I wrote this in the first months of 2021. We’d elected a new president, and it seemed like the Pandemic (COVID-19) was on its way out. We now had vaccines and responsible leadership. Most people breathed a little easier.
I felt wistful.
It occurred to me one morning, as I sat down at my desk, that the year previous – the year we’d spent mostly in quarantine had changed us. Just as the previous administration had made it okay to put your racism on full display, it seemed this virus, this terrible virus that’d kept us in our homes for twelve months, had also given folks leave to show their thoughtlessness.
Instead of wearing a mask when they were out in public, folks took to rebelling against this simple precaution – It’s a free country after all – not thinking or caring that they might make others sick.
It wasn’t just friends and family and loved ones we lost. It was our innocence as well. Now that our self-serving nature displayed itself for all, we couldn’t pretend we were looking out for each other. No longer Musketeers – One for All, All for One. Instead, it was Some for All. I’m for Me. Don‘t like it? Go fuck yourself. Damn the consequences.
They killed my grandpa on a Thursday.
I forget the month, although I know it was Spring because the sun shone brightly on our lawn outside the front window. The dew was heavy and sparkled like shattered glass.
We knew he wasn’t well. The odor from his room filled our house. It wasn’t the smell of death; I knew what that smelled like, on account of a rat one time, crawled under our front porch, and died. No, this was something else – almost sweet. It colored everything – conversations, dinner, chores, everything. It wasn’t an odor you could get used to. It was a smell that woke up with you in the morning and urged you to return to your dreams where everything was fine; the world was normal, and grandpa was still OK. That day, they knocked on our front door like they were selling Fuller brushes. I was the one who answered. They dressed in matching functional black suits. One wore glasses. Both of them sported haircuts like they were from a 1950s movie.
“Is your mother or father home?”
No Hi, or Hello, they just wanted to get right into it.
I was only 12 years old. Mom and dad were home. Just like everybody else, they couldn’t go to work because of the pandemic. I’m not talking about the first one that hit us in the early 20s. This was the big one – the one that changed everything – the one that still keeps us in our houses, behind locked doors, hoping to God for a cure. The one my grandpa brought home.
My mom walked up behind me. She must’ve heard them. She was dressed the way she always dressed now that she had no job to go to – sweats and a T-shirt and slippers. Today was Thursday, so she’d taken a shower. We allowed ourselves one a week. Even then, hot water was a luxury. We couldn’t afford to bathe every day.
The men were all business. “Ma’am, we’ve had a report of infection here. May we look around?” It was the one with glasses who spoke. The other one craned his neck, trying to see into our house. Mom massaged one hand with the other, her voice higher than usual. “Just a moment. I’ll get my husband.” She closed the door, put her hand on my shoulder, and whispered, “He’s in with grandpa.“
I hesitated. My heart skipped a beat. I knew it wasn’t safe to go into grandpa‘s room.
She kissed my head. “Just stand at the door. You don’t have to go in.”
I ran out of the room and down the hall that was lined with pictures of our family, from when things were normal. There were pictures taken at a mall photographer with all of us dressed nice with our hair combed and faces washed, pictures from their wedding, and a picture that mom took of Grandpa and me standing on the grass in our backyard. We wore matching baseball caps, and I had my glove. You could just see a bit of white, as the ball peaked out from the leather.
A lot of kids learn how to throw from their dad. My dad, at least before the pandemic, used to travel a lot. He wasn’t able to get home for things like birthdays and little league games. Back then, Grandpa would come over almost every day. I think he wanted to make sure I was OK, what with dad being away all the time.
Anyway, one day he showed up at the door with his hands behind him. He just stood there, smiling. “Pick a hand.”
I touched his right arm.
He brought it around. In it was a brand new baseball glove. It was about the coolest thing I ever saw.
I grabbed it and stuffed my hand right in. It fit tight. The smell of leather and oil filled my nostrils.
His other hand held a ball. “Wanna play catch?” I swear he almost giggled.
“Yeah.” I grabbed it from him, and we both scampered through the house, out the sliding door, and out into the yard.
We took positions on opposite sides of the lawn. I squinted at the sun, still high in the sky.
“I forgot something,” he said. He reached into his back pocket. In his hand were two Giants baseball caps. Official. Just like the pros wore.
