“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Chicago” by Taylor Byas


After hours of games—my family and me shouting over one another in Taboo—everyone retreats to their designated rooms at nighttime. When the house goes dark, I can hear everyone in their separate corners like snippets of radio stations. My brother fires up the Xbox to play Call of Duty. A whistle trills in my mother’s bedroom as she watches old college volleyball games. Downstairs, my grandparents argue over the TV’s low volume, their voices rising and falling like a muffled opera aria.

Because there are more people than rooms in my grandparents’ house, my sister and I share a bed. Each night, we slip into the cool envelope of sheets, our matching black bonnets swishing against silk pillowcases. We settle in back-to-back, the space between our spines forming the shape of an hourglass. Farther into the night, when the temperature drops and the air in the room thins, we cough sparingly throughout the night, silently into our pillows. I’m not sick, we offer up like psalms in the pitch black of the room. I’m not sick.

At 3 am, my sister’s mis-swallowing of spit tests the weight of the word “family” in the mouth. She dissolves into a coughing fit, her body curling into itself as she tries to contain it. Between breaths she tries to explain herself, to ease my worries. Down…the wrong…pipe—rasps in intervals. I turn partially over to rub her back, to tell her I know. That it doesn’t matter. Eventually she stops, and her breathing settles as she dips back into sleep.

In the morning, I sneeze a few times while in the bathroom. When I open the door, I find my sister in the hallway, her face twisted into worry, doubt. Are you sick? she asks without asking. Before I can tell her no, she runs into my arms and hugs me, buries her face in my neck. This is her way of saying that she knows. That it doesn’t matter.

–March 19, 2020

taylorTaylor Byas is a fun-sized Chicago native who loves hugs. She’s spent her last six years in Birmingham, Alabama, where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is currently a first-year PhD student, poet, and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, The Journal, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and others.