By J. Speer

He had a thankless job.

Jerry realized this as he worked the toll road booth collecting change and dollar bills from travelers in a rush. It was Thanksgiving Day. The wind blew cold outside the booth. Snow flurries scattered here and there in the wind. He pulled his upturned collar closer towards his neck. Then, he blew warm air into his hands. He had gloves on but due to changing money, he just had the finger-less knit kind that could grip easily. His fingers were slightly numb.

The Oklahoma turnpike was unusually busy the days prior to Thanksgiving. For days, he collected tolls from this stranger or that stranger, from Minivans to Porsches or Teslas. He greeted each with a smile and sent them on their way with a good holiday wish. “Have a great Thanksgiving, folks. Be safe traveling,” he’d add with a short wave. Most zoomed past once they cleared the booth, so they missed his send-off. Some were curt. Most were pre-occupied. Yet, a few here and there wished him a happy holiday too.

Jerry was 44 years old. He had worked at the factory damn near most of his adult life until it shut down last Spring. He had seen the advertisement for the toll booth job on Indeed. It took him a while to put together a resume since he wasn’t used to job shopping but he did eventually. They called him right away. But he was low man on the totem poll, a new hire, which meant he would work through the holiday season. He bargained with another co-worker. Give me Christmas day and I’ll give you Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It took some hard negotiations but it worked. Besides, he had plans for Christmas. Palm trees and white sandy beaches……maybe a margarita in his hand or a mojito. Florida or Cancun maybe….if Dianne could go. Wishful thinking, he said to himself.

He’d been dating Dianne off and on for a few years now. It wasn’t too serious, just fun. He was a widower. His wife, Lee had succumbed to cancer 6 or 7 years prior. It was a harsh ordeal to go through and he decided to stay single afterwards for quite a long time. The kids seemed to like Dianne enough. His 3 boys and daughter thought she was alright but he knew deep down that Dianne would never take the place of Lee in their hearts. It was just casual. They were more like friends than lovers really.
The wind blew harder outside the booth. He looked over and waved at George and Lucy, the other toll booth workers. They all looked out in unison at the growing darkness outside and the thicker flurries coming down swiftly now.

It was pretty much dead…..not a lot of travelers around 5 pm on Thanksgiving Day. He figured everybody was warm and cozy inside homes celebrating and feasting on turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. His mouth salivated at the thought of it. He exhaled.

In the distance, he could see headlights making their way slowly in the heavy snow towards the booth lanes. The driver seemed cautious and moved from one lane to the other as if trying to determine which toll booth to proceed to. Whomever it was, they decided on Jerry’s booth.

It wasn’t a fancy car, just a 4-door sedan in navy blue with tan interior. Jerry leaned out his window prepared to smile at the passenger.

“Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you’re doing alright in this snow tonight,” he said.

He looked at the woman in the car. She was pretty and she smiled back at him.

“Thank you,” she said as she gave him her toll ticket.

“$3.50,” he said to her. He noticed she turned down the music and the heat in the car. She had been listening to the kind of music he preferred too. It sounded like maybe a Kenny Chesney song or Dwight Yoakem.

She dug into her purse and gathered the money. She dropped it into his hand.

“Not very busy tonight are you guys?” She asked him. He noted the curls framing her face and the dimple on her right cheek. She was lovely, just as lovely as his wife Lee had been.

“Nope, not at all. Glad to have your company actually,” he said.

“Ah, I’m traveling from my mother’s. Went to see her at the nursing home,” she said. Her eyes seemed misty a bit. “Is there a diner nearby? I missed Thanksgiving dinner. Due to COVID, we can visit the nursing home but not remove our mask near the residents. Can’t risk getting them sick.”

“That’s good of you,” he said. He leaned further out the window. Nobody was coming down the toll road, so he figured he had some time to direct her.

“Try Claudette’s down the road. I think it’s exit 42A. Should be on the right. Best food around this area. They should be open tonight I think for the truckers. Claudette’s good about that, always taking care of them guys and in turn, they keep coming back,” he added.

“Try the pumpkin pie. Best around.” He continued.

She looked at him a bit.

“Are you busy tonight…..I mean, after your shift?” She said hesitantly as if it had just dawned on her. “Maybe we could go together, seeing as how you gotta work for Thanksgivin’ and all.”

She extended her hand with a slight wink. “I’m Lisa.”

He took her hand gladly and paused a bit when she said her name. Almost like Lee, he thought to himself. Normally, he’d decline….but maybe.

She didn’t really know what had come over her either. Usually she wasn’t so forward with any guy but she had a rough day at the nursing home. It was hard to see her mother there…hard to see her decline and her mom seemed sad and depressed. Lisa had done her best to cheer her mother up. She couldn’t afford to have her mother live with her. Her mom needed a nurse’s care and 24 hr attention, around the clock care. She was worried for her mom.

The man in the toll booth had smiled when she drove up. He was a nice man and something about his kind eyes appealed to her. So she had asked him. Why not? She reasoned.

They went to Thanksgiving dinner at Claudette’s that night. They laughed and joked and had a good time together. He ordered the turkey dinner with turkey gravy and homemade mashed potatoes. She ordered the same.

A year later, that thankless job and that chance encounter led to a marriage. They went to the justice of the peace before Thanksgiving. Jerry had talked to the kids about it and they were on board. Earlier, in the year, Lisa had gotten her LNA license through a state grant and with Jerry’s help, had moved her mother back home. She took care of the kids and her mom during the week days. Meanwhile, Jerry had gotten a slight raise at work and was doing well. On the weekends, Lisa would pull a double shift as an LNA while Jerry stayed home to watch the others. She did this to supplement the family’s income.

Together, Jerry and Lisa put together quite a nice spread for Thanksgiving at his small home. He was no longer a newbie at work, so he was able to get off for both Thursday and Friday. The kids and Lisa’s mom had helped with the dishes. They had made Lisa’s mom’s best recipes. The group bowed their heads for prayer and each went around the table saying what they were grateful for. Jerry said he was most thankful for a thankless job which turned into a blessing in disguise by meeting Lisa. Lisa smiled and hugged him. She said she was so thankful for him and her new family and that her mother could join them. They all nodded and smiled.

In that little home full of heart, it really was the happiest of all possible Thanksgivings.



I had to write a 2-3 page scene for a class. I wrote the following piece. It is around the beginning section of a LGBTQ romance/drama.

Skylar sat on the end of the factory truck loading dock at 10:00 am.  She had fifteen minutes to relax after two hours of welding.  She yawned and rubbed her slightly red eyes.  She had wanted to go back home an hour ago. It had been a long morning thus far already.  The minutes seemed to drag on till break.  She needed a little time alone. 

The railroad tracks across the way behind the high fence were empty.  She was relieved that no trains were going through at her break time.  They always made such a racket, blaring the train whistles and braking through town, screeching metal upon metal.  She picked a spot on the dock ledge where her feet could dangle and she could rest them a bit from working on the hard concrete floors. 

She wore faded blue jeans and a Lynrd Skynrd shirt with a cruddy hoodie jacket.  Her brunette hair was tucked under her dad’s beat up old Chevy hat with the netting on the back.  It was cold outside and the breeze hit her straight in the face.  She shivered. 

So, she reached back and put her hoodie up over her ball cap.  Then she dug into her right pocket pulling out a Marlboro Lights short pack.  In her left pocket, she searched for a lighter and came up with one.  She pulled it out and looked at it briefly.  It said Duck Dynasty.  It was one of her dad’s lighters she got off the counter earlier. 

She pulled a cigarette out and bent over away from the wind to light it.  She puffed once and exhaled long while glancing at the tracks again.  She looked over the empty gravel parking lot, the dumpsters to the left and to the right, the commercial district street, and the cruddy cars of the manufacturing plant across the way.  The metal overhang to the truck dock gave her a little shelter but she eyed the damn pigeons fluttering around in the lofty corner with suspicion. 

“Don’t poop on me, you jerks,” she said under her breath.   

She fiddled then with her music.  She popped the headphones out of the jack since no one was around, and turned up the volume on her phone.  She flipped through her playlist and settled on Al Green’s So Tire d of Being Alone and set it to play.  The melancholy melody flowed out from the phone and seemed to match the grey sky above.  She loved his voice, always had.  When she was younger, she would listen to Let’s Stay Together on repeat.  When she got a little older though she found this song more relatable.    

She took another drag on her cigarette and flicked the ash off the end towards the empty grate in front of her below.  The music lyrics filled the air around her.

I’m so tired of being alone

I’m so tired of on-my-own

Won’t you help me girl

Soon as you can

She was taking a few more draws from her cigarette and thinking to herself how she really needed to quit smoking again when the thick metal side door behind her opened loudly and closed.  She immediately turned down the volume on her music.  Then she looked back over her shoulder to whomever had come out of the side door.  It was the new gal from fabrication, one of the new hires from last week.  She was named Pam or something.  Great Skylar thought to herself and looked forward slightly rolling her eyes and pursing her lips.  She looked back at Pam over her shoulder.

“Hey” she said.  “Whatchu doin’?” 

She motioned for Pam to come over if she wanted but Skylar kinda hoped the girl would just go away.  She probably had ten more minutes to her break.  She sure as hell didn’t want to spend her free time with a newbie.  Skylar looked forward, took a drag a little self-consciously, and slowly exhaled this one with her cheeks puffed out. 

“I saw you came out here.”  Pam began.  “Can I join you?”  She asked hesitantly and unsure of herself.

Skylar felt a slight twinge of compassion and said, “Sure.” 

Pam came over to the ledge and sat some three or four feet away.  Skylar reached into her pocket and got the pack of cigarettes and offered Pam one.  She knew full well Pam would probably refuse.  And she was not surprised when Pam shook her head to say no.    

“No, thanks,” said the new girl. 

Pam got down on the ledge and let her feet dangle too like Skylar’s.  She watched Skylar sway them back and forth just a little and she did the same.  Pam looked around the dock and didn’t know exactly what to do next. 

