Agents of Death

Agents of Death

I opened my eyes. The sun was streaming through my window—a beautiful fall day. I pulled the blanket over my head and tried to go back to sleep. Sleep would stop the pain—suspend it while I was unconscious. But it wasn’t any good. I was awake—and the pain and guilt and sorrow and shame flooded through me. I started sobbing. Life would never be the same. My classmates and I had been turned into murderers—sweet but stupid, eighth grade agents of death. First, Mrs. Anderson, my history teacher, then quiet Keisha, my friend and classmate—both had asthma—then Granny—and then, worst of all, Daddy.

“It isn’t your fault, Sarah. You can’t blame yourself,” Mommy had said, but she said it mechanically. The shock of this last phone call still so unreal and impossible. Daddy was so strong and so always present. Daddy, who made big Sunday breakfasts and all of our birthday cakes, was gone. His high blood pressure and his long history of smoking made him especially susceptible to COVID-19—just like Mrs. Anderson and Keisha with their asthma. There would be a virtual Zoom funeral—just like with Granny—but it wasn’t the same. The pictures through the computer screen made it just seem like TV. I had screamed at the computer during Granny’s funeral, “Wake up! Just wake up, Granny!” Mommy had to mute us for a while. I refused to believe Granny was dead at first, but when Daddy brought home his mother’s wedding band, engagement ring, and the gold cross she always wore, along with some of the knick-knacks from her room at Quiet Meadows that we had always liked, the cold hard truth seemed impossible to deny. Granny would never be separated from those things unless she was dead. And I killed her.

We live in Alexandria, Virginia, and even though Governor North and the CDC said that social distancing in schools should be six feet, the Virginia Board of Education (mainly Republicans), went with the WHO recommendation of three to six feet—which meant three feet. Poor Mrs. Anderson wore the plastic face shield as well as a mask and sprayed and wiped down everything with disinfectant wipes and/or rubbing alcohol several times a day. Instead of the usual, twenty-eight unruly students in her class, on Monday and Tuesday there were fourteen of us spaced out three feet apart and wearing masks while the other kids in our class worked online. Everyone did online on Wednesdays (while they were cleaning), and then the other half of the class came in on Thursday and Friday while we did online learning. We tried to be good. We didn’t have assemblies anymore. We ate in our classrooms—three feet apart with our homemade lunches and bag lunches provided for some kids by the cafeteria. But it was so hard—normal things like borrowing a pencil or eraser or piece of paper happened even though they shouldn’t have. And now and then someone traded cookies for fruit snacks or an apple for an orange. We were too stupid to understand that even those simple gestures could spread bacteria and the novel coronavirus.

Bobby Garcia stopped coming to school on Monday and Tuesday, and the gossip was that his mom, a healthcare worker, was showing symptoms. Emails went flying. Mommy said our whole class would be moved online again (like the previous spring). Then Mommy and Daddy told us together, me and Jack (my younger brother), that Mrs. Anderson was in the hospital and on a ventilator. We didn’t understand what that meant, but Daddy explained that it meant Mrs. Anderson couldn’t breathe on her own, and that she had to be drugged and have a tube down her throat to breathe for her. Then I heard that Keisha was also in the hospital. Principal Thomas sent out an email announcing Mrs. Anderson’s death. I cried when my parents told me.

I had cried so hard about Mrs. Anderson and what I feared might happen to Keisha that I didn’t realize the next day that I had a sore throat. But by the end of the day, I had a runny nose and a slight cough. By then, I had gone about my normal routine touching things and eating with my family. When Mommy realized I had the runny nose and cough, she had felt my forehead and told me to go to my room.

“Sarah, please go to your room. I need to call the doctor and ask what to do.”

The realization that my sore throat, runny nose, and cough could be COVID-19 was alarming to me. “Mommy, what does this mean?”

“I don’t know, baby. We’ll figure it out, but you may need to stay in your room for a while,” she said, I thought rather calmly.

I walked to my room with a sense of dread. It was bad enough stuck in the house for days on end—but stuck in my room “for a while” seemed like torture. Fourteen days, wasn’t that what they said for self-quarantine? Fourteen days in my room! Opening the door, the bright colored posters and curtains just didn’t seem bright enough—not for quarantine—not for fourteen days. I threw myself on my bed. A few minutes later I heard my mom.

