Fall 2021, Volume 31

Fiction by Michael Tilley


Chevelle finished helping Jeremiah with math, then cleaned his ear, logged him on to a meeting and—leaving him there at the makeshift desk in her bedroom, a card table set against the barred window overlooking the avenue—went to put a frozen pizza in the oven.  A minute later, passing to the bathroom, she peeked in on him.  Slightly hunched, hands folded in his lap, his dangling feet swayed as his teacher talked.  Chevelle saw over his shoulder that most of the class wasn’t there.

Hanging on the shower rod was one of her favorite outfits, a cute blouse and pants combo she always paired with a certain necklace.  Putting it on, Chevelle felt wonderful.  She loved clothes, could look at catalogs all day, and if she ever spent money on herself, it was on that.  Not for six months had she had a reason to dress like this, though, since the hotel shut down after Covid hit and her job in the payroll office vanished.  She missed it. 

Humming to the music floating in the bathroom window from across the courtyard, she colored her cheeks, applied some lipstick and a touch of eye shadow, smoothed each sleeve from shoulder to cuff.  A matching blazer would be so great, she mused, studying her reflection, and sparked excitedly at the thought.  She told herself she’d get one when they could afford it.

But then, remembering that nice clothing had no place in the job for which she was interviewing, her excitement drained away.

Chevelle spent a few minutes straightening up the kitchen, until she heard Jeremiah’s teacher sign off for the day.  She found him still at the card table, adding a whale to a picture of the ocean.

“All done?”

“Mm-hmm,” he murmured without looking up.

“Did I hear Ms. Noel say you don’t see her again until tomorrow?”


“But it’s only eleven-fifteen.”

“That’s what she told us.  I don’t know.”

Chevelle sighed.  “Okay, come on.  It’s lunchtime; I made you pizza.”

Jeremiah slapped down his crayon and jumped to his feet.  Finally laying eyes on her, he wrinkled his nose.  “Why are you dressed like that?”

“I have a meeting, too.”

“Oh,” he said and walked out.

Chevelle brought Jeremiah his pizza and some water and left him watching TV on the couch.  She closed her bedroom door behind her.  Her eyes darted to the laptop, sitting open on the card table amidst Jeremiah’s school materials; then they swung the other way, surveying her screen background.  She sprang into action.  The bed was smoothed and the pillows plumped.  A self-portrait of Jeremiah flopping off the wall received tape.  Crumpled tissues on the nightstand hit the trash.  The blinds went up to let in more light, and the sash came down to muffle the noise. 

After that, Chevelle waited.

At exactly eleven-thirty she opened the Zoom link she’d been sent.  Reaching the final prompt, she paused, stomach fluttering, then cleared her throat and prepared to smile.  She clicked….

Waiting for the host to start this meeting.

For nearly fifteen minutes, she sat clicking to no avail.  About when the bus driver parked below pulled away, after killing two slices, reading the paper and making some calls, she began to worry that by the time the interview got going, Jeremiah would be tired of TV and interrupt. 
     Then she started wondering if anyone would show at all. 

Finally, though: Connecting…

Suddenly a man in a faded Metallica t-shirt, sitting in what looked like a utility closet, appeared on-screen.  His neck veins stood out as he cocked an ear off-camera.  

“No tomato,” the man called into the wings.  Grimacing, he fell back listening.  A moment later, his body jerked.  “No!” he shouted.  “No tomato!”  Shaking his head in exasperation, the man at last looked into the screen.

“Sorry, sorry—crazy day, just totally nuts.  Anyway….”  He puffed his cheeks, exhaled loudly, squinted down to read something.

“Okaaaay, Ch—is it pronounced Chevelle?”

“Yes, that’s right.”  Chevelle sat up straighter, interlacing her fingers on the card table.
     “Phil Perkell,” the man said, and flashed a tight smile before looking back down.

Chevelle waited.  As she did, she heard a door squeak, and a second after a woman’s arm entered the frame, setting something in front of Perkell.  “Thanks, hon,” he said.  The door squeaked again.

Perkell’s head snapped up.  “Okay, listen,” he said decisively.  “I know you’re Bernice’s friend, and I love Bernice, but I don’t see any experience here.  Have you ever actually done home care work?”  He bit into a grilled cheese sandwich.

Chevelle nodded soberly.  “No, I haven’t, that’s true.  But I helped take care of a very sick family member for a while, plus I’m a mom—and you probably know what that means, Mr. Perkell!”  Perkell, she saw, wasn’t impressed. 

“I think what really makes me a strong candidate, though, is the responsibility factor.  You need to be extra-responsible in this kind of job—a person’s totally depending on you—and in my last position, in the hotel payroll office, I had to be very responsible.  Extremely responsible.”

“Right, right,” said Perkell in a distant tone. 

