Blydyn Square Review
Spring 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Spring 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
It’s spring, and we’ve officially made it through our first full year of issues with Blydyn Square Review. Thanks to all our subscribers and especially our authors, whose work always makes us think!
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Thanks again for all your support. Here’s to another terrific year and many more to come!
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Everett De Morier is an award-winning writer, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker. His novel Thirty-three Cecils is currently being developed as a feature film.
Just a few years ago, when my mom still lived at home, I used to visit her as often as I could at the house I grew up in, in the Catskills of New York.
Now, people were always—and I mean always—impressed at my mother’s age back then; she was ninety-two. And they were impressed even before you added in all the ands: She was ninety-two years old and still lived at home. She was ninety-two years old and still drove her own car. She still took care of her own bills, made her own meals, bought her own groceries, made muffins every Sunday for church, and had the most active social life of any of us. If you wanted my mother to do something with you, you had to choose a Tuesday or a Thursday, her most flexible days.
At ninety-two, my mother remembered every family member’s birthday—including every niece, grandchild, and great-grandchild, but she could also go back to her grandparents and their extended families. Every summer, we all traveled for up to nine hours to descend on her Walton, New York, home for the weekend to have a family reunion.
Now, before you think my mother is some kind of perfect human, it’s important to know that she . . . well, she sees the world a little bit differently. And this has nothing to do with her age; this is just her.
Here’s an example.
When I was in my twenties, a young guy on his own, I went to my parents’ home for the weekend. And like many young guys, I brought a bag of laundry with me to do while I was there. So, I did the laundry, the weekend passed, and on Sunday night, I said good-bye to my parents and drove the sixty miles back to my apartment in Binghamton, New York.
When Monday morning came, my mother got up and noticed that I had left some underwear in the dryer.
Oh no, my mother thought. My child is out there in the world without all of his clean underwear.
So, Velma De Morier put the underwear in a clear—and this is a very important part of the story—a clear plastic bag and hightailed it the sixty miles to deliver the much-needed underwear to her son.
I had a small apartment at the time. My mother knew exactly where this apartment was and it provided several ideal places where you could discreetly drop off underwear if needed—a fact I insisted on before signing the lease. But this situation was much more urgent than that, so my mother headed straight to where I worked. And because I worked for a large corporation, she drove around the buildings, trying to find the main entrance. When she couldn’t, she saw some people outside one of the buildings on a smoke break.
“Do you know my son?” my mother asked.
Because there were more than a thousand employees and I hadn’t been there all that long, the man she asked didn’t know me. So, my mother gave the man the clear bag of underwear and instructed him to give it to me. The poor guy walked the clear bag of underwear to the main building’s secretary. Who walked it to the second building’s secretary. Who gave it to the sales secretary. Who called and got the purchasing secretary to pick it up. Who was given the bag and was nice enough to drop it off on my cubicle chair.
In twenty minutes, my underwear saw more of those buildings than I did for the two years I worked there.
Now, the fascinating aspect of this story is that when you tell it to my mother, she looks at you with a “Yeah? What’s your point?” expression. From her perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what she did. There was a job to do and she did it. Over.
I have dozens of stories like this—stories where she had a pond dug out for us and then a few hours later realized that ponds were dangerous and had it filled back in. Stories where I heard knocking on my apartment door and opened it to find four firemen standing there because my phone had tipped off the hook and my mother thought the apartment had filled with gas. There are even a few stories about how my mother nearly drowned me trying to teach me to swim—she can’t swim a stroke but she still figured she knew enough to teach the basic skills.
When it comes to my mother, we’re dealing with someone who sees the world from a unique perspective.
Which is one of her biggest strengths.
Every Thanksgiving, my mother and my mother-in-law come down to stay with us for a few days. During this time, I take both of them to an Amish general store nearby that has everything from craft items to discount canned goods. Both women love it and I have a great time going through every aisle with my mom as she picks out her canned goods—canned peaches, three for a dollar; peas and carrots, fifty cents a can. She is an excited person.
Now, when I take my mother home, she places her canned goods and dry goods in her already-full pantry. Which brings me to the point.
My mother has a kitchen full of canned fruits and vegetables, canned soups, muffin mixes, frozen meat, and coffee. That’s pretty much all she wants and all she needs. And every day—if she’s not out to dinner with someone—she walks out to her kitchen and opens a can of soup or warms up some stewed tomatoes. That’s her dinner and that’s all she wants.
She never—and I mean never—walks into her kitchen and says, “There’s nothing to eat here.” She never—and I mean never—looks at the canned goods and says, “Ugh, I feel like pizza instead.” And she never—and I mean never—feels like she is skimping or going without.
The strange part is that my mother is a very particular person. She likes her coffee right out of the pot, plus fifteen seconds in the microwave. She doesn’t like grape jelly or chocolate, and the last time she visited us, when she asked for a washcloth and I gave her one, she looked at it and said, “Don’t you have a thinner one?”
Who in the world has a preference when it comes to the thickness of a washcloth?
My mother likes things a certain way, which makes her gratitude, simplicity, and appreciation all the more amazing.
When there is snow predicted in her area, I always call and ask if she has enough food—I know the answer already, but I still like hearing her say it.
“Oh, I have plenty,” she says.
And she does. We all do.
In a world where we have a thousand TV channels and there is nothing on, when we look at a full refrigerator and say there’s nothing to eat, when we walk through a house with games and books and sporting equipment and paper and pens and say there’s nothing to do, we need to think like Velma thinks.
We need to see all the plenty.
Addison L. Jones is a freelance writer and editor. Two of her novels, Eye of Horace and The Birds of Brookside Manor, were published by Blydyn Square Books. She is most definitely not a poet. 😊
She hears it every morning:
Once, when she was a child, the call was for the future.
But now, she hears only the past—
Beckoning, soothing, the sound of a siren
Trying to knock her off course and onto the rocks.
For the past is where it belongs,
And where it needs to stay.
It cannot be repeated—
Nor should it be.
And when she admits it to herself—hard sometimes (most times)—
She knows the rose-tinted images of her old life,
Her life before he was gone,
The past is a liar.
Cassandra is currently wrapping up her degree in biology, though her passion is writing. After graduation, she looks forward to traveling, developing new hobbies, and freelance writing everything from website content to creative pieces.
The others weren’t like you.
They took the love from my heart and the air from my lungs and moved on without a backward glance. I was giving parts of myself away, bits for others to carry and piece themselves together with.
Now, that all seems so distant, the haze of another life. The air whistles through your curls as we sit on the rooftop, feet dangling below. These silences are what my soul has been craving, the sweet silence of effortless love. The kind of love that’s an extension of yourself. Warmth radiates from your arm, snugly wrapped around my waist, and I lean into you a little more. Every fiber of my being is content, sitting here with you in the night and admiring the city lights below.
I’ve waded through the haze of life, grasping for something to hold onto. I didn’t even know what I was reaching for. Until I found you. Looking into your hazel eyes for the first time was more than falling, more than an accidental slip into the unknown. It was letting go of what I was and glimpsing who I could be.
Looking up at you now, the slight smile in the curve of your lip tells me you’re remembering when we first met. The details are hazy now, lost in the warmth of your arms and the chill of the air. You swear that I called your name aloud, that you were made for me. Perhaps it was my soul, ecstatic to have finally found you.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful. As you take my hand between both of your own, I’ve never felt so drunk and sober and bitter and loved and lost and found. All of those stolen breaths and shattered hearts were worth it.
No, the others weren’t like you. They were still there when I woke up.
If Carrie Birde isn’t at one of her writing stations, with a good view of the outdoors, she is most likely on the side steps, plying chipmunks, squirrels, and blue jays with peanuts; trading raisins for song with her seasonal friends, the gray catbirds; or prowling the garden with watering can and camera. She translates these direct experiences and her dreams into poetry, flash fiction, and novels, as well as decoupaged Spirit Boxes. Carrie is from neither here nor there, and most likely from somewhere in between; she considers it a good day if she hasn’t left the Boonton Bubble. You can find her work at Nightjars & Damselflies on WordPress.
in soft grass,
slim green tongues
arms, & legs,
through hair &
white gauze gown
Body curved —
O, earthbound slip of
crescent Moon —
about the creature’s
small & delicate form
large soft ears
folded back against
stilt legs bent
at sharp angles,
tail & flint hooves
And to know,
all in a rush –
like song & sunrise
& oak groves &
that, in life,
this fawn was Hers
H e r s
She is gone two years.
But O, Her fawn
Arrianna Diamantis has always loved writing, and has always found it a therapeutic experience. Arrianna writes in any spare moment, using personal experiences to write and often being inspired by a sudden memory or the surrounding environment.
It’s always this time of year,
when the lilacs have long wilted
frost on the windows,
my nervous breath creating a warmth we’re both not accustomed to
I ask myself how long I can sit
holding my breath, hoping for change
recognizing now that maybe if I fail
maybe I’m to blame?
