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The Days of the Virus: COVID-19 and its Consequences

The Orchid Police

When Jasleen first heard about the orchid police she pictured brightly-coloured uniforms, green armbands, and trowels instead of guns. They would step smartly to a door where an orchid transgression had taken place, and begin their investigation by laying out bedding soil and spraying a fine watery mist over the apartment. She told Mommy her impression, and her mother laughed.

"You've got a great imagination," her mother said. "Don't ever stop."

Frustrated that she wasn't being taken seriously, Jasleen went into her room to check on her orchid. She'd been given it for her birthday, and she felt responsible for its wellbeing. She dipped her finger into the bowl, which was a cute ceramic duck, and the soil felt a little bit dry. She poured a dribble of water from her drinking glass, and then watched the orchid to see if the gift was appreciated.

She wondered what it was like to be a plant, when the only thing they needed was water. Would that be like her, when she didn't have time for breakfast because Mommy had woken her late? Then she would only have juice, and by lunch she would be starving and ready to eat. Did the orchid live in a perpetual state of starvation? She tipped more water into the bowl and then rubbed the duck's head.

Once the lockdown happened, and her school closed, Jasleen began to wish for a sister. She was an only child. That meant when her friends disappeared into their various homes, she was alone. Her mother was on the phone with her job, and her father was far away on the farm. She tried to be good, but she couldn't resist being bratty just to get her mother's attention. She was used to being home in the evenings after school. Then her mother's attention was entirely hers, so the shift to the phone mother was estranging.

Mommy often reminded her that she had a bedroom full of toys, but as lively as some of them seemed at night, during the day they were inert. She'd seen Toy Story, as well as the sequels, but even with her imagination she couldn't get the toys to walk around. Instead, it was her in the bedroom with a bunch of dead toys. She crept into her parents' room when her mother was busy, but anything that was within reach, such as the dresser, was as boring as old clothes, or as worthy of a punishment as makeup. She had to be satisfied with looking at the bottles and tubes on her mother's dresser top, and that was just as boring as dead toys.

The only thing that seemed animate was her orchid. She'd had it for a month, and in that time it had dropped a leaf-that was a bad day as she imagined what it would be like to have her arm fall off-and bloomed. The bloom was delicate and beautiful, and she had the hardest time to keep from touching it. Her mother was serious. She wasn't to put her fingers into the middle where the internal part of the blossom seemed to go on for metres, so she merely looked into the tiny abyss. The delicate purple of the outer petals became more and more dark until it changed into black. She was reminded of the book about the elephant who knew about a tiny village that no one else could hear. She wanted a microscope, or a telescope, so she could scope the impenetrable trench which could hold all kinds of mysteries.

She had touched one of the petals, but, as if it knew about her mother's admonition, it turned brown and began to wither. Jasleen watered the plant more, making sure a few drops went right where they were most needed, but that didn't seem to make any difference. She turned the orchid away from the window so that passing authorities wouldn't be able to see what she'd done.

The rest of that day she was able to put it from her mind, but when she overheard Mommy talking to her father, a chill went over her limbs. People were breaking the quarantine, and the authorities were attacking them. The police had shot a girl for driving, apparently; even though the vehicle was crashed and she wasn't driving any more. They shot her anyway. The moral of the story was clear. It wasn't just what someone is caught doing, even past transgressions were punished under the new laws.

That evening Jasleen spent over an hour looking at her orchid, willing it back to health. "I didn't know you were so delicate," she whispered, "so it's not really a crime that I touched you."

She gave it a bit of water just so it felt better, standing well back from the plant to observe social distancing. As if she were acting a role for a hidden camera, Jasleen showed how much she cared about the plant by petting the duck's ceramic head afterward.

The next morning the bloom looked even worse, and Jasleen was torn between wanting to ask her mother if blooms naturally died after a few days and worrying that she'd killed it. She waited for the perfect moment over breakfast, when her mother's mouth moved from a straight line to the fuller lips of relaxation as she glanced through the newspaper.

