BY GRANT LOMELINO
Reminiscing of hookah smoke,
Where smiles are exchanged between the passing of the wand,
The customary tap of the wrist,
As the wand moves soul to soul,
A gesture that says I’m here, now, not by mistake.
Through the smoke lazily making the trek to the nearest window,
Are faces that know all the intimacy and tragedy in my life.
And I know theirs.
There is no fear to share or consume,
Just the gleeful riff of laughter
The playful jazz of storytelling.
The tobacco may dry out,
The smoke may drift away
But, don’t let the conversation die
I know no family,
This is my reunion.
BY ANDREW J. DOLSON
Doctor Amsler flicked off the dazzling blue light. Joel lifted his chin out of the testing equipment and sat back in the examination chair. The doctor exhaled a bit too loudly into the silent room and scribbled on his chart. That told Joel all he needed to know, confirmed his dark suspicion. He was going blind.
“The difficulty you’re experiencing, Joel, is called macular degeneration. The central region of the retina, the part responsible for sharp, straightforward vision, is becoming overgrown with new blood vessels. These excess vessels leak blood and other fluids, which damage the light-gathering cells. We don’t know the cause of the condition.”
“What happens now?”
“We don’t yet have a cure, but there are some treatments which may slow the progression of the disease.”
“So . . . I’ll be blind. How much longer?”
“First, Joel, you won’t become completely blind. Macular degeneration damages central vision, but peripheral vision is unaffected, so you’ll still be able to see out at the edges of your eyes. On the other hand, while there’s no way to accurately predict how fast the condition will progress, the form of degeneration you are exhibiting is unfortunately known for its rapid onset. I’m very sorry. I’m going to arrange for you to meet with a specialist next week, Dr. Rubin, an eye surgeon at the medical college. She’s working on some stem cell treatments that may be promising . . .”
Joel had stopped listening. He couldn’t say he’d been shocked by the news. He’d already guessed it was serious. His fast clouding sight had frightened him, prodded him to make a rare appearance in a doctor’s office in the first place. And at one level, it was something of a relief. He’d been half-convinced that he was simply losing his mind. For weeks, he’d been catching unnerving glimpses out of the corner if his eyes, substantial shapes that evaporated when he turned fully towards them.
Joel parked the car in the deep shade on Strawberry Street. “Won’t be driving that much longer, I guess” he thought to himself. He grabbed the big pile of brochures Dr. Amsler had pressed upon him—did he even want to know this much—and walked around the corner to his row house on Floyd Avenue. He pushed open the short, wrought-iron garden gate with his knee and, as he started up the walk to the porch, caught sight of a woman kneeling in the far corner of his postage-stamp front yard. She was almost lost in the hydrangea and the early evening twilight.
“Can I help you, miss,” Joel addressed her, more politely than he really felt was necessary under the circumstances. The woman turned to face him, but she didn’t otherwise respond. “Miss,” he repeated after an uncomfortable silence, “can I help you somehow?”
“You can see me,” she stated flatly, a declaration rather than an answer.
Joel reflected momentarily that when he looked straight on, he actually couldn’t see her, at least not precisely. Turning his head slightly, though, allowed him to take in her general features. Small-boned, pale, blond-gray hair pulled straight back and tied.
“Yes, of course I can see you,” Joel responded. “Who are you? What are you doing there?”
“Well”— she hesitated— “I’m Diana.” “I take care of things on this street,” she said, motioning up and down the row of houses.
“Take care of things— what do you mean you ‘take care of things?’” Joel asked. She turned back to the shrubs edging the lawn, fiddling with leaves, not answering at first.
“When I first went away and came back, I stayed right around my old house, that white one there, two down from yours. Well, it was plain brick when I was . . . before. But after a long while, I began venturing outside the yard, and I found that there were others nearby, like me.”
Joel had no idea what she was talking about, but after being so reticent, now the words were spilling out of her.