I can’t help but think
what it would be like
to live down the road
where there’s always homemade pancakes,
hugs and kisses goodnight
And suddenly I’m back,
to the echo chamber of your screams
hot air hitting the windshield
with each venomous word pouring from your
sad, soon-to-be-sorry lips,
But I remember that lilacs have bloomed before
and they will again,
and maybe then,
I’ll find myself planted elsewhere
away from you,
away from the daggers you intentionally twist to quench your thirst of damage done to your bruised ego before,
But I will be gone, and growing, a revived lilac amongst the greenery.
Bethany Goodman is a hair stylist by day and an aspiring author by night. This is her first published piece.
“How can you stand to be alone so much?” people always asked her (when anybody actually bothered to talk to her at all). “Don’t you get lonely?”
She could admit, to herself if not to anybody else, that she did get lonely, once in a while. Every now and then, she would read something or see something in a movie or on TV that would remind her of the life she had expected, had thought she wanted: family, friends, a husband, maybe even a couple of kids.
But that life hadn’t happened, and you can’t just sit around in a holding pattern waiting for it, or you’ll miss out on whatever kind of life you’ve actually got. So she’d looked elsewhere for her companionship, for her perfect little family. She’d looked inside her mind, and there, like Howard Carter, she’d found wonderful things.
In her head, Christmas was a Victorian masterpiece—with people dressed up and dancing or drinking around a cozy fireplace in the kind of party you remembered from the cheerful parts of A Christmas Carol.
In her head, love was clever banter, in multiple languages, over good brandy after a home-cooked gourmet dinner, followed by mind-blowing sex and the perfect night’s sleep.
In her head, she was the respected one, the funny one, the one people were excited to see, and not the person always off in the corner reading books everybody else thought were boring.
In her head, she was free to be the person she really was without being ashamed of it.
Roger Craik is English by birth and glad to be an American citizen. He lives in Ashtabula, Ohio. His latest book is In Other Days (Blazevox).
measured surreptitiousness he
smutches index fingertip
across each window as he passes, glancing
left, left, occasionally right,
down the streets,
trailing fingertip upon, between,
each railing as it comes to him, a slight
caressing of a known
locked padlock’s flank—and
Naked light bulb. Formica table.
From each wall
of a narrow windowless room,
a team of footballers—each man’s arms
brawnily folded, each man looking out into
his own eyes from later or before,
or another’s eyes—
stand watch across a breathing dark.
Enzo Monteiro is a French-Portuguese musician and poet. He has always been passionate about writing in any capacity since he was a child. He’s also a devout Christian and likes to deal with the subjects of God, love, and death. You can listen to his music on his YouTube channel
She’s delicate and hidden
The woman and her cherry petals
Spinning around her porcelain cheeks
When she’s in conversation with the wind
In the morning mist is where
You can find her singing
But if she sees you
As if carried by the breeze
She’ll be blown away
Almost as much as you’ll be
And you might even hear her whisper
As she floats away
She isn’t one to be discovered
Many have tried, but she’s a stream
She slips between your fingers
So find the smallest of rivers
Next to the loneliest of trees
And try to find her reflection
In the crystal clear water
Wash your face, to try to be
As pure as the black of her eyes
And walk home when you realize
That she won’t appear to you
Sit in your room, and whistle
The softest tune that you know
And she’ll appear, only half-revealed
Behind a pitch-white curtain
Don’t move too abruptly
And keep the melody going
She’s drawn to the music
It’s the only language that she knows
Stand up slowly, and go light
The smallest candle that you can find
On your bedside table
Don’t stop whistling, and watch her
As she slowly comes closer
And puts her hand
In front of the dim flames
Her fingers will move
With an intricate grace
As she tells a story
With her hands’ shadows
About a lion left behind
After a slow sunset
And a tiny, flightless bird
Finding refuge in his mane
They roam forests and deserts
Trying to find this waterfall
That is said to cure
The most broken of hearts
They encounter a snake
With the most charming hissing
And they take him along
On their quest for companionship
But snakes always lie
He bites the lion in his sleep
So that he never wakes up
But can’t find the hidden bird
Now the small feathered being
Is left in this world of green
Where even short grass
Is too tall for her
But she stumbles upon
A dying cherry tree
Who gives her its last fallen petal
For her to hop on
And fly away, with the wind
She’s still afraid of strangers
That’s why she hides from all
But she can’t resist
Chirping the days and nights away
She’s a bird after all
The story ends, in silence
So much sadness
Without a single word uttered
You stopped whistling
But she doesn’t disappear
She’s finally looking at you
And her eyes, that you once thought
Were of the darkest shade there is
Are showing the prettiest pink hue
She stretches her hand out
So do you, slowly
And she only grabs
A single finger of yours
She leads you outside, slowly
To the stream that you failed
To find her pale face in
But you see it now
The cherry tree in bloom
How could you have missed it?
You both sit against its trunk
And she starts singing
You don’t understand the words
But you know what they mean
Isabella LiPuma is a writer and 35mm photographer who lives between Philadelphia and New York City. She can be found in varying shades of pink at @iwokeupforthis or isabellalipuma.com
My paternal grandmother is fond of incantations like
“No man would take you home to his mother
with all those tattoos” She casts spells over
New Jersey tomatoes and Carlo Rossi, watches the local news
Loudly over coffee with 2% and baby blue packets of Equal
She has long acrylic fingernails dotted with Swarovski crystals
And wears real diamonds
Her blonde altar consists of lace kerchiefs smeared with
Revlon, silver spoons, Dixie cups half-filled with wine-like vinegar
stains of olive oil and Bic lighters in neon colors
She unfolds roses wrapped in pink cellophane from
Acme, cuts the stems and places them ceremoniously
in cut-glass vases (but only on special occasions) and
The way that she dips chicken breasts in
Egg yolk is almost baptismal
I went to a shiva once, picked at deli sandwiches and quelled the urge to
Look at myself with Klonopin. The deceased had left his loved ones with the kind
Of capital that promised love from Cartier and trips to my family’s
Country for longer than we’d lived there. My maternal grandmother
Left us with oil paintings and inferiority complexes, strongly worded letters and
Too many drawings of adipose tissue. But lest we forget the good things:
irises the color of cheap jade, a propensity for drunk donations to
no-kill shelters, a garden sprawling with peonies and hyacinth,
And a promising stack of ambered old photos from Bavaria
Nicolette Fermi is a New Jersey–based writer, ghost writer, and editor whose work has appeared in numerous small publications. She is also the author of the novel The Fine Art of Manipulating a Man (Pallas Press). Shelter in Place is her second novel.
Quarantine Day 156
Cases: 489,201 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
312,087 (as reported by FOX)
302,119 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 102,762 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
28,964 (as reported by FOX)
16 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
Five days. That’s how long it had been since Claudia had talked to Mirabelle, and not a peep. Why were people always doing that: offering you possibilities and then disappearing? Wasn’t it kinder, in the long run if not up front, to just tell you that you sucked so you’d stop wishing and hoping? Five hours, let alone five days, was long enough for somebody like Claudia—ever the optimist even in the face of nonstop disappointment—to mentally rearrange her entire existence. In her (delusional) mind, she was already number one on the Times bestseller list, scheduled for interviews on every morning and late-night talk show, and getting ready to move into the villa she’d bought in Tuscany. It was all so unfair. Now, it was really going to hurt when Mirabelle called (or didn’t even bother) to tell her the dream was dead.
She’d have to try to distract herself, but it wasn’t easy. She hadn’t heard from Berk in a couple of days, either, not since he called from jail (again) to let her know he’d have to miss their video date. The cops were getting meaner. Not that you could blame them. A few days ago, another one of those Black Lives Matter mobs in Chicago had killed six people—all black, BTW, and one of them a police officer. The thing was, she couldn’t help thinking it would make more sense for the cops to take their anger out on the actual criminals, the ones roaming the streets (where, miraculously, it was perfectly safe to gather by the tens of thousands without a mask, even while people weren’t allowed to bring a group of fifty together in a huge building for church on Sundays). But no. Instead, the police kept arresting Berk for posting his photos: more empty hospitals, more riots. Instead of stopping the violence, the government was choosing to punish the peaceful, logical citizens who were working hard to expose the truth, all while other people were allowed to roam the streets looting high-end clothing and electronics stores. It didn’t get much scarier than that.
“Don’t worry about me,” Berk had said. “I’m perfectly safe in here.”
“Safer than on the streets of Chicago, I guess,” she said. “But you should be calling a lawyer, not me.”
“Like I have money for a lawyer.”
“Maybe they forgot to read you those Miranda rights, but in case you missed all seven hundred seasons of Law & Order, you get a lawyer free.”
