Fresh Greenbean Blogs?

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A Story So FREE It Will Make You Smile

Today’s free story is from Joseph Courtemanche . . . so they say. The tone is a little too cheery and upbeat, too optimistic. I wonder if someone didn’t ghost write this?

But let me take a serious moment. Joseph lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Anyone of you watching the news know what that means. Please take a moment to pray for him, his family, and his city.

After you’ve prayed, click on the charcoal grill to read “There Are Masked Men In My Driveway”.

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Today’s Story, In Which We Learn Janelle is A FREE-loader

Kathy Kexel brings the conclusion (maybe? feels like room for a sequel?) to her murder mystery centered around mysterious envelopes, unpaid for soda at the bar, shockingly well appointed bed and breakfasts, and a lot of town names that sound like they were just made up.

Click on the Maine Coon’s gigantic head to read “Secrets–II”. If you missed the first part, “Secrets”, CLICK HERE.

If you click on the woman, you’ll be arrested for arson and attempted murder OR worse
you’ll have to pay Janelle’s bills

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This Free Story Is Daring You To Read It!

I went full on sci-fi spec-fit for this one. I hope you like it.

Remember, these COVID-Chronicle stories are free — no hooks or gimmicks, no paywalls or email’s to give. We just want to give you something to read during the quarantine. Of course, if you like or stuff, feel free to buy something over at the Amazons. I have books over there just waiting for you to read them.


The Parallax

A COVID Chronicle Short Story

Jamie D. Greening

 “The humans are in trouble,” Archon Streegan stood as she made her report. “And the situation has become,” she snorted before continuing, closing all four of her eyes, “worse.”

“We know all about the problems they are having with the malady. My hope is for their numbers to decrease and so too their impact upon the world.” The Exalted Alpha of the Council of Wise Ones was famous for his disdain of humans. Since they exploded atomic weapons he’d secretly itched for their demise. Many of the Nunaki agreed with him, which is why he was chosen as the Exalted Alpha. Sharing the same planet with humanity was a judgment they accepted from The Creator, but it was not one they enjoyed. 

“The good news, then,” Streegan said, “is that very well may happen. Our prediction is ten percent of their population will perish from the malady.”

“That is not near enough for my taste,” The Exalted Alpha hissed. Many of the other council members chirped their approval. “Ten percent doesn’t remove the stench of their combustion engines or cleanse the waves in the air of their perversion.”

Streegan’s face turned from its natural blue to a bright yellow. This quieted the group. “I must present evidence from our science departments about the nature of this depletion and its implications to my brothers and sisters, fellow archons and superiors. Please allow me.” She bowed and tilted her head to the archon side of the room, then to the superior side of the room, and finally to the Exalted Alpha on his pedestal.

“Many apologies, dear sister archon,” The Exalted Leader said. “Please continue.”

“Blessings and thanksgivings to you, O Exalted Benefactor.” Streegan said, still bowed. Then she stood upright again. “The malady is spread by contact with people. This is a situation we do not deal with in our realm, but in the other parallax, this is the way this particular malady operates. Because of this, the common people will mostly be spared because they turn in fewer circles. It is the leaders, heads of governments, the archons, superiors, and exalteds of human society who will expire in greater percentages. Leaders of business, industry, science, and the learned classes will fade away leaving the masses to their own devices. The result will be incompetence. Great incompetence is already occurring. It will get worse. Destabilization will occur. Wars will erupt. Warships are even now being deployed across our seas. Suspicion and paranoia are rampant. Conspiracies are fluid.

“We’ve been monitoring humans for millennia and know their patterns better than they know themselves. Wars, violence, and societal dislocation will take another fifty percent. Many who are left will die of other diseases and starvation.”

Streegan could see from the looks on their faces they were unconcerned. Their inability to see the symbiosis of their two races frustrated her. The ancient books were clear about how linked the two were, but since the rise of New Thinking there was nothing but disgust for the humans. 

“If this were the only news I had, I understand why you would dismiss it,” she said. “And I would concur there would be nothing we could do. But there is more to convey. Our analytical team has retrieved a sample of the malady and we have spent considerable energy dissecting it. This is not a new woe. It is old. Very old. We don’t know how the humans reacquired it. It dates back to the Time Before.”

“The Time Before?” Archon Dmnstryn was embarrassed by his outburst, but others chirped. He would not be punished for the breach in protocol.

“Yes, Before. This is the same malady which took our ancestors away forever. It is the same.”

“Are you sure, Archon Streegan?” The Exalted Leader’s color became green.

“Yes. I am sure, and I share the concern.” Her color turned green as well, as did most in the room. We have checked and double checked. It is identical to the First Woe.” She took a deep breath and twitched antennae. “But we have a plan and we have retrieved the remedy from the Holy Place. We should give the remedy to the humans. If we can stop the spread of the malady in their realm it will not penetrate our parallax. Our survival depends upon saving them.”


Superior Ptolmex stepped to the middle of the room and bowed low toward Archon Streegan then pivoted toward The Exalted Leader. Her actions indicated she was requesting to ask a question. The Exalted Leader’s color turned red signaling his approval.  

“How can this be done? There is no place of concourse which now exists between our realms? The last concourse closed when The Flood came.”

“This is partially true,” Streegan said. “Open intersection is no longer possible. Yet there remain humans who still see glimpses of our realm. There is one we have identified who sees well. Our plan is to give the remedy to him. What I need from this council is permission to proceed.”

The severity of the situation and the consequences of inaction overwhelmed the normally slow decision-making process. There were no conventions held or days of fasting and reflection. The Council members all turned ash gray without deliberation. Permission was granted.

***

Sometimes the air shimmered. Other times it folded, the way a meringue folds on itself while being whipped in a copper bowl if it were translucent. Often, he could see shapes moving but mostly he could only hear pleasant tones of beeps and chirps, like birds, but with a sense of grammar. 

 Ezra Feldman tried to explain it to his mother when he was twelve. He was rewarded for his honesty with a year’s worth of visits to a psychiatrist. When he was in college, he shared the experience with a professor. The professor suggested he take LSD to explore the possibilities of opening his mind to what was happening. He followed this advice with his girlfriend one night. They were awakened the next morning by the person trying to clean the bathroom of the Taco Bell. He had “Don’t Fear the Reaper” written on his chest with magic marker and a phone number written on a piece of cardboard in his underwear. 

He never called the number.

After his firstborn entered the world, he developed a good relationship with his rabbi. One night at dinner, he spoke with him about it. The rabbi suggested Ezra might be one of those people who could peer into the in-between space. He encouraged him to open his mind and clear his thoughts when he had those moments and to focus upon the transcendent and endless nature of God. 

“Perhaps,” his rabbi told him as he stuck Peking duck into his mouth with a chopstick, “you are having a philosophical breakthrough into the essence of being.”

“Or,” Ezra said, “I’m a lunatic.”

“It must remain a distinct possibility,” the rabbi laughed.

That was twenty years ago. 

When the air shimmered and folded this time, he didn’t care about existence or lunacy. He only hoped for one thing. He hoped to see Jo. “Maybe if I look hard enough, I can see you,” he whispered.

It was predawn, about five-thirty in the morning. Ezra drank coffee and read the news on his phone. He heard it first. When he looked up from his phone, for the first time in a very long time, he saw the air shimmer. The folds seemed more pronounced, truer than ever. There was color to the moment, but he couldn’t make out what color it was or where it came from. Jo loved color. Everything about her was shining color. Maybe she was trying to speak to him from wherever it was the dead lived.

“Jo, is that you?” His voice lifted at the end. “Please God, let it be her.”

The memory of her crushed him. The virus. The coughing. The hospital. Not being able to see her. Saying goodbye on a phone. The pathetic funeral with no mourners. 

“Jo,” he said again, standing up. He reached out his hand toward the ruffle in space. “I love you. Come back. Please baby, come back.” 

He focused as hard as he could, but he couldn’t hold grab the essence. The shimmering stopped. The color drained. The feeling left. The moment was gone. 

Ezra left his study to take a shower. He was at work by seven. There were two heart procedures he had to perform before noon. It was lighter than his normal workload as the COVID-19 restrictions on surgeries put regular operations on hold. But these couldn’t wait.

By five he was home to his empty house. He ate an apple and drank a half glass of mineral water then decided to go for a walk.

The park was lovely with the leaves golden; it was exactly the way Jo loved it. It was their park. They even bought a row of benches for the alder trees. A bronze plaque with “Ezra and Joanna Feldman: Earth Day 1998” on each one. The autumn sunlight faded as he returned home.

He was as agitated and antsy as he was before he’d left. The pills were in the medicine cabinet. He thought about taking a couple. It would probably help him. He doubted he’d be able to sleep without them.

He didn’t take them, though. He wanted to feel the misery. It was the only thing he’d felt since April. 

***

“We are ready for our next attempt, Archon Streegan.” The keeper of science stood erect on two of her four legs as she waited for a reply.   

“Good. This time, we will succeed.”

Streegan took her spot underneath the ancient terebinth of Avram. The first attempt had taken a toll on her mind and body. The tree too, needed time to heal. The ancient bark had cracked. They mended it with balm and words of love.

One hundred and forty-four lengths away, The Order of Keepers formed a circle around the tree and their archon. When Streegan turned the color of amber, they began to chirp in rhythm the incantation they’d kept for thousands of years. Archon Streegan allowed her mind to rest, then placed her flat face against the knot on the tree. She formed the image of the human in her head then chirped the liturgical response of the keepers. She forced the energy from her feet, through her torso, and up to her brain and out of her antennae.  

There he was. The one named Ezra.

She called his name in her heart. Words would not work. The beautiful clicks and chirps of her language was too different from the barbaric grunts of humanity. She had to make the connection through her soul to his. 

Ezra heard his name.

\He’d fallen asleep in his bed while reading a book. He awoke to the shimmer. 

And the sound. 

“Jo,” he said. “Jo?”

“Ezra,” Streegan called to him.

He sat up. His nightstand light still on, but the light from it danced. The space at the foot of the bed shimmered, and parted. Ezra squinted his eyes at the rainbow colors which poured out of the prism of energy that created the doorway between the two realms.  

“I have something important for you.” Streegan said.

“You don’t sound like Jo?”

“I am not Jo. I am another. We must make haste. I do not know how long we can maintain the portal. Speed and efficiency are necessary. Do you understand.”

Ezra did not, but he said, “Yes.”

Streegan began her rehearsed speech. “You are a healer. We have for you the way to heal your realm of the malady.”

“COVID-19?”

“Yes,” Streegan said. “Open your mind and I will give it to you.”

 “Open what?” The middle-of-the-night visitation made Ezra a literalist as he thought the voice from the rainbow was intending to open his skull. “Are you about to hurt me?”

“No, it will not hurt.” Streegan picked up Ezra’s underdeveloped brain patterns and saw his concern. “We will not touch you. Be calm and let me tell you the balm. Rest your thoughts.”

“You sound like the rabbi,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and thought about the rainbow of light. Streegan found the thought thread she was seeking, then her antennae began to vibrate at supersonic speeds. The crackle came through the portal; it carried in one message the precise technique and materials necessary to formulate a cure.

Ezra opened his eyes and stared into the rainbow. His bond with Streegan was strong enough now to see her on the other side. He saw the tree she stood under, her four legs, four arms, horse-like torso, hard angular face similar to an ant, blue color, glowing antennae, and four eyes.

Thinking of his grandson he asked, “Will the cure you gave me hurt the babies?”

“No,” Streegan said. Her tone reminded him of his grandmother. She sounded very old and wise. “The unborn will not be harmed. Larvae are precious in the eyes of The Creator. It is not necessary to destroy life to save life. The malady itself is alive and has agency. To destroy its evil, you must use the essence of new life which has not seen the corruption wrought by freedom. Purity is needed to remove and replace the impure.”

Ezra said, “I am only a surgeon. I don’t treat this kind of illness.”

“You must find a way. Two realms depend on you.”

“I’ll do my best.” His eyes widened, “Did Jo send you? Is she with you?”

“None of your kind are here.”

“Why are you helping us, then, if Jo didn’t send you.”

“The malady, what we call The Old Woe, affected our realm a long, long time ago when the two realms were closer together. In those days we had concourse with your kind. Your people were just beginning, and the pestilence did not cause as much damage to humans as it did to the Nunaki, but it did indeed come to us from you. I remember, I was a pupa then. To prevent your filth from repeating the same contamination of our realm, we have decided to help you in order to preserve our way of life.”

“I thought Jo sent you. This seems like the kind of thing she would do.” Ezra shook his head. “Do you know where Jo is? Do you know where the dead go?”

“The dead go Beyond to the Ultimate Realm.”

“Will I ever see Jo again?”

“I cannot answer that. But I can tell you, in our realm, we do not live for those who have left. We live for those who are to come.” 

The rainbow disappeared. 

Streegan squeaked. “I am growing weak. The link must end. Make haste, Ezra Feldman.”

“Wait,” Ezra said, but Streegan was gone. He was alone in his bedroom again with only the Wisconsin murder mystery book to keep him company. And his tears. 

Time vanished as he cried. At some point in the night he stopped crying as a thought came to him. An old friend from med-school was his friend on social media and that friend worked at a pharmaceutical lab which he believed had a contract with the CDC. He grabbed his phone and sent his friend a message detailing the cure which was shared with him.

