An enhanced version of my story, "Love in the Time of the Pandemic"
|This story takes place in the ficticious country of DeLorea.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
Victoria Fox, a photographer for the Katzenstadt Herald, groggily opened her auburn eyes and glanced sideways at the alarm clock, which read 7:29 am. I have an hour and a half, she thought to herself. Those photos of the President's inauguration won't take themselves.
Incoming President Gabriel Naberg had recently won DeLorea's election in a landslide victory. The small yet wealthy nation perched on the coast of the Baltic Sea, with its capital, Katzenstadt, sitting right on the coastline. The official languages were English, German, and Russian.
Victoria pulled herself from bed and quickly prepared for the day ahead. She exited her front door before realizing she had left her camera inside. She re-entered and grabbed the Canon Rebel T5 before getting in her car, a sapphire blue corvette. She followed her GPS to the capitol building, which already had a crowd assembled despite the ceremony not happening for another hour. New President Naberg stood a few feet to the left of the stage, conversing with some cameramen.
Victoria glanced over at the new President, admiring his photogenic face. She noticed that his short, brown hair was starting to go grey, as was her own. I've seen a million photos of him, but none of them do him justice, she thought. He's so much hotter in person. Suddenly, his gaze shifted, and his glassy blue eyes locked with hers. Victoria smiled at him politely, and he returned the signal. Mreow! thought Victoria.
The cameramen left the conversation to set up for the broadcast. Seeing that he was now alone, Victoria approached the President with a lump in her throat. "Hello, President Naberg," she began. "I'm Victoria Fox from the Herald. Pleased to meet you." She extended her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Fox," answered Naberg as he firmly shook her hand. His touch was strong, yet warm and comforting."I like your camera."
"Thank you, my dad gave it to me," said Victoria. "I have the privilege of shooting the ceremony this morning. Congratulations, by the way."
"Thanks, I appreciate that," said Naberg. As he smiled she gazed at his shining, straight teeth. Damn, he's gorgeous, thought Victoria.
"President, you are needed for a sound check," said one of the cameramen.
"I have to go," said the President. "Nice meeting you." He dashed off to the stage as Victoria sighed.
A short time later, Victoria peered through the lens as Naberg took his vows. As he held the Bible, Victoria hit her shutter. She lowered the camera to "chimp" at the photo she had just taken. Her exposure was a little off, so she adjusted her aperture and ISO as fast as possible and shot again. She took another look. Much better, she thought. As Naberg began his address, she zoomed in on his perfectly groomed face and fired her shutter a few times. After what only felt like a few minutes, the ceremony was over. Mrs. Naberg approached the stage with her brood. Her long, white dress and blonde braid gently swayed in the breeze. She climbed the stairs and planted a kiss on her husband's lips.
Damn it! He's already taken! thought Victoria. Oh well, all the good ones are...
"Fox! Did you get any usable ones?" Victoria's boss approached from behind her. She turned around to face him.
"Yes, I have a few that I think will suffice," said Victoria.
"Excellent work," replied the boss. "Have the edited final versions emailed to me by three this afternoon. We will publish them in tomorrow's paper."
"Can do. Sounds good," said Victoria as she packed up her gear. She glanced towards the stage, where the entire Naberg family huddled together, hugging. She approached the stage.
"Wonderful address, Mr. President," said Victoria. "You know, I am also a puppeteer. I see you have small children and I would be happy to donate a show to them."
"Oooh, we love puppets!" said one of the girls.
"Can she do one for us, Daddy?" asked the lone boy.
"I don't see why not," said Naberg.
"Yay!" screamed all the kids.
"We will require proof of a background check," said Naberg to Victoria.
"No problem," said Victoria. "I have nothing to hide."
"Wonderful," said Naberg. "We look forward to your visit."
A few days later, Victoria arrived at the Presidential Palace with her portable puppet show and completed background check papers in tow. She approached the security checkpoint and presented her completed background check to the guard. After sifting through her bags to make sure she had nothing contraband, he permitted her entry. She passed through the topiary-filled grounds and arrived at the front entrance of the palace. She tentatively knocked on the door. Mrs. Naberg opened it. "Good morning, Ms. Fox," she said. "Gabriel is at the office. He had an important meeting today. Come on in!" She led Victoria through several ornately decorated rooms before helping her carry her show up the stairs. After taking a sharp left they arrived at the playroom. "Would this room work?" asked Mrs. Naberg.
