Not All Superheroes Wear Capes 3

It was a hot, dry summer’s day. Penn felt the sweat trickle down his face into his shirt. Suddenly, shots were exchanged, and Penn’s heart raced. He had never been in the middle of combat before this as he was a new medic. The injuries to which he tended were casualties of a battle with insurgents or snipers or those wounded from the explosion of an IED. Penn was nineteen years old and he had never experienced combat firsthand. He tried to be brave but he was so afraid.  The more experienced medic with him crept toward a wounded soldier but, to Penn’s horror, she was shot. Penn froze. He wanted to scream or cry out, but he couldn’t make a sound. Was he a coward? When it was safe to do so, he and an uninjured first lieutenant moved the wounded soldiers out of harm’s way and then to their nearby Combat Surgical Hospital, which was the replacements for MASH units after the war in Iraq. More medics, nurses, and doctors came to triage and treat the wounded soldiers. The chaplain came to pray for those who were dying or already dead. Penn kept seeing his dead colleague, who left behind two small children. He smelled burned flesh and the acrid remnants of gunfire. Finally he cried, broke out in a sweat, and started to scream.

“Hey, Penn,”one of the other nurses sleeping in the staff lounge called out. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a nightmare. Sorry to wake you.” He used to have frequent nightmares about his tours in Afghanistan, but they abated when he got therapy through the VA. Shortly thereafter, he met his group of friends and got much-needed social support. Occasionally something might trigger his PTSD. It might be a crowded room or a discussion of combat on a news show. The worst trigger was loud, unexpected noises like a car backfiring or unexpected fireworks. He had begged off seeing July 4 fireworks every year, saying that he had seen the real thing. He thought the worst of his PTSD was over. And now this. When he worked in the ER, he had some flashbacks to his experiences as an Army medic. Now those flashbacks threatened to drag him down, into the darkness that was PTSD. 

Penn wasn’t able to get back to sleep, so he showered, dressed, and showed up in the ER. It was 3AM, and he didn’t need to come in until 7AM, but he knew he might as well be useful. As soon as he told the nurse supervisor that he was working early, he punched in, grabbed his gear, and started triaging patients. He was finishing up with his third patient of the shift, when a call came through about a multi-victim motor vehicle accident. Penn’s COVID patient was stable so he was freed up to help with the accident victims. One of the victims was unresponsive and Penn jumped on the gurney, straddled the patient, and immediately started doing CPR. Meanwhile one of the doctors and a couple of other nurses stripped the patient, cutting through his clothes with bandage scissors, so they could draw blood, start IV lines, and place electrodes for an electrocardiogram. As per the EKG, the doctor determined that the patient needed cardioversion, so Penn got off the gurney and took the paddles and called out, “Clear!” to ensure no one was in contact with the patient and accidentally received a shock. The effort to correct the patient’s heart rhythm was unsuccessful, so Penn started chest compressions again. An unholy dance of chest compressions, checking the EKG, and cardioverting the patient continued for two more cycles. Eventually, the patient flatlined. Penn insisted on repeating the cycle just one more time, but the doctor called him into the staff lounge.

“Penn,” Dr. Bishop started, “What happened out there? You tried to control the situation but, in spite of every effort we made, our patient could not be saved.”

Penn’s cheeks reddened and he was on the verge of tears. “There is so much death in the ER with COVID-19, but I thought I might be able to save this patient’s life. I mean, I know I could have. When I was a medic in Afghanistan, we saved many more soldiers than we lost. Even the ones with traumatic amputations or bad head injuries–we saved their lives. But with COVID, it seems all that we see are patients we know will die from this disease.” He stopped to catch his breath and pray that any tears he might shed would go unnoticed. “It’s just mind-numbing to deal with one death after another.”

“That’s right. You were a medic for what—four years? And you saw a lot of trauma, from minor injuries to soldiers who would have been fortunate to die from their wounds.”

“And once. Just once, I wanted to save our patient and not send yet another person to the morgue.” Penn’s eyes were downcast and he sighed. “The worst thing of all is that my best friend’s parents died of COVID when they were in Italy. Nicest people I’ve ever known. They knew I was thousands of miles away from my family, but they treated me as if I was one of them. I think about my friend and how is heart is breaking. And I can see their faces in the men and women I take care of, especially those who die in the ER.” And with that, Penn broke down and cried.

