For Richard was still “working” from home. And Lucy had resigned months ago—so queer, Clarissa thought; it seemed no one wanted to serve bourgeois housewives for minimum wage anymore.

But the pandemic was over now; the suffering—over!—thank heavens; it was over. With everyone vaccinated and at-home testing available, they were “learning to live with the virus.” A party, that was what they all needed. How glorious! What delight! To stroll to the corner pharmacy, herself, for some rapid COVID tests, the occasionally accurate home tests they might all take to be 58.1 percent sure they weren’t infected, before the party.

Clarissa tripped in her buoyant, light-heeled way to the pharmacy; soft peals of laughter drifting through the automatic doors; the pharmacy lights dazzling, positively fluorescent; Clarissa drinking in the promise of long, lush receipts; the exquisite suspense in discovering how many ExtraBucks one has been rewarded. The giggling grew louder, floating to her from the cashier, Clarissa realized, as she noticed his gaunt frame, his haunted eyes, the unusual name on his ID badge: “Septimus.”

“Lemme guess,” Septimus Smith managed to sputter through the crescendo of his hollering, explosive laughter. "You’re—hoo-hoo, hahahahaha, you’re—hehehehehehe—sorry! Sorry! You—ha—probably want— hoo-hahahaha—a COVID test.”

“Indeed,” replied Clarissa evenly.

Septimus, his mask shoved under his chin to better expel viral aerosols throughout the pharmacy, continued to laugh, maniacally now, unable to respond in words, but pointed to a sign whose printed SORRY, OUT OF COVID TESTS had been crossed out. Beneath, someone had scrawled, “1,500 people were lined up around the corner when the store opened. We sold out of our new COVID test shipment in three minutes. Five people were trampled to death. It was on the news.”

But Septimus laughed so he wouldn’t think of Evans, the shift supervisor; Evans whom he’d loved; Evans who had volunteered to man the pharmacy phone, never dreaming it would destroy him. Evans, who’d been carried away in a straitjacket, murmuring, fervently, over and over, “Hello, I am out of COVID tests, I am out of N95s, I don’t know when they will be back in stock. Can I help you with anything else?” the phone greeting repeated like a prayer, like viral RNA replicating in a host cell.

It was all too much! Septimus flung himself vigorously, violently, past Clarissa, through the open pharmacy door, crying, “I quit!”

And the thought began its creep across Clarissa Dalloway’s mind: what a shambles—an utter mess, as if after two years they’d failed to learn anything about COVID testing. The cases rising, falling, swirling, exploding. And yet, something had improved: Health insurance would cover the tests now. She would be ever so happy to submit the seventeen-page form, with receipts! Progress indeed! All was not lost! There was still some hope of a party, some hope for us all.

She dashed home to purchase same-day-delivery COVID tests from Amazon.

What a farce! What a curse! For every home test kit was labeled “temporarily out of stock” save one, which was priced at $1,783, “down from $1,999.” Nothing left to do now but submit a request for the government to send her some “rapid” tests, which promised results in fifteen minutes but had an estimated delivery time of two to three weeks—but the party was tonight.

Should she cancel the party? Ask the guests to test themselves; but how would they find tests? Check temperatures on the way in? Hold the party outside even though it was two below freezing? They were all vaccinated, this she knew—or did she? What about that Hugh? Hadn’t he once said, “That Q might be onto something,” his true sentiment shrouded as a joke? Mightn’t it be better simply to catch COVID now, to steel oneself against future variants that may, for all Clarissa knew, be even more virulent? But what of Peter; he was still frail from his bout of consumption; should one take risks on behalf of others? Yet perhaps the chance of stealing another kiss from Sally Seton in the garden outweighed the dangers?

“Fuck it,” Clarissa Dalloway thought. “Let’s throw the year’s first great superspreader.”