They didn’t really speak much at first.  Eventually feeling awkward, Skylar picked up her phone and started scrolling through her Facebook feed.   

“Why do you smoke?” Pam asked curiously.

Skylar took a drag on the diminishing cigarette.  She looked at it and sorta shrugged. 

“I picked up smoking a few years ago.  At first, I just was looking to fit in at the factory.  But over time, well, hell, I guess I’m addicted now.”  And she shrugged and looked at Pam under the brim of her ball cap. 

“Yeah, it’s not good for you,” said Pam almost under her breath.

“Yeah, I know.”  Replied Skylar and smoked again slowly.  I don’t really care, she thought to herself.  

Just then, the train whistles began blowing loudly from far off to the right and soon the train was thundering loudly across the tracks in front of them.  They both looked in the direction of the incoming train.

Damn train Skylar thought. 

“It’s so loud,” said Pam. 

“Yeah, we’re right next to the track,” yelled Skylar over the noise.   “Sometimes the trains come rushing through here and sometimes they hit the brakes so hard it makes you wonder if the train’s gonna come through the factory or something.  They are noisy for sure but I kinda like ‘em too.  They remind me of an old Johnny Cash song.  You ever hear Folsom Prison Blues?

“Nah, never heard it,” said Pam. 

Skylar smiled at her under the bill of her hat.  “You should listen to it.  It’s a good song.  I like Johnny Cash.  Another good one is One Piece at a Time.  You’d like that one too.  Sunday Morning Coming Down or A Boy Named Sue……great songs.”

Skylar kept scrolling through her Facebook feed and Pam sat near her watching the disappearing train to the left screaming its whistle as it went.  Skylar came across a Facebook post that made her smile.  For some reason she decided to share it with Pam.  She reasoned it was probably because there was a lull in the conversation. 

“Check this out.  This little kid here,” and she pointed at the picture in the post of a young boy holding a cat.  “He’s got a cleft lip and one blue eye here.  See?  It reads that he doesn’t fit in at school.  I don’t’ know why…it don’t say.   So, for some reason, he goes to the humane society and here, look…..he finds this cat there with the exact same thing, a cleft lip and one blue eye and they adopt each other and become friends.  Huh,” she said shaking her head and smiling, “What’s the frickin’ coincidence of that?”

And Pam looked at the picture and smiled at it too.

“It’s like…meant to be or something.” Skylar continued and smiled.  

“Do you like Facebook?” Pam asked.

“Yeah, it’s cool…I guess” Skylar said.  “Something to pass the time….speaking of which, it’s time to get back.  We gotta go.”  She flicked the dead cigarette into the grate, tucked her phone and headphones into her pocket, and got up to go back inside.  Pam got up too. 

“I think we’re actually gonna be a little late.” Skylar said.  “My watch says 10:16.  Shit.”  She cursed.

So they hurried to the metal side door and back to the welding shop.  Everybody was in there already working so they got quietly back to work. 

How I Wish You Were Here

By J. Speer

(I wrote another happy quarantine story.  This is a romantic comedy.  I kind of picture the Dad in the story like a Kevin James type and the Mom similar to Jennifer Aniston.) 

She was a nurse practioner at the busiest hospital in New York City during the COVID pandemic.  He was a marketer at a New York publishing firm.  He was on quarantine with their three teenage boys under stay-at-home orders.  They lived in the suburbs.  There was Nick, the eldest, who was in his senior year in high school and sadly missing out on all the fun of prom parties and graduation and such.  Patrick was the middle child.  He was a sophomore.  Then there was their youngest, Drew, who was a 7th grader in junior high. 

John was their father and he was pulling all the household duties while working from home on his laptop and helping the boys with their online schooling.  It proved to be quite a lot of juggling.  Carol, his wife, the nurse practioner, was working very long hours at the hospital helping the COVID patients.  She too was incredibly busy. 

They had not seen each other in over a month and a half.  Other than her previous medical trips to Africa, Carol had never been away from John that long.  They had been married for nearly 20 years. 

A month and a half ago, when things started heating up with the pandemic, she moved into a tiny apartment as close to the hospital as she could get.  She shared it with one other nurse.  She wanted to keep her family safe so she stayed away from them.  Carol pulled 14 hour shifts a day.  She had volunteered to put in extra hours here and there as needed.  She had seen a lot in the past few days.  Things that she couldn’t share with her husband.  It was getting stressful. 

They talked on the phone every night.  He was talking to her that night as he multi-tasked working on a marketing plan for a new account at the company, cooking Hamburger Helper at the stove, and making sure their youngest finished his math homework.  Although John excelled at school before, he couldn’t understand this new common core Math stuff.  When his father tried to sit down with him and work on the derivatives homework that night, Drew just kind of shook his head to himself.  Drew knew he wouldn’t get much help. 

John had thrown the pasta noodles into the cream sauce in the pan.  He was supposed to cover it and let the whole thing simmer but he forgot to turn down the heat as he was explaining to Carol his new business account.

“Ok, so he’s a real curmudgeon.  Rumor is, we are the third publishing company this old coot has worked with.  He gets dissatisfied and leaves and looks for another,” he explained to Carol over the phone as he checked over Drew’s shoulder at his homework.  He had no idea really what Drew was doing for this common core stuff but he figured if he checked him periodically, Drew would stay on task.  Drew looked up at his Dad sullenly and pushed his pencil and paper farther over to the left, further away from prying eyes. 

“His name is Max Hogard,” John stated.

“The Max Hogard?” asked Carol inquisitively as if she knew the man.

John said, “Yes, how…. how do you know about Max Hogard?”

Carol said, “He’s a popular author.  Writes detective stories.  Lots of people like Max Hogard’s books.  I guess I heard about him at work.”

“Well,” said John, “trust me, if you met this guy in person, you would think differently.  I can’t seem to pin him down.  We got the big Literary Fair coming up in Boston in 2 months and he won’t attend with the marketing plan offered.  Says it is too high.  Just refuses.  I can’t get him to budge for anything.”

“Well,” replied Carol over the phone.  “I have faith in you.  You’ll find a way.”

There was a pause in the conversation.  Normally she was pretty talkative but not tonight. 

“The boys doing okay?” she asked.  “I miss them.”

That was Carol.  No matter what was going on in her life, she always made the welfare of others her top priority.  That was what he loved about her most of all.  She had a big heart. 

“And you, John,” she asked.  “I hope you’re doing okay.  I worry about you taking care of everything at home.”    

He hadn’t really told her what a challenge it all was for him.  There was constant cleaning and laundry and more cleaning and more laundry with three teenage boys in the house full-time.  Plus, he had these online meetings with his department.  He would wear his pajama bottoms to the meetings with a nice work shirt and, during his work shift, he would move the mouse every couple of minutes to show he was actively online, even though sometimes he fudged and did other stuff around the house.  Still he was trying to nail down a commitment from this Hogard guy to attend the Boston Literary Fair and he was trying his hardest.  Apparently, his bosses thought it was very important. 

“I’m fine, Carol,” he said, “To be honest, I’m much more worried about you.  We all are.”  And with that, Drew looked up from his homework at his Dad for a moment.  Then Drew resumed working on his equations. 

There was another long pause on the line.  She didn’t say anything.  She didn’t say anything at all.  This wasn’t like her. 

John went to the stove to check on the Hamburger Helper.  The noodles were stuck to the pan.

“Ah man,” he said, “I think I burnt the Hamburger Helper.”  Drew looked up and did a slight eye roll movement.  Then he resumed his homework. 

Carol laughed into the phone.  It was a laugh but it didn’t quite sound right.  It sounded more like to John that she had been crying. 

“Carol?” he asked with sudden concern, forgetting the Hamburger Helper mess for the moment. 

“John….,” she started and then stopped. 

“John, it’s getting hard to do this.  The people……. I, um….,” and she stopped talking again on the line.  There was a silence. 

He moved into the dining room away from Drew and said, “Carol, you’re strong.  You always have been.” 

She didn’t say anything more. 

“John, I gotta go tonight.  I’m sorry, I just……. I need to rest,” she said.  “Give the kids my usual:  a hug and a kiss and an I love you.  Bye, John.  Have a good night.”  And with that, she hung up. 

She always said the same thing.  Give the kids a hug and a kiss and an I love you.  She said it every night.  But this time, she got off the phone earlier than usual.  It worried John. 

He went back to the mess of Hamburger Helper and tried to salvage what he could into a bowl.  He and the boys sat down to a meal in the kitchen that night as usual.  They did their usual quick prayer that included a brief request that their mom stay safe.  Then the boys devoured the Hamburger Helper with lots of ketchup.  They ate the green beans and mashed potatoes John had made too.  Afterwards, they scrapped off their plates in the trash, placed them in the kitchen sink, helped clear a couple of stuff off the table, and then the boys headed to their usual evening spots.  Nick went to his room upstairs where he promptly texted Abby, his girlfriend.  Patrick went back to playing Xbox in his room.  Drew went to his room and lay on the bed.  He began reading his Manga Promised Neverland book.  All three boys had shut the doors to their rooms.  Nick’s door had a sign on it that read, “Stay out.”  And he meant that. 

John cleared the kitchen table, put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and did the rest of the clean-up of the kitchen.  He tried to do his usual thing too which was working on marketing and figuring out a way to convince Max Hogard to play ball.  But, tonight, John just stared at the laptop unable to work.  He thought about Carol and his eyebrows furrowed in concern. 

He eventually wandered from the kitchen to the living room and plopped down on the big leather Lazy Boy recliner.  That was his chair and even Carol had insisted that everyone leave John’s chair alone.  It was his special spot and he had the remotes and coasters and such positioned just within reach.  He pushed the side button to bring his legs up.  Man, he loved this chair so much.  He got the remote and turned on the TV.  He found an old 80s movie.  It looked like something Carol would like.  It had that guy John Cusack and it was a love story.  Yep, Carol would like it he concluded.  So, he watched the movie almost to the very end.  It was a good one.  In the movie, John Cusack stood with a boombox over his head playing a love song for his girl.  John looked at the movie and suddenly grabbed the remote and froze the screen.  He watched the frozen Cusack image for a few moments. 

