Watching the World Crumble


I want to go outside, but today it is just too cold. Yesterday was nice, and the day before too. Once the rain cleared up late on Friday afternoon, it was really a beautiful weekend. Sunny and warm, it felt like spring was just around the corner. That only added to the eerie feeling of unrealness which has been hanging fog-like over each waking moment.

But the rain on Friday was just downright spooky. And I usually like the rain, I guess I’m just real quirky in that way, but when I looked out the window and saw that rain, I knew that there was absolutely no way that it wasn’t going to be a shitty day. It was dark, gloomy rain crawling down the street in shiny black waves. It was mean rain. It was hood up, head down, wet socks rain.

I woke up earlier than I ever do that morning. Seven a.m., because I needed to read the play that I was to have a quiz on in my first class. I had meant to read it the night prior, but I didn’t get the chance, because instead, I was desperately trying to take care of my dying pet rat, Penny. 

She hadn’t been doing well since I got her back from my friend who had been watching her that Sunday. The friend did inform me that Penny did have an unfortunate encounter with a cat a few days earlier. The cat had reached into the cage and given Penny a mean bat, knocking her over, but not scratching her, or doing any visible damage. Regardless, Penny had retreated into her dome and would rarely venture out. In addition, I had observed that she had become quite bitey, which was extremely out of character because both of my lovely rats have only ever been known to bite on accident or if your fingers smell like food. We both assumed that she was just freaked out from the whole incident, but I decided it would be best for me to take her to the vet on Monday anyway. It was at the vet where they saw the blood in Penny’s urine, which was startling, to say the least, but they told me it was probably just a UTI and that the stress of being hit by the cat probably just exacerbated it. They prescribed an antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory and told me that it would probably clear up in a couple of days. I scheduled a follow-up appointment for Friday.

Throughout the week I was hearing more and more talk about the school shutting down in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. I could not help but feel like everyone was just overreacting, just a week earlier I had traveled down to Charleston for spring break and I told my friend that I felt “absolutely unthreatened by the Corona Virus,” in response to all the people I’d seen in the airports wearing face masks, but then every day it seemed to creep closer and closer. 

On Tuesday my Philosophy professor dedicated a lengthy portion of class time to the discussion of what exactly would happen to the class should the school decide to make the transition to online classes. The class is always small, there are only five of us on the roster, but on Tuesday only Sam and I showed up. As sort of a half-joke, he had us scoot our chairs to the far edges of the glass fish-bowl classroom and take notes from there in order to protect him from potentially catching the virus. It should be said that this guy, my Philosophy professor, he’s a bit of an eccentric. He adds an element of drama to everything he does, which I usually appreciate, but it was in this drama that the weight of it slowly began to dawn on me. 

He told us that IT already added a link to every course’s Blackboard page that would take students to a Zoom chat. Zoom, he told us, was the video chat platform that professors were going to use for lectures. Students would be able to participate and ask questions, almost like normal. 

I had been dealing with a sore throat that day, and a mild headache too, but I was able to numb both by taking two Ibuprofen in the morning, and two more in the afternoon before going to work. At the start of my shift, I started to feel a slight chill. All tucked into my black work sweater, I gravely confessed to my coworker, Haleigh, that I thought I was probably dying, as I do almost every Tuesday afternoon when the dining room is empty and I feel even the most minute decibel less than perfect. 

We all received the email while I was at work that night. They had started sending them out over break, the COVID-19 updates. I remember thinking that for how long they were, none of them really said all that much; I think that was the general reaction of students across the nation. This one wasn’t much different, but the general take-away seemed to be that while NEC’s administration was not looking to shut down at that moment, students needed to start forming plans for what they were going to do if the campus were to shut down and that the faculty would be meeting Friday afternoon to discuss what the best options would be moving forward.

That night Penny had a lot of energy, which gave me hope, but I also saw that she was having trouble crunching on her food. This was a problem because rodent food is almost entirely crunchy; she was also still moving a lot slower than usual, and I was starting to see a decline in coordination. 

