This is How a Pandemic Starts – by emily groot

The house had been empty since the old woman died. Her son didn’t want the trouble of cleaning it out, and the Public Guardian and Trustee said it wasn’t their problem. The mail continued for a few months, and it still sat, yellowing, on the front porch. The grass grew long and the paint started peeling. A family of bats moved into the attic, and mice multiplied in the kitchen.

Rosalyn walked past the house twice a day, once on the way to school and once on the way home. When she first noticed the growing pile of mail, she had timidly knocked on the door, wondering if the owner inside was alright. There had been no reply, and she did not approach the house again, instead watching it fall further into disrepair from the sidewalk.


When Mr. Carpenter told the art class to choose a scene for their final project, Rosalyn picked the forlorn house. Snow now lay in deep, undisturbed drifts around the foundation. It covered the unopened mail and caught in the curling shingles.

Kaycee elbowed Rosalyn while they looked for their palettes on the art room shelf.

“Marc Janveau’s parents are away this weekend and he’s having a party tomorrow. Want to go?”

“Yeah, I guess.”  

Kaycee blew air out between pursed lips. “You guess?  Like you have anything else to do.”

“Yeah, yeah, I mean for sure.”  Rosalyn corrected herself. Kaycee was her closest and cruelest friend. A wayward word could lead to weeks of silence, or a series of angry notes in Rosalyn’s locker.

“Okay. I think I still have half a mickey from last week. I’ll check when I get home.” 

“Girls,” Mr. Carpenter interrupted. “There are only two palettes left on the shelf. I presume they are yours?  If you’d please take your seats.”

Kaycee rolled her eyes but picked up her paint and sat down. Rosalyn followed.

Rosalyn had sketched the house from a photo on her phone. She preferred the soft feeling of graphite on paper to the smell and mess of oil paint. From afar, her sketch looked a little like a frowning face. The dark second-storey windows as eyes, the door a long nose, the sagging porch a frown. Rosalyn frowned along with the porch, wrestling her brush through the thick paint.


The sun had found the space between Rosalyn’s bedroom curtains. She pulled her comforter over her face, but the inside of her eyelids still glowed orange. Her head hurt and her tongue was dry.

A memory from last night. Ryan had kissed her. Rosalyn sat up in her bed. The sudden movement made her nauseous. She hadn’t wanted to be kissed. She had said no. Kaycee had shoved her into Ryan. Ryan’s friends had laughed. Kaycee had laughed. Ryan had smelled like beer and was so drunk he barely found her lips. Rosalyn had walked home by herself. Or, she was fairly sure she had walked home by herself. It was hard to know after the vodka.

She reached for her phone. One text, from Kaycee. It was just three emojis: a kissy face, a laughing face, and a face with hearts for eyes. Rosalyn turned off the screen without replying and sank back into her pillows. She had been angry at Kaycee before. The time Kaycee had cheated off her in calculus. The time Kaycee had stolen her track spikes before a race. The time Kaycee had scalped their concert tickets when she needed a new bike.

This time was different. Rosalyn was angry, yes, but she also felt resolve. This was the end.    


For weeks, Rosalyn ignored Kaycee at school. She did not answer Kaycee’s texts. She threw out the notes in her locker without opening them. She did not once ask for Kaycee’s help with her art project. She ate lunch with the horse girls and started occasionally going to the barn with them on weekends when their moms offered to drive her.

She finished her painting. The house looked lonely and grey. There was something a little off with the perspective. The porch seemed too short and the sky seemed too close. But Rosalyn had gotten the light right. The clouds looked as if they were really being lit by the sun. To her disappointment, Mr. Carpenter hung her painting beside Kaycee’s, a quite striking study of a mine headframe. Rosalyn wanted to rip it off the wall.  


It was warm enough that Rosalyn took off her jacket, exposing her arms to the weak spring sun. Trudging through the melting snow, Rosalyn pictured herself holding a lighter to the corner of Kaycee’s canvas. At first, the paint reflected the flame, and then the headframe grew sooty. Roslyn stomped in each puddle of slush, sending grey water into the air as she imagined the fire catching and flames chewing through the fabric. Her socks squelched in her boots.            

She was coming up on the abandoned house. Someone was standing in the driveway. It was Kaycee. She waved. Rosalyn started walking faster.   

“Look!  The door is open,” Kaycee yelled.

Rosalyn glanced at the house. The front door indeed gaped open. Suddenly, Rosalyn wanted nothing more than to change her socks, to sit in front of the TV in her warm slippers.

Kaycee yelled again. “It’s your painting!  Go inside!”

Rosalyn shook her head no and kept walking.

“Fine,” Kaycee shouted. “I’m gonna check it out myself then.”  She ran inside and Rosalyn heard banging. What if Kaycee damaged the house?  Rosalyn ran after her.

“Leave the house alone!” Rosalyn yelled. She looked around. It was hard to see in the dark after the daylight outside. She could not see Kaycee.

“Leave the house alone!” she yelled again. She heard footsteps above her, but no reply. Rosalyn followed the sound up the stairs. Kaycee was spray painting her name on the wall, in big ugly red letters. Rosalyn rushed at her, slamming her shoulder into Kaycee’s abdomen. The spray paint can clattered across the dusty floor. Both of them fell against the wall.

“What the fuck?” Kaycee exclaimed.

“Leave the house alone!”

Kaycee held up her hands in mock innocence. “Fine. Whatever. Just thought you’d want to check it out.” 

“Leave the house alone!  Leave me alone.”

Kaycee backed out of the room with her hands up, leaving the spray paint can on the floor. A few seconds later, Rosalyn heard the front door slam and then felt something brush her arm. She smacked her shoulder hard. A bat fell to the floor, lifeless. Rosalyn scooped it up, immediately ashamed. It hardly weighed anything. She stroked its glossy brown fur with a finger, tears in her eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

The bat was limp in her hand, its black wings hanging uselessly. Perhaps she could remind it to fly?  Rosalyn cupped her hands around the bat, carrying it gently to the front door. She threw the bat off the front porch, hoping its wings would flap. Instead, the bat’s body hit the ground with a small thud. She felt stupid for thinking that might work.

Rosalyn sat down heavily on the front steps. She did not notice two small punctures in her shoulder, or the small drops of blood marking her tee shirt. She put her face into her hands, and started to cry.  

Emily is a public health physician, born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on the territory of Garden River and Batchewana First Nations. She now lives with her family in Sudbury, Ontario.

One thought on “This is How a Pandemic Starts – by emily groot

Leave a Reply