“One of my friends from . . . here . . . kept an eye on an older woman, a widow in this same block over on Hanover, who seemed nice, kindly. But he watched her hands knotting up with arthritis, her slowing step, noticed she couldn’t keep up with her garden. He started helping out, yanking little weeds, flicking Japanese beetles off the rose of sharon, that kind of thing. Just seemed like a good idea to me. So, I sort of adopted my old street, and now I do things I can. I deadhead the flowers, clear out old brown blossoms on the azaleas, brush the gumballs from the big sweetgums— like your two there— to the gutter, so no one will slip.”
“So, wait, do I have this right, you don’t live here anymore, but you do come and secretly garden at my house?”
“Oh, not just your house, all these houses, on this block and the next. Well, except for the house second-to-last on that side; I don’t think much of those people—tried to rat poison the squirrels one time. I clear their gumballs, because I don’t want anyone else to get hurt, but that’s it for them.”
“Miss, are you homeless or something? I’m sorry, really, but I can’t just let you come on my property while I’m gone. You’re going to have to go somewhere else.”
Again, she didn’t answer him. “How can you see me,” she asked instead.
“What do you mean? You’re standing there right in front of my eyes,” he replied, which was very nearly true.
“Most people can’t see us—nobody’s ever seen me before.”
“Yeah, well, I’d just as soon not see you here tomorrow, OK, so move along, please.” Joel turned up the porch steps, fumbled with the lock and pressed inside. He felt certain she had no intention of heeding his demand. When he finally peered out through parlor window, though, it was nearly dark, and even if she was there, he could no longer see her, see much of anything. “‘Others nearby, like me,’ what the heck was she talking about,” Joel asked himself later that night. He turned her words over in his mind until he fell off to sleep.
Diana wasn’t there the next morning, which was a relief. Joel had half expected to find her sitting on his front steps. Walking to the corner, though, on his way over to Grove to catch the bus he decided he’d better start taking, he spied her fixed Indian-style on the neighbors’ grass, a scrawny black and white cat swishing circles around her.
“You know,” he startled her, “those people work downtown, but I doubt they’d be happy having you sit around their yard all day. Can’t you just go hang out somewhere else?”
“Their cat is lonesome,” she replied, composure regained. “She’s happy being outside—they used to keep her locked in the house all day— but still, she wants company. She likes me, and I keep that big orange tabby from bullying her.”
Joel hadn’t noticed the approach just then of a young woman, another neighbor, whose name he didn’t know, pushing her toddler in a stroller. Hearing her footfall close by, he cocked his head and saw her out of the corner of his eye. She met his sidelong glance briefly, averted her eyes, and then hurried past down the block.
“She can’t see me, you know,” Diana giggled, “so she thinks you’re crazy, talking to the cat.”
Joel would ordinarily have bristled at the teasing, but his mind was elsewhere, retrieving. “People can’t see you; used to live here; went away and came back,” he turned the puzzle pieces over out loud. “You’re not alive, are you? You’re not really here.”
No hesitation now, Diana met his questions head on. “I don’t think I’m alive anymore. I died. But I am really here; right here’s where I always am.”
“But how did you get here? What, I mean, what are you?”
“Joel,” it was the first time she’d spoken his name, “I’m happy that you can see me and that you’re not scared. My friends tell me that usually the ones who see us are afraid and won’t talk to us.”
It hadn’t occurred to Joel to be frightened, which was pretty odd, considering. “Should I be scared? Are you going to do something? And . . . there are others?”
“Don’t fret— I wouldn’t hurt anybody. And most other folks here seem alright, really. There’s a bad egg once in a while, but you can just give them wide berth. Not hard to spot; you’ll see them. They mutter, shuffle along, kick at stuff, like that.”
Joel didn’t know what more to say or ask. An extended silence passed between them. Diana broke it. “You should talk to Jesseniah. He stays around Byrd Park, ‘cause he likes the water. He’s been around here the longest of any of us.”
Hopping on the bus down to work no longer made much sense to Joel. He reached for his cellphone, dialed his office, told his secretary he’d be out sick for the day. Then, he set out on foot for the park.