“Only if they arrest me. But they don’t. They just hold me as long as they can without charges and let me go, so I never actually get a lawyer.”
“Maybe they’re right. You don’t need a lawyer; you need a shrink.”
“Buck up, Tops. I’ll be out soon.”
“What did I say about calling me Tops?”
“That I should call you Sexy instead. You got it. Love you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Call me when you get out.”
That had been three days ago. No word since. She was starting to feel like the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Just when she needed human contact, here it was. She checked the screen: It was her mother. So much for human contact.
“Good, you’re awake.”
“It’s noon. Why wouldn’t I be awake?”
Mom sighed. “I know how depressing unemployment can be. Not that I’ve experienced it myself.”
She had a point—you weren’t technically “unemployed” if you’d never had a job, were you? But Claudia let it go and said, “I’m not unemployed. I’m writing science books. Remember?”
Her mother made a clucking sound. “Darling, I think you’re a little confused. You wrote those books years ago. You were working for some sort of reading skills company and you got laid off. Do you remember?”
Claudia took a deep breath and counted to ten before responding. Why didn’t those anger management techniques ever actually work?
“Yes, Mom, I got laid off. But then my publisher came to me with a bunch of contracts for new books. So far, I’ve written five and they’ll be out in a few months. And I’m working on another five now.”
“Are you feeling all right, darling? I think you’re reliving your wonder years or some such thing.”
“Fine, Mom, have it your way. I’m an unemployed loser. Now, what did you call for?”
“I need you to go to the store and pick me up a few things.”
“Me? Why me? Why can’t Candace do it? You’re living with her.”
“Candace is too busy. I couldn’t possibly bother her,” Mom said.
“Busy with what? She has no job. The only thing Candace might be busy doing is sucking back a bottle of chardonnay.”
“That’s just the thing, darling. Candace and Alexis are still asleep.”
“Seriously? This late? Talk about the easy life.”
“Well, that’s what I’m telling you. They’re sleeping late and I really need some things, so I’m hoping you can get them for me.”
“You can’t just pop down to the store? There’s that little grocery store right down the road from Candace’s house.”
“You’d have me risk my health to get a couple of groceries? My God, Claudia, sometimes I don’t know who raised you.”
“You did, Mom. And I’m not saying anything about risking your health, but how dangerous is it to get a couple of things at the store? Wear a mask if you’re scared.”
Mom sniffed. Loudly. Claudia knew it was a sneak preview: Fake tears would be next. “I can’t believe my own daughter won’t go to the grocery store for me. I can’t believe a child I raised would grow up to be heartless enough to make me risk my life to buy a few things.”
“Fine, fine, you win. I will stop what I’m doing—which is working, by the way—and drive half an hour to get you some groceries because it would be inhumane to suggest that you wait twenty minutes until Candace wakes up.”
“Wonderful. Do you have a pen?”
“I’m going to read you my list,” Mom said.
“There’s so much stuff I need to write it down?”
“Good lord, Claudia, do you have to make things even more difficult?”
“Okay, okay, I’ve got a pen. Go.”
Two sheets of legal-pad pages (college-ruled) later, Claudia was done taking dictation and searching for a pair of shoes that would both be comfortable and not prompt her mother to ask if Claudia had just enrolled in clown college (if the shoes were slightly large) or auditioning for a role of a witch in a play (if the shoes had a pointed toe). No matter how old you got, you could never quite win with a parent—or, at least, with this parent.
Claudia was almost out the door when her phone rang. She knew at a glance that it was Mirabelle calling, and she almost slid the bar on the screen to accept the call. But no. This little outing was going to be depressing enough without also being informed after days of waiting that she was a talentless hack. She let the call go to voicemail and ignored it, clicking the phone over to silent mode. Later, she told herself. She’d deal with the crushing blow to her self-esteem later. For now, she had to prepare to receive the usual self-esteem rabbit punches her mother liked to dole out.
The supermarket was a horror show: masking-tape lines, arrows, and Xs taped on the floor to indicate which way you could move and how far apart you had to stand from the other shoppers. A trip that should have taken fifteen minutes took well over an hour: One-way traffic just doesn’t work in the canned goods aisle. Trying to find her mother’s can of peaches in syrup felt less like grocery shopping and more like walking the Trail of Tears.
It was almost two when she pulled into her sister’s empty driveway and found her mother sitting on the back porch under an umbrella, flipping through a wrinkled-looking newspaper. Claudia couldn’t help wondering where that relic had come from, since there was no way Candace still subscribed to an actual printed newspaper (if she even bothered to read the news at all).
“Hey, Mom, I’ve got your stuff.”
“What are you talking about?” her mother asked.
Claudia let the bags fall to the deck. “Your groceries? You called me and made me go shopping for you?”
Mom gave her a cruel smile and shook her head. “And then I called you back and said never mind because Candace was up and she was going to go instead.”
Claudia fumbled in her purse and found her phone. Sure enough, there was a missed call and a voicemail from her mother, from twelve minutes ago, well after she had already checked out at the grocery store.
“If you would just answer your phone, you wouldn’t have so many problems, darling,” Mom said.
“You just called ten minutes ago, and I was already done shopping. Besides, I turned off the ringer.”
“I—” Claudia stopped herself. There was no chance telling her mother about Mirabelle and the book would improve this day, which had already gone well off the rails. “Never mind. Well, it looks like you’ll have plenty of canned peaches and pasta and whatever else was on that list.”
“Take it home and use it yourself.”
“I think I’d rather starve to death than eat a canned peach. Or a fresh peach, for that matter. Blech.”
“You’ve never had any taste at all, have you, darling?”
The crunch of gravel on the driveway told Claudia that Candace was back from the store. Just what this shit show of a day needed: an encounter with her sister as well as her mom.
Candace came up the porch steps, arms loaded with bags, and grimaced. “What are you doing here?”
“Same as you. Bringing Mom groceries.”
“I thought you called and told her not to come, Mom,” Candace said.
Mom opened her mouth but Claudia jumped in. “I didn’t get the message.”
“Terrific,” Candace said. “Just what we need—two weeks’ worth of Spam and canned peaches. Who eats like this?”
“For your information, darling, I eat healthy,” Mom said, flapping her newspaper in an attempt to fold it.
“Oh, yeah, peaches in syrup and fake meat,” Claudia said. “Very healthy. I’m pretty sure I saw on the news that Spam has been declared a superfood.”
Candace bit her lip. Claudia could tell she was trying not to grin. “Come on, let’s put this stuff inside. Mom, you coming in?”
“Not yet. I still have the obituaries left to read.”
Claudia waited until the sliding-glass door had closed behind them, shielding their voices from Mom and her wrath, before asking, “What is it with old people and the obituaries?”
“It’s like their way of making plans. Check the obits, see if anybody’s dead, maybe there’s a nice funeral luncheon to go to.”
“Wow,” Claudia said. “I’m impressed.”
“The rare glimpse of your wit. I knew it had to be in there somewhere.”
“Really? You’ve gotta start in on me already?”
“Sorry. Force of habit.”
“Here,” Candace said, heaving Claudia’s grocery bags onto the kitchen counter. “I’ll put this away if you want to get going.”
“That might be the fastest you’ve ever kicked me out of your house.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just figured you have better things to do,” Candace said. “Sorry about Mom. What’d you do, turn the ringer off?”
“I’d turn my ringer off, too,” Candace said, “if it meant I might be able to escape from her for a while.”
“It wasn’t even Mom I was hiding from. It was my friend Mirabelle.”
“The one you used to work with?”
“Why’re you dodging her?”
Claudia sighed. “She asked to see a book I’ve been writing and I didn’t want to have her tell me it sucked.”
“Does it suck?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Claudia said. “Probably. I’m terrible at judging my own stuff.”
“Show it to Mom. She’ll be honest.”
“If by ‘honest,’ you mean ‘brutal’ . . .”
Candace smiled. “You don’t have to live with her.”
“How’s that been going?”
Candace shrugged. “You know. You live with Dad. It’s probably pretty similar. Except Dad doesn’t make fun of us for sport.”
“Well, I don’t envy you,” Claudia said. “You have both an old person and a kid to deal with. You’re the sandwich generation.”
“Nobody tells you the pieces of bread like to gang up on the filling when you’re living in a sandwich-generation household.”
“Oh, yeah,” Candace said, shoving cans of peaches into her pantry. “All day long, it’s like a tennis match between Mom and Alexis, only instead of balls, they’re lobbing insults. About me.”
“Sorry,” Claudia said—and to her surprise, she actually was. “I’d take her off your hands, but she’d never consent to stay under the same roof with Dad. Hey, did the retirement village ever call wondering where the hell she is?”
“Nope. And that? Is pretty fucking scary.”
“Guess they figure she’s in one of their mass graves at this point. Speaking of death and the virus, where’s your mask?”
