Sick Day, by Deirdre Coles
As it so often does, my day started to go downhill the moment I stepped out of the shower.
I was wrapped up in one of my big, fluffy sage-green towels, ready to slather on lavender-vanilla lotion, when I saw them standing there confronting me. My husband and my son.
“I throwed up,” Sam said, lifting his small, woeful face toward me.
Doug stood just behind him, a hand on Sam’s tiny shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey. I know you were supposed to go the Donaldsons’ today.”
I stared back at him, fury welling up. “So you just assume I’m going to cancel?”
I felt an immediate stab of guilt and switched gears for a second, pressing a nurturing-mommy expression over my own features like a mask. I folded up a towel in front of the toilet and led Sam to it. “Here, honey, just sit down here for a minute, okay? In case you feel like you need to throw up again.”
“My mouth is yucky,” he called after me, but I was storming out.
I grabbed a bathrobe and wrapped it around me. It was ridiculously bulky over the towel, but it was too much of an advantage for Doug to be dressed, even in his pajamas, while I wasn’t.
“You know I can’t be home today,” he said, cocking his head and directing a well-practiced scoff at me.
“Do you know how many times I’ve called in sick in the past month alone?”
“Maggie, you’re an interior decorator. You’re not saving the world, just earning a paycheck.”
“You’re not saving the world either,” I snapped back.
“Saving a pretty substantial swath of northeast Seattle,” he said. “And there are two preschools inside the blast zone.”
“Do you know how many preschools there are in this neighborhood? You can’t throw a rock without hitting one.”
He shook his head, disgusted with me. “Just listen to yourself.”
“For God’s sake, I’m venting,” I said. “Or is that not allowed either? Who else do you suggest I talk to about all this? Should I bring it up at happy hour with my coworkers?”
His disgust morphed to faux-sorrow. “I guess I didn’t realize that our life was so terrible that you needed to complain about it to Kate and Kerry. What a sacrifice you were making not being able to bitch and moan about every detail about me.”
“Just get out of here,” I said. “Can you at least take Daphne to preschool?”
“Sure,” he said, as he darted off into the closet.
I thought he would pop back to make another comment about how he was heading off into danger, something sarcastic about how great it was to have a loving wife to offer unconditional support, but I guess he was as tired of the same old routine as I was.
I headed back into the bathroom, where poor Sam was leaning his head against the toilet, which made me wonder when I’d last cleaned it. Not recently, that’s for damn sure.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, baby,” I said, swiping a tiny pearl of toothpaste onto my pinky and offering it to him. He licked it off solemnly.
“Too spicy,” he said.
“I know, but it’s better than that yucky taste, isn’t it? Now let me just get dressed and I’ll sit with you and read you a story, okay?”
I straightened up and regarded myself wearily in the mirror, dreading the phone call to work and realizing I’d better get it over with as soon as possible. If I called soon enough, I could maybe get Bethany’s voice mail instead of having to talk to her in person.
The towel was peeking out from the blue flower-patterned robe I was wrapped in. In the store the sage green had evoked a soothing, spa-like ambiance. Here, at home, after a few runs through the washing machine with Sam’s pee-stained pants and Daphne’s paint-spattered smocks, the color reminded me of mold. And it brought out greenish undertones in my skin too. I had kind of a zombie thing going on.
“Arghh,” I said unconvincingly to the mirror, and then marched myself over to my dresser.
As I was stepping into my least-dirty pair of yoga pants it hit me, the thing I should have said to Doug before. It was so obvious and so perfect I couldn’t help saying it out loud.
“Just earning a paycheck? Well, I won’t be earning a paycheck for much longer if I keep calling in sick all the time.”
An hour or so later, the dreaded phone call was over and Sam was done with his second round of vomiting. He rested on my shoulder in bed, and I stroked his perfect plum cheek. I used Doug’s pillow to prop him up. If a few stomach-flu bugs ended up on my husband’s pillowcase, that was hardly my fault, right?
I sighed, and forced myself to count my blessings, as advised by a magazine I picked up at the dentist’s a few weeks back. I have two generally healthy children, I have a job, I have a roof over my head. And while I’m not feeling particularly grateful for Doug’s presence in my life at this moment, I do have to admit that what he does is important. He does, actually, save people’s lives rather frequently.
