Photography © Chad Parenteau

The Germophobe

“You’re a regular clean machine, aren’t you?”

Nigel stopped rubbing the desk with the disinfectant wet wipe and looked at the stranger standing in the doorway of his office. Must be new. Tall, well built, healthy head of nondescript brown hair. Brimming with confidence in his alleged cleverness.

He took an instant dislike to newcomer but out of ingrained habit from the endless social skills lessons forced on him by his parents, he squeezed out a smile like the last bit of toothpaste.

“Did you need something?” he said, continuing his hourlong morning disinfection ritual with the phone handpiece.

“The copy machine jammed. I was told that you were the go-to guy for all things machine-related. Nigel, right?”

“Correct,” Nigel said.

“Dwight Djokovic, people call me Jock. Started two weeks ago.” He extended his hand. Nigel gave it the minimal shake required — one downward motion, then slid out his palm. He vaguely remembered a memo from human resources about a new hire. He never paid much attention to emails. Nigel swiped his right hand with the disinfectant wipe, which he stuffed in his slacks pocket.

Jock gave a side-mouthed smile. “Can’t be too careful, huh?”

“We certainly cannot. Shall we see about that jam?”

“How long you been working at InsiteX, Nige?” Jock said as they walked down the corridor.

“Nigel. Twenty-three years and almost four months.”

Jock whistled. “You must know where all the bodies are buried.”

“We haven’t had any deaths here,” Nigel said.

Jock yelped a laugh. “Great delivery, dude!”

Nigel knew he’d said something “wrong” because he didn’t quite understand the rejoinder, but he’d learned to ignore these things.

They entered a vast room of cubicles filled with the purposeful buzz of employees talking into headsets and clacking on keyboards as they surveyed consumers about important aspects of daily life, such as how many bubbles they preferred in their soap lather.

As they skirted the perimeter to the copy machine room, Candy twisted in her chair and twinkled her fingers at Jock. Hardly a surprise. She’d been between husbands for a full year now, an unusually long time. As Nigel passed, she dropped her smile like a hot frying pan and turned back to her computer. He felt a dart of irritation lodge in his back. There was no need to bear a grudge just because their drinks night three months ago had not gone entirely well.

As Jock waited outside, Nigel entered the small room overstuffed with the bulky machine that printed, copied, scanned, emailed, faxed, collated, bound, stapled, and calculated the expense of each employee’s printing habit and sent them invoices for excessive copies. It was Nigel’s dream to invent a printer that could also make coffee and tea and dispense water. The efficiency of it!

It took him two seconds to locate the paper jam. He turned to advise Jock to be more careful and saw that Candy had joined him near the doorway.

“You weren’t joking about this guy,” Jock was saying. “I shook his hand and he took it like it was a dead fish.”

Nigel bent back to the machine as a wave of heat flushed him from top to toe. He tried to focus on freeing the imprisoned paper, but their conversation drew him like a magnet. He found himself shuffling closer to the doorway.
“He wears the exact same outfit every day,” Candy said.

“I hope he washes it,” Jock said.

“I wouldn’t get too close to find out,” Candy said.

Jock chuckled.

Nigel looked down at his white Oxford shirt and dark blue slacks. Of course, he washed them. He owned five sets of work clothes. Wearing the same thing every day was practical. He could stay in bed for a full seven extra minutes every morning because he didn’t have to dither over an outfit, not to mention the shopping time he saved.

“You know what we should do?” A mischievous tone crept into Jock’s voice.

“What?” Candy said.

Jock’s answer was lost in the sudden boom of “Nigel Birdsall!” The girth of Tanya Crossman appeared in the copy room, cradling a sheaf of bulging manila folders against her shelf-like bosom. “I was just looking for you. Come into my office when you’re finished. Make it snappy. I have a meeting to get to.”

Tanya was the assistant deputy executive senior vice president, of what, Nigel wasn’t quite sure, but she kept a very orderly desk, which was more than you could say of most people, so he felt an affinity for her that bordered on like, which was also more than you could say of most people.

“Be right there,” he said.

She tottered off on her six-inch stilettos, which due to the weighty protrusions of her bust and watermelon-size midriff, made her pitch forward as she walked. Nigel always wondered how she didn’t fall flat on her face. He’d once suggested that he could research a diet and exercise program for her, but to his surprise she hadn’t accepted his offer. He received a less than stellar performance review that year.

