The Rona by Robert W Cely
Claire’s mother was supposed to go get ice cream for her eighth birthday, but she died instead. It wasn’t her mother’s fault, Claire knew that. That didn’t stop Claire from feeling angry four weeks later, when all the food was eaten out of the house.
For four weeks she had been all alone, with no one to talk to. That meant no one even wished her happy birthday. Four weeks, with the body upstairs smelling worse and worse, until the stench finally started to get better.
Claire was too scared to go into the bathroom, after what happened last time. Even then, the first had been most terrifying. When she heard that awful thump that shook the whole house. She knew something terrible had happened. She could still hear the water running, but something sounded different.
“Mama,” she called up the stairs.
When no one answered she took another step up and called again.
Still nothing. The water was running, probably too loud for Mama to hear.
When she pushed the door open steam rolled out of the bathroom. She called her mother’s name again as she pulled the curtain aside.
Mama was sprawled in the bath, water running over her body. Her head looked funny, cocked at a strange angle. Mama’s eyes stared straight ahead, not really seeing anything. Blood ran from the back of her head and swirled down the drain.
“Mama!” Claire screamed, pulling at the body. “Mama get up!”
Mama never got up. As much as Claire screamed and cried and pleaded with Mama, all she did was stare up at the ceiling with that blank expression.
Claire ran down the stairs, ready to get help. Her hand paused at the door as she surveyed the line of locks that rose from floor to jamb. The warning that had drilled into her, day after day, echoed irresistibly.
“You can’t go outside,” her mother warned, eyes wide and serious. “The Rona will get you.”
It was taking over the world, killing everyone in its path. It came from an evil place, her mother said, a place that hated America. They created the Rona to kill Americans, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. That’s why the government said we had to stay inside. The only place that was safe.
Claire remembered dimly life that didn’t have the Rona in it. She remembered, it felt like decades ago, a birthday party outside, with slides and a swing set. Even then, she also remembered her mother yelling at her to not touch this, or that. Every ten minutes she wiped Claire’s hands down with a wipe to keep the germs away.
“My little button has to stay clean,” she would say, scrubbing away at Claire’s little hands, so hard her whole body shook.
Then the Rona came, and no one was safe. Even the TVs and computers were put away, and with them the cartoons.
“We can’t trust what they say,” her mother insisted. “They always lie to us. They lie to us.”
She never said who “they” were exactly. All Claire could figure out was that they appeared on the TV and computer and told lies about the Rona.
So Claire didn’t get help that day. She couldn’t. It was the only rule of the house. To go outside was death for a little girl. Only Mama could go out. And even then she wore her mask and gloves and the heavy coat.
“There’s hardly anything left,” Mama said the last trip she had taken. “The country’s dead Little Button. You wouldn’t believe what it’s like out there. It’s madness and chaos. The sick and the dead are all over. I don’t see how the stores stay in operation. We’re going to have to make a big trip. It will probably be our last.”
The country held on somehow. It got worse and worse with every trip. Claire could see the wide look of fear grow more desperate every time Mama came back in. Sometimes she would even run up to her room and cry for hours when she came back, screaming at Claire when she knocked on the door to check on her.
Now Mama was dead, staring at the ceiling. The last time Claire checked on her she ran out, tears bursting from her eyes. She rubbed and rubbed her eyes but couldn’t get rid of the picture that kept playing through her head. Bugs crawling out of Mama’s nose. Little, white worms wriggling out of her eyeballs.
Mama hated bugs. She hated worms even worse. Maybe that was the Rona, Claire wondered. It came and got Mama while she was dead. No wonder she was so scared.
Claire didn’t go back upstairs. The smell got bad, then it got better. Claire ate the food in the kitchen, all the stuff Mama taught her to cook. She ate all the ravioli, then the spaghetti. She made Ramen and pot pies. She ate the cereal until she went through all the milk in the freezer. She ate the chips and the waffles and then the cans of beans. She ate all these things until one day she couldn’t find anything more to eat.
The only thing that she could still get was the water. Claire drank until it filled up her belly, but it got hungry again too fast. She tried to read to take her mind off of her hunger, but she could hardly concentrate on the words.
Deep down Claire knew she was going to have to go outside. There was nothing else she could think of. She was going to have to face the Rona. Maybe the world had died by now and there was finally nothing left in the store. But even at eight years old, Claire knew that she would die also if she didn’t try.
Peeling the tape away that blacked out the windows, Claire tried to peer outside. Bushes had grown up over the glass, and the glue from the old tape made it impossible to see anything at all.
With a resigned sigh, Claire got ready. She put on a heavy coat, even though it was hot in the house. She donned gloves, mask and hat. Pulling a chair up to the door she reached up and unfastened all the locks on the door. With a deep breath she opened the door and stepped out.
Bright sunlight blinded Claire as she took her first step into the outside world in three years. A cool burst of air washed across her face, inspiring her to breathe deep. She never remembered the air tasting so clean.
Stupefied, Claire walked onto the old walkway, stirring up memories. Tall grass bordered each side, but she could still remember happily running down to the gate. White clouds danced over head as she passed the gate. Colors assaulted her eyes, cried out to her with their joyous variety: flowers, trees, sky, grass, birds.
Walking in a daze Claire drank in the sights. Men mowed their grass in short sleeves. Moms pushed strollers in pairs and chatted to each other. Cars drove lazily by.
Not even paying attention to where she went, Claire’s feet automatically took her to the park, the only place she remembered how to get to. The sound of children laughing drew her forward like siren’s music. She obeyed with willing steps until she felt grass under her feet. Children, just like her, happy and smiling played and chased one another.
A strange silence filled the park as the kids noticed the odd figure among them. As one they abandoned their games and went to stand around Claire, trying to figure out why she was so bundled up.
Fears of the Rona came back to Claire as the kids gathered around her. Were they infected like Mama had said?
“Why are you wearing that?” one girl asked her. “Aren’t you hot?”
“Mama said I have to wear it,” Claire mumbled.
“Why? Are you sick?”
“She says I’ll catch the Rona,” Claire told them.
The kids looked at each other and started to laugh.
“What are you talking about?” the girl mocked. “That was forever ago. No one is scared of Corona anymore.”
“But they lie…” Claire tried to protest, but there wasn’t any heart in it at all.
The kids lost interest in the novelty that Claire presented and drifted back to their games. Claire watched them play, stifling in her clothes. She took her coat off, thinking that should be safe enough. After another minute she removed the mask. Finally, the gloves were thrown on a heap with the others.
Claire watched the children laugh and chase, and she quickly remembered what it was like to play. She started walking over slowly, making sure no one was going to tell her not to, then with more confidence. By the time she reached the slide, she was running.