PennyBassett Fanfiction

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PennyBassett
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Chapter 5! (thanks btw, Brownie <3)
PENNY’S POV
The room I wake up in is pitch black. The only noise I can hear is my heartbeat and the traffic on the street below our Chicago hotel. My stomach hurts, so I sit up and wrap my arms around myself. At my right, Wooton shifts in his sleep. I take a long breath and decide to step outside onto the balcony. I bring my blanket with me, but the air still bites at me and makes me shiver. At least I can breathe a little easier out here. My mind is heavy. I keep seeing the words from that email. In about three months we’ll be forced to stay inside our homes at all times. There are exceptions, of course. That was a pretty short list. I just want to be back in Odyssey. Back in our house where we’re safe. The screen door rolls open and Wooton steps out with his eyes half open and his hair half flattened. He’s not wearing a shirt, but he’s trying to wrap himself in a blanket.
“Penny?”
“Sorry, I tried not to wake you up.”
“Hm. I don’t mind,” he wraps his arms around my waist, “I’m worried about you,” he kisses my cheek.
“I know.”
“We’re gonna be okay.”
“I know. We have… a lot of money,” I sniff.
“Yes. That’s true. And we can use that to help people.”
I turn around to face him.
“Help people?”
“I was thinking about the Meltsners. I know they’re struggling. We should help them out more. Eugene probably won’t get much income from Whit’s End anymore.”
“Okay.”
“So… we can decide how much later, yeah?”
“And decide if we’re going to start giving them more.”
“Oh. Sure.”
“Okay.”
“Alright, I’m gonna head back to bed. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
I nod as he kisses my cheek again and goes back inside.



WOOTON’S POV

I don’t really like silence. It makes me anxious.
I adjust my grip on the steering wheel. In front of my car is the road, which is underneath a whitish-gray sky. On either side of the highway are bare trees with slender branches. They look like sleeping monsters. Maybe they’re avoiding the cold. Maybe they’re avoiding the silence.
I glance at the inside rearview mirror. Some of it is full of my orange hair. I impulsively slip it behind my ear. When I do, I can see Winnie. Her very similar curls are like a pillow under her drooping head. She’s been asleep since we left the city about an hour ago. I can’t help but shake my head a little. I should have stayed outside longer last night. I think that’s why Penny isn’t talking to me. And I know she knows how much I hate it. She’s scrolling through her phone. She’s waiting for an apology.
“Penny?”
“Uhuh.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No.”
“Okay… well, I think I hurt your feelings, right?”
“You did.”
“Will you let me apologize?”
“I suppose.”
She turns off her phone.
“I’m sorry, hun. I didn’t mean to make it sound like you didn’t have a say in our money. And I think I made you feel like our family isn’t important.”
She nods slightly.
“Penny, I should have started with this,” I put my hand on her thigh, “Our family comes first. You and Winnie will always come first. Always.”
“Okay.”
“You believe me?”
“Yeah.”
We both take a heavy breath that ends with my wife taking my hand and quickly kissing the back of it.
“I’m sorry too. I should have told you how I felt,” she says, “I’m just scared. Wooton, I’m really scared.”
I tighten my grasp on her hand and her chest jumps at a sob. She controls it.
“I hate feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. I hate being rich, but I’m afraid of being poor. And- and you just keep talking about how much money we should give away to people, and I know we have enough, but I keep feeling like we don’t. And I don’t want to feel helpless. But I can’t turn to you for help. Like, this isn’t my student loan debt, Wooton, this is our child’s freedom!”
“I know. I know that.”
“Then why don’t you care!” She sobs again. She knows it’s a low blow as soon as she says it. Vulnerability has never been my strong suit. She knows that.
Winnie rubs her eyes.
“We’ll talk about it when we get home,” I whisper. She nods. I put my hand back on the steering wheel, and she pats away her tears.



PENNY’S POV

We get home at 3:17 in the afternoon, but it feels more like midnight. I didn't go back to sleep last night. My stomach has hurt all day. I roll my suitcase into the living room and slump onto the couch. Wooton went back to the car to get Winnie’s suitcase. She’s by the TV.
“What are you gonna watch?” I ask.
“Princess Wars,” she sighs and clicks the remote to turn on the television. I close my eyes and hear Wooton roll in the rest of the suitcases.
“We can take care of these later.”
I nod and open my eyes. I’m staring at our yellow and blue ceiling. It’s the ceiling that I have a feeling I’ll be staring at for a quite a long time come February.
“You feelin’ okay?”
“I don’t know.”
I haven’t taken my eyes off the inside of our roof.
“Do you want to finish our conversation?”
“I guess,” I shrug.
I follow Wooton upstairs where he shuts the door. I sit on the bed and start staring at the floor. My husband stays at the doorway for a while. I know he’s trying to read me.
“What are you afraid of, Penny?”
We make eye contact.
“I don’t know. I mean, I told you. I don’t like… feeling out of control.”
“Yeah.”
“And… I’m afraid of something happening to you or Winnie.”
He nods slowly.
“I see what people say online, Wooton. They don’t think we should be parents. They… I’ve seen the posts… there are people who want you to die. Wooton-” I sniff as my breath is caught, “What if someone hurts you? What if someone hurts our daughter? I-” a sob interrupts, “I can’t take care of her without you. I’m a bad mom,” I squeak, and can’t make any more sentences. The tears flow and my hand against my mouth isn’t enough to make myself silent.
Wooton sits next to me. I put my head on his shoulder, and he kisses it.
“You are a fantastic mom,” he whispers, “And I will keep myself safe. And I’m gonna keep you safe.”
“I know you’ll try. But I also know it’s bad for you to be away from people. I’m concerned you’ll end up in a bad place. Mentally.”
“I know. But that’s why I have medication. And I’ll see a counsellor for the next couple months, okay?”
“Okay.”
“Hey, we’re gonna be alright. Yeah?”
“Yeah.”
We sit there for a little while. It is good to be together.
“We should definitely help out Eugene,” I murmur.
“You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.”


BUCK’S POV

“Jules?”
“We’re in here!”
I set my guitar in the entryway and walk into our little kitchen.
“Daddy!” Levi jumps off his bar stool into my arms.
“Hey bud! How was your day?”
“Mommy and I made cookies.”
“Oh. Yeah lots of them it looks like,” I chuckle, eyeing the five containers that are sitting by the refrigerator.
“Yeah… so we might have gotten carried away,” Jules smiles, “It was something to do instead of watch TV.”
“Got it.”
Levi pats my chest, which I know means he wants down. He saunters over to the counter.
“It’s cookie time!”
Jules and I both have the instinct to stop him, and then we both don’t. I watch him reach up and open the plastic bin to get out two sugar cookies as Jules puts her hand at my waist.
“I needed a day to process everything.”
“I get that. And I’m glad you took it,” I kiss her.
“Ew get a room!” Levi growls through a mouthful of cookie. We giggle at him.
“How was the meeting?” Jules asks.
“Honestly, not the most productive. Everyone’s pretty distracted. You probably had the right idea.”
“Maybe, but I do want to get a new album out before we go into lockdown. We’ll figure things out.”
“Yeah.”
That sentence held more weight than I think she expected it to. The only sound in our kitchen is Levi, who’s now jumping between the carpet in the living room and the wood floor in the kitchen, and my wife and I’s very loud eye contact. We have a lot of things to figure out. We both know we don’t have time.
“I think tonight will be good,” she says.
“Yeah. Probably.”
“I’ll um. I’ll go get ready, then.”
“Okay. Oh, and Dion and Grady can watch Levi tonight.”
“Oh good. Alright, I’ll just need fifteen minutes.”
“Sounds good.”
She goes to our bedroom, and I get Levi’s shoes out of the closet.
“Hey, Levi, can you come get your shoes on?”
He groans.
“I’m not done with my cookie yet!”
“That looks like about one more bite. Finish up and then you can put them on.”
He puts the last bite in his mouth and his eyes light up.
“Am I going to Mr. Dion’s house?”
“Hey, don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Sorry.”
“Thanks. Yeah, you’re going to Mr. Dion’s.”
“Woo hoo!” He throws both arms up in the air. I laugh.
“Okay let’s get your shoes on then.”
He plops onto the floor and scoots over to me. I sit down with him and hand him the velcro tennis shoes.
“Do you like my socks, Dad?”
He’s wearing dinosaur socks.
“Those are awesome.”
“Mom got ‘em for me today.”
“That’s- great.”
He finishes putting on his shoes and then stands up and starts stomping to make them light up.
“Not I’m REALLY like a dinosaur!” He roars, storming around the kitchen.
“Hey, Mr. Dinosaur, what do you want to bring with you?”
“My Captain Absolutely action figures, duh!”
“Okay, pick out three to bring with you.”
“Can I bring some cookies too?” He asks, running to his bedroom.
“N- One. You can bring one cookie, okay? But don’t let them give you any other desserts!”
He pokes his head out of the doorway.
“Not even M&Ms on my popcorn?”
“That… that can be up to them, okay?”
“Fine,” he trudges back into his room.
“Alright. I’m ready to go when you are,” Jules says, coming back into the kitchen. She’s wearing a sweater and jeans, and her hair is in two braids.
“Yeah we just gotta wait for Levi. He’s getting his action figures. You look beautiful.”
The compliment catches her off-guard as she’s putting on her boots. She gives me a full smile,
“Thanks. Oh, quick,” she stands up with one boot on and kisses me. And I don’t know how, but it sort of stops time. The moment slowly sheds my anxiety. Because this is consistency, with her arms around my neck and my hands at her hips. It’s the first thing that’s made sense in the last week. I think she feels it too, because even after Levi comes in and calls us love birds she puts her forehead to my shoulder a moment then gives my neck a discreet peck.
“Alright, kiddo,” she claps, “Let me put on one more shoe.”
“Mom, you’re so slow.”
She laughs and sits back on the couch.
“Watch your tone, son. How about you hop in the car?”
“Okay.”
He takes the keys from my hand and heads out the door. I let him close it and Jules put on her other shoe before saying anything. But then no words come to mind.
“We really haven’t…” her sentence trails off.
“I kinda thought it might make me more anxious. I’m really sorry, Jules. I’ve been in my head this week-”
“No so have I. That can’t be healthy, right?”
I nod, slowly.
She’s silent for a moment, and then stands up and walks to Levi’s room.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting him a change of clothes and a toothbrush!”
I smile.
“I’ll text Dion.”


