“Sydney! Breakfast!” Mommy calls up from the kitchen. I put on my fuzzy princess socks, say goodbye to my teddy bear, and race down the stairs. The smell of fresh waffles welcomes me into the room. I pull myself up into a chair and kick my feet back and forth. Mommy pushes my big pile of drawings–the ones that couldn’t fit on the fridge anymore–off my placemat and puts a plate with a giant blueberry waffle covered in butter and maple syrup in front of me. There are some eggs on the side of the plate too, but I know what to do with those. As soon as Sparky walks under the table, I put the eggs into a napkin and drop it on the floor. Sparky cleans it up right away.
I grab the waffle with both hands and shove it into my mouth. Maple syrup drips down my arms and onto my pants.
“Sydney, please. Use a fork.” She walks over with her own plate, just in time to see a big glob of butter fall onto my pants. “You can’t go to school covered in syrup. After breakfast, you’ll have to run and change before school,” she says. She sits down at the table.
“Why? They only see my shirt Mommy. I just won’t stand up all day, and then the camera won’t show them that I’m all messy. Easy peasy.” I wipe my hands off on the mask I left on my chair last night. Mommy’s frown makes me think I should get a napkin instead.
Mommy picks up a napkin of her own and wipes my face. The paper sticks to the corners of my mouth.
“No, sweetie. We’ve talked about this. You’re going to a real classroom this year. You’ll get to meet a bunch of new people and play lots of fun games–”
“Can Sparky come with me? He’s my best friend. I can’t do anything without him.” Sparky rolls under my chair as I shove a forkful of waffle into my mouth.
“No, sweetie, but–”
“But you’re gonna be there? You’re always here when I do computer school, so you’ll come to real school too, right?” I drop my fork on the table with a piece of waffle still hanging off the end. The waffle bounces off the fork and falls all the way down into Sparky’s mouth.
Mommy sighs. “No, sweetie, but–”
“Then why do I have to go? I had school on my computer before. Where did that go?”
“Sydney, you have to stop interrupting me.” Mommy crosses her arms over her chest. I sit back in my chair and pull my knees up to my chin.
“Look, we put you in real school this year. It’ll be just like school before everybody started getting sick. That way, when you go to Grade 1, it won’t be so different. You’ll already have friends, and you’ll know what the school is like. It’s no different than your brother. He left for school twenty minutes ago. If I were you, I’d be happy you’re not starting high school like he is.” Mommy takes my plate and walks to the dishwasher.
“But I already had friends on the computer school. There was Max, and Sarah, and Talia, and…”
“Yes, sweetie, I know you made lots of friends. But those friends are just in the online school. There are going to be so many new friends at real school. You’ll love it, I promise. You might even love it more than online school,” Mommy says, placing a small pink bag on the table.
“Your lunchbox. I have a turkey sandwich and lots of snacks packed for you. I even put a brownie in there.” Mommy smiles as she brushes some hair out of my face.
“Wait, I have to eat there too? First no Sparky, then no you, and now I don’t get to stay home for lunch? What’s next? My toys have to stay home too?” Mommy walks into her office, pulls out a purple backpack, and puts my lunchbox into the bag. I see big black letters that spell out my name on the front of the bag.
“They have a bunch of toys there, Syd. You don’t have to bring any of yours.”
“No I don’t. Because I’m not going.” I get up from my seat and stomp over to my dolls in the living room. Mommy follows me, carrying the ugly purple backpack with her.
“Yes, you are,” Mommy says. She grabs my hand and leads me up the stairs. “Go get changed, and then we’ll get in the car. If you’re really good, maybe we can order something special for dinner, like pizza.” Mommy sends me into my room and closes the door.
I sit on my bed and cry, crossing my arms over my chest just like Mommy did in the kitchen.
I’m not going to school. And I’m not changing my pants either.
I look down at the stain on my right leg. It’s not that big. It only covers my knee. I fix it by covering my knee with a My Little Pony sticker.
Then, I walk over to my toy bin and throw everything in it on the floor.
There. I can’t go to school cause my room is too messy.
“Alright class, put everything away. It’s time for your algebra quiz. It’ll just be a review of topics you should have covered last year in Grade 8. You get twenty minutes to complete two questions. The only things I want to see on your desk are pencils, erasers, and sanitizer,” Mrs. Conway says.