\He put on his walking shoes and walked to the park again, in the dark. He didn’t need light; the harvest moon was up high and bright. He sat on one of their benches and listened to owls talk to each other. At dawn he walked home. His feet were cold, but his heart strangely grew warm. 

When he walked in the door his phone chirped. His friend had replied, “This is brilliant. How did you figure this out?”

Ezra typed out, “I saw it in a dream. I think Jo sent it to me.”

***

“Archon Streegan, how are things with the vexatious humans?”

“I am happy to report, Exalted Alpha,” Streegan bowed low and turned blue, “our plan has prospered. The malady has been healed and a woe has been averted.”

The archons and superiors all turned yellow. The remainder of the meeting consisted of issues from other archons and superiors such as food allocations and education. When the meeting ended, Archon Streegan went to the Cave of Memory. She found the alcove her tribe and then the stalagmite with her clan. There she saw the names and images of her larvae and their offspring for numerous generations. Then she came to the name and images of her father and mother. They died in the Old Woe. She remembered, and her color turned to ash. “Where do the dead go?” she asked. 

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Liberty Isn’t Free But This Story Is

The primary theme of our COVID Chronicles, of course, has been having fun with a very serious issue. By fun we mean everything from diabolical mad scientists to serial killers in nursing homes to Faustian deals with a mint julep drinking Devil.

Joseph Courtemanche, though, as the chief architect of these stories, likes to add extra themes on significant days. On Easter he brought the power of Resurrection alongside the reality of COVID. Today he continues with a gift that weaves our overarching theme into the solemnity of Memorial Day by wondering aloud: What if everyone forgot?

Enjoy today’s patriotic story, because tomorrow I’m the featured writer and I’m bringing some weird stuff.

Click on the picture of the Boy Scout to read “Where Did They Go?”

Click On The Boy Scout to Read the Story: Click On The Flag And You Will Wake Up In Boot Camp

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FREE KITTENS! — Okay, Not Really: FREE KITTEN STORY Is More Accurate

Paul Bennett is the resident nature writer on staff here at the COVID Chronicles. Today he gives us a heartwarming, bittersweet story about a young boy who makes a surprising find in the underbrush that changes him.

This is the last story for this week. Joe Courtemanche is bringing our Memorial Day story on Monday and I am bringing the HEAT on Tuesday.

Click on the confused face of the goat being milked to read “A Funeral For A Sparrow”.

‘Handle With Care’

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This Story Is Free But So Was The Coke Janelle Never Paid For: You Have To Read It To Understand That!

Kathy Kexel sets us up with the first part of what feels like a kind of conspiracy theory meets crime mystery meets Murder She Wrote meets Butch Gregory. Seriously, this could have been a scene from one of my own novels, especially the part about . . . oops, I almost told too much.

Click on the very center of the “trip around the world” quilt to read “Secrets”.

if you click on the animal, Joe Shaw will eat your soul

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Free Flowers For The Yard Of Your Imagination!

Oh wow! I just got home from a long day at work — we are working hard planning the re-opening process of our church as COVID-19 restrictions ease — and I find Joe Shaw’s terrifying parable of modern life. The phrase, ‘This is the way we do things now” will stay with me a while.

If you want to read Joe’s story, “The New Family On Beecher Street” click on the middle red hyacinth. Not the one to the left nor the one to the right. The middle one.

The Middle One!

Remember, these stories are all free — no gimmicks and no tricks. We just want to give you something to read and make you think during this COVID crisis.

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Running With The Devil — Or Something Like That

Derek Elkins creates a memorable character in this story. Before the end comes, I feel like I know her. In my ministry, I’ve spent a lot of time in care facilities, and Elkins catches something of the feisty nonchalance I find in most people who are for one reason or another in a long-term residence.

Click on the WB emblem at the bottom of the picture to read “The Race”.

I wonder if this was the inspiration for Derek’s story?

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That Moment You Realize Where This Story Is Headed . . . Priceless (But Free)

Someone has been reading his Hebrew Bible again!

We’ve all had moments during this COVID-19 lockdown where we’ve ended up mildly obsessing about something a bit too much. Today’s story takes off ‘a bit too much’. I only squirmed a little bit.

Click on the rubber cement bottle to read Joseph Courtemanche’s story, “God’s Rules”.

For the record, I think he’s gonna need a lot more tissue

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This is Free Until Zucc Finds Out About It . . . Then We Will All Pay!

Today’s author, Joe Shaw, calls this “Conspiracy Week” on the COVID Chronicles. Boy is he right. Today he brings us a hum-dinger of world domination, murder, and water quality.

Contrary to what I had said last week, we are not finishing today with the Free Stories. It has bee decided to go another couple of weeks, so be looking for another FREE STORY on Monday. For now, click on the Sweet Potato to read “No One Will Ever Know”.

If you click on the russet potato, you will be put in Facebook Jail

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Free Humus — Another Outstanding COVID Chronicle Story You Don’t Have To Pay For

It is a word a lot of us have wrestled with in the past six weeks: Essential. What is essential, and what can wait? And who gets to make these decisions.

In my state knee replacement surgery is not essential, but liquor stores are. Think about that for a moment.

Along these same lines, Rob Cely has really pushed us to imagine a world where ‘essential’ takes on a whole new meaning; inside that meaning we find a shocking truth that speaks to our hearts about who we are.

As we are accustomed, Rob has shoved some theology in here for you. Enjoy his story “The Unessential” absotively free. Click on the disgusting bowl of humus to read it.

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There Is A Smattering Of Social Commentary In This FREE Awesome Story

If you’re still shuddering from yesterday’s terrifying angel of death Derek Elkins introduced us to, then today will be a great elixir. Kathy Kexel gives a delightful, and metaphor evoking, tale of invisibility.

Click on the Invisible Man’s shady sunglasses to read her story “Healing Waters.” Remember these are absolutely free, no pay walls, no sign ups, no gimmicks. Our merry band of writers just wants to entertain you a bit during your lockdown.

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The Story is Free, So Are The Nightmares

I need to warn you.

For reals.

Today’s COVID Chronicle is not for the faint of heart. It is good, and very entertaining. But . . . it is not for people who are squeamish or disturbed by images of violence.

That being said, Joe Shaw and Joseph Courtemanche will love it.

This particular tale has a kind of “what makes a serial killer” vibe to it. The difference is this one is written By Derek Elkins, who is an amazing storyteller. Enjoy.

Click on the squirrel in pillow to read “The Man In The Eyes.” We’ll be back tomorrow with another story.

Click on the squirrel — if you click on the bell, bad things will happen to you tonight when you sleep

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What If It All Worked Out Awesome? A Free COVID Chronicles Story

It is with a tinge of sadness that I present to you my last COVID Chronicle. We are wrapping things up next week with five amazing stories from five different authors, but today is my last [checks notes], unless of course we get a great big book deal. Then all bets are off.

Today’s story is one of the first I dreamed up when Joe Shaw, Joseph Courtemanche, and I first started talking about the idea of writing stories for the COVID-19 lockdown. I played with it a whole lot, and enjoyed writing it and hamming it up a bit. I hope you enjoy it, too.


The Vid Kids

A COVID-19 Chronicle

Jamie D. Greening

January 2021

            “That’s six,” Jackson stepped into the break room. “Six this hour.” He plopped onto the sofa, taking off his mask to sip a soda. 

            “I can beat that,” Sandy said. She was the senior nurse in the delivery wing at Memorial Hospital. “I had eight in a single hour Sunday afternoon – from three to four. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Five little girls and three boys.”

            Jackson nodded, “I heard a rumor they are converting part of the hallway on the third floor into a secondary labor and delivery unit until this crisis is over.”

            “It is a nationwide issue we are feeling right here.” Sandy stood up and put her mask back on. “We had more babies born here at Memorial last week than we did the previous five months put together.”

            Jackson said, “I heard the same thing. I just didn’t think it would happen here. I didn’t know there were this many childbearing aged women in the whole county.” He shook his head. “I sure do wish I’d bought stock in diaper companies nine months ago.” Jackson took another sip of his soda. “I guess we’ve finally discovered what people were doing during their COVID-19 coronavirus quarantine.”

            Sandy began to laugh, “Well, yeah. My preacher says from his perspective everyone was either getting pregnant or becoming an alcoholic during those two months.”

            “It seems so distant now,” Jackson said. “Back in the spring we thought the world was ending but the whole thing fizzled. Now here we are with all this renewed life,” he chuckled, “and all these names. Have you taken time to look at some of them?”

            “You mean the one on Monday, who was blessed by her parents with the name Daytona Sharona Corona?”

            “Yeah, that one,” Jackson nodded. And then Saturday there was one called King Covid IV. I’m not kidding—that was the name. King Covid IV. I don’t know what happened to the first, second, and third but the fourth has dark curly hair.”

            While they were talking, a young nurse who had just begun working at the hospital in the summer entered the room. She caught their conversation and said, “I helped deliver twins this morning. A boy named Shelter and a girl named In Place.”

            “You’re making that up!” Sandy waved her hands in protest. “There is no way.”
            “If I’m lying, I’m dying,” the young nurse said. Then she added, “Those kids don’t stand a chance.”

September 2026

            The wind blew the hair of the television reporter for Channel 9 Action News. She stood on the front steps of the school district headquarters. Her camera drone filmed the piece that would lead the local evening news. “They have different names,” she pushed the hair out of her face. “Some call them the Corona Cribbers. A few people use the moniker BabyZoomers in homage to the once popular video platform. Others prefer the double entendre of Trumps Humps. But most call them Vid Kids, the large number of babies born between December of 2020 and February of 2021 as a result of the brief but frightening COVID-19 pandemic. Some communities saw as much as five times the number of children born, and now most of those children are entering the school system. It is the largest demographic since the BabyBoom, and many people are asking what the school district plans to do. Superintendent Bowman is here to answer some questions.”

            The technician operating the camera drone from his home office north of town panned the lens out to include the middle-aged man with an expanding waistline and a shrinking hairline. 

            “Superintendent Bowman, what makes these Vid Kids different from our grandparents who were the BabyBoomers?”

            “Timing. The BabyBoom was a unique demographic and sociological moment in American history, but it took place over a period of about ten years. There wasn’t an instant growth, but rather a ramping up. By contrast the class of 2039 are coming at us in one large group. The class before them is relatively normal sized, and the class behind them, those in preschool right now, is average sized.”

            The reporter turned her head sideways and asked, “What problems does this cause?”

            Bowman snarled, “It would be hard to find a problem it doesn’t cause. We have physical space limitations because we need five times the number of classrooms. We have material problems because we need five times the number of computers and tablets. We have personnel problems because we need five times the number of teachers. We have nutritional problems because we have five times the number of children to feed.” His head quivered. “The problem is compounded by the normal numbers behind this class. Any changes we make will be for one year only which creates instability for twelve consecutive years and that is something we simply can’t abide. We can’t provide five times the number of everything for a single year and then dump it when that year is over for each progressive grade. It would be disastrous.”

            “What is the solution?” She asked him.

            “The solution is radical, but it is the only way the school board can see to move forward. We are asking a group of teachers, some current faculty and many new members of our team, to commit not to teaching kindergarten for one year to accommodate explosive growth, but to commit to thirteen years of moving through the education process with this unique class. We are asking them to embrace the challenge as a possibility for innovation.”

            The reporter’s mouth dropped wide open. “A group of teachers will move through the entire process with the students?” She blinked and bobbed as her mind processed what that would look like. “No new teachers every year? No strange transition to middle school? No freshman awkwardness?”

            Superintendent Bowman nodded his head without saying anything. The reporter recovered and asked, “What about space? This doesn’t solve the space problems?”

            “You’re right, it doesn’t. What we’re doing is partnering with some local churches and religious communities to use their buildings in a rotation system over the next thirteen years. It keeps us from having to pay for new buildings.”

            “Is that legal?”

            “It is perfectly legal, and what is more, it is necessary. It was an extraordinary situation which gave us these children, and it will require extraordinary measures to rise to the occasion. I am convinced this will not be a negative, but instead a positive. We may discover something important about ourselves and the education process.” 

May 2039

            Her red and white graduation robe was uncomfortable over the expensive dress. She didn’t want to wear such an elaborate dress, but her father had insisted. She should focus on the speech instead of shoes and hemline.

            The High School Principal was finishing up her own speech, and then she gave the cue line: “It is my pleasure to present to you the valedictorian for the class of 2039, Miss Ronarita Beech.”

            The audience stood with massive applause. The graduation had to be outside in the football stadium of the local college team because no other building could hold that many parents, family and friends. It was the largest event in school history – larger even than when the team won the state football championship in 1990. Twice that number watched from home. 

            “First,” Ronarita said, and she patted down her robe over her dress that she still didn’t like, “I’d like to thank our parents.” There was a smattering of applause. “I’d like to thank our parents because back long ago when the whole world was afraid they were about to die, our parents had the foresight and wisdom to use their time wisely.” Her face twinkled as the crowd laughed. Her friend had talked her into putting that line into the speech.

            “Second, I’d like to thank all of the teachers, too many to name, who sacrificed their time, and some of them their professional promotions, to ensure we got the best education ever. I personally want to thank Mr. Lopez. It is not often the same person who teaches you how to read also teaches you about Hemingway. Mr. Lopez has been a source of encouragement to me from my first day of kindergarten until this very moment. I know,” she waved her arms toward her fellow graduates, “we all have our own story and our own Mr. Lopez. I wish we could all say it.” 

