You know there is something wrong when your skin turns red and gets itchy. That's what happened to me the first day I went outside. Actually, it was the first day I went outside after the pandemic ended.
We had all been trapped inside for over 12 months. The government, as well as the Health Organizations from around the world, told us we had to stay away from every other human being as a means of controlling this highly contagious virus. So, we all obediently closed our doors and locked them, not coming out until the signal came that everything was all clear.
I remember that day very well. If you can imagine, I'd just spent 12 months in a small, three-bedroom house with my parents and 3 siblings. I share a room with my sister, Kara. Dwayne and David, my twin brothers, share a room, and that leaves mom and dad in the third bedroom. It isn't a small house by most standards, but it certainly felt confining during those long months.
Dad called a family meeting. We each left our individual electronic devices to assemble in the dining room. “I have great news,” he announced, his face beaming. “The Government has just lifted the Stay at Home order. The virus is whipped, we can now all go outside!”
“Wahoo!” my brothers exclaimed as they high-fived each other. “Let's get out of here!”
“Hold it one darn minute,” Dad interjected, “there still are rules to being out of the house. We can only be outdoors for 1 hour the first day, 2 the second, etc, until you build up an immunity to the fresh air”.
“What do you mean, immunity,” asked my older sister Kara. “Isn't air a natural thing?”
“Yes, dear, it is,” my mother answered, “but you haven't been exposed to it in so long, your body might react to it.”
“How can you reject air?” I asked. This was beginning to sound suspicious to me.
Dad looked at Mom. She looked back at him, concern all over her face. Dad walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Krista, darling, the outside isn't like it used to be. To kill the virus they had to radiate the planet. It has taken this long to make the air quality clean enough for us to tolerate it.”
“How come we aren't sick from this air,” asked David.
“Because each household was fitted with an air purifier before the great cleanse. We are breathing purified air, not air from outside.”
Kara gasped, “What about the animals? Are they all dead? The rabbits, the deer, the squirrels?”
Dad shook his head. “No, actually the animals are all fine. Turns out the radiation levels needed to kill the virus were not so high that the animals all survived. In fact, in some places, they've taken over complete cities.
“The plants, however, struggled. It took a complete season before the grasses came back. The trees are a bit bare, and the governments are now in process of replanting them. This means the oxygen levels are not as high as they had been prior to the eradication.”
“Dad, that sounds ominous,” Kara said uneasily.
“I'm sorry, the Government has been using all sorts of different names to describe how they got rid of the virus. I think we should just be glad this is all over with and get back to normal.”
Dwayne scoffed loudly. “Dad, how normal is it if there are no trees and we can't go outside for longer than an hour?”
“David,” Dad started.
“I'm Dwayne,” my brother corrected. Jeez, I have no idea why Dad can't tell them apart. They're not even identical.
“Dwayne,” Dad amended. “Eventually we will get back to normal. Just not today.”
“Or tomorrow or the next day, or the next day,” David added with a silly grin on his face.
“OK then, let us get ready to go outside!” Dad exclaimed.
Mom started handing out gloves, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. We were already all wearing long sleeves and pants so those places did not require covering. Kara helped me slather on the sunscreen on my face and ears and neck, and then I put on hers. While we were doing this, Mom handed out stopwatches. “These are all set to go off in a little under an hour. Better to be safe than stay out too late,” she said as she handed one to me.
I looked down at the watch. One hour did not seem long enough.
We lined up at the door, Dad standing at the entryway, his hand on the lock. He unlocked it and put his hand on the knob. “OK everyone, please start your watches,” he said. “Done,” both David and Dwayne said at once. “Done,” said Kara. “Done,” came Mom's reply. I hesitated. I wasn't sure I wanted to be limited to one hour. What if I fudged on the time? “Done,” I said, but I didn't start the timer.
“Here we go”, Dad said as he opened the door with a flourish and stepped aside.
My eyes were greeted with unbearable bright light. Even my highly polarized sunglasses did not hold up to the intensity of the sun's rays. I put my hand over my eyes to shield them as I walked out of the house into the outdoors.
