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Congratulations, You’ve Won a Pandemic! By Ondine Kuraoka

“Congratulations, you’ve won—” Rainie turned off the car radio and sat in her driveway. A fresh splatter of bird poop decorated the corner of the dusty windshield. A siren howled in the distance. Maybe working from home would be less stressful anyway. She was about to open the car door but leaned back against the soft, moon-grey upholstery, cocooning a moment before whatever came next.

Rainie lugged her boxes in from the trunk. She hadn’t brought everything home. No need. It would probably just be a few weeks, maybe a month. Her clients would still want to plan their trips, even if they’d have to wait a while.

Rainie was one of the “old owls” at YOLO travel agency. She knew it wasn’t PC, but she didn’t mind the label. The younger associates came to her for advice on tricky itineraries, and she knew Nell depended on her. Nell had hired her just over 15 years ago, and they’d weathered the industry’s chaos together as the company grew. They’d get through this little blip, no problem.

“We’ll have folks on the move again soon,” Nell had said. “They’ll figure this thing out, no worries.” That Covid thing.

To be honest, she wouldn’t miss the office. Lunch in the break room: “Ew, what’s that smell? Someone needs to clean the microwave.” “That cheese was there before me.” “Your cabbagy lunch gasses up the whole place.” The putrid Lysol was worse, in her opinion.

Rainie lay next to Pugsley, stroking his back, as her 20-year-old tomcat sighed and lolled his head to meet her eyes. “Hey big guy.” His craggy purr was her favorite sound in the world. He emanated the comforting scent of an onion-rosemary bouquet. He didn’t have much energy to groom himself these days. She refreshed his water bowl and brought it closer, so he wouldn’t have to hoist himself too far.

Rainie greeted her other pets—her menagerie of succulents. She ran her fingers over the pillowy creatures and leaned in. Why was she listening to her plants? She chuckled as she changed their water trays, then pressed her face into the living stones. Their spring rain softness opened the gate to her tears as she looked back at Pugsley, who was watching her. That face. His green eyes still shone through his rumpled orange fur.

A thousand memories: the trip cross-country, the new apartment, bad dates, hangovers, good dates, strong coffee, no dates, getting locked out, waffles with whipped cream, pizza parties, slumber parties, the leak in the ceiling that took forever to fix, sunbathing on the roof. Pugsley had listened to her through it all. She hoped she’d been a good enough cat momma.

**

“Hey, you at home?” Sheila was always the first one Rainie called when something was off.

“Yeah, just about to set a few bowls in the kiln.” Sheila’s voice was steady and warm. Rainie knew hers was thin and scratchy; she’d been up too late with TV for company and hadn’t had coffee yet. “What’s going on? You okay? You sound…”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m okay. Pugsley’s not perking up, and this whole thing is giving me the flops. I set up my home office.”

“Oh, poor Pugs. I guess at least you’re able to be home with him. I thought you said it was kind of a relief not to be at the office every day. You said the espresso machine competitions were toxic.”

“I know. That’s what I said. Before.”

“Come over. Bring our furry boy along. I’m putting coffee on.”

“Thanks Sheils.”

**

Rainie rang the bell with her mask in hand and Pugsley in his carrier. When Sheila opened the door, she waved the mask away. “Pfff, we don’t need to do that, do we? We see each other all the time. I’m fine. You’re fine.”

Rainie always loved Sheila’s place. She set Pugsley up in his favorite corner on a cushion by the window. The aroma of coffee washed over her like a wave of calm. Her shoulders relaxed as they hugged.

“I hope we’re fine. Sometimes it feels like there’s no way to know until it’s too late.”

“My God, have you been watching The Andromeda Strain again? Listen. You’re a healthy person. So am I. We’ll be okay. Come on, the clay is calling.”

Rainie clutched her warm red coffee mug and followed Sheila to her studio. “How do you do it? How do you keep looking on the sunny side?”

Sheila laughed, another one of Rainie’s favorite sounds. It came from her belly and brightened the room as much as the windows overlooking the garden.

“I don’t have any answers to that, Rain.” Sheila tucked a wisp of her long grey hair behind her ear. “It’s just a daily decision. You know I’m no Ms. Pollyanna, though. You’ve seen my lows.” It was true. When Sheila’s husband died, she’d been on the couch for almost two months.

**

Two weeks later, Rainie answered the phone. “Rain, it’s me.” Her boss.

“Hey Nell, everything okay? You don’t sound great.”

“You don’t sound so good either. Sounds like you’ve been crying.”

“It’s Pugsley. He got worse and worse. He was suffering. I had to let him go. I took him in last night. He’s gone.”

“Oh God, I’m so sorry. You had him a long time.”

“Yeah. Thanks. I’m going to Sheila’s in a bit. So, what’s up?”

“I feel like a real bitch for having to lay this on you today.”

“Oh shit.”

“I know. Believe me, I’ve been sweating and pacing like a madwoman trying to figure this out. It’s just not going to work to keep everyone on.”

Rainie was silent.

“Rainie?”

“Yeah, I’m here. But I’ve had a few good leads, clients planning ahead.”

“Listen, you can keep your clients. Go independent. But those trips won’t be happening anytime soon.”

“Nell, I helped you start things up. I’d think with my seniority… Why am I being singled out?”

“You’re not. I’m having to let half the department go. I’m so sorry. You know, with the changes in technology, um, our more recent hires have a bit more—”

“I can learn. Quickly! What?! I taught you so much about this business.”