            Ronarita paused, then she said, “There wasn’t a way to do this, so we created one.” In that moment, the lights in the football stadium went dark, and holograms of men and women, teachers, at various stages through the past thirteen years appeared all over in every section and every row. Holograms of teachers on the playground, in the lab, at computer terminals, and in the lunchrooms. The images moved around for almost a minute, then each hologram somehow found the person for whom it was an avatar, sitting in the crowd, and they all said, “Thank you,” in unison. 

            Everyone in the stadium wept and none more than Ronarita. She was just happy her hologram program had worked—and her dress stayed put. 

January 2051 

            The young man stood in the airport bookstore looking for something to read on his long flight to Rio De Janeiro. He tried not to think about the presentation he was making. He’d done the math and the physics a hundred thousand times, it seemed. He knew his plan for biodomes on the Martian surface would work. He just needed to convince TIC (The International Consortium) his plan was the best. His only real competition was from a woman about his same age from Italy.

            He preferred old style books with covers and pages. His great-grandfather had been a college professor back in the old days when everything was written on paper. He’d inherited the old man’s library and somewhere along the way he realized the value of the physical presence of knowledge that can’t be erased with a command to the digital cloud. 

            The section for real books, as he liked to think of them, was small but useful. He started in the biographies and skimmed a tell all from Jared Kushner. Politics didn’t interest him. He saw a new scholarly work about the life of aging Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence. He’d never heard of her, so he moved on. There were a couple of sports books about the reasons why American football had finally been banned internationally and baseball was enjoying a resurgence. He wasn’t much of an athlete so he kept looking.

            Then a book piqued his interest. The title was “How Coronavirus Saved The World”. He picked it up and read the back cover:

A forgotten pandemic and a quirky moment in history provided the incredible matrices that have changed the world for the better. The Vid Kids, as they were called, have solved most of our problems in an amazingly short amount of time. This new work reminds us how their unique educational and sociological situation gave them the courage and the tools to creatively tackle things that had gotten ‘stuck’ in old thinking. 

This book is a brief study of ten people like Nguyen Lee who at the age of twenty-five found the key to curing cancer in one pill. Read how Vito Virus Regio stopped trying to end combustion engines and learned how to completely remove carbon emissions from automobiles, airplanes, and power plants. Look at how at the age of twenty-one, in her dorm room at The University of Washington, Ronarita Beech wrote what would become the definitive holographic program that drives all modern computing and communications, and made her the wealthiest person in the world. 

The Vid Kids just turned thirty. Imagine what they will do for an encore.

            He looked at the front again. The author was Jamie Greening, the famous writer and pastor from Central Texas. He’d read a couple of his fiction works and enjoyed them, so he put the book under his arm, grabbed a mineral water, found his favorite gum, and went to the check out. As a Vid Kid himself, he added a little prayer to the Lord, “Help me add to it by helping human beings colonize outer space.”

            The teenage boy at the cashier desk asked him, “Will you be using your global account or local currency?”

            “International Account,” he said as he swiped his thumb over the print reader. 

            “Is that your real name or is it a stage name?” The kid asked.

            “It is the name my mom and dad gave me,” he smiled. It was a question he got all the time. 

            “Cool name,” he said.

            “I think so, too.” King Covid IV popped a piece of gum in his mouth as he left the little store and made his way to gate thirty.         

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It’s Kinda Of A Free Scratch-N-Sniff Story–With An Axe

Paul Bennett concludes his boyhood saga with the second part of “An Acre of Peace”. It is really heartwarming with a strong sense of nostalgia. It too me back to walking the woods in East Texas as a boy.

Click on the the left index finger on the old work gloves to read Part 2. If you missed it last week, click here to reread part one.

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Deep Questions: Free, But Deep

Pestilence and disease is nothing knew; and neither are the questions and issues brought out by hard times. Derek Elkins takes the existential pain of loss, death, and illness to its sharpest place. We are writing fiction here in our Free Covid Chronicle stories, but fiction gives breath and legs to our fears so they can walk around and we can talk about them at a safe distance. Derek has done a great job of doing that with “Let The Day Perish.”

If Derek’s story had a soundtrack, it would definitely be “Exit” from The Joshua Tree, so click on the much younger and hairier Bono to read Derek’s story, “Let The Day Perish”.

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Some Free Spec-Fic To Provoke Your Mind

Yesterday we had a sweet story of generational care (click here to read) from Kathy Kexel, but today we get frightening dystopia from Rob Cely. I like it; as it has a certain Ray Bradburyish feel to it–kind of a redeemed Fahrenheit 451 motif. I dig that stuff.

We’ve got free stories lined up all week, and I am scheduled for Friday. Remember, these all are 100% free. Scroll through my blog to see all of them, we’ve at this for seven weeks now.

For now though, click on the earring to read “In Memoriam”.

Only click on the earring. If you click on the ring on her finger, the Feds will know.

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Free Heart Warms: All The Heart Warms

There is a sweetness to this story that melts the heart at the same time it brings the tears. Kathy Kexel’s “Annabelle” may sound like a frightening story about a demon possessed doll, which is what I or Shaw or Elkins would have written, but no, not this time. This is an affirming story of humanity and of generational care.

Remember — these stories are free; no gimmicks, no hooks, no newsletter sign-ups, no bait-and-switches. Our goal is to keep you entertained and happy during the COVID Quarantine.

Click on the left headlight of the Rambler to read “Annabelle”.

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Free Nematodes, Get Your Fresh Hot Nematodes

We all see how dangerous COVID-19 has been, but what about COVID-20?

What are you doing to prepare for that moment when COVID-20 becomes the most pressing disease in human history?

What? You haven’t thought about COVID-20? Don’t worry, Joseph Courtemanche has. He even reads the story to us in his silky smooth voice. Also — this story has this line: “he had the social skills of an abused hamster on meth.”

Click on the dairy cow to read Joe’s story, “Nema What?”

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The Secret Pine Tree Garden! A Free Covid Story

I thoroughly enjoyed the calm and relaxing tone of Paul Bennett’s tale which seems to come from a different time and place than most of us live: life is slower, dirt roads, dull axes to be sharpened, and lonely pines. Reminds me in many ways of my own childhood in East Texas. Except we weren’t as polite and nice as all of Paul’s characters.

Enjoy today’s story, and keep your eyes open for ancient plots of earth which hold mysteries and challenges.

Click on the axe blade to read the first part of Paul’s story — “An Acre of Peace, Part One”

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Remember When The Apocalypse Was Fun? — A Free Covid Chronicles Story

I wrote four different intros for today’s freebie, but honestly, there is no way to introduce this except to applaud the imagination of Derek Elkins. You will laugh-out-loud at least twice during as you read his short story, and one of those will be as someone dies a horrible death.

Click on the Weinermobile to read “Them Ole Pandemic Apocalypse Blues”. We will be back tomorrow with more COVID-19 stories to entertain you during your lockdown. Remember, stay safe out there — love each other — check on your neighbors — and wash your hands!

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So That’s Why . . . A Free COVID Chronicle Story

Rob Cely did it again – he wrote another thought provoking terrifying story about COVID-19. AND he explains one of the great mysteries of this pandemic that seems to have gotten all of us . . . in the end. Just a friendly reminder these are all free — free stories to keep you entertained during the COVID Captivity. No pay walls, no newsletter sign-ups, no gimmicks.

Click on the scientist’s beard to read “The Scarlet Queen”. We will be back with another story tomorrow.

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“Let’s Do It” — A Free Covid Chronicle Short Story

I was out of the rotation last week, so we decided to have me lead off this week’s round of COVID Chronicles. I was inspired last week by Paul Bennett’s romantic tale, so I took a go at it myself. I can’t tell if this story is Hallmark Channel genre or maybe one of those After School Special’s about a very important subject . . .

I almost titled this, “I’m Really In Like With You” but decided to go with something more provocative. Enjoy!


Let’s Do It

A COVID Chronicle Short Story

Jamie D. Greening

            “I’m ready,” Kristin hit send on the text message. 

            “Are you sure?” Dakota’s response came back to her so fast she hadn’t time to exhale the breath she’d been holding. 

            “Yes,” she typed. “We’ve waited long enough.” 

            What she meant was she’d waited long enough. Dakota had wanted to after their second Zoom date, and he wasn’t shy about it either. He told her in several colorful ways what he wanted. 

Kristin wanted to as well. But she was afraid. Her fear was ebbing as the hot summer got to her. The longing wouldn’t go away.

            “Where?” her phone lit up. Just as fast a second message came in, “Can you get out of the house?” 

            That would be the tricky part. Her mother and father kept everything tight. Her older sister snuck out last week to meet friends in the park and got away with it. Kristin suspected their mother knew what happened and let it slide to keep the police out of it. 

            She was certain her mother wouldn’t let this slide. 

            At fifteen Kristin was two years younger, but she was smarter than her sister. Her plan was better. She’d make it out of the house without any problems.

            “Yes,” she fingered the digital keypad faster than an aging GenXer can think. “Meet me at the stand of trees behind the abandoned elementary school at ten.”

            Dakota sent a heart emoji in reply. 

***

            A half hour before their rendezvous she went downstairs. Dad was watching news in the recliner. Mother was already in bed.  The situation was perfect. 

            “Have you seen Zuko?” she asked her father.

            “No, why?” 

            “He probably needs to go out one more time before bedtime. The book says new puppies need lots of encouragement or they may regress and leave a boom boom on the floor.”

            “We don’t want that?” 

            Kristin laughed, then walked through the house as if looking for the dog she knew was asleep on her bed. 

            She walked through rooms, one eye on Dad. His attention went back to the television report about destabilization of the Korean Peninsula due to COVID-19 outbreaks. She took the leash from the entryway table and rattled it so her father’s subconscious mind would register the sound, and then she went out the front door. She left the leash on the porch.

            The day’s heat radiated off the sidewalk and street. It felt good on her face. The elementary school was only five blocks away. The distance felt like traversing the Rocky Mountains. All she could think about was Dakota. He was a year older and oh so cute. She imagined what it would be like to run her hand through his curly hair.

            Kristin blushed. 

            She spied him sitting underneath the oak tree next to the playground fence. It took everything in her not to run to him. An overhead safety light from the playground shined on him like a spotlight in a theater. He wore a pair of blue jeans and an Aeropostale t-shirt. Her heart fluttered. He was the most gorgeous thing her hazel eyes had ever seen.

            Social learning kicked in as she stopped walking about six feet away from the object of her affection. 

            “Hi,” he said and waved.

            “Hi,” she smiled. Her head looked down and then back up.

            “You look pretty,” Dakota told her. “Prettier than on my screen.” 

            He shifted his weight on his feet, and then his eyes enlarged. “I’m ready to this, but I don’t want to have any accidents.” He pulled something from his front pocket. “My parents taught me to be safe.”

            “Me too,” she said as she also pulled out a vial from her own shorts pocket. “I believe in being safe.”

            In the forest of the abandoned schoolyard the two teenagers both applied large quantities of hand sanitizer to their sweaty palms. Each one took a lot longer than normal, uncertain about the commitment they were about to make and what it might mean for their relationship. Both aware of the rules they were breaking. Both aware of what might happen. Both not caring. The urging was too great.

            Dakota made the first move, stepping closer to Kristin until he was right in front of her. “I know what a big deal this is,” he held out his left hand, palm up. “If you’re still unsure, we can wait. I will wait for you.”

            “I don’t want to wait any more,” Kristin said as she brought her right hand toward his extended palm. She touched his thumb with her index finger. Her hand trembled while she traced the rest of his fingers and then his palm. She moved her finger up along the edge of his wristband and then came back toward his palm. In one motion, she plunged her hand into his and wove their fingers together the way she had been practicing in her room under the covers for two months. Electricity shot through her. She tingled from head to toe.

***

            It felt like they stood for an eternity, young love engaged in forbidden physical contact before God and all nature. Hopefully, that was all that saw them. 

            She spoke first. “I’ve never held hands with anyone not in my family before.” She looked into his eyes, “You’re my first.”

            She assumed he had experience because he was older, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he said, “I think we should walk. That is what they do in all the movies and television shows from before in the old days. They walked when they held hands.” 

            “That sounds good,” she said. “I’d like that.”

            They walked through the woods, talking about everything and nothing. Eventually the woods ran out, and without deciding to, they found themselves walking along the sidewalk. 

            “Youve told me your family moved here last year, but you’ve never said why.” Kristin said.

            “My mom got a job. When my father died, she needed to make more money. She found a job here working for a lawyer. She does all his filing for him.”

            “Does she go to a real office?”

            “Only twice a week. Her busy days are Monday and Thursday when she has depositions and video conferences with judges and lawyers and stuff.”

            “Sounds exciting.”

            “Sorta,” he said. “If she knew I was here, she’d give the lecture about how this kind of thing,” he held up their intertwined hands, “could get her fired.”

            A car came around the corner. They thought nothing of it until the vehicle stopped. The doors flung open. It was then Kristin saw “Sheriff” written on the side. 

            “Freeze,” a woman’s voice came through the darkness as lights flooded them. “Detach your hands and step six feet away from each other. Now.”

            It was the hardest thing Kristin had ever done, but she let go of Dakota’s hands and obeyed.

            The officer spoke into her radio, “I found ‘em. Tell her parents they are in custody.” She brought down her plastic faceguard and proceeded to wrap Kristin in a plastic gown. “Put this mask on,” she told Kristin. “You too, Romeo.” She tossed one to Dakota and then she made him put on the same plastic gown. “Stand still,” she told them as she baptized them with an aerosol disinfectant.  

