Ted sighed and shivered slightly. It was one of those windy fall days when the clouds would scuttle around to play their little game of roulette with the temperature. Direct sunshine made him sweat for a time tempting him to loosen his tie and remove his black suit coat. Not the right move. Not the right time. Anyway, sure enough a moment later, the clouds were back and the sweat made the late October wind feel even colder. He looked around. It was a nice location. Lots of tall trees. A margin of rhododendrons. A winding path led down to little duck pond.
He glanced over at Darla but he couldn’t see her eyes beneath the black veil. He inched a little closer. As he did so, everyone else moved further away from him. She had not been shy about telling everyone that her sister Anne’s death had been his fault.
That was hardly fair, Ted thought to himself. He hadn’t even wanted to go the rally. He just went to — it was complicated. Ted didn’t support Heel Spurs, but his folks did. And they had teased him, and badgered him, and told him that he couldn’t really argue against him if he had never even been to one of his rallies. Ted had refused immediately two weeks ago when they had announced that they were going and insisted he come along. “Mom, geez. All he does is lie the whole time! He never says anything insightful or … he’s not very educated.”
“We’re not educated enough! Isn’t that what you’re really saying, Ted? We’re not good enough for the College Boy! Your Dad and I both worked so we could put you through college and this is how you repay us? By being too snooty to attend a rally with your uneducated parents?”
“Oh, geez. Mom, that is not what I said. I just don’t see the point. And I wish you wouldn’t go either! It’s not safe!”
Then, his Dad had weighed in as well. “Ted, you can’t just live in fear your whole life. How about some courage? Stop wearing that stupid mask everywhere.” He had shaken her head and added, “You act like there’s still a pandemic.”
Ted had sighed and tried to explain that there was still a pandemic, that wearing a mask wasn’t “stupid” and that Heel Spurs was a liar.
The quarrel had escalated, as quarrels often seemed to these days, and ended with an ultimatum. Ted would either join them at the rally or he could pay his own tuition for his senior year.
Ted had at last agreed. He knew he would regret it. But he had no idea just how much.
At the rally itself, he had been mortified on behalf of his parents. They had cheered on cue. They had chanted on cue. They had laughed on cue. They had booed on cue. He supposed they would have quite happily farted on cue if told to. And, he could see the excitement in their eyes. In fact, they had seemed to adore the Mango Mussolini. They hung on his every word. Ted recalled having wondered at the time whether #45 talked nonsense and non-sequitur all the time as an intentional technique for getting his “supporters” to hang on his every word.
After the event ended, his parents had still been excited. They had introduced themselves to another couple from a nearby suburb. As it turned out, they also had a boy in college and he also had not yet realized that only Trump told the truth about the world and that every other news organization, TV channel, and the “Deep State” were brain-washing Americans not to trust the President.
Ted watched as the couple exchanged phone numbers and business cards. He had decided that it was rather useless to “take the bait” on politics and instead got revenge in his own small way by steering the conversation toward economics. He was now in the middle of his sixth economic course. “Hey, I’m loving college. I just found out something cool last week in my on-line ‘Economic Incentives’ class. I was really shocked. I had always thought it was good to pay CEO’s lots and lots of money so that a company would have better leadership. And it turns out, that’s not true! They’ve actually studied it. It sounds kind of logical, but it doesn’t turn out that way empirically.”
At last, Ted’s Dad said, “When are those busses going to appear? I don’t know about you guys, but I’m getting cold. It was warm on the bus, but man. It’s cold out here.”
“Well,” drawled the other man, “They did say they’d be here soon. I’m sure they’ll show up in the next ten minutes.”
Only they didn’t show up in the next ten minutes. Nor the next sixty minutes.
Ted had finally insisted. “Look, I run every day. Enough of this nonsense. I’m going to run back and get our car. I’ll be back in half an hour. Meanwhile, here. Take this coat. I’ll be more comfortable running like this.”
Mom had said, “Okay, but what about our new friends here?”
“Well, they will catch the bus,” Ted had reasoned. I can’t drive both cars back. And, none of you are running with me. If the bus comes five minutes after I leave, they’re better off. And, if not, they’re no worse off. Right?”
He had agreed that if the bus came right away, his parents could call him and he could get back in time to board with them. If it were a longer time, he would call them when he got to the car. If they were on the bus, he wait for them at the car. If the bus still hadn’t come, they’d decide what to do then.
In the end, Ted had run to the car, started it up, and driven back to the rally site before the bus showed up. Ted’s parents had insisted that they drive their new friends to their car.
Ted had been the only one wearing a mask.
He overheard her mother’s part of the conversation when the apology came a few days later.
Ted had said, “Mom, who was that? You sounded upset.”
His mom bit her lip and frowned. “Ted, that was — you remember that couple we went to the Rally with?”
Ted nodded. “Sure.”
“Well, honey. She and her husband both tested positive for COVID. Can you believe that?”
Ted’s eyes widened. “Yes, of course, I believe it. I told you it wasn’t a hoax.”
Ted’s mom kept acting as though she couldn’t decide what to do next. She confided to Ted, “Let’s not tell your father. No need to worry him.”
“WHAT!? Mom, surely you jest! Of course we have to tell him! He needs to tell the people he’s been with too!”
“Well,” said his mother, “I just don’t understand it. Didn’t the President himself say we had turned the corner and it was nothing to worry about? Well, anyway, at least it isn’t serious. And soon, we’ll have a vaccine. And treatments that cure it, just like for him!”
“Mom, mom, mom. No. He’s lying. We don’t have a vaccine. No-one knows exactly when you’ll get access to it, but it definitely won’t be in time to prevent an infection from those friends in the car. And treatments? You won’t get the treatment he got. You would have to sell the house and car and we probably still couldn’t afford it. If — if he was even sick at all. He might have faked the whole thing.”
“Now, why would he do that honey? He’s Making America Great Again!”
Ted could see that her spirits actually lifted as she parroted that last phrase.
“Indeed he is,” added Ted’s dad. “Now, what’s for dinner?”
Ted and his mother exchanged looks. She bit her lip and shook her head, looked down at the floor. Ted thought his mom should be the one to explain the situation.
“Say, Dad. You know that nice couple that we met at the rally? Well, right before you walked in, Mom was having a conversation with that lady. And she was just about to tell me what they talked about. Why not tell us both at the same time, Mom. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were.”
As it turned out, there were more than two birds killed.
The first bird was the woman of the couple they had met at the rally.
The husband had a bad case but survived. But without his wife of 47 years, and debilitated, he wasn’t sure why he had bothered.
The second bird was Ted’s own mother. She was perhaps “lucky” in that she died over the course of a few days.
The third bird, Ted’s Dad, never did get COVID. He got pneumonia waiting for a bus and died from that.
And now, here we are at the funeral of the fourth bird, Anne. Anne had been a wonderful kid. Ted had never viewed her as some kind of “necessary evil” to put up with in order to get himself in the — let us say — “good graces” of his girlfriend Darla. No, Ted had genuinely liked Anne. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, and beautiful. And, she was really genuinely nice. She was what you might call perfect.
Except she wasn’t. She had been born with a compromised immune system. So, while Ted and Darla had never felt the least bit sick and Ted had gotten tested, he never received his test results.
Darla never did forgive Ted. Nor did Ted forgive himself. Not smart, but perfectly understandable, having just lost his parents and ruined his love life, that Ted would take up hard drugs and alcohol. I suppose it’s no surprise Ted himself soon became bird number five.