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Something dangerous was in the air. Stay home, they said. It was safer there. In an effort to keep busy, they walked at lunch or at dusk. The light shrunk faster in the fall. The trees, gold and glowing, were lowering and releasing to the ground. There the dead leaves gathered. The cold set in.
Walking they saw their alley, filled with weeds to the knees. The spaces near them were often left overgrown. This was Detroit, post-bankruptcy, a city in repair. Elena didn't like to think about the alley. Tucked behind a tall privacy fence, she had grown used to not looking at it.
"It's unused. Let's do something," her husband said.
That next weekend they trimmed it down. Elena went inside and strung old balcony lights, big bulbs hanging down a black line. She found two folding chairs and a table. She brought out beer. They sat down, pleased with themselves.
"What will I do now?" she asked.
"You'll find something," Mattie said.
"I wish I could just be a stay-at-home mom."
"Don't. It will happen again."
Elena thought of her layoff. It had come no matter how hard she tried. She worked underneath the donor director of the museum. Her boss laid out the virtual events revenue. People didn't want to pay for a screen. The dollars and visitors were gone. Mattie made enough to hold them over. She knew they were lucky, but the words wouldn't come out.
Soon, neighbors came to their alley. They saw the lights on and brought their own chairs. They sat spaced apart to avoid the airborne disease. It came and went quickly and silently, symptoms or no symptoms. They were afraid to touch one another. A hand shake, a hug was all it took to pass it between people. Outside, it was safer. Their neighbors Marsha and Raphael sat across from her.
"We closed the dining room today," Raphael said.
"That must be hard," Elena said.
"They're like family to me," he said.
"Remember what this place looked like before?" Marsha asked. "Businesses on every block before the fire."
"They never rebuilt it?" Elena asked.
"Nope. My grandfather lost his grocery store that year," Marsha said. "We'll survive. We have to."
Raphael leaned across, grabbing another beer.
The days passed with less and less to do. The warnings remained the same. Stay home or outdoors. Do not invite others into your house, where it spreads faster, contained and encouraged. Elena hated being indoors too long. She found solace in the alley, a usefulness, hosting neighbors here. Mattie worked late instead.
"I'm worried about you," he said.
"I'm on a pause."
"When will this be over?"
"God only knows."
"Not the pandemic."
One night she sent a text, and no one came. Raphael was working carryout. Marsha resting for a big story. Elena drank alone in the alley until she heard the sound of an engine's distant thrumming. Drag racing was not rare. They saw it before, a block of cars, a self-made barricade for the sanction of the race. Elena leaned down and felt the cold dirt vibrating. She looked up expecting a headlight, but saw only dark sky. She wasn't sure how far or close it had been.
She went inside, shaken. Mattie was asleep. When she looked at her husband, eyes closed, she saw their baby girl. He had stopped talking to her about their stillborn. This was the silence in the house between them. Elena had held her once. She had touched each finger, kissing them. Elena had known her daughter alive, kicking inside her. Then, the kicking paused. Without a warning, she knew. Something had gone wrong inside of her.
"When tragedy hits, it never makes sense."
Marsha was telling her the story she just reported, a sixteen-year-old shot and killed.
"Does it ever hurt? Telling these stories?" Elena asked.
"What hurts is hoping for change. Sometimes you can taste it like it's coming. Then, you taste nothing. Things stay the same."
"Maybe they will get better."
"Maybe is more heartbreaking."
Marsha had lost her aunt and cousin to covid. Her cousin managed a grocery store and took the disease home. It spread to her aunt and uncle; only her uncle survived. Marsha counted sixteen members of her Black community she had lost. As much as things changed, Marsha feared the same. As much as they were neighbors, they knew two different worlds crossed here. Marsha was Black, and Elena white. Marsha lived it. Elena sat at a safer distance.
"Do you think the mother could have saved her boy?" Elena asked, tears beginning.
"Are you alright?"
Marsha held her as they cried, masks wetted at the edges.
"I can still see her eyes closed."
"I can still hear my cousin's voice," Marsha said.
"Mattie says we have to move on."
Marsha sighed loudly.
"He thinks differently," Elena said.
"He fills his day with work."
"I have nothing left to fill."
Outside, Elena could breathe. She could remember. The baby in her arms. The fear in her belly. It had switched. It had stirred in her glass. It had sunk her. Inside, Marco saw her puffy eyes. He closed in.
"It wasn't your fault," he said.
Elena nodded, letting him hold her.
When winter arrived with the first snow, Mattie closed the alley bar. The chairs went back in the garage. The lights turned off. Elena stood outside staring at that tall hovering wooden fence, the alley behind it. She watched her breath turn to fog. She'd live through this, somehow, she knew.
"When you're ready," he said.
"500,000 deaths and counting," he said. "We're lucky."
"We are," she said.
They were still alive. Her daughter was still born. Elena was still waiting, but the pandemic continued. Mattie found her in the kitchen when he told her the latest news: her grandmother had it. He reached for her hand. She felt an urge to vacate her body, to find the alley. Instead, she looked at Mattie. She gave in, holding him.
Amanda Lewan is a writer and small-business owner living in Detroit. She is currently writing a fiction series exploring privilege during the pandemic.