Photo by Buchen Wang on Unsplash

Ruth sat in the bathroom stall, working to gain control of her panic and sobs. She circled through her thoughts again. Despite saving for the past three decades and living frugal, it wasn’t enough to retire on. Being an essential worker during a pandemic is terrifying. You’re guaranteed a job as long as you can healthy. You’d think the biggest risk to a dietary aide would be fallen arches.

At the moment, the only other businesses that were hiring were consider essential. The ones she qualified for were public facing and would riskier yet. Meadow Pines Care Home has been doing daily temperature checks. Cheap disposable masks became standard after someone from the records office fell ill. They were so sick they had to be admitted to the hospital. A single mask must last all week because of the shortages.

Greg, one of the cart runners, asked about clear face shields. Our manager, Toni, actually laughed at him. ‘You don’t have direct contact with the residents. You don’t need them,’ she had said. She did her best to embarrass him in front of the whole morning shift.

The next day, he wore a pair of shop goggles. Toni mocked him throughout the morning tray line. He ignored her which only increased her anger. Since then, Ruth and five others have taken to wearing them. Toni calls them Seven Dwarfs. A majority of the kitchen staff envisions Toni as the Wicked Queen rather than Snow White.

The bathroom was quiet, so Ruth blew her nose and left the stall. Sharon was at the mirror brushing her hair back into a ponytail so she could curl it up into a hairnet. The golden cross on her necklace glinted in the dim restroom light. “Are you okay, Ruth?”

Thanksgiving 2020

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

I slowly slid out from the blankets and into my fuzzy slippers. I sat still on the edge of the bed because Gene’s snoring had stopped snoring. He rolled over and then returned to a quieter rhythm. It’s still dark as midnight, but that turkey won’t bake itself. I steadied myself with the nightstand and eased off the bed. Gene didn’t flinch. One of the few times I’ve managed to get out of bed without waking him. I tiptoed out the bedroom door, gently pulling it shut behind me.

Dim light from the kitchen spilled down the hallway. I must have forgotten to turn that out last night before bed. As I got closer, I heard running water quickened my steps. Hope I didn’t leave the water running, too.

Stepped into the doorway to see Paul washing up one of Camille’s bottles. He paused for a moment. I stepped back into the darkness and away from the doorway. Don’t want him to think I’m spying on him. I am, but he doesn’t need to know that. I worry about him.

After he didn’t say anything or shut the water off, I peeked around the doorframe again. Paul was holding on to the edge of the sink and pinching the bridge of his nose. He’s missing Twila. My baby is heartbroken.

Election Day

Photo by J K Metz

Why does my first Presidential election have to be in 2020? For months, the news outlets have pumped out conflicting info on an hourly basis. The noise from social media has been deafening. One of those bits of info – the possibility of mailed ballots not making it in time to be counted.

Because of this, I waited to vote in person. That nearly proved disastrous. The bakery I work at closed a week ago last Sunday because of an outbreak. I immediately went into quarantine and took my first nasal swab test that day. The anger I felt towards myself for screwing up my chances to have my voice heard made my anxiety worse. I should have risked voting by mail.

Then yesterday morning I got a call that my second test was also negative. I was cleared to go back to work. Yes! I will get to vote after all.

I took a sip of coffee as I turned into the very full parking lot. This is not what I expected. There was so much talk about most people had already voted as absentee and by mail. Most in my district must have decide to vote in person. I finally found a parking spot in a far corner.

As I shut the car off, I noticed my sweaty palms and sour stomach. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath knowing I’d feel better once my ballot is cast. I tucked a small tube of hand sanitizer in one pocket of my light jacket. Then put my cell phone and AirPods in the other. I double checked that my utility bills and license were in the inner pocket of the jacket. I took another sip of coffee and then put a piece of gum in my mouth before securing my mask.

Saving Halloween

Photo by Vishnu Mk on Unsplash

“I know he’s up to something. He best not have snuck out to Hi-Jinx again,” Irene muttered as she scurred from the house. She stopped just shy of the door to the garage door. “He had better be in there. He’s worse about sneaking off than the kids ever were.”

She stood there listening for a few seconds before a voice from behind her said, “Checking up on me?”

Irene jumped, spun around, and slapped Gene on the arm. “Oh, you gave me a fright. No, I wanted to see if you were hungry.” She couldn’t look him in the face.

Her husband, Gene, scowled, “Fibber.” Then he broke into a big grin. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”

She looked at him warily as he steered her by the elbow towards the open door. “The last time you did that, you tricked me into spending an hour helping you finish building a bookcase.”

