Yeah, that's me! My first short story publication in a periodical, and you can order the whole thing for just ten bucks. But, if you're really cheap, stand by ...
This is the first time in my memory that we've had an April Fool's Month, instead of just a day. It's a rough world out there right now, and a lot of people who are used to going out are being asked to stay home. You can only yell at the kids and watch TV for so long, so I decided to contribute to the Stay Home effort by writing a short story, and giving it away free to ... everybody. Even if you're not social isolating.
This story features one of my favorite characters, Beth Hamlin. She was a minor character in my first published novel, Storm Chaser, and has been weaseling her way into my work ever since, with her own short story in Storm Chaser Shorts, an expanded part in The Notorious Ian Grant, and finally her own book in The No-Campfire Girls. She's also popped up in several other short stories I've written, along with various members of her expanded family.
Beth is a bundle of energy, and hates being stuck outside. So I thought: How would she react to being quarantined in her house? The answer: not very well. So that's what this story is about. For those of you who haven't read the books (and shame on you), this story, "Outside Time" is a prequel--it takes place before any of her other appearances. So you don't have to worry about being spoiled or being confused.
I hope you like it, and if you do--tell all your friends! By phone or internet, I mean.
Mark R. Hunter
“I’m so bored.”
Beth Hamlin spoke as she bounded to the bottom of the stairs, and managed to keep the word “bored” going all the way through her living room. Then she skidded to a stop at the doorway to the kitchen—literally, as her house slippers didn’t have much tread left.
Her mother stood at the stove, stirring something in a pot that smelled amazing. Her expression? Maybe not so good.
“Oh—hi, Mom. I thought you were in the basement.”
“I was, an hour ago.” Elsa Hamlin glanced into the pot. Then she sent a more pointed look toward a pile of dishes in the sink. Then she sent another pointed look toward a hamper of unfolded clothes on the table. “So, you finished your e-learning already? And read down that pile of books on your bedside table?”
Oops. Time to backpedal. “Maybe bored isn’t the right word. Oh, my robe!” She fished the yellow plush robe out of the hamper, threw it on over her pajamas, then—because she was no fool—started folding the other clothes. “It’s possible you misheard me. I actually said I’m … cold.”
In fairness, northeast Indiana could get pretty cold this time of year, and their little town of Hurricane was only one county from the Michigan state line. On the other hand, when her mother started cooking the kitchen could get pretty warm any time of the year. And Beth had just thrown on the thickest robe in the house. See, this is why teenagers get in trouble—we don’t think about unintended consequences.
“Maybe you’ll be warmer when you put on actual clothes.” Her mother was dressed in jeans, and a blue sweater with the words “Hug a Cop” on the front. She even had shoes on. It was four in the afternoon, so Elsa could claim the moral high ground.
“It’s not like we’re going out. Not only is the whole world quarantined, but there’s a cop stationed on our property who’ll shoot us if we so much as think about leaving.”
“Oh, I see.” Elsa moved over to the dishes and started washing, showing Beth her back. But Beth wasn’t fooled into thinking the conversation was over. “I assume you mean your brother, who lives on our property and has never shot you anything worse than a dirty look.”
“That’s the one. He’s still never forgiven me for how I turned out so much cuter than him.”
Elsa chuckled, a good sign. To keep it that way, Beth finished the folding and moved across the kitchen to a dish drying position. “I finished my e-learning, and I also finished Moby Dick, thank goodness, and I even wrote the first draft of my book report.”
Elsa’s industrious dish washing paused. “What did you think of Moby Dick?”
“I ended up rooting for the whale.”
“Ah, well.” After a moment she handed her daughter a glass. “It’s certainly loaded with … theme.”
“It’s full of something, all right.”
“Elizabeth Marie!” Elsa handed her the last dish. “I didn’t care for it, either. It was all metaphor and allegory.”
“Right? A book about chasing down a man-killing whale should have way more action.” Dishes done, Beth plopped down on one of the padded kitchen chairs that made their kitchen the place to be—in cold weather, anyway. “I also read up on COVID-19, so—learning day complete.”
Elsa checked the stove, then sat across from Beth. “Are you doing a report?”
“No, just curious.” And bored. And increasingly concerned for everyone she knew, in person or online. And a little scared. And bored. “Maybe I should, though, now that I’ve done half the work—extra credit.”
“I believe I’m having a stroke.”
“Stop it! I figure the coronavirus is an enemy that’s been keeping me from my friends, and what’s the rule? Know your enemy.”
“I’m not sure a fifteen-year-old should know a rule like that.”
