Emilio looked at Panama’s wrinkled brow face and held down the desire to laugh. She always takes these things a little too seriously, he thought. He wriggled his freckled nose under his wire glasses and settled his face into what he thought might pass for compassion, rested his vision on her soft, fuzzy, amber hair, her oiled ebony eyes.
“I knew you’d give me that face,” she said with bite, ignoring his phony gesture, standing up from the sofa and moving away from him.
“Wha…what?” Emilio pretended he didn’t know that she could see through him.
“You of all people should know what this could mean, now that I’m visiting my family. It’s enough that they’ve…I could really hurt them, Emilio, and you choose to treat me like I’m crazy…when you know the truth. You know it, damn it, and you act like you don’t!” She stomped around the compact living room, mentally bombing furniture too big for New York walk-ups with her atomic steps.
“So what, you’re not gonna go?” Emilio asked.
“You know I shouldn’t.”
“What would your family think?”
“The same thing they’ve always thought. That I think I’m better. That I don’t care about them. That I’m a typical gringa.” Panama’s pounding feet stopped at a wall. She rested her head on the moulding with 80 years of lead, then oil, then acrylic paint. “And maybe I am,” she said with a softer voice, “maybe I am all of those things. And even if I weren’t, it doesn’t matter because of this damn leak!” Panama sighed and cringed her face into the wall.
“But no one has proven…”
Panama straightened up, eyes fire bright and on Emilio as she put on her shoes.
“You are a liar, Emilio. You knew the risks when I took the shots and you know I’m leaking now. All of us are. If anyone admitted the truth the whole damn country would be quarantined,” Panama’s viper tone was precise but Emilio didn’t notice. He figured she’d go to the corner bar and get over it, like she always did at moments like this. Somehow, he knew it would all work out, although a tiny part of him wondered if it was the chips, but that tiny part of him was very small and very faraway.
Emilio thought the vaccine would be a good idea, based on what his boss at P&D Tech said, especially since Panama was already so sickly. The anti-depressant aspect of it was especially appealing because Panama was having a hard time adjusting to life with him, supporting his work. But the nanotechnology was new and, yes, it was leaking. The nanochip vaccine was so small, leaked through nearly every membrane it encountered, and even if it did stay in cells long enough to reprogram viruses, the leaks were trouble. Remnants of the nanochip injections were being found in water supplies and all the organic structures that lived in the nearby rivers, for example. Nanochips were floating in the air and causing respiratory disease because once exposed to city pollutants, the nanochips would change into highly unstable structures. Public laundromats were starting to require proof that patrons hadn’t been injected because their clothes would get infested and then the chips would bond with metals in the washing machines and dryers, damaging them at great cost to the business. Bad leaks.
Panama knew she was leaking when she began to notice the changes in behavior of those around her. Anyone who she shook hands with or hugged, after a few days, would start to act different, happier maybe, but not him- or herself. It was as if the personality was not entirely there. The Indian lady at the corner shop, Samira, with her auctioneer lightning-speed energy, who served up bagels and coffee to countless city folk every morning lost the prickly spike in her voice and wasn’t nearly as fast as she once was. Emilio said she was getting old but Panama wasn’t convinced. The neighbor’s daughter, Zafira, stopped jumping rope with the other girls. It could have been she was the best of all the double-dutch goddesses, moving like an electron that bounces between two ions in a ping-pong universe rhythm. Zafira still sat on the stoop, quite content, but she did not play. The day Panama began to put together all the instances and circumstances, each handshake, each hug, each cheek kiss that spread the effects of the vaccine, how she too had stopped what fulfilled her most, and how she too felt no loss, after assessing all this, she threw up in the toilet of her tiny bathroom. It took her half an hour to flush the toilet, knowing that her leak would be spread along with swirls of sucked down water.
The only person who wasn’t affected by her leaking was the bartender around the corner, Andino, and it was to his wooden perch she now went. Panama walked in and sat at the corner end of the empty bar. It was still early, the mid-afternoon sun glowing on the brown stain. She was happy there was no one around, no one to touch. She hadn’t touched anyone for two months now, except Emilio, but even that was becoming less frequent, not because of the leak but because of other reasons.
“How’s my favorite?” Andino said with a crumpled smile. The lines in his tan and grey face were due to smiles and worries, but more smiles than worries.
Andino raised his eyebrows, slowly spun around, grabbed bitters, whiskey and sugar, and muddled up an old fashioned. He set it in front of Panama and asked, “Why are you lousy? What’s up?”
“I’m leaking,” she began, and didn’t pause when Andino looked genuinely sad, “and the reason I got this way is because Emilio encouraged me to get the injections, you know, his job. Everyone I touch, everywhere I go, I just spread this numb, fake contentment, and it makes me sick. It’s like spreading mediocrity.”
“Why do you think Emilio…”
“Because he’s a coward, the poor thing. I can’t say I don’t totally understand him. I got sick here, the germs, the pollution, it lead to asthma, and I wasn’t happy. When the anti-viral/anti-depressive combo came out, he thought we could both take it to make things easier. All it did was make me stop dancing…and the worst of it was I didn’t miss it. Imagine not missing the one thing you loved most.”
Andino poured himself a shot of whiskey.
Panama continued. “Andino, why haven’t I made you cold? I’ve touched your hand, I’m sure. Why hasn’t my leak affected you?”
Andino blinked several times and smiled nervously. “I’ve been exposed,” he revealed quietly. “You’re not the only one who has come in here…like that, with the nanochips. We’ve all been exposed. But I get a few things from my family, teas, recipes, they counteract the cold numb.”
“Yeah, I mean, sometimes all the chips, they are too much, you can’t…but my family recipes help.”
Panama took a sip of the old fashioned, made perfectly. “My aunt, it is her 75th birthday and the family offered me a ticket, you know, to go see her. I’m afraid to go. I’m afraid of spreading the leak.”
“Panama, you have to go!”
“But they are…they are…pure. If I go and give them the chips, the cold numb, if I leak all this onto them, I could never forgive myself.”
Andino contemplated the word pure for a moment, and then he spoke. “What makes you think they don’t already have it?”
“People from here travel everywhere and we spread it all, you know that. Plus, I bet your family, just like mine, has stuff, herbs, to suppress the leak, maybe even end it. You know, you don’t know what your family may be spreading. Maybe they have their own leaks, better leaks, hopefully.”
There was a moment of silence between the bartender and his patron.
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
After two more old fashioneds, Panama went back to her stoop. She saw Zafira sitting there, watching the other girls play, and Panama bent over and whispered something in her ear. Zafira looked puzzled, but then smiled after Panama as she walked up the steps. When Panama walked into the cramped one-bedroom, she saw Emilio on his computer, a familiar scary-zombie sight.
“I’m going to see my family,” she said.
“Really?” Emilio answered without looking away from the screen’s siren glow.
“Yes. And…and you are coming with me, Emilio. I’m taking you with me. We’re going together.”
Emilio looked away from the screen, turned to Panama, and was surprised that he was able to see her without his eyes adjusting to the darkness, her eyes bright with liquid.