I sink down in my seat and stretch my legs out in front of me, putting my oboe case under my desk. The edge of my sneaker brushes against the back of Stephen’s chair. He jolts forward, scooting his seat so far in that he’s left with no room to breathe. He gasps, then relaxes, his desk scraping the floor as he slowly pushes it away from his stomach.
“Let me remind everyone that while we’re no longer in middle school, social distancing is still very much a requirement, not a suggestion. Right, Mr. Jackson? How about we shift your desk back to its proper spot?” Mrs. Conway glares at me from across the room. How she’s able to see my feet from all the way over there is completely beyond me, but I agree, turning my desk back into an island. Mrs. Conway places my test face down on the edge of my desk, careful not to touch anything but the paper. I slide the paper towards me, flipping it over to see a large wet spot instead of Question 1.
I guess that’s what happens when you have to sanitize your desk at the beginning of every period.
Squinting to read the now-blurred lettering, I begin the quiz anyway.
From a few rows to my right, Sam clicks her pen. Loudly. Over and over. It’s like every time she blinks, the end of her pen does too.
I cover my right ear, hoping to drown out the symphony of clicking coming from that pen.
Behind her, Jess joins the competition for the title of “Most Annoying Classmate”. Her leg jitters up and down. Loudly. Over and over. The rhythm created by her desk lifting off the floor and slamming back down mimics a jackhammer.
One row in front of me, Stephen clears his throat. Loudly. Over and over. Then, Kyle, who sits next to him, coughs. Loudly. Over and over.
Both fiddle with their masks, trying to find relief without taking them off, as those in the desks around them scatter, dragging themselves away from the line of fire.
The chorus of distraction continues. New noises join in what feels like every five seconds. By the time I settle in to start working, the bell rings.
“Alright everyone, time’s up. When I call you, please bring your test to the front and place it in this bin. Make sure your names are on it.” Mrs. Conway holds up a green plastic bucket.
When she calls my name, I walk to the front desk and hand in my test, completely blank.
I sit at desk and open my laptop. The mail icon on my taskbar bounces up and down, with a little orange “1” dancing in the righthand corner.
“Honey, I don’t want to open it.” I hover my mouse over the icon and let it sit there. A white bar labelled “1 unread email from Human Resources” pops up on the screen. Rebecca, my wife, walks into the spare bedroom, which I converted into an office early last year, and wraps her arms around me.
“It’ll be fine. Case counts are up. I don’t think they’ll be asking you to come into the office yet.”
During the onset of the pandemic, my wife and I decided to leave the city, hoping that some distance between our house and the next would reduce our chances of catching anything. Everyone told us we were crazy. My sister said that I should stay close to family; she thought it would be easier if all of us stayed together, even if that meant staying where the case counts reached new heights each day. She couldn’t move, with her kids being in school and everything.
But Rebecca and I could. So we did.
Work for both of us moved completely online, allowing us the luxury of working from wherever we wanted to be, as long as there was a strong enough internet connection. We sold our townhouse in downtown Toronto, moving two hours away to a cute little town with one set of traffic lights. Everything had been perfect. Our new backyard, complete with towering oak trees and a small vegetable garden, became our Covid-free sanctuary, giving us the space needed to feel safe during a time that otherwise felt the complete opposite.
“Don’t jinx it.” I move the cursor back and forth on the screen, hoping the “1” will just disappear entirely.
“You’re going to have to open it,” Rebecca says as she walks over to the kitchen. I sigh, click the icon, and open the only unread email in my inbox.
Dear Mr. Simmons,
We are pleased to announce that our offices will be opening next Monday! We write to inform you that you have qualified as essential personnel and will be scheduled to attend meetings in person as early as next week. Be assured that every measure will be taken to ensure your complete safety during this time. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact your HR representative.
We’ll see you soon!
My mouth gapes open.
“Honey? You’re too quiet. Did you open it? Stop procrastinating,” Rebecca says, stuffing half a sandwich into her mouth and carrying it into the room with her teeth. She places a glass of ice water on the desk in front of me and flops over onto the bed.
“It’s not good.”
“You got fired?”
