It came up on my Facebook feed–a contest for a short story. The theme? Ways characters encourage one another during the Covid19 pandemic. They were looking for encouraging stories about how communities come together, how faith is shown in isolation and used to bridge communities that couldn’t interact any other way. I thought it sounded like a lovely way for authors to band together.
Look, contests really aren’t my thing, but if I’d had a good idea, I might have done it just to encourage folks. The problem was, I had an idea. One I loved. It just wasn’t a good one for this. However, if this contest hadn’t popped up, I never would have gotten the idea for this particular continuation of Elton’s and Bethany’s story from Bringing in the May and The ‘Versary. So, I’m grateful, and here’s a little more in the lives of my least known couple…
Love in the Window
The sun settled into the western horizon, and Elton stood at his front window, staring down the street at the darkening sky, one eye still on the house across the street. Her house. Tolkien lay at his feet, unmoved by the fading of yet another day of his life. Another day without seeing her.
Nearly two months of isolation had apparently destroyed the two-week-long relationship. Sure… they’d cheated a time or two and just happened to be grocery shopping at the same time. So, his yard only got one pass with the mower every other day while they shouted at each other from across the street.
Elton had even gotten bold and sent a text message a few days before—one that said, I am warning you. The minute this social distance order is lifted, I’m hugging you. Maybe all day.
The message she’d sent thirty seconds before that was the last one he’d gotten from Bethany.
I’ve never felt so alone and so connected at the same time.
He’d taken it to be a good thing, but with her silence since, Elton just didn’t know anymore.
As he turned away from the window, his phone blipped. He snatched it up, hoping, despite it being the tone for his alerts app, not her text tone. Almost time for scrappy night. They’d taken to doing them via Zoom like everything else in the world. And his living room looked like Tolkien had gone searching for a treat from Bethany.
With a fifteen-minute timer going, he rushed around the room—soda cans, coffee mugs, water bottles, Kleenex boxes, plates… everything got scooped up and hauled to the kitchen sink or the garbage. And he was only forced to retrieve two forks from the trashcan—a record for him. Tolkien begged to be allowed out into the jungle.
Or, rather, the backyard.
The remnants of the fort he’d made to challenge Bethany out of her funk now stood piled up in the corner. Elton scooped them up and dashed down the hall with blankets and sheets, dumping them on his bed, before he rushed back to save the back door from Tolkien’s monster-like scratches. “I’m going to do it, buddy. I’m going to make that thing and do it. I found a recipe for chocolate chips and everything.”
Tolkien gave him a reproachful look.
“Sorry, old pal. I’ll look up doggie treat recipes tomorrow to make up for it. Tonight, chocolate chips, courtesy of Cassie Wren.”
His timer went off, and Elton rushed back to the couch. He signed onto the website and cast the screen up onto his TV. Only Di was there.
“Hey, Elton! You came!”
“Where’s the PayPal link?”
The woman shook her head. “Nope. Not happening. This is—”
“Going to kill your business. I know it. So, just let us just pay, okay?”
Another woman joined—the Snarkster. “Hey, Ellie. You made it.”
If Bethany ever finds out that I’m called Ellie, she’ll never speak to me again.
“Then she’s not worth your time,” Di snapped.
This time, he knew better than to think he could keep anything to himself. He just said, “…all the way to China—just a saying” without giving them the chance to ask what he meant. Elton finished off with, “Tell Di she has to give us the PayPal link.”
“I’ll do you one better. I’ve got it here.” In perfect sync with Di’s protest, the link appeared.
He added fifteen bucks onto the fee since Di wouldn’t be selling them anything tonight.
Misty appeared. “Hey, guy—oh! Ellie! I should tell my son you’re here.” And before he could point out that the boy might not listen to a guy who went to scrap night with his mom, Misty called out, “Dax! He’s here. The game designer.”
A kid with the worst case of acne he’d ever seen appeared on screen. “A guy does scrapping stuff?”
“Hey, Dax.” Might as well get the mortification over. “You do if it’ll make the girl you like feel special.”
“I’ll remember that—or pay Mom to do stuff for me. You really design games?”
Few people knew the games he’d designed. He usually mentioned the troubleshooting side of his business and left the design work out, but if this kid was going to listen to him… “Ever played Mythos Madness?”
“Everything ancient is me. The current day stuff is Bryan Woke.”
“Whoa…” The kid seemed to realize they were hijacking a meeting and backed away. “Mind if I watch what you’re doing?”
“Sure… if the other ladies don’t. But I have to warn you. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do.”
The Snarkster snickered. “You’re going to do something to make that girl do a one-man virus takedown just so she can see you.”