He passed his hand back and forth over his shaved scalp, chewing.  When he swallowed, he leaned forward and began to speak—but something on his screen distracted him.  His eyes narrowed, his lips moved silently, he frowned.  Then he refocused.

“Look, here’s the deal: without experience, I can’t put you on anything I have.  Doesn’t mean things won’t change, could even happen tomorrow, but right now there’s nothing.”  He didn’t pause.  “So listen: I gotta jump; like I said, wild day.  I’ll keep my eyes open, though.  Cool?”

“Okay, thank you,” said Chevelle, straining to maintain her smile.  “I appreciate that.”

“Fantastic,” said Perkell.  “Stay safe.”  And he was gone.

Chevelle sat a minute, staring out the window.  Then she went to get Jeremiah back to his school work.


As soon as he was asleep that night, Chevelle melted into the couch.  She didn’t know how on earth it was possible, not having gone to a job or even left the apartment that day, but she’d never felt as tired in her life.  She couldn’t believe this was only September.  It was scary, thinking how much remote school was still in front of them.  And summer already seemed so long ago…

Late one morning during the second week of August, after searching frantically through the apartment and the building hallways, Chevelle found Jeremiah huddled on the fire escape, crying: scared of catching Covid, he’d hidden there to avoid going out in public, and wore a mask to protect himself from the people on the street below.  For Chevelle, it was to that point the darkest moment of the pandemic, a scene often replayed in her mind with horror.  Yet she’d also come to consider it a blessing. 

Since the shutdown, her cousin Tonya had pushed hard for them to come stay in her house in Queens, enticing her with talk of chilling like they used to and visions of the kids playing in the yard—but Chevelle, worried it’d be too close for comfort, everybody packed under one roof, always declined.  Now, two minutes after pulling Jeremiah off the fire escape, as she scrutinized him from across the room, she called to ask Tonya if tomorrow was too soon.

“Finally!” whooped her cousin, and when she yelled to her kids and Jumaane, their father, that Chevelle and Jeremiah were coming, cheers erupted in the background.

For the next four weeks, they grilled and ran through the sprinkler and chased fireflies; sang in the car on the way to the beach and ate ice pops on the stoop at night.  Jeremiah learned to dribble through his legs, got interested in fishing from a show Jumaane watched.  He changed, became happier, you saw it in his face and in how he carried himself.  A weight lifted from Chevelle.  She still had worries, of course, but for the first time in months she could look at Jeremiah and not just hope but know he was alright.

Here they were, though, stuck in the apartment again, with life right back to what it was before.  And Tonya had begged her to stay.

Out on the street a man started shouting, ranting about a stolen three dollars.  

The problem was Tonya’s approach to education.  She wasn’t serious about it, didn’t see it as a priority, seemed not to grasp what it meant to a child’s future.  She let her kids slack; a bit of weather and she’d keep them home; several times that summer she’d said this year didn’t matter, you already knew they’d learn nothing over the computer.  There were no expectations in her house, no consequences.  School shouldn’t inconvenience you, was the mindset.   

But Chevelle didn’t play games with academics—especially not now.  The spring was a nightmare, three wasted months, and Jeremiah couldn’t afford to repeat it.  She needed to keep him focused, make sure he didn’t fall behind.  His environment mattered.  It was on her to put him in the right one.  She loved Tonya, wouldn’t forget what she’d done for them, but her lifestyle wasn’t the answer.

Which couldn’t be said, obviously.  So at summer’s end, under a hail of tears and pleadings and eye rolls, Chevelle pinned leaving on not wanting Jeremiah to get too used to being away from home.


A week after her interview, sitting at the kitchen table working on a fairytale with Jeremiah, Chevelle’s phone rang.

“So whaddaya think?” Perkell said at once, neglecting to identify himself.  “Ready to be a road warrior?”  He sounded manic.

“Excuse me?”

“You still need a job, right?”

Chevelle said she did.

“Okay, good.  ‘Cause I have one for you.  Here’s the thing, though: the gig’s upstate.  You willing to travel?” 


She checked the time again: by now he was wake.  She wondered what he was doing, if everything was okay.  He’d seemed fine when he finally fell asleep last night, appeared to understand—but maybe he was just exhausted, drained from sobbing and past fighting anymore.  And then this morning he opens his eyes and….

Tires hissing after a pre-dawn downpour, the bus sped north through a flat, drab landscape of strip malls and office parks; of used car dealerships and highway-hugging housing tracts.  The sun shone dully.  Road signs shivered.  The bus was silent, empty save a handful of solitary passengers scattered about.  Seated at the rear, Chevelle now saw only the back of their nodding heads, but boarding in the city she’d noted each face.  They’d looked tired, somber—and just as desperate as you had to be to get on a bus these days.  Like she probably did.

