My father, the state-prison guard, says some of his cells have been opened now, the men he watches going home the same way he does. He says those men won’t report for any sort of work tomorrow. He says the Governor has freed them, not the virus. He has all the proof he needs–the prison is near the state capital and not one of the inmates was sick.
My father believes the world needs more guards. He says there are not enough prisons. “If I took you to work with me, you’d understand, but you’ll learn,” he says. “Until then, always remember your house key is a weapon. Make room in your backpack or purse for pepper spray.”
My father’s friends are guards, too. Three of them visited last week. They brought their wives, but not their children. My father said their names and ours. He said we’re not afraid in this house. We’re not distancing, not my wife, not my son and daughter. Masks are for Halloween and thieves.
The guests stayed for hours. My mother and the wives, after dinner, sat outside. They drank wine and looked at their phones. The other wives texted their babysitters and told my mother, “Don’t tell our husbands.”
The men drank beer and played poker. They bragged about how they’ve memorized the odds that help them win, how they can read each other’s tells. I watched from behind my father. He took a sip of beer when his cards were good. He picked at the label when he bluffed.
My brother and I stayed up past midnight. We watched a show where the host was at home and the audience was as far away as we were. He made fun of men who refused to wear masks, but nobody was there to laugh.
When the other prison guards were ready to leave, my father hugged them and slapped their backs. Each one touched his face and laughed. My father repeated, “Trust is love.” He sounded like our priest.
After the house was empty, my father said, “Governor or no governor, before you two know it, school will start. You aren’t prisoners.” When my brother made his “I hate school face” and I smiled, he hugged our mother and said, “Say thank you now before you see how right I am.”
My mother said, “Time will tell.” She began to load the dishwasher because there was a mess that couldn’t wait until morning to deal with.
This week, every morning, my mother took my temperature. She took my brother’s and hers, too, but only after my father left for work. “You keep this a secret,” she said.
At a press conference last night, the governor recommended that our school go virtual because of the per capita number of cases in our county. Right away, he revealed that the outbreak at the federal prison my father doesn’t work at accounts for a large portion of the cases. Before the reporters ask questions, he tells those who are angry and disappointed to remember that the employees return to the community after leaving work, that they mingle with family and neighborhoods and friends.
This morning, while we ate breakfast, my father cleared his throat and said, “That governor is a pussy.” His voice sounded funny, but none of us laughed. He cleared his throat again. He pulled the thermometer from his pocket and laid it on the table between the cereal boxes and told us to take a good long look and see if it looked familiar.
“Ok,” he said. “Ok.” He picked it up and pointed it at our mother. “Your mother wants to take my temperature,” he said. My mother bowed her head, but she didn’t fold her hands or move her lips. He pointed the thermometer at my brother. “I told her to go ahead and try.” He pointed it at me. “How’s that sound?” he said. “Like I mean it?”
When my mother said, “Knock it off,” he snapped the thermometer. I pushed my chair back so far it slapped the wall.
“How’s that sound?’ he said, his voice hoarse. When he cleared his throat again, he began to cough. I turned my head, but my brother ducked as if he expected to be stabbed.
Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). His full-length and flash stories have appeared in such places as The Missouri Review, The Kenyan Review, SmokeLong, Atticus Review, and Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.