“Bath Time for Panda” Dark Fiction by Maxwell C. Porter

We climb from bed at dawn and go through our routine. Shit. Shower. Shave. Toss the button-down in the dryer to get the wrinkles out. Prepare our lunches while Noel gets caught up on the news. Lately it’s just been a long list of semi-cataclysmic events that seem to point towards impending doom. Wildfires and heat waves wreak havoc on the west coast and every hurricane season here is worse than the last. I know it’s bad, but it’s just every day. I mostly find myself trying to tune it out. Noel is obsessed though, so I humor her.

“Emory! Come quick!” Noel shouts as I pack my banana. I set down my lunchbag and join her at her laptop. “It’s happening! It’s erupting!”

Reports of seismic activity from the Long Valley Caldera have been dominating the last few news cycles, just another thing to worry about. Now “The Big One” is boiling over. Noel turns the screen to face me, and I see a tongue of magma sliding down the side of the volcano, as a burp of ash rains down from the heavens. The news anchor insists that this is not a cause for panic. Despite his reassurance, his next story is that shelves are emptying as panic buyers make a run on groceries and hardware stores.

I comfort her, hold her shoulders, kiss the top of her head. I know she’s worrying, but we still have to get to work. I grab my lunch and get stuck in traffic. My job is primarily to help clients host conferences in one of New Orleans’ museums or event spaces, and they all need to reschedule at once due to the uncertainty caused by Long Valley. From 8:00AM to 4:30PM I feel the veins in my eyes bulge from straining at my computer screen. Then, I’m in traffic again and I don’t much remember what happened.

Noel and I get home around the same time, and she’s clearly had a rough day at the crisis hotline she manages. Meanwhile, I lost half of my events for the next six months in just a few hours. We’re grateful to be home with each other, but too tense to effervesce.

“Do we have any food to make?” Noel asks.

“Yup! We have shrimp, beef, and chicken.” I say.

 “Hmmm, what would we do with the shrimp?”

 “Tacos.”

 “And the beef?”

“Also tacos.”

“Chicken tacos too, I assume?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Beef.”

Noel whips up her home-made guacamole, which I swear is some of the best guac I’ve ever had. I watched her make it once, and all she did was smush an avocado with a spoon, and add salt and lime juice. I decided to never watch her make it again, because she took so much pride in her dish that I felt a little judgmental at how little skill it involved.

One day, when she wasn’t home, I crushed an avocado with a spoon, and added salt and lime. I hoped that there was some finesse, some magic, that turned those three ingredients into something special in Noel’s hands.

Nope. Mine was exactly the same and quite delicious. I destroyed all of the evidence of what I had done, and we never spoke of it. A little pretending is an important part of any loving relationship. Noel’s guacamole is the best. There’s nothing more to discuss.

We eat our tacos while watching the news. Forecasts for the spread of ash clouds. Speculation on whether the volcano has stopped erupting, or whether it’s just in another brief calm before it burps again. Riots. Curfew. State of Emergency. We turn off the TV and pretend to forget what we just saw.

We climb into bed, and I slide my hand beneath her Notorious RBG T-Shirt, tracing little zig-zags as I gently make my way towards her chest.

“Hey, would you, uh…” I grin and let my facial expression finish my inquiry.

“I’m just- I’m not really in the mood tonight, boo. I’m sorry.  It’s just, with everything going on, it’s kind of hard to be in the head space for that, y’know?”

I’m not really in the mood either. Sometimes I think I just suggest it so she can turn me down, and then I can use it against her later when I’m mad at her for something else. We don’t really fight much anymore though, so it’s probably excess ammunition.

“It’s ok, love. Let’s make quality time for each other soon?”

“Of course. Goodnight, Emory.”

 “Goodnight.”

The next morning, we rise at dawn. Shit, shower, shave. Coffee, work, eye strain. Avocado, salt, lime- only with chicken this time. Watch the news, learn the ash plume forecasts, forget them. Offer sex, get rejected, sleep. Rise at dawn. Eyes. Shrimp. News. Forget. Sleep. Rise. Sleep.