“No. Worse. I have to be in the office next week.” I close my laptop and roll my chair away from my desk, turning to face her.
“It’s okay. We’ll figure this out.” Rebecca smiles, but her eyes gloss over.
“We can’t move back. And I don’t know if I’d want to. I like our house, our yard, our town. This is our home now.” I stare at the dent in the wall on the other side of the bed.
We made that dent two weeks after moving in, when Rebecca thought it would be a good idea to mount a TV by herself, which she had never done before, while I was mowing the lawn. It resulted in a hole in the wall the size of my fist, and due to my lack of coordination and experience with spackle, our spare bedroom wall was left with a noticeable divot. It was part of what made this place home.
“Well what other options do we have? I guess we could rent something for you to stay in when you have to go to the office, but then I’d never see you. You’re right. I don’t want to leave here either, but I don’t see anything else we can do.” She stands and begins to pace, practically tearing holes in the carpet beneath her. I grab her hand and sit her back down on the bed.
“We’re not doing that, and we’re not moving either. We’ll figure it out.”
Rebecca traces the patterns on the bedspread with the edge of her finger.
“But what if we don’t?”
“There. All clean!” I say to my empty room as I put my brooch into its place and close my jewelry box. After spending my whole morning tidying up, everything is finally presentable. I walk to my closet and pull out a large bag filled with board games and toys, dragging it out to the centre of the room. Placing a blanket down on the floor, I set up the activities for my granddaughter. I sharpen all the pencil crayons, unbox a fresh set of markers, and put out fresh paper. The pile of wrapped gifts I’ve saved since Christmas sits in the corner of the room, accompanied by all the presents left over from missed birthdays, graduations, and other special events.
Exhausted, I sit down in my rocking chair and admire the display of cookies on the table: chocolate chip for Sydney and Jacob, cinnamon raisin for John, and gluten free digestive cookies for Christina. Other residents crane their necks as they stroll or wheel by, obviously distracted by the rare smell of freshly baked cookies. Nurse Melissa let me use her phone to order from a bakery; it is the first order I, or anyone on my floor for that matter, have made since everything locked down last year.
Everything is absolutely perfect. Now all I need to do is wait.
I turn on the television, scroll through the guide to find my favourite daytime soap opera, pull out my crochet set, and begin my first chain.
Slowly, the yarn works itself into the beginnings of a blanket with pink and white lacy edges, perfect for Sydney’s bedroom. I wrap the yarn around my hook and pull it through hundreds of smaller loops, starting the half-double crochet stitch my mother taught me when I was young. I pause partway through my seventh line, stopping to talk to Doris, who has just returned from her weekly hospital trip. During the third episode of my television show, Nurse Melissa knocks on the door, holding a clipboard to her chest.
“I’m really sorry, Evelyn. Your son just called. I’m afraid he can’t make it in to see you today.” I stand up from my seat, placing the blanket on my chair.
“Is everything alright? Did something happen?” I ask, walking over to my telephone. “Why didn’t they call me?”
“Everything is fine, Evelyn. I think they just didn’t want to upset you. In all honesty, it didn’t sound like they were too comfortable coming into a retirement community just yet. He said something about case counts. But he assured me that they’ll plan for another time. So we’ll just look forward to that! I’ll come in and help you clean up.”
“No, it’s okay,” I sniffle. “I’ll take care of everything.” I bend down, preparing to put everything away. “I guess we’ll take the cookies out to the other residents. Don’t need everything going to waste.”
Nurse Melissa nods, walks over to the table, and grabs the platter.
“You know, it’s okay that they haven’t been in to see you yet. I know most of the residents on this floor have had visitors, but all the other nurses are saying that most families are waiting till everything calms down just a little bit more. Everyone’s just adjusting the way they know best.”
I avoid her gaze, instead gathering the toys and attempting to drag them back into the closet. Nurse Melissa stops me, pulls up my rocking chair, and tells me to sit down. She then neatly organizes the toys in my closet and shuts the door.
“We always say that third time’s the charm, but maybe that saying is outdated.” She pulls down her mask and smiles, something I haven’t seen in many months. “Fourth time’s the charm now? What do you think?”
I turn away, hoping that she wouldn’t notice the tears that have started to slide down my cheeks.
“Sure. No harm in hoping.”