General Fiction posted November 28, 2023

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A COVID Christmas

by Ginda Simpson

It was meant to be a quick outing to break the boredom of our quarantine. Mary had been so patient and uncomplaining during these final months of her pregnancy. I did not want to refuse her request for a short drive around town and a stop to pick up dinner at one of the many fast food restaurants along Highway 50. She was both restless and tired. It could do no harm to humor her with a little self-indulgence.

It was meant to do me good as well, to put aside my worries about the present economic situation and our future. My carpentry business has suffered during the pandemic, with fewer jobs coming in. I missed that I could no longer put aside a small part of my meager earnings to provide some security for the child soon to be born. I worried long into the night about the future, about our health, about the well-being of our families and neighbors.

Having spent the day in quiet activities, avoiding the news, we had not heard the warnings of the approaching snowstorm and thus blissfully unaware, we left the house for a breath of freedom. Our car, well into its second decade of life, was slowing down in its performance, the upholstery was frayed and lumpy, the windshield wipers were not always reliable and the radio no longer worked. Delighting in this simple adventure, Mary smiled, exhaling softly as she leaned back into the small pleasures of an escapade. Snow began to fall and halos of light bloomed beneath the street lamps. The windshield wipers behaved, faithfully sweeping away the delicate snowflakes.

We rode in silence, forgetting our hunger, so mesmerized were we with the magic of the year’s first snowfall. Soon the wind picked up and the snow began to hit with an icy vengeance. I could not get the heater to work and wondered out loud what had possessed us to venture out on such a night. A blizzard was coming. Mary fidgeted to get comfortable and leaned back with a groan.

“Are you alright? I asked, concerned when I saw the look on her face.

“Joseph, I hope your cell phone is charged. I think we need to get directions to the hospital. I believe my labor has started.”

We were several miles away, but had no concerns about reaching the hospital in short order. At the next intersection, however, we could both see an accident up ahead. It had brought traffic to a halt as emergency vehicles, lights flashing, sirens blaring, raced to the scene, forcing all other vehicles to the side of the road. Mary sighed, then exhaled slow and long, as her face grimaced in pain. She did not say a word but the voices of my anxiety were getting louder by the minute. “How could we have been so foolhardy? I asked myself more than once. On a winter’s night, in the middle of a global pandemic? Clearly Mary’s labor was intensifying quickly, much like the blizzard that swirled around us.

I killed the engine, removed my jacket and wrapped its warmth around her shoulders. She trembled, whether from fear or pain I could not tell. This was our first child. We had no experience with childbirth. A state patrol officer rapped on our car window and asked if we were alright. When I explained our predicament, he motioned us onto the shoulder of the road and helped us navigate to the nearest side street, pointing us in the right direction.

As we neared the hospital, we could see multiple tents set up along its perimeter. Mary pulled our mask coverings from the glove compartment as I turned sharply, skidding slightly to the left of the ER entrance. The intake personnel took our temperatures and asked the standard COVID questions. We assured the staff that we had been quarantining ourselves in preparation for a safe labor and delivery. When the receptionist finished filling out all the paperwork, a nurse settled Mary into a wheelchair. Gently placing her hand on my wife’s shoulder, she spoke softly: “We have no beds available in the maternity ward. A good many of the rooms have been designated for the acute care of COVID patients. We will be placing you in one of our makeshift tents. It is basic, but safe and warm, and we will be monitoring you closely. I’m afraid your husband will not be able to be with you until after the baby is born and you are released to return home.” I was devastated by these words, even though Mary’s doctor had warned her of these restrictions. COVID reality was upon us. God had entrusted Mary into my care and now I was leaving her alone in childbirth. How often this year have I been challenged to place my complete trust in God? I returned to our home and prayed.

