Chapter Two

One week earlier…

Makayla pushed the closet door open with too much force, and it slammed against the wall.


“Hey, babe. Cool it.” Jared mumbled and rolled over in bed.

“Sorry,” Makayla said through a yawn. She hated packing even more than she hated getting up early. “I’m not used to this new place yet. Closet doors, shower heads, the deadbolt sticking. And I can’t fucking find anything in here. You think you could do some unpacking while I’m gone?”

“Yeah. Sure. Maybe.”

Makayla rolled her eyes and unearthed her suitcase from under a pile of dirty clothes she hadn’t had time to wash. As she stood up, she felt a dull ache at the base of her skull.

Great. I really can’t afford a migraine today, of all days.

Why she had waited so long to pack for this work trip, she didn’t know. It wasn’t like her to put something off that would end up causing her more anxiety. She was constantly worried she’d forget something important. Wait, yes she did know. She’d been so wrapped up in the move and wedding planning and looking perfect at work that she’d barely had enough time for sleep, let alone anything else.

At least all of her work clothes were in the same wardrobe moving box, all freshly dry cleaned and still in their plastic bags. She grabbed three suits – two pants and one skit suit – and folded them into her case as neatly as she could. Toiletries, hand sanitizer, extra face masks. Makayla rummaged through her toiletry bag, found two Tylenol, and popped them in her mouth. After slurping down some water from the bathroom sink, she added her laptop and charging chords and some flats for walking around the city. She had never been to Seattle before and she was hoping she’d have some time between meetings to go enjoy some coffee and maybe see the fish market.

I wonder if they’ll still be out throwing fish? Is that still a thing? Shit, I really should’ve looked at out of state regulations before today. I was so focused on being prepared for my presentation that I forgot to check. Ugh. I’ll just have to see when I get there.

Makayla tugged on her favorite pair of yoga pants made to look like work pants with a button down and a navy blazer, hit the button on the coffee machine – the lone appliance unpacked and out on the counter – and flicked on the TV before sticking her head inside the fridge to search for edible breakfast items.

The TV’s volume was barely audible above the grinding of the automatic espresso machine: We interrupt your regularly scheduled programing to bring you this special report-

Makayla’s phone rang, blaring the theme song to the long-since canceled show The OC: We’ve been on the run, driving in the sun, looking out for-

“Hey Mom, I’m kinda in a rush right now. I’ve gotta catch my flight to Seattle today, remember?”

“Honey, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“It’s going to be fine, Mom. People have been flying safely for over six months now.”

“Have you seen the news this morning? How close is your new place to that hospital?”

“The hospital is a few miles away. What news? Look, I have to go soon.” Makayla put her phone on speaker, grabbed her now full cup of coffee, and turned toward the TV.

“There’s some kind of security problem. They don’t know if it’s a shooting or what. What if the shooter is still on the loose?!”

Makayla spoke through a mouthful of gluten-free English muffin. “What? My Uber will be here in ten minutes and the airport is the opposite direction from the hospital. I’ll be ok. Wish me luck on my presentation!”

“Oh, you’ll do great, I know you will. I don’t know why you had to move to the sickest state in the country!”

“That’s old news, Mom. In fact, it’s probably safer here now as a result. You can call me again tonight if you need to, I just can’t talk right now. Love you!”

“I just might. Love you, sweetie. Safe flight! Wear your mask!”

Makayla hung up and switched the TV off. An image of the local hospital building surrounded by hazmat suits and law enforcement with weapons drawn was replaced with darkness.

Makayla wrenched her heels on mid-stride, stomped into the bedroom, and bent over to kiss Jared on the part of his head not covered by bedsheets.

“I’ll be back in a few days. Don’t you have work today? Anyway, I gotta go. Please stock the fridge while I’m gone! Love!”

“Mmmrph.” The reply came muffled from under the covers.

Okay, let’s see…purse, keys, phone, mask, rain jacket…good.

Makayla turned the doorknob and yanked before remembering the deadbolt. Several jiggles and shimmies and fucks later, the lock popped open.

Ugh! Reminder to grease that lock.

She fumbled for her mask as she walked down the hallway at full speed, stopping to pick up her suitcase before the stairs. In front of the building her Uber was already waiting, but she had to jog around a college age kid who knelt doubled over on the sidewalk, puking up the previous night’s regrets.

Argh! Makayla winced as pain shot up her right ankle. Although she had technically been cleared by her doctor to wear heels again after spraining her ankle, she still wasn’t at 100%.

