Fifty Shades of Corona

BY : NO_Shame
Category: A through F > Fifty Shades Trilogy
Dragon prints: 513
Disclaimer: This novel's tone is intended to be semi-satirical and "so stupid that it's funny", so please do not take it too seriously. I do not own the Fifty Shades Trilogy. and I make no money from this stpry.

Epigraph

 

“But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.”

 

    Georgette Heyer

 

 

 

 

Prelude

 

The forested roads of Northern Washington are eery and empty as I race back to him. 

It was the last thing that I expected to happen during the global Coronavirus pandemic.

It came on fast, terrifying and all-consuming—gripping my heart and invading my mind. 

I still can’t believe it…

I’ve fallen in love.

I glance over at my phone resting silently on the passenger’s side seat.

My stomach twists with grief and my knuckles go bone-white against the steering wheel. 

Why hasn’t he called?!

What if—

I shake the thought away before I can finish it. If I let my mind go there it will be the end of me. 

A few days ago, I didn’t even know he existed.

Now I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to exist again without him. 

I swipe at my cheeks, hot tears streaking my hand. 

This is bad.

This is so so bad. 

The seaside exit comes into view. 

I lean forward and take a deep breath, trying to compose myself. 

Nearly there.

I hope he’s okay. 

I hope I can see him. 

Even if it’s our last goodbye. 

Tears well in my eyes. 

I hope I’m not too late.

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

The Mob

 

“See you tomorrow, Ana! And thanks for bringing the cupcakes. They were delicious!”

I turn to wave goodbye to my coworker Jessica, who’s still busy stocking the shelves with sewing supplies. Jessica’s the only other worker here at Karen’s Krafts besides myself and our dome-haircut-wielding owner-slash-manager, Karen.

“I’m glad you liked them,” I say brightly. “They’re my grandmother’s recipe. Super easy.”

“No kidding?” she says, looking surprised. “Well tell your grandma her recipe was the bomb.”

“Will do. See you tomorrow!” I begin to clock out of the computer, but stop to add, “And good luck with the crowds. This Coronavirus stuff is crazy!”

Jessica steps back and gives me a look.

“Tell me about it! I’m running low on toilet paper, but nobody has it stocked.”

“Dang. That sucks.”

“Ch—tell me about it.”

I finish clocking out. 

“Anyway,” I say, sighing. “I better get going. I have to make a run and try to pick up some…ahem…lady products…if you know what I mean.”

Jessica’s eyes get big. “Oh no, Ana. You can’t be serious!”

“Very serious. I’m all out.”

Jessica frowns. “I would give you some of mine if I had them, but I’m all out, too. Good thing it’s not my time of the month.”

My eyebrows arch up to my hairline. “Consider yourself lucky.” 

“Shit, here she comes,” Jessica whispers. 

When I look up, Jessica’s back at work stocking the bobbins and thread. 

My manager Karen waddles up to the register and lingers over the back of my shoulder. I finish straightening up the counter, trying my best not to recoil from the hot puffs of breath hitting the back of my neck. I peek back at her dome haircut and put on my customer-service smile.

“What’s up? How did you like the cupcakes?” 

I try to guess whether she has a complaint or is just bored. Those are the only two reasons I’ve ever seen Karen willingly leave her office. The unpleasant expression on her face tells me nothing, as it is a permanent feature of hers. 

“Cupcakes?” she says distractedly. Glancing down, I notice she’s clutching a clipboard with something on it. Her lips move silently as she reads from whatever it is. 

I clear my throat. “I brought some cupcakes this morning. German chocolate. Very tasty.”

She says nothing, so I grab my purse from under the counter. “I hoped they might cheer everybody up. You know, with the virus and all?”

“Virus?!” Her head snaps up, eyes bulging. “You have the virus?!”

“No, I made cupcakes to cheer every—“ I start to explain, but stop myself when I see the blind panic on her face. “No. I don’t have the virus.”

She relaxes and heaves a sigh of relief, which hits me square in the face.

The smell! I hold my breath and try not to make a face. 

I shift my purse on my shoulder and open my mouth to tell her goodbye when she spits out, “Say, can I speak to you for a sec?”

Crap. This can’t be good.

“Sure,” I say, forcing cheer into my voice. I set my purse on the counter and wait for her to continue. She clears her throat wetly, looks down at her clipboard, then clears her throat again. 

Yep, definitely bad news. I brace myself. 

“Ana, we’ve decided to let you go.”

My shoulders tense, and there’s a rush of something terrible down in my stomach. 

“Today is your last day,” she continues, reading robotically from her clipboard. 

Is she serious? I’ve worked here for a year and a half, never been late for a single shift, and always gotten stellar performance reviews. I’m basically a model employee!

“Thank you for the work you’ve done here, and I wish you the best in your future endeavors,” she finishes. 

“You’re firing me?” I ask in a small voice that surprises even me. 

Not exactly…but sort of.”

This can’t be happening. “Wh—what did I do wrong?”

“I didn’t say you did anything wrong, did I?” She looks put-out, another typical expression of hers. 

My shoulders relax a little. 

“Did you even listen to a word I said?” she says, shaking her head. “I said you’re being put on non-disciplinary indefinite leave.”

I cock my head, confused. “Um, I don’t think that’s what you said.”

She huffs and holds the clipboard back up.

“It’s exactly what I said. See, right here.”

She jabs a finger at the page, face reddening as she purses her lips.

Jeez. And I thought she looked unpleasant before…

She slaps the clipboard onto the counter. “Either way I’m saying it now.”

“So, I’m not fired?”

Crap. I’m so confused right now. 

“No,” she huffs again. “You’re not fired. But you’re no longer scheduled for any shifts. And we’ll be taking you off the payroll.”

“Um…okay…”

That sounds a lot like being fired, but I decide not to push the subject.  

Tears press at the corners of my eyes as I take a moment to process everything. Karen must notice, because she lets out another sigh and steps towards me. Her hand thumps heavily on my shoulder. “But I want you to know that it’s not you, it’s us.” She pats me once, then steps back, looking pleased with herself. 

I suddenly feel like I’m going through an awkward breakup. Which I guess I am in a way. 

“Wow. Um…What a surprise.” I catch myself wringing my hands so I stop. “Is it because of the virus?”

“Of course it’s because of the virus!” she shouts. “What else would it be? It’s certainly not my fault! I’ll have you know that Karen’s Krafts is extremely successful,” she gestures wildly. “Perhaps the most successful small business in all of Seattle!“

“You’re right, Karen.” I quickly say the three magic words that always calm her when she gets like this. 

Sure enough, she lowers her arms and tries to composes herself.

“You probably haven’t noticed, Ana, but we’re not doing as much business as usual.”

In fact, I have noticed. The store has been totally dead for the last week and a half. But I don’t want to risk setting her off again, so I stay quiet. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to expect me to reply. 

“Nothing like the grocery stores,” she says with a bitter laugh. She shakes her head and gives a shrug. “Just have to let some people go for the time being.”

“How long until I’m able to come back?”

She shrugs her shoulders again.

“No way to know. I’m only keeping Jessica because she’s my niece.”

I nod my head.

“Right, right. Makes sense.” Not really, but whatever. I’m totally against nepotism. It sucks and it’s everywhere, but there’s no getting away from it—sort of like Coronavirus. 

“Of course it makes sense. That’s why I’m doing it!” Karen snaps. She snatches up her clipboard and turns to walk away. “Anyway, if things get better I’ll call you. Make sure you answer.”

“Thanks,” is all I can muster in response as she disappears into the restroom. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, everything sinks in.   

I just lost my job. 

During a global pandemic. 

“Oh, and Ana!” Karen’s voice booms from the toilet. 

I knew she’d change her mind!

“Yes?!” I call out brightly.

“Don’t forget to leave your name tag.”

My shoulders fall. 

“Sure thing, Karen.” I unpin the familiar badge from my shirt and set it on the counter. It looks as small as I feel. I take a few deep breaths and turn to leave. All I want right now is to get the hell out of here and get home as soon as possible so I can relax, have a good cry, and think over what to do next. 

