They were the best of friends in what would soon be considered the worst of times. But that was nothing new. Margo Carson and Ivy Sutter had stood by each other’s side through one crisis after another during the past forty years.
However, because their relationship was frequently plagued by petty, childish arguments, followed by periods of pouting, sulking, and other immature behavior, the fact that their friendship thrived seemed strange to people who did not know them well, but to those who did, it was simply the natural order of things.
The two women had been locked in verbal combat, to varying degrees, for as long as anyone could remember, and there was no reason to think that their relationship would change in any significant way in the foreseeable future.
The root of the problem lay in the fact that they shared many of the same qualities. Both of them were extremely intelligent, quick-witted, stubborn, and strong-willed. Therefore, each was absolutely certain that they were always right and the other person, by default, was most assuredly wrong.
To make matters worse, each felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to enlighten the other regarding their personal shortcomings, their lack of sound judgment, and their inability to measure up in almost every aspect of life. And it must be said that each woman eagerly undertook this responsibility with gusto.
Obviously, after having spent decades perfecting their ability to be annoying, it now required little effort to get on each other’s nerves, a truth that both were delighted to exploit to the fullest. In fact, because each took such great pleasure in afflicting their counterpart, their relationship most closely resembled that of an old married couple who humorously squabbles endlessly and enjoys every minute of it.
Even the physical appearance of the two women was strikingly comical. Margo was tall and willowy. At 5’11” she towered over her sparring partner. Ivy was, at best, 5’1” in heels, and she could not be described with anything approaching honesty as willowy. She preferred to think of herself as a robust woman bursting with vitality. In other words, when she looked in the mirror she only saw what she wanted to see and happily ignored the rest.
They were quite different in their personal lives as well.
Margo had never married, she couldn’t imagine being tied down to just one man. In her words, “Why should I be forced to limit myself to one entrée when there is an entire smorgasbord to enjoy?”
Ivy took a dim view of her friend’s so-called smorgasbord love life and instead described it in a single word. “Gluttony!”
Consequently, Margo had no real family to turn to when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. A two-pack-a-day smoker, the habit she’d tried so many times to kick finally caught up with her. Having no close relatives, that crucial role was filled by Ivy. Throughout the surgical procedures and months of uncomfortable treatments, Ivy remained by her side, caring for her as though they were sisters.
However, it was not surprising she would do that, because to Ivy’s way of thinking, she was just returning the kindness. Three years earlier, Jimmy, her beloved husband of thirty-nine years, was struck down by a massive stroke. He lingered for almost two months before finally passing away.
His death left Ivy devastated, and she didn’t know how she could’ve possibly gone on without the unconditional love and support of Margo.
Neither woman had children, so as they grew older they became more dependent on each other, an arrangement that suited them just fine. Now in their mid-sixties, each one faced the onset of old age in their own way.
Ivy was resigned to her fate. With no more than a shrug, she accepted her advancing years and all the unwanted changes they brought. Gray hair and extra pounds didn’t bother her in the least. At sixty-six-years-old, she refused to waste a second worrying about the way she looked.
But her counterpart refused to give an inch.
Margo was ferociously fighting the future with unwavering determination, which explained her never-ending obsession with her appearance. Her hair color always featured the perfect tint, and, of course, every hair was neatly in place. Her makeup was applied with painstaking skill to accentuate her high cheekbones and full ruby lips. And, perhaps most importantly of all, her fashion sense focused on clothing designed to convey her youthful spirit, even though they were far more likely to reveal wrinkles and age spots.
But she just couldn’t help herself. The thought that she was now officially considered a senior citizen drove her relentlessly to prove that she was anything but.
That was why at this moment, as she stood in the middle of her living room, Margo was checking her face in her compact for the hundredth time.
Ivy walked in from the kitchen. “I thought we were leaving for the dance.”
“I’m almost ready.”
Ivy shook her head in disgust and stated emphatically, “In my opinion, you wear entirely too much makeup.”
Without looking up, Margo answered, “And you don’t wear nearly enough.”
“Well! I have no desire to look like a trollop.”
“My God. I haven’t heard that word in years.”
“That’s because you haven’t heard what people are saying behind your back.”