“Don’t I wish. I’d just be happy with a text message.”
“She’s not texting?”
He shook his head. “Not for a few days now.”
Somewhere a baby screamed. A man called for help with a dishwasher and then backed away when he saw the camera. “Oh, right. Scrappy night. Sorry ladies…” the man’s eyes connected with his. “Um… and…”
“That’s just Ellie,” the woman said. Elton couldn’t remember her name.
“Elton,” he corrected.
“Sure, dear. Now…”
He thinks I’m gender fluid or something. Great.
“—you just tell us what you have in mind…”
“That’s the problem,” Elton explained. “I don’t know. I’m going to make her a big chocolate chip cookie, I think. Tomorrow’s national chocolate chips day or something. I’ll leave it on her porch and run.”
“It won’t work this time, Elton. Social distancing. No kissing over chocolate or flowers.”
Di broke in. “Let’s go on a tour of your house. We’ll see what you have to work with, and then you can make her something amazing.”
“If she’ll even talk to me. I don’t know. Maybe…” He explained what happened. “It was probably too soon.”
“It was not. If she didn’t find that the most romantic thing ever, then she’s an idiot. But I doubt that. It’s probably more some kind of cabin fever, so let’s come up with a plan.”
And just like that, scrappy night became “trappy night.”
“Because we’re going to trap that heart,” Misty promised.
Dax and Elton just groaned.
At five o’clock in the morning, Elton sallied forth across the street with a box in hand. Tolkien watched from the window as he went and barked once when Bethany’s motion-sensor flipped on her porch light. Even prepared for it, he still jumped. On the way back, he sent another text.
Another one she probably wouldn’t answer.
A glance up showed Tolkien’s head poking between the drapes and his chin resting on his windowsill. Without Bethany’s porchlight reflecting in the window, he might not have noticed. An idea took root. He might not have thought of that, either.
Dashing inside, he grabbed red and black whiteboard markers and hurried outside. Letter by letter, he wrote three words. Just three, one-syllable words. He then bolded them in red to make them stand out. Once confident, he backed down the yard and across to her picture window. This time, a smile formed. Even in the weak light, he could make out the words.
Check your porch.
He couldn’t watch from the large front window, not with the curtains closed to ensure the white backing of his blackout curtains would make those words stand out, but he could from the guest bedroom. Tolkien joined him there, eating nearly as many cheese puff balls as he did. And waited.
The closer seven o’clock came, the more nervous he became. One car rolled down the street—Jan Kaler on her way to the supermarket. As an “essential worker,” she still had a job to go to. Once in awhile, Bethany had to go in, but she did most of her work as a clinic nutritionist from home these days. Elton’s life hadn’t changed at all in the wake of the “shelter at home orders.” He still got up, walked his dog—
As if on cue, Tolkien nudged him and whined.
“Can’t it wait until she—?” He didn’t have to finish. The curtains opened across the street. Nothing. He couldn’t even see her. The minutes ticked past, but there she came, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee as if she were cold. “I’d warm her up if she’d let me—and if it wouldn’t get me in trouble with the governor.”
Tolkien offered a sympathetic whine this time.
Bethany froze for a moment and then disappeared. The front door opened seconds later, and she waved at him. It was the first sign of contact in three agonizing days. Tolkien whimpered a correction of four, but Elton resisted. “It was afternoon. We’re not quite to day four.”
The dog’s silence gave an opinion on that one. Elton grabbed his mask and tied it around his neck. Sure, he’d pull the earl loops up if he came anywhere near someone, but otherwise, he’d breathe in fresh air and revel in the fact that she hadn’t marched across the street, dropped the box under his window, and stomped on it.
“Maybe I didn’t blow it. Not sure why she’s not texting, but…”
By the time they’d returned from a couple of miles on concrete paths, he was ready to get to work on his assignment from the scrappy ladies. Even Dax had agreed it sounded cool. But as he neared his house, Bethany ran outside hers with a can of something—spray paint?
“No! Do….n’t.” She did. Only after he saw each letter bubble up on the window before running down did he realize it was Redi-whip instead of spray paint. With a squirt of the stuff into her mouth, she did a happy wave and dashed back inside.
Thanks drizzled down the window and onto the ledge. Bethany stood inside, smiling at him. Smiling, and tipping a bit more whipped cream into her mouth.
That’s all it took for him to run inside. He grabbed the markers and a few paper towels—precious paper towels. With all but half of one stuffed in his jeans pocket, he wiped away the words and tried again. This time, he wrote with large, round cursive letters that looked like they belonged to a junior high girl with an enormous crush. He hesitated on dotting the I with a heart or a daisy. Eventually, he turned it into a daisy with heart-shaped petals—wonky, lopsided hearts at that.
