Ellowyne continued to stay at Rufus’ home after their quarantine expired. They decided she would stay there until his parents returned from their trip to Italy. In time, they settled into a daily routine. When they woke up in the morning, they canoodled, showered, and had breakfast. Then they worked on classwork on their computers, sometimes attending Zoom meetings or participating in online discussion groups. They would break for lunch, then go back to work. Usually, Rufus worked through the afternoon and Ellowyne made use of her box of fabrics by sewing masks to sell online. When finished, they made food and watched videos. Sometimes they played Exploding Kittens or Tacocat.Other times they played chess. And when they went to bed, they made love and spooned the entire night.
In their time together, they learned so much about each other. Ellowyne marveled at Rufus’ elaborate LEGO structures, drones, small robots, and Rube Goldberg devices. Her favorite Rube Goldberg machine picked up and shook the Mars globe she gave him for his birthday. (It was his favorite, too.) One of the Rufus’ idiosyncrasies was the way he listened to different music when he was studying. If he was working on math or statistics, he played Led Zeppelin. If he was doing his mechanical engineering course, he listened to Aerosmith. And if he was working on his humanities elective, he played Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac.
Rufus also learned more about Ellowyne. Gone was the sad, anxious girl who was perpetually in the throes of an existential crisis. Rufus thought back to the days when they were in middle school, when he first noticed how unhappy she seemed but how she wore creative clothing. That girl grew up. In a relatively short period of time, Ellowyne shed her chrysalis and emerged a confident, self-actualized woman. Rufus was glad that she still created and wore wearable art, since that was one of the things that initially attracted him all those years ago.
One afternoon, Dr. Bantam called Ellowyne to figure out a way to continue her therapy in spite of the pandemic. Immediately, she noticed how Ellowyne sounded so different. There was a cheerfulness, a buoyancy in her speech, something Dr. Bantam had never heard from her in the past. Dr. Bantam asked Ellowyne what had changed in her life to make her so happy.
Ellowyne asked, “Do you remember how I was so unsure about Rufus and what he wanted from me? And you encouraged me to consider him as more than just a friend? Things happened. I realized what a wonderful man he is and I figured out that I was attracted to him. We are now in a serious relationship. I love him and he loves me. We got quarantined together and I’m living with him until his parents get back from Italy.”
Gobsmacked but happy for Ellowyne, Dr. Bantam encouraged her to stay in touch and call her if she needs an appointment or just to talk.
One morning, Ellowyne was in the living room, checking Facebook before her class started. She knew Rufus was working on stats because she could hear Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog coming from his room. The doorbell rang, so Ellowyne, dressed in Rufus’ pajama top and her sweatpants, answered after she out on one of the masks she was wearing. At the door stood a man and a woman, both in masks and business suits, asking for Mr. Rutter.
“Honey, there are some people who want to talk with you,” she called out.
“I’ll be right there,” he answered. He was wearing his pajama pants and pulled on a t-shirt and mask before he got to the front door. He furrowed his brows when he saw the visitors, who looked very serious and were carrying several cardboard boxes. What on earth could they want?
The woman asked for Mr. Rutter but Rufus said, “I’m sorry. My father isn’t here. He and my mother went to Italy for an extended vacation.”
“No, no. Sir. We’re from the State Department, and we’re here to see you,” the man said. He and the woman showed their identification badges to Rufus. “We’re sorry, but we’re here to inform you of the passing of both of your parents.”
Rufus looked incredulous and shook his head. “I don’t believe it. My parents were fine when they left.”
The woman said, “They died of coronavirus in Italy.” She handed him two boxes, both of which were marked “cremains”.
“Yeah, right,” Rufus responded. “This sounds like a prank my best friend would do. Penn set you up to do this, didn’t he?”
Ellowyne came up beside Rufus and put her arm around his shoulder. “Honey, I don’t think Penn would do this.”
“Nope. No way. These ashes might have come from somebody’s charcoal grill. Or from burned papers. My parents are fine. And if they died, why wouldn’t the corpses have been sent?”
“Sir, there is too much risk shipping a corpse to any location in the US,” the woman stated. “We don’t know if handling the remains of someone who died of COVID-19 can expose someone to the disease. So they are all cremated when they pass.”
The man gave Rufus a box that contained his parents’ valuables. He said, “You will find your parents’ jewelry and watches, along with their other personal items in here.”
After they left, Rufus tossed the boxes onto the couch. “Penn sure outdid himself. A box with my parents’ valuables. Yeah, right. He put a lot of effort into this prank.”
