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Side Effects

“Okay, Boomer.” Charlie sighed. He was getting extremely tired of the attitude directed at him and his age mates by the younger generations. The quarantine which had initially been declared for a few weeks had now stretched into the third month. The young woman who delivered his groceries to the pick-up zone smirked at him as she made a show of wiping down the handle of the shopping cart before giving it a push that sent it into the side of his car.

Hey. At least she had a job. Charlie still had a year to go before he could collect Social Security and his pension. His 401K was in the tank. He had been laid off as soon as the Governor shuttered all non-essential businesses. His savings were almost gone and soon he would have to tap into to the remains of his 401K despite the ruinous surcharges. Widowed a decade ago, at least he didn’t have a family to support.

The younger generations, fed by mass and social media, had come to lay the devastating economic effects of the virus at the feet of the Baby Boomers. After all, it was the Boomers in the White House, Congress, and the Governors’ mansions who had shut down the entire country. And for what? To protect their own precious hides. As far as many of the youth were concerned, contracting the virus was akin to the chicken pox parties anti-vaxxer parents had arranged for their children in the 2000s — get it, get over it, become immune, and get on with life. But no. For those over 60, the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation, getting the virus meant a high probability of death. So the movements, job opportunities, and recreational activities of the young had to be restricted for the benefit of the old. And the young were resentful.

Two days after his shopping trip, Charlie scrolled through his news feed while enjoying his morning coffee. “Breaking News! Breaking News!” A half dozen posts with the same headline rolled by. Sufficient public pressure had been brought to bear that the President has fired the head of the FDA. A vaccine for the virus, created by a private firm, had been fast-tracked for approval. Manufacturing had already begun and the first doses of the drug would be available in a week’s time. The vaccines would be administered to the most vulnerable first; those receiving Social Security or disability benefits.

“Great,” thought Charlie, ” first I’m too old; now I’m too young. ” The article went on to say the first round of innoculations should take the better part of a month. Then a lottery system would be set up for Baby Boomers. After that limited quantities of the vaccine would be available for younger people.

The ensuing month seemed to pass even more slowly than the previous months of lockdown. But at last, Charlie received his letter, reported to the clinic, and was vaccinated. By the end of that month, all restrictions were lifted. While there were still cases of the virus occurring in the general population, the hospitals were no longer overwhelmed and there were fewer deaths. More importantly, there were no outbreaks among the vaccinated.

Not since VE Day had the country seen such giddy celebrations. Yes, the leaves were turning, but the promoters of every county fair, every music festival, every arts and crafts show seemed determined to schedule events before the first snowfall. Something was happening every single day. The celebrations were good for the economy, even if they were a short-term boost. Charlie was just happy to be back to work and did not mind missing the parties in the least.

The election came and went. Carried along by the surge of relief, the President won re-election handily. By Presidential proclamation, the Thanksgiving holiday was extended by two days, beginning on Tuesday and a national day of prayer declared. Sure, the media and the Left squawked, but they were given short shrift.

It started in the nursing homes and retirement communities on the morning of Black Friday. Nursing assistants and community managers arrived at their jobs only to find they could not understand their patients and residents. Oh, their charges were happily conversing among themselves but not in a language staff could comprehend. Yet in every case, the residents had no difficulty with understanding staff. When spoken to directly, they responded in comprehensible, if accented speech.

Over the next few weeks, other changes were manifested. Those patients who had been hopelessly confused became alert. Frail and bedridden seniors gained health and strength. Bearded men, overnight, became clean-shaven, with no trace of stubble and no regrowth. All seemed to gain a few short inches in height and become more slender. Perhaps strangest of all, their ears changed shape. Only those who had not received the vaccine remained at unaffected. Doctors and scientists were non-plussed. No one had an explanation. Yet suddenly, the oldest segment of society became strong and healthy.

After the initial proliferation of sensational headlines, public interest became more concerned with rescuing the economy. Life went on. Charlie was just happy to be back to work. Many were not as marginal businesses did not survive the shutdown. Work or no, Charlie looked forward to the Christmas holiday. He would be spending it with a niece and her family. After the long isolation of the spring and summer, coming together took on a new depth of meaning. For Charlie, the joy of the children’s performance on Christmas Eve at church and a homely gathering and magnificent feast on Christmas Day recalled the best of holidays celebrated while his beloved Martha was still alive.

The day after Christmas, Charlie woke early, but lay contentedly in bed. Saturday, and he had no place to go and a refrigerator full of leftovers. He reviewed his plans for the day — which happened to be a whole lot of nothing. Amazing how different it was, wasn’t it, when going nowhere and doing nothing was a matter of choice rather than government edict? Idly, Charlie reached to scratch an itch on his chin, and came fully, alarmingly, awake. Where there should only have been a trace of stubble, his fingers encountered several inches of wiry growth.

Charlie shot out of bed and nearly tripped on the hems of his sweat pants that were suddenly several inches too long. He also realized his waistband was uncomfortably tight as were the shoulders of his sweatshirt. A glance in the mirror offered a further shock. Not only did Charlie sport a full beard and mustache, his previously thinning hair curled about his shoulders. Charlie opened the news tab on his phone with thick, hairy fingers. He discovered he wasn’t the only one to be thus transformed. All across the country, middle-aged women and men found themselves shorter, stronger, and in the case of men, hairier than they had ever been before. As with the elderly, those who had not been vaccinated remained unchanged.

It took a few weeks for the nation to adjust to this new, new normal. After hastily purchasing a new wardrobe courtesy of Amazon, Charlie was back to work. He had no difficulty communicating with co-workers his own age, but talking to his boss required him to flip a mental switch. Charlie still thought in English and among his age-mates, it seemed to him he still spoke it. In talking to younger folk, however, it felt as though he had to force his larynx and lips to shape words they could understand.

All forms of media were filled with wild speculation. Among the elderly, nursing homes emptied as suddenly healthy seniors no longer required care. For the middle-aged, after ergonomic adjustments to workplaces were instituted, it was back to work as usual, although many found desk jobs to be confining and irritating and were drawn into the trades. Charlie, too, found in himself a new aptitude for welding and metalwork. Overall, however functional things seemed to be, the country was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Drop it did on Valentine’s Day. Much of the younger generation had opted out of receiving the vaccine. Those who had weathered the virus didn’t need it, having acquired natural immunity. Many of those who had not taken sick dismissed the vaccine as something necessary only for “old” people. But as morning dawned on Valentine’s Day, those who had been inoculated woke to find themselves no taller than a third grade child and with feet covered in luxurious, curly hair…

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