Office Tales: A Wished-For Career

Looking inside the HR office

When I gazed inside the HR office, one late-summer morning, over 23 years ago, a wish shot up from deep within me: I want to work here.

I was dropping off my application packet. It contained my resume, transcripts, letters of reference, the application form, and a letter, in which I tried to express all the ways that my own particular experience, training, skills, and interests made me a good fit for this position. It felt like posing, but it also felt that, just maybe, it could be also be true.

Looking inside the HR office

I had watched people, in suits and business dresses, walk into the building. They seemed professional but also relaxed, comfortable. They walked with an attitude of belonging, and I wanted to belong there, too.

Looking inside the HR office

I practiced their walk through the foyer, to the HR office, trying on that comfortable sense of being where I am supposed to be.

Looking inside the HR office

I tried the feeling on for size. That was always how I judged what schools, jobs, homes, even friendships were right for me. I tried on the feeling of belonging, and if it fit, or if it asked me to grow in a way that I wanted to, then I judged it right.

Six months before, I’d wished for a job like this. At the time, I was a full-time instructor at a community college. That had been a job I’d wished for, too, and one I’d worked hard to get. The competition was stiff–over 100 qualified applicants tried for the position I’d ended up getting. It was fulfilling, exhilarating, demanding, exhausting, draining, intensive. I pretty much figured I’d spend my career there, at that very college for the next twenty-five, thirty years. Somehow, I’d figure out a way not to get so drained every semester.

One spring day, walking to the office to make some photocopies, for this was back in the days when education was just beginning to go digital, and paper handouts were still a part of our face-to-face classes, I spotted a flier on the bulletin board.

Wanted: Webmaster for School Website

Looking inside the HR office

Hardly any schools had websites back then. I’d been developing webpages for my classes for the past year, but I was the only faculty member in our discipline who had a webpage. I lived and breathed HTML back then, having just learned it. This was HTML 2.0, and in all its simplicity, logic, and structure, it felt like a native language to me.

Even though I was in what I’d thought of as my dream job, even though I felt grateful every day to have been the one selected for that position, even though I figured that I’d find a way to make the job work in the long run, I still was stopped short when I spotted that flier. The school webmaster position barely paid anything, so I didn’t consider it seriously, but I did think, “Man, I would love to be a webmaster for a school.”

A few months later, I left my dream job. My boyfriend got accepted to the university which was in a different city, and though we could live apart while he earned his degree, we didn’t want to. Plus, there were reasons for leaving. I’d had a #MeToo encounter with a supervisor, which I decided to report to the sexual harassment ombudsperson, and that pretty much ensured that my extended tenure there would be a fight. In addition, the building was, literally, toxic. Housed in an old printshop, the fumes throughout our offices were strong enough to induce headaches on a daily basis. Not only that, but two faculty members had died, and three had contracted cancer in the past year. All these added up to more than a sign: It was time to go.

It always feels strange to me to leave jobs. I had loved this job. I’d loved every job I’d had, and most, I’d stayed at for several years. But I was young, the city we were moving to had a lot to offer, my boyfriend was excited and inspired to finish his degree, and I was eager to support him. We’d spent most of our lives together moving, shifting, following the currents to find the place where we could settle, and this felt like one more shift, one more moment of reading the signs and following the signals.

The decision to leave came too late for me to apply for a full-time position with the college in our new city, but I got a part-time position, teaching English composition on the Air Force base in the evenings. I’d read that it typically takes seven months to find a new job, so I wasn’t in a hurry to look for a full-time position. I spent the summer swimming, writing, playing video games, gardening, exploring the city with my boyfriend, and tasting the electric air of summer thunderstorms.

At summer’s end, I began looking for a full-time job. This was so long ago that newspaper listings were the best place to find job openings. I let myself be picky at first–I didn’t want to work for businesses. I wanted to work for nonprofits or educational institutions.

When I saw the listing for this position, my imagination jumped. I could imagine myself in that job! It was listed as a Technical Writer for the public school district, but it required knowledge of HTML and website construction, and one of the job duties would be to update and maintain the school district website. I remembered that wish I’d sent out when I’d seen that flier. Could this answer be in response to that wish?

There’s a kind of happy ache when you want something deeply.

I felt that after I turned in my application packet.

Looking inside the HR office

The woman I’d handed it to had been so nice. “Good luck!” she’d said. “Maybe I’ll be your co-worker soon!”

Oh, maybe! I hoped so. By the time I left the building, I could imagine myself there.

Looking inside the HR office

I felt I would be so lucky if I were to get that job. I wouldn’t need to keep it forever. Maybe for five years, just to get experience. And then, I could go back to teaching full-time at the community college here.

But wouldn’t it be an amazing five years? Wouldn’t it be something if I were to get that job?

Looking inside the HR office

I didn’t realize it then, but the school district takes an inordinate amount of time to fill empty positions. In fact, the position that I’ve left through my retirement is still not filled, though I notified my supervisor and HR of my retirement in October, three months ago.

So after I turned in the application, a month went by before I heard anything. I got worried, and our savings were becoming depleted, so I contacted a temp agency, who was lining up positions for me. One of them was with a missile company, and I knew I couldn’t accept it. I could not work for a company that made weapons for war. I travelled to visit my folks one weekend, figuring I should go before I was working full-time, and that weekend, I thought, well, when I get back, I’ll either hear from the school district, or I’ll have a temp job. Somehow, it will work out.

