Stay Safe is the new novel from Michael LaCoy. It’s a black comedy that satirizes the foolishness of the last four years, and examines the terrible damage weak men cause in their families and society more broadly. This exclusive extract is the first chapter. Buy the book at bit.ly/lacoy-books and follow Michael on Twitter @michaellacoy.
“Look at those idiots!” said Cole Perrot as he watched the protesters. “Not one of them is wearing a mask! … It’s unbelievable,” he added, angrily shaking his head. Though he was outraged, Cole was not surprised. Stupidity, he felt, was everywhere these days. All across the country, from sea to shining sea, the moronic inferno was in full blaze.
He and his twelve-year-old daughter Rosa—both of whom were wearing government-recommended Pq23 respirator face masks and N16z plastic face shields—had just stopped at a red light in front of the Hancock-Beauville Medical Center. Across the street on the sidewalk stood a dozen or so sign-holding citizens. They were protesting the government’s handling of the SPAARZ flu pandemic, and it really pissed Cole off.
“Prosecute Gerbyll!” read one of the signs.
“People Aren’t Mice!” read another.
“SPAARZ Was Made in a Lab—For Profit!!” read a third.
From the passenger seat Rosa said, “What are they doing?”
“They’re showing how ignorant they are,” Cole said. “They want everyone to see.”
“Hey—there’s Mrs. Cutty!” Rosa said excitedly, recognizing one of their neighbors among the protesters. “Dad, beep!” the girl said, now waving at Maeve Cutty, who had not noticed them.
Maeve was holding a sign that read, “Is It a Conspiracy Theory If It’s True?”
Some of the drivers waiting for the light honked their horns in support, and the sign-holders responded with jubilant waves and smiles. They all seemed to be having a good time, especially Maeve Cutty.
For Cole, it took some effort to restrain the abuse and ridicule that he wanted to unload on these right-wing imbeciles and especially on “Maeve Nutty,” as he had begun to call his neighbor. More and more these days Cole was feeling the urge to explode and go off on somebody, but he did not want to do it in front of his daughter.
“Dad, beep!” Rosa repeated. She was eager to make contact with Mrs. Cutty, whom she really liked. Every Christmas Mrs. Cutty would bring over to their house gingerbread cookies with frosting and sprinkles that she made herself, and whenever they met she was always smiling and happy to see Rosa and have a little chat.
The traffic light turned green, and without a word or a beep, Cole turned into the Hancock-Beauville parking lot.
Before exiting the car, Cole took the added precaution of donning a pair of latex gloves, and he instructed Rosa to do the same. The girl wasn’t too keen on this.
“Do we have to, Dad?” she said plaintively from behind her face mask and face shield. “My hands get all sweaty. It’s gross.”
“Rosa, do you really want to risk your life over a pair of sweaty hands? This place is a death trap. It’s full of virus. Do as I say. You’ll thank me some day.”
The child pouted but silently obeyed. Now gloved-up, masked-up, and face-shielded-up, Cole confidently stepped out of the car, knowing that he and his daughter were protected. The SPAARZ virus, or any other potentially life-threatening pathogen that might happen to be lurking in the air, was of little threat to them now.
Under the blazing June sun, the two of them crossed the packed parking lot.
“It’s hot,” Rosa said. “My hands are already sweaty.”
“Stop complaining,” Cole said.
Up ahead of them, about fifty feet away, two women stood near the clinic’s main entrance. One wore a white lab coat, the other was in a suit. Clinic employees, Cole presumed, taking in the scene. Just behind the women, and affixed to the building, was a large sign that read, “FOR YOUR SAFETY AND OURS: Masks are required at all times in Hancock-Beauville Medical Center. Any persons not complying with this request will be immediately ejected from the premises. Thank you.” Next to this was another sign, smaller in size but no less emphatic: “Hancock-Beauville Medical Center strictly forbids smoking anywhere on the premises. Any persons caught in violation of this request will be promptly ejected. Thank you.” Despite this very clear messaging, neither of the two women standing in front of these signs was wearing a mask, and the woman in the suit was smoking a cigarette.
