s just hope that it will be just one week, she thought.
The fog grew more dense as they approached Hart Island. The men around her became more and more apprehensive as they were approaching the port, but they seemed to know what to do. The ropes were pulled to tie the boat. They were moving rapidly as the captain carefully parked the boat. Samantha felt her chest getting tense as one of the men extended his hairy hand to her so she could jump onto land. She took it. The boat was bobbing as she took a faithful jump at least three feet away to land. She grunted as she safely landed on the grass. Thank God she only had a lightweight duffle bag. A disappointment settled in as no one was around the port to greet her. It appeared to be an empty grass field for miles with eerie sound of wind blowing. Most of the shoreline was black rocky cliffs. No one else was there and no other boats were parked around the island. It was not a tourist destination by any means. She could make out some faint building structures in the midst of the fog. Everything looked dark and gloomy.
Sad feelings arose from the entire island, as if all those buried bodies were crying. It was matching the history of Hart Island, 45 acres, a mile-long island which took bodies of people with no known next of kin since 1869. Back in that time, the people with tuberculosis were forced to live there as infection spread in New York City. The tuberculosis cases were rampant and afflicted one in seven Americans. The New York City government bought the island and built a few rehabilitation places for the people who were exiled from the city due to their diseases. This remote island was a perfect place to separate the diseased people for quarantine. No family or friends were allowed to visit. They faced lonely deaths and were buried there without funeral services. In fact, no one knew when they were dead. The diseased bodies from tuberculosis were buried on the northern tip of the island. In 1985, the AIDS epidemic drove the funeral homes to close their doors to those who died of the disease. The island buried the bodies stricken with AIDS, and most likely became the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS. They were buried in the middle section of the island. Now, the island was being used to bury the COVID-19 infected corpses. The cemetery was now controlled by the Department of Corrections. The city began to hire contract workers, who along with the inmates buried the dead as more bodies piled in from the city in refrigerated trucks. The workers dug several large linear holes, 12 feet deep, for the COVID-19 inflicted dead bodies on the southern part of the island. The whole island had been used as a common public burial ground for more than 150 years, containing more than one million unclaimed bodies.
Samantha was walking toward the faintly visible building structures without knowing exactly where she was going. Men from the boat were also walking toward the buildings. No one talked. No one asked her where she was going. The wind swept and the cold rain blew in all directions as she tried to catch up with the men. There was no point opening up the umbrella as the cold rain was painfully hitting her face, fogging up her glasses. There appeared nothing to ensure hot meals as she was approaching the crumbling buildings. She regretted not packing at least a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. In front of the building site, a signpost stood with the inscription: POTTER’S FIELD. RESTRICTED AREA. At this point, she could not tell whether she was entering into the prison or a cremation memorial service center. She was merely following men. She did not know the exact purpose of their trip to Hart Island, but surely, it was for a different purpose from hers. They all entered into the white painted door with another sign, RISTRICTED AREA. In front was a desk attended by a uniformed male guard or policeman; Samantha could not decipher.
“Can I help you?” asked the guard. “We are from Gabby construction in the Bronx. I am John, he is Brad, that guy over there is Scott and that punk on this side is Ted.” All eyes went to the punk and some chuckled. “Ok. We were expecting you. You can go next door here and get yourself a hazmat suit. Change your clothes and you will be given a locker to put your belongings. Then someone there will tell you where to go.” Then the guard looked at Samantha momentarily hidden by bulky men. “What about you? What are you doing here?” the guard said. “Uhm, I am, I am here to, to meet Dr. Falkner?” Samantha said timidly. All the guys were still there, hanging around to see Samantha as they were curious to see what this girl was all about. “Oh, yeah, I heard about you. He is not here yet. You can sit there and wait for him.” The guard was pointing his finger at the chair at the end of his desk. Samantha moved toward the chair to sit, when Ted, the punk said, “Who is Dr. Fucker? What is she up to? Is she digging the graves with us?” “Hey guys, move and mind your own business,” the guard said, pointing to the next door where they should be going. Reluctantly, the guys started to move and opening the door, looking back at Samantha, obviously not satisfied to know why she was there. The door finally closed, and all the men went somewhere else where Samantha could not follow any longer.
The room became uncomfortably quiet. The guard was staring at the computer monitor and avoided eye contact with Samantha. She wanted to ask a million questions but decided to be quiet for a while. A clock on the wall sounded louder as the room became eerily quiet. She looked at the guard hoping to find a friendly gesture or eye contact at least, but to no avail. He was just looking at his computer. “Do you know when Dr. Falkner is coming to meet me here?” she mustered some courage and asked. “He should be here soon. I thought he is coming with you. Next boat is due in about an hour or so.” “Do you know what I am supposed to do here?” “You tell me. Your guess is good as mine.”
Samantha was hoping he would divulge more information, but it was hard to get anything out of him. She wanted to know so many things; did he ever meet Dr. Falkner? What is he like? Does he come here often? Did any pathology resident come here last month with Dr. Falkner? Where is she going to stay for a week? Is she able to commute back and forth from her apartment in the Bronx? Are there boats coming and going and if so, how frequently? When is her next meal? Was she supposed to dig burial sites as those construction guys? Are they staying on this island for a while or are they commuting back and forth? She regretted not asking all these inquiries before she came here. The instruction she received a day before just said that she was to report at the Bronx port to catch a boat at 10: 00 am and meet Dr. Falkner, a medical examiner on Hart Island. Room and Board were to be provided for a week. She realized there was no ticket to board the boat. She did not see those construction guys paying for the ticket either. She sat there twiddling her thumbs and regretting not bringing a book or journal article to read. The rain was hitting the window next to her very hard now. She was glad that she was not riding in the boat now. She could not see anything through the window. It should face toward the water and she could not make out anything. It would be the longest hour she would ever experience in waiting.
Chapter 2: Dr. Falkner
Samantha took her cell phone out from her purse and looked at it. It had no cell coverage, and no Wi-Fi. She immediately looked at the guard to ask if there was a Wi-Fi connection, but she refrained. She was not sure why she was refraining to ask the question. She got up from the chair and walked around the office to gather any information she could muster. But there were no signs, posted notes, advertisements of any sort, pictures of anyone, nor even graffiti on the walls. Just old peeling yellowish-white walls. As she was walking around, the guard looked at her briefly but did not say anything.
“How long have you been working here?” Samantha tried to make small talk.
“Are you staying here for a week?” the guard asked her without answering her question.
“Yes, do you know where I am supposed to stay?” she asked firmly.
“Not sure, but probably the prison. That’s the only building with any accommodation and food around here. It’s probably the safest place…unless you want to be with the dead bodies.”