            “Have you kissed?”

            “No!” Kristin and Dakota said at the same time. 

            “Did you do anything else?”

            Kristin couldn’t think of anything else. “We talked”

            “Talked?” The officer said. “Are you sure you didn’t do anything else?”

            “No,” Dakota said. “We just talked and held hands.”

            “Hand holding,” The officer said, “with anyone other than immediate family requires a permit from a judge and a doctor’s signature and can only be done by consenting adults over the age of twenty-one.” 

            She forced them into the back of the squad car. Plastic dividers separated every seat in the car from floor to ceiling. 

            An intercom came on as the officer said, “Your parents are recommending the maximum penalty for the two of you.”

            “Why? We used hand sanitizer.” Dakota’s eyes narrowed. 

            Kristin said, “What does that mean? Maximum penalty?”

            The officer spoke again into the intercom, “It means after your two weeks of decontamination and isolation in the county jail you will have a month in-residence community service at the coronavirus wing at the hospital. Following that will be three more months of re-education training.”

            Three other officers stood outside the building, waiting. Two of them took Kristin while Dakota was taken the other direction. Kristin twisted her body, pulled her arms away and ran toward Dakota. She clawed at him, ripping away his plastic gown as she tore her own gear free. They embraced. 

            The four officers pulled them apart, cuffing their arms behind their backs. 

            “It was worth it,” Kristin said, tears streaming down her eyes. “It was worth it.”

Featured

I Can’t Believe It’s Free! The Story Finishes Strong

For four weeks the Bard of Florida, Joe Shaw, has been weaving a tale for us about making deals with the devil. Today, he finishes the story with a great flourish. I enjoyed the whole thing so much I can’t believe it was free, but it is so totally free because we are writing you, almost every day now, awesome free content to make your COVID Captivity better. Enjoy!

Click on the “3” in 11:30 on the clock to read Part Four — “Heart’s Desire” of the Novelicious Novella Two More.

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Rob Cely brings us a little Twilight Zoneish today with our Covid Chronicle freebie, “Lockdown.” Greenbean is out of the rotation this week, but he’s cooking up a howler for next week.

Click on the loop in the padlock to read Rob’s story. Be safe out there. Love each other. Take care of your neighbors. We will get through this.

In the meantime, my co-conspirators and I will keep sharing awesome free fiction for you to enjoy in your exile.

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Pain Is The Cost — But This Story Is Free!

Derek Elkins gives us “The Talk” — no, no that talk, the other one — that many of us might be working through one way or another — individually, with friends, or with family.

Enjoy today’s free COVID Captivity story. We’ll be back with another one tomorrow. Click on the ring finger of the smoking hand to read “The Problem With Pain And Covid-19” by Derek Elkins.

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FREE Romance — Wait – That Doesn’t Sound Right? Free Romance Story!

Here is a short story so sweet and romantic you know — all my readers know — all four of you — I didn’t write it. Paul J. Bennett wrote it. Today is his inaugural turn as storyteller for the COVID Chronicles. Paul is the kind of author who lets the story take its time. He writes with a Southern charm and dignity so palpable you can almost taste the grits.

Click on the picture of Scarlett O’Hara to read his story “Song in October.”

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In Which Kathy Goes Dark . . . But its ALL FREE!

We finish week four of COVID Captivity Chronicles with Kathy Kexel’s outstandingly dark story Desperate Measures. We will begin again next week with new ones.

In the meantime, remember these are all free for your enjoyment. Feel free to share them on your social media and if you’re interested buy some of our books.

Click on the N-95 mask to read her story.

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I Knew Jim Should Have Never Trusted That Devil — But You Can Trust Free!

Joe Shaw has done it again — written a brilliant piece of literature that manages to get murder, flirtatious coworkers playing cards, and RUSH. This is the third of four parts. Next week Shaw drops the finale on us. I can’t wait. He has links to the first two parts once you make the jump in case you haven’t read those yet. You’ll define want to read or re-read those.

My co-conspirators and I are writing these stories for you free — no paywall, no newsletter signup, no gimmicks to make your life in COVID Captivity a little more enjoyable. If you like our stuff, consider buying our books over at The Amazon. In the meantime, enjoy another completely free story!

Click on the SH in RUSH (which can also stand for Shaw) to read Part Three: Slivers of Light.

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All You Need Is Free

Derek Elkins is on deck again today with what he calls an, (checks notes) “allegory” which I looked up and learned that is a fancy word for something that makes you go “hmmm”. Seriously, it is a very thought provoking read and gets those juices flowing with some outstanding wordsmithing.

Tomorrow’s COVID freebie comes from Joe Shaw and then we round out the week with Kathy Kexel. Our plan is to keep ’em coming as long as we/most of us are on some kind of lockdown. This is our way of hanging in there together, because if we’ve learned anything else, it is that we need each other to live the full lives we all desire.

Click on Agent Smith’s sunglasses to read Virus. Enjoy!

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Another Free Story — And An Old Friend

I confess a nostalgia in writing this story for today. Anyone who has read my books knew these short stories would eventually have to include some favorites of mine. Writing this scene — and that is really more what it is, a scene from a book I will never write but I can see and feel the whole book right now — writing this scene was like visiting an old friend after a long absence.

Oh, and I also had a good time writing lyrics to songs in a genre I know nothing about.

We will be back at it tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday with more free COVID Captivity Chronicles. No gimmicks. No paywalls. No newsletter signups. Just outstanding content. Of Course, if you like what you read, we do have these books you can buy . . .

Until then, Enjoy!


The Package

A Butch Gregory Short Story

By Jamie D. Greening

Wyoming Wallace couldn’t help noticing the outstanding legs walking so close to his face. It pleased him even further when the beautiful face attached to the outstanding body carried by those legs stopped right in front of his seat: 22A. “Sir, there are only six passengers on this flight, so we’re gonna seat you in first class.” She beckoned him with her finger, “Follow me.”

“I’d follow you anywhere,” he mumbled. She turned around and smiled. He didn’t know if she heard him or was being polite. He hoped she heard.

“You can sit here in aisle four. Would you like something to drink?”

“Whiskey. Neat.” Wyoming stretched out his legs. The flight across the Pacific was packed because it was the only one in the next two weeks. A little comfort felt good.

The flight attendant returned with a tumbler generously filled. He thought she lingered a bit longer than was necessary, as if wanting him to make a move, even if it was small talk. Wyoming wanted to, but he didn’t have time for that. Not on this flight. It still flattered him though.  At thirty-seven years old, he still had it.

The plane landed thirty minutes early.

The mood inside the airport was a strange mix of normalcy and fatalism. It still surprised Wyoming how much the world had changed. And how fast. The first wave of COVID in the spring of 2020 spawned the phenomena of social distancing and restrictions upon gatherings. That worked, for a time. Now humanity was up to its proverbial eyeballs in wave two of the virus. The second wave hit with a hard iron punch, made worse by foolish political mechanizations to downplay the risk. Society abandoned social distancing. People returned to normal lifestyles, like flying, picnics, church, and visiting sick people in the hospital. They accepted the fatalism of doom: there was nothing to be done but wait for your turn to get sick, so why bother. Behavioral scientists called it the COVID-19 Catch-22. It was a no-win situation. Everyone would get it eventually. Why make the time between miserable. If you die, you die. A compilation hip-hop album in the winter of 2021 by the title 19-22 shortened the lingo for the common vernacular. People soon referred to the disease itself as the 19-22. As if on cue with his thoughts, the canned music in the corridor played the title song. 

The cough, the chills—the pain in the head

19-22 make you wish you were dead

Blame Fauci, China, Trump or Milan

Kiss yo mama bye, cuz humanity is gone 

Y’all

Wyoming didn’t delay. He’d cleared customs in Los Angeles, and only had his carry on. He was headed south on I-5 before the plane’s captain had gotten out of the bathroom. His black Jeep darted around sedans and vans. Time was important. For the last two years, time was all that mattered. 

He was fifteen minutes from Tacoma General Hospital when a black Hummer and a gray Chevy Silverado matched his speed. The Hummer took a position to his left and the Silverado squatted in front of him. The window on the passenger side of the Hummer rolled down. A young buck with a Fu Manchu pointed for him to exit. 

Wyoming did not recognize the man, but he knew who had sent him. He had no intention of stopping. To stop would mean death, probably for him, and certainly for Lucy. That wasn’t happening, not on Wyoming Wallace’s watch.

He smiled at the Hummer, as if to obey and waved forward to distract. He reached into the bag beside him in the Jeep and pulled out his .45. He almost forgot to roll down his own window. When he did, he fired the pistol toward the man in the window. The bullet exploded into his skull throwing blood and brain all over the leather interior. The Hummer screeched, lurched across the far lane, and collided into a series of road construction barrels before smashing into an unoccupied Washington State Department of Transportation pickup truck.  

Wyoming swerved to the right lane and shot his pistol twice at the right rear tire of the Silverado, causing a blowout. He sped past the truck and put the pedal down.

He parked on the curb in front of the hospital’s main door. “You can’t park there,” shouted a security officer. 

“Sure, I can,” Wyoming snorted as he walked by him. “I just did.”

“I’ll have you towed.” The guard said.

“Go ahead. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last,” Wyoming zipped by. 

He picked up in his peripheral vision a muscular man in a nice suit who started toward him as soon as he entered the atrium. Wyoming took advantage of the many mirrors in the hospital to confirm a man in a blue suit, white shirt, and a lavender tie was on his trail. What Wyoming didn’t notice was the other man watching him from the second level mezzanine. 

Wyoming entered the elevator and pushed the button for ICU. The blue suit got in the elevator and pushed the second floor. When the elevator doors opened, the second man, wearing black trousers and a dark leather jacket stepped into the lift and punched Wyoming in the stomach as the second man hit the close-door button.

Wyoming doubled over. “I didn’t see that coming. I must not be focused.” The bulging blue suit grabbed him and held his arms behind his back.

“Apparently not,” said the second man in a thick Russian accent. “I hope you do see, however, there is no way out. Give it to us and we let you live. It is that simple. We don’t want any bloodshed. We have worked so well together in the past. We don’t want this present unpleasantness to disrupt our future.”

“I’m sorry,” Wyoming said. “I can’t do that.”

“I was afraid you would say such.”

Wyoming noticed the elevator wasn’t moving. He wondered how long it would stay before the hospital staff became suspicious. Half-hour? Half-a-day? It could go either way. He didn’t have time to wait. 

“Well,” Wyoming said. “I am a little pigheaded. I get that from my mother’s side of the family.” 

“I am impatient,” the second man said. “I get that from my father’s side of the family,” and with that he wailed on Wyoming with his left and right hands, striking him in the stomach and face. “Give it to us.”

Wyoming shouted, “Okay, okay.” He caught his breath. “I can tell you guys mean business. Free my hand and I’ll get it.” The dark leather jacket nodded to the blue suit, who then let go of Wyoming’s left hand. Wyoming reached into his denim jacket as if to extract what the men wanted, but instead he pulled out his knife from his belt. With one motion he slit the throat of the second man and then switched the angle of the knife in his hand as he brought it back behind him and shoved it into the kidneys of the bulging blue suit. It was one fluid motion that in hindsight, Wyoming recognized was inspired. 

He pushed the button for ICU on the elevator and felt it kick back to life. He hoped no one would be waiting for it when it reached the floor. The mess he’d made would be a little hard to explain. He pushed the two dead men to the corner. 

Fortunately, no one was waiting for the elevator. He made his way down the hallway

Lucy Gregory was in the fourth bed. Every room on the ICU wing was occupied with a COVID-19 patient. Every patient had a ventilator. The survival rate was only twenty percent once a patient went that severe. Wyoming looked at all the people, most of them his age or younger. The first wave took the older folks. This wave was taking everyone else. 

Paul, Butch and Lucy’s youngest child, their only son, sat on a bench outside his mother’s room. “Where is your father?” Wyoming said as he approached.

“With mom,” Paul said. “He hasn’t left her. Not in days.”

“Sarah?” Wyoming said. Because of their dream experience, in what seemed like a lifetime ago, he felt a special connection to the young woman who was his friend and the Gregory’s oldest child.

“She is still in Seattle at the Army field hospital in Seahawks Stadium.” Paul scowled. “I asked her to come but she said she had unfinished business. She said Mom would be okay. She said you were coming with help.” Paul looked up, “Did you bring help?”

“We’ll see,” Wyoming said.

Butch sat in a chair next to his wife. He held her hand and was reading the Bible to her.

“Reading anything good?” Wyoming asked. 

“Psalm 91,” Pastor Butch Gregory said. He looked up at his friend and began to quote:

You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

Nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Butch rose from his chair. The two hugged. Wyoming said, “My friend in Hong Kong told me to inject it into her arm like a booster shot.” He pulled a syringe from his inside pocket. “Four years ago, I would not have been able to board a plane with this.” He handed it to the pastor. “Security aint what it used to be.” A tired smile formed on his face. “The old man told me within six hours she will be breathing on her own. Tomorrow the fever will break. In two days, she will be well.”

“How can I trust this?” Butch said. “If this were a cure, a real cure, wouldn’t the whole world know about it? So many have died. So much has been lost.” 

“Trust me, Reverend. It will work.” Wyoming wiped his bleeding lip with his thumb. “I don’t know why it is not available to everyone. There is a reason China has avoided the death rates the rest of the world has suffered. It started there, and they knew about it long before we did. They must have developed a cure.” Wyoming stepped to the other side of the hospital bed. “There are powerful people trying to keep this secret.”