John pushed the down button on the Lazy Boy and came to a sitting position.  He went upstairs briefly and checked on the boys. 

He called out to the closed doors.  “Hey you guys, just wanted you to know that your Mom said she loves you.”  No response back.  He, in fact, had said this phrase every night since the pandemic started and the boys were used to it.  He opened the door to Drew’s room.  Drew was reading a Manga book.  John did a slight wave at Drew who just looked at him.  Then he closed the door.  Next, he could hear video game sounds from Patrick’s room so he didn’t even bother to open that door.  He knew better though with Nick’s room.  He always knocked first with Nick because Nick was older and he could get testier. 

Nick said, “What?”

John opened the door.  Nick was laying across his bed with his phone in his hand probably from texting with Abby. 

“Nothing,” said his Dad. “Just wanted to make sure you’re still alive.”  Nick scowled at him and he closed the door. 

John put his hands to his eyes and muttered to himself, “Teenagers.”  John missed the good old days when they would spend more time with each other than with their electronics but he realized his boys were growing up and needed their alone time. 

After that he went back to the living room where John Cusack with the boombox overhead was still frozen on the screen.  He watched it oddly and went up close to examine it.  Then he blinked a few times and he proceeded to go to the basement. 

He knew it had to be down there.  The basement was old and musty smelling.  It had lots of storage space and lots of stuff thrown here and there.  Carol hated organizing the basement and rarely went down there.  She didn’t like creepy basements.  So, he looked at the stacks of boxes and holiday decorations and stuff here and there.  He walked towards the old cupboard in the back with the sliding doors and shelves.  He was pretty certain, if it was anywhere, it would be around there. 

He started going through Carol’s old stuff.  There were lots of old medical books and such from college.  There were old pictures of the two of them at various functions throughout the years.  He stopped and smiled at an old college photo of them dressed up as Fred Flintstone and Wilma for some costume party.  He kept digging through the boxes and stuff until about thirty minutes later, he found it. 

It was her old stereo from college.  It was the really old one from like 1993 that she had kept forever.  It was not quite a boombox but heck, it sure looked close enough.  It had two cassette tape players and a CD player at the top.  He took out the electrical cord and opened the battery compartment.  It needed 8 D batteries.  Geesh, what a battery guzzler.  He didn’t know if he had 8 D batteries in the house. 

He set the old stereo on the nearby table and before he turned, he saw something else that had been underneath the stereo.  It was an old black leather case full of old CDs.  It was Carol’s first music collection.  He pulled it out and dusted it off.  It was really dusty. 

He brought the leather case over to the table and flipped to the first page.  It was an Alan Jackson CD.  John laughed.  God, Carol sometimes had bad taste in music.  She was eclectic.  He would give her that.  He kept going through the CDs.  He wanted to find the perfect song.  As he looked at each CD, he thought about the songs on them.  On the second to last page, he found the CD he wanted.  He found the song as well.  It was the perfect song for Carol.  It was number 7. 

John started to get excited about the plan formulating in his head.  He thought it might be a little crazy but……. well, hell……. why not?  He went to the storage closet and found the box of batteries and prayed he would find some D batteries.  Luckily, he had two packs of four.  It was perfect.  It was getting late that night and with all the stores closed early, there was no way he could get more batteries until the next morning.  He happened to luck out. 

He put the batteries into the old stereo and turned it on.  He held his breath and hoped it would work.  Yes!  The light came on and it worked.  He fist pumped the air.  Yes!  Yes! 

John tested the old CD in the stereo and as the song he picked out played, he smiled more and more. 

Next step in his plan was to go to the kids’ old toy/art room.  It was on the other side of the house and rarely visited now.  He flipped on the light and looked around at the toy collections and bookcases, the bean bags, the musical instruments, the art easels and all the art supply off to one side.  He was looking for some particular items. 

He found three white posters and set them on the floor, one after the other.  Then he dug around in the art file cabinet and pulled out a paint brush.  He also pulled out some old paint the kids used to use.  It was tempura paint, the kind they used in schools.  When the kids were little, Carol used to work with them on art projects drawing race cars or sailboats or whatever their imaginations could think of. He had a flashback to those days.  Carol sitting in the little chair in the room at the little table beside a little Nick and they were coloring together.  She was smiling and she was beautiful.  And Nick was smiling at his mother. 

John got back to work on the three signs.  It took him a good two hours.  It was 1 am before he finally stopped and stepped back, admiring his handiwork.  He had even drawn a red heart on the last one.  He cleaned up his mess and left the signs to dry.  Then, he went upstairs to sleep for a little bit.

At 5 am, he was up and waking each of the boys.  He told them to go to the kitchen.  They were groggy and grumpy as hell but he eventually, did convince them to go.  They sat around the kitchen with disheveled hair and pajamas and their father told them about his plan. 

At first, Nick said adamantly, “No way!”  The other boys agreed with Nick.  Even Drew shook his head no.  But, when their father explained the situation fully and explained how sad their mother was, and that she needed them ……they softened up a bit.  John also had to do a little bit of tough negotiation. 

30 minutes later, they were all dressed and, in the car, driving towards New York City.  The traffic wasn’t difficult this time.  The three signs and boombox with CD were in the trunk.  The three boys were in the backseat with their heads all down looking at their phones.  Nick was looking at YouTube.  Patrick was playing a game.  Drew was reading his favorite Manga Fanfiction site.  Occasionally, one of the boys would look up at their surroundings and sort of roll their eyes or shake their head and go back to their phone.  John hurried along the route to the hospital where Carol worked. 

They parked in the parking garage and carried their stuff to the grassy spot across the street from the hospital cafeteria.  The cafeteria was a large glass enclosure with many windows.  They knew that Carol always went there first to get her morning cup of coffee and meet with a few colleagues for breakfast before her shift started at 7 am.  They were just in time.

John called them together for a group huddle on the lawn.  The sun was just beginning to rise and folks were going in and out of the hospital.  It was going to get busier and busier.  Drew looked around at all the other people and started to get second thoughts.  So did the other boys but John convinced them. 

John turned the volume up to max on the stereo.  He set the song to 7 and hit the pause button.  The boys, meanwhile positioned themselves in front of their dad.  Each one was holding a sign with their back to the cafeteria across the street.  John was nervous all the sudden and wondered if this whole thing would flop horribly and he would be publicly disgraced.  Oh hell, he thought and then he thought of Carol and how she sounded on the phone last night.  She needed them.  He resolved to do what he was going to do. 

He got his phone out of his pocket and dialed her.  The phone rang three times and then she picked up.  He was nervous.  He told Carol to come outside the cafeteria. 

Carol looked around the cafeteria.  She said, “John?” and she looked quickly about the place and then out the window.  It startled her to see them across the street, her boys and her husband standing in the grass.  She told her colleagues and they looked out too.  John told her again to come outside and her friends were welcome too.  He hung up. 

She looked down at her phone and looked out the window.  She and her friends, some nurses and doctors and medical staff, they wandered out from the cafeteria and across the street in the grass across from the boys and John. 

Nick looked at his Dad, “You owe me,” he said quietly.  He too was nervous and embarrassed.  All the boys looked uncomfortable but they stayed in place. 

“Ok,” said John and he nodded first at Nick.  Nick turned around with the sign in his hands.  It read We love you Mom!

John nodded at Patrick.  Patrick turned around too with his own sign.  We miss you Mom!

The boys and John noticed Carol smiling across the street and her colleagues smiling too.  Other people had stopped too to watch as well.  One person even had their phone out and was filming it on video.  Nick started to lower his sign when he saw this but he looked back at his Mom.  She was smiling and holding back tears.  He reluctantly brought his sign back up. 

“Ok,” said John and he cued Drew to turn around.  At the same time, John hit the play button on the old stereo and he hoisted it overhead just like he’d seen John Cusack do it in the movie.  He felt utterly ridiculous and he noted that people were filming this but he continued to smile and look at Carol. 

Drew turned around with his sign and it read You are our hero!

Just then, the music clicked on.  It began to play very loudly an old Foo Fighters song from Carol’s college days, one that John was certain she would recognize.  It played My Hero. 

John kept holding the boombox overhead just like he’d seen John Cusack do.  The boys kept holding their signs up.  More and more people stopped to watch them and some videotaped them.  They were all pretty embarrassed but they held their ground and smiled for Carol. 

The song lyrics rang out There goes my hero.  John and the boys kept in place for their mom and her friends.  More people were coming out to see what was going, other medical staff as well.  When the song finally ended, John lowered the boombox.  The boys turned around and looked at him embarrassed and this time, they all said, “You owe us.” 

He winked at them and said, “Thanks.  I mean it.”  People in the small crowd were clapping now.  Some were drifting back inside to the hospital.  A ginger kid with goofy glasses on the side was still filming on his phone and all three boys looked at the guy sheepishly.  They headed to the car with blushing faces. 

John stood alone on the grass looking at his wife.  She was smiling and trying to hold back tears.  She smiled again.  John smiled back.  They both walked forward to the edge of the street between them.  They stood on either side of the street away from each other. 

“Thank you,” she said.  “I like that song.  I miss you all.”  She wiped a few tears away and tried to smile again. 

“We meant it, Carol,” he said. 

They kept looking at each other across the street.  The ginger kid kept filming them and John looked over at him and motioned his hands for the kid to stop but he wouldn’t stop.  He just kept filming.  John tried to ignore him.

“So, how did you convince the boys to do this,” asked Carol grinning at him.  She knew it must have taken a lot. 

John looked at her and slowly pulled three pieces of paper from his pocket.  He read them to her.

“Drew wants Promised Neverland books 13 and 14.  That was the easy one.  Patrick said he wants Animal Crossing……and Nick,” he began.  “Nick was the hardest to convince.  He wanted a new phone.” 