“I only wear it in public places, where they make you. I’m starting to think it doesn’t make a difference.”
“Wow. What changed your mind?”
“Hate to admit it, but I read some of those websites you sent me—the CDC figures, the medical reports, that video with the doctor talking about how unlikely it really is to die from this virus.”
“I know, it’s crazy.”
“What’s crazy is that you’re right for once,” Candace said, but she smiled and Claudia (for once) didn’t feel compelled to respond with a nasty barb. “Can I give you some cash for all these groceries?”
“Nah, don’t be silly. Contrary to what Mom likes to think, I’m not actually unemployed and poverty-stricken. At least not anymore.”
“I know,” Candace said. “I keep reminding her that you’re writing all those new science books, but you know Mom. She believes what she wants to believe.”
“And she wants to believe I’m an unemployable loser. What does that say about our family dynamic?”
“How are the books going, by the way?”
“Great, actually. I’ve already finished a few and they’re rushing them through production to come out before the spring semester starts. Well, when it would have started, if the kids were actually in school. Is there going to be school after the New Year? Have they said anything?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. You can’t get a straight answer out of these school people. They actually graduated the seniors last spring—as if not having class or doing anything else for three months was just as good as being in school every day for five hours.”
“Really shows you they know they aren’t doing shit.”
“Exactly. Have we had this conversation before?” Candace asked.
“Probably. It gets hard to tell when you’re living in quarantine, doesn’t it?”
“You got that right. Jason is my only connection to the outside world and he only leaves the house one day a week.”
“He actually goes to the office?”
“That’s what he says. I’m starting to think he’s hiding out in his car somewhere streaming Netflix on his phone, just to get away from me and Mom and Alexis for a few hours.”
“Couldn’t blame him there.”
“I could. Why do I have to deal with these idiots?”
“I feel for you, sis, but I’m also glad I’m not in your shoes.”
“I’m fucking with you. I know what you mean. So, I guess you haven’t been doing a whole lot of dating stuck home with Dad. How is Aaron, by the way?”
“Actually . . .”
“What? He dump your butt?”
Claudia had to laugh. “Sort of. I talked to him a while back and it turns out he thought we broke up like five years ago.”
Candace grinned. “What does it say about your relationship when you don’t even realize you don’t have a relationship?”
“I know, right?”
“Hey, you want a glass of wine? It’s early yet, but . . .”
“It’s always five o’clock in quarantine. Shit, yeah.”
Candace poured and they sat side by side on cushioned stools at her granite-topped counter, sipping chilled chardonnay like everything was normal, almost like they were actual friends. And then the sliding-glass door opened.
“Girls! You’re sitting here drinking? It’s the middle of the day.”
Claudia tossed the last of the wine down her throat and leaned over to place the empty glass in the sink. “This has been nice,” she said, looking at Candace. “Seriously. Thanks for the wine and the chat.”
“Any time. In fact, come back tomorrow. You might get the chance to witness a matricide.”
“There’s that wit again,” Claudia said. She stood up and gave her mother an air kiss. She might have escaped from the hot zone of the retirement village, but she was still adamant about avoiding physical contact.
“Bye, Mom, bye, Candace. Tell Jason and Alexis I said hey.”
“You’re going?” Mom asked. “Just like that? I’ve hardly had a moment to say hello.”
“Ma, we’ve been sitting here the whole time,” Candace said (it was the first time, ever, she had come to her sister’s defense). “It wasn’t like you couldn’t join us.”
“How was I supposed to know you were relaxing with some lovely wine?” Mom said, almost pouting now.
“Here,” Candace said. “I’ll pour you a glass.”
“It won’t be the same if Claudia’s leaving.”
Claudia smiled. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Mom. I’ll come back next week, how’s that? I really should get going.”
Mom frowned. “Naturally. You wouldn’t want your father to get lonely over there.”
“Mom . . . Okay, I give up.” She sat back down on the stool and reached for her wineglass. “Pour me another before I go.”
Mom sat down, too, and the three of them sat there in silence, all in a row, drinking wine and staring at Candace’s cherry-wood cabinets, almost as if they were in a real bar. Family wasn’t so bad when they shut the hell up for a while.
“I was thinking—” Mom began.
Candance put up a hand to shush her. “Not now. Let’s just enjoy this moment.”
“What moment?” Mom asked.
“The first time we’ve ever sat together for more than three minutes without arguing.”
“Hear, hear,” Claudia said. “It’s a joy. But . . .” She drained her glass. “. . . I really do have to go.”
“So soon?” Mom said.
Claudia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, Mom. But seriously. I’ll come back next week and we can all have a glass of wine again.”
“Yeah, let’s see if we can do it twice without killing each other,” Candace said.
Claudia jingled her keys as she waved good-bye and headed out the door to her car. Sitting in the driver’s seat, she thought about checking her phone, but decided it was smarter to wait until she got home. With two glasses of wine under her belt, she didn’t need any additional distractions while driving.
Back home in the safety of her basement, she sat down on the bed and took a deep breath before pressing play on Mirabelle’s voicemail. Steeled for the letdown, she was almost disappointed to find the message was simply, “Call me.”
Why did people always make you do the work when they wanted to give you terrible news?
She dialed. The phone hadn’t even rung on Claudia’s end before Mirabelle picked up with a frantic “Claud?”
“Yeah, Mir, it’s me. How’s it going?”
“Stupendous, that’s how it’s going. I’m blown away.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This thing is amazing,” Mirabelle said. “It’s like reading someone’s diary, but better, ’cuz it’s not boring, everyday stuff like weather and chores. It’s conspiracy theory and terror and plague and death—with a love story thrown in. Claud, is all this stuff true?”
“The death part or the love part?”
“I guess the love part. I know the conspiracy and death stuff’s true. I did my homework before I called. You’re dead on, girl.”
“Well . . .”
“Spill it,” Mirabelle said.
“There is a guy.”
“And you had a hysterectomy? Without telling me?”
“I told you I had surgery when we talked the other day.”
“I figured you maybe had some bunions scraped. Or maybe got a boob job. You always were flat-chested.”
“Still am. And now I’m minus one uterus, too.”
Mirabelle laughed. “But, Claud, all jokes aside. This is the greatest exposé of government scandal since Watergate. We want to publish it. Like, right away.”
“But it’s not finished—”
“We thought about that. Obviously, the entire story can’t be finished until this whole business with the virus is over, one way or the other. But we figured it out. We publish what you’ve got now and link to a website where you keep writing the rest as it happens, in blog format. That way, we can do up-to-the-minute scandal coverage. What do you think?”
“I think I’m gonna be pretty fucking tired if I have to update a blog every minute.”
“Sue me for hyperbole. We’re thinking, like, three posts a week. How does that sound?”
“Terrifying, that’s how it sounds.”
“What, are you one of those weirdos who’s afraid of success?” Mirabelle asked.
“That’s not what I mean. This thing could get me in trouble. My boyfriend—”
“Oh, right, the guy in the book. Is he really getting picked up by the cops all the time?”
“All the time. And all he’s doing is posting some pics on social media. How will people react when there’s an actual book detailing their . . . well, crimes, I guess you have to call them?”
“Actually, Claud, we thought about that, too. What do you think about publishing the book anonymously? I mean, we’ll still pay you the same and everything, but we’d protect your identity.”
“Now you’re talking.”
“Yeah,” Mirabelle said. “And there’s always a little extra sensationalism when a big publisher puts out an anonymous book, so we’ll get plenty of sales, with everybody trying to figure out who wrote it.”
“That? I could live without.”
“You don’t ever have to reveal yourself if you don’t want, but we can talk about that later. For now, I just need to know if you’re in, and if a hundred thousand is a big enough advance.”
Claudia choked on her own saliva. “Shit, Mir, good thing I wasn’t drinking water or I’d have drowned just now.”
“What? Not enough?”
Claudia felt a giddy laugh rumble through her. “You’re talking to someone who was unemployed like a month ago. A hundred thousand is . . . great.”
“Okay, good, and of course the usual royalty rates and . . .” Mirabelle was rambling on about contracts and film rights and details Claudia could never hope to comprehend for at least another few hours, until after this all sunk in. She wasn’t unemployed. Or unemployable. She wasn’t a hack. She had written something . . . good enough, and maybe things were finally going to change.
Claudia had to shake her head to focus. “Sorry. Got distracted. Yeah?”
“Congratulations. You’re about to change the world.”
Claudia couldn’t help but wonder if that were true—and if that was a good thing.
Quarantine Day 167
Cases: 510,079 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
341,602 (as reported by FOX)
310,743 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 108,099 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
30,103 (as reported by FOX)
20 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
What Mirabelle had told her was big news, life-changing news . . . so Claudia decided to keep it to herself. Her insides felt bubbly and light, like her blood had been replaced by champagne, and she knew that sparkling wine would go flat the instant she let anyone in her family know about the book deal. It seemed better to savor the unprecedented ecstasy for just a little while longer.