Eugene and Katrina are already sitting at a table when we get to Hal’s Diner. They both look tired. Jules and I sit in the chairs across from them.
“Have you ordered yet?”
“Yeah, I just asked for everyone’s usual, is that okay?”
“That’s great, Mom. Thanks.”
“Oh and we’re buying dessert,” Jules adds, “I need boston creme pie if we’re going to be talking about money.”
“Jules, I could not agree more. However, we may have come up with a solution,” Eugene raises an eyebrow.
“Really?”
“Well, at this point, Whit’s End is probably our least expensive option,” Katrina says.
“Wait, but we’d still have to pay for rent, right? I mean… are you saying we should completely move out of our apartments?”
“Yes.”
It’s sort of a slap in the face. We started talking about moving into Whit’s End as soon as we got the email, but to be honest, I didn’t really expect it to be our best bet. We sit in silence, just trying to process it all.
“No, that can’t be right,” Jules mumbles, “Isn’t… we’d have to pay for utilities.”
Eugene explains,
“Well, no. We don’t. I spoke with Mr. Whittaker yesterday, and he gave Connie and I access to his bank account. We can keep the shop open for years.”
My jaw drops.
“Seriously?”
He nods.
Jules and I take a breath. We know he’s right then. We should stop renting.
“There’s sort of more,” Katrina begins, ‘Whit’s End is huge.”
“Oh yeah, all of Smallpox at least could fit,” Jules shakes her head, staring at the table.
“Right.”
“Then, that’s it? We find online jobs or… I guess... make more music, and everyone lives together?”
Katrina nods. She’s been quiet. We make eye contact and I can see how red her eyes are.
“You okay?”
She shrugs.
“It’s just been hard to process,” she sniffs back a sob and dabs her eyes with her napkin. Eugene puts his hand on her back.
“Sorry,” she whispers.
Zelda comes over and quickly sets down our food.
“Everything look alright?”
We nod and thank her.
“I’m sorry-” she pauses, “I sorta overheard. I- Well I think we’re all feelin’ a little anxious right now. Don’t bottle it up for too long.”
Katrina smiles a bit,
“Alright.”
“Just long enough to eat those squash tacos.”
Katrina sniffs and laughs a little,
“I’ll try.”
“I’ll be praying for y’all.”
“Thanks, Zelda.”
“Alright,” Katrina takes a breath and a drink of water, “Um. Let’s figure out sleeping arrangements.”
We spend the rest of dinner going over the Whit’s End blueprints that Eugene brought, deciding what changes we’ll have to make to the building itself and what living with a bunch of people would actually look like. Making plans made everyone feel a little better. It also helps that we have three months to finish everything. And as we drive home, I almost feel hopeful.



ELIZA’S POV

“Remind me again why we’re going to a park,” Wyatt asks.
He’s in the driver's seat of my dad’s back up car that he bought last week. It smells like cigarettes. I adjust the collar on my jean jacket and roll my eyes.
“That’s where we usually hang out.”
“Yeah, but why?” He laughs, “You and your friends couldn’t go somewhere more fun?”
“McAllister Park is fun. It’s… pretty.”
“It’s also… COLD.”
“You’re ridiculous. You know most guys like to prove how tough they are by being in the cold.”
“You’re making that up.”
“I’m not! Michael usually wears a t-shirt and just brings a blanket for when it gets really cold.”
“There’s snow on the ground. I consider this really cold.”
“Well you’ll be happy to know that we usually sit around the campfire.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that? That’s like- yeah that’s like normal teenager stuff.”
“Well I’m glad we meet your standards. We’ll probably end up going to the Shaltanis’ for snacks and a movie too.”
“Sweet. You’re sure it won’t be weird with me there?”
“Stop saying that! I told you, Stephany is your age, and we’re all really extraverted people. You’ll fit in perfectly.”
“Alright.”
It’s been about a month since we heard about the new lock-down stuff. I don’t think about it most days. At least I don’t try to. Hanging out with friends kinda makes it hard not to though. We don’t know how long the government will want to keep us indoors, so aside from a few video call chats a week, I might not be able to see my friends for “up to two years.” I don’t think my dad thinks it’ll be that long. He won’t say it out loud, but I’m pretty sure he expects us to be put into camps at some point before then.
Sitting in the car, goosebumps run up my back. I turn up the heating and take in a long breath. I really want to be with my friends.
I don’t have to wait long. Wyatt pulls into the parking lot by the bon-fire pit, and Kodi and Quinn start climbing up the small hill of snow to meet us. Wyatt stops the car and we both step out into the still winter afternoon.


WYATT’S POV

I’m not very experienced with friendships, and my stomach turns to remind me of this fact. I push up my glasses and pull my coat tighter around myself, still baffled by how these kids can function outside in the dead of winter. I lock Eugene’s car and put the keys in my pocket.
I make a mental note of where they are. I’ve felt a little like a bull in a china shop since moving in with the Meltsners. I’m the second tallest person in the house and eat more than everyone else. My room is always messier than Eliza’s, even though I try really hard to keep it clean. And even though Eugene got this car a week ago, I’m using it almost every day to get to work and back. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why I’m even going to work if we’re moving into Whit’s End. Maybe there’s a part of my brain that thinks I’ll be able to save up enough for an apartment or maybe I’ll get a job online or maybe this whole thing will go away. I can see it now, the president getting up in front of everyone saying,
“Haha! It was all a joke to scare you! You actually DO deserve freedom and equality.”
That’s the other thing I’ve been working on. I keep reading the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, trying to figure out a way around all of this. I know it’s frivolous, but I would feel weird to not try. I’m a research kind of person. I want to know as much as I can. Jason’s told me a little more than he’s told most people I think. I don’t want to think about all of that though. Especially since most of it invalidates my research. Government people are at a different level of understanding when it comes to those things.
Elizabeth introduces me to her friends after hugging both of them and making a couple inside jokes that I smile politely at.
“So, Wyatt, this is Kodi, she’s seventeen.”
“Nice to meet you, Wyatt,” she smiles, extending her hand.
I smile and shake it,
“You too.”
This is an easy to read person. Kodi is first of all attractive. She has thick dark hair, blue eyes, and soft, prominent facial features. I can tell she gains a lot of confidence from her appearance. I can’t blame her. And based on her small giggle and eye-roll, I don’t think she blames me for blushing at her touch. She’s a Christian.
“Okay, and this is Quinn,” Eliza gestures, “They’re the baby of the group.”
“Woah. Calm down, Liz. I’m fourteen. And you’re fifteen.”
“Right, so you’re the youngest. We protect them at all cost. You hurt this child, I will hurt you more. They’re also my best friend,” Eliza beams, putting her arm around them and holding her head high. Quinn brushes it off and shakes my hand.
“I am small but feisty and I can take care of myself.”
I laugh,
“It’s good to meet you.”
` Quinn has the same hair as their sister, but it’s short and sort of spiked up in the front. They have glasses and seem a little less sure of themselves, but their spunk and clean, clearly expensive clothing style make up for it. Quinn is not a Christian.
They both have several layers of jackets on.
“Oh my gosh is this Wyatt?”
Who I assume is Stephany waddle-runs over to meet us, carrying a bag of marshmallows and chocolate bars. Her brother Michael is close behind. Stephany has curly reddish-blonde hair and Michael has curly black hair. I can already tell their polar opposites and not just in skin tone. Michael’s scrolling through his phone.
Elizabeth makes more introductions.
“Eliza has literally told us so much about you, it’s almost unreal that you’re here right now. And let me just say, this soft boy look: adorable.”
I chuckle.
“Thank you. Everything’s thrifted.”
She gasps, glancing at my ankles. She slowly lifts a couple finger guns. I hold up some silent peace signs and laugh out loud.
“Okay what on earth was that?” Michael is taking a break from staring at his phone to stare at us.
“Just some bisexual gang signs. You wouldn’t understand. Have you been to Ben’s Racks?” She turns back to me.
“Yes! I’ve honestly stopped going shopping anywhere else.”
We end up sitting at the fire that Quinn and Kodi had started before we got there, and I’m surprised to find that I don’t regret coming. We play a few games and eat s’mores and just talk about teenager stuff. They embody escapism at its finest- this group of quirky, energetic youth. It’s a foreign culture. No one looks at the news. No one talks about terrorism or death or concentration camps or the constitution or computers. It’s innocence and wisdom. And I fall in love with these people immediately. What made me think before that I shouldn’t have friends?
ELIZA’S POV

“I was right, wasn’t I?”
I fistbump Wyatt in the arm. We’re in the kitchen refilling our soda cups. Everyone else is in the living room watching Inside Out.
“About what?” He takes a sip of rootbeer.
“Coming to this. You’ve had fun, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Yes it’s actually been great. Still not a fan of the cold though.”
“Eh you’ll get used to it,” I shrug, pouring Dr. Pepper into my plastic cup.
“Oh does that mean I’m officially a part of your little friend group?”
“Yep. You’re stuck with us now. Congratulations.”
He taps my cup with his.
“Cheers.”
We go back into the living room and finish the movie with everyone. By the time we get our food and drinks cleaned up it’s six.
“Alright Elizabeth, we better head out,” Wyatt nods to the door.
“Oh yep you’re right. We have that meeting thing.”
Stephany’s phone starts ringing and we all kind of stand there while she answers.
“Hey what’s up?... Yeah we’re just at the Shaltanis’. Oh- okay. Sure but… seriously? Okay. Sure we’ll head over.”
She hangs up.
“We’re… following you there I guess. Apparently Eugene and Katrina have been talking to our parents about moving into Whit’s End.”
“Wait really?” I know it’s a loss for them, but I can’t help but get excited.
“Yeah,” she half smiles, glancing at her phone, “Kodi, they said you could come too.”
She’s caught off guard and almost says something and then looks at Quinn. Quinn sort of shrugs as if to tell her it’s okay. She nods hesitantly.
“Okay. Alright I think that’s a good idea. Let me just… tell my moms.”
She holds off her steps a moment, then walks upstairs.
“We’ll uh… we’ll see you there then,” Wyatt nods a goodbye to everyone, and I follow him out. We’re both silent for the first five minutes of the drive. Wyatt releases a long breath,
“I just feel awful for her.”
I nod.
“Yeah it’s… that’s been hard for her- I mean it’s been hard for the family.”
“I’m sure.”
And that’s all we say about it. Probably because we both know what it feels like to some extent. And we both know there’s no easy solution to these kinds of problems.