He stood back to admire his handiwork.
I miss you.
Elton hadn’t even made it back inside when he heard Bethany’s door open and slam shut—slammed to capture his attention, too. With whipped cream can in one hand, she hosed off the window and started to spray it again.
“Don’t, Bethany! Don’t waste your whipped cream. Just text me!”
She paused, half a heart drawn on the window and sliding even faster with the residual droplets doing their best to wash it away. Elton whipped out his phone and snapped a picture.
“I can’t,” she called back. “Dropped my phone in the toilet when I got your last one and I tried to write back.” Was it his imagination, or did she inhale deeply before starting to back away again?
“Stay out and talk to me, then.”
“Can’t…” She turned away. “Job requires only essential outings.” Another wave and she was gone.
He might have erased the message for another one but for two things. First, he rather liked the silly swirls and swoops stating that he missed her. Second, he didn’t know what he’d replace it with. So, he left it there and wondered that he’d never asked if she had a Facebook account, an Instagram account—something he could use to chat with her. “Email! We could be the next Hanks and Ryan!”
After another long look at her house, Elton went back inside, turned on Up for Tolkien, and pulled out the copy of Pride and Prejudice he’d found in a shelf of classics Mary Margaret Montmorency had given him. He carried it to the table and pulled out his phone. “Here goes nothing, old boy.”
The dog, not exactly old, ignored him in favor of an old man and the world’s most eager Boy Scout.
Mary Margaret Montmorency picked up on the third ring. “How are you, Elton, dear?”
“Better now that I know Bethany isn’t avoiding me. She ruined her phone.”
“I told you she liked you too much to take offense at you admitting you wanted a hug.”
Put that way, it did sound silly, but his heart had refused to listen to sound reason in the face of losing someone he hadn’t had a chance to love as fully as he wanted to. “The scrappy ladies gave me an idea, but it means doing something that might disappoint you.”
“How would you feel if I cut up Pride and Prejudice? Just until I can replace it,” he hastened to add. “They want me to—”
“Just do it, dear. But take a picture so I can see what you make. If you haven’t read it by now, I doubt you ever will.”
There he would surprise her. “But I have. I have favorite passages that I plan to use, but nothing with Collins or Lady Catherine. Those two don’t deserve a place in my artwork.”
“I love you, Elton. Go be the sweet man you are and liven up a beautiful girl’s life. This isolation will end, and the two of you will be stronger for it. Trust me.”
He couldn’t let her go, so while he collected scissors, an X-acto knife, glue, and a couple of hangers, he told about his window message. “I want to do more. I just don’t know what to say. Everything takes too many words.”
“Then do them like in that movie you showed me—with the man at the door with the cards. Do them in pieces and draw out the anticipation.”
Once he’d heard it, Elton knew exactly what he’d do—what he’d say. “You’re right, of course. I can’t wait to come see you. Need anything next time I’m out?”
“I’m nearly out of cream. I’ve stretched it as far as I can, but I do like a little cream in my tea.”
“I’ll drop some off later. I have to get whipped cream for Bethany. She used up half a can trying to write on her window for me.”
“Get her the markers, too, then.”
He promised he would. “Love you, Mmm…”
“I love you, too, dear boy. Now go woo the girl.”
Once outside, Tolkien made a beeline for Bethany’s house. Her front door opened, and the dog disappeared inside. He’d tried three times before it became obvious that “I miss you” would have to go. The spare room window called to him. He could move it over there…
First, he found a plain sheet to drape over the dark blue curtains that did a lousy job of blocking sunlight and a terrific job of making it impossible to read his rewritten, I miss you. Most of his hearts were better the second time, at least. And with the sheet up there, she could see it anytime she wanted—know that he waited for the day the orders were lifted and he could walk across the street and just hold her.
“I’ll never wait so long to tell someone how I feel ever again.”
At the larger window, he began writing. I’m under orders…
A glance back showed her watching, so he erased that and continued. To “woo my girl.”
If the hand over her mouth meant anything, she found it amusing, so he erased and tried again. So, here I am. The woo-er.
A moment later, he swiped that away and wrote, Does that make me “woozy?”
Inspiration waned, so he waved and went inside to work on his project. An hour later, he dashed back out, erased the “woozy” words and wrote, We’ve never seen a movie together.
She wasn’t there, watching, so he grabbed the mail and strolled home, flipping through a couple of magazines, the water bill, and a card from Mmm… “She had to have known it would be here today or tomorrow, and she didn’t say a word.”
