Although written five years ago, this short story about the characters from The Chemical Attraction Series is still a topical subject. Those of us left behind after the death of a loved one can struggle to cope with our responsibilities while we grieve.
I think these characters must have been real in a previous life for me to know their rich backstories. In fact, I love them and know them so well that I used Matt Connor’s father, Orrin, as the main character in my novel, Dearest Mother and Dad, set during the Korean War. I consider “Devastation” a lead into Dearest Mother and Dad and Chemical Attraction.
On the overcast September day, Police Chief Matt Connor jumped out of his cruiser in the circular drive of Allenton General Hospital. Glancing around, he strolled briskly toward Emergency Services and the Occupational Health Department, which shared a large waiting room. He had to warn his wife, Eva, of the torrential hailstorm bearing down on her.
Even before he had become Chief seven years ago, Gail Connor had used her influence to bend people to her way of thinking. Then, she felt entitled. After all, her son was the Chief of their rural town and her daughter-in-law worked at the town’s small hospital. Seeing through Gail’s gossiping and demanding persona, he loved her. However, today was tougher than usual.
Leaning on the counter, he waited for Nettie Day, the semi-retired nurse, to look up from her paperwork. She had shown his wife the ropes years ago. The staffs’ hatred of Gail carried over to Eva. His meddlesome mother had pretty much blackmailed the hospital president with a lawsuit about false gossip that he and Eva had secretly married. The president caved and gave Eva an internship earning her the job after graduation.
Within two months, Eva won the nurses over when they saw her devotion to him and David. She had also squashed any criticism of him like an aphid eating the roses in her garden. The hospital employees appreciated that Eva stepped up and dealt with her mother-in-law’s visits and appointments, which she did rather tactfully he thought.
Nettie slid open the glass window. “Hello, Chief. Eva’s with a patient.” With a dark chignon popular in the fifties, she puckered her lips in disdain. “Did you know your mother left two messages about coming early for flu shots before the clinic even starts? Your mother’s a piece of work.”
OccHealth provided pre-employment physicals, drug screens, and treatment for work-related injuries to area businesses. They also organized the influenza inoculation clinics and the Allenton County Health Fair for the community.
He glanced at the front entrance and cringed. Gail, Orrin, and their seventeen-year-old grandson, David, headed this way. “Yes, and that’s why I’m giving you a heads up,” Matt said. “I’ll run interference until Eva’s available.”
Nettie nodded. “Best Chief ever,” she said, before sliding the window closed. She disappeared to inform Eva.
“Matthew, what are you doing here?” Gail asked.
“I took a break to visit my wife,” he replied, watching David sit in a corner chair. Resting his elbow on the arm of the chair his head leaning on his fist, he looked bored and tired.
“Are you getting your flu shot early?” Orrin asked.
“No,” Matt replied. “The clinic starts at one, Mother. You’ll have to wait an hour, but you will be first in line.”
“I have time right now,” Eva said from behind him.
He turned away from his parents and whispered, “The nurses are going to love you more than they already do.”
“Will you love me more than you already do?” she whispered back.
“It’s not possible,” he replied as he kissed her cheek. “I’ll stick around and escort them out.”
“Let me get a vial,” she said, waving the family back to their small lab area.
Gail sat on the only stool while Eva opened the fridge for the serum.
“Looking for these, Eva,” Dr. Ellis asked from behind her. As gaunt as his patients in the morgue, he held out two vials. “I have the rest in the little fridge in my office. Chief, make sure you get yours, too.” He chuckled and left. Matt thought Ellis’s weirdness came from his other job as county coroner.
Eva prepared the needle. As she swabbed Gail’s arm, she smiled. “So this is finally my payback from years ago.” She pretended to stab her in the arm before gently administrating the shot.
Orrin laughed as David quietly leaned on the doorway.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Gail replied, standing. “Orrin, take your payback.”
An older, grayer, and quieter version of Matt, Orrin sat on the stool. “I always behave.”
Eva gave him the shot then kissed his cheek. “Yes, you do.”
Standing, Orrin smiled. “David, you’re up.”
Seeing Nettie at the OccHealth counter, Gail harrumphed and walked in her direction. Orrin quickly followed. Matt hoped Dad would stop any mayhem. Without a word, David plopped down onto the stool while Eva drew serum from the vial. She swabbed his arm with alcohol then paused. Frowning, she felt his head.
“Honey, you’re burning up,” Eva said. “We’ll do this a different day.”
Matt felt David’s head with his hand to confirm. “I’ll drop him off at home before I head back to the station,” he said.
“I’ll do it. Someone should stay with him,” she said. Eva quickly put the serum back into the vial. “We have enough extra hands for the clinic today.”