Noel and I have been talking for years about growing our family. It’s the usual back and forth: we worry about the finances, the state of the world, and about what we’d be giving up. We worry that we might miss our chance and not be able to bring a little Noel-and-Emory into the world.

“We’re not getting any younger, Emory. None of us know how much time we have left. And I do want a family, and you’re going to be such a great dad. So great! I’m just worried. What if we wait too long and we can’t have kids? What if we have them but we’re too old to keep up or do things with them. What if we don’t get to meet our grandkids?” Noel’s eyes haze over mournfully as she imagines the joys she may not get to share with the babies we don’t have.

My stomach ties itself into a knot as I realize I’m out of plausible reasons to delay the inevitable. Noel is mourning the opportunities lost by not having a child, and I’m mourning the opportunities lost by having one. Our lives are so mundane that sometimes I feel sick. No matter how hard I try to break that routine, it swallows me whole.               

“What about the- um- intermittently erupting supervolcano?” I say, as if she’s forgotten.

“Yes, I remember the volcano, Emory.” She places her hand on my chest. “I’m not saying we have to rush I’m not saying it’s an urgent goal. I’m just saying, I want this. I want this with you, but only if we’re in it together.”

I don’t know how Noel does it. She sees a calm future even at the peak of a storm. Serenity. She washes my soul with her gaze and her musical voice. I take a deep breath through my nose and let it out slowly through my mouth. I’ve learned to trust Noel over the decade that we’ve shared. If she says something’s going to be good, it’s going to be good. It’s my role in our relationship to be scared and overthink. It’s her role to inspire action and decision. Our tug-of-war is a model of deliberative decision-making. Besides, Noel has given me everything she has to give. I want to give her my everything too.

We decide that we won’t try to have a kid. Instead, we’ll stop trying to not have a kid. Then, we’ll let life take us where we’re meant to go. A leading volcanologist explains that the Long Valley eruption is on a decelerating course and may stop erupting soon, so Noel finishes her last cycle of birth control, and quits taking it. We don’t pay attention to her ovulation cycle. Instead, we focus on rekindling the romance in our relationship, which is something we’ve both been wanting to prioritize for a while. We try little things to mix it up. Sometimes I offer to make love to her before we cook tacos.

Despite the expert opinions, the volcano begins to increase its daily eruption volume again, then begins an unpredictable course of waxing and waning over a period of weeks. The shared optimism we had for a return to normalcy vanishes as it becomes clear that no one knows what the Caldera is going to do in the long run.

One evening after dinner I look over at Noel as we watch the destruction, and I notice she has a hand on her womb as though she’s protecting a fetus. Love surges through my capillaries as tears well up in my eyes. My joy and hope surprise me a little. “Noel, are you…” I ask, looking at her hand and hoping she understands my question.

“Oh. Um, no. I don’t know, I don’t think so. I’m just thinking about what a scary world this is. I’m worried, y’know? What life will be like for our little Bunny.” Noel and I often talk about our future kids as though they’re adorable animals. Today they’re bunnies, but they’re just as often monkeys or turtles.

Over the next few weeks, life settles into a new sort of normal- one where a mega-volcano is continuously erupting, but we still bring our trash can to the curb twice a week. Shit, shower, shave. Coffee, work, eyestrain. Sex? Tacos, news. Sleep, rise, sleep.

It’s still dark out early one Tuesday morning, when both of our phones emit an emergency notification screech. I check my phone, and gently shake Noel’s shoulder.

“Boo?” I whisper.

 “Uhhn?” she grumbles and rolls herself into a bundle under the covers.

 “Sewerage and Water Board issued a boil water advisory.”

 “For Fuck’s sake,” says the mound of blankets and pillows.

