CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and FORTY-NINE
Monday morning —11:02 a.m.
After breastfeeding and burping Grace, Valerie set the tiny infant down in the crib. Mike peaked into their bedroom to see if Valerie was free.
“She’s asleep,” Valerie said.
“Breakfast?” Mike asked.
“I’m okay,” Valerie said. “I had something with Jackie and Eddie before they went to school.”
“Pregnancy pounds?” Mike asked.
Valerie snorted a laugh.
“I didn’t gain any weight this time,” Valerie said. “I mean I gained what I’d lost with my insanity after Eddie. I’m lucky that I don’t carry weight.”
“And you workout so much,” Mike said with a sigh.
“What?” Valerie asked, squinting at him.
“I guess I was hoping for a month of bacon and pastries,” Mike said.
“You know, Jake’s still weighing me,” Valerie said.
“Yes!” Mike said. “Bacon and pastries!”
While Valerie laughed, Mike opened the door to their apartment. He was gone only a second before returning with warm chocolate croissants, a plate stacked with bacon, and a thermos of tea. Valerie gave a soft cheer and a fingertip clap. Mike set the tray at their small dining table. He got up and made Valerie a mix of psyllium husk for her bowels. She drank it down while he grabbed plates.
Mike set the plates down. He piled his plate with bacon and some pastries. He made her a plate with less of everything. She reached over to take a piece of bacon from the mound on his plate.
“You can always get more,” Mike said.
Chewing a piece of bacon, Valerie nodded. She swallowed.
“We need to talk about everything,” Valerie said.
“Yes, our children have been in school for two hours,” Mike said. “Time to talk about what’s next.”
Valerie grinned at him, and he smirked. When she didn’t say anything, he said, “So?”
“Oh, sorry,” Valerie said. “I was wondering what you were going to say about what was next for you.”
“Oh,” Mike said. “Nothing, really. Or nothing special. Noelle did a massive clean-up before she went back to school. She got Charlie and Nash to move things so we could clean the floor. I hardly recognize the place.”
“I have a couple of commissions, but mostly I’m just painting,” Mike said. “Playing with the kids. Hanging out with everyone. Helping Delphie.”
“We’re moving toward Harvest Day,” Valerie said, her eyes gleaming. She gave a little clap.
“Delphie said something about doing it in waves,” Mike said. “We have so many gardens this year. The backyard, the gardens by the school, the greenhouses. . . Across the street. She planted LaTonya’s house or Tanesha’s house — whatever — and Tanesha’s grandmother’s house. Oh, Rodney and his guys have gardens too.”
Mike shook his head.
“It’s a lot,” Mike said.
“Rodney’s guys are going to do some of the work,” Mike said. “A couple of them want to make things from the garden — jams, candles, breads, stuff they can sell at farmer’s markets or over the Internet. They have agreed to use this year as practice in exchange for Delphie’s recipes and help.”
“Delphie still wants to give everything away?” Valerie asked.
“Too many hungry people,” Mike said with a nod. “That’s what’s going on here. I mean, there’s no way to know how the kids are going to fit in at school.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Valerie said. “They love school.”
“What’s next for you?” Mike asked.
“Well,” Valerie sighed. “I am under contract for a couple of movies and an animated feature but everything’s still shut down. There are a couple of groups that have pulled off Covid safety, but mostly everything is shut down.”
“There’s no work for you?” Mike asked.
“Jen arranged for me to do the audio work here in town,” Valerie said. “But, again, we have to wait until a recording studio opens up. Jeraine said I could use the equipment downstairs but. . . I don’t know. It seems like a big risk.”
“Jake told me that that guy from the casinos said that. . .” Mike started.
“That’s complicated,” Valerie said.
Mike nodded and continued, “. . . the problem with the movies is funding. No one knows if we’re heading into a depression. People are truly scared. It was just a bit ago that the entire system came down. No one knows if it’s strong enough to hold through the pandemic or if it’s all coming apart.”
“Movies float on a sea of money,” Valerie said.
“We have to make our own decisions,” Mike said. “Do what’s best for us and our family. At least until this thing is over.”
Valerie looked down at her plate. Mike silently waited for her to respond.