“Come on, Mom—you were in school, once.”
“Oh, yes. We didn’t have the coronavirus, but we did have the Black Plague, not to mention the occasional marauding barbarian. But we still had to hitch up the mastodon and ride to school every day—”
“Uphill, both ways,” they finished together, “with a blizzard every morning and a heat wave every afternoon.”
At times like this, stuck home with just her mother for two weeks straight, she sometimes got the peculiar impression that Elsa Hamlin was, in fact, cool. For her age. It was a strange thought, and Beth usually pushed it away before it blew her mind. “I’m just going stir crazy. Yeah, I’ve got books, and the internet, and cable TV, and all that stuff you didn’t have when you were a kid—”
“We had books.”
“Yeah, but they were hard to carry around, back when they were chiseled onto stone tablets.” Her mother tossed a pair of socks at her head, but Beth had been practicing for softball season—back when she thought there’d be one. She expertly fielded the balled socks, then tossed them into the hamper. “I’m an outdoors person. This house just isn’t that big.” Actually, sometimes it did feel big, with her father dead and her brother moved out. Saying that would dampen the mood. Besides, after weeks of never leaving the back yard, the whole property felt tiny.
“I know, honey. I miss having my friends over, and going to church, and having your brother come for supper. But that’s the world we live in, for now.” Elsa watched her daughter carefully, and Beth realized her mother worried about her, too.
“It’s not that big of a deal. I mean, nobody here is sick, so why complain?” Beth paused, realizing she was on the edge of following that statement up with a complaint. “Chance should be home from work; I’ll give him a call.”
“Don’t torture your brother,” Elsa warned, as Beth stacked the folded clothes into the hamper. “The poor man’s all by himself.”
“It’s not my fault. I tried to fix him up with Emily Blunt.” Grabbing the hamper, Beth started back toward the stairs.
“Yes, and now you’re banned from all of Emily Blunt’s social media accounts.”
Beth’s bedroom was a wild explosion of yellow, thanks to a—well, a phase, she supposed, in which it became not only a favorite color, but an obsession. In truth she was starting to grow out of it, but her family couldn’t afford to repaint the walls, replace the bedspread, or buy her a complete new wardrobe. So she changed out of her yellow pajamas into a yellow t-shirt with the words “Blue and Pink Don’t Matter” stenciled on it, and yellow socks, and—thankfully—blue jeans. Then she grabbed up her cell phone, walked to the bedroom window, and punched out a number. Across the yard stood the family’s three car garage, and until the maple tree on the corner grew its spring foliage, she could see both windows on the second floor.
“Who goes there?” came a deep voice.
“Call me Ishmael.”
The curtains on the front window opened, revealing a blond man in a blue Indiana State Police uniform, holding a phone to his ear. “You had to read that book, too?”
“If my chest had been a mortar, I’d have burst my heart’s shell upon that book. That’s in it, kinda. Who writes like that?”
“Nobody, these days. I read it once, Junior year.”
“I read it, I panned it, I’ll get a B. So, how did your shift go?”
Chance Hamlin paused for a long moment. “It’s been pretty quiet. They don’t want us to make contact with the public any more than necessary, and contact with the public is pretty much our job. This would be a good time for you to steal Mom’s car and go joyriding without a license.”
“But only if I’m going out for something vital, like medication, or groceries. So I’d be breaking the law while running Mom’s errands, and where’s the fun in that?”
“Good point.” Chance paused again.
“What?” Beth leaned closer to the window. “My spider sense is tingling.”
“Good thing you’re in a friendly neighborhood … it’s about Fran Vargas. She got exposed.”
Beth shivered. “Oh, no. I thought you were all staying away from people.”
“We still have to do our jobs, and she interviewed a murder suspect who got diagnosed the next day. She’s asymptomatic, but in her apartment for two weeks … assuming she doesn’t get sick, herself.”
Beth sank into an office chair she kept by the window, when it wasn’t at her desk. “I’m sorry, Chance.” She’d always hoped those two would become a couple. That didn’t happen, probably because they were both stubborn about not dating other cops. But Fran’s family was in Texas, so the Hamlins had adopted her as another member of their family.
“Wait.” Feeling another chill, Beth straightened. “Were you around her?”
Chance smiled. “Not after she was exposed. You don’t have to worry about that, blondie … but I’m going to hang up now so I can check in with her. Call me later?”
“Sure. Since you’ve already read Moby Dick, you need something else to do.”
“I’m starting War of the Worlds, but call anyway.”