Dr. Bishop patted Penn’s shoulders. “So you have PTSD, which has gotten worse with your ER work, you’re working way too many hours, and you think about your friend’s loss of his parents. And you didn’t get to walk for graduation and you have no time to take your licensure exam. Penn, that’s way too much for anyone to handle. I think you need a break.”

“But why should I get a break when other nurses going through the same thing?”

“You’re a good nurse. You are empathetic and skilled, and it would be a shame if you burn out so early in your career. Look, let me talk with the nurse supervisor to see what we can do. You need to take some time off. Like right now. Go home. Grab something to eat and maybe a beer. Talk to someone. Check with the VA for some resources, maybe online meetings. And talk to your best friend. Talk to another friend if talking to him is too rough right now.”

Less than 15 minutes later, Dr. Bishop and the nurse supervisor came into the room where Penn was. “Penn,” the supervisor said, “Dr. Bishop told me what happened. I also heard from some of the other nurses who shared sleeping quarters with you that you’ve been having nightmares, usually about being back in combat. You’re one hell of a nurse and we want to do what we can to help you through this. So I want you to go home now, and stay there for a couple of days. When you return, I’ll assign you to do mobile COVID testing. That should give you a bit of a break from the ER.”

Penn tried to protest but he knew the doctor and the supervisor were right. He gathered his things, punched out, and headed home. 

To be continued… 

Love During Lockdown 2

It wasn’t long before Lizette and Lawrence were FaceTiming or having text dates pretty much every evening. They talked about birds, of course, but also how they ended up in San Francisco. They discussed what they thought about San Francisco as well as his childhood in Pennsylvania and hers in NOLA. They shared wishes and dreams and, despite the pandemic, found themselves growing fonder of each other with every passing day. 

The next time they were scheduled to work together, Lawrence came up with an idea. “I know fast food isn’t exactly elegant, but maybe we could get something to eat. We could eat on a picnic table or even in my car.” 

Lizette was excited to get together with Lawrence. Even though they could only take off their masks to eat, it still promised to be an enjoyable first real date. After work, they got into his car and went to his favorite drive-through, In-N-Out. The line was shorter than usual, since most people were staying at home. They feasted on burgers, shakes, and animal-style fries. And when they finished eating, neither of them donned their face masks immediately, and Lawrence gently kissed Lizette. It was a sweet, tender kiss, and it made her feel special.

Eventually Lawrence and Lizette started seeing each other outside the shelter. They would still go to a drive-through to get food. They dined on burgers or tacos or chicken nuggets and sandwiches. The first time they went to a fast food outlet that specialized in chicken, Lizette looked up from her lunch and asked, “You and I love birds so much. Should we really be eating them?”

Lawrence spewed his lemonade, nearly dousing Lizette. “I never thought about that. Then again, chickens aren’t just any birds. They’re tasty birds! When I was growing up, I loved going to the state fair. I used to talk to the chickens, remind them that they were delicious, and inform them of their prehistoric ancestors.”

Lizette dissolved into laughter. “I just imagine you going to a state fair and calling all the chickens yummy dinosaurs.”

“Don’t forget the ducks and geese,” Lawrence said. “They’re delectable dinosaurs, too.”

They giggled and guffawed and howled and hooted until their sides ached and tears trickled down their faces. 

After that, they would see each other as often as possible. Sometimes they watched birds at Buena Vista Park or Lake Merced. If they got together in the evening, they would sprawl out on Lizette’s parents’ yard or on the roof so they could look at the stars. Lawrence pointed out various constellations such as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and he said that his late father would take him and his brother outside to gaze at the stars. He promised that, as soon as the COVID restrictions had eased, he would take her to the planetarium. 

Lizette promised to introduce Lawrence to her friends. “We have a couple of coffee houses that we like. Brewed Awakenings, Deja Brew, and Underground Coffee. Great coffee, all of them, and amazing sweets. Cinnamon rolls, muffins, cookies, and scones.” She sighed. “I wish this was normal times and that we could all get together. You would really like my friends.”

“I think I will. They sound awesome. I’m sure they miss you as much as you miss them.” Lawrence paused a moment to gather his thoughts. “Even though it would just be the two of us, we could go to any of these shops and get drive-through.”

“That’s a great idea! Maybe we could stop before we go to the sanctuary,” Lizette suggested.

