Writing in the Time of Plague

I know that we’re all going through some stuff right now. Some of us are dealing with anxiety, not knowing when the virus will run its course. Others are dealing with job and/or income loss, as we were sent home, many of us unable to work and not having other means to sustain us. I know things are difficult right now, but this too shall pass. Like you, I wish I knew when, but we can get through this. Hold tight to your loved ones, stay in contact to the ones you can’t visit right now, find things to occupy your mind, and stay safe.

To that end, I’m providing one of my unpublished short stories here in this blog, hopefully it will take your mind off things for a little while. I’ll try to post more things to give you a distraction. Enjoy.

 

Forged By Time

“Here’s your birthday drink love, drink up,” Wynn replied, as she pushed over the mug with the noxious smelling warm beverage before she kissed Alex on the cheek.

            Alex eyed the drink and her girlfriend with trepidation. “You would think after more than five hundred years, you would find a way to make this more palatable. Do you have any idea how gross this is?” Nevertheless, she picked it up and took the first sip, grimacing the entire time.

            “I’m still working on it. I tried chocolate, but you said it tasted muddy, I tried honey but you said it just wasn’t right at all, and that one year when I tried putting all the herbs and spices into a tomato sauce for pasta, you told me you hate red sauce. What do you expect from me? I’m an alchemist, not a cook.” Wynn smiled at her long-time companion as she sat across the table from her, sipping her coffee.

            “I think it’s the mushrooms. I really hate mushrooms.” Alex frowned at her cup, then looked across at Wynn’s coffee with longing.

            “Well, I can’t do anything about that, they’re the main ingredient. Maybe if you drank it faster, it wouldn’t be so bad.” Wynn pointedly picked up her coffee and sipped from it, obviously enjoying it.

            Alex narrowed her eyes at her. “Seriously?”

            “My love, torturing you once a year has been one of my greatest joys.” She winked. “Drink up.”

            Alex grumbled and muttered under her breath something that sounded like, “Insolent cur,” but did as told.

            Wynn laughed. “I think these days the proper term is ‘bitch’.”

            “No, that’s too harsh. Insolent cur sounds better. Keeps me in touch with my roots.” Alex reached across the table and took Wynn’s hand in hers. “No matter how much I hate this, and believe me when I say I hate this concoction with every fiber of my being, I will drink it gladly if it means I get to spend another year with you.”

            “Happy birthday, my love.” They shared a smile before they were interrupted by the buzzing of Wynn’s phone, which beat a dull rhythm against the wooden surface of the kitchen table. Wynn sighed and let go of her lover’s hand to pick up the phone and check her message.

            “What foul, odious beast has the audacity to interrupt us?” Alex growled.

            Wynn, distracted by the message on her screen, didn’t answer directly. Instead, she stood up abruptly and declared, “Dammit, I’m late for a department meeting. I have to go. That was Todd reminding me.” She took another gulp of her coffee before setting the cup in the sink. “Love you sweety. I’ll see you tonight.” She gave Alex a quick peck on the lips before racing out of the room.

            Alex barely got in her, “Love you too,” before Wynn was gone. That had been happening more and more lately, ever since Todd had become Chair of the chemistry department at the university where Wynn worked, a position which should have been Wynn’s as she had the seniority, but she didn’t want the responsibility, she’d said. She’d rather spend her time in her lab or in the classroom, teaching, then being, what she referred to as “a paper pushing figurehead who wasted people’s time with useless meetings and, instead of being an advocate for the faculty, was just a shill for the college president.” The more Alex knew of Todd, the less the liked the man, but department politics were just a part of the job, she was told, so she felt it was wise to stay out of it.

            Staring down at her half-full mug of mushroom-flavored herbal wretchedness, Alex shrugged, then decided to down the rest like a shot of whiskey. Upon doing so, she immediately started coughing and gagging, but it stayed down, miracle of miracles. “Damn. Never gets better.” She took the cup to the sink, where she washed out both cups and put them in the drying rack. She really wanted something to wash down the vile concoction, a cup of coffee, maybe, but she wasn’t allowed even a sip of water for an hour after drinking her yearly herbal cocktail. She had to give it time to work its magic. She was always tempted to cheat and just have a sip of water or suck on a lemon or something, anything would taste better, but she didn’t want to risk it. That foul drink allowed her to stay by her lady’s side for eternity. At least she didn’t have to drink it every day. If so, she might have to rethink this whole “happily ever after” thing.