Cole was outraged. A blast of fury erupted deep within him, from the very core of his being, and he instinctively reached for his phone. It was his go-to move whenever strangers triggered him like this. He would film the two miscreants, brazenly flouting the rules and selfishly putting other people’s health at risk, and post it to his FaceFace and Chirper accounts. He might also demand to know the names of their respective bosses and file some complaints.
“Are you calling Mom?” Rosa asked.
Cole looked at his daughter. For whatever reason the girl still possessed a certain unspoiled innocence, a virginal goodness, and it made him pause. He knew that his confrontation with the two rule breakers would surely lead to an acrimonious scene. There would be threats and snide remarks and most likely some shouting and a good deal of profanity. As gratifying as it would be to let off some steam, Cole grudgingly decided it wasn’t something the child needed to see.
He slid the phone back into his pocket and said, “Actually, I’ll call her later. When we get out.”
Still, part of Cole could not let this indignity slide. The effrontery and the shameless defiance of the women were too much. Some sort of public rebuke was needed here. Some sort of public shaming. And then, as though the universe was responding to his will, Cole received a sort of gift. As he and Rosa neared the entrance, the maskless smoker glanced at him, and eye contact was made. Seizing the moment, Cole venomously narrowed his eyes above his face mask and waved a hand back and forth in front of his face shield, making it clear that he found the smoke to be both noxious and offensive.
Unbothered by this, the woman slightly averted her gaze and nonchalantly exhaled a billowing plume of smoke.
In the clinic lobby, a masked and gloved nurse asked Cole and Rosa if they had SPAARZ or any SPAARZ symptoms—“fever, headache, runny nose?” They said no to both questions. Their temperatures were taken and then they were tested for SPAARZ, an unpleasant and somewhat painful procedure that involved a long cotton swab inserted up their noses. The results were negative. Now cleared, now deemed clean and safe, they were permitted to proceed to the waiting room.
The space was crowded. Twenty-plus Beauvillians, all obediently masked up, sat on sofas and chairs in an attitude of bovine solemnity. Few people were talking, and those that were did so in hushed tones. In the check-in line, people stood six-feet apart on round plastic floor mats that read, in large letters, “FOR YOUR SAFETY AND OURS, STAND HERE!” This was to enforce social distancing, and to save lives. The lone receptionist sat behind a specially constructed wall with a plexiglass-covered window. When their turn came, the new arrivals stepped up to the window and spoke to the receptionist through a touchless intercom system.
Within seconds of joining the queue, Cole and Rosa witnessed a kerfuffle. Two men, one old, one young, started going jaw to jaw—or rather, mask to mask. The few conversations in the room suddenly stopped. Everyone stared. The problem was that the old guy refused to stand on his safety mat. Instead, he had moved into the space between his safety mat and the safety mat in front of him on which the young guy stood, and the young guy did not seem to appreciate this.
“Look, dude,” the young guy was saying, “this is no time to be selfish. We all need to follow the rules, and I don’t want your germs. People are dying, OK? People are dying!”
“Says who, the TV?” the old guy said with some fire. He was mid-sixties and wore paint-stained painter’s pants, a plain white T-shirt, and a paint-stained baseball cap. A working man, Cole observed. As for the young guy, he was late twenties, clean cut, and wore a plaid madras shirt with chino Bermuda shorts. A former frat boy, Cole decided.
“Just stand on your mat,” the frat boy said. “Nobody wants any trouble.”
“No! I won’t put up with it!” the old guy roared, irately waving an arm. “They’re treating us like children! I’m paying for this shit. These damn doctors work for me! I’ll stand wherever the hell I want!”
With this hostile outburst, many in the waiting room became visibly worried, even afraid. Those waiting in line appeared especially concerned. The woman on the safety mat in front of Cole and Rosa looked all around in mute panic, as though searching for security guards, or help of any sort. Finding no immediate assistance, she at last gazed desperately at Cole. He pretended not to see her. And one place ahead of this woman, on the safety mat behind the angry old guy, a young mother protectively pulled her five-year-old close and backed away from the fracas, though she was careful to keep one foot on her mat.
“You want me to call the cops? I’ll call the cops,” the frat boy said with bravado as he pulled out his phone.
