by Jingshu Helen Yao
I was in history class when the breaking news came, almost falling asleep to Mr. Kang’s dull voice. He was murmuring about the Post-New Norm Social Unrest when the emergency holoboard unfolded itself on top of everyone’s tablet.
Mr. Kang paused his lecture, staring at the announcement for a full minute until he suddenly stood and yelled.
“The vaccines are here.” He threw his tablet while every student looked at him in shock. “16 years, it’s finally happening.”
He kneeled, covered his head, and started to sob.
I exchanged a shocked look with my best friend Hassan, whose holoprojection sat next to me, then I felt something strike me hard and knock the holoprojector off.
It was Mom who threw herself onto my shoulder and broke me out of my history class. She looked as crazy as Mr. Kang, sobbing and laughing at the same time, yelling something I couldn’t comprehend.
“You will finally live an actual life, Norman.” Mom shook my shoulders and pulled me into a tighter hug. “Making friends, hanging out, anything you want!”
She let go of me and paced around with an amount of excitement I had never seen in her.
“The old ways will resume soon,” she said. “Everything will go back to normal.”
With the initial shock and confusion slowly fading away, I started to understand what had happened.
With the vaccines being invented, The Pandemic was going to end and soon. The New Norm might change and people could go back to live in the Old Ways. Except for people like me, who were born after 0 A.C., the world After COVID.
Ever since I could remember, my mother always talked about the Old Ways, where everyone had to physically go everywhere to have their daily tasks done. To me, it sounded troublesome, unnecessary, and even disgusting. I couldn’t imagine going a long way to a destination and sharing a space with so many strangers. What if they got into physical conflict, where they couldn’t pull away even if they were injured?
In the world that I was familiar with, only the grounders who provided essential services lived in the lower part of the city. They usually had a big family to support but failed to find a job that allowed them to work with a safe social distance. The jobs paid extremely well, yet once they chose to join, there was no way back. Most of them got sick very soon and even if they survived, the fast mutation of the virus still put them at risk. I had heard stories about people being kidnapped, raped, or murdered in the dark old days. It must have been such a chaotic and dangerous way to live and I couldn’t believe someone would be willing to go back to that lifestyle. What was wrong with those people? A society where everyone was running around like the desperate grounders sounded impossible for me.
“It sounds terrible.” I shrugged every time Mom tried to convince me that the Old Ways were much better than the New Norm. “Just forget about it.”
“It has been 16 years,” she said, twisting her hands together. “And I still can’t get used to such isolation.”
16 years ago in 2020, The Pandemic, formerly known as COVID-19, spread around the world and it never ended. All the attempts to create vaccines were in vain and the New Norm was established. In 2025, the heavy investment into virtual reality, holograms, and artificial intelligences by every government around the world paid off and human society started to function with minimized physical human interactions. It was in every history book, thousands of articles, and hundreds of documentaries. I really didn’t want to hear more about it.
Whenever Mom started to talk about the Old Ways, I just shook my head, turned on my holoprojector, and hung out with my friends.
Mom also had problems with the friends I made, even Hassan, whom I had known since elementary school.
“You never met them in person,” she said, her voice filled with worries. “Everything they said could be fake. It’s not real friendship.”
I wanted to scream at her when she said those words. I didn’t even meet my father in person. She did physically meet him 17 years ago but all he did was knock her up and run off. How about that?
She also claimed that I never met my grandparents because I was never physically present with them in one place. Even though she talked with them through hologram calls a few times per month and we always had VR holiday dinners, she still thought that she wasn’t able to reunite with her parents for almost two decades. Unfortunately, my grandparents seemed to believe the same. Every time we met during the VR family gathering they squeezed me so hard that I wished to turn off the tactual simulator on my VR suit.
On the other hand, Uncle Mike was way better company during those gatherings and the person I looked up to the most. Even though he was one year older than my mom, he coped with his life better than any other adults I knew. Uncle Mike was one of the top programmers who specialized in designing VR suits that most accurately simulate all physical senses. Because of Uncle Mike, my family could sometimes try out the newest products around and all of my classmates were jealous of me.
“Some people are more forward thinking,” Uncle Mike told me. “I don’t look down upon those who were tied to the past. I simply pity them.”
In the background, I heard my mom hug and sob with my grandparents.
The history had a name for people like me, The Quarantine Babies. If it wasn’t for quarantine, my mother would’ve never been so lonely and agreed for her ex-boyfriend to come over. The two wouldn’t have had sex after breaking up for two months and I wouldn’t have slipped through the condom and landed in my mom’s womb. It was always awkward to hear about how one was conceived and what was more awkward was that it was never supposed to happen.
“Why didn’t you choose abortion?” I asked Mom.
“What was done is done,” she answered after a long pause. “I never regret my decision.”
I doubt her honesty.
Despite her backwardness, most people would consider my mom a remarkable person.
“She was going to start her PhD when she had you,” my grandfather told me during the New Year’s Day dinner last year. “We all thought her academics were finished when she decided to become a single mom.”
Mom managed to get back to her thesis when I started elementary school and graduated with a PhD in sociology the same year I entered middle school.
“You should feel lucky that all school is done remotely,” Uncle Mike followed up. “You would never be able to work, study, and take care of your child at the same time with the old ways.”
Mom seemed to be annoyed by this comment but she didn’t say anything. Instead she scooped more stir-fried beef onto my plate.
“I wish you could try my cooking, Ma,” she said to Grandma. “You never got the chance for all these years.”
“I can smell the scent,” Grandma replied. “I know it must be delicious.”