Butch prayed, “O Lord of life and death, I commit this to you. You give and you take away. Please give me back my wife. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

He injected his wife then sat back down in the chair.  

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The Rona Is Out There!

The COVID Chronicles features a new writer to our team, Robert Cely, who scares the Ravioli out of us with The Rona. It is written in such a wonderful style reminiscent of the mid-century science fiction writers.

Tomorrow I’m up, and I have a special treat for the two or three people out there who have actually read my books.

Click on the very decidedly off-brand can of ravioli to read Rob’s wonderful story.

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Some Side Effects May Include: Awesome FREE Stories

Kathy Kexel finishes up our week of free COVID Captivity chronicles with a fascinating tale about Charlie. We have officially done three weeks now, and are raring to go with more free stories next week. Original coconspirator Joseph Courtmanche leads off on Easter Sunday, then my old friend and outstanding talent Rob Cely goes on Monday, then me on Tuesday, Wunderkind Derek Elkins on Wednesday, Joe Shaw on Thursday and then Kathy Kexel again next Friday.

Shaw used a picture of ZZ Top on his blog, and who am I to disagree with such a wonderful choice. Click on Billy Gibbons to read Kathy’s story, Side Effects.

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Lent Pictures–Lent Thoughts

Through the season of Lent I posted over thirty pictures to social media with quotations over the spiritual themes of Lent. It all started by accident. I wrote out in a red marker a quote I was reading from St. Augustine, and then the next day I wrote out another one not he white board and posted, and then a trend set in.

By that first weekend I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I outlined a pattern of Fridays being Bible verses, Saturdays would be song references, Thursdays would be inspiring quotes of Christian content, Tuesdays would be pop culture and literature references and Monday’s would be primarily theological in nature.

My method was to create the quote in an analogy way. Yes, it would be delivered digitally in the photograph, but I wanted it to be real items like paper, chalk, ink, wood. For the most part I succeeded in this. The one exception was to get a typewriter font I used my Mac, but it is actually printed on paper.

There were some quotes I intended to use but never did. For example, I intended to use a Brene Brown quote where she says, ‘Sometimes the bravest and most most important thing you can do is just show up.” I love the quote and have taught my children for yeas that 90% of success is just showing up. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when we are encouraging people to stay home I decided that might send the wrong message and people might misunderstand that I was one of those misinformed and misguided people who think social distancing is a bunch of bunk. By contrast, I am a historian. I know full well the danger of a pandemic.

I also wanted to use a Stephen King quote I like — “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” It is a good quote for Lent, but I just never got to it. Another one I wanted to use was “You can’t fight in the war room” from Dr. Strangelove but alas, it didn’t happen. I wanted to put up one day one of my favorite thoughts on Lent — “Why do they call it a fast when it goes so slow?”

Brene Brown, Anne Lamott, and James the Brother of Jesus got the most comments and likes.

I must admit I was surprised most of these didn’t get more attention. But who knows how the FB algorithms work, right? I’ll probably reuse them again next year, with perhaps a few more added in. Until then they are posted here for you to peruse, or if you want swipe them and post them to your page. I don’t care. These were my arts and crafts projects for the spring.

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Remember That Time The Devil MADE You Do It? — Free Story!

“Jane Austen Meltdown” is all you need to know about why you should read the second installment of Joe Shaw’s Two More titled ‘A Pool of Blood.’ If you missed last week’s first part (or have slept since then) click here and read it first. Then read part two. Click on the parking garage below to read ‘A Pool of Blood.’

In the meantime, if you’ve missed the other stories this week — Derek Elkins enjoyed a demon possession on the side with his dinner on Monday (click here), Joseph Courtemanche burned St. Paul to the ground on Tuesday (click here), and I terrified you with academics in space yesterday (click here). Kathy Kexel is up tomorrow.

These are all free stories, and we will keep them coming as best we can during this COVID Captivity.

Enjoy!

click on the shopping cart to read Part Two of Two More

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Academia — A Free Short Story

Let the free stories roll!

Today I add my next tale. I started off with a science fiction origin story two weeks ago (click here for Patient Zero) and then went for the personal trauma last week (Click here for The Last Message). This week I go back with the science fiction genre in a fun story I have set in the same universe of my current work in progress, a novel tentatively titled St. Carl of Mars.

Tomorrow, Joe Shaw gives us the next edition of his Devil meets a divorcee story and Kathy Kexel is up for Friday. We have added a few other writers, including Derek Elkins who went on Monday (Click here for A Night Out) and Robert Cely to the stable, so be looking for their pieces as well.

Enjoy!


Academia

By Jamie D. Greening

The academic flagship Biblioteca came out of cruising speed and took a low orbit around the planet BH-34. A transport vehicle hovered over the southern pole. As soon as communication was established between the two, the Bibliotecaopened its loading bays and received the taxi. Andrew Stratskin, a native of the plutonium mines on Saturn, stepped out.

A middle-aged woman stood alone in the hangar. “Stratskin, please follow me.”

He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. Stratskin wore the traditional gray plaid pants and matching coat with a red tab shirt underneath. On his head was the traditional triangular mortar board worn by academic candidates during their committee interview. This was the last hurdle between him and his dream of becoming a full-fledged scholar. If his research was approved, the Biblioteca would become his new home and he would be a credentialled member of the academy. The rest of his life would be dedicated to learning, teaching, and discovery. 

If he did not attain approval, he would have to go back to Saturn and start all over, which could take years, assuming he had the emotional fortitude to do it. Most who weren’t approved left academia forever and took up jobs in the low-esteemed industry of television and movies. No one ever made money or became famous in movies. Failure to get approved in his interview was a career death sentence. 

“Here is your interview room. They are waiting for you,” his escort walked away with no further words.

Stratskin took a deep breath, counted to four, exhaled, and then walked in. Three people sat in the room. His advisor, a man named Professor Carmichael, stood up to welcome him. “It is good to see you in person, Stratskin. Our conversations have been good, but in person is always better. I want you to know however this turns out, you are to be congratulated on writing a thorough and riveting study.”

“Thank you,” Stratskin said. “I found the material interesting. I think I could spend another three years on it.” 

“Maybe you should,” Said the woman who sat on the left side of the glass top table. “There has not been enough research done on this topic. At least not to my liking. Everyone is either too interested in the Greek antiquities or overly involved in The Conflagration. We could use rigorous study about these smaller epochs.” She smiled at him, but it was the kind of smile which made him nervous. The smile said, “I may engage in playful banter with you or I may devour your weak arguments like a tiger eats deer. It all depends on my mood.” Did her jab at needing rigorous study mean she found his presentation weak? Doubt crept in. 

Carmichael extended his long arm, “This is Professor Nguyen of the University of New Rome on Mars. She is in residence here on the Biblioteca working on her next book. Nguyen is an expert on Earth history between the Roman Empire and The Conflagration. I asked her to be a part of your committee because of her interest in the field.”

Nguyen nodded.

Carmichael pivoted and smiled at the third person in the room. “This is Professor Lee. He is the Dean of North American artifacts on the museum vessel Palestine. No one knows more about the material evidence of your preferred time period than he does, so I asked him to be a part of your review committee.”

Profesor Lee did not move or change expression. 

“Have a seat here at the head of the table, Stratskin.” Stratskin sat down. Carmichael continued. “We have all read your work and made several notes. We don’t think this will be a long interview because you have been very thorough. We met this morning over breakfast and came to several conclusions. To start, we’d like for you to give us the summary point of your work.”

Stratskin sat up straight like his mother told him to. He wiped his hands on his pants again. “My thesis is the COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, was the underlying impetus which eventually hurled humans into space colonization. Without the virus, we might not ever have left earth.”

Nguyen squinted her eyes. “Yes, we saw that in your opening. In a paragraph or two, summarize the events, as you understand them, of the COVID-19 plague.”

“Well,” Stratskin said, “The virus started, originally, in Asia. We don’t know where, but it quickly spread across the planet. The hardest hit people group in the first two waves were in North America, a people who called themselves American. The virus made three passes around the planet before herd immunity kicked in. It was on the second pass around when the leader of the Americans, a man named George Washington, ordered the quarantining of the scientific and industrial leaders in a place called Pentagon. Given the name of the place, and our knowledge that ‘penta’ means five, we believe this was a five-province region in the west where the virus had been mitigated earlier. The concentration of scientific and financial means created the social and material matrix for the building of the first off-planet living vessels before the third wave came.”

Stratskin paused, but no one interrupted so he continued. “My research indicates the third wave was so disastrous the only organized civilization left was these Americans in the west.” 

“Wait a minute, Stratskin.” Professor Lee spoke with a deep register. “We have an artifact in our museum from around this same time. Dating these things is difficult because of the radiation contamination, but we have identified the leader of the Americans as being a man named Fauci. The artifact is an image of him standing in front of a podium, and on that podium is a seal that represents the leadership tribe of these Americans. I have always accepted he was the leader, yet you are convinced it was this man named Washington. Defend your claim.” 

Stratskin fought the urge to get defensive, yet he needed to stand firm. “I have seen that image. It is the only proof of this man called Fauci, and I find it difficult to make a generalization from what might have been a one-off moment.” He cleared his throat. “By contrast, the oral and epigraphical documents that have survived repeat over and over again the name of Washington.” He suddenly noticed the glass of water on the table. Assuming it was for him, he took a drink. “Most information about the Americans was destroyed in The Conflagration. But numerous times historical documents refer to phrases like, ‘Washington says’ and ‘This in from Washington.’ Plus, there is a giant etching in the hills of the western part of the American continent that we believe to be a portrait of their greatest leader, George Washington, and his three sons. We know a person named George Washington existed and was considered the greatest leader of the American tribe. It makes sense he was the leader during the greatest crisis, the Covid-19 Conundrum.”

“If George Washington even existed.” Professor Lee said. “I have my doubts about the Americans. They were a brief flash in the pan, a highly superstitious people prone to worshipping many gods such as Lincoln, Apple, and Football. Washington was probably just another mythic god they bowed to on key holy days.”

Stratskin didn’t back down. “I agree with their pantheism tendencies. I also agree the holy days in July and November were of outsized importance. However, that doesn’t mean Washington never existed or he was myth. Myth is often based on fact.”

Nguyen smiled again. She twirled her hair. “You may be right, or wrong. We will never know, really. However, that has little bearing on your three main conclusions. The first two are almost cliché so they are not worth working ourselves over.”

“I’d hardly call them cliché,” Carmichael said. He raised his eyebrows and looked at Stratskin.

Stratskin squirmed. “I understand your point, Professor Lee. It is widely accepted the first interplanetary vessels were built and launched in the context of the COVID-19 plague and the human population shrank to roughly half its size with the largest amount of deaths coming from the European regions. But still, these facts were important to establish for the overall thesis of COVID-19 creating the desire to leave the planet.”

“You went farther than that, though, didn’t you Candidate Stratskin?” Lee tapped on the table. “You make the incredible leap from the facts of leaving Earth to the reason for the exodus.”

“I did,” Stratskin said. “Pestilence and plagues are a part of life in all its expressions. This is true of humans, animals, and plants throughout the universe. The difference was humans were the first species in history to see the possibility of extinction and then find an ultimate solution. By spreading throughout the solar system, starting with Mars, we safeguarded the race from extinction by disease.”

“You hypothesize a parallel I find curious,” Carmichael said. “Our histories teach humans left Earth because of a yearning for exploration and discovery, and parallel that with the discovery coming out of the Middle Ages of new continents. Our tradition teaches us about the noble human spirit and the boldness of our conquests. But,” Carmichael shook his head, “that is not your parallel.”

“No, not discovery. Need drove humans to the stars.” Stratskin felt rightness flow in his veins. Whether he was approved or not, he believed what he’d written was true. The belief and passion now came out of his mouth. “We were afraid. We were needy. Like hunter gather humans chasing migrating herds to stay alive. We were more like humans leaving changing environments to temperate climates. In short, we are made for survival. Leaving Earth was another repetition of our innate reaction to fear and change. It has happened repeatedly in our past, and it will happen again. We’d fought the disease and won, but we knew we might not win next time, so we opted for flight.”

“Again?” Lee said. “You say it will happen again? I find that hard to believe given the vast growth of the human species and our technological sophistication. That is not a part of your research paper, and it is bold claim.”

“That’s right. I omitted speculation, as I view that as something less than academic. It is my belief, born from research, that no level of advancement can guarantee security or protection from disaster. Systems decline and things happen. The Americans probably had no reason to believe they were in any danger until they were right in the middle of it. These are my beliefs, and not the facts. When I was in primary education aboard the academic vessel Nicea, Professor Wentrick instilled within us the practice of only reporting fact.”

“I studied under Wentrick, too.” Nguyen was smiling again. “His tests were hard, weren’t they?”

“Especially the pop quizzes.” Stratskin nodded and took another drink. 

“I hated those pop quizzes,” Lee said.

Now a smile appeared on Stratskin’s face at the thought they’d all studied under Wentrick. He opened his mouth to say Wentrick’s classes were the hardest he ever had, but he learned more from him than any other. He never got the chance. Carmichael stood up, “I think that is all we need. Go on outside and you will be escorted to the lounge. We will notify you shortly of our decision.” 

A sense of relief washed over him as he rose from his seat. “Thank you for your time and your attention. He nodded in each of their direction and then left.” 

