Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Things That Do Not Belong (Purnhagen)

My seven-year-old son is sitting backwards on the couch, looking out the living room window. Perched next to him is our brown tabby cat, tail flicking as he scans the front yard for wayward wildlife. I assume that’s what Gus is doing, as well. 

“See any good birds?” I ask. 

The question confuses him. “I’m not looking for those,” he says, irritated. “I’m looking for the virus.”

It takes some gentle prodding and more questions to fully understand what he means. I thought I’d explained this all so well, careful to use age-appropriate terms explained in an optimistic tone of voice. But the news is on constantly. Both my husband and I have watched the 2 pm state briefings with almost religious regularity.

“You can’t see the virus,” I tell Gus. “It’s very, very tiny.”

He turns around. The cat continues his lookout for trespassing cardinals.

“It’s a big gray ball,” Gus informs me. “It has little horns like Shrek.”

Now I understand. He’s seen the graphic that accompanies most news segments, the one that depicts the virus as a charcoal-colored orb dotted with red spikes. I explain that the picture on TV is a magnified view of the virus. He furrows his brow and rubs at the back of his hand, which is sporting a large blue circle. He drew it on himself with blue marker. I didn’t have to ask him why. 

As a first grader, he would get a stamp on his hand when he returned his books to the school library. The stamps changed each time: a smiling pumpkin at Halloween, a snowman in December.

During his weekly Zoom meeting, the teacher asked the kids how they felt about the end of the school year, which was changed from June 1 to May 21. Gus told the class that he’s glad it’s almost over because he “hates school.”

Gus has never hated school. He was always happy to climb the steps to the bus and was brimming with news when we walked home at the end of the day. He would hold out his hand with pride to show off his weekly library stamp and talked about the books he picked out for the week.

But since school abruptly ended on March 12, his opinion about it has changed. He has decided—firmly—that there was nothing there that he liked and he never wants to go back. Ever, he emphasizes, staring at me with a challenge in his eyes . I know this isn’t true. I know he would much rather run around on the playground instead of our overgrown back yard. I know he misses French Toast Stick Friday at lunch and music class with his friends every other Wednesday. And when I look at the smeared circle on his hand, I see how much he wants those library days back.

Today was officially the last day of first grade for him. He said goodbye to his friends over a Zoom meeting while wearing his pajama pants. 

“You’re a second grader now,” I tell him. “Isn’t that great?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. Will I have second grade at school or at home?”

I wish I could tell him that this will be over by August, that everything will be normal and we’ll go out and buy him new shoes before the first day of classes. But the school calendar is in limbo, a thousand decisions on hold. I don’t think he’ll be going back until September, and even then, it may only be a few days each week so students can be staggered and class size limited.

“We’ll see,” I tell him. It depends on the virus. It depends on numbers and statistics and figures that he cannot begin to comprehend and shouldn’t have to.

He turns back to the window. The cat settles in. They both stare at the front yard and keep watch for things that do not belong there.

Mara Purnhagen is the author of four young adult novels: Tagged, Past Midnight, One Hundred Candles, and Beyond the Grave, as well as two novellas and numerous short stories. She lives in Chagrin Falls with her husband, their four sons, and two cats.


  1. This breaks my heart. I'm having a hard time coping. I can't imagine what children are thinking.

  2. Perfectly captured. Keep the stories coming!