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Echo – Matthew Downing

Echo

Fiction by Matthew Downing

Daisy stared out the wide window wall overlooking Lake Michigan. It had taken her a month to find the perfect three-bedroom condo with hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, and an unobstructed view of the lake. Now that they were finally settled, she could not believe Jordan had brought up Capri’s tuition at the breakfast table. Refusing to fight in front of Capri on her first day of preschool, she channeled her mother’s ability to twist a knife without raising her voice.

“I’m not going to have this argument again, darling,” she sang like Mary Poppins. “Sixty thousand is a perfectly reasonable price for the best Montessori school in Chicago. Let’s count our blessings that Capri gets to go to school today. After all this COVID nonsense, I was afraid she’d have to go online like Jenny’s kids. It’s not fair to these parents that are stuck with their kids at home all day.”

“I’m three, Mama!” Capri cried.

She held up three pudgy, defiant fingers.

“I go school!”

“I know, baby. You’re going to school today like a big girl,” Daisy agreed.

Slicing her morning grapefruit in half, she silently calculated the calories she planned to eat throughout the day. It hadn’t been easy keeping her figure after Capri was born, and she was worried about looking fat in her new Lululemon leggings.

“I went to public school until college, and I turned out fine,” Jordan reminded her.

Daisy glared at him as he slurped down the leftover soy milk in his Cheerios bowl. Smirking, he met her stare with the same shamrock eyes that used to make the bottom of her back arch whenever she got drunk at his fraternity’s parties at Yale.

“Just think about it,” he suggested. “We don’t have to send them the check until the end of the week.”

His tight, blonde beard and wavy, shoulder-length hair made it impossible to stay mad at him.

A near clone of her father’s beautiful face, Capri stared up at Jordan as she attempted to slurp her cereal, which she spilled all over the floor. Jordan glanced down at his phone.

“Shit,” he said over Capri’s wailing tears. “I’m late. Can you handle this?”

Daisy hastily agreed. Grabbing paper towels off of the kitchen island, she wished Jordan good luck on his first day. Chief neurosurgeon at Northwestern was Jordan’s dream job, and she’d been doing her best to sound supportive. She hoped her smile hid the bitter fury she felt over being dragged away from her friends and family in New Haven to a dangerous city of gangbangers. She waited until Jordan reached the front door.

“Maybe if you’d gone to private school, you’d have learned how to teach your daughter to eat breakfast like a lady,” she half-jokingly shouted.

Jordan sarcastically laughed.

“Oh, wait, babe!” Daisy cried, snapping her fingers. “Did you order the new Echo for tomorrow’s dinner with your colleagues? Remember, our old one broke during the move, and I want a speaker to play some ambiance music.”

But Jordan was already halfway out the door.

“Ah … I can’t remember; check the Amazon account. Love you, Capri.”

Running away from the mess she’d left under the kitchen table, Capri turned on her iPad and dove onto the couch.

“You didn’t. Lucky they have next-day delivery,” Daisy said, swiping through her phone, but Jordan had already slammed the door behind him.

***

Emma’s crying jolted Eric out of bed. Worried he’d slept through his alarm, he was relieved when he checked his phone and saw he still had five minutes until midnight. Scratching the stretch marks on his dark belly, which had swelled up like an activated airbag since he’d married Allie, he swore to himself that he’d find time to do some crunches this week.

“Never going to happen, big boy,” he chuckled.

He’d been treading water since his first kid, Steven, was born, and after three weeks with Emma, he didn’t see any free time in his future.

Steven thrashed around the bed like he was having another one of his nightmares. Since he saw the Lion King, he’d been convinced the shadows on his walls were hyenas trying to eat him. Eric thought Allie must’ve let him in their bed before she went to check on Emma. It hadn’t been easy for Steven to share his room with his new sister, but Allie had handled the transition like a Goddess. Had she slept since they got back from the hospital?     

Emma’s cries stopped. Throwing on his uniform, Eric checked on her and Allie, who looked up as he stuck his head in the room. Her smile wrinkled her bunny nose in a way that made Eric’s chest warm like he’d taken a shot of tequila. Their golden retriever, Lucy, slept at her feet. Emma had latched onto Allie’s engorged tit.

“I love you more than the stars, the moon, and the sun,” Allie whispered to her daughter. “She finally latched,” she added, looking prouder than a gold medalist.

She propped her feet onto Steven’s bed, which was crammed next to his old crib.

“About time,” Eric said. “She’s stubborn.”

“I wonder where she got that from?” Allie joked. “You ready for work?”

She didn’t mean for the question to be cruel, but guilt crushed Eric like a ton of falling bricks.

“You know it’s temporary, babe.”

After talks of unionizing leaked at his last warehouse, Amazon shut them down. Eric was lucky enough to be offered the mega shift from one a.m. to noon at the Wicker Park location. With the hospital bills from the new baby and the credit card debt he had after his last unemployment streak, Eric didn’t have any choice but to take the shift offered to him. With Emma always crying and Steven starting his first week of Zoom school, he wished he could be around to help with breakfast.

Allie studied the worry on his grim expression.

“Hey, we’ll be fine: we always are,” she reminded him.

“I’m on kid duty the second I walk back in the door,” Eric promised.

Allie yawned.

“You’ll be passed out on the couch with the Sox’s game on 10 seconds after you get back.”

Eric’s ringtone echoed throughout the cramped, two-room apartment.

“Sorry, it’s Luke,” he hissed, unlocking his phone before it woke everyone up.

Allie blew him a kiss.

“Hang on, I’m walking out now,” he whispered to Luke, shutting the front door behind him.

“It’s your hotel wake-up call,” Luke said.

