by Erin A. Craig
“This is it!” Mom said brightly, opening the door to my new room with a grand, ceremonial swing.
I stepped over the threshold, eyes wide as I took in the high arched ceiling, the oak window seat, and my lamp--a bust of Edgar Allan Poe I’d made in ceramics class, already assembled and looking hopelessly out of place against the stark white walls.
You and me both, buddy.
“What do you think?” Dad asked, coming up behind us. “Just a second,” he called down to one of the guys from the moving company.
“This is it,” I echoed, trying to muster enough cheer to appease them.
“Do you like it?” Mom asked, pushing back one of the curtains the previous owners had left behind. It was some sort of floral chintz and would be coming down the second I was alone. “We were going to wait and let you pick for yourself, but then on the tour--this just screamed Millie.”
It was a cool room, I couldn’t deny that.
It just wasn’t my room.
But it was now, I supposed, no matter how I felt.
Mom and Dad were both scientists. Researchers who specialized in viral pathology. Mom had gotten a pretty sweet job offer at the University of Michigan, working in the hospital labs during the summers and spending the rest of the year as a professor. Dad was going to stay at home while he worked on writing his first book. Some dry textbook he swore would be in freshman biology classes all over the country.
Not a fun book, like the thrillers and mysteries I read.
I’d never seen them so excited before.
We were supposed to leave Memphis in May, allowing me to get through school and still spend part of the summer with my friends, getting to do all our favorite things together one last time. I’d have June, July, and August to settle in and hopefully meet some new friends, just before senior year would start.
But then COVID-19 broke out and literally everything fell apart.
I didn’t finish the school year. I didn’t get one last concert or film festival, no last Grizz game or barbecue nachos, no cupcakes from Muddy’s bakery.
I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Our house--our old house--already had an offer on it, with most of our stuff packed away into boxes and bins when the governor closed the schools, then the stores, then the state.
“Stay at home?” I remembered shouting at my parents with an anger completely uncharacteristic of me. “How do you stay at home when we have no home?” I’d burst into tears and ran up to my room before they could answer.
Mom and Dad had talked late into the night, their furtive whispers filling the house. I could hear them wondering what to do, wondering if they were making the right decision, wondering how we’d get through any of this.
Less than twenty-four hours later, everything was decided for us. The hospital in Michigan wanted both Mom and Dad working there. Pronto.
In the blink of an eye we were supplied letters certifying that my parents were essential, pledging that our movers were essential, swearing up and down that the new house was essential.
Everything was essential but my misery.
“The light is different here,” I said, feeling both sets of their eyes on me now, their concern as heavy as the semi truck parked along our drive.
Our lane, as my father insisted calling it.
Back in Memphis we hadn’t had a driveway. Now we had a lane. Of our own.
A lane and a garden and a little old supply shed, painted barn red and outfitted with scalloped white trim.
There was no way to deny it. We were country now.
“Different?” Mom repeated, glancing about the room as if she could find the source of my discontent and eradicate it as she would a virus.
“It’s softer,” I said, joining her at the window and looking out at the open fields. “Greener.”
“All those trees, Millie,” Dad said, patting at my back. “Look at all those pines.”
“They’re pretty,” I admitted.
And they were. But they didn’t hold a candle to the magnolias currently bursting into bloom across my backyard right now.
My old backyard, I reminded myself.
“Coming, coming!” Dad shouted as a mover called up the stairwell. “Let’s get through this day and we’ll celebrate tonight, all right?” He kissed my mom’s forehead before jogging downstairs.
Mom nodded and ruffled my dark blond locks. They were long overdue for a trim. I’d planned on getting a haircut during spring break, but by then the salons were closed. Dad very helpfully volunteered to lop it all off with his clippers.
Um, thanks, no.
I’d taken to wearing it in a giant topknot instead.
“We made it here,” she explained. “There were a lot of moments we didn’t think it would happen. But we did. And that’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so.” I ran my finger along the red curtains. They really were terrible.
I wanted to say more, but a burly mover stepped into the room, his arms impossibly laden down with boxes marked millie.