“I also miss your steamed eggplant,” Mom continued. “Haven’t had it in so long.”
VR dinner meant that we all ate our own food in different locations and time zones at the same table. From our end, we had pesto shrimp pasta, fried beef and celery, and salad for dinner. My grandparents were having fried dough, soy milk, porridge, and steamed buns for breakfast. It was between meal time for Uncle Mike so he was only having coffee and cookies. We were able to see what the others were eating but could only taste the food on our own table.
“Talking about that,” Uncle Mike interrupted. “Our team is developing an oral simulator that can perfectly mimic how the different flavours and textures activate our taste bud. Once the new product comes out, we will be able to taste each other’s food.”
“It’s never going to be the same,” Mom insisted.
I was too young to remember anything from the economic and social crisis when the New Norm was first established. To me, the lavish celebration for the vaccine seemed almost terrifying. All the adults, especially those over the age of 30, seemed to be overwhelmed with waves of joy. VR fights usually wouldn’t cause much damage since anyone at a disadvantage could pull away at any time. However, the fights over the vaccine order had led to eight injuries and one death at the local pharmacy. Even though experts had estimated 80% of the population would have access to it in the coming six months, people still fought for it for no reason.
In the middle of the chaos, I escaped the uncertainty and worries by playing hologames with Hassan. We were an unstoppable duo in most games. On one hand, our personalities perfectly complemented each other. Hassan was the passionate, risk-taker type while I was more of an observer who always thought twice before an act. It was surprising we were friends with such opposite personalities but our differences were an advantage when it came to forming a thorough plan as a team. On the other hand, we knew each other so well that we usually didn’t require words to cooperate.
“It could be interesting,” Hassan said after listening to my complaint about the situation while handling the game. “It’s like an adventure, don’t you think so?”
His bright eyes glared at me and I felt the pulse that was pushing me every time I looked into his eyes the past few months. Unlike the usual ideas in my clear mind, it gave me an urge to do something crazy, like pressing my lips against his.
“What are you scared of, bro?” Hassan continued, not hearing my response.
“Not really scared,” I answered. “Just anxious.” It wasn’t completely true. I was scared that something would go wrong when I met Hassan, or any other friends or family in-person. They might find me different from what I appeared through holoprojection and stopped being my friend. Or I would find them disappointing in-person, and lose the precious relationships I currently valued. Either ways, it terrified me.
“Hey,” Hassan said and patted my back, which made me shiver. He would certainly notice my discomfort if it happened physically in-person. “Let’s go on this adventure together, okay?”
In approximately one week, the first round of order for the vaccine arrived. People who were vaccinated flooded to the street, which had been almost deserted for the past 16 years except for the occasional visit of cleaning droids and ground portal drones. I had seen graphics of those streets—dark, dirty, and lifeless. The VR shopping streets were way more appealing by comparison. I couldn’t understand all that excitement. A child, no more than five years old, was dragged down the street by his parents. Disoriented in a space filled with physically present strangers, he screamed and cried with real terror. How could this be a good idea?
“Norman.” Mom’s voice pulled me back from my thoughts. “I placed the order for the vaccine.”
“I don’t want it,” I said firmly.
“Life will be better soon,” Mom said. “You will soon be able to travel, to actually meet your friends, your uncle and your grandparents.”
“But it will never be the same!” The words burst out until I realized that was what Mom always said.
“You were born into an isolation world,” Mom said. “It makes sense that these changes scare you but you will get used to it.”
“How could you be so sure?” I asked. “You never got used to the New Norm yourself.”
“I was able to make a life yet I couldn’t forget the Old Ways,” Mom said slowly. “Humans are meant to be connected.”
“But I would never exist if it wasn’t for the isolation!”
“Quite the opposite,” Mom replied. “You’ve asked me why didn’t I get an abortion. Well that was what I planned to do when I first found out that I was pregnant. Yet society functioned slowly during the pandemic and it took me a few weeks to get the appointment.”
“I was lonely at that time, but there you were, growing in my womb,” Mom sighed. “And when I could get the abortion done, I suddenly realized that your presence had comforted me, made me realize that I wasn’t always alone, so I knew that I needed you, another person in my life.”
“Son.” She finally raised her eyes to meet mine. “You are going to be okay in this physical world because it was the reason that you were born, the desire for physical accompaniment and connection of human beings.”
“Hey, my family has got the vaccine,” Hassan told me before exiting the holo-classroom. “I can’t wait to try it out.” Sparkles of excitement shined in his eyes and I felt the urge again. It didn’t make me feel disgusted as before, but I felt a slight dizziness.
“I have to admit,” I said, looking into his eyes. “I am scared.”
To my surprise, he extended his hands to me, which I took with care.
“I know,” he said. “Same for me.”
I shook so violently that Hassan must have felt it, yet it didn’t bother me much.
The quarantine had changed my way of thinking. Now I feel tense in the presents of strangers. In this story, I imaged how the world will be if the quarantine continues for another 16 years and how the new generations will react to a physical world.
Jingshu Helen Yao is a creative writer based in Toronto. Coming to Canada from China for post-secondary education, her experience inspired her to explore bilingual and multicultural practice in her writings. She is now pursuing graduate study in Museum Studies and excited to explore new directions in academia and writing. She is interested in learning the methods in which the museums can better involve indigenous, queer, and other minority communities in Canada.
Her short story “The River” is published on Tint Journal, and “Have You Forgiven Me” on The Roadrunner Review.
Social Distanziner - Toronto, ON