            Major task of the day accomplished, Alex left the kitchen and went into the living room to retrieve her leather jacket from the entryway closet. On her way through the living room, she passed the wall of pictures that Wynn had so painstakingly kept up with through the years, telling visitors that the people in the photos were long-dead relatives of theirs. Very few knew the truth, as a few of the friends they had made throughout the years had similar walls of their own. In one sepia photograph stood a proud Alex, in full Union uniform, sitting atop her Calvary stead, rifle resting across her lap, giving the photographer the sternest look she could. Another showed her as one amongst the thousand plus soldiers who made up the Rough Riders the day they took San Juan Hill. She, along with the rest of them, had been pissed that, despite them volunteering for calvary duty, they were not sent their horses while in Cuba and were forced to walk everywhere. There was a picture of her from almost every American war, in each she was dressed as a man and had been taken for such, just one of many women who had done so during the young nation’s early years.

            Alex donned her leather jacket to stave off the cold midwestern day, making sure to check the mirror on the back of the closet door to make sure her shoulder spikes were not showing. Her hair, which was longer these days than it had ever been, fell past her collar a few inches, was full of dark brown curls. Every fifty years or so she got a wild idea to grow her hair out again, and would keep it for a few decades before she remembered she actually kind of hated it, and chop it off to just below her ears, usually slicking it back in some fashion or another, a style both she and Wynn preferred.

            Wynn never tried to talk her out of changing her hair, however, partly because she knew she wouldn’t keep it that way, and partly because Wynn was never one to do anything that would get in the way of Alex’s happiness. Over the years of their long relationship together, they had learned that the best way to remain happy was to stay out of each other’s way but to always be there to catch each other after a bad day or a bad haircut, whichever the case may be. They had been through a lot together, and Alex wouldn’t change it for the world. She was grateful that Wynn wanted to keep her with her this long. She could just have easily stopped mixing that vile concoction every year, but she never once failed to brew it up. Despite her making it more than five hundred years straight, Wynn still hadn’t come up with a good tasting recipe.

            Wynn was a skilled alchemist, the best in her field, in fact. More than once she had said, “I’d better be, I’ve gone to all the top schools. All of them.” And it was true. Alongside Alex’s various war photos were photos of Wynn in cap and gown from Oxford, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, and CalPoly, along with another wall just for her various degrees. Along with her degrees in every area of chemistry, there was also a degree in naturopathic medicine and a picture of Wynn alongside a Native American medicine man who had let her apprentice with him for many years. Most of the cures for the diseases which had plagued mankind had come from her research, but she had always worked with other scientists, making sure they received the credit in order to maintain her low profile. Instead, she published research which expanded on the discoveries of her colleagues, often pointing out their flaws.

            Alex grabbed her keys off the hook by the door and headed out into the chill day. She smiled when she saw her current stead: a white 1965 Shelby GT with blue rally stripes on the roof and hood. She had been there the day it rolled off the line in Detroit. It had made her weep, it was so magnificent. Her first drive in the beast was from Detroit to Chicago to pick up Wynn, who had been giving a lecture at the University of Chicago. It had only taken her three hours to drive the nearly three hundred miles. It was all she could do to keep the car under a hundred, as she had wanted to push it to the floor and see what 164 miles an hour actually felt like, but she resisted. Now, the car was over fifty years old and still going strong.

            It was just a ten-minute drive from their house in the north Chicago suburbs to her blacksmith shop, where she now spent her days making anything one could possibly think of out of metal. The bread and butter of her business was making lawn art for rich people who wanted to show off how cool they were because they could say, “My blacksmith made that,” as if she was their personal metalworker on retainer, and not an artist. Her pride and joy, however, were swords. She had many on display in the shop and they were always her biggest sellers at art shows and medieval fairs, where no one there realized she was the real deal and that her sword and her clothing were the genuine article. Instead, she was often complemented on how authentic she looked, or criticized by some drunk college kid for being a woman in armor, her armor no less, and told that wasn’t true to the time period, as if he would know.

            She flipped on the lights before turning the closed sign around, then went behind the front counter to switch on the computer in order to check her company email. She had three new orders that morning, one for an art piece, with the instruction, “Something that could fit on an entry table or something,” which made her roll her eyes. Then, there was an order for a broadsword and one for custom silverware. She worked up her estimates for each and mailed the customers back, making sure to send the silverware guy pictures of the patterns she had done before, hoping none of them decided they didn’t want to go through with it once they saw her prices, but that invariably happened at least once a day. People didn’t seem to realize or care how much work and skill went into custom made anything these days, and they sure as hell didn’t want to pay for it.

            After the last estimate was sent out, Alex looked up at the clock and smiled. An hour had passed. She could finally have coffee. She kept a container of her favorite beans in the small kitchenette in the back of the shop, along with a grinder, a French press, a single serve coffee maker, and part of her massive coffee mug collection that she had amassed over the years. She stood in front of them now, deciding between one with the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier and a metal one she had made herself that reminded her of the ones from days of old. She decided on the latter, as it fit in better with the shop, then proceeded to use the single serve machine, not having the patience to wait four minutes for the French press.