“I don’t care who the hell you call,” the angry old guy said. “You can call the damn president for all I care. Tell him to send in the National Guard.”
This allusion to a potential armed incursion only heightened the nervous tension in the room, though one elderly woman—she was seated and had an oxygen tube attached to her nose—broke into a peal of gravelly laughter.
Then, at last, a white knight arrived. Over the intercom came an incensed voice: “Siiirrrrr!” Everyone in the room turned to look at the receptionist behind the plexiglass window. She had risen authoritatively from her chair—she was good-sized, large and in charge—and now stood glaring menacingly at the angry old guy in the white T-shirt. Her demeanor made it clear that she was not going to tolerate any bunkum, particularly from someone who had the audacity to claim something like, “These damn doctors work for me!”
“Stand on your safety mat!” she shouted through her mask, her voice bellowing over static-crackling speakers. “Or you will be ejected from the premises! Hancock-Beauville Medical Center has a zero-tolerance policy! I repeat, STAND ON YOUR SAFETY MAT!”
The old guy looked at her, and his chest-thumping swagger slowly faded. The fire dimmed in his eyes and a look of uncertainty came over his face. He was hesitating, unsure of his next move. The room was silent. Everyone was watching, curious to see what he would do.
“NOW!” the receptionist hollered with searing wrath.
At this, the old guy flinched and the last mutinous flicker left his eyes. His expression grew gloomy and discouraged, and he lowered his gaze to the floor. It was just what the crowd wanted. In their face masks and face shields, the people now felt emboldened to speak up. They now felt safe to speak up.
“Get back to your mat,” someone said quietly but with sneering contempt.
“Yeah, get back to your mat, tough guy,” another person said from the back of the room, his voice a little louder, and a little bolder.
“Yeah!” said the woman standing in front of Cole and Rosa, now bristling with righteous fury.
“Yeah!” Cole said, adding his two cents.
Glancing around the room, the old guy took in the many scornful, half-hidden faces that were judging and condemning him. For a moment he stubbornly wavered, as though unwilling to capitulate to the herd. But once again his resolve seemed to fade, and with a sullen, dejected air, he submissively returned to his safety mat.
Delighted by this, several people laughed. One person clapped. Yet another said, “Loser!” The laughter grew louder and more profuse. Many guffawed and giggled with great glee.
And just like that, the rebellion was quashed. The dangerous man had been put in his place, publicly scolded and abased, and the people were pleased. Order had been restored to Hancock-Beauville Medical Center.
Yet this feeling of communal assurance was short lived. For there now came another ruckus.
Just behind the receptionist was a wall with a double-doorway through which you could see into the area where the SPAARZ inoculations were being given. Bodies clad in pink and blue nursing scrubs scrambled past the doorway as raised voices were heard over the intercom.
“We need help here!”
“Where’s Dr. Holiday?”
“I think she’s outside.”
“That’s not how you do CPR!”
At this last comment, a tremor of alarm passed through the waiting room. All around Cole and Rosa anxious glances were exchanged. Brows furrowed with confusion and fear.
In a near whisper Rosa said, “Dad, I know how to do CPR. Should I go help?” As part of her swimming-lessons course at the Beauville Swim and Racquet Club this past winter, Rosa had learned how to give the breath of life. If needed, she was ready to spring into action and offer her expertise.
Cole, however, was not listening to his daughter. Like all the other adults in the queue, he was craning his head to get a better look at what was happening beyond the receptionist.
Just then, a doctor in a white lab coat rushed into the waiting room. It was the doctor who had been standing in front of the building with the smoker. Now masked-up, she flew past the check-in line, went through a door near the receptionist’s window, hurried past the receptionist, and disappeared through the double-doorway into the back space.
At this point, the intercom was turned off. The receptionist, who had remained at her desk, was seen to make a phone call. Her words were not audible through the plexiglass window, even though everyone in the waiting room had gone quiet and was straining to listen.
The first to break the silence was the angry old guy in the white T-shirt.
“To hell with this shit!” he said as he left his safety mat and started for the exit. “I’ll take my chances. Good luck assholes!”