Aside from Bernice putting her in touch with Perkell, Chevelle’s lone job lead since spring had come off a lamppost—and when she pursued it, some sort of mortgage shop needing people to make cold calls, the number was disconnected.  Otherwise, not a thing. 

And this was before they started talking surges.  That’s all it was lately: surges, surges, surges.  Autumn surges.  Winter surges.  Surges as awful as the beginning or even worse.  It terrified Chevelle.  Because if finding work now was impossible, what’d be the chances then?   

Meanwhile, money was running low.  They were back from Queens only a couple days the first time Chevelle picked up dinner at the church.  There she found a list of food pantries in the area.  The next afternoon she brought her shopping cart to one and, telling Jeremiah it was a special kind of store, took as much as they’d give.  They’d made this trip twice a week since.  It was always the pantry farthest from home that they visited, to avoid seeing anybody they knew.

A few rows ahead, a guy in a hooded sweatshirt unleashed a wave of violent coughs capped by a phlegmy hawking.  Reflexively, Chevelle adjusted her mask. 

When Perkell called the other day, then, his proposal didn’t seem as crazy as it would’ve before.  Live upstate with an old man every Sunday to Friday, and leave Jeremiah behind?  She said she’d think about it. 

Reconciling herself to the concept didn’t take long.  She despised the idea of being separated from her son, almost nothing in the world sounded more horrible, but things were at the point of take what you can get.  What haunted her were the shelters.  Chevelle knew folks that Covid had put into them; where the bottom fell out and there was no other way.  She couldn’t let that happen to Jeremiah.

And if it’d meant sending him to Tonya’s?  Luckily for Chevelle, she hadn’t had to decide. 

After the collapse of his latest business venture, the domestic distribution of a line of organic juices produced from assorted Paraguayan fruits, her younger brother Deron was broke, sleeping on a cot in the basement of the building where he’d had to give up his apartment.  An independent spirit with extravagant entrepreneurial ambitions, prone to becoming consumed by each new scheme he cooked up, Deron wasn’t the ideal candidate to direct the studies of a second grader.  What he had going for him, though, besides being the only available alternative to Tonya, were his sister’s memories of him as a bright, curious, disciplined student who’d eventually gotten two years of college.  Which suggested, in Chevelle’s head, that he might promote a similar scholarliness in Jeremiah. 

With Tonya she knew how school would be handled; with Deron there was a chance, at least, of giving her boy what he needed.

Calling him the night of the day she heard from Perkell, Chevelle caught him slightly short of breath on the street, walking to the tune of clanking bottles.  She asked what he was doing.

“Nothing,” Deron said, a little defensively.  “Just getting some air.”  He halted and the clanking stopped.

Right away he said yes to moving in with Jeremiah.


When she opened her eyes, head flopped against the cool, mud-spattered glass, the first thing Chevelle saw, staring back at her, was the smear of yellow gunk crusted onto the fabric seat in front.  Here and there, polyester bristles sprang from it like mole hairs. 

She straightened up, fumbled for her phone, found it in a crumb-filled cranny next to her leg.  She had a text from Deron: All cool plus a thumbs-up emoji.

Chevelle sent back three smiley faces and a fist bump.

While she’d slept, the bus had left exurbia, was now skimming along a two-lane road edged on one side by low outcrops, on the other by dense forest with a creek snaking through.  A blackened deer carcass whizzed past, a crooked white cross with a withered bouquet at its foot; chimney smoke rose from a cabin in the woods.  Then they rounded a bend and the landscape opened.  With a growl and a lurch, the bus accelerated onto a long straightaway running through a little valley of farmland.  Halfway across, they came to some houses clustered close to the road, maybe eight or ten, a few looking ready to fall down.  After the last one, in front of which a dog stood watching the bus go by, the fields continued all the way to the big hills up ahead.

Twenty minutes later, Chevelle stepped off the bus at a gas station opposite an abandoned diner.  No one was around but the clerk eyeing her through the window and a man in a parked car.  “Chevelle?” the man called.  She crunched over the gravel-strewn concrete, put her bags in the back and got in.  

The man extended his hand, yanked it back while mumbling apologetically, and, after briefly seeming at a loss for what to do, stuck out an elbow.  Chevelle bumped hers against it.

“Steve McMahon.  Nice to meet you.”

They pulled onto the road, passing a woman trudging along the shoulder with a small child, and through his mask McMahon said the house wasn’t far, just a couple miles away, and that she’d like it.  It was cozy and quiet with a nice view of the hills that, because the Indian summer that’d slowed the leaves’ changing was finally done, would only get better in the coming weeks.

“Speaking of,” he said, “did you bring anything warmer than that sweatshirt?”

Chevelle told him she had.