A thought occurs to me.

What am I going to do about my rent?

Crap. I can feel the tears coming…

A second later, my sadness turns to anger, and I clench my fists. 

This sucks so f-ing bad. Like, what the heck did I ever do to deserve this! Ugh!

I force myself to remain composed. This isn’t the time to break down into hysterics. 

I give myself a little pep talk. 

Calm down, Ana. You’re a fully grown, strong, capable young woman. You’ll get through this. All you need to do is grab hold of your big girl panties and ride them clear up the crack of your ass so hard there’s no chance in hell they’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. 

Now that my spirits have been sufficiently lifted, I’m ready to take on the world. Or at the very least, my own small corner of it. 

I stop in front of the exit to check my phone and notice seven missed phone calls and three missed text messages from my mother.

I roll my eyes. Of course. She’s a typical narcissistic, panicky boomer. At sixty-five years old she’s never worked a day in her life, attends church two to three times per week, and still believes in the magic of prayer. It may sound like I hate her, but I don’t. She annoys me, sure. But deep down I keep telling myself she has my best interest at heart, even if what her heart is telling her isn’t actually what’s in my best interest…if that makes any sense. With that said, whatever she has to say is certain to irritate me far beyond what I’m currently able to stand. 

I decide to get it over with. 

I take a deep breath and read the first text.

 

Mom:  Ana, this is your mother. Just texting to let you know I called. I’m very worried about you with all of this virus stuff going on. Praying for you. Love Always, Your Mother.

 

Okay. Fairly normal so far given the circumstances. Maybe I was wrong to judge her so quickly. 

I scroll down to the second text, which looks like it was sent…I squint to see—oh yes: exactly three minutes after the first one, and two minutes after the last three phone calls.

 

Mom:  Ana, this is your mother. I’ve been praying and praying for you to call me back. I am deeply worried about you. I’ve tried calling you three more times. It’s not like you to ignore my phone calls, especially during such dark and uncertain times as these. Call me back as soon as you get this. My heart is hurting to know if my sweet little Ana is okay. Love Always, Your Mother.

 

A little worse this time, but not the worst I’ve seen.  

I brace myself for the third text, which I know will be bad because it was sent exactly two minutes after the second text, and one minute after the last three calls.

 

Mom:  Ana, this is your mother. I’m seriously freaking out right now. I keep having visions of you lying in a body bag, stiff as a frozen lamb chop and twice as cold. Why are you being such an obstinate, petulant child? I keep calling and calling, and still no answer. I keep praying and praying, but still no answer. Why aren’t you answering me, dear daughter? Why aren’t you answering me, dear Lord? My heart is heavy with sorrow and worry for the precious daughter I raised and nurtured by the milk of my own breasts. I’m so scared, sweet daughter. My nerves are frazzled and frayed beyond mortal repair. I feel as though I may collapse into a puddle of eternal sorrow. My heart is aching for you, my sweet dear little girl. My sweet, sweet precious daughter. Oh Lord, why have you forsaken her? Call me as soon as you get this. Love Always, Your Mother.

 

Okay, what the hell? I’m not even going to get started on how freaking weird that was. 

I decide it might be better to wait until I get home to call her back. Something tells me the phone call won’t be quick, and I really need to get to the store to get my lady supplies, so I decide to opt for a text instead.

 

Ana:  Calm down, Mom. I’m fine. I just got off work, and now I have to make a run to Wholesome Foods for some supplies. Please don’t worry. I’ll call you as soon as I get home. Love, Ana.

 

Hopefully that suffices to stave off the insanity. 

My phone immediately pings with her reply.

 

Mom:  Sounds good. Love Always, Your Mother.

 

Simple enough. A little odd, given the texts that came before it, but I’ll take it. 

I pause and look out the front door before leaving. Beyond the window, thin sheets of rain coat the steamy sidewalks of Seattle. I notice most of the people who pass by look panicked. Ever since the Coronavirus started everyone has seemed more alert and on edge. At first I found it exciting, because they all seemed less depressed and more alive. But now it’s beginning to worry me. 

I finger the small silver cross bracelet my grandmother gave me for my sixteenth birthday. It had been my great-grandmother’s before it was hers, but I never got the full story behind it. I do, however, remember her telling me it was for courage and strength, which is what I need most right now.  

I take a deep breath and push through the door.

The door bell dings, and once I’m outside I breathe in the cool damp air. The rain is lighter than I expected—more of a mist really, so I decide to leave my umbrella unopened and gaze up at the silver clouds as they roil and swirl above me. There’s something wonderful about their movement, and I find myself getting lost in them.   

DING! DING! DING! RIGHT SIDE!

My peaceful reverie is rudely interrupted. 

DING! DING! DING! RIGHT SIDE!

Shit! Cyclists!

DING! DING! DING!…

I leap left at the last moment, barely dodging a small herd of spandex-clad cyclists thrusting through the crowd like they own the street. I brace myself against a tree to keep from falling over, when one of them—a middle-aged man-child with greying temples—looks back at me and scowls. 

I put up my hand to apologize even though he’s probably the one who should be apologizing. 

He turns and mutters something under his breath that sounds like “Bitch” and keeps pedaling. 

I turn and bite my fingernail. What an asshole.

Crap. 

I pull my fingers out of my mouth. That’s probably not the best thing I could be doing during a global viral outbreak. 

I reach into my purse for some hand sanitizer and slather the cool alcohol over my fingers. 

Two steps into my walk, my phone buzzes.

What now?

I check my phone. It’s Stacy, my best friend and roommate. 

 

Stacy:  Are you off work yet!?

 

My thumbs tap out a reply. 

 

Ana:  Just got off.

 

I look up from my phone. A woman who looks like she might have been sane a week ago but who is now basically a bag lady passes by me with a shopping cart full of bathroom supplies, screaming “Fuck you! Got mine!”

As she passes, I look closer at her hand and spot what appears to be a taser.

I pause and make a face. What the hell has this world come to?

My phone buzzes with another text. 

 

Stacy:  Cool. Check it. Blue fish bowls. Remember these things?

 

A cotton-candy-filtered photo pops up of Stacy slurping down a big blue fishbowl margarita.

I smile at Stacy’s exaggerated duck face.

Then I notice Dezzy in the background. Dezzy’s the friend Stacy brought down to Florida with her for Spring Break instead of me. She looks drunk as she flashes a peace sign with one hand and a middle finger with the other. Ugh. Dezzy can be such a… I’m not even going to say it. She’s always hated me for reasons, which is strange because I never had a problem with her. Oh well. Best to ignore it. 

 

Ana:  Looks like fun.

Stacy:  ’Tis. ’Tis.

 

I’m tempted to tell her about being put on indefinite leave, but I don’t want to ruin her good time, so I tuck my phone away. The bad news can wait. 

I pass by a homeless man trying to sell face masks on the street corner. As I pass by, I notice half of them are covered in dirt stains and are clearly used, and it’s obvious he’s been digging through the local hospital dumpster to find them.

He shoves one in my face. 

“Twenty dollars!”

I move away from him. “No thanks.” 

He follows me a few steps. “Ten dollars!”

I shake my head, wincing. 

“Five!”

“I’m fine,” I laugh nervously. “Really.”

“Fine. One dollar. Final offer.”

“But they look like you found them in a dumpster, sir!”

“Still good. See, clean enough.” He dangles it in front of my face and turns it so I can see all the sides. 

I pull out a dollar and hand it to him, but tell him he can keep the mask. 

“You need a mask,” he says, and tries to put it on my face. 

“Fine, I’ll take it.” I quickly grab the mask out of his hand before he’s able to touch my face with it. 

“God bless!” he spits through his last remaining tusk, and turns to his next victim. 

I hold the mask as far away from my body as possible, and toss it in the nearest garbage can. When I turn back to see if the homeless man saw me I catch him glaring at me. 

“Sorry,” I mouth. 