In a short time, Lizette went from being bored to being almost too busy. She finished her coursework online and ahead of schedule. She had her work at the sanctuary and even volunteered for more hours, especially if Lawrence was going to be there, too. Her free time was spent talking to him, texting him, going to drive-throughs with him, and hanging out in safe environments with him. In fact, she had been so busy that she didn’t have a chance to chat with her beloved friends and didn’t tell them about Lawrence yet. 

To be continued…

Love During Lockdown: Lizette

After her conversation with Prudence and Amber, Lizette was left with not much to do. She fed her birds and cleaned their cages, and then she leafed through a few magazines. She thought about calling Amber so they could talk in French. Lizette, having grown up in New Orleans and being of Creole heritage, was fluent, as was Amber. But she didn’t want to bother Amber so soon after they just talked in the morning. She thought about texting Prudence but figured she would be exercising or meditating. And then she thought about getting in touch with Ellowyne but she was probably preoccupied with Rufus. Lizette was happy for them, of course, but deep down she had always wished that Rufus might turn to her if he got tired of his one-sided romance with Ellowyne. Maybe he could introduce her to some of his engineering buddies. Or maybe she should try Tinder or a dating site. But this was not the time to start dating someone because of the shelter-in-place orders. It would even be difficult if she tried to reconnect with her old boyfriend back in NOLA. Goodness. Would he even remember her after so long? Lizette sighed. She was bored. Very bored. Bored enough to call it ennui?

Fortunately, Lizette’s was short-lived. She quickly went from having little to do to a full schedule. The second week of the shelter-in-place order, she received a call from a local bird sanctuary asking her if she could spare some time to help out. Several volunteers had quit because of the pandemic, so she was tasked to feed the birds, clean the cages, and interact with them, especially birds that mimicked speech. It was pleasant work for Lizette especially since she was starting the veterinary school at UC Davis in the fall. 

Between finishing her classes at State and taking care of the birds, Lizette found herself busier than usual. She kept up with her friends via text, FaceTime, or Zoom meetings. One day a new volunteer started. His name was Lawrence. Under his mask, he was a handsome fellow with soulful brown eyes, a well-trimmed beard, and deep umber skin. Lizette had met a number of guys at college, and occasionally some of Rufus’ engineering cohorts, but none made her knees shake and her heart flutter. Lawrence did. 

“So you’re interested in birds, too,” he said. “I’ve loved them from when I was a little kid. My grandmother had birds and that’s how I got into them. And you?”

“I got interested in birds because of my grandmother, too. She had a couple of parrots that she loved so much. Sometimes we went bird watching.”

“I love bird watching,” Lawrence exclaimed. “I even joined a bird watching society but everyone else was at least 60. Not that I didn’t enjoy their company, but it would have been nice to have someone closer to my age.”

“I joined a group, too, when I lived in New Orleans,” Lizette said. “And I found the same thing. But my grandmother made a bunch of friends in that group.”

Lawrence asked, “What are your favorite birds?”

“I love talking birds,” Lizette answered. “Right now I have an African grey. And you?”

“An African grey? You are so lucky! Those birds are amazing. I have a couple of canaries  named Bruno and Bob. They fit in with my lifestyle. I live in an apartment with three other guys, and I can’t always count on them to feed my birds. It should work well in the fall, when I start veterinary school at UC Davis.”

Lizette was gobsmacked. “I’m going to the UC Davis veterinary school in the fall, too!”

He exclaimed, “No kidding! Are you doing the aviary program, too?” 

Lizette nodded. “That’s why I chose Davis.”

“Are you going to commute or move there?”

“Right now I plan to commute. My parents live here and I have a bunch of friends who live here, too. Although most of them are headed to grad school. One friend is doing law school at Stanford. She’s planning to commute. Another is going to State for a holistic physical therapy track. She went there for undergrad, so she will live at home. I also have a friend who is already at Berkeley and he plans to commute. He’s doing a PhD in mechanical engineering and statistics for engineering,” Lizette said. 

Lawrence smiled. “Wow! You hang out with an intelligent bunch of friends!”

Lizette added, “Oops. I forgot one of my friends. He was a medic in the Army and he’s finishing nursing school at State. Right now he’s working in the ER and taking care of coronavirus patients.”

“That’s got to be tough,” Lawrence stated. “It sounds like nurses are working 16-hour shifts with few days off. It’s nonstop.” 