Yeah, Berk might join her on the victorious mountaintop if she told him about the book, but he was still in jail, and what was the sense of making him feel even worse about that? He was conducting a revolution his way; she’d start her own. And from what Mirabelle was saying, a revolution was exactly what the book was going to spark.
“People will either love it or hate it,” Mirabelle had said yesterday, after Claudia sent back the signed contract. “And even the ones who hate it will love to hate it. It’s going to be number one on the bestseller list before it’s even out. No joke, girl, this is the big one.”
“You’re scaring the shit out of me,” Claudia said.
“What’re you worried about? You’re anonymous. Oh, speaking of which: The marketing people are creating social media accounts for you as ‘Anonymous.’ They’ll do most of the work, but they’ll give you the login info so you can post links to your ongoing blog stuff once the book is in the works.”
“And people will have no idea it’s me? What about hackers?”
Mirabelle laughed. “Let our IT guys worry about that stuff. Your job is to keep producing the content. Got me?”
Claudia had said yeah, but inside, she was terrified. If the cops could pick Berk up (and throw him in jail) for putting up a few simple photos of perfectly real empty hospitals, what would they do to Claudia for exposing the actual death toll (or lack thereof)? It wasn’t like she was making anything up. Hell, anybody could’ve done what she was doing—all they had to do was check a few publicly available websites and read (and, of course, ignore the nonsense the mainstream media channels were always spouting). But still. Claudia couldn’t help but freak out a little. She’d always dreamed of being a writer, but in her mind, that meant being an obscure name on the spine of a book on some dusty shelf in a library, not the hot topic trending on Twitter. There was a big difference. If she could have had her way, she’d be holed up in a cozy room somewhere reading, not being judged and criticized by millions of people.
But she couldn’t keep the news about the book to herself forever. She was already starting to feel like she might explode if she didn’t share it with someone. She grabbed her phone and scrolled through her contacts. Crikey, why didn’t she have any friends? Aaron—nope; he wouldn’t have paid attention to her news even if they were still together. Berk—not yet. Candace—yeah, there was some appeal to the “rub it in” aspect, but since they shared that afternoon drink a few days back, Claudia had felt (slightly) less animosity toward her sister. She kept scrolling. Writing group people, old colleagues, family. She felt a twinge of sadness when she realized that she didn’t have a single person on her list who would greet the news of her success with genuine happiness. And people in solitary confinement think they’re lonely! At least they got meals served by actual human beings a few times a day.
But she was going to go crazy if she had to hold it in any longer. She opened FaceTime and pulled up Luciana’s number.
“Buongiorno, Claudia! Come stai?”
“Bene, bene, e tu?”
Luciana launched into a rapid-fire rant in Italian, forcing Claudia to hold up a hand and beg for mercy. “Hey, hey now, you know my Italian consists of hello and how are you and maybe a few items from a menu. Back it up, girlfriend.”
“Scusi,” Luciana said. “Sometimes is . . . how you say? Refreshing. To hear my language.”
“Yeah, me too,” Claudia said with a wink.
“You have news?”
“Why do you say that?”
“You no call unless you have news. Perhaps you and Berkeley have a fight?”
Was Claudia crazy or did Luciana look just a little bit hopeful at that prospect? “No, sorry, nothing like that.”
“How is Berkeley?”
“Still in jail, last I heard.”
“Dio mio, why the police treat him so bad?”
“Hey, don’t let the Black Lives Matter people hear you say that,” Claudia said. “In their eyes, the police are only behaving badly when they’re killing black people. And Berk is both white and alive.”
“And so handsome. That is problem, too.”
“How do you mean?”
“Is known that authorities treat lovely people more cruel than ugly people.”
“Assolutamente. In Italia, you want be brutto. It is more safer.”
“I did not know that,” Claudia said, not knowing whether to believe it. Didn’t most psychological studies say that people—teachers, those serving on juries, whatever—tended to look more favorably upon the attractive? Not that Claudia did. Most of the time, God seemed to be a fair guy. If someone was especially good-looking, you could rest assured he or she was also dumber than a box of rocks.
“Si, è vero,” Luciana said. “You see the latest news reports?”
“About Black Lives Matter?”
“Eh, is more than that. Now people tearing down statues, monuments, if it is of person they say is racist.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. You mean they’re destroying historical monuments because of something someone who died hundreds of years ago might have thought about other races?”
“Si. In south, particolarmente, there are—how you say? Mobs. They destroy statues of the . . . um . . .”
“Si! Confederates.” (She pronounced the last syllable as if it rhymed with hates, which made Claudia want to both hug her and give her an introductory phonics book.)
Claudia sat there, watching Luciana’s glowing olive-skinned face, until she realized Luciana wasn’t planning on saying anything more without prompting. So Claudia prompted: “And . . . ?”
“What’s going on with the Confederates and the statues?”
“Ah, si. The mobs, they destroy the statues. They go with spray paint on buildings with names they no like. Is terrible.”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “It is.”
They sat there in silence for a long time, and then Luciana said, “Ay! Is time for my soap opera.”
“I can’t believe anybody still watches those things. I thought most of them went off the air.”
“No is American soap opera,” Luciana said (with, Claudia thought, a note of disdain wrapped around the word American). “Is Mexican soap opera.”
“You speak Spanish?”
“Eh, no, not really. But is similar with italiano, and I like the look of the men. You know?”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “I know. Okay, then. Have fun. I’ll talk to you this weekend.”
For an hour after getting off the phone with Luciana, Claudia found herself haunted by the notion: People were tearing down historical monuments because they thought maybe Christopher Columbus was a racist. They believed it was unfair racial profiling if a person of color had to go through the security check at the airport, but five-hundred-year-old racial profiling was just fine. And if you were dead and a white male, you were, apparently, a racist. Meanwhile, the current U.S. government was busy stripping all Americans of their civil rights, regardless of race, and nobody seemed to care or even notice. How stupid were these people? Did knocking a bronze image of Christopher Columbus off a pedestal erase the European conquest? Did it resurrect all those Taino natives? What exactly did such senseless destruction in the name of fairness and equality solve if you couldn’t recognize tyranny when it was happening to you? Did doing one shitty thing—as anybody could argue Columbus had done (along with every human being on the face of the Earth, ever)—mean that none of the good stuff you’d done mattered? How did these idiots not get that? By engaging in reckless and violent criminal activity as they defaced these monuments, they were saying that no human being can do a bad thing and be allowed to live. In fact, if you looked at it strictly from a logic perspective, these dummies were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Claudia couldn’t stop herself from creating a simple proof and using their logic against them:
Resolved: that any person, current or historical, who has engaged in any unsavory act (such as racist or criminal behavior) cannot be considered worthy of honor in any sense.
Resolved: that no such unsavory figure should be honored or permitted to exist in the public or historical record in any way that might possibly be construed as favorable. Even if said figure has engaged in numerous “good” acts, the unsavory act outweighs any good he/she/it may possibly have done.
Resolved: that the only reasonable response to encountering statues, monuments, buildings, or any public entity named for or honoring such unsavory figures is to tear down/destroy (and/or rename) said entity.
Resolved: that harming another person or thing that doesn’t belong to you (as occurs through racism and/or genocide) is inherently bad or “evil” and therefore unsavory.
Resolved: that public statues, monuments, and other entities do not belong to any one individual.
Resolved: that by destroying, harming, or attempting to dishonor any statue, monument, or other item or entity that doesn’t belong to you, you are committing a criminal, evil, and unsavory act.
Resolved: that by committing an unsavory act, you (like the historical figures you condemn) must also be condemned and must not be permitted to exist.
Resolved: that having been condemned, your only possible response is to commit suicide and thereby remove yourself, as an unsavory figure, from the public and historical record, lest you inadvertently ever be treated in any way that might be construed as favorable.
Claudia sighed. Sometimes, she felt like the only intelligent being left in the world. And right now, she was feeling even more frustrated because, after all the chatter about statues and Confederates and racism and logic, she realized, she still hadn’t managed to share her good news.
She sighed again and dialed the phone. “Hey, Candace, it’s me.”
“Me who? I know a lot of me’s.”
“Don’t make me kick your ass. It’s Claudia and you know that perfectly well.”
“Just teasing, geez. What’s up?”
“If you call drinking wine by the pool busy, then I’m swamped,” Candace said.
“Yeah, for now, but in about twenty minutes she’s going out for her walk. Her daily constitutional, as she calls it.”
“Fantastic. Pour me a wine. I’ll be there in twenty.”
When she got to Candace’s house, Claudia peered over the backyard fence for signs of her mother before entering. There was still time to flee before anyone saw her, and she wasn’t sure she had the energy today to endure the usual onslaught of maternal disapproval.