I tried to hold on to that feeling of belonging that I had when I left after submitting my application. I tried to breathe that mix of longing, confidence, and faith, that life has you, that life will hold you, that it will all work out, and there will be a place for you, a place where you can contribute, a place where you belong.

Looking inside the HR office

Authors note: Office Tales is a new autobiographical work I’m writing in which I reflect on my career as a web editor at a large urban school district. I retired three weeks ago, and it feels unreal to me, unfinished somehow, that I’ve left this career. I retired during the pandemic–because of the pandemic–while working at home, so there was no retirement party, only an awkward Zoom meeting with my department early one Monday morning. I emailed those I worked closely with, but I forgot a few. And so many of those faces–and all those lovely office spaces–that I haven’t seen since March and didn’t get to say goodbye to. For closure, and to integrate that experience that I had there, I’m writing this series. I know that writing and telling stories changes things: we select scenes, people, memories, we reshape them, we tease out the significance, and we create something that wasn’t quite what it was, but is, instead, our interpretation of it. But I feel I need this interpretation in order to move into my new life, my life without this full-time job. Writing this is a way, too, to honor and to share love. It’s also a way to come to terms with some of the complexities and some of the challenges and hardships. I’m not sure if this will be interesting to read, but I am completely sure that writing it will be a significant act for me. It will be an act of integration, and right now, I need this wholeness.

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Sea Change

Participant Veteran January 2021 - Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge

This is my entry for the January 2021 Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge, hosted by LisaBee. Please check the official January 2021 Challenge webpage to find all the month’s entries, as well as a poll where you can select your top three “Readers’ Choice” entries. Happy reading!

Clarissa standing in the dark

Clarissa Thalassa had been given a choice: she could be made redundant and collect unemployment or she could retire early and collect a pension. She chose the pension.

It wasn’t much, by hometown standards, but it was enough to support her if she moved to someplace less cosmopolitan. She found a beachside community, not yet fashionable with eco-tourists, where she could rent a tiny off-the-grid home for a quarter of her monthly pension.

Clarissa reading in a small room

The cabin wasn’t much more than a kitchen with a divider to mark off the tiny study and sleeping nook. But every wall held a window and every window held a view.

Clarissa at the table by the window

The hardest part had been leaving without proper goodbyes. Before her network account was closed, she emailed everyone she’d worked with closely, those who would notice when they emailed her with a task and received, instead of confirmation of task complete, a message-undeliverable error.

She felt canceled.

Her mind had all these synapses that no longer had a function. Thursday: she should be preparing to post the agenda for the Board meeting. Every tag needs an end-tag. PDFs must be accessible; videos closed-captioned. Don’t forget the alt tag for every image.

But now, none of this was her responsibility, and her mind, instead of buzzing, held gaps of quiet space.

She filled the gaps by repairing things–or trying to: the old tub beside the out-house; the rickety railings on the stairs to the roof-top deck; the pump for the well.

Clarissa fixing the bathtub

It didn’t really work. Things stayed broken.

Her mind still felt busy. She had an odd sense of guilt, too. She wasn’t working twelve-hour days. She wasn’t working at all. Her efforts, what efforts she could think up, didn’t really benefit anyone. They just filled time.

Clarissa digging in the sand

She could dig through every pile of sand on the beach, and there would still be more piles, and none of it will have made a difference, like her career, which had ended, and all the tasks that now fell to someone else.

She gave up trying to make sense of her days, trying to fill them with something productive. She let sleeping synapses lie. She felt the stillness of her mind.

Sometimes, she swam in the bay, and though she’d swum competitively back oh-so-many lifetimes ago, she seemed to swim faster now, as if the energy previously used by all those now dormant synapses charged, instead, through her muscles, propelling her like a fish or a dolphin.

Clarissa swimming

Somehow, days passed. The patterns in the sand began to make sense, and she could read the passages of turtles, seabirds, and tides in them. She learned where to dig for shells, which estuaries accumulated trash after a storm, so she could go and clean them up, and what the scents in the air meant–what it smelled like when the tide was coming in, when a storm approached from the south, when the frangipani bloomed.

One night, the air thrummed with electricity and orange smoke rose from the volcano across the bay.

The volcano at night with firey clouds

She dreamt of swimming that night.

Clarissa with a mermaid tale

She felt more free in the water than ever.

Clarissa the mermaid leaps out of the water

A high whistle, and her heart soared, like you feel when you see your beloved. A blue dolphin swam directly to her and nuzzled her.

In dreams, you can experience a love that is as close as two souls can get: that is how she and the dream-dolphin felt.

Clarissa the mermaid talking with a dolphin

The volcano sat quietly the next morning, and the sky shone clear in the dawn.

Her old world continued on, as if she didn’t exist. And the new world spread its bays and beaches before her, welcoming.

Clarissa painting

Different days, different shores, different mind. She didn’t belong in the old world, anymore.

She belonged, if anywhere, here.

Clarissa looking over the horizon

Another Legacy 1.24

Kiki sitting at the desk

In late autumn, a new sadness enters the home. Moira Fyres has died. The grief hits Ira hardest, maybe because she hadn’t been friends with Moira as long as Case had, or maybe because she doesn’t have as many projects, interests, and activities as Case and Kiki do to distract her.

She goes back to bed after Case leaves for work and Kiki goes to school, and her mid-morning naps dissolve into crying beneath the covers.

Ira crying under the covers

“I can’t get my mind around it,” she confesses to Aadhya. “She was just here the other day. We were becoming friends. Now, we’ll never be better friends. She seemed so full of energy. So alive.”