There’s no safe water, so instead of shitting, showering, and shaving, I just shit. Then, leave for work. I read a few news articles during my lunch break. They all basically say the same thing: There’s no projected timeline for the advisory to conclude. Apparently some majiggy malfunctioned, and it was an original component of the pumps that dates back to the Roosevelt Administration. Nobody makes these majiggies anymore, and the deteriorating situation out west is reducing the capacity of engineering experts nationwide.

During a live news broadcast on the status of the majiggy someone in the background shouts “Can’t even wash ma ass in this city!” Naturally, an electronica redux using that soundbite appears on Facebook within minutes. Now a series of ass-washing memes is going viral.

I am too shy to share such things, but I chuckle quietly at the good humor of my countrymen. The American West is going dark beneath a plume of poison, and the rest of us are giggling at potty humor from our desks. I get back to corresponding and calendaring until it’s time to head home.

It’d be much easier to cook if we were the kind of people who cleaned the kitchen after dinner. Unfortunately, all of our plates and pans are in a pile in the sink, and the water is unsafe to clean with.

“They don’t know how long the advisory’s gonna last,” I say.

“I heard it could be over as soon as Thursday,” Noel says.

“Yeah, and what’s your source on that?”

“Uh, the City of New Orleans and the Sewerage and Water Board,” says Noel.

“Ah. Right. Do you have any reliable sources?” I say.

“It’s gonna be a while, huh?”

Noel and I both sigh, then set up a water-boiling station on our stove. We cycle it through in shifts, using what we need to clean the dishes and storing the rest in mason jars and thermoses, then finally in the boiling pots themselves.

After dinner, we help each other wash by using a plastic Mardi Gras cup to ladle sterilized water onto the other’s body. I’m sure both of our mothers did this to us when we were babies- placing us naked in the sink, gently pouring water onto our hair, careful not to wash shampoo into our eyes. Somehow, this maternal act of love translates perfectly into adulthood. It’s funny looking. Instead of a cute, helpless toddler, there’s a grown, naked adult sitting cross-legged in the tub. I place my hand at her hairline, and scoop backwards as I pour water on her scalp. The shampoo sudses off and I steer it away from her eyes. After she’s clean, she does the same for me. I feel silly, as I’m sure she does. But mostly, I feel loved, and cared for.

“You saw the ass memes?” I ask.

“Ha! Yeah. So gross! It was funny though. #WashYaBooty was trending all afternoon,” she says. Noel and I giggle like naughty children when she says that. I’ve always thought it’s funny, what can make you feel close to your people. Our circumstances are ripe for tension, but instead, our hearts glow warm with sheepish laughter and dirty jokes.

A few days later, the Sewerage and Water Board uses duct tape and chewing gum to bypass the need for the majiggy altogether, creating a somewhat reliable source of potable water. Minor failures and disruptions are routine, but most of them only last between a few hours and a day. Meanwhile, ash from the eruption keeps spilling across the continent, and more airlines are grounding their planes. The smaller ones are filing for bankruptcy.

My boss calls me into his office one morning, and I know what it’s about. My job depends on the tourism industry, and now the tourists can’t, well, tour. I’ve seen this coming for a while now, but I still feel my heart sinking as I load my personal effects into my Subaru and drive home from work for possibly the last time ever.

“Noel,” I say when she gets home from work. She sees the look on my face and the box of office supplies on the table.

“Emory…” Is all she says, then wraps her arms tight around me.

Fortunately, Noel’s job as a crisis hot-line supervisor is a portrait of job-security in times of social unrest. She’ll keep her job as long as people are scared. Homeless. Hungry. Victimized by their partners or panic-driven mobs. And right now, business is booming. Her company transitions to fully remote working and she turns our kitchen table into a command station, while I wander around trying to find some way to justify my existence. I do all of the chores and run all of the errands. I rub her back during her breaks, and before bed at night. I enforce self-care requirements including diet, exercise, and moderate alcohol consumption.

