As I walked along the boulevard, I was becoming annoyed being in such a mixed area. My membraneous mask kept switching from single, to double, and then triple coverage, which meant this area was unstable and I needed to hurry along to get to my appointment and to a safer place. As annoyed as I was though, I was also grateful that science had learned how to make our masks literally a part of our human makeup.
It seemed like only yesterday when the CDC began looking for volunteers. Once they realized we were never going to get out of biological hazards as they just kept mutating from the early ’20s and COVID-19, as well as the uproar from green peace people, rightly keeping after us for littering cloth and disposable masks everywhere; it became a necessity to create something more permanent. I, of course, jumped at the chance because I hated having to wash and rewash my cloth masks and I wasn’t enjoying spending money on purchasing them either, even if Costco offered them 500 per box. So yeah, when they were looking for guinea pigs I volunteered. My laughter bubbled up and shot out, startling me in the relatively quiet street. Most people tended to stay indoors and only ventured out in small groups when absolutely necessary.
Again, my thoughts turned back to those first days of mishaps and embarrassing moments. In the early days they tried calling them a maskbrane, but that didn’t go down well so they just refer to it as a membraneous mask. A bit of a mouthful, for certain, but it’s what they are. I prefer the shorter M-mask myself. Not that anyone but the poorest of people are still using disposable masks anymore. It was a good thing I had volunteered in those early days because although I was doing fairly well with my freelance business, I wasn’t so flush I could afford the upgrades that the M-masks had become. The scariest part was when I had to sign my life away and the fine print stated that the operation may or may not be a success, and I may or may not wake up afterward, and here’s the cherry on top, the M-mask may or may not take depending on whether my body rejected it or not. Ha! They covered every case scenario and I almost walked out of the center at that time, but I reminded myself of my budget, how much money I had spent to date on disposable masks and how often the cloth masks needed to be replaced. After the explosion of variants that came after COVID-19, it was no longer safe to just wear a single disposable or cloth mask.
“Excuse me?” “Hello?” “A table for one?”
I finally clued into the voice that was quietly asking me questions. I should have felt my M-mask switch over to a single membrane indicating I had entered a safe zone, requiring only a single layer to keep me safe. The wearer – when they looked in a mirror – and whomever was looking at you, knew what level the mask was by a universal color-coded system, and also when the wearer had last been vaccinated. When you were in the comfort of your home or a similar place, you could color code your mask to match your skin tone, if you liked. I kept others safe by being regularly vaccinated. That was the other thing that had become common. Just like a flu or pneumonia shot, we were highly encouraged, and depending on your job, required to get yearly vaccinations. The variants seemed to know no end and just kept right on happily mutating.
With a nod, I stated, “Actually, my business meeting will include another guest. I believe I’m here first so please provide a corner booth facing the door.”
When had I become so picky, I thought to myself. I guess ever since I was a kid and read too many books where villains were always popping up and taking innocent people out from behind. Again, my laughter burst out and startled nearby guests. I glanced around feeling content. It was definitely one of my happy places. Darnel’s was a nicely appointed restaurant/meeting place. Nowadays, we needed to have places that were a combination of upscale coffee shop and diner combined. We just didn’t go out like we used to, but when we did, we tended to need a place that served a bit of everything so as to lessen our need to move from one location to another.
As I settled back into the comfy and plush seat of the corner booth, this time I took my time looking around. I had always enjoyed people watching and though there were fewer occasions to do so these days, I still found myself enjoying the pasttime when the opportunity arose. Today was perfect. I was my usual early self and had used the walk over as part of my exercise, and I had also factored in extra time as I hate to be late and hate keeping people waiting even more. The couple to my immediate right looked to be having one of those intense, but we’re trying to look anything but intense, conversations. At this point it appeared she had the upper hand, if I went by body language. I also noticed that as she ramped up in intensity, her M-mask slipped on another layer. Even within our own families our masks often stayed in place, especially if one member was part of the exterior working force. We no longer needed apps to tell us if people nearby were infected. Although if you were super well-off then you could get an implant that popped up in your own personal visual HUD, and it gave constant information on air quality alongside your personal M-mask status. Yeah, I didn’t have that upgrade. The sensing chips were planted subcutaneously between the first and second layers of facial skin. I was somewhat envious of the fact they constantly monitored the air from close up and as far away as 50 feet. And don’t you dare sneeze. First your mask shoots up to the maximum level of three and adds a moisture barrier so that no droplets can escape. It was thought that the airborne particles we lived with now were leftovers from those early days when we had “Wear No Mask Wars”. And of course, those particles took on a life of their own and have mutated into variations that the CDC and other health experts were still hard pressed to keep up with.