Ira and Aadhya talking

“They say it was an aneurism,” Aadhya says.

“I know. So sudden,” Ira replies. “Did you know that she was Case’s first friend?”

Ira and Aadhya talking

“I thought I was,” Aadhya says.

“Oh, maybe you were. Maybe I heard wrong and he meant one of his first friends.”

“Probably,” Aadhya adds. “We all used to hang out together.”

Ira

“I just don’t know why it’s hitting me so hard,” Ira says.

“Don’t bother trying to figure it out. Grief never makes sense. I mean, look at me. I should be all broke up, right? Or what about Case? You’d think he’d be really sad. Maybe he is, and he’s just not showing it.”

“I think he’s too busy,” Ira says. “He has work. He’s all wrapped up in the adoption process. I’m just here all day, with my thoughts. It gets to me.”

Aadhya, carrying the blank canvas, follows Ira out to the easel.

“Painting will help you feel better,” Aadhya explains.

“I suppose so.” It does feel good spread the paint on the canvas, and the scent of linseed oil helps Ira relax.

Aadhya follows Ira out to the easel

Aadhya leaves before the painting is finished, and Ira is alone, first with her thoughts, and then, as she continues painting, with no thoughts, only feelings, a knife in her chest, bruises under her eyes. Grief is painful.

“Can you help me, Ira?” Kiki asks. It’s a school project.

“Oh, a volcano,” Ira says. “I made one of those when I was in first grade. Using baking soda and vinegar?”

Ira helps Kiki with her school project

“Something like that. Are you still sad, Ira?”

“Yeah. I miss my friend. I’m just so sad that I’ll never see her again. I had all these plans for what we’d do together, and, you know, I thought she could help me as I grow older, by telling me what it’s like and stuff.”

Ira helps Kiki with her school project

“You know what I do when I miss my mom and dad?” Kiki asks. Ira doesn’t say that it’s different, because her mom and dad died when she was so little that she probably doesn’t even remember them. She swallows that thought, and she just listens, instead. “I talk to them.”

“I might feel silly talking to her,” Ira says.

“Doesn’t matter,” says Kiki, “but you could also write. You could write her a letter. It will help.”

The next morning, after Kiki has gone to school and Case to work on-site, before she even cleans up the breakfast dishes, Ira sits at the kitchen table with her journal. She imagines everything she would want to say to Moira.

Ira writes in her journal

Dear Moira,

We never became best friends, but I thought, last time you visited, that we might. I thought, maybe, you would be my close woman friend, and that you were an older woman was all the better, for I would have someone to talk with about the changes my body is going through, and about the shifts in my goals and my plans and dreams as I grow older.

I envisioned us gardening together, sitting at the chess table with a pot of tea, talking over Kiki’s latest milestones, planning for ways to make life easier for Case. I thought that, if I ever did get into college, that I could lean on you for a role model and for advice.

I guess I saw you as a role model, and now you’re gone.

This feels so selfish, because this is all about me, and what I’m missing, which is my dreams of having someone to fill this gap in me. But the thing I’m really sad for is that you’re no longer here. That your life on this green world is over.

When you were here the last time, which is the first time that you and I really talked, the time when we really became friends, your eyes sparkled. You were shining from within, I don’t know if you knew that. We talked about your garden club, and you talked about how hopeful you felt, with all the changes that have happened here in Port Promise, all the changes that Case has been either responsible for or directly involved with, and you told me that you felt so proud. You felt proud to know us.

Maybe it was that shine in your eyes that inspired me, that made me decide then that I wanted to be like you. I’m not much, Moira, and even though I speak my mind, probably more often than I should, I really lack confidence. But somehow, you made me feel that that was OK, and that it didn’t matter, and that just being a person was enough.

Can we still be friends, even though you’re not around? Can I still write you?

I’m not sure if I feel better, but at least I don’t feel so lonely.

Wishing you peace, wherever you are,

Your friend, Ira

Ira writes in her journal

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Another Legacy 1.23

Kiki walking down the hall

Four years have passed since Kiki came to live with Case and Ira, and the adoption still hasn’t gone through. Because Case won’t lie to her, and because of the social worker lady’s visits a few times each year, and because she’s a super good eaves-dropper, she knows she’s a foster child, and she knows that this means that where she is now might not be her forever home, and Case and Ira might not always be her really-tall-people. She could get taken away. She knows this.

It’s sad for her because she loves it here. This is her home, even if it’s not her forever home, and Case and Ira are her tall people, even if they’re not her birth mom and dad.

But she feels it’s even more sad for Case and Ira, because they love her. They tell her that every day, and she can see it in how they look at her, which is like how they look at each other, and she can taste it in the food that Case makes, especially the veggie dumplings with the just-so crinkled sides. It would be too sad for them if she ever had to leave, and she can’t bear that they would ever be that sad.

Kiki looking at the candle in the lantern

They don’t force her to always be happy. They leave room so that she can be sad sometimes. She thinks that, being an orphan, and a foster kid, and not having a forever home, it’s only natural that she be sad sometimes.

When she’s sad, they don’t try to talk her out of it. They just create this warm space, like a cloud she can live in, but not a bad cloud, a warm one, that glows pink, like sunset-pink–rose–inside, and she can stay in there until that warm pink rosy glow is all inside of her, and then she only smiles. That’s the kind of space they make for her.