What a pleasant thought—to be with the dead bodies. But come to think of it, the dead cannot hurt her. It is the living who can hurt her. It was also dreadful to think she might have to stay in a prison cell for a week with all the male criminals. She was now imagining the worst; iron bars, being locked inside a cell with only a toilet and a lousy bed with a thin wool brown blanket. All the inmates howling and making sounds to haunt her with their insatiable desires to have long overdue sex with a woman. Indeed, she was doomed. She thought about her parents. If they knew where she was now, they would say, “Forget about the residency and get out of there!” She was the only child from a long journey of infertility problems. They had her when her mother was 42, after many episodes of miscarriages, artificial inseminations, numerous attempts for ova preservations, and even embryo adoption surrogacy. Luckily and finally, Samantha was born on their final try. They were going through the adoption application process when her mother found out she was pregnant with triplets. The other two embryos didn’t make it past the first trimester.
Samantha was deep in her thoughts, contemplating to quit the residency, when the door opened and a tall man walked in, folding a black umbrella. He was drenched with rain, and water was dripping from his long, tan, London Fog raincoat. “It’s horrible out there!” the man said.
“Hello, there, Dr. Falkner,” the guard said.
“Is this the resident from the Bronx?” Dr. Falkner asked, looking at Samantha.
“I am Samantha Parker, the resident.” She extended her right hand to greet Dr. Falkner, still disappointed to be referred to as the resident.
“We don’t shake hands during the pandemic,” he said to her rather coldly. “Did you tell her where she is to reside?” Dr. Falkner asked the guard.
“I don’t know, Doc. You tell me. Is she staying at the prison?” the guard said.
“Well, it is a bit complicated. I thought the resident is a guy. We have a problem now.”
They were talking as if Samantha was not there. She went back to thinking how this whole thing was a big mistake. What could she do to get out of this quickly and get back to her apartment? They were speaking to each other in indistinct voices, and Samantha looked around to the window to avoid their eye contact.
“Well, it is what it is,” Dr. Falkner said, “Follow me, I will show you where you are settling in for a while. Your assignment is to help me in the morgue for a week.”
Samantha quickly put away her cell phone in her purse, picked up her duffle bag and umbrella, and followed Dr. Falkner.
The cold rain was now pouring, adding to her misery. She did not have enough time to cover her head with her hood or open her umbrella. Asphalt quickly dissipated, followed by a gravel road, and then mud as they walked. Samantha had to almost jog to keep up with the tall man as his long legs moved with ease at mere walking speed, his black umbrella bouncing by the wind. As she was walking, she saw a searing and grim scene. At least two large trenches had been dug. Inside were cheap coffins stacked at least three piles deep, and two coffins in length per trench. One trench was completely dug, and the other trench was half completed. A third of the completely dug trench had cheap coffins. Black, wet soil was running down into the trench, covering part of the tops of the coffins. Mud around the perimeter was at least knee high. About ten feet away were several run-down brick buildings, all painted in a faint reddish-orange color without many windows. She followed Dr. Falkner as he entered one of the unmarked buildings.
“This is where you are going to stay for a week. Over here is the morgue where you and I will work during the day, and over there is lodging for you. There is a shower, and a studio with a bed and a small kitchen. You will find some food in the refrigerator there. The building is connected to the prison,” Dr. Falkner said pointing to the places.
“Where are you staying?”
“I am not staying here. I will be commuting from Long Island. I will be coming with bodies in a boat everyday about this time. The problem is, I was staying here when I could not catch the boat back but since you are a girl, I cannot stay here.”
Samantha now understood why she was problematic for him. “What will we be doing in the morgue?”
“We will be doing a partial autopsy. Other than that, we will count, identify and tag the bodies. We will be documenting the names, the origin of the hospital the bodies came from, and cataloging the specifics of the dead, among other things. Your job is to help me. Like any other day, I came with a lot of bodies from New York City today and we have our work cut out for us. Get yourself together, change and come out. You will need to gear up to protect yourself. I will meet you here in five minutes.”
Samantha quickly went into the studio, which was attached to the morgue merely by one door. It looked rather gloomy with just bare essentials; a twin-size bed, a small desk, a rotary phone, not really a kitchen, but a two-coiled electric stove on a kitchen table, and a small refrigerator with a freezer on top. She did not have the time to open it to see what was inside there. She put her belongings on top of the bed. She saw that she had a lock from inside the door, which made her feel somewhat relieved. She quickly left to gear up.
Dr. Falkner was almost done putting on his space jumpsuit gown, attached by a tube sticking out toward the back, and a N95 mask, bonnet, face shield, shoe covers, and double gloves. He looked like a person who was about to walk on the moon.
“Hurry, get on with it now! The bodies are coming in,” he urged, looking at an unprepared Samantha.
She was frantically trying to figure out what to wear first. She had some experience putting on a surgical gown when she was a medical student in her surgery rotation, but not to the extent of what Dr. Falkner was wearing with all the additional personal protective equipment (PPE). She never had an opportunity to wear a space jumpsuit gown with a tube coming out of the back. During her training, she did many of the monkey see and monkey do procedures. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really time to explain things and give proper instructions in medical training. She was quickly observing how Dr. Falkner was geared up and tried to replicate it as quickly as possible.
“Does this morgue place have negative pressure?” Samantha asked hesitantly, and then immediately regretted asking the question since the building looked so old, and rather obvious it did not have a negative pressure facility.
“No, can’t you see it was built in the 1920s, maybe in the 1890s, who knows?” he shouted out to her, rather irritated at the question.
Luckily, the extent of anger from Dr. Falkner was somewhat muffled and barely audible due to the mask and face shield. In fact, his body language such as eye signals, creases of the eyebrows and smiles were not possible to see through the protective gear. Samantha was already sweating, and her glasses fogged up every time she took a breath.
She was barely putting on her gloves when suddenly a garage-like door opened from the opposite side of the morgue with a loud creaking sound, jolting her. She had no idea that there was another door to the morgue. Two men in black hazmat suits and facial masks came in with a dead body on a gurney. The body was wrapped in a white plastic bag tied with ropes around the neck, mid-body and the feet in order to carry it.
“Put it on the table here! And put the rest of them in the drawers as usual,” Dr. Falkner ordered them.
He was pointing to a typical morgue table made of stainless steel with a running water faucet at one end. Adjacent to the table were the usual tools for autopsy; several scalpels, a ruler, different types of scissors, formalin glass, plastic jar containers, forceps, a large stainless-steel bucket to weigh the organs, a scale, and an electric saw to open the skull. She also noted several aseptically prepared plastic bags containing long automatic, spring-loaded needles. They consisted of an inner needle connected to a trough, or shallow receptacle, covered by a sheath and attached to a spring-loaded mechanism normally used by interventional radiologists.
