Not All Superheroes Wear Capes 2

“April Fool’s Day. How appropriate,” Penn muttered to himself. It was 9:30 AM and he just finished another 16-hour shift in the ER. He managed to get to the cafeteria before they stopped serving breakfasts. His pancakes were cold, his bacon was burned, and his coffee was anemic. He would have loved a to have a scone or a doughnut and a freshly brewed caramel latte with his friends. They texted him several times but he often didn’t have the time to reply. He missed them. He missed the way he and Rufus used to make each other laugh until one of them snorted beer out of his nose. He missed listening to Lizette talk about animals and Prudence talk about the sports and holistic healing. He even missed hearing Ellowyne and Amber discuss shopping. Penn really didn’t have many friends. He lived with a bunch of nursing, pharmacy, and medical students. They didn’t interact much because they were all too busy. He kept in touch with several soldiers with whom he was deployed, but none of them lived close. Nursing school was rigorous and he had little time or energy to hang out with anyone but his group of friends. They kept him grounded and sane. Eh, enough pondering. Penn needed to finish his food and get some sleep. 

Penn started his car to drive home. When he got home, he had received a couple of texts. One was a cute meme from Ellowyne showing Grumpy Cat. Prudence rickrolled him, and Amber sent him a funny but slightly risqué video. Lizette sent a link to the “news” Keanu Reeves would star in a remake of Citizen Kane. But there was not a word from Rufus until late in the day. He finally messaged, “April Fool’s Day has been cancelled this year because no prank could match the unbelievable crap going on in the world right now.”

Penn opened a bottle of beer and texted Rufus, “Touché, old chum. Touché.”

To be continued…

Nature Abhors a Vacuum: Prudence

After her marathon late-night discussion with Ellowyne, Pru fell into bed and deep slumber. Indeed, she almost slept through her alarm, which wouldn’t be a bad thing except that she was going to have a group FaceTime conversation with Lizette and Amber at 8:30AM sharp. She stretched, showered, brewed some green tea, and sprinkled some homemade granola onto her Greek yogurt. Lizette was already on FaceTime, so they chatted a bit before Amber joined them.

“Hey, Pru,” Lizette asked, “how long do you think this COVID thing is going to last?”

“I don’t know, Liz. Either it’s going to get done quickly or it will drag on for months.”

“I’m worried about finishing our courses and how this might impact everyone who is going to graduate school. I’m going to UC Davis for veterinary school, Amber’s doing law school at Stanford, Rufus is staying at Berkeley, and you’re staying at State for holistic health and physical therapy. Ellowyne said she was going for her MFA but either she decided against it or she just didn’t get in.”

Prudence scoffed. “Ellowyne not get in to an MFA program? I don’t believe that. Maybe she’s just taking off a year before going back.”

“Well, and then there’s Penn,” Lizette said. “His ultimate goal is to work on a  medivac helicopter, but he needs a couple of years of critical care and ER experience before he can apply.”

“Now is he thinking of graduate school?”

Liz thought for a minute. “You know, he has talked about getting an advanced nursing degree, like to be a nurse practitioner. Or a nurse anesthetist.” 

Just then, Amber joined the discussion. She shouted, “Heifers!”, which was a big joke she shared with all of her female friends. 

Lizette and Prudence replied, “Cow!” And the three of them giggled and mooed.

After an enjoyable chat with Amber and Lizette, Pru went to her room to meditate. She lit some candles and turned on some music for a guided meditation. Breathe in, breathe out. Empty your head of distracting, negative thoughts. Now chant. “Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum.” When she had finished her meditation, she felt refreshed. 

Prudence was a busy woman. She played rugby and softball and flirted with roller derby. She attended Zumba, circuit training, and hot yoga classes. She loved her college courses, and enjoyed the mental challenges they posed. And she enjoyed spending time with her friends, sometimes doing fun activities and other times just hanging out. She and Penn often discussed healthcare, with him finishing nursing school and her starting the physical therapy program at State in the fall. Now, she had no classes since it was spring break. She couldn’t practice with her sports teams, and she wasn’t able to hang out with her friends because of COVID restrictions. She immediately put a Tai Chi DVD into the player to occupy her mind and give her something to do since otherwise, she had nothing.

To be continued…

Love and Loss: Ellowyne and Rufus

That afternoon, when Penn left to go home, Rufus texted Ellowyne, asking her if she had time to chat.  Ellowyne texted him back. “Better than that! Would you like to hang out today? We can watch a movie or something.”

Rufus still felt rough around the edges but he didn’t want to waste a chance to spend time with Ellowyne. He asked, “Do you mind coming over here?”

“Sure! I can bring some popcorn and ice cream! See you soon!

Ellowyne arrived at Rufus’ house about half an hour later. When she got to the door, she embraced him warmly. As he leaned in to kiss her, she put her finger on his lips and playfully asked, “Don’t you need some Chapstick after last night? I mean, you got kissed by almost everybody in our section.”

“Yeah, I didn’t expect that!” He leaned in to give her a kiss.  

She pulled away from him and bit her bottom lip. “Was there any one kiss that was special or meaningful, different from the rest?”

“You know, there was one kiss that meant more to me than all of them.” His eye twinkled as he grinned and said, “The one from Penn!”

Ellowyne laughed and went to the kitchen to put the ice cream in the freezer. Rufus stood in the kitchen and embraced Ellowyne. Eventually they went to the couch but the TV was never turned on and the popcorn and ice cream went uneaten. In the end, they both needed Chapstick. 

Ellowyne left close to midnight, and she texted Prudence as soon as she got home. “Prudence! Can we talk? Please?”

Pru had already gone to bed but she was intrigued. Usually, she and Ellowyne texted but something—perhaps her sixth sense–told her to FaceTime rather than just talk or text. 

Ellowyne looked absolutely radiant, and her voice was rhapsodic. “Oh, Prudence! I just had the most amazing evening of my life!”

Pru was gobsmacked. Typically, Ellowyne was in the throes of an existential crisis, and she complained about feeling melancholic, lethargic, and bored most of the time. But now she sounded happy! And she looked happy! Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were flushed. Pru asked, “Ellowyne, what’s going on?”

“Grandmother, Father, and Freddy were gone, so I asked Rufus if I could come over to watch a movie. We started to but then we got a little, um, distracted.”

Prudence cautiously asked, “What did you do?”

“It started out with one little kiss and then another and another. We made out on the couch. He’s such a great guy! He’s smart and funny and kind. And he kisses so well. At least I think so. I mean, he’s the first boy I’ve ever kissed. But I don’t want to know what it’s like to kiss someone else. I want to be with him. He has the most beautiful brown eyes, and his lips are soft, almost pillow-like. Oh, Prudence. I think I am falling in love with him! Do you think I should call him right now and tell him?”