“Psst! Is the coast clear?”
From behind massive black sunglasses that made her look like a sci-fi fly, Candace called back, “She left five minutes ago, and Alexis is still in bed.”
Claudia pushed through the squeaky metal gate and sat on the empty chaise-longue beside her sister’s. “Why are kids so tired when all they do is tap at their phones all day? I don’t remember sleeping past six a.m. once during my teen years, and back then we had actual school, gym class, extracurriculars, jobs . . .”
Candace shrugged. “It’s a new generation. They’re got the laziness gene.”
Claudia wanted to say Alexis must have picked up that DNA from Candace—or her husband—since Claudia clearly didn’t share it, but she kept her mouth shut.
“I didn’t pour you a wine,” Candace said. “But the glass is there and the bottle. You know. Bugs.”
Claudia reached over and popped the cork to pour herself a glass. The chardonnay was already lukewarm, even though Candace had tucked it in the shade beneath her chair. She shrugged and drank it anyway. Sometimes, like now, drinking was less about taste and more about the mood.
“So what’s up?” Candace said, still lying back on her chaise, looking like her eyes must be closed behind those giant sunglasses.
“I’ve got some news and I didn’t have anybody to share it with.”
Candace smiled. “Wow, you must be really desperate if you chose me.”
“True story. Kidding.”
“So . . . ?”
“I got a book deal.”
Candace shook her head and sat up, throwing her legs over the side of her chair. “Um, I hate to break it to you, but you already told me that news, like, weeks ago.”
“Not the science books. Something else.”
Candace’s eyebrows lifted up over the top rim of her sunglasses. “Don’t keep me waiting. We only have maybe forty-five minutes before Mom comes back and gets on us for drinking in the middle of the day, until she pours herself a glass.”
“Okay, right. Well, I’ve been writing about all this . . .” Claudia waved her arms in the air. “. . . the lockdown and virus and how the numbers don’t add up and so many hospitals are empty and everything. A chronicle.”
“Yeah . . .”
“And my old friend Mirabelle is the new . . . well, her title doesn’t matter. Let’s just say she’s a bigwig at a really big publisher. And she bought the book.”
Candace poured another glass of wine and topped off Claudia’s glass, too. “Oh. So, that’s nice.”
“They’re giving me a hundred-thousand-dollar advance and they think it’s going to be a bestseller.”
Candace spat the wine in her mouth all over Claudia.
“Seriously?” Claudia said, wiping her arms. “A spit-take? This isn’t some cheesy improv comedy class.”
“Sorry. I’m just . . . surprised.”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “Me, too.”
“Shit. I never expected my big sister to get all famous. I always thought I’d be the one destined for stardom. Or at least a reality TV show.”
“I won’t be famous. Just rich.”
“They’re publishing the book anonymously. You know, to avoid issues with the government.”
“Come on, don’t be silly. Why would the government care what you have to say? We do have free speech here.”
“We did. We don’t have any rights, not for sure, anymore.”
“Hey, I didn’t invite you over to spout your right-wing craziness.”
“There’s a difference between right-wing and libertarian. And you didn’t invite me over at all.”
“That’s right,” Candace said. “You invited yourself. And you can uninvite yourself if you can’t be nicer.”
“I’m trying here, but seriously. We’ve got forty-some years of bickering ingrained in our neural pathways. It’s not all that easy to change.”
“Tell me about it,” Candace said. “I have no idea what neuro-ways are, but it’s super hard not to hate you for having something good happen to you. It’s like I’m a computer program that’s only designed to want bad stuff for you. How sick is that?”
“I think that’s just being siblings.”
“I dunno. Look at TV. The brothers and sisters on those corny family dramas are always so close. They see each other, like, every day. They’re best friends. Why can’t we be like that?”
“Because they’re fictional and we’re real.”
“Yeah . . .”
“Seriously,” Claudia said. “You know any brothers and sisters in real life who see each other all the time and get along?”
“In real life, I said.”
“Reality TV is real life.”
“Crikey,” Claudia said. “No wonder we don’t get along.”
Candace frowned and raised her glass. “Congratulations on your book. I’m . . . um . . . proud of you.”
“That sounded like it hurt.”
They clinked glasses, then leaned back on their chairs and sat in silence in the sunshine.
Claudia wasn’t sure how much time had passed—she thought she might have drifted off just a little—when their mother broke up their real-life sibling time with a disapproving “Tssk!” sound from the deck.
“Is that wine you’re drinking? Again? Girls, it’s a Tuesday afternoon.”
Claudia lugged herself up to her feet. “The rules don’t apply anymore, Mom. We’re living in quarantine times.”
“Rules? Who said anything about rules? I just can’t fathom why you haven’t offered to pour me a glass,” Mom said, pulling the sliding-glass door shut behind her.
Candace shook her head and downed what was left of her wine. “We need another bottle. And a glass for Mom. Be right back.”
Claudia stood up and stretched as her mother approached, the ever-present scowl on her face.
“Air kiss,” Mom said, not even bothering to actually pucker her lips to pretend.
“Nice to see you, Mom. How’s it going?”
Mom rolled her eyes. “You would not believe the chaos that goes on in this house.”
“What did you expect? You’ve got Candace, who used to sneak out of her bedroom in the middle of the night to watch fistfights behind the Dairy Queen when she was a teenager. And you have an actual teenager.”
“Alexis won’t be thirteen until November.”
“Were you always this obnoxious, Mom, or is this new since you started living with Candace?”
Mom ignored the comment and sat down on the chaise where Claudia had been resting and laid back, squinting her eyes against the sun. Claudia suppressed a shudder: Mom’s skin was what seventy-some years without sunscreen got you.
“So, what are you doing here in the middle of the day?” Mom asked. “Not that you have a job or anything to do . . .”
Claudia forced herself to suck in a deep breath so she wouldn’t wring her mother’s neck. Hormones, she told herself. Must be hormones. She had come to realize it can be damn hard to keep track of your hormonal fluctuations when you no longer get menstrual periods. She had to smile. Who would ever have thought she’d be missing her period, which she had dreaded every single month for thirty-some years?
Claudia sat down, perched on the edge of Candace’s chaise. For a family of three (plus a long-term visitor in Mom), you’d think they’d have a few more places to sit.
The sliding door screeched up on the deck and Candace angled through, balancing two wine bottles, a corkscrew, and an empty wineglass. “You tell her yet?” she called.
“Tell whom what?” Mom asked. Her eyes were now closed and she’d draped a crêpey-looking forearm over her face.
“I was asking Claudia if she told you about her big news, Ma.”
Mom opened one eye and peered at Claudia. “News?”
Claudia threw a warning glance in Candace’s direction. “It’s nothing, Mom, nothing big.”
“Then precisely how does it qualify as news?” Mom asked.
Candace sat down beside Claudia and poured their mother some wine. “Just tell her, Claud. You’ll be glad you did.”
Mom huffed and pulled herself upright. “Well, I know you’re not pregnant. So what’s this news? Did you finally get a job?”
Another deep breath before speaking, Claudia reminded herself. “Sort of, yeah,” she said. “Not a job exactly. A book deal.”
Mom waved that always-dismissive hand. “Those silly science books? Sorry to tell you, darling, but you’ve already told me that ‘big news.’”
“Ma, shut up for a second and let her tell you, would ya?”
Claudia startled. She couldn’t remember her sister ever taking her side. It was a pandemic miracle. “Thanks, Can. Yeah, well. It’s a different book. Something I’ve been writing about the virus and everything that’s going on.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “That novel? You already told me about that silly nonsense, too.”
“It was a novel when I started,” Claudia said. “But now it’s nonfiction. A chronicle.”
“Pardon me, darling, but I simply can’t imagine anything duller.”
“Ma, geez! Let her talk,” Candace said.
“Mom doesn’t have to find it interesting. All that matters is that my publisher thinks people will want to read it.”
“And how much are you paying them for that opinion, darling?” Mom asked.
“They’re not a vanity press,” Claudia said. “Jesus. It would be nice, for once, to have somebody in this family believe in me.”
“You always have been a needy little thing, haven’t you?” Mom said.
“Wow,” Candace said. “I don’t know how we didn’t end up in a mental institution growing up with you, Mom.”
Claudia couldn’t help agreeing. There was just something crushing about having your own mother act like you were a hopeless loser. But instead of saying that, she simply said, “I should go.”
“Uh-uh,” Candace said. “Not until you tell her how much they’re paying you.” She turned to their mother. “She’s not paying them, they’re paying her. Tell Mom how much, Claud.”
Claudia whispered, “A hundred thousand.”
“Dollars! A hundred thousand dollars, they’re paying her, Mom. I’d say that makes her about the opposite of needy, wouldn’t you?”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a lot of money for a book?”