The two men grunted as they put the body on the morgue table. The body appeared heavy not just due to dead weight, but obesity. The plastic bag was stretched fully, barely covering the body with the zipper almost torn away. Dr. Falkner waited and looked to make sure Samantha was fully covered and protected with her gear.
“Are you ready?” he asked, “Open it!”
CHAPTER 3: “I need a guy resident!”
Samantha hesitated. She looked at Dr. Falkner to see if he was joking. He was not. She knew part of the job in her pathology residency training was to perform the autopsy. But this was not just an autopsy—it was a COVID-19 case. In fact, all of the bodies the men were bringing in and stacking up were all COVID-19 cases. Soon the room would be full of COVID-19 dead bodies. She couldn’t imagine that she would be opening all the bodies from the plastic bags and doing the things Dr. Falkner expected her to do. What did he say? Counting, identifying, tagging, documenting the names and the origin of the hospital and cataloging the specifics of the dead? Samantha was gifted in remembering and memorizing things, but she was not sure whether those were the only things Dr. Falkner said.
As she was trying to untie the ropes around the head of the dead body, the two men came back again with another body on a gurney behind Dr. Falkner. They were doing their own work without paying too much attention to the two doctors all suited up as if they were used to their routine jobs. They did not look like the construction workers Samantha traveled with on the boat, although it was very difficult to tell who was who, with masks covering most of their faces. The ropes and the plastic bag were soaking wet from the rain and it was difficult for her to untie the rope.
As she finally pulled the rope around the neck toward her, the head moved in her direction. She wanted to scream.
She had heard the horror stories from her friends who had done autopsy rotations before her, so she was somewhat prepared to face this. However, when she actually touched the dead body through the plastic bag, she was very tense, scared to death and horrified.
Dr. Falkner looked at Samantha and was disgusted. He took over and untied the ropes himself. Then he unzipped the plastic bag. The head of the dead was revealed. It was a morbidly obese Caucasian male. Big fat face, gray, thin unwashed curly hair all tangled up, eyes closed, mouth biting the cut-out ventilator tube and the thick, hardly recognizable neck due to fatty tissue all around.
As Dr. Falkner unzipped the bag all the way to the toes, Samantha recognized there were pink fluids under the shoulder and the side of the body where she was standing. The body was clothed in a hospital gown with spotty wet areas. She could not tell whether it was water from the rain or body fluid. A cut urinary catheter was attached to his penis. The right toe had a toe tag with his name, birth date and a medical record number.
“Now I want you to take the plastic bag out, but very carefully. Make sure the fluid does not get on you,” Dr. Falkner said to her. “On my count of three, you’ll need to pull the bag away. Got it?”
As soon as he said that, he was already moving the dead body toward him by grabbing the arm of the dead from Samantha’s side with the intravenous (IV) needle still stuck in the arm with blue tape, rotating and lifting the body as if he was hugging the body. Rigor mortis had already set in the body, and it was turning toward Dr. Falkner as he moved it. Samantha grabbed hold of the plastic bag and pulled it toward her, hoping not to spill the pink fluid collection on her jumpsuit.
Dr. Falkner grunted, “Now pull…pull!” but Samantha could not get a firm grip on the other side of the plastic zipper to pull the bag out.
“Oh, shit! I need a guy resident!” he was frustrated, putting the body back into the supine position. He stood there for a minute, then asked one of the men who was transporting the bodies to help. Samantha moved to one side, letting the other guy to come over and take her place.
“I am not going to do that Doc!” the man responded. “You guys are all geared up, and I’m just wearing this piece of shit—what do you call this? Hazmat suit? No way, José! You think an inmate like me has no value? I am not dying with the virus!”
Samantha was shocked to hear that those men were inmates. She knew Hart Island had a correctional facility, a prison, but she didn’t make the obvious connection that it was the inmates who were working to move the bodies and digging the mass graves on this island.
“All right, all right!” Dr. Falkner said. “Get back here! We are going to do this slowly. What was your name?”
“Yeah, Samantha, Sam. I am going to call you Sam. You are going to pull the bag out on my count of three. Ready?”
Samantha got closer to the body and this time she was grabbing the bag on two sides, one from the head and the other from the mid-body.
“Okay. One, two, three!”
She pulled the bag out, and the pink fluid spilled all over her arms and on Dr. Falkner’s abdomen and pelvic area.
“Shit!” he said letting the fluid drip all the way down to his foot. “Fucking fat people!” he added. The plastic bag was pulled only partially; a job halfway done.
“One more time, Sam. Ready? One, two, three!” Samantha managed to successfully pull the plastic bag all the way to the groin area, of course spilling some more of the pink fluid on the floor.
“Okay, good, the rest is easy,” he said, while he was putting the body back on the table. He walked around toward the feet of the body and pulled off the plastic bag.
“Don’t worry, the serosanguinous fluid won’t penetrate through your jumpsuit. It is air and liquid tight.”
Oh no, it is serosanguinous fluid, Samantha thought. It was most likely contagious then, as it would be filled with the COVID-19 virus. In fact, it could be in highly concentrated form.
“Wait a minute, Dr. Falkner. I am not ready to do this,” Samantha said.
There was a moment of silence after that. He looked at her intensely through his face shield and waited for her to say something more.
“I am not ready to do this. I know I am supposed to go to a morgue for autopsy rotation for a month but this is not what I expected,” Samantha said mustering up her courage. She was in fact very upset with the current situation. She did not sign up to be a physician, a pathologist when she had to put her life in danger by taking the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
“You think I like this?” Dr. Falkner responded angrily. “Who the hell do you think you are? We are in this shit now, and even I have no choice. We have to bury these bodies as fast as we can before they become more infectious. God knows what would happen if the bodies get blown up with intestinal bacteria and aerosolize all over the world.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued, “You are doing a service to this world, and to New York City. Now, get back to work!” He was shouting by this point, and even startled some inmates.
Samantha wasn’t sure what she did afterward. They were very quietly doing the work. She cut open the hospital gown using scissors, and inscribed the weight, characteristics of the dead body, name, age, gender, and race onto a piece of paper Dr. Falkner provided. It was difficult to find the name of the hospital where the body came from. There was no time to pull the IV line from the dead man’s arm or intubation tube out of his mouth as they struggled to place the body into a coffin. The inmates had brought in a cheap, light colored wood coffin. One of the jobs for Samantha was to write the name of the dead in large letters using a magic marker on all sides and the top of the coffin.