“Let him get some sleep. Talk to him later,” Prudence suggested. “And I need to go to sleep, too. Goo–”

Ellowyne was caught up in her feelings and seemed not to notice that Pru was ready to go to bed. “Prudence, why had I never noticed what a wonderful guy Rufus is? How was I so blind, so stupid, to not realize that the perfect guy was right in front of me all this time? I was such an idiot and wrapped up in my ennui that I couldn’t see that love was always here. I hope I can make it up to him.” 

“Ellowyne, I am so happy for you. But really, I need to sleep. Let’s talk later.” After Ellowyne left their conversation, Pru sighed and rolled her eyes. “Just like Ellowyne to fall in love at the start of a pandemic.”

Ellowyne came over to Rufus’ house on Monday and stayed until evening. His parents were still on vacation in Europe, so his house was empty. They played some word games, watched videos, and canoodled on the couch. For lunch, they feasted on some ramen noodles and the ice cream Ellowyne brought. Then they binged episodes of Game of Thrones and kissed a little more.

Tuesday was much like Monday and Ellowyne again came over to Rufus’ home. They played games, watched videos on YouTube, scrounged around the kitchen for something to eat, and, of course, necked on the couch. They just started to put some ramen in the microwave when Penn texted Rufus.

“Well, that was interesting,” Rufus said. “According to Penn, we’re supposed to shelter-in-place. And you and I have to quarantine. I’m sorry, Ellie. I mean, I might have gotten exposed at my birthday party but if I did, I’ve exposed you since we’ve been…”


Rufus blushed. “Yeah. That. Then again, we can quarantine together.”

Ellowyne said, “Let’s go over to my house so I can grab my clothes and other stuff.” Which they did. Rufus was a little overwhelmed at the sheer volume of things Ellowyne insisted on taking. There were two bulging suitcases filled with clothes, a makeup case, her laptop and charger, a tote of fabrics, and a sewing machine. A sewing machine? 

When they got everything into the house, Rufus complained that his back ached because of all the things he carried. Ellowyne was happy to oblige with a back rub, which, of course, turned into serious canoodling on the couch. But before they reached a point of no return, they awkwardly disentangled themselves and got ready to go to sleep. Rufus gave Ellowyne his parents’ room, while he retreated to his just down the hall. Their goodnight kiss was sweet but emotionally charged, and they retired to their respective bedrooms.

Since their schools were on spring break, they didn’t have to worry about classwork. So they were enjoying quarantine. Neither developed any symptoms of COVID, so they decided to have some fun during spring break. They played chess and word games. They tried to cook but were woefully inept, which they found hilarious. Fortunately, on Wednesday afternoon, Penn dropped off a care package that included ice cream, sourdough bread, frozen pizzas, craft beer, and ready-to-drink margarita mix. He also included something special for Rufus that made him blush deeply and not show to Ellowyne. At least not yet. 

Rufus, who loved vintage movies, introduced Ellowyne to tearjerker romances. Late that afternoon they watched Somewhere in Time, which left Ellowyne ugly crying. Rufus embraced Ellowyne and let her weep on his shoulder. Between sniffles and sobs, she wailed, “Jane Seymour spent the rest of her life without the man she loved. And Christopher Reeve loved her so much he went back in time for her. And the ending! It was so beautiful but so-so-so sad.” As Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini  played as the credits rolled, Ellowyne pulled herself from Rufus, and looked intensely into his vibrant brown eyes. She said, “These past few days while we’ve been quarantined have been amazing, and I think we’ve gotten to know each other in ways we never expected. You are an awesome man. You’re sweet and kind. You’re the smartest and funniest man I know. I love you. I really love you.” 

At first, Rufus didn’t respond. Finally, his voice shaky, he said, “I have loved you from the first time we met, and I’ve wanted to hear those words from you. But I need to know. How do you mean it? Do you mean you love me as a friend? I remember you said that long ago, and you’ve told it to our friends. Or do you mean you love me in THAT way?” He tried, unsuccessfully, to  suppress a hot tear that threatened to trickle down his face.

She wiped his cheek with her finger. “I’m so sorry. I was an idiot to tell you—or any of our friends—that I loved you as a friend. At the time, I did. I guess I was too wrapped up in my stupid ennui that I wasn’t sensitive or receptive to your feelings. That was the dumbest and most selfish thing I’ve ever done. But what I feel now—no, you’re not  just a friend. What I feel is far more than that. I do love you in THAT way. Please, let me show you.”

Wordlessly, she took his hand and led him to his bedroom. 

The next morning, Rufus awakened to find Ellowyne gone from his bed. Did she go home? Did she regret what they did the previous night? He threw on his robe to look for her. But before he could do so, Ellowyne, dressed in his pajama top, sauntered into the bedroom with a tray. “Good morning! I made avocado toast.”

He raised an eyebrow when he looked at the breakfast she prepared. “Um, I think something’s not right here.” 

Ellowyne looked at the tray and squealed. “OMG! I forgot to toast the bread!” She and Rufus dissolved into laughter until both of them were in tears and Ellowyne snorted like a pig.  Rufus had never heard her laugh like that, and he thought it was adorable.  

“We are so going to starve to death,” Rufus said. “I’ll put the avocado into the refrigerator and maybe later we can try making guacamole. Do you want anything that I won’t mess up?”

“Do we have some more ice cream?”

“We do! Penn made sure we had several pints, mostly chocolate. Oh, and that coffee ice cream Amber raves about. We finished one pint last night. Or this morning,” Rufus said, grinning. “We didn’t get much sleep, did we?”

Ellowyne scrunched her nose and smiled. “We don’t need food. We can live on love.”

“And avocado bread!” He ducked when Ellowyne playfully threw a pillow at him. 

That evening, Rufus texted Penn. “Thank you.”

To be continued…

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes: Penn

It was noon on the day after Rufus’ birthday party, and Amber texted him. “I’m trying to get in touch with Penn. Do know where he is?”

There was no reply. So Amber sent another text to Rufus, again asking him if he knew where Penn was. Again, no answer. So one more time, she texted Rufus about Penn’s whereabouts. When there was still no response, she decided to call him.

Rufus woke with a start when his phone blared the opening guitar riff from The Immigrant Song. Although he loved Led Zeppelin, he swore he would get a different ringtone ASAP. He groaned and wondered who might be calling him at such an ungodly hour. And why!

“Good morning, sunshine,” Amber said brightly. “How does our birthday boy feel today?”

His mouth was bone dry, his muscles ached as if he’d run a marathon, his stomach was as woozy as if it was on an extreme roller coaster, and his head hurt like someone had split it with a sledge hammer. “I feel like crap, caca, Number 2, feces, guano, merde, sh–.”