“That’s just the advance!” Candace said. She was practically crowing now. Claudia had never loved her more. “My sister is gonna be the next big thing. And you’ll wish you’d been nicer to her then.”
Mom frowned. She took a long sip of wine, then said, “And what did your father say?”
“I haven’t told him yet,” Claudia replied.
An unmistakably spiteful smile spread across Mom’s lips. “Oh, really? Why ever not?”
“For the same reason I wasn’t planning on telling you: Nobody in this family knows how to be happy for another person.”
Except (impossibly) Candace, Claudia thought. What an odd about-face. She could only assume her sister must be a little drunk and her usual sibling-rivalry-inspired venom would return once the wine wore off. Or maybe (though unlikely) this fake pandemic had had real—and metamorphic—effects on both sisters, though Claudia wasn’t going to get her hopes up.
“Don’t be like that, darling,” Mom said. “You’ve always been that way: such a pessimist, always looking on the dark side. We’re all perfectly happy for you. Aren’t we, Candace?”
“I already said I was, Mom. You’re the one who got all nasty.”
Claudia held up her hands. “It’s fine. I’m not upset. The news is out. Everybody’s happy for me. Let’s just act normal, okay?”
“Oh, darling, we have never been normal.”
“True story,” Claudia said. She held out her glass toward Candace. “Fill ’er up.”
Sometimes, it’s best to ignore family tensions and just get drunk instead. This? Was one of those times.
Three glasses of wine, four hours, and a brief nap later, and Claudia hopped back in her car to head home. She could only hope she’d get there before Mom decided to send Dad a drunken, gloating text message, spilling Claudia’s news before she could spill it herself.
Quarantine Day 170
Cases: 511,115 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
341,902 (as reported by FOX)
310,769 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 109,103 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
30,165 (as reported by FOX)
20 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
As it happened, Mom did send a drunken text, but apparently her thumbs weren’t particularly nimble after several glasses of cheap chardonnay, so the message was all but illegible.
“Check this out, Claud,” Dad had shouted down into the basement that night, just after Claudia had shut off the lights and settled into bed. “Your ma sent me a text. Makes no sense. I think maybe she’s havin’ a stroke.”
“She’s fine, Dad,” Claudia said, not getting out of bed. “She’s just drunk. She and Candace have been at it since the afternoon.”
“And people think I’m the family drunk,” Dad muttered as he wandered away from Claudia’s door. “Ain’t had a drink in ten years . . .”
“Yeah, not since you had a stroke,” Claudia said, though she knew perfectly well he couldn’t hear her.
The next morning, she awoke to a flurry of text messages from Berk, each about a minute apart, starting just after midnight. She could only assume they were allowing liquor in jail cells these days, because why else would he be texting when he knew she’d be asleep? Wow, she thought. Was everybody drunk? The texts started off jubilant and gradually grew despondent:
“I’m out, baby! Light the candles!”
“Too bad I can’t come over and see you. Kiss kiss!”
“Really wish you were here. We could celebrate my release.”
“Nobody’s awake. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It IS the middle of the night. But still . . .”
“Guess I should just try to get some sleep.”
“I’ve done nothing BUT sleep for days. This sucks.”
“Okay. I’ll stop bothering you. Will call in the morning.”
“Sorry to keep texting. I know you’re sleeping. Kiss kiss.”
“Miss you. Love you.”
That was the last one, and it perfectly captured Claudia’s only possible response. Men could be such needy idiots.
Five in the morning was too early to call him. He’d still be asleep after his late night getting sprung from jail. Again. Or so she thought. Her phone buzzed just as she was just heading for her run. She’d lost eight pounds so far, but still had a solid ten to go. The media had declared a new phenomenon called the “Quarantine Fifteen.” For Claudia, it had turned into eighteen pounds, though she had always been an overachiever. Against her better judgment (most early-morning messages seemed to be the inevitable Gmail spam), she checked the phone. Berk.
She stepped out of the house into the pink-gray predawn light and sat down on a bench in the yard before dialing so her chatter wouldn’t wake Dad and Bandit.
“Oh, thank all the non-gods and spirits!” Berk said when she answered.
“A simple ‘Nice to hear from you’ would suffice.”
“Not today. Not by a long shot. I’ve got big news.”
Great, Claudia thought. That meant today would not be the day she got to share her own big news with her sort-of boyfriend. “Well, go on then,” she said. “Lay it on me.”
“I’m sitting in a radio studio—well, in the waiting room anyway. You know that morning-show guy, Bob Sandia? I’m gonna be on his program today.”
“Course, sure, I know that guy. Big libertarian. It’s a wonder they allow him on the air here in New Communist Jersey.”
“I know, I know. He’s, like, the only voice of reason in media anymore.”
“So how did you end up on the show? That’s huge.”
She heard a huff over the phone line and knew Berk had gotten up from his chair and started pacing. He did it all the time when they chatted and he got himself worked up about something. Amazing how well you could get to know a person without ever actually meeting him.
“I guess he heard about my run-ins with the cops, and saw some of my hospital posts before they got taken down,” Berk said. “I’m not sure. The producer didn’t say. They just called me like an hour ago and asked if I could be on the show today.”
“You’re in the actual studio, then? Not doing it over the phone?”
“Yeah, and no mask, either. Bob says only Hitler tells people what they have to wear.”
Yikes, Claudia thought. That sounds familiar. It was vaguely reassuring to know someone else had made the same comparison she had while arguing with her sister back when the mask mandates went into effect all those months ago.
“Wow,” she said. “I’m impressed. And kind of a little worried about you.”
“Don’t be. I’m finally around people who get it. I’m psyched. Maybe we’ll get some people to see what’s really happening.”
A tiny little part of Claudia’s brain leaped up and got defensive, like it wasn’t fair that Berk was getting all this recognition for taking a few photos (okay, and spending several nights in jail) when she’d spent months chronicling every detail of the numbers and laws and injustices. With a flush of shame, she suddenly remembered that she’d be getting plenty of recognition—and, more likely, notoriety—when her book came out. There was no reason to spoil Berk’s moment of victory. God, she could be such a bitch.
“Claud? You still there?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry. Got distracted.”
“I should be on in about ten-fifteen minutes. You’re gonna listen, right?”
She hated the fact that her first thought was that she wouldn’t get to listen to her favorite playlist during her run, because she’d be tuned in to the livestream of the radio program instead. “Course,” she said. “I’ll pull it up on my phone now. Good luck. Or do you say ‘break a leg’ in radio?”
“I have no idea and don’t really give a crap. Thank you either way.”
“Call me later.”
She popped in her wireless earbuds and pressed the Start button on her GPS watch. It was time to get this day—which was already shaping up to be a roller coaster—started.
She was barely half a mile in when Bob Sandia’s voice pulled her attention back from the running zone.
“I have with me here in the studio Berkeley Kaplan, and no, folks, we’re not wearing masks, are we, Berk?”
“No, sir,” Berk said. Was Claudia crazy or did he sound a little timid—an unheard state of affairs when it came to Berk?
“Loosen up, buddy. It’s just us and the crickets here at this time of day,” Bob said. “And, of course, a couple million New Jerseyans eager to either love or hate every word we say. So, let’s get to it. Berk, you spent the past few nights in jail, is that right?”
“Yup, sure is.”
“And what were you arrested for?”
“Technically, I wasn’t arrested. I was just held on suspicion of a crime, then released.”
“What was the alleged crime?”
“Good question. They didn’t tell me.”
“They didn’t tell you why they were holding you?” Bob asked.
“Well, no, not once in the eight times they’ve kept me in custody.”
“But surely you’ve done something to get the police after you?”
“I guess you could say that,” Berk said. His confidence sounded like it was back and Claudia felt herself unclench just a little, knowing he’d (probably) be okay. “I’ve been going around to hospitals in a four-hundred-mile radius from my home in Freehold and taking photos of them.”
“I assume you mean you’ve been documenting the chaotic conditions in the wake of SARS-642.”
“I’m not sure you could call the conditions chaotic,” Berk said. “So far, at least fifty percent of the hospitals I’ve visited have been closed.”
“That’s right. Empty. Shut down. Even boarded up, in a few cases.”
“I assume that means the remaining hospitals are overrun with sick people,” Bob said.
“Nope. Not even close. They’re ghost towns.”
“Okay, now, obviously, you know I’ve been suggesting that the government is using this so-called pandemic as an excuse to strip Americans’ civil liberties for months now. But even I can’t just take your word for it. What kind of proof have you got?”
“I’ve got thousands of photos, all of which have been verified as authentic in terms of originality—no PhotoShopping—and place, date, and time stamp, by a forensic documents expert.”
“Who hired an expert?”
“I did,” Berk said. “I knew there’d be too many questions if I didn’t go out of my way to prove the photos were the real deal, so I paid for it myself. No small feat for somebody who’s been unemployed for eleven months.”
