‘The Jab’

by Werner Labuschagne

Third Place

2022 SHORT STORY WRITING COMPETITION

The water comes to a boil, steam stuffing up the small kitchen. I leave the back door open. A cup with a teabag and a single spoon of sugar is stranded. This is what mom does, she puts the kettle on before retreating to her lounge, eager to sit down and sink back into watching her screen. When much of the heat has left, she gets to click the little switch again. Most days it is only this click that connects her to the world outside of the algorithm, a brief corporeal promise that something real might happen. I guess she only feels a similar way when I visit, which I know I should do more.

‘Mom?’ I knock and enter the lounge. It’s always the same, the way her neck cranes to meet your face, her eyelids narrowing to a squint, then slowly, sincerely, her face transforms into a bright smile and she says your name, ‘Jacob!’, like she was not even expecting you. She gently places the phone on the coffee table while a video is still running. The video features a bulky, middle-aged, red-in-the-face man, practically shouting at her. ‘We cannot take this! These mandates, they impede on our privacy, our individuality, our most basic freedoms!’ the man screams. She rises from her seat like a tortoise sticking its head out of its shell, and we hug. I swear her body shrinks every time we embrace.

‘Help me pause this bloody thing.’ Even though she spends all day on this phone, she still has not mastered her way around it.

‘They will come for you with their – ’ I cut off this angry man with my index finger.

I sit across from my mother. A silence befalls us. She looks at me, smiling, and I can’t imagine what I look like to her. We have unlearned how to be together.

‘I am not going today,’ she asserts. I’m surprised, but mostly tired.

‘Mom, this is the last day we can go. They need to see that you’re vaccinated before they let you into their country.’

‘If that’s the case, it’s better that I don’t go at all,’ she says, no longer smiling, no longer looking at me.

‘Fine, Mom. I can’t do this anymore. You tell Karina then. You tell your daughter why you are missing her wedding.’

‘You two are always chattering behind my back,’ she snaps at me. ‘You don’t even want me there. Now you two can chat about how crazy I am. I don’t want to talk to her.’

I search Karina on my phone and press the green circle. On speaker, I let the ringing echo through the room.

‘What are you doing?’ Mom asks.

I hold the phone out so that she can read ‘Karina’. My sister has been hounding me for months, saying that the least I can do is this one thing: get mom to Perth. This one thing, of course, is massively demanding and consists of a myriad of small, insufferable tasks. Whenever something goes wrong, she says it’s typical, insists that I’m useless.

Karina moved to Australia with her fiancé’s family. They keep saying that South Africa is falling apart. They say they wish Mom would move already. Although not move in with them, of course. How much is left of the life insurance, she’d ask me. You must stop borrowing from her, Karina says, she’ll run out. Of course, Mom just verbally agrees to whatever Karina goes on about, sometimes shaking her head as if her body is rejecting the words she’s speaking. When Mom is annoyed, she makes offhand remarks that suggest Karina’s fiancée is not the sharpest knife in the kitchen. She asks how it is going at the new job, what with Willem’s English and all. She does not have honest conversations with her daughter, and I am stuck between them, trying to fix the lines of communication. Now these two must talk, I reckon. The phone keeps ringing; Mom is shifting in her seat.

‘Put it off!’ Mom says

‘You tell her, Mom. I’m not playing middleman any longer.’

‘Fine, I’ll do it.’

‘You’ll tell her?’

‘No, I’ll get the jab.’

I can’t believe what she says. The phone rings between us.

‘Put it off. I said I’ll get it.’

Mom leaves her room to get ready. I pick up her phone and press play. The man is still rambling, in fact the feed is ‘live’. A funny word for it, I think. When my band used to play, we would call it ‘live’ shows. We’d make loud, obnoxious music for other loud, obnoxious young people. Drunken shouting, bodies packed into a sweaty venue, skin to skin. Your heart fell in line with the bass drum, the pulse of the room. Your every breath shared with this desperate mass of flesh, expressing. This is not ‘live’, I think. Not ‘alive’, no way to ‘live’.

‘Now is the time of revolt!’ the angry man explodes. ‘We know their sinister intentions. We know they are trying to control our minds. Trying to mark you and your children with the mark of the beast.’ His tone is urgent, it sounds like an emergency. ‘They want to track us, round us up like sheep. But we are lions, and we are wide awake. We will show them,’ he says, pointing at the screen, pointing at where my mom should be. ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ he warns. I consider deleting her account. She re-enters the room, the smell of lavender trailing behind.