Jesseniah wasn’t tough to spot. The park was mostly empty at the early hour, but a morning jogger whipped so close past an older man standing on the path along Shields Lake that Joel was sure there’d be a collision. There wasn’t. “Never saw him,” Joel said to himself, “that’d be him, I’m guessing.”
Jesseniah wasn’t hard to draw out either. He answered questions before Joel even asked them.
“For a real long time, I just watched and sat. Didn’t have much interest in helping people out, like some others here. Even if we want to, cain’t do really big things, carry a child out of a burning house, shove a stalled truck off the train tracks. Not strong in the world, we’re not. I was always partial to animals, though—looked after the Dooley’s horses at Maymont House when I was alive— and I seen that they see us. Got you a dog, mister? Probably seen him staring off at nothing. Most likely watching one of us. Anyway, favored critters more’n people, so I took to shooin’ ’em out a traffic for, well, for a lot a years now. Just wave my arms and spook ’em. That’s a joke, son. Works real good with squirrels, cats, dogs. Not possums; they’se just that stupid, waddle right into the road. What can you do?”
“Well, let’s see. Mrs. Dooley died in 1925, but I’d stopped working for the family ‘bout three years before. The gout got in my hands and knees to where I couldn’t do chores no more. See my fingers? Still all swoll up, even though they don’t hurt me no more. Anyway, Depression come, and I lost all my savings. Should’ve had my money in the Penny Savings with Mrs. Walker— only colored bank that made it through, ya know. Got sick, no money for doctor nor hospital, and I died in the winter of ’30.”
“I come into the world April 2, 1865, round about midnight, my mamma told me. Know that date, young fella?” Joel didn’t. “You need to learn your history,” Jesseniah scolded. “Richmond burnt that night. Lee’s army marched south across the James and put flame to the tobacco warehouses as they left. Wind whipped up, and near the whole city catched fire. I come three weeks early, and I was a tiny pup, but I done alright.”
“Oh, bein’ here ain’t that bad. When I’se alive, I never learnt to read—even free colored children weren’t allowed no school. But young Mr. Johnson, who was a teacher at the John F. Kennedy High School before he died, started me with readin’ and writin’ in 1972—taught some of the others since, too.”
“No, no, we ain’t forever. All move along sooner or later. I’m beginnin’ to fade myself; cain’t you see that?” Joel couldn’t. “Sometime, my hand’ll sweep right through somethin’, dog’s collar or tree branch. I ‘spect before long my time’ll be done. You goin’ blind, ain’t ya?” Jesseniah asked him.
“Yes,” Joel answered, “how did you know?”
“Seen you lookin’ edgewise. And sometimes folks losing their sight can catch sight of us. Are you fretful, Joel? Scared a becomin’ blind?” Joel knew he was, afraid of the dark, afraid of the loss of freedom. “You be awright, son. Diana’ll look after you, if you let her. She’s a sweet-natured one. Others likely help, too. They can, you know. Keep you outa traffic, find things you laid down somewheres, tell you which bus is comin’ down the road. Just ask ’em, you’ll see.”
Joel realized he was being gently dismissed. He said his thanks and goodbyes and set off for home. A few steps down the path, though, he turned and asked, “Jesseniah, what if I don’t go blind, what if my eyes get better?”
“Happened one time to me,” he answered, “fella with the catarack. Doctors fixed him up, and he couldn’t see me no more, couldn’t even hear me.”
The following days passed quickly. Joel spent all the time he could spare outside the office talking with Diana. And, since he couldn’t just stand by while she worked, he found himself tending the flower beds he’d never even taken much notice of in his own yard. With introductions from Diana, he made the acquaintance of some of his other new neighbors. They were a quirky collection, some timid as marsh deer, others cocksure and proud. Not every block had a caretaker, but Joel got to where he could tell instantly which ones did. They were just tidier, brighter somehow.