“Merde. And you said you don’t know French. Très bien!”

They were good friends but Rufus was getting annoyed. “What do you want, Amber?”

“Oh, Rufus. I do feel badly that you have the bottle flu. But you will live to drink another day.” Her tone turned from saccharin to solemn. “I’m trying to get in touch with Penn. He isn’t answering texts and calls go to his voice mail.”

“He was probably smart enough to turn off his phone,” Rufus grumbled. “So what’s so urgent that you’re trying to reach him?”

Amber replied, “I just want to ask him something about this COVID stuff. I was reading about it online and I want to see what he thinks. You know, because he’s a nursing student.”

“I think he’s asleep on our couch. Let me awaken the sleeping prince. Text him in ten or fifteen minutes.”

With that, He padded into the living room of his parents’ house and found Penn, sleeping soundly, on the couch with his clothes still on but his phone turned off. Quietly, Rufus stole into the kitchen and brought out two big metal pans. Then he slunk back to the living room and clanged them together several times.

“Wake up, dude,’ Rufus hollered. Penn stirred slightly but didn’t awaken. “WAKE UP, DOOOD! Nothing. Rufus then sang an off-key rendition of Reveille: “You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up this morning.”

Penn weakly opened his bloodshot eyes and groaned. “Is it morning already?”

“It’s past noon!! Wake up! Amber has been trying to get in touch with you.”

Penn muttered. “What does she want?”

“She wants to know about COVID. You’re almost a nurse. You understand this stuff.”

“Don’t worry, old chum. We didn’t drink any Corona so we can’t get coronavirus”. 

Penn chuckled at his own joke. “No, seriously, I’m not sure what to think of it. I kind of think it’s going to be no big deal and we’ll return to normal soon. I’m sure my epidemiology professor will be geeking out about it. I’ll email her when I’m coherent. And then I’ll text everyone.”

Later that day, Penn received a couple of emails from State’s College of Nursing. As he expected, his epidemiology professor was psyched, gushing that this was a unique opportunity for the students to learn about a pandemic from the very start. The Dean advised the students that there would be no more in-person classwork, suspending even the clinical practicums for a time. All coursework would be conducted online, and arrangements would be made to reschedule the clinicals without disrupting the trajectory for graduation. Lastly, he read a most intriguing and unexpected email. He and his cohorts would be able to work at the hospital, which would cover the hands-on clinicals, and they wouldn’t have to complete their coursework and  be given their  midterm grades as their finals. The students opting for this would even be permitted to take their state nursing exams early. He texted his advisor, Dr. Judy Kopper, immediately.

“I am definitely interested in working at the hospital in lieu of clinicals and online coursework. And taking the licensing exam early sounds great!”

“Penn, I am so glad you are going to do this. You’re one of our top students, and this will be a great experience since you want to work with critically ill patients when you graduate. You’ll be in the Emergency Room (ER), so you’ll do trauma and  take care of patients with COVID. Can you start your orientation Tuesday?”

Penn thought for a nanosecond. “That sounds great!”

Dr. Kopper smiled at Penn’s response. He was always the first to volunteer and was eager to learn and serve. “Remember, shelter-in-place starts tomorrow, except for essential workers—like you!” 

After the text conversation was over, Penn rubbed his forehead, grimaced, and shook his head. Shelter-in-place. Maybe the pandemic wasn’t going to be over quickly. Maybe it would last longer and be more widespread than anyone knew. He went to the refrigerator, grabbed a craft beer and some cheese and summer sausage, and turned on his TV. Maybe the Golden State Warriors were playing basketball. Or maybe there was a hockey game on TV. Great! The Seattle Kraken were playing against the San Jose Sharks. Prudence was an avid Sharks fan, and she and Penn had a friendly rivalry over which team was better. The loser would have to buy burgers and beer the next time they went out together. Rufus liked hockey, too. He found the fights to be cathartic and he liked the opportunity to shout and be as loud as possible. He and Penn also had a friendly rivalry whenever the Berkeley Golden Bears played the San Francisco State Gators, again with the loser having to buy food and drink after the game. It didn’t matter what sport they were playing—football, basketball, hockey—the main point was to see each one’s school defeat the other’s team. Oh, right. Penn planned to text Rufus about the shelter-in-place orders but the Kraken scored and Pru sent him a message trash talking Penn’s team, so he forgot. 

Tuesday, Penn arrived at the ER well before his shift began. He wore a freshly pressed scrub suit and a new pair of Jordans, and he was sipping on a 31-ounce iced espresso. He chatted with several of his classmates, including Judy, Beth, and Nancy. Everyone was excited and upbeat about the opportunity to utilize what they’d learned in nursing school—and get paid!

At 7AM sharp the nurse manager, Doris, greeted the students and shuffled them into a conference room where she plied them with doughnuts and muffins. Penn wasn’t sure what to think about her. She was a rather fluffy, slightly messy woman with the demeanor of a spoiled Shih Tzu. This was a nurse manager? She also gave them paperwork that would be necessary for their jobs. They spent most of the morning going over the policy manual, filling out forms, getting their photos taken for their hospital IDs, and listening to Human Resources explain their pay and eventual benefits. Much to everyone’s delight, they would be paid a little less than RNs but once they passed their licensing exam, they’d get RN pay and full benefits. 

After an unpalatable lunch of disappointing cheeseburgers and slightly soggy slices of pizza, Doris helped the eager but still-hungry group sign in to the Computers on Wheels, aka COWs, that they would use for charting. All charting was to be done via a new electronic medical record system, the third such software the hospital had had in the past two years. None of the students in Penn’s orientation group had used that particular software, and it took much of the day to introduce it to them. She also got them into the pyxis system. This was a central machine that dispensed medications, thus decreasing errors while ensuring nurse accountability that medications were given to the right patient, the right drug, the right dose, the right time, and the right route. Penn recalled the numerous difficulties he had with the pyxis not accepting his data when he did his clinicals. Whenever he was going to give a medication, he had to get a nurse or his nursing instructor to get the med out of the pyxis for him. He hoped he wouldn’t face a similar challenge now that he was working at the hospital and should be in the system permanently.

Later, Doris assigned everyone to nurse preceptors whom they would shadow for the rest of the week and then act as resources when they started working independently and taking their own patient assignments. She introduced him to Margaret, a former mental health nursing instructor who looked put-upon and annoyed at the prospect of mentoring a student. Penn spoke up, “I’m so glad to meet you and I look forward to working with you.” Margaret muttered something unintelligible. Penn was supposed to follow Margaret for two shifts, and the third shift he was tasked with providing patient care under her supervision. Margaret was off until Thursday on the 7AM to 7:30 PM shift, and she worked Friday as well.