“We’ll think up something fun,” she said. “I promise.”
“I’ve never hurt so much in my entire life,” I said hours later, collapsing onto the rug.
The movers had left and for the first time, it was just the three of us in the house. It was simultaneously too quiet yet alive with a host of unfamiliar sounds. The old wooden floorboards squeaked and something in the basement Dad called a sump pump kept issuing unexpected and startling thuds. We hadn’t had a basement in our old house and the one here was full of spiderwebs and weird shadows.
It felt like that calm before the storm in any horror movie. The happy family moves into a new-to-them-but-still-very-old house, and things are good but night falls and then . . .
I paused, waiting for something weird to happen.
A box mysteriously toppling over.
A flock of birds flying into the window.
Blood seeping down the staircase.
Nothing stirred and I begrudgingly rolled over.
Mom lay sprawled across the couch, her feet propped on too many throw pillows. She was rubbing at her temples as if warding off a headache. Dad was on the floor beside me, trying to stretch out a kink in his back.
“What a day,” he said, wincing as his spine cracked. “That’s better. What are we doing for dinner, Molly?”
“There’s nothing in the fridge,” Mom said, opening her eyes. “We’ll have to go grocery shopping tomorrow.” She paused, self-correcting. “We’ll have to place an order for groceries tomorrow.”
“Think they’ll deliver, all the way out here?”
“We’ll see. Why don’t we order in tonight?” She pulled out her phone, fiddling with it for a second before frowning. “I don’t have any data, do you?”
None of us did.
This explained a lot.
My phone had been unnaturally quiet all day. I’d worried my friends in Memphis had already forgotten about me, but maybe there was a whole slew of messages waiting for me, they just couldn’t deliver.
“Maybe a neighbor has open Wi-Fi?” I swiped hopefully through my settings.
“What neighbors?” Dad asked as the available networks list came up completely blank.
I stared at it uneasily. This was it. This was where all the scary movie stuff would start happening and there would be no way to call for help. “What . . . what do we do now?”
Mom pushed herself off the couch. “I think I saw an actual phone book someplace.”
“What good will that do? There’s no network.”
Her laugh carried across the hall. “There’s a landline in the kitchen.”
I’d noticed the olive green phone on the wall when we’d first walked through the house. It was one of those old rotary ones with the round plate you swung in a circle to enter the numbers and a spiral cord that hung almost all the way to the floor.
“Does it actually work?” I asked, trailing after her curiously.
Mom laughed again, her amusement tinkling through the house and almost making it feel like home. She pulled a surprisingly slim yellow pages from a cabinet drawer and blew off a layer of dust.
“Mom, that thing has to be a decade old.”
She flipped through the sections, undeterred.
“Looks like our choices are pizza or . . . pizza.”
“Pizza it is,” I said, leaning against her shoulder to read the ads.
“Which sounds better--Big Mike’s Pizza Haven or Slice of Bliss?”
“Bliss me, baby,” Dad voted, groaning as he flipped over. “I feel like Big Mike has already done a number on me today.”
Mom reached for the phone before pausing and pulling out her trusty roll of disinfecting wipes. She’d been carrying them around the house all day, wiping down handles and cabinet doors. She cleaned off the handset, then began dialing. I liked the clicking stutter of the numbers rolling back.
“Hi, we’re new to the area and wondered if you delivered out to the west side of town . . . we’re on Milner Avenue?” She recited the address and listened for a long moment to his response. “Perfect! We’d like to order a large pepperoni and mushroom. And--we weren’t able to check online--do you have any salads . . . Great! The Garden Melody, family-sized.”
From the living room, Dad groaned. I curled the cord around one finger, watching as my skin turned purple, then white.
“And garlic knots, if you have them.”
“Better make that a double order,” she said, rolling her eyes at me with a grin.
“Okay . . . yes . . . Cash. That’s perfect . . . Thanks! We’ll see you soon.” She hung up the phone with a victorious click. “Here in thirty. Apparently they’re not far. Just down Davis Way,” she said, joining Dad on the floor. “Oh. This was a mistake. Throw me a pillow, Millie? Or twelve?”