“There are 22 more coming, Doc!” one of the inmates called out.
Chapter 4: The research
It was one of the most exhausting days, Samantha thought. They had not eaten the whole time. It was hard to take a break and eat because the physical protective gear was difficult to get on and off. Also, all their gear must be so expensive to stock since everything is meant for a onetime use and then thrown away. Samantha had to be mindful of every step she took, like touching her face to scratch it. Eating felt foreign to her. The last meal she had was a dinner the night before, and she hardly had an appetite since she was worried about the unknowns in the day ahead of her. If only she had a good meal, she thought. She was almost fainting due to hunger, and her stomach made constant noises. She could also hear Dr. Falkner’s stomach growling across the table. The living have to eat to live, she thought.
They did not talk much throughout the day except for the commands he had to make for her to jot down the results. The inmates took the bodies in the caskets away after she wrote the names of the dead on the coffins. Around 4:00 pm, they both carefully removed their jumpsuits without touching any part of the body, especially their face. Samantha watched how Dr. Falkner undressed first, and then she did the exact same. It was rather hard to get the jumpsuit off of her because she was soaking wet with sweat. The airtight jumpsuit and N95 mask made her body sweat an embarrassing amount. She recognized how heavy everything was when she was finally free of the extra weight from the gear. They put all the used gear in the red biohazard garbage can. He washed his arms first, as there was only one clean sink in the morgue.
“You should have changed into scrubs,” he said, noting that Samantha was still wearing her street clothes. She did not even have time to change into scrubs before they started. Typical male doctors, she thought. They never tell the critical information to others. She didn’t even know where the scrubs were kept. She felt filthy in her own sweat and angry, which made her even more hot.
“You should take a shower first,” he said, probably noticing her sweat.
She did not hesitate. She went into the studio, locked the door behind her, took off her clothes and put them into the garbage basket in the kitchen. She did not want to even keep her clothes. She went into the shower without checking to see if there was even a towel to dry off with or soap available. She just wanted to get all the germs off. To her surprise, there was a big soap bar, shampoo, and several towels. It took a while to get the hot water, but she just stood there happy to be under the water spray, even if it was cold. She felt violated against her wish to be there. She began to cry while the hot water was hitting her face, and soon the crying led to sobbing. She could not control herself. She thought about all those people who died with the disease, and no one claiming the bodies for proper funerals. How futile life was…people were dying left and right regardless of their age, young and old alike, and she lamented for the futility in life and the miserable condition she was facing with such an unfriendly attending doctor.
Self-pity usually leads to a downhill spiral and lands in depression.
She was angry. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to go back to her apartment. She felt trapped. She got out of the shower and couldn’t wait to confront the nasty doctor with all the questions she formulated in the shower. She wrapped herself with a big white towel and began digging through her duffle bag. She had packed lightly for five days; underwear, socks, some thin sweaters and a pair of jeans. She was putting her bra and underwear on when she remembered seeing some scrubs and a large dirty linen hamper in the bathroom. She went back into the bathroom and got the ugly green-colored scrubs. Of course, they were all large size, probably for Dr. Falkner. She wore the scrubs anyway because she did not want to contaminate any more of her own clothes and have to throw them out in the trash. She smelled like a man, thanks to the Irish Spring deodorant soap and cheap men’s dandruff shampoo. Samantha walked out, opening the door with such a force that it made a loud noise. She was ready to confront the doctor.
“I am taking a shower too!” he said, coming in without her permission before she could say anything to him.
She had her bras and underwear all spread out on the bed. She didn’t think that he would come in to take a shower. He didn’t care that she was staring at him, flabbergasted as he went into the bathroom and ran the shower water.
“Open the refrigerator and make some sandwiches! There is a rotisserie chicken and bread!” he shouted.
What a gut he had to command her to cook for him, Samantha thought.
But she was starving, so she did as he commanded. There was even a microwave oven she used to heat the chicken. She normally did not eat like this. Her parents brought her up like a princess, but there was no time to complain about the food. She found some paper dishes and bottled water. Dr. Falkner came out, dressed in new scrubs, and sat on the only chair at the table. Samantha grabbed her sandwich and sat on the bed, moving her duffle bag to the other side of the bed. They ate the dry sandwiches quietly.
“I have some wine; do you want some?” he asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Hey, I am sorry. I think the whole thing sucks too.” There was silence for a while.
He got up and found a wine bottle from the kitchen drawer. He poured red wine into a paper cup and sipped it.
“Hey, I am a bit worried about you staying here at night,” Dr. Falkner began. “The inmates will be locked in after 5:00 pm. The only people who are free to walk around after that are the prison wardens. I do not like the idea that you are here alone. They might have a key to this room. I don’t know.”
Oh great, Samantha thought.
“The last resident was a guy from a Brooklyn hospital, and he stayed for a week and nothing happened. You must input all the data of the dead into my laptop at night. You can even start writing the manuscript. The problem is there is only one boat going back to Long Island around 5:30 pm, and they don’t wait around for me. One time I missed the boat, and I slept here with the resident. Do you live on Long Island?” Dr. Falkner asked.
“No, I live in the Bronx,” Samantha replied.
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Do you want to go back to Long Island and catch the train to the Bronx?”
“Why do I have to stay here? I don’t understand.”
“Well, it is not a regular ferry that comes to this island. I have to arrange every trip here, and there is no boat that could come back and forth from the Bronx unless they pick up the contractor guys to help out with the digging. And that’s not every day.”
Samantha didn’t respond. She again felt trapped. What could she do?
“Where do those contractor guys stay?” she asked.
“Not sure. I think they go back, but much earlier than when we are done,” he said. “Hey, thanks for helping me, but there is one more thing I need to tell you. I need to do a partial autopsy and get some samples from the lungs, heart and other organs. I need a young subject, male and female, an infant, and a skinny person in their 40s. Today, I did not get any ideal subjects. I am doing research on the different types of people who die from COVID-19. You will be helping me to procure these samples. You can be a co-author of the study if you want. I need this to get a promotion this year.”
“Is that what you care about, a promotion?” Samantha was in shock. She noticed Dr. Falkner kept calling her “hey.” He probably forgot her name—co-author’s name.
“Yeah, a promotion. I have just this year to get promoted. I already burned eight years as an assistant professor but did not get enough papers published to get the promotion. Otherwise I will be kicked out from my academic place, and then who knows where I will end up getting a job. I want the Chief Deputy Coroner job in Long Island and need to publish so I can replace that bitch. I bought a house on Long Island and have an 18-month-old son and a wife to support, and I do not want to move to New York City for a new job. Can you imagine being in New York City now? I would kill me doing the medical examiner’s job.”
