Standing on the blacktop under the bright May sunshine, Chet felt heat radiating down from above and up from below. With a hollow, tinny sound, the red playground ball bounced to him, and he swatted it to a neighboring square. When the ball was returned his way, landing near his feet, he slapped it to the square diagonally across from his own. Lunging, Maylee hit a glancing blow and the ball careened out of bounds.
Chet pumped his fist. Maylee had been dethroned. Ryan advanced to the first square, and Chet shifted to the second.
Foursquare was currently the big sensation at recess. A queue of hopefuls trailed away from each of the three courts, watching the competition as they awaited their turn to vie for a top square. With each student spaced widely from the next, the queue imitated a dotted line. Every person on the playground wore snug gloves and a filtration snorkel, each tube rising from a facemask and stabilized by an elastic headband.
As Ryan bounced the ball, preparing to serve, Chet noticed a peculiar tingling in his fingertips. He shook his hands, trying to disrupt the sensation, but the motion intensified the tingles. His ears felt warm.
Ryan dropped the ball and pointed at him, eyes filling with fear.
“Oh, man,” Tennison said from the third square, backing away from Chet.
“Mrs. Broadbeck!” Shelia called.
The three squares adjoining his cleared, the queue dispersed, and the other games came to a halt. Chet remained in his square as his classmates swarmed away from him. He watched the forgotten playground ball settle to a stop.
Chet could see the flesh of his bare arms changing color. With sparks of sensation coruscating through his hands, he tugged off one of his gloves to have a look. Chet started to hyperventilate. The skin of his hand was tinged a light blue, the color deepening even as he watched. His ears and forehead felt flushed.
“Back away slowly,” Mrs. Broadbeck called, the stout, fifth-grade teacher hustling in his direction, enunciating her words loudly. “You know what to do. Assemble in your safe zones and maintain distancing.”
Chet resisted an urge to put his glove back on to hide his hand. But the new hue of his skin was obvious on his bare arms and legs, and undoubtedly showed on the part of his face unhidden by the filtration snorkel. As his classmates dispersed, curiosity brought gazes his way, but nobody held eye contact.
Mrs. Broadbeck assessed him as if he were dangerous, edging toward him, but not too close. “A little help over here,” she cried, not quite disguising her disgust.
The teacher’s uneasiness made him want to run more than any other factor. Two months ago, he had been seated the required two seats away from Heather Esposito when blue streaks spread across her body. He remembered crowding away from her to the perimeter of the room as she sat crying at her desk. He recalled filing out of the room, spaced appropriately from his classmates, as Miss Hunley brought in the pole for Heather’s removal.
Today Mr. Wiemer wielded the long pole with the noose at the end. It looked kind of like a piece of equipment for cleaning pools, but Chet knew the large loop was made to contract around the waists of kids who posed a flight risk.
Where would he run? What escape could he hope to find? He would just become more of a spectacle than he already was—simultaneously the center of attention, and utterly alone.
His classmates flooded to the outskirts of the playground, most walking briskly, a few breaking protocol to jog, ultimately gathering into rows classroom by classroom. Wearing brown pants and a yellow button-down shirt, Mr. Wiemer strode toward Chet, pole held high as the lasso at the end widened into a larger circle.
Chet resisted a fresh urge to bolt. It felt wrong to let somebody catch him with a noose at the end of a pole. It was treatment more appropriate for unruly circus animals. But there was no outrunning this sickness. He would need treatment. It had been drilled into him not to panic if he turned blue, to remain still and submit to his teachers.
“Take the position, Chet,” Mr. Weimer said, staring through his tinted eyeglasses.
Chet gave a nod. If infection manifested, he was supposed to kneel to show he had no intent to flee. If he ran, he could spread the azure plague to others.
Dropping a mottled blue knee to the pavement, Chet immediately winced as his skin was scalded. He staggered back up. “The blacktop is hot,” he explained.
Mr. Wiemer paused. “Don’t make trouble, Chet. You know the procedure. Please place both knees on the ground.”
Chet shook his head. “I’m scared.”