Margo was unfazed. “Let them talk. It doesn’t change the fact that you could use a slight touch-up. I’m thinking several thick layers of foundation, possibly applied with a garden trowel, powder, primer, concealer, lipstick, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eyeliner –”
“All right, that’s enough!”
Margo smiled sweetly at her nemesis. It always made her happy to get under Ivy’s skin. “All I’m saying is that it is not wise for you to rely on natural beauty alone.”
Ivy glared at her and hissed, “Look who’s talking! We both know you have the amazing ability to grow facial hair at a rate that would make any teenage boy going through puberty ecstatic.”
Ivy was not through. “But your main problem is that you worry way too much about what other people think of you.”
“I guess that means you’re lucky because they never think about you!”
Ivy snorted. “I’d rather be ignored than to be called the word that was used to describe you last week. When the woman said it, I was shocked.”
Margo stood silently for a few moments trying to pretend she was not the least bit interested in such trivial information, but finally, her curiosity got the best of her. “Okay. Get it off your chest. What was the word you heard? Tart? Floozy? Hussy?”
Ivy was ready to give it to her. Slowly with deliberate enunciation, she replied, “The word was skank.”
“Skank!!? Where on earth did you hear that?”
It was Ivy’s turn to smile. “At church.”
“Who called me that?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Then in an even tone, she said, “But I’m not one to spread gossip.”
Margo chortled. “I can’t believe you said that with a straight face.”
“A straight face wearing the perfect amount of makeup. You know, they say that inner beauty is far more important than physical beauty.”
“You better hope so.” Margo studied her friend for a moment and then sighed. “At least change into something that shows people you are happy and full of life. I mean we are going to a dance, not a funeral.”
Ivy frowned and adjusted her dress. “There’s nothing wrong with this print. It’s my favorite.”
Margo groaned. “I know it’s your favorite. You wear it every time we go out. I’ve had boyfriends that weren’t as old as that dress.”
“That is nothing to be proud of! I don’t even see how you can keep track of all of them. Good Lord, you even dated identical twins!”
Margo smiled wistfully. “I had always wondered about something, and it turns out that it’s true. The twins were identical in every possible way.”
“Oh my God! With the life you lead, how can you possibly have the nerve to criticize me about anything?”
“It’s easy! Take that dress for instance. You just like it because it’s the only one big enough for you. But, of course, I realize at your age there’s more of you now, and you’ve got to keep it all covered somehow.”
“You are six months older than me, and it’s not my fault that my metabolism is slowing down.”
“No. Your appetite is speeding up.”
“Hey! I’ve been dieting for this dance. I’ve lost three pounds.”
“Don’t worry, Dear – you’ll find them.”
Ivy ignored the insult and asked for a favor instead. “This is going to be a lovely evening with sophisticated people. Could you please, just this once, refrain from telling your tasteless jokes?”
“You always laugh the loudest at my jokes! The last time we went out and I told the one about the man who lost nine fingers in the wood chipper but was happy because he could still point – you laughed so hard that snot came out of your nose……Which, by the way, is not a good look for you.”
“At least I feel guilty for laughing. You have no conscience at all.”
Margo quickly changed the subject and cheerily offered, “It might be your lucky night. I think Bill Holloway is going to be there. I certainly wouldn’t call him ‘sophisticated’, but at least you’ll have someone short enough to dance with.”
“What’s wrong with Bill? I thought you liked him. You’ve danced with him before.”
“Oh, he’s okay I guess.” Then lowering her voice, even though there was absolutely no reason to, Ivy said, “It’s his ears.”
“What are you talking about? His ears are normal size for someone of his limited stature.”
“No, no. He has all this hair growing out of his ears. Every time we slow dance I want to take a weedwhacker to him.”
Margo looked down at Ivy. “You are so romantic. Listen, if I were you, Darling, I wouldn’t be too picky.”
“And just what do you mean by that?!”
“Calm down. What I mean is that we are reaching the age where we’ll soon outnumber the men four to one. I’m sorry, but that math is not in your favor. You shouldn’t be too choosey about your dance partner.”
With just the slightest hint of derision, Ivy answered, “The only kind of dancing you’re interested in takes place under the covers.”