“That, folks? Is dedication to a cause. And just so you all don’t think we’re making this stuff up, all of Berk’s photos have been uploaded to my blog page on our station website, so you can check them out.”
“Assuming they don’t get taken down,” Berk said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve been posting the shots daily on social media, message boards, and my own website, but they keep getting removed as quote-unquote offensive content.”
“Even on your own website?”
“Yup. I’m not sure how—I’m no IT guy. All I know is that I post the photos in the morning and by evening, they’re gone and I have to start all over.”
“Sounds to me like the government is the one committing the ‘crime’ in this case,” Bob said.
“You took the words right out of my mouth.”
“All right, folks, we need to break for traffic and weather, but we’ll be back shortly with more from Berk Kaplan—a man on a mission.”
For eight minutes’ worth of ads and traffic reports even duller and more unnecessary than usual (seeing as almost nobody was actually driving anywhere), Claudia ran, fighting the urge to switch over to her playlist and listen to something that didn’t make her want to blow her brains out. But no. She’d endure the boring radio chatter; she was nothing if not loyal.
“And we’re back.”
The DJ’s voice startled her back to reality, at least somewhat. She caught herself wondering if anybody actually called them DJs anymore, now that everything was digital and there were no “discs” involved.
“This is Bob Sandia in the morning, here with Berk Kaplan, and we’re talking about the truth. I’ve been telling you guys this for months now, and not too many of you have been hearing it, but maybe you’ll believe Berk. He’s a good-looking kid, smart, doesn’t have an agenda. Tell us what you’ve been doing, Berk.”
“Sure. Um, basically, for the past couple of months, I’ve been going around to different hospitals and taking pictures of what I found there—most of them are empty or literally shut down—and then I’ve been posting the photos on social media with the hashtag HospitalCheck, and encouraging other people to do the same.”
“And someone—in the government, presumably—is removing the content?”
“Yes, within hours, sometimes minutes, after I post.”
“That, folks, is censorship at its best. We all seem to think that the internet is the ultimate form of free speech; we can say whatever we want and nobody cares. Heck, there are sites out there on how to make bombs and how to torture prisoners and nobody’s shutting those down. But something as simple as posting genuine photos of empty hospitals calls for censorship? What is the government hiding? Why don’t they want us to know the hospitals are empty? Where are all these tens of thousands of severely ill virus patients? And, for that matter, if the hospitals are closed, where are people suffering from other things—broken legs, heart attacks, what have you—supposed to get treatment? Berk, what have you found?”
“It’s a good question,” Berk said. “And it’s one I’ve been asking myself. Nobody from the CDC or the president’s office has returned any of my messages.”
“Big surprise,” Bob injected.
“True enough. And the governor’s office—”
“Let’s get one thing straight, folks: Paul Murray is not the governor of New Jersey. He’s our fuhrer. For an avowed socialist, he sure knows how to create a fascist state.”
“Well, Bob, most people tend to forget that Nazi stands for ‘National Socialist.’”
“Zing! He’s right about that, folks. And don’t forget that socialist or fascist, they all want the same thing: power for themselves at the expense of your freedom.”
“Very true, Bob. Anyway, most of the hospital administrators and doctors I’ve approached have been reluctant to talk. But I have found a few, including Dr. Anthony De Marzo—”
“Folks, you’ll know Dr. De Marzo as the doc who posted the viral video on YouTube showing exactly how not deadly this virus is. He got censored, too, isn’t that right, Berk?”
“Absolutely right,” Berk said. “But he did speak to me privately, and he provided me with reams of evidence, documentation proving what he’s been saying. He also told me, just last night, that the CDC has shut down its SARS tracking website. I checked this morning and he’s right. The website—which, up until yesterday was the only valid source of unbiased information in the United States about how many cases of the virus are really happening—”
“And how many are actually cases of flu and lung cancer and what have you.”
“Correct. Anyway, the site now has an error banner that says ‘Site not found.’ That’s it. No explanation. It’s just gone, like it never existed at all. Except, of course, plenty of people, myself included, have screenshots proving it did.”
Claudia stopped running and whispered, “Crikey,” then reached for her phone to turn up the volume.
“I’ve got your explanation right here, my friend,” Bob Sandia said. “Nelly Pelucci and her Democratic henchmen got to the leadership at CDC and now even the top medical organization in the country isn’t going to be allowed to say anything that might threaten the party line. It’s a scary world out there, folks. They may call themselves the Democratic Party but let’s get real and call them by their accurate name: Nazis.”
“Speaking of which,” Berk said, “I had word from a source in the New Jersey legislature yesterday that a bill is being passed today to require all citizens to wear masks in public—even outdoors, even on their own property.”
“Is that right?” Bob said. “You must have better sources than I do. But I believe it. Take note, folks. When the government starts telling you what to wear, you’re not in a democracy anymore.”
“That’s right, Bob, and not only that, but Dr. De Marzo just released a new study showing that wearing a mask if you’re healthy actually causes respiratory problems, making you even more vulnerable to the virus.”
“You emailed me that article overnight, Berk, and I’m grateful. Folks, you need to listen to the scientists here, not the politicians. People like Dr. De Marzo are actually studying this thing, not just throwing up policy like governmental vomit. This article proves that wearing masks is increasing the incidence—that’s the number of cases—of SARS-642. That’s right, folks. We’re getting sicker the more we try to avoid getting sick. Would you say that’s about right, Berk?”
“Well, there you have it, folks. I’m going to tweet out that article, so jump on and read it before they take it down. And, Berk Kaplan, I’ve got to jump for the station break, but I want to thank you for being here and braving Nelly and her Nazis to tell us what’s really going on. Keep up the good fight.”
“I will, Bob. Thanks for having me.”
Claudia stood there, on the empty road, panting, and wondering if her heart was beating so hard from her run or because what she’d just heard was so terrifying. She pulled up the CDC website on her phone and confirmed that everything Berk had said was accurate. A chill ran through her. When a public government scientific institution is no longer a source of objective fact, where could you turn for information? She supposed she should be grateful that most of the stats for her book were already gathered and recorded. She’d never be able to write it now—and that, she assumed, was the whole point. The government didn’t want people like Berk, people like Claudia, stirring the pot and letting Americans know what was really happening. Shit, she thought. She really was going to be famous, if only by accident and if only anonymously. She knew she had to make the most of this opportunity; it was never going to come around again.
Suddenly, she had an idea. Without worrying about her mileage or calorie burn or anything except the fate of the American nation, she turned and ran home, where she spent two hours typing furiously. In a fit of terror mixed with rage, she set down her vision for a new government—or, rather, an American system that wouldn’t need a national government. She didn’t express it jokingly or sarcastically, the way she’d done when she told Berk about her ideas all those months ago. This time, she wrote from her head (the place where logic lived), as well as her heart (the place that understood what real human beings need, beyond the vague generalities the philosophers wrote about). Only your mind could evaluate the facts and determine what was rational, but it was your heart that told you when you were right. Without both, you were nothing—like all those looters laying waste to cities across the country, out there screeching about “social justice.” They had lost the use of their head and were operating solely on heart, functioning purely on irrational hatred. It needed to stop. And maybe, now, she could be the one to stop it.
She attached the finished document to an email and addressed it to Mirabelle with a note: “This needs to go at the end of the book: ‘When you can’t trust the government anymore—and it’s safe to say we can’t—there’s only one solution: to get rid of government.’ And then insert this, my alternate plan for a United States without a federal system. It’ll seem radical, I know, but it’s important.”
For a moment, she hesitated. It was more than radical—not just the entire system of “nongovernment” she was proposing, but the very idea that she could be bold enough to say it. All her life, she’d watched other people, the world, in baffled confusion, wondering why everyone did such ridiculously stupid things, but other than to her family or close friends, she’d never dared to give an opinion. She’d never thought it was worth the confrontation, the unpleasantness. It was easier to keep things to yourself. Now, she was not only saying what she really thought, but she was about to do it before an audience of millions. Ever since she’d been a child, feeling ignored by her distracted father and disdained by her imperiously regimented mother, she’d wished to be heard. Now that she really might be, she wasn’t sure she was ready.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then opened her eyes and hit send before hurrying into the shower, not allowing herself to think about it for even another second. Right now, her own moment had passed and she needed to get herself ready, so she could congratulate Berk, while keeping her own news—all of it—to herself. Her time would come soon enough.
Quarantine Day 201
STATS: Impossible to record, without any objective sources left
The radio program had been a mistake for Berk. At least, it was if you thought something that landed you in jail—and not just rinky-dink local jail but one of the scary ones run by Homeland Security—could be considered a mistake. They’d picked him up in the radio station’s parking lot before he could even get to his car after the interview. Three days passed before Claudia heard a word, and then it was only a highly supervised phone call—one he should have used to call a lawyer, not the “girlfriend” he hadn’t actually met yet.
