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Isolation Winning Stories

 

first place ribbon

The Many Lives to Live
by Deirdre Garr Johns

I. The endlessness of time is welcoming.
The nearly inexhaustible amount of time takes me back to summers of childhood.

       I am a little girl waking up to fresh-cut grass. I ask my mom, “What are we going to do today?”
We hang clothes on the washline. There is no rush for them to dry. The sun warms a freshness into them that cannot be replicated. I am free to roam in the backyard, pick dandelions, search for clovers.
       We watch little TV. We have no cable, only channels 3, 6, and 10. News and soaps. I ask to watch The Young and the Restless, my grandmother’s only soap.  I know the storylines because we watch together when my grandmother babysits us.
       We wait for dad to get home, exhausting ourselves with bikes, swings, and hide-and-seek until he comes to referee between my sister and me.
Time is endless.

       Presently, could I sit and read Jane Austen for hours? Yes. Binge-watch Netflix? Yes. Drink a hot cup of coffee without having to reheat it? Yes. Take an afternoon walk after lunch? Yes.
       There could be little wrong in this routine. The responsibility of waking up early for the usual scramble—making coffee and breakfast, getting a child awake and ready, packing up the bags and the car, counting the minutes down before absolutely having to be out of the door—has vanished.
       In the early honeymoon phase of COVID quarantine, nearly everyone is home. Saturday morning chores happen throughout the week. I see neighbors I have never seen before. Several times a day. It seems as though we all have the same idea. There is a simplicity in living.
       But being inside takes a toll.

II. The endlessness of time is overwhelming.

       As quarantine stretches into summer, time also stretches. The endlessness prompts restlessness. Activities wane. The inability to go anywhere except outside is no longer refreshing in the hot, humid south.
       Few cars pass down the road. There is nearly no sound except for the music of nature: birds’ songs and insect whirs. I sit on my porch and move with the shade. I observe the quiet.
       I turn time back one hundred years in my mind. Days passed before people saw neighbors, family, or friends. This natural separation—without technology, TV, and phones—was normal. Did they feel isolated?
       I imagine these ancestors sitting on their porches as I am doing. We share this activity, though I wonder if we share this discontentment. Maybe they, too, are waiting for something or someone to replace the monotony. And perhaps not.
       COVID quarantine is not as welcomed as it once was. Knowing that one’s days will bring forth the same routine creates contentment, but this routine becomes an interruption. It is old company, stale and irritating.

III. Will separation ever feel normal to me?

       I have never been one to mind being alone. I am a night owl by nature. The quiet of the night is calming. People have left consciousness for dreaming, and I alone am left to listen to the soundless night. This quiet gives me space to think. It is one of the few times when I am really alone.
       The irony of COVID quarantine is that while I am isolated, I am also very much surrounded. I would be remiss to not mention that my husband and son (who are really two peas in a pod) have provided distraction—both the good and not-so-good. Living under one roof with nowhere to go presents its own challenges, mainly understanding each person’s tolerance levels.
       We watch Harry Potter over and over, making movie night a daily ritual. One that I will miss when life revives itself and we resume busier schedules.
       We cook and eat lunch and dinner together. Conversation lacks when little has been done in a day, but we plan for movie night.
       We walk, and we talk. My son holding my hand as we stop to investigate leaves that have fallen upside down or to listen to bird songs. We notice the same indigo bunting fluttering from tree to tree.
       Nature is unaffected, remains constant. Perhaps that is why we seek it so often.

IV. Loneliness doesn’t have to be lonely.

       COVID quarantine has given me the opportunity to live life in a way that I have not been living. I have been lonely to myself. I have been living for everyone else—as a teacher, colleague, wife, mother, daughter, friend, swim mom. And all of those things, albeit fulfilling, make me a stranger to my own self.
       Isolation has given me time that has been lost to me for many years, and, within this time, I have been able to grow beyond what I am to the world.

headshot Johns

 

Deirdre Garr Johns resides in South Carolina with her family. Nature is an inspiration, and poetry is a first love. Much of her work is inspired by memories of people and places. She has forthcoming poetry in Sylvia Magazine.

 