On the 15th of July, a month since he’d meet with Dr. Amsler and since he’d first caught sight of Diana, Joel called in sick to the office. “A mental health day,” he told his secretary. Earlier in the week, Diana, her brow furrowed with concern, had catalogued all the chores in the garden that should already have been done by Independence Day. They were kneeling side-by-side, pinching back the mums one last time, when the phone rang inside. Joel headed up the porch steps and caught the phone just inside the screen door on its last ring.
“Joel, it’s Dr. Amsler. Dr. Rubin’s office called this morning to let me know they hadn’t heard from you yet. Is everything alright, Joel? If there’s a problem with insurance, maybe we can help.” Diana, he saw, was sitting very still—odd for her—perched atop a stone Japanese lantern.
“No, sir,” Joel answered, “it’s not that. I’m fine, everything’s just fine.” At the edge of his vision, he could see something flash in the sunlight—a hummingbird, hovering before her.
“These experimental treatments need to begin before degeneration has progressed too far, so it’s important you be seen as soon as possible.”
“Joel,” Diana stage whispered, “can you see him? He’s beautiful, and fierce.”
“I’ll call and set up an appointment, I promise,” Joel spoke into the phone, “first thing next week.” He stood the phone back in its cradle and stepped back outside.
The hummingbird darted off at his approach. Diana turned, beaming, “Don’t you just love those little ones? Who was on the phone?”
“Oh,” Joel hesitated, “no one, really—my office, nothing important.”
“OK, then,” she continued with a conspiratorial gleam, “go fetch the shovel. We’re going to separate out some of these daylilies and sneak them into Mrs. Andrews’ back garden while she’s away visiting her daughter. It’s a little early to unearth them, but it’ll be such a nice surprise come spring.” Joel retrieved the spade from the tool house and plunged it into the center of the clump of lilies where Diana pointed. He enjoyed the midsummer sun on his cheeks, the cry of the cicadas, the smell of damp, dark earth. He was not at all sure life could be better than this.
TETHERED RED BALLOONS
BY EMILY MULLIGAN
Floating away as delicately as a prismatic butterfly,
While being smothered in corroded chains.
I feel as if I have no core,
Yet am being weighed down by the earth itself.
My conscience is soaring,
A bloodied brain and viscous eyeballs tethered to scarlet balloons.
Off into the star-riddled cosmos,
Past the ever-expanding chasm in the ozone,
Ascending past nonexistent heavenly bodies,
And drifting by a malignant, unnecessary God.
Yet here I stand,
My feet as thick as cement and my lungs listlessly pumping dust.
I feel jagged,
I feel faux,
And I feel spectral.
Those same cardinal balloons hover past,
Viscid eyes peering down,
At a hunk of flesh stirring without a presence,
A sinewous casing without a soul.
Eventually mind meets body once more,
As my essence slithers under my skin,
Through gristle and bone,
Gushing into ventricles and veins,
Then finally nestling warmly against my cranium.
BY ABIGAIL CORDES
Person. Person. Another person. But never people. One after another, arms tucked in so as not to touch anything by accident, they obediently arrived alone and kept themselves six feet apart.
Marge sighed. Weeks of social distancing, panicked toilet-paper-hoarders, and covering other employees’ shifts had worn her thin. It had been bad enough before this all started, when she was merely another disgruntled Walmart greeter killing time and earning a little extra cigarette money instead of retiring. But now she was an “essential employee,” which didn’t mean anything except that nobody was going to send her $600 checks to lie around, eat homemade bread, and watch documentaries about murderous zookeepers. Newspapers, radio stations, and social media hailed those in Marge’s position as heroes. She tried to feel a little heroic that maybe the alcohol she was spritzing on yet another shopping cart would spare some child with leukemia from contracting pneumonia and dying, but it didn’t work.
Another person passed by, and another, and another. All wore gloves (although Marge questioned how clean the gloves were by this point) and masks (not always correctly—quite a few were oriented upside-down, with the metallic nosepiece on the chin, and some fit only over the wearer’s mouth, leaving their nostrils entirely exposed). She pretended to check their bags and receipts, but honestly, the second the shopper exited, she could not have named a single item from their basket. Probably bleach and ramen and toothpaste. Ultimately, they were really all the same. They didn’t even have faces to remember them by.
