In the Before
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I was just sixteen when the Covid virus roared through the world like a prairie fire in a dry summer.

My parents, preppers who’d gone off the grid before I was born, didn’t learn about the virus until a sheriff showed up at our church to break up the gathering and order everyone to go home. Certain that God would protect them against the contagion, the worshippers had ignored the stay- at-home order. My parents were particularly defiant. When they first got sick, they were sure they just had bad colds. Then they figured they’d caught the flu.

We didn’t have a television but we did have a computer, and although my parents disapproved of me using it for anything other than accessing the home schooling portals they’d pre-selected, it was easy enough for me to get around their “kid-blocking” controls and read the news. Which scared me to death. I could see the infection rate going up in our county; I could study the graphs of rising death; I could do the math. I may have been home-schooled, but standardized tests showed I was in the upper fifth percentile in math proficiency for my age group.

And it wasn’t like the math was hard to grasp. But my parents were in deep denial. Or delusional. It didn’t matter which—they had an almost pathological aversion to facts.

When my father started coughing up blood and my mother complained she’d lost her sense of taste, I tried to get them to go to the doctor but they absolutely refused. They were convinced the talk of the pandemic and “contact tracing” was just a way for the government to get “cover” for their plans to microchip everyone via vaccine injections.

They were particularly suspicious of the billionaires who were funding vaccine research.

“You’ll see Zilla,” my father said. “Next thing you know they’ll be rounding up all the free thinkers and putting us in concentration camps.”

No, those are just for little immigrant kids,” I said, because I was horrified by what was going on at the country’s southern border and upset my parents seemed to be onboard with it.

“Don’t talk back to your father,” my mother said.

As it turned out, that was the last thing she ever said to me. Not more than an hour later I found her on the kitchen floor, fighting to breathe. Before I could fetch my father from the garden, she was dead.

“Now will you go to the doctor?” I screamed at him.

“What’s the point?” he said. “If I die, I’ll be with your mother in the Lord’s embrace.”

“What about me?” I countered. “I don’t want to die.” I’ll never forget the creepy smile he gave me then.

“Don’t you want to be with the people who love you?”

I’d stomped out to the backyard to dig a grave for my mother and keep myself from saying something I would regret.

My parents had a permit for green burials, so I dug out a space between two trees, making it big enough to hold both their bodies—I had no doubt my father was dying—and went back inside to wrap my mother’s body in the last clean sheet in the linen closet.

My father was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a glass of buttermilk as I worked. Every time he coughed; I could see the droplets in the air.

You’ve doomed me, I thought, even though I wore a bandana around my nose and mouth.

 A week after my mother died, my father did too. It was horrible. I put him in the grave with my mother, patted the earth down, then came back into the house and took a long, hot shower, scrubbing every inch of my skin after dousing myself in bleach. I was certain I’d begin to show symptoms at any moment, so I occupied my time cleaning the place, airing it out and wiping down every hard surface with either bleach or disinfectant.

I washed everything that could be washed.

And I waited by myself for the end.

Next: The Awful Isolation

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