            Two minutes later, steaming mug in hand, she went back to the shop and checked her email again, and noticed that the silverware customer has said yes and picked out the pattern he liked best. Alex stood up from her computer, making sure to take her coffee with her, and went to her worktable to start hammering out the silverware from bars of sterling silver.

            It had taken awhile for her to figure out that blacksmithing was what she wanted to do. After several hundred years as a soldier, she had finally grown tired of fighting, and for the last fifty years had been honing her craft. She had opted out of Vietnam and all the Middle Eastern wars, preferring to stay stateside and hold Wynn close, grateful that she was still able to do so. When she and Wynn had first come to the new country, after the War of 1812, she had been eager to help the new nation defend itself, and even believed in Manifest Destiny, but when the Civil War broke out thirteen years later, she had told Wynn she could not sit idly by while people were being kept as slaves. Wynn had agreed, and had volunteered her time, along with many other women, to help the wounded, praying that Alex would never be among them.

            She took a break to refill her coffee. That’s when she noticed she had a text from Wynn: Sorry I had to rush out on you this morning. And all for a meeting that could have been an email. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Love you, sweety.

Alex could feel the smile on her face. Even after all these years, the woman could still melt her heart with just a few words. She quickly typed back, Want me to have a talk with Todd? I think I can convince him to stop wasting your time. And, I look forward to it.

The quick reply from Wynn read: I know what “talk to” means, at ease, soldier. I’ll let you know, though. Kiss.

Alex shook her head and replaced her phone in her pocket, then proceeded with her refill before heading back to work. Next month would be their 545th anniversary, and she was still trying to figure out what to do for it. It got harder every year, as she was running out of ways to impress her. Although, Wynn insisted that Alex didn’t have to do anything special, that just being together was enough, Alex still felt that it was her duty to always come up with something wonderful to surprise her. They loved traveling, and often revisited their favorite places, admiring or occasionally saddened by the changes which time had wrought. Alex had been thinking that maybe this year they would return to the country of their birth, Ireland, and explore that vast green island.

She couldn’t remember exactly had long it’d been since they’d last seen it. There had been so much unrest in her home country, it often made going back equal parts dangerous and sad, though Wynn kept insisting that it wasn’t any worse than anywhere else, especially not lately. That didn’t make it any better. Though she had trouble remembering the last time she had seen the Isle, she could still remember vividly the first time she had seen Wynn.

That was the first time she had disguised herself as a man in order to find work. She had taken to following around a man named Niall, a soldier of fortune, who didn’t know she was a female. They had been on their way to ask a king if he would hire them on for his army, when they had come across a beautiful blond lass gathering herbs in the woods not far from the castle. Niall had stopped the horses to engage her in conversation, pretending to ask directions to the castle. She had seen through his ruse, however, and had simply told him to keep on the path. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off Alex, however, and even blushed when Alex said hello. There was no time for small talk, however, as once he realized that his young companion had caught her eye, Niall had spurred on his horse and continued on, forcing Alex to follow. It was only later, at the castle, that they learned the young woman was the princess.

It wasn’t long before the princess and Alex started spending more and more time together, soon falling in love. After they had declared their love for each other, Wynn had revealed the family secret: that she and her father were immortal, due to a strange family trait they didn’t understand. It would be several hundred years before they were able to put words to their condition and realize their immortality was due to a genetic mutation that had been in Wynn’s family for several generations before she and Alex ever met. Once she and Alex had decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, Wynn worked feverishly trying to find a way to keep her lover by her side, until finally, after twenty years of happiness together, she had been able to come up with the mushroom and herb concoction for anti-aging that did far more than just smooth out wrinkles.

Alex would have lost track of the time, had she not set an alarm in the shop, which was attached to an old-fashioned school recess bell. It told her it was time to stop working and head home. She had to shower and change before she met Wynn on campus to go out for her birthday dinner. Birthday parties had long since lost their appeal. Once you’ve had a few hundred of them, another party is the last thing you want. Instead, they always spent their birthdays with only each other, sometimes just doing a quiet evening out, or an even quieter evening in. They had always preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s anyway.

Alex threw her safety glasses onto her worktable and went to turn off the computer. If there were more emails they could wait until tomorrow. She was done with this day. She smelled like the shop, and no matter how often Wynn told her she kinda liked it, Alex thought she was just being nice. Either way, it was not how she wanted to smell on their date. Tonight they were going to her favorite Greek place for gyros, nothing fancy, but the best gyros this far out from the city.

She turned out the lights then flipped the sign to closed, locking the door behind her. She tried not to speed on the quick drive home, promising herself that this coming weekend she would take the car out on the backroads, maybe take a short road trip, just to get the car out of the city and opened up.