"How long do you think my orchid will live?" She had decided finally on a full frontal attack.

Her mother's lips pursed a bit. "Years, probably. If you take care of it."

Jasleen heard the qualifier. Had she taken care of it? "What if it doesn't get enough light? You said it's unhealthy to stay inside all the time."

"When did I say that?"

"I heard you. Talking to Father. You said we should be outside."

"The lockdown is going to cause more problems than it solves."

Jasleen pondered the cryptic comment while drops of milk left her spoon and landed on her cereal. "Like what? What kind of problems?" Did her mother know?

"Nothing for you to worry about. But there are people who don't have a place to go. And they will really be suffering through this."

"What about people in prison?" Jasleen thought about the orchid police and shivered.

"Some of them are being let out."

"That's a good thing, right?"

"Maybe." Her mother shook the paper, folded it, and slid it back into the plastic bag it had arrived in. She used the tips of her fingers, and then washed her hands afterward. She saw Jasleen watching. "It's the ink. Gets on your fingers."

Jasleen looked at her own fingers. What if the ink from the orchid got on me and that's how the police find out?

"You didn't touch it, dear. Don't worry." Her mother rubbed Jasleen's head as she leaned over to pick up her mug.

"I didn't," Jasleen said dutifully, knowing full well that she lied.

She'd moved the orchid away from the window, just to keep its drooping blossom from the view, but she'd seen enough police shows to know that they could set up people with binoculars in other apartments and see everything in her room. Pulling the curtains would be suspicious, and the orchid would die without light. She went to the window under the guise of looking at the view, and trying to appear casual, she scanned the apartments in the block opposite theirs.

Most of the blinds were closed, but in the uncovered ones, she could see children playing, televisions on, and older people at tables with puzzles. When she'd asked her mother about the snitch line, and found out it meant people were being encouraged to tattle on one another, she knew that any of the people who lived across from her were potential snitches. None of them seemed particularly interested in her, but she knew from kids at school that such feigned indifference meant little when it came to actual malice.

She moved the orchid back into view, hoping their telescopes were strong enough to see that the bloom was drooping noticeably. She dribbled a bit of water into the duck's back to make up for moving it. Even the leaves were starting to lose their waxy appearance. She leaned over to see the plant better, but a siren rising and falling in the distance made her step back. Once they burst in with their trowels at the ready, she couldn't be caught standing over the plant. That would give everything away.

She heard her mother's voice in the living room, treating their house like an office. She'd wandered into view once and people had made nice comments about her cuteness, but the next time she did it they ignored her and her mother gave her a look that drove her from the room. Her mother could call the orchid police too. She seemed to know a lot about them. Would she tell on me though?

The siren passed their building and continued north, and Jasleen imagined other children, rougher than her or with more delicate plants. They'd been caught, so that might mean the police would be too busy to bother with her. She checked the soil again, carefully not touching the duck's sides in case she left fingerprints. It seemed moist, but not as much as when she first watered it. She dribbled a little more water, bracing her arm on the dresser so she didn't slip and damage the plant further.

She was tense at lunch. Her mother's frown didn't seem to be directed at her, but Jasleen couldn't enjoy her roti and sabzi while her orchid was dying in her room. She glanced at her mother. "Mommy?"

"What, dear?"

"I'm worried about that girl the police shot."

"What?" Her mother's gaze turned on her and Jasleen felt her stomach clench. "How did you hear about that?"

"You were talking to Daddy."

"That wasn't meant for you. You don't worry about that. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Jasleen pondered the physical and temporal placement of shootings. "So if she wasn't there, then the police wouldn't have killed her."

"You shouldn't be thinking about this." Her mother kissed the top of her head. "Now finish up, Mommy has to get back to work."

"Is she going to be OK?"