While Eva let Nettie know, Matt walked with his son toward his parents in the atrium.
“I’m not a baby,” David said without much energy.
“Your mom likes taking care of you, so just enjoy her pampering,” he replied.
After the averted drama at the hospital, Matt headed to the station. Eva, thank God, had an enchantment spell calming the storm into a gentle rain. He smiled. She had mesmerized him from the start. His dull and dry life had bloomed into this vibrant garden, Eva the rainmaker.
At the end of his day, he swung by Hillcrest Floral. The intoxicating smell in the tiny shop enticed him to open his wallet wider. He chose a bouquet of colorful wildflowers, three red roses in its center.
“You in trouble, Chief?” Mrs. Fletcher asked as she slid her reading glasses attached to the chain around her neck onto the edge of her nose.
“No, Ma’am. A Thank You for putting up with me,” he said.
“And to gain a few extra husband points for when you do mess up?” she asked.
“That, too.” Hmm, he wondered if he should cause a little trouble; their disagreements had paid dividends in the bedroom.
In a mischievous mood, he parked the cruiser in the garage and entered through the mudroom. Coming out of David’s bedroom, Eva held a washcloth. She smiled at the flowers and met him in the kitchen.
“What did you do?” she asked in mock anger.
He winked. “Nothing yet. How’s David?”
She ran cold water over the washcloth. “He has a hundred and one degree temp.”
He was about to say, Does he need to go to the doctor? But he stopped himself from getting the eye roll from his physician assistant wife, who knew almost as much as a doctor. Before he could speak, his cell rang. While he answered, Eva took the compress to their son.
“Matthew, come over,” his mom said, coughing. “Dad’s collapsed.”
“On my way,” he said, tossing the flowers on the kitchen table. “Eva!” She shut David’s door and shushed him. “Dad’s collapsed,” he said in a higher than usual tone.
After telling David they’d be back in a few minutes, she grabbed her doctor’s bag then beat Matt out the front door. At six in the evening, they raced across the dark street. Still in his uniform, Matt shoved open the front door. His parents, unconscious on the living room floor, looked flushed and sweaty. Reddish brown vomit partially covered his mother’s sleeve and the carpet beside her.
“Shit,” Eva said, racing for Orrin.
Adjusting his gun on his utility belt, Matt knelt down beside his mother. “She’s barely breathing.”
“Orrin’s not,” she replied.
Their training kicked in. Eva started CPR on his dad while he monitored his mother’s breathing and called for an ambulance. Thankful that his role as Chief took priority with dispatch, he set his cell aside.
“Mom. Mom. Can you hear me?” he asked, feeling her neck for a pulse. None. “Shit!”
He and Eva continued CPR on his parents as the two EMTs burst through the door. “My father’s been unconscious longer. Help him first,” Matt said.
The EMTs had to zap his dad twice before they got his heart started. Eva held the oxygen mask on Orrin as they loaded him into the ambulance. Briefly conscious, his mother coughed and threw up on the lawn before they lifted her stretcher into the bus. Food poisoning?
On the crowded ambulance, Matt tried to ask her what had happened, but the tech wiped her mouth and attached an oxygen mask. Three minutes later, the ambulance stopped next to the ER entrance. Two nurses and a doctor rushed to his unconscious parents quickly wheeling them into the building.
Matt hopped out then lifted Eva out by the waist. She briefly hugged him before she hurried inside. Neither said anything, too stunned to even complete a thought. In the empty waiting room, he paced. Should he demand to go back there? He was the police chief of this damn town. Instead, he scrubbed his hands over his crewcut in frustration and let the doctors do their jobs.
A half hour later, he watched their friend Madeline Pierce escort her sobbing aunt from a treatment room to the waiting area. Sylvia Folkert stumbled. Matt caught her before she fell and easily lifted her thin frame to a chair.
“What’s happened?” Matt asked, on a knee beside her.
“He died,” Sylvia whispered in shock. “We were happily dancing yesterday.”
“Herbert?” Matt asked, looking at Madeline. Her red eyes and nose confirmed the answer.
“They said it was the flu,” Madeline replied. “He got a shot earlier today. I guess it didn’t have a chance to work.”
Matt hid his horror. The EMTs thought his parents had the flu, too, not food poisoning.
“Chief, would you walk us to my Jeep?” Madeline asked. “We’re both a bit shaken.”
“Of course,” he replied, helping Sylvia stand. He had a firm grip on her elbow. Leaning against him, she rested her other hand over his.
His distraction was short-lived as he walked back to the waiting room that had been empty ten minutes ago. Fifteen would-be patients were hacking, coughing, puking. Their distraught family members offered futile comfort.