“Not this time. Promise.” Gene had a sparkle to his eyes that had been gone for months.

Inside was a freestanding black wall with an orange pipe poked through it at a downward angle. “Okay, you stand down here with your hands under the pipe like you’re going to catch something.” She raised an eyebrow and put a hand on her hip. “Come on. All you have to do is catch this.” He held up what looked like a small ball of paper.

Drive-in Concert

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Julie checked herself in the bathroom mirror. In one hour, she was going to do something normal since the pandemic began, well sort of. Three days ago, the Blue Box Riot band announced they were doing a drive-in concert to raise money for out of work musicians.

She had fastened her too long bangs with a barrette, pulled the rest of her hair into a ponytail, and then cemented it into place with hairspray. Her well-worn t-shirt was snugger than she remembered. Maybe she had done more boredom eating than she realized. She chose it because the band members with the words Blue Riot Love over their heads graced the front.

She double checked her purse for a mask and hand sanitizer before setting off to pick up her best friend, Marta. They both had encouraged Marta’s husband, Ryan, to come along, but he said it would be a good girls’ night out. Besides, baseball was finally back and he could cheer at the TV without Marta laughing at his outbursts.

A block away from Ryan and Marta’s home, Julie pulled over and slid on her mask. The mixture of excitement for the concert and concern for her friend and her husband made her stomach jittery. The last thing she wanted was to make either of them sick. As she slowed to a stop in front of their house, Marta bounded down the driveway as she pulled on her own mask.

Marta broke into the lyrics of ‘Jupiter Moon Rising’. Julie giggled at her friend as she steered the car onto the highway. As they pulled into the lot of Tanner Mall, Julie started sing ‘Joe’s Waiting’ and Marta joined in.

The lot had newly painted lines that divided the pavement into much larger car spaces. The rules on the website stated they could get out and dance as long as they stayed within the lines around their own vehicle. Some people seemed to enjoy sitting in their cars. Or, perhaps were erroring on the side of caution. Others had lawn chairs in front or along the side of their cars.

Julie shut the car off and started crying. “Oh, what’s wrong,” Marta asked. She had started to hug her friend, but remembered the virus and stopped.

Tree Top Lookout

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

“Go out and play in the backyard,” Mom said to me and my younger sister Daria. “Stay in the yard and no neighbor kids – just you two.”

“Yes, Mom,” we said in unison. It was almost time for her Zoom meeting and Dad was already on the phone making sales calls to customers. If either of them had to interrupt their workday to check on us, we’d be in so much trouble.

Parents always find ways to mess up something fun. Zander, a neighbor boy one year older than Daria, says his Moms do the same thing to him. As soon as you get a fun idea, they read your mind, and tell you ‘no’. You don’t even get a chance to ask. If you do the fun thing without asking, you get into trouble because you should have known better.

Daria had run out to the big tree in our backyard. We were banned from climbing any of our trees because we were told it damages them. We had been all summer and hadn’t been caught yet. I shimmied up behind her and sat down on a nearby limb.

“Let’s see what the neighbors are up to today,” I said, pulling a pair of binoculars from a hole in the trunk. Dad hadn’t used them since people were no longer allowed to attend basketball or football games. It seemed a waste not to put them to good use.

“I want to look at the Olsen’s house,” Daria said.

Hugging the binoculars close, I taunted. “Ooh, you just want to spy Zander.” I took great joy in watching her turn red every time I mentioned his name. My seven-year old sister had such a crush on him.

“First, I want to check on the McRae’s remodeling project.” Without waiting for her to protest, I raised them to my eyes and brought their baby blue house into focus.

Ned and Carla, were not the handiest of people. Yet, they bought the oldest and most poorly built house in the neighborhood. Dad had said, ‘It should have been torn down and something better built in its place’. The governor’s safer-at-home order gave them an opportunity to hone their carpentry skills. It gave me something besides replaying the same five boring shows on Mom’s safe list.

Watching them build a shed this spring was painful. It took them two weekends and multiple tries to put it together. Three weeks later, it collapsed.

There was another time they made me laugh so hard I nearly peed myself. They were assembling a picnic table and had cut a board. It appeared to be too short. They cut it again and tried to put it in the same spot as before. Even at ten-years old I knew cutting a board doesn’t make it longer!

“Gimme!” shouted Daria as she tugged at my shirt sleeve.

“Fine.” I pulled them away and held them out her. “You just want to spy on your boyfriend.” She stuck her tongue out as she jerked them from my hand. While she scanned the Olsen’s house top to bottom, I returned my attention to the McRae’s house.