“What?” she said. 

“Yes,” he said and he nodded.  She laughed.

“I agreed to a gift card for him instead.”  He smiled.    

“When this whole thing is over,” he said, “we’ll go on a trip together or maybe a dinner date.” 

“I’d like that,” she smiled.  She looked at her watch.  “I’ve……I’ve got to go, John.” 

“I know,” he said and just looked her way. 

“I love you,” she said. 

“I love you too,” he replied.  They both smiled at each other. 

“Go on,” he said, “We’ll head back.  The kids got some zoom meetings for school this morning.” 

“Ok,” she said and she waved goodbye.  He waved goodbye too and they both walked away from each other, each one turning their head every now and then to look back.  At the cafeteria entrance she stopped one last time to wave goodbye.  He stopped and raised his hand goodbye.  Then she disappeared inside.  He turned and went back to the car where the three boys were waiting. 

He drove back home.  He was smiling but it was kind of a sad smile.  The boys were playing on their phones again.  When they got home, the boys went to their rooms, closed their doors, and John was left alone again.  He cleaned up the house and did some more laundry and dishes before starting back to work.  The boys did their school zoom meetings that morning.  The day went pretty well. 

John tried calling Max Hogard again to convince him to go to the Literary Fair.  Max said no again.  He was curt and blunt with John. 

“No,” he said again. 

After John got off the phone again with Max Hogard, he spent the rest of the day on work and making dinner.  A little after 7 pm, he got a phone call from a neighbor friend. 

“Hey, you’re on the news!” said his neighbor.

“What?” said John.  Ah no! he thought.  It must have been that ginger kid.  Great he thought to himself and he felt even more sheepish. 

“Yeah, check out channel 9.  Some video of you holding a boombox outside the hospital,” said the neighbor.

John groaned. 

Just then, Nick came out of his room and yelled at his Dad.  Great thought John.  I’m in trouble.

Nick met John at the stairs. 

“We’re on the news!  We’re on the damn news!” said Nick with a horrified look.  “Abby told me!” 

The other boys came out of their rooms too.  They all looked embarrassed and were thinking what would their friends say. 

“You owe us double,” said Nick and he glared and went back into his room and slammed the door.   The other boys went to their rooms too. 

John put his hand to his eyes and wiped them.  He hadn’t anticipated this.  He sighed.  He went to the garage and backed out the car.  He headed to the local Wal-Mart. 

He found a $50 Amazon gift card for Drew, a copy of Animal Crossing for Patrick, and for Nick he found the gift card near the cashier stand.  He was standing in line with the boys’ bribes, when a man came up behind him. 

“Hey, you’re that guy on the news!” the man said.

John looked up with chagrin.  He nodded hesitantly.  He realized maybe he needed to add more to Nick’s gift then. 

“Hey what you did……that was pretty cool.” Said the man. 

John just said, “thanks.”  The cashier looked at him curiously but he looked down. 

The man in line said to the cashier, “This guy was on the news tonight.”  John just kept looking down and hoping to get out of there quickly.  He paid and left. 

“Have a good night, man,” said the guy behind him.  The cashier smiled at him. 

The next few days with the boys were a little awkward.  Nick was still mad at him and the other boys just ignored him.  Somebody had put the video on Facebook apparently too and it ended up going viral from what John heard.  He stayed in his home after that, feeling embarrassed.  His colleagues heard about it and told him, “Way to go, John!”  He just smiled sheepishly. 

He got a phone call later that week from some person at Good Morning America.  They asked him to appear on the show via online.  When the boys heard the news, they just groaned.  He didn’t want to do it at first, but reluctantly he agreed.

The next day, with the boys upstairs, he sat at his laptop in the kitchen and met with the host from Good Morning America.  He was extremely nervous about the whole thing but she was very kind and gracious.  They talked about the frontline workers, the nurses and doctors at the hospital and all they were doing to fight the pandemic.  John said a lot of nice things about the hospital staff and so did the host.   She played his video again and he just looked on awkwardly with a smile.  As the interview was closing, he was hoping to get off air soon.  He felt uncomfortable. 

She said, “John, before you go, I have a surprise for you.  I want you to meet someone special…. someone who saw your video and agreed to come online too.  He happens to share your first name too, John.” 

There was a pause.  Another screen popped up and when John saw who came online his jaw fell open and he about fell out of his chair. 

“Hey, John,” said the actor John Cusack from the other screen. 

Oh God thought John but he smiled.  John Cusack smiled back. 

The host from Good Morning America continued, “We wanted to thank you, John.”  John Cusack nodded.  The host continued, “and we wanted to thank all the doctors and nurses at your wife’s hospital and all the medical staff.”  The host explained that they started an online fund for people all across the nation that had heard the story to donate to the hospital and other hospitals in New York during the pandemic.  They said the whole nation was worried about New York City.  The host held up a sign for John. 

“See John, donations have poured in from people all over the country that saw your video.  We’re pleased to announce we’ve collected 1.5 million dollars to donate to the fund for the hospitals.”

John smiled but he was having trouble smiling because he was fighting back tears now too.  He felt as veclamped in that moment as Madonna on an old SNL skit.  He struggled to say, “thanks.”

“You’re a hero too,” said John Cusack and he smiled on the screen. 

It ended up being a great interview and when it aired, his bosses called to congratulate him.  The rest of the day went okay.  The boys were no longer avoiding him as much.   They all sat down to spaghetti dinner that night.  The boys, as usual, gobbled up their food.  Patrick and Drew cleared their plates and went to their rooms.  Nick stayed behind and helped his Dad.  He stood off to one side as his Dad started to put plates in the dishwasher.  Nick looked at his Dad thoughtfully.

He said, “You love Mom a lot, don’t you?”

John stopped cleaning dishes and nodded. 

Nick looked down.  “I love her too.  We all do.”

John looked up at his son and smiled.  They hugged.  Nick went back to his spot near the fridge.  His phone beeped. 

John looked at Nick and smiled.  He said, “You better get that.  It might be important.”  They both knew it was Abby. 

Nick smiled and went upstairs again.  John continued clearing dishes and putting stuff into the dishwasher.  He got a phone call and looked at his phone.  His face fell at that moment.  It was Max Hogard. 

Great he thought. 

He answered the phone anyway and with his best effort he said, “Hi Max, what can I do for you?”

There was a gruff cough on the line and then Max said, “Saw you on Good Morning America.”

John got silent. 

“I’m in,” said Max. 

“What?” said John with surprise.  He covered the phone and jumped up and down elatedly.

“I’m in.  I’ll go to the event and we can talk tomorrow about your other marketing plans.  Have a good night, John,” said the gruff voice over the phone. 

John said, “Thank you!  Thank you!”

“Oh, and John…,” began Max Hogard.  “Tell your lovely wife she’s my hero too.”  There was a click on the line and the call was ended. 

John began jumping up and down in the kitchen with fist pumps in the air. 

“Yes!  Yes!” he said.  He was so happy. 

Later that night, he started to work on the marketing plan for Max Hogard for their meeting tomorrow.  His phone was near the laptop when it beeped.  It was a text from Carol. 

He looked at the text.  It read, “I’ve been thinking about that old boombox.  You must have found it in the basement with my college stuff.  Did you find my old CD case?”

He typed back, “Yes.”

She typed more.  He watched the little conversation box with the three periods for her reply.

“Go to the CD case and find my old Pink Floyd CD.  Put it in the boombox and hit 3.  That is my song for you.  I love you, John.  I love you with my whole heart.  Have a good night.”  That was all she texted. 

He went to the CD case lying by the boombox on a side table.  He opened it and scoffed at Alan Jackson again.  Then he went through it to find Pink Floyd.  He turned on the boombox, pushed 3, and hit play.  It played the song How I Wish You Were Here.

He smiled and went back to the marketing plan work.  He would see her soon.  When this whole thing would be over.  He couldn’t wait to see her again. 

A Covid Romance

by J. Speer

(I wrote a short story for a contest. This is the first draft. It is still a work in progress. I’d love an honest critique on it. I am supposed to write a short story dealing with life during the pandemic. I chose to write a simple love story. Here it is below.)

     She noticed when he wasn’t there that morning.  In fact, she noticed everything about him from the brown leather shoes he wore every day to the way he combed his hair or the half smile he would give when he was happy about something.  She noticed that he drank his coffee black.  There was a myriad of things she had picked up about him over the years that they had worked together.  But, of course, she didn’t let it show.  She adhered to professionalism at all times. 

     They worked across from each other on opposite ends of the large telemarketing center.  There were many rows of small workstations with computers between them.  Yet, she could still spy a subtle glance his way every now and then.  She would look in his direction.  If he looked at her, she’d look away as if she was just casually scanning the room.  This happened a couple times a day since they were stuck on an 8 hour shift together, day in and day out, for nearly 2 years. 

     They had only talked briefly.  Sometimes, he’d come over to her work station to get a paper signed or to find out some pertinent information regarding insurance claims.  His smile seemed genuine and friendly.  Occasionally, they would even chat for a few obscure moments about the business, or work, or current events.  She noted he liked football.  He noted she liked art.  Their discussions were always short as the supervisor was constantly watching with disapproving glances.  If they talked too long, the supervisor would often walk over in their direction.  As always, he would abruptly leave at that point and head back to his desk. 

At break time, they sat at opposite ends of a long table.  He was with his friends.  She was with hers.  She would play on her phone.  He would play on his phone.  She might look his way briefly.  He might look her way for a moment or two.  They would both look away.  Nothing much happened between the two of them for 2 years. 

But today, he wasn’t at work.  She frowned a little behind her fabric mask as she overheard the boss and supervisor talking.  Apparently, he was sick.  He called in with a cough and fever.  The managers were discussing it quietly near her workstation which was situated close to the supervisor’s office.  She eavesdropped while she continued working on her computer with the medical claims.  Their work was considered essential since it dealt with healthcare.  So, they had continued working through the stay-at-home orders and quarantining of people from other industries. 