"Yes, this is fine," said Victoria. She looked around. It was a large, airy room, with the children's artwork covering the walls. A cat tree sat in one corner. "You have cats?" asked Victoria.
"Oh yes, Gabriel loves cats. I tolerate them, but prefer dogs," said Mrs. Naberg.
A television sat in another corner, with a 1980's gaming console attached to it. "I haven't seen one of those since I was a kid," said Victoria as she gestured towards the console.
"It belonged to Gabriel when he was younger. He passed it on to the kids. They actually prefer it over computer games," said Mrs. Naberg.
"Not surprising," said Victoria. "I should be ready for them in about twenty minutes. I just have to set up the stage and the sound."
"Take your time. We're in no rush," said Mrs. Naberg before exiting and closing the door.
Victoria opened her bag and pulled out the myriad pieces of the stage before starting to assemble them. As the stage was relatively old and had been used a lot, some of the joints required tape to hold them together. After assembling the stage, she reached into the bag for the puppets, laying them backstage in their order of appearance. She pulled out the lone set piece, a deciduous tree with a hole cut in the center, and secured it to the play board with a C clamp. Now that the stage was set, she plugged in the CD player. The show had been prerecorded, with the music and dialogue recorded on a CD. After testing the sound and finding it to be functional, she called in the kids.
"Hi kids, I'm Ms. Fox and I have a fun show for you today! We're going to learn, but have lots of fun, too. Are you ready?"
"Yes!" yelled the kids.
"Great!" said Victoria. She pushed the "play" button on the CD player and headed backstage, putting her black gloves on as quickly as possible. They matched the background curtain and made her hands less noticeable to the audience. As the music commenced, Victoria picked up the cat puppet and put the head through the hole in the tree set piece.
"Aww!" said the kids.
Victoria manipulated the puppets as she had countless times before. She had been doing this particular show for years and no longer required rehearsal, yet never tired of hearing the kids laugh at the chase scenes and other jokes. This audience, while small, still responded well as most audiences had. The first two scenes went off flawlessly, yet as the third and final scene began, she reached for the tiger puppet only to realize it was still tucked away in her bag! The tiger's lines played, yet she didn't have the puppet ready. She retired the two puppets onstage and dove into her bag to retrieve the required tiger puppet as fast as she could. After only a few seconds of no action onstage, she resumed the show and finished it without further complications. The kids had no idea that there had been a problem. As the music ended, she put the cat puppet on her right hand and went in front of the stage to take her bows as the kids applauded wildly.
"That was cool!" said the boy.
"It was funny," said one of the girls. "I liked the kitty."
"Would you like to feed the kitty?" asked Victoria. "She's hungry after doing the show. Just hold out your hand."
The girl held out her hand, and Victoria made the puppet pretend to eat out of it. The kids all giggled.
Mrs. Naberg entered the room. "How was the show?" she asked the kids.
"It was awesome!" said the youngest girl. All the kids ran outside to play. Mrs. Naberg pulled out a checkbook and pen and quickly wrote a check.
"Sounds like your show was a success," said Mrs. Naberg as she handed Victoria the check.
"Oh, no, that's not necessary," said Victoria. "I meant it as a gift." She began to pack up.
"Take it. You earned it," said Mrs. Naberg. She gently patted Victoria on the shoulder.
Victoria looked at the check. It was for 500 euros. "This is very generous," she said.
"We appreciate your time and talent. Do you have any other shows?" asked Mrs. Naberg.
"Yes, I have three others. I would be happy to do them for your kids sometime," said Victoria.
"We would love that. Just let me know when you're free," said Mrs. Naberg. "Do you need any help packing up?"
"I've got it. Thanks," said Victoria. As Mrs. Naberg left her to finish disassembling, Victoria took down the stage and packed up before leaving the palace smiling.