The sun had disappeared again.  High on the left, a vulture circled.  They saw some firewood for sale, a front yard littered with Trump signs.  Pushing Brooklyn out of her thoughts, Chevelle searched her brain for something to say.  McMahon beat her to it.

“Well, you’re really savin’ us here!”  He shook his head at the scale of the salvation, causing a stringy gray forelock on his otherwise bald pate to flap about.  “Thank God we found you.”

McMahon explained that his mother had died suddenly the previous winter, in the house to which they were heading.  Unable to get by on his own, his father’s only option was to move downstate, where he shuttled on a weekly basis between McMahon’s place in Queens and his sister’s on Long Island (a second sister was useless owing to unspecified “issues”).  But the old man didn’t adjust, wouldn’t accept reality, was constantly depressed and pining for the house up north, his and his wife’s home since retirement. 

“’Nothing personal,’ he’d say to us, ‘but I don’t wanna be here.  I wanna be there.’”  McMahon laughed ruefully.  “Nope, nothing personal, Dad!” 

His children tried to accommodate him.  The best they could do, though, given they had jobs and families, was to occasionally bring him upstate for a short stay.  And when these visits were over, he went right back to being miserable.

People said to consider a facility; some were nice and they knew how to handle these situations.  But even if somehow the expense could be managed, it was out of the question.

“Forget it,” said McMahon, shaking his head again, this time more vigorously and knitting his brow.  “Those places are Covid factories.  Put him in there, he’s done.  It’s a death sentence.”    

They just needed to make it official, figured the siblings: Dad now lived with them.  The finality would be good.  Would help him come to terms.  And anyway, they kept telling each other, it’s the right thing.  After all, we’re his kids.  Us taking care of him is how it should be.

Saying this, McMahon’s voice rose, then cracked a little.

But they couldn’t pull the trigger.  What they kept coming back to was wanting him to be happy, and they knew in their hearts he only would be in the country.  Then their cousin Maureen had a thought.

Bringing in an aide for her mom was a godsend; what about doing the same for Dad upstate?

At first it seemed nutty, sticking him three hours away with a stranger.  Soon, though, they came around to the idea—at least enough to put it to him.  Instantly he said yes.

“Wasn’t too easy to make happen, as it turned out.”  McMahon flicked his head left, to look at a man pushing a wheelbarrow.  “First we blew a month trying to find someone up here—never got a sniff.  And then that guy Perkell?  You wouldn’t believe the money some of his people want to leave the city.  Looked pretty grim for a while there.  But then we found you!”

They slowed, turned right, started climbing a rutted dirt lane with branches brushing the car on either side.  When a pickup truck appeared ahead, McMahon eased aside to let it pass.  As they waited, Chevelle’s phone vibrated.  She snuck a peek: good luck mom!!!!

“Sorry,” she said, catching McMahon glancing over.  “It’s my son.”

“Don’t apologize!  My sister says he’s a little guy?”



McMahon resumed driving and they bumped along in silence a few seconds. 

“Must be hard leaving him.”

Chevelle nodded.

They continued a short way further uphill, then swung onto another narrow track that soon ended at a small cottage flying an American flag.  A woman was looking out from inside a storm door.  Chevelle recognized her from the video interview as McMahon’s sister.

McMahon said: “Before we go in, can I see your test result?”


“How come you’re whispering, Mom?”

“Because the man I’m helping is asleep in the next room.”

“Is he nice?”


“Is the house nice?”   

Chevelle sat down on the edge of her bed, looked out the window into the dark.  “Mm-hmm.  It’s kind of like a cabin.  It’s way up a hill in the middle of a forest and there’s a porch and a fireplace and lots of old pictures on the walls.  It’s very peaceful, not many other houses around.  Oh, I saw some deer!”  Jeremiah excitedly peppered her with questions, and made her promise to take a picture the next time. 

She asked about his day.  He was happy to talk and she was happy to let him but when he yawned—a long, light breath that made him sound almost like a baby—she told him it was time to go to sleep.  “Can you put Uncle Deron back on?”

She heard his feet scampering over the floorboards, heard the phone joggle changing hands.

“What’s up?”

“Hey, he seems really good,” Chevelle said.  “One thing, though: Can you get him to bed a little earlier?  He—” 

“He wanted to talk to you.”  Icy-voiced.

“Yeah, I know.  I just…”  She stopped short.  “Forget it, Deron.  It’s all good.  I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

A minute later, she texted him: THANK YOU! and three hearts.

Chevelle switched off the light, got under the covers, reached out her arm and pushed open the door, to hear Mr. McMahon in the night.  Until Friday, it was just the two of them there now.

She lay smelling the faint scent of wood smoke, listening to a tree branch scrabbling the roof. 


