At the conclusion of meeting #379, Jane covered her webcam, turned off her speakers, and dropped her head into her hands. It was the same every time. These video meetings left her drained and emotional, questioning every word she said, every half-heard phrase, every glitchy movement from her coworkers. It was difficult enough to work from home when communication in companies was so poor, but to add a video meeting to the mix was almost too much for her to handle.
At least it’s just for work. And they’re usually relatively short, she thought. And I still have a job.
That last thought was one she was making a conscious effort to remember when she was overwhelmed. Sure video meetings suck, but at least her bills were paid. And she didn’t have to make small talk in the break room anymore. That was a perk.
A cold, wet nose shoved against her leg, reminding her of yet another bonus of working from home.
“Scotch!” she reached down to pet the Shepherd’s velvety ears and was greeted with a slobbery kiss.
“You know I hate shutting you out of the office. But I can’t have you barking at everyone.”
Scotch grinned up at her and rolled on his back for belly rubs.
“I know, buddy. Thanks.” Running her hands through his fur and feeling his palpable joy at being with her always made her feel better after the long days.
A ding at the computer behind her concluded their break.
Jane sighed. “Sorry, Scotch. Karen wants another update. As if I can actually get anything done in between meetings.”
Scotch cocked his head and pawed at her hand on the computer mouse.
She stood and gestured at the door. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll let you back in soon.”
He dropped his head and slunk into the hallway, casting a backward glance at her with the puppy eyes he had mastered long ago.
She blew him a kiss, shut the door, uncovered the camera, and pasted on a smile.
Her evenings consisted of a quick dinner, a jog with Scotch, and then cuddles on the couch. He was asleep at her feet when the shrill ringing of her phone jerked him awake so fast that his lip stayed stuck against his teeth.
She chuckled and hit Accept.
“Hi, Mom. What’s up?”
Trey stood at the large sink, scrubbing at the dry, cracking skin on his hands as if it harbored an invisible intruder. Which, to be honest, it very well might.
He dried his hands and turned off the water, all while avoiding looking in the mirror. The sight of himself in that mask sent shivers up his spine. Each accidental glimpse caught in a window or computer screen sent him reeling back down the path of complete terror and disbelief.
It had been hard enough to start wearing scrubs. Initially, he had felt a sense of pride at being part of the healthcare system. Even if he wasn’t clinical, someone had to manage the records. But after seeing the nurses and doctors around him save lives while he organized paperwork, he felt more and more like an imposter and a coward.
Now he was wearing a mask. An actual N95 medical mask, a mask that made him look like he was on the frontlines. Him, Trey, the guy whose personal protective equipment training consisted of a five-minute video, the guy whose medical knowledge extended only as far as HIPAA laws and the charts he filed.
Seeing himself in the mask only served as a grim reminder that this was actually happening.
He escaped to his car where he could finally take the damn thing off. He grabbed the straps behind his head and pulled them over, taking care not to touch any part of the actual mask, and set it on his dash for tomorrow.
As he drove home, he watched people walking with friends and family, laughing, eating and drinking and enjoying their time together. He envied them. He was straddling the worlds of healthcare and the general public, and he didn’t belong in either.
He was not directly helping anyone who was sick. But simply due to where he worked, the his risk of being exposed to the virus was far higher than most people.
With that thought dominating his mind, he walked into his small apartment, took off his scrubs, left his shoes at the door, and took a shower.
He settled down to watch a new documentary, accompanied by a beer and a frozen dinner. Vibrations erupted from his phone before the documentary’s premise had been stated, and he paused one and answered the other in a fluid motion.
Maddie glared at her roommate. “I’m not staying trapped in here.”
“We’re literally being told to. It’s not a choice.” Allie propped her chin up with her fist. “Besides, don’t you want to see your family without worrying?”
“Ok, first, being stuck in this room is not healthy. Second, my family isn’t all getting together anyways.”
“Well, I want to,” Allie whispered.
Maddie took that as concession of the argument and slammed the door behind her. It’s not like she was going to a party or something. Just hanging out with a few friends in one of their rooms. And it wasn’t her fault Allie had a flair for the dramatic.
She had never seen the campus so deserted before; the only sign of other students was the light streaming through the dorm windows. No drunken laughter echoed off the buildings, no dedicated joggers ran the uneven sidewalks, no late night studiers scampered back from the library.
The academic buildings loomed over the commons, encased in shadow. Their gothic designs were beautiful in the daylight, but they emitted a macabre and ominous now aesthetic in the darkness. She usually enjoyed walking through and admiring them, but tonight she picked up her speed until she was once again surrounded by box-y, boring, impersonal dorm buildings.