Looking though the reception window, he saw Eva wearing a mask, her mascara smeared from tears. His heart sank; he knew. He raced through the Authorized Personnel Only door. Her body shook.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his uniform shirt. “The doctors couldn’t revive them.”
My God! Both of them? Stunned, he silently hugged her. Three people had died from the apparent flu; others with symptoms waited to be seen. His first thought: David.
“Honey, I need you to go home,” Matt stated. “I’ll call Bobby to come and get you.”
“Matt, I can stay and make arrangements,” she replied, stepping back.
“No, David needs you.”
Reading his mind, Eva gasped and nodded. “Tell Bobby I’ll wait out front. Come with me,” she said.
“I need to stay and coordinate with the hospital about a possible outbreak,” Matt replied.
She handed him a mask from the lab drawer. “Protect yourself then. I’ll call the funeral home and make the initial preparations.”
“I love you, too,” he replied. “Please, avoid the waiting room while I call Bobby.”
By the time one in the morning rolled around, the hospital reported twelve deaths. Matt stayed to listen to the administration discuss their procedures for those with flu symptoms arriving at the hospital. With the hospital preparing for the town’s crisis, Matt called the station and informed his officers about their protocol for dealing with illness calls.
The hospital’s president would make a basic statement about flu prevention to the news crews in the morning. Matt offered to stand beside him to show that the professionals had the situation under control—a necessary lie against any disorder and chaos.
From the hospital, Matt walked the mile home at two in the morning. He needed the time to process this ordeal before the media frenzy. Pushing down any thoughts of losing his parents, he entered the house through the mudroom next to the garage.
Eva greeted him. Her makeup removed; her soft features red and puffy from tears. The smell of bleach and lemon disinfectant overpowered his senses.
“Strip here then shower. I’ve scrubbed every surface with bleach,” she said. “I’ll wash your uniform and wipe down your badge and equipment.”
“How’s David?” he asked, setting his utility belt on top of the washer.
“His fever has dropped to ninety-nine. No cough, chills, or nausea. He’s sleeping now, but he’s in the denial stage of grief. I am, too,” she said, wiping her eye with the back of her hand. “I heard that Herbert Folkert died.”
He nodded and stripped to his boxers. “Twelve deaths so far.”
“So far? Oh God,” she whispered.
After his shower, he found his wife using a disinfecting wipe on his handcuffs. All his equipment laid in a row on the kitchen table. She handed him a wipe for his gun and holster. Without speaking, they sat at the kitchen table and focused on the items. Eva had even disinfected his keys, nail clippers, and change from his pants pocket. He used a few wipes on the inside of his cruiser. Better safe than sorry.
In the bedroom, Matt set his alarm for six and slid under the sheet next to his wife. Eva cuddled next to him. He wanted to tell her to stay home, not to go into work, not to be around those sick people, to hide away until the crisis passed.
She must have read his mind. “I’m staying home to care for David. Mr. Banks from Gordon’s Funeral home has Orrin and Gail’s premade wishes on file. When you’re ready, we’ll stop by to confirm a date and time for their funerals.”
“I have a feeling I’ll be dealing with the chaos. Will you set up a time in the afternoon to meet with him? Then remind me?”
“Yes, of course.”
For three days, Chief Connor worked to calm everyone distressed over the flu epidemic. Twenty-three people from Allenton had died; funerals had taken over their somber town. The public schools had closed as a precaution giving crews time to disinfect everything inside. Local stores had bare shelves where cleaning products had been.
The hospital suggested that everyone stay home, if possible. People were upset that the flu vaccine didn’t work. BennTech, having developed the serum, issued a statement that the strain from the epidemic wasn’t what the CDC had recommended for this season … talk about passing the buck.
Defeated and exhausted, Matt stripped off his black tie in their bedroom. In a black dress, Eva slipped off her black heels for a brief reprieve. They had attended Herbert Folkert’s funeral and then his parents’ right after. Eva’s family—well, his only family now—had joined them for Orrin and Gail’s joint service and now relaxed in the living room giving them a little quiet time.
Matt had no time to process his parents’ deaths. He still had to go through their house and find their financial papers and wills. What was he supposed to do about the house? Would he sell it? Rent it out? He had so many questions, and he just buried the man who always had the answers.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rubbed his hands over his eyes suddenly overwhelmed. Strong and stoic for his son, his wife, Sylvia, Madeline, and his town, he hadn’t had much sleep.
Eva sat beside him. “They’ll understand if you want to take a nap.”
“I just need a few minutes,” he replied.
