Short Fiction ~ Ann Stoney
Only the woods feel safe. Mikki and I amble through trees and dirt covered with soft pine. We’re on someone else’s property but it no longer matters. We are all in this together. A few yards ahead Mikki wants to pee, I’m sure of it. I take her to a slew across the road down a sort of path. Everything is sort of. Does it live on objects and for how long? That pick-up truck a hundred yards away, is it far enough? If someone got out and yelled Hi, would it carry itself across clouds of dust and for how long? Maybe…sort of.
The other day I pick up food from Micah and Rochelle, a lovely young couple whose business may now tank. From farm to table and very good at that. I buy beef stew and chicken enchiladas and reach across the table to hand Rochelle the cash, wondering if it wouldn’t have been wiser to give her a check—they don’t accept credit cards—less dirty, less paper for it to cling to—she was seated at the table not three feet away. That kind of worried me.
The Indian guy at the gas station in the middle of nowhere had assured me there would be toilet paper at 5:00 p.m., and after leaving with a full tank and no toilet paper, I think, why not see if Micah and Rochelle are open, it being a Wednesday during their normal hours, not that anything is normal now. Take-out only, of course. Customers can call in for orders. I didn’t call in, I explain, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of the new procedures. So that’s what they had in the freezer. Beef stew and chicken enchiladas. My husband and I ate the beef stew, we’re saving the chicken enchiladas for another meal.
Speaking of my husband, he thinks I’ve gone crazy. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to take off all his clothes and throw them in the laundry after buying wood pellets from the tall Norwegian in town. To spray the bags with three teaspoons of bleach mixed with a quart of water. We only have one can of Lysol Disinfectant Spray—approved by the EPA—and why I didn’t buy six is beyond me. To spray all commonly touched objects—doorknobs, handles, light switches, phones. But my husband doesn’t think any of this is necessary.
It would be great to set up a tent out here but it’s too damn cold. I follow Mikki to a tree that’s fallen from a recent storm. There’s not enough space for me to crawl under. Mikki meows from the other side. She has extremely fussy bathroom habits. There must be no sounds of cars or critters. I must stand guard. She takes her time finding a spot and begins digging. She goes and I wonder. Could it be hiding in her fur? Could she be, when she swishes her tail across my arm, providing a path from tail to human skin? I’m rubbing my eyes without thinking, I suddenly realize—a nervous gesture perhaps as they don’t itch really—and I wonder, am I putting myself in danger? But I keep rubbing, as though in defiance of this thing that’s taken over our lives and besides, I washed my hands not fifteen minutes ago and we’re in the woods. But still.
The reason I’m in the woods now is because of our fight, which began this morning. This morning I greet him at the door, Lysol in rubber-gloved hand, a slew of instructions on my lips. Leave the bags of pellets in the car for three days, except what we need, which has to be sprayed before you bring it inside. Leave the spray on for ten minutes. And empty your pockets please. He sighs, handing over cell phone and keys. This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. I whip out a zip-lock for his cash and spray the inside. This is the EPA talking. The CDC. I read an article in Wired. He takes off shoes and socks. I don’t have to give you my shirt because it was under my jacket, it didn’t touch anything. I wipe down cell phone and keys, put them on his desk. Your jacket then. And your jeans. He gives them up with another sigh, and I run them upstairs to the laundry room. I’ll tell you one thing! he bellows. I’m not doing this every time I have to run an errand!
During lunch I feel it necessary to tell him how we have to start being more efficient with our errands. Lunch is Italian sausage I can’t eat because my Irritable Bowel is acting up so I make one with melted cheese for him only and open canned tuna and a box of mixed greens for myself, adding a couple of olives and a spoonful of vegan mayo which might give me an episode later but what the hell. He’s preoccupied with the mustard and probably isn’t listening. I wash my hands vigorously, raw chapped hands no amount of salve can heal. Just because we have an account with the Norwegian guy, doesn’t mean we couldn’t have bought them at the garden center the other day, we were already out but you insisted on not stopping. I grab a chair, struggling to remember if I sprayed the back of it. I don’t think you realize how important it is to minimize our trips. To anywhere. To a lone Norwegian guy for wood pellets or a store with customers in a shopping aisle. I pour myself some cranberry juice. My husband slugs a beer. Mustard running down his chin. I’ll tell you what I realize, he says, grabbing a napkin. How fucking crazy you are.
After lunch we make banana bread and get into it about our apartment in the city. We left in a rush a week ago, and there were certain things we forgot, essential things, at least to him. His rain jacket. Mikki’s water fountain. The mini vacuum. We can order anything on-line, I assure him, not telling him the mini vacuum can’t be delivered for two months; next day delivery is, apparently, no longer an option. We can’t afford to buy two of everything, he says, and I need to do some business. I have to get more supplies. I remind him that his small-time marijuana business is non-existent now. All the more reason not to buy two of everything, he says, voice rising with each uttered word. And the stock market crash, I’ve lost money. I need to do something! Do what? I ask, what could you do? What could we possibly need from the city, the epicenter of IT, of more deaths than anywhere else?
Mikki loves to roll around on gravel, in leaves. The sun must be shining. It’s shining today, a sparkling invitation to walk further. She rolls around in a sunny spot, batting at the air, poking at the stick I’ve turned into a toy, moving it back and forth. Play-fighting. I could be in this moment trapped forever and it would be better than what lies in our house. On surfaces. In the refusal of my husband to listen.