Eric could hear the bouncing agitation in Luke’s voice; he pictured him scratching his neck as he clipped his toenails. Luke was an eccentric but likable kid that joined Amazon after graduating from high school last year.

“What’s up, asshole?” Eric asked.

“What’s up? What do you mean, ‘what’s up?’ You remember you’re picking me up, right?”

Eric pretended to play dumb.

“Oh, was that today? I’m already at the warehouse, man.”

Luke wasn’t buying it. Since his mom’s car broke down, he relied solely on Eric for rides to work. 

“Fuck off, man, and pick me up some Slim Jims from the gas station. I’m about to destroy you in Missionracer today.”

Missionracer was one of the virtual productivity games they played on the warehouse floor. Eric thought the game was as creepy as the robots that monitored the inventory, but it did break up the monotony of packing thousands of items a day.

“Bet you a cigarette I kick your ass. I’ll be there in ten,” Eric laughed, hanging up on Luke.

Ducking into his rimless, rusted, 1999 Mitsubishi Galant, Eric prayed the engine wouldn’t stall on him again. Starting the car, he headed to pick up Luke and bring him to the warehouse, where his first package of the day would be an Amazon Echo.

***

“We can’t stop talking until we work this out,” Brandon cried.

His voice cracked through the speaker of Libby’s Android. The truck violently bounced as Libby held down the horn and squeezed her way out of a back alleyway. The Chipotle she’d eaten for lunch had been sloshing around her throbbing stomach for hours. She tossed back three antacids, then fiddled with the truck’s broken air conditioner. The early September heat drenched her hollow, shaking cheeks.

“I can’t talk about this: I’m working,” she shouted into the phone.

A Mercedes cut her off. She slammed on the brakes; dozens of boxes banged against the barrier that divided the truck’s front half from the packages in the back.

“But we need to talk about this,” insisted Brandon. “If you don’t understand why you need to take off from work on Christmas Eve, then I don’t see how you can respect me in this relationship. I mean, how often do my parents ask us to come to Florida? Almost never.”

Libby didn’t know where to begin; she hated Brandon’s parents, who made her feel like shit for never graduating college. Plus, Brandon wanted her to take a week off from work—not a day. She probably could swing a few days off, but a fight with Brandon was never about doing what he wanted. Brandon wouldn’t be satisfied if Libby agreed; he could only be pleased if she also wanted to agree.

Pulling into the next apartment complex, Libby checked her list. She had ten packages to leave in the lobby. If she didn’t hustle, she wasn’t going to make her quota again, and she couldn’t afford to get her pay docked.

“Hang on,” she shouted at the phone, running to the trunk and grabbing her packages. 

She left the phone behind, and she was unsurprised to hear Brandon still rambling when she jumped back into the truck.

“Can we talk about this when I get home?” Libby sighed, cutting him off.

She would rather chew her arm off than continue the conversation.

Brandon gasped.

“Why do we have to wait to talk about it at home? Why are you always avoiding confrontation?”

Libby checked the time. It was six-thirty, and the sun had started to set. If she didn’t hurry, there was no way she was going to make her quota. Traffic was bumper to bumper. To her left, a cop was harassing a homeless guy sleeping on a bus bench.

“I cannot talk to you!” Libby snapped, shouting at the top of her lungs. “I have to make my fucking quota; can’t you understand that?”

She hung up before Brandon could answer; immediately, he tried to call her back. Libby silenced her phone. Pulling in front of the lobby of a skyrise off Lake Shore Drive, she loaded her packages and headed for the mailroom.

A blonde woman in leggings, who’d been talking to a man in a catering truck, ran over and cut Libby off before she reached the front door.

“It’s about time! Do you have a package for Daisy and Jordan Johnson? My dinner is starting in half an hour, and I swear no one is competent today. If you say next-day delivery, I should get my package during business hours. You do know that’s a professional courtesy your clients expect, yes?”

Libby’s stomach was on fire. She felt a sudden and relentless urge to relieve herself. Apologizing profusely, she handed Daisy her package, then rushed to the lobby’s receptionist and asked to use the nearest restroom.

“Are you someone’s guest?” the receptionist asked.

Libby squirmed.

“What? No. Listen, I’m an Amazon driver; see the packages on my dolly? Please, there hasn’t been a restroom on my route all day.”

Texting Jordan not to forget the wine, Daisy rushed past Libby and swiped her key for the elevator. Swallowing her pride, Libby chased after her.

“You can’t use the elevator!” warned the receptionist.

Daisy squealed. Frantically pressing the button that closed the elevator door, she warned Libby to stay back.

“No, you don’t understand,” Libby tried to explain. “Please, I need to use your restroom.”

But the elevator door closed before Libby could reach her.

Defeated, Libby let the receptionist chase her out of the building. Outside, a Black man with more wrinkles under his eyes than a naked mole-rat bent over to pick up his golden retriever’s shit. Jumping back into her truck, Libby leaned back and lowered her seat so no one could see her. She had six missed calls from Brandon.

“Fuck all of it,” she thought.

Unbuckling her belt, she grabbed the empty McDonald’s bag leftover from her breakfast. Closing her eyes, she let loose hot, brown liquid until her stomach settled. Wiping herself with a thin napkin, he tied off the bag and sped off toward her next delivery.


Matthew Downing is a graduate student and aspiring novelist in Chicago. He lives with his partner, Caroline, and their puppy, Ripley. Most of Matthew’s work focuses on inequity and class division; he wrote “Echo” after reading about Amazon’s working conditions. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Bangalore Review, Drunk Monkeys Magazine, and elsewhere. To read more of his work, check out matthewdowningstories.com , or follow him on twitter @minimedman.

Photo: “interconnected” by imposible?