Beth waited until he pulled his curtain closed, then pocketed her phone and wandered downstairs again. Should she tell her mother? No. She’d find out anyway, but no, not now.
Beth reached the kitchen just as Elsa disconnected from a phone call of her own. “So, how would you like to go outside for a little while?”
“Eh.” Beth shrugged. “I’ve been in the backyard. Unless you’ve put in a new ride since last season, it really only rates two stars.”
“Wise guy. Rich Foster has been taking care of the Woodruff’s horse, while Mr. Woodruff is in the hospital.”
“What did Honey ever do to deserve Rich?” She hadn’t seen Honey the horse for weeks, except in passing, and felt a small ember of hope rise in her.
“Rich has an unused pasture on his property, as you well know. But he worked a twelve-hour shift in the 911 center last night, and he asked if you’d come over and feed the horse today.”
“I’m on it.” She pulled on her shoes—yellow Adidas—and headed for the door, but her mother stopped her with an outstretched hand. “What precautions do we take?”
“Stay six feet away from people.” Beth reached into the closet and pulled out her yellow denim jacket, which had fringes designed to make it look like a cowboy outfit. “Especially Rich, because if he doesn’t have cooties, I don’t know who does. Lots of hand washing, wear a mask.” She pulled a yellow bandana from a jacket pocket, and tied it around her face. “And, most of all, don’t do anything that would make people think you’re robbing them.”
“Good rules. Don’t torture Rich too much, either—remember, he’s friends with Fran.”
So, Mom already knew about the exposure. To change the subject, Beth pulled on her white cowboy hat. “Clearly, I’m a good guy.”
Beth almost yelled for joy as she pushed through the back door and made for her yellow (naturally) ten speed. But when she pedaled out onto the street her happiness faded. Nothing appeared in the sky but bright blue and the glare of an unobstructed sun, something nobody was used to this time of year. It was approaching fifty-five degrees, not terrible for mid-April.
But she passed houses that appeared abandoned. No one played in their yards, or raked up old leaves and fallen branches, or took advantage of the weather to wash the winter’s grime from their cars. Yet no one had gone anywhere, either—the driveways were full of cars and SUVs. It was as if the people just disappeared, or turned into zombies, trapped inside the buildings and waiting to break out.
“The apocalypse,” Beth murmured, as she wheeled on.
Rich’s home stood less than a mile away, but by the time she turned onto the county road and left Hurricane Beth felt ready to scream. She pulled out her phone—phoning and biking, how dangerous could it be? —and punched in a number.
“Heather! It’s been, what—sixteen hours? I’ve been worried about you.”
“They canceled the dance.”
“That’s too bad.” That was Heather for you, more worried about a dance than any virus ever made. Beth thought of Heather as being the stereotype blonde teenager, while she considered herself the smart blonde. Well, smarter. It wasn’t Heather’s fault—she just discovered boys way earlier, which for some reason seemed to have sucked out several dozen IQ points.
“Too bad? It’s a disaster. I had everything picked out: my dress, hair style, even my date, which he would have found out Monday if they hadn’t closed the school! Furthermore, I was this close to being the first sophomore to run the dance committee, and you don’t care, do you? Are you talking through a mask?”
“Bandana—don’t worry, it matches. Dances just aren’t my thing, Heather. Look, at least things will be better in time for camp this summer.” Beth glanced behind her, to make sure no cars were coming her way. Nothing.
“Camp, where there are no guys. I don’t want to die before getting kissed. Again.”
Jeez. “Heather, listen to me. Do not fall for some guy’s line about not wanting to die a virgin. Very few people our age are dying from the coronavirus. For some reason, I feel it’s very important to remind you of this.”
“Hey! I watch movies.” Heather sounded offended, but only for a moment. “Well, there’s no dance anyway, and no visiting other people. It doesn’t even matter that whenever a boy stops by Dad sits on the front porch, polishing his shotgun.”
“That is one shiny shotgun.”
“I know. Hey, I’ve got to go—I didn’t realize it was so late. I’m going to start calling around to organize a cyber dance.”
“We all turn on our webcams, and one of us plays music to everyone while we all dance around our rooms. Brilliant, yes?”
“It … kinda is.” But as soon as she spoke Beth’s doubts started in.
“Wish me luck. You’ll be getting your invite!”
Brilliant, yes, but the more Beth thought about it, the less she didn’t want to dance in her room while who-knows-who watched on the internet. It was just one step from selling tickets to creepers.
That call didn’t cheer her up at all.