The senior nursing students only worked ten hours that first day, but they were scheduled for 12-hour shifts the rest of the week. Penn was so grateful that he was able to leave at 5:30 that afternoon. He suspected that the hospital hadn’t given him and his peers a complete orientation, but there was nothing they could do without risking their assignments. 

On the way out, he encountered Nancy. “That was intense,” he exclaimed. “I hope it isn’t always going to be so crazy.”

“It’s a little overwhelming,” Nancy replied. She was an admirable student, someone with a level head and tons of patience. “Hey, I was thinking about something. Your friend—the one who had the birthday—is he self-isolating? I mean, he was kissing a lot of people that night, and he might have gotten exposed to COVID.”

Penn realized he hadn’t told Rufus about shelter-in-place. He probably knew it by that time, but Penn texted him anyway when he got to his car. “Dude! Do you know about the shelter-in-place orders? Are you isolating yourself?”

Rufus texted him back. “Yeah, I read about shelter-in-place. I’m at home, but Ellowyne is with me. She’s come over the last couple of days.”

“Ellowyne’s there? Is she spending the night?”

“Penn,” Rufus texted, “we don’t have that kind of relationship. Not yet anyway…”

Penn laughed for the first time that day. He texted, “You dog!   ”

“All we’ve done is make out a little on the couch. Okay. A lot. But she goes back to her house to sleep.”

Penn furrowed his brows. “You both need to quarantine. If you did manage to pick up COVID, you might have exposed her. So you need to isolate yourselves. Of course, you could quarantine together. Your folks are still gone, right?”

Rufus paused. “Yeah, they are. Ellowyne’s family has been gone for a few days, too, so even if Ellowyne has it, the family shouldn’t be at risk. But I will make the supreme sacrifice and have her stay here.”

When Penn and Rufus finished their conversation, Penn smiled and said, “About time!!”

Penn was grateful to have Wednesday off. He braved the stores to stock up on toilet paper and some surface cleaners. He also picked up some stuff for a care package for Ellowyne and Rufus, since they might not be leaving the house anytime soon. He had text conversations with them as well as with Prudence, Lizette, and Amber. Feeling like he truly accomplished a lot, Penn fell into bed and was asleep by 9:00.

Thursday, he arrived at the ER well before the 7AM shift change. Margaret informed Penn that he was supposed to shadow her and not any of the other nurses. Some of them poach the orientees to help them with their work. Today and tomorrow, you are mine.”

They went into a conference room for the change of shift report. Penn gulped his 31-ounce iced espresso because he wasn’t sure he’d get another chance to finish it. He was right. 

Margaret showed Penn where the masks, gloves, and paper isolation gowns were kept. “Yeah, we’re supposed to have rebreather masks but all we have are those flimsy disposable ones. There’s a shortage of N95s because all of the healthcare institutions—and the lay public–want them. I think we should wear hazmat gear but there’s a shortage of that as well. Damn hospital only cares about nice, new construction but should the nurses ask for adequate staffing and personal protective equipment and suddenly there’s no money. I don’t know why you want to be a nurse. It’s the worst job in the world and every day it gets worse.”

Penn, usually a gregarious, garrulous fellow, was subdued and silent when he followed Margaret into the patient care area of the ER. They saw one patient after another after another, which reminded Penn of doing triage. The difference was that most of these patients had COVID. There had been a motor vehicle accident with both drivers and a passenger who had non-life-threatening injuries, and there was a gentleman in his seventies who was having a stroke. Otherwise, the ER and the waiting room were filled with persons presenting with high fevers, general malaise, and respiratory distress. Many of those patients were sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) while others who weren’t as sick stayed in the ER until regular rooms were available. 

The rest of the shift was a blur. Other than a five-minute bathroom break, Margaret and Penn saw a seemingly endless stream of patients, all in apparent respiratory distress. They triaged the patients, checking temperatures, administering diagnostic tests, and assessing the severity of symptoms. The sickest patients would be stabilized and sent to the ICU, while those who were not as ill went to regular floors, preferably to negative pressure isolation rooms, which decreased the flow of infectious pathogens to the outside of the rooms. The trouble was that the ICUs were close to being filled to capacity, and there weren’t enough isolation rooms to accommodate all the patients with suspected COVID. Penn noticed Doris on the phone to other nurse managers, trying to get the ICUs to move their less-critical patients to other floors and the regular floors to empty out as much as possible to provide room for other patients. It seemed to do little good. Some patients ended up on gurneys in the ER halls, and the onslaught of sick new patients continued. It was almost a relief for Penn when Margaret was assigned to the care of someone with a suspected heart attack. Something other than COVID! 

The hospital cafeteria quit serving at 2PM, so Margaret told one of the other nurses that she and Penn were taking a break. “A break?” one of them asked. “What’s a break?” 

Penn anxiously looked at Margaret and she said, “We’re supposed to get a half-hour meal break and two fifteen-minute breaks every shift. That never happens. We’re lucky to get any break, much less a meal break. Bathroom breaks are few and far between. Everyone laughs about developing ‘nurse bladder’. You’ll see what I mean!” 

Margaret continued the discussion about the frenzied pace of the ER when she and Penn got to the cafeteria. When he was halfway through his cheeseburger—which was still disappointing but tasted so very good because he was so very hungry—he asked Margaret if the ER was always that tumultuous. She sighed and said, “Sometimes it’s worse. Multiple vehicular accidents, patients who are drunk or high, drug seekers, patients who have ignored dangerous symptom of stroke or heart attack. We even had a mass shooting not long ago. But you’re an Army medic and have been in combat zones, right? You should be able to cope. At least you won’t have anyone trying to shoot you here. Hopefully.”

Penn choked down the rest of his burger. Worse than this? Worse than trying to save lives in a combat zone? As they headed back to the ER, Margaret advised him, “You might want to bring your own lunch, maybe some snacks. Something you can scarf. But you might want to downsize your morning coffee. We can’t always take the time to make our bladders flatter.”

The rest of the shift was as dizzying as the beginning. More patients with respiratory distress. More patients with fever. More patients who needed the uncomfortable diagnostic nose swabs. The faces, the races, the gender, the age were all different from one patient to another, yet they all seemed the same because they were sick, some of them so very sick, sicker than anyone Penn had ever treated as a medic or a student nurse. Luckily, the shift ended and Margaret told Penn she would see him in the morning. His gut level reaction was to say, I don’t think so, but Penn would never shirk a responsibility. When the shift was over, he got some fast food tacos, headed home, and opened a beer to enjoy with his food. He collapsed in his bed within the hour.