Kiki looking at the candle in the lantern

She asks them sometimes how her mom and dad died. “From gentrification,” Case says. And she comes to learn that that means having to leave your home and get a new job and getting in an accident and then through medicine and drinking somehow dying. And she can understand that if one person dies, another might, too. She thinks it must mean that her mom and dad loved each other a lot.

“Angels are made of light,” Ira told her once.

So when she sees the flame of the candle, she thinks it’s her mom and dad. She always has, as long as she remembers. And she talks to them that way, too, through the flame.

“I’m doing really well here,” she whispers to them in the candle-flame one night. “I’m thriving, that’s what the social worker lady tells Cay-Cay and Ira.”

The candle flickers, as it always does when she talks to them in it.

“Is it true you can make wishes come true?” she asks them for the hundredth time. “I think it must be. I read that somewhere. If so, will you make my wish come to be? Will you make this my forever home?”

Kiki looking at the candle in the lantern

She waits and watches for an answer. Maybe it’s just the wind, but the flame begins dancing, and in her heart of hearts she hears a promise of “yes.”

Kiki looking at the candle in the lantern

“Thank you,” she whispers. “Cay-cay says that you will always be my mom and dad, no matter what happens. And Ira says that you are angels, always watching over me. And I think, if I can live here always, and grow up here, that you will feel really happy and proud of the person I grow up to be. You can’t help that, right? Cause I know how I feel in my heart, and since you’re there, you know how I feel, too.”

Kiki looking at the candle in the lantern

“Would you like a story, Kiki? Or would you prefer to sit alone?” Ira calls from the doorway.

“Oh, a story!” Kiki replies. “Is it Heidi?”

It is, and it is also Kiki’s favorite story, this little tale of an orphan girl who finds a new home in the mountains with a stern man who comes to love her.

“‘God is good to all of us,'” Ira reads. “‘He knows what we need better than we do. And just because he thinks it is better not to give you what you want right now doesn’t mean he isn’t answering you. You shall have what you ask for but not until the right time comes.‘”

Ira reads to Kiki

“Do you think that’s true?” Kiki asks Ira.

“Well, I’m not sure I believe in God,” Ira responds, “or at least, not that type of wish-fulfilling God. More like, you know, a universal consciousness, the spark of divine. But anyway, yeah, I think that principle is true, the bit about the right-timing, and all.”

Ira reads to Kiki

“I think so, too,” Kiki says. “I think sometimes, things are what we think are bad–and maybe they really are bad–but it’s not like the end of the universe. Sometimes, it’s just that we need a little bit of time, and then something really good happens.”

“Like we have to get ready for it,” Ira adds. “Ding! Time’s right! Cake’s done! Take the cake out too early and it’s a gooey mess!”

Ira reads to Kiki

Case joins them.

“I don’t have cake in the oven,” he says. “Are you hungry?”

“No,” Ira and Kiki giggle.

The family sitting at a table

“We were just talking about timing adjustments,” Ira says, “of the universe.”

“All things at the right time, eh?” Case asks.

Kiki has stopped listening to the words. She’s bathing in the sounds of the warbles, and that pink-rosy-glow forms a safe bubble over them and the light inside swishes and swirls, and she thinks that if anything is forever, and she actually knows that nothing is, but if anything were, it would be this. This moment of rosy glow.

The family sitting at a table

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Another Legacy 1.22

Kiki playing with blocks at night

Kiki’s toddlerhood was extremely challenging for me to play, not because of anything to do with Kiki. She was a dream: Her trait is inquisitive, so she was always happy learning, and in fact, was happy most of the time, even if her sleep and hunger veered towards red.

The first challenge was meeting those needs while trying to level up her skills. She needed so much sleep! And we didn’t have a tub on the lot, so it took a lot of time to keep her hygiene up.

Plus, after the composting toilet fiasco, the family funds were drained. We had to sell the tent, a bunch of party items (like the electronic piano and the Freezer-Bunny bar), and several of Ira’s paintings to scrounge up enough Simoleans to pay the bills.

And then there was the lag. Oh, my. The lag. Perhaps it’s because there’s a bee hive on the lot and each of those buzzing objects takes memory. Maybe it’s because it was fall, so the processing was consumed by falling leaves, and falling raindrops. Or maybe it was just because.

My mouse was giving out, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time. So I would click, and nothing. So much in-game time ticking away, and Kiki getting closer to becoming a child, and her skills still needing leveling, and her sleep meter ticking down to red, and even though I’ve queued actions, the lag is making everything take forever! And in real life, I was stressed as the date for my retirement approached, and the game did not provide relief!

But Kiki skills, nonetheless, maxing everything except imagination and communication, which reach the high fours.

Kiki playing with blocks at night

And Harvest Day comes, and three more gnomes spawn, including Grim Reaper Gnome, just to remind us that there are worse things than lag, a failing mouse, and pre-retirement stress!

Harvest Day gnomes

And the family continues to be as charming as ever.

Kiki is surrounded by angelic gnomes in the garden

Aadhya drops by on Harvest Day evening, with a gift for Ira, “because you’re such a good friend and neighbor.”

It’s a packet containing a rare seed.

“I’m not sure if I’m a good enough gardener to grow this,” Ira says.

“That’s OK!” replies Aadhya. “Case is. He can plant it. It’s for both of you.”

Aadhya hands Ira a gift

It’s a Death Flower, and it’s just the right season for planting it.

While Kiki naps (again), Case thinks about this strange gift. It’s thoughtful, touching even.