Noel occasionally gets frustrated with my over-helping, but she’s empathetic and mature. She understands that I am losing my sense of value and assures me that I matter with what little energy she has left after dealing with the region’s collective trauma. Despite her love and care, I feel myself deteriorating. Caring less about my hygiene. Sleeping later. Getting grouchier.

We have a spare room in our house that we’ve been intending to convert into Monkey’s room. With my loss of income, and Noel’s recent menstruation, we decide that we have to quit reserving space for someone who won’t likely be joining us any time soon. I reach out to my friends, and post ads on Craigslist and internet forums. With so many people struggling to pay bills and breaking up with their partners, it isn’t hard to find someone who is interested in moving into a single bedroom of a home. The difficulty lies in finding someone who can afford our asking rent, who has a job that isn’t likely to get furloughed, and who isn’t completely insane with conspiracy theories or prone to violence.

During Noel’s mid-morning ten-minute back rub, I tell her who responded to our ad since the day before.

“There’s Tasha. Forty-seven-year-old supply coordinator for Fresh Market.” I explain as I knead my thumbs deep into her shoulder blades. That’s where she carries her tension.

“Well, that sounds promising. If we start furloughing supply coordinators, we have much bigger problems!” Noel laughed.

“Yeah, well. Here’s the catch. She has three kids, 8, 9, and 13.”

“Uhh, look. I feel like there’s a lot going on in this house just trying to run a crisis center in our kitchen. Three children trapped here with us might turn me into a murderer.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I was thinking. There’s Orin. 34-year-old CPA, claims to be an investment advisor, as well.”

“What’s the catch with him?”

“Ehh, I just get a weird feeling about him.” I say, as I show her his message.

“He seems fine. I don’t really get any vibes one way or the other,” Noel says.

“Ok, look, it’s because he’s super hot.” I admit. Noel bleats with laughter at me.

“Wow, should I be worried?” She asks.

“No! Not like- I don’t think he’s hot. That came out wrong. I was worried you might think he’s hot.”

 “He’s not a bad looking guy; but, I mean, I don’t think he’s ‘super hot’ like you seem to think he is.”

 “I don’t think that!”

 “Sweetie, sweetie,” Noel coaxes me. “Calm down. I’m just teasing. You really must do something about this insecurity, it’s not a good look. We don’t have to rent the room to Orin, but most of the people who’ve reached out are nuts, broke, or have eleven children. If you want to roll the dice, then pass on Orin. Just don’t forget that if we wait too long to pick someone, we’re going to go broke, too. Then we’ll have to say yes to the first person with cash.”

I regain my outward composure and laugh it off. It’s her job to rescue people from their crises. I don’t want to be work for her, but I can feel the bottom falling out of my stomach. Orin’s about the same age as me, and he’s able to keep his job. As I tend to the meals and the floors, he’ll be wearing a dress shirt while hosting Zoom consultations with his clients about the stock market and tax-deductible disaster expenses. I feel stricken by grief and loss, even though nothing has changed. My chest is tight and my vision tunnels.

“You’re right, I’m being silly. I’ll call Orin and set it up.”

“Thanks boo,” says Noel. I’m about to go hide in the bathroom so I can quell my hidden panic, but Noel grabs my shirt and kisses me passionately, then squeezes me tight and whispers, “Emory. You’re my whole world. As long as we have each other, everything’s going to be ok. Ok?” In her arms I feel safe. Loved. Important.

Three days later, Orin knocks on our door. When we open it, he calls out “Whatup roomies?” Noel and I both laugh, but Noel laughs longer. Orin comes inside and we heat up a frozen pizza. Two bottles of wine later, Orin has us laughing until our stomachs hurt.

“I had this one client- call him Jake- tried to claim his love nest as a business expense, then accidentally sent his expense report to his wife. She calls me, all ‘since when does Jake have a second office at 5806 Perrier?’ A month after that, Jake’s asking me if a divorce attorney is a business expense!”