The management had gone through many precautions, however, to protect the workers.  They made hand washing mandatory several times a day and distributed pamphlets about worker rights during the pandemic.  The supervisors often held impromptu meetings for the employees to come together to discuss the current state mandates and the changes with the health insurance premiums and deductibles and such.  It was sort-of a stressful time for her and, try as she might, she didn’t get much restfulness at home despite the precautions recommended by the CDC. 

She looked at his empty desk.  She was worried about him but she didn’t let it show.  To be honest, she still didn’t know much about him.  She didn’t even know how to contact him.  She didn’t know his last name.  Everyone there went by a first name basis only. 

That morning was busy and eventful.  She guided many callers through the insurance claim process and helped others with disputes on their billing.  She answered questions about deductibles and copays and coinsurance.  She fielded all sorts of complaints and even some hostility from a few callers.  That was normal.  It happened every day.  At first, when she started the job, that part was exceedingly uncomfortable.  But over time, she had become more expert at the topics as well as handling conflict.  Over the years, she’d moved up within the department.  Now, many of her coworkers looked to her for answers and training. 

She went to break with her friends, Mary and Jamie.  They played on their phones and laughed at a few silly memes and videos.  She was aware of the empty space at the end of the table.  As break ended, her friends got up to head back to the main room.  His friends did likewise but one lingered for a moment.  He put his phone away and went to grab a pop from the nearby vending machine.  His name was Bryan.  She knew him well. 

She got up from the table too and put her phone away.  She glanced at Bryan’s back as he looked over the selection at the vending machine.  She walked over to him hesitantly, not knowing how to ask the question she was considering. 

“Hey Bryan,” she nodded at him.  He looked back at her briefly and smiled. 

“Hey,” he said as his eyes wandered back to his selection.  He pushed a button on the machine and a pop can rolled to the dispenser. 

She looked at him for a moment.  She bit her lip.  She knew she had to head back to work soon.  Bryan started turning towards the main room and she knew she would lose her chance in a moment if she didn’t speak.

“Bryan,” she began.  “Hey, do you know Kevin’s last name?”

Bryan didn’t say much but he eyed her curiously.  He probably wanted a reason for the question.  She just stood there and did not give him one.  There was a little pause.  He cracked open his pop.

“Yeah, it’s Piper.  Kevin Piper,” he said.  He smiled.  She just smiled back politely.

“Thanks, Bryan,” she said sweetly as she followed him back to the main room and to another couple of hours of hard work. 

At lunchtime, she sat in the break room with her usual sandwich and bag of chips.  She got a bottle of water from the communal fridge.  Most people left the telemarketing center for lunch but she drove pretty far every day to work.  She couldn’t go home.  She was also health conscious enough to avoid the fast food. 

She was a cute girl, a little shy and quiet but not bad to look at.  Today, she was wearing her favorite grey knee-length skirt with a cream blouse and matching cardigan.  Her heels were mid-rise, enough to look flattering but not too much.  Her hair was shiny and curled.  She wore glasses as she peered at her bright computer screen all day. 

Mary and Jamie had gone out to eat fast food.  There were only a few others in the break room for their hour lunch.  She sat there eating and thinking.  Then she picked up her phone, scrolled through Instagram, Snapchat, and Google news.  She opened Facebook too. 

She looked around and then tapped the search box.  She typed in Kevin Piper.  She didn’t know if he’d be on Facebook but she did find someone with his name and several mutual friends.  She looked at the name for a long moment.  She pursed her lips and then hit friend request.  She let out an exhale and then turned her phone over on the table.  She resumed her break and ate her lunch. 

The rest of the workday was long and tiring.  When she headed home to her tiny apartment, she saw that he had accepted her friend request. 

The next day as she clocked in and washed hands, she looked over to see his empty desk.  She secured her face mask again and headed to her own desk.  She furrowed her eyebrows briefly with concern.  That day would be another long day for her answering phone calls and helping customers with their inquiries. 

She went home that night and cooked dinner for herself.  She petted her black cat on the couch as she watched Netflix.  She looked at her phone a couple times as she watched the TV.

On the third morning, he was still gone.  At break, she went to the bench outside by herself and looked at her phone.  She pulled up Facebook Messenger, found his name, and pulled up a chat conversation.  She looked at the empty space on her phone for a long moment and then hit the handwave button.  Then she took in a deep breath and typed.

“Hey, this is Anne from work.  I heard you were sick.  Just hoping everything is alright.”  She hit send and then waited with baited breath for a moment or two.  She was looking for his reply on the screen, for the little conversation cloud with the three periods that indicated the other person was writing back.  She waited and it did not appear right away. 

He must be busy she thought to herself.  It wasn’t like her to do something like this.  She never contacted guys just out of the blue.  She never made the first move….at least until now.  This was different though.  This was the pandemic, the Coronavirus, and frankly she was concerned for his well-being as a friend and a fellow co-worker.  So, she had decided to reach out to him but now, as she watched the mostly empty screen, she was having second doubts.  By the time break was over, she bit her lower lip glumly.  She closed her eyes briefly and thought to herself, He’s not going to answer back.  Rejection central.  If he does answer at all, it will be something short and then I will get ghosted.  This was a bad idea. 

She got up from the bench and headed back in to work.  She set her phone aside and tried her best to ignore it for the few hours she had left of work that day.  When she got off work and clocked out, she retrieved the phone.  As she walked out of the call center, she was surprised to see that, in fact, there was a notification that he responded after all. 

She opened up Facebook Messenger and retrieved the conversation.  There was the reply.  It said, “Are you worried about me?”

She paused walking to her car.  What should she say at this point?  Be serious and say, “Yes, of course!” Or be nonchalant and just say, “Maybe.”  Or should she could say something satirical or flippant or even funny? 

She thought it over.  If she was honest, she would finally signal to him after 2 years that she did, in fact, have some interest.  But if she was coy or subtle, the conversation might end right there.  And, he obviously wanted to know where things stood at this point.  She reasoned it would be best to be truthful but yet lighthearted.  So, she texted him simply, “Perhaps, yes, I just simply wanted to make sure you’re ok.”  Then she hit send again. 

This time he was replying back right away but it took a while for this second message to come through. 

He said, “Ah, well thanks.  I’m doing alright.  Doc says it might be just common cold but, just in case, they did a swab.  It wasn’t very fun.  Not recommended lol.  Anyway, I have to self-quarantine for fourteen days so I did notify the bosses.  They said I could take paid leave time which is good.  In the meantime, I will get the results back from the swab in five days.  Wish me luck.”

She didn’t know at first how to respond to that information.  Then she typed back, “Oh so sorry to hear that but I’m glad you are doing well.  That’s good that you can take paid leave.  As for the swab test, I have heard it is pretty rough.” 

She stopped for a moment, not knowing what to say next.  Then she added briefly, “We’ll be thinking of you.  Get well soon.”  She hit send.

He replied, “Thanks.” 

She watched the screen for more words but nothing came through.  Then she added in closing, “Be sure to check your temperature and get plenty of sleep.  Ok, ttyl.”  She added a small smiley emoji at the end. 

His reply simply stated, “Thanks for checking up on me.  Ttyl too.”  He also sent back a small smile emoji. 

Anne got in her car and drove home.  When she got in the small apartment, she put her mail on the side table, slipped off her shoes, and found her black cat.  She gave her cat a brief snuggle and then checked his food and water bowls.  Later, that night as she was preparing another dinner for one, she got another notification on her phone.  She thought it might be Mary or Jamie.  Yet, she was really pleasantly surprised to see that it was Kevin again.  He had texted her a short message.

He said, “So, how’s your art classes going?”  She smiled when she saw the message, mostly because he had remembered something special about her.  She realized too that he was also trying to start up a conversation.  She leaned against the kitchen counter as the black cat lay lazily on the table and swishing his tail back and forth slowly.  The pot of water on the stove was boiling and filled with spaghetti noodles.  She had already prepared the meat sauce. 

But the phone had her attention at the moment and she started to share a conversation with Kevin.  They talked about several things that evening as she had dinner and sat on the couch as usual to relax.  They talked about their pets and their apartments.  They talked about their families and their interests and hobbies.  The conversation lasted quite a while and it made her smile.  She felt happy.  She wondered if he did too.  When she went to bed that night, she slept pretty well with the warm and soft black cat curled up beside her on the quilted bedspread. 

The days prior to learning the Coronavirus test results were filled with the usual work for her.  However, there were intermittent and fun text conversations with Kevin throughout the days.  Each day, she’d ask how he was feeling.  She made a few suggestions for getting well soon.  Otherwise, they would make small talk about the weather or food or sports.  They discussed things about work.  They made some jokes and told funny stories to each other about colleagues and especially the supervisors.  He would send her GIFs or memes he liked.  She would return those with other memes she had found as well.  They talked about YouTube videos and channels they liked.  They talked about video gaming or streaming channels. 

He seemed in good spirits.  He seemed to be doing alright.  He said his symptoms were going away and that he wasn’t too bothered by the test.  Kevin claimed he was certain it would come back negative.  He made light of the whole situation and said quarantine time was starting to bore him.  She asked him what he did during the day.  He said that he mostly slept and watched TV.  He read books and read stories and news on the internet though he tried to stay away from some of the negative media stories.  They tended to bring him down.  He said he liked music too.  He offered to make her a playlist. 

As the days and evenings passed, they became closer friends.  They even chatted via Facetime every now and then.  On the night before he would get the Coronavirus results, Anne lay in bed looking up at the ceiling in the darkness.  Her cat purred soft and low beside her.  The cat was all curled up and she decided not to disturb him.  He could get grumpy at times.  Instead, she thought about Kevin and even prayed for a moment that the results would be good for him.

And to her surprise and to Kevin’s as well, they were just that.  The test results came back negative.  She smiled warmly at him on video as they Facetimed. 