“That’s a natural response,” Mr. Wiemer said, the noose hanging ominously overhead. “Just kneel for a moment and I’ll collect you quickly, then you can stand right back up.”
Gritting his teeth, Chet kneeled on the burning blacktop.
“Arms up,” Mr. Weimer reminded him.
Chet placed both arms in the air above his head, palms together, and the lasso descended over him, then tightened around his midsection. The blacktop felt hottest at first touch, becoming more bearable as his knees lingered, but he was still relieved to stand.
“It’s too tight,” Chet complained with a grunt, staring at his blue arms and hands.
The cord around his waist loosened a little, but not enough.
“It’s still too tight,” Chet said.
“Has to be a little tight,” Mr. Weimer said. “We’ll get you to the Containment Office, then we can take it off.”
“Everything is going to be fine,” Mrs. Broadbeck said, speaking a little too woodenly to be convincing.
“Have Ms. Meyers put on the suit,” Mr. Weimer muttered.
Mrs. Broadbeck nodded and ran ahead.
Chet looked around for his teacher, Miss Hunley, but she was with the rest of his class. Her presence might have brought Chet some relief. Instead he was stuck with Mr. Weimer, who taught sixth grade and had a reputation for being strict. Behind the snorkel, Mr. Weimer’s expression was unreadable.
“Sit tight for a minute,” Mr. Weimer said. “They have to get prepped to receive you.”
Chet examined his hands. His palms looked bluer in the creases, and his fingerprints seemed to stand out more. Turning his hands over, he found his fingernails to be the least blue feature. The blue of his skin had stopped deepening.
Chet knew that turning blue was one of the early symptoms of the azure plague. Some of those who came down with it had only minor secondary symptoms. The blueness often began to fade after a few weeks. But other cases, especially among infants, the elderly, and diabetics, would exhibit more harmful symptoms—fever, bowel trouble, and breathing problems were fairly common. Some victims of the azure plague became paralyzed or developed permanent heart complications. Occasionally the illness was fatal.
Having turned blue, Chet had no way to anticipate what other symptoms might develop. He only knew that he was highly contagious and at risk for greater difficulties.
Mrs. Broadbeck opened a door and poked her head out, adding a thumbs up.
“That’s our cue,” Mr. Weimer said, prodding Chet forward with the pole.
Mr. Weimer walked off to the side of Chet. Mrs. Broadbeck left the door into the school propped open and backed away. Glancing toward the playground, Chet saw one of the yard-duties carefully scooping the red foursquare ball he had used into a plastic garbage bag. Chet passed through the doorway into the school, and Mr. Weimer followed him, then quickly moved off to the side again. The halls were deserted.
“Don’t touch anything,” Mr. Weimer said.
“I don’t feel sick,” Chet said with a nervous laugh. “Not even a stuffy nose.”
“That’s the miracle of the azure plague,” Mr. Weimer said. “The color provides an early warning. We’ll arrange to have you monitored so you can get the care you need if other symptoms arise.”
Chet hooked a thumb under the cord around his waist, trying to create a little breathing room. It didn’t help much.
“Don’t fight the restraint,” Mr. Weimer said. “Be a good citizen.”
Chet pulled his thumb out.
Mr. Weimer stopped him in front of the orange door with the black and yellow hazard symbol. Ms. Meyers opened the door wearing a full hazmat suit, gazing down at Chet out of the tinted window in her helmet.
“Hi, Chet,” she said. “Don’t be scared by this outfit. It’s just a standard precaution.”
Chet nodded uncertainly. If the playground needed to be cleared, if he had to be lassoed at the end of a pole, if this spacesuit was required to interact with him, the sickness he had caught was bad news.
Mr. Weimer guided Chet into the room. “Arms up,” he said.
Chet raised his arms compliantly. The lasso loosened and rose over his head and hands. The door shut behind him. Mr. Weimer wasted no time getting clear.
“Be seated, Chet,” Ms. Meyers invited, indicating what looked like a camping chair. He had never seen a chair like this at school.