After a quick shower, she stood dressed in the tight black jeans Wynn liked seeing her in, along with a light blue button up. Once she rolled up the sleeves, half-assedly, she put on the leather bracelet Wynn had given her for their 500th anniversary, bent down to cuff her jeans over her engineer boots, patted her right front pocket to make sure the knife she always carried was there and she was ready to roll.

Thanks to the extra parking pass Wynn had purchased for her years ago, she was able to pull up next to Wynn’s old Jeep in the faculty parking lot closest to the chemistry building. She enjoyed the stares the car always seemed to get, especially from older men, many of whom would often talk her ear off about the cars they owned or wish they did. Tonight there were no old men about, but a few gray-haired professors nodded at her as their eyes took in the car. Some of them she recognized as colleagues of Wynn’s whom she’d either met because she was on campus so often, or at some faculty party Wynn invariably dragged her to at least once a year. None of them ever said anything to her if she was alone, however, which she was absolutely fine with.

After going down several hallways and making several turns, a path she knew well, Alex came to Wynn’s office door, which was ajar. She was about to go in, when she heard talking and realized Todd was in there with her. She decided to give them a few minutes, in case they were discussing something important.

“What do you have to do that’s more important?”

“First of all, I told you earlier that it’s Alex’s birthday tonight, but more importantly the answer’s no. It will always be no, so you can stop asking.”

Todd sighed. “I don’t see why you have to be this obstinate.”

“And I don’t see why you have to be this much of an asshole, but here we are.”

Alex perked up. She wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but she recognized the note of warning in her lover’s voice and went on instant alert. It didn’t seem as if Todd was getting the message, however. Alex decided to give it another minute, wait and see if her services were needed. No matter how much Wynn loved her protectiveness, she also knew that if she went charging ahead when Wynn clearly had things under control, she would never hear the end of it. Her girl may have been a princess, but she was no shrinking violet.

“Gwendolyn, Gwendolyn, you think that bothers me, but it doesn’t. I’ve been called worse.”

“Cliffs Notes for you, Todd: I’m gay, I’m happily married, and my name’s not Gwendolyn. Oh, and I’m leaving.”

Alex heard Wynn’s chair slide back and the rustle of papers, and tried to stifle her laughter, thinking, “That’s my girl.”

Then, “Let go of my wrist, you bastard!”

Alex didn’t wait to hear more. She quickly pulled the knife out of her pocket and pushed the button on the side, releasing the five-inch stiletto blade, which she wasn’t legally supposed to carry, and charged into Wynn’s office startling Wynn and Todd both. The smile Wynn gave her was enough to know she wasn’t upset with her for barging in, while the look on Todd’s face went from surprise to blanched-faced fear. “You heard her, let go.” Alex stepped closer, making sure he saw the blade in her hand.

He saw the knife, alright, because his eyes widened and he quickly let go of Wynn’s wrist and sat back in the chair. “Hey, Alex. Happy birthday.”

Wynn rolled her eyes and took a step towards Alex. “You need to leave, Todd.”

Todd slowly stood, being careful of the blade, which seemed to be getting closer to him. “Can you put that away? This is not the place for that. I’d hate to have to call campus security.”

Alex took half a step forward and Todd backed into the desk. “Go ahead and call them. When you do, make sure to tell them you were about to assault a woman.”

“Assault? No, no, no, there’s just been a misunderstanding. I wasn’t going to assault anyone. Maybe, if you weren’t such a Neanderthal, you would understand the difference between simple conversation and assault,” Todd smirked.

Still holding her ground, Alex turned to Wynn, “Do you want to kill him or should I?”

Wynn sighed as if greatly inconvenienced, and replied, “I vote neither. We do have dinner reservations.”

Alex nodded, as if considering Wynn’s words. “You make a good point.”

“You ladies are just being ridiculous. If you’ll excuse me.” Todd made to leave Wynn’s office, but Alex blocked the doorway for a moment, narrowing her eyes at him in a menacing fashion before finally moving out of his way.

Before he could get too far down the hallway, Wynn called out, “Oh, Todd?”

“Yes?”

“I will be going to HR in the morning, just so you know.” Wynn declared.

“Is that supposed to scare me?”

“No, that’s my job,” Alex growled.

“Come along, love, I’ll finish this tomorrow.” Wynn looped her arm in Alex’s once they were both in the hall and she had locked up her office.

Todd finally walked off, trying to pretend as if what they had just said didn’t bother him.

Once it was just them in the hallway, Alex put the knife away and asked, “What reservations? I thought we were going to the Greek place?”

Instead of answering, Wynn just laughed and said, “I love you, you goofball. You will always be my knight in shining armor, whether I need one or not. Happy birthday, my love.” She placed a more intimate kiss on Alex’s lips than she had given her that morning, then they left the building arm in arm.

 

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