On Wednesday the headache and the sore throat were back. I took more Ibuprofen and Sam brought a throat lozenge for me to our morning class, the class where we were discussing the play which I had yet to read. “How thoughtful,” I said taking the lozenge.

“That’s what I said,” Jacob chimed in. “How’s little chunk doing?” Jacob was the friend who gave Penny and me the ride to the vet two days earlier. I told him that it was hard to tell if she was getting better, but I didn’t think she was getting too much worse. 

At the start of class, our professor sadly relayed to us the news that the school’s production of Eurydice was canceled. We were going to be required to go see it for the class and just a few days earlier Sam, Jacob and I were all talking about how fun it would be if we all got dressed up for the occasion, if we all wore nice dresses or slacks or blazers, as if we were all off to see a play on Broadway. But that plan would never come to be.

That’s how it seemed to be going. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Another one bites the dust. As I sat that night with the editors of The NewEnglander and we half-heartedly tried to make a plan for our upcoming print edition and the new Zine we were planning on releasing, I could tell that all of us were thinking the same thing, fidgeting in our swivel chairs. What if there is no print edition?

Meanwhile, Penny was getting worse. I knew she was, even if I didn’t want to admit it. Even with the soft food I was feeding her, it looked like she really wasn’t eating so much as she was just mashing the food up and making a mess. Still, I grasped white-knuckled and forlorn to the hope that maybe if I just stayed patient she would turn around. As long as I kept giving her the medicine and she kept drinking water, she would at least make it until Friday when I could take her to the vet again. There they would be able to help her more.

Thursday it was all anyone could talk about, and the question of the school shutting down had gone from if to when. And me? Well, I was washing my hands obsessively, humming the chorus of “Africa” by Toto to myself every time, just like John Oliver advised on Last Week Tonight. I was on my way to my Philosophy class that afternoon when my roommate came running up to me to tell me that she had heard that someone in Henniker has it. When I repeated that information to the people in my class my professor said that it was likely that dozens of people in Henniker have it, and they simply don’t know.

Upon leaving that class I rushed to the pharmacy in search of more soft food for Penny, but the best thing I could find was soft cat food. I decided it would have to do. When I got back to my room I saw Penny stuck to the bars of her cage by her teeth. She must have been trying to chew on the bars, when her teeth slipped over them, leaving her hanging there by the mouth. Carefully, I unhooked her, and then I tried to feed her the cat food, but I knew that it probably wouldn’t be too good for her, so I only fed her a spoonful, and I told my roommate to keep a close eye on her while I was away at work. 

I knew when I got to work that based on how things were going, I needed to talk to my boss about the possibility of me having to go home. She wasn’t in when I got there, but the lady who works in what I understand to be Human Resources or maybe payroll (all I know is that she is one of the Country Spirit big wigs if the Country Spirit even has big wigs) was there. I told her that I didn’t want to leave, that if the school closes until April, then I wanted to stay in Henniker and keep working and just try my best to be normal, but if the school were to end up closing for the rest of the year, then I would have to go home. 

“This is ridiculous,” my manager said as she stood in the door listening, “what’s going on right now is that the flu is going around and it’s a little more contagious this time.”

I sanitized everything I could at work. All the menus, the phones, all the surfaces. At one point I had a family come in and before I sat them I overheard a conversation that they were having about their recent vacation to Disney World. I sanitized everything they touched. 

My sore throat hadn’t started to flare up until near the end of my shift. I told one of my coworkers that I had a theory that the reason I was feeling so under the weather had been because my rat was sick, and I was her empathetic mother, so of course I would also feel sick. She told me I was crazy.

Unfortunately, that night things took a turn for the worse with Penny. You could tell just by looking at her that since the beginning of the week she had lost a lot of weight and even though she was walking, she had a pretty awful tilt to her walk that caused her to go in circles. All I could think to do for her was get milk. I was hoping that maybe if she could just drink some milk, that it would give her enough strength to get better. I knew I was grasping at straws, but it was all there was for me to do. 