We’re the last ones to arrive at Whit’s End. The seating area is full of all the Smallpox members, the Lewis family, and mine and Stephany’s parents, who are having a quiet conversation in the corner booth. Everyone else is engaged in their own conversations. It’s sort of intimidating for some reason. Maybe it’s the idea of living with everyone. Maybe it’s the realization that I’ve seen most of these people on my phone more than I have in real life. Everyone is either excited or really tense. It’s hard to tell conversation to conversation. Dad sees us come in and offers us drinks. He says he opened the soda fountain for the meeting. I shrug, saying I can never have too much coke. Wyatt says my diabetes would disagree, and gets another rootbeer. By the time we get our drinks and sit down, Stephany, Kodi, and Michael walk in. We invite them to join us, and they do. They’re all pretty quiet. I wonder if they had a difficult conversation on the drive over. Stephany and Michael have been trying to get Kodi to share the gospel with her family for the last several months, and she’s sort of refused. I know it’s not because she doesn’t want them to come to Jesus, and I think Steph and Michael know that too. The last time she explained it to me was something along the lines of,
“I don’t want to cause tension.”
Stephany and Michael have always been “speak the truth in love” kind of people. Stephany’s zeal has backed off a little lately, but Michael seems pretty firm in his political and social views. If they did have a conversation, the tension was probably between him and Kodi.
The three slide into our booth with Stephany on the end.
“So this will be really weird,” I say.
They nod.
“Do you think we’ll live in the same room as our parents?” Michael asks, “I was kinda thinking maybe we could have a separate teenager room.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Wyatt nods, “You should tell Eugene.”
“Alright.”
Dad taps a glass until everyone is looking at him.
“Ah. Well, thank you for your attention. Greetings and salutations. In these unprecedented times, I humbly make the argument that communication is an important -if not a vital- piece of the coping process. Hence, your presence. As of now, we have created a sleep arrangement chart. This separates families into around one room each, with the exception of the Train room, which will be shared by Buck, Jules, Levi, and all of our teenagers.”
Our booth perks up at this news.
“There is also a list of revisions that need to be made to the building itself before we move in. Beside each task is some blank space. If you wish to volunteer, or have some ideas that might help with a specific project, please write your name, or those ideas in said space. Are there any questions before Buck goes over the specific sleeping arrangements?”
No one raises their hands, so my brother stands up with a white sheet of paper in hand that looks like he’s scribbled and erased everything from it about twenty times. He goes over where everyone else will be staying. I kind of zone out for this and end up staring at my coke. Maybe I’m avoiding thinking about all of these changes. They feel really sudden. The rest of my booth probably feels the same way. Michael has his head down, scrolling through instagram. Stephany is tearing up a straw rapper, and Wyatt is staring at the wall on the other side of the room, slightly moving his lips like he’s trying to finish a math problem. Someone’s arguing with Buck about where they want to sleep, and someone else says something to contract them. Someone insults another person. None of us are phased. And I look back at my coke, but I’m not thirsty anymore.


JASON’S POV

I walk into Whit’s End feeling like a criminal. I heard from Wyatt that a lot of people are moving in when restrictions begin. I know I shouldn’t move in with them, and I already feel this isolation process begin. Soon I won’t be seen as one of them at all, and not because of my bad decisions, but because of my status. Connie is smiling with a pen in her hand, writing something in a notebook in front of a booth of teenagers. Wyatt’s the first one to see me. Connie’s eyes follow suit and they quickly jump to the clock on her wrist and toward the Kidz Radio studio. She gives the kids a small smile,
“Just write down whatever comes to mind. Eugene won’t admit how big our budget is.”
She walks past me,
“Let’s get this over with.”
I follow her into the studio where she sits down at her usual desk in front of her microphone and silently starts setting things up. I sit across from her at the other desk and put on the pair of headphones. I can sense her fury and decide to evade it by going over the notes in my phone. They all look good. I know she’s done setting up. I cough into my fist.
“We have five minutes.”
I glance up to see her go red. She stands up and taps the table,
“Enough time to get some water.”
“Okay I’ll-”
“I’ll bring you one!”
She leaves me alone in this strange brown room. I feel like it’s even judging me. I accept this judgement fully. I know I deserve it, and if my brain is going to haunt me by giving walls amphomorphic qualities, so be it. The four minutes I’m alone feel more like fifteen. Connie finally returns and sets a sweating water bottle in front of me. I whisper a thank you.
She clicks on the glowing red recording sign.
“Hi everybody and welcome to Candid Conversations with Connie! I hope you are all doing well and finding peace in these difficult times! Today I have a special guest who I think can shed some light on some of those more difficult questions that the internet can’t answer. Whit’s End’s very own Jason Whittaker. How are you today, Jason?”
“I’m doing well, Connie. Thank you for having me on the show. As someone who worked for the CIA for over twenty years, I think I should be able to interpret some of these complicated phrases in the new restrictions.”
I’m gonna need that water sooner than I thought.
“That’s great,” there is murder in this women’s eyes I swear, “Let’s start off this conversation with some questions from our listeners. Calls are already showing up. She clicks one of them.
“Hello caller, you are on the air.”
“Hi! My name is Jessica. I’m a busy mom of three from Connellsville. Since we’ll have to go into quarantine in the middle of the school year, I’m still a bit confused as to how much of a role I’m supposed to have in my children’s education as they learn online at home.”
I grossly underestimated these questions. I have an answer. It’s not a hard question. But I can’t give her the answer I want to. I should be telling her that she should unenroll her children in the public school system and teach them completely herself because I’ve previewed the new curriculum that’s going to be taught and it’s terrifying and she’s going to have to teach her children herself pretty soon anyway if she wants them to become educated adults so I should be telling her how to ration food for her family and start eating less now so that they can get used to the tiny portions that they’ll be given and that her children should stop eating sugar and stop wearing coats and stop spending time with their friends who aren’t Christians and take a martial arts class before quarantine starts and her entire family should learn basic first aid and CPR right now and she should probably enroll in some online classes when lockdown does start since she’ll have more time than she’s even expecting to have right now-
“The school system has been set up so that teachers are required to videotape their lectures and send them to RC students who would be in their class. The system is designed to be fully student-opporable, and of course they will always be able to email their teachers or receive free tutoring. As a parent, you should be as involved or uninvolved as you want to be.”
“Oh thank you for that clarification. That’s really a weight off my mind.”
“I’m glad,” Connie says, “Let’s hear our next caller.”
“Hi Jason,” Red Hollard’s southern accent greets me, “First of all, I just wanna say how cool it is that you were a secret agent and that you’re dedicating that knowledge to the benefit of your fellow citizens. That’s just really great.”
“What’s your question, Red?”
“Oh right,” he snickers, “Well you know, my business is goin’ online now, as much as it can, and I’m just wonderin’ what that one part about going outside meant?”
It means you should start exercising daily.
“Yeah, so that’s just an acknowledgement of the importance of getting outside and staying active. Obviously, it’s illegal to leave town, and most of the time it will be to leave your house, except for, what you saw, which is every other day from three pm to six pm. I would suggest taking advantage of this time. Meeting with friends might be a good idea. I would meet with them outside though so that you still get that dose of sunlight and just fresh air.”
“Oh well thanks. So I couldn’t go to work?”
“Probably not… The biggest thing to remember about this situation is that you want to do exactly what the rules say. This isn’t the time to get rebellious or angry. We want peace just as much as the government does for the country. Sometimes peace means sacrifices. As Christians, sometimes we have to let go of some things, if we want to keep this peace.”
My eyes bounce to Connie’s. She shakes her head, giving me an almost threatening gaze.
“Thank you for your question, Red. Who is our next caller?”
I incorrectly answer more questions, letting go of my desire to speak with Connie- to apologize. Have I apologized? As she exits her show we both release a breath. Connie stands up.
“You know I’m sorry, right?” I say.
There’s no emotion on her face
“So you’ve said.”
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
“I thought you didn’t.”
“I want to make things… I want things to be normal again, Connie.”
“So do I!”
“Great.”
“But they can’t be.”
“Wh-”
“Jason, you’ve been lying to me for, what? Years apparently? How on earth am I supposed to pretend everything is normal? You have hurt me, Jason. I know I look angry, and… yeah. I guess I am. I’m really, really angry. But it’s mostly a cover. I’m mostly in pain. I can’t trust you anymore. Can’t you see that? Jason, why can’t you see that?”
And what am I supposed to say to that? She’s right. Of course she’s right. So I nod slightly and let her leave the room. I check my watch as I walk through the shop I once managed and into the bitter Odyssey night. My stomach is aching. I haven’t eaten all day. I text Jamie on the way to my car.


She’s wearing a purple turtleneck and sitting at a small table in the back of the restaurant when I walk in. She stands and kisses my cheek before I sit down across from her and try to smile. Her smile is real.
“I missed you,” she straightens herself a little and studies my eyes. She bites her lip for a second. Something I haven’t seen her do yet.
“Something’s wrong,” she says.
“Eh I’m okay.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yeah. Yeah I mean, quarantine is coming up. We’re all a little stressed, right?”
The deep breath she takes almost makes me think she’d forgotten about it until I brought it up.
“That’s true. You’re staying in your apartment, right?”
“Yeah,” I nod, ripping open my straw, “I’ve got money. There’s no reason not to.”
She nods.
“We haven’t really talked about this,” I realized, “Are you gonna be okay? Will they let you go to work?”
“I doubt it. And it’s not really a job I can do remotely. I’ll probably be let go,” she shrugs.
“Are you okay with that?”
“Of course not. But what am I supposed to do?”
I don’t have a good answer for her. If she wants to make money she needs to get an online job. But Jamie’s an extravert. I’m pretty sure she’ll hate that.
“Yeah I don’t know,” I say. And then I whisper, “You could move in with me.”
But I don’t think I meant to say it out loud. Jamie laughs. It’s a light, toothy laugh that makes me smile and even blush a little.
“Jason, we’ve been dating less than a month!”
“Yeah, okay so I’m really just thinking out loud here, but I have a guest bedroom. This isn’t- I want to make sure you’re taken care of. That was the thought behind it. I don’t mean to push you into a commitment that I don’t think either of us are willing to make yet.”
“Okay gotcha,” she nods slowly, scanning the floor in thought, “I’ll keep your offer in mind. I can always move back out if things get complicated or I don’t know we start hating each other, right?”
“Right,” I laugh. She laughs too, because the idea of ever hating each other is so detached from the reality we’re living now.
It’s a good reality too. Our dates have been an escape and they’ve held simultaneously youth and maturity. She’s teaching me how to feel again. With her green eyes that dance with wisdom, and her coiled, brilliant red hair that she always tries unsuccessfully to keep out of her face. Her nails that drum the table or my arm when she’s thinking. Everything she does is vulnerability and excitement. Even when we’re talking about what seems to be the end of the world, she exudes this kind of peace. Maybe she can finally make me feel at peace.