“I feel. . .” Valerie said. She looked up at Mike. “I’ve been working so much the last few years.”
“We’ve been all over the world for movies,” Valerie said. “Some of those will come out in the next year or so. I’m still cast for Marvel so that will happen. And. . .”
Valerie wrinkled her nose.
“I’m not sure I want to work as much,” Valerie said. “It’s been really nice to be home. I, personally, have been involved with everyone’s lives. It’s been great, really great. I was gone such a long time and then we’ve been back and forth and everywhere. This is the first time that I’ve been home, just home, for an extended period of time. It’s been great.”
“I don’t want to give up everything I’ve worked for,” Valerie said. “I’m just not sure what’s next.”
“Sounds like we don’t have to decide right away,” Mike said.
“One thing,” Valerie said. “If we’re going to stay, we should talk to Jake about getting a bigger place. This apartment was perfect for you alone. It was great for you and me. But now? We have three kids! We need more space.”
“I’m sure he has a plan,” Mike said.
“Probably,” Valerie nodded.
Neither one of them said anything for a long moment. Valerie sighed.
“Would you mind if we just stayed here until. . .”Valerie’s voice died out because she wasn’t sure how long they’d be there.
“Until a vaccine or the pandemic ends or the economy picks up or. . .?” Mike asked. “Absolutely. Let’s just hang out. If we get sick of it, we can do something else.”
Valerie gave him one of her beautiful movie star smiled.
“Sounds perfect,” Valerie said.
“It does,” Mike said. “To me too.”
“Do you think. . .?” Valerie started and then shook her head. “My mother used to say, ‘It’s no good giving voice to fears.’ I’m so afraid that everything’s going to come apart completely. I want someone to tell me that it won’t. Even if they lie!”
“I think we all feel that way,” Mike said. “Or everyone I talk to, even the kids. We want to know that things will continue on, that we’ll be okay, but. . .”
“There’s no way to know,” Valerie said.
“Our longing for certainty makes us vulnerable to the people who will lie to us, tell us anything for their own gain,” Mike said. “My mom is beside herself. She says this happened in Russia. People are desperate so they believe anything.”
“We have to hold onto hope,” Mike said. “We need to be hopeful.”
“Even if we fake it,” Valerie nodded. “That should be our new thing.”
“What?” Mike asked.
“Strengthening our hope,” Valerie said. “Building hope in everyone we know.”
“Speaking of that,” Valerie said, with a sigh. “We need to either share Grace with the men outside or take the money from the tabloids.”
“For charity?” Mike asked.
“For the food shelters,” Valerie said. “To bring awareness that people are going without right now. I wonder if. . .”
Valerie tapped her finger to her lip.
“What?” Mike asked.
“Oh nothing,” Valerie smiled. “I like it. Hope is our new mission.”
Mike gave her a quizzical look but eventually nodded.
“You’re not. . .” Mike started. “I mean, you remember that we can’t get people together or. . .”
“You’re not going to tell me?” Mike asked.
“I’ll tell you,” Valerie said. “I just have to think it through more.”
“Let’s just leave this stuff and nap for a while,” Mike said.
“Grace will be awake soon,” Valerie said.
Mike stood and held out his hand. They walked to the bed where they both fell into a dreamless sleep.
Monday midday —11:32 a.m.
“Okay, I’m back,” Honey said, scooting into her seat.
Honey and Jill were using the room in the basement that they’d set up for the kids online school. It was equipped with their fastest internet and newest computers. They were able to sit side by side, six feet apart, with the computers in front of each of them. There were two HEPA fans blowing as well. Since the Castle hadn’t had outside guest in months, they had decided to treat each other as if they were in the same “pod.” This meant that they didn’t have to wear masks around each other and could eat together indoors.
“I logged you in,” Jill said.
“Thanks,” Honey said, frantically typing into the computer in front of her.
“Are you okay?” Jill asked.
Jill pulled a Bluetooth earbud out of her ear in order to hear Honey.
“Oh, you know,” Honey said.
“What?” Jill asked.
“I need a day off,” Honey whispered. “I was upstairs staring at the wall. I mean, no work? No kids? It’s. . .”
“Weird?” Jill said. “Wonderful?”