Nigel extracted the offending ink-smudged paper, smearing his fingertips. He whipped out the wipe from his pocket and gave them a vigorous scrub.

“Whoa, mate. You’re going to take off your fingerprints!” Jock said. Candy giggled. “Or maybe that’s the idea,” Jock barrelled on, encouraged by his audience like a class clown. “You have a side hustle we don’t know about, a little bank robbing maybe?”

Candy upgraded her giggle into a chortle. “Jock, you’re too much!”

“That’s what all the gals say about me, Candy. Get used to it!”

They guffawed. Ah, the matins of mirth and merriment in the Chapel of Xerox, Nigel thought. He pressed “Resume Job,” and the machine clunked to life with its rhythmic spew of pages.

“Done,” he announced, but they were busy wiping tears of laughter. He hurried to Tanya’s office.

Her door was open, but she was absorbed by her computer screen. He cleared his throat instead of knocking. No need to touch surfaces when not strictly necessary. He had just read in the Journal of Public Health & Hygiene that community transmission of COVID-19 had appeared.

“Shut the door and take a seat,” Tanya said.

He sat in the chair in front of her desk, spine like a steel rebar, and clasped his hands in his lap, wondering what this was about. He still had eighty-seven days until his annual review.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, the coronavirus is turning into a bad situation.”

“It’s actually a novel coronavirus. The common cold is a coronavirus.”

Tanya pursed her lips and carried on. “I just came from a meeting on the top floor. You’ve been promoted to chief sanitation officer in charge of all anti-contagion measures company wide, effective immediately. I think you’ll agree you’re uniquely suited for the job.”

Nigel was stunned. He’d never been asked to do anything that didn’t involve fixing machines. He slumped against the chair back, then remembered that upholstery held a frightening amount of bacteria and erected himself. “But…who will do my regular duties?”

“You will. There’s no raise, so don’t bother asking. You need to get going on it ASAP. Feel free to purchase supplies, but don’t overdo it.”

He bobbed his head, feeling the heavy mantle of responsibility settle on his shoulders.

“I’ll send out the memo now. We’re counting on you.” Tanya’s fingers were already tapping the keyboard.

Nigel walked back to his office in a trancelike state. To think how far he’d come from his inauspicious start as a part-time market research associate in his last year of high school. He’d taken the job at the urging of his guidance counsellor, Mr. Mendoza, who thought it would help him develop his people skills.

But Nigel thought market research was a colossal waste of time. Instead of asking people inane questions about trivial habits, researchers should educate them. In his first survey, which was for the state lottery commission, he informed Powerball players that they had a one in 13,983,816 chance of hitting the jackpot, and the cash they spent on scratch-offs would be better invested in cleaning products. He was given a second chance after Mr. Mendoza intervened with the manager, who then assigned him to a poll about anti-wrinkle moisturizer: How likely did users believe that RidRinkl worked? Extremely likely, very likely, somewhat likely, more or less likely, just a bit likely, just a bit less than just a bit likely or no fucking way likely. The last option was the only correct one, he lectured consumers. “You’re better off saving your money and staying out of the sun. Do things like dust baseboards.”

The manager was about to fire Nigel when he found him repairing the phone switchboard. Upon further investigation, he discovered that Nigel could mend everything from the thirty-dollar Mr. Coffee to the twelve-thousand-dollar Xerox. He was hired full-time after graduation and given a cleaning cupboard as his office. And now, Nigel had climbed the corporate ladder to chief sanitation officer. If only Mr. Mendoza could see his meteoric ascent!

Nigel barely registered Candy and Jock, who were still engaged in their tête-à-tête as he walked by.
“Nigel,” Jock called.

He halted. Jock threw an arm around his shoulders and squeezed. “Thanks for fixing the copier, mate.”

“You’re welcome.” Nigel wormed out of Jock’s embrace. “By the way, you’re standing too close together. Social distancing recommendations state you must remain two meters apart.”

Jock craned his neck and mockingly searched the air. “I hear a gnat buzzing.” Candy spluttered with laughter.

Tanya Crossman teetered up behind them. “No, you hear our chief sanitation officer. If you were at your desks as you should have been, you’d have received the memo. Nigel, carry on. I have a meeting.”

“Will do.” Nigel drew himself up and strode back to his office.

He rubbed his hands as he sat at his desk to issue his first edict. “Since COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, Bring Your Pet to Work Day is heretofore cancelled.” He pressed send with a gleeful flourish. Thank god. He’d long wanted to eliminate that potential source of pestilence.