Friday, Penn got to the ER early with two 21-ounce coffees, one for him, one for Margaret. Surprisingly, she appreciated the gesture, but she told him she preferred a lot of cream in her coffee. Penn shrugged. Margaret was indeed a prickly soul.  They finished their drinks during the change of shift report. One of the nurses quipped, “Same—sh—uh, stuff, different day.” Another nurse related that at least twelve patients died during their shift and a good dozen more were transferred to the ICU or isolation rooms on the general floors.

He steeled himself for the oncoming shift. Yes, it would be hard work. But he had gotten good sleep and he had popped a few granola bars in his backpack. “It’s not as bad as combat,” he told himself. “It can’t be as bad as combat.” 

After he and Margaret triaged over ten patients before noon, Penn started to think that maybe it was as bad as combat.

To be continued…

A Work in Progress: Amber

“Ugh. It’s too early to get out of bed,” Amber proclaimed. She yawned and stretched and was about to hit the snooze button but Prudence had invited her and Lizette to a Monday morning FaceTime meeting to take the place of their usual routine at their favorite coffee shop. She had to make sure to shower, wash her hair, and put on full-face makeup. Couldn’t let her friends see her looking less than perfect! 

By the time she finished, it was time for the cyber meeting. Pru and Lizette were already online. Pru was eating yogurt topped with granola and sipping green tea, and Lizette had a blueberry muffin and a steaming cup of coffee. “Ladies! Good morning,” Prudence said brightly. 

“Oops! Give me a minute. Marisol wants to know what I’d like for breakfast,” Amber said. A few seconds later, she stated, “I’m having strawberry crepes with homemade whipped cream. And of course some of my favorite coffee.” That particular coffee was made from freshly ground kopi luwak and had a sweet hint of chocolate and caramel. 

Lizette giggled and asked, “Are you drinking that weasel poop coffee again?” 

“It isn’t weasel poop,” Amber laughed and exaggeratedly rolled her eyes. “it’s coffee beans that have been pre-digested by a civet, and—um—okay, fine it’s civet poop. But you, my dear veterinarian-to-be, should know that civets are not weasels. LOL.” Then she asked, “Where is Ellowyne? And Rufus? And Penn?”

Prudence shrugged. “I told Penn to call if he can. He starts his orientation at the ER tomorrow, so he might be too busy to join us. I talked with Ellowyne late last night, so she’s probably still sleeping. And Rufus is probably preoccupied.”

“With what? There’s something you’re not telling us,” Lizette said. 

“Okay. But you have to promise not to say anything to Ellowyne or Rufus. They made out last night. Either he’s getting out of the friend zone or they’re going to have an interesting friends with benefits thing,” Pru said. 

Amber gleefully said, “Wooooohooo! Atta boy, Rufus!” 

Prudence went on. “The weird thing is that Ellowyne seems happy! No complaining, no fatigue, and no ennui!”

Amber and Lizette were gobsmacked. Nothing ever seemed to ameliorate Ellowyne’s ennui. Shopping, dining out, going to gardens or the wharf or the zoo—none of it changed her mood. But a good snog with Rufus did what nothing else could do.

The three girls talked and laughed for almost an hour. “Oops, hang on again, ladies. Marisol is going to the grocery store to pick up food and other essential supplies, and she wants to know if there’s anything I might like. Some Ghirardelli chocolate, a couple of pints of ice cream, some strong bread flour, too. Oh, and I’d love to have croissants this week so please get some of that Irish butter and some chocolate to nestle in them.” 

Lizette and Prudence exchanged glances and tried not to burst out laughing. Over the years, Amber had morphed from a rich snob to a much nicer and down-to-earth friend. She was no longer inappropriate with the guys and she stopped trying to compete with the other girls in terms of appearance and dress. Still, Amber had a big personality and she wasn’t always aware that her life was one of tremendous privilege. 

Amber was also as lazy as a housecat. After she and her friends were done conversing, she went out to the pool to read magazines and get a little sun. She read Vogue and Cosmopolitan and, when she was done, she perused the internet for clothes, makeup, and jewelry. Then she decided to take a nice catnap. 

Her slumber was interrupted by a call from Penn. He excitedly told her about starting orientation in the ER and how he was going to practice real nursing. Sometimes he told her stories about being in the Army, and they often vented to each other when school seemed intolerable. He was an admirable soul, kind and smart. He also was pretty easy on the eyes. Nobody in their group of friends knew that Amber and Penn sometimes went out together. Were they dating? Just friends hanging out? Friends with benefits? Amber didn’t know—and didn’t care. What she had with Penn was special, even more so since it was a secret. 

Speaking with Penn put Amber in a pensive mood. She put away the magazines and decided to catch up on reading for some of her classes. She hoped this whole coronavirus thing would be short-lived and things could return to normal. 

To be continued…

Prologue: March 14, 2020

Everyone was in a festive mood as they celebrated Rufus’ birthday. Prudence, Lizette, Amber, Ellowyne, and Penn took Rufus to Leon’s, his favorite gastropub. They plied him with nachos, poutine, wings, shots of whiskey and Belgian beer. Leon’s staff even served a birthday cake, complete with candles!

After Rufus had blown them out, Lizette asked, “What was your wish?”

“Nope. Not telling,” Rufus answered, glancing at Ellowyne. “Otherwise it won’t come true.”

Prudence exclaimed, “I hope you wished for some geeky birthday presents! Here, open mine first!” 

Rufus opened Prudence’s gift, which was a hoodie. “Cool!” he exclaimed. “Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit! Thanks, Pru!”

“Now mine,” Lizette said. It was a book entitled The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and a t-shirt that read, “Born On Pi Day 3.14.” 

“That’s going to be a great read,” Rufus said. “Perfect shirt, too! Thank you!”

“Here’s mine,” Amber said as she handed him a large box that rattled.

Rufus tore open the gift wrap and exclaimed, “No way! You got me the LEGO Batcave?!? That’s been sold out for ages. Wow! Thanks, Amber! But this is too much. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Oh, hush. You’re such a good friend and put up with me,” Amber replied. “Plus you helped me ace my law school entrance exam.”

Ellowyne was surprised to hear that Rufus coached Amber for her LSAT. She knew that the two enjoyed arguing with each other, so maybe that’s what Amber meant. Still, Ellowyne was uneasy, not only because of the close friendship Amber and Rufus shared, but also because she feared her gift wasn’t as cool or exciting as what the others had given him. “It’s a Mars globe. It reminds me of  the snow globe, the first present you gave me, only it’s red dust instead of snow”, she said.

“I can’t believe you remembered that,” Rufus said. “I mean, we’ve known each other for such a long time and I thought you forgot about it. Thank you for such a thoughtful gift.”  

Penn grinned as he gave Rufus his present. “Old chum,” he said. I looked long and hard for something that would convey to the world exactly who you are. So, with no further ado, here you go.” The gifts were three  t-shirts. The first one read, “I’m Not Just a Nerd. I’m the King of the Nerds.” The second read, “Engineers Do It With Precision” And the third said, “Science Gives Me a Hadron.” 