Rufus sent a text message to Penn. “Great gag! You must have had this planned for weeks! A little late for April Fools’ Day but it’s still funny!”
Penn, who had a rare opportunity to take a quick break, texted back. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“You set up those people, allegedly from the State Department, to tell me my parents died in Italy.”
A few minutes later, Penn responded, “I’m sorry. I didn’t have anything to do with this. But I don’t think it’s a prank.”
Dumbfounded, Rufus put his phone in his pocket. He asked Ellowyne, “Can you believe it? Penn says he knows nothing of this prank. In fact, he doesn’t think it was a prank at all!” He noticed Ellowyne’s somber expression. “You don’t think it’s true, do you?”
Ellowyne didn’t answer him right away. She reached over to touch his cheek. “I hope it’s not true. But I’m here for you whatever happens.
The rest of the day was marked by verbal silence. Rufus was blasting Led Zeppelin so he had to be working on statistics. Later he listened to Aerosmith, so Ellowyne knew he was working on some of his engineering projects. But then, the music stopped. Ellowyne quit sewing masks when Rufus emerged from his room. She asked tentatively, “How are you feeling? Did you get a lot done?”
He answered, “Eh, I got some stuff done but I guess my heart wasn’t in it. What do you think? Are my parents really gone?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you should open the box with your parents’ valuables. You know, to see if it really is their stuff.”
“No. It’s just a ruse. I’m not going to fall for that nonsense. If Penn didn’t do it, somebody did. Maybe one of my classmates. You know how crazy engineers get.”
Then he deftly changed the subject. “Hey, what would you like for supper tonight? I’m in the mood for Thai.”
Eating was the last thing on Ellowyne’s mind. She remembered how she felt when her mother died when her car was struck by a drunk driver. Ellowyne was only five years old when she lost her mother. For the longest time, she didn’t understand where her mother was or why she wasn’t coming back. From her perspective, death was temporary and reversible. She also thought she could wish her mother back home. At every dusk, she would wait to see the first star so she could make a wish that her mother would return. Alas, all the wishing in the world could not bring Ellowyne’s mother back, and eventually she realized that her mother was really dead. So, although the circumstances were different, she understood Rufus’ shock and denial. She would support him in any way possible. And right now, he needed food.
“Sure,” she said. “I’m not terribly hungry but I would like some Thai fried rice with shrimp and pineapple. Are you getting drunken noodles?”
“Nope! I’m going to have some Crying Tiger.”
Usually, Ellowyne teased Rufus about the hot, spicy food, which usually made him laugh. She tried to muster up some enthusiasm and hoped he wouldn’t notice how hard she was trying to be normal. “OMG! That stuff’s so spicy it could make a tiger cry! Dried Thai peppers on dried Thai peppers on dried Thai peppers, and a little bit of steak you can drown in the sauce. But I’m not sure if I want to kiss you after you eat. And if you wake up with indigestion in the middle of the night, don’t blame me!”
Rufus grinned and phoned in an order for delivery. He seemed to forget about the visit from the State Department. Ellowyne vowed to be patient with him and not push him to open the boxes.
As they ate, Rufus exclaimed, “I know what happened! It’s a mistake. They misidentified the remains and my parents are fine.” He continued to ignore the boxes, especially the one marked valuables. He decided to watch the blu-ray of some superhero movies. “Michael Keaton was the best Batman. And Jack Nicholson as the Joker is inspired.”
After the first movie, Rufus wanted to watch another. Ellowyne agreed that the movie was good, especially the scenes of the Joker running rampant in an art museum, all set to a soundtrack by Prince. She made popcorn, hot and dripping with butter, and they cuddled together under a soft blanket. Without mentioning the boxes, Ellowyne got ready for bed, as did Rufus, and they spooned most of the night.
In the middle of the night, Ellowyne awoke to an empty bed. She threw on a robe and a pair of slippers and headed toward the living room. There she found Rufus with the contents of the box marked “Valuables” spread out on the coffee table. He had opened their wallets and passports. There was no way someone could fake those documents. He picked up his father’s watch, then his camera. And then he picked up his mother’s engagement and wedding rings. They were family heirlooms, meant to passed from one generation to the next. He remembered something his mother had said,” When you find a woman to marry, I will give these to you. I hope you end up with Ellowyne. I know how much you love her.”
He tried to choke back his tears, but they defied him. By that time, Ellowyne came over to the couch and sat with him. “It isn’t a prank or a mistake. My parents are gone,”he said as he collapsed into Ellowyne’s arms and sobbed. She held him, rubbed his shoulders, and stroked his hair.
To Be Continued…