She said, “I’m really happy for you!  I’m so glad.”  And he half smiled back. 

He said, “Well, that means I can come back to work soon….as soon as the doctors will release me.  I’ll let you know.”

The doctor did release Kevin to come back to work the following Monday.  Kevin let her know through a text.  She answered back to him that this was great news.  He said he was going to miss sleeping in but he needed to get back to his old routine. 

Saturday and Sunday were sunny and cheerful days for Anne.  She talked over the phone with Mary and Jamie and a few other friends.  She did some grocery shopping and cleaned the apartment.  On Sunday, she watched church online.  She also watched some of the new series on Netflix later such as Ozark.  Anne watched Tiger King to see what all the fuss was about.  It proved very entertaining. 

Monday morning, Anne got up a little earlier than normal.  She took extra care that morning with her appearance.  She was really looking forward to seeing Kevin again.  She hadn’t heard from him since Sunday early afternoon.  She figured he must be busy. 

Anne drove to work with her cup of coffee in one hand and she listened to XM radio.  She felt a little nervous about seeing Kevin again.  She pulled into the parking lot and walked to the call center entrance.  She clocked in just before 8 am at the start of her shift.  She washed her hands and turned to put her face mask on as she looked over at Kevin’s desk.  He was there.  He looked nice as usual.  He didn’t seem to look her way though.  He was busy with his friends surrounding his desk.  The supervisor came over and also wanted to talk to him. 

Anne looked away.  In that moment, she felt a little downcast.  She finished securing her mask and turned to head to her desk.  That is when she saw it. 

On the desk near her computer was a glass vase full of a dozen scarlet, red roses.  She blinked and exhaled into her mask.  She walked slowly to her desk and went around it to sit down.  She sat down looking at the beautiful flowers and even lowered her mask a little to inhale just a little bit the rose fragrance.  There was a little white envelope attached to the flowers. 

The supervisor walked by and briefly said, “Well, well, looks like you have someone special.”  She raised her eyebrows at Anne as she walked past.   Anne blushed profusely. 

Anne just said, “Thanks, they are very pretty.”

Anne looked across the room at that moment to the one person she hoped might have sent the flowers.  She looked at Kevin.  He was no longer with his friends.  He was seated across from her and looking at her directly.  And for the first time in 2 years, she returned his gaze boldly without looking away.  He lowered his face mask and there was a half-smile on his face.  She lowered her mask briefly and returned the smile. He nodded towards the roses and the card.  She lifted the little white envelope and opened it.  She pulled out the white card and read it. 

It simply said, “Thanks for everything.  You helped me through a difficult time.  I appreciate you.  In fact, would you consider going on a date with me?”

Anne bit her lower lip again.  She then smiled wide behind her mask.  She looked at him across the room.  He was wearing a mask too.  He looked at her.  Then, she nodded her head to say yes. 

The Silent and Worthy Queen

By J. Speer

There once was a beautiful kingdom admired from near and far.  A wise King and his graceful Queen presided over the kingdom.   It prospered marvelously.  The King and Queen had one daughter who was known to be comely.  She was also genuine.  She was benevolent, kind, and gracious to all as she learned much from her mother and father.  The empire, this particular kingdom, was magnificent.  The walls and citadel of the keep glimmered in the sun like crystal clear diamonds.  The serfs were treated respectfully.  They were as happy as a serf could be in Medieval times.  They labored in the fields, they worked the smithy and stables, and the kingdom’s guard trained to protect and serve the royalty with heartfelt allegiance.  All was calm and peaceful in the kingdom which had faced years upon years of blessings and prosperity and as a result, had lowered defenses.  These defenses were deemed unnecessary.  The kingdom networked well with other nearby kingdoms.  The diplomacy and tact were the utmost level of politeness with mutual admiration. 

The King and Queen fell ill and passed on.  The young daughter, who had been well trained, ascended to the throne.  She was educated in the arts.  She also knew mathematics and knew well how to manage and run a kingdom.  Yet, she was timid and unsure of herself.  She was also prone to romantic fancy about love.  The kingdom continued to prosper, however, under her gentle and shy hand. 

Several suitors came and went from the palace, each seeking the hand of a young Queen.  One day, a charming, outspoken suitor entered the kingdom with much pomp and circumstance.  He wooed the heart of the young Queen with apparent ardor and fealty.  The young Queen was cast under the spell of his charm.  She loved his humor.  They were wed with much fanfare.  The kingdom rejoiced that day.  The new King wanted an abundant feast for the wedding.  Wine, ale, and Meade flowed.  Music filled the air of the great hall.  There was laughter and dancing.  The young Queen and King appeared deeply and passionately in love. 

Years came and went.  To her great sadness, the young Queen was unable to produce an heir.  Eventually the King began to become less interested in romantic love with the Queen.  Meanwhile, the King dominated the throne room discussions regarding the state of affairs for the kingdom.  The advisors, who previously had consulted the young Queen, now looked to the King to run the kingdom.  Soon, the young Queen learned that the King had some previous unspoken of debts acquired in his own kingdom.  Due to her great love for the King, she agreed to let her kingdom shoulder the burden of the debt which was eventually repaid but with great cost.  As the years passed, the kingdom began to fall into slow disrepair and decline.  The King and Queen acquired more and more debt and the accounting books were beginning to seem mismanaged significantly.  The Queen continued to work behind the scenes to maintain the kingdom and she consulted with some of the advisors in the shadows but her power and influence were no longer effective.

 The King loved to hunt, especially for wild boar.  He was often away on hunting trips and invited huge entourages of guests from his kingdom to this one.  They also went with him on the hunting trips.  They wined and dined into the early hours of the morn, feasting on all the food stores.  The young Queen played gracious hostess to the entourages but she was often met with rudeness.  As the years passed more and more, the King’s treatment of the Queen in front of others could sometimes be cruel.  He also flirted with the housemaids and servants to the shame of the Queen.  Over time, he would come in to her bedroom chambers very late at times or leave very early in the morn.  The young Queen questioned this behavior but chose to keep the peace. 

Nearly a decade passed.  The walls of the kingdom were not being upkept.  The rocks had fallen in at several key spots.  The archers and soldiers were no longer training diligently.  The servants were treated harshly by the King and his entourage.  The serfs toiled heavily in the fields without much relief to provide more food for the great hall. 

One night a band of marauders raided the serf huts outside the kingdom.  Again, the marauders returned to pillage and take what they liked.  These mysterious robbers only came at night in quick surprise to stealthily steal.  After they had pillaged what they could outside the kingdom gates, they began making surprise attacks within the walls of the kingdom.  The military advisors investigated these occurrences but there was no definitive trace of the marauder camp.  Also, they could not determine how the robbers were entering the kingdom until they discovered that possibly someone from inside was letting them in.  But who was this person? 

The combination of the outside attacks on the kingdom and the financial disparity were causing strife in the throne room.  The King demanded that the guard keep diligent watch and determine the name of the traitor at the gates.  In their bedroom at night, the Queen and King spoke of kingdom matters privately.  The Queen was becoming distressed.  Also, she was no longer young.  Nevertheless, the King spoke often of his great love and admiration for her.  They made love often and held each other through the night.  The Queen loved the King despite her reservations sometimes.  She chose to overlook things. 

One day, the Queen was visiting the fields to check on the workers and resources.  She encountered the guard stopping and accosting an unusual wagon of gypsies.  As this was a Christian kingdom, the soldiers demanded  that the gypsies were not wanted and must leave immediately. 

The Queen watched the gypsies.  One woman in particular turned to her.  Their eyes connected.  The Queen felt pulled by the mysterious gypsy woman.  She walked forward.  She was Christian but something in her felt that it wasn’t right to deny them access.  She granted the gypsies entry to safety behind the kingdom walls.  The gypsy woman slowly curtsied and inclined her head to the side, looking speculatively at the Queen. 

She said quietly to the Queen as the Queen passed, “Thank you.”  She paused and then added, “The scales of justice are imbalanced.  It will be up to you, my lady, to return them to order.  I do tarot card readings.  If you should feel so inclined, my lady, please contact me and I will read for you.” 

The gypsy wagon slowly lurched forward through the gates and into the kingdom and the gypsies walked barefoot and brazen in through the gates.

That night, the feasting and carousing continued.  The King sat beside the Queen and he was raucously drunk on ale.  He was flirting with the wench who brought him ale to the table.  The Queen was preoccupied that night and she no longer wished to play hostess to ungrateful guests only there for her husband.  She sat in silence and reflected.  She surveyed the great hall and all its brazen debauchery.  She felt sad.  She felt exhausted.  She watched the King yell at one of the servants and she no longer intervened anymore.  She just excepted it as part of her new life.  She was mentally exhausted. 

The King did not come to her bed chamber that night.  The Queen contemplated the piercing brown eyes of the gypsy woman she encountered on the road outside the gates.  She considered the message, “The scales are imbalanced.”  She wondered what the strange gypsy woman meant.  Her curiosity got the better of her and she called her servant. 

“I need your help to do something discreet for me,” began the Queen looking at the servant for a nod of acceptance.  “Please go to the lower quarter.  Find the gypsy wagon and bring the woman with the brown eyes and brown hair to me.  You will recognize her by a red skirt and green blouse with brown leather belt.  She wears a rose quartz pendant necklace.  Now, go please and swiftly.”

The Queen waited patiently in the antechamber to her quarters.  After thirty minutes, the servant returned obediently with the beautiful and mysterious gypsy woman.  The woman wore a glittering brown and purple flowered veil. 

“I was waiting for your invite,” said the stranger.  She curtsied once more.  “We did not come to this kingdom by accident.  We were drawn here.  Compelled to come.” 

The shy Queen watched the beautiful gypsy.  She did not speak much but motioned to the gypsy to come forward and sit at the table.  When both women had sat, the Queen softly said, “You suggested I do a reading…….” She hesitated.  “I have never done a reading before.” 