“Sarah, honey, do you have enough books? Think about things that I might be able to order that would give you things to do besides watching TV on your iPad and disappearing into your phone. Would you do any coloring? What about friendship bracelet string or yarn for knitting?”

I couldn’t think about coloring or knitting. I just asked, “Mom, how long?”

“The doctor says fourteen days. I am sorry, honey.”

“What about going to the bathroom? What about food?” I asked, feeling mounting panic.

“You have your phone. You’re going to text us or call us when you are going to be in the bathroom, and after you’re done, daddy or I will wipe it down. And we’ll bring you food.”

“Are you serious?” I felt overwhelmed.

“I am deadly serious, Sarah. I am cleaning now. I will come up in a bit and wipe down your door with a bleach solution. Are you okay, honey?”

“I . . . I don’t . . . know,” I answered truthfully.

“I know this is hard, Sarah, but just sit tight. I’ll be back in a bit.” I listened to her walk away.

It felt so weird to be essentially locked in my room—like some kind of dirty thing that couldn’t be let out where she would contaminate the rest of the house and its occupants. My cell phone—under normal circumstances—was a constant source of connection and distraction. Now, it would be part of quarantine—a way to communicate with my family members without them actually having to speak to me or touch me or see me.

“It’s me, baby. I am just wiping down the door,” my mom called from the other side of my door. I could smell the bleach, and then I heard her walk away.

A while later, I heard my dad, “Sarah, baby, it’s Daddy. Can you open the door and then stand back?”

I opened the door and backed away from it. I stared at my father. He was wearing a cloth mask and latex gloves and holding two plastic bags in his hands. “In this one is bag of goldfish, an apple, some water bottles, and juice boxes. And this bag has two cloth masks and some hand sanitizer,” he said holding each bag up in turn. “I am just putting them here on your dresser. You should wear one of the masks when we bring you things and when you go to the bathroom. Okay, honey?”

The tears welled up in my eyes and then spilled down my checks. My father started to move toward me, but I backed away further. I was contaminated. I was a threat to my family. My father had to suit up to be anywhere near me. My mother and brother too. It was so overwhelming. I couldn’t speak. I just nodded at him, and he moved out of the room and closed the door. And so my self-quarantining began.

Jack got it next—three days after me. At least we could text and Facetime each other from our separate rooms. Then we heard about Granny. The Sunday before Bobby Garcia stopped coming to school, after a big breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon, my family had all gone out to Quiet Meadows and brought Granny her favorite dessert from the farmer’s market, apple cobbler. That’s how Granny got exposed to COVID-19—through me—through my school—through the school board’s decision (of three feet)—through the president’s insistence that kids like me needed to be in school in the fall—even with COVID-19 spiking all over the country because people weren’t taking it seriously enough. The president of the United States of American made us, school-age children, agents of death—to our teachers, our classmates, and our family members. In the weeks that followed, we learned that ten other teachers were hospitalized and four died. One of them was Mr. Williams, Jack’s math teacher. A bunch of kids got sick, but the worst part was their giving it to their family members—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Keisha died and so did a handful of other kids.

I don’t know who killed my dad—whether it was Jack or me or both of us. But where Jack and I just had flu-like symptoms, my dad soon had shortness of breath and was hospitalized. Mommy became slightly hysterical then. Jack and I could hear her crying in their bedroom at night. She couldn’t even visit him—I think that is what hurt the most. She wasn’t there when he died. He died alone. My mom blames the politicians, at least the Republican politicians, for politicizing wearing masks and blowing off the seriousness of COVID-19.

Mom didn’t get it, COVID-19. Jack and I are now finally out of quarantine. It is Thanksgiving morning, and I have nothing to be thankful for. I wish I was dead—dead before COVID-19—so that Granny and Daddy would still be alive. I don’t think I will ever be able to recover from knowing that I am responsible for the deaths of people I loved. I will forever hate the current president and all Republicans for supporting him and therefore for putting me and all students in America in this horrible, horrible situation. Shame on them, and shame on me.


The story is the reflection of a child who started in-person instruction in the fall of 2020 and, inadvertently is responsible for the deaths of people she loved.

About the Artist

Kathleen Murphey,  Montgomery County
Published:  August 14, 2020