Chapter 20—Dan: What’d I miss?

April 30, 2020 4:40 p.m.
Dan: What’d I miss?

The heat is so unbearable, the pressure in my chest so intense, I know I’ve got the virus. 

Until I open my eyes.

“What the hell, dog?”

Rex, who has stretched out across my chest, snaps his head up. 

“Get off me, you big lug.”

Even though his canine face is expressionless, I sense his concern for me. He doesn’t move right away, hoping, I guess, I’ll change my mind.

I scratch behind his ears and then shove him off me. I crash onto the floor under the coffee table as I try to get up. 

My bones ache and my muscles are stiff. I can only imagine how long Rex had been sleeping there.

I don’t even know how long I was sleeping on this couch. A glance at the clock tells me the truth. I lay down around supper time yesterday and it’s suppertime again. Poor dog, I look with extreme guilt at Rex. He hasn’t had a thing to eat all day.

When I dash into the kitchen to fill his bowl, it’s already got a little food in it. I know it was empty yesterday afternoon so I guess I’ve been getting up in my stupor and feeding Rex.

He’s charged in behind me and sits by his bowl, strings of drool puddling on the floor by his paws. “Sorry, fella. I’ve been sick.”

He doesn’t care once the bowl has been refilled. I head back to my makeshift bed and pick up my phone. 

Oh shit! I haven’t been asleep for a day. I’ve been here for two days. My hand flies up to my forehead and I’m relieved to find I still don’t have a fever. The headache that had me so worried is gone and so even my throat is better. Whatever I had, it wasn’t the novel coronavirus that has locked us all down. Or maybe it was and now I’m well again. I’ll never know, I guess. 

I check my phone messages, dozens of them. Doctors, the mayor’s office, Frank called three times. Jessica has called about every hour on the hour. We were supposed to talk about a feature for Memorial Day on veterans and the virus. She’s got to be pissed.

My email in-box is just as jammed. Except for the junk mail, most of them come from Claire. 

“Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you.” I dash off a quick response to the last one. I got sick a couple of days ago and am just recovering. I should have let you know but I just wasn’t able. Be back to work tomorrow.”

Before I can start returning calls, my phone rings. A call from Jessica. 

“Oh thank God,” she exclaims when I answer.

Much as I’d like to say something snarky, there’s real worry in her voice. I’ll take her seriously. “Hi Jessica, Sorry I haven’t called. I’ve been sick. I may have had covid. Or a bad cold. Or maybe the regular flu. Anyway, I’ve been out of commission for the last couple of days.”

“You’ve had us all worried.” She stops herself, I guess aware she’s been using her scolding-mother voice. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

“So what’d I miss?”

She’s been teamed with Rashima for the veteran story instead of me. And the big news is we’re going to be working from home for at least another month. Maybe more.

“So we’ll won’t be at the office until, probably, some time in July.”

“That’s a lot longer than we thought.” I’m disappointed. Not only do I not get to see Jessica in person every day—something I had hoped would happen soon—it means another thirty days or more stuck in my house.

“Yeah, but the virus isn’t going away. It looks like we might have to wear masks and use hand sanitizer a lot more when we finally do get to go out.”

“Masks in the summer? Gross.”

“There are already protests about them.”

“Really? Protests?”

“Call up the front page,” she tells me. “There’s a story about a militia of sorts that brought their guns to the capitol in Michigan.”

I go to our online edition to skim over a story about armed protestors shouting at people about wearing masks. The photo shows a group of youngish white men wearing beards—that they probably grew during the lockdown, I’d bet—and shouldering serious weapons. “This is crazy.” 

“The governor, apparently, is restricting their liberties.” I can’t tell whether Jessica is serious or not. Her tone is even, emotionless.

“They’re idiots,” I retort.

“That, too.” Okay, I see which side she’s on. I guess that was her journalist voice I heard first. Not every reporter has one these days. I give her credit.

“I’ll be back at work tomorrow. I’m glad you and Rashima are going to do the Memorial Day story.”

“Yeah, I like working with Rashima. She’s pretty cool.”

I hoped she’d say she was sorry we weren’t going to work on the story together. But then I remember she called me which proves we’re developing something here. I kind of like that.

“How’s Lori holding up?” I haven’t seen them walking around the neighborhood in the east couple of days—although we have had some cold, rainy weather, not at all the balmy kind of spring days April usually brings.

“She’s fine. We has a visitor yesterday and I’m waiting for her to ask me about him.”

“Yeah?” Now I’m curious.

“Her dad came to see us.” 

I did not see that coming. “Father? I thought Mr. Sands was dead. You mean you’re not a widow?”

“No, why would you think that?”

“I just did. Stupid I guess.”

“I never said so you wouldn’t know.” While I’m thinking how kind she is, she has paused and that makes me wonder if she’s about to drop another bomb. I don’t know, maybe that they’re getting back together. My heart sinks at the thought.

“Anyway, he got sick and decided he needed to make things right with Lori. She’d never even met him before and here he comes up to our front door and introduces himself as her father.”

“Oh I guess that’s good.”

“Not to me. He left because he didn’t want children. I haven’t seen him since, well nearly eight years ago.”

“But now he wants to get to know her. That’s good.”

“No, it isn’t. Not when she isn’t ready for an explanation of how a man could abandon his baby before she’s even born. She wouldn’t understand. So far, she’s been preoccupied with other things so she hasn’t asked. I decided she’d have to ask about him before I gave her the talk. I was up half the night, writing my speech for when the time comes.”