DION’S POV

We get back from Whit’s End, and it’s like there’s a new, almost demonic force inside our little apartment. Our car ride over was nearly silent, aside from a few off beat yeses and nos. My husband drops his backpack onto the loveseat in our tiny living room and then starts roaming the kitchen like he has nothing better to do.
“So you don’t want to talk about it?” I ask, standing at the entryway.
“About what?”
I lower my brow, then realize it’s hard to say it out loud. And it’s hard to say it when he’s like this. When he’s stubborn and dismissive and so far from his normal self.
“About being parents.”
And that’s the thing. He knew exactly what I meant, yet he deliberately pretended not to. He just nods and gets a box of crackers from the cabinet.
“Okay. Let’s talk about it then.”
He shoves a cracker into his mouth.
“So she’s supposed to have the baby within a month. That gives us enough time to get everything ready. We’ve been saving up, we have the funds. We can do this, so I don’t understand your hesitancy, or whatever this indifference act is supposed to be.”
“I’m not indifferent. I’m just tired. I’m… depressed. I haven’t taken my meds in like a week.”
He blinks a few times like there’s something in his eye and gets the container of pills out of a drawer across the room. I watch him swallow one and put the bottle back.
“Why are your hands shaking?”
I go to him and take them in mine.
He sort of sniffs and then gulps.
“I don’t feel well.”
I stare at his hands inside mine, then up into his eyes that are roaming the counter and my chest. He was taking a shower when I woke up this morning.
“When was the last time you slept?”
That sentence makes him flinch.
“Like a day,” he mumbles.
“Why?”
He shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay let’s get you to bed now.”
I help him walk to our bedroom, and he becomes a little more alert once he starts changing.
“I know you’re tired, but can we agree to… agree to this?”
“With Sarah?”
“Yeah.”
“I don’t know,” he pulls on a t-shirt, “It feels really fast.”
I nod.
“Yeah. It kind of is. Do you think we’re not ready?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I feel like… I’ve been thinking about my dad and Wooton… and I’m not them. And I don’t think I can be.”
“Alright back up. I get that you’re afraid, but aren’t you comparing yourself to the wrong thing? Come on, those are two people who have worked with kids longer than you have. You’ve also never had a direct impact on a child’s life like that. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself. And don’t get me wrong, I’m scared too. I’m terrified. But isn’t this important? Isn’t it what we’re supposed to do? We’ve prayed about this.”
“We haven’t prayed about Sarah.”
That catches me off guard.
“Nope you’re right. We haven’t.”
“Alright then.”
He sits next to me on our bed and threads our hands together. We take a moment to pray silently. I close my eyes and try to empty my mind. I didn’t realize how loud my thoughts were until now, but anxiety is screaming at me. So almost instinctively, I picture myself on a mountain. Jesus is sitting on a rock nearby. He shifts to me and smiles. I talk to him silently.
“We’re having trouble here,” I begin, “I don’t-” and I decide to speak out loud, “I don’t understand why you brought us here. Why any of this is happening. Jesus, it really seems like you want us to adopt a kid, but it feels so selfish and we are so afraid.”
“God, we know you have a plan here. Can you please show us where it is? Please point out… Dion.”
“What?”
I open my eyes.
“I figured something out.”
“What’s that?”
“I’m just afraid He’s wrong.”
That sentiment is like a sudden fever. I know he’s right. So we spend the rest of the time we would usually spent time praying, just meditating. Just trying to understand our God. Just trying to listen.
We wake up at noon the next day, and we both know what we’re supposed to do.

JULES’ POV
I wake up and it’s like there’s a thunderstorm in our home. I’m in bed, completely dressed, staring at the ceiling. I close my eyes. I hear Buck in the living room, talking to a few male strangers. I sit up, feeling achy and tense. Our mattress is on the floor with two blankets and two pillows. I know I should get up and fold them. I know I should walk out and help Buck pack the last box, and help Levi get breakfast before the long day.
I lie back down. These are the days that I still feel like a teenager. The days I wish I was still a teenager, whatever that meant. Sometimes it feels like I skipped that part of my life entirely. Or like someone stole it from me. I realize that now. Buck and I felt so guilty about having sex before marriage, and I think I finally understand why we did that. We had sex because we knew we weren’t teenagers anymore. We knew there wasn’t a point in trying to preserve our innocence anymore because the shooting, the restrictions, even Smallpox took it from us. I think we both moved to Odyssey, hoping to decorrupt our brains. Maybe in a tiny town in the middle of Ohio, where there were no con-artists or tycoons to spoil childhood. We were so naive. I miss that.
I finally do get up. I fold the blankets and put everything in a couple white trash bags. Buck comes back into the apartment after helping move a chair.
“Oh hey Jules. You’re up.”
“Yeah,” I nod, “Thanks for letting me sleep in.”
He gives me a small smile and turns to the living room. I think he’s going to say something, but then he clamps his lips together again and asks me where Levi is.
“I guess he’s still asleep. I’ll go get ‘em.”
“Okay.”
He drums the counter with his palms and then picks up another box as I walk to our son’s door, which I knock on and then slowly open.
“Levi?”
He has a sleeping bag in his otherwise empty room. He throws a blanket over his head when I walk in. I laugh. It feels good to laugh.
“What are you doing, kiddo?”
“Ssh! Mom, I’m invisible!”
“Oh, sorry,” I whisper, “Boy, I wonder where Levi is… I hope he hasn’t turned into a superhero with invisibility powers.”
He giggles.
“Cuz you know if he’s invisible, he can’t sit in the big trunk outside.”
“The truck is here?!” He rips off the blanket.
I laugh,
“Yeah! You wanna go check it out?”
He thinks for a second, then shrugs.
“What’s the matter?”
He shrugs again and his bottom lip turns out. He puts the blanket over his head again before I can see his first tear. But I hear them.
“Aw, baby.”
I pull him into my lap, where he buries his face in my chest.
“I don’t wanna go,” he coughs.
I kiss his head as Buck walks in. We exchange empathetic looks, and he joins us on the floor. I lift up Levi’s blanket. He’s wiping his eyes.
“Can you tell the truck to come back tomorrow, daddy?”
He gives a little southern laugh.
“I’m sorry, son. We gotta go today. We’re having a party at Whit’s End, remember?”
He nods.
“But we’re not gonna be at home anymore.”
A few more tears fall. I push them away with my thumb.
“Whit’s End is just gonna be our home for a little while instead. And ya know, Sam is living there too. And Ben, and your grandparents and your aunt Connie and Aunt Eliza. That sounds fun doesn’t it?”
“Do we get lots of ice cream?”
“Yep. And I think we can have ice cream for lunch today if we want to.”
This makes him smile.
“Okay.”
“But first we gotta eat breakfast, right?”
He nods.
We roll up his sleeping bag and set it outside with Buck and I’s bedding. I make eggs and Buck makes bacon and smoothies. After we eat, we go around the apartment and say goodbye to each room, and then pray together.
` Levi gets to sit in the truck while we finish loading the car, and then we leave. And I don’t let myself cry.


EUGENE’S POV

I didn’t sleep last night. I am now experiencing the consequences of that slow yet rash decision. Connie is standing behind the counter and I am in front of it, leaning on it, trying to follow what she is saying.
“So we just need to close off the windows to the doors and get new blinds, right?”
I nod.
“Indeed.”
“Great.”
She makes some notes on the blueprint between us, then pauses.
“Do you want coffee? I was going to make some anyway, and you seem really out of it.”
I shrug.
“Hm. Yes, that would be- excellent. Thank you, Miss Kendall.”
She nods and flips on the coffee maker. I check my watch. It’s eight twenty-eight.
“People will be arriving in approximately half an hour.”
“Okay,” she takes a long breath, and then we make eye contact. And I’m reminded that Constance Kendall understands. Her green eyes are spilling out so many sentences. She knows I couldn’t sleep last night, and she knows that I’ll try to look as energetic as possible all day. She knows I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, and she knows I’m drowning in my own dread. She’s always been able to read me like a book, and it’s usually obnoxious. Today it’s giving me oxygen. She bites her upper lip and folds the blueprint,
“We can do this later.”
Then she walks to the front of the counter and hugs me. And just like when Mr. Whittaker left for the middle east, and when Katrina started dating someone else, and when her mother died, it’s awkward and exactly what we need. Because no one else is in the shop, and that means something. We are simply Connie and Eugene at Whit’s End, for what feels like the last time.


WOOTON’S POV
Swallowing right now makes it feel like there’s a brick in the back of my throat. I force it down anyway. It makes my eyes burn, but then the feeling all stops. I’m blankly staring at the white, dirty, tile floor of the doctor’s office, squeezing my hands together. Penny takes one of them away from the other and puts her other hand on my back. I feel like I’ve snapped in two. Winnie is on the other side of the room, playing with trains like she hasn’t just made my insides twist up like a pretzel. The idea of rushing home to binge-eat snack foods in front of a cartoon from the nineties is suddenly far too appealing. Doctor Peterson is saying a lot. A lot of stuff I’ve heard before. I swallow another brick.
“Do you have any questions at this time?”
“Um,” my voice is louder than I expected it to be, “This medication is supposed to stabilize everything then? That’s- that’s what you’re saying?”
“Yes. It’s just one capsule a day. We want her to feel better. That’s my main goal, and I think that’s you two’s as well.”
“Of course,” Penny says.
I nod.
We pick up a bottle of large pink pills on the way home. Winnie is in the back seat, staring out the window, and I’m staring at the reality I’ve been trying to step around for months. My daughter has anxiety and depression.
We get home and I walk to the bedroom. I’m in a harsh daze, standing next to the bed when Penny walks in. It feels like our roles have been reversed from our last conversation like this. She sits on the bed and puts a pillow on her lap and pats it. I lie down and she puts one hand on my chest and one hand in my hair, then steals my line,
“What are you afraid of?”
“I know what it’s like,” I begin.
“Mhm.”
“I didn’t know she felt as bad as I did.”
I barely notice when a few tears slide down the side of my face. I sniff,
“Oh, Penny I wanted it to be different for her.”
“Wooton, it is. She has medication. You didn’t have anything when you were her age. Wooton, she has parents who love her. She has a dad who loves her. That makes a difference. She’s not broken.”
“I know that, but I never want her to feel like she is. But she already does, I can see it.”
“I think… then maybe it’s our job to love her through that. Yeah?”
“Yeah.”
“It’ll work out.”
She’s braiding a few strands of my hair together. I take a long, shaky breath.
“It will. We should take the night to just relax. Rent a movie.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
We give Winnie her first ice cream serving of antidepressants. Then we sit down and watch a movie together. That night we tuck her in and tell her how special and how beautiful she is like we always do. Penny and I take time to pray and call Buck and Jules to ask how Levi was responding to the same treatment. This routine steadies me a little -enough that I can get to sleep at least. I just wish I could shake this feeling of hopelessness. This stabbing of dread.