Rufus laughed so hard that he nearly snorted beer out of his nose. Liz, Amber, and Pru dissolved into giggles, and Penn chortled uncontrollably.  Ellowyne smiled shyly and laughed a little, but she was puzzled and oddly uncomfortable. She didn’t know what engineers did with precision and had no idea what a hadron was–but it sounded a little risqué. 

Then Amber took a sip of her cosmopolitan, and walked over to Rufus, and kissed him on the lips. Lizette and Pru followed suit. Ellowyne was terrified. She had never kissed any boy, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to kiss Rufus. Were they friends? Something more? What would a kiss mean? Her heart pounded, her stomach did back flips, and her knees got so weak she was glad she was sitting next to him.  She leaned over and kissed him shyly, gently, and sweetly on his lips. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice that his cheeks were flushed and that he kissed her in return.

A sixty-something woman was sitting with her husband close to the table where the birthday bash was. She applied some red lipstick and kissed Rufus on the lips, too. Then, Penn spotted three student nurses from his school. “Judy, Beth, Nancy! Come celebrate my best bro’s birthday!” They toasted Rufus with their  drinks, and kissed him as well. Three pretty servers watched the display, put down their trays and kissed him, too. 

Then Penn stood up, downed a shot, and said, “Oh, what the hell!?!” He kissed Rufus on the mouth, which made everyone in that section of Leon’s roar with laughter. When the jocularity died down, Penn led all of them in singing Happy Birthday to Rufus.

Prudence clinked her spoon against her glass. “Speech, speech! Give us a speech, Birthday Boy!”

Rufus smiled and stood to talk. “I appreciate all of you more than you can imagine. I am so lucky to have you as friends. Thank you for making my birthday so special. And here’s to you. All of you.” He toasted them with a shot, sat down, and then said, “You know we’re all going to feel miserable tomorrow.”

He had no idea that something miserable that would change all of their lives was just around the corner. 

To be continued…

Ennui in the Age of COVID-19

This story deals with life during the pandemic, looking at some of the very sad consequences that too many people suffered. Someone burns out. Someone thrives. Someone falls in love. Someone discovers a hidden talent. And someone dies. Because of the mature subject matter, language, and adult situations, the rating is T. 

The Queen of Second Chances

This story is rated K which makes it appropriate for all ages. It is firmly based on the official canon.

Oooooh! There’s a new character in Ellowyne’s world! Her name is Neema, which means “Born in prosperity” in Swahili. But who is she and how did she get into Ellowyne’s world? Well, there are actually two origin stories for Neema from the Virtual Doll Convention website. One was told with the release of the first new Ellowynes back in 2021. The story for Petal Pusher has Ellowyne getting ready to meet Rufus’ new friend Neema. Interestingly enough, that one is rather similar to the origin story for Lizette, with Rufus meeting her and introducing her to Ellowyne. Neema is an accomplished artist. Anyway, this version had Rufus telling Ellowyne he wanted them to dress for dinner. Hmmm. That sounds to me as if Mr. Rutter’s love for Ms. Wilde is no longer unrequited. (YAY!!) At any rate, Ellowyne gets along well with Neema and even says that Neema is a delight. 

In the other story, which can be read on the VDC website, Prudence meets Neema in an art class. She thinks Neema and Ellowyne could become friends, so she plans to introduce them. Unfortunately, Ellowyne’s thoughts were a bit scattered that day and, not only was she late getting to Dr. Bantam’s office, she was also tardy getting to the café for lunch. In Ellowyne’s own words, she says that although she apologized, the lunch went “downhill from there”. Even worse, Ellowyne ran into Neema at a charity function, and discovered that they were wearing the very same dress! Ellowyne was embarrassed and went into a tailspin, crying and running out of the event. Rufus told her that Neema was going to say something about how they both had great taste. It didn’t help that Rufus said Neema looked beautiful. (Not cool, dude!)

I’m inclined to accept and build upon the second origin story. However, there are a couple of things I would like to change. It’s part of the Ellowyne multiverse, so both of these endings are within the realm of possibilities. My first ending takes place at the charity event, when Ellowyne sees Neema in the very same dress:

Ellowyne saw Neema and her eyes sparkled. Neema smiled broadly and said, “You have great taste! There are only two dresses like this that the amazing artist created. Now, making limited editions of only two dresses might seem a bit eccentric, but the artist insists on keeping one garment for herself.”

Ellowyne asked, “Did you find it online?”

“Yes! On the Wilde Imagination Wearable Art site. Wait a minute. Wilde Imagination. Is that YOU?!?”

Ellowyne blushed but basked in Neema’s compliments. “I’ve been doing this for a few years now. I actually started in college and, when I graduated, it became my full-time job.”

Neema was impressed. Yes, Ellowyne seemed ditsy the first time they met, but anyone that talented had to be worth getting to know. She was so glad to give Ellowyne a second chance.


The second version takes place after Ellowyne’s and Neema’s disastrous lunch, which happens the day before the charity event.

That afternoon, Ellowyne stood in front of her refrigerator and noticed a magnet that said, “Yesterday I stood at the edge of disaster. Today I took a giant step forward.” That was exactly the way she felt, and she texted Prudence to ask for Neema’s number. Her stomach was in knots when she called Neema, but she had to apologize for her faux pas. 

“Neema, I am so embarrassed about the way I acted earlier today. Instead of having lunch, I was completely out to lunch, and I am so sorry for being such a ditz. Could I please have a second chance?”

Prudence had told Neema that, while friendship with Ellowyne could often be exasperating, it was well worthwhile. Pru seemed like a thoughtful, reasonable woman, and if she spoke so highly of Ellowyne, Neema decided to give her another chance. They made plans to meet the next day to indulge in some shopping—and some chocolate! Just to be sure that Ellowyne wouldn’t be late, Neema asked her to pick her up a half hour before the shops opened. 

The next day, Ellowyne took Neema to some of her favorite shops. They went to Ellowyne’s favorite makeup store and sampled so many fragrances that they all melded together to create a malodorous mix reminiscent of bug spray! They stopped for lunch, Ellowyne’s treat, and talked for nearly an hour. After that, they went to some of Ellowyne’s favorite shops to get some special outfits for the charity event the next weekend. Neema picked out a pink, one-shouldered gown with a full skirt of feathered material. At the same time, Ellowyne picked the very same thing! When they tried them on, Neema complimented Ellowyne on how she looked while Ellowyne complimented Neema. But only one of them could wear the gown to the event. However…

The afternoon of the event, Ellowyne and Neema treated themselves to professional makeup and hair styling at Ellowyne’s favorite salon. The stylists were a little confused that they wanted the same hair and makeup. How very odd yet avant-garde to request such a thing! 