Security through the airport wasn’t so bad, but times had changed since before the pandemic. The new normal included temperature checks, a vaccine passport, mask mandates, and dogs able to sniff out the virus even in the most asymptomatic. Any physiological deviation from standard CDC health metrics, or failure to follow safety protocol landed passengers in a holding cell, no exceptions. Oregon officials were extremely keen to avoid additional outbreaks, or the appearance of them, ever since Portland was deemed ground zero three years prior.

It had been hellish for Makayla to experience the effects of the rapidly unfolding pandemic before it technically was a pandemic. With a whopping fatality rate of 4-5%, city-wide lockdown in Portland was swift and long lasting. Within a few weeks of the initial reported cases and subsequent deaths, streets emptied, businesses shuttered, and Makayla’s classes at Portland State moved exclusively online. Makayla was never able to go back to campus as a student; she completed the last year and a half of her undergraduate business degree in her tiny shared apartment, even attending her graduation ceremony virtually.

Makayla stepped into the end of the TSA line and paused for them to take her temperature. The thermometer gave a chirp and the masked agent waved her through. While maneuvering her clunky suitcase around the bend in the line, she heard a shrill beep behind her.

“No! Try it again, please.” The man in the middle aged couple behind Makayla had been stopped. The TSA agent holding the thermometer was blocking the entrance to the line through security. By the looks of it, the man’s wife had already been screened and passed, as she was behind the agent, already in line.

The TSA agent raised the infrared thermometer and hit the button. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. This time, two agents materialized immediately and grabbed the man’s arms.

“NO! PLEASE! I feel fine, really! I’m vaccinated!” The man began to twist and struggle as the agents muscled him out of line. “HELENA! They can’t do this!”

The woman screamed and pushed past the temperature-taking TSA agent to run after her husband, leaving her luggage behind. Everyone’s eyes tracked the commotion until they disappeared through a heavy door next to the bathrooms.

That hasn’t happened in quite some time. Makayla shuddered and rifled through her purse. She extracted her travel size hand sanitizer and administered some liquid peace of mind, a ritual that had become automatic and obsessive.

Thankfully, the rest of the security line went smoothly, although folks seemed to be more on edge after the forced quarantine incident, and Makayla arrived at her gate and began scanning the rows of seats for her coworker, Jessica. Not hard to spot in her bright purple suit and mass of springy, wild curls, Jessica was several years older than Makayla and had become something of a mentor to her during their time at Nike. Where Makayla was new and unsure of herself, Jessica knew the ropes, didn’t take any shit from anyone, and took pride in helping to lift up other women, especially at work. Makayla was incredibly grateful and over the past year had come to view Jessica as more of a big sister she never had.

“Heeey, lady!” Jessica squealed through her sequined mask. “I saved you a seat. I even got you a coffee cuz the line was super long. You can thank me later.”

“Oh my god, you’re a lifesaver.” Makayla perched on the edge of the chair next to Jessica and pulled down her mask to take a quick sip.

“So, are you ready?! What am I saying, of course you’re ready. You’re gonna knock ’em dead, and you’ll be a shoo-in for a promotion this coming year.”

Makayla’s eyes grew wide. “You really think so?”

“Of course I do. And I’ll put a good word in, too. You have fresh perspective, and those old fogies at the top need to wake up and pay attention if they’re going to keep profit margins up. Trust me.” Jessica took a sip of her own double shot flat white.

Makayla let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. “Thanks for the confidence, Jess. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You’d do just fine. You’d just have less free coffee.” Jessica winked.

An announcement sounded: It’s now time to begin boarding for flight 5995 to Seattle. Half the people surrounding Makayla and Jessica gathered their things and went to crowd the general vicinity of the entrance to the gate. An older woman across from them was using a cane and struggling to stand, as she was allowed to board first. Her limbs were shaking so violently that the cane was useless and she fell back down to her seat. Jessica jumped up, ready to help her to the gate, but just as she leaned over and extended a hand, the older woman projectile vomited all down the front of Jessica’s gorgeous new suit.

“Oh shit! Oh, it’s okay, it’s okay!” Jessica hurriedly tried to sweep multicolored vomit off her suit but only managed to smear it around. Makayla, suppressing the urge to gag, immediately began rummaging in her purse for some tissue or napkins, anything to help clean up.

“Ack!” Jessica yelped. Makayla looked up. The older woman had slid from her chair and was now on the floor, seemingly unconscious. “Help! She needs medical help!”