VANCE’S POV
Tamika and I step into the Whit’s End library. We take a long, simultaneous breath. So this is our home. I have to admit, it’s at least bigger than I expected. With most of the book shelves out of the way, it’s almost the size of a small apartment without the walls. We have a bathroom and we brought our own mini fridge. I set it next to the bed frame the movers had set up a couple hours ago. Tamika laughs a little.
“It’s… almost like college.”
I nod,
“Yeah cuz you would know what college is like.”
I give her a playful smile on the way out the door. She sets down a box and calls after me,
“You didn’t go to college either!”
We move in more boxes and a couple more furniture pieces. I’m again surprised by how much it actually looks somewhat like a home. We make our bed, and vacuum the carpet. There are no windows, but somehow it’s more comforting that way. We brought a couple lamps with us, and when we shut the door and clicked them on with the lights off, it was somewhat beautiful. With Tamika’s keyboard in one corner, and an arm chair in another, and our desks next to each other. It’s welcoming. It’s about two in the afternoon when we realize we haven’t talked to many of our new house-mates. We got pretty quickly caught up in decorating.
So we go out to the eating area of the front of the shop, and it’s chaotic, but there’s an overall positive energy. People seem to actually enjoy the idea of living together, and I feel the same way. I turn to Tamika and smile. She smiles back.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
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MasterLink4eva
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Ok, it's officially 2021, and we still have no new chapter for anything!!! Now I dunno about you guys, but I take what Penny said VERY seriously! I WILL NOT LET THIS PAGE DIE!!!! And I may be new here, but I have a ton of experience in writing, so if Penny won't post a chapter to her story,... THEN I START MY OWN!!!! BUT I WILL KEEP THIS PAGE ALIVE, EVEN IF KILLS ME(well not literally)!!!!!!!!!
Wooton: Penny?
Penny: Yes?
Wooton: Will you marry me?
Penny: *gasp* WHAAAAAAAT?!?!?! O.o
THIS MOMENT MEANT THE WORLD TO ME :inlove: :inlove: :inlove: :inlove: :inlove: :inlove: :inlove:
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PennyBassett
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Wait no longer :)
14ish+ on this one
Enjoy this 8,000-word chapter

Chapter 6
ELIZA’S POV
Buck presses the little start button on our video camera that’s sitting on the table in front of us. My stomach hurts. I roll up the sleeves to my sweater. Buck starts,
“Okay. Here we are. Hi guys. Welcome to our YouTube channel. I guess we should introduce ourselves?” He turns to me.
“Uh sure but you should go first,” I laugh. It’s weird to think that we’re communicating with real, outside people right now.
“Okay. Well, I’m Buck Meltsner. You probably recognize me from the band Smallpox. Our latest album released last month, so we’ll put that in the description below I guess. And um, if you haven’t heard of me, I won’t hold it against you too much.”
We both chuckle a little.
“I’m Elizabeth- I go by Eliza. And I’m his sister. I don’t know what else they want to know about me. I don’t sing. I’m learning to paint though.”
“Oh yeah, guys, she is a fantastic painter! You should give the channel a tutorial sometime. Comment below if you’d like to see Eliza’s art.”
“I’m sure no one is interested in that,” I cringe. The idea of people seeing my face is embarrassing enough.
“Of course they would. Now, we should also probably explain what this is for.”
“Right,” I’m happy to change the subject, “So as Christians, we went into quarantine earlier this year: in March. We thought it would be important historically to film our experience and then also for the people at home and people who aren’t Christians. I guess it can be like a reminder to some people that they’re not alone, and show others, well… how much we’re struggling.”
I honestly didn’t expect myself to sound so sad when I said that. Buck’s blue eyes shine in the soft December sunlight that’s streaming across the soda shop. He nods and glances at me with a small smile.
“Yeah,” he says into a sigh, “So we’re going to start by giving you a tour of where we live now, which is Whit’s End, an ice cream shop our dad works- or used to work at. We live here with a bunch of families -mostly from Smallpox. So yeah hopefully this will be interesting.”
He gives the camera a fake smile and then turns it off. We simultaneously sit back in our soda shop booth.
“Okay. Let’s get this over with.”
He slides out of it.
Today is December tenth. Thanksgiving was a couple weeks ago. That was kind of fun. Holidays have been weird here. Everything is weird here. I follow Buck’s black sweatshirt up the stairs to the first set of rooms. I try not to make much noise as he explains who lives with us and how we “manage” as housemates. Managing is a good word. Everyone gets along pretty well. There will be fights every once in a while, but overall I think we enjoy living together. What I underestimated was the boredom. I didn’t realize how easy school was until I had nothing else to do. It’s weird though because it’s not like there’s actually nothing to do. There are plenty of things to do. I mean, we keep a lot of food in the kitchen to make fun meals with, we have the little theater to perform shows in, and don’t get me started on how long a person can spend in the Imagination Station. But it doesn’t mean anything. We’re not working toward anything right now. That’s probably the reason I took up painting. I needed to feel like I was making progress. It feels like everyone is finding their own thing. Dad’s been working in the basement a lot, writing the book he didn’t have time to when he was working all the time. Mom has been doing online tutoring for Christian kids. Smallpox makes music all the time. But even these hobbies don’t make things much better. I think everyone still feels stagnant.
I follow Buck into the last upstairs room: our “teenager” room. Wyatt and Quinn are playing this game they made up last week. They’ve been trying to perfect it for the past few days. They play it with foam cups and old juggling balls they found in the little theater. I haven’t been paying enough attention to know how to know all the rules though. Wyatt waves to me as we walk in. I nod back at him, then laugh as Quinn accidentally hits him in the head with one of those bean bags. Quinn starts cracking up and apologizing as Wyatt blushes under his big brown glasses.
“Uh okay let’s get back to this game.”
“Yeah you should! It’ll be great footage,” Buck nods and focuses the camera on the two.
Wyatt is wearing an oversized Christmas sweater. I remember it from last year. He wore that thing so much. It has a llama wearing sunglasses on it. The llama is smiling and there’s a speech bubble above its head that says, “Fa la la la llama.” Wyatt needs a haircut. He hasn’t gotten one since we’ve been quarantined, and it’s now long enough that he’s been pulling it into a little bun. He keeps smiling at me when he gets a point. I smile back and usually roll my eyes.
We film most of the shop, showing what a few of the bedrooms look like. We show them the basement tunnel and tell the story behind it. It’s one of the only places that I think people will actually find interesting. We end up back where we started, staring into that little lens on the table. We say goodbye, tell people to comment and subscribe, and then Buck turns the camera off.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay.”


JASON’S POV

“Good to see you made it Jason!”
I haven’t seen this man in five months. His beard is long and gray and he’s wearing a nametag that says, “Hello, my name is Bryant.” He sees I see it and gives me an uncharacteristically cheerful shrug. I guess his name is Bryant now.
“Everyone, this is Jason Whittaker,” he slaps me on the back.
“Hi,” I begin, “I have to say, this looks like a happier group of people than I’m used to meeting in this room.”
“Jason, everything is different now. You know that. People are doing better. RCs are staying in their homes -being surprisingly cooperative I have to admit.”
“Yeah well, I guess they’d rather be in their homes than prison.”
“That’s right,” someone with an identical name tag that says, ‘Harry’ perks up, “You know that’s what I love about religion. Your faith community expects you to stay true to it, or you’re not a real believer. Frankly, I’m surprised no other country has come up with systems like this.”
“With all due respect, Harry, they have,” I comment.
“Oh yeah. I should explain,” Bryant clears his throat, “Jason is very concerned that we’re all a bunch of Natzis,” he chuckles. The rest of the table laughs along. I smile politely.
“Mr. Whittaker, you do realize we’re keeping people from dying, right?”
I hadn’t even noticed the woman at the end of the table. She’s in a crisp blue suit.
“Tasha?” I whisper, going to her.
“Oh good, you still recognize me. I don’t look too old do I?”
I laugh as she hugs me.
“You look great. It’s good to see you again,” I’m smiling more than I have in a while. Her smile is consistent and contained.
“You too. You’re married?”
“Yeah. Just before quarantine.”
“Good for you. I finally tied the knot about five years ago.”
She holds up her left hand.
“She’s almost as handsome as you.”
I chuckle.
“So you caved. I’m surprised. You always said women were too emot-”
“Sensitive. Yeah. But I got tired of men. I think I hit my limit after breaking up with you.”
I laugh, “Gotcha. You know Tasha, I should have known you’d be a part of this project somehow. We signed those forms together.”
“True. But I’d be here regardless.”
It’s hard to admit how much this makes my chest ache. I cover it,
“So they brainwashed even the best of them,” under sarcasm.
Tasha’s blue eyes sharpen.
“No brainwashing, Mr. Whittaker. I’ve done my research. Have you?”
“Of course,” I scoff.
“You’re sure?” She bounces back, “Sorry but I know sleep deprivation when I see it. You sure you’re not stressing out over nothing?”
“Tasha, anytime a country strays from its constitution, especially as much as America is right now, you can expect trouble.”
“We both know there’s a lot at stake here. But this plan will-”
“I’m sorry to interrupt this reunion,” Bryant coughs, “But we do have to go over these plans. I’ve got a plane to catch tonight.”
My forehead goes hot,
“Sorry sir,” we say in unison.
I sit down next to Tasha and she pulls her hair into a low ponytail. My instinct is to apologize. It’s been about fifteen years since we’ve seen each other, but I still know when I’ve upset her. She has a stack of blank paper in front of her. As Bryant starts up his slideshow, I pull a pen from my suit jacket and scrawl a smiley face on the first page.
‘Truce?’
I can see her lipsticked smirk out of the corner of my eye. She scribbles back,
‘Lts hv dnnr. Ll brng wf.’
‘Bring wifi?’
She rolls her eyes.
‘You’re not funny. <3’
Three hours later, Jamie is in our master bathroom drying her hair. I kiss her cheek.
“Alright, you’re in a better mood than usual. Have you been taking your pills again?”
“Don’t need to. I have you.”
My arms are around her waist. I’m kissing her neck. She giggles and turns off the hairdryer.
“Jason I have to get ready.”
But when she turns around she’s smiling. She adjusts my collar.
“You,” she kisses my upper lip, “Also have to get ready.”
“We have half-an-hour,” I grin, raising my eyebrows.
She just smiles, rolls her eyes, and bites her lip.
There’s a knock at the door.
“Hm. They’re early,” she huffs.
“Maybe they ordered food or something. It could be a delivery.”
I reluctantly let her go and leave the bedroom to go to the front door. I open it. Tasha is standing there in another blue shirt. A woman with long black braids stands at her arm. Tasha’s face has changed.
“Have you had your home looked at for termites? They can be a big problem if you don’t check-”
“The house is clean,” I catch her drift, a lump forming in my gut, “Come on in.”
“Thanks. Sorry we’re early, but there’s not as much time as I thought,” the African American woman gulps, looking behind her, “I’m Cory by the way.”
“Good to meet you,” I nod, shaking her hand, “You thought there was more time?”
“Is your wife here?” Tasha asks. She’s taking my apartment in with shifty eyes.
“Jamie’s still getting ready. Sorry, why don’t you two have a seat.”
They follow my gesture to the living room and sit on the loveseat.
“I’ll let Jamie know we’re talking-”
“She should hear this,” Tasha interrupts.
I nod and silently leave the room. Jamie is wearing a blouse and jeans when I walk in.
“It’s them?”
“Yeah they need to talk to us about something. I don’t know… CIA stuff.”
Color drains from her face.
“Okay.”
We go back out and sit down across from the two familiar and very unfamiliar women. It’s then that I see how scared they both look. I take Jamie’s hand.
“Are we in trouble?”
“Jason. Everyone is,” Cory talks to me like she’s my mom. Like she didn’t meet me two and a half minutes ago, “You’ve… been under the impression that there hasn’t been any construction work done for the,” she swallows, “internment camps.”
“Yeah. There wouldn’t be. Bi- Bryant said-”
“Bryant doesn’t even tell the truth about his name.”
“But we don’t need them,” Jamie’s trying to speak through a forced smile. I don’t have to see her face to know that, “There’s peace again. We’ll wait for about a year and then everything can go back to normal.”
“Exactly. Logically, we don’t need to build them.”
“They’re already built.”
A tsunami of dread crashes into me. I haven’t felt like that since my cell phone rang in the middle of a CIA training. Since my Dad’s broken sentences finally made me understand that my mom had died. My mom had died and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I wish my mom was here. I feel so small. Too small to speak. Tasha does instead,
“There’s,” she takes a long breath, “There’s a chance that we can get out of the country before they start bringing people in. But the government will put everyone in a camp. They are work camps. They are… potentially life-threatening.”
“Tasha,” Cory whispers.
I’ve never seen that much sadness on Tasha’s brow. She slips her hand into her wife’s and puts one to her chin a moment. Shaking her head, she says,
“They aren’t planning on giving people medical care.”
Jamie gives a small gasp,
“What doesn’t that mean?”
“That’s all we know. We don’t know what it means yet,” Tasha says in a daze.
“We know people will die,” Cory says, very in the moment.
“I still don’t understand,” Jamie stutters, “There’s no violence.”
“They’re saying it’s a precaution. You have to believe me though, Jamie,” Cory says, “These camps will be used, and we need to get out of the country as soon as possible.”
“When is that?”
“In a month.”