Chet sat down, wondering if they might burn the chair once he was gone. A few industrial lockers with medical supplies interrupted the cement walls, and the cement floor tapered to a circular drain in the center.
“How is your breathing?” Ms. Meyers asked.
“It’s fine,” Chet said. “My hands tingled when I started turning blue, but that went away. My face felt hot. That went away too.”
Ms. Meyers clipped a little device to the end of Chet’s pointer finger. It beeped. “Oxygenation is predictably low, but not down to dangerous levels,” she said. “Your discoloration is stabilizing. It’s a lighter shade than some.”
“Is that a good sign?” Chet said.
“You have the azure plague, Chet. Which means precautions must be taken. We’ve contacted your parents. They will be here soon.”
The nurse crossed to the watercooler and filled a paper cup. Because of the way the hazmat suit limited her range of motion, to Chet she looked like an astronaut collecting samples on the moon. She set the cup on a stainless steel table beside him.
“Stay hydrated,” Ms. Meyers cautioned. “Rest until your parents come. If you need something, ring the bell. Let us come to you.”
“All right,” Chet said, relieved to see her go.
Once he was alone, Chet tried to relax in his chair. He flexed his hands and tapped his fingertips, but awakened no echoes of the tingling he had experienced earlier. He tried holding his breath, then paid close attention as he inhaled and exhaled deeply. His lungs seemed fine. Ignoring the inhuman shade of his skin, he could find nothing that felt off.
But he was infected. He would be taken to get professional care. What if his condition worsened? He tried to push away thoughts of paralysis and death.
His parents were coming. Seeing them would be a relief.
And so he waited, watching the clock, making guesses about when they would show up. He first anticipated their arrival at ten-minute increments, then fifteen.
As time went by without an arrival, Chet tried to console himself that he was getting out of schoolwork. He imagined his class proceeding with a normal day, his desk empty, like Heather’s desk had remained for the past two weeks.
How had he gotten sick? He had played by the rules. He wore his gloves and snorkel to school and when he was out of the house. He changed the filter in his snorkel every other day. He scrubbed his hands up to his elbows. He used disinfectant. His mom kept the house sanitized. He avoided touching his face. His family even drank hot water with cinnamon and lemon, which was supposed to provide extra protection.
Last Sunday they had a family dinner at grandma’s house. Some cousins had been there. They had taken the standard precautions, although they had needed to remove their snorkels to eat. Could that have been where he was exposed?
Everyone he had been in contact with would be stamped as contaminated, which came with two weeks of extra testing and severely limited interactions. His class had been quarantined after Heather caught the azure plague. He supposed the same would happen again.
Nearly an hour and a half later, the door finally opened. Ms. Meyers entered in her hazmat suit again. She held a belt in her gloved hands.
“Your mom and dad are here,” she said encouragingly. “Put on this belt and we’ll get you handed over to their care.”
“What’s it for?” Chet asked, accepting the heavy belt from her.
“Just a standard precaution,” Ms. Meyers said. “Your parents were given options, and it’s the one they selected.”
Chet clipped the heavy belt around his waist, and Ms. Meyers helped him tighten it. Then she attached a metal line to a carabiner on the belt and locked it in place. She gave the sturdy connection a little tug.
“Looks good,” she said, backing away, holding the metal line like a leash. “Ready to get out of here?”
Chet just nodded. As Ms. Meyers led him out into the empty hall, Chet looked around for his parents, but nobody was in view.
“Where’s everybody?” Chet asked. “It’s so quiet.”
“The school has been evacuated so the decontamination unit can come through,” Ms. Meyers said. “After that, the building will be sanitized. The precautions keep increasing. It’s to protect as many people as we can.”
When they went through the front doors of the school, Chet saw his mom and dad in their SUV, parked at the nearest curb. Dad was driving, Mom sat in the passenger seat, window down, one hand over the base of her snorkel, eyes teary. The unmistakable glimpse of horror and fear in her gaze made his stomach drop. If his mom was terrified for him, and perhaps frightened of him, how was he supposed to feel?
Except for a few other cars in stalls, the parking lot was empty.