“Yeah, that’s what Penn says. “He’s also said that it’s a lot like being in combat. You know, I haven’t seen my friends since the lockdown started, and I miss them. We usually met up at a coffee shop or a pub a couple of times a week. I mean, we stay in touch through text messages and FaceTime, and sometimes we have a Zoom meeting. But it isn’t the same,” Lizette said wistfully.

Under his mask, Lawrence scowled. “I hear you,” he said.  “I wish I could take you out for coffee or maybe a drink but we can’t with COVID restrictions.”

“How about we exchange numbers so we can at least text?” Lizette suggested.

Lawrence thought that would be a great idea, and they planned to have a text date that evening.

To be continued…

Love and Loss 3

Ellowyne sat with Rufus until the wee hours of the morning. She held him while he wept and brought him ice cream when he admitted to some indigestion. When he began to fall asleep, she put his head on her lap and pulled a throw blanket over him. Only then did she lean back and drift off to sleep. 

When they woke up around  mid-morning, neither of them felt inclined to do any virtual classwork. Fortunately, they were caught up on their studies, and missing a day or two would be of little consequence.

Still, Ellowyne let her professors know what had happened, and she encouraged Rufus to do the same. She wanted to gently tread the fine line between grief and his obligations. He worked so hard to get where he was academically but he needed time to mourn his loss. At her behest, Rufus got in touch with his professors and advisor. Dr. Wolowitz  gave him condolences and told him to take as much time as he would need, even if it meant deferring some of his work to summer. Rufus was going to work on some projects before starting grad school, but Dr. Wolowitz pointed out that there might not even be a summer session due to the pandemic. He also said that engineering and math could wait but grief would not. 

Rufus decided to get a little more sleep since he was emotionally drained. But before he got into bed, Ellowyne asked him if he wanted to let their friends know. Rufus was aghast. “Oh, Ellie, I can’t do that. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Talking about it makes it so much more real. But if you want to, go ahead.” 

When he had drifted off, Ellowyne  opened a Zoom meeting and contacted all of their friends to participate. Fortunately, Penn actually had a day off, Lizette didn’t have to be at the bird sanctuary, Prudence pushed herself away from YouTube, and Amber, who was probably still in bed, managed to drag herself to the computer for the meeting.

Pru was the first to notice that something seemed wrong with Ellowyne. Maybe she and Rufus weren’t getting along and thinking of breaking up. Penn also noticed Ellowyne’s somber mood. He had an idea of why she was chatting with them but he hoped against hope that he was wrong. He wasn’t.

“I don’t know how I can say this,” Ellowyne started. Her voice trembled and she stumbled over some of her words. “Rufus’ parents died of COVID in Italy. Yesterday someone from the State Department brought boxes with their cremains and some of their personal items including passports, money, and jewelry.”

“Dammit,” Penn said. “I was afraid this was what happened. I mean, he texted me yesterday and asked if it was some prank I was pulling. And if not me, then someone else.”

Lizette shook her head. “I’m so sorry. Please tell Rufus that.”

“But only when he’s ready,” Prudence said. “It sounds like he’s in a state of shock and denial. He might not be up to hear anyone’s condolences.”

Amber asked, “Yeah, remember in Freshman Psych when we learned about Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief? Prudence is spot on about Rufus being in shock and denial.”

“I took a course on death and dying last year during J-term,” Penn stated. “We discussed how Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief aren’t necessarily a linear process.”

“It’s a more circular process,” Lizette said. “And someone can skip some stages or backtrack to a previous stage.”

“So, what can we do to help Rufus?” Prudence asked. 

“Well, I think he’ll want to lie low for a while,” Ellowyne answered. “Right now he doesn’t want to talk about it, and I’m not going to push him. I want to do what’s best for him, and I’m going to—oh—no—”

She could no longer fight her tears. “I—I—I don’t want to cry in front of Rufus. He doesn’t ne–ne–need that now.”

Amber asked, “Oh, Ellowyne. What can we do for you?”

“I’ll make a grocery run for you today,” Penn offered. “Beer, too, for when Rufus feels up to some.”

“Penn, this is your only day off in who knows how long. Really, we don’t need anything and if we do, I can go to the store,” Ellowyne said. “Rufus would feel even worse if he knew you sacrificed your time off.”

“I’m not doing anything today,” Lizette said. “I can do the grocery run for you.”

“Oh! Marisol made croissants and some sourdough yesterday. I’ll bring you baked treats and some of my special coffee,” Amber said.

Prudence spoke up. “I will give you and Rufus some aromatherapy candles. Lavender helps calm someone in distress. And I’ll do some distance Reiki, too.”

