Brother and sister, exposed. But not in the way you think

For me, college had to be at least a thousand miles from home. I wanted to be far enough from my family to truly be on my own, not tempted to go home every weekend to do laundry. I wanted to start fresh, different than who I was in high school. I wanted to be less of a geeky high-school guy and more of a suave college guy. And yeah, I wanted to improve my chances to hook up with college women.

After two years in college, I can say: It worked, sort of. I got a different haircut, wore something nicer than T-shirts, and got rid of the beat up boat shoes I wore every day in high school. But I also learned that I’m not cut out for the hookup scene. I envisioned picking up a different woman every weekend, but it didn’t turn out that way at all.

I met a girl, Emma, on my very first day of college. We hit it off, and we went out until the next April. History repeated itself the next year. Skye and I met in September, and we decided to call it quits just a week ago. The stress of final exams and the upcoming summer break didn’t help this relationship, which by then was obviously not working. I’ll spare you the gory details of these breakups, but I can admit there was blame on both sides.

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Only once, between Emma and Skye, did I experience what you might call a hookup. After losing Emma, I didn’t feel like going anywhere or being with anyone. But my roommate convinced me to go to a party with two other buddies. I expected to accomplish nothing but drowning my sorrows. Instead, I struck up a conversation with a woman on the couch next to me, and after three beers and some serious flirting, we found our way to an empty bedroom. That night remains the only time in my life that I had sex with a woman I’d just met and never saw again.

That bedroom imprinted a vivid memory on me. The sex, sure. After, even more so. I remember lying in bed with her, our naked bodies tangled in sheets dotted with our combined fluids. I had a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that I had enough appeal and charisma, or whatever, to pick up a woman just like that. But besides the woman, I also picked up my own dragging self-confidence. Life was too short to spend so much time being depressed about Emma.

Another thought intruded that night, and it’s the reason I remember it so well. My hand rested idly on her breast, feeling the warmth of her body and the steady rise and fall of her chest. I took in the look and feel of that breast, recalled her reaction to my tongue, so different than I’d experienced before. The novelty and excitement were unquestionably arousing, but I couldn’t help thinking, I don’t know this woman.

It’s how I figured out I’m not a hookup kind of guy. I enjoyed every second of the sex, but it’s so much better when it goes along with intimacy, devotion, commitment. Love.

It doesn’t sound like the right attitude for a freewheeling college dude, especially one who’s newly single again. But I am who I am, take me or leave me.

This year-old hookup was on my mind because I was dejected about breaking up with Skye. Idly I thought about whether to try for another, but even if I wanted to, I didn’t have time. After finals I had one day to move out of the dorm, and the next day I hopped on a plane back to Vermont. It was a decent time to go home, a natural break in both classes and my relationship.

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In some ways I looked forward to spending the summer at home with my family, but in other ways, not. My parents still lived in the same house where I grew up, and whenever I was home from college they treated me like I was still in high school. They didn’t know the guy with the new suave college persona, so they still treated me like the same geeky kid.

My flight was the cheapest I could find, and consequently it arrived at 2:30 in the morning, an hour when not much is going on at the airport. Right before the escalator to go down to baggage claim, I spied my little sister, waiting patiently to give me a ride home. I smiled in spite of myself. She had on a sideways grin, and I knew she’d be happy to see me.

“Hey, Allie,” I said.

“Hey, Jase.”

Allison, the first living, breathing sign of home. I dropped my backpack at her feet and squeezed her in my arms. It was my first hug since Skye, and I relished the closeness to someone so familiar. I held Allie two breaths longer than usual, long enough to get a whiff of her hair. The scent immediately transported me to the bathroom we once shared, always outfitted with the same strawberry shampoo.

“Thanks for coming to get me in the middle of the night,” I said, as I picked up my bag again. We started for the escalator.

“It’s not like I’d be asleep anyway.”

“Allie the night owl. Nice to know some things never change.”

“Yeah, so, about that,” she said. She paused for a half a beat, tantalizing me with what was to come, but frustrating me that all I could hear was the gentle hum of the stairs descending. “I moved out to the guest house.”

“Sweet. A rite of passage now that you’re 18, right?”

The guest house in our parents’ backyard used to be a garage or something, but some former owner closed it in and now it had a bedroom, bathroom, and a little kitchenette with a mini-fridge and a microwave. It was pretty small, but I knew from experience it was liberating to be out there. I’d lived in the guest house myself when I was a senior in high school. Now the baton had been passed to Allie.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Allie said.

We reached the bottom of the escalator and headed toward the baggage carousel. “It’s nice, though, right? Better than being in your old room, right next to mom and dad?”

“Yeah, way better,” she said. “It sucked in the winter because I had to get all bundled up to walk 12 steps to the house for breakfast and stuff. But this time of year it’s fine.”

“So, I guess I’ll be staying, maybe in your old room?” After I’d moved to the guest house, mom and dad had quickly converted my former bedroom into an office.

“Yep, it’s all ready for you.”

“Still right next to mom and dad’s room?”

“It sure is, big brother. Be nice and quiet while you’re in there.”

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“If I’m too loud, maybe they’ll kick you out of the guest house so I can stay out there.”

She turned and punched me in the shoulder. Not hard enough to leave a bruise, but pretty hard. It made me smile, even though it was a little painful. “I don’t think that will be happening, now, will it, Jason?”

I couldn’t help egging her on. “You never know, do you, Allie?”

She pulled back her arm to punch me again, but I bobbed out of the way, and then we both laughed. She said, “If they kick you out, you can just get back on a plane to Texas, because I’m sure not giving you my room.”

I could hear the mirth in her voice, and I smiled too as I said, “Aw, you’d do that to me? What about spending time together this summer?”

Allie said, “Yeah, but I want you to know my priorities: First, my room. Second, my brother.”

“Nice to know where I rank.” We watched as bags started to schlouff onto the carousel and circle around.

“But you’re used to tight quarters, right? Living in the dorm with a roommate? And staying over with Skye all the time?”

Ugh. I was so tired, and I didn’t want to be reminded of Skye. But Allie had to be told, and it might as well be now. I sighed and turned my head to make eye contact with her. The joy dropped from her face before I said a word.

“So, yeah,” I said. “Me and Skye broke up.”

Her mouth opened in shock and her eyebrows rose to match. “What? When did this happen?”

“Five days ago.”

“My god, Jason, what happened?”

“It wasn’t working out.”

“But I thought you really liked her! You talk about her all the time. How great she is and all. What happened?”

I looked into her eyes and said, “Allie, I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s a little raw right now.”

Without a word, she turned away from me and looked down.

We stood in silence for a minute. I wish I knew what was going on in her head, but there was no way to ask after that. Soon I saw my bag on the carousel, and I said, “Hey, that’s my suitcase. Time to get my dirty clothes and get out of here.”

That brought some of her smile back. But not all.

When we got home, Allie parked on the street and invited me to check out her room before going in the main house. We went around back, me toting along my backpack and suitcase. She rattled through her keys briefly before opening her door and flipping on the lights.

I said, “Hey, I like what you’ve done with the place.” The room had been repainted pale grey, and she had new towels in the bathroom, enough sprucing to make the old floor and fixtures not so noticeable. When I lived here I never bothered with new paint, and I’ll admit it was ugly.

Allie beamed at the compliment. “It took a lot of work to get your smell out of this place,” she joked. At least I think it was a joke, because when I laughed she did too.

I was still chuckling when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I pulled it out and shot a glance at the screen, but it was an unrecognized number, so I let it go to voicemail. I suppose there are college students who get a lot of calls at 3:00 in the morning, but I wasn’t one of them.

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Within seconds, the phone buzzed again, the same number as before, and I said, “Allie, I don’t know who this is, but maybe I should take it.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

I punched the green button and said, “Hello?” and my life changed forever.

A female voice over the phone said, “Is this Jason Peters?”

“Yes, speaking.”

The voice continued, “Did you disembark from a plane in Burlington, Vermont? Departed from Philadelphia?”

“Um, yeah, I guess I did. I started in Dallas but changed planes in Philadelphia.”

“Where are you now?”

“Hang on, who is this?”

“Jason, my name is Samantha Talmadge. I’m calling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. There has been a possible pathogen on your flight, and it’s critical that we get information from you to help contain it.”

“A pathogen? What do you mean? What kind of pathogen?”

Allie was looking at me with her eyes partially squinted and her lips pursed. Hearing just my end of the conversation, she was understandably confused.

“We’ll talk about that in a minute, but first I need to know where you are.”

“I’m at home. My parents’ house, I mean.”

“Who have you encountered since getting off the plane?”

“Encountered? What do you mean by ‘encountered’?”

“In general, someone you’ve touched or been in the same room or vehicle with.”

“In that case, just my sister. She gave me a ride home from the airport.”

Samantha said, “And where is your sister now?”

“She’s standing right here next to me.”

“Is there anyone else in the house?”

These questions seemed unusually detailed and personal, and I could feel my heart rate start to rise with anxiety.

“So right now we’re in the guest house. My parents are in the main house, and I’m going in there in a few minutes.”

“Jason, I need to ask you to stay where you are for now.”

Allie was visibly frustrated, especially after I mentioned her. She said, “Put it on speaker.”

Into the phone I said, “Just a sec, Samantha. I’m going to put you on speaker so my sister can hear.” I pulled my phone away from my ear and hit the speaker icon, then asked, “So why can’t I go in my house?”

“Jason, what is your sister’s name?”

Allie responded for herself. “Hi, I’m Allison Peters.”

“Allison, since you picked up Jason at the airport, have you encountered any other people?”

“No, I don’t think so. Some people at baggage claim I guess, but that’s about it.”

“Okay, thank you. There was only the one flight that arrived in Burlington at that time, so those people in baggage claim were either on the flight or meeting someone from the flight, and we’ll track them down just as we’ve contacted you.”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What is this pathogen you talked about?”

“Jason, Allison, one of the people on your flight may have been carrying a highly contagious virus called Zara. Are you familiar with this virus?”

Allie and I looked at each other. She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, so I said, “No, neither of us has ever heard of it.”

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