The doctor Wolchek loved looked like his sister. He told her this one time, briefly, when she was leaning over her clipboard like she always did, biting her lip in a mild pout such that her breath could only escape in a convexical manner, condensing into the imprint of reverse smile on the inside of her scuba mask. Wolchek once counted how many times she did this in one day, putting little notches on a juniper bush at the perimeter of the Free Recreation Zone, which was also conveniently situated adjacent to her inspection window, but in an area of shade, low and unnoticed.
On her rounds a certain violet aftereffect trailed about her person, crowned her in light halonic, made the paltry grey dome of the CoContainmentCenter sparkle with the HD flatness of digital transmission.
The fact that she looked like his sister made his feelings all the more guilt-ridden and tenuous. The fact that he once blurted this out to her, out of nowhere, coming up behind her and tapping her on the shoulder probably too hard and leaning in close and whispering ‘you look like my sister’ in a quasi-lecherous hiss also made the whole situation even more complex at a second-order level by creating a sense of revulsion and disgust at feeling such excitement that she looked like his sister, in turn prompting an exponentially spiraled ascension of ever higher nth-levels of guilt and loathing at the prospect that he was betraying his sister’s memory and singularity by becoming obsessed with someone who looked like exactly like her.
He had not heard from his sister for several months after the Demographic Collapse, and had had to wait to redeem his personal days longer than usual due to the mad liquidation scramble and the need for all Arcturus personnel to be Powering Through the Trying Time Together. His drive down US R 15 was sobering— abandoned vehicles burnt, deformed, crushed as in some cubist nightmare, an eerie silence for most of the trip, gas stations toll booths towns all deserted save packs of semi-feral dogs and giant rodents. He had to go through two major checkpoints at Boise and SLC, which delayed him almost six hours in the fifteen hour trip from Medical Lake, WA.
When Wolchek arrived at her subdivision around dawn the next day their cars were there but nothing else. A For Sale sign lay in the yard. The windows were smashed and the door boarded up. A bright orange notice was stuck on a window: “This House Quarantined by Zerox ‘n Stuff : DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT OUR EXCITING SUMMER SAVINGS AT YOUR LOCAL CONSUMER COMPOUND!”
Wolchek then went to the Spring Valley CDC, which was also boarded up with a similar notice. He then drove to the police station, and the desk officer explained to him between long yawns that quarantine procedures were no longer under their jurisdiction and that he should call the Zerox ‘n Stuff’s customer service line, which Wolchek did, waiting several hours as a 25 minute loop of Zerox ‘n Stuff’s commercials played, usually familial discussions about the D.C. and how it has effected all their lives and how it’s so comforting to know that at least some things still last, that at least there are some things that still remain as tangible reminders of life before, that at least one can still go down to their local Consumer Compound and buy quality office products at Never Seen Before Prices. These commercials would then end with an ingenuous ‘we’re all gonna get through this together’ one-liner delivered by a young, presumably nubile yet maternal actress whose voice cooed ‘In these Dark Times it’s Nice to Know Someone Cares’ as a synthetic harp droned in the background.
Finally a bored greeting interrupted the loop.
‘Zerox ‘n Stuff: In these Dark Times it’s nice to know someone cares’ this is Lisa. Your reference number please.’
‘I don’t have a reference number,’ Wolchek replied.
The woman sighed in an explicitly aggressive manner. ‘I can’t help you without a reference number.’
‘Reference number for what?’
‘Exactly sir—how can I know what you need without the reference number, which refers to the exact specific complaint you’ve filed?’
‘But I have filed no complaint,’ Wolchek said, ‘and I could just tell you what I want, which is that I just want to find out where—’
‘Sir if you have not or plan not to file a complaint then this is not my department, and so not my job, which is complaints, to handle them, and let me tell you there are a lot of them so I don’t need pranksters like you clogging up the lines pretending to not know your reference number when the Reference Number Ordinance has been in effect 2 months now. And don’t now go trying to bother our subsidiary franchise Zerox My Stuff Now! Express over in Bullhead City, am I clear? Because I’m calling them right now. ’
And with that the line went dead.