He then went down to the basement and lugged up boxes of hand sanitizer and disinfectant lspray, distributing them to each workstation.

“Thanks,” said Wendy Nguyen, who sat next to Candy. “I have a question about your memo. Does it apply to goldfish? They live in the water, so they must be clean, right?”

“Send me a memo,” Nigel said. As he walked away, he felt a pleasant sense of satisfaction at his official-sounding response. He was born to lead.

He sent out another memo saying all employees must wear face masks and sanitize workstations in the morning and afternoon. He then toured each floor to diagram one-way traffic flow patterns.

Before he left for the day, he googled whether goldfish could harbor communicable disease and found that it was rare but possible. “Goldfish are indeed a source of infection. You cannot bring your fish to work,” he replied to Wendy’s memo.

He walked the six blocks home with a buoyant step. It had been the best day in his life, he reflected, really a remarkable reversal from the years he spent in every kind of therapy his parents could find: cognitive behavioral, dialectal behavioral, psychodynamic, interpersonal, gestalt, primal scream. It turned out he was perfectly fine as he was. It just took a pandemic to reveal his aptitude for management.

He arrived at his one-bedroom cottage, painted a sterile white inside and out, washed his hands and opened the fridge. All the foods were labelled with Post-It notes stating their expiration date and/or date of purchase.

He prepared his “tasty triumvirate” (protein, carbohydrate and fiber) meal of chicken, potato and cauliflower with prunes for dessert. As he wiped the plate and cutlery before use — dust could accumulate in drawers, he wondered if he should order a jacket with his new title embroidered on the breast. He would pay for it himself since Tanya had warned him “not to overdo it.”

He chewed each mouthful the requisite thirty-three times, ordered the jacket online, then reclined in his armchair and clicked on his favorite movie Space Wars XXIII. He’d watched all thirty-one Space Wars movies sixty-eight times. He loved the depiction of Spartan life aboard spaceships, the ascetic whiteness, the lack of human clutter, not to mention the fact that spaceships never got dirty. The characters were just like him — always wearing the same outfits and imbued with a sense of serious mission. Nigel often rued that he’d been born too soon. He belonged in the future of space colonies. Not anymore though. He nestled his bottom into the cushy seat.

When he changed into his pajamas at precisely 9:43 p.m., he noticed a long streak of black marker on the back of his shirt, extending from the shoulder blade to the waist. He reviewed the day and couldn’t think where he might’ve run into a marker. He tossed the shirt into the garbage. Not to worry, he had a stack of replacements for such casualties.

The next day, Nigel arrived early to work, masked and gloved, and stationed himself at the employee entrance with sanitizer. A line formed as he checked that each person’s mask was positioned correctly and ensured sanitiser was rubbed between fingers and under nails.

Jock stepped up sans mask. Nigel plucked a paper one from a box beside him. “A facial covering must be worn on the premises starting today.”

“Nope. This is a free country. I have rights,” Jock stated.

“The company has the duty to protect employees during a public health emergency.”

“Move aside, matey, I have work to do.”

“I am the chief sanitation officer.”

“Chief pain-in-the-arse officer, more like it.”

Tanya pushed her way to the head of the queue. “What’s going on? I have a meeting to get to.”

“This employee is refusing to wear a facial covering,” Nigel said.

“Everyone covers their face,” Tanya said and lurched to the lift.

Nigel dangled the mask. Glowering at him, Jock swiped it and looped it around his ears. “Snitch,” he muttered.

Once the morning rush had passed, Nigel returned to his office and printed up fifty-four social distancing signs and grabbed a roll of red duct tape to make arrows on the floor in accordance with his traffic diagrams. Shoes! he thought suddenly. They were veritable petri dishes of germs. He found two plastic supermarket bags to encase his feet, fastening them with a rubber band around his ankle.

After pinning up the notices all around the building, he shuffled to the break room, a popular congregating spot. That had to end. He removed all the chairs and stored them in the basement. His eyes landed on the coffee pot. Everyone handled that. He stowed it in a cupboard and went to the nearby office supply store and bought a single-cup coffee maker.

That afternoon, he wrote a lengthy memo detailing all the changes, then remembered Jock. Transgressors needed consequences. He had a brainwave and typed:

“Violators of sanitation rules will have their names placed on a blacklist, which will be posted on the employee refrigerator.”