We are silent on the drive over. Her sight is fixed outside the passenger window, but I don’t think she looks at anything at all. She hugs her huge purse between her crossed arms. I give her a mask that is lying around my car, which she wrestles over her earrings. A local recreation centre is transformed into a vaccination site. Rows and rows of plastic chairs are placed 1.5 meters apart in the parking lot. These chairs are occupied by droves of young people, excited to get their lives back from this pandemic. They are chattering, laughing, fidgeting about. It was only recently announced that they are getting their turn, and they’ve been the most eager of the age groups. Two or three of them must’ve just turned 18, looking lively and bright in their school clothes. Someone turns in their chair to join a conversation with a stranger. They repeat a phrase, competing with their masks.

I take my mother to a shorter queue, for older people. Most of those interested in getting the vaccine, at this age, already got it. There is only a spattering of people, and I assume some of them are here for boosters. One man must be close to a hundred, and he is chauffeured around by several helping hands. He wears a three-piece suit that nearly swallows him. He does not speak but looks intently at every person he passes. We are assisted very fast, as if we’re running out of time. We are greeted with a smile, but mom does not respond. I don’t feel like I’m with a person, but a body whose soul has left. We’re asked for an ID. ‘Oh shucks,’ mom says, ‘I left it at home. I pull up a scan of her ID from an old email on my phone. When we are out of earshot, mom likens my betrayal to identity theft. ‘Everyone is free to get it,’ I remind her. She scoffs, perhaps at the word ‘free’.

We snake along to another station where the effects of the vaccine are explained. Mom perks up, trying to recognise the symptoms she’s heard from her videos. She pays careful attention to hear how this vaccine will infect her body, keep her weak, track her every move. Her arm will hurt, she will have a fever, she must take Panados. And that’s it. She does not seem satisfied, she finally looks at me, as if I am sitting on some secret information myself. My fever was pretty hectic, I tell her, but it was only for a day. You are young, she says, very seriously. In her eyes, then, I must be young forever.

Mom sits. I stand, hovering around, feeling awkward. A nurse who could be mom’s age asks her if she’s nervous. Mom is bleak and quiet. Am I her son, the nurse asks. I am. The nurse asks mom to show her in which arm she wants the vaccine, tells her to consider which side she sleeps on. Mom lifts a sleeve, exposing her left shoulder. For me, mom is told, it did hurt quite a bit, but it goes so fast. Mom shouts ‘help!’ She seizes my arm in a death grip. ‘Help!’ she shouts. She is not in the room; it is not her shouting. It is like she’s possessed. ‘Help!’

The nurse shows me the needle, that it hasn’t even touched my mom. Mom’s eyes are wide, deep frown lines animating her screaming face. The nurse says that Mom’s not ready, that it’s no problem at all. I guide my mother out of the chair, her hand still clutching onto me. She is no longer shouting, she is sobbing. She tries to speak, but words fail to form. Take her outside, I’m told, take deep breaths.

‘In through the nose,’ I say. I take the lead, inhaling as much air as I can. ‘Out through the mouth.’ I empty my lungs. Mom is perched on a little wall, right by a garden patch of dead vegetables, a community project that’s been abandoned. Her mask hangs over her chin as she takes sips of water between deep breaths. She seems surprised by the way her own body is trembling. She examines her shaking hand; she wants it to stop.

‘Mom, it won’t kill you,’ I tell her. ‘It’s not a microchip under your skin. It’s not a satanic ritual. All these kind people here, they are trying to help you. Do any of them look like they want to hurt you?’

‘No,’ she whimpers. She agrees with me, on a very basic level. Yet there is something restrained, a part of her that disagrees. A part of her that doesn’t quite come to the surface, but it’s circulating in her veins. I feel like our roles have somehow reversed in that I am telling her what is right. I think about Dad, and how he could’ve handled this better. How he wouldn’t let her buy into this crap she’s been watching, fall down these rabbit holes. I remember the way our small family used to fill up a room. Karina and I raising hell, our parents laughing, delighted by what they could bring into this world. Dad wouldn’t leave her on her own like we do. He fulfilled his promise. He was with her until the day he died.

‘I’m just so scared,’ she tells me. ‘I am so scared the whole time. It doesn’t stop.’

We hug. She starts sobbing again, into my shoulder. But this time it is not as panicked as before. It’s more like resignation; tension releasing itself. I wonder what I must do for my mother, how to live up to being her son. I feel the weight of an insurmountable debt, one I don’t even try to repay. She shudders as she weeps. Her small self, crashing and receding, over and over. I recall the drop of blood beckoned by the injection and my body reacting as if under attack. The point of pain at the tip of the needle, and then, the way it spreads out like a web.

Author Bio

Werner Labuschagne is passionate about reading and writing and has completed an MA in English at the University of Johannesburg on the topic of Affect in Post-Postmodern Literature. He is currently lecturing Academic Literacy, helping college students develop their academic writing and critical thinking. Although he has mostly been concerned with analysing literature, he is on the journey to developing his own voice in fiction.