This is a work of fiction.
“Do you think you’re going to be okay?” Mercy asks.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table, eating lunch.
She’s still smiling from our fun, but she also looks worried.
“I feel fine, so maybe I won’t get it.”
“I really hope you don’t.” She takes a bite of her sandwich. “You’re a good cook.”
“Thanks. Are you?”
“I’m not the best, but I get by. I’ve heard you typing and turning pages and some other stuff. Are you taking classes?”
“Yeah, but some of what you hear is me painting. I’m just finishing up this first year of college, and then I’m going to quit and paint full time.”
“That’s cool. I wish I had . . . I wish I could . . . oh never mind.”
“Do you want to talk?”
“Not really. Can I see your paintings?”
“Not all of them, because they’re for clients, but I can paint something for you if you’d like.”
“You’d do that?”
“Of course. What would you like me to paint?”
“I love the river. Can you paint that?”
“A river landscape? Sure. With trees and sunshine and people walking.”
She frowns slightly.
“Can you paint it when it’s stormy, like in the fall? The trees have no leaves left and it’s cold and windy. Everybody’s at home, except for one person.”
“Who’s the person?”
She doesn’t answer for a few seconds, but I think I already know the answer.
“Me. A little girl version of me. I’m eleven, so not that little. I’m walking in the rain, because . . . I don’t want to tell you. I’m sorry.”
“I can paint her for you. I’ll clean up and then go get my stuff.”
“Thanks. I’ll clean up while you go and get your paints.”
“Sure. Just one question.”
“What?” She looks and sounds nervous.
“Would you like to paint her?”
“I can help you if you want, or I can paint her, or you can. I just thought I’d ask, because it sounds like it’s important to you. To like, maybe help you with something, I dunno.”
She smiles at me.
“Yeah, you’re right, but I can’t draw worth [blank].” She gets up from the table and takes her plate to the sink.
“Sure,” I say, and go and get paper, watercolors, brushes, and water.
When I walk back into the kitchen with an armload of supplies, she’s at the sink, washing our dishes. I put everything down on the table and open the box of paints.
“Will it take long for you to set up?”
“Nope. I’m pretty much ready now. Do you have a specific river in mind? I can Google it and try to get the shape right.”
“Do you know the one near here?”
“Please use that one.”
“Okay. What time of day is it?”
She rinses a plate.
“It’s about five in the afternoon. It’s very dark, and it’s raining. The wind’s blowing my shirt around and I’m crying.”
I want to ask her why the little girl is crying, but I don’t. I sense that my role right now, in whatever she’s trying to come to terms with, is to be the hands that paint her sadness and possibly her grief, rather than ears to listen.
“I understand. What are you wearing?”
“A black T-shirt. Short sleeves. Nobody even noticed I was dressed like that. I was wearing jeans. They were faded, but made like that, you know? On purpose.”
“I do know. My dad loves faded jeans. What kind of shoes?”
“Black leather ones. Old.”
“Were any of your clothes dirty?”
“No. My hair was short. I was going through a boyish stage.”
She finishes with the dishes and comes to sit across from me.
“Nobody even noticed I wasn’t wearing a jacket.”
She looks at me and her face is almost expressionless.
“Had you been crying for a long time?”
“No. I’d been holding it in until I got away from people.”
Do I really?
When I was eleven, Mom and Dad would have noticed immediately if I wasn’t dressed properly, and I usually told them if I had a problem.
I pick up a brush and start painting the river.
Mercy watches it take shape.
“Wow,” she whispers. “It looks so real already. I thought artists had to do sketches or something first.”
“I sometimes do, but I want this to just be. I don’t want to plan it.”
I brush quickly, and soon, the river is flowing angrily along.
I start to add leafless trees, with their branches appearing to whip around in a strong wind.
Mercy doesn’t speak as I add dark clouds, rain drops, and then the girl.
I decide to put her on the bridge, which I’ve already painted.
As I start to paint her, Mercy says, “How did you know she was on the bridge?”
“She thought about jumping, but didn’t think she could do it.”
“I’m glad she didn’t,” I whisper.
“If you knew what happened, you probably wouldn’t.”
I put down the brush and look at her.
“I don’t know what happened to her, and I understand you don’t want to tell me. But I do know that there are usually ways to deal with problems, and most people are pretty forgiving of things kids do.”
“Not this,” she says. “This is different.”
“Would you like me to keep painting?”
“Yes please, if you don’t mind.”
“I love painting, but I wish I could put a smile on her face. Is there some way I can do that?”
“No. She has to be crying.”
So I continue to paint the sad, stormy picture.
When I lay down my brush after the last gentle stroke, she says, “Thank you, Billy. Are you hungry?”
“You’re welcome, and I am.”
So she makes dinner for us, and in spite of what she said earlier, she proves she’s a good cook.
We spend the next day talking and making love, but she doesn’t mention the painting, and I don’t bring it up.
When I go to bed, I feel fine.
I wake up not feeling fine.
It seems like coronavirus has gotten to me after all.