Honey nodded. Jill stuck her earbud back in her ear. For a moment, the women focused on listening to the start of their classes. A few minutes later, Honey glanced at Jill.
“Nice hair,” Honey whispered.
“Sandy did it this morning,” Jill said. “Your hair is so beautiful — long, pink cast, and curly!”
“The curly surprises me too,” Honey said. “I just never had it long enough to have any wave.”
“So lovely,” Jill said.
The women fell silent as they listened to their teachers. The hour slipped away.
Jill took off her head set first. Jill’s movement caught Honey’s attention. She took off her headset.
“What do you have next?” Jill asked.
“Another class, you?” Honey asked.
“Same,” Jill said. “Mine are packed together on the same day. I guess that’s what people wanted.”
“Mine’s the same, too,” Honey said.
Honey reached out to grab Jill’s hand.
“I’m so glad to be here with you,” Honey said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you these last months, especially when MJ was gone.”
Honey shook her head.
“I feel the same way,” Jill said. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been like bedrock for all of us.”
“We’re so lucky,” Honey said.
Jill nodded and smiled.
“I was going to make some tea and get us some water,” Jill said. “Can I get you anything?”
“I brought these,” Honey said.
She turned in her seat to open her backpack. Inside, there was a metal tin, like the ones used by Sandy for cookies.
“Sandy made these for us,” Honey said. She worked to open the tin. It was hard for Honey, but not impossible like it was.
“Are they. . .?” Jill asked.
“They are,” Honey said.
“Mexican wedding cookies,” Jill and Honey said together.
Jill mock swooned.
“Coffee then?” Jill asked.
“Please,” Honey said. “I need to use the toilet.”
“Do you need help?” Jill asked.
“I can get there,” Honey said.
“Your walking is incredible,” Jill said.
“Let’s see if I make it out of the basement,” Honey said with a snort. “MJ said he’d come to get me.”
Jill grinned. Honey got up. They swiftly went through their break. When they settled in, they had fresh coffee and wonderful cookies.
“Ready?” Jill asked, blowing out a bit of powdered sugar.
Honey pointed to her screen. Her next class had already started. Jill grinned at Honey and logged into her next class.
Monday midday —12:02 p.m.
“We asked everyone to stop today and noon. . .” Jacob started.
He was standing on an enormous excavator in the middle of one of the two sites that had continued working through the pandemic. He’d been wearing a face mask up until the moment he began speaking.
“I wanted to let you know that we’re in negotiations to get the vaccines as soon as they are approved,” Jacob said. “Or, I should say, we’re on the list after doctors. They think it will either be early next year or December. Until then, we wear our masks.”
“And afterward!” someone yelled from the back.
“For a while, at least,” Jacob said.
He turned over his wrist to look at his watch. Seeing the time, he nodded. Bambi climbed on top of the excavator as did Aden.
“We wanted to let you know that, as of 12 noon, our fourth site is up and running!” Jacob said.
The men and women cheered.
“We wanted to take a minute to thank each of you for hanging in there this year,” Bambi said. She spoke loud enough through her mask that everyone heard her.
“Without injury or illness!” Jacob said with a cheer.
“You have shown up, worked hard, been flexible around job sharing, and. . . well. . .” Feeling emotional, Aden stopped talking. He pulled off his mask and covered his eyes.
“You are heroes to us,” Jacob said.
Jacob looked at Aden, but Aden was too overcome.
“There’s a little something in your paycheck this week to say ‘Thanks,’” Jacob said.
“It’s not a lot, so don’t get too excited,” Bambi said with a laugh.
Shaking his head at Bambi, Jacob grinned.
“You are the lifeblood of this company,” Aden said, having gotten himself together. “We bought lunch for you and the other original site.”
Everyone cheered again.
“We wanted to say ‘Thank you,’” Jacob said. “Did you take your kids back at the Marlowe School?”
The crowd cheered.
“We were just there,” Jacob said. “The classrooms are quiet and everything is going well.”
Everyone cheered again.
“We want to let you know that we’ve been told that vaccines are coming and we are one of the first in line,” Jacob said. “We’ve weathered a storm that has killed many, many people. Thank you.”
Jacob waited for the cheering to die down.