Orin isn’t as hot as I feared; but he’s kind, smart, and fucking hilarious. What sort of accountant is hilarious? It hadn’t occurred to me that he might have a personality.

#

The ash storm reaches New Orleans and is on a path to blanket the entire Northern Hemisphere. The whole world just gapes as endless toxins flow into our air and water. It rains down on our community, blanketing cars and burying gardens. There’s nothing like witnessing a disaster as it unfolds. You just stand there, helpless and small. Your true powerlessness is revealed to you as a hopeless situation deteriorates before your eyes. I’ve seen it before. Hurricanes. The BP Oil Spill. Ceaseless devastation can be a wonder of its own, before the despair catches up to you. Suddenly, you’re praying to God and doubting their existence at the same time.

We try to maintain the interior of our home by stripping down outside and putting on fresh clothes inside, but it’s futile. Micro ash breathes into our home from tiny gaps in windows and doors. It overwhelms our AC filter and puffs out of our vents. We shuffle through corridors of shifting soot mounds as we traverse our home. We wear respirators and goggles nearly one hundred percent of the time.

Daylight is diffused throughout the dim sky, so you can never tell exactly where the sun is. Imports and exports halt, and the economy craters. We rely on dehydrated food stockpiles and whatever local greenhouse operations can produce. All of the coffee is instant coffee, and avocados face extinction. Now our tacos don’t have any guac.

I try not to get distressed when I hear Orin and Noel laughing together in the morning before I get out of bed. They still need to be at work by nine, even if “at work” means at the kitchen table. At first, I try to wake up with them and participate. I make us breakfast and join in the conversation.

“Samantha’s gotten several complaints, I’m not sure what to do with her.” Noel says.

“Get it together, Sam! Hah, but seriously, does she even want this job? I feel like she’s not even trying.” Orin says.

“Who’s Sam?” I chime in.

“She’s been with us for a few months now, and she keeps referring people to the city’s housing authority, where they refer them right back to us!” Noel says.

“Oh, y’all are doing housing support now?” I ask.

“Yeah, that started right after I moved in,” Orin explained. “It seems like Sam’s only staying at this job to keep the roof over her head. Of course, if she loses the job, she’ll probably call the city’s housing authority for rent subsidies, then be surprised to find that she gets referred to whoever replaces her at the hotline!”

Noel and Orin both laugh at his joke, but I don’t get it until later. I feel like the kid in the room when the adults are talking. They humor me. They’re kind. But they sort of wish I wasn’t there. I do too, so I stop going.

I decide to do something special for the three of us, hoping to strengthen our bond. So, I wake up early and sneak out of the house to run to the grocery before Orin and Noel wake up. Inventory is always low on everything, but if I get there early enough, I might find what I need to whip together something like a brunch. You can usually still find eggs, if you’re willing to pay for them, and some kind of pancake mix. Bacon and fresh ham are too much to ask; but this is a real heyday for SPAM.

Sometimes I live in a fantasy. I see myself in the kitchen when they wake up. I’m wearing an apron and I’m cooking at the stove while prepping side dishes on the counter. They enter the kitchen and gladness fills the air. We talk, listen, and laugh together. The truth is, I don’t even own an apron. These little fantasies, though, keep me going. Life is tough. There’s little to look forward to and little to enjoy. Nothing is comfortable and nothing is exciting. But, in the sanctuary in my head, I do own an apron. I make breakfast for the only two people in my life, and they appreciate me.

While browsing the grocery aisles for flour, a clerk asks if I need any help, and I’m a little caught off guard. We look at each other through respirators and goggles.

“Oh, hi! No one really asks that anymore. Uhh. Yeah, actually, I could. I’m looking for pancake mix. I used to get Bisquick before, well, y’know,” I say.