He scurries over to the garbage can to retrieve it. 

Shit! 

I run through the crowd to get away from him, and I don’t stop until I’m nearly a block away, where I pull out my phone and text Stacy.

 

Ana:  You should see it here, Stacy. Things are getting crazy.

Stacy:  Yeah, no shit. I saw the news. Seattle blows. Florida is way more fun!

Ana:  I bet. How’s the silver fox hunt going?

 

FYI, the real reason Stacy’s down in Florida for Spring Break is to hunt for an older man to marry. And when I say old, I mean like really old. See, Stacy’s life didn’t pan out quite like she had hoped. She failed out of college during her first semester and can’t seem to hold down a job. In her mind, the next logical step is to marry into money. And since most guys with money are older, she figures the older he is the more she’s hedging her bet.

I look around at all the depressed and desperately overworked faces passing by and can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s onto something. 

 

Stacy:  Sucks so far. Nothing but poor frat guys with big muscles and orange tans. All the silver foxes are holed up in hiding from the stupid virus.

Ana:  Dang. Bad timing.

Stacy:  You’re telling me. It’s hard out here for a bitch!

 

I smile, but it doesn’t last long. Something about her comment reminds me that I’m out of a job.

Should I tell her now?

Probably. 

 

Ana:  I feel like I’m about to cry, Stacy. Karen basically just fired me.

Stacy:  What!? Why would she fire you? You’re like the best employee ever?

Ana:  Well, technically she put me on indefinite leave.

Stacy:  What the freak is that?

Ana:  It means I don’t get a paycheck for who knows how long, and I don’t know when they’ll hire me back…if ever.

Stacy:  That sucks, Banana. I’m sorry. How the heck are we going to pay the rent?

 

Yeah, she calls me Banana. It’s a play on Ana, if you missed it. She’s clever like that.

 

Ana:  It’s okay. I’ll be okay. I’m not sure about the rent, though.

 

But I’m not okay. My eyes grow hot with tears. What am I going to do for money? Where will I live if we get evicted?

 

Stacy:  Shit. I just realized I won’t have any money left after this trip. Hopefully I can find a silver fox fast. :(

Ana: Hopefully. :(

 

I turn the corner and see a long line of customers waiting outside Wholesome Foods. People are crammed together, yelling and jostling for position, and for some reason it reminds me of the movie The Night of the Living Dead. 

Double crap. 

A heavy wave of sickness washes over me, and I feel like I might pass out.

I really don’t want to go to the store right now, so I rifle through my purse in a last ditch effort to find a tampon to hold me over until tomorrow. My fingers find a string.

Ah ha!

But wait…

I pull it out. 

Crap. 

Not only is it out of its wrapper, it’s covered in lint and snack crumbs and looks like it’s old enough to attend kindergarten.

I drop it back into my purse and tap out a question to Stacy. 

 

Ana:  Do tampons expire?

Stacy:  No, they’re like condoms. They last forever.

Ana:  Um… Are you sure?

Stacy:  Totally sure.

 

I want to trust her, but I’m pretty sure she’s wrong. Looks like I’ll have to wait in line. 

I step into line behind a mother and her five children, one of whom is screaming at the top of it’s lungs for no reason. 

My phone buzzes with a new text.

 

Stacy:  Hey bitch. How’s your depressing life?

 

What the?

That was out of nowhere. How many fish bowls has Stacy had so far? Jeez. 

I try to figure out how to respond when another text comes in. 

 

Stacy:  I’m glad you didn’t come down here with us. It’s better for everyone.

 

I shake my head, confused.

 

Ana:  Excuse me?

Stacy:  Sorry, Dez took my phone. 

Ana:  Oh. That explains it. 

Stacy:  Dez was just joking.

 

Uh huh. Right. 

The line moves forward a few steps, and when it stops the crowd lets out a collective sigh. 

 

Stacy:  We both wish you were here. You should have come with. 

Ana:  Somebody had to stay and look after the apartment… Besides, it’s probably not the nicest thing to be down there partying and putting so many people at risk.

Stacy:  Get off your high horse Banana! You decided not to go long before the virus happened.

 

I can’t say she’s wrong.

Stacy begged me to go but I opted to save money and get some extra hours at work.

Oh, the irony. 

But if I had decided to go on the trip, I like to think I would have cancelled as soon as I knew it would be putting people at risk. Still, there’s no use in arguing with Stacy. 

 

Ana:  I’m probably just jealous.

Stacy:  As you should be. Florida is so much better than dreary depressing Seattle.

Ana:  Yeah, if you like living in a giant trailer park filled with bugs, alligators, and old people.

Stacy:  LoL

 

I laugh a little as the line moves forward a few paces. 

 

Stacy:  Seriously though. Take it easy on the old people. They’re my last ticket to freedom.

Ana:  I still think you can do better for yourself, but what do I know?

Stacy:  Obviously not much. Face it, I’m fucked if I can’t find a rich man to marry.

 

She might be right, but I refuse to agree. 

 

Stacy:  Besides, old guys are hot. I’m surprised you don’t look for one yourself, given your present circumstance.

 

I can’t say I’ve ever found older-older men hot. Unless of course the guy was only a little bit older. Then I’d be fine with it. 

 

Ana:  I guess I just think I have more potential than that. I’d like to earn my own living and independence some day, even if it’s hard.

 

There’s a brief pause where she doesn’t reply, and I wonder if I offended her. 

 

Ana:  At least that’s what I’m hoping for. Who knows if it will happen.

Stacy:  You do you and I’ll do me, Banana.

 

I roll my eyes. 

 

Ana:  Come on, I’m sure there are plenty of decent jobs you could get that don’t require a college degree.

Stacy:  Ew gross! I’d rather kill myself than work for a living. Fuck that.

 

I laugh. She’s right in a way. Work sucks major ass. The only times I’m ever truly unhappy are when I’m at work. 

 

Ana:  There might be some truth to what you’re saying.

Stacy:  Just wait. One of these days some rich older guy is going to catch your eye. Then you’ll change your mind.

 

I think it over.

 

Ana:  Okay, and say that does happen. How do you expect I’ll get him? It’s not like I have much to offer besides my youth.

Stacy:  Not true. You look great, Banana.

Ana:  Whatever. I know what I look like.

Stacy:  You don't give yourself enough credit. You’re gorgeous. And totally smart.

 

Even though I know she’s just saying these things to cheer me up, I still can’t help but smile. 

 

Ana:  But seriously, how does one go about snagging a rich man?

Stacy:  What you need are some good pick up lines. 

 

Right… 

I look up and see that the line has moved quite a bit from where I started. At this rate I’ll be inside in no time.

 

Stacy:  Here’s one I’ve been practicing for my hunt… Have you ever been arrested? Because your looks are killer.

 

I roll my eyes.

 

Ana:  Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Stacy:  Do it. You won’t be disappointed.

 

A fight breaks out at the front of the line. 

Seconds later, the two guys fighting are escorted away by a masked security guard and the line moves forward to fill the gap.

As I near the entrance, the crowd noise grows louder, and a swarm of customers break through the exit. 

Crap! They’re charging right at me. 

I quickly side-step out of their way and a middle-aged white woman with a dome haircut shoves past me into the store, making me do a double-take. 

Phew. Not Karen.

As the woman passes by, I overhear a small portion of her phone conversation:

“I’m pretty sure I have it. I’m going to the doctor right now. I just have to stop at Wholesome Foods real quick.”

Holy crap. This place is like a war zone or something. 

I enter the store close behind Karen Number 2.

Once inside, I immediately notice two things:

 

1. Nobody in this store seems to be wearing a mask, and…

2. All the grocery carts and baskets are gone.

 

I take a deep breath. 

Everything’s okay, I tell myself. Just improvise and get out as fast as you can. 

I hurry past the entrance and into the toiletry section.  

Okay…tampons…where are the tampons?

I look down an aisle and see people lined up at the pharmacy, scrambling for asthma medication and pills. Thank goodness I’m fairly healthy and don’t need any medication. If push comes to shove, I can get by for months on my one-a-day multivitamin. 