When he arrived at the lounge, he found a seat by the viewing window and looked down upon BH-35. It was mostly water, with only two small continents close together on the equator. He’d come here as a final place of solitude to prepare for the interview. His mind replayed it. He thought of seventeen different things he should have said. He had just convinced himself to pack his bags for a return to Saturn when Carmichael walked in.

“Welcome to the faculty, Professor Stratskin.”  

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And Now It’s Time For Something A Little Different: A Free Story!

This week we kick off our free COVID Captivity stories with a non-Covid tale from a new writer who has joined our conspiracy, Derek Elkins. Remember, there is no gimmick, no fee, no paywall, no newsletter sign up. We just want to entertain you a bit while you’re stuck at home without sports or reality television. If you like what you read, feel free to buy our books, available at Amazon. But no commitment necessary.

Click on the table to read Derek Elkins A Night Out. Enjoy!

Click the pretty napkin to read the story

Tomorrow Joseph Courtemanche is on deck, and then that hack Greenbean takes a shot at it on Wednesday.

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The Lentiest–A Meditation for Palm Sunday 2020

This is the lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

Today is Palm Sunday — the paradoxical day when we cry out in joy “Hosanna” but also cringe at the cross looming on Friday. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but also the beginning of Easter week.

Ash Wednesday seems like a whole other universe, that cold winter’s night when we gathered and spoke of our own mortality — ‘From ashes you came, to ashes you shall return’ and promised to follow Jesus on the lonely path of prayer and devotion. We started our fast by faith, not knowing where it would lead us.

There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to get your attention on the issues of mortality. People’s lives are in jeopardy. Medical supplies are running out. The world is shut down. People are afraid. This new reality focuses our prayers. We started praying for Wuhan. Then we prayed for Italy. Then Spain. Some of us prayed for Iran because the news looked like they got hit harder than admitted. Then we prayed for Washington State — that hit close to home. Now we pray for New York, where doctors, nurses, and all hospital personnel put their own lives at risk everyday to save others. And bodies are being stored in cooling trucks because there is no room in the morgue.

We are driven to ours knees in prayer for our communities for the virus to pass without fatalities, and that it passover us.

From ashes we came. To ashes we return.

Lentish in the extreme.

The question of Lent is how do we fill our lives with meaning between the ashes.

The quest of Lent is to live a life dedicated to God in such a way that makes the world better. This is what we will be judged on in eternity. This is the call of Lent — to draw closer to God in Christ because the world we live in, though important, is not the place where we find ultimate meaning. We are passing through. Our citizenship is elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is here in this place where we learn the secrets to the next: the fulfillment of sacrifice, the work of love, the joy of service, the power of truth, and meaning of hope.

Lent calls us to fast — depriving our body and our minds of normal, everyday comforts so we can focus upon Christ. This fasting is not a punishment but a process for controlling our appetites with discipline. Normally we do this by depriving our body of sugar, chocolate, bread, entertainment or something banal. This year, the fasting was abrupt and involuntary; fasting was hoisted upon faithful and faithless alike.

We were deprived of our social interactions and forced to face ourselves and our families. Do you think the Lord might be teaching us something spiritual here?

We were deprived of basic material goods we take for granted. No longer were people clamoring for the latest gadget but the most important thing on people’s minds was toilet paper. Is it possible there is something spiritual the Lord is teaching us?

Milk, rationed; the meat aisle was depleted. There is no flour on the baking aisle, either. So very lenty.

I don’t mean to be too over-the-top, but you’ll pardon me for thinking the Lord said to all of us, ‘Yeah, you could do without for a little while.’

The lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

The Lenten/Easter cycle is always in parallel with the Exodus/Passover narratives both theologically and temporarily, as they fall about the same time. Anyone who ever doubted God could bring the powerful Egyptian Empire to its knees by controlling the water, the livestock and the weather should observe how the world has buckled. I am not saying God brought about COVID-19 as a plague. I am saying life teaches lessons about reality.

Lent is about the power of God and spiritual strength. Though these times are hard, and this Lenten season is unique and will forever in our lives be remembered as the year without Easter, perhaps it will be the most significant and spiritually meaningful Easter. The reason is simple. Lent is that wonderful annual remembrance to prioritize what matters and to cut away those things which do not.

The lentiest Lent I ever lented will produce the easteriest Easter I ever eastered. Amen.

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Bloody Good! Another Outstanding free Story

The COVID Captivity Free Story Project continues today with political intrigue tipping its hat to dystopian underworlds from wordmeister Kathy Kexel. If you missed her Kleenex Box tear jerker History from last week, click here to read it. This is the last of our offerings this week, but don’t worry, my co-conspirators Joe Shaw and Joseph Courtemanche have gathered a few more renegades to write, and we will roll out more next week.

Click on the terrifying syringe to read Kathy’s thought provoking story The Effectives.

Click the Tip of the Needle to Read
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This Is Not Going To End Well — A Free Story

The Covid Chronicles continue with Joe Shaw’s tale of intrigue. This is just part one of his story, Two More. He will have three more parts over the next three weeks while we roll out all of our stories. If you missed Joe’s evil tale from last week you can read it by clicking HERE.

Enjoy today’s story for free. Remember, no gimmicks, no paywall, no bait and switch, no newsletter sign-ups. We just want to try and make your quarantine days go a little better with some entertainment. Tomorrow Kathy Kexel shares a story and we’ve got some new writers for next week.

Click on the mint in the mint julep to read the first of four parts of Joe’s story. Enjoy!

Warning: Clicking on the mint julep will take you to another world

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The Last Message — A Free Story For Covid Captivity Blues

Today I add my second story, and the overall sixth freebie we’ve offered. Last week I told you the completely true origins of the COVID-19 virus (click here to read it if you didn’t catch it). Today I zig a little.

Several years ago I wrote The Last Message as a short story available on Kindle. I want to personally thank the seven people who bought it. I have brushed that story off a bit and added some ‘futurist’ to it. I still think it is quite the tear jerker. A big thanks to Athanatos Publishing Group for permission to republish it here and to the Austin-American Statesman who ran an article about this topic seven years or so ago that started the creative juice. This one is a little longer, but only about a ten or fifteen minute read.

This is a free story — no hooks, gimmicks, or paywalls. Enjoy it. If you like it, consider buying a book or four over at Amazon or wherever you by books online. You can even buy, if you like, the original version of The Last Message, and become #8!


THE LAST MESSAGE

Jamie D Greening

Lois cradled the smartphone in her hand. 

She knew she shouldn’t. It was an indulgence, a weakness, a crutch she knew was not good. Her friends and husband had warned her to stop. “This leads to a bad place, Lois. You must move on,” is what the therapist said. Her pastor echoed almost the same thing, only she evoked God by adding, “Jesus will give you the strength to get beyond this, if only you will let him.” 

But she didn’t want to let Jesus do it. She didn’t want to move on. She wanted the phone in her hand. The phone was more comfort than Jesus was providing. If Jesus wanted to do anything he should go back in time and stop it. She knew that wouldn’t happen, so all she had was the phone. 

With her thumb she clicked the phone icon. Her finger’s muscle memory took over after that, bringing up the messages menu and then pushing the play message button. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The phone beeped, the message ended.

Tears poured from her large, dark eyes. Lois’ chest heaved and her mouth opened but sound would not come out. Having lived this moment hundreds of times in the past six months, Lois knew how to steady herself—deep breaths and then long slow exhales. She repeated the rhythm four times. The feedback loop reloaded and she pushed play again. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The tears continued their tributary path down her cheeks, over her jawline and then crashed on the floor. She leaned over from the couch, clutching the phone close to her breast. The shaking was coming on. The shaking would be followed with yelling and finally a physical collapse and numbness. Last week’s episode ended with Xanax and the rest of the day in bed.

“What are you doing?” Tina snapped the question at Lois.

Lois said, “Nothing,” and sucked up her sobbing and slipped the phone between the seat cushions of the couch. She knew she had been caught in the act, but the human instinct to hide the evidence was automatic.  

“Nothing, huh?” Tina tossed her purse and keys on the kitchen counter. She turned on the faucet and washed her hands then ripped her mask off. She opened the refrigerator. “Do you want a soda to sip while you do nothing?” 

“Sure.” Lois attempted to regain her composure and fend off her sister’s sarcasm.  

Tina grabbed two large glasses from the cupboard and filled them with ice. The ice crackled when the cold soda washed over. Tina put a green straw in her soda and a red straw into Lois’. She brought the glasses from the kitchen then placed them onto handmade coasters on the coffee table. She sat down directly across from Lois and took a sip.

“You were listening to her last message again, weren’t you?” Tina’s eyebrows raised and her head tilted to the right.

“What if I was. It is none of your business and it’s no big deal.” 

“It is a big deal, Sis. You know what the counselor says, that every time you play that message it is like you are dragging Stephanie’s body out of the grave and then you have to relive the whole thing all over again. You’ve got to quit picking at the scab if you ever want it to truly heal, but you won’t stop. Instead of healing, you make it bleed fresh and new all over again. Every single day. You are a drug addict with track marks; the drug is a memory and the marks are on your heart.”

Lois did not reply. 

Tina continued, “Do you think your daughter would want you to do that? Do you think Stephanie would want you to spend the rest of your life sitting in this living room crying? No, she would not. You must learn to live again if you really loved her.”

Lois, who’d buried her head in her hands during Tina’s lecture, looked up at her and mumbled, “I don’t want to live anymore.” 

Tina thought carefully about her next words. “Well, then the worthless piece of garbage who got all drunk and decided to go driving around that night in March didn’t just murder Steph. He killed you too.” Tina was not angry at her sister, but she was forceful and direct the way family can be.

“Hand me the phone, Lois.”

“No!” Lois stood up and stuck the phone into her front jean’s pocket. “No, I won’t let you. I know what you’re intending to do, and I won’t let you. It’s my phone! She was my daughter and it’s my message on my phone. You have no right to take it from me. It is all I have left.”

For a moment Tina considered physically taking the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d taken something from her younger sibling, but she decided that was not the best course of action. Not this time. 

“Oh, sit down, Lois. Don’t make a big deal of it. If you don’t want to give it to me, fine. I will not take it from you, although we both know I could. We’re just talking, remember? I’m not the bad guy. I don’t know what it is like to lose a daughter, but we both lost Mom at the same time from the virus. So, I understand, at least, a little.”

The silence forced Tina to change the subject. She asked about Rick and when he would be home again from his business trip. It was the first business trip Rick had taken since the second round of coronavirus restrictions were lifted for air travel. Tina and Lois made their grocery lists while they finished their soda. Regardless of how badly they might feel, today was their ration window. If they missed it they wouldn’t be able to buy for another ten days. They donned their mask and gloves and tried to have a good time. 

 After provisions were bought, Tina was hesitant to go back to her home and leave Lois alone. She offered to let Lois come stay at her house. 

Lois refused. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I know you’re right and nothing I can do will ever bring her back. It’s just, hearing the voice on the message makes it feel like, even for a split second, that she is still alive and any moment she’ll come barreling through the door, talking a hundred miles an hour about her business class, a cute boy she met at the basketball game, some drama with her friends or whatever. In that moment I hear her voice and life feels normal. But the message ends. It always ends. I realize she is never coming home again, ever. Life will never be right. That is when it hurts the most and the only relief comes from going back to the moment when the message is playing. It feels like she is alive while the message is playing. You know, before she was forced to come home. Before the virus. Before the accident.”

            Sometime after midnight, a taxicab dropped Rick off at home. Exhausted from the flight from St. Louis, he left his bag at the door, plopped off his shoes and pulled off his trousers, sanitized his hands and face, then climbed into bed beside his sleeping wife; he was snoring within seconds.

Lois awoke well before her husband that morning. After she fed the cat and made coffee, she tried to read a book Tina gave her about healing her inner wounds. She kept reading the same paragraph over and over again. She closed the book and sneaked back into her bedroom and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. With ninja stealth she tip-toed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Rick would never know.

Just one more time, and then I’ll stop. I promise.

The familiar lie helped her mask her dependency.

Lois unlocked the phone and her thumb quickly hit the icon. She sat down in her old rocking chair, the one she got as a gift from her mother when Stephanie was born. The virus, in its way, had taken both of them from her. She used to rock Stephanie to sleep in that chair singing church hymns to her. 

Her finger found the messages tab and she pressed it lightly as she took a deep, controlled breath.

A death scream, then shouts of, “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not now, not now. Why? What happened? Why?” followed by pathetic heartsick weeping, erupted from Lois. 

Rick jumped out of bed, startled and uncertain. He ran into the living room and found his wife in the rocking chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s gone. It’s not here.”

“What’s gone?”

“The only thing that matters, the last message, it’s gone. Just gone. She’s been erased.”

“What do you mean, gone?” He thought a moment and then took the phone from her. Scanning the display, he asked, “Did you erase it, I mean accidentally maybe?”

“Of course not.” Her face now red and shaking, snot bubbling from her nose.

Lois grabbed the phone back from him. She repeated the same motion, manically hitting the phone and message icons over and over, hoping each time that the message would reappear. It did not. 

She glared at her husband as a treacherous idea formulated in her mind. She violently launched the phone at him. It hit him in the chest then bounced down onto the soft blue carpet. She screamed, “You erased it! You came in last night and erased it. Tina called you, didn’t she? Tina called you and the two of you conspired against me. You erased it and took my baby away from me. Why? Why did you do it?” She charged at him and began swinging wildly. Rick caught her by the arms and pulled her in close and surrounded her with a giant, confining embrace.