With extreme vexation the mother of the five-year-old scoffed as she turned to watch him go. The old guy’s hostility and lack of manners, and especially his disregard for the safety of other people—in short, his complete lack of kindness—were clearly an affront to all she felt was right and true. But soon the man was gone, and good riddance. It meant that she, and everyone else who had been in line behind him, could move forward one place to the next safety mat.
Though the nurses had stopped calling in patients, check-in was resumed and eventually Cole and Rosa stepped onto the safety mat in front of the plexiglass window. Yet just as Cole was about to address the receptionist, there was another commotion. Into the waiting room came a pair of EMTs with a rolling gurney. The gurney had a damaged wheel that wobbled and squeaked gratingly with each rotation. Everyone in the room came to attention.
Unlike in the movies, these EMTs did not seem to be in a rush. One of them, a big guy with a prominent belly and a thick red beard that sprouted wire-like whiskers all around his blue paper face mask, sauntered up to the receptionist. Cole and Rosa stepped off to the side.
“You guys called for an ambulance?” the big guy said to the woman behind the window.
“Are you new?” she said, her voice ringing out over the intercom.
“Yeah. Both of us. First shift,” the guy said as he looked back toward his partner who was manning the gurney. She was very short, maybe four foot six. From behind her mask and face shield she warily took in the room, looking from side to side with fearful eyes, as though she was leery that someone might jump out and attack her. Or maybe she was afraid that the room was filled with SPAARZ.
“What happened to Charlie?” the receptionist said.
“I don’t know,” the big guy said, happy to break for a little chitchat. “I heard something about someone had a nervous breakdown. Really lost it, from what they said. Too much stress, evidently. Another guy got a job selling real estate. Hell, with home prices what they are right now, I was thinking I should probably look into it myself. Why not, you know?”
“Tell me about it,” the receptionist said, also happy to break for a little chitchat. “I keep getting letters in the mail from these realtors who want to sell my house. They say the market’s never been hotter. But where would I move? Plus, I like my house.”
“Well, you know what it is,” the big guy said, as though “it” was patently obvious. “It’s because of all these jerkoffs from Massachusetts. They’re all moving up—”
“Excuse me!” said a perturbed voice.
All eyes shifted to the door beside the receptionist’s window. Looming there was a nurse in pink scrubs.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but we do have an emergency here.”
“Well, I gotta go,” the big guy said to the receptionist. He and his half-pint sidekick wheeled the squeaking gurney into the back room and the door closed behind them.
All through the waiting room more anxious glances were exchanged. One of the would-be patients got up from his seat and walked out.
“Sir, can I help you?” This was the receptionist, now looking over at Cole through the plexiglass window. He stepped back onto the safety mat in front of the window and explained that his daughter was here for her first SPAARZ shot. As the woman entered Rosa’s name into her computer, Cole watched the scene in the back room. From this vantage he could see nearly everything. The EMTs had gotten a youngish guy—he was very skinny, with a shaved head and tattoo-covered arms—into the gurney. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face.
“… Bumble?” came over the intercom.
“I’m sorry?” Cole said, looking back at the receptionist.
“Is Rosa still with Dr. Bumble?” the receptionist repeated with irritation.
“Any changes with her insurance?”
Again the receptionist began typing, and Cole turned back to the action. The doctor in the white lab coat was now giving the tattooed man an injection. Cole wondered what it was. Then, realizing once more that the receptionist was speaking to him, he said, “I’m sorry—what?”
“I said you can take a seat and we’ll call you. Or would you like me to bring you some popcorn?”
After Cole and Rosa had found a place to sit, Rosa said, “Daddy, why did the ambulance people come to the doctors?”
Cole saw his daughter was genuinely perplexed. He said, “Because someone … had an injury. And he needs to go to the hospital. This is just a clinic.”
“Oh … But what happened?” Rosa said, now with concern.
“I don’t know,” Cole said.
Pondering things, the girl finally said, “Daddy, I’m not sure I want to get the shot.”