I hear the clerk breathing through his respirator before he responds “Yeah that shit was tight- Ha! No Bisquick these days, though. Not really sure if that’s our fault or Bisquick’s, but I’ve used this one before,” he says, handing me a package of King Arthur’s Flour. “Probably wouldn’t notice the difference. ‘Less you had’em side by side.”

“Can’t really be picky these days, eh?” I grab some SPAM off a display. “It’s like, who do I have to fuck to get some bacon around here?”

He laughs and says “If you figure that out, let me know. I’ll fuck’em too.”

We both laugh. “Hey, man. Thanks for talking to me. I know it seems trivial, but- well, thanks.”

“Of course,” he says, “I hope you and your family enjoy your breakfast.”

It hasn’t occurred to me to think of Orin as part of my family, and my reflex is to correct him. But, he’s right. Although jealousy and disgust blitz my amygdala, we all contribute to the household as best we can. Orin’s one of the only people I see or talk to. I have some hangups about it, but my reaction isn’t purely negative. I decide to let warmth be my dominant feeling. I should be grateful to have a family, even if it’s not the family I would have chosen, if I got to pick.

“Thanks. I think my, uh, family and I will have a great breakfast,” I say, then I check out and head home.

When I open the front door of my house, I hear a door slam from one of the bedrooms. “Hello?” I say quietly. I don’t know exactly what I heard, but I don’t want to wake anyone if they’re still asleep. There’s no reply, and no other sign of activity. I shrug it off and unload the groceries. I cleaned the pans the night before, which is a habit I’ve taken up while wandering my home trying to be useful. I hope to keep this one going even after the apocalypse. Assuming, of course, that there is an “after.”

I heat up the small frying pan and toss in some slices of SPAM. The slices sizzle, and a fog of SPAM aroma fills the kitchen. I make the pancakes in a second skillet, and I scramble eight eggs in a mixing bowl. I figure I should go wake Noel, and tell her breakfast is almost ready. In the hallway, I notice humongous footprints in the soot leading away from my bedroom. Orin wears a size fourteen shoe. Noel and I both sport a dainty eight and a half.

Now I know why I heard a door slamming, and my heart locks tight in my chest. I want to kick the doors open, screaming. I want to believe there’s some other explanation for the footprints and door slamming. I’m scared, lost, and lonely. I don’t know what to do, so I finish making breakfast with a knot in my throat.

Noel and Orin both surface from their respective rooms. They’re pretending to be tired and I feel sick just looking at them.

“Whoa, what a treat! Thanks for making breakfast, champ,” Orin says.

“Don’t fucking call me that!” I yell, and I feel the room ice over as they realize why I’m upset, though no one mentions it. I shovel SPAM, eggs, and pancakes down my gullet and leave the table.

I throw up in the bathroom. Stomach bile, SPAM, and the vision I once had for what my life would be with Noel. I hope if I throw up enough, I’ll just die, but it doesn’t happen. Noel bangs on the door asking me to let her in, but I refuse.

Things between Noel, Orin, and I get weird and then weirder. All of our conversations are deeply uncomfortable. I suspect that if there wasn’t a static ash storm outside, we’d mostly just talk about the weather. I’m wiping down the counters for the second time today when Noel meets me in the kitchen.

“Em?” She says. She used to call me that all the time when we were younger. Hearing that old pet name fractures the calcium that had formed around my heart, and love and longing break the dam that contains my emotions. I whirl around to see her, with tears spilling from my eyes. She looks like a memory. That girl I met way back when. The one who taught me to love, and the single most wonderful soul I’ve ever met. The one whose words are music and whose guacamole is magic.

She’s crying too. Words don’t need to be spoken between us. I already know that after what she says next, nothing will ever be the same again. I’m scared. I’m not ready, and I don’t think I’m going to be ok. She collapses into my embrace and wails apologies into my ear.

“Em! I’m so sorry, Em!”

“It’s ok, it’s ok,” I lie, rocking her back and forth.

“I’m pregnant, Em. I’m pregnant.”