Wolchek was now close to nervous collapse due to lack of sleep and creeping despair, but he steadied himself after some projectile vomiting out his car window and drove to the Blue Diamond Consumer Compound where the Zerox ‘n Stuff Command Post was located and waited an hour in the customer service line of said command post until he eventually discovered that he needed to fill out a Quarantine Location Form or form QL 2FJ’’2547! in order to obtain a reference number’s information and location. It was lucky that he knew his sister’s social security and driver’s license numbers as well as all her physical information and medical history, including the string of UTI’s she had been afflicted with her Sophomore Year. It had been so bad that Wolchek once heard her whimpering all night as she tried to pee, tiptoeing to the bathroom over and over again but as soon as she sat down on the toilet becoming unable and feeling instead only the tingling uvular burn of phantom evacuation. Wolchek surmised she must finally have just peed her underwear in frustration as there was the unmistakable maple-syrupy odor of fresh urine on the pair she had been wearing that night when Wolchek inspected her laundry the next day.
So he filled out the form and then waited another hour in the CS line only to be asked once arriving at the desk if he had made two copies of form QL 2FJ’’2547!.
‘You didn’t tell me to do that when I was here the first time.’ Wolchek said flatly.
‘That’s because I didn’t think I needed to tell someone something that is being explicitly said on the form I gave them. Look—’
In the lower left corner was a little smiling Zebra with square shades holding a form QL 2FJ’’2547!. Underneath was the italicized epitaph Zerox Zebra Says, and a cartoonish speech bubble where Z.Z. is requesting in a pseudo-Elizabethan iamb of an English major turned bush-league Copy Ed. that the customer COPY ME TWICE FOR SEVICE CONSICE! AND DON’T FORGET TO BUY ZEROX ‘n STUFF PRODUCTS BEFORE YOU TAKE LEAVE!
The fact that there was a cartoon corporate mascot on a Missing Persons form was vulgar enough, but having the character try to be so stupidly clever about the whole thing was utterly unconscionable in Wolchek’s opinion. He bit a sizable flap of flesh from his thumb’s ravaged cuticle and walked like a stunned animal away from the CS desk. Soon he had arrived at the Xerox Machine Sales department but none of the machines were on and when he asked an employee to turn on a machine the employee brusquely told him he would turn it on after he bought it and what did he think this was the ‘Free Store or Some Shit,’ which Wolchek thought was an unnecessarily brittle and also unwitty response. Wolchek then tried to offer him a hundred bucks, but the employee just laughed and told him that unless they were Zebra Bucks he had no use for them. Finally Wolchek realized he could just fill-out another form at the cost of another hour waiting in line to get it, and then waiting yet another hour after filling it out to submit it again, and this, by this point, seemed still the simplest route.
But when he arrived at the desk for the final time the woman too asked him for a reference number. Wolchek replied that he thought this was what was supposed to get him the reference number, as per their first conversation four hours before, but the CSR countered that she would never have said such a thing because one can never obtain a Ref. # through request, rather they are divested upon all those of the Greater Las Vegas Metropolitan Area and besides when examining this form it’s like so obvious Wolchek is not Lois, and hence not female, which means he is attempting via fraud to try to get her whereabouts and status when only Lois Wolchek, using her reference number, can be serviced, i.e. obtain and/or be informed of her whereabouts and status, at which point Wolchek’s eyes began to involuntarily twitch and he spoke in slow trebled intonations like a man on the verge of pituitary shutdown
‘But what is the point of the Quarantined Person Location Form if only the Quarantined Person can be given that information? Don’t they already know their location and status?’
To which the CSR rolled her eyes and responded, ‘But what if they don’t? You of course know the progression of the disease ravages people’s thinking capacities. We perform a service whereby they call here and give their reference number and then we can tell them things like where and who they are. It’s that simple. We cannot just give out such personal information to anyone off the street, especially not con-artists like yourself who are like so obviously trying to use stolen information in an attempt to steal a place at one of our ten J.D.Power and Associates Rated Z’nS Wellness Centers but have like, failed because our reference numbers are tattooed on their bodies so you could only know it if you were that person or maybe if you were in their proximity when they were naked. But anyway, if you had like, seen them naked, then you would have already have been there and so would have had no need to be conning me here to try to get there.’