CAMILLA’S POV
“How does that look?”
Zoe is standing on a step ladder, adjusting the star on top of our smaller-than-average Christmas tree. With the ornaments and tinsel, it looks cozier than I thought it would.
“It looks good. Maybe a little to the right?”
“Like there?”
She moves it again.
“Perfect.”
“Alright.”
She steps down and sets aside the stool.
“And now for the big reveal!”
I giggle as I watch her plug in the lights behind the tree. The lights on it spark on. They’re rainbow.
“Tada!”
She’s beaming, reaching for me. I move into her arms.
“It’s perfect.”
My lips interrupt her wide smile.
The iPad on the couch behind us starts playing a computer-generated violin song.
“That’s probably Mom.”
She pretends to pout, then plops down on the couch. I sit next to her, not touching her anymore. I tap the green circle and my parents’ faces appear on the screen in front of me.
“Hey you two!” My mom says, more cheerfully than she’s sounded in a while.
“Hey Mom, hey Dad.”
“Hi guys!”
David Parker’s hand is holding Eva Parker’s hand. My hand is holding my other hand.
“How’s everything going over there?” Dad asks.
“It’s good,” I answer quickly, my forehead going warm. “We just finished decorating the apartment.”
I flip the camera on the iPad and pan over the living room area. It reminds me of how the family home used to look. Before Olivia died. Before I couldn’t talk to my parents. This is the first Christmas since I lost my sister that I’m not terrified. The first Christmas that feels like Christmas. I know it’s thanks to the woman next to me. This beautiful, blonde, film nerd with her knees folded up to her chest and her back against our sofa. She’s somehow so tame and so unpredictable. She’s watching me show my parents our home, her smile showing that gap between her two front teeth that she didn’t get fixed as a kid because she liked how it looked. I like it too.
We talk with my parents for about half an hour. Even though my mom seems more optimistic than usual, we keep the conversation as repetitive as we always do. My mom asks me how college stuff is going, and I tell her it’s fine. My dad asks Zoe about a professor he had when he went to Campbell County Community College. We talk about what we did that day, what we plan on doing the day after, what we’re going to do in the upcoming week. I always hate talking about this stuff though. It reminds me of how empty our existence is. Having Zoe here gives me so much constant hope. She’s a new person to explore and understand. She has a remarkable way of grounding me and making me so much lighter. Maybe something about her being here is like Olivia being here. I wish my parents could feel that way. I wish my presence held that same comfort. But I don’t think it does for them. Sometimes my dad has to leave our call. I know it’s because I look too much like her. They’ve told me I do. I know I do. I’m proud to. It’s just difficult. We sit in these stupid, awkward conversations where I know they’re not as happy as they’re pretending to be, and they probably know I’m sleeping with their dead daughter’s best friend, but we don’t know for sure. Maybe they really do think we’re best friends that share a one-bedroom apartment and only moved in together once quarantine began. That’s a ridiculous sentence in my head. I’m just glad we don’t have to see them in person. I doubt they’d hold back their questions and opinions with the two of us standing in front of them.
I tap the red and white, ‘end call’ button and release a breath. Zoe slumps into the couch. She ties up her hair and closes her eyes, takes off her glasses. My elbows are on my knees, my chin in my palms. I know she’s rubbing her forehead. I feel bad for burdening her with my family. I think she’s sorry for me that my family is a burden. I turn my neck to see, sure enough, she’s rubbing her temples. I take her glasses out of her lap and clean them with my t-shirt. She whispers a thank you as I hand them back to her. She opens her eyes, her head still resting against the couch. She smiles -not showing that tooth gap. She’s studying my face. I study my hands. They slip in and out of mine. I finally kiss her knuckles and her wrist and lie down, my head in her lap. I close my eyes as she runs her finger up and down the rim of my nose. Her other hand rubs my thigh.
I take in a sharp breath.
She speaks low,
“It’s good to cry, love.”



PENNY’S POV

I called myself a single mother on the phone yesterday. That’s a weird feeling. It’s accurate, I guess. I don’t like how easy it was to say.
“Mom, can you help?”
Winona is at our kitchen table, trying to copy one of my old drawings. They’re strewn across the table, with their home -a cardboard box- on the chair next to Winnie. I tell her she’s missing shading beneath the dog, and she thanks me quietly. I drop four frozen waffles into our six-slot toaster and leave the room. It’s snowing today. I think that’s supposed to make the day feel festive. I feel like throwing up. I retie my robe as the toaster claps. It’s the loudest noise of the morning. I put two on a plate for my daughter and kiss her head.
“I’ll be upstairs, baby.”
“Okay.”
As I turn to go, she snaps open the syrup lid.
“Mom?”
“Yeah?”
“I miss daddy.”
I don’t want her to see any of the tears that sprung to my cheeks, so not facing her, I nod,
“Me too, baby.”
I have to get upstairs. My heart is in my neck. My stomach is burning. My feet are cold. I sniff back any sobs that are threatening to shatter my composure and enter my bedroom. My eyes know to go to the lump in my bed. Maybe slipping into it will warm me up. I do, and it does. A mess of shoulder-length red curls stares back at me when I lie down. I take a strand and begin braiding it. Silent sobs pour and drip from my cheeks to my chin and quivering bottom lip and the tip of my nose.
After a few minutes, the body next to me jerks. I let go of it.
“I’m sorry,” I say, soaking up my tears with my sleeve.
“What time is it?” He asks.
“About nine,” I say, aching for touch.
“At night?”
“Morning.”
There’s a beat. He breathes. I watch him breathe.
“You can undo those if you want.”
“Undo what?” He still hasn’t looked at me.
“I was braiding your hair.”
“Oh, I don’t care.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“I was asleep. Didn’t feel it.”
“Right. Are you going back to sleep?”
He shrugs with one shoulder that his hand is latched onto. He breathes. I watch him breathe.
“Can I clip your fingernails?”
“They’re fine.”
“They look uncomfortable.”
“They’re fine.”
“Okay. I’m uh- I’m going to take a shower.”
“Alright.”
“Clothes are on our chair.”
“Alright.”
I step into the bathroom, closing the door behind me. Everything aches. I watch my aching body undress itself. Why did we put so many mirrors in this bathroom? I remember when we designed it. I said it would look modern. Right now it feels like an audience. Or a hall of mirrors at a carnival. I turn on the shower. It’s the biggest shower I’ve ever had. As I step into it, I try to remember the last time he followed me in. Six months? I wet my hair. Nine months? I hug my stretch marks. It was probably eight, probably our anniversary.
I showered last night, so I don’t clean anything. I just stand there. Just stare at the black tile beneath my twitching feet, feeling something. Feeling nothing. Feeling numb. I finally stop crying.
He’s still in bed when I get back, holding his hair. I get back in bed, feeling like I could sleep for a few days. But my heartbeat is like thunder.
“I’m so sorry, Penny.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know I’m a burden.”
He slowly turns around.
“I just miss you,” I shrug, glancing at his neck. The line in the middle of it is purple and makes my arms hurt. He followed my eyes.
“Penny, I’m not going anywhere.”
And I wish I could believe him.



ELIZA’S POV

I usually like snow, but today it feels more like rain. It’s not the fun snow that makes you want to go outside and make snow angels. Maybe because Christmas is over. There’s something kind of depressing about that let down from the holidays. New Years' is coming up, and we’re working on a Little Theater show for it. That should be fun. But it’s a slow day. I think a lot of people are taking naps.
I’m sitting in our teenager room, glancing between the window and Wyatt, who has three old couch cushions piled on top of each other. He keeps timing himself to see how long he can stand on them. I laughed at him a few minutes ago when he said he was training to be a surfer.
“We’re quarantined in the middle of Ohio,” I scoffed.
“I’m only nineteen,” he said, mounting his creation, “Plenty of time to get out of here.”
I’ve been thinking about what he meant by that. Does he think quarantine will end on its own, or did he mean he wants to escape somehow?
Quinn is sitting on their bed, probably rewatching The Office. They got here a week ago after many video calls with Kodi and Stephany, and even more with Kodi and Quinn’s parents.
Stephany and Kodi are playing chess now. I don’t know who’s winning. Michael is watching Wyatt and bouncing a ball off the floor and back to his hand.
I stand up and walk over to my desk. There are piles of art supplies underneath it and a stack of canvases leaning on its side. My computer is taking up most of the top desk space. I flip through my unfinished canvases, but none of them spark inspiration. I turn to the room,
“We should do something.”
“Like what?” Michael rolls the ball between his palms.
“There’s the imagination station,” Quinn suggests.
I nod slowly. The problem with the Imagination Station is how long time feels in it. I kind of want the day to end, but everyone else likes their idea, so I decide to go along with it. We tell the computer we want to go on the Esther adventure, and she opens the first door.



EUGENE’S POV

I descale the steps to the basement of Whit’s End, or rather, our home. I pop my neck before entering the workshop, which’s become an office as of late. When I do enter, Katrina is at her desk. I walk over and kiss her cheek.
“Is that a new lesson plan?”
“Yes,” her tone is crisp, “I want to have it done by tomorrow. I have several new students.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“So, you seem to be alright,” she sighs and begins typing again.
“I’m well, thank you. In fact, I believe our tiff last night did us good.”
“Oh do you?”
“Well. Yes,” I’m suddenly very uncertain.
“Hm.”
I set my laptop on the workshop table, and log into it, unsure of how to respond. Katrina continues to type.
“Did I not apologize?”
“You did.”
“You did as well, which I appreciated, so I assumed we were amended.”
“No.”
“No?”
“Maybe not.”
“Very well. Would you like to talk more about it?”
“Not now. I’m- I have a lot to do.”
“So have I, but this is a priority.”
“Eugene, I haven’t-” She begins vulnerably, but then cuts her tone short. It goes quiet, “I need time to think.”
“Alright,” my heart sinks. Where is my wife? In these times, Mr. Whittaker’s presence and absence feel all too intimate. I watch her roll to the elevator, computer in-lap. She doesn’t look at me. I almost say something to keep her from going up. And then I do not.