I step into the feminine hygiene aisle where a group of frustrated women are looking around frantically.

One of them says to the others, “Where are the fucking tampons!”

I look over the shelves, and they’re nearly empty.

Come on…tampons…tampons…there has to be one more pack somewhere. 

I start digging through the merchandise, checking back behind the other products. 

No luck. 

Okay. Think, Ana. Think. What could you do?

My phone buzzes with a text. 

 

Stacy:  Where did you go?

Ana:  There aren’t any tampons at the store! What am I going to do?”

Stacy:  Okay. I’m calling you.

 

American Girl blares through my phone speakers. 

I hold the phone out in front of me and right as I’m about to accept the call a scruffy-looking guy appears out of nowhere and sneezes all over the front of my screen.

I look up at him, totally grossed out. 

“Sorry, dude,” he says, then disappears down the aisle. 

Crap. There’s no way I’m holding this thing up to my head now. 

The song keeps playing, tinny notes ringing out.

A rude woman nearby screams, “Answer your goddamn phone!” 

“Sorry,” I mutter, and tap the speakerphone button, careful to avoid the spit droplets on the screen. 

The first thing I and everybody within a twenty-five-foot radius hears is an obnoxious slurping sound.

Several shoppers turn and glare at me, so I hurry into a side aisle where there aren’t as many people. “Geez, Stacy. What are you drinking?” I hiss at the phone. “You sound like Lord Buttcrack with his ten gallon gas station sodas.”

Lord Buttcrack is the nickname Stacy and I have given our fat, greedy, disgusting landlord, on account of the fact that we’ve never seen him without half of his butt crack hanging out of his pants. 

“Hold it right there,” Stacy says. “Don’t you dare ever compare me to Lord Buttcrack. I love you dearly, but that’s taking it too far. Besides, he sounds more like a butthole.”

I laugh at her drunken simile. “I don’t like that image. Why are you thinking about his butthole?”

“Hey, where there’s a crack, there’s always a hole.”

Um…

“As to your first question,” she continues, “I just finished my third Blue Ocean Fishbowl.”

“Holy crap! You drank three of them? Don’t they come in, like, a literal fish bowl?”

Mm-hm. And the alcohol content is through the roof.”  

“Something tells me you’re going to regret this.”

“Doubt it.”

I sigh.

“Anyway, back to my tampon problem.”

“Where did Joey go?” Dezzy’s voice cuts in.  

“Who the hell is Joey?!” Stacy shouts. 

“The guy with the muscles, duh,” Dezzy moans in the background. 

“They all have muscles!” Stacy cries. 

“Ugh…the one with the tan!”

“They all have tans!”

“Hello!?” I say loudly into the phone.  

“Oh, sorry. Seriously, Dezzy is being such a bitch.” 

“You’re the fucking bitch, bitch!” Dezzy laugh-screams in the background. 

“Whatever…” Stacy says. “Back to the problem at hand. Can’t you just wear pads?”

“They’re out of those, too.”

A woman nearby overhears our conversation and approaches me.

“Pads? Did someone say pads? Where are the pads? I need more pads! There have to be more pads!”

Stacy starts laughing so hard she begins to choke. 

The woman’s frantic energy scares the crap out of me, so I back away from her and hurry into the clothing section, which seems to be the only empty part of the store. 

I duck down under some hanging dresses and tops. “Seriously, Stacy. What should I do?”

“Let me think…” Stacy muses. “Oh, I know! A while back I was watching this TV show about these female prison inmates…”

Great.

“Okay?”

“Bare with me,” she says, sensing my doubt. 

“K.”

“Anyway, whenever the prison ran out of tampons, the women would just wad up a bunch of toilet paper and shove it up their pussies.”

Genius. Simply genius. 

A woman with a stroller opens the clothing rack and pokes her head in. “Could you keep it down with the profanity? Children are nearby!”

“Fuck off, lady!” Stacy screams at her through the phone.

The woman scoffs and throws the clothing rack closed. 

“It’s not the worst idea,” I say. “Only problem is they’re all out of toilet paper as well.”

“Hmm…

“I need more ideas.”

“You could just free bleed,” she says. 

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s when you…”

“Actually, never mind.”

“You’re sure?”

“Totally sure.” 

“Fine. Scratch that.. Let’s see…” Stacy makes a weird sucking sound with her mouth while she’s thinking.

Another customer comes by and starts sliding the shirts around me. 

“What’s that annoying noise?” Stacy says. 

“I’m under a rack of tank tops and someone’s looking through them.”

“Oops, sorry!” The faceless searcher says. 

“It’s fine,” I say back nicely. 

Stacy gasps. “I know!”

“What?”

“Why don’t you just cut up a tank top and shove it up your pussy?”

I laugh.

“Come on. That’s ghetto.”

“Yeah. But what else are you going to do?”

She’s got a point. What if this is the answer?

“But I don’t wanna!” I groan into the phone.

“I know it sucks, Banana. But it’s probably your only option.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

I crawl out from under the clothing rack and grab three spaghetti strap tank tops. 

“Do you think three is enough?”

“Um…probably.”

“Okay. Good to go. Now it’s time to get the hell out of here.”

“You go girl!”

As I’m walking towards the front checkout, I spot some cotton balls out of the corner of my eye.

Hmm. These could be useful.

I snag them off the shelf.

“Hey, Stacy, do you think cotton balls…”

“WHAT!” someone screams on Stacy’s end. 

A man across the aisle glares at me.

I mouth “sorry” and turn away. 

“Quiet down,” I hiss. “Or I’m hanging up.”

“IS THIS ANA?!”

Shit. It’s Dezzy again. 

“Dez, put Stacy back on the phone,” I whisper.

“FUCK YOU, ANA! YOU FUCKING BITCH!”

“Okay, I’m hanging up.”

“WOO! SPRING BREAK!” Dezzy screams so loud my speaker pops. 

I hang up the phone and slip it into my pocket. 

When I get to the front of the store, I join the back of the nearest line and take in my surroundings. All around me carts are overflowing. Off to my left, a plump woman is loading fifteen large cases of soda onto the conveyor belt, and the guy behind her has nothing but vanilla puddings and beef jerky.

He catches me staring and smiles at me. Holy hell! All his teeth are missing. I don’t even want to guess how he’s going to eat all that jerky. 

“Next!” a young female voice calls from the front of the line. 

I turn toward the register, but can’t seem to see the girl who said it. All I see is some sort of contraption where the register should be that looks like four broom sticks wrapped in layers of cellophane.

The dome-headed woman ahead of me huffs up to the register and hacks onto the cellophane. 

Holy crap! It’s the Karen Clone from earlier!

I leave some distance between us and try not to breathe in whatever she’s hacking. 

“Excuse me!” Karen Number 2 brays at the cellophane. “You forgot to ask me if I found everything I was looking for.”

The cellophane sucks in and releases with a sigh, and the disembodied voice from earlier returns. “Did you find everything you were—“

“No. I. Did. Not.” Spittle from Karen Number 2’s mouth hits the cellophane with each word. “And I need to speak to your manager. Immediately.

The girl behind the plastic lets out another sigh. “Randy! Customer for you.”

A ruddy-faced man shuffles our way, but before he makes it to the register, Karen Number 2 marches towards to him. 

“Next!” the girl behind the cellophane says, not caring if the woman loses her place in line. 

I step forward to the register. 

“I think some people are worse than the virus,” she says from behind the barrier. 

I laugh. “No kidding.”

She sighs and the plastic wrap squeaks. 

I clear my throat. “Um…What is this thing?” 

“Modified spit guard. Courtesy of my dumb asshole manager.”

I laugh. “It looks pretty…um…”

“Shit?” 

“Yeah, sort of,” I giggle. 

“It would be better if he hadn’t triple wrapped the cellophane. Now I can’t see anything.”

“Why are most managers such bozos?” I scoff. 

“Because the owners know if they were too smart they’d quit.”