Her mother's mouth softened. "Don't you worry about her. She'll be OK."

Jasleen didn't find the answer satisfactory, but she couldn't ask about the orchid without giving away the whole game. The orchid looked worse, and Jasleen walked back and forth in her room. The stuffed animals looked at her accusingly, and the laughing dog picture on her wall seemed sinister. I could tell Mommy. She would help me. Would she?

She crawled into bed and when her mother passed by the door on her way back from the bathroom she asked how she felt.

"I'm OK. Just tired."

Her mother felt her forehead and then looked briefly at the orchid on the dresser before leaving the room. When Jasleen heard her on the phone again, she leapt from bed and went to the hall to listen. It seemed like a regular work conversation, all numbers and letters and dates and times, but she crept closer to make sure. If her mother was calling the orchid police she needed to know.

"What are you doing?" Her mother held her hand over her phone and looked pointedly at her.

"I wanted to ask you something." Jasleen looked away and dug her big toe into the carpet.

"Just wait, dear. I'm on a call."

Her mother's voice was tender enough, but Jasleen had seen her I've-been-interrupted-too-many-times look.

She wasn't sure when she began to cry. The orchid was leaning and the bloom was nearly completely wilted. The tunnel which led to the secret hidden village was closing up and the villagers were dying. It was all her fault. The accusing eyes of her stuffed animals glared at her from the floor where she threw them when they crowded in too close to her misery on the bed.

She was still sobbing, trying to keep quiet so her mother couldn't come to check on her, when she heard the door. Every muscle tensed, she listened to the muffled voices.

"Put it over here. There. Thanks. Difficult times."

The door closed and her mother was talking to herself. Jasleen felt like she had to pee, and while her mother was distracted with the orchid police she slipped into the bathroom. She locked the door with relief. They would never come in while she was peeing. All she needed to do was stay in the bathroom.

She dangled her feet so that her toes hit the floor as she moved her legs back and forth. She could stay in the bathroom all day. Her mother was still negotiating with the orchid police. Their voices were low enough she couldn't hear them, but her mother's voice was clearer.

It felt like an hour passed before her mother called. She'd made dinner and was standing outside Jasleen's bedroom by the sounds of it.

"I'm not hungry," Jasleen yelled. Her stomach was taut with the view her mother would have of the orchid. She shouldn't have left the stuffies on the floor. Her mother would lean down to pick them up and then she'd see the murder scene. Jasleen knew from police shows that her mother would back out of the room and close the door, preserve the scene as much as possible while she called the police.

When Jasleen burst out of the bathroom crying, her mother was about to knock. She ran into her mother's stomach and instinctually clutched her. "Don't tell them," she wailed into her mother's shirt.

"What's wrong?" Her mother lifted her chin. "You're crying. Are you hurt?"

While her mother felt her body for bruises Jasleen explained. Her sentences broken by sobs, she told about touching the orchid bloom. She described the tiny village and how she didn't mean to kill it.

"You poor dear." Her mother sat against the wall and pulled Jasleen onto her lap. "That was just a joke I made so that you would take care of the orchid. There are no orchid police. They don't exist."

"But what about that girl they killed?"

"That wasn't the orchid police, believe me." Her mother's face had hardened and Jasleen hugged her harder. "If the orchid dies, we'll get another one. You don't worry about it. The blossoms don't last forever, so yours just wilted. I'll bring it into the living room and take care of it."

"But what if it dies? You'll be blamed."

"Plants die, dear. And sometimes it's no one's fault. OK?" Her mother touched the side of her face.

"I hope it doesn't die."

When the orchid was set up on its own shelf in the living room-for Jasleen had insisted that none of the other plants were close enough to share its fate-she felt much better. Her mommy had taken over the job, and if she couldn't keep it alive, no one could. Jasleen cleaned up her room, refilled her water glass, and then sat on her bed. She was bored, and her mother was back on the phone.

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