“Once this pandemic is over,” Donna had told her husband Dale while she filled a travel mug with coffee, “I’m going to start a safari business.”
“Huh?” Dale said through a mouth full of toast and peanut butter.
“This past week I’ve seen nine moose, 12 deer, four antelope and two raccoons from the road.”
“How many grasshoppers?” Dale asked between bites.
Donna rolled her eyes and Dale laughed.
“Aren’t you glad harvest is almost over and we can finally have breakfast together again?” he said.
The Hansons had finished combining their lentils, canola and wheat and now they were bringing in the last of the soybeans. With Donna and Dale’s daughter-in-law Elaine on the combine, Donna had been recruited as the family chauffeur, driving Elaine and Jeff’s two kids and one of the neighbours’ to school every morning.
Jeff and Elaine had decided to bypass the school bus not just because the school division had advised parents to drive their kids if they could, but also because of Connor’s reaction when he heard the COVID-19 school bus seating guidelines on the radio. After he’d asked his mother what “sibling” meant, he was irate. “I can’t sit with Jenny on the bus!” Connor had yelled.
“Hey!” was Jenny’s only rebuttal. This stung.
“If I can’t sit with Oscar I don’t want to go on the stupid bus,” Connor said.
Elaine and Jeff knew it would be a pain to drive the kids every single day. Twice. But they wanted to keep their family safe.
“Dad’s not as young as he thinks he is,” Jeff had said. “If the kids are going to see their grandparents, we should probably try to keep some limit on how many people they see.”
“I don’t disagree,” Elaine had said. “But you’d better not tell your dad that.”
“It’s also a lot of mask-wearing,” Jeff said. “If the kids have to wear masks from 7:45 when the bus picks them up to 4:30 when they get home, it’ll be pretty sticky under there.”
So they’d compromised, making a plan with some neighbours. One of the Hansons would drive Connor, Jenny and Connor’s friend Oscar to school every morning. Oscar’s parents would bring all three kids home every afternoon.
By the third week of school, everyone had fallen into as much of a routine as a family with a grain farm can have during harvest. Elaine and Dale ran the combines, Jeff and Mark Edwards hauled the grain to the bins. Donna drove the kids to school, then took advantage of her time in town to have a socially distanced coffee with a friend or pick up groceries and machinery parts.
Today, Donna had picked up Oscar, made sure he buckled his seat belt around his booster seat, and was heading down one last stretch of gravel before she turned onto the highway.
“Look kids,” she pointed. “See that porcupine?” The kids turned to look. But while Donna looked left, a skunk wandered up on the right side of the road. She swerved and stomped on the brakes but still hit the skunk hard with the passenger side tire. Donna cursed loudly, then instantly regretted it, looking in the backseat to see if the kids had noticed.
“Good thing I had my seatbelt on,” Oscar called from the backseat.
“What happened?” Jenny asked.
“We hit a skunk,” Oscar said. “I saw it out the window.”
“Is it hurt?” Connor asked. Donna didn’t want to tell the kids that it was very, very dead.
Luckily, they were quickly distracted by the next problem.
“What’s that smell?” Jenny asked.
By the time Donna got to town, all three kids were gleefully wearing their masks to help block the stench, giggling as they planned how they would tell the story at sharing time. Irritated and embarrassed, Donna turned up the radio to drown them out and tried to ignore the stink of the car.
In the school drop-off zone, Donna had second thoughts. Would the kids smell like skunk? She couldn’t send them to school like that. She urged them out of the car, then sniffed at them.
“Do we smell?” Jenny asked.
“I’m not sure,” Donna said. Maybe her nose had grown used to it. She called one of the mothers over.
“I think they’re okay,” the mom said doubtfully, “but your car smells terrible.”
After she left the kids at school, Donna cancelled her plan to visit a friend. “I have to get home and shower.”
Before she left for the farm, she had to stop at the Co-op for milk and fruit. “I haven’t had a chance to get to the store for ages,” Elaine had said. “The kids’ll get scurvy.”
In the grocery store, Donna was paranoid. Were people staying more than six feet away from her to avoid COVID-19 or because she smelled? When Lori Miller made a point of staying a good 10 feet away, Donna finally asked.
“Do I smell?”
“Pardon me?” Lori said.
Donna explained and Lori laughed. “That’s the upside of wearing these masks,” she said. “It’s harder to smell things.”
When Donna took her groceries to the parking lot, two men were standing by her car, making the kind of face you make when you smell fresh skunk in the morning.
“You must’ve really got one,” said Len Peterson.
“I hope you were in there stocking up on tomato juice,” said Ron White.
“That’s just a myth,” said Anne Owens, passing by with her full grocery cart.
“I’m just glad I didn’t park too close,” said Len.
“Never mind the car,” Donna said. “Do I smell? I dropped my grandchildren off at school in this car.”
Ron, Len and Anne took turns trying to get close enough to smell Donna without being near enough to transmit germs.
“I can’t say,” Len said. “If you do smell, you’re overpowered by the car.”
Donna pulled out of the parking lot, still wondering if she should go back and get the kids. But they’d already missed more than three months of the school in the spring. They should learn something before they got colds, or worse, and had to stay home from school again.
By the time Donna got home, the stink was making her nauseous. She parked at the edge of the yard, as far from the house and shop as she could. Three cats made a beeline for the car, rushing to check out the smell. Donna ignored them, pulling her groceries from the back of the car.
Jeff was in the yard unloading a truckload of soybeans. When he spotted his mother, he shut off the auger and walked in her direction.
“Don’t get too close,” she called out.
“I heard!” he said.
“Oh no,” she said as she got closer. “Don’t tell me the kids phoned home from school?”
“Well, no,” Jeff said. “Connor’s teacher called Elaine.”
“I’ll go right back and get them,” she said. “This is awful. The other kids must be harassing them.”
“She didn’t say they smelled,” Jeff said. “She wanted us to tell us about the swear words Connor and Oscar learned from you. They used them in their story at sharing time.”