Like a fool, I cling to one last shred of hope. “Noel!” I place my hand over her belly, as though I’m going to be a dad. She shakes her head “no.”

My knees crash to the floor and I clutch at her hips. I cry a new cry – one I’ve never heard escape from me before. The cry of a pain worse than death and of a hate directed at everything at once.

Noel joins me on the floor, and we cry together. Hot tears and snot run down my face. Each instant lasts an eternity. Orin joins us, but I don’t notice him at first. We’re all on the floor crying together. This isn’t what any of us want. A nightmare in our home, an ashen hellscape outside. No support. No roadmap.

I hope I die so Orin and Noel can have a normal family. I hope Orin dies so Noel and I can go back to pretending. I hope Noel dies because there’s no recovering from this betrayal and I hate her so much.

Noel, Orin, and I discuss our options. Our house is the same size it’s always been, but it’s no longer large enough for all three of us.

“Maybe you could try and find a room to rent?” Noel asks.

I laugh at her because I don’t know what to do with all of the pain and irony.

“You and Orin should find a spot.” I reply.

“Em.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Emory, how are you going to get by if we leave?”

“How am I going to afford a room if I go?”

“Em.”

“Stop it!”

We suffer through a month of gridlock. Orin’s sleeping in my room with Noel, and I’m sleeping in his room alone. He has a paternal twinkle in his eye whenever he sees Noel, and it makes me sick. I hear him cooing at her belly and adoring her.

“How’s our little lemur doing today?” I hear him say when he thinks I can’t hear. At first I think that “lemur” is a stupid animal to use as a stand-in for a child, but then I realize I just hate it because he stole our game. Turtle doesn’t make too much sense either, honestly. Part of me is grateful for the love he gives to Noel and the child. The other part of me wants to kill him for it. I decide that I have to root for them, because I don’t want to be the kind of person that wishes harm on a new family. Either way, I need to get out of this house because every moment here grates on my soul.

“Hey, yeah my name is Emory, I’m calling about the room for rent on Coliseum Street. Is it still available?” I ask the stranger who answers the number from the Craigslist ad.

“Yeah, it’s still available, ready for immediate occupancy,” says the voice on the other end of the line.

“Oh, that’s great! I was wondering, is the rent price negotiable, or-” I trail off hoping my potential landlord offers to cut the price on his own, but he doesn’t. “Hello?” I say, and I realize my call has ended. I assume he hung up when I asked about the rent, but it turns out that regional cell service crashed, and it never comes back. The internet falls apart right behind it.

Orin and Noel both lose their jobs when the internet infrastructure collapses. Along with their jobs goes any hope that one or two of us will move out of the purgatory we’ve created. Now we’re just three unemployed adults, trapped in a house, breathing through respirators.

Since Noel no longer has to manage the collective crises of the outside world, she turns her talents inwards to the devastation in our home. Once she gets to work, she’s a marvel. She’s a world class therapist meets NFL head coach. She makes Orin and I feel smart and useful and needed. She reminds us that outside there’s death and loss, but in our home, our family, there’s hope and love. A small bump forms at Noel’s midsection, and whenever there’s strife between us, she places one hand from each of us on her tummy.

She shows us that neither Orin nor I need to compete with each other, and that the only way any of us are going to make it is if we’re a team. There’s no end in sight to the havoc. If the life inside her is going to thrive- the life that’s the product of the love, effort, and nurturing from all of us- then we’re going to have to work together to create something wonderful amidst all this pain.

“And there’s another thing,” Noel says during one of her team building exercises, “It’s not a lemur. It’s not a monkey. It’s not a turtle.” She places our hands on her swollen belly. Noel is almost six months pregnant now, and we’ve all given ourselves over to worshipping the beacon of hope and promise that grows inside of her. “If we’re going to be a family, we need to decide together what to call it.”

For the first time since our early days as “roomies,” Orin and I laugh together, but Noel doesn’t laugh with us. Instead, she hands us scented markers and scrap paper.

