They said we couldn’t leave. There were three of them, with masks on. The kind that the men had worn when they first came to take all of the dogs and fish away. There was no warning, that day in the middle of the winter, when the leaves had all fallen off the trees and the wind was blowing wide snowflakes down from the clouds and sky. We had one dog and eight fish. The fish were all named Clarabell, and the dog was named Uncle Glemmy Two Fists. I called him Uncle, but Palmer and Isaac called him Chuck Chuck. They were the twins, and the first ones in our neighborhood to show any symptoms of what we would later call The Sick. There were red spots under their chins that spread out across their necks and down around their hearts.
To make sure everything was still working, the doctor would put a stethoscope up to their chests and listen for the pumping of their blood. He would keep both eyes on his watch, and I often used the opportunity to sneak popsicle sticks and cotton balls into my pockets. There wasn’t much we could use them for, and mostly I just kept them all stored up in amongst my clothes, which they let us keep but which we were no longer allowed to wear. Instead, we, all of us including mom and dad, were told to wear hospital gowns, even if we went outside. We never went outside. Every night before we went to bed, mom and dad led us in a short prayer in which we asked god to save the souls of Clarabell and Uncle Glemmy Two Fists.
Palmer and Isaac were kept inside of a plastic bubble, and although they could hear us just fine, we had trouble hearing them speak, and there were a few times when dad thought that they were insulting him, and turned off their oxygen in retaliation. Were it not for the pad of paper on which Isaac could write (Palmer never learned, but it beats me how one did know and one did not) what it was he really said. Dad always believed him, but I used to wonder if he was just insulting dad and then making up something innocent later to try and calm him down. Even I did that from time to time, and dad could hear me just fine.
Every time the doctor came in to the room, he was wearing a paper mask over his mouth and nose. There seemed to be a lot of people wearing the masks during that time. They did not give us masks, which was fine enough since we weren’t going anywhere or seeing anybody. This went on for about seven months. The beds we slept on were pretty comfortable, but I don’t think mom liked them very much because there wasn’t enough room for her and dad to sleep in the same one. Instead, they slept on either side of me, blowing kisses to one another over my head. The doctor told them not to touch, but anytime he wasn’t looking, mom would sneak her hand over to dad’s lap, and he’d close his eyes and smile.
When I think of that time now, that time when we were taken away just like Clarabell and Uncle Glemmy Two Fists, what I remember most is the whiteness of it all. The hospital gowns, the floors, the starched sheets used for bedding. We were in there for a long time. Or maybe just a few days. But they seemed to last forever. Palmer and Isaac were never let out of their bubble. The last time I saw them, Isaac had a peculier trapezoidal shape framing his heart, the pumping visible underneath his thin skin.
I never caught The Sick. Nor did mom and dad. We didn’t talk about it, and there were nights when I would cry out for Palmer and Isaac and mom would come in my room asking me to quit the racket. Other nights, dad locked me in the basement and told me that there were no such people. He hid all the photos and burned the mail. One day, I asked for some new fish, and we went to the pet store and came back with thirteen gerbils. I named them Harold. The pet man had told us that gerbils don’t get The Sick, but five months later, a van pulled into our driveway, several men escaping out the back door with the masks and clear boxes with holes at the top, and carted my gerbils away. That night, dad packed us a suitcase and mom made some ham sandwiches, and we drove away in the car, driving east so it seemed like the sun was always on the rise.