The next day, Victoria went to lunch with her puppeteer friend, Alicia. Both of them immigrated from California and liked American fast food, so they went to a burger joint. "How was your gig at the Palace yesterday?" asked Alicia.
"It was mostly smooth, but I realized near the end of the show that I forgot to unpack one of the puppets. It was a little late on its entrance, but the kids loved the show and their mom wrote me a check for 500 euros," said Victoria in between bites.
"Sounds like a successful gig," said Alicia. "How did you land it?"
"I was assigned to shoot the inauguration last week and afterwards, I offered the President's family a show and they accepted. By the way, Naberg is really foxy in person," said Victoria with a wink.
"Dude, he's married," said Alicia. "And he's a liberal. You know how I feel about liberals."
"I know, your parents raised you conservative. We've had that discussion. But I can't get the dude out of my head," said Victoria.
"You know, don't you, that he banged his campaign secretary? I can't stand him," said Alicia.
"I know, it was all over the news a few months ago. But everyone makes mistakes, and who he bangs is his business," said Victoria. "It's not my place to judge him."
"Think what you like about him. But I sure as hell didn't vote for him. He's a freaking loser. I hope someone poisons him," said Alicia.
"Right, he's a 'freaking loser' who happens to be the most powerful person in the country," said Victoria.
"I have to go," said Alicia. She stood and gathered her belongings, leaving her burger half eaten.
She just doesn't understand him, thought Victoria as she finished her food, alone.
The next night, President Naberg awoke to a strange sound around 3:00 in the morning. As he opened his eyes, he saw the pale, translucent form of a woman in early 1900's dress standing by his bed. She beckoned to him. "Come into the study. I have something important to tell you," she whispered. Naberg's heart began to pound, and a lump formed in his throat. "Don't be afraid, I am here to help you," said the ghost. Mrs. Naberg did not awaken.
Naberg followed the spirit into the study. I don't want to deal with this, but I sense that I have to, he thought. She sat in his office chair. "Sit in the other chair," said the phantom. Naberg obeyed.
"Who are you...and...why are you...here?" Naberg struggled to get the words out.
"My name was Nora Eberts," said the apparition. "I died in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. I was sent to warn you of a coming pandemic similar to the one I lost my life in. Late last year, a virus developed in China and is about to become a worldwide issue. You must protect your people from sharing my fate."
"What... should I... do?" asked Naberg.
"You must shut down your country's economy for three months," replied Nora. "Otherwise there will be thousands of deaths in DeLorea."
"How will businesses survive?" asked Naberg.
"Many will not. But they can be replaced. Lives cannot. You must order all non-essential businesses to temporarily close and everyone must stay home as much as possible. Your order will not be popular. Some of your people will despise you for it, while others will praise you for doing what needs to be done to save lives." She spoke in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, her hands folded in her lap and her legs crossed.
"And, what will happen if I don't give the order?" Naberg began to chew his nails.
"You will be responsible for thousands of deaths," said the apparition. "People must stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. You don't have a choice unless you want to be liable for all those deaths. I have warned you," said Nora.
As the President tried to process this in his brain, the apparition began to fade away. This has to be a funky dream, he thought. He left the study and went back to bed.
A week later, the President returned home after a stressful day at the office and turned on the nightly news. "This just in - people all over the world are getting sick from an obscure virus..." said the anchor.
Crap! thought the President. It wasn't a dream! He shut off the television and headed straight to the office. He picked up the phone and called his Vice President. "Hello, Jim? It's Gabriel."
"Hi, what's going on?" Jim sounded like he had just woken up.
"I know it's late, but we have an issue," said Naberg.
"What's wrong?" asked Jim.
"It's the effing virus," said Naberg. " We have to do something about it. I will call a cabinet meeting soon."
"Ok, why are you telling me this now?"
"It's stressing me out and I needed to talk to someone about it," answered Naberg. He nervously ran his fingers through his hair.
"Mr. President, 97% of people who get it turn out fine. What are you worried about?"
"If we don't shut things down thousands of people will die," said Naberg.
"You're overreacting," said Jim.
"I know I'm not. Your nonchalant attitude could get people killed!"