“Write all of the adorable animals that come to mind, you have three minutes,” she says.

“I can’t stand the smell of grape,” says Orin.

“Really? Oh man, I love the grape-scented one.” I admit.

Noel looks at the marker in my hand and then asks Orin, “What are your thoughts on strawberry?”

“Much better.” Orin says, and Noel switches our markers.

“Three minutes. No sea creatures. Go.”

Three minutes later, Noel collects our scrap paper. She says we can keep the markers while she searches for duplication on our lists.

“She’s not an alpaca, boys.” Noel says in a reprimanding tone, looking up just as I’m trying to force Orin to smell the grape marker, “Hey, cut that out Emory.”

“Sorry,” I say.

“Ok, other than Alpaca, which isn’t happening, we have Koala and Panda. Koalas freak me out. We all good on Panda?” Noel asks. We nod, and all yearn to hear the giggles of our sweet little Panda.

I’ll never understand how she did it. Orin and I are enemies, now colleagues. Colleagues, now friends. Friends, now brothers. Noel and I make love sometimes. Orin knows and it’s fine. She sleeps in each of our rooms sometimes, and Orin and I work together to keep the house clean and ash-free for the health of Noel and Panda.

The water advisories are permanent now, and the three of us work together daily to boil water for cleaning, cooking, and bathing. Noel orchestrates our team building exercises, and soon Orin and I are even helping each other bathe. Once, we even got into a play-fight with soapy water. It was a huge mess, but it was actually really fun.

A few days later, I’m cooking SPAM again when I hear Noel cry “Orin! Orin, help!”

“Babe, what’s wrong?” Orin shouts as he runs to her. “Emory! Her water broke!”

I feel myself die inside when she calls for him instead of me, but I remember what Noel taught me. I choke back my tears and take up the mantle as second-in-command as the three of us rush around, getting her things together and heading for the hospital.  

She’s eight weeks early. We aren’t terribly surprised- premature births have skyrocketed due to the pollution. Another thing that’s skyrocketed is complications during childbirth. We’re all in the room when it happens. The EKG meter chirps irregularly, and Noel seizes against the hospital bed.

“Hey! Is she ok? What’s happening?” I yell, and everyone ignores me, except Orin who begins using me as a crutch. He looks faint.

A wet child is pulled from Noel and the chirping turns into a steady, shrill beep. Then, all the lights and machines go off at once. A baby cries in the dark, and the doctors perform CPR on Noel during the power outage. The back-up power generator kicks on, and the doctors use the machines again, but it’s too late. Noel is gone.

Orin collapses to his knees and clutches at my waist like a child. He lets out that same terrible cry that I let out when Noel told me she was pregnant. I am numb. Panda screams from the nursing bed while Orin cries at my hips. They cover Noel and roll her bed out of the room.

“I’m sorry,” a nurse says to me as I sign the birth certificate. Then, they hand me our Panda. Noel’s loving eyes and button nose shine up at me through an infant’s frame; but her skin is Orin’s olive complexion, and her feet are impossibly large for a baby.

We take Panda home. The house is just a husk of its former self without Noel. Her absence claws our hearts out as Orin and I set about creating a comfortable space for the little one. Noel may be gone, but the family that she created remains. Orin and I live the truths that she taught us. Each day we strive to build something small but wonderful. Something that can stand firm against the destructive forces outside. After Orin and I finish our taco dinner, we clean the dishes and sanitize the sink. Then, we put our little Panda in. I massage no-tears shampoo and sanitized water through her little wisps of hair, and Orin uses a Mardi Gras cup to gently rinse the shampoo away from her eyes.


Maxwell C. Porter lives in New Orleans with his wife, a dear friend, and an *almost* perfect German Shepherd. You can call him “Maxy.”


One thought on ““Bath Time for Panda” Dark Fiction by Maxwell C. Porter

  1. Pingback: The Chamber Magazine

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