The children spun in a circle as the sun cast an eerie glow. Singing…
She will soon own yuh;
You will soon die and enter that pie in the sky.
Then they burst into fits of laughter at their morbid joke. It had been over a year since they had been inside of a classroom due to the pandemic. The new normal for school was that it was now done online for four hours a day Monday to Thursday.
With a resigned sigh, Betsy shook her head and turned away from the balcony. Her slender hands trembled as she tried unsuccessfully to steady the chamomile tea in her dainty ceramic teacup. The last gift her mother had given her before she died.
Was it really, more than a year ago? She mused. Where had the time gone? Sometimes it still felt like it had happened yesterday. The pain was almost as raw as it was back then when her mother had died of complications caused by the corona virus. She had been one of the first victims.
She stifled the painful sob that rose in her throat her lungs were burning. It was the feeling you got before you gasped for air. God it hurts, she thought as she pressed her fingers against her tender throat. This was not something you got over she thought. Sometimes pictures of her mother flashed before her eyes like a view master reel, making her want to scream, but she knew if she started she might never stop.
What she remember most about her mother were her hands. Her hands always in motion like a dance, sewing, sweeping, and gesticulating. A proud, elegant woman at the kitchen window, shiny white hair pulled back in her signature low ponytail. The strings of her apron tied in a dainty bow, hands elbow deep in sudsy warm water as she washed the dishes, the perfect housekeeper. She is singing suffer the little children to come unto me in her sweet soprano voice. Then, suddenly her mind flashed forward to that same woman in a hospital bed, unable to breathe – dying alone.
Betsy had such a visceral reaction to this memory that the ceramic cup slipped from her grasp. As the song of the children echoed in her ears.
She will soon own yuh;
You will soon die and enter that pie in the sky.
At the last word sky, the cup that seemed to hover like a humming bird in the air dropped and shattered into pieces. As Betsy laid on the floor and cried.
It had been over a year and a half now! Yet the scientist was nowhere close to stopping the pandemic. All the hope and cure talk had turned to let nature do its thing. And then we start over, and it had started to. There were hardly any persons over the age of 70 left alive. The non-communicable disease was a distant memory because nearly everyone who had one was dead.
She remembered how much hope there was when this nightmare first began. Stupid humans with their no retreat, no surrender slogans, the vaccine trials and the quarantine stay at home plans. All the herd immunity and when this is over we will… optimism.
What a crock of ‘Sh..!’ She was just about to use the ‘S’ word but remembered dear mother saying well brought up young ladies never spoke like that. This was after she was caught telling her brother Jim that he had ‘S’ for brains. The disappointment on her mother’s face prevented Betsy from ever again muttering a bad word. ‘However, sometimes only a bad word would suffice,’ she whispered as if her mother could hear her.
They had tried everything to beat this beast, oh! How they had tried. But nothing worked, people kept dying, the vaccines didn’t protect long term from the constant mutations. So doctors and scientist were constantly playing catch up, fighting a losing battle.
As the number of dead rose into the millions of millions, the insipid prating of internet trolls increased. Daily comments littered online post in the landfill of cyberspace. This is a hoax, when de restaurants opening I miss wing dings. And her personal favourite ‘a good sea bath and some ginger is all we need’. However, lately these types of comments had all but disappeared from social media. Maybe they had awoken to reality, had been censored, or maybe they were D- E- A- D. The last thought caused a shiver to run straight through her body, the type you got as her dear sweet mother used to say when someone walked on your grave.
Covid-19 was the devil, a snake which, it seemed we could not kill. We whacked off its head; and like medusa it just sprouted another one and sought vengeance on humanity. It had wrapped its putrid, slimy body around the world and squeezed, flicking its fork tongue out at us in a gesture akin to that of a middle finger.
They had tried everything, Betsy thought as she slowly got up from the ground and ambled to the kitchen to retrieve the broom and dustpan and as she swept up broken pieces of the teacup, her mind wandered back to where the world’s nightmare and her personal hell had begun.
After the vaccines failed repeatedly, people cried out for blood, preferably the blood of world leaders, doctors and scientist who they blamed for this mess. People were losing their minds as more and more were dying. Even some who had recovered and thought immune had got sick again. But this time there was no getting better this time they all died. Suddenly the Orange former leader’s ideas of disinfectant and hydroxychloroquine and witch doctor’s cures weren’t looking so crazy.
People were becoming desperate and desperate people are dangerous. Thousands of persons no longer believed what the doctors or scientist said, having been let down too many times. So they turned to alternative methods and pseudo-science either self-administered or given to them by quacks and con men.
The herbalist, the naturopaths and hippie-hippie keto, vegan, fruitarian troops came out with their diet and lifestyle cures. Yet they were dying just as fast as the rest of the world. Then there was the seawater cure, followed by the crypto cure. Nothing worked.
There was an increase in mental health issues. After all, there is only so much Jerry Springer, news watching and cleaning the bathroom with bleach one can do before becoming bat crap crazy, Betsy thought.