Case sitting on Kiki's bed

We think of flowers as symbolizing new life, new beginnings. But a Death Flower?

It doesn’t symbolize the end–it symbolizes protection, an escape clause.

All his life, Case never had an escape clause–it was always “accept the consequences, no matter what comes.” And he thinks it still is probably that way. But the idea of an escape–the idea that we could be protected, even from Death. There is something of the myth and mystery in that, even if it all hinges on delusion.

Case sitting on Kiki's bed

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Another Legacy 1.21

Case sits on Kiki's bed while she sleeps

On most days, Case works from home.

But sometimes, like this particular day, when he’s supervising the installation of dew collectors at a tree nursery across the bay, he has to go on site.

“It’ll be fine,” he tells Kiki in the early morning while she sleeps. “Ira will be here with you all day, and when I get back, you’ll be well fed and well rested and happy. Learn a lot, and I’ll see you soon!”

Case in work uniform and hard hat heading out

But all day is a long time to be without Case.

“Where he? Come home?” Kiki asks Ira.

“He’s at work,” Ira says. “I know. It’s different. He usually works at home. But it’s OK. He’ll be back at supper time.”

Ira and Kiki

Kiki and Ira spend the day playing with stacking blocks, talking, eating yummy snacks that Case left for them in the fridge, and playing tag. Before Case makes it home, Kiki is too tired.

“The little dragon went to sleep happy,” Ira read, “because soon, the big dragon would be home, with jewels and treasures, and when the little dragon would wake up, the cave would shine in splendor!”

Ira and Kiki

When Case gets home, he finds that the dew collectors on their own lot have sprung leaks, so before changing from his work clothes and checking on Kiki, he fixes them.

“It’s like being your own handyman!” Ira says.

Case fixing the dew collector

“How was the day, Ira?” Case asks, when he finishes and puts away the tools. “How was Kiki?”

“She was a delight!” Ira says. “Like always. She did the funniest thing. She went up to each plant and talked to it, just like you do. She held out her hand, like it was a pad of paper, and used her finger like a pen. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked her. ‘Research,’ she said!”

Case and Ira at the chess table

“It makes sense,” Case replies. “She’s imprinted us. You know, bonded. Like baby ducks. So we show her what grown up versions of our species do.”

Case and Ira at the chess table

Ira hadn’t thought of that. She wonders, but doesn’t say aloud, what Kiki would have learned about the actions and behaviors of people if her birth parents had lived, or if she’d been taken in by others.

“It’s Kiki’s good fortune, then,” she says. “It’s also a really big responsibility.”

Ira has some inclinations of her own that she wouldn’t want Kiki to pick up. She’d better learn to be a good role model.

Being a good role model isn’t something that Case needs to worry about. It just comes naturally to him, Ira figures.

At the end of the day, Case in his work uniform and hard hat sits at the foot of Kiki's bed

She watches them together and wonders, again, what it would feel like to have someone like Case taking care of you. But then, she realizes, that’s exactly what she has now. Living here, being part of this family, Case watches over all of them.

At the end of the day, Case in his work uniform and hard hat sits at the foot of Kiki's bed

The bees need tending, so in the cool of the evening, Ira dons the beekeeping suit and checks on the hive, harvesting the extra honey. The bees hum with good health.

When Aadhya drops by, Ira’s sitting at the chess table. She’s hoping to earn a chess scholarship, next time she applies to college, but it seems an unrealistic goal. She’s just not that good at the game.

“Where’s Case?” Aadhya asks. “Usually I see both of you out here playing chess.”

Ira in her beekeeping suit at the chess table with Aadhya

“He’s gone to sleep. Big day.”

“You know,” Aadhya confesses, “I used to feel so jealous whenever I came over.”

“Jealous why?”

“I wanted to be in this family. I wanted your role.”

Ira in her beekeeping suit at the chess table with Aadhya

“But I don’t really have a ‘role,'” Ira says, “not like that.”

“Yes,” says Aadhya, “you do. You’re part of this family.”

Ira in her beekeeping suit at the chess table with Aadhya

Ira reviews this conversation after Aadhya leaves.

Are they a family? She figures they are.

Does she have a role? She can’t imagine, now that she thinks about it, how the family would balance, if she weren’t here. There were plenty of times when she would pick up the slack, just naturally fill in when something needed doing, like caring for Kiki today and for the beehive tonight.

She guesses she does have a role, even if it doesn’t have a proper name.

Ira sits at the table outside

Room-mate. Lodger. Best friend. Auntie. None of those names fit.

A foster child. Two friends, who adore each other, living together.

A whole world, wrapped inside this tiny house, with three people, intertwined.

It wasn’t how she imagined her life would turn out.

But then, she couldn’t imagine it being any better, at this moment.

Ira sits at the table outside

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Another Legacy 1.20

Kiana looking upset as the fire blazes

Terrible things can happen.

Since my post on Dec. 5, when I reported that the COVID-19 death count in our county had reached 722, the count has risen by 362 bringing the total to 1,084, in less than a month.

The COVID-19 death rate in our county has climbed to 103.76 per 100,000, and the case rate is, stunningly, 7,093.9 per 100,000. These are terrifying and tragic statistics.

The holidays have interrupted reporting, so these numbing stats are, inevitably, lower than actual.

As a culture and a species, we grasp for optimism through exceptionalism–It can’t happen to us. It can’t happen here. It can’t happen this year. It’s 2021; everything is different now. Biden was elected; good things will happen.

