With surgical masks covering their faces, the hospital staff looked the same to her. She arrived at the waiting room and quickly spotted the few not wearing scrubs. A nurse commanded Sutton to fix the bandana over his nose.
"Oliver," she spoke from behind her mask in a neutral tone, doubting whether she should sound amorous in public.
Her aunt's face hid in her hands while Aziza rubbed her back. The crestfallen mood alerted Pudica the worst had happened to her uncle.
"Hey, I'm sorry I couldn't be in there with you," said Oliver.
"How's Uncle Robert? It's bad, isn't it?" replied Pudica.
"No, he's doing well. The bullet just brushed his shoulder."
"Why is Aunt Betsy crying?”
"They won't let family members into the patient's room. Hospitals are almost at maximum capacity and more are dying from coronavirus."
Pudica sat beside her aunt, who gasped at her presence.
"My dear, I'm so thrilled to see you." Betsy sniffled, embracing her niece.
"This is my fault," Pudica addressed everyone. "I was the target of the bullets and I involved you all."
"We all made it alive," said Damon, Sutton's father. For the most part, he was a man of little words. "No one can predict these things when you haven't done anything wrong."
"Betsy briefed us on the situation," said Aziza."You need bodyguards."
That was a good idea. Now, more than ever, Pudica needed to travel to Florida where her sister promised security. She hoped to convince Oliver to come with her.
"Ninel thinks it's best if I go to her. Staying in Texas is putting everyone I care about in danger.”
"And live with the Fanjuls? I don't think so." Betsy raised her hands to her shoulders."Sweetie, that family hates us."
"Have you met them?"
Betsy blinked rapidly. "Well, no. I inferred from what your mother told me decades ago."
"But I don't have another solution."
"She'll be fine, Aunt Betsy. I'll take Pudica myself." Oliver volunteered to chaperone.
The girl could not be more pleased as she was more comfortable making the trip with someone familiar. Besides, she was his girlfriend—well, officially his wife—so it was great to get to spend time with him.
She found the way her mind changed humorous. A week ago, she wanted to build a wall between them, and now they were planning a trip together.
“We're all going.“ Uncle Robert limped into the room. His wife ran to him, but he received her hug with a stiff spine.“I'm okay." He looked forward and tapped the gauze under his polo shirt.
“That will drag you away from your patients.Are you sure?" asked Pudica.
Her uncle ignored her and addressed Oliver.“We’ll take your truck and Betsy‘s van."
“Ninel said she'd try sending a private jet." The girl raised her index ﬁnger as if she were trying to get the adults‘ attention.
“Truck and van, l said." Robert reiterated and exited the room. His wife scurried behind him.
Pudica lowered at her uncle's behavior. Everyone kept saying the shooting wasn't her fault, but it was obvious he resented her. She avoided being angry at him. From his perspective, in less than seventy-two hours, he had lost his home, valuables, and safety.
Oliver tossed a suitcase into the bed of his truck and straightened his arm at the cooler full of beverages and deli sandwiches.
“Pudding, can you roll that over here!" he called Pudica.
The girl seemed idle. She woke up at the snap of his fingers.
“Oh, the snacks." She pulled the box by its handle.
Uncle Robert's treatment had affected her so much, she spoke minimally. Oliver wanted her to confide in him but he could not delay the topic. Her somber mood made him feel as if he were at a funeral.
“Don't mind him. He's got a wound and it hurts. It's hard for us guys to cry, so we turn pain into anger." Oliver jumped to the subject.
“Including Uncle Robert?" she asked.
“It's like bumping your toe against the side of the bed. It makes you wan'a curse and beat the hell out'a something."
She chuckled. "I see what you mean. I wasn't aware men are this way in regards to everything. My mom talked about men and not once she mentioned this."
That was a surprise to Oliver since the girl seemed to understand nothing about relationships. “What did she say to you?"
"Mostly warnings like he'll only want sex, and if I'm pregnant out of wedlock, he'll leave me. If I'm too nice, he'll cheat on me. Most dudes are trash—" She paused and bit her lips. “Sorry. no offense."
"What else? Let me guess, women are victims." He rolled his eyes, taking offence.
"Hey, that's not how I think. I was repeating her words. And for your information, she made me believe anything remotely enjoyable would turn me into a whore."
Pudica's mother was a hater. Naturally, Oliver didn't dare to speak ill of the defunct. He was about to tell his girlfriend to scratch what she learned from the woman when Quentin and Sutton advanced toward the truck.
"Bro, what’ll happen to the gym if you're gone?" said Quentin.
"I took care of everything. Rosita will do a few rounds a week and Sutton, you have a spare key," Oliver addressed his friends.
Sutton raised a card with a key at the end of it. “Heck yeah, I get an entire gym to myself."
“Take care of it." Oliver shook a ﬁnger at him.
“Don't worry. I'll keep him in check." said Quentin, turning to Pudica. “And keep this one in check for me. eh."
Pudica laughed as Quentin and Sutton tousled Oliver's hair. The three friends bumped fists.
“See you when I see you, bro," said Sutton.
Oliver jerked his chin and glimpsed at Pudica's hand. Her unpainted nails arched slightly past the tips of her fingers. The dainty movements urged him to touch her. They told no one they were together, so he was adamant to touch her in public. Pudica didn't say much after she accepted and that made him nervous. Here we go. He wiped his hand on the side of his jeans inconspicuously and dangled his arm until he hooked his finger around her thumb, then affixed his palm.
Quentin said something related to the gym's locker rooms. Oliver nodded, pretending to listen. Sutton laughed, so he did the same. His eyes desperately seeking Pudica's face. Directly looking at her was too obvious, so he opted for brushing his hair anxiously.