On the other side of town, a brawny truck driver named Andy pulled his 18-wheeler into the far lot of a popular diner. He was ready for a cup of coffee and a comfort meal of meatloaf and two sides. As he waited for his two colleagues to arrive, he scrolled up and down on his phone, scanning for messages. It started flashing and beeping in a way he had never seen before, before quieting down. “Strange,” he thought. But this had been an unusual evening in many ways. The unexpected detour due to a complicated accident, the snow that fell heavily impeding visibility, the argument he had had with his boss who insisted on changing his route. Why? What was behind these events that led him to this small town on the Eastern Shore?

He shoved his phone into his back pocket and chowed down on the biscuits that the waitress had served him, waiting rather impatiently for both his meal and his buddies to arrive. Soon, Marcos and Jamal appeared, their heavy tread and boisterous laughter interrupting his thoughts. Andy’s phone, however, began to vibrate violently. Irritated, he pulled it from his pocket, ready to slap it into stillness, when it started beeping and flashing in protest. What is going on? Choosing to ignore its errant behavior for the second time that evening, he slammed it face down on the Formica tabletop and looked up at his friends. With their masks on, they permitted themselves handshakes, hi-fives and a couple hardy slaps on the back. Their routes diverted due to the severe weather, the three friends were grateful to be together. They would, they knew, all be forced to spend the night in the motel up the road.

Jamal, African-American and as skinny as a broomstick, put away a double helping of chicken and dumplings, as he brought his friends up to date on his family, of people he knew who had contracted the virus, who was out of work, and how in spite of all this, he remained hopeful now that a vaccine was on its way. Andy was in agreement for the most part, but was getting tired of the whole thing. He missed shooting pool with his pals, he disliked that he and his wife were no longer able to go to the movies, especially now that she was confined to the house and constrained to homeschool their three children. “And,” he added with a grin while patting his own COVID padding, “I am jealous that Jamal can put away so much food without gaining a pound.”

Marcos, who was born south of the border, now a naturalized American citizen, naturally complained about immigration issues and THE WALL, and how much he missed his family in Mexico, not able to return for his annual visit. He would have preferred a couple of beers instead of the enchiladas he had ordered. Three bites and he pushed his plate away.

“They need to get Carmelita back in the kitchen here. That slop is truly disgusting.” He drew his cigarettes from his coat pocket out of habit, but caught himself as he set his lighter on the table. His calloused hands shook as he tapped it repeatedly on the side of his mug in frustration, eventually returning it to his vest pocket. “Why am I so jittery?” he wondered under his breath.

Suddenly all three of their cell phones dinged and flashed insistently, a racket of noise ratcheting up their sense of unease. They tried to punch them into silence but the high-pitched chorus continued, diverting them without prompts to do so, to their GPS apps. A map pulsated with directions to South Washington Street, and no matter how hard they tried, they could not cancel the flashing.

Disgusted, Andy threw a fistful of bills on the table, enough to cover all three meals plus a generous tip.

“Let’s get out of here,” he exclaimed, heaving his bulky frame from the booth. “Something unusual is happening and it's freaking me out.”

Marcos, a keenly sensitive soul, suggested that they follow the directions that their devices had thrust upon them. “Let’s go see what is happening on South Washington Street and hope it is not another accident.”

“I’ll drive,” volunteered Jamal, “hop in.” The three phones continued to screech for attention, the pulsating light almost blinding them as they all three climbed into the front of the Jamal’s truck.

Andy’s phone tracked their travels through town. Their nerves were on edge and Marcos reminded their driver to be cautious on the slippery roads. Soon they found themselves in front of the hospital. Leaving the truck parked on the street, they walked through the parking lot, the lights from their phones pointing the way. Their screens simultaneously indicated that they had arrived at their destination. Before them, a white tent glowed from within, above it a star shone brightly. Their phones beeped in unison and a message appeared:

“A Child is born today. He shall be called Emmanuel.”

Could it be? Could this be what our world has been waiting for in 2020? They fell to their knees, and without even thinking, released their masks, letting them drop to the ground. All that mattered was the light that pierced the darkness, that offered the hope of a cure, that promised Salvation for all.

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