He rocked back in his chair, feeling pleased. He looked at his bag-encased feet. Everyone should wear shoe coverings. He wrote an addendum to his memo.

At 7:30 the following morning Nigel took up sentry duty to ensure that everyone’s feet bore a covering. He’d brought bags and rubber bands, just in case.

Tanya was one of the first in. She appeared considerably shorter than usual.

“I’m very happy about this new rule, Nigel. It’s given me permission to wear flats. My feet are overjoyed!” She squealled with delight.

Nigel puffed with pride. “I thought since…”
Tanya cut him off. “I’ve got a meeting.”

Everyone complied with the shoe-covering requirement, except Jock and Candy. They arrived together, without face or foot covering. Nigel held out masks and bags.

“No.” Jock jutted his chin.

“No.” Candy tossed her newly platinum curls.

They sailed past him.

“Nice shirt, Nige,” Jock said.

Trying to butter him up with a compliment wasn’t going to work, Nigel thought. He jotted their names and offenses on the blacklist, then stuck the paper to the fridge with a magnet. A little pillorying would show them.

After most employees had arrived, he decided to carry out a compliance check. Armed with his clipboard, he made the rounds from floor to floor, hovering over shoulders, peering into cubicles, spraying disinfectant on door handles and lift buttons.

Looking into the car park from a top floor window, he realized he’d forgotten about the gazebo. People used to sit in it for lunch, but it had been taken over by smokers. A cluster of people huddled there amid cancerous fumes.

He power-walked to his office, banged out a memo — “Smoking Area Closed Forthwith,” then fetched nylon cord from the basement and proceeded outside. He was aghast to find Candy puffing on a cigarette, accompanied by Jock, who was not smoking.

“You’re smoking,” Nigel said. Thank god, he’d dodged her kiss on that date.

“You’re a real Einstein, Nige,” Jock said.

Before Nigel had a chance to reply that his IQ was actually twenty-two points lower than Einstein’s, Candy exhaled a stream of smoke that caught his throat. “This area is now closed,” he said, coughing.

The smokers stubbed out their cigarettes without protest. After they left, Nigel wound the rope around the gazebo to close off the entrances and as he tied the knot, he spotted Jock halfway across the car park, sucking cheek-hollowing breaths from an inhaler. He had asthma and he was in the smoking area? Did he not know it was doubly dangerous for him to inhale lung irritants?

The following morning, Nigel received an email notification that the printer’s ink levels were low, so he decided to forego the a.m. check. On his way to the Xerox, he glanced into the break room and halted. Jock and Candy’s names on the blacklist had been obliterated. By black marker. Did they think he was an idiot? That he wouldn’t know who was responsible? Nigel felt a bilious burst of anger. He took out a pen and rewrote their names. Forgetting about the printer, he scurried to his office to write a memo: “Due to defilement of company property, black markers are heretofore prohibited.”

He seized a Kleenex box from his desk, pulled out the tissues then went straight to Jock’s workstation where he was shocked to see Wendy Nguyen sitting.

“Why are you sitting here?” he said.

“Jock wanted to swap desks. Does the Sharpie ban include highlighters?” Wendy asked.

“Send me a memo,” he said. “Deposit markers in here please.” So, Jock now sat next to Candy.

“Sorry, I don’t have any,” Wendy said.

Nigel worked his way across the room, collecting Sharpies. Finally, he came to Jock and Candy.

“Marker.” He deepened his voice and rattled the box at Jock’s back.

Jock turned and gave him a sly smile. He took a Sharpie off his desk and dropped it into the tissue box slot. Jock was finally respecting his authority, Nigel thought with relief.

“Tell me, Nige, have you ever kissed a girl?” Jock asked.

He heard a snort behind him and peeked. Candy was convulsing with laughter. She must’ve told him. His knees trembled and he latched onto the cubicle wall for support.

Nigel pivoted, returned to his office and typed a new memo. “Workstation changes are suspended to ensure that virus droplets that may be embedded in a cubicle are not passed to another person.”

He sent it then went to the breakroom and added Jock’s name and new offense to the blacklist. By the time he returned to his office, an email from Wendy Nguyen had arrived. “Do you think I’m already infected with Jock’s germs?”

“Please return to your previous workstation.”

Ten minutes later: “Jock won’t move back.”

“Never mind.”

The following day at lunchtime, Nigel discovered Jock and Candy eating submarine sandwiches at the table in the breakroom. They were sitting on their desk chairs.