Before she went home, Mr. McMahon’s daughter had said: “Just make sure you keep an eye on him.  You’ll think he’s fine, but he isn’t.”  They were standing in the cottage’s tiny garage, ostensibly so Chevelle could see the ancient Taurus at her disposal.  The space was chilly, and both women had their arms crossed tightly on their chest.  “He’ll forget to close the fridge; forget to shut off the faucet; forget how to get back if he goes out alone.  The front door, he’ll leave it wide open—we’ve had animals get in.  And don’t let him near the stove or he’ll burn the place down.”  The daughter—her name was Kathy—gave a nonchalant wave.  “Sorry, we’ve gone over all this.  I’ll shut up.”  Then she threw her index finger in the air.  “The medications!  He’ll never remember to take them by himself.” 

You’ll think he’s fine, but he isn’t.  Only a few hours into their first full day together, and already Chevelle understood.

On the one hand, Mr. McMahon hadn’t needed much that morning; all she’d done so far was set out some pills and scramble some eggs.  And sitting in the den after breakfast, he’d fared pretty well, in Chevelle’s opinion, filling her in on himself—from his childhood in Brooklyn and career as a math teacher, to his long, happy marriage and affection for rustic life.  Sure, he’d wandered about in the telling; sure, he’d repeated himself quite a bit—but Mr. McMahon was eighty-two.  All in all, it’d been…fine.

But then, not five minutes later, that look.

Chevelle’s phone had just pinged for the third time in quick succession.  On the first two occasions, from a sense of professional decorum, she’d refused to let herself check it.  Now, though, she couldn’t resist. 

Picking up the phone as discreetly as possible from an end table, she read the following message from Deron: math site not working?? huh??

Chevelle looked across the way at the old man.  Lips moving a little, hands folded in his lap, he appeared transfixed by the television, on which Trump and Biden flashed their teeth inside adjacent pulsating boxes. 

“Mr. McMahon?”


“Mr. McMahon?”   

In slow motion, he turned.  First his face was blank.  Then he blinked drowsily.  Finally he squinted, as if puzzled. 

Instantly Chevelle grasped what his daughter had meant, and every danger she’d warned of was easy to imagine.  

“Do you mind if I make a quick call?  It’s about my son.  There’s a small school problem.”

His lips parted slightly but nothing came out.  Then, softly, he said: “Oh.  Your son.  Okay.”

Chevelle got up and went to the next room, watching Mr. McMahon from the doorway while figuring out that Deron’s password was wrong.  Returning, she laid the phone back down on the end table.

“All set,” she said.

Mr. McMahon nodded.


“Good week?”  Kathy, fresh off the road, still holding the butter cookies she’d brought her father, beamed hopefully. 

What she wanted, Chevelle knew, was reassurance she wasn’t quitting—not to be told that the week apart from Jeremiah was pure misery.

Great week,” said Chevelle, and beamed right back.  

Leaving Mr. McMahon dozing in the care of his teenaged grandson, who’d walked straight through the door to the screened-in porch to look at his phone, they set off in the gloaming for the gas station bus stop—from where, a half hour later, Chevelle started back to the city clutching an envelope containing her pay, which had been presented with heartfelt thanks, a sisterly arm rub and the parting words: “Be careful this weekend.  Right?”

The next morning Chevelle bounced out of bed early, energetic despite getting in late, and was already sitting awhile at the kitchen table, listening to Deron snore on the couch, when Jeremiah burst from his room into her arms.  She hauled him onto her lap, planted a long, firm kiss on his temple.  He shook free, began chattering; pointing at Deron, she shushed him.  “Will you draw a picture I can put in my room at the man’s house?” she murmured.  Which kept him busy until Deron’s eyes cracked open and she announced: “I’m making pancakes!”

Chevelle hardly ever made pancakes, but she’d known since the bus ride north last week that she was going to make them today.

Twenty minutes later, she jumped up out of the blue and grabbed her mask.  “I’ll be back quick,” she said.  “Leave the plates; I’ll wash them in a bit.” 

Sitting there eating she’d been mentally debating running to the supermarket, thinking on the one hand that after being gone it wasn’t right; on the other that she’d get it done faster alone and that she needed to keep Jeremiah out of stores as much as possible.  Deron letting loose in his boxers with a big rolling yawn, looking like he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, immediately settled it.

Heading out the door, they both frowned at her.

Now, suddenly, it’d gotten past eleven.  Her brother, whom she’d returned to find sulking with his jacket on, had just skulked out, grumbling that he didn’t know when he’d be home.  Over on the couch, Jeremiah was still in his pajamas, watching TV with a vacant expression.  Unpacking a carton of milk, a sinking feeling hit Chevelle.  Pancakes.  She wanted today to be something special, but so far the only thing different about it was a plate of pancakes.   