An hour later, the sounds of Tolkien’s scratches sent him to let the dog in and change out the window message. Will you go with me when this is over?
A glance across the street showed her standing in front of her window, arms outstretched and away from her head in a Y pose. A moment later, she made an odd E by sticking her head between her arms and leaning to one side—the wrong one of, course. She then made an awkward curve of her body into what presumably was an S.
Elton erased the question and wrote a simple, Can’t wait.
The game began in earnest.
After another couple of hours, he came out and wrote, Life isn’t always wonderful, but you are. When he backed away toward her window to see if she could read it, he found it becoming difficult, but a tap on the window behind him showed her there with binoculars.
Bethany set them down and created a heart with both hands.
Just before bedtime, he wrote, Goodnight.
The next morning, he topped that with, Good Morning.
Knowing she had the binoculars made things easier. He wrote out the poem he’d given her the week before. He admitted he was scared she’d get the virus when she went to work with sick people.
On the third day, he even pulled his car up in front of her house and played The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” at the top of his speaker volume. She stood in the window, hand covering her mouth again, shoulders shaking. The hand heart pumped this time.
It took three more hours for him to gather the courage to write what he’d wanted to since the first day. I think I love you.
Sunlight streamed into his room half a second before Tolkien licked Elton awake. Groggy, he stumbled from bed and bolted for the bathroom. “Way too much caffeine last night, boy. But I got ‘em done. I’m taking them over right now, and I don’t even care if she sees me coming.”
The shredded paper bits—all the Collins, Wickham, and de Bourgh pages created a nice, nestled place for the “stems” of his Pride and Prejudice roses. Beside them, a paper bag made of parts of the ball at Netherfield and the letter about Wickham’s treachery. Inside, a stack of chocolate chip cookies.
Elton glanced at his phone. 5/15/18. 7:23 a.m. She’d be up.
Tolkien bolted out the door and across the street, barking like mad. Bethany’s door opened and she stepped outside. “Good morning! What, no stealth moves?”
“Should you be out here?” He could have kicked himself. Elton passed the jar and bag. “Happy chocolate chip day.”
“Why shouldn’t I be out here?”
He’d have answered, but her kiss to his cheek—one that hinted she’d like a more impressive one as well—stopped him. The virus could jump in a creek. He’d give her a kiss that curled both their toes. After a two-month wait, they both deserved it. Still, when she asked again, just a little breathless this time, he answered.
“What about my job?” She’d started to say something, but her gaze fixated on something over his shoulder. “Oh…”
She’ll go back in now, but at least I got that kiss.
“Do you mean that?”
He looked over his shoulder and saw the words on his window. I think I love you.
Before he could answer, she pointed to the other window. “Why do you miss me?”
“Two months of not spending any time with you was torture.” He backed away. “And you really should go in. I’m not sick, but—”
“Sick? Two months?” Bethany stared at him before touching his forehead. “You’re sick? You don’t feel like it, but we’ve spent every night together since our anniversary—except last night. You and your scrappy night, Ellie.”
The memory of sitting in the Scrap Shack and cutting one paper rose after another out of Pride and Prejudice while the ladies encouraged to write every thought he’d ever had about her on the underside of the roses flooded back. “Wow…”
“It was so real—this dream. I guess it was a dream. There was this virus, and…” He looped an arm around her shoulder and led her across to his house as he told her about the months apart, about mowing the lawn so he could talk to her, about the texts stopping after he admitted he just needed to hug her—maybe all day.
“So, I started writing everything on the window—like that.” He stared at the front picture and the bedroom windows.
“I would have ordered a phone that day. It would have been there the next. No way would I wait out some quarantine thing without being able to at least text you.”
“I guess…” He shrugged. “In the dream it made sense.” Pushing open the door, he led her inside and groaned. The coffee table was littered with paper scraps. “I guess I didn’t clean up before I collapsed in bed.” Elton steered her toward the kitchen. “I’ll make us breakfast.”
“You don’t have to…”
Maybe not, but two months without her still felt too real for comfort. “I want to.”
Breakfast never happened. He’d just cracked the first egg into the bowl when her arms came around his waist. Elton looked over his shoulder, questioning.
“You said you wanted a hug. I thought maybe you still did.”
That hug might not have lasted all day, but it was as satisfying as one that did.
“I don’t think so,” he whispered at last.
“That I love you.”
Bethany stiffened. “Oh.”
“I know it.” When she pulled away to look up at him, he whispered, “How is that even possible?”
“I don’t know, but I dare you to erase that think from your window. And leave it.”