I tossed a pair at her.
“So . . .” I waited till she and Dad were situated comfortably, listening to the seconds tick by, marked by the grandfather clock in the hall. “Tomorrow . . . Big day.”
They were both due at the hospital lab at nine on the dot, leaving me here to start making headway on all of the house stuff. It had sounded terribly impressive at first--I would be the one deciding where everything went, creating order from the chaos.
Now, looking around, it just felt like a lot of work.
“Big day,” Dad agreed. “Look, Mills--I know it feels like we’re leaving you in the lurch . . .”
I scanned the wall of boxes waiting to be unpacked. “It is a little overwhelming.”
“And it’s so not how we wanted this to happen,” Mom said, rushing in. “This outbreak has just . . . derailed a lot of stuff. We’re so, so fortunate to have this set of problems and not others,” she added quickly. “But I do want to fully acknowledge this is not ideal for you. But . . . we’re going to be home all weekend to help. We’re certainly not expecting you to do this all yourself.”
“But if we came home tomorrow night to a totally straightened house and a gourmet meal . . .” Dad waggled his eyebrows at me.
Mom swatted at him with one of the pillows. “Steve!”
I picked at the label on the nearest box. living room--books. “It’ll be fine. I’ll just . . . choose a room and start opening stuff, right?”
“I’d go with the kitchen,” Dad recommended.
“Yeah, about that. We don’t have any food,” I pointed out.
“We’ll order groceries,” Mom promised. “I’ll do it on my lunch break at the lab. And the cable company is supposed to be out here tomorrow, so we’ll be up and running soon.”
“And that’s . . . safe?” I asked, an uncomfortable knot lodging beneath my sternum. I didn’t want to admit how much the idea of germs now scared me. Particularly to my parents, who were around them daily. “I mean, I thought the whole reason Aunt Carla couldn’t come help us was because we’re supposed to be social distancing, or whatever.”
“That’s true, but Carla is staying away more for her protection than ours.”
Mom’s sister had lupus, which could make it harder to fight COVID if she was infected. Corona. I still wasn’t sure what term I was supposed to be using. No one else seemed to either.
“And the cable company assured me they’re taking every precaution. Masks, gloves, the works.”
“They have masks?”
There’d been reports of shortages.
Mom shrugged. “Wear yours, just to be safe.”
We fell into silence, each thinking of the day to come. The gears of the grandfather clock wound up to count out the quarter hour. The sump pump thunked again.
The doorbell rang.
“That was fast.” Dad started to hoist himself up but crashed back. “Nope. Not happening.”
“Mill, can you get it? There’re a couple of twenties in my wallet,” Mom said, rubbing at her hip.
It wasn’t until I stomped to the front of the house that I realized how dark it had gotten. Guiltily, I flicked the outdoor lights on, illuminating an empty porch. Opening the door, I peered out into the dusky twilight.
Spring peepers sang their little frog songs and I was certain it was the prelude for a machete-waving maniac to come striding around the corner.
“Hey there,” a voice called out from the yard.
I tensed, then immediately shook it off. Neither Jason nor Michael Myers were known for their chatty banter.
I really was going to have to stop it with the scary movies living out here.
“Sorry we didn’t have the light on,” I said, squinting. A form came out of the darkness. “Oh.”
The guy’s mask covered his face from the bridge of his nose down to his chin. It was homemade, with a floral print, probably created from the remnants of a fabric scrap bin. He was tall and lanky and looked about my age--as far as I could tell.
“Didn’t want to startle you,” he said, gesturing to the mask with his shoulder. His hands were full of boxes and the bag of salad was looped around his forearm.
“I like the flowers.”
He laughed. “My mom made it for me. I begged her to get some cooler fabric. They’ve got to make something with the Pistons logo, right?”
“You like basketball?” I asked, instantly warming.
“Yeah. It sucks they put the season on hold. I mean . . . there was no way we were going to make the playoffs this year, but still . . .”