“The brown eyed woman leaned forward intently.  “You have much cause to do a reading.  I have much that I can share with you…………if you are prepared.” 

The Queen glanced cautiously to the door.  She worried she would get caught.  In this Christian kingdom, tarot card readings were highly suspect and considered almost like witchcraft.  But the Queen wondered about the astrologers, the Three Kings of the Bible……..she wondered if there was some legitimacy to this.  The Queen quietly nodded to proceed. 

The gypsy woman slowly revealed three separate decks of colorfully decorated cards.  She placed stones she called crystals on the cards.  She lit a nearby candle and called to the Universe and the angels for guidance.  She paused as she saw the Queen’s eyes wander to her rose quartz pendant.  “Ah yes, my lady, you are drawn to this stone.  It calls you.  Your archetype is the lover. You make your decisions with your heart.”  She paused dramatically as she commenced to shuffle the decks. 

“You see, my Queen, I already know you.  I know of you from what I have heard……the disapproving rumors of your kingdom in decline……………..but” she said as she began to place the cards onto the table, “I know you as well.  I know you are a beautiful abundant being.  I know you have known luxury.  I know you are particularly headstrong……or rather, I should say heartstrong. You are pulled by your emotions almost to your detriment.   I know your secret longing is for stability and happiness……….and I know that you are not truly getting that, are you, my lady?”  The gypsy drew a card and placed it on the table.  It was an image of a hanged man. 

“But….I also see something coming……..something transformational in your future…….something life-altering………” she pulled a dark tower card from the deck.  “You will face a major decision.  The fate of all your kingdom will be involved in this decision.  You have two paths; two options and you must choose wisely.”

The gypsy continued to pull cards, “I see that you are not following your intuition, my lady.  I see that, in fact, you have not followed it for some time.  I understand why, my lady.”  And with this, she overturned a card from the second deck and placed it down on the table pushing it slowly towards the Queen.  The Queen looked at the card silently.

“Deception, my lady.  You are reading the card right.”

The Queen looked up and her eyes met the knowing eyes of the gypsy.  “Yes,” the gypsy said quietly.  “It is no mere coincidence or ineptitude that leads your kingdom to decline.  You have been deceived……I believe a good word for it would be……. duped.”

The Queen said nothing but waited for the other cards to reveal themselves.

“You see, my Queen,” and the gypsy pulled the next two cards.  They showed two Kings.  “Your King of Wands is, in fact, a King of Swords………..and there is a third party involved………..but I see, that you as of yet, do not know this third party………..this is a twin flame to the King of Swords, they are connected intimately.” 

“Yes, you see the connection is very strong…….so strong, that the one opening your gates to theft is in fact, this King of Swords…..” 

The gypsy paused and her fingers tapped the remaining cards of the deck. 

“There is more to know here, but I cannot reveal it as the universe expects you to use free will to determine your path.  Continue on as you have…….” And with that the gypsy pulled the death card.  “Or, know your worth and the worth of your kingdom and be brave.”  And the gypsy once again pulled a card.  The card depicted a chariot.  “This second card indicates you must travel.  Your choice, your majesty.  Entirely yours.  Choose wisely, my lady and my friend.  The fate of your kingdom will be determined by your decision.  Thank you, for allowing my family entry into your kingdom.  I was drawn here but I did not know whether to do a reading for you until you proved your worthiness.  Do you understand, my lady?  Know your worth.  You have forgotten this.  You must reclaim it to move forward.”

The gypsy woman smiled and blew out the candle.  She gathered the decks of cards and placed them into her hidden satchel and then promptly secured her veil.  She stood up to go and walked to the door.  The silent Queen watched her.  The Queen was alarmed by the reading but also felt it confirmed certain obvious suspicions she had not wanted to see.  Her jaw was set.  She remained emotionless.  The gypsy woman went to the door and as she opened it, she offered one final suggestion.  “Follow your intuition.  What you are dealing with here…….is a long con, a treachery beyond what you could have ever imagined without my help.  My people will leave here tomorrow.  If you choose the chariot, you will find this third party.  Your intuition will lead you to her.  May the Universe be ever at your favor.”  And with that, she was gone. 

The Queen pondered the words of the gypsy.  She pondered the two cards.  Death and the Chariot.  Death and the Chariot.  Death and the Chariot. 

The Queen arose and called her servant again.  The loyal servant arrived promptly, though disheveled and tired.  “Help me to dress quickly.  I will need a dark cloak to conceal myself.  Go to the stables and secure three horses.  Bring the horses and my most trusted advisors, Sir Harold and Sir Gregory with you to the tunnel.  You know the one.  The secret passage out of the keep.  Make certain you arouse no attention.  This is imperative to the future of our kingdom.  The utmost secrecy must be maintained.  Do I have your word you will follow my commands?”

“Yes, my lady,” said the servant and she hurried to dress the Queen and do as she was bidden. 

At the entrance to the passage, the Queen waited silently for Sir Harold and Sir Gregory and the three horses.  When they arrived under the cover of darkness, all three alighted their horses and went down the tunnel.  Sir Gregory held a pitch in his hand to light the way.  As they left the kingdom, the Queen took the lead quietly.  “Follow me,” she said firmly. 

They rode under the cover of darkness, into the still night.  They crossed streams and valleys and into the woods.  The Queen did not know for certainty where to go……she only knew that the King ventured out into these lands from time to time with a few of his entourage to go hunting.  She remained silent and kept leading them on and the faithful knights followed. 

Before daybreak, in the darkness before dawn, they were drawn to lights in the distance.  Human lights.  Lights of an encampment and as they drew closer, they became abruptly aware of the danger.  It was the marauder camp.  They found a secure place in the woods near the stream to perform secret surveillance and they set in to watch the robbers. 

It was quite a large encampment of many tents but one tent in particular, stood out to the Queen.   As she saw the occupant of the tent, she shivered knowingly.  It was a woman.  A beautiful woman dressed in men’s clothing.  She was lovely and had an air of authority about her.  She was ordering others.  They continued to watch the camp as the sun rose into the sky.  The camp had men, women, and children.  The Queen was aware that there were innocents in the camp but she also reasoned that these too, were duplicitous in the actions of theft of her kingdom.  She grew angry but remained silent.  The only emotion she expressed outwardly was the gritting of her teeth and jaws in a tight clamp.  She watched as did Sir Harold and Sir Gregory who were equally angered. 

They watched the camp for quite a long time but finally, at close to noon, the beautiful woman separated from the encampment.  She strode purposely towards the woods and stream with a pot in her hand.  They surmised that she was going for water.  They drew back deeper in the woods to wait.  The Queen signaled to Sir Harold to go forward and kidnap the woman.

The woman reached down to fill the pot with water from the stream when the strong vice grip of Sir Harold closed abruptly over her mouth to prevent her from alerting the camp.  “Shhhh,” he said and he dragged her forcefully back to the others into the woods.  He placed a dagger at her side to demonstrate to her that resistance was not wise. 

When the two women encountered each other, the Queen watched her silently and inquisitively, questioningly.  Meanwhile, the other woman, upon recognition of the Queen, instantly became defiant and struggled.  Sir Harold and Sir Gregory held tightly to her now and Sir Harold pressed the dagger deeper into her side until it drew blood.  She stopped but her eyes showed great contempt. 

“Who are you?” said the Queen.  There was no answer only contempt.

“Who are you?”  she repeated.  This time the woman spit at the Queen. 

The Queen then motioned to Sir Gregory who accosted the angry woman. 

“Why are you here?” asked the Queen again.  No answer. 

“Why do you invade my kingdom and steal from me?”

“I take that which is rightfully the King’s.” said the woman. 

“No,” said the Queen quietly and now deadly, “It is not the King’s……it is mine.  Tell me who you are or we will slit your throat.”

Sir Harold raised the dagger to the woman’s throat and drew blood once more.  The woman was still angered but there was lingering doubt in her eyes mingled with a slight fear. 

The Queen said quietly and without emotion, “It is what you deserve considering what you have done to many of my own people. I say again, tell me what I want to know.”

“You have no heir,” said the woman spitefully and wickedly.  “Your kingdom is falling apart.  There’s nothing you can do to stop this.”

“Stop what?” asked the Queen in a low and determined voice. 

“We’ll take everything from you.  You’re weak.  You do not deserve what you have.  Soon your own throne will be mine.  Your kingdom is nothing now.  You are nothing.” She spat at the Queen.

The Queen resisted the urge to slap the woman.  Instead, she chose to keep her wits about her.  However, she moved forward and stepped down hard on the foot of the other woman. 

“I know already of your treachery.  You may think I am a fool but you will find, I am quite resourceful.”  And she stepped down even harder and twisted her boot hard into the sandaled foot of the woman.   

The Queen continued, “You have been robbing my Kingdom for years and your accomplice is the King.”

At this, the woman’s eyes widened a bit.  “I know that he opens the gates for you,” said the Queen menacingly.  “Soon, those gates will no longer open.”

The woman spat back, “He comes to see us often.  He hates you.  He tells us all laughingly of your great stupidity and ridiculous ardor and emotions.  You are crazy.  He doesn’t love you.  He never loved you.  We conspired.  We made this plan together to weaken your kingdom to the point that we will take it over and he will depose you.  You have lost everything.  You are weak.  You are defense-less.  Your kingdom will be ours.  I have known him long, long before you ever knew him.”  And with that, the woman fought back hard against the knights who knocked her out cold on the ground. 

“Bring her back to the kingdom,” ordered the Queen coldly.  “We will deal with the encampment later.”    

 They rode hard back to the tunnel of the keep and as they entered, they grew more and more quiet.  The knights who were loyal to the Queen due to their oaths before, had newfound fealty and commitment to their mission.  They felt compassion for the Queen who merely rode silently on ahead of them into the tunnel.  Her only visible sign of duress was a clenched jaw, a tick that showed in her cheek.  Her eyes had become like slits as she reflected upon years and years of mistreatment against her and her people at the hands of these manipulators.  She rode on in silence. 