“My dad’s at the new sites today,” Jacob said. “He’s doing well, overall. We’re going to be harvesting the gardens in the next week or so, so we’ll have some fresh vegetables for you. If you need help harvesting, just let us know. Aden has some teenagers that need something to do.”
“If you want to shift to a new team or working on the other sites is better for you,” Bambi said. “Give us a week and we’ll work it out. But do — give us a week. They are just getting their feet under them.”
“Okay, we won’t keep you,” Aden said. “Just a thanks. Your team leaders will have your lunches. Take an hour and revel in this truth — we worked our asses off, but we made it.”
Everyone cheered again.
“Team leads, see me!” Bambi said.
After putting back on his face mask, Jacob climbed down off the excavator. Aden climbed down after him. Seeing that Jacob had his face mask on, Aden put on his face mask.
“Shall we?” Jacob asked.
Aden took one look at the site and nodded. They got into Aden’s sedan and drove to meet Tres at the other site to tell them the good news.
Monday afternoon —2:00 p.m.
Delphie stood in the middle of the gardens they’d started just a few months ago. The plants were loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit. They’d used windmills to keep the squirrels and other animals off the beds so they’d lost almost nothing. This garden burst with goodness.
Delphie looked up when she heard the door to the Marlowe School slam open. The teenagers fell out of the building a flood of water out of a loch. The boys chased each other across the grass that she and Jacob had planted after they’d put these boxes in.
The Marlowe School stood like the proud old lady she was. From the back, where she was standing, she could see the new playground and the outdoor classroom. The new playground that Jacob had built was complete with its own sand pit and places to put toys to clean. The grass started at the edge of the playground and went to the raised beds. The grassy space was large enough that the kids could learn La Cross or play soccer or even American Football. The gardens began at the edge of the fence.
Delphie waved, and the teenagers ran toward her. Mike pulled up and got out of his Bronco. He took out two round tipped shovels and carried them toward her. Delphie grinned at Mike and turned back to the children. Noelle was running with her friends Hope and Joy. Charlie and Tink were together. Nash and Teddy. Even Wanda was there!
When the children arrived, Delphie cleared her throat.
“Okay, I think you all know who I am,” Delphie said.
“Delphie!” the teenagers yelled.
Ivy went to Delphie’s side to give her a sideway hug. Delphie grinned at the child.
“The State has recommended adding more physical activity to your schedule,” Delphie said. “We’re going to teach you running, walking, lifting weights — exercise you can do as you grow up. You know, Jake’s recruiting people for a La Crosse team.”
“Basketball,” Charlie said with a nod. “We’re putting in a court on the other side of the building.”
“Afternoon shade,” Delphie nodded.
“Football, too?” L’Ron asked.
“If you’d like,” Mike said. “We’re going to do an ice hockey clinic since so many of your parents play.”
The boys grinned. The girls looked nervous.
“Today, we’re going to get you started taking care of these vegetable gardens,” Delphie said. “Most of you were here when we put them in. Now you’ll get to take care of the plants and the harvest. We’re going to make some things from them. And. . . Well, we’re going to have fun.”
Unsure of what to say, the kids jostled each other.
“Okay,” Mike said. “I need you to put yourselves into teams of five. We’ll give each team a bed and help you work through what needs to happen.”
“Will we plant for the winter?” Noelle asked.
“We will,” Mike said.
“Can we work the bees?” Wanda asked.
“Let’s make that a team,” Delphie said.
“Aww,” a few kids said.
“Okay, let’s see how many kids want to be involved,” Delphie said.
“What about those beds?” a young man Delphie recognized but couldn’t place.
“Those are assigned to other people,” Mike said. “We can help if they need help, but we’ll let them take care of their own plots.”
To Delphie’s surprise, the teenagers easily sorted themselves into groups. They were so happy to be together that Delphie had no problem with them listening. In less than a half hour, the kids were working to pull weeds, tie up limbs, and harvest anything that was ready.
Delphie caught Mike’s eye. Mike gave her a thumbs up. Delphie lit her smoker and pulled her hood on. She led a team of mostly girls over to work with the beehives.
Everyone had a good time.
Denver Cereal continues next week...