"Calm down. It will be fine. Call a meeting if you like, but I wouldn't worry about it right now. I have to get back to bed. You know we have that other meeting early tomorrow. Good night." He hung up the phone.
He doesn't get the severity of the situation, thought Naberg before going to bed.
A few days later, but as soon as his schedule would allow, Naberg called an emergency cabinet meeting. "I have called you here today because we have to do something about the virus." He presented the cabinet with a slide showing recent hospital admission statistics. "You can see on this slide that hospitalizations are going up exponentially over the last few days. If we don't mitigate this curve, we will reach hospital capacity and lose thousands of lives," said Naberg.
"What do you suggest we do?" asked the Secretary of the Treasury.
"We will have to shutter all non-essential businesses for a few months," said Naberg.
"We don't want to do that," said the Secretary of State.
"Hell, I don't want to do it either," said Naberg. "But we have to if we don't want to be responsible for thousands of deaths."
After another hour of discussion, Naberg finally convinced his cabinet of what had to be done. "I appreciate that we were able to reach an agreement, everyone," said Naberg. "I will do a news briefing to educate the population about our decisions."
The following evening, Victoria decided to go for a bike ride around Katzenstadt. She could not help but admire the beauty of the city, which had been mostly built in the 1800's. The picturesque architecture appeared especially beautiful in the sweet evening light. She passed through neighborhoods of ornate Victorian abodes. As she rode by the Presidential Palace, her thoughts turned to Naberg. I wonder what he's doing right now, she thought. He's the foxiest forty-something I've ever seen. I don't know quite what it is, but there's something about him that entrances me. Not only is he hot, but he's a hell of a leader. His policies just make sense, and I can tell he cares about his people. I heard he has bipolar, but he doesn't let that stop him from leading the country well. I respect people who don't let their issues stop them from doing what they need to do. Suddenly she found herself back on her own street. After returning home and parking her bike on the patio she gave her mother in California a call to say hi as she did every week.
Before long, the talk turned to politics. "I heard on the news that you guys are under a stay-at-home lockdown as of today," said Victoria's mother.
Wha??? thought Victoria. "I hadn't heard about that," she said.
"Your president signed it into law this morning. What the hell is he thinking? He can't just shut down the country like that," said Victoria's mother.
"The power of the President is a little different over here," said Victoria. "I'll look into it and check it out."
After finishing the conversation with her mother, Victoria opened up her laptop and googled "DeLorea lockdown". Several results appeared on her screen. She clicked on the first result, titled, "DeLorea President Signs Stay-at-Home Order".
"President Naberg has signed a stay-at-home order going into effect today. Only 'essential' business are allowed to remain open," she read. Below the paragraph was a diagram separating which businesses could remain opened and which had to be closed. As she found "all theaters" and "all schools" in the no-go column her heart sank. Looks like I won't be doing any shows for a while, she thought. She opened her email to find a message from her boss saying that 85% of the contributors to the Herald would now be working from home. Victoria browsed the local news website, which had a link to a news briefing given by Naberg earlier in the day. She clicked on it.
After a few moments, Naberg came on camera with the words, "Good afternoon, everyone. I have recently learned of a virus threatening the entire world. This virus is serious and deadly." He showed the slide about the hospital admissions. "As you can see on this slide, admissions are going up every day. They went up 52% in the last 24 hours. If the trend continues, our hospitals will be overwhelmed within a few weeks." He showed another slide utilizing a pie chart to show the ICU capacity. "25% of our ICU capacity is already in use. 97% of those in the ICU are there because of the virus. If this trajectory continues, we will run out of beds before the end of the month. In order to protect the lives of all DeLoreans I implore you all to stay home whenever possible. You are allowed to leave your homes only to obtain food and/or medications, or to get medical care. You may go outside to exercise but must remain six feet away from others, and no group sports or activities will be permitted. All businesses not providing essential services must close. Employees and churches must conduct themselves remotely for the foreseeable future. We have to stop the spread of this virus or thousands of us will die. I do not anticipate needing to use DeLorea's military to enforce these policies as I am confident you, the people of DeLorea, will comply. However, I am prepared to use force if it becomes necessary..."
