The Kappa's Paw
“I wish I could work from home,” Marshall moaned as he and Erika packed their lunches.
“Why don’t you talk to your boss about it?” she asked. “Lisa might let you.”
Marshall shook his head. “No, people like having me in the office,” he said.
“I still think you should talk to Lisa,” Erika insisted, heading to the garage.
Again, Marshall shook his head. They got into the car and Erika turned the key and backed out of the driveway. “I just really wish I could work from home,” he said again.
“Well, be careful what you wish for,” Erika retorted. “At least ask!”
“I don’t don’t want to bother Lisa,” Marshall said.
“Okay, fine,” she huffed. “Should we talk about something else?”
They waited at the stoplight. “Like what?” Marshall asked.
“Like where we’ll be in two days!” she replied gleefully. “What are you most excited about?”
“To experience something new,” he said. “Why? Do you have just one thing you’re looking forward to?”
“The food!” Erika said, turning onto the main road. “I really miss Japanese food. Sushi and noodles and French pastries…”
“Are there French bakeries in Japan?” Marshall asked.
“Lots!” Erika said. “Do you know what okonomiyaki is?”
“Nope. Is it French?”
Erika laughed. “No! The translation is something along the lines of ‘cooked the way you like it,’” she explained as they crossed the highway intersection. “Basically it’s a pile of cabbage and noodles and batter and stuff cooked on a griddle and covered in sauce and mayonnaise.”
Marshall grimaced. “Mayonnaise?”
“Japanese mayonnaise,” Erika clarified. “It’s like European mayonnaise. It’s smoother.”
Marshall made a noncommittal sound. “Speaking of Europe,” he said. “Italy is still having a hard time. People say it’ll be even worse when it gets here.”
“All the more reason to get to Japan,” Erika said, gripping the wheel.
“Yeah, I just want to be in the rental car driving to Chicago already,” Marshall agreed.
“We could ask to take today off,” Erika suggested. “Avoid picking up the virus before picking up the rental car.”
“I am not using any more vacation,” Marshall said firmly. “We’ll just keep being careful until it’s time to go.”
Erika nodded. She glanced at her hands, the way her knuckles were cracking like dry clay. Spring was coming but the March air was still chilly and harsh on overwashed hands. Despite that, she was determined to keep the virus off herself and Marshall. She hoped they could get out of Iowa before the first big wave hit the Midwest.
As she joined morning traffic, Erika thought back to January when the trip really began to feel real. It was also when she and Marshall started watching the coronavirus spread across the world. She remembered hearing about it in December when China was the only country shutting down. Even back then, it was clear that the virus would reach Japan before they could.
Since then, it had reached a lot of other places too.
Already a news junky, Marshall was glued to his phone searching for information about airlines shutting down across America. So far, Japan Airlines was still up and running and Japan seemed to be doing well. They shut down schools, discouraged public gatherings, and closed the museums for a month. Then again, maybe Japan was just pretending things were okay so they could still hold the Tokyo Olympics in the summer. Maybe Japan was a party host trying to shut the door on a flooded basement.
Erika exited the highway and pulled into the office parking lot. She locked the car while Marshall scrolled through more news websites, following her as she badged into the building.
“Have a good day,” Marshall said, heading for his desk. “We’ll get through this.”
Opening her email inbox, Erika wasn’t sure she would. The whole office was buzzing with people preparing to work from home. They wanted to get out of the office before the virus arrived. All she could do was fulfill requests, then go scrub her hands and mouth and nose anytime someone got too close. Even in the midst of a pandemic, little old ladies at work insisted on walking right up to you for a chat.
Finally, Erika had a minute to check her phone. All the nervous energy in her stomach suddenly plummeted like a sack of lead. She rushed to Marshall’s desk.
“You got my text? Crazy, isn’t it?” he said glumly. “Also it’s supposed to rain all day.”
“I have a ton of messages from my family too,” Erika groaned. “What is a ‘level four travel advisory’ anyway?”
“It’s the highest level travel advisory without being a travel ban. The government recommends anyone abroad should come home or plan on staying where they are for six to eight weeks.”
“Anywhere that’s not here,” Marshall confirmed. “Some states are going into lockdown too. And another airline is canceling flights to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.”
Erika searched in her phone for their flight confirmation. She followed the links through the Japan Airlines website to an info page. Biting her lip, she reread the cancelations list three times. “Our flight isn’t canceled,” she said, “but the rest are. We’re literally on the last plane to Japan!”
Just then, Marshall’s boss Lisa knocked on his cube wall. “Hey, you two,” she said. “We just heard that someone in the company has COVID symptoms. We’re sending everybody home who has a laptop. Enjoy your trip if I don’t see you the rest of today!”
Marshall and Erika watched her hurry off in silence. Then, they jumped into action! In less than five minutes, they had shoved their work into laptop bags and were power walking for the door. They burst out into the parking lot as if escaping an explosion.
“Whoo!” Marshall shouted as they hurried through the rain to the car. “We’re almost there! By the way, Jake said he can still drive us to the rental place later.”