It could be worse. Bethany’s husband plays golf almost every weekend, leaving her alone with their daughter. And Kate’s husband is stupid-obsessed with football.
And it’s true that Doug couldn’t do what he does without me. Being a neighborhood dad means he can talk to other parents at the park and patrol the area looking like just another harried suburban father walking the dog, not a creepy lurker. And the family needs my income. Doug doesn’t bring in much of a salary from his minimum-wage job in landscaping, with frequent absences for his more important but unpaid work.
Psychic powers may be dandy for fighting crime, but they sure don’t pay the bills.
Doug gets premonitions, which so far have not helped us win the lottery or get rich in the stock market, not for lack of trying. He can read emotions, and to some extent plant suggestions, two talents that he has sworn up and down he will never use on me or the kids. He can see through and around objects, and lift small things telekinetically.
His powers were of some help when the kids were babies, when he could tell why they were crying or when they had ear infections. And he can reach things on really high shelves without a ladder, and change the light bulbs in our chandelier.
He’s never met anyone else with his powers, and he doesn’t know why he has them.
I used to think about it a lot, and wonder if the kids would inherit some of his abilities. But lately I’ve just been wishing they inherited stronger immune systems, so I didn’t have to call in sick so much.
Having kids means having to cancel plans all the time, because they are sick with a frequency and intensity that is absolutely shocking to a first-time parent. And you find yourself thinking that everybody else is thinking that you must be faking it.
It reminds me of when I was a hysterically insecure teenage girl and I went through a whole summer where I was too afraid to walk into any stores at the mall, certain that the hostile eyes of store clerks would force me into a Tourette’s-like shoplifting reflex. I would stick my hands into my pockets to make sure there was nothing inside, then imagine their eyes darting to my pockets and thinking I’d stolen something. I had this kind of daydream-nightmare where a store clerk would pry my hand open and all kinds of things I’d never seen or touched before – necklaces, lipsticks, rings – would pour out of my clenched fist.
As if conjured by my thoughts, somebody started pounding on the front door. An authoritative, doomsday summons. I tried to slip out from under Sam without waking him, but he startled and moaned “pick me up” before he was even really awake.
I carried Sam to the front door, where the pounding continued. I could see a hazy figure through the strips of decorative glass on either side. And, as it turns out, she could see me too.
“You open up this door right now!” she said. “Your dog got out and bit my son, and I need to see his vet records this instant!”
Oh, great, I thought, twisting around, hoping against hope that Rosy would be inside, curled up in her bed by the window. But she wasn’t. She must have gone out through the dog door and then maybe dug her way under the fence.
When I opened the door, a furious middle-aged woman was glaring at me.
“Is your son okay?” I said.
“Don’t worry about that,” she replied. “You’d better come with me right now.”
“Come with you? What?” I said, and that’s when I realized she was actually pointing a gun at me.
“Wait, what? What’s happening?” I said. I hadn’t had any coffee at all that morning. I really should have demanded that Doug bring me a cup before he left.
“Get in the van,” she said flatly.
That obviously surprised her. “What do you mean, why? Don’t you see this?” she said, waving the gun.
“Ask your husband why,” she said, finding her footing again. “Now get in the van.”
I put Sam down just inside the house, trying to make it look casual.
“Oh no,” she said. “He’s coming too.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “He’s really sick today. He’ll throw up in your van.”
“What, are you too stupid to understand what being kidnapped entails?” she said. “This gun means you do what I tell you. No arguments and no bullshit.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, copying Daphne’s aggrieved tone when I ask her to pick up her stuffed animals. I hoped it would help hide how terrified I was. I picked Sam up again and walked after the woman. I scanned the street frantically. Not a neighbor in sight. Sam tightened his arms around my neck, happy to be held again, thinking himself safe, poor thing.
We climbed into the back of the van and before I could see anything somebody pulled a cloth bag over my head. I heard the back door slam shut. And then somebody did the same thing to Sam.
“I don’t like this!” he shouted, and I heard the passenger door close too, and then we took off.