“Maybe she does need her father.”

“I’ve thought of that. I don’t want to deny her a relationship with him. When she’s ready.” Sweet Jessica has a titanium spine when it comes to her little girl. 

That determined tone in her voice leads me to realize Jessica would do anything for Lori. What she doesn’t say but I conclude is that may mean getting back together with the father. 

That would leave me out in the cold. I don’t know Jessica beyond a daily phone call or two. Obviously, I haven’t heard her history. I even made assumptions all along that have turned out to be way off the mark. 

I should have realized Lori had a living father. She needs a dad. She needs her dad. It sounds, too, like her dad has realized he needs her. That’s pretty special, right? 

It’s news that shakes me to the core. Any dream I have of Jessica being my girl is nothing more than a fantasy conjured by a lonely man on covid-19 lockdown. I won’t stand in the way of that. No matter how I feel about Jessica, or how I feel about her and her daughter.

“He’s a lucky man to have you be so understanding.” I mean that, too. Especially the lucky part. I know that’s how I’d feel if she was mine.

“I don’t know about that understanding part. I was happy to have him gone. But when Lori asks, I guess I’ll have to let him back in our lives.”

That’s my cue, isn’t it? Time to go. “Look, Jessica. I’ve been in bed for nearly forty-eight hours. I really need to catch up on my email and finish my story before Claire fires me.” I pause for a second because I have to tell her something really hard to say. “I’m glad your ex came to his senses. I hope it makes Lori happy.”

“But…” Jessica starts but cuts whatever she was going to say short. “Yeah. I’m glad you’re feeling better. See you at tomorrow’s meeting?”

“You bet.” 

I’m a reporter. I should have pursued her statement. Sudden changes of direction like that sometimes make all the difference in a good story and a great story. I can’t help but wonder, what’d I miss?

April 30, 2020 6:30 p.m.

Jessica: Change of heart

I shouldn’t have told Dan about Colin. I could hear it in his voice that it wasn’t something he wanted to hear. Now I’m a divorced single mother who couldn’t keep her man. Does that make me damaged goods, perhaps? I wouldn’t have thought so but there was something in his voice. Something I’ve heard before from men who lost interest when I told them about my life. Or introduced them to Lori. Or had to cancel a date when my baby-sitter bailed.

Well, fine. 

Much as it steams me, I can go on living without the approval of one Daniel Johnson. 

I didn’t want his approval. But I was kind of thinking‚ before Colin showed up, that I’d like his love and affection. He won Lori’s heart a long time ago and that’s not something that ever happened with any other man I dated. Lori’s approval matters to me and when she thought Dan was okay, I figured I could go ahead.

Now, I know better.

I knew before I talked to Dan.

It has to be me and Lori, Lori and me, for now. I need to protect her young, innocent heart. She can’t start believing someone cares about her and then have them fail her.

Like her father did. Like he’d probably do again if they began visiting one another. I don’t trust Colin. I don’t trust my wounded heart. So I have to protect Lori.

Now I realize I have to protect her from Dan, too. He’s not the man I thought he was, I suppose. Just when I was believing he might care about both of us, he’s stepping away. Doesn’t like divorced women, I guess. Doesn’t want the complications of exes and visitation rights. No one ever has before. Why should Dan be any different?

In my anger, I scrub the pasta pot a lot harder than it deserves. 

I thought pasta and my mother’s marinara would make me feel better. It usually does. But today, I must have added too much salt, or not enough oregano. Maybe I let it simmer on the back burner for a smidge too long. It didn’t taste right. It didn’t comfort me the way it used to, back when my mother laid before me a steaming plate of vermicelli piled high with dark red sauce studded with onions, peppers and plenty of ground beef.

The late afternoon sun slants through the open screen door. A pleasure to see after so much rain and gloom. I was beginning to think spring was never coming but now it looks like it’s arrived in time for an evening walk. 

“Lori,” I call out to the living room, though the truth is I don’t know where she got to after dinner.

She comes bounding up the cellar steps. “Did you call?”

“I wondered if you’d like to go out and ride your bike. I was thinking since the sun came out I’d leave the rest of this until later.”

I can tell from the way she screws up her mouth, it’s a tough decision.

“Well, I was camping.” 

Last night we set up an old tent in the basement and got out the camping supplies she was supposed to use for her very first camping trip in May. The Brownies were going to a campground overlooking the river. We’d bought a mess kit and sleeping bag and at one of their last meetings the girls made dunk bags and sit-upons. I’d agreed to go as the cooking mom so I was looking forward to the weekend in the woods almost as much as Lori. Well, that got canceled, too, so Lori asked if she could “camp” in the basement. Damp and full of spider webs, I rarely go down there except on laundry day. I was happy to cede the space to Lori, except on Monday nights.

“Well, if you were camping, I don’t want to deprive you of that.”

“Yes, but I haven’t ridden my bike in a long time.” 

Not since Saturday, but I’m not arguing with her about that. “So, does that mean you want to go out?”

She nods vigorously and runs off for her bike helmet. 

Me and Lori. Lori and me. I can’t help the smile that crosses my face as I watch her strong little legs carry her away. This is right. This is good. This is what I should do. 

So, why does it hurt?

Next Monday CHAPTER 21—Jessica: Private Lives
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 19—Dan: The real world

Dan and Jessica’s story needs your ideas.

Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)

If you have a suggestion for #what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to whathappensnext.19@gmail.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.

Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.

Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN

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