The orodromi (/.ɔɹəˈdɹoʊmi/) is a pallid stranger with rough-edged stripes, a bulky physical frame, and permanent frown of fatigue1 and dismay. Its stale, mildewed breath wheezes from a throat that leads inward to its filling of infected lung tissues that resist no scalpel. Bulky but weak, even the smallest of the orodromi's injuries heal only minimally.
1. They're selling more mattresses than ever. The stores are practically giving them away, because they're making so many of them, too. They're building factories to make them, in fact. They're bulldozing the dead zoos to make room enough for ten by ten blocks of manufacturing plants with smoke stacks that gush out their thick black plumes, but at least the dark helps cool down the sidewalk when it blocks out the hot, so hot, that hot, hot sun.
The strain speaks in the frail and miserable voice of a very sick person, with age, pitch, and all else varying at random. It possesses no language of its own, but, when it is not coughing or clearing its throat, repeats one to three word phrases spoken within its territory.
The orodromi generates exclusively in the attics and maintenance rooms of offices2 with beige walls and chalky drop-ceilings. The stranger shows up as a sooty "ghost" which clutches onto whatever is nearby as it expands, and within seventeen minutes, takes solid form. The mature orodromi then stands up, staggers forward, and attempts to "thrive."
2. "They still wanted us to come into work. They said, it doesn't matter what it takes, it doesn't matter what happens afterwards, just come in here, do your work, and go home – I'd put up tarp around the cubicle, and I'd saved some whiskey to disinfect the keys, but there was something wrong with the air...when I breathed, it felt like I was swallowing gnats..."
The ailing and despondent orodromi displays its "personality" through only minor idiosyncrasies – a slap upon a ventilation duct to hear the echo, a finger-stroke over a layer of dust, a vague disgust after particularly sputeous clearing of the throat. It is, for the most part, docile, too sickly to devote its attentions to much else besides its disease-wracked body.3
3. "We weren't blind, we knew that there was something going on, even in the first three weeks, I think. Borders were closing, the headlines were showing up all weird, and no one wanted to talk about the black marks around the mouth and eyes..."
Though the orodromi always appears in groups, social interactions are limited to the occasional hand-clasp or head-nuzzle of solace. These gestures seem to bring no particular assuagement of its symptoms – instead, the orodromi alleviates itself through a periodic exhalation of black smoke, which fills the air around it, but seems to allow the stranger a few minutes of feeble relief. As time goes on, the air grows thick and dark with this wet miasma4 and all its small black specks.
4. There's copper and brown wetcrust on the sink handles and paper floating in the cloudy bin they've put out for you to wash your hands in. The mask around your mouth is already wet and in the air you can feel everyone's old breaths so hot, so moist. And since they've made you strip all the way down to your socks, the slippery floor soaks up against your skin.
And they're coughing into your mouth as they hold it open to pour in the vaccine.
And once you're out on the streets again, huddled up with everyone waiting for hours in the breadline, you can't help but get so frantic and you wad up gutterbags and washcloth just to try to hold a mask inside your mouth.
The orodromi shies away from touch, and avoids contact with sensitives, though it will not leave its territory or engage in prolonged avoidance. Pushing5 against its companions for comfort, it shows no defensive response when its flesh is pulled apart by hooks, carved into with a knife, raked by fingernails, stabbed with a syringe, beaten with a baseball bat, or any other manner of physical encroachment.
5. "They were starting to line the beds up fifteen to a row by that point. They still didn't have a way to get rid of the old mattresses, so they were stacked up along the walls. Someone was pushing mine against an empty gap to see if it would fit with the rest, but I was still on it, no sheets, just a garbage bag draped across one side..."
The orodromi grows more daring only around the most physically vulnerable sensitives, over whom it stands, nose pointing downward, its black vapor filling their lungs as it coughs onto and into them. After it has finished this display, it stifles its rasping sob with the sensitive's body, holding them close like a child would a doll.6
6. "That's how bad I knew it had gotten. There must have been thousands, and they were all wearing the disposable fabric that they'd been given at the border – every last one of them, clutching it tight all around them, breathing into it. And they were all just coughing, then trying to suck it back in, chewing on the papery gauze...like it was going to hide the black marks."
Though sensitives themselves are immune to the orodromi's illness, they can spread disease to non-sensitives – thus accounting for one possible origin point of the wave of virulent illness that lead to the necessity of the mattress camps.7
7. By now there's more people in the camps than in the cities, and you know that your name's already in a register somewhere, with a mattress serial code in the next column over. And they've propped up the vaccination spots right next to the loading bus docks, even though you know the only roads that are still open are the ones that lead into the quarantine zone.
As the orodromi reaches the end of its life, it at last falls victim to the illnesses that fill its lungs. Its coughing grows violent and desperate, and what it once exhaled as smoke instead drips out from its snout as a thick black sputum. The stranger's skin turns grey and mottled, its stripes bleed into8 one another, and it dies with a heaving, anticlimactic gasp.
. And even now when the cardboard is piled up in lines on top of the sidewalks, they still can't get their stories straight on the TV. They stammer when they read the lines and laugh each time they mess them up on purpose, they're laughing when they're on the air, because they can't decide if they want you to think it's not taking place...
...or if they need you hungry for what's about to happen next.