This time, Makayla jumped up. She knelt down beside the woman and began checking for responsiveness, a pulse, breathing. “Are you okay? Can you hear me?” Makayla got no response from the woman and she was vaguely aware of some commotion over at the check-in desk. Pulse was faint, breathing shallow. Makayla’s shaking hands were about to tilt the woman’s chin up to help open her airway when she was violently pushed aside by two EMTs in bulky yellow hazmat suits. The EMTs lifted the woman into a wheelchair that was pushed by a young woman in a flight attendant uniform.

The EMTs yelled muffled commands as they worked. “Clear the area please! Give her some room!”

The older woman’s head rolled around on her neck as the EMTs attempted to sit her up in the chair. She was moaning now, and some kind of froth was still dribbling from her maskless mouth. One EMT had to hold the woman’s head in place as they began to wheel her from the gate and down the hall.

“OUCH! HEY!” The EMT’s gloved hand shot up in the air, gushing blood. “SHE FUCKING BIT ME!”

At that moment, the older woman fell forward from the wheelchair and face planted on the cold tile with a sick thwap, where her body began violently convulsing.

Makayla, Jessica, and the rest of the people in the waiting area stood transfixed, unable to look away from the unfolding trauma, although many were unconsciously backing away towards the entrance to the gate. For a split second, Makaya’s eyes instinctively shot over to the right to look out the window. The plane was still there, attached to the jetway.

Now law enforcement and more medical personnel in full PPE were pouring into the hallway. The older woman’s body was still shaking uncontrollably and the EMTs were struggling to get her onto a stretcher that had just arrived. Makayla’s left arm floated up and grabbed the hem of Jessica’s now ruined suit jacket. She tugged twice. Jessica’s eyes caught hers and she motioned her head towards the gate. Jessica’s head gave the tiniest of nods and her hand reached back to find Makayla’s and give it a squeeze.

With one hand on each of their suitcases and the remaining two clutching each other, they began nudging through the stunned crowd. People began to notice the movement and made to follow. Just as the ladies reached the flight attendant still scanning tickets, they heard a sound like a cornered animal.

Makayla turned around to see the older woman still on the ground, but now moving with purpose. The woman growled and groped and pawed at the medical workers around her, reminding Makayla of the childhood cat she’d once had to give a bath. The woman’s jaws were snapping and finally found purchase on the bicep of a male EMT. Yellow plastic, muscle, and sinew were ripped away from bone, followed by a flood of bright red blood that quickly pooled on the floor.

Screams erupted that broke the waiting passengers from their collective stupor. Makayla and Jessica were pushed from behind and had to stagger on their heels to keep from falling over their suitcases. The flight attendant abandoned her desk and ran down the jetway. The ladies took the cue and broke into a run. Their heels and suitcase wheels thundered down the jetway, closely followed by scared businessmen and screaming moms dragging crying children.

Jessica threw herself through the door of the plane and down the aisle, not letting go of Makayla’s hand. They crammed into the first two seats they found, shoving their suitcases under the seats in front of them.

From their seats, they could hear the flight attendant yelling at the front of the plane. “Seal the cockpit door and get ready to taxi! We need to get away from the gate!”

Screams echoed from inside the jetway.

Jessica moved to undo her seatbelt. “Shit. They’d better close that door and get us out of here.”

“What are you doing?!” Makayla hissed. “Sit down!”

“I’m making sure the job gets done. As always.”

Jessica slipped off her heels and bent forward, coming up with one in her right hand. “Just in case the flight marshal hasn’t shown up yet.” She winked, and fought past a stream of moving bodies to get back to the door.

Just as Jessica’s body became obscured by everyone else’s, a low growl ripped through the jetway and rumbled up into Makayla’s chest.

“JESSICA!” Makayla screamed, still buckled to her seat.

The plane’s engine suddenly rumbled to life and Makayla could hear screaming and scuffling over the captain’s announcement.

“This is your Captain speaking. Due to an emergency of unknown nature, we will depart immediately. Please take your seats and prepare for takeoff.”

Makayla could then hear the whirring mechanism of the closing door, and she craned her neck to see if Jessica was still on board. She saw the hair first, before the stained purple suit came limping back. Jessica had cuts and scratches on her face, and now her suit was also torn in places. Her mask must have gotten clawed off.

“What happened?! Are you okay?” Makaya’s eyes swept over Jessica, looking for injuries.