“Good,” Erika said absently. Her heart was pounding. It felt like the wave was at their backs, gaining on them as she drove home. Lightning streaked the sky, followed by a shuddering roll of thunder.
Several hours later, the two of them were shutting off their work laptops again, along with their other electronics. Then they triple-checked their hiking backpacks. In Erika’s opinion, Marshall was bringing too much—power banks, plastic bags, flashlights—but she knew he was just excited. She expressed her excitement by leaving room for souvenirs.
“I’m so glad we have these face masks,” Erika said, tucking the straps behind her ears.
“Yeah, I never thought we’d actually use them,” Marshall agreed. “We never used the Korean beauty masks they came with. I just can’t figure out why they’re black!”
“To make us look like biological terrorists,” Erika said as she looked in the mirror.
Jake arrived as they were putting their sneakers on and laughed when Marshall opened the door. “Whoa! Scary!” he said. “You look like gang members! Seriously, though, I’m pretty surprised you’re still going.”
“Our plan of attack is to treat the airport like outer space, full of microscopic aliens,” Erika said, carrying her bag out through the rain. “Then we’ll avoid touching anyone in Japan, including each other. In three weeks, we’ll come back and work from home in quarantine for two weeks. You know, to make sure we didn’t bring back any virus cooties.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Jake said. He started the car as Marshall hopped in and they chatted while Erika sat in the backseat, watching raindrops slide down the window. She daydreamed about castles, food, and trains. She imagined cherry blossoms blooming, filling the air with petals.
At the rental place, Jake hugged Marshall then moved to do the same to Erika. She wagged a finger at him. “No contact starts now!” she scolded, grinning under her mask. He settled for a wave and drove off while the couple headed inside.
Erika felt silly—and a little faint—with her mask on, but Marshall finished the rental paperwork in a few minutes. On the way to the wet car, Marshall’s phone rang. “Hi, Mom!” he answered.
While Marshall talked, Erika did a quick dent check on the car before throwing her bag into the backseat. She helped Marshall out of his, nearly falling under its weight. They got into the car and slammed the doors on the storm.
“Mom heard about the travel advisory on the radio,” Marshall explained after hanging up. He started the car and maneuvered through the lot and onto the road.
“Yeah, my family’s still texting me,” Erika sighed, then looked down as her pocket buzzed. She pulled out her phone and answered it. “Hi, Aunt Sherry.”
“I’m watching the news!” her aunt said. “Are you going to be okay? How are you for income? What if you get stuck over there for months?”
“I think we’ll be okay,” Erika said, glancing at Marshall. “We have vacation time and savings.”
Eventually Erika managed to hang up. “We’re really making people nervous, aren’t we?” she mused. The rain was coming down hard and Marshall sped up the windshield wipers as he got on the highway.
Erika’s phone rang again. “Hi, Mom,” she answered tiredly.
“Hey! Are you okay? Are you still going?”
“Yes,” Erika sighed. “We just feel like—”
“You don’t have to justify yourselves to me, sweetie,” her mother said. “I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright. You guys always do what’s best, but you’re also a stubborn couple of Leos who don’t like to give up!”
“Maybe,” Erika muttered. “I promise we’re trying to make a good decision, but we’ve had non-stop calls since we left!”
“Oh, I’m sure,” her mother said. “I’ll let you focus on the road. Drive carefully! It’s supposed to rain all night. Just let me know, okay?”
“Okay,” Erika said and hung up. She slumped into her seat, watching the city turn into farmland beyond the rain.
“I need to ask this question because we need an answer,” she said at length. “Would we be okay if we got stuck in Japan for six weeks? Really?”
“Worst case scenario, I’d have Jake mail my laptop,” Marshall said. “I can flip my schedule and work overnight to match company time.”
“There’s that idea,” Erika said. “But is that how we want to spend our time in Japan? Exhausted and not sleeping and working?”
Marshall frowned at the road.
“I mean, what did we want this trip to be?” she asked, sitting upright. “We wanted to read to each other on the drive. We were going to stay at Rob’s house tonight and hang out, then fly together for the first time. Instead we’re driving in the rain getting panicky phone calls. What if something changes in Japan and we get quarantined as soon as we land?”
“I know, I know,” Marshall said mournfully.
For a few minutes they were quiet, until slowly Marshall reached out his hand. “Are we going to do this?” he asked her. “Should I turn around?”
Erika took his hand. “Let’s start by pulling off.”
They parked at a gas station. They sat in the car holding hands and made their decision. Then, Erika called the airline. The elevator music twanged in her ear while Marshall drove them back onto the highway. The wipers swung back and forth under a dark, cloudy sky.
Suddenly Marshall chuckled to himself.
“What?” Erika demanded.
“I said I wanted to work from home!” he said. “There might be a monkey’s paw somewhere in the house with one finger curled. You know, like in that story about the mummified monkey’s hand that grants three wishes at a cost?”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Erika repeated. “And I think it’d be a kappa’s paw, since we were going to Japan. Next time, please just talk to your boss.”