But the tragedy continues. The disinformation campaign, in the political and public health spheres, escalates with predictable, but nearly incomprehensible, results.

Case putting out fire

Exceptionalism doesn’t apply to viruses or disasters or political corruption. Or video games.

In my game, Ira caught on fire–again. I thought of quitting without saving, deleting the cursed compostable toilet, avoiding disaster for my exceptional family.

Ira on fire

But I kept playing. It’s a legacy. We’ll deal with the consequences.

Fire blazing

Around the time of this game play, Deira’s game experienced a similar disaster, which resulted in the death of Aria, everyone’s favorite Sim.

While I was playing, I realized that Ira might die. It would be terrible and hard, especially for Kiana, who, in story, at least, has already experienced so much loss.

Case puts out fire

But Case pulled through. He, once again, put out the fire.

Ira’s white jogging suit was a disaster, but she survived without a scorch.

Case carries Kiana out

“I’m getting rid of that toilet,” Case says. “We’ll put in regular plumbing. Find a way to draw from the city water line, and have an old-fashioned flush toilet. At least it won’t catch on fire every summer.”

“I still can’t believe you saved my life,” Ira says, “again! Remember the last fire? This one was worse.”

“It was worse because Kiki’s here now. Can you imagine? That little girl does not need another trauma in her life.”

“She was retraumatized for sure,” Ira says. “I still hear her cries in my imagination. Is she sleeping OK?”

“Yeah,” Case says. “She calmed right down, and she fell right to sleep. She sings while she falls asleep. It’s the most amazing thing.”

Case and Ira talking

But it takes awhile to get the sewage and water lines dug and connected, and to fill out all the paperwork, and to save up money for the improvements, and before the summer is over, during another heat wave, the compost combusts, again.

Ira on fire again

Case is there in an instant. He’s had practice, by now.

Case putting fire out again

But this time, Ira’s not wearing her jogging suit. She’s wearing a negligee made from synthetic fibers that sends out wild purple flames and the scent of burning plastic.

Kiana upset

“No!” Kiki cries.

Her world crashes in on her. It’s dark and she’s alone and she’s hungry and she’s cold and there is no one.

Case puts out fire

Just because you’re little doesn’t mean you can’t love. And she loved from the moment she looked out at the world and into eyes she can’t remember now. And now, the dark eyes she can remember are swirling in flames.

Kiana cries

And she spent a long, long time in a place with white walls and white suits and faces with smiles that didn’t smile and noises all the time and she has known three places and one was taken from her and one, sweet days, she left, and now this place, home, is ablaze and Ira is at the center of the fire.

Kiana upset

But Ira doesn’t die. She is an exception, and Case is a hero, again, Kiki gets fed and cleaned up and played with and read to and tucked in. And life goes on.

“I hear you had another fire,” Aadhya says when she drops by one afternoon shortly after. “I mean, another-another one.”

Ira and Case sitting at the chess table

“Yeah, but Case put it out,” Ira says. “Our hero.”

“It was nothing,” Case says. “Anybody would’ve done the same.”

Ira and Case sitting at the chess table

“Being a hero is all fine and good,” Aadhya says, “but if you guys weren’t so careless, there’d be no need for heroics. I mean, dudes! You’re gonna retraumatize that little girl all over again. When are you going to grow up and get rid of the combustible toilet?”

“On Tuesday!” Case replies.

Aadhya yells at them

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Another Legacy 1.19

Kiki walks into the garden looking sad

Kiki isn’t always happy. Sometimes, she wakes up from a nap, and no one is in the house, and she is alone again. Always, there’s that little fear–will they come back?

The fear doesn’t make her more shy–it draws her out to meet new people.

Kiki talks with Aadhya

Most of the people she meets are really tall. She has to squint when she looks at them, even when she wears her sunglasses, because their heads are up in the sun.

Aadhya looks really tall, from Kiki's perspective

Conversations work best, she finds, when she pretends she’s a kitten. Kiki the kitten. Really tall people like kittens, so their voices grow soft when she meows to them and bats her paws.

Kiki talks with Aadhya

But she doesn’t have to pretend with Cay-Cay. He likes her even when she is a very small girl, even when her words don’t come out right, and even when she is sad and needs a hug.

Kiki finds Case in the garden to give him a hug

He hugs her when she’s happy, too, though, so she learns early that she doesn’t have to be sad for him to notice her. He will notice her anyway.

“I think Kiana is adjusting really well,” Ira says.

Case and Ira talking in the kitchen

“You’re doing all the right things, Case, to help her feel at home with us.”

“I think about what she’s been through a lot,” Case says. 

Case and Ira talking in the kitchen

“I know good things happen when you think,” Ira replies, more to herself, than anyone.

“I’ve been reading about attachment theory.”

Of course he has.

“Do you know,” he continues, “that even if early attachments are interrupted, it doesn’t mean that the child won’t ever form attachments again? And it doesn’t even really mean they’ll be scarred for life?”

Case and Ira talking in the kitchen

“I sort of figured as much,” Ira chuckled. “You’ve got all the right components to help somebody feel like they belong.”

Case and Ira talking in the kitchen

“Consistency, warmth, availability,” he adds. “Researchers say that these approaches help even adults who have had attachment issues.”

“Don’t I know it,” says Ira. “You’re always there, always kind, without being smothering. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a little kid who has an adult around who’s like that. Kiki’s really lucky.”