“You know something, Nige,” Jock said through a mouthful. “I was wrong about you. You’re a memo machine, not a cleaning machine.”

Candy dutifully chuckled.

Nigel wrote a memo banning the wheeling of desk chairs anywhere in the building.

That afternoon, he was finally refilling the ink in the printer when Tanya’s voice bellowed from the doorway. “Nigel Birdsall, in my office.”

“I’ll be done…”

“Now. I have a meeting in five minutes.”

He traipsed behind her to her office where she closed the door. “I’ve had a disturbing complaint concerning your conduct. Candy says you’re using your authority to retaliate against her because she rejected your advances. She said you insisted on going out with her three months ago, so she agreed to quote shut him up once and for all end quote. When she rejected your physical advances, you pushed her off her chair. She said she felt ashamed and humiliated, so she didn’t report the incident, but she feels you’re targeting her now.”

“We did go on a date and I did push her off her chair, but …”

“I’ll have to take this to HR to investigate and meanwhile, you’ll be relieved of your position, effective immediately.”


“I’m taking over as CSO. I’ll send the memo now.” Tanya turned to her computer.

When he opened the door, Candy and Jock scooted into their cubicles on their chairs. He slunk by them with sunken shoulders and plonked down at his desk.

How could Candy have told such lies? The truth was that when Candy’s maiden name had appeared for the fifth time on her cubicle, she started coming to his office to chitchat when the most she’d ever talked about with him was paper jams.

“I bet you’re financially savvy, Nigel. What type of retirement account do you have? You don’t have to pay child support or alimony, right? Do you have any health conditions? Do you own your home?”

No one had ever asked him such personal questions before. He felt flattered. That Friday, she mentioned that she and a girlfriend had planned to have a drink that evening, but her friend had backed out. “I have no one to go with,” she said, pouting.

“That’s too bad,” Nigel said.

An uncomfortable second passed in which Nigel wondered if he’d said the wrong thing although he’d expressed sympathy, which seemed to be the appropriate response, then she blurted, “Why don’t you go with me?”

“Ah …” He’d planned on composting and watching Space Wars XXXI.

“Awesome. I’ll meet you at the Barking Cat at seven.”

He didn’t like to disappoint, so he’d gone. After three Moscow mules downed in quick succession, Candy was leaning on an arm at a very acute angle on Nigel’s side of the table. Then she’d sprung forward and stuck her tongue into his mouth. He recoiled.

“Whaaa?” Candy had lost her capacity to utter final consonants.

“A mouth-to-mouth kiss transfers eighty million bacteria,” Nigel said. “A study was just published in the Journal of Public Health & Hygiene.”

Her face scrunched. “So, you doan like me because a some study?”

“It’s nothing personal. It was a study of five hundred couples with a three-point margin of error.”

“You’re really weir’, you know thaa? It’s kinda cute.” Candy darted for his lips again.

Disgusted, he pushed her away, and her chair toppled back onto the floor, leaving her legs sticking up and hiking up her skirt. Mumbling a stream of sorries, Nigel rushed to her aid. He couldn’t help but notice her rather strange underpants. They had no gusset, which seemed to render the wearing of undies somewhat useless, in his opinion. He had no time to mull this paradox as a crowd with a forest of cellphones gathered.

“You fucking arsehole!” Candy seethed as she struggled to her feet. Gathering her purse, she reelled toward the ladies’ room.

After spending the weekend in considerable distress and based on an Internet article he’d found, “10 Surefire Ways to Smooth Over a Misunderstanding,” he arrived at work early Monday and placed a bouquet of lilies on Candy’s desk. She showed up at his office half an hour later and hurled the flowers in his face with the force of a West Indian cricket bowler.

“For your information, videos from Friday night have been shared 1.2 million times. I am now a fucking laughingstock meme. Don’t you ever breathe a word about it to anyone!”

He hadn’t, but now it seemed Candy had, and she’d mixed lies in with the truth. He stayed in his office for the rest of the day, watching the clock. As soon as it ticked onto five, he bolted. When he arrived home, a box containing his embroidered jacket was waiting on the doormat. He tossed it down the basement steps.

The next day, Tanya was wearing her skyscraper heels, the chairs and Mr. Coffee had been reinstalled in the break room, the blacklist was a crumpled fist of paper in the trash, and the gazebo was engulfed in a cloud of smoke. The only remnants of his short reign were hand sanitizer and signs. He should never have accepted the promotion. He was only good for fixing machines.