“You’re just jealous became men find me attractive.”
“No. They find you willing.”
“That was uncalled for!”
“Hey, I’m just repeating what I hear at church.”
“I thought you didn’t like to spread gossip?”
“It’s only gossip if it’s not true.”
Margo was used to the wagging tongues of the congregation, but she still found it irritating when they turned their attention to her. “I would think that you and the other old ladies at that church would have something better to do than to run down those of us who lead interesting lives.”
“Interesting?!! You can’t be serious.”
“Yes, I am interesting!”
Ivy felt compelled to set the record straight. “By the way, I am not an old lady. According to Bill, I’m a beautiful mature woman.”
“So when is he going to have that cataract surgery so he can actually see? Hopefully, for your sake, not any time soon.”
“We both know what men see when they look at you!”
“No doubt, they see a vivacious woman in the prime of life, fascinating while at the same time mysterious and alluring.”
“Oh, it’s no mystery what men see in you! They see –”
Ivy paused. Margo was her best friend in the world, and, truth be told, she didn’t really want to hurt her feelings. In fact, in all honesty, she was a little bit jealous of her friend’s popularity. Perhaps that’s why she was lashing out.
Margo also realized the snapping back and forth had gone too far. Looking away, pangs of guilt swept over her for ridiculing her friend’s appearance. She loved Ivy more than anyone, and it did not matter in the least what she looked like. Although she hated to admit it, she admired Ivy’s lack of vanity.
There was a long awkward silence and then Margo softly said, “Would you like to wear one of my scarves? I’ve got one that would be perfect for that dress.”
“Thank you. That would be nice.”
“I’ll just be a second.” Margo left the room, and Ivy took a deep breath to release the tension. Feeling sheepish, she wondered why they always seemed to get under each other’s skin. No matter how much they meant to each other, they usually ended up arguing over the most ridiculous things.
Margo came back with a beautiful scarf. “This goes perfectly with the green in the print.”
“It is lovely.” Ivy wrapped it around her neck and smiled. “Does it make me look taller?”
Her friend laughed. “Absolutely! Now let’s go to that dance. You and me and Bill aren’t getting any younger.”
It was just two weeks later when their nightmare began.
The closures had started earlier in the month. Slowly at first, but then with shocking speed, the nation shut down in a way that no one had ever experienced before. The dance had been one of the last public events to take place in their area before the stay-at-home order was issued.
Initially, Margo and Ivy were not concerned. Unfortunately, they believed the representatives of the federal government who did everything possible, including lying to the American people, to downplay the seriousness of the virus.
The women’s misplaced trust in those who held political power proved to be a heartbreaking mistake.
The state they lived in had been reluctant to ban large gatherings for fear of the economic impact, so believing it was nothing more than a bad strain of the flu, the two ladies had felt comfortable about going out for the evening.
But they would quickly learn that this time was different. This time was far more deadly. And with each passing week, the news grew steadily worse as society began to change in ways that were almost incomprehensible.
Soon the innocent dance was no longer a happy memory but instead became the night they stood face to face with a killer. Several dozen people who’d attended had become seriously ill, and now some of them were starting to die. Sadly, Bill was one of the first to lose their life.
Because Margo and Ivy lived just a few blocks apart, they saw each other almost every day. But, no matter what was going on in their lives, they talked constantly on the phone.
Ivy had not felt well for over twenty-four hours. She had gotten up in the morning with her body aching and running a high a fever, and, as the day wore on, her condition worsened. In the afternoon she called her doctor’s office but was told they were not seeing patients in the clinic. They advised her to stay at home and try to ride it out there.
However, even more concerning than her health was the disturbing fact that Margo was not answering her phone. When the entire day passed by without reaching her, Ivy knew what she had to do. She didn’t want to give her friend whatever she had, but she had to check on her.
Although feeling sicker than she’d ever been before, Ivy dragged herself out to the car and wearily drove to her friend’s house. With her breathing labored and feeling flushed, she rang the doorbell and pounded on the door, but there was no response.