“Rosa, not you,” Cole said with sudden ire. Lucas, Cole’s eighteen-year-old son and Rosa’s older brother, was refusing to take the shot, and it was a major pain in Cole’s ass. The kid was turning into some sort of reactionary crackpot. First he had been sent home from school for refusing to wear a mask. Then he had written an English paper comparing the government’s SPAARZ policies—lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and supposed “censorship” of dissenting opinion—to Nazi Germany, which had gotten him suspended for three days. And finally, he had begun regurgitating all sorts of tin-foil-hat conspiracy garbage. He had claimed that the shots contained graphene oxide, a lethal toxin; that the shots were part of a “depopulation agenda” by global elites; and that the shots had more than one hundred “known” side effects, including blood clots that led to heart attacks and sterility in both men and women. All of this, of course, was utter foolishness, Cole knew. Yet because of it Lucas had resolutely declared for the past year that he would never take the jab. Among other things, this meant the boy would not be allowed to enroll at Olmsted College this fall, as the school required all students and staff to be vaccinated and boosted.
With a glum face, Rosa said nothing.
“This is about your brother, isn’t it?” Cole said. “Well let me remind you, Rosa—Lucas is not a doctor or a scientist. He’s just a kid who reads too much nonsense on the internet. He’s just trying to be difficult. That’s his new thing. He thinks he’s a rebel.”
The girl remained silent. She loved Lucas and didn’t want him to get in trouble.
“What did he say?” Cole said firmly.
Still Rosa said nothing, though she was growing more and more distraught. There was worry on her little face.
“Rosa,” Cole said.
Finally the girl broke. “He said I shouldn’t take it,” she said with distress, feeling that she was betraying Lucas but that she had no other choice. “He said I don’t need it, and that all of these soccer players are dropping dead.”
Cole erupted. “What a jackass!” he said. People looked at him but he didn’t care. “That’s bullshit. All of it! He’s just ignorant.” This got more looks, people turning around in their chairs.
“I think he’s smart,” Rosa said with defiance. She didn’t like it when Daddy was mean to Lucas, which was happening a lot these days. Daddy could say nasty things.
“Is he smarter than me?” Cole said in a curt tone.
Rosa paused to look at her father. Actually, she kind of did think Lucas was smarter than him. In fact, she thought Lucas was the smartest person she knew, even smarter than their mother, and she was a college professor. But Rosa kept this to herself.
Sensing some dissent, Cole persisted. “Is he smarter than Dr. Gerbyll? Is he smarter than the NPH? Smarter than the DCP? The FAQ? The New York Sloth? The Atlantic-Establishment monthly? CNBM? Is he smarter than Jess Murdlow?” Jess Murdlow was Cole’s favorite TV pundit, one of the big stars of CNBM. Though she was a political journalist who had no medical or scientific training whatsoever, she had spent the past two years routinely mocking and “destroying” all the “anti-vax numbskulls” while vehemently promoting the safety and efficacy of the jabs, not to mention the expertise of Dr. Gerbyll and the heroic achievement of the nation’s medical professionals and especially the pharmaceutical companies that sponsored her show.
“I don’t know,” Rosa said morosely.
“Well I do,” Cole said. “What Lucas refuses to accept, Rosa, is that The Science is settled. Everybody knows this. Why else would all these people be here? And remember, you’re not doing this just to protect yourself. You’re doing it to protect everyone around you—right? We’ve talked about this. The vaccines work best if everyone takes them. And so you wouldn’t want Daddy to get sick again, would you? Or your mother?” Despite both of them being double jabbed and boosted, Cole had already caught SPAARZ twice, and Rosa’s mother had caught it once. “You wouldn’t want us to get sick again and maybe … die?”
No, Rosa didn’t want anyone to get sick or maybe die. But still, she felt very confused. Part of her felt like crying, but she knew Daddy would get mad. Instead she shook her head.
“Good girl,” Cole said. He wanted to give her an affectionate pat. But he remembered this might not be safe, so he held off.
The door near the receptionist’s window opened and the EMTs came out with the tattooed man on the squeaking gurney. He appeared weakened but alert. With the oxygen mask strapped to his face he listlessly observed the waiting-room crowd as they all observed him back. Rosa thought he looked very sad.