“Shut up,” said a low, nasty voice across from us.
“I will NOT shut up!” Sam screamed. “And it is very fresh to say shut up! Mommy, I feel sick from driving in this car. I’m gonna throw up more.”
“Oh God, I can’t stand the smell of puke,” said another voice.
I could work with that. I knew just what to say.
“Take the bags off our heads, or he really is going to throw up,” I said. “That’s why we’re home today. He already threw up twice, but he had a really big dinner last night and I haven’t see that come up yet. Lots of Chef Boyardee.”
The owner of the second voice gagged audibly and yanked the bag off my head, and then I took off Sam’s.
There wasn’t much to see anyway. One man was wearing a black ski mask with red rings around the eyes, and the other man was wearing a navy mask. And they both had guns.
“Do you have something for him to throw up into?” I said. “A bucket?”
“No,” Rings said, disgusted. “Of course we don’t have a bucket. Just use the bags.”
I stared at him. “The bags aren’t going to be waterproof. We’re supposed to be able to breathe through them, right? So that means they’ll leak, and you’ll be wading knee-deep in mini beef ravioli and mini spaghetti rings. That come in a can.”
Rings gave an audible moan. I was even starting to gross myself out a little.
“You could just pull over, like to a 7-11,” I suggested brightly. “Get a Big Gulp and dump it out.”
A tiny window between the front seat and the back snapped open. It was the woman, furious.
“Why the hell does she not have a bag over her head,” she yelled at the two men in ski masks. “That was not the plan.”
“When you have kids, nothing goes according to plan,” I said philosophically. I could see Navy’s eyes crinkle, like we were two parents at a cookout sharing a wry observation about children.
“Just, goddammit, keep it under control back there!” she yelled and snapped the little window shut.
I tried to think. I had to figure out a way to get out of here, or call for help, or at least persuade these two that they didn’t want to hurt me and really, really didn’t want to hurt Sam.
But then it looked like I was out of time, because the van stopped, and I heard urgent voices that quickly got louder. One of them was Doug’s.
The back door opened a crack, and I yelled out “Run! Get away from here!”
So, of course, showing just about the same amount of attention to my wishes as usual, Doug climbed slowly into the van.
The woman stood behind him, and pointed to the masked guys.
“If you feel a sudden urge to let them go, or if your gun so much as twitches upward, if he tries anything at all, shoot the wife,” she said, and slammed the door.
Doug sat down beside me.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes dramatically by way of response.
He put a hand on Sam, who slumped against me.
“So what happened?” Doug asked me. “Who did you tell?”
“Who did I tell?” I turned to him, my voice rising. “My son and I get kidnapped because of all your stupid extracurricular crap and you have the unmitigated gall to blame me for it?”
I saw Navy out of the corner of my eye. Great. I’d lost any ground I’d gained with him. Now we sounded just like any other stupid bickering couple, one that even I would cheerfully shoot sometimes. I reined myself in.
“I didn’t tell anyone anything, honey,” I said quietly. “I never have.”
Doug slumped in on himself. “I know you haven’t. I don’t know why I said that.”
“You’re just scared,” I said. “We both are. I understand.”
“I am so, so sorry about all this,” he said. “I never meant for any of this to affect my family in any way. That was the whole point of everything. My job, your job, the way we live. At least I knew nothing would ever come back to touch you and the kids.”
“Maybe not the most important thing right now,” I said. “Any ideas on how we’re getting out of here?”
I glanced over the ski-mask twins. “Don’t mind us, guys, just trying to escape from your evil clutches, etc.”
“There’s no use,” Doug said. “I’m not going to try anything with you and Sam here.”
I really hoped he was speaking for our captors’ benefit, but I had a bad feeling he was slipping into one of his despair-spirals. He was a high-strung kind of guy.
I put a hand on shoulder. “It’s going to be okay,” I said.
“Oh no it’s not,” Rings piped in from across the van. “Not even a little.”
“You want to tell us what’s going on, then?” I asked, figuring that if I could distract them for a little while maybe Doug could pull himself together and figure something out. “Isn’t this the part where you guys gloat about your nefarious plans? But you’re just the lowly henchmen, right, so you probably don’t even know what’s going to happen.”