Fortunately, they had keys to each other’s house, so she used hers to get in. Upon stepping into the living room, her worst fears came true. She found her friend laying on the couch with the same high fever and a dry hacking cough. Ivy had suspected that her own symptoms were caused by the virus, but now she was horrified to realize that her friend had contracted it too.
With assistance from a neighbor, Ivy got Margo into the car and fighting chills and the worst muscle aches she’d ever experienced, managed to drive to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. But instead of finding hope and comfort, their situation took a grim turn for the worse.
After waiting for more than eight hours, surrounded by confusion, fear, and anger, Margo and Ivy were finally seen by a young female healthcare worker. The name on her badge read Bridgette McAllen. Already emotionally drained by fatigue and stress, the ER assistant took one look at them and her heart sank because she knew she had to follow orders, even if it made her feel guilty and ashamed.
Because Margo’s bout with cancer had required the removal of a portion of one lung, she was considered an extremely poor risk. But it was the ages of the two women and the advanced state of their illnesses that made them unsuitable to receive the precious treatment that was carefully being doled out.
Although no one in America wanted to admit it, healthcare was now being rationed in the wealthiest nation on earth.
With chaos raging around them, and not having a second to spare, Bridgette quickly tried to explain. “You’ve got to understand that we’re almost out of beds, we’re running low on staff, but, most importantly, there are no ventilators left. There is just nothing we can do for you at this time.”
Ivy could not believe what she was hearing. “Are you telling me flat out that you’re refusing to treat us?”
Glancing at the clock on the wall, the assistant tried to defend her actions. “Ma’am, it’s not my decision. It is the policy the hospital was forced to put in place.”
Ivy looked around at all of the misery and suffering. “Can you at least test us for the virus?”
“No. There are currently no tests available in our area.”
This was too much. Ivy tried to control herself, but she couldn’t keep from being livid. However, just as she was about to unleash her outrage on the ER assistant, she paused and looked into the eyes of the young woman. What she saw made her rage vanish. Underneath her bulky protective mask, tears were streaming down the healthcare worker’s face.
At that moment, Ivy realized this person was as much a victim of the pandemic as she and Margo were. And for the first time, she really understood that everyone was being affected somehow and that in many ways things would never be the same.
She looked down at her sick friend and then turned back to the young woman. “I understand what you’re telling me.”
Nearing the end of an eighteen-hour shift, Bridgette’s emotions were raw. With her voice choking, she said, “I’m so sorry, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Knowing there were dozens of other patients waiting, she turned to walk away, but then she stopped and faced the two gravely ill women. With her heart breaking, she begged in quiet desperation, “Please forgive me.”
In a moment of genuine compassion, a look of tenderness came over Ivy’s face causing the distraught ER assistant to start sobbing. Firmly, the older woman said, “There’s nothing to forgive because it’s not your fault – but I implore you to keep pushing, keep going and save everyone you can.”
The young woman nodded, composed herself and then rushed off to do exactly that.
Devastated, Ivy watched the hectic activity in the emergency room knowing that many of the other people seeking treatment were in the same situation. She looked down at her friend sitting with her head in her hands and realized they had been abandoned by a healthcare system that was overwhelmed by a crisis it was not prepared to withstand.
An hour later they were back at Margo’s house. They had made a quick stop at Ivy’s place so she could get some clothes and other items, and now they were going to settle in and try to take care of each other.
Utterly exhausted, the two friends grabbed some quilts and collapsed on the couch. Ivy’s breathing had worsened during the evening and the tightness in her chest was becoming more painful. Every muscle in Margo’s body ached and now she too was shaking with chills. Neither woman had the strength to move to a bed, so they decided to stay where they were and take stock of their circumstances.
Coughing and struggling to breathe, they tried to discuss their limited options, but they could not avoid the frightening reality of their circumstances. No matter what they came up with, it was obvious that there was little hope, and that caused Margo to finally give in to her frustration.
“Jesus! These people want us to die so we won’t be any trouble. The government thinks we’re just in the way. They don’t believe our lives have any meaning at all.” She stopped to get her breath and then with her spirit broken, she said, “I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we’re no use to anyone.” Grabbing a tissue to wipe away a tear, her voice dropped to a whisper, “It’s not fair. We have as much right to live as anyone else.”