She unlocked the door to the bungalow. Complete darkness, complete silence. She kicked off her shoes—they had probably accumulated a good layer of the virus on the soles by now—and flung them onto the porch. She went inside, bleached her mask, and washed her hands while singing “Happy Birthday” to herself twice. Her birthday was coming up soon, now that she thought about it, but the thought didn’t linger. It would pass, just as St. Patrick’s Day and April Fool’s Day and Easter and Earth Day had passed, without any real celebration or comment.
Marge cut through the living room, momentarily contemplating turning on the news before opting to let the remote acquire just a little more dust tonight instead. Better for her sore body to shower and don soft pajamas than to nod off on the couch as yet more footage showed barren streets and deserted shopping malls while repetitive charts announced the latest numbers. After rinsing any last theoretical vestiges of the pathogen from her skin, Marge climbed onto her half of the bed.
It was funny how after four years, she still restricted herself to the right side of the queen-sized mattress, as though Robert might waltz in at any moment and reclaim his spot on the left side. But that was superstition, a phantom with about as much substance as the moment of panic whenever she felt a tiny urge to cough. As real as it might feel in that fleeting second, nothing would ever come of it.
Marge tossed and turned—but did not breach the meridian of the bed—for about an hour before she relented and reached into the nightstand for her melatonin. Somehow, even though she had just bought the pills last week, she had to sift through clutter that had lain in the drawer for years, decades even. Nail clippers that never really worked properly. A bracelet that a friend had left at the house a long time ago and that Marge just hadn’t gotten around to returning. A bookmark with a cutesy religious poem about footprints on a beach. A stray photograph.
For the first time today, Marge felt her lips turn upward into a smile. She remembered the day fondly. She, Robert, and Mackenzie had visited a pick-your-own-fruit orchard, as evidenced by the cherry trees behind the family in the picture. Mackenzie was so much younger, as evidenced by the braces and silly boy-band T-shirt, although not so young as to wear the macaroni necklace that, incidentally, also still lay in the drawer.
When Mackenzie was eight or nine, she had proudly worn her homemade “jewelry” everywhere she went, and this particular piece had elicited an especially emotional response when the roll-away couch had crushed one of the brittle noodles under its wheels. Robert had promised his teary-eyed daughter that he would fix it, a promise on which he delivered while the child was asleep by painstakingly painting and glitter-coating another piece of pasta to match the original perfectly, then unstringing and re-stringing the necklace so as to restore the rotini’s proper position between an elbow and a bowtie. Mackenzie’s childlike wonder at the impeccable repair job had led her to treasure the necklace dearly… for a while. But eventually it, too, had wormed its way into the nightstand drawer, as memorable as that day at the orchard. To this day, did Mackenzie recall either one?
Marge had no way of knowing. It had been a year and a half since the last phone call, either from Mackenzie to her mother or vice versa. All that could be said now had been said back then, and back then it hadn’t gone very well. Why dredge up old arguments in times like these?
Marge found the melatonin, swallowed two tablets without any water, and settled in for the night.
The next day, there were people, three of them, to be exact.
They were all very young—a toddler on the cart’s fold-out seat, a little girl clutching a stuffed fox in the main compartment of the basket, and an older girl of sufficiently ambiguous age as to be either the children’s mother or their sister. Like everyone else, the family kept their masks on, homemade fabric things printed with tractors, butterflies, and argyle, respectively. Even the toy wore a mask, albeit one with sloppier craftsmanship, just a piece of felt tied awkwardly over the muzzle with yarn. Upon making eye contact with the greeter, the fox’s owner made its paw wave, and Marge could tell even through the butterfly mask that the child was smiling. Marge smiled back the best she could; despite being the store’s logo, smiles were in short supply these days.