Case and Ira talking in the kitchen

“I think we should adopt her,” Case says. “Or I should, if they won’t let both of us. They said that they need to look for her family, because social services always tries to keep families together, whenever they can, so they’re looking for grandparents or uncles, aunts, cousins, that sort of thing. But the social worker also told me that they didn’t think they’d find any, or any that would qualify to take her. So there’s a chance we could adopt.”

“Do they let single people adopt?” Ira asks. “We could always get married if you had to have a spouse for that.”

“I wouldn’t want to,” Case replies. “It would feel weird. The social worker says there shouldn’t be any obstacle to being single, all things considered. But they need to finish their search, for the paperwork, then I need to prove that this really is a stable home.”

Ira feels confident that it will work out, even if it takes some time. Case isn’t ready to let himself feel optimistic. He’s not sure if he can trust things to work out when other people and their rules are involved. But he’s got to give it a try. He can’t imagine this tiny person becoming a really tall person anywhere but here, with him and Ira.

Case sitting in Kiki's bed

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Winter: On Wing and Prayer

Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge - Veteran, Nov-Dec 2020

This story is part of the Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge, coordinated and hosted by the amazing LisaBee. Please read the other stories, then, if you’d like share your votes for your favorites in the Veteran and Novice categories. You’re also encouraged to write and submit your own Sims short story! Deadline is Dec. 30. Note: Links to other stories and voting will be available at Lisabee’s blog on Jan. 1, 2021. Polls close Jan. 6, 2021

Stack of boxes of decorations in a dark hall

I can’t bring myself to decorate this year. I went to the attic, lugged down the boxes of construction paper chains and clove-studded styrofoam balls we made, my sisters and I, twenty years ago, but the boxes sit in the hall, as closed up as I feel inside.

My therapist tells me that grief is harder for sons and daughters, like me, who were emotionally neglected children. The only mood acceptable in our childhood home was cheerfulness stirred with an unhealthy dose of denial. It got us through with the illusion of being a happy family, especially during the holidays, when our good cheer ramped up with excitement and tension. But it didn’t teach us how to deal with other feelings.

If there’s anything this year has demanded, it’s been to learn to deal with those other things. That sounds too glib.

Everything sounds glib to me now, for the deepest words, the only ones that come close to touching this year, they’re buried shut.

Sometimes, I feel if I could only pull out one word, or two, that could express something of what we’re all feeling, I would be OK.

Looking sad

I figure I heard my dad say, maybe, 65,000 words–I mean, throughout my lifetime. Ten words a day, on average, for 18 years. Then, 10 words a day each time I saw him, which was maybe two or three times a year after that, for the next 10 years. And now, he’s silent forever. It’s not many words.

I must have heard my mom say 65,000 words a year–if not a day. You’d think the silence of her voice would be louder, but it’s my dad’s silence I notice more.

I don’t think I ever heard what I wanted to hear from either of them, not from my dad’s reticence nor my mom’s loquaciousness. And now, I won’t ever.

They died in April, a week apart, on ventilators, both of them, back in the days when doctors didn’t know to prone patients, back the first time hospitals were full, back when we thought that life would return to normal by now.

There’s no normal anymore. A few weeks after the Zoom memorial, the editor told all of us we’d be working remotely through June 2021, at least. The server team needed to stay where they could VPN in easily to the servers, but the writers, like me, could work from anywhere.

At the beginning of summer, when I couldn’t stand the idea of staying in my apartment through the heat of July and August, I moved up here to our family cabin. WiFi is surprisingly good, thanks to the State Park headquarters.

I tried to talk my sisters into bringing their households up here. We could form our own bubble, I figured, and I’d get to be with my niece and nephew. Good place for kids.

But my big sister was too busy with the kids’ remote learning, and her doctor husband couldn’t really leave his clinic. My little sister didn’t want to leave her Instacart job. “People count on me,” she said. “Maybe it’s not an important job, but it keeps older people safe.” Her boyfriend was earning overtime in the Amazon Fulfillment Center.

So, I’ve been isolating here by myself.

Jasper making sandwich

Sometimes my little sister and I will meet up online at ESO and run a dungeon or two. Sometimes her boyfriend will join us. We’ll talk on discord while we fight Daedra and Dremora.

But there are more nights when I’m alone. I don’t know if solitude helps processing grief or makes it harder. All I know is I have so much time to think that sometimes I can’t help but feel.

Crying on the couch

It was my little sister who turned me onto the discord channel for Covid Losers. Everyone there has lost someone or something to the pandemic. There are a lot of people like our family who lost parents. Then there are others who lost jobs, houses, plans, graduations, weddings, or their health.

It’s ripped into all of our lives.

Writing on the computer

Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel worse. It’s not schadenfreude, for I’m not happy at their suffering. It’s just that, I’m not so alone.

Brewing coffee

I wouldn’t wish for anyone to lose anyone or anything.

But talking to the others on discord, I realize that we aren’t losing alone. It’s like, we haven’t been singled out.

Eating alone at the counter

It’s swept through all our lives.

Drinking coffee

It’s winter now. Solstice. It’s dark by 4:15, and the silence is greater than I’d imagined.

I’ve been remembering how, even though my dad didn’t really talk, he used to sing.

Standing outside at night

He liked to sing happy songs, “Mares Eat Oats.” But he liked to sing hymns, too, especially the tragic ones. I must have heard him sing more words than I ever heard him speak.

When I was little, I used to listen for his bass, winding through the house. I could feel the low notes in my bones. Sometimes I sing now, in a voice that sounds like his.