I think it over. “Then why are some of the employees so smart?”

“Because it doesn’t matter if they quit.”

I laugh. It’s so true!

Then it occurs to me. “Why can’t you just wear masks and gloves?”

“Mr. Bozo thinks it will scare the customers.”

I frown at the plastic wrap.

“Wow. That’s really stupid.”

“Tell me about it,” she sighs. 

My heart goes out to the girl trapped behind the cellophane. Her face is so blurred that I wouldn’t even know she was a girl if it weren’t for her voice. 

“Nobody sees us and nobody cares,” she says hauntingly. 

A chill runs down my spine.

I don’t know what to say, so I look down at my feet. 

“Your total comes to $17.20.”

Crap, that’s expensive. I really wish they were carrying tampons. 

I pull out my wallet and grab two tens.

When I look up I notice there’s a card reader, but no way to get her the cash.

“Um…all I have is cash.”

A tiny index finger appears above the cellophane, then points down. “Make it rain on this bitch.”

I fold the bills into fourths so they don’t scatter, then toss them over. “Keep the change.”

“Oh wow. Thanks,” She says. Her voice is different this time, less depressed. “Seriously, I need it.”

“No problem. Good luck.”

“Psh! Thanks,” she says with a laugh. 

I laugh, too. “K, bye.”

Behind me, the ruddy-faced manager announces that the store is closing in ten minutes, and half the customers groan.

A woman in the cereal aisle screams, “This is bullshit! I need food for my kids!”

Behind me, a mob forms around the checkouts and people flood into the entrance. 

Crap. Time to get out of here. 

The woman from the personal care aisle who needed pads exits empty-handed in front of me and her face looks absolutely furious. When she gets outside, she turns around, pulls out the waistband of her sweatpants, reaches down between her legs, and rips out a used pad!

I gasp. Oh no!

In one swift motion, she slaps the bloody pad on the grocery store window, where it sticks like a suction cup animal.

“This is what you get for not having pads!” she screams like a banshee. 

The crowd behind me groans with disgust. 

What in the actual fuck?

A thick wave of nausea washes over me, and I feel like I might puke. 

I search for another way out, but this is the only exit, so I step in front of the door and try not to look at the bloody pad stuck to the window. But for some reason I can’t help myself, and when I look up, the door slides open and the pad smears fresh blood across the glass before falling down onto the sidewalk. 

Oh my God, WTF!

I throw up a little in my mouth, but manage to make it outside. 

As if things couldn’t get any worse, the moment I step out I spot a trashy-looking mother trying to steal a mask off the face of a middle-aged man so her son can wear it. 

“Come on,” she says, “he needs it more than you do!”

“Even if I wanted to give it to him, it’s a bad idea,” the poor guy says. “I could be carrying the virus!”

“Bullshit!” she screams. “Hand it over!”

She lurches for his mask and rips it loose. 

Holy crap! What should I do?

A loud pop rips through the crowd, and the trashy woman falls to the ground and twitches around like she’s being electrocuted. 

I turn and look down at the poor guy’s hand and see that he’s holding a taser. 

“Oh my God, did you just tase her?” a woman from the crowd cries out.

“She was trying to steal my mask!” the poor guy says. 

“You’re an animal!” a pregnant woman seethes as she clutches her belly protectively. 

“How could you?” says someone in the crowd. 

“The poor thing,” adds yet another. 

The next thing I know, three white knight teenage boys are on top of the poor guy, beating him with their fists.

I cover my mouth with my hand, horrified by their savagery. 

People leaving the store join in the fight, and within seconds it’s a full-on mob.  

What the crap! It just keeps getting worse! I need to get out of here. 

I dash for an clear spot of sidewalk near the curb, but right as I’m about to break free from the hoard, an errant body slams into me, sending me headfirst into the street. The pavement comes rushing towards my face, and at the last moment my hands shoot up just in time to stop me from landing face-first. I slide violently out into the street as my hands scrape along the asphalt, splashing puddle water into my face. The pain is immense and brings back vivid memories of the times I used to fall off my bike. 

When I finally manage to look up I see that everything I just bought has been strewn out into the roaring traffic. The tank tops are stained brown and the cotton balls are soaked black. 

A car honks and swerves, barely missing my head as my face is thrashed with water. 

I gasp for breath as I crawl backwards towards the sidewalk. 

Another car roars by, flattening everything I bought into a puddle. 

Hot tears well in my eyes.

People behind me are asking each other what to do, but nobody makes a move to help me up. 

Just then, a large SUV stops in front of me, and I catch sight of my reflection in the polished silver paint.

I gasp out in horror. The girl I see looking back at me looks like she just crept out of a lake. 

The tinted rear passenger-side window rolls down a crack.

“Are you okay?” A dark voice says.

I squint at the tint, hoping to catch sight of the faceless man speaking to me, but all I can make out is a dark shock of hair. I push myself up from the puddle and step towards him. 

“Stay back!” he says. His voice is so loud it echoes through the street, startling me. 

I shuffle back two steps, look down and ring my hands.

“Sorry…”

“Don’t,” he says, then lets out a long, loud sigh. “I apologize for my tone, but I would prefer not to risk contact.”

“I totally understand. I—”

“Listen, are you okay?” he snaps, interrupting me. 

A laugh escapes me. “Obviously not!”

I’m surprised by my own frankness, but something takes hold of me.

“I mean, its not like I just lost my job and won’t be able to pay my rent this month!”

Someone giggles behind me as the mysterious man in the backseat of the SUV remains silent. 

“And…and… it’s not like I’m on my period right now and can’t seem to find a box of tampons or pads to save my life!”

A couple more people laugh.  

I take a deep breath, about to cry as my voice grows louder.

“And it’s not like spaghetti strap tank tops were the only reasonable alternative!”

The laughter behind me stops. 

“Damn!” someone shouts from the silenced crowd.  

But I don’t care, and my voice only grows louder still.

“And it’s not like I had to fight through ten thousand assholes just to get that!”

I turn around and see several angry faces staring me down. 

“And it’s not like you fucking animals shoved me into the street and the spaghetti strap tank tops I was supposed to shove up my pussy are now rotting at the bottom of a water-filled pothole!”

A pimple-faced teenage boy doubles over in laughter.

“Oh my God!” he says, wagging his finger at me. “She’s good.”

“Fucking animals, huh?!” a man in the crowd yells. “I’ll show you who’s a fucking animal!”

The man staggers forward, knocking into the people around him, and out of nowhere someone punches him in the face. 

Oh no!

For a moment he’s dazed, but when he finally manages to regain his senses he throws a wild punch and the crowd resumes its frenzied fight. 

I turn back to the window and cover my face, about to cry. 

“Where do you live?” the disembodied voice in the SUV says. His tone is unexpectedly sympathetic. 

What? Why is he asking me this? Why would he care where I live?

I gaze up through my tears at the window.

Should I tell him?

The thought seems crazy. He’s a complete stranger. I mean, I haven’t even seen his face. 

I feel the crowd pushing at my back, and in one swift surge of motion, they shove me up against the window. 

“Ow! You’re hurting me!” I cry. I try to turn around so I can say it to their faces, but the pressure is too much.

I turn and see two dazzling grey eyes staring back at me through the crack. The expression is fierce and intense, but for some reason I trust them. 

“First Street,” I whimper. “I live near First Street.”

His eyes bore into mine as the crowd locks me in place. 

Behind me, people begin to scream and shove each other. 

The steel grey eyes look past me into the crowd and the next thing I know a folded hundred dollar bill appears next to my face.

I stare at the money, confused. 

“It’s for your rent. To get by.”

What the? 

I hesitate to take it. 

“Take it or leave it.” 

I reach forward to take it, and as I clasp the crisp paper, my finger brushes against his smooth, warm skin. 

I look up into his eyes and this time they’re black. His brow furrows.  

My breath hitches, and something tugs deep down in the pit of my stomach.

Behind me, a shrill woman shouts, “You got any toilet paper in there?”