What the heck. She hadn’t done this in ages, but she reached deep into the pockets of her apron for three yellow smiley stickers, offering one to each member of the party. The children eagerly peeled off the backing and adhered the stickers to their hands, while the mother-or-sister (“Liz” according to the nametag on the Burger King uniform she was wearing) smiled wryly and held up a hand, declining.
“Can Gina have her sticker?” the little girl blurted out as Marge was about to put the remainder back inside her apron. It took Marge a second to realize that “Gina” was the child’s fox, but shrugging, she handed over the sticker, which the girl fixed to the toy’s mask.
“I don’t see why not,” Marge mused as Liz nodded and thanked her. “You all be safe, all right?”
“We will,” said Liz as they headed off for the produce section.
There was a man who didn’t wear a mask. Of course, he didn’t comply with any other laws, so why should he?
He’d completely ignored Marge when she asked to check his receipt for the TV he pushed out, when she raised her voice and asked him a second time, when the alarms buzzed as he left, and there wasn’t a thing she could do. The store would be in bigger trouble if she pursued him and got hurt than if he got away with the merchandise, so she wasn’t allowed to follow him. From his utter indifference, Marge strongly suspected he knew of this policy. He knew she wasn’t really essential.
Then there was the conspiracy theorist, who got in Marge’s face to preach about The Media. And the teenager who dropped his gum right onto the floor. And the girl who yelled obscenities on the phone as eyeliner ran down her face. And the white guy who went off about “reverse racism” when Marge asked for his receipt. It hadn’t been a pleasant twenty minutes.
So of course Marge wasn’t surprised to see the family from before exit in a much more sour mood than when they entered. The toddler was desperately trying to untie his face mask and turning red in frustration. The girl sobbed, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she walked, the cart where she’d ridden before now full of bananas and off-brand Oreos and bologna. Liz ignored them both as she talked hurriedly into her cell: “Look, I get it, but I already told you, I don’t have a—oh, are you sure? Because last time I brought them in—mmhmm, okay, fine. See you tomorrow at six.”
Irresponsible parents. Bratty kids. Drama and cell phones and crime. Why should Marge expect anything else?
Her smoke break came so late it was almost pointless. Nevertheless, she slipped out the back and lit one up as she watched trucks loading and unloading—merchandise, garbage, recycling, more merchandise. And here came another contribution to the trash pile. The new guy, at eighteen years of age and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, struggled as he lugged a single bag of refuse outside. He almost tripped over Marge as he pushed past her.
“Careful, kid!” she protested, but stopped as she noticed a peculiar bulge in the white trash bag. A shape vaguely cat-like in form. No, not cat-like… foxy. “Wait a sec, can I see that?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she snatched the bag away from him, reached inside despite the look of disgust on his face, and withdrew a toy that she definitely recognized. Suddenly, it all clicked.
“Oh yeah, found that thing on the cookie aisle. Customer service said keeping it in the lost-and-found was a safety hazard and—”
“I know whose it is,” Marge asserted. “I’ll take it.”
Marge grappled with her memory as she put away her protective gear that night. She remembered Liz, but how often did Liz come in? Had she already called and asked about the fox? Did customer service tell her the same thing they’d told the kid with the trash bag? Had Liz left a phone number just in case? Probably not, Marge realized glumly. Or if she had, the folks at the desk probably threw it away at the end of the day.
“It’s okay, Gina, we’ll figure this one out,” Marge told the stuffed animal as she plopped down on the couch, pondering. “Liz was wearing a Burger King uniform, wasn’t she? So she must work at a Burger King. And there are only two Burger Kings in town, and the other one is in the mall, which hasn’t been open lately. So I bet she works at the one behind the Sheetz station. Am I right?” Gina didn’t answer, of course. “I’ll run by there tomorrow morning, and pick up breakfast before my shift. And if Liz is there, I’ll drop you off. I’m sure she’ll have somewhere safe to keep you until she can give you back to your owner.” Marge was about to set Gina down next to her purse when she thought better of it. “Customer Service might have been right about you, though. If you’ve been on the floor all day, you’re probably filthy. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
After Marge had thrown Gina into the washer along with a generous ration of detergent, she thought about getting a snack or watching TV, but instead she sat on the little folding chair she kept in the laundry room, drumming her hands impatiently on the machine.