What was even stranger was that, when Rufus went to pick up Ellowyne for the event, she asked him to please give a ride to her new friend Neema. She didn’t live too far from Ellowyne’s house. He was flummoxed to see Neema dressed in the exact same gown as Ellowyne. Their hair matched, their jewelry was the same, and they even wore the same shoes. Seeing the look of confusion on Rufus’ face, Ellowyne told him that they were twinning, a trend that had become popular recently.

Rufus grinned and asked, “So does this mean I get to escort two beautiful women tonight?” Ellowyne scrunched her nose and made a face at him, and he and Neema laughed. 

“Ellowyne, I’m so lucky to have given you a do-over. You are an amazing, hilarious woman and I think we’ll be great friends.”

“Ah, just call me the queen of second chances!”

Chapter 6: What REALLY Happened

A few days later, Ellowyne and her friends met at Déjà Brew. Knowing that Amber was often there on Wednesday afternoons, they came prepared with some ammunition. To their delight, Amber showed up, wearing a skintight dress and platform heels, and she strolled over to them expecting to create a commotion.

Prudence gave Amber a saccharine smile. “I hope you don’t mind but we ordered you a beverage. Go-Go Juice. Part Mountain Dew, part Red Bull.”

“I have something sweet for you too, Amber.” Lizette chimed in. Then she handed some Pixy Stix to Amber. “I hear this stuff is addicting!”

Ellowyne smiled with the satisfaction of a dog eating the juicy steak he had grabbed out of the kitchen. “Which was your favorite costume? Satine, Jessica Rabbit, Jayne Mansfield, a Playboy bunny?”

Penn, who first asked the question of Amber’s secret, queried, “So how many times have you been Grand Supreme Queen?”

Amidst the laughter from his friends,, Rufus, who for so long had been the target of Amber’s unwanted attention, got in the last word. “Will you holler for a dollar, honey boo-boo child?”

Amber’s eyes and mouth widened in surprise. Then she did something most unexpected. She laughed. She pulled up a chair, sat down, and laughed until her sides ached and tears streamed down her face. She even snorted a couple of times. “How did you find out?” she asked. The friends were shocked.

“I watched some reruns of Toddlers and Tiaras online. It’s kind of my guilty pleasure,” Ellowyne replied. “And I thought I saw you and decided to Google you.”

Amber wiped her cheeks and blew her nose. “Good sleuthing! And to answer your questions: Yes, Pru, I drank Go-Go Juice and ate Pixy Stix. You’re right, Lizette. The pixy stix are addictive and in the pageant circle, they’re known as pageant crack. Actually, sometimes I have Go-Go Juice and Pixy Stix, and trust me, they keep me going when I’m busy studying. Ellowyne, my favorite costume is as a Barbie doll. I wore a black and white swimsuit and mules. My father actually built me a Barbie box. And yeah, I won that competition hands down. Penn, I usually win queen in most pageants and have been Grand Supreme Queen, oh, maybe a dozen times. Maybe more. And Rufus, I knew Honey Boo-Boo. She really did holler for a dollar. But I didn’t. I kind of flirted with the judges but never did anything as brash as what Honey Boo-Boo did.”

Rufus cocked his head and furrowed his eyebrows. “You flirted with the judges? Did you ever, um, kiss any of them?”

Amber’s tears of laughter stopped at Rufus’ question. “Omigod! No! I never kissed any of them but I learned how powerful flirting can be.”

“Maybe you’re treating us the way you would a pageant judge, only more extreme,” Penn said.

Amber quietly considered his statement. “You’re right. I’ve been treating you and Rufus like pageant judges. When the judges didn’t respond, I’ve had to kick it up a notch. I guess I’ve done that with the two of you. I’m really sorry.”

Prudence spoke up. “Is that why you dress so, um, provocatively?”

Amber shrugged. “I think so. I mean, the if judges liked it, it must be okay.”

Now Ellowyne furrowed her eyebrows. “Amber, you always seem to be in competition with us. Is it because you did child pageants?”

“And I competed with every girl I knew,” replied a dumfounded Amber. “I am so sorry! I like all of you and I want to change. Can you please help me?”

Of course Ellowyne and her coterie agreed that they would be glad to help Amber be a real friend. Ellowyne, Prudence, and Lizette took Amber to a makeup counter for a makeover—or perhaps a “makeunder” to tone down the way she applied cosmetics. The girls also took her shopping and Amber found some cute clothes at a couple of thrift stores. The boys were a little hesitant to embrace Amber as a friend but she earned their trust by no longer trying to force her affections on them. When Amber stopped hitting–and hitting on–Rufus, they discovered that they enjoyed conversing with each other and engaging in friendly verbal sparring.  Penn appreciated the change in Amber’s behavior and noticed how attractive she was without layers of makeup and skanky clothes. One day, everyone went to Amber’s house to look at her pageant crowns and prizes, and watch old tapes of Toddlers and Tiaras and videos taken by her parents that showed many of the things that had been edited out of the program.

And this, dear friends, is exactly what happened.

Chapter 5: Ellowyne

Ellowyne trudged through the front door of her grandmother’s elegant home. The day started out with promise and she was thrilled to discover the new thrift shop. She got great bargains on everything from expensive, name-brand jeans to leather purses to a vintage coat made by the famous New York designer, Tyler Wentworth. But the afternoon was a huge disappointment. Penn hardly noticed her and didn’t even thank her for the tea and scone. And then there was Amber. She messed up the entire afternoon. Of course Penn ignored Ellowyne—he was too riled up by Amber’s antics. Ellowyne shook her head, grabbed a can of whipped cream from the refrigerator, and went to her room to wallow in woe.

Ellowyne sprawled her purchases out on the bed. She smiled briefly; the jeans and the coat and the purses were perfect—high quality and inexpensive. Then she sat on the bed, opened her laptop, and squirted some whipped cream in her mouth. She checked Facebook and saw a funny cat video that Lizette shared, a Words with Friends notification from Rufus, and an inspirational meme from Prudence. Ellowyne sighed. Facebook wasn’t elevating her sour mood. There had to be something mindless, vapid, and absurd, perhaps her guilty pleasure—reality shows.

She decided to binge on the most inane show she had ever seen: Toddlers and Tiaras. The adventures of Makenzie, Paisley, Alaska, and Honey Boo-Boo never failed to brighten Ellowyne’s mood. She watched as girls were subjected to spray tans, eyebrow waxes, and fake teeth called flippers. They practiced walking in their kitchens and tumbling in their living rooms, and they stayed as still as statues while their mothers painstakingly altered sparkly glamour dresses that looked far too scratchy to wear.