Beth punched in another number, and spoke as soon as she connected. “Kim, Heather’s going to come at you with this idea for a cyber dance. Maybe you can help her think that all the way through.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not going online ever again, or out ever again, or anything.”
Kim was crying.
“What’s wrong?” She’d reached Rich’s property, and pulled off into his yard. A rattletrap old pickup truck stood in the gravel driveway, and the only movement came from the pasture, where Honey the horse caught side of her and let out a happy whinny.
“We had to go to the grocery store this morning, and some guy told Mom and me that we should take our Chinese germs back where we came from.”
“What—what? But your family came from Korea.”
“Tell that to all those haters out there! I’ve never even been to Korea, let alone China.”
“I’m so sorry, Kim.” It seemed like she’d been saying she was sorry a lot, lately. “Look, there are only a few racists out there, and they’re idiots. Best to just ignore them.” Beth dismounted the bike, carefully laid it on its side, and looked toward Rich’s house. She saw no movement from the two-story home.
“Yeah, that’s what Mom always says. But this time she ran her shopping cart over the guy’s foot.”
It was so unexpected, coming from Kim’s mother, that Beth let out a snort of laughter.
“That’s awesome! I mean, you know, violence and all, but … good for her! What did the guy do?”
“He called her some names, then the store’s owner came and kicked him out. The guy was surprised—he was actually surprised the owner didn’t take his side.” Kim sniffed, then Beth heard the unmistakable sound of a nose being blown.
“Well … did you at least pick up some toilet paper?”
That had the desired effect, as Kim herself burst out laughing. “They were out. No bread either, but we got milk and eggs. Then we went back into exile … I feel like we live in North Korea.”
Beth saw Honey headed toward the pasture railing, and realized it would be a very bad idea to let Kim know she’d found reason to go out, herself. “This is going to be over just in time for our favorite: being outdoors doing stuff season.”
“Yay,” Kim said weakly.
“I’m serious. Swimming, softball, camping, and then we’ll all go down south for two weeks of real camping in July. Just hold on, and don’t worry about the jerk in the grocery store. The virus came from China, but you didn’t. I mean, you have an American flag on your bedroom wall.”
Beth leaned against the pickup truck, waiting for Kim to speak.
“I feel like the world’s ending.”
“It’s not ending. There was a flu even worse than this in 1918, and the world didn’t end then. You keep your parents and all the old people safe, and we’ll see each other soon enough.”
“Yeah.” Kim seemed a bit more cheerful, this time. “I love you, you goofy blonde. Where is your family from, anyway?”
“Germany. That’s why I always invade peoples’ private spaces. And I love you too, in a totally non-romantic kind of a way. On a related note, tell your brother I’m still not interested in going out with him.”
“I will. Tell your mom she makes better lasagna than mine does.”
“I will.” Beth disconnected, looked up, and screamed.
On the other side of the truck a head appeared, with an open-mouth snarl, a narrow-eyed glare, and wild brown hair that looked like it had been in a blender.
“Oh! You scared me.”
“It was your turn,” Rich Foster straightened, and smoothed down his hair. “So—are you here to rob me, cowgirl?”
Crap—he’d gotten her, this time, although she still led by double digits. “Do you have anything worth robbing?”
“Point taken.” Smiling, Rich leaned against the side of the truck’s bed. “I take it you’re here to hang with Honey?”
“Yeah.” Beth also leaned against her own side of the truck. “This is about six feet, right?”
“About. Oh, I forgot.” Rich wore a black sweatshirt, and Beth hadn’t noticed the black bandana around his neck. When he covered his mouth with it, a wide, heavily lipsticked pair of lips painted onto the material came into view.
She couldn’t help laughing. “Where did you get that?”
“I made it during arts and craft time at work. Sometimes the 911 calls are spotty at 4 a.m.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll donate some crayons to dispatch.” Further back on the property, Honey gave an impatient snort. “I’ll be with you in a second! So, why aren’t you sleeping?”
“A little thing called insomnia—it’s hard to sleep on a beautiful day like this.” Rich shrugged.
“Traffic stops are way down, but ambulance calls and domestic disputes are up. And
suicidal calls. Sometimes it’s hard to shut that out when you get home.”
Beth looked around. Most of the trees were starting to bud, Rich’s lawn had turned from brown to green, and when she paid attention, she heard the chatter of birds from every direction. “The world isn’t really ending, is it?” Since she was a baby, Beth and Rich had grown into a specific relationship: They were the pair who pretended they didn’t like each other. But although Rich had, like Fran, been adopted into the Hamlin family, sometimes it was easier to speak to him than to her real brother.