Chet started running toward his parents until he was restrained by the line attached to his belt.
“Whoa,” Ms. Meyers said. “Not so fast. Slow movements. Obey commands.”
Chet complied, but couldn’t wait to be out of her care.
“Wait right here,” Ms. Meyers ordered, indicating a spot about twelve feet from the SUV.
Chet stood where she pointed. His mom had composed her expression and wiped her eyes, but she was clearly still distressed. Ms. Meyers approached the passenger side of the SUV. His mom exchanged a few words with the nurse as Ms. Meyers handed her the metal line. Then Ms. Meyers returned to Chet.
“Listen to me,” Ms. Meyers said. “It’s important that you get no closer to your car than you are now standing. Your parents are vulnerable to the virus you are carrying, and may not have caught it yet. Keep the guideline taut and you will remain at the proper distance. Now that you are blue, we know you’re highly contagious, so please carefully obey all of their requests, or you could be criminally prosecuted. The Spread No Illness Act is no laughing matter.”
“Okay,” Chet said.
Ms. Meyers backed away.
“Hey, buddy,” his dad called. “Looks like you got carried away in art class.”
“Ha-ha,” Chet replied. “I wish.”
“I’m sorry you’re sick, honey,” his mom soothed. “We’ll get you through this.”
“Can’t I get in the car?” Chet asked.
His mom looked at his dad for a moment, and then back at him. “That isn’t safe right now, baby. You’ll have to walk home beside us.”
“You’re going to drive while I walk?” Chet asked.
“It’s safer that way, pal,” his dad said. “We don’t have NASA suits like your nurse.”
“We’ll make you comfortable at home,” his mom said.
“In my room?” Chet asked.
His mom winced. “We’ll figure that out at home.”
“Does that mean no?” Chet asked. “I won’t be in my room?”
“Not at first, buddy,” his dad said. “There are lots of factors to consider, including your sister. We’ll make you comfy though, and get you the care you need.”
“Ready?” his mom asked, her smile forced.
“I guess,” Chet said.
The journey home felt like a walk of shame. The SUV crawled forward beside him as he trudged along the sidewalk. He noticed a pair of joggers turn around when they saw him coming. The other cars on the road gave the SUV a wide berth. When the golden retriever from the house on the corner came toward him, the owner, an older woman who was out gardening, shrieked and called the animal back, then hurried indoors with her pet.
“It’s hot,” Chet complained.
“I’ll get you a drink once we’re home, honey,” his mom said.
Finally, his house came into view. Dad parked the SUV in the driveway, and Mom asked Chet to back away while she got out. He wanted a hug so badly, but bravely followed instructions.
“We set up the tent out back,” his dad said. “It’ll be like camping.”
“Do lepers go camping?” Chet asked.
“Don’t be dramatic, pal,” his dad said. “This will pass. We just have to ride it out according to the rules.”
“I want to rest in my room,” Chet said. “In my bed.”
“We need to follow the protocols,” Dad said.
“I followed the rules,” Chet complained. “I wore my snorkel. I sanitized.”
“Apparently you weren’t careful enough,” Mom said. “You can’t catch a virus if you take perfect precautions.”
“I did what you told me,” Chet said. “I followed what my teacher told me.”
“You let your guard down at some point,” Mom said. “And you brought this sickness into our family.”
Dad put a hand on Mom’s shoulder. “You’ve been doing your best. You have to keep trying, or we’ll have to call the containment authorities. It’s the law. Just follow me to the tent, but keep your distance.”
“All right,” Chet said.
Holding the metal guideline, his parents towed him through the gate in the fence into the backyard. The tent stood ready, the opening unzipped.
“I’ll bring you a drink,” Mom said.
“Get in the tent, champ,” Dad said. “Remember, hot feet, cold hands. The buckets are already inside. I have to pound this stake into the ground.” It looked more like a harpoon than a stake. “It’s just to ensure you stay where you belong until the repository accepts you.”
“I don’t want to go,” Chet said.
“It’s where you can get the care you need,” Dad said.
“Will you come with me?” Chet asked.