Before handing the binoculars to Daria, Ned and Carla were at the kitchen window. That’s where they would normally sit and drink coffee in the morning. The light was on in the room, but the table and chairs were gone.

“No! Oh, no!” Ned shouted as he ran around the house from the backdoor. I could see Carla in the window with her hands raised as if surprised.

“Hey, Daria, give those back for a minute.”

“No, I’m not done yet.”

I had only looked away for a moment to ask my sister for the binoculars. Crashing, banging, and yelling came from the McRae’s house. When I looked back, a plume of dust was swirling around the kitchen side of their house. Ned was shouting and flailing his arms. Carla was still in the same spot as before, but there was no longer a wall between her and the outdoors.

Daria had already turned the binoculars in the direction of the mayhem. She gasped, “It’s gone.”

“Let me look,” I said. She promptly handed them over. As I surveyed damage, Mom came running out of our house.

“Daria! Cyrus! Where are you?” She must have noticed the commotion at the McRae’s before she could spot us. “How the…?”

Daria shouted down from the tree. “Mommy, they took too many nails out of the wall. Now, they have a people-sized dollhouse.”

Mystery Masks

Photo by De an Sun on Unsplash

“Ah, hell’s bells woman,” Dad’s gruff voice carried down the hallway and into the makeshift nursery. It was no secret my parents argued. They have for as long as I can remember.

I looked down at Camille’s sweet face as I gently laid her in the crib. She barely shifted. Tears welled up and threatened to flow again. She looked so much like Twila, my late wife. The same day our daughter was born, my wife was placed into an induced coma. That awful virus took her from us a week after Camille was born.

She never got to meet mother. Twila never had a chance to hold her, count her fingers and toes, or look into her beautiful blue eyes. Twila has been gone for a month now. The pain is so great, it might as well have happened minutes ago. I’m trying to be strong for our little angel.

Moving in with my parents was the last thing I wanted, but the circumstances this year have been beyond our control. Working as a cook at Willow Lake Steakhouse was great until the pandemic shut down the restaurant. Two months ago, Zack, the owner, left a message letting us know he wouldn’t be reopening. It looked like Willow Lake wasn’t going to make it and there was talk of bankruptcy.

We were drowning in school loans and two months behind in rent when I lost my job. Twila teamed up with Mom and pushed for us to move in with them. I agreed we needed more stability with the baby on the way, but didn’t immediately agree to the move.

Mom pointed out they had a large house. Dad only grunted and said that we needed to pull our own weight. As soon as he held Camille for the first time, he never brought it up again. Dad’s got a soft heart, but will never admit it.

Twila’s parents had died in an accident a few years back so Camille would only know one set of grandparents. ‘What better way for Camille to bond with her grandparents than to live with them?’ Twila had said.

Mom’s shrill voice yanked me from my thoughts. “I say they’re a gift. Someone was feeling sorry for us because we live in a hotspot and mailed them to us.” Her voice became shriller as their disagreement escalated.

Lucky Stroke

“I’m feeling okay. It was a mild stroke. I can take care me and Taynisha,” Ebony said into the phone. She scratched an itch on her forehead before abruptly yanking it away. Then vigorously rubbed her hand on her jeans. “Momma, you are not coming over here. It isn’t safe. There’s that virus everyone is talking about.”

Twelve-year old Taynisha bounded into the room, tilted her head, and pointed at her tablet. When Ebony motioned for her to go back to her room, she stomped her foot and anchored a hand on her hip. “Momma,” she whispered loudly, “you need to see this.”

Ebony shook her head and waggled her finger at her daughter. Then gave her a look that said, ‘just you wait until I get off this phone’. Taynisha folded her arms, stuck her tongue out, and then stomped out of the room. “Ooh, that child,” grumbled Ebony. She put her hand on her face again before yanking it away and rubbed it on her jeans.

“Yeah, I know. She’s behaves like I did at her age. Look Momma, I really need to get off the phone.” Ebony put the phone on speaker laid it on the kitchen counter. She turned the water to hot and began washing her hands.

“Let me come over and help. You need to take more time off from work…what’s that noise? Are you doing dishes?” her mother’s voice chirped from the phone.

“No. I’ve already touched my face at least twice. I’ve got to quit doing that. And no, I can’t stay home.” Ebony wiped her hands on a frayed, stained towel. She grabbed a sanitizing wipe and scrubbed her phone and the counter where it had been.

“You know I can’t take more time off from work. I’ve got hospital bills to pay. And those rooms at the home aren’t going to clean themselves. There’s lots of fragile people there counting on me. That place has to be kept extra clean so the residents don’t get sick. I want to be there. Those old people are like extended family.”