“It’s not.” His words were soft, and Beth brought her attention back to him. “I overheard your conversation. I take it Chance didn’t tell you he got called to the grocery store?”
“What? By who?”
“By the guy who was calling them names. I almost told him to pack sand when I took the call—I don’t have much sympathy for somebody who uses the words he did to describe Asian people. But Kim’s mom did run over his foot deliberately, after all, so I had to send someone to take a statement. Chance was headed home, and happened to be nearby.”
Her brother had seemed oddly calm—but then, he was used to dealing with stuff like this. He was probably also used to trying to shield his little sister from it. “What happened then?”
“Well ….” Rich scratched his nose, then looked down at his hand. “Great, now I have to wash it again. Well, Chance took everyone’s statements, talked to witnesses, and told the guy that if she got arrested for battery, he should get arrested for hate speech. After that it was all rainbows and unicorns. I’m sure the guy will embellish the tale at his next Klan meeting.”
So. Beth took a breath. “So, the bad guy just … walked away.” She didn’t realize how depressed she’d sound until the words came out.
Even with his mouth covered, Beth could see the sympathy on Rich’s face. She’d rather have him go back to his usual teasing.
“Beth, there’ll always be a small percentage of people who wake up on the wrong side of the bed every day of their life. It’ll never occur to most of them that they could just try climbing out on the other side. But those people are the loudest, and they’ll always be outnumbered by that big group of people who just go on quietly trying to make the world a better place.”
It sounded so heartfelt, coming from the biggest grump she knew, that Beth could only stand there, gaping at him. Then, of course, he had to ruin it.
“Aw, come on.” Rich stretched his arms out. “Give me a hug.”
“I can’t hug anybody! And you know I’m a hugger!”
He started around the truck. “One hug, I won’t tell.”
“You’re a monster!” She ran toward the pasture, laughing, while he rounded the truck and stayed there. Then she stopped at the fence, rubbed Honey’s nose, and looked back. “Hey
… how long was your shift yesterday?”
“Eight and off, same as usual. In fact, that call to the grocery store was the last one I took before I went off duty. Why?”
A few pieces suddenly came together, in a puzzle she didn’t know existed. “You didn’t have insomnia. When you work your regular eight, you’re always awake at this time.”
Rich got that “oh crap” look on his face. “Did I say eight? I meant twelve.”
“Mom called and asked if you’d let me feed the horse, didn’t she?”
“Mom? What Mom? You have a mom?”
“You suck at this.”
Giving in, Rich raised his arms. “Okay, you’ve got me. Elsa said you were going crazy, and hey—it’s not my horse, anyway. So, do you want to come over and see Honey once a day, or what?”
“I now pronounce you horse person and horse.”
“Right.” Beth jumped, as Honey reached out with his nose and knocked the cowboy hat off her head. “Hey! Hey … thanks.”
“Thanks? I’m not doing you a favor. You’re doing me a favor. Take as long as you need—and don’t forget to muck his stall, or you won’t earn your twenty bucks.”
She spent a very happy three hours with an equally happy horse, and headed home when the sun got low in the sky. Knowing Rich would have gone back to bed, this one time she didn’t make a lot of noise as she left his property.
A few cars did pass on the county road, this time, and when she turned onto her street she saw two brothers shooting hoops behind one house, and two smaller kids riding bikes in front of their nearby home. Suddenly, the world didn’t seem so sick, anymore.
Then she rolled into her own yard, did a double take, and almost fell off her bike.
The back yard was transformed. It took her a moment to recognize an obstacle course, spread out to make a circle around the back yard, with a trampoline in the center. It contained a line of tires, a balance beam, a wall, a tunnel, and a rope swing, some inflated and all colorful.
Beth let her bike fall onto the grass. “What.”
Her phone rang.
As she answered, she looked up to see Chance standing at his window, now dressed in gray sweats. “Bro, did you do this? How did you do this?”
“I had a lot of it preassembled in the garage, that’s how. Three and a half hours? I could have finished it and also assembled a helicopter in that time.”
“Take as long as you need,” Rich had said, instead of teasing her about being a slow poke. He’d been in on it the whole time.
The back door of her house opened, and Elsa poked her head out. “Come in for supper before you challenge that. And make sure you change—it’s hell getting grass stains out of yellow.” She vanished, leaving behind a whiff of pot roast.
“Save some for me,” Chance said. “Send it over on that remote truck of yours. Oh, and I already disinfected anything I touched. Oh, and you’re welcome.”
Although Beth still looked at him, but he was getting a little blurry. “Best family ever.”