The crowd moves forward, pressing me harder from behind and forcing my arm through the window. 

“Son of a bitch!” the musical voice hisses from inside the cabin. 

The crowd keeps pressing, and I scream out in pain. 

Another voice from behind me calls out, “Hey rich boy! You gonna come bail us out!?”

The laughter is insane. 

Hot breath brushes the back of my neck, giving me flashbacks of Karen standing behind me. 

I look into his fierce eyes and for a moment I read an expression that looks like pity or fear, but I’m not sure which. 

A gunshot rings out, and the glass on the rear driver’s side explodes into the cabin. 

I scream in terror. 

“Fuck!” the man says. 

I can see people on the other side of the cabin leaning into the SUV. 

“Ohh! It’s nice in here!” a haggard woman says, peering inside. 

“Get back, you!” the man shouts. 

I wish I could help him, but I’m stuck. 

He leans forward and screams at the driver.

“Damnit, Calloway! They’re breathing into the cabin!”

“You hear that?” someone behind me says. “Richie Rich doesn’t want us breathing his fancy-pants air!”

“All right then,” an older man with an ugly voice screams. “Let’s give it to him! Charge!”

The crowd rushes forward, smashing me against the window. 

I try to escape, but I’m locked in place.  

All around me, ugly voices are screaming ugly things in ugly ways. 

I suddenly feel like my spine is being crushed from behind.

“Help!” I yelp. “Somebody help me!”

“Fuck it, it’s too late now,” he says, his beautiful voice breaking through the garbled roar of the crowd. 

The tinted window zips down and a pair of large hands cup my waist. 

“What are you doing?” I say, startled by his strength. 

“Watch your head,” he whispers against my ear, dizzying my senses. 

The world around me spins, and for a moment everything is a blur. The next thing I know, I’m laying on my back looking up at the ceiling. All around me voices are growing in number, and I instinctively curl into the fetal position, nuzzling my face into his chest and inhaling his clean scent as his strong protective arms pull me closer to him.

Despite all the commotion around me, for the first time in forever, I feel safe.  

The vehicle begins to rock back and forth from the thrashings of the human horde. 

“Damnit, Calloway. They’re trying to tip us!”

“Can I run them over, sir?”  

“I believe that would be unwise,” the man replies with a hint of humor.

The driver rubs his hand back and forth over his buzz cut. “Right, sorry.”

A loud noise startles me, and my hands shoot up to protect my face, smearing mud across the front of his suit. 

Oh no!

I look up to apologize, and for the first time I see his face. 

Oh my freaking God!

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Dark Knight

 

His face is perfect.

The symmetry is flawless. The bone structure is divine. His cheek bones are so strong and pronounced, it wouldn’t surprise me if he once was, or still is, a runway model. A thick shock of hair hangs over his right eye in a way that’s pleasantly distracting. If I were to guess his age I’d say he couldn’t be any older than 25, although his expression and mannerisms are more like those of a man twice his age. 

His grey eyes narrow at me, and my heart leaps in response.

I try to look away, but my eyes are locked on his. 

His pupils dilate, eclipsing the grey, and all at once I feel lightheaded.

Holy crap. What’s happening to me? I feel like I might faint. 

His face softens, his eyes blinking gently, and I can’t help but notice his lashes are long for a man’s.

I should really look away, but for some reason I can’t. It’s as though I’m tethered to his gaze by some mysterious force. 

In one smooth motion he turns towards the driver.

“Step on it. But don’t hurt them.”

The vehicle lurches forward, and outside the window, the crowd rushes by in a blur.

For the first time I notice beautiful classical music playing from the car’s speakers, a refreshing contrast to the the howling wind and chaotic street noise. 

Mahler,” I whisper.

It comes out unintentionally, and I’m suddenly overcome with embarrassment. 

He turns back to me and eyes me with a look of surprise. “You know the composer?” 

My heart skips a beat as I stare into his eyes. I want to say yes, but all I can do is nod. 

He scowls and turns to the driver. “Turn off the music. It’s mixing with the street noise and giving me a headache.”

The driver nods. “Yes, sir.”

What the? Why why would he do that? Is he mad at me or something? 

The music stops, and all that’s left is the howling wind as the world flies by outside the window.

He lifts me up off his lap and places me in a nearby seat. “Can you buckle yourself in?”

My mouth opens to respond, but he’s already reaching across my lap. “Very well,” he says, taking control as he begins to buckle me in. His arms feel good pressed against me, warm and reassuring, and I like the smell of his hair, but something about the aggressiveness of his gesture puts me off. 

“I can do it,” I say, but he ignores me.  

I bite my lip, unsure of what to do, and look down at his hands. The first thing I notice are his platinum cuff links. The design is simple, but the pieces look intricately crafted and expensive. My eyes wander to his long, tapered fingers as he buckles me in and smoothes the belt up over my chest, careful to remain decent. 

Once finished, he sits back in his seat, and I’m finally able to take in the rest of him.

His body is long, lean, and muscular, and his proportions are refined. Besides the mess I’ve made of his suit, everything about his attire is crisp and clean. He’s wearing a well-fitted dark navy suit and slacks, a starched white undershirt, and an intricately patterned silver tie. The outfit looks expensive and custom tailored. 

I look down at the used shirt I picked up the other day at the thrift store for a dollar fifty-five, and notice that mud is dripping down through my legs onto the soft leather car seat. I fidget nervously at the sight, and the puddle under me makes a squishy sound. 

His eyes dart in my direction. 

I lean back a little, revealing the puddle. “Sorry, I’m all wet.”

He purses his lips. “Don’t tell me that’s piss.”

What!? My face flushes with embarrassment. “No! It’s not, it’s just… I’m so sorry,” I mutter, trying to contain the drips. 

He sighs and leans forward, flipping open the center console. 

I flinch. 

He stops and looks at me. “Calm down.” 

I nod and exhale, trying to relax. 

He pushes a black button and a crystal champagne set raises up from inside the console.

Scowling, he grabs a black silk champagne towel, unfurls it with a flourish, and hands it to me.

“Here.”

When I grab it, his fingers graze mine, and something electric passes between us. 

Whoa.

That was crazy. Did he feel it, too?

He leans back in his seat and clears his throat, clearly affected. 

He did!

A smile tugs at my lips. 

He narrows his eyes at me. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” I say, flattening my expression as I dab up my mess. “Ahem…so, where are we going?”

“To your apartment.”

What? A pang of fear courses through me. “How do you know where I live?”

He gives me a strange look. “You told me back in the street. You don’t remember?”

I think back, replaying the awful sequence of events.

“Oh yeah.” I say, shaking my head. “How could I have forgotten? I must have hit my head.”

“Your head is fine. I saw everything.”

He saw the everything?

You’ve got to be kidding me. Face in the mud and ass in the air is not my idea of a great first impression. I can only imagine what he must think of me. 

I lower my head in shame, and my hair falls down around my face. When I peek back up through the strands, I see that he’s turned away from me, staring out the window. He looks poised, legs finely crossed, fingers clasped—cool, aloof. 

For a moment I wonder if I’m dreaming. There’s no way this could be real. He looks like a movie star or a model in a fashion magazine. What am I doing here with him?

He turns to look at me, and I quickly look away.

Crap. Don’t look again.

But I do, and this time he’s looking at me like he’s in pain. 

I look away again.

I should really stop staring at him. This is something Stacy would do. Not me. What’s wrong with me?

A moment later, I can’t help myself and I look up yet again. 

Shit. He’s still staring at me. 

Okay. At least I’m not the only one staring. 

His eyes crinkle in the corners, like he’s laughing at me, his fine mouth twisting into a ghost of a smile. 

I look away again.

Crap. He thinks I’m an idiot. What should I do? Should I say something? This is so awkward.  

When I peek at him again, I notice he’s clenching his slacks up near his knee. He looks angry. What if he blames me for what happened with the crowd? Maybe I should apologize?

“I’m sorry about what happened,” I say. “I didn’t know—“ 

He holds up his hand, silencing me. 