As soon as the injured man was gone, Hancock-Beauville Medical Center got back to business. The door near the receptionist’s window reopened and a masked nurse appeared.
“Eddie Prole?” she called out, looking around the room expectantly. “Eddie Prole? … Do we have an Eddie Prole?”
There was no answer. The nurse consulted her clipboard. “What about, ah, Charlotte Cupcake? Is that right? Charlotte Cupcake?”
There was indeed a Charlotte Cupcake, and after another twenty minutes, during which time many people came and went, the nurse called out, “Rosa Perrot?”
Behind her face mask and face shield, Rosa smiled and shyly raised her hand, just like she did at school.
“You’re next, sweetie,” the nurse said with welcoming eyes. “Come on in.”
Afterward, out in the parking lot under the still-blazing sun, father and daughter were in good spirits. Cole especially was in good spirits. They had done the right thing, he knew. They had affirmed their faith in Science, aligned themselves with progressive opinion, and showed themselves to be morally upright citizens who were concerned for the common good. Yes, they had done the right thing, and it felt very good indeed.
“That didn’t hurt, right?” Cole said, smiling buoyantly behind his face mask and face shield.
“Nope,” Rosa said in a cheery voice.
“You know what? Why don’t we get a picture? I’ll put it on FaceFace and Chirper, to show everyone how brave you are. Would you like that?”
“Mmm—OK,” Rosa said tepidly, her mood now dipping. Daddy was always putting pictures of her on FaceFace and Chirper, and Rosa wasn’t so sure that she liked it. She wasn’t sure why, because she usually liked taking pictures. But with Daddy and social media and people she didn’t know writing things about her, it seemed … weird.
“Let’s go over here,” Cole said, motioning to a large blooming hydrangea bush. “No, hold on,” he said, changing his mind, “let’s do it in front of the building, by the sign.”
They walked back to the clinic entrance and stood in front of the large “FOR YOUR SAFETY AND OURS” sign. Cole took out his phone.
“Are we taking off our masks?” Rosa asked.
“No. That would look bad,” Cole said. “Now, pull up your sleeve and turn a little to the side, so people can see your bandage, OK?”
They assumed their poses and Cole held out the phone in front of them.
“Smile!” he said. The shutter clicked and he examined the result. He wasn’t pleased. His hair stuck out to one side. He neatened it with his hand and said, “Let’s take a couple more, to make sure we get a good one. Try to look happier.”
“Dad, I’m hungry,” Rosa said after their fifth picture. She was ready to go home. “Isn’t Tyce coming for supper tonight? I think that’s what Mom said.”
“Just a minute, honey,” Cole said. He had chosen the best picture and was uploading it to Chirper. He typed out a caption—“So proud of Rosa, doing the right thing and keeping other people safe!”—and added hashtags: #bravegirl #keepingpeoplesafe #vaccinessavelives. He read everything through, smiled with satisfaction, and hit send. Then he repeated the procedure on FaceFace.
Once he had finished, Cole felt a frisson of excitement. He had a very good feeling about this one. His record “likes” for a single social-media post was two hundred and seventeen for something he had written on Chirper a year earlier, in which he had eviscerated the anti-vax morons, writing: “Stop coddling these criminals. Lock them up, take their jobs, and deny them medical services. They’re endangering all of us. Enough is enough!” Now that had been thrilling, Cole recalled—watching the “like” numbers go up, up, up, as he additionally got many positive, ego-bolstering comments from people who thought just like him. It was heady stuff—that rush, that feeling of euphoria, that feeling like he was important and universally admired. And now he had a feeling that this new post might challenge his “likes” record or maybe even smash it and go viral. Who knows? It was possible.
Cole and his daughter walked to the car, and by the time he had strapped himself into his seat, Cole saw on his phone that his Chirper account was lighting up. His “So proud of Rosa” chirp had already gotten thirteen likes, three positive comments, and two re-chirps. And boom, there it was—that chemical rush of pleasure, that full-body suffusion of … what was it? Serotonin? Dopamine? Adrenaline? Cole wasn’t sure, exactly. But whatever it was, it felt good. Actually, it felt great. It felt wonderful. It felt like … life.