Everything was bright white. Even the concrete of the sidewalk and the street looked like someone had whitewashed the world. My eyes watered from the glare and I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. David and Dwayne ran past me down the street, but I just stumbled out into the yard. I found one of the benches we had on the front deck and sat down. It felt unusually warm, but I needed the time for my eyes to adjust.
Kara walked down the street. Her best friend, Mindy, lives down there. I know Kara had texted her just as we were preparing to go outside so I suspected they were going to meet up. Dad didn't say we couldn't talk to people.
I could barely distinguish my parents as they walked hand in hand out of our yard and down the street in the opposite direction Kara had went.
So there I was, all alone, sitting on a bench in our brown, dead yard. I began to wonder if my Dad was telling the truth when he said the animals were fine. I hadn't seen one yet, nor had I heard a bird or swatted a fly. Everything felt creepy.
By the time my eyes finally adjusted to being outside, I decided to take a walk to see how things had changed in the neighborhood over the last year. I first looked at the Wilson house next to ours. The paint was chipping, the white wooden fence around their yard needed repairs, and the roof looked like the tiles were breaking off in several places. I looked at our own house in alarm and saw it was in similar condition except we had shingles instead of tiles on the roof and they appeared fine.
I then looked across the street to the Johnson house. There were plants in pots sitting all along the edge of their porch. Those plants were doing well and I wondered if someone had been growing them indoors during the lockdown. There was still no sign of any animals, not even hovering near the plants. I found this curious.
I then wandered around the neighborhood, looking for odd things. There were no nests in the empty trees, no signs of worms digging in the bare ground. I wondered what the government wasn't telling us.
I heard my name being called and realized I still hadn't started my stopwatch. I had no idea how long I had been outside! I turned back towards the house, running as fast as I could. When I reached the dwelling, both my parents were waiting in the doorway with panicked looks on their faces.
“Krista, where have you been? You've been outside for two hours!”
“I was looking around the neighborhood in search of animals,” I replied quietly as I walked into the house and my dad shut the door. “My stop watch must be broken,” I added.
My Dad picked it up from around my neck and pushed a few buttons. The timer started fine. He then pushed another button and it glowed red. My parents exchanged concerned looks but said nothing.
My mother then looked intently at my face. She quickly removed my sunglasses off my face, as well as the hat. “Oh my,” she said. “We need to perform first aid on you. Kara, go to the bathroom and get me the white box next to the towels. And be quick about it.” Kara ran off towards the bathroom.
“What's going on, Mom?” I asked, trying to control the fear in my voice.
“Darling, I think you have some sunburn. I have some things that will make it heal pretty fast,” she reassured me.
I then began to become aware of the slight stinging sensation on my face. It itched too. I reached up to my face with gloved hands to touch it. My mother intercepted my hands and held them. “Don't touch your face, Krista. You don't want to irritate it further.”
Kara arrived with the box. My mother opened it up and took out a clear spray bottle. She sprayed my visage a couple of times and let the liquid soak into my skin. She sprayed it a few more times and told me to leave my complexion alone for a while. She then took out a pill bottle and gave me one of the purple pills, followed by a glass of water that my Dad had brought to her. I took the pill. She then told me to go to my room and take a nap. I objected that I didn't feel sleepy, but by the time I finished talking, I was getting drowsy. So I stood up from the chair I was sitting on and walked to the room I shared with Kara.
Once inside, I looked at my face in the mirror. I was shocked at how red it was. I resisted the urge to touch it, but I couldn't stop looking at the lobster red color it now was. I fell back onto my bed, still staring at my image. Finally, the sleepiness caused by the pill my mother had given me won over the shock of my complexion and I laid down on the bed and fell asleep.
Now, whenever I go outside I need to wear a mask over my face and all of my skin is covered. I was told I need to wear the covering to avoid another allergic reaction to the sun. I'm not sure I buy that explanation.
As for the small animals, they have begun to show themselves. Kara thinks they were all genetically created in a lab or cloned or something because they don't behave like normal birds or animals. We both think something else happened during our quarantine other than what our parents are telling us. Kara suspects I had radiation poisoning and the whole mask thing is just to distract us from the truth.