I turn back and catch my reflection in the window. 

Limp, soggy hair.

Mud-flecked face…

Could I look more pathetic?

Hot tears begin to form behind my eyes. 

He makes a sudden movement, drawing my attention, and I notice a thin line of blood trailing down along his wrist. 

I gasp. “You’re bleeding.”

He stops, turns his hand over. “Shit.”

I lean forward. “Here, let me—“ 

He pulls away. “I’ve got it.”

I look around for something to stop the bleeding. 

He holds up the bottom of his suit coat and sighs through his nose, his mouth twisted with frustration. 

I unbuckle my seatbelt. 

“What are you doing?”

“Here,” I say, unbuttoning my baby blue cardigan. 

“No,” he says, eyes closed, shaking his head. A small smile plays on his lips. 

I stop. His smile does something to me I can’t explain, and I have the sudden inexplicable urge to kiss the corner of his mouth. What!? Where did that thought come from?

He smirks at me, like he knows what I’m thinking.

“You really need to calm down,” he says. “Get back in your seat and buckle up.”

I do as he says. 

“It must have been from the window,” he says, referring to his bloody wrist. His voice is flat. “I was trying to minimize contact until you showed up.” 

Crap. For a moment I almost forgot about the Coronavirus.

Guilt grips me.

What if he has a precondition?

What if he has a family?

“I’m so sorry.”

“You should be.” His expression is serious. “You summoned them to me.”

What?! 

“I did not!” 

“Did you declare yourself their leader, or were you elected?” he says, his lips suddenly curled with amusement. 

I shake my head, confused. “I had absolutely nothing at all to do with them!”

He smiles. “Then why were they all so glad to see you?”

Ah, I get it. He must be joking.

I smile inwardly and decide to play along. “The truth is they were charmed by your carriage.”

His face brightens at my recognition, and he lets out a long sigh. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean what I just said.” He strokes the bottom of his lip with his index finger. “It’s obviously not your fault. It’s the fault of those in charge who allowed the panic to spread.”

I look down at my hands, unsure of what to say. 

“Besides,” he says. His voice is suddenly wry with mock-humor. “There are so many ways to die. Coronavirus is just one of them. Something’s bound to get you sooner or later.” 

I peek up at him through my lashes. Why does he look sad?

I want to tell him it will be alright, but the thought sounds stupid in my head. 

He sighs and shrugs off his jacket to use for his hand. 

I sit up.

“Y-y-you can use my sweater,” I say, stuttering for some reason as I gape wide-eyed at the jacket that I’m positive is worth more than my entire wardrobe combined.

“It’s quite alright,” he says, ignoring me. 

“No,” I say, gaining his attention. “That jacket’s too thick.”

He stops and examines the jacket, turning it over in his hands.  

“Seriously, it’s no big deal,” I say. “It’s the least I could do.”

“It won’t be needed,” he says, tossing the jacket into a heap on the floor. 

I shake my head, confused. “Then what will you use?”

His eyes lock on mine as he loosens his patterned silk tie. 

Holy hell. He’s getting undressed!

He tosses the tie onto the floor and begins unbuttoning his dress shirt.

My breath hitches as I struggle to avert my gaze. 

He shrugs off the shirt, and I barely contain a gasp as his chiseled abs flex under the soft interior dome lighting. The entire time, his eyes never leave mine. 

Something tugs at the base of my stomach as I shift in my seat. 

He bites down on the dress shirt fabric and tears it into a long thin strip. How does he make it look so easy?

“I can help,” I say, leaning towards him, entranced.

“I’ll manage just fine,” he says through gritted teeth as he finishes two more strips. 

He takes three strips and wraps them around his wrist. When he’s finished he holds up his wrist, examining his handiwork. “What do you think?”

I’m so overwhelmed all I can do is nod. 

“Good enough,” he says like he’s glad to be done with it. 

I spot the tie at his feet and a thought occurs to me.

“You could have just used your tie.”

“Too late,” he says without hesitation. 

He reaches down, grabs the tie, then lays it next to him on the seat. 

I look away. For some reason I can’t stop smiling. What’s going on with me?

He signals the driver. “I’ll need a new dress shirt before my speech.”

The driver nods. “Ten four.”

He settles back into his seat and begins fingering the shirt-strip bandage. 

I clear my throat. “What kind of speech are you giving?”

His brow furrows. “You don’t have to talk like that.”

My brow pinches. “Like what?”

“Like this is an interview.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re up-ending your sentences in an effort to please me.”

I look away, unsure of how to respond. 

“I’m sorry. I’m under a lot of pressure right now.”

“It’s okay.” 

“It’s not okay,” he says, his tone serious. 

“Okay.”

His brow arches, assessing me. “I’m Elon, by the way. Elon Carlisle.”

Elon Carlisle.

I roll it around in my mind, savoring the sound of it. The name suits him surprisingly well.

“What’s your name?” he says. 

“Nana.”

Crap! What’s wrong with me!? …Nana?!

“Nana?” His brow knits in confusion. “As in, my nana’s just died from Coronavirus?”

“N-no. It’s Ana. Just Ana.”

“Ana?”

I nod. “Ana.”

He leans back, hands behind his head, and repeats my name. “Ana.”

I love the way my name plays on his lips. 

His eyes dart back down at me. “You’re sure?” His face lights up with humor, and somehow it’s even more beautiful than before. 

I blush and nod into my chest. 

“So…Ana. What do you think of all this?” 

My eyes once again take in the luxurious surroundings. “The car?”

He makes a face. “No…the virus.”

Duh. What’s wrong with you, Ana? Get it together. 

I search for the right word, but all that comes to mind is, “It’s terrible.”

“Indeed,” he says, biting the back of his knuckle. 

An awkward moment passes between us, and the tension gets the better of me. “I noticed none of the employees at Wholesome Foods were wearing masks.”

“Yes, I’ve read all about that. Most businesses seem to think it will scare the customers.”

“That’s so stupid,” I say, a little too loud.  

He looks up at me and tilts his head. 

I shake my head with frustration. “I mean, if we’re going to flatten the curve, we can’t be doing stupid stuff like that. It’s not up to businesses to choose who lives and dies.”

He stops biting his knuckle and stares at me thoughtfully. Why is he looking at me like that? 

“I was just on my way to give a speech along the same lines,” he says calmly. 

“Oh,” I say. “What for?”

“It’s for a charity banquet. Very tedious.” 

“So, what are you? Some kind of politician or something?“

“I’m a CEO. I own fifteen companies on three separate continents, and I employ over five million people.”

Holy crap. 

“Wow, very important,” I say, trying to sound unimpressed. 

“Indeed.”

Cocky much?

The air in the car suddenly seems too heavy, so I try to lighten the mood. “Well at least the workers of the world will finally get a vacation.”

He eyes me tactfully.

“If you consider the most devastating economic collapse since World War II a vacation, then yes, they will most certainly get their vacation.” So much for lightening the mood. I look down at my lap as he continues. “I believe there is dignity and honor in work, regardless of what one contributes. This pandemic is nothing short of a disaster for everyone involved, including the workers of the world.”

I snort. “Easy for you to say.”

He glares at me.

“Why is that?”

“Because you’re the one getting the lion’s share.”

He scoffs. 

“What?” I say. “It’s the truth”

“Somewhat,” he says, leaning forward. “To be more exact, I control the lion’s share. Most of my value is tied up in my companies. If I didn't own at least fifty percent of each company I would cease to be the one in control.”

“So why not give it up?”

“Because without my control they would fail.”

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

His eyes bore into mine and I look away, a little frightened by his intensity.

“So, you’re doing it for charity?”

He laughs. “I wouldn’t say that exactly.”

“But that’s what you just said. You said the companies would fail without you. But still, you could sell them off anytime, so why don’t you? Sounds like charity to me.”

He thinks it over. “Because it’s not rational to allow that many people to suffer when I have the power to stop it from happening.”

I can’t help but smile. 

“What? What is it?”

“Nothing.”

He leans forward. “Tell me.”