Standing, she lifted his face with her hands and kissed his forehead. “Take your time,” she said, before shutting the bedroom door.
Eva gave him strength. He felt bad that they hadn’t talked much, talking even less to his son. David’s teenage hormones caused him to be sullen and moody as he processed their family tragedy. Matt needed to reconnect with them.
With another sigh, Matt stared at the tie on the floor next to his pinching black dress shoes. Hearing a ruckus in the hallway outside the closed bedroom door, he waited not moving from the edge of the bed. His energy had long drained from his body to react to the commotion.
“I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to!” David yelled.
A second later, Joe said, “In there. Now.” His serious tone, not often used, made David stomp into the guest bedroom. Matt could hear them through the wall. Joe continued, “I understand you’re mad at the situation.”
“The situation? I’m angry at them. Why couldn’t they have fought harder to stay alive?” David demanded. “They helped raise me, and now they left me alone.”
Matt groaned. He felt that way, too.
“Listen, Kid,” Joe said. “I sympathize. Eva, Taylor, and I went through this when Taylor’s parents died. It sucks. However. You are not even close to being alone.”
Matt pictured David crossing his arms in defiance.
“I know,” David said. “It’s just … Dad hasn’t been around much … too busy dealing with town business.”
That was true. Rubbing his hands roughly over his head, Matt listened.
“David, consider this. Fair or not, your dad has responsibilities to this town, and he may not have had a chance to sort out his own emotions yet. He is a son who just lost both of his parents. No matter how old you are, it affects you. Instead of causing a problem, you may want to offer support,” Joe said. “Whenever you feel lonely, you pull your family closer. That’s what I do.” Joe spoke with authority and experience on the subject.
A few minutes later, Matt was splashing water on his face when someone knocked on the bedroom door. “Come in,” he said through the open door of the master bath.
“Hey Matt,” Joe said. “Peter got a call from work, so we gotta leave.”
He quickly dried his face. “Of course, I appreciate you and Peter coming today.” He gave Joe a bro hug with a back slap. “And thank you for talking to David. You’re right.”
“Wait. What? I’m right? Would you mention that to my sisters?” Joe chuckled. “And I got your back with the kid.”
Leaving his suit jacket and tie on the bed, Matt followed Joe to the living room to see him and Peter out. Eva and Stuart talked while David humored seven-year-old Lily by playing with her and her Barbie Dolls. Matt would rather play than cope. He hadn’t much experience with dolls though. When his stomach growled, he headed for the kitchen and ogled all the casseroles and side dishes on the table. By the sink, Taylor turned from rinsing a plate.
“Did you know I have a thick, homemade cookbook with all your mom’s recipes?” Taylor said.
Matt smiled. “Eva has one, too.”
“Yeah, and we probably made all of them today to keep busy,” she replied. “So I guess Gail is here in spirit.”
Matt nodded and picked a clean plate up from the table. He’d always remember the smell of Mom’s cooking.
“It’s okay to reminisce. Find comfort that your parents loved you and were so proud of your decisions raising David, marrying Eva … well, eventually … and then becoming the Chief,” Taylor said, casually. She turned back to the sink to finish washing the plates.
“You know, Mom always dominated the conversation never letting my dad get a word in edgewise,” Matt said with a sad chuckle. “But he had a knack for supporting me without ever speaking. I’ll miss that.”
Taylor dried her hands and hugged him while he held his full plate. “As we remember the ones we’ve lost, we must appreciate those with us now. They are the ones who make life worth living.”
“Are you always this deep?” Matt asked, giving her a one-handed squeeze before stepping back.
“Ha! No. I’ve been through this before,” she said.
“Well, thank you for those wise words,” he replied, sitting at the table suddenly starved.
After they put away the food and said goodbye to their family, Matt collapsed onto the couch. He stared at the blank TV screen. In a t-shirt and sweats, David plopped down beside him. Neither made any move toward the remote. Wearing Matt’s old police academy t-shirt and yoga pants, Eva sat on the other side of David. They continued to gaze at their reflection on the screen, the house silent.
Finally, David blew out a long even breath. “Wow. That was one big ass storm that hit town.”
“The clean-up may take a while,” Eva added.
“We’ll get through it though,” David replied.
“Yeah?” Matt asked.
“For starters, we can watch Grandpa’s favorite movie—Rio Bravo,” David suggested.
“Sounds good,” Matt said. David grabbed the remote.
“I’ll make popcorn,” Eva said, jumping up.
At Joe’s suggestion, Matt, David, and Eva pulled their family closer with Orrin’s tradition of silent support.
Continue reading about my favorite people:
Searching for Her: an anthology of short stories