She had made it across the deserted campus and to Peter’s dorm before the reality of Allie’s words hit her.
Her hand hovered over the doorknob while her mind picked up where the argument had left off.
She hadn’t won. Nope, she was just an immature, selfish idiot. She gritted her teeth, turned on her heel, and retraced her steps back to her room.
Maddie latched the door behind her and called out, “Allie? You’re right. I didn’t go.”
Allie peered over the edge of her loft bed with bloodshot eyes and gave a weak smile. “Thanks.”
Maddie took a seat at her desk and opened an assignment she should have been working on anyways. Thirty minutes in, her concentration was broken by a signature ringtone.
It was dark when Tina finished her final errand of the day. Although that wasn’t saying much when the sun set at five o’clock.
Traffic was far worse than normal rush hour but lighter than it should have been the day before Thanksgiving. As she sat staring at the rows of red taillights ahead, her mind wandered to her kids. All three were less than a few hours away, but the events of this year made it feel like they were across the country.
They had never spent a Thanksgiving apart. Even as work and school began to dominate their schedules, there was always some time left to spend together.
She inched forward to follow the car in front of her. At least she knew they were all home and safe.
Tomorrow would be a first for all of them. But, with any luck, it would go as planned and provide an escape, albeit a temporary one, from the hell that had been this year.
She made her way home, inch by inch, on autopilot.
Thanksgiving morning, Tina woke to an empty house, a bare fridge, and one final errand.
She grabbed the thin box she had placed next to her purse last night, locked the door, and climbed into her car.
As she dialed the number that she had long ago memorized and listened to the harsh ringing, she sent up a quick prayer.
“Health and Hearts Nursing Home, Claire speaking.”
She breathed a sigh of relief as the familiar, singsong voice rattled off the greeting.
“Hello, Claire. It’s Tina. Im on my way now; can I leave it outside the door with a small pack of cleaning wipes?”
“Yes, ma’am, of course! I’ll keep watch for you.”
“Thank you,” Tina let herself feel a sliver of relief. “And will you stay with her for a while to make sure everything works and she’s doing okay?”
Tina could hear Claire’s smile through the phone and she sent up a quick Thank you for the sweet young girl.
She pulled up to the modern building, and stepped out of the car to set the package next to the glass door. She saw Claire standing on the other side, and waved.
Claire cleaned the package intently, making sure to sanitize every inch, then washed her hands with the same diligence.
Once she was confident all was safe and it was the right time, she rapped on door number thirty-one and pushed opened it enough to see inside.
When no reply came, she stepped into lamp-lit room and turned on the bright overhead light.
“Mrs. Jones? Are you all right?”
The elderly woman was propped up in her recliner, facing the window. As Claire moved towards her, she saw a lone tear fall from her left eye.
“Oh, Mrs. Jones,” her voice cracked and she struggled to compose herself. “I have something I think you’ll want to see.”
She brought a tray over and set it in front of the chair, then placed the tablet on it.
“Hi, Mom,” Tina cried out as the video focused in on her mother and Claire.
She watched her mother react to her voice and focus on the tablet as if she was just now seeing it.
“Yeah, Mom, it’s me. We aren’t allowed to come visit. But I had to see you.” She brushed a tear from her cheek. “I miss you so much.”
Her mother’s small frame shook. “I miss you too.”
“I’m not the only one who misses you, though.” At that, three more people joined the call.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Grandma!” Jane, Trey, and Maddie called out in attempted unison. Their smiling faces buffered and froze on the screen and their voices broke in and out over each other, but it didn’t matter. They were there.
Tina smiled as she watched her kids talking and laughing with her mother. For this brief moment, everything was okay again.
Jane pulled Scotch into the camera, barking excitedly at the familiar voices. Trey was settled in on his couch in a soft sweater Tina had sent him last month, and Maddie tuned in from her room, enjoying the respite from headphones while Allie was with her family.
Her mom seemed a bit overwhelmed with what was going on, but Claire stayed by her and handled the tablet and the various technological challenges it presented. The call dropped once, but it was resumed relatively quickly.
Claire called her later that evening, after they had all hung up.
“I just wanted to let you know, she spent dinner bragging about her grandchildren.”
Tina grinned. “Good. I’m so glad to hear that.”
“She also told everyone her daughter made sure the one and only true tradition was kept this year,” Claire added.
Tina paused, confused. “Tradition? We’ve never had many traditions. Did she say what she meant?”
“All she said was that you were all together. Oh, and she’s fast asleep now, I just checked in on her.”
“Thank you,” Tina whispered, hanging up the phone and letting a sense of peace overcome her.
Her mother was right. They had kept the one and only true tradition. And for that, she was thankful.