“I did not erase anything, sweetheart. I would never do that.”

Lois surrendered to him and went limp. The fight left her.

“You didn’t talk to Tina?”

“No. What happened with Tina?”

Through choppy, sobbing words Lois told Rick about her conversation with Tina the day before. Rick affirmed that he had not spoken to Tina or anybody else, then he brought his own phone into the room and showed her the call log. That was when he noticed some of his messages from his boss and the office back in St. Louis were gone too. 

He held his wife’s hand and the two sat in silence. It was the kind of silence that, between two people who have loved each other for many years and have endured many ups and downs, can communicate more than is possible with words.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and called the cell phone company. After five minutes of navigating the laborious automated menu options he finally reached a living soul. 

“Yes, this morning my wife discovered that a very important phone message on her voicemail had been deleted, and I also see that some of my work voicemails have been deleted. There must be something wrong with the system and I was just wondering if you could tell me how I could get those messages back.”

“Thank you for calling, sir,” the cheerful woman said on the other end. “Yes, we are glad to announce that many of our operating systems for our phones have recently been updated to the newest software. This will add many features that weren’t there before, and it will allow for better reception in some areas as well as provide optimal service for voice data, video streaming, and text messaging. To avoid interrupting service as much as possible, most of these updates were done in the night, starting at 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time.”

“That is all well and good,” Rick said, “but what does that have to do with our missing messages?”

“Well, sir, when the new system came on-line, it automatically cleaned up your memory and your voice files to provide for greater storage in the future.”

Rick gulped. “You mean you deleted our messages?”

“That’s right, sir. The process automatically deleted any messages older than one month.”

Now Rick was angry, and Lois could see her husband’s eyes twitching. She had stopped crying and was now feeling badly for the hateful way she’d treated Rick. 

Rick yelled into the phone, “What gives you the right to do that? Did you ever stop to think that people might keep an old message for a reason?” His voice got louder and increasingly more intense as he spoke. “We wanted that message. We needed that message. How could you?”

“Sir, please lower your voice. There is no reason to get angry.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rick was very angry. “I want to speak to your supervisor right now.”

“Gladly sir, please hold.” 

***

 “Did the phone company do anything?” Tina asked her brother-in-law. 

“No, of course they wouldn’t,” Rick ran one of his large hands through thinning hair. “I spoke to four different levels of supervisors until it became clear they were either unable or unwilling to give us our voicemails back. I really do hope it was a situation where they really weren’t able to. I mean, I work in the business world and I know that sometimes technology throws us for loops. When something is lost, sometimes it is lost for good. It happens. I get that. But at the same time, I get this unnerving feeling that they could if they wanted to, but they just don’t because if they ever did it once, then it would become an expected service.”

Tina shook her head in disbelief. “It just seems a bit malicious.”

“Well,” Rick said, “I was thinking about it a little later. I mean, if this were a court case, and a lawyer had phone records subpoenaed, you know they would be able to get that voicemail somehow. If this were a matter of government security or a crime had been committed, you can bet that law enforcement would have that voicemail. But honest citizens can’t. That is just the way the system works. That message is out there. We, however, will never be allowed to hear it again.”

Tina and Rick turned their heads toward the hallway to see Lois walk zombielike out of the master bedroom and down the hallway. Her face was puffy and eyes red. 

“When did you get here?” Lois asked her sister.

“About ten minutes ago,” she glanced at her watch, “After Rick told me, I came right over.”

 “That’s sweet, Sis, but you don’t have to. There is nothing you can do. Besides, at least you’ll get your way now. I won’t be listening to it anymore. Ever. Aga. . .” Before she could finish her words a fresh wave of grief crashed into her. 

Rick asked his wife, “Do you want another pill, Hon?”

“No.”

 The doorbell rang. Rick put his arm on Lois’ shoulder as he rose and whispered, “I called Pastor. I thought a prayer might help. Words of hope or comfort couldn’t hurt, right?”

Lois nodded. She didn’t have the energy to disagree.   

Pastor Mary stood in the doorway. She wore dark trousers and a summer top. Her hair pinned back. Over her face was a mask that had the classic Chi-Ro symbol on one side and the star-like logo for their church, Christ Redeemer. Black gloves covered her hands and forearm then tapered at the elbow. She gave Rick an air hug at the door to keep from touching but to try and communicate something of humanity. She walked through the room and knelt beside the chair Lois was sitting. She took Lois’ naked hand into her protected hands. “Rick told me what happened. I don’t know what to say, Lois, other than to affirm that our faith tells us together we will find a way.” Pastor Mary’s words somehow gave a glimmer of hope to Lois, Rick and Tina in an intangible way. Through the entire trauma of losing Stephanie, their pastor’s presence and ministry had been both stabilizing and encouraging. Somehow, just being there made things better.

Pastor Mary then lifted up and moved to the sofa. 

Lois said, “You didn’t have to come.  I know it is not really a big deal and it is probably bothering me more than it should. You are so kind to come over like this, especially with the person-to-person restrictions.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, “It just feels like our child has died all over again. Of course, we have her on some videos and lots of pictures, but none of those were like that voicemail. It was spontaneous, you know, normal, and just a part of her everyday charm. Even her asking about the pie, saying how she was taking her friends home; the whole message was just a beautiful snapshot of who she was as a person—you know—the bubble in her voice and then the almost singsong way she said ‘Love you, bye’ at the end. And now we’ve lost that treasure forever.” Lois’ lip quivered. “I just wasn’t ready for it.” Lois balled up her fist and slammed it down. “I wasn’t ready for it. I’m so mad. I’m mad at the driver, I’m mad at Stephanie for not leaving earlier in the day. I am mad at the government for sending all the kids home when the coronavirus panic struck. I am mad at the whole world. And I am mad at God.”

“Well,” Pastor Mary said, “It is okay to be mad at God, for a little while. Children often get angry with their parents. But you know you’re not really angry at the Lord. You just hurt because of the loss.”

“That’s right,” Lois nodded.

“We’re never ready for loss. It jumps up and slaps us, and what we learn to do is move forward by honoring the memory of what and who we lost while at the same time remaining true to our commitment to life, and to Christ, and to the world. You have to find a way to let Stephanie rest in peace. Her work is done. You must continue on with the life God has given you. It might be hard right now, but one of my prayers for you is that at some time in the future you will learn to see this day when the last message was taken from you not as a curse but as a blessing. I pray some day you will finally let your daughter go and embraced life again.”

 Lois gave Pastor Mary a steely glare. That was not what she wanted to hear, but the wise and experienced minister didn’t flinch.  

“I also have another prayer for you Lois, and it starts with words of comfort from the ancient Hebrews.” Pastor Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a small Bible and read from Isaiah 40.  

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

“The Lord will give you strength you didn’t know you had, Lois.” 

Then she asked for Rick and Tina to lift their hands. “Back in the old days we would have joined hands, but now let’s just raise them with palms up.”

Lord, please bring peace to my friend, Lois. Cradle her and her blessed husband in the bosom of your goodness. The past six months have been very hard. First her mother and then her daughter. Today has been a chilling reminder of the tragedy which visited this home in the dark hours of the night that awful evening. Now my prayer for her is specific today and it is twofold. First, Lord, I ask that you turn today into a blessing and transform these ashes into beauty and mold these tears into laughter and strength. My second prayer, Lord, is somewhat harder, at least from our perspective. I ask that you do something supernatural, something amazing, something we could never expect that would ease dear Lois in her time of need. She has loved you, ministered to your people, and served your world for many years. Please remember your servant now in her time of need. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

***

Rick gave Lois another pill before bed. The day had been too much to absorb. Lois offered to share with Rick, noting she had two more refills left on the prescription, but Rick declined. They turned off the lamps and rolled over in different directions to try to sleep. The first hour was fitful, but eventually they both nodded off.

At 3:45 Lois woke up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she sat on the bed with her feet hanging off the side. Moonbeam shown through the gap in the curtains and illuminated her cell phone on the nightstand. There was a pull toward it, an unexplainable desire to pick it up and listen to the message. She knew the message wasn’t there, but the desire was. The phone beckoned her.

She knew it was fruitless, but she picked up the phone anyway and brought it to life. The screen glowed, illuminating the screenshot of her, Rick and Stephanie at the Lincoln Memorial from two summers ago. Before she went to college. Before the virus closed the Lincoln Memorial. Before the virus forced her baby girl onto the road to come home. Before the driver took his first drink. Before blue truck smashed into the green sedan. Before her world ended. Back before, that had been a very good day. Stephanie was so impressed with the landmarks of Washington D.C. and the tours of Congress that she’d decided to pursue politics in college. That dream didn’t last long as business caught her attention. 

If only she’d lived long enough to keep dreaming new dreams. 

Lois unlocked the phone then her muscle memory pushed the phone icon and then the messages icon before she could tell her hand to stop, before she could tell it there was no use trying, no message was there.

But a message was there. A new message from a number she’d never seen before. Afraid she had missed an important call, Lois left the bedroom and walked into the kitchen to listen to it.

   She pushed play.

Hi Mom, it’s me, Steph. I can’t explain it all to you, but because of some praying I was allowed to tell you that I’m okay. I know that it happened too soon, and I had plans for life, but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I just want you to know that life doesn’t end at death and that someday we will be together. I love you and Daddy very much. Thank you for giving me a great life filled with love and adventure. I gotta go, but don’t cry anymore for me, OK, because where I am is wonderfully perfect. I’m saving a slice of pie for you. Love you, bye. 
 
 
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Another Outstanding Free Story Just For You!

We (and by we I mean my co-conspirators Joe Shaw, Joseph Courtemanche, and Kathy Kexel) kick up our super duper offer of free stories to entertain and enlighten you during your COVID-19 Captivity. No paywalls. No newsletter signups. No gimmicks. All we ask is that if you like the freebies, you consider buying our books over at The Amazons. And yes, we’re not too proud to beg.

The first off this week is Joseph Courtemanche. Last week he had ABBA on his mind (click here to read it), and today he finds a fresh target in this . . . imaginative Lavinia Did It. Click on the Washington Monument to read the story.

Click the base of the monument to find out what is really going on

Tomorrow I am sharing a freebie that is rather long for a short story. Until then, Enjoy!

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What I’m Learning in COVID-19 Captivity

I Woke up this morning to the cold realization it was week two of the church in exile.

The feeling is so strange that it qualifies as as an out-of-body experience. My entire remembered life I have gone to church on Sunday with precious, very precious few exceptions. I have never missed a Sunday of preaching because I was sick. Even on vacation I go to church.

But here we are.

I thought it would help me this morning if I went ahead and acted as if I was going. I trimmed my beard a bit, cleaned up, and put on a white buttoned down instead of a t-shirt, and a nice wrist-watch rather than the Timex I’ve been wearing on quarantine.

These thoughts bring me to what I’d like to share with you this morning, and that is namely what I am learning during the COVID Captivity of 2020. I don’t know how historians or sociologists will label this time period when they study it, but I do think a lot is going to change about how most of us live. I’m not certain we will ever be ‘normal’ again. That might be good because maybe what we called ‘normal’ was actually quite abnormal. These changes will flow from what we learned, and most of all what we learned about ourselves.

The first thing I have learned is from the malaise I woke to this morning. I have learned I really, really, really love church. I miss gathering with the people of God more than anything else about this. The church is in exile, pushed underground (necessarily so, but still underground so to speak), meeting in clandestine family units huddled around television screens and smart phones desperately trying to connect in some way with the body of Christ. I miss the hugging, the handshaking, the close talking, the hand-holding, the patting on the back, and the warmth of community. I miss it and I have learned that I am significantly less human without it. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and that is a very high holy day for us with ritual and Holy Communion. My soul longs to gather with the festal procession of my brothers and sisters, and I eagerly desire to eat that meal with them. I miss it, and the thought of missing it disturbs me.

I will never take Sunday morning for granted again.

Another thing I have learned is how much my family and their presence means to me. I can’t imagine going through this without Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts. The youngest sprout was sent home from college and the oldest is still working through Zoom and digital presence, but she is able to be at the house quite a bit. Our family has always been close-knit, but now more than ever. Because those binds that tie are so tightly wound around the four us, we are not breaking in this. We are growing stronger.

I’ve learned how much I depend upon presence, touch, and personal interaction in pastoral ministry.

I’ve also learned what I can live without. I can live without the false gods of this world — sports, musicians, Hollywood movies, shopping, workplace esteem, and so many other 21st century deities which have been stripped of their power like the gods of Egypt before Moses and his staff. I don’t need these things to be happy and whole. I miss my church, but I don’t really miss watching the NCAA basketball tournament as much as I thought I would. I miss eating in a restaurant with family and friends but I don’t really miss the movie theater that much.

The flip side of what I’ve learned I can live without is what I can’t live without. I can’t really live without the grocery store being open and the truck drivers delivering goods. I can’t live without the clerks, stockers, and diesel mechanics who are literally keeping America fed and our coffee pots happy when everyone else is on lockdown. When this is all over we as a society need to radically rethink the pay scale disparity of athletes and grocery store workers. Who are really worth the big bucks? And while I’m on it, it doesn’t apply to me as my children are grown, but many of you are realizing the value of your child’s teacher, school, and daycare. Again, remember that when this is over.

I’ve learned doctors and nurses are heroes.