second place ribbon

Today
by Dawn Dagger

Six a.m.: the alarm rings like every morning. My wife rises out of bed, looking like she hasn’t slept at all. She has bags under her eyes, haggard lines in her cheeks. She tossed and turned all night. She doesn’t bother to look at me as she navigates the dark room. She pauses at the nightstand. Past her blue-grey form, I see her examine the half-full pill bottle and the picture of us. She sighs and leaves the room without a word.
       I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Maybe it’s because I keep forgetting the medicine. It’s past due for a new bottle.
       She leaves. I am alone. The house is quiet.
       When I finally rise myself, it’s much later in the day. I think. I’m not sure where the day has gone, but it feels far away. I dress slowly, my limbs feeling cold and numb. My fingers fumble with the shirt and pants I mean to wear, and even after I’m sure I’ve dressed myself, they still don’t seem to fit right. I feel cold. I turn the thermostat, but it doesn’t help. Now I’m wasting money. Still cold.
       Maybe a walk will help.
       I step outside and the sun glares down, angry at me for some reason. It should be golden and full of warmth. But the rays are overpowering: blinding white. They wash the color out of the world. Everything seems to be in shades of grey and white, as if the blues and greens had been ripped from my eye sockets. My skin is cold and distant from the rest of me.
       As I walk along the street, the neighbors I have lived beside for ten, fifteen years avoid my gaze. They stare at their phone screens or across the street or just past my head. They act as if I don’t exist. As if I haven’t lived beside them for so long. How long, exactly? Time suddenly seems to be wobbly, like I’ve never been able to figure a decade from a minute.
       I stop for a moment. Do I even know where a park is? Panic seizes my chest like sharp claws as I feel my sense of direction fade in and out. In and out, like the tide. The tide of what? Tied? Tied to what? My mind is racing.
The ocean. The tide of an ocean. I’m nowhere near an ocean.
       But maybe I am. Maybe everything around me is an ocean, and I am a battered vessel in the middle. All alone. Without help or rescue. My body feels like it’s falling apart. The sun now seems to burn my skin. I’ve gone from a numbing cold to a hot that makes me want to tear my skin off my bones.
       I want to go inside, but I can’t. I look around, trying to force words out of my dry throat. I want to scream Help me! Help me find my home! Help me out of this place! I’m lost!
       My neighbors stroll past. No one looks me in the eyes. No one sees my distress. A dog sniffs the air around me, tucks his tail, and does not stop.
       Not even animals care about my existence. My pain. My confusion.
       I can find the park. How hard can it be? The city, the state, the whole damn country is only so big. I can find my way. Besides, if I go to the park, I can’t accidentally break into anyone’s house. I can’t get shot. Again.
       I’m moving. I don’t feel my feet, and the sun seems so blistering bright I don’t even know if I can see. But I am moving. My limbs are working, on fire from the light pressing against me, but yet feeling so strange and distant. They feel like puppet limbs—not quite my own, not quite another’s.
       The cool numbness grips me once more. I am alone, hidden beneath the shade of a great, reaching oak. The sunlight filters down in greens and blacks. I can’t see the colors; no, the world is still nothing but greys and blues and foggy whites, like a night beside the beach. But I know at one time it looked like that. I know the sun is supposed to feel warm, like drinking feeling into your veins.
       I stand beside the tree. No one notices me. They’re all in their own worlds, their own bubbles. And I am in mine. I try to catch the eye of a stranger, but they refuse to return the glance. Dogs run around the park, barking, yipping, having fun. I can’t remember the names of the breeds. I used to know it. I realize I can’t remember the names of the trees either. Nor my neighbors.
       I don’t remember my wife’s name. Was it Charlotte? Elanor? Something elegant and classic? Or was it Cassie or Alex? Something modern and femme fatale? I can’t remember what she looks like.
I don’t remember my own name. It’s gone. Just like the feeling in my hands and feet. But did it ever really matter? What is a name anyway? Especially if no one uses it? If everyone sees through you in the same manner the large dog is staring through me?
       I turn to see what he’s looking at. It’s a black cat. It sits calmly, its tail wrapped neatly around its paws. Its eyes bore into me, and I know from memory they are yellow. The dog looks at the cat. The cat looks at me. He sees me!
       My heart flutters as I realize that someone sees me. Even if it’s just a cat, it is looking at me, I am not totally invisible to the world.
       But then the cat untucks its paws and stands. It stretches its long spine, yawning. Then it turns away from me to chase a beetle.
       I am still the least important thing.
       Being dead is so lonely.

 

headshot Dawn Dagger

Dawn Dagger has had a passion for reading and writing ever since she could remember. A self-published author, her works include The Chronicles of Salt and Blood; Slave of the Sea, My British Bear, The Forsaken Sons of Fire Anthology, and The Atlantic Island; Mosaics in collaboration with Top 100 Amazon Author Fredric Shernoff. When she’s not throwing together a paper last minute for one of her classes at the College of Wooster in pursuit of an education degree, she can be found playing games with her friends, volunteering in her community, taking long walks while fantasizing about killing dragons, or writing one of her 97 novels. You can find all of her social media at Dawn Dagger.

 