The robber was put in the dungeon.  The Queen and the knights parted ways but she informed them that she would need their help again soon.  She told them to be ready for the call.  The Queen returned swiftly and stealthily back to her chambers where she remained for most of the day.  The carousing and recklessness continued in the great hall on into the night.  This time, when the King summoned for the Queen to join him at his hand, she sat very rigidly and silently in her chair.  She eyed everyone in the room with sudden new awareness, fresh eyes, and she was both saddened and deeply betrayed by their actions.   They were part of the deception too.   

But when the King attempted to accost one of her servants for spilling a drink, she snapped at him. She locked eyes of fire directly at the King.  The occupants of the room were suddenly shocked by this new behavior, this irritability.  Her King looked at her in bemusement. He took another sip of ale while watching her and then concluded for the others, that “the Queen must be in her menstruals.”  The great hall broke into drunken guffaws.  The silent Queen looked forward and said nothing. 

“I will be leaving on the morrow, to go on another hunting trip,” he informed her dismissively.  He sat down and held her hand lovingly.  She looked down at it but remained silent.  She noted he nodded that night at another one of the new wenches in the great hall, and she knew she would be alone later.  She sat in stony silence as the ruckus around her continued and the minstrels played their lilting music.  She then excused herself for the night and slowly walked down the rock hallway alone.  She did not smile.  Nor was she sad any longer.  

She walked past the chamber where her late father and mother had resided.  She opened the door and walked inside.  She walked over to the fireplace mantle and lifted some mementos from the wooden slab.  She perused then for a while.  Her eyes got sad.  She looked around the chamber and then she walked out.  She walked to the balconies and looked out over the kingdom…….out over the lands, the hills, the valleys, the serf huts, the fields…  She looked at the broken ramparts, the disheveled rock walls.  There were no guards at the gates, no sentries on the broken walls.  There were no archers.  There was nothing but the community below…….the many houses, the people, her people…….the ones who relied upon her and her leadership.  She looked back in contempt at the great hall and the bellows of laughter.  She looked ahead at the starry night sky and drew a deep breath. 

“The choice is yours,” she heard the gypsy woman say.  “There are two paths, two options.  You must be brave.  Follow your intuition.  The scales of justice must be balanced.  You know what to do.”

The woman in her, the archetype of the lover in her, began to softly cry.  She regained her composure and looked out once more at the night sky. Follow my intuition, she thought to herself.  Follow my intuition.  Follow my intuition.   She looked ahead but in reality, she was not looking at all at the sky.  She was contemplating something quite heavy on her heart. 


She went back to her chamber.  She called the servant again.  “Bring me Sir Gregory and Sir Harold immediately and once again, with the utmost discretion.  I will wait in the antechamber.”

The servant went out and nearly bumped into the King and the wench from the Great Hall.  The King was slovenly drunk though and failed to recognize her.  “Excuse me,” she said quietly as she skirted to the side and continued quickly down the hallway.  The Queen watched the drunken pair head down the hallway stumblingly until the door closed.  She was neither angry or sad.  She was cold.  Completely cold. 

When Sir Gregory and Sir Harold returned to her antechamber, they made swift plans. 

The next morning just before dawn, a small contingent of the military guard walked to the dungeon.  They took the marauder woman.  They blindfolded her and led her to the courtyard where the King, who likewise had been rudely awakened out of inebriated slumber in the wench’s room, was now standing as well with a blindfold over his eyes.  He was breathing hard as he did not fully know for sure what would happen.  The woman recognized the man beside her, perhaps out of some connection, even though their blindfolds were on.  An advisor stepped up to make the short proclamation of high treason against the Kingdom and its inhabitants with the sentence of death.  The Queen watched silently from the balcony.  She did not smile.  In fact, she looked sad.  But when the blindfolded woman touched the hand of the King and he returned her slight embrace comfortingly, the Queen lifted her head slightly.  She watched them.  She felt the wind on her face.  She watched and the advisor watched her.  And then she gave a slight nod. 

When the deed was done, she didn’t smile.  She didn’t blink.  She didn’t cry.  She gritted her teeth.  A slight tick showed above her jawline.  She then turned and walked away.  She had previously ordered the military guard to round up all the members of the entourage and the wenches that had consorted with the King.  The advisor proclaimed the entourage were guilty of conspiracy against the Kingdom and theft.  The wenches were not sentenced but berated for disloyalty. Their hair was chopped at the nape. Some hung their heads in shame much as they had shamed the dignity of the Queen in the past. The guilty were then led to their prison cells within the dungeon and placed under heavy guard.     

One hour later, the Queen stood on the balcony in the wind.  She looked out at the masses of faces from the kingdom……tired, haggard, and weary.  All the people were assembled, young and old.  And she addressed them. 

“I have done an unforgivable act.  I have failed you.  I have failed this kingdom.  I have let in a saboteur and along with him, robbers and thieves.  I have let them in with my own hand.”

She paused.

“The King is dead.  He was executed for high treason this morning.”  She watched as the shock registered on the faces of the assembly.  All were quiet before she continued.

“You have worked hard.  You have been loyal.  You have been steadfast.  You did not deserve this ill treatment.  You did not deserve lack of protection from mistreatment.   I do not ask for forgiveness.  I do ask though now that you follow me, once more even though I do not deserve it.  I ask that you follow me into battle for justice.”

She looked at Sir Harold and Sir Gregory.  They nodded at her encouragingly.  They both knew that whatever they had faced at the hands of these people, it was not as severe as their own Queen had faced.

She looked at the assembly.  “We have located the camp of marauders who are exploiting our Kingdom.  They are the ones who have mercilessly pillaged and ransacked your homes and left your own countrymen for dead.  I ask that you march with me into battle against them.  This will not be easy.  I am asking every man of able body to step forward who is willing to one last time, swear allegiance to the Queen and march with sword or pitchfork against our enemies.  I will appoint Sir Gregory now as the Chief of Military and Sir Harold as the new Architect of our fortifications.” 

“We have grown defenseless.  This is unacceptable.  From here on out, we will train and we will learn to fight.  We will put archers on our walls and soldiers in our city.  We will build trebuchets for the ramparts and solid defenses for every corner of the fortifications.  We will rebuild together our walls and make them higher and stronger.  And I swear to you, that any marauder who dares to attempt to enter through our front gates again will be met with a bubbling cauldron of hot oil dumped on their heads.  We will consider the feasibility of building a moat and even a drawbridge.  And I swear again to you, that you will never again worry for the safety and security of your homes and your loved ones.  But today, we must fight.  We must fight with every inch of our beings.  And so, I ask you today, to step forward if you will go to war against the marauders who nearly destroyed us.  There is a reckoning at hand.  An injustice which must be righted.”

The Queen finished.  Sir Gregory and Sir Harold stepped forward as did a few of the servants of the keep.  The Queen continued standing on the balcony and the assembly did not move…….at first.  A man pushed his way to the front.  He was a serf.  “I will step forward.”

“Aye.” Said another man as he stepped forward.

“Aye.”  Said yet another and another and another until many of the assembly were now standing before the Queen. 

“We go to battle,” she said. 

The entire Kingdom worked hard that day and into much of the night.  Some began rebuilding the broken ramparts.  Some worked in the smithy gathering together as many weapons as possible.  Some worked on archery.  They strung bows and gathered together arrows and practiced.  From the courtyard, could be heard the clash of steel upon steel as they trained.  They also rested.  Food was gathered and passed out.  Horses were prepared.  And within the throne room, the Queen and her advisors sat in council strategizing. 

In the middle of the night, the army set out on horse and foot.  They walked silently together, some with sword and armor and some with pitchfork or axe.  On the faces of every person, however, there could be seen a steely resolve to avenge a severe wrong.  They attacked the sleeping encampment at just before dawn.  The Queen stood in the woods in her dark cloak.  She watched alone as even Sir Harold and Sir Gregory had joined the fray, even leading the charge.  She watched in silence as the tents were set aflame and the camp was pillaged just as their own Kingdom had been pillaged mercilessly so many, many times in the past.  And when the flames grew higher and she could hear the screams of the dying, she did not flinch.  She watched in silence.  They all were duplicitous to evil and they all deserved retribution.  Then she turned as it burned.  Only the children were rounded up afterwards.

The army returned to the Kingdom.  It was not a happy victory but it was a just victory.

It took a very long time for the Kingdom to heal.  The people worked together endlessly.  The council of advisors and Sir Harold and Sir Gregory assisted the Queen.  She carefully and strategically planned every decision for the merit of the Kingdom from there on out.  The castle walls were refortified better than ever.  The defenses were meticulously maintained and the military was on alert for all signs of deceit and danger. 

The Queen never married again.  She would never relinquish her power again to another man.  She knew her worth and she would never lose sight of that again.  Never again.  She took discreet lovers from time to time but always guarded her heart.

In time, the Kingdom returned to its former glory……. even perhaps better than before.   All within the Kingdom had learned a very valuable lesson about complacency, naivety, and misplaced trust.

In the end, the Queen had proven to be quite a resourceful woman after all.  She was forever grateful to the astrologer and the Universe.    At night, the silent and worthy Queen walked the ramparts herself, checking on her soldiers and archers.  She looked up at the night sky and even smiled.     

(This is the end of the story. If you have read all 10 pages and made it to the conclusion, thank you and I appreciate you. Now I have an added bonus for the reader…….the true meaning behind the story. This work of fiction is the story of France during World War II. The Kingdom represents France. The Queen is the spirit of France, Notre Dame. The King is the occupying government. Sir Harold and Sir Gregory are the Resistance. The marauder camp is the Nazi Regime. And the gypsy woman represents the people hidden and protected within France’s borders who also secretly assisted the Resistance. I hope that you enjoyed the story and might even go back now that you have the knowledge of the hidden meaning and go re-read the story. Please leave any comments or questions you like although I do prefer constructive criticism. Thank you and have a good day. May the Universe be ever in your favor.)