The following week, he entered the break room to refill his water bottle and found Tanya tapping out ibuprofen from a bottle into her palm.

“Half the office has called in sick,” she said. “COVID. And I have a bad headache.”

“That’s a COVID symptom. You should go home.”

“Good idea. I’ll leave after my meeting.”

He wanted to tell her that his other good ideas would’ve prevented this outbreak but what was the point?

Trudging back to his office, he heard a scream. He wheeled and saw Candy kneeling over Jock on the floor. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” she said, hands over her mouth.

Nigel dropped his bottle and rushed over. Jock was wheezing heavily, his eyes wild with fright.
“He’s having an asthma attack,” Candy said. “He forgot his inhaler.”

“Call 999,” Nigel said, but he knew he couldn’t wait for the ambulance. Jock’s lips were a ghostly blue. Nigel dropped to his knees and pinched off Jock’s nose with one hand. He took a deep breath, sealed his mouth around Jock’s and blew as hard as he could. He rose for air, then blew again. He kept it up like a robot until he felt a tug on his shoulder.

“We’ll take over now. We have oxygen.” The woman’s voice sounded like it was in a tunnel.

He looked up bewildered. A paramedic was on the other side of Jock planting a plastic mask on his face. Nigel hauled himself up using the arm of a chair as the other paramedic moved into his place and took Jock’s vital signs.

Feeling dizzy, Nigel returned to his office, where he shut the door and pressed his forehead against it. A huge gulping sob rose out of him and he wept. For Jock, for Candy, for his failure in this wretched existence called life. Nothing he did was right.

He couldn’t go to work the next day. He slummed around the house in his bathrobe. He tried to watch Space Wars, but it suddenly seemed silly. He picked up the Journal of Public Health & Hygiene but found it pompous. He sat on a bench in his back garden and stared at rabbits nibbling the lettuce.

The doorbell jolted him. He put on his mask and opened the door. Jock. Face covered and standing back two meters.

“I know I’m the last person you want to see but I had to thank you for saving my life. The doctors told me that if you hadn’t acted, I’d be dead, and I was a total arsehole to you. Wendy told me the truth about what happened with you and Candy this morning. It was quite a bit different than what Candy told me. She said you were obsessed with her, so I wanted to be her hero to impress her. She used me to get back at you, and I was dumb enough to fall for it. You’re a really good person, Nigel, weird but good.”

Nigel was dumbstruck.

“And if you don’t already hate me enough, I tested positive for COVID in the hospital. I figured you should know. Well, that’s all I came to say. Oh, I owe you this too.” He held out a bag. “Maybe we can get a beer sometime.” He turned and walked down the path.

Nigel opened the bag. It contained a white Oxford shirt.

“Wait. Jock. You want to come in and have a beer? Actually, I don’t have beer, but I have milk?”

“What about quarantine?”

Nigel shrugged. “If you have COVID, I have it.”

They entered the house. Nigel poured two glasses of milk and they sat on the bench in the backyard.
“I admit I got carried away being CSO,” Nigel said. “I was never in charge of anything before.”

“You were doing your job. Where’d you learn mouth-to-mouth?”

Journal of Public Health & Hygiene.

Jock studied him. “You’d never done it before?”

Nigel shook his head.

“That’s fucking amazing, mate.”

Nigel felt a chip of warmth in his belly. They sipped the milk.

“By the way, I saw that video of Candy. It was a riot,” Jock said.

Nigel looked at him. “It was funny?”

“Hell, yeah. Hilarious. I mean, crotchless panties on a date? She was looking to reel you in, mate.”

“She was looking to reel you in, too. Mate.”

Jock draped his arm around Nigel’s shoulders and held up his milk for a toast.

“To surviving Candy and COVID.”

Nigel clinked his glass. “Hell yes!”

“You need some work but you’re getting there, mate.”

Nigel smiled.

Christina Hoag is the author of two novels Girl on the Brink, named to Suspense Magazine’s Best YA list, and Skin of Tattoos, Silver Falchion Award finalist. She also co-authored the nonfiction book Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence. A former journalist, she reported from Latin America for Time, Financial Times, New York Times and other media. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals. She recently won Honorable Mentions for essay and short story in the International Human Rights Arts Festival Literary Awards 2020.

Chad Parenteau is Associate Editor of Oddball Magazine.