BY ABIGAIL CORDES
Person. Person. Another person. But never people. One after another, arms tucked in so as not to touch anything by accident, they obediently arrived alone and kept themselves six feet apart.
Marge sighed. Weeks of social distancing, panicked toilet-paper-hoarders, and covering other employees’ shifts had worn her thin. It had been bad enough before this all started, when she was merely another disgruntled Walmart greeter killing time and earning a little extra cigarette money instead of retiring. But now she was an “essential employee,” which didn’t mean anything except that nobody was going to send her $600 checks to lie around, eat homemade bread, and watch documentaries about murderous zookeepers. Newspapers, radio stations, and social media hailed those in Marge’s position as heroes. She tried to feel a little heroic that maybe the alcohol she was spritzing on yet another shopping cart would spare some child with leukemia from contracting pneumonia and dying, but it didn’t work.
Another person passed by, and another, and another. All wore gloves (although Marge questioned how clean the gloves were by this point) and masks (not always correctly—quite a few were oriented upside-down, with the metallic nosepiece on the chin, and some fit only over the wearer’s mouth, leaving their nostrils entirely exposed). She pretended to check their bags and receipts, but honestly, the second the shopper exited, she could not have named a single item from their basket. Probably bleach and ramen and toothpaste. Ultimately, they were really all the same. They didn’t even have faces to remember them by.
She unlocked the door to the bungalow. Complete darkness, complete silence. She kicked off her shoes—they had probably accumulated a good layer of the virus on the soles by now—and flung them onto the porch. She went inside, bleached her mask, and washed her hands while singing “Happy Birthday” to herself twice. Her birthday was coming up soon, now that she thought about it, but the thought didn’t linger. It would pass, just as St. Patrick’s Day and April Fool’s Day and Easter and Earth Day had passed, without any real celebration or comment.
Marge cut through the living room, momentarily contemplating turning on the news before opting to let the remote acquire just a little more dust tonight instead. Better for her sore body to shower and don soft pajamas than to nod off on the couch as yet more footage showed barren streets and deserted shopping malls while repetitive charts announced the latest numbers. After rinsing any last theoretical vestiges of the pathogen from her skin, Marge climbed onto her half of the bed.
It was funny how after four years, she still restricted herself to the right side of the queen-sized mattress, as though Robert might waltz in at any moment and reclaim his spot on the left side. But that was superstition, a phantom with about as much substance as the moment of panic whenever she felt a tiny urge to cough. As real as it might feel in that fleeting second, nothing would ever come of it.
Marge tossed and turned—but did not breach the meridian of the bed—for about an hour before she relented and reached into the nightstand for her melatonin. Somehow, even though she had just bought the pills last week, she had to sift through clutter that had lain in the drawer for years, decades even. Nail clippers that never really worked properly. A bracelet that a friend had left at the house a long time ago and that Marge just hadn’t gotten around to returning. A bookmark with a cutesy religious poem about footprints on a beach. A stray photograph.
For the first time today, Marge felt her lips turn upward into a smile. She remembered the day fondly. She, Robert, and Mackenzie had visited a pick-your-own-fruit orchard, as evidenced by the cherry trees behind the family in the picture. Mackenzie was so much younger, as evidenced by the braces and silly boy-band T-shirt, although not so young as to wear the macaroni necklace that, incidentally, also still lay in the drawer.
When Mackenzie was eight or nine, she had proudly worn her homemade “jewelry” everywhere she went, and this particular piece had elicited an especially emotional response when the roll-away couch had crushed one of the brittle noodles under its wheels. Robert had promised his teary-eyed daughter that he would fix it, a promise on which he delivered while the child was asleep by painstakingly painting and glitter-coating another piece of pasta to match the original perfectly, then unstringing and re-stringing the necklace so as to restore the rotini’s proper position between an elbow and a bowtie. Mackenzie’s childlike wonder at the impeccable repair job had led her to treasure the necklace dearly… for a while. But eventually it, too, had wormed its way into the nightstand drawer, as memorable as that day at the orchard. To this day, did Mackenzie recall either one?
Marge had no way of knowing. It had been a year and a half since the last phone call, either from Mackenzie to her mother or vice versa. All that could be said now had been said back then, and back then it hadn’t gone very well. Why dredge up old arguments in times like these?
Marge found the melatonin, swallowed two tablets without any water, and settled in for the night.
The next day, there were people, three of them, to be exact.