In the distance, Ellowyne could hear Rufus moving around. “I’m going to let you all go for now. I think I hear Rufus. Thank you all for being there for him—for us! I’ll let you know when he feels ready to talk. I love you all. Thank you for being there for us.”

Love and Loss 2

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…

Nature Abhors a Vacuum 2

As the days of COVID restrictions continued, Pru became restless. True, she filled her days with Facetime chats with Amber and Lizette, and she organized a regular Zoom meeting with all the members of her rugby team, the She Devils. She caught up with all her classwork and read some of the suggested texts for her courses. And she continued practicing meditation, distance Reiki, and online sessions of both yin and yang yoga. Still, she missed being around people. Pru’s parents were essential workers, so they were gone most of the day. And she missed her friends. Penn was so busy at the hospital and she rarely got a text back from him. She had texted Ellowyne a couple of times and occasionally they chatted. Unless he had his nose in a book, Rufus joined the conversation. But Pru had a vague, unsettling feeling about Ellowyne and Rufus, like they were going to face something cataclysmic sometime soon. 

One morning, she woke with nothing planned. She threw some juice, yogurt, and fruit into the blender for a healthy, tasty smoothie. But when she finished making it, she had an urge for doughnuts. Mmmm. Crullers glazed with sugar. Fruit-filled kolaches. Jelly doughnuts bursting with cherry jam. Krispy Kremes.  Pru popped her smoothie into the refrigerator, then got into her car to find the nearest, open drive-through doughnut shop. 

Her mission was successful and, with a bag of delectable doughnuts and a large cup of coffee, Pru settled in front of her laptop. She grabbed a chocolate-frosted chocolate doughnut and took a sip of her coffee, and decided to wander about the Internet. She checked Facebook and noticed that Ellowyne had changed her status from “single” to “in a relationship with Rufus Rutter”. He changed his status as well. Prudence sighed with relief. Maybe she was wrong in thinking they might be on the edge of catastrophe.

Otherwise, Facebook was boring. Lizette posted about her work at the shelter and how she was enjoying learning different crafts. Amber posted nothing except a terse “I thought this COVID nonsense was supposed to be over by Easter.” And there were few posts in the She Devils FB group. When Pru found herself perusing her parents’ pages, she decided to move along.

Hmmmm. Prudence had decisions to make: kolache or jelly doughnut, TikTok or YouTube. She chose the doughnut and YouTube. Previously, she found great guided meditations there, but she wanted to look at something different, something way outside the usual videos she watched. As she scrolled through the suggestions, she found it. The motherlode of consequential, life-changing, earth-shattering videos: Dr. Pimple Popper.

She smirked when she clicked on the first video. She remembered the time, about a year ago, when she brought Penn to a party at the house of one of her teammates. One of the girls had a nasty zit on her back, and, knowing Penn was in nursing school, asked him to pop it. He drank enough beer to agree to do it, but not so much that he would do it under unsafe conditions. So the She Devils went looking for sterile gauze and alcohol. One found a sterile needle and gloves among the hostess’ sister’s diabetic supplies. Penn took a gulp of his beer, and had the teammate pull her shirt up to reveal the biggest pimple he had ever seen, well, at least the biggest one he saw that night! Prudence opened the gloves and the sterile needle, and Penn gingerly pierced the angry-looking cyst. The girls all ooohed, aaahed, and giggled as the furuncle exploded with watery goo and the ribbon of pus Penn extruded from the opening. A couple of the girls nearly gagged but Pru was steadfast, not queasy in the least. She held the gauze, wiped up the exudate, and handed Penn some hydrogen peroxide, iodine solution, and a Band-Aid so he could finish cleaning and dressing the wound. She and Penn shared an Uber and a few drunken kisses in the backseat of the car. Good times indeed!

She clicked on another video, then another. She nibbled on the doughnuts that remained in the bag while she searched for even more videos. Her coffee had gone cold and all the only things left in the bag were doughnut crumbs. Only then she looked at the clock and realized that she had been online for nearly five hours! Her parents would be home from work soon, that is, if they didn’t have to do overtime. Prudence put the ingredients for lentil soup in the pressure cooker and sliced some homemade sourdough bread. Then she scurried back to her room to get her laptop, and watched a couple more videos while the family’s supper cooked. 

To be continued…

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…”

“Snogging?”

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…