ELIZA’S POV
The Imagination Station roars again as the six of us are transported to yet another dark space. The door in front of us is gold and very large. Wyatt pushes it open and holds it there for us. This is the kind of adventure where we’re observers only. It’s easier that way when more people are in it. It’s sort of like being in the movie you’re watching. King Xerxes is sitting in his grand throne, which is decked out in the same gold as the doorway we walked through. A scribe in the corner quietly scribbles on parchment. There is a band of men in Babalonyan party-clothes playing instruments I can’t name. Before I can ask Wyatt what they are, the door to this large throne room creeks open, and in steps Queen Esther. Somehow she looks even more beautiful than she did in the last scene. Her long black hair is intricately woven into high braids, pinned with gold -that same gold- clips. She’s wearing a long blue dress, showing a bit more skin than usual.
I’ve read this story more times than I can count, but seeing it -being in the room- lodges my heart into my stomach and almost brings tears to my eyes. The whole entryway is completely silent. No music, no scribbling. The king is staring at his queen. The queen is staring at her king’s scepter. He extends it. I let out a breath.

WYATT’S POV
Elizabeth makes this face sometimes where her lips are just slightly parted, and her aqua eyes are catching every change of the screen or show or conversation in front of her. She drops into the fascinated focus that I feel I’m in most of the time. Especially around her. Her long, burnt red hair is pulled into a low, messy bun today. She pushes a few stray strands behind her double-pierced ears and smiles at me when Esther asks Haman and the King to dinner.
She keeps asking me why I’m so quiet on this trip. I’m quiet because I’m scared, but of course, I’m also too scared to tell her that. I say I’m just watching. Our crew of friends is sitting at the end of the banquet when I decide it’s the right time to speak.
Esther asks Xerzes if he would bring Haman tomorrow for another banquet, and he accepts. I turn to Eliza.
“Elizabeth?”
“Yeah?”
She pops a date into her mouth.
“Do you- Can I talk to you alone for a second?”
“Uh… sure.”

ELIZA’S POV
We step out onto the balcony. There’s a cool desert breeze. These are the times where I finally feel free from quarantine. When I can be outside, in another country, in another time. I look up at the stars, feeling very small. Tonight I like feeling small. The moon is almost yellow against the sunset and the stars surrounding it are more infinite than I could ever see from the backyard of Whit’s End. I close my eyes and take in a long, deep breath. I’m overcome with relief. I can smell spices and sand and water and Wyatt.
Wyatt always smells like coconut shampoo. I don’t mind it. He’s been tapping his finger against his jeaned thigh since we stepped outside. I don’t remember why we stepped outside until he clears his throat awkwardly. I shift toward him.
His green eyes are glowing under the blue night. They jump from me to the ancient city below us, then back to me. He pushes up the round glasses that are kind of like my dad’s but with thicker frames. His blond hair is parted down the middle, but he’s been pushing it back all day. He’s wearing a green t-shirt and a leather jacket. I put my hands in the pockets of my sweatshirt, feeling smaller than I want. He doesn’t usually make me feel this vulnerable. Only sometimes.
“So uh. Elizabeth.”
He calls me Elizabeth more than anyone I know.
“Yeah?”
“Do you… agh,” he scoffs into a soft chuckle, “you’re gorgeous.”

WYATT
She’s been staring at me with those wide watery eyes for five seconds that have felt like five hours, and I still can’t figure out why on earth I said that. I feel like someone’s punctured my stomach. My hands are burning. My heart is stuttering. I’m nineteen, what am I doing?
“I am so sorry.”
I turn away from her, feeling slightly ashamed. She speaks,
“Why?”
“I uh… you’re uncomfortable. Shi- I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay.”

ELIZA
My cheeks are threatening to burn me alive. At least I wouldn’t be here anymore. Why on earth did he say that? Does that mean- We’re Christians… So… I open my mouth, half expecting a sob to come out. A laugh does instead.
“I… like you,” I giggle, out of any control -this is so unlike me.

WYATT
“Wh- seriously?”

ELIZA
I nod, my hand to my mouth, tears springing to my cheeks.
“Ah why am I crying?”

WYATT
“You really like me?”

ELIZA
“Yes, stupid!”
“I’m three years older than you,” he whispers, his palms on his neck.
A give him a pointer finger,
“Two and a half.”

WYATT
“So you don’t care?”
I restrain a joke about her being two and a half years more mature than me.
“No.”
Her sobs are precious and need her closer to me.

ELIZA
Wyatt and I have hugged before. I think the last time was when we heard that Quinn had become a Christian. But this time my arms wrap around his neck, and his arms are around my waist. His shoulder is warm and his embrace is secure. I can feel a pulse, but I don’t know who it belongs to. And I don’t care.

WYATT
I kiss her cheek. She breaks from my arms, smiling so wide. My hands move from her hips to her neck. Her hands are at mine. My eyes question our judgment. Her slight nod gives me permission. I pull her to me again.

ELIZA
My stomach drops.

WYATT
She breaks away.

ELIZA
I can’t breathe.

WYATT
I’m alone.

ELIZA
I’m alone.
“I’m sorry I have to go,” I slur.

WYATT
“Where?”

ELIZA
Why does he look so different? More tears spring. I push them away.
“Stop,” I whisper, “No.”
I know this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Why didn’t I like it? Why was-
“What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m- no no no no,” I choke on a sob, “No stop. Stop it.”

WYATT
I’ve never seen her like this. She said she had anxiety issues, but I have no idea how to help in this situation. Her hands are covering her face. She’s on her knees.
I get on mine as our friends come out.

ELIZA
I’m just crying. Suffocating. I hear the Imagination Station wind to a stop.

WYATT
It’s pitch black. I can hear my own heavy breathing and just Elizabeth. Just Elizabeth crying. My hands go cold as I realize, looking at nothing, I did this to her.



DION’S POV
Zola is asleep on my husband’s chest. My husband is asleep on our bed. We don’t have a very big room to live in now. It’s made things kind of difficult. I set down the notebook containing song lyrics I’ll probably never show anyone and pace around the four walls. We have a queen bed, a crib for Zola in the corner, a small desk, a small TV, a mini-fridge, a lamp, and a cardboard box full of things we wanted to keep but didn’t have a place for. Our clothes are in drawers connected under our bed, next to those are Zola’s toys. When we adopted her nine months ago, practically everyone we knew, except for our parents, sent gifts and toys.
I’m tired.
I pull a blanket from the end of the bed and lie down next to Grady. He stirs awake.
“Hey sorry I didn’t want to wake you up.”
He puts a hand on Zola’s back and whispers,
“It’s alright.”
He rubs his eyes and reaches for his phone on the bedside table. It’s about four in the afternoon.
“Hm. I slept longer than I thought.”
“You can go back to sleep. I’ll hold her if you want.”
Grady likes to sleep on his side.
“No, no she’s good. She’s precious.”
I nod, in awe of our little one. In awe of how much she’s grown now that she’s ten months old. Zola’s half caucasian and half African American and our skin tones are nearly identical. She has these big curious brown eyes that light up when I enter the room. She’s got her mouth just slightly open. She’s breathing slowly. She holds such peace. In these times I am grateful for quarantine. Our windowless room is cozy and silent on this snowy afternoon. Our purple lamp is the only light source, and there’s nothing to do. I can admire my daughter and her father in this peaceful, studying state for another two hours if I want to. I’ve been trying to tell myself I don’t need to write all the time. Something in me thinks Jay wrote all the time. He did, I know he did, but he didn’t have a family. Jay was in high school. I never thought I’d be seven years older than him. I close my eyes. Grady’s hand slips into mine, and I put my head on his shoulder. He always knows when I need to be brought back to the present.



ELIZA’S POV
My nose hurts. I’m sitting in the kitchen sipping a milkshake, sniffing. It’s silent except for the low hums of the fridge behind me and the freezer to my right. My sides ache from crying. I haven’t cried that much in a long time. I know why I reacted like I did now. It didn’t take long for me to figure it out. The only other time I kissed someone was that time in the car with Alex. That was just about a year ago, so I guess it just triggered some panic. I felt so out of control. I feel sick. I feel very embarrassed. Even if Wyatt still likes me after seeing me like that, I don’t know when I’d be able to kiss him again. And what would my parents say? We lived together for a few months before moving to Whit’s End, doesn’t that make our relationship suspicious somehow? What if they think we were hiding it while he was living with us?
It’s too much to think about right now. I say a quick prayer as I finish my milkshake.
“Eliza?”
Mandy walks into the kitchen.
“Hi,” I try to smile a bit, relieved by her presence. It always holds a sense of comfort and security.
“Wyatt told me what happened. Do you want to talk?”
“I don’t know. I’m embarrassed.”
“He’s really just concerned about you. He probably feels responsible.”
“What? But I was the one that- I pushed him away- oh no. No, he- It’s my fault.”
I hiccup into another sob, so Mandy gets a box of tissues from the cabinet. I thank her softly.
“Forget about Wyatt for a minute. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know. I’m not really as anxious.”
“Okay. Do you know what caused the anxiety- if I can ask?”
“Yeah. Um. Well, my first kiss was just kind of full of bad timing. He was a little controlling physically, but it was also at the same time as the Washington riots. That night sucked.”
“I’m so sorry, Eliza. Boys… boys can be the worst.”
I nod. Even though her sentiment feels cliche, she’s not wrong. I take a long breath and blow my nose.
“I just feel stupid. I thought I was so mature and it was supposed to be this romantic thing… I don’t know.”
“Would you feel comfortable talking to him? He’d probably at least like to see you’re a little better.”
“I guess,” I say hesitantly.
“Alright,” Mandy smiles and pats my hand before leaving the room. Wyatt immediately comes in.
“Hi,” his smile is slight and his eyes hold a lot of concern. I don’t think he’s embarrassed, “Elizabeth. I am so, so sorry. I should have asked you first. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He’s twisting his hands together, keeping his distance.
“No. Please don’t apologize. It’s not your fault… what happened with Alex just traumatized me more than I thought. I should have seen that coming.”
“Not necessarily. How are you now?”
“A little better. Ashamed. It is kinda weird that you're an adult and I’m not.”
“Sure. Yeah, I mean I don’t have a problem with it, we both know you’re the more mature one out of the two of us,” he laughs a bit, “But if it’s upsetting to you-”
“No, it’s not to me, I was thinking more about… I don’t know... the people who find out later or something. My parents might have a problem with it. Not to mention they’re not the biggest fan of romance right now.”
He nods a little.
“Well, I’ll wait for you, wait until you talk with them or even next year if it would make you feel better,” he pauses to take a breath, “I’m so sorry.”
I wish he’d stop apologizing. I thank him anyway.
“It’s okay. And that might be good. We shouldn’t rush into this either way. But you know, now we know we like each other. That’s a good feeling at least, right?”
“Right,” he smiles, “I’m always here for you Elizabeth.”
I get up and hug him again. My arms are around his neck again.
“Thank you.”
And I don’t let him see it, but I’m beaming.