“I will stay here tonight. Why don’t you go? You will miss the 5:30 boat.” Samantha said, disgusted at him.
The Long Island Medical Examiner’s job would be easier than the New York City Medical Examiner’s job, and she could understand that he has a responsibility to support his family, but to jeopardize his life and hers to publish an academic article for his promotion? And eventually get a position he wants by pushing out some woman? He was rather selective in picking his sample subjects. Is he targeting an epidemiology study by doing that?
What a stupid idea, she thought. She didn’t want to see his sight even though he had beautiful, mesmerizing blue eyes, while he was eating his sandwich like a pig.
“Just give me your laptop and tell me what to do.” Samantha said irritably.
“Okay. I just want you to know there is no cell tower or Wi-Fi unless you go to the prison where the wardens stay. There is only one area you can go in the prison to get a connection, and I do not recommend you venture out there tonight. They have a cafeteria, but it’s a lousy one. If you have a cell phone, forget about calling. There is a phone here—you have to dial 9 first to call out. The prison wardens have to connect your call to the outside, and they might listen to your conversation, so be careful what you say.”
He packed his belongings quickly and instructed her to input all the data into his laptop computer. He already had many columns of data in his excel sheet, dating back from late February 2020. The numbers of the dead were steadily increasing by the day.
“Do you want me to call anyone for you once I get to Long Island? Your parents, a boyfriend?”
“No, they know where I am,” she lied.
“Well, you still have some same food left over, as you saw. There are some instant cup noodles in that kitchen drawer. I will get something else tomorrow. What do you want to eat?” Samantha could not think fast enough. The whole thing was so surreal and hard to digest, let alone decide what to eat the next day.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Okay, I will get something. Oh yeah, clean up here and make sure the garbage bags are all out there near the garage door tomorrow morning, including the scrubs,” he instructed, and left, closing all the doors tightly from the outside.
Chapter 5: Panic
Samantha could not believe he actually just took off. “Bastard!” she said out loud. She looked around and saw that there were still a few bodies left in the morgue they had not finished with. The morgue was not refrigerated, and the bodies would decompose. Samantha went into the studio and locked the door behind her. She sat and stared at the empty paper dishes Dr. Falkner left on the table. She was not sure how she could fall asleep here, all alone in such a strange place. This was a nightmare! Who could imagine what she was going through?
She moved the kitchen table and the chair against the doorknob to block the entry way from outside. She couldn’t get over how insensitive Dr. Falkner was being, not knowing if the prison wardens had a key to the studio. This must have been his temporary place until he finished his autopsy research project. She figured all the items in here must be his own stuff that he brought in. Samantha untied and flipped over her large scrub pants to see the inscription, LONG ISLAND CORONER.
Of course, it is his!
She was eating his food, wearing his scrubs, using his towels and soaps. It creeped her out to be borrowing his stuff. This was classic. Medical professionals never tell residents the details they need to hear, even what to bring for survival. Wouldn’t it be helpful to tell residents what to expect, what we need, where it is, and what the accommodations would be?
She thought about the guard who she met earlier that day. He must have been a prison warden. He saw her and asked her where she was going to stay. He could probably find out where she is now. She wondered how many prisoners and wardens were on this island.
Samantha got up quickly and moved the kitchen table and chair away from the door. She had to secure the garage door and the entry door from inside of the morgue better. She went out of the studio and picked up some ropes to tie the garage door. There was a loop in the middle of the garage door, but the rope was not long, unable to attach to the side of the door where a piece of iron was sticking out. She connected a few ropes and tied them together to make one long rope. She secured the rope, securing the garage door to prevent it from being opened from the outside. She then moved the morgue table to the other door she and Dr. Falkner had entered through and pushed it against the doorknob.
It did not look too secure. Someone could easily push the door open from the outside. There wasn’t any way to lock it from the inside, so she opened the door again to see if there was a key lock from the outside. There wasn’t one, so she rearranged the morgue table again. Samantha looked around to see what else she could use to help secure the door shut.
There was not much except for the dead bodies, and there was no way she was going to move the bodies.
She could not believe she was actually amongst the dead. In fact, there were more dead bodies than alive ones on the island. She reminded herself that the dead could not hurt her, except what if the virus was seeping out of the bags and being emitted into the air?
She ran into the studio, locked the door, and pushed the chair and table against the door again. She was breathing hard. The green scrub pants were covering her sneakers and dragging along on the floor, so she changed her scrub pants again, and folded up the bottom to fit her leg length.
She sat on the bed and took out her cell phone, only to notice she had no cell coverage or Wi-Fi connection. She wanted to call Ed Liu, her boyfriend. He should arrive to the CDC in Atlanta by now. He was going there to join the folks in the infectious division to travel to Wuhan, China, to investigate the origin of the virus.
Samantha and Ed met in college at Cornell and maintained a relationship, even though they were diverging in their career paths. She went to medical school, and he joined the Army ROTC as they paid for his college tuition, then attended a PhD program in DC to be a scientist in bioweapons.
I will worry him sick tonight, she thought. They contacted each other regularly, especially when she was changing rotations.
Samantha scrolled through the contact list on her cell phone. She thought about using the rotary phone to contact her parents. They were traveling and having the time of their lives on a cruise celebrating their 50th anniversary.
They left a month ago for the Mediterranean, and the entire trip was about two months. Samantha had been anxious about their trip from the beginning, but her parents were adamant that they would be fine. When they left on the cruise in late February, the virus was not defined as a pandemic yet. It was on March 11th, 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The cell coverage for them was spotty, and her parents usually called her when they landed somewhere while touring. Besides, she could not tell them where she is now as they would worry sick. It would be even harder for them to understand why she was here at Hart Island. They were not happy that she became a doctor, anyway.
Samantha wanted to talk to Dr. Wells, her resident director, to update him about what was going on, but there was no way to contact him as she did not have his direct phone number. This experience here on Hart Island was so upsetting. It was absolutely inappropriate to put any resident here, exposing them to the deadly virus for the sake of a stupid doctor, or whoever it is for a stupid research project. Samantha planned to report this abuse to her residency director the next day and go back to the Bronx by catching the boat with the contractor guys. She was fuming in anger the more she thought about her conditions. She was ready to attack Dr. Falkner and even take his medical license away for abusing the trainee. She would also contact the resident union representative in New York City to report this doctor.
After contemplating many tactics of revenge against Dr. Falkner, she looked at his laptop and input the data she wrote on the paper that day. She had nothing else to do that night. She looked into other files on the laptop and saw that he had begun the manuscript; explaining the methodology, an introduction regarding the COVID-19 infection, and his findings of how people died with it. She had to admit; it was a very interesting article that he was writing. It was methodical, and well written.