Then the girl's fingers fastened over his knuckles. When he realized he was simpering like an idiot, he guided her into the passenger seat of the truck.
His friends didn't comment as he opened the door for her. They smiled.
It was a dreary night when Oliver followed the Hendricks‘ van through the back roads of a ghost town. All shops, bars, and restaurants had signs that read ‘closed.' A billboard on the sidewalk warned the citizens to wash their hands and wear face coverings. Not one human walked the streets. They were the only cars driving through the flickering street lights.
"Where's everybody?" said Pudica.
"Trapped inside their homes." Oliver let go of the brake pedal.
"We must sleep at a truck stop if no hotels are open."
As they crossed a highway, they noticed blinking blue lights. A man dressed in a camouflage pattern waved at Aunt Betsy's van. Oliver stopped behind them and rolled down the window. Two police officers approached the driver's side.
"Don't be alarmed, Sir, you are not in trouble," said the officer, stopping at a noticeable distance from the window. "There's an influx of coronavirus cases in Florida and to protect the citizens, we must quarantine all travelers entering the state. It is voluntary but if you refuse, we can't let you through."
Oliver turned to his right.
“My sister warned me about it," said Pudica.
“Free food and a bed." Oliver shrugged.
The other option was to return to piles of ashes. Nothing guaranteed the mafia didn't find them, so they chose quarantine.
Pudica was getting used to seeing people covered in plastic everywhere. Only the eyes of their guide were visible through her hazmat suit.The guests thought quarantine was a government facility of bunk beds and no privacy. Instead, the officers took them to a modest inn where they would spend the next fourteen days.
“This is your room," the woman addressed Uncle Robert and Aunt Betsy.
“There‘s a phone by the bed. Press zero and we will come to you."
“This isn't too bad," said Aunt Betsy while pulling on a small suitcase.
Surely, Pudica‘s room had to be half the size, but she didn't mind. She mainly prayed for a bath and a cozy mattress.
Oliver and Uncle Robert shook hands and the young couple continued through the hallway.
“And you’ll stay here," said the woman.
Pudica peeked inside.This suite was as spacious as the previous one. Oliver entered and sat on the bed, testing the mattress.
“It's okay to be nervous," said the lady in the hazmat.
The girl lengthened her neck. “Sorry?"
“The word quarantine does that to people." The ofﬁcer pointed her gloved hand inside the room.
“Oh, I thought I was getting my own room," said Pudica.
“No. We're having husbands and wives stay together. We don't want to separate families."
“Husbands and—" Of course, on paper, she was Oliver's wife. They had yet to talk about their relationship and the government was trying to get them to sleep in the same bed. She took a deep breath and entered the room when the officer closed the door behind her.
Oliver grabbed a packaged sandwich from the miniature microwave, placed it on a plate, and sliced it in half.
“What kind of cheese would you like?" he asked in an attempt to get Pudica to stop using hand gestures and universal sounds of agreement.
“Hmn, um. Anything's ﬁne." She sat at a round breakfast table by the window.
“Cheddar it is." He dropped a yellow slice on the ham, knowing it was the only cheese available.
"My personal preference is Swiss cheese." He lifted the chair across from her and sat beside her.
Pudica hid her hands between her thighs as he presented her with dinner.
Frustrated, he sighed and tapped his fingers on the table. Her shyness was understandable as he saw the situation from her perspective. A diversity of ideas ran through his mind for successful small talk. He frowned at his own thoughts. Couples should speak freely about anything without fearing judgement.
"I can sleep on the—" he almost said ‘couch,’ but there was none, so he ﬁnished with, “tub?"
“I can't do that to you," she blurted.
“I want you to be comfortable."
“Thank you, but it's better if you take the bed. I'll take the—” She scanned the room for a place to sleep which he had done many times already.
The four walls encompassed the bed, two nightstands, one table, two chairs, a television set, and the bathroom door. A painting of brown horses in a prairie hung above the bed frame.
“The floor is nice. I like firm mattresses anyway,” she said.
Oliver tilted his head with a poker face.
“What else do we do? Sleep in the same bed?" she replied to his mute disagreement.
“Pudica, can I ask you a question?" No nicknames. He was serious.
She shrugged and nodded.
“Where are we? Are we together?" he asked.
“I thought we agreed we were together."
“We did, but you're acting like we're not."
“I’m being myself. Do I need to act differently?"
“No, you're not being yourself. You're acting all stiff as if I were a stranger. You have to trust me and communicate your thoughts."
Pudica furrowed her brows and crossed her arms. “Look who's talking about trust and communication when you can't even talk about your history without getting angry."
Oliver saw no correlation between his past and sleeping arrangements. She had to be avoiding the subject or trying to attack him. It was so hard to be nice.
"That’s personal and I see no point in bringing it up."
She pressed the chair to her butt and moved it farther from him. “So you'll never consider mentioning it."
“I don't ask about your childhood, do I? I don't care about it. l don't judge people by their past, only their character." He stood up.
“But the past shapes a person's character." She leveled with his gaze.
He glared at her, searching for a response to prove her wrong.
Never mind. He was too tired to deal with it. If she wanted to sleep on the floor, it was her choice. He stretched his arms out, then started unbuttoning his shirt.
“What are you doing?" She winced, but didn't look away.
“What does it look like I'm doing? I will sleep naked in the middle of this giant bed." He pulled off his briefs and let his manhood rock side to side as he lifted the mattress covers. He grabbed one pillow and dropped it on the floor. “There you go. Enjoy the freezing tiles.”