BUCK’S POV
We try to have dinner altogether as many nights out of the week as we can. It’s me and Jules’ favorite part of the day. Tonight it’s Tamika, Vance, Mandy, and Trent’s turn to make the meal. They prepared several platters of shepherd's pie and rolls. My stomach growls as my wife, my son, and I get in line. Eugene serves me the portion size he knows I like.
“Thanks, Dad.”
He smiles at me. There’s something a little off about his gaze though. I wonder if he and mom are even talking right now. She’s sitting on the other side of the room, reading a book.
“Oh, Buck. We need to ask Grady and Dion about that thing,” Jules half whispers to my left.
“Hm,” I say into a bite of the roll I just put in my mouth, “Yeah now would be a good time,” I swallow, “Hey, Levi, why don’t you go sit by Grandma, bud? She looks like she could use some company.”
“Alright !”
Levi turned seven last month. He’s got more energy than ever and spends most of his time either making forts in our little room or playing outside. He always needs to have a “buddy” if he’s going to be outside, and his established playmates have been Lucy and Jack’s son Benjamin and the Lewis kids. They make a cute little team, running around the little theater or making up games in the Whit’s End seating area, or watching cartoons in the Bible Room. I think they’ve seen every Veggietales movie at least three times. Levi’s friends join him over by Katrina, making Jules and I smile to each other. We grab a couple of sodas and sit down across from Dion and Grady and their beers. Zola is in her highchair, making little gibberish noises and trying to shove fist-fulls of Cheerios in her mouth.
“Babe, eat one at a time,” Jules laughs, handing her one. She takes it and smiles up at my wife with two teeth. She makes another sound.
“Is that Aunt Jules?” Grady coos, wiping his baby’s mouth with a napkin.
The two of them talk to and feed Zola for a bit while I crack open my soda and shift a light finger between Dion and Grady.
“Dion, are you two up for talking tonight?”
He stares at me for a second.
“Oh! Right! Our conversation! Yeah I mean I’m free. He scoops some casserole onto his fork before turning to Grady, “Hun can we start our uh… Bible conversation with them tonight?”
“Yeah! I was hoping that’s why you guys sat down,” he smiles.
Jules cracks open her soda,
“Yeah, well we’ve been wanting to have this conversation for quite a while now, and honestly, I don’t know if we needed to a year ago. Maybe you feel differently?” She references me,
“No. I think you’re right. Something about Levi getting older, and watching you raise Zola. I think it’s brought up a few more questions.”
I start on my second roll.
“For sure,” Dion cracks a smile, “I think I had a similar experience, and I mean we even went through the process of praying about our relationship and if we should be parents or not before we started seriously looking into adoption, which I think you both knew.”
“Honestly, yeah,” Jules’ eyes move back and forth, recalling the season, “I remember you were more distant. I could tell you were thinking through it a lot.”
“We were. And we have no regrets, obviously,” Grady chimes, looking fondly to his daughter, who’s just squirted orange juice down the front of her onesie. He chuckles and grabs a napkin.
“So it would be helpful if you had specific questions,” Dion says, his chin on his fist.
“Yeah, well we wrote down a few yesterday,” Jules swallows and pulls out her phone, “The first one is probably the biggest, obviously, why do you think practicing homosexuality isn’t a sin?”

DION’S POV
That phrase would’ve cut me a few years ago. It’s soft now. I have my family here. I don’t feel threatened or ostracized anymore. I’m actually ready for this conversation.
“I think different reasons stick out to each of us more than others. I like digging into scripture and figuring things out historically and linguistically. Jay and I went over that a ton before we started dating. He was one of those Christians that drove into the word as soon as his relationship with Christ began. When I accepted Christ, I was told a lot to sort of resist my 'temptations,’” I laugh at the word now.
“Did you try?”
“Well, yes and no. Sexuality, and we’ve talked about this, isn’t a temptation. Like, the fact that you like women doesn’t make you tempted by them all the time. There are a ton of factors that go into it.”
“But you didn’t try being single?”
“I was single anyway. But you know, the shame, the isolation I felt from God didn’t go away.”
Jules nods.
“I even told a couple of gay friends that they should repent… one of them… ah was a victim,” I shake my head, my chest tensing. I take a sip of beer, “Um. I wish I would have spoken to them differently. They stopped talking to me after that, and I don’t know... I didn’t want to make amends because I just thought they hated me so much. I was… very rude.”
“So what made you stop feeling ashamed?” Buck asks. His plate is clean.
“That studying I mentioned for one. And we can go over the verses sometime if you want to.”
“Yeah I think that might be helpful,” Jules says, her eyebrows lowered, “I’ve read those verses, and yeah I mean that’s one of my big questions. What was the other reason?”
“For what? Oh not feeling ashamed?”
My thigh buzzes.
“Yeah.”
“Hang on one sec.”
I pull my phone out of my front jean pocket. Nalah’s name with a flower emoji is a couple green and red answer buttons. I don’t know how I feel.
“I should take this. Super sorry.”
“You’re good,” Buck mutters.
Grady says something about how he felt when he realized he was gay, and I excuse myself to the men’s bathroom. I barely miss that green button before a missed call message pops up. I whisper a curse and call her again.
My back is against the blue tile of the bathroom. I’m standing across from a set of two sinks and I can almost feel Jay Smouse’s hand inside mine. I think about the time we talked about Vance… that we hated him. We both took that back later. But it hurt to say at the time. I felt so bad. I’m really good at feeling guilty.
Nalah hasn’t called in about five months. We texted maybe a month ago, but it was a pretty standard, ‘how are you?’ kind of conversation. I think she avoids me just a little. Maybe because I’m a Christian and she’s not, and she doesn’t know what to do with that. Maybe she’s even a little afraid. I get her voicemail again. I wrinkle my nose as I try one more time. Maybe she called me by accident. It rings once. It's so strange that we're siblings and living such different lives. It rings again. She's probably out with her friends tonight or studying for a test she has tomorrow. She's working on getting her Ph.D. in Child Psychology. A third ring. Is life really that normal for her?
“Hey sorry I was in a crowd so it was too loud to answer.”
My sister’s voice is so refreshing it makes my eyes water,
“How have you been?” I ask.
“Oh I’m good. Ya know, livin’ the dream.”
I laugh, “Of course.”
“Hey, I can’t talk for too long. Oh it’s dinner time for you anyway.”
“Yeah. But you’re good.”
“Okay. Well, I just needed to tell you that I talked to Mom and Dad yesterday.”
“Oh?”
“Yeah I finally got through. Took about a month.”
“Got through?”
“Yeah. They’ve been in Japan.”
I had no idea.
“Oh. Mission work?”
“Yeah, but it’s time for them to come home. Their contract ran out or something, so they got a pass from the government to fly back and also to visit you. Dion, they want to be Zola.”
My mouth opens. I’m still.
“Dion?”
“What?”
“Is that okay with you?”
“Um,” too many emotions crash into me at once to feel any of them or process any of them or make any sentences. She sighs,
“It’s a big shock. I’m sorry. I could have been more gentle. I thought you’d be excited.”
“No. It’s okay. Why do they want to meet her?”
“She’s their granddaughter?”
I nod, trying to believe that. Zola McKay and Kenji and Amelia Farkas live in such vastly separate spaces of my brain.
“Right,” I whisper, “Could you um,” I cough, “Would you let me know when they get to America? I need to think about it. Talk to Grady.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. Dion-”
These are too many feelings.
“I need to go. Sorry.”
“Okay,” she lets out a breath that makes my phone’s speaker fuzz up, “Fair enough. We can talk later.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Talk to you later?”
“Sounds good,” I nod.
“Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I hang up and take a long breath. My chest hasn’t lost any tension. I slip down to the bathroom floor and put my hand on the cold tile next to my leg. I stare at the edge of the ceiling that’s above those sinks for five... maybe ten minutes. The door swings open. I know it’s Grady by his sigh. I adjust my gaze to match his.
“Who was it?”
“Nalah,” I breathe.
“Oh.”
“Sit with me?”
He nods slightly and sits down next to me. I set my head in the crevice of his upper chest. He has a hand on my knee and a hand on my shoulder. It’s good to be protected. I close my eyes. I hear his heartbeat. It’s much slower than mine.
“My parents want to meet Zola.”
My head moves with his chest.
“Okay. How do you feel about that?”
Grady’s only seen videos and a couple pictures of my parents. They don’t know what he looks like.
“I-” A sob slices my sentence. My husband’s grasp on me gets stronger. I cover my mouth. I feel like a toddler. I try to speak again, but the jumping sobs keep coming. I manage a,
“I thought it was better.”
And he knows exactly what I mean. We sit for a long time. He only gets up to hand me a wad of toilet paper.



CONNIE’S POV
I wake up to my phone’s digital ringing.
“Hello?”
My eyes hurt. Someone is screaming on the other end.
“Penny?”
“Connie. Connie.”
“Penny, take a deep breath. What’s wro-?”
“I can’t find him. I can’t find Wooton. He’s not at home.”
My stomach rolls over. So does my husband.
“What’s going on?” He asks.
I’m too scared to cry, so I stand up and pace. Penny’s still sobbing. I ask a stupid question, my brain on fire.
“Where do you think he is?”
“Connie. Connie, I think he killed himself.”
I turn around to enter Jeff’s embrace as Penny starts praying through her cries. I have no tears. No prayers. Just biting dread. I cannot help my friend.
"Let me get this straight. I bet all those non-friends of yours try to embarrass you about your love for that stuff, right? So, you almost feel like you have to hide your treasures away and can only take them out in secret on rainy days when your mom goes to the store to get more liver and nobody is around to berate your sensitive spirit. Is that what you’re saying?" -Jay Smouse
djchatswithu
Caramel Crunch
Posts: 112
Joined: December 2018

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Not much to say about the latest chapter but I do just want to say your writing is excellent and I (and many others I'm sure would be devistated if you didn't finish it (though it seems to getting words the 'final showdown' as it were). Also I know it's your fanfiction please please please don't kill/hurt anymore characters, I go through so many emotions each chapter each it's exhausting!

And now over to Bernard and Wooton to share their thoughts:
Bernard: This story has more cliffhangers than at a rock climber's convention!
Wooton: yeah, and more twists then a big twisted bag of twisted licorice shoelaces tied together in a knot.
Bernard: where'd you get them from?
Wooton: I found them in the back of the pantry in my kitchen. Anyway, I hope I'll be alright.
Bernard: when have you ever been alright?
Wooton: hopefully in the next chapter of this super elaborate story. and don't you mean 'not alright'?
Bernard: it's called fiction for a reason.
Wooton: you mean 'non-fiction"?
Bernard: and people wonder why I retired from the show.
Wooton: show? Wow, are we on tv? Hi Penny(Bassett)!!

(Wooton said he wants to see the 'making of" documentary, though I'm not sure how that's suppose to work!)
Hope that gives anyone reading this a bit of a laugh in these unusual times.
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