Jessica lowered her voice and ducked her head before answering. “That EMT, the one whose hand had gotten bit, he came running down the tunnel and fucking attacked some guy. Like, full-on body slam. And then we had to shove people back so they could close the door. The fuck is going on? I thought I’d seen it all. And those were my lucky work shoes, too.”

Jessica leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. Makayla took out her phone and was about to put it in airplane mode, but decided to try and make a quick call just as the plane lifted off the ground.


NaNoWriMo – where I boldly attempt to write a novel in 30 days with zero experience and minimal planning

2798 words

Short story: Together in the Muck

 

Two times this pandemic, I did something I’ve never done before.

I entered two short story writing contests. And – you guys – I came in second in both. I’m super proud of myself, especially because writing fiction is not usually my jam.

To be fair, the first story I submitted was about 90% fact with some embellishing thrown in. I had originally written it here, on this blog, about being pregnant with my first. The second story I wrote from scratch and it’s based on my experience working as a therapist in a nonprofit. I’m very proud of how it turned out. Here it is, dear readers.


“I know what you’re doing,” she interrupted me, “and I want you to stop it.”

“What am I doing?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“You’re trying to make me feel better, and it won’t work.”

I sucked in some air, immediately defensive.

Of course I’m trying to make you feel better! I’m your therapist, for Christ’s sake.

“Look, Madison, I’d like to be able to help you, but I can’t do that if you’re unwilling to answer my questions. I’m curious to know more about the positive things in your life.”

“My life is shit! That’s why I’m here.” Fresh tears made Madison’s heavy black eyeliner streak down her cheeks and disappear into her oversized black t-shirt.

“Your life is not shit. You just told me about your dog who loves you more than anything. Your artistic talent is incredible! That’s not nothing.”

“He’s just a dog! These are stupid doodles! And what do you know about my life?! You’re just a shrink that my mom pays so she doesn’t have to look at me.” Madison started shoving her sketchpad and pencil into her backpack.

I’m losing her, don’t lose her.

“I’d love to know more about your life if you’d let me. I think you downplay what could be sources of real happiness, like your mom. I’m sure she loves y-”

Madison was already standing. Tears had been replaced with fire in her blue eyes.

“I told you to stop it.”

She strode to the door, yanked it open, and stomped down the hall. I slumped down in my chair, defeated. We still had fifteen minutes left.

Session 3. Client presents in a depressed, irritable mood. Exhibits poor eye contact, sluggish movements, intermittent crying. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent. Resistant and uncooperative in working towards treatment goals – client left 15 minutes early. Next session in 1 week.


The chunky, rough rope cut into her hands, but she gripped it tighter, resolve flowing through her. Feet planted, arm muscles tensed as she held the rope steady. She wasn’t able to pull it toward her, but for now, that was okay.

Just don’t let go.


“So, how have you been?” I gingerly chose my words as Madison settled in across the room. The more sessions we had, the more she seemed to move-in each time. Today I watched as she unpacked her sketchbook, a few pencils, a sweatshirt, and a half-eaten granola bar that she unwrapped and shoved into her mouth.

“Mmruph.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

She took her time chewing and swallowing. “Hungry. I dunno.”

Sigh. What do I do with that?

“What would you like to talk about today?”

Madison shrugged, then busied herself with sharpening a pencil and turning over a fresh page in her book. Wordlessly, she began to draw.

Not knowing what else to say, and worried I’d say the wrong thing, I asked, “What kinds of things do you like to draw?”

After several beats, “A bit of everything. You know. Animals. Landscapes. People.” She answered me from under a curtain of long, blonde hair dyed purple that had fallen in front of her face.

Rather than respond, I decided to try riding out the silence. Often it felt like I was doing too much work to try and keep the conversation, any semblance of a conversation, afloat. Clearly, she prefers doing things at her own pace. I should try letting her.

Minutes went by, where all we heard was the soft scratching of Madison’s pencil on the paper. Every once in a while, her eyes darted up and back down again as she hunched over her lap, focused. I watched her and waited.

“So do you have kids?” Madison asked without pausing her drawing.

Caught off guard, I robotically gave the classic therapist response they coach you on in training: “What makes you curious to know?”

She bristled while meeting my gaze. “You can just answer the question.”

I made a conscious effort to soften my tone. “I honestly don’t mind answering the question, I just want to know why you’re curious first.”

She paused, evaluating me. “I don’t know. You seem like you’d be good at it. And you’re always trying to get me to talk to my mom more.”

“Well, thanks.” Did not expect that answer.