The extroverts were especially having a hard time, persons who were teetotallers started their drinking upon awaking and only realised the time had passed when they woke up from yet another bender to see the darkening sky. As weeks turned into months and months turned into a new year with people still trapped in their houses, the novelty of the quarantine had surely worn off.
Bank accounts were zero balanced, savings gone, and fridges empty. Many families were homeless because of job loss, inability to pay rent or their mortgage payments. The government help had all but dried up. Businesses were closing or making most of their staff redundant. Unemployment numbers were in the millions, benefits long gone.
People, who had never contemplated homelessness, were now on the streets next to the drug addicts and those with mental health issues. Betsy had seen some of her former classmates there and shuddered at the thought of how the throw of a dice had determined fate. She thanked God that her job was still viable as of now accountants were still seen as a necessity, especially in her field of forensic accounting. But who knows she thought throw the dice again and she too could be out on the streets.
No, she thought shaking her head. Dammit! She was driving herself crazy. Mother had made sure she would always be okay, she was the one who had made Betsy buy her apartment outright and also, she had left her a small inherent. Not that she needed it; she had always been good with money and had made a few good investments over the years, which would make sure that she was able to live comfortably if anything happened.
Her brain was a gerbil on a wheel. What ifs furiously assaulting her at every turn. But who could be sure she thought, no one could have predicted this demon called Covid 19. Tomorrow she could wake up and find out that money was worthless or that all the banks were closed where would she be then?
‘Stop!’ she said out loud, shaking her head hard trying to clear the crazy thoughts that kept bombarding her. She needed to calm down. Where was a Prozac when you needed one she thought? Then remembered as she ruffled through both her medicine and bedside cabinets that she had thrown them out as she had felt she was becoming too reliant on them. ‘Crap, crap, crap’, she shouted tears streaming down her face as she beat her hands against the bathroom sink. Purple blotches were beginning to form on the inside of her wrist, she knew they would be swollen in a few minutes but she didn’t care. Everything was a mess – everything.
Actually she had thrown all her painkillers out. It was too dangerous for her to keep them in the house. After her mother’s funeral, walking back into the quiet apartment devoid of her singing was the hardest thing she had ever done. She had wished she didn’t exist so she decided not to.
The only thing that stopped her were her Catholic beliefs, drilled into her by the nuns of Saint Damasks junior school. Suicide is a sin punishable by eternal hellfire. That phase echoed in her head over and over like a mantra until she could no longer ignore it. Fearing she would never see her sainted mother again made her flush the pills and flea the bathroom.
After her failed attempt, Betsy spend days slumped on her bed. Her phone had finally died, from lack of charging and the many flashing messages, all unanswered. She had listened to a select few, one from Jim saying ‘hi sis just checking on you call me.’ The other from her boss Mr Thomason sending his condolences and telling her to take as much time as she needed and when she was ready to work to contact him. After that, she didn’t look at the phone again.
The knocks on her door had also stopped after she kept shouting go away at the unwanted visitors. She drifted in and out of delirious, thankfully dreamless sleep, praying that God would take her home to be with her mother. But her prayers remained unanswered.
After a week Betsy dragged herself together. She looked at her face in the bathroom mirror and saw a stranger. Her usually beautiful golden brown skin was splotchy and there was a scatter of acne across her brow, the like she had not seen since she was a junior at Lynch’s Louis high school. Her shoulder-length straight black hair looked dirty and dishevelled. But the major change Betsy notice was the sadness in her hazel eyes. She sighed and dropped her peach nightgown to the floor she could smell herself a mixture of sweat, funk and defeat. She had not showered since returning from the funeral.
If you could call it that, only ten people allowed because of Covid-19 gathering regulations. That turned out to be the priest’s father Solomon, Betsy, her brother Jim, Aunt Carrie and Clair, Uncle Tim and Terrance and moms three best friends Silvia, Opal and Ilene. For, a woman who never met a stranger and had so many people that loved her this tiny turn out somehow felt sacrilegious. She could hardly recall what they said at the brief service, she remembered only that she had never felt more surreal or alone.
As Betsy scrutinised her body in the mirror, she realised her pelvis bones were poking out, her ribs showing. Not only had she not eaten for an entire week, but she had hardly been eating for the few weeks mother was sick. She looked at her gaunt body first turning left then right, with a resigned moan she stepped into the shower and turned the water on. She had decided to live.
Betsy pulled herself back to the present. She felt numb and empty, always empty. Nothing filled her up, yet she shuffled into the kitchen to put two oatmeal cookies on her plate and poured herself a glass of cold milk and went back out to the balcony. The children were still in the alleyway. This time they were singing a new song.
We scream and shout,
Now we run and play,
Schools out today and yesterday,
Schools out forever!
Then they all started to laugh as they looked at her on the balcony with their cold beady eyes. Betsy wiped a tear from her cheek got up and closed the screen door.