They were all very young—a toddler on the cart’s fold-out seat, a little girl clutching a stuffed fox in the main compartment of the basket, and an older girl of sufficiently ambiguous age as to be either the children’s mother or their sister. Like everyone else, the family kept their masks on, homemade fabric things printed with tractors, butterflies, and argyle, respectively. Even the toy wore a mask, albeit one with sloppier craftsmanship, just a piece of felt tied awkwardly over the muzzle with yarn. Upon making eye contact with the greeter, the fox’s owner made its paw wave, and Marge could tell even through the butterfly mask that the child was smiling. Marge smiled back the best she could; despite being the store’s logo, smiles were in short supply these days.
What the heck. She hadn’t done this in ages, but she reached deep into the pockets of her apron for three yellow smiley stickers, offering one to each member of the party. The children eagerly peeled off the backing and adhered the stickers to their hands, while the mother-or-sister (“Liz” according to the nametag on the Burger King uniform she was wearing) smiled wryly and held up a hand, declining.
“Can Gina have her sticker?” the little girl blurted out as Marge was about to put the remainder back inside her apron. It took Marge a second to realize that “Gina” was the child’s fox, but shrugging, she handed over the sticker, which the girl fixed to the toy’s mask.
“I don’t see why not,” Marge mused as Liz nodded and thanked her. “You all be safe, all right?”
“We will,” said Liz as they headed off for the produce section.
There was a man who didn’t wear a mask. Of course, he didn’t comply with any other laws, so why should he?
He’d completely ignored Marge when she asked to check his receipt for the TV he pushed out, when she raised her voice and asked him a second time, when the alarms buzzed as he left, and there wasn’t a thing she could do. The store would be in bigger trouble if she pursued him and got hurt than if he got away with the merchandise, so she wasn’t allowed to follow him. From his utter indifference, Marge strongly suspected he knew of this policy. He knew she wasn’t really essential.
Then there was the conspiracy theorist, who got in Marge’s face to preach about The Media. And the teenager who dropped his gum right onto the floor. And the girl who yelled obscenities on the phone as eyeliner ran down her face. And the white guy who went off about “reverse racism” when Marge asked for his receipt. It hadn’t been a pleasant twenty minutes.
So of course Marge wasn’t surprised to see the family from before exit in a much more sour mood than when they entered. The toddler was desperately trying to untie his face mask and turning red in frustration. The girl sobbed, arms wrapped tightly around herself as she walked, the cart where she’d ridden before now full of bananas and off-brand Oreos and bologna. Liz ignored them both as she talked hurriedly into her cell: “Look, I get it, but I already told you, I don’t have a—oh, are you sure? Because last time I brought them in—mmhmm, okay, fine. See you tomorrow at six.”
Irresponsible parents. Bratty kids. Drama and cell phones and crime. Why should Marge expect anything else?
Her smoke break came so late it was almost pointless. Nevertheless, she slipped out the back and lit one up as she watched trucks loading and unloading—merchandise, garbage, recycling, more merchandise. And here came another contribution to the trash pile. The new guy, at eighteen years of age and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, struggled as he lugged a single bag of refuse outside. He almost tripped over Marge as he pushed past her.
“Careful, kid!” she protested, but stopped as she noticed a peculiar bulge in the white trash bag. A shape vaguely cat-like in form. No, not cat-like… foxy. “Wait a sec, can I see that?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she snatched the bag away from him, reached inside despite the look of disgust on his face, and withdrew a toy that she definitely recognized. Suddenly, it all clicked.
“Oh yeah, found that thing on the cookie aisle. Customer service said keeping it in the lost-and-found was a safety hazard and—”
“I know whose it is,” Marge asserted. “I’ll take it.”
Marge grappled with her memory as she put away her protective gear that night. She remembered Liz, but how often did Liz come in? Had she already called and asked about the fox? Did customer service tell her the same thing they’d told the kid with the trash bag? Had Liz left a phone number just in case? Probably not, Marge realized glumly. Or if she had, the folks at the desk probably threw it away at the end of the day.