But then Ellowyne noticed something from an early episode. One of the girls took the stage before the previous contestant, a girl with a vaguely familiar face, had stepped down. She heard the pageant announcer say, “And that was Amber. Let’s hear some applause for Amber!”

Ellowyne’s mouth gaped open with surprise. Yes! The little girl looked like Amber. Could it be? It HAD to be Amber. She googled “Amber Stanhope beauty pageant” and discovered a mother lode of videos, photos, and even an old website Amber’s mother created for her. Apparently Amber was quite the star of the child pageant circle, winning crowns in nearly every competition and earning the title of ultimate grand supreme queen on numerous occasions. Ellowyne discovered that many pageant parents resented the Stanhopes because of the lavish dresses, props, and coaches they could afford for her daughter.

She grabbed her phone and texted Prudence, Lizette, and Rufus. “You need to come over right now. You won’t believe what I found out about Amber!” She thought about texting Penn but decided not to do so. Her ego and heart were still a bit bruised by the way he acted that afternoon.

Once her friends arrived, Ellowyne showed them what she had discovered online. They shrieked with laughter at the website and the pictures of Amber standing in a room, surrounded by trophies, ribbons, and crowns. There were pictures of Amber in full glitz pageants, her hair teased into impossibly huge styles, her face laden with heavy makeup, and her skin spray tanned to the point at which she resembled an Oompa Loompa. They saw videos of Amber eating pixy stix, known as “pageant crack,” and drinking a dubious concoction of Mountain Dew and Red Bull, known in the pageant world as go-go juice. Then they found pictures of her in outfits-of-choice, which meant that the girls could dress any way they—or their mothers—wanted. One picture showed Amber, then a little girl of five or six, dressed like Jessica Rabbit, complete with padding to give her curves. Pageant parents were incensed to the point of wanting Amber, her mother, and her father barred from pageants altogether but the directors shrugged off their demands. The Stanhopes disregarded the other parents’ complaints and dressed their daughter in even more controversial ensembles that Amber wore to portray Satine, a character from Moulin Rouge!, Jayne Mansfield, and a Playboy bunny.

“Well, at least Jayne Mansfield had a genius IQ,” Prudence quipped. “I doubt that Amber is!”

They laughed at Pru’s comment and continued to watch Amber’s appearances on Toddlers and Tiaras. They hooted and howled over her antics, from blowing kisses at the judges to wiggling, giggling, and jiggling in her Vegas showgirl costume. Her parents spared no expense; many of Amber’s frilly, froufrou dresses cost thousands of dollars. Once they borrowed a baby giraffe from a zoo to be Amber’s pet-of-choice. Amber’s father even learned to fly and bought a small plane to get to pageants in places like Georgia, Florida, or Mississippi with ease. He went so far as to have it painted pink, Amber’s favorite color, with the words “Amber’s Personal Plane” on both sides. They all laughed until their ribs ached.

Finally, they ran out of snacks and decided to talk about Amber. Rufus, who ruefully looked at the empty bowl of popcorn, was the first to speak. “So our sweet, demure, little Amber is a pageant princess.”

Lizette snickered. “Oh, no! She’s not a princess because it is better to be the queen. She’s a pageant queen. “

Rufus said, “A Mega Ultimate Grand Supreme Queen!”

Prudence giggled and asked, “Does this mean I have to curtsy when I see her? And call her ‘your Majesty’?”

Ellowyne, who earlier joined her friends in ridiculing Amber, wasn’t laughing. She had declared her major in psychology a few days earlier and thought she might have a rationale for Amber’s behavior.

“You know,” she said. I think this explains the way Amber behaves around us. She was brought up wearing tons of makeup and costumes way inappropriate for a little girl.”

Prudence turned her head and nodded at Ellowyne. “So that’s why she wears skanky clothes all the time.”

“And the way she acts toward you and Penn,” Ellowyne said to Rufus. She learned how to flirt with male pageant judges to get them to like her.”

Rufus smirked.  “I hope she sure didn’t kiss and slap any pageant judges.”

“You know, I think she’s in conflict with herself,” Ellowyne said. “Maybe she really doesn’t want to act out with you guys. But she feels she has to in order to gain your attention and approval. And then she slaps you because, deep down, she doesn’t want that kind of attention.”

Rufus sighed. “Well, I can’t speak for Penn, but goosing someone you hardly know is creepy and abusive. And I’ve never wanted Amber to kiss me. Look, if I were the one doing the kissing and hitting stuff—not to mention the goosing and groping—I’d have my ass handed back to me on a plate for ‘inappropriate’ behavior.”

Ellowyne looked into his eyes, which were moist from his blinked back tears. She never realized how sensitive he was.

His eyes downcast, Rufus continued, “I guess I can post my ‘Me, too’ story on Twitter and Facebook.”

Ellowyne put her hand on her lower arm. “I’m sorry. You’ve put up with a lot from Amber, haven’t you?”

“Yeah. Hey, thanks,” he responded, a little surprised—but delighted—at her warm and caring gesture.

The four sat in silence for a few moments, then Rufus spoke up. “Obviously Amber hasn’t been hitting on you girls but you’ve got to admit she’s been nasty to you.”

“Oh, yeah. Like how she has to be better than us,” Lizette said. “She has to have the best clothes, the best hair, the best makeup. It’s like she is competing.”

“She’s competing with all of us,” Ellowyne said in a manner so animated that her friends were taken aback. “She’s treating us like her rivals in the pageant circuit.”

“And she can’t let down her guard and be real, much less anyone’s friend,” Prudence added.

“All of those high-priced clothes,” Lizette said. “She insists on buying the most expensive things because her parents indulged her when she was doing the pageants.”

“Anyway you look at it, Amber is a rich, spoiled brat,” Prudence commented. “Her parents were going to spend lots of money on her, whether or not she was in pageants. But she was and her parents created a monster.”

“I think we know Amber’s secret,” Ellowyne said, her eyes glistening with self-satisfaction. “But now, what do we do with this knowledge?”

“We should be just as obnoxious as she is,” Lizette commented. “We should gather all this stuff we’ve found and confront our Mega Ultimate Supreme Queen about it.”

Prudence sat back and said “I don’t know. Maybe a passive-aggressive approach would be more satisfying.”

“We could just eat pageant crack in front of her or order her some go-go juice if she tries to hang out with us,” Lizette suggested.

Rufus chuckled. “I just want to get right in her face and say, ‘Will you holler for a dollar, Honey Boo-Boo child!”

Ellowyne paused for a moment, then said, “I think we should sit on this for a while. We won’t say or do anything. Maybe knowing Amber’s secret could be advantageous at some time.”

To her friends’ utter astonishment Ellowyne leaned back and smiled.