“You know we’re not allowed to come in person,” Dad said. “But we’ll walk you there. The doctors will keep us updated.”
“How far away is it?” Chet asked.
“The closest facility is less than a mile away,” Dad said. “Rest up until then.”
Nodding and looking away, Chet went into the tent and sat down. It was stuffy and smelled like musty fabric. A foam pad lay on the floor, topped by an unrolled sleeping bag. Sometimes it was exciting to be in the family tent, but today it seemed like a prison.
Off to one side, two buckets of hot water sat in front of a stool. On little tables at either side of the stool awaited buckets of ice water. Keeping his hands cold and feet hot felt like an old wives tale. His friend Danny Peterson said it was superstition instead of science. But most families had their buckets ready in case somebody got sick.
Taking off his shoes and socks, Chet sat on the stool and placed his feet in the warm water, then plunged his hands into the icy buckets. The conflicting sensations were peculiar, but not entirely unpleasant.
Chet listened as his dad hammered the stake.
“There’s milk for you outside the tent,” Mom called from a distance. “An apple too. And some steamed vegetables for your oxygen.”
Leaving wet footprints on the tent floor, Chet went to the entrance and saw the far end of his metal line attached to the stake, only the top third of which was now above ground. Dad used his phone to snap a picture of Chet.
Mom looked over his shoulder at the image. “Do you need the stake in the picture?”
“The repository just wants to see him, the line, and the belt,” Dad replied.
Mom had set the tray with the food and milk on the far side of the yard, as if she had been afraid to place it too near his tent. Chet walked to his snack, the line barely long enough to let him reach it. He took a bite of the apple, then ate several carrots and florets of broccoli, washing them down with milk. Then he returned to his tent and flopped onto the sleeping bag.
This tent was history, now that he had touched it. Same with the pad and the sleeping bag. And the buckets. It would all be incinerated after he was gone.
It was hard for Chet to tell how long he waited in the tent. The suspense of knowing he was going to a repository for treatment kept him on edge. He listened to the neighbor’s dog barking. The temperature inside the tent increased under the glare of the sun.
“Chet!” Dad finally called. Chet moved to the tent entrance. Dad held his phone. “Time to go. Get your shoes back on.”
Chet’s parents stayed as far back as the metal guideline would allow as they walked him to the repository. He felt absurd being walked like a dog. Anyone who spotted him coming went out of their way to avoid him—reversing direction, crossing the street, or heading indoors.
Chet considered his blue hands. The coloring had deepened and was evening out.
The repository came into view up ahead, a concrete patio with a white cylinder the size of a toll booth at the center. The patio was on the other side of the street. Chet’s dad instructed him to use the crosswalk.
The patio was deserted. Dad reined Chet to a halt near the cylinder. Dad produced a key. “Catch?” he asked, tossing the key underhand. It bounced off Chet’s fingers before tinkling to the concrete. Chet crouched and picked it up.
“I want to go home,” Chet said.
“Unlock the tether,” Dad said, his voice tight.
Chet inserted the key, turned it, and the guideline fell away from his belt.
“Your code is 4341 pound,” Dad said.
Chet approached the keypad beside the booth and typed the numbers. When he pressed the pound sign, the cylinder whooshed open. Cool air spilled out with an antiseptic smell. Leaning into the compartment, Chet looked down at a white slide that curved out of view.
“How deep is it?” Chet asked.
“You’re almost there,” Mom encouraged. “Hop down the chute and you’ll have the best care available.”
Chet looked along the sidewalk and considered making a break for it. Where would he go? He could hide in the play structure at the park. How would he eat? The contamination authorities would catch up to him, then he would be in serious trouble.
Fidgeting with his belt, Chet peered down the chute again. “Do I really have to go down there?”
“It’s how you get better, son,” his dad said.
Glancing back, Chet caught his parents sharing a look, pain in his mom’s eyes.
Chet swallowed. “See you.”
“You’ll get the best care,” his mom said.
Turning away from his parents, Chet sat at the brink of the chute. Pausing one last moment to brace himself, he scooted forward, and down he slid.