Once they were out walking in the crisp October air, Jeremiah dribbling his basketball at her hip, the feeling passed.

After a few minutes, he asked where they were going.  She smiled mischievously—then realized, when he didn’t react, that it had no impact because it was hidden by her mask.  “Oh, just wait!” she teased, twinkling her eyes, to deliver the effect instead.

He began hounding her, begging to be told the surprise.  A block from their destination, she finally gave in.  “We’re getting the new Captain Underpants book!”

He froze, popped his eyes wide, did a dance and flexed like he’d dunked.  Three times that week, talking on the phone, he’d mentioned hearing another installment was out.

They rounded the corner, Jeremiah raced ahead, and halfway down the street Chevelle watched him stop short.  He wheeled back to her, arms flung wide.

The bookstore’s gate was padlocked, and heaped in front of it, next to a pile of old mail, were the possessions of a homeless person.  Scrawled on a taped-up scrap of paper was:


Jeremiah was crying. Rubbing his head consolingly, Chevelle looked up the avenue, down the avenue.  She couldn’t think of anyplace around to buy a book. 

“Are we still gonna get it?”  On both cheeks little dark patches, perfectly symmetrical, had sprouted at the upper edge of his mask.

Chevelle checked her phone.  The nearest bookstore was a couple neighborhoods away, much too far to walk. 

“Are we?”

She was about to explain that public transportation was out of the question, and that they really shouldn’t risk getting in a car—but caught the words in her mouth.


Soon after, a saggy-trunked livery cab, its front bumper secured with duct tape, pulled up to the curb.  Chevelle opened the door—then abruptly slammed it shut.  Shaking her head and scowling, she signaled for the driver, who was gesturing at them to get in, to move on.  He rolled down the window.

“There’s no partition,” Chevelle said.  She pointed to where the barrier should be, then indicated it with a slicing hand motion.  “We’re not going with you.”

The driver tapped his mask furiously, sputtering behind it.

Chevelle shook her head again.  “Nope.”

The driver threw his hand in the air, smacked the wheel and shot off.   

“What’s wrong?” said Jeremiah.

“That car wasn’t safe.  Don’t worry, we’ll get another one.”

A little later, returning home in a back seat sealed off by triple-layered plastic sheeting, Chevelle decided to probe Jeremiah about Deron.  In a strenuously casual tone, but studying his face intently, she said: “So, everything was okay this week?”

Jeremiah didn’t lift his eyes from his new book.  “Mm-hmm.”

“Is Uncle Deron a good cook?”

Flatly, still reading: “Pretty good.”

“He helps you work the laptop?”

(Ditto): “Yeah.” 

“Well, as long as it was alright,” Chevelle said, giving up.

&Finally Jeremiah raised his head, fixing on a spot before him.  “Yeah, it was fine,” he said after a moment, and then looked down again.

Back in the apartment, the hours ticked away.  Whatever he felt like, she agreed to.  Once, playing a board game, he surprised her by suddenly asking if she was sad.  Afterward she was careful not to forget her face, regardless of her thoughts.

Deep in the day, purple-pink sky and gathering shadows, the smell of a neighbor’s cooking wafting in from down the hall, they took a break from shooting on the Nerf hoop to watch TV.  Panting a little, sweat creeping along his jaw, Jeremiah handled the remote, eventually landing on a nature show exploring the genealogy of the cat family.  At the mention of the bobcat, Chevelle idly noted that some probably lived around Mr. McMahon’s house.  Jeremiah hit pause.


“I think so, yeah; I’m pretty sure there are bobcats in New York.”

Jeremiah stared off, wheels turning.    

“You’d like it up there, with all the wildlife.  One day.”

His head snapped to her.  “I can go?  When?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  We’ll have to—”   

“Will I help the man, too?”

“No, no—you don’t need to help him.  I just mean, maybe someday we’ll take a trip to that area.  Like a little vacation.  Not now: someday.”

Without pausing, Chevelle diverted him by bringing up dinner.  And when Jeremiah said he wanted pizza, just for good measure she left to place the order in the next room.


Chevelle was out on the porch with Mr. McMahon, each gazing at the coloring hills, when she realized her mistake. 

In the forty or so hours since she’d returned upstate, Deron had been hounding her long distance with one school matter after the next, to the point where it was ridiculous.  An emergency?  Fine.  At his wits’ end?  Absolutely.  But five or six times yesterday, plus another three just this morning, he’d gotten in touch the instant some headache—or even a simple question—cropped up, without first trying to sort it out on his own.  Sure, things were usually quiet when Chevelle heard from him; and no, Mr. McMahon would never complain.  Still, it was unprofessional, constantly handling personal business on the job, not to mention that the drip-drip-drip had her always on edge, wondering what was going wrong back home.  She couldn’t explain the change since last week, when Deron called or texted only as a last resort.