Her eyes flickered around for something to do. She noticed little details about the room that she’d long since stopped paying attention to, like the old board games on the top shelf, or the random Mr. Potato Head ear that had for some reason stuck around long after Mackenzie had gotten too old for Mr. Potato Head and donated him to the thrift store. Marge had often wondered if his subsequent owner ever noticed that there was a piece missing. Kids often noticed that sort of thing more quickly than their parents did. Marge hoped she wouldn’t unwittingly return Gina with some kind of damage the little girl would see, like a broken stitch somewhere or a bleach stain or a… missing piece?
Marge slapped her forehead. Of course. Gina had been wearing a mask when the family entered the store, but not when Marge had withdrawn her from the garbage. It was probably some trivial crafts project undertaken during a boring day in quarantine, but undoubtedly it was now as much a part of this fox as its ears or its tail. Returning Gina unmasked was almost as bad as not returning her at all.
Marge scrounged around for her old sewing kit and some kind of material. She didn’t have any felt, but she did have a box of odd scraps from the days when she’d make Mackenzie’s pajamas and Halloween costumes. Surely something would… aha! Marge found a piece of butterfly print—not the same as on the child’s mask, but reminiscent—and set to work. It would take some creative design to accommodate the toy’s nose, but the end product was a befitting accessory should the nation’s next pandemic target foxes. It was perfect.
No… not quite perfect. It needed one more thing. A thing Marge had far too many of all over the house, in various drawers and cupboards and jacket pockets.
Once Gina was dried and outfitted in Marge’s handiwork, Marge placed the final touch. “Now you’re perfect,” she approved as she adhered a smiley-face sticker directly to the mask.
“Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order?” came the staticky voice from the little box at the drive-thru.
“I’ll have the breakfast burrito, some hash browns, and a large black coffee. Also, I was wondering—is Liz in today?”
A pause. “That’s me.”
“I work at Wal-Mart. I found something that I think might belong to you. Did you lose a stuffed fox yesterday?”
Another pause. Then, in a quick, low voice, Liz responded excitedly, “Do you mind coming into the dining area? I can unlock it in two minutes.”
“I can do that. As long as I still get my hash browns!”
Marge parked the car in a space littered with cherry-blossom petals and picked up Gina from the passenger seat. She dashed across the parking lot, to where Liz was opening the door and desperately gesturing for Marge to come in.
Inside the dining room, the lights were off, and chairs were stacked upside-down on top of the tables. But in a booth by the window sat a toddler and a little girl, each with a stack of coloring pages, a basket of mostly broken and/or unwrapped crayons in the middle of the table. To the left, the toddler happily scribbled with no regards for the outline of a giraffe on the paper. He alternated amongst three or four crayons, all of them some shade of green. The pages he had finished seemed to be covered in green, so much green! Meanwhile, to the right, the little girl slowly and neatly filled in the horn of a unicorn with a magenta crayon. Her posture was slumped; she did not appear to be enjoying the coloring session as much as her brother.
“Kyli! Kyli, look who it is!” Liz called, prompting Kyli to look up.
Instantly, Kyli dropped her crayon, dashed across the tile floor, and pulled Gina into her arms, kissing the fox’s head fiercely through her mask. She turned to Marge and eagerly opened her hands for a hug until she remembered and dejectedly took six steps backwards.
Marge laughed. “It’s okay, I know we have to be super careful about hugging right now. Instead you can hug Gina extra tight and pretend it’s me, okay?”
Kyli nodded solemnly before embracing the toy again.
“You have no idea what a relief this is,” Liz told Marge.
“Oh, I might. I have a daughter of my own, and I remember when she was that age. It was so long ago.”
“Maybe she’ll get a kick out of hearing how you singlehandedly saved our family from days of sheer doom and gloom! You should tell her about rescuing Gina the next time you call her.”
Marge smiled. “You know… I just might.”