My own mask was responding to this couple’s talk as my single mask had switched up to double. I was so very thankful I didn’t have do manual monitoring of every little thing that was going on around me. Five short years ago I would never have even ventured out. Ten years ago we were only allowed out for very serious reasons and we had to be transported in special bio vehicles that acted like one huge super mask for all occupants.
It really wasn’t that long ago that I was testing the first prototypes of the M-mask. I shuddered and rubbed my arms as I really didn’t want to remember those early days. First, it was difficult to get me to even leave my apartment. I was constantly glued to my app that told me what level my mask was at and what I was cleared to do, and if I was cleared to go to out then what level of danger was in the air surrounding me. Of course, I barely trusted the M-mask to be little better than the cheapest disposable back then, but in fact even the early models were better than the N-95s of the day. I worked hard to overcome my fear and reluctance to trust the masks because I was also serving by giving feedback to the inventors, and every little bit helped them improve the product. We were desperate to produce versions of the M-mask suitable to keep medical people and the people they served, alive. We had lost so many doctors, nurses, interns, and helpers right along with the victims that we were at an all time low for finding ways to save everyone. They even had special compressed online medical schools now where the students did everything in an add-on lab that the school supplied. The students only ever gathered in person at the end of each semester to put into practice their course work, again in very strict, clean air environments. There were constant ads on every electronic device known to man trying to entice any young person even remotely interested in medicine to sign up, even before the were old enough to attend.
A deep sigh escaped me and with a jerk, I realized someone was sitting down kitty corner to my booth seat. Gratefully, I realized it wasn’t a stranger, but my business colleague and friend I was here to meet instead.
“Really, Verna? Are you still paranoid your fancy M-mask won’t protect you from a scary stranger?” Clarke asked with a smirk.
“I know, I know. I think I’ve been scarred for life from those early days.” I shrugged helplessly.
“Yeah, I can’t really blame you. I do remember our early acquaintance days when you were more skitterish, but with great reason. After all, there weren’t many of you brave enough to wear those prototypes. That fine print practically had people running away screaming. And who wanted to chance that they could fail right when you needed them most?” He was making a valiant effort to hold in the laughter but his dancing eyes and the fact that his lips kept up a rhythmic twitching signaled it was a lost cause.
“Well, I do so wish you had joined me at the beginning so I hadn’t needed to be embarrassed by myself. After all you know what they say, misery loves company. At least my grandma used to say something like that.” I mock reprimanded him. Logically, I knew Clarke had to say no to the idea as he had a fairly young family back then and it was his top priority to keep everyone healthy. And there he went. He was now holding his sides and snorting into his own M-mask as he recalled my vivid description of some of my early antics with M-mask malfunctions.
Yeah, I couldn’t really blame him. It was a doozy escapade that got captured on camera and went viral within minutes. Unfortunately, all of the early adopters had the same problem. There were people in your neighborhood who knew you were prototyping the new M-masks and you were either avoided like the plague or people walked around with their phone cameras poised to capture moments that would either support their dread of the new masks or their love of the idea.
Unfortunately for me, I was remembering the catastrophe like it was yesterday. I didn’t enjoy presentations, at least not until I got going, and then only if I enjoyed the topic I was speaking about. That day, it was a topic I was passionate about—freelancers and our rights. What I hadn’t realized at the time was the effect my passion would have on my new M-mask. The steep rise in my bio readings triggered my M-mask to protect the people around me. In the early days the masks were often known to do one of two things. Either layer you up to the point where breathing, let alone talking, become almost impossible or when the mask became overwhelmed, it would disappear back under your facial skin and there you were, hanging out to dry and feeling naked as the day you were born. Of course, in those early days us experimenters had to walk around with spare masks for those, just in case times. Wouldn’t you know, my rising passion first triggered multilayers and my breathing became laborious and it felt like I was going to pass out. At first this forced my speech to continue in a near whisper, but then I got to the best part of my presentation and in my excitement the M-mask completely collapsed and I was so proud of how quickly I responded. It took me only a split second to reach for my backup mask, but…
Yeah, you may have guessed that this is where the real embarrassing part happened…