This is crazy, thought Victoria. She closed her laptop and prepared for bed.
That evening, Naberg drove home and approached the front door of the palace. His wife was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. "You're sleeping on the couch tonight, Gabriel," she said.
"What? Why?" he asked.
"What the hell is this?" She held her phone, with an article about the lockdown on the screen.
"You won't believe this, but a couple of weeks ago I saw a ghost from the 1918 Spanish Flu who warned me of a coming pandemic. She said I would have to shut down the country or thousands would die. When I heard about the virus on the news and the statistics, I knew what I had to do, so I called a meeting and then signed it," said Naberg, nervously smoothing his hair.
"That's batshit crazy," said Mrs. Naberg.
"Janet, you know I wouldn't lie to you," said Gabriel.
"You're insane," said Janet. "How the hell are we supposed to live like this?"
"It will only be a few months," said Gabriel. "I don't want to be responsible for thousands of deaths..."
"Whatever," said Janet.
"At least this isn't as bad as the last time you made me sleep on the couch," said Gabriel.
"Don't remind me. How could you go to bed with your campaign secretary, work so many hours you don't have time for the kids and I, stay out drinking until 1 am, and now send our economy and lifestyle to hell?" demanded Janet.
"Janet, you know I don't stay out drinking any more. I stopped doing that months ago. And I have to work long hours to provide for you and the kids. This freaking country won't run itself! This career is the only way I can give the kids a better upbringing than I had," said Gabriel.
"Don't bother coming to bed tonight. It will take the world a while to forgive you for this." She sauntered upstairs, leaving Gabriel alone in the living room.
Naberg had been the first European president to issue a lockdown order, yet all the other presidents in Europe gradually followed suit. Soon, the entire continent was under lockdown. Over the course of the following three months at home, Victoria passed the time learning and creating. She developed two new puppet shows, created artwork, wrote stories, and learned how to read piano music. Since she was receiving government benefits she did not need to file for unemployment. The days faded into each other, and she had a hard time keeping track of which day it was. She decided to pass the time by painting a portrait of Naberg to give him as a gift.
Finally, after three months in lockdown, Naberg gradually lifted restrictions, including those on the puppet theater. A couple of days after the restrictions were lifted, Alicia tuned into the local news. "President Naberg is pushing for legislation that would require independent contractors to be reclassified as employees. This comes on the heels of his stay-at-home order gradually being lifted," said the anchor.
"That piece of scum!" said Alicia. "Sleeps with his campaign manager, sends the economy to hell and now he pushes this bogus law that would screw over my theater? He has to go!" She went to the fridge and pulled out a plate of deviled eggs. She then dipped them in cyanide and packed them in a small box, which looked like it contained an innocent delivery. He probably gets boxes like this all the time. They won't think anything of it. Besides, DeLorea is not known for its security, she thought. She also packed some chicken to distract any guard dogs. She put the box and the chicken in her backpack before heading to the Palace. She arrived around midnight and scaled the fence, with the eggs in her backpack. She remained as far away from the security checkpoint as possible to avoid getting caught. Once landing on the other side of the fence, she tiptoed towards the front door of the Palace.
Suddenly, she heard a deafening, "Bark! Bark! Bark!" A pack of guard dogs appeared out of the dark and began to chase her. She scrambled up a tree to escape them and pulled chicken thighs out of her backpack, flinging them as far from the tree as possible. The hungry dogs ran after the chicken, leaving Alicia alone. She rushed to the door, left the box with the eggs, and backtracked as silently as possible before scaling the fence and returning home.
Early the next morning, Victoria arrived to deliver the painting she had made for the President. She stopped at the security checkpoint and showed it to the guard to prove it was not a threat. After clearing security, she knocked on the door. An obviously not-yet-awake President opened it. "Good morning, Ms. Fox," said Naberg as he rubbed his eyes.
"I apologize if this is too early, but I made this for you. I hope you will enjoy it," said Victoria with an apprehensive smile as she handed over the painting.
Naberg took the painting, glanced at it and began to chuckle. "You're quite an artist, Ms. Fox. I love it! We will hang it in the living room."