Often it’s two against one. The two girls against the male. She prefers my lap to his. Last summer, in the midst of barbeques, cocktail parties and fundraisers for the local library —unthinkable things now—she wandered through the woods in front of our house. I placed food closer and closer until one day she jumped into my arms and that was it. I’m the one who feeds her, cleans her water fountain and rubs her ear with medicine day and night. She turned out to be special needs like her new mama, full of angst and energy and worry but there are those times when she lies on my belly and her purr melts it all away, or times when we walk in the woods on a sunny day and my mind clears away everything but the path in front of me. The days are empty now, punctuated only by meals and the occasional errand. I could fill them with the useless things we call life but I’m too busy sanitizing doorknobs and washing my hands and listening to the news. All day we listen, anything else seems pointless. Our ongoing fight seems pointless. How far we should go to protect ourselves. To survive.
When the banana bread is done, he takes it from the oven, dumps it into his potholder hand and I erupt. What the fuck is wrong with you! You can’t even wait for me to get you a goddamn plate? You don’t know what’s on that potholder! You washed it the other day, he yells, grabbing a knife and cutting board. I throw the potholder in the laundry and return to the kitchen fuming. You’ve been out since I washed it! God knows what’s living on it now! He plants himself on a most likely un-sanitized stool, enjoying the banana bread, which infuriates me even more, muttering something like, I can’t do this, I can’t go on like this, and I grab my cellphone and water bottle and head for the living room. Where are you going? he calls out. For a walk! I yell, since I can’t eat the banana bread! All that work and I can’t even fucking eat it! I thrash around, looking for gloves and a jacket. And I’ll tell you another thing! You go back to the city, I won’t be here when you return!
That gets his attention. He follows me through the living room and out the door. Where are you gonna’ go? You have nowhere to go! His yelling more and more distant as I head for the woods. You can drive to Middleburgh! You can drive to Albany! You can drive to Timbuctoo to the fanciest hotel and you won’t find a damn thing open!
He’s right. I have nowhere else to go. But I head for the woods anyway and as always, Mikki follows.
The sun is beginning to set and Mikki is meowing her tired meow. I scoop her up and she burrows into the down of my jacket, fragile heart beating against mine, as we make our way through trees and dirt and pine along the sort of path, the kind that disappears and appears over and over like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Back to the house. Our house. The house we bought in a rush before our wedding so we could save money hosting the guests. The hamlet nearby where we had our ceremony—church, library, art galleries, café—shut down for we don’t know how long.
He greets me at the door with my favorite cocktail—cucumber vodka with fresh squeezed lime. We’re foodies and drinkies and sometimes this gets us through. Four weeks of this, he says, more like a question. Two months? Three months? For how long? I shake my head. No one knows. He leads me to the fire he built from the wood he chopped. Yesterday he raked leaves into piles, but then the wind blew them all away. We came up earlier than usual. It is not yet summer. He leads me to our one big chair by the fire, and seats himself on the couch. We’re lucky to have this, he says, this house. To have a place to go. I rest my feet on the hassock we bought at a flea market long ago—when it was possible to enjoy such a thing—settle my eyes on the candle he lit, the paintings scattered about. His father’s antique rifle and sculpture of ducks in flight, mounted above the mantlepiece. The fruits of his labor. He is the decorator, the one with the visual eye. Whoever enters is entranced. Their eyes glaze over the odd assortment of thrift store knick-knacks, furniture and things inherited. Yes, I say, we’re lucky. We have a house. We’re retired and don’t have to work. But if we get it, it could be deadly. And you need to listen for once in your life.
He takes my hand, the only human touch available to either of us. I heard you coughing earlier, I say. He smiles. Does that mean I can’t kiss you? The brush of his lips against my cheek. I’m sorry I’ve failed in so many ways as a human. I’m sorry I couldn’t get someone to take the leaves before they blew way. I’m sorry I don’t believe spraying Lysol does much good. What else?
Mikki leaps onto my lap, purrs and like always, lifts her hind leg demanding a tummy rub. The very routine of her says, this is all there is. Us three. And the possibility of IT, always lurking. I squeeze his hand. I’m sorry I was so snippy. He strokes Mikki and smiles. That’s not being snippy; that’s just you, being normal. I smile. That’s just you trying to be funny.
We stare quietly at the fire. For every flame it makes I want to see through it to the other side, up the chimney and beyond, but you can’t see clearly through fire and smoke, the misinformation, the idiot president, the survivalists’ gleeful claims that they were prepared all along, though the stories they tell only match the resources they have and those stories no longer work.
But we stare at it anyway because that’s what you do with fires. We stare quietly seeking answers, simple things —raking leaves, chopping wood, filling the bird feeder, getting food. We talk of tomorrow and how if it’s sunny, we might go for a long solitary walk. A walk in the woods where it’s safe.
Ann Stoney worked in NYC and regionally, as an actress, songwriter and playwright, before embarking upon a career as a literacy teacher in the NYC public schools. Her work has appeared in Ladies Home Journal, Duende and In Good Company. 2020 writing honors include outstanding finalist (Tampa Review) and finalist (Cutthroat Journal). Others include semi-finalist (American Literary Review) and quarterfinalist (Nimrod). She was honorably mentioned in Glimmer Train and long-listed for the 2019 Sean O’Faolain Competition (Munster Literature Center, Cork, Ireland). Ann is proud to serve as a reader for the Bellevue Literary Review.