“It’s okay, Gina, we’ll figure this one out,” Marge told the stuffed animal as she plopped down on the couch, pondering. “Liz was wearing a Burger King uniform, wasn’t she? So she must work at a Burger King. And there are only two Burger Kings in town, and the other one is in the mall, which hasn’t been open lately. So I bet she works at the one behind the Sheetz station. Am I right?” Gina didn’t answer, of course. “I’ll run by there tomorrow morning, and pick up breakfast before my shift. And if Liz is there, I’ll drop you off. I’m sure she’ll have somewhere safe to keep you until she can give you back to your owner.” Marge was about to set Gina down next to her purse when she thought better of it. “Customer Service might have been right about you, though. If you’ve been on the floor all day, you’re probably filthy. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
After Marge had thrown Gina into the washer along with a generous ration of detergent, she thought about getting a snack or watching TV, but instead she sat on the little folding chair she kept in the laundry room, drumming her hands impatiently on the machine.
Her eyes flickered around for something to do. She noticed little details about the room that she’d long since stopped paying attention to, like the old board games on the top shelf, or the random Mr. Potato Head ear that had for some reason stuck around long after Mackenzie had gotten too old for Mr. Potato Head and donated him to the thrift store. Marge had often wondered if his subsequent owner ever noticed that there was a piece missing. Kids often noticed that sort of thing more quickly than their parents did. Marge hoped she wouldn’t unwittingly return Gina with some kind of damage the little girl would see, like a broken stitch somewhere or a bleach stain or a… missing piece?
Marge slapped her forehead. Of course. Gina had been wearing a mask when the family entered the store, but not when Marge had withdrawn her from the garbage. It was probably some trivial crafts project undertaken during a boring day in quarantine, but undoubtedly it was now as much a part of this fox as its ears or its tail. Returning Gina unmasked was almost as bad as not returning her at all.
Marge scrounged around for her old sewing kit and some kind of material. She didn’t have any felt, but she did have a box of odd scraps from the days when she’d make Mackenzie’s pajamas and Halloween costumes. Surely something would… aha! Marge found a piece of butterfly print—not the same as on the child’s mask, but reminiscent—and set to work. It would take some creative design to accommodate the toy’s nose, but the end product was a befitting accessory should the nation’s next pandemic target foxes. It was perfect.
No… not quite perfect. It needed one more thing. A thing Marge had far too many of all over the house, in various drawers and cupboards and jacket pockets.
Once Gina was dried and outfitted in Marge’s handiwork, Marge placed the final touch. “Now you’re perfect,” she approved as she adhered a smiley-face sticker directly to the mask.
“Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order?” came the staticky voice from the little box at the drive-thru.
“I’ll have the breakfast burrito, some hash browns, and a large black coffee. Also, I was wondering—is Liz in today?”
A pause. “That’s me.”
“I work at Wal-Mart. I found something that I think might belong to you. Did you lose a stuffed fox yesterday?”
Another pause. Then, in a quick, low voice, Liz responded excitedly, “Do you mind coming into the dining area? I can unlock it in two minutes.”
“I can do that. As long as I still get my hash browns!”
Marge parked the car in a space littered with cherry-blossom petals and picked up Gina from the passenger seat. She dashed across the parking lot, to where Liz was opening the door and desperately gesturing for Marge to come in.
Inside the dining room, the lights were off, and chairs were stacked upside-down on top of the tables. But in a booth by the window sat a toddler and a little girl, each with a stack of coloring pages, a basket of mostly broken and/or unwrapped crayons in the middle of the table. To the left, the toddler happily scribbled with no regards for the outline of a giraffe on the paper. He alternated amongst three or four crayons, all of them some shade of green. The pages he had finished seemed to be covered in green, so much green! Meanwhile, to the right, the little girl slowly and neatly filled in the horn of a unicorn with a magenta crayon. Her posture was slumped; she did not appear to be enjoying the coloring session as much as her brother.
“Kyli! Kyli, look who it is!” Liz called, prompting Kyli to look up.
Instantly, Kyli dropped her crayon, dashed across the tile floor, and pulled Gina into her arms, kissing the fox’s head fiercely through her mask. She turned to Marge and eagerly opened her hands for a hug until she remembered and dejectedly took six steps backwards.
Marge laughed. “It’s okay, I know we have to be super careful about hugging right now. Instead you can hug Gina extra tight and pretend it’s me, okay?”
Kyli nodded solemnly before embracing the toy again.
“You have no idea what a relief this is,” Liz told Marge.
“Oh, I might. I have a daughter of my own, and I remember when she was that age. It was so long ago.”
“Maybe she’ll get a kick out of hearing how you singlehandedly saved our family from days of sheer doom and gloom! You should tell her about rescuing Gina the next time you call her.”
Marge smiled. “You know… I just might.”