Although she was trying to put on a brave face, Ivy was feeling just as desperate. “I suppose they think that people our age are just a burden. A strain on their resources.”
Margo reached over and took her friend’s hand. “I am so sorry I dragged you to that dance.”
Ivy smiled weakly. “I should have taken your advice and worn a nicer dress.”
Margo sighed in resignation. “It’s strange. People go through their lives and get lulled into thinking nothing will go wrong. Nothing will happen to them. Day after day they think everything is fine, and it will always be that way. But you and I know differently. My cancer and Jimmy’s death proved that tragedy is always lurking and can strike at any time.”
Her friend agreed. “People don’t want to believe it, but heartache is always just a moment away.”
“You’re right, but never did I imagine something like this could happen to us and to the entire world.”
Ivy thought back to how normal life was just a few weeks earlier. “A month ago when the news started becoming more serious, I still didn’t believe it could turn into all of this. It’s like we’re trapped in some kind of horror movie with no way to escape. It’s hard to accept that it’s real.”
“How can this be happening in America? It’s like being in a third world country.”
Ivy nodded, “You wonder how the government could have been so unprepared. I thought their number one responsibility was to protect the citizens of this nation.”
“Protect them until they reach our age.”
They sat quietly for a few moments, each one lost in her own thoughts.
It was bewildering how quickly their lives had changed, and now with no treatment available, Margo instinctively knew what was coming. She would give anything if they could go back in time and not go to the dance – but it was just wishful thinking that served no purpose.
Ivy coughed several times and broke her train of thought. Feeling thankful that at least they could be together, Margo reached over and patted her friend’s hand. “I am so lucky to have you.”
Ivy managed a smile. “We’re both lucky to have each other.”
Margo looked around the room at the photos of them taken through the years. Their lives had been intertwined for so long that Margo didn’t feel like she had to pretend she wasn’t afraid. “Ivy, I’m so scared. At least when I had cancer there were doctors and nurses to care for me. Now there is no one who can help us.” she paused, gasped for breath, and then said, “I don’t want to die alone.”
Ivy gently reassured her. “You’re not going to die alone – and neither am I.”
Over the next two days, their health steadily deteriorated, but even as they grew sicker, they continued to try to support each other. They talked about old times, relived some of the adventures they’d shared and even made a few attempts at humor, but, eventually, their immune systems could no longer fight the virus and with nothing left to say, an unsettling silence took over.
Before long, their breathing became increasingly restricted, their fevers spiked and what little strength they had, slowly ebbed away. Slipping in and out of consciousness, they could only wait for the inevitable – and, tragically, it soon arrived.
A short time later, the same neighbor who had helped Ivy get Margo into the car several days before, became concerned when no one responded to the front doorbell. Alarmed, she immediately called the authorities, and when they entered the home, they found the two women clinging to each other in a desperate attempt to share solace and comfort as they drew their last breaths.
The first responders, hardened by weeks of oppressive work, struggled to control their emotions when they saw the women in a final embrace. Taking great precautions in their personal protective equipment, they were able to determine that the two victims had not been dead long – but it would never be known who died first because as far as the statistics were concerned, it didn’t matter. The city was overwhelmed by death, and with so many corpses to process, it was not possible to spend time and manpower on such specifics.
In what was now a well-established routine, the bodies were tagged, bagged and stacked in a specially designed refrigerated trailer along with so many others, each body bag representing a human life with a beginning, a middle and now an end.
To government leaders, the life-long friends were just a couple of old people who had to be sacrificed for the greater good of the nation. In their political opinion, it was crucial that younger individuals received the treatment they needed so they could return to work as soon as possible to save America’s decimated economy.
Therefore, Margo and Ivy were not considered necessary for the country’s survival. They were just two more faceless people among the tens of thousands of human beings who were claimed by the relentless pandemic that swept with devastating speed around the world.
However, even after death, one final indignity remained. Because neither funerals nor memorials were allowed, the women were lowered into the ground as quickly as possible without mourners being present.
But despite the lack of remembrance, what truly mattered was that in their final hours, Margo and Ivy were there for each other – just as they had been for the past forty years.
And at the end, when the virus took them, they chose to die in each other’s arms.