On the solstice, I go out into the dark night. I think of everyone I know who has lost someone, something. I think of my two sisters and their households. I think of the countless people I don’t know, who have lost, too, and how this darkness holds all of us, in its silence, the stilled voices of those who no longer speak.

Profile in night

And in a voice that sounds like my dad’s, I sing into the darkness:

Holy, holy, holy!
Though the darkness hide thee
Only Thou art holy

Looking out into the peaceful darkness

As I sing, words don’t matter. It’s just voice, the deep resonance, that reaches out, fills the space, calls in memory, pulls out feelings. Around the world, people cry, and sing, and laugh, and weep some more, and this darkness surrounds them, with their living, breathing voices filling the emptiness.

This is the darkest night. Starting tomorrow, days will be longer.

Another Legacy 1.18

Ira stands at the mailbox

This is the day. Ira can feel it. She’s waited for months to hear back on her scholarship and university admissions applications, and nothing. Not a thing, all through the process of Case getting licensing to become a foster parent. Not a word while they’ve helped Kiki settle in. Just silence. It’s been hard to wait, but Case reminds her that bureaucracy takes time, and that doesn’t mean it’s not working, it’s just working slowly.

Too slow for Ira. But today’s the day. She is sure of it.

And it is. But it’s not the day she’d hoped for. She gets not an acceptance letter, not two award letters for scholarships, but rejection. Dismissal. Turned away. Doors shut. Worse than waiting, the worst news. Not knowing was better than this.

Ira looks dejected

How could she have been so foolish, to let herself dream? To believe that she, Ira Mahajan, could become the first generation in her family to attend college, and not just community college, but university, and not just any university, but a prestigious honors arts program? She was a fool to think it.

Ira looks discouraged

She’d been swept away by being around so many inspiring people–Case and Tina Tinker, who could do anything they set out to do, as if they’d never heard the word “obstacle,” as if just wishing it made you good enough, and so she believed that she was good enough, too, for she wished it, and she thought, for these few months of waiting, that she could be something other than a paparazzi who quit, someone who stayed at home and did, well, nothing. But she should have listened to her family and followed their lead. No one in their family amounted to anything, and why should she be any different? It hurt worse to try and fail than never try at all–that was the secret that her family knew all too well, and she was a fool to think anything different.

I am a community college instructor. I’ve been teaching writing, English comp, and literature at the community college for the past 25 years. It’s my passion. Many of us, including Jill Biden, teach in the community college because of women like Ira: first-generation college students, returning to their education after an interlude. Many of these students feel that they’re at a disadvantage–and they can experience tremendous cultural dissonance as they navigate the regimented scope of bureaucracy and intellectual norms that circumscribe the community college environment–and at the same time, they bring with them a wealth of experience, ideas, and latent enthusiasm that is unmatched.

There is a moment that often happens for these students in the writing and English comp class where their reading mind turns on, their critical thinking becomes engaged, and they find their voice. Suddenly, their passion is ignited–and it’s a passion that stems from a lifetime of living, of being unheard, and often unseen–or at least, not seen for who they truly are–and now, they are finding that their words take light on the paper or computer screen, and others take notice–but what’s even more important, they are hearing themselves. They have something to say, and their words resonate.

I know, for these students, that making it onto the path that leads to this moment can involve a few missteps. Maybe they had to drop out for a semester or two, due to the birth of a child, a husband getting laid off, a sick kid, a death in the family. Maybe they failed this very same class a few times, or had to take an incomplete. But they stick with it. They find, at last, a welcoming class, an approach that clicks with them. The kids are well. The money for rent, or gas, or food, is coming in. Nobody dies that semester. And they make it.

So I’m not concerned about Ira having a setback along the way.

Case isn’t, either.

“That sucks,” he says, when she tells him the news.

Case talks to Ira

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Ira replies.

“You were thinking you’d go to college,” Case says. “You don’t need to, you know. You’re exactly perfect just as you are. You’re the most intelligent person I know, and you don’t need to prove anything. At the same time, college is cool. It feels good to use your mind in that way. And research is the most fun. But just ’cause you didn’t get in this time, that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get in.”

“Yeah, right,” Ira says. “What university would want a loser like me?”

Ira is still upset

“You’re not a loser,” Case says. “You’re my winner. You make everything possible here.”

She snorts. He explains how he’d never have tried for his foster parent license if it hadn’t been for her. If she hadn’t been there, all these years, to encourage him and listen to him and help keep him on his path, he probably would’ve left this job and this town years ago.

He tells her about a colleague, one of the directors at the NGO, actually, who has a Ph.D. but who got rejected from university five times before getting accepted.

“It’s just… it’s like a game,” Case says. “You gotta know the rules. The right words to write. The right references, the right stuff to put on your application. You’ve got most of it already, and the skills you still need to develop, you’ve got time to work on. We’ve got a few months before the next round of applications are due. And I’ll help this time! We’ll get that application squared away so you get accepted right off the bat!”

“You think so?”

“Sure! Piece of cake!”

Ira and Case talking--Ira is inspired!

Of course she doesn’t have to go to college. She’s amazing as she is. But she wants her moment. She wants to find, for herself, that she can speak and be heard. That she can read those academic journals, like Case reads, and make sense of them. That she can see how where they are now, in time, and history, and culture, and dialogue, and collapse, and rebirth, and rise, and decay–how it all fits into the big scheme. She wants to feel her moment in this grand intellectual life.

And Case says she can do it. And she thinks, maybe she can.

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