Maddie sat in her car in the PMA parking lot, focused on controlling her breathing. She and Oscar had promised each other that they would go inside together. Every time she had been to the office before, her parents had done all the talking. Now she wished she had paid more attention.
Her phone buzzed. It was time. She turned off the car and walked over to meet Oscar at the door.
“Hey,” he said.
“You ready?” he asked.
“I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.” She smiled. She almost turned around and walked back to her car and drove home. She smiled a little harder.
Oscar wore a suit and tie and a plain black mask, the first time she had ever seen him so dressed up. She hadn’t even known he owned a tie, much less knew how to put it on. He probably stole it from his dad’s closet and spent an hour on YouTube trying to figure out how to get it to line upright.
She had worn her best dress, the one she usually reserved for big family video calls where the camera was so far back that you could see her whole body instead of just her face. Today she wore a matching blue mask with flowers that she now worried might come across as too showy, or too childish.
“I’ve got all the transcripts and pictures and stuff right here,” she said. She started to take them out of her bag, then realized it was pointless and stuffed them back in, turning aside slightly so that Oscar couldn’t see her hands shake.
“Cool. That’s cool. I’ve got mine here, too,” he said. He checked his watch for the third time in less than a minute. “I hope we don’t fuck this up.”
“Just don’t swear, please,” she said.
They walked in through the revolving doors and stepped to one side, where a PMA worker in full hazmat took their temperature. The worker looked uncomfortable and bored—he didn’t even bother standing up, so they had to lean down to get to the machine. They got the all-clear a few seconds later and the doors to the waiting room slid open.
They were early, but the hard plastic chairs of the waiting room were still better than standing around in the parking lot. They would be assigned a number and have to wait for at least an hour anyway—the PMA was famously slow to do anything. They were ready to wait.
After she had delivered her carefully prepared speech to her parents, after she had cajoled and begged and made promises she couldn’t keep, after they reluctantly agreed to allow her to submit the application, her mother still pestered her about it every day for a month.
“So I was poking around online today and I saw that you’ll still need to update your CT diary every time you meet, even after you get approved.”
“I know, Mom. Obviously. I got a full 10 in my Pandemic Responsibilities class last year, remember?”
“That’s wonderful and I’m very proud of you, honey, but you still actually need to use what you learned. I want to make sure you’re ready for this.”
“Just because we’re not going to use protection anymore doesn’t mean we won’t be careful, so maybe just leave me alone for once?”
“Did you hear about family just down the road who all came down with COVID21 after their son shared a cigarette with one of his classmates? So irresponsible, I can’t even believe he would do something like that.”
“I know what you’re trying to say, Mom. We’re not going to suddenly start meeting with tons of other people or anything.”
“I know, and I trust you, but just don’t forget that this is a big step, OK? Not just for you, for all of us.”
Their number lit up on the wall—Maddie and Oscar stood up simultaneously. They navigated through the maze of plastic barriers that divided each seat and made their way to the desk with their number. A middle-aged woman directed them to put their documents into a slot in the wall. There was a small puff of disinfectant and the papers fell into her inbox.
“Welcome to the Pandemic Mitigation Authority,” she said. She began flipping through the documents. “Looks like we’ve got contact tracing diaries, evidence of relationship, testimonials, application forms… How long have you known each other, then?”
Maddie tried to point to one of the documents. “In the statement there you can see—”
“I’d rather if you told me in your own words, thank you very much.”
She took a deep breath and looked to Oscar for support. He was staring at his feet. They were the same feet he’d had his whole life. “Er, well, him and me were in the same online maths class, and we started chatting, and then DMing, and then we realized we live in the same city so we decided to meet. You can see in that picture on the left that we always kept a safe distance.”
“I can see that perfectly well. Please go on.”
“I… well I guess I should say we’ve totally discussed it with our families, and of course we know how important it is but we’re both totally ready to share a transmission vector.” She wished she could text Oscar, to tell him not to be nervous, to tell him to say something.
Oscar caught the hint even without a message. “We really are crazy about each other, ma’am.” It was all Maddie was going to get.
The woman briefly glanced up from the paperwork, then looked down again. “Well young man, I’ve got all your family’s contact tracing logs, too, but I don’t see any testimonials here in part 217-B. I’m going to have to call them before we proceed.”
Oscar closed his eyes.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Oscar’s father had said the week before. “There’s no fucking way I’m signing that thing. Get it out of my face right now.”
Oscar’s father had been an early victim of COVID21—he caught it right after the mutation, before anyone really knew what was happening. He was one of the few survivors of the new form of the disease. He had spent the past two years unable to walk more than a few meters without leaning heavily on his oxygen tank.
“I mean goddamn, Oscar, it could mutate again at any time, and then what? You want me to die?”
His father had always said that his life ended the day he caught that disease, but Oscar wasn’t about to bring that up now. “I can’t stay in isolation forever with you, Dad. I need this.”
“You do not need this, and I forbid it. Absolutely.”
So Oscar had forged his signature.
The PMA worker hung up the phone and turned back to them. The doors behind them hadn’t been automatically locked and they weren’t being escorted away by police, which was a good sign.
“That’s the final step, then. Your file is all set; you’ll hear back from us with a decision in four to six weeks.”
Maddie thanked her and the two of them left quickly. She bit her lip, hard, to stop from giggling on their way out. Once she started she wouldn’t be able to stop.
“Do you think they knew?” Maddie asked.
Oscar’s uncle—his dad’s brother—had been the one to come up with the whole plan. He’d convinced Oscar it was the only thing they could do; he’d pushed Oscar to take the next step with Maddie and get a license. When they realized they would need someone who looked and sounded similar enough to his dad to take the call, his uncle was not in a position to refuse.
Oscar’s dad was always drunk and always took a long afternoon nap. It was easy to arrange their appointment so that when the inevitable call came from the PMA, it could be re-routed to Oscar’s uncle while his dad slept.
The rehab centre never would have admitted Oscar’s dad while he still had a dependent living at home with no other place to go. Even for COVID21 survivors, social distancing laws override anything else.
Oscar motioned for Maddie to follow him around the side of the building.
“What are you doing? What if we get caught?” Maddie said. But she followed him anyway.
Oscar took her hand. It felt warm and clammy at the same time. This was the first time either of them had touched another person outside their vector. It was a forbidden moment of intimacy—if anyone saw them, a rejected application would be the least of their legal problems. Maddie looked up and saw tears in Oscar’s eyes.
“Thank you,” he said.