“Rainie, this is already grueling for me. You’ll have a good severance—” Nell sniffled.

“I need to hang up.” She clutched her arms, trying to hold herself together.

Grueling for her? A rushing whir poured into Rainie’s ears, and her heart galloped. She ran to Sheila’s place and knocked, probably scary loud.

Sheila opened the door; she held a small ceramic heart filled with succulents, a white candle nestled in the middle. Her face was pure compassion, though Rainie could tell from her sleepy eyes that she hadn’t had her coffee yet.

She placed the heart in Rainie’s hands. “I made this for you.” Rainie gripped the cool rounded violet edges of the planter, letting its dense weight slow time. “Come on,” Sheila said, her bear hug an anchor for Rainie’s soul. “You know Pugs was my furry godson.” Rainie plunked herself onto the terracotta tile floor. Her tears made her nose run.

Sheila touched her shoulder and handed her a tissue. “Don’t you want to sit on the sofa?”

“I can’t. I’m just… God, I just—”

Sheila sat on the floor next to her. “It’s okay. Take a breath. Take your time. I’m here.”

Rainie set the planter in front of them and tried to focus on it. “Oh wow, you got the sedum carpet blend.” Rainie blew her nose. She sank her fingers into the velvety, nubby succulent village. A community of vibrant calm, their greens, reds, oranges, and mauves provided a balm for her nerves.

“I figured you’d like something that didn’t need a whole lot of nurturing right now. After Pugsley.”

Rainie sniffled and covered her eyes with her palms as a sob escaped.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sheila said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said his name.”

“No! Say it. I love his name. Pugsley! Pugsley! His name is all I want to hear or say.”

Sheila welled with tears. “I miss him, too. So much.” They leaned against each other. “Hey, great choice, by the way—your hair.”

Rainie had colored her dark blonde hair the same tawny rust color Pugsley had. The closest match she could manage, anyway. “Thanks,” she said. “I had to do it. Hey, the candle.”

Sheila got the matches and sat back down, handing them to her. The flame sparked a scent of rosemary sage. Rainie closed her eyes. She pretended for a moment that she was okay. “I was laid off.”

“Rainey, no. When?”

“This morning.”

Sheila took a deep breath and so did Rainie. “I’m so sorry.” Sheila held her hand. “Hey, you’ll be okay.”

“I’m not sure.”

“We’ll figure it out together.”

“But you’ve got enough on your plate. I should get going. I need to look for work.”

“Wait,” Sheila said. “Don’t do this. Don’t shut me out. Let me be there. You’ve been there for me plenty of times.”

“But you’ve lost people. And somehow, you just kept going. I feel like such a crybaby. Pugsley was a cat. And YOLO is just a job. You lost Jesse. And Bella before him.”

“So I just kept going, huh? Is that what you call disappearing into sleep for months while my best friend kept me alive? And Pugsley was your people. Mine too. I loved that little guy. Stay here today.”

Rainie spent the day at Sheila’s ceramic studio. Sheila gave her a lump of clay, and Rainie pounded it on the board. She tore it into about a hundred pieces, then she mashed the pieces together again and rolled the lump into a ball, which she hugged. She tried making a heart planter, like the one Sheila had made. It was misshapen and lumpy.

“It’s beautiful like that,” Sheila said. “Don’t change it.” Sheila insisted they paint, glaze, and fire it. Rainie chose indigo blue.

Rainie laughed when she saw it emerge from the kiln, but something resonated inside. “It’s me,” she said. Sheila nodded.

“Now,” Sheila said. “What do you love doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean, what gives you a spark? When do you lose track of time?”

“Well, I guess I’m just going to try to figure out how to keep going as an independent travel agent. I like helping folks plan their trips.”

“Yeah, that’s all good,” Sheila said. “I know you’re great at helping everyone else plan their adventures because your clients keep coming back to you, so go for it. But what else? What about your own plan? For you? Your adventures. Might not be the right time to say this, but you only live—”

“Ugh, stop. Fucking YOLO.”

“I know, but seriously. Maybe you don’t have to do just one thing.”

Rainie felt a small prickle of annoyance. So Sheila was trying to be her life coach now? But she paused and allowed her friend’s words to float there instead of batting them away. She felt the rusty squeak of “maybe” whispering inside. “My succulents are my sacred space. That’s where time melts for me.”

She thought about how she felt when Sheila opened the door with the heart full of succulents. It felt like Sheila was returning something Rainie hadn’t even realized she’d lost, and in the same moment, Rainie absorbed how much she meant to Sheila, all without words.

“I think I want to try something,” Rainie said. A small clearing in the fog of her brain shone with a fragile beam of light.

“Wanna share?”

“It’s scary to say it.”

“You’ve got a friendly audience, girl.”

“Etsy.”

“More. Tell me more.”

“Succulent planters for cocooning. To mark the loss of pets. Divorce. New jobs, births. Celebrations of life. Anything. You in? Your planters are moonshine-glorious, and maybe there’s space for weird wobbly planters like mine, too.”

Sheila’s face, all crinkly eyes and sunlight, said it all. She erupted with “Oooh, YESSS!” They howled laughter and tears.

Ondine Kuraoka is a social worker and writer in San Diego. Her first story was published in The San Diego Decameron Project anthology. She takes breaks from her novel-in-progress to work on short stories and poetry, and enjoys crochet, and hiking with her husband and dog. Find her on IG @ondine.alegra.

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