Then, as a passing cloud darkened the slopes, it hit her: She’d told him over the weekend that working with Mr. McMahon could be pretty slow; it was mostly just a lot of sitting around.  Deron had taken this as an invitation, she suspected, to ask for help at the drop of a hat—after all, he wouldn’t be interrupting anything.

It’d have to wait till Brooklyn, setting him straight.  Touchy as Deron could get, no way was she about to try it over the phone.

Her brother’s pestering aside, however, everything about that second week in the cottage mirrored the one before.  Like clockwork, the days with Mr. McMahon began soon after dawn, when he shuffled from his room to the twittering of birds and was handed a mug of coffee by Chevelle; and ended sometime early in the evening, when she nudged him awake as he snored in his seat and guided him to bed.  Save their afternoon walk in the woods, an extended amble along rocky footpaths accompanied by the sporadic reports of hunting rifles, the intervening hours were spent almost entirely indoors, either in the wood-paneled den or on the winterized porch.  They watched great quantities of TV; passed long stretches looking at foliage and sky; conversed warmly but in moderation, generally about the same subjects.  Time dragged.  Chevelle periodically wandered about in search of busywork.  Once again, they had only a single visitor all week (last Tuesday a snooping neighbor in face shield and surgical gloves, her suspicion aroused by the sight of “someone unfamiliar”; this time a dead-eyed giant dressed in black, who on Wednesday morning lumbered to the door with Mr. McMahon’s medications). 

And then, when Friday rolled around, the same parting handover of cash at the bus stop, the same ensuing uplift as Chevelle rode south in the autumn dark.

Brooklyn broke the pattern, though, with the second weekend at home proving nothing like the first, even as Chevelle arrived there aiming for a repeat.  It was Mrs. Idris from the corner stoop who blew her plan to pieces, slumping up beside her Saturday morning at the supermarket, her cheekbones glistening with tears, and sobbing that Covid had killed her sister the other day.  Afterward, Chevelle was too scared to take Jeremiah outside; just couldn’t bring herself to do it.  So instead they stayed shut up in the apartment, the two of them (Deron was in and out, but mostly out), trying to fill the hours.  It was pretty dreary.  Seemed they spent half their time grinding away at schoolwork Jeremiah said he didn’t understand; and the picture-perfect weather made being trapped indoors feel like prison.  Jeremiah veered between lethargy and grumpiness.  Chevelle’s chipper veneer masked a nagging guilt.  Her lowest moment came when she had to tell him, as he sat musing about all the candy he’d collect trick-or-treating, that Covid meant Halloween wasn’t happening this year.  The look on his face killed her.

Sunday afternoon, a little while before heading back to Mr. McMahon’s, Chevelle took Deron aside to make clear that, from now on, he couldn’t be contacting her nonstop while she was working.  He listened in silence, smirking.  When she finished, he shook his head at her.

“You don’t even know what you’re saying.  There’s always something else—always.”  He snorted.  “You think I bother you too much?  You have no idea.”


Chevelle hated how she’d left Jeremiah.  The whole way north on the ammonia-smelling bus, she kept seeing him in her mind either bent over a workbook, tears of frustration pooling in his eyes, or else shuffling around the apartment with a dull expression, not showing any spark.  A few times she thought fleetingly of hopping off at the next stop and catching a ride home.

It hurt even worse, being away from him that week, each time he snuck off with Deron’s phone to call her. 

On Monday, she and Mr. McMahon were playing tic-tac-toe when her phone buzzed.  Chevelle answered, expecting Deron.  Instead she heard her son, speaking in a tremulous whisper.  “Hi, Mom.”

“Hey, baby.”  She gestured apologetically at Mr. McMahon, who smiled and immediately became engrossed by the television.  “You okay?”

The tremble in Jeremiah’s voice swelled.  “Pretty much.”

“Where are you?  Why are you talking like that?  Where’s Uncle Deron?”

“He’s in the kitchen.  I’m in my room.” 

“What’s wrong?”

He broke down bawling, whimpering the words through the rush of tears: “I still don’t get the math.”

On Tuesday, Chevelle’s phone jumped on the countertop while she was rinsing dinner plates, listening to an engine revving somewhere in the woods.  She dried her hands fast, checked the caller and, still not over yesterday, picked up with a pit in her stomach.  “Mom,” he said, whispering again, as soon as he heard her voice, “when can I go to the house with you?”

On Wednesday, he called to tell her that a man down the block had shot a dog because it was barking.  “Uncle D says Covid is making people crazy.”

On Thursday, during a FaceTime call, Mr. McMahon’s son asked out of nowhere if she was okay: hard as she’d tried to hide her mood, looking into the screen side by side with the old man, the conversation she’d just had with Jeremiah was written all over her face…

“I really, really miss you,” he’d sniveled, sirens screaming in the background, as Chevelle waved Mr. McMahon into FaceTime position on the couch.  “When are you coming home?” 

