Emily didn’t survive. Like so many others she had succumbed to the invasion. Statistically, they had been doomed at the outset. The families were told what to expect, but that didn’t mean they were prepared. Little Debbie was seven now. She skipped happily amidst the blades of the vibrant and verdant park. “Over the river and through the woods to…..” The events of a year-and-a-half interrupted her gleeful tune. Grandpa without Grandma was a dereliction of the norm, a distortion of everything she recalled about the first five years of her life.
The happy gatherings with too much food, a gazillion birthday parties, dressing up for church, and sleeping over at Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Joe’s. Much of it had come back—but not all. Grandma Emily’s absence was permanently etched in the creases of Grandpa’s face. He tried to hide it, but Debbie’s perception exceeded her years. Mom and Dad seemed surprisingly okay. That she couldn’t understand. There was no way to know that the loss of friends, families, co-workers, and six percent of the world’s population was forcing them to hide what would surely kill them too, if they let down their guard and gave in. So they donned their happy masks, unlike the real ones they had worn for so long. Those masks had kept the bad stuff out. The new imaginary ones were keeping it in. But they did what they had to do—for Dad’s sake and Debbie’s.
She spotted Billie Jackson with his mother and ran as fast as she could to greet them. They hugged and squealed with the laughter of angels, a physical expression they had not been allowed only a few months before. Billie’s mom gyrated nervously, still traumatized by the reality that a simple touch had meant death not so very long ago. Since then, she had lost her husband to the prohibition of intimacy that couldn’t be unlearned. But children will be children.
The flowers smelled so sweet, as they rubbed the therapeutic fragrance into one another’s hair. They ran some more. The attendant picking up the trash grinned and waved from a distance. The joy was contagious. He had lost most of his family, but his kids were okay. A Golden Retriever was lapping at the edge of the lake. The owner had no fear of the authorities, as his best friend mingled unleashed with old neighbors who were just as happy to see him. All the rules had been lifted and life was going on.
At the end of two blissful hours, it was time for Debbie to go home. Unwilling to let go, Billie seized the day, pushed her onto the grass and laughed at their mothers’ admonitions. Debbie got up and giggled, just as happy for a push as she had been for a hug. It was all about the touching.
Back in front of her laptop, Debbie studied the countries of the world, discovering what they are now and what they used to be. She was not overwhelmingly impressed. She missed the classroom, the teachers, the maps stretched across the bulletin board and challenge to find Japan. But all the schools were closed, never to open again. Her parents steered her towards science, hoping that the next time, she would be one of the experts on whom all nations depended. But that was too big an ambition for a seven-year-old girl whose only aspiration was to see the world—not save it.