On the darker side of Greenbean, I have learned to be suspicious of people who don’t take this seriously. This may sound judgmental, and I apologize to a degree if it is, but whether it is someone in the media, politics, or a cranky neighbor, anyone who doesn’t take the advice of professionals, experts, and scientists is a fool who should not be trusted with anything or any decision making process. If you fail on this, in my opinion, you’re disqualified from making decisions in the future on anything. Put another way, I’ve learned to see people’s reactions to COVID-19 as a filter on their values.

Having gone dark for a paragraph, though, let’s brighten it up. I have learned that the Lord is still crafting, molding, and shaping me. He is good, and he is still blessing, even in the midst of societal upheaval. I give thanks that I am healthy, and I give thanks for those who are ministering to the sick. I give thanks I have plenty to eat and I was able to buy toilet paper. My family makes me smile and we played Scattergories and Mexican Train and watched old DVDs. Our church staff is amazing and they are working so hard to keep as much ministry going as possible. The needs of the world, Italy, Spain, China, Iran, and New York City drive me to my knees in intercessory prayer, and that is a good thing. I recognize our interwoven existence, and that each one of us depends upon the toil and wellbeing of everyone else. Remember that famous phrase, “No man is an island” — it was written by John Donne during the plague, and at a time when he himself thought he was dying from it.

Ultimately, I have learned that I am still learning. The Lord is still teaching. And life continues under his shepherding hand. All of these bring forth praise from my lips.

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History–A Free Short Story (I’m not crying, you’re crying)

On Tuesday Joseph Courtemanche made us laugh (click here) and yesterday Joe Shaw (click here) made us cringe with horror. And of course on Wednesday Greenbean told us (click here) the true origin of coronavirus. Today, we have a tear jerker to remind us we are not the first generation to suffer through pestilence. Enjoy the newcomer to our team, Kathy Kexel, and the only one of our conspirators who doesn’t have a J to start her name, although we are fond of referring to her as Jkathy.

Click on the picture to read an eloquent short story

Next week we return with more free stories for your COVID Captivity.

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BARK BARK BARK — BANG!

Read if you dare — the harrowing tale of a man driven mad, utterly mad. It is the third installment of our ‘Free Stories for Covid Captivity’ — Today is Joe Shaw’s turn, and you can read his tale by clicking on the dog’s picture and it will take you to Joe’s blog where the story lives.

Click on the dog’s nose if you are brave enough to discover her fate

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Patient Zero — A Free Story

As we announced yesterday, my fellow co-conspirators Joseph Courtemanche and Joe Shaw are providing you with some free fiction during your COVID Captivity. Yesterday’s ABBA inspired story was delightful. Tomorrow Shaw picks up the slack. Today, it is me. I originally intended to update an older story for today’s submission, but yesterday I had an idea and in true flash fiction fashion I wrote it up last night and am sharing it with you today. Next week I will give you a much longer short story, but today is a ten minute read or less.

And remember, if you like what you read from me or the other Joe’s, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d consider one of our books, but that is not a condition of reading this story. Patient Zero is absolutely free with no strings attached. Enjoy!

PATIENT ZERO

JAMIE D. GREENING

            It is hard for a man from Venus to look human. The higher gravity on the home planet makes them shorter than human beings while simultaneously causing their face to be distinctly more oblong.  The skin is also brighter because of the low oxygen levels and proximity to the sun. People from Venus who live on the southern hemisphere have a light orange color, almost the color of a tangerine while people from the northern hemisphere of Venus have a darker hue, closer to new leather, only more orange.

            Demosh Suffla was from the northern hemisphere, which made blending in among some human populations on Earth easier for him than his cousin who was from the southern hemisphere. His cousin, with his bright orange pigment could only visit places where it was cold. He had to wear clothing over his skin. Demosh could travel to warm climates, for his leather color was passable if he wore a hat and sunglasses.

            The sunglasses were vital, because Venutian eyes were red from the sulphur dioxide in their atmosphere.

            Demosh chose to spend his two weeks abroad on Earth. Most of his friend spent theirs in Alpha Centauri skiing the nitrogen slopes of Wentrali. Demosh wasn’t interested in skiing. He was interested in human culture. The first book he’d ever read as a young larva was The Earth Chronicles about explorers who colonize an apparently vacant earth but discover ghosts living in the ruins of ancient cities. He’d been hooked ever since. 

            His two weeks were almost over. He’d started in Italy and then toured the rest of Europe. He spent most of his time in Paris, and most of that with Parisian women. Now he was near the end, and he was about to cross the last thing off his list: Texas barbeque. 

            He researched this extensively, comparing the relative information about where the best barbeque was to be found. He opted for the rural, authentic setting of the Texas Hill Country rather than a posh urban eatery. Everyone who had been to Earth said the urban eateries were overrated. 

            He arrived in the small town an hour before sunset on his last day, which was the seventh day of September in the year 2019. The motion atomizer brought him out of phase in the town square near a large building with a clock on top. His travel guide labeled this a special kind of civic building called a courthouse where magistrates used laws no one understood to keep the population under control. Demosh recognized every culture on Earth had laws, but he didn’t quite understand how they worked. After having been here, he decided when he got home he would spend more time looking into this practice. The closest analogy he could find to his life on Venus was the Rule of Five which formed the basic organizing principle of society.

            He walked across the town square toward the object of his attention, the eatery called Smokin’ Bob’s Brisket. 

            The weather was warm, and the line formed outside. Demosh cued up. Soon he was standing in front of a large black drum filled with a variety of meats. It was hot. Smoke was in the air. The smell was intoxicating, unlike anything he’d ever experienced. His olfactory senses picked up each aroma; the wood, the flame, the fat from the animal, and the seasoning.

            “What’ll ya have?”

            Demosh hesitated, unsure. He mumbled “brisket.” 

            “How much?”

            Demosh raised his shoulders into a shrug, which was something he learned in Paris as a way to communicate he didn’t know what to do. Usually people decided for him when he did that. That is what the man holding the giant fork did. He cut a slab of meat and placed it on a tray, slathered it in sauce and pointed inside. Demosh knew enough to follow the directions, and he knew to pay. His research told him there would be something called ‘fixins’ inside. 

            After paying he helped himself to the fixins. He was disappointed that the fixins were only beans, onions, and something called a pepper. He’d never seen a pepper before, but he wasn’t excited about it. They looked like pickled slugs that grow under the rocks in Saturn’s rings. 

            The brisket melted in his mouth; and the tangy sauce electrified his senses like nothing else he’d ever tasted. He swore he’d come back to Earth again every year just to eat this meal. He was a fool for not spending the whole two weeks in Texas. He was not the first visiting Venutian to come to that conclusion, and he would not be the last. 

            His brisket came to an end too soon, and this saddened him. He decided to try the beans. He didn’t like them, which he didn’t think he would. The onions too, left a foul impression on him. The syrupy sweet tea helped him forget the awful flavor. It was then he noticed someone had sat beside him on his eating bench. 

            He was not surprised to see his father, who had arrived to take him home.

            “Time to go home, son.” His dad wore a cowboy hat. 

            “I know. But you really should try this thing called brisket before we go.” 

            “I don’t like human food, you know that. It does not agree with me. There is a kind of enzyme in it which blocks my effusion.” 

            Not wanting his trip to end, Demosh lingered. “Let me try this one more item, and then I’ll be ready.”

            “That is fair,” his father said.

            Demosh took one of the pepper slugs, which is how he thought of them in his mind, and wrapped it in a piece of white bread which was on the table. He pushed the whole thing into his mouth and started to chew. Within seconds the heat of the jalapeno burned his mouth and throat. He guzzled the sweet tea, but the fire continued to spread.

            “Poison,” Demosh gasped.

            His father laughed. He knew what had happened. “No, just a pepper. These people from this part of Earth like a little pain with their cuisine.”

            The pug nose on Demosh’s gourd of a face began to run, his red eyes became yellow as tears flowed down his cheeks. He coughed, and then he sneezed. 

            His dad stood up and said, “If you have had enough, it is time to go. We don’t want to miss the transit stream.” 

            He didn’t argue. The two travelers walked out of the barbeque joint and disappeared as the motion atomizer phased them from the black paved parking lot directly into their transport vehicle in high orbit above North America. 

            Back in the restaurant, a man named Simon ate his barbeque with his wife and in-laws. Unknown to him, a droplet of Venutian mucus had landed on his tray when Demosh sneezed. He ran his hand over that tray, and then two minutes later he wiped his own eyes as the pepper he ate caused it to water. Four days later Simon boarded a plane in Austin that would eventually lead him to Wuhan Province in China where he negotiated a deal for his company to purchase green and red plastic cups for various coffee companies back in the United States. 

            During the negotiations, he coughed a time or two and fought back the aches in his muscles which he was certain were from the long plane ride. But it wasn’t. It was from the common Venutian cold, which had never been loosed on Earth before. In time, it would be diagnosed as a novel strain of coronavirus.  

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FREE FREE FREE

Today two writer friends and I are launching something for your benefit. We are publishing some free stories — and we mean free — no paywalls, no newsletter sign-ups, no gimmicks. Some are short and some are longish. The one I am sharing later this week is longish. It is a brush up on an old short story that only people with the same last name as me read when I published it seven years ago. Today, though, we launch with Joe Courtemanche’s fun story about a particularly disturbed COVID-19 patient. Oh, and BTW — all of these stories are ‘COVID-19’ related because . . . well because.

Click the picture of Joe and his dog to read the under five minute story. Don’t be startled by the pistol on top of the Bible. Joe is a softy, he just doesn’t want you to know it.

Click on Joe’s Santa beard to read his great story

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Decide What To Do With The Time

This famous quote from Tolkien has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of a week. It squeezed out of my mouth in Sunday’s sermon, perhaps the last sermon for a while as we all hunker down for COVID-19 contingencies. It is one of the better sentiments on crisis one can internalize.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

First an observation completely applicable to my thoughts. In the novel, this line comes very early as Gandalf is letting Frodo in on the history and darkness of the ring. The line helps set us up as the reader for the peril that is to come, and for Gandalf’s philosophy in how to handle it. By contrast, in the movie version, this conversation is moved deeper into the film, in the Mines of Moria.

I love the movies but one complaint I have is Hobbits should all be fatter

This matters a bit. The movie has these words when the trouble of the times is fully on them, after the Council of Elrond, after Weathertop, and after they are trapped inside the dark mine. We know the story will get darker yet, but from Frodo’s perspective, in the movie, he probably thinks it is already as horrible as it can get. Getting these words in the middle of it is one thing.

But Tolkien wrote them at the beginning. When Frodo is still in The Shire, around his fire, with clean clothes and a full belly. In the novel, Frodo’s words are about trying to avoid difficult times altogether, in which Gandalf basically says, ‘Hard times can’t be avoided’ In the movie, Frodo’s words are about ‘I wish I wasn’t in this horrible time.’ to which Gandalf essentially says, “we all do.”

The highlighted page from my copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Why am I thinking so much about this exchange? Because we are in the beginning of some very difficult times. Gandalf is telling us we can’t do a thing about the fact we live in these times, and pining away for the past–even if that past was only two months ago–doesn’t help. We have to choose, decide, how we’re going to react and behave right now. And to answer that, there are three options.

  1. We can live in denial. “There is no threat,” or “It is all hyped up and overreaction,” or perhaps, “I’m young so it will not bother me.”
  2. We can panic and live in fear. These are the emotions which are producing bare grocery store shelves and people talking about the end of the world.
  3. We can choose to be true to our calling in Christ and fulfill the great commandment.

As you might imagine, I encourage you to reject denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of bad ideas. I also think we need to not feed the panic and fear. So how do we fulfilling our caring in Christ? How do we rise above it and decide the noble, highest use of the time we’ve been given?

It starts with perspective. The Lord put you on the planet to love people, which means to be a helper. You can help the entire world by practicing social distancing, follow the recommendations of health officials, and staying home.

But that is not the only help. I encourage you all to be proactive. Reach out to your neighbors and friends and make certain they are okay. You probably have vulnerable people near you — older people, those with chronic immune illnesses, COPD, and other respiratory issues — and these people shouldn’t be anywhere near a grocery store or in the population right now. So you can help. Make sure they know you’re available to go to the store for them, deliver meds from the pharmacy, or just to call and say hi.

It also helps everyone when you stay calm. Calmness comes from remembering two things. One, this is not the first crisis we’ve had. We are being asked to stay home and watch Netflix, our grandparents were asked to leave home and fight the Nazis. See the difference? The second thing it helps to remember is none of this was a surprise to God. He knew it was coming, and he has prepared you–indeed if I may — he has chosen you for this time. This is your time to shine; so do it. And do it well.

It will also help if you smile. Say encouraging words. Be playful. Give thanks. Worship the Lord. Love.

It is when times are tough that our true character emerges and our actual core values take center stage. I believe we are a noble people, and I believe the Lord is working right now to show us how to live better and behave better by loving each other.

But these aren’t my only thoughts. Time is subject here from Tolkien’s novel. Literally, not figuratively, literally many of us have been given time. Time at home. Make the most of it. Play games with your family. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Paint the deck. Increase your exercise routine. How about read a book — I happen to know some great books by this Greening guy . . .

Get creative. Paint a picture. Write a poem.

Clean the house. Mop the floors. Call your mom/dad/brother and talk.

Read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament. Study the words of Jesus. Pray more. Pray different.

You and I can’t get out of the time we live in nor can we change it. What we can do, is our time well. This, right now, is the time we’ve been given. What are you going to do with yours?