"Thank you, Mr. President. I am honored that you like it." Phew! I am relieved he liked it. I was anxious about how he would take it, thought Victoria. She turned to leave and nearly tripped over the box. "Someone left this for you," she said to Naberg while handing him the box.
Naberg opened the box to find the eggs. "Someone apparently knows I like deviled eggs," he said.
"So do I," said Victoria.
"Would you like the first bite?" said Naberg, trying to be polite.
"I would love it," answered Victoria. She reached into the box, pulled out an egg, and ate it. This doesn't taste right, she thought. It has a weird chemical taste...
Victoria's phone buzzed. She noticed a text from Alicia. "Last night, I left a plate of spiked deviled eggs on your boyfriend's door," it read. "Please don't turn me in. I had to get rid of that scumbag..."
"My friend left these spiked eggs on your door because she wanted to get rid of you," said Victoria.
Well, I thought she was a friend, she thought.
"Don't eat them..." Victoria tried to continue her sentence but could not. She felt like she had just spun a thousand times. The nausea was unbearable. "I need to sit down..." she whispered.
"Come inside. You can rest on the couch. I'll call an ambulance," said Naberg. He held her hand as he guided her to the living room couch. She collapsed onto the couch and tried to open her eyes. Though her vision had blurred, she looked up at Naberg adoringly. He looked down at her with a furrowed brow. "If it hadn't been for you," he began, "I would have eaten them and died. You saved my life!" He brushed the hair back from her face and planted a soft kiss on her forehead.
I must be in Heaven, thought Victoria before everything went black. The last thing she heard was Naberg's voice. "Hello, 911? I'm with a lady who has been poisoned."
"Is the victim still conscious?" asked the dispatcher.
"Negative..." said Naberg.
Victoria felt like she was floating. She looked down at the paramedics rolling her off the couch and onto a stretcher. The scene below became smaller and smaller as she rose higher. She saw that she was in a long, dark tunnel with a light at the end of it. She reached the end of the tunnel and found herself at the gates of Heaven. Thousands of angels surrounded her, applauding. She saw a few of her church friends who had passed on. They hugged her. Her grandmother, whom she had never met on Earth, also came up to her and hugged her before leading her to St. Peter. "Well done," he said. "You gave your life to save the one you loved, albeit inadvertently..."
"What now? I need to stay with him," said Victoria.
"You have a few options," said St. Peter. "You could simply remain in Heaven and enjoy it, or you could haunt him as a ghost. Or you could reincarnate as his beloved pet..."
"I've always wanted to be a cat," said Victoria. "Also, I know he loves cats."
"Are you sure you want to give up being in Heaven?" asked St. Peter, with a quizzical look.
"Couldn't I return to Heaven after my life as a cat is over?" asked Victoria.
"You have a point," said St. Peter. "You could do that." He made a note in his book.
"That is what I would like to do," said Victoria.
"So be it," said St. Peter. Victoria closed her eyes.
When she opened them a few days later, she found herself surrounded by other kittens. She looked down at her hands, which were now paws. She felt her mother lick her back and began to purr.
A couple of months passed, and Naberg came over one day, looking for a new pet. Victoria made a beeline for him, rubbing her forehead against his legs. "That one is really affectionate," said Naberg to the lady who owned the mother cat and was selling her kittens.
"She certainly is," said the lady. "Would you like to play with them?"
"I would love to," said Naberg. He sat down on the ground. Victoria came over with a friendly, "Mew!" and climbed into his lap, where she remained for the duration of Naberg's visit, purring contentedly. Naberg picked up the kitten and looked into her green eyes. Something about her gaze looks familiar, he thought. "I think I'll go with this one," he said.
"Excellent choice," said the breeder.
Victoria lived a euphoric life as the country's First Cat. She enjoyed playing with the family and cuddling every day with Naberg. He took wonderful care of his new furbaby, even to the point of spoiling her. She was the only cat in DeLorea who got her own birthday party each year. She was there for him through all the trials and triumphs of his presidency. For the next 20 years, she was his best and closest friend, having found happiness at last.