I ran to each room in the house, asking on the verge of tears if anyone had milk. When I received the final “no,” I started texting and calling anyone I knew nearby who I thought might have milk. When I was finally able to get my hands on some, I fed it to Penny in small amounts from a plastic syringe. And she drank, holding tightly onto the syringe with her weak paws, losing her balance, then grabbing on again. I cut her off soon, not wanting to shock her system. After that, I just sat and watched her. I watched her move around the tiny go-cage where I had her separated from her sister Lucky. I watched her as she curled up in each corner then stretched her limbs blindly, periodically searching for the water bottle which I had tied to one corner for her. I watched the way she quivered constantly and the exhausting pain in her eyes, and I knew that the medicine was not working. I knew that this was to be my last night with Penny. I let myself sob. While I sobbed I sang to her. I sang to her about how much I loved her and I told her that she was by far one of the best rats that I had ever known. We went on like that for an hour or two before I decided that the best thing I could do for Penny is sleep next to her and accept whatever fate the morning had to offer.

Which brings me back to Friday, and that ominous fucking rain. When I told my mom about this rain she told me that it only seemed so awful to me because I’m a Lit student and I am specially trained to look for symbols in the world around me, but I swear to high heaven if you saw that rain then you’d know. 

Penny was still breathing when I woke up and I was able to finish the play before class. I could feel right when I left my house that there was a weight on everyone’s shoulders. I could feel it over all of us. A melancholy trapped in our throats. We were all waiting for the email to come and tell us to pack.

I floated. I floated from my class to my meeting with Dan Freese where we were supposed to discuss the details of my directed study for the second seven weeks that we both knew would never happen because the school was shutting down, I floated into the office of Allie Birchmier where I told her I was tired because the world has been ending for my entire life, that it all started with Y2K and now we are facing a global pandemic, and she told me that maybe the world had been ending for twenty years, but we’ve all always gotten through it, so this shouldn’t be any different. I floated to the Admin building where I usually work as a student ambassador, but with every Accepted Students Day being postponed indefinitely, there was no work for me to do. And I floated to the vet where the doctor told me that if whatever was going on with Penny had anything to do with the cat, she would have been better by then. They told me that whatever was going on was a systemic failure, and that I could pay for more tests, and they could find out what was wrong with her, but odds are they would not have been able to do anything. I floated out into the waiting room where I showed Jacob the empty go-cage, unable to speak without crying. 

That afternoon they sent out the email everyone had been waiting for. The one telling us that the school would be making the transition to online classes. That student could stay on campus if they wanted to, or they could go home, but if they went home they would not be welcomed back. Jacob left right away. I think a lot of people did. I went to see Sam that night. She let me talk about everything that had happened, and how mad I was with everything going on in the world. And how I was even madder because there was no one to blame, and there was nothing that I or anyone could do. 

Since then I’ve just been hanging around. Watching the world shut down around me. My roommate is gone. A lot of my friends are gone. My rat is gone. I worked through the weekend, but now it looks like for the time being my job is probably gone too. It seems like all there is left for me to do is clean my room, cry in my bed, call my mom, and do homework. All there is left to do is sit despondently on the kitchen floors of my friends, on the verge of tears because everything is crumbling for everyone. Everyone is afraid and everyone is just losing and losing and losing and maybe there are solutions but they all seem like they are so out of reach.

Now they are saying that things might not be back to normal until July or August, and I can’t even come to terms with the fact that this will be my life for the next few weeks. Let alone the next few months. I guess all I can say is that I’m scared. I don’t know what to do or how to feel. I feel like I am becoming a victim of some unstoppable nihilism because I’ve been spending the past two years adjusting and building a life for myself that I could be proud of, with a job and extracurricular activities and schoolwork and now there is just this emptiness all around me that is just growing and growing. 

And sure. I’ll figure this out. I’ll force myself to go outside and go on walks and exercise and eat, and eventually, this will all be over. Or maybe it won’t be over but at least things will be okay. But until that point, I’ll be here in my half-empty dorm room, with Lucky the rat, sobbing in the Zoom video chat.

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Lia is a senior here at New England College and hails from Denver, Colorado. She is studying Creative Writing and Philosophy.
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