I roll my eyes. “I don’t think you’re being rational.”

“Then what am I being?”

“Emotional.”

He shakes his head.

“I never make decisions based on emotion. I prefer to be able to anticipate every outcome.”

“As if that’s even possible.”

“Maybe not,” he says. “Still, I believe caution and prevention are the foundations of rational judgement.”

“Who did you steal that line from? Dale Carnegie?

His eyes soften with humor. “You know more than you let on.”

I fold my arms. “Yeah, and you care more than you let on.”

He shakes his head and looks down. “I gave up caring a long time ago.”

I stop and stare at him. His response is more personal than I expected. 

“What about you?” he says. 

“Me?”

“Yes. Tell me about yourself.” 

Crap. What the heck am I supposed to say? 

“Um…I don’t know. Let me think.” 

“Think away.”

“Well, for starters, I lost my job today.” Heat spreads across my face as I recall my outburst in front of the crowd. “But I guess I already told you that earlier.” 

I search his face for signs that he’s about to mock me for the embarrassing scene I made, but I find none. Only mild curiosity lingers in his eyes. 

“Where did you work?” he says cooly. 

Karen’s Krafts, down on Main Street.”

“I think I’ve seen it.”

“They put me on indefinite leave.” I make air quotes around ‘indefinite leave’. 

He nods his head. “They must be struggling.”

“They are.”

“So, what did you do there?”

Why does he want to know all this? There’s no way it’s boring him less than it’s boring me. 

“Hmm…” I say,  trying to think of something interesting. “I mostly just stood behind the front desk waiting for customers to pay.” I shrug. “Sometimes I’d help stock the shelves.”

Ugh. It sounds so lame now that I’ve said it out loud.

“That’s it?” He says, narrowing his eyes at me.

“Um… sort of. I mean, I was a cashier.” I sift through my memory for something else to say. “But sometimes I would clean the toilets, too.”

His lips curl into an amused smile. “That sounds very…interesting.”

Crap. He definitely thinks I’m an idiot. Why did I say that? I blush and lower my head. “It was a job, I guess.”

“Well, from what you just told me I wouldn’t be too upset about losing it.”

My face flushes with anger. “It may not sound like much to you, but it was all I had.”

He gives me a surprised look. “I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant I think you can do better.” He pauses to rub his index finger across his lower lip. “I’m sorry. I know how hard it is out there right now.”

“How do you know?”

“That it’s hard?”

“That I can do better.”

He shrugs. “It was just a guess.”

“Based on what?”

“What I’ve seen so far.”

“I thought this wasn’t an interview.”

“It’s not.” His voice is hard. 

I cross my legs and fold my arms over my chest. “Whatever.”

I don’t know why I’m acting like this, but something about this man has gotten under my skin. 

“We’ll be nearing your place soon, Ana,” he says. There’s an edge to his voice again. “What’s the building?”

“Broadway Building, Elon,” I say, echoing his tone. “But you can drop me off here if you’re eager to get rid of me.”

His brow turns into a hard V and I’m tempted to poke my tongue out at him. What’s gotten into me?

The landscape around us darkens. “This is a bad part of town,” he says flatly. 

I nod against the window. “I always know I’m getting close to home because I begin to feel anxious.”

“I know the owner-slash-landlord,” he says. “Or, I suppose the more proper term would be slum lord.”

I laugh despite myself.

“Totally.”

Totally?

I roll my eyes. “Whatever.”

His face lights up a little as his eyes narrow in thought. “For some reason all I can remember of him was his ass crack.”

I burst out laughing so hard I almost pee my pants. 

He smiles at me.  

“I can’t believe you just said that,” I choke out. “My roommate and I christened him Lord Buttcrack once we learned he was a piece of shit.”

He laughs out loud for the first time, and the melodious sound fills my chest.

The driver looks back at us and smiles. 

When our laughter finally dies down, I look up and catch him staring at me with a far off look. 

I look myself over and check my face in the glass. “What’s the matter? Is there something on my face?”

“No, it’s just…” he says, considering whether or not to continue.

“What?” I say, anxious for his answer. 

“You remind me so much of someone I once knew.”

Oh really? 

“Who?”

He turns away from me, suddenly serious.

“Never mind. Forget I said it.”

The mood in the car darkens.

“Will you be fine if I drop you off here?” he says. The edge in his voice has returned. 

I look around. I usually avoid walking in this part of town if I can. I glance back at Elon but he’s still turned away, as if I’m already gone. 

“Here’s fine.”

He commands the driver to stop. 

“You’re sure?” the driver says, looking back at us. 

Elon nods, his face twisted in what I can only assume is disgust. 

I open the door and right as I’m about to step out, a beer bottle crashes against the nearby pavement.

What the?!

I slink back into the car as a middle-aged drunk woman takes a swing at a scruffy-looking old man. 

“You motherfucker!” The woman roars. “How you gonna pay the rent! How we gonna eat!”

Elon reaches across me and slams the door shut.

“Drive!”

The SUV lurches forward. 

I peer over and see him pinching his brow with his fingers. “That was a close one,” I say, forcing a lightness into my tone. 

“Too close,” he whispers, not looking up. 

A distance seems to have formed between us that I don’t understand. 

I sift through my mind for something to say.

“I’m really sorry for everything. The mob, your clothes…exposing you to the virus. It’s all my fault.” 

“As I said before, it’s not your fault. People are stupid, dangerous, panicky animals.”

I stare at him, taken back by his harsh judgement. 

The vehicle comes to a stop in front of my apartment and I notice a homeless man is trying to defecate on the sidewalk.

“Gross,” I whisper, turning away. 

“How long have you lived here?” He says, his face contorted in disgust. 

Something comes over me, a medley of shame and anger, and all at once I have the overwhelming urge to leave the vehicle.

I try to open the door, but it’s locked.

He shakes his head at the driver, and grabs my elbow to stop me. His hand feels good against my skin, but my emotions take hold and I shrug it off.

He sighs and leans back in his seat. “You’re sure you want to go?”

What’s he getting at? A minute ago he was asking me to leave.

“I’m sure. Now can you please unlock this door?”

Once again, he shakes his head at the driver. 

What’s he doing?

He pulls out a platinum business card holder, flips it open, removes a card, then flips it back shut. He offers the card to me. “In case you need me for anything.”

I shake my head. “You’ve already helped more than enough. Thank you for the ride and the money… I really mean it, thank you.”

He narrows his eyes. 

The driver opens my door, taking me by surprise. “Ma’am.”

I look up and thank him, then clamber out of the car with as much grace as I can scrap together.

“Oh! I almost forgot my p—“

I spin around and see my purse dangling from Elon’s outstretched hand. 

“Thanks,” I say, shifting the strap onto my shoulder. 

“You’re welcome.”

Something like a grin tugs at the corner of his mouth.

What’s that all about?

Before I can say anything, the driver gently shuts the door. “Would you like me to escort you to your door?” His face is serious, but genial. 

“No. But thank you, um… I seem to have forgotten your name.”

“Calloway, ma’am.” 

“Oh yes. Now I remember. Thank you, Calloway.”

“No problem-o.”

I turn on my heel and hop over the pile of excrement the homeless man left on the sidewalk. 

“Watch your step!” Calloway says, laughing a little. “I’d kick it out of your way, but it’s still fresh.”

“I’m fine,” I say as I hop up the steps to the front door of my building, totally grossed out.

Good God. How humiliating.

As I’m about to put my key in the slot, I hear Elon’s voice behind me.

“Ana!” I turn around and see his beautiful face framed in the window. “Be safe,” he says. 

“You too.” I take a breath. “…Elon.” 

The moment lingers as we stare into each other’s eyes, and I can swear something passes between us again. I can’t explain why, but I feel an inexplicable urge to run back to the car. Does he feel it, too?

He turns his head forward as the tint seals shut.

And then, just like that, the car pulls away. 

 

 

 

 

A Final Note from the Author

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story! I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far!

Much Love,

N.O. Shame

 



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