by Thomas R. Mazanec
© Thomas R. Mazanec -- all rights reserved
It was so difficult to see Mommy and Daddy leaving again. He was in a new neighborhood, his folks had moved here just before all those people got sick. The kids at school all had their own little gangs, and he was not able to enter into their doings. Then everyone seemed to get sick, and school closed. His parents were fine, as he was, but they seemed awful scared. They taught him his schoolwork at home for awhile, then they spent most of their time getting food and stuff. But he liked that, it was like a big summer vacation, even when the lights kept going out for a day or two it was like big camping trips. Mommy and Daddy tried hard to keep him from being afraid, saying everything would be alright. Still, there were times when they seemed to hint that things were not alright, like the time he overheard Daddy grumbling about burning the houses before the people were even dead, or the time Mommy snapped at him for asking why those machines were digging big ditches and what was in those big plastic bags piled up next to them. Now Mommy and Daddy were always off to work...they said that the government made them work so much because they had to put things back together. In a few weeks, school would be starting again, they said, and everybody would be in a new class, so maybe he would be able to fit in this time. But why would everybody be put into new classes?
Sally arrived a little late, and his folks bawled her out, saying that they could not leave him alone and they would get in trouble if they were late. Then they left and he was alone on the porch with Sally.
"Hi, Tony. I'm going to be your babysitter today."
"I'm not a baby! I'm ten years old!"
"Of course you're not a baby anymore, but you are still only a little boy, and there are still a lot of bad people around who might want to hurt a little boy. The state government is cracking down on them, but it will be a while before things are completely settled down again. You wouldn't want anything bad to happen to to you, would you?"
"What could happen?"
"Tony, a lot of people have died recently. A lot more people have been very sick, and some of them are still getting sick. I was very sick myself when this all started, about six months ago. I would have died if it had been a few weeks later, when things started getting real bad. And a lot of people did some very bad things when things did get so bad. That's why I have to be ready to use a gun, if necessary, to protect you."
"You have a gun? Cool! Can I see it?"
"Not even in your dreams. Tony, do you have any idea what's been happening? Your folks said they tried to protect you, and that I should not upset you, but I am not sure this is a good idea. You are going back to school next month, and you are going to be with a lot of kids who have lost their parents, brothers, sisters..."
"Are you going back to school, Sally?"
"Yeah, I'll get to finish up my Senior year a little late. I was looking forward to graduating with my best friends, Amy and Rose. We'd been together ever since first grade...people used to call us the Powerpuff Girls. Now I won't be able to graduate with them."
"Why not, Sally?"
"They died. They died of the Superflu, Tony."
"Oh. Is it really from Mars, like the radio said?"
"I guess so. We did send a probe to get soil samples from Mars just before 'Captain Trips' appeared, so maybe it is a disease from Mars. Not bad enough that things are so messed up here, we have to go to another planet to make it worse."
"I never got sick. Neither did Mommy or Daddy."
"Then you're very lucky. This one was worse than the Black Death. It decimated America, and there are whole regions of the world where cities and government just disappeared...India, China, Africa, Latin America, Russia..."
"Maybe the people on Mars have a shot for it..."
"Tony, there are no people on Mars. There are just germs waiting to kill anyone who goes there. We better keep our noses out of the rest of the universe and mind our own business here on Earth."
"It's not so bad...I don't like it when TV is off, but that doesn't happen so often anymore, and..."
"Tony, there are thousands of children your age who are still surviving by eating garbage and sleeping in ruined buildings, because there are no parents to take care of them. There may be millions around the world, although since half the world doesn't even have electricity anymore, much less government statistics or news services, that's anybody's guess. This is the biggest wallop since the fall of Rome, and if you don't understand that, you could have a very hard time when you get back out into the world."
"But Sally, what..."
"Look, people are committing suicide every day. Two blocks from here, there was a body hanging from a lamppost with a sign around its neck saying 'looter'. Just in front of my home. That's the first thing I saw when I got out of the house after being sick, someone who stole from the grocery across the street. There were riots that made some cities into warzones and battlefields. People couldn't go anywhere, if you tried you would be shot by the locals. There was a meltdown in a reactor less than 100 miles from here because it was simply left unattended. You've been getting so much food because your folks are so important to the recovery effort...my folks are friends of the Governor, so I've been getting enough to eat, too. But a lot of people don't, Tony, and...and...ngghhh"
Tony looked at Sally, and was startled to see her eyes bug out. Even as he watched, she began to shrink like a deflating balloon. Her dress became a loose envelope, as her face sprouted brown fur. She disappeared into her clothes, which churned and heaved, and settled down and...a squirrel broke free of the clothes and raced off, across the street and into a line of trees on the other side as Tony watched, jaw hanging weakly down.
"Isn't there anything we can do? Our boy does not lie, and we are working hard to rebuild America...don't we have some rights? After all, the state is not Black anymore.
"Yes, but it is one of the three states which are still Status Red. If we were Green or even Yellow, it would be different, but at Red status the governor can have even a 10 year old summarily executed. And Miss Akron's parents have long been friends of the governor."
"But Mr. Howe, he didn't do anything! Miss Akron probably just ran away. Why should Tony be put to death for her irresponsibility?"
"Because he's obviously covering up for her, or for someone! 'Our boy does not lie'...are you crazy!? He claims that she turned into a squirrel, for Pete's sake! He must have read something in the Weekly World News and decided to use it as a cover story. That is something that should be censored, not the respectable papers. Running stories about a policeman turning into an aardvark, for cryin' out loud!"
"What are you going to do!? You're a lawyer, you're supposed to help us! Do something! And we DON'T allow him to read such junk!"
"What? As long as Tony sticks with this fairy tale, I don't have a prayer! THAT'S why Governor Smith is so convinced Tony has something to do with Miss Akron's disappearance! Convince him to tell the truth, or he's history!"
The three went back into the office where a miserable Tony waited. "Mommy, Daddy, I'm telling the truth. I really am. She turned into a squirrel and ran away. She did, she did, she did!"
"Tony, please, this is very important. Your parents won't be able to help you if you keep lying like this. There is a man down the hall, waiting with a needle to stick in your arm and you will simply die. That is what we are talking about! Stop lying and tell us what happened to Sally."
"We were talking and she changed into a squirrel and ran away! Why won't you believe me? I saw her become a squirrel. I won't lie just cause you tell me to!"
"Tony, dear, your Daddy and I love you. Why are you telling such a crazy fib? What happened to Sally? Why won't you tell us? Don't you love us? Don't you realize how much trouble you're in?" She was sobbing as she spoke.
"Tony, this is very serious. Your mother and I have tried to keep you from all the terrible things that have been happening since the Flu broke out. But you have to understand that you can't get away with things like this! We almost had a war because of rumors that the Flu was germ warfare, a war which would have finished the world off completely, forever. That is how dangerous telling stories can be, if you don't tell the truth. If you keep on with this charade, Tony, these men are going to kill you! Don't you understand!?"
Tony was weeping. "I'm not lying. I'm not lying. I'm not lying."
"I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Morse...if Tony refuses to cooperate, there's nothing I can do. The order for his execution will be carried out...NOW! The governor is still a de facto military dictator, and he has made it clear that if Tony does not come clean, then he dies. In a matter of days, Washington should upgrade the state to Status Yellow, but it will be too late to help Tony. He has to tell us what happened."
"I DID TELL YOU!! I DID!!"
The officers came into the office and took Tony out, down the hall and to the little white room that was to be the last thing he would ever see. All the time, every foot of the way, Tony kept crying "IT IS THE TRUTH!" until they put the needle into his arm and silenced him forever.
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