This time, he wasn’t whispering, and she heard Deron come in and tell him to hang up, leave her be.  Chevelle had Jeremiah put him on.  “I have a minute,” she said.  “Let me try to calm him down.”

But the minute went quick and when she needed to get off to start the FaceTime, he was still crying.

She set her bag by the door first thing Friday morning.  Seeing him, holding him, was all she thought of that day.  At dusk, headlights wheeled through the trees, illuminating a cold, slanting drizzle, and when Mr. McMahon’s daughter pulled up a moment later, Chevelle stood ready to leave under the dripping gable.  She rode to the city with her arms wrapped around herself, jittering her legs, because the bus’s heater was broken. 

It was almost eleven by the time she walked in.  Deron was watching TV with the sound low.  A stock picking magazine sat on the coffee table and the couch was made up for bed.  Chevelle dropped into a chair next to her brother.  He shot her an uneasy look.  They hadn’t talked much since parting on bad terms the other day.  But it wasn’t just friction, the not-talking: it was also Deron doing what she’d asked and cutting out the calls.  Chevelle was grateful and she told him so.  He smiled.  Then the smile disappeared.

“It’s tough, you know?” he said.  “I’m not used to this, taking care of a kid.  I’m not sure how to do it all.  Sometimes, if he’s upset, I don’t know what to say.”  He shook his head, made a baffled gesture with his hands.  “I feel bad.”

Suddenly she remembered him telling her, back when she was pregnant with Jeremiah, that he didn’t want children anytime soon.  He was going to wait until he’d made money. 

“It’s alright, Deron,” Chevelle said.  “I’m…”—her voice caught—“I’m sorry about everything.”

After sitting together a few minutes longer, trying to convince themselves better times were ahead, Chevelle got up, told Deron to take her bed tonight, and, grabbing a pillow and blanket from a closet, went to be with Jeremiah.

His room was nearly pitch black, no light coming in at the window, which looked onto a narrow air shaft, and just a little yellow rectangle showing under the door.  Peering into the dark, she made him out vaguely, a small hump pressed against the wall in the far corner.  Chevelle tiptoed to his bed.  Unable to see his face with any clarity, she lowered hers until his features came into focus.  An eyelid fluttered.  His lips twitched.  She felt his breath brushing her cheek.  Chevelle had an urge to climb in beside him. 

But instead, scared of disturbing his sleep, she took the pillow and blanket and lay down on the floor.


A harsh whistling wind was whipping the gas station, convulsing the roadside tube men, when Chevelle stepped off the bus two nights later.  Hunching into it, she trudged to the car, dead leaves and dust clouds swirling at her feet.  Outside the deserted diner across the way, an old hanging sign swung and groaned. 

As soon as Chevelle got in, Mr. McMahon’s daughter held out a bottle of Purell, her finger poised on the pump.  Chevelle took a squirt, rubbed it in thoroughly, and when she sniffled, immediately assured Kathy she was healthy.  “It’s just the cold,” she said, and pinched her mask against her nose to stanch the drip.

“Phew,” said Kathy, theatrically, as she pulled out.  She glanced at Chevelle.  “Won’t it be nice when we don’t have to be like this?  Like crazy people?  I’m so over it.”  She sighed.  “Fingers crossed for the vaccine, I guess.  I’m praying the big jerk loses next week, but hopefully that’s one thing he’s right about.” 

For a moment she was quiet, staring up the road; then her eyes sparkled above her mask.  “God, it’ll make this whole arrangement easier!”   

“Mmm,” Chevelle murmured.

It wasn’t long before they came to the turnoff, started rattling uphill through thick blackness, the high beams jumping around in the trees.

“He’ll be so happy to see you,” said Kathy, clapping her hand over her heart.  “He talked about you a lot this weekend.  My daughter said, ‘Mom, I think PopPop has a crush on Chevelle.’”   

Chevelle chuckled a little.

They drew up to the house.  The gusts had knocked over a couple flower pots, wound the flag out front around itself.  Pine cones skittered along the ground.  Through a window Chevelle saw Kathy’s daughter doing a TikTok dance while Mr. McMahon watched TV from his usual spot on the couch.  Kathy shut the car off, reached for the door.

Suddenly Chevelle was seized by terror, not knowing how they’d make it.  But she went ahead. 

“Can we talk?”

Kathy turned.  Seeing the way Chevelle was looking at her, her eyes became alarmed.  “Oh, no,” she said.  “You’re leaving us.”




BIO: Michael Tilley's work has appeared in many publications, most recently October Hill Magazine. He lives with his wife and two children in Brooklyn, New York.