“…so do you? Have kids?”

“Ha. I don’t, although I would like to someday.”

There’s something here, something she’s mulling over. What is it?

Our eyes met for a moment longer than was comfortable, and Madison hunched over her sketchpad once more. Silence fell for another minute. Wait for it.

“I got into art school. My mom wants me to go.” Her voice was a fraction above a whisper.

“What?! That’s incredible! Congratulations!” My surprise and excitement came bursting out. She deserves this! She’s suffered way too much trauma; it’s about time she had some good news in her life.

“It’s not a big deal. I probably won’t go.”

“What? Of course it’s a big deal! Why wouldn’t you go?”

Madison looked me dead in the eyes. “Why do you even care?”

She’s testing me. What’s the right answer here?

“I-I care about you, and you deserve good things, Madison. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel happy.”

Madison’s eyes narrowed. “…Did my mom talk to you?”

“What? No. Why?”

“Whatever.”

I felt all her remaining energy drain from the room. Mine went with it.

I glanced at the clock on the wall behind Madison’s shoulder.

“We’re out of time for today,” I sighed, “But I would like to continue talking about this next session.”

As she got up to leave, she tore the top page from her sketchbook. She crossed the room and before she turned for the door, she let the paper fall facedown on my desk.

I watched her disappear around the corner and then went back to my desk and turned the paper over. It was the most exquisite portrait of me, down to the mole on my left cheek. I was drawn seated in my cheap office chair, hands clasped smartly in my lap and my eyes gazed straight at the viewer, as if I were desperately trying to win a staring contest.

Session 6. Client presents in an irritable mood, reports feeling “hungry.” Exhibits intermittent eye contact, hunched body presentation. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent; speech often quiet, slow, halted. Presents as resistant and defensive. Next session in 1 week.


She was being dragged forward, in the wrong direction. Her feet dug into the ground, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from sliding. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep this up.


“I need to get outta here.”

Madison was visibly upset, about what she wouldn’t say. She was rocking back and forth in her seat, tugging on her hair (now dyed blue), and if I didn’t intervene soon, she was going to start hyperventilating.

“Of course. Do you want to take a walk?” I motioned towards the door.

She nodded and grabbed her backpack.

As soon as we got outside, her breathing slowed. She seemed less agitated.

“I want to sit down.”

“Sure, let’s go over here.” I pointed to a park bench in the shade.

We sat at opposite ends of the bench and Madison bent over and put her head in her hands. I angled my body towards her.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. What is going on?! I wonder if her dad tried to contact her again.

“No. I don’t.” Her voice was muffled.

I just want to comfort you! Tell me how!

“Okay.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I wondered if Madison could hear the birds or feel the breeze. She seemed a million miles away, unreachable.

“My life sucks.” I could barely hear her.

What happened?

You have so many positive things in your life!

You’re the strongest, most resilient person I know.

Your life can’t suck. I won’t let it.

I took a deep breath. “Everything is going to be oka-”

Madison let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a wail.

Stop.

Stop pulling and go to meet her.

Meet her where she’s at.

I sighed and turned my body to face forward, mirroring hers. “You’re right. Life sucks, especially yours. You got dealt a shit hand and it’s not fair. I’m sorry.”

Madison looked up and held my gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Yeah,” she said, “it sucks.”

Each of us dropped our section of rope. I waded into the mud pit to meet Madison, who was already there. I let myself sink down in and the sludge encircled us both.

We sat in silence, together in the muck, for the remainder of the session.

Session 8. Client presents in an anxious, depressed mood, reports “life sucks,” because it does. Exhibits normal behavior considering the circumstances. She’s doing the best she can. We both are. Next session in 1 week.

The Boat

Note: Today I tried a writing exercise where you use a photo prompt and write a short story as close to 100 words as possible. It will become immediately obvious that I used the photo as very loose inspiration. Enjoy.

They had been at it all day and had only gotten a few bites.

Henry reeled in his line to check the hook. As he suspected, the bait had been nibbled away. Swearing under his breath, he reached into the jar for another wriggling nightcrawler.

“Maybe we need to try somewhere else?” Sarah suggested, but floated it as a hesitant question. She came on these trips more for the peace and quiet, but now Henry’s darkening mood was beginning to scare her.

“We’ve already tried all the damn coves in this fucking place,” Henry grumbled.

Suddenly the boat felt dangerously small as he put down his pole and yanked hard on the motor’s pull chord.


nanopoblano2019