She then smiled with deep satisfaction and blew a large pink bubble. Slowly and lasciviously she tongued it, her smile now grotesquely distorted by the opaque sphere of sugary plastic, before finally and suddenly sucking it back in as if to display some remarkable suction capacity.
‘Still,’ she said, now with an air predatory sweetness, ‘I can help you, Sir—I can help you get an amazing deal we’re now offering if you sign up for our SuprValu Club.’
What happens after this Wolchek remembers only vaguely; fast cuts and blurred allusions to trying to gnaw/pound his way through the Customer Services’ plexiglass divider and then lying prostrate on the linoleum floor and gargling as Security Personnel dressed in striped uniforms and Zebra Mohawked helmets and boots shaped like hooves just whaled on him. He was detained for the next six days, confined to a room with bright halogen heat lamps and forcibly awoken every few hours to drink salt water as they interrogated him and accused him fraud and spying for their detested Southwestern rival Zerox Ultimate Plus Instant Inc. The only reason he was released was due to a coincidental miracle: an old NW Polytech friend, who worked as an executive in a Data Management firm that Zerox n’ Stuff outsourced their medical records to for systems engineering and IT consultation, interceded on Wolchek’s behalf after he happened to be touring the new detention facility and seen Wolchek huddled in a corner of the cafeteria sucking residual OCP nutrient paste from between his fingers.
And as Wolchek drove back up 15, through the vast expanse of basalt dust and barite extrusions, he thought a number of times of simply letting go of the wheel, letting it follow its own course over the highway ramparts and tumble down into the cavernous salty hell of the desert below. Quick and vivid flashes of turkey vultures plucking out his eyes and tongue as his skin became hard yet chewy like beef jerky scrolled across the imaginary screen of his brain, as did clips of Lois laughing uncontrollably, perhaps one of the 22%-ers who need to be confined and given diuretic enemas in order to minimize their coprophiliac tendencies and sobbing at her loss of dignity but unable to control herself and crying out for Wolchek to hold her (and pointedly not her husband, whom she at least at last felt free of he imagined, what with his manipulative grasp disguised by his easy-going and seemingly amiable ‘nature’), and Wolchek would get these spasms and shrill violent shocks when these scenes flashed through his head and he would hit the steering wheel over and over again as he drove for the last time in his life through the giant land mass geologists referred to as the Basin and Range Province, which would soon devolve into a no man’s land nightmare of lawless bandits and mad apocalyptic cults after the collapse of Zerox n’ Stuff and its affiliates because consumerist oriented companies could not manage actual resources and they were in one of the most naturally resourceless areas of the country yet were still so preoccupied with brand image they had not thought at all about material production and things like water and energy supplies nor could they afford to outsource such problems trying to sell luxury products to a population that was experiencing mass death madness and societal collapse. And so not even a year after the Great Government Fire Sale one could already observe that areas controlled by the Energy, Security, Agri-Bio- and IT tech industries and the like were all relatively organized whereas those having been taken over by Service Industry Corporations were in a state of utter anarchy.
After the Boise Checkpoint Wolchek pulled over in an abandoned HoJo and fell asleep in the back of his car, filled with terror at the spastic, random flickering of a lone operative streetlamp, but also, and worse, behind the lamps’ epileptic illumination he was paralyzed by the sinking dread that something irrevocable had happened, something that seemed to be crushing him as if from space— some sort of great force acting at a distance that Wolchek did not understand but in that moment he finally understood that he had no understanding, and this incipient conceptual awareness of the utter irrevocability of what was occurring combined with his own facultative limitations to create a metaphysical entity and empirical presence—a harbinger for the simple yet unbelievable fact that this was all actually happening, that it had been happening, and that it would keep happening until it had consumed them all.