Taynisha bounded into the kitchen and shoved her tablet in her mother’s face. Ebony pushed it away. She stomped her foot and shoved it at her again. “You’ve got to look at this now,” she barked and stomped her foot.

“Love ya, Momma. My daughter needs me and I’m fine. Bye.” She set her phone down hard on the counter.

“Young lady, you are not too big to give a whoopin’ to.” Ebony yanked the tablet from her. “What is so important that you interrupted?”

Taynisha had hurried across the room and was now sitting sat at the kitchen table. She looked at her with seriousness no twelve-year-old should know. “Do you have the virus?”

Ebony expression softened and then pinched into a scowl as she looked at the tablet. The headline read ‘Micro Blood Clots Might Be Linked to the Virus’. The subtitle read ‘Increase of strokes seen in virus patients’. She leaned against the counter as she continued reading.

Her stroke had been mild and caught very early. She had tested negative for the flu, but hadn’t been tested for the new virus. She had a cold, but hadn’t felt all that sick. It isn’t unusual to have a little something in February. There wasn’t a year that hadn’t gone by that she didn’t catch a cold or flu going around at work.

“Is that why you had a stroke? Are you going to get sick and go back to the hospital?” Taynisha’s eyes were watery and her bottom lip quivered. Seeing her so upset broke Ebony’s heart.

She walked over, laid the tablet on the table, and gently hugged her daughter. “I don’t know, baby.” She kissed the top of her head. “I don’t think the doctors would have sent me back to work if I was still sick.” She held her daughter until the tears forming in her own eyes subsided.

The Chase

Photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash

A hard day’s work on the retail floor had exhausted Deanna. It felt so good to slide behind the wheel of her old Toyota. “Come on, Lucille. Take me home.”

Lucille was old enough to legally drink by herself, if she were human. The original glossy, red paint had weathered to a flat, dull pink, and had a few dings and rust spots that added character. Deanna had never bothered to remove the peace symbol the former owner painted on the trunk lid, because it seemed to fit both their personalities.

Two stoplights away from the store parking lot she noticed a blue car with a grill full of led lights configured to look like shark teeth. It seemed to stalking her. Fear gripped her throat. Her ex had a car with programmable grill lights. It was difficult to see the driver in the dim twilight. What was it he said to her on that last phone message? ‘If I can’t have you, ain’t nobody gonna have you!’

Deanna goosed the gas pedal a little more and turned on to a busy highway. “Don’t let me down, girl. We gotta lose him.” She patted the dashboard as she glanced in the rear view mirror again. It was still back there.

She pushed the pedal closer to the floorboard. Lucille’s engine grumbled a complaint, but complied with the new demand. Steering in and out of the rush-hour traffic, Deanna hoped to lose the blue car.

A quick check of the mirror – still there. She pushed the pedal firmly into the floor. Lucille gave it her all – fifteen miles over the speed limit. The blue car still kept pace.

Outrunning them wasn’t possible, but maybe she could outsmart the driver. At full speed she steered on to the shoulder before slamming the brakes and slapping on the flashers. Whoosh! The blue car zoomed by.

At the next median break, it slowed and turned back the other direction. “He’s coming back for us, Lucille. Let’s get out of here!” Deanna punched the gas and rode the shoulder at full speed until traffic allowed her back onto the freeway.

She periodically glanced into the rear view mirror. After not seeing him for a few miles, she convinced herself that the ruse worked. Her racing heart returned to a more normal rhythm. “I knew you could do it, Lucille,” she said, patting the dashboard.

Food Line

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

“Mommy, why aren’t we going? I want to go home,” whined three-year old Jorge. He squirmed in his car seat and pulled at the straps.

“I know you do, but we have to get some groceries. Remember, Mommy doesn’t have enough money for the store right now.” Maria watched him in the rearview mirror.

A horn honked from behind. She looked out the windshield and noticed the car in front of her had moved several yards. She eased off the brake and coasted forward until she closed the gap. She waved to the driver in the car behind them. The man flipped her the bird. Nice. We’re in the middle of a crisis and he’ has to be a jerk, she thought.

“Mommie!” Jorge shrieked. “I want out.” He pushed at the buckle.

“Here, why don’t we watch a cartoon. Do you want to watch ‘Thomas the Train’ or Handy Manny?”

Jorge briefly stopped squirming and glared at her with anger reminiscent of Luis. That’s the look that meant, ‘keep pushing me woman and I’ll give you something to remember who’s in control’. Of course, he thought he was always right. The look disappeared and her sweet son reappeared. “Manny? I like Manny.”