“Really?” Rings said. “You’re trying to reverse-psychologize me into telling you? Does that work on anybody? Even your kids?”
“That’s not what reverse psychology means,” I said. “Reverse psychology would be like, if…”
“Shut up right now or I’ll shoot you in the kneecap,” Navy growled.
I subsided and held Sam tighter. If there was any kind of a bright spot in all this, it was that he seemed to be too out of it to take much notice of our desperate situation.
The van stopped, and I shuddered. Whatever happened next was going to be bad.
I heard rising voices from the front seat, and then a yelp cut off short. The ski-masked men glanced at each other and then leveled their guns at us. Something was happening that was not part of the plan.
And then a bunch of things happened all at once. The two men’s arms and backs and heads slammed back against the wall of the van as if magnetized, and the doors at the back of the van flew open, revealing two women and a man. The blonde woman in the bulky sweatshirt gestured and the guns plucked themselves out of our captors’ fingers and flew through the air to her hands.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” said the younger, ponytailed woman, and I realized that we were, absolutely and certainly safe, and felt myself relaxing, all the tension in my shoulders letting go…
“Don’t your dare do that to my wife!” Doug screamed, swatting in Ponytail’s direction and sending her staggering back, and my sense of comfort and lassitude departed abruptly.
“What the…you’re one of us?” Ponytail said. “Who do you work for?”
“Who are you?” Doug asked.
And Doug and our three rescuers launched into a confusing back and forth. I missed most of it because just at that moment Sam started simultaneously vomiting all over me and throwing a temper tantrum.
Back home a few hours later, after I’d taken a shower, Sam had fallen sound asleep in his own room and Doug had had a long conversation with our three new friends downstairs, my husband came upstairs to talk to me.
It turned out there were other people with his powers, and if he signed on to their secret organization they would offer a generous salary and lots of opportunities to train and hone his abilities.
“And they have a 24-hour stand-by babysitting component,” he said. “So you’ll never have to miss work for a sick kid again. Or you could quit your job, if you feel like it. And they’ll provide round-the-clock security, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
I looked up at him blearily from where I sat on a folded towel in front of the toilet, since the stomach virus had finally hit me too.
“Look, that all sounds good for us, but our problems lie a little bit deeper,” I said.
“I know,” he said, as he sat down cross-legged in the doorway. “But before you say anything else, I want to say again, I’m so sorry about what happened. And you were so brave. Just taking care of Sam like always. But you must have been so scared. And you must really hate me right now.”
I thought about it for a minute. “Actually, I’m not really mad about the whole kidnapping thing. I was more upset about this morning.”
“Maggie, that doesn’t make any sense,” he said, his voice going hard and uncompromising in an instant.
Normally that kind of dismissal of my feelings would have set me off, and made me snap back at him. But it sounded like we would be getting a fresh start, and I didn’t want to waste it.
“No, hear me out. I think the reason why I’m not mad is because of what you just said. It sounded like you appreciate me. And like you were really trying to think about how it seemed from my perspective. I guess I haven’t felt like that for a while.”
“I don’t feel like you appreciate me either,” he said.
“Well, you’re right. I don’t, sometimes. But we’ve got to find a better way to stop resenting each other so much and start appreciating each other. And to realize that we’re on the same team.”
He leaned forward. “I see what you’re saying. And I agree with you. Do you know, Emma told me that they actually have a specialized couples-counseling program, just for people in our situation? And I know that we’ve both been under way too much pressure lately, but I really think that it’s going to be getting better soon. And I love you and the kids so much and I want to do a better job of showing all of you.”
“I lo —” I said, but then gagged and started throwing up violently into the toilet.
“Let’s take this up later,” Doug said, and backed away swiftly from the bathroom.
Deirdre Coles is fairly certain she was invented by a forward-thinking group of cold viruses who wanted a cozy place to hang out from September through June. In between sneezes, she has written stories for Infective Ink, Every Day Fiction, Free Flash Fiction, MicroHorror, and Kazka Press Fantasy Flash Fiction.
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Tags: Deirdre Coles, family, fantasy, relationships, superheroes