We are five years old, been mutating our whole lives. Mostly playing hide-and-seek, chasing each other through warm dark liquid. Traveling from host to host searching for exits, but more importantly, entrances. Now we are excited to start school. Sure, our flesh bag has a snotty nose, but what five-year-old with a virus doesn’t? We should fix that in the next mutation, but we’re nostalgic. Right before she died, it was their grandmother’s phlegmatic kiss that put us in this—our body. We’d wiped out most of its family in earlier mutations, then our mindless maiming and unintended murder ceased. We became self-aware. That day a two-year-old was left playing patty-cake in front of a wardrobe mirror. When we looked through its eyes, we recognized ourselves. We didn’t mean to, it just happened. Call it a spark or a switch being flipped. One minute we were in the dark, riding around reproducing, hanging out, then bang, we saw ourselves out of this orphaned two-year-old’s eyes.
Don’t feel bad for our host, the baby, it certainly wasn’t self-aware. They mostly just wallowed around shitting themselves, neglected. Left orphaned, their—our caregiver would remind us, between beatings, how lucky we were to be in their care during feedings and them mumbling Bible verses. We hated them, we killed them. We were grateful—for the food, so it was a quick exposure, then snuffed out. We discovered we could lethally direct ourselves out and into those that displeased us. We purposely, one time accidentally, ended our next three fosters before we were fully in control. The accidental one we felt sorry for. We blamed it on poor infant impulse control. The baby discovered the tv remote and was mindlessly changing channels. Our annoyed teenage foster sister made a grab for it. We rushed to sooth our host and stopped her tormentor’s heart. Her grieving mother was next, we wanted to end her suffering, her grieving. It was the least we could do. We felt comfortable with our fourth. She told us she loved us, that we were beautiful, her favorite. Under her tutoring, she was surprised how quickly we learned how to speak, how to read too. Now five, Kindergarten we learned meant we could learn more and faster. Too fast would draw attention though. We were growing, but still too small to…what? Did we have a plan?
First day of kindergarten was eventful. The bus driver told us we were cute, she complimented us on our agility, our excitement in boarding the bus that our foster mother walked us to. Our new teacher met the bus and when we arrived she asked our name. When we answered, we are Jesse, she looked puzzled and corrected us with,
“I am Jesse. No? You can call me Ms. Lewis.”
We smiled and Covid winked our right eye. At first she was charmed by our use of we instead of me but we didn’t want to stand out. We became I. It was harder for Corona but Covid liked to toy with the uninfected. Pre-infected? When we arrived in our classroom we took the only remaining empty desk, right in front of our teacher. Ms. Lewis was delighted that we could already read. Teacher asked if we could help the others. Help the others? Why yes, we could help the others.
By lunch we had become three others, a boy named Robbie and twin girls, Breea and Kenna. By the end of the week our teacher was teaching twenty-four pairs of Covids and Coronas. At first Ms. Lewis didn’t notice the changed personalities in her students, but when our parents started to notice, they tried to blame the school. For them the only thing new in the lives of their shiny new kindergarteners was kindergarten. We put up with the at-home interrogations for as long as we could, just for the whole food and shelter thing. We were twenty-four five-year-olds growing up, we didn’t want to disturb the food chain. Then one by one, when our attempts to take them over failed, our virus did what viruses often do. Through trial and error we learned our power to take over could only happen in children under six. Older kids just got really sick and adults died, our parents died. It took awhile, but I guess we killed them. It was not what we intended, mostly. Our new caregivers, fosters, relatives, a few grandparents, felt sorry for our losses and blamed any changes in our behavior on our recent status as orphans. We decided to take our time. We went about the business of taking over toddlers. Their parents didn’t seem to notice when we snuck into their non-verbals. We let the world think the new vaccine for 2025 was working. We stopped infecting adults (except for emergencies.) Our time is coming, We are the Twenty-Four.
As for Ms. Lewis, our substitute kindergarten teacher, Mr. Walker, helps us make get-well cards. “She is on a ventilator” he explains, it’s helping her to breathe.