Ryan Palmer loved being a grandfather almost as much as he loved telling stories to his great-grandchildren, Seal and Anemone. He heard them coming well before they bounded into the room. They stopped on either side of his chair.
“Tell us a story, Grandpa!” Seal demanded.
My god, they have so much energy, the old man thought. I’d give my right arm for a tenth of what they expend in a day. “Sure thing. What would like to hear?”
“Tell us about the Dark Time,” said Anemone. She would want that, Ryan thought. She loved all things dark and creepy. Her brother, however, wasn’t nearly as much of a fan.
“Oh, no,” he said. Ryan could almost feel the shiver that ran through the boy. “I don’t like that one.”
“What’s wrong with it?” his sister asked.
“It’s too weird,” Seal said.
“Well, I like it,” she replied. “And, I was first. So, I get to choose.” Then, in a show of generosity, she threw her brother a bone. “You can pick next time, okay?” She does this every time, Ryan thought. And, every time, Seal falls for it.
“Okay,” the boy said. Both of them sat on the floor in front of him.
As he often did, Ryan thought his great-granddaughter would end up either as the CEO of a major corporation or the leader of a religious cult. She was so good at manipulating people which was a valuable skill in either field of endeavor. He shook his head. “So, the Dark Time?” he asked.
“Yeah!” the kids said in unison.
“Okay,” he said. “Where to begin? Hmm…”
“Oh, Grandpa,” Anemone said, “you know where to start.”
Ryan laughed. “Yes, sweetie, I know where to start.” The two children settled down in front of him. “No one saw it coming. 2020 started out pretty much like every other year. Well, every other year when an unhinged Oompa Loompa was president, that is.” The kids laughed at the imagery. “When we heard about a new virus that kicked up in China, everyone thought ‘Oh, it’s no big deal. There’s no way it’ll make it all the way here from China.’ It wasn’t the first time we’d heard about some ‘scary’ virus that could wipe us out and none of those had amounted to diddly squat. So, why would this one be any different?”
“Diddly squat,” said Seal, laughing. “You say funny words, Grandpa.”
“Be quiet, Seal,” his sister snapped. “I want to hear the story.”
“It’s okay, Mone,” Ryan said. “We’ve got all day for this.” Well, he thought, we’ve got until I fall asleep again. Hopefully, I can finish before that happens. “So, where was I? Oh yeah, we’d just heard about the virus. Our screaming carrot demon of a president had been left with a comprehensive plan for situations like thi—”
“What’s ‘com-pree-hen-sive’ mean, Grandpa?” Seal asked, completely oblivious to his sister’s rising ire. Sometimes, Ryan wondered how the boy had made it so long without Mone smothering him in his sleep.
“It means the plan covered a lot of stuff about handling diseases,” Ryan said. “But they didn’t like the plan. So they threw it out. When the virus got here, they had nothing. No plan, no way to deal with things. Well, that’s not completely true. They did have one thing.”
“What’s that?” both kids said.
“Racism,” he said, noticing their mother and his granddaughter scowl at that word. “They said they wouldn’t let anyone from China into the country. But they were too late. It was already here.”
Both kids gasped theatrically. It wasn’t the first time they’d heard this story and they knew their part in things very well.
“Things started happening quicker after that. We started hearing horror stories out of Wuhan about mass deaths and super harsh government crackdowns. Then, they said it was a pandemic and not long after, our grifter-in-chief president finally declared a national emergency. And, they finally got around to shutting down air travel from Europe. If they’d done that sooner, things might not have gotten so bad here,” he told them. “But it was too little, too late.”
“How bad did things get?” Mone asked.
“How bad did they get? Well, little girl, I’ll tell you,” he said and paused for dramatic effect. “People died. A lot of people. And, when the deaths started to climb, they closed down almost everything except for places like grocery stores and pharmacies. And, everything was in short supply. One time, I spent a whole day going from store to store to store, looking for toilet paper. I only found some when one of the employees of the Target I was at set out a pallet of Charmin, right where I was standing. I grabbed a 24-pack and took off for the register before the inevitable mob showed up.” He heard the kids’ mother, his granddaughter Jessie, grunt and looked up to catch a generous dose of side-eye.
“Did they fight over it?” Seal asked. “The toilet paper, I mean.” He knew the answer but asked anyway. It was his way of participating in the story.
“That particular time, I couldn’t say since I was busy trying to get out there,” Ryan answered. “But there were plenty of times that people did fight over stuff like that. Things got pretty crazy back then.”
“How crazy?” Mone asked. Ryan knew this was her favorite part. The more dystopian a situation was, the better she liked it.
“Well, some people were taking horse dewormer because they thought it would cure the virus,” he said, watching his granddaughter’s eyes light up at the sheer insanity of the remark. “Doctors all over the place were saying it was dangerous. And, that even if it wasn’t, there was nothing in it that would cure COVID. But they didn’t care.”
“What other crazy stuff happened?” demanded Seal.
“Well, you know everything was closed?” The boy nodded. “That was so people would stay home as much as possible. Over 3 or 4 months, I almost never left my house.” Seal’s mouth fell open with that revelation. “We all did that. They called it ‘social distancing’,” the old man said. “And, when we did go out, we were supposed to wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from everyone. But, there were people who wouldn’t even do that. Said COVID wasn’t real, just something the government made up to ‘control’ us.”
“That is pretty crazy,” the boy said.
“Oh, that’s just the start,” Ryan countered. “Almost as soon as people started getting sick, the medical types started working on a virus. And, they had a working vaccine in less than a year. Usually, it takes a lot longer, like 5 years, but everyone pitched in, so we got it much quicker. And, you know what happened?”
“No,” the children said, excitedly waiting for the next crazy claim from the grandfather.
“A bunch of people wouldn’t take it. A lot repeated that government control nonsense, but some, I swear I’m not making this up, said Bill Gates and Oprah wanted to use it to microchip everyone so they’d know where they were and what they were doing.”
“But that wasn’t a thing back then, was it?” Mone said.
Ryan shook his head. “Nope. Somebody online said it and people believed it.”
It was Mone’s turn to shake her head. “They must not have been very smart.”
“That, my dear, has been said more than once,” Ryan said with a grin. “But more than that, a lot of those people were scared. And, scared people aren’t very good at thinking things through.” He leaned forward. “And, that’s not even getting into the crazy doctors. There was this one who stood on the steps of the Supreme Court building to promote the same medication that’s in the horse dewormer I mentioned earlier. Which is bad enough on its own but she also claimed that the government was run by lizard people. And that tumors were caused by demon sp—”
“Hey,” the kids’ mom cut in, “don’t you guys have some homework to do?”
“Yeah,” Mone said, having gotten her fix of human insanity. “Come on, Seal. Maybe if we get done early enough, we can go outside for a bit.
“Okay,” her brother replied. “Ugh, I hate homework,” he said as got up. “Why does Mom always stop him right when it’s getting good?” Both kids grumpily made their way upstairs to their rooms.
Once they were out of earshot, Jessie turned to her grandfather. “Why do you tell them such outlandish stories, Grandpa? That one’s as bad as the one about the ‘Snowpocalypse’,” she said, rolling her eyes and making air quotes.
“What, you think I’m making it all up?” he said.
Jessie smiled. “No, of course not. But you’re a storyteller. And, like all storytellers, your tales have a kernel of truth.” She set the tray with his meds and a glass of water down beside him. “But, I swear, that kernel gets smaller with every telling.”
“Okay,” he said, picking up the glass and washing down the pills. “Maybe I do embellish on occasion. But today? Today, I told it straight.”
“Sure, Grandpa,” she said. “Let’s get you to bed.