I ran back over to him, and he placed it on my head, then pulled the brim up to look at my face. “Does it fit?”
I felt Big league. Like I was Willie Mays or something. I nodded. All smiles.
“All right,” he said. “Get out there.”
I ran back to my place, punching my glove like I’d seen the pros do.
“Here it comes.” He tossed it underhand. It arched up into the sky and then came down, short of my glove, landing with a light thud on the grass. I picked it up
“Nice try,” he said. “Next time, get your glove under it”
I don’t know how long we played, but by the time mom called us for dinner, I’d caught five in a row. Over the next weeks, we practiced catching highballs, grounders, wide throws, everything.
Anyway, that was a long time ago. I came up quietly to the closed door. I could hear my dad’s voice murmur. What he said, I couldn’t tell. I made three quiet wraps.
My father came out, efficiently closing the door behind. “Is lunch ready?”
I shook my head slowly and pointed at the front door.
He placed his hand behind my neck and whispered. “Why don’t you go to your room and open a book”
Even back then, I knew when they were trying to get rid of me. This time though, I didn’t mind. I went in and laid on my bed. I grabbed a book off my nightstand like he said, then set it down again. There was no way I could read, knowing those men were out there.
My parents, they told me about the first big sick, the one in the early ‘20s. Some people refused to take precautions, to wear masks or whatnot. Some got sick and died. Some just got sick. Some didn’t.
This time, it was worse.
When they decided about Grandpa, I asked them about it. Wasn’t it dangerous to keep him in the house? They said it was different. That we had a right to decide how he was treated.
The truth is, there wasn’t any room in the hospitals. The sick filled the corridors, strapped to their beds. The morgues filled up, too. It was so bad that in some towns, piled the dead in the street, doused them with kerosene, then set them on fire. The big cities and towns hired people to clear away the blackened corpses. I remember seeing the piles of dead at abandoned intersections. The smell of roasted flesh and smoke filled the air. There was also that smell, the sweet smell that saturated our house.
I grabbed my ball and glove and laid down on my bed. I tossed the ball into the air toward the ceiling. If I looked at it just right, and then blinked, it seemed like the ball hovered for a split-second, then it would fall back down again. I’d wait until the last, moving the glove up just before the ball smashed into my face. This was my version of meditation, I suppose. I used to do this whenever I was bored or upset about something. The time would go by, and my mind could wander.
The sound of conversation echoed through the hollow wood of my door. I couldn’t hear what they said, but mom sounded upset. Her shrill voice cut through the men’s deeper tones. I tossed the ball up, got distracted, and it came back down and nailed me in the lip.
I set that stuff aside and, rubbing my sore mouth, walked over to the door. I leaned against it, laying my ear flat against the cold, smooth wood. If I held my breath, I could just make out what they were saying.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else we can do. Your father has to go to the hospital.” I think it was the man with the glasses. I couldn’t tell if he was sorry or not. His voice was almost monotone, as if he were a robot, just going through the motions.
“I’ve heard what happens at those hospitals.” She was almost screaming now.
“Ma’am, there are lots of rumors going around. Your father needs professional care.”
“I know what my father needs. He needs to be with his family.”
“That’s not safe.”
“Says who? We’ve had him here for over a week now. We are all fine.”
“You’ve been luck—we can’t stand here and debate this with you. There’s an ambulance outside. We have to take him before anything happens.”
“And what if I say no? What if I don’t let you? What if…?”
“Bev, let me try.” That was my dad, sounding reasonable. He was probably going to make some sort of deal. “Guys, we’re observing all precautions. It’s safe. I promise. There has to be a middle ground here. ”
“Afraid not.” It must’ve been the other guy. Either way, the statement left no room for discussion. I heard the front door open and mumbling. I couldn’t make out what he said. Then I heard footsteps, like a group of people coming into the house. Mom sounded crazy. A lot of what she said, I couldn’t make out. But I heard several times, “You can’t.”
“Look, guys…” it was my father again. “Give us a second. Let us at least say—”
I heard the footsteps coming down the hallway. There was also a rolling sound, almost like they’d taken my dad’s chair out of his office. It sounded heavier, though. I opened my door a crack and peered out. The two men stood at my Grandfather’s door. Two other men, nurses or something, dressed in white, stood next to my folks, on either side of a gurney.