Third place ribbon

Where You Going?
by Jayne Bowers

Homebound since her accident twenty-five days ago, Felicia awakened to the chirping of songbirds and knew this was the day to get her life back, the day to get behind the wheel again.
       She tiptoed to the bedroom to check on her husband, Thomas, home recuperating after two weeks in the hospital with COVID and pneumonia, and grabbed her crocheted Sak from the dresser top. Faint sunlight filtering through the curtains signaled the fast-approaching dawn and shed just enough light to locate her boots.
       She was a mere three feet from the car when Felicia heard, “Where you going?” She stopped and slowly turned around. There stood Janice, her sister-in-law, dressed for the day, including her signature red lipstick and neatly combed bob.
       “Food Lion,” she said, her eyes imploring Janice to go back inside. Wasn’t happening. Before Felicia pushed the ignition button, Janice was in the car fooling with the seat belt, oblivious to the exasperated sighs of the driver.
       “Be careful, you hear. Remember what happened the last time we went for a ride together?”
       Felicia’s chest tightened as the familiar pounding of her heart returned, bringing back memories of the overcast day when her Highlander had been totaled. She’d been distracted that afternoon, stewing over Christmas, conspiracy theories, and Thomas’s persistent cough. Janice’s sudden shriek, abruptly ending her monologue about church ladies, coincided with the God-awful crunch of metal on metal.
       Too shaken up to drive afterwards, she’d listened in a distantly polite way to the suggestions of well-meaning family and friends. “Get back up on the horse after you get thrown. That’s what I say,” Mr. Jones advised. “Take it a step at a time, Honey,” chimed in gentle Aunt Rose.
       Realizing the truth of If it is to be, it’s up to me, Felicia decided to combine both strategies: saddle up but take it slow and easy.
       Today.
       Down Elm Avenue and across the Red River bridge they cruised, Janice’s sharp eyes picking up all the sights and reveling in the adventure.
       “Wouldja take a look at that ole Ford truck? Looks like a throwback from the 70s,” she said. “Daddy used to have one like that for hauling stuff.”
       “Yeah?”
       Janice chuckled. “Yep. And when I say ‘stuff,’ I mean anything and everything.”
       “Like furniture? People on hayrides?”
       “Better than that. Early one morning when I was a kid, I seen a raccoon trapped in a cage in the backyard. The critter was crazed with fear, and no matter how much jumping and clawing he did, he couldn’t escape.”
       “What’s that got to do with your dad’s truck?”
       “I’m ’bout to tell you.”
       Felicia swallowed hard. Just another day in Paradise.
       “I watched as the ’coon turned the cage upside down trying to get out and then ran inside to wake up Pop.”
       “And?”
       “He jumped right up and stomped through the house and onto the back porch and let out a loud whoop. Yes sirree! Wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt, he picked up the overturned cage and slung it into the back of the truck.”
       “Then what?”
       “Took the varmint to the woods and released it.”
       “Hmmm,” she said.
       Felicia slid into a spot near the front of the store and sighed with relief that they’d made the trip without mishap. They masked up and walked in, Felicia in denim beside Janice sporting black slacks and blazer.
       “It’s so pretty,” Janice said as they stopped to examine the fruit. “Just looking at the cantaloupe makes my mouth water.”
       Although Felicia’s intention had been to purchase a few necessary items like milk, bread, and laundry detergent, they sauntered up and down each aisle, allowing Janice to get an eyeful of nuts, cake mixes, paper towels, and soft drinks. “I love Mountain Dew,” Janice said, leaning over to pick up a six-pack.
       Janice’s excitement at the outing shamed Felicia. Why couldn’t she just chill and embrace the moment? It wasn’t her sister-in-law’s fault that she had been with them for ten weeks. After being released from the hospital, Thomas, generous soul, had agreed to let his sister move in until the family could figure something out. Truth be known, there was no plan.
       In the meantime, Felicia had acquired a constant companion who planted herself on the living room couch and watched Hallmark movies with the volume high enough for the neighbors to hear. During meal preparation, Janice hovered beside her, suggesting Felicia add more salt or skip the celery. Too crunchy.
       In the frozen section, Felicia said, “Let’s have pizza for lunch,” adding that in her opinion it had all the major food groups.
       “I don’t like pizza,” Janice said.
       “Let’s leave then. I’m done,” Felicia said.
       “Do you think we could go by my place to check on things while we’re out? Kinda looking for a social security check,” said Janice as they stood in the checkout line.
       “Okay,” Felicia agreed, realizing it’d been over a month since Janice had seen her house.
       As they approached Janice’s muddy yard, the sight of the Honda Accord parked beneath the bare trees made Felicia squirm. Even if it cranked, the car was uninsured and seemed to mock them. Before losing her job at the drugstore, Jan had stopped making payments on the small home, now in danger of being repossessed.
       Felicia got out of the car and noticed two black birds floating overhead.
       “Wouldn’t it be nice to be up high, just circling above it all?” she asked.
       “Those are buzzards. So, no.”
       They walked into the dark, cold mobile home. The quiet stillness was palpable, and the magnitude of the issue hit Felicia. Janice would not be coming back here, and she’d vowed there was no way in hell she’d live in a nursing home. She had no children. No home. No job. No car insurance. No check in the mailbox.
       Janice stood stiffly, chin trembling. Felicia touched her shoulder. “C’mon, Jan. Let’s go home.”


A semi-retired educator, Jayne’s work has appeared in The Petigru Review, Main Street Rag, moonShine Review, Ensign, and Guideposts. She’s the author of Musings of a Missionary Mom, Eve’s Sisters, and Crossing the Bridge: Succeeding in a Community College and Beyond. First place winner of the 2016 Carrie McCray Nonfiction Award, Jayne is co-editor and designer of the Camden chapter’s two anthologies, Serving up Memory and What I Wish I Could Tell You, and co-editor of the 2020 Catfish Stew and The Petigru Review.

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