She couldn’t believe how he could write so well with full details but cannot communicate with her the same way.
In a separate file, he had his family photos. She saw what appeared to be his house, his wife and his son. His wife was beautiful, blonde, just like him. Samantha felt like she was intruding into his personal life, but the more she looked at the personal photos, the more interested she became about Dr. Falkner. Her anger subsided, and the desires to get him into trouble were dissolving.
She got hungry as the night deepened. A small window next to the kitchen was still dripping with the rain. She found the cup of instant noodles Dr. Falkner told her about and ate it. It was getting cold, so it was nice to eat something hot. Samantha wore her parka hood and wrapped her body inside the bed. She wondered if the sheets and blanket were clean and if Dr. Falkner or the previous resident had slept there, but she was too tired to change the sheets and she didn’t even know if there was a clean sheet for her to use.
She still smelled the Irish men’s soap but could not tell if it was coming from her or from his blanket.
Samantha fell asleep in an infant position with her parka overcoat and blanket warming her head and body. She dreamed about the heavy, dead body falling onto her in the middle of the night.
It startled her awake, so she got up and sat on the bed. The bedside light next to her was still on, illuminating the studio, so she turned it off. She looked at the window for a while, making sure no one was coming, then she went back to sleep.
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Chapter 6: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Ed Liu was constantly calling Samantha, but his cell phone calls did not go through. It just said, NOT AVAILABLE. He left multiple voice messages. Texts did not go through either and kept saying, DELIVERY FAILED.
Where the hell is she, he thought. He knew she was rather apprehensive about the new autopsy rotation and mentioned something about Hart Island. He did not even know where that was. He thought it was some autopsy place in the Bronx near her apartment. It had been a long time since he last saw her because he hardly had time and they lived far apart.
He lived in Washington DC, had finished his PhD in infectious diseases in the pandemic division and worked at Abby Laboratory as a scientist focusing on virology. The last time they saw each other was right before Christmas time when he stopped in New York for a few hours before he took off to Ohio to visit his parents. The CDC sent him to Atlanta multiple times during his internship year, and to South Africa once last year to visit their lab for a collaborative research project on the Ebola virus.
This time, he was back at the CDC where several people with expertise in virology gathered to visit Wuhan, China to determine the origin of the coronavirus. He could not believe they had chosen him to represent the US group. His boss, Dr. Allen, trusted Ed more than himself to represent Abby and to understand the virology, and often said Ed “is the guru of viruses.” Ed had extensive expertise in viruses and was widely recognized for his intelligence. Dr. Allen trusted Ed exclusively, and made him the Associate Research Director only after a few years. Dr. Allen was the company CEO who dealt with the financial and overall control of Abby Laboratory and did not have the technical and scientific knowledge as Ed.
There would be ten people going to China. The World Health Organization (WHO) went to Wuhan, China in early January 2020, but they had failed to return fully informed about the magnitude of the contagious nature of the virus.
In fact, it was reported as an epidemic only in the region of Wuhan and was not expected to spread like SARS in 2002, which spread worldwide within a few months and then was quickly contained. Now, the CDC did not trust WHO reports for obvious reasons. COVID-19 was thought to have arisen from a seafood market, perhaps in smuggled pangolins used for both food and medicine.
Another possibility was bats, because these two animals have similar genetic codes as what we find in the coronavirus. Exactly how the virus jumped from a wild animal to other animals or humans remains a mystery. It amazed the CDC group China already had the full genetic code for COVID-19. Their speed in research was impressive. However, there was a rumor now that the virus may not have originated from the seafood market.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab is located just three miles away from the seafood market. A scientist from the WIV said that COVID-19 was most likely spread from a bat since its genetic makeup is 96% identical to the sequence of COVID-19.
There was speculation that patient zero in Wuhan did not contract the virus from the seafood market, but from within the lab led by a local scientist who also worked on bats at the Wuhan Municipal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Chinese government withdrew this from newspapers as speculation and stated that there was no evidence the virus came from laboratories in Wuhan. They emphatically denied any link to the institute and proclaimed that they have a strict regulatory regime and code of conduct for research.
The WHO also supported the Chinese government, stating that COVID-19 did not come from the laboratories in Wuhan. They added that the only reason the Wuhan lab knew so much about the coronavirus was because of Dr. Shei, the Director of the Institute, had studied the topic for most of her life since SARS in 2003.
Ed did not think he was qualified to be there. They chose him to visit Wuhan, China, along with other gifted scientists from all over the US to determine several things; the origin of the virus, its evolution in nature and spillover to humans, and whether it was an accidental or deliberate release from a lab, or a genetic manipulation of a pathogen as a bioweapon. He was excited for the opportunity even though only reason they chose him was because he is Chinese, but he hardly spoke the language. At least he could speak some and communicate the basics.
He was born in Ohio to Chinese parents who immigrated there as scientists. They were both PhDs at Ohio State University and worked in the research laboratories in the medical field. It disappointed them that Ed did not go into medicine, but his younger brothers saved him by becoming medical doctors.
The middle brother was already practicing, and his youngest brother was in residency. His parents always said that Ed was the smartest, tallest, and most handsome of all his siblings. Ed was fit, especially after his ROTC military training, and he maintained his muscular and fit body and postures. Ed was not satisfied with simply learning medical knowledge, but he had to dig deeply with one focus—he preferred to understand viruses that can cause pandemics, devastating the entire globe much more than any human diseases. To develop a vaccine against a specific virus could be more powerful and heroic than what any medical doctor could achieve, in his opinion. Ed was proud of his accomplishments and confident in his own ability to save the world when the time came to show his heroism. His parents had an innate bias that Ed should be a medical doctor or lawyer, but Ed knew a PhD can discover cures for diseases more than medical doctors. Ed did not want to argue against his parents for he was an obedient and honorable son who would never lecture his parents.
They were not too happy about Ed seeing Samantha for many years. They wanted their firstborn male child to carry out their names and maintain their Chinese heritage by marrying a Chinese girl. Also, they were devout Buddhists and Samantha and her family were Christians.
Ed was a source of disappointment from his parent’s perspectives. His parents expected too much of Ed, maybe because he was a first-born son. No woman was good enough for Ed because he was “so smart, tall, physically fit, stunningly handsome, kind and gentle” as his parents always put it. Deep down, Ed was confident his parents accepted him. Perhaps his parents worried most about his future income as a scientist, just like themselves, who were less than medical doctors.
Ed thought going back to Wuhan, China as a virologist expert would make them even more proud. They indeed were immensely proud and joked with him over the phone about getting a cute, young Chinese wife while he was visiting China.
They expected the trip to be at least one week, depending on the progress of their findings. They were all staying at the same hotel near the Wuhan lab. Wuhan still had a strict lockdown and curfew orders from the government in place. So, unfortunately, a tour was not on their agenda. Also, the Chinese government was reluctant of their visit to the WIV, and Ed was not sure how they would treat a bunch of US scientists. After all, the WHO scientists came, checked and approved of all the findings from the WIV.
They were all expected to fly to China late tomorrow evening, and it frustrated Ed that Samantha was unreachable. He did not have much more time to call her since there were a lot of meetings scheduled before their departure.
Chapter 7: Baduk (GO)
Mrs. Emily Lee Parker was excited to see her neighbor Mrs. Kong finally come back from Wuhan, China on January 6, 2020. Mrs. Kong was there for almost two months. She left right before the Thanksgiving holiday to visit her sister’s family. Mrs. Kong lived alone in San Francisco after her husband passed away about two years ago.
She was becoming more and more lonely living in a big mansion all alone, so the trips to China became frequent and routine. She was even contemplating a permanent move to Wuhan, China, where her sister and sister’s family lived.
What am I going to do in a seven-bedroom house by myself? The kids are all grown up and have their own families to look after all over the States, and they’re not even visiting me in San Francisco, she thought.
The only friend she had was Emily, who lived next door to her, Pand they played the game Baduk regularly; on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Mrs. Kong, like Emily, was a woman of means and lived in a quiet residential area in Potrero Hill.
The Potrero Hill neighborhood house, affectionately known as the NABE, sits at the top of De Haro Street at Southern Heights Avenue, and has an incredible view of San Francisco, both the Bay and East Bay. It is also next to the Mission District in downtown, where there are ample restaurants and shopping, providing convenience to those living in a busy city.
When Mrs. Kong goes to China, Emily takes care of looking after her house. She opens the house for the cleaning lady, Bita, who was from Iran. When Mrs. Kong was in China, Bita came to clean the house only once every other week. Bita took a bus or train to get there and needed the money to live. Neither Mrs. Kong nor Emily knew exactly which neighborhood in San Francisco Bita was commuting from. Bita was a sole breadwinner of the house, and her parents, two small children, and husband all lived in a small apartment crammed up like sardines. Bita often talked about her living situation with Emily and wanted to clean Emily’s house when Mrs. Kong was out of town. But Emily already had a cleaning lady from her church, a Korean woman who also cooked Korean meals. Bita could not help Emily since she is Persian, not Korean, and Emily politely declined the offer but felt guilty.
Like Mrs. Kong, Emily married a wealthy Caucasian husband. Even though Emily was living and loving the American life, she missed Korean home cooked food terribly, and had to eat rice and a Korean dish for at least one meal a day. Luckily, her husband also acquired a love for Korean food after living with her during 50 years of marriage and did not argue too much about the kitchen table every day. He quietly wished, however, not to smell kimchee in his milk and cheese in the refrigerator.
Emily kept her life fairly busy after her retirement as a research coordinator under her husband’s laboratory, where she met Samantha’s father, Dr. Robert Parker. He was a renowned obstetrics and gynecology doctor at the San Francisco Medical School, and now he was an emeritus professor, enjoying his fully retired life playing golf. They had ups and downs in their marriage just like any other couple, but the most difficult problem they had to go though was infertility.
Luckily, much of the financial and medical access burdens was somewhat eased because of the position Robert had in medicine. They had only one child in their 40s, Samantha, whom they raised like a princess. They thought about adopting another child, but the application never went through, and they did not see the need as Samantha kept them very busy along with their professional careers.
Emily was enjoying her retired life with Robert playing golf and traveling around the world. She also attended the California Culinary Academy, which was located a few blocks away at 350 Rhode Island Street. She really enjoyed international cooking classes. The facilities included professional kitchens, student-staffed restaurants, lecture classrooms, a library, and a culinary laboratory. Emily’s hope was to learn more about Korean cooking, but the curriculum of the school had not reached Korean food yet.
Another activity Emily enjoyed was playing Baduk with Mrs. Kong. They usually met in Mrs. Kong’s house because sometimes they got noisy playing the game, especially at the end, and they talked endlessly over tea and cookies. Emily did not want to bother Robert, who read his books quietly.
Baduk (Go) is an abstract strategy board game for two players. It has two different colored stones; one set white and the other black, and an empty board which is a 19 x 19 grid. Players take turns placing one stone at a time, and the aim is to surround more territory than the opponent. The person with the black stones plays first, and Emily and Mrs. Kong often fought to have the black stones. Although China invented the game 2,500 years ago, it was Emily who taught Mrs. Kong how to play, and since then they were both hooked. They played the game for hours. Sometimes, Emily experimented in cooking international food she learned from the culinary school with Mrs. Kong, but Emily truthfully did not really have much talent in cooking. Mrs. Kong usually ended up cooking delicious Chinese food, but she let Emily try out a few dishes to spend more time with her.
Emily was picking Mrs. Kong up from the San Francisco airport that afternoon, as she had done for years now. Her drives to the airport had become more routine. It had been two months since she saw Mrs. Kong, and she missed her and was looking forward to having her friend back to play Baduk. Emily would also demonstrate her ability to make crème brûlée, a dessert dish she recently learned.
“Ne hou, Emily! Long time, no see, xie xie,” Mrs. Kong exclaimed as she came out from the narrow terminal to where the luggage was being picked up. Mrs. Kong spoke increasingly more Chinese mixed with English when she came back from China. Emily also spoke “Konglish,” a mixture of Korean and English to her many times. Between the three languages they often mixed, they understood each other fairly well and had no problems communicating.
“I worry, you come from Wuhan. You okay? Many sick from Wuhan,” Emily said. She could speak perfect English, but for some reason, when she was with Mrs. Kong, she did not want to speak English perfectly.
“Okay, okay, no sick.”
“Your family okay? Your sister?”
“Shi, shi.” Emily gathered that meant yes in Mandarin.
“Miss you. Your house ok. Bita came yesterday—clean your house,” Emily said.
“Xie xie, let’s play Baduk. No people, family play Baduk. I miss playing.”
They drove back to the NABE. Emily noticed Mrs. Kong was sniffing and coughing a little. Emily gave her the Kleenex tissues from behind the seat while she was driving. It was a very long reach to get the Kleenex tissue box. It is rather common to have sniffing after a long flight, Emily thought.
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Chapter 8: Bita
January 20, 2020
Bita went to back to her bed in the morning. Her body was aching, and she had an irritable, dry cough that would not stop. She was chilled to her bone, and she kept adding more blankets over her. She had no appetite ever since she lost her sense of taste and smell for a few days ago. She had to go to work every day to clean different houses, but she knew she couldn’t that day.
Most of her clients lived in San Francisco or Palo Alto areas. She enjoyed being in their mansion houses or penthouse condos, wondering what it would be like to live like that. She imagined one day she and her family will live like that—rich and famous, the American dreams. Maybe her grandkids would grow up in this country and let her live in a luxurious house like that someday. As she sat and watched the Bay views during a short lunch break in the middle of cleaning, she imagined herself living in luxury and chuckled. But she took pride in doing a good job cleaning, as if all these places are hers.
All her business was referrals from rich doctors. Her first cleaning job was from a rich doctor in the Palo Alto area, referred by her friend who could not add any other houses to her full list. After about two years, she was introduced to other wealthy people connected to the Palo Alto doctor, and she now had a good solid clientele for herself. Her schedule was full for every weekday and even every Saturday.
She did not have a car to drive. If she was going to San Francisco to clean a house, she had to take the Caltrain and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) for an hour and a half each way. Palo Alto was a much shorter trip. Because of the long train rides, she could only clean one house per day. On Sundays, she took her family to the nearby park and sometimes, actually rarely, they went to the Islam mosque during Ramadan.
She called the doctor’s wife who lived in Palo Alto that morning and told her she was too sick to clean her house that day. She realized she had never called in sick and missed her work before. She needed the money.
Last November, she got a flu shot from the nearby drugstore, but she didn’t because it cost $20 per person. She had her two grandkids and elderly parents get flu shots, but her husband, Payman, and Bita decided to tough it out and save the $40 to buy more food they needed. She now regretted that decision. She thought maybe it was just the flu, and she would get better tomorrow or the next day if she just rested and slept.
They lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. The grandkids and her parents slept in the living room, and she and her husband in the bedroom. The bathroom was almost always occupied by someone throughout the day, and especially in the morning. They all took turns going into the bathroom, and often interrupted by someone who had an emergency, which was guaranteed to be followed by a fight.
About three months ago, Payman lost his job at the San Jose Airport. They lived close to the airport, and Payman used to work in airport security for a while, but they fired him. He had a fight with his senior colleague who joked to him, “you look like a terrorist and shouldn’t work in airport security,” because he had a long, bushy beard.
His nationality as a Persian with dark-colored skin did not help him. Ignorant Americans call all Arabic-speaking people middle eastern regardless of the nationality, and to some people of these nationalities all looked like terrorists. Payman didn’t even speak the Arab language. He spoke Farsi, but some Americans did not care to know the difference.
Bita was told by her husband he was sorry about the whole thing, and he regrets punching his senior colleague in his face, which cost him his job. But she knew that he was secretly proud of himself. Bita was concerned about his bad temper and drinking habits, which became more frequent these days. He could not find a decent job, especially one with medical insurance benefits for his family like the previous job he had.
Their grandkids were growing up; the six-year-old boy needed to go to public grade school soon, and the four-year-old boy should be in kindergarten, but they couldn’t afford the school fees. They weren’t able to afford kindergarten for the first boy either, even when Payman was working at the airport. He could not keep his job for over one or two years at a time. He worked many odd jobs; picking almonds in the orchards, seasonal grape picking for a winery, keeping beehives, janitor jobs at schools and offices, and sometimes helping Bita clean houses. He always had many excuses to quit or get fired from his jobs. It seemed to him people did not like his looks, and he had no luck.
Bita’s clients also did not like to have Payman in their homes, even though the cleaning time was much faster when he was there to help her. Her clients told her they just wanted Bita to clean the house alone, and not to have a man with a beard touching their property.
As his self-pity deepened, Payman was drinking more heavily, and behaving poorly by verbally abusing her, his grandchildren, and even her parents. He did not hit anyone or throw things, but she was afraid of Payman hitting her, or even worse, hitting their grandkids in front of her parents. His ugly side showed when his temper flared.
Bita and Payman had one daughter, who left her two kids when they were two years-old and six-months old. Her daughter was not married when she had her two children. Bita was not even sure if these two kids had the same father. Her daughter became a drug addict and had been fighting depression since her teenage years. She hung out with a wrong crowd. No matter what Bita did—and she tried paid counseling and strict disciplines—her daughter would not stop doing drugs, mostly methamphetamines.
Payman beat her severely once when she was sixteen because she was pregnant. Bita had to take her to the abortion clinic and paid cash for it. Soon after that, her daughter ran out of the house and did not come back until she had her two kids, now without their father. She showed up to Bita’s apartment one day and left the kids. She took off saying nothing. Bita and Payman adopted their grandchildren shortly after that.
Bita’s parents came to live with them while they were visiting them from Iran in their tiny apartment two years ago. At first, the whole family was excited to have them visiting and helping with the chores while they were working, and there was the added benefit of having reliable and permanent babysitters, but now, Bita and Payman were worried about the undocumented nature of their stay in America. They had just a three-month visa to visit their family in America, and that time had well passed.
Bita lectured her parents to not to go outside too much or cause any problems with their neighbors or with Payman. She was afraid her parents would be deported back to Iran if they were caught. She was also afraid Payman would lose control of himself and display violent behavior in a small contained space with her parents when she was out working. She was also scared about not having enough money, or the ability to pay for medical bills if her grandkids or anyone got injured. She was concerned about the lack of food in her refrigerator to feed six people, a large family, if she couldn’t work like today. She had to spend an enormous amount of money filling the refrigerator every fourth day or so.
Today, she couldn’t think or care about the whole family dynamics. She had to sleep off her flu. She closed the door behind her and slept the whole day. Periodically her family checked on her, encouraging her to eat at least some soup, but she couldn’t get up to eat. Payman went out to the drugstore and got her some Theraflu powder, dissolving it in warm water as a tea, and she drank that, then went back to sleep. She was thinking in between her dreams, where did she get this flu from? She has so much human contact from her train rides and in her close neighborhoods, but she remembered when she worked at Mrs. Kong’s place on the last two consecutive Fridays, she noticed Mrs. Kong was hacking with the same dry cough she had now. But Mrs. Kong never lay down in her bed with a fever or any other symptoms. At least, Mrs. Kong never told her she was very sick.
Bita would know because she changed Mrs. Kong’s bed every week, and the sheets were not soaking wet with sweat like hers are now. She thought she should go next Friday to see Mrs. Kong and ask her if she was very sick like she is at some point.
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