The man with the glasses had his gun out. He held it before him, in both hands, pointed at the ground. His partner stood in front of the door with his hand on the knob.
My folks stood at the opposite end of the hall, wrapped in each other’s arms. Mom’s body shook, her faced turned away.
The man with the glasses nodded. His partner turned the knob and pushed the door open. The gun came up as if it was on a spring, pointed into the room. He took a deliberate step forward.
A gun. Why the fuck did they need a gun?
My panic rose. Before I knew what was happening, I ran out into the hallway, screaming, “Don’t hurt my grandpa. Leave him alone!” The man with the glasses turned toward me. The gun followed.
I stared down the dark muzzle. It looked huge, like a black tunnel or something.
A shape lunged out of the room. It wore my grandfather’s gray flannel pajamas. But that sound – the sound it made, wasn’t human. It was like some strange combination of a crow’s caw and a snake’s hiss. The figure barreled into the man and smashed him against the wall. Pictures fell to the ground. Glass shattered on the hardwood floor.
There was screaming. So much screaming. He bashed the man’s head against the wall, pinning his face against it with his hand. The man stared at me through his glasses, as the other man, the one on the pajamas, with a crazed caricature of my grandpa’s face opened his mouth wider than a person should be able to and buried itself in his neck.
All I could do was stand and watch as the other man’s eyes widened with panic and pain. Tears dripped down his face as the blood gushed over my grandfather’s chin.
I vaguely remember someone in black – it must’ve been the other man, rushing toward me. He pushed me back into my room and slammed the door.
The wall shuddered. “Get down. Get down.” I heard. Then three gunshots exploded, one right after the other. Blam. Blam. Blam. I saw the flashes under the door.
It was quiet. Then more screams. “Is it dead? Kill it. Kill it.”
Another gunshot, and everything went quiet, except for the sound of my mother sobbing.
I opened the door again, just wide enough to peek through.
The hallway looked unfamiliar. Where there had been pictures, now blood smeared and splattered the wall. On the floor lay my grandfather, his eyes open. His teeth bared and bloody. A gore-filled hole, the size of a baseball just above his ear.
Beneath him lay the man with the glasses. Only they’d fallen off and now lay beside him, in a shiny red pool that expanded as I looked at it. His neck was torn out. The ragged flesh shined in the dull light, as blood bubbled feebly out of the wound and ran down the front of his throat. Just above his right eye, was a single, clean bullet hole.
“Grandpa?” It didn’t look like him. There was no kindness in his eyes. No life at all. His face twisted in a mask of manic fury.
Mom and dad stood where I’d seen them before, with eyes clamped shut, holding each other. Sobs wracked her body while dad held her tight.
“Mom?” I whispered. I stepped out into the hall. I wanted to go to them, but I couldn’t figure out how to get around the horrific scene.
I don’t remember the next few weeks very well. I recall my father telling me we were lucky he and mom hadn’t gone to jail.
I remember sitting in the courtroom. The filtered light beaming through the windows like in a church, and the judge telling my father how stupid he and my mom were. No – reckless and irresponsible – that’s it. That’s what he said.
I couldn’t sleep in my room after that. Grandpa’s room never scared me. I could go in there – taking care not to look at the stains in the hallway – and feel like I was close to him, the way he was before. My parents though, after they caught me inside, locked the door. They didn’t want me going in anymore. A couple of months later, we moved away.
We headed up into the mountains. They found a house all by itself and put up an electric fence around it. My parents said we were safer up here. We also got some dogs. I liked that.
That was a few years ago.
The TV stopped working last week. Dad says it’s just the feed. The radio doesn’t get a signal either.
We’ve all got chores to do. Mom makes sure I keep up with my studies.
Dad says we’ll be okay. We just have to stay up here ‘til they find a cure. We stay busy with the house and stuff, trying to make it safe, tend the garden. There are more chores now. I get to practice shooting targets with my gun. That’s kinda fun, I guess.
It’s pretty up here, in the trees. We see a lot of animals and stuff, but there are things I miss from back home; getting together with my friends, watching T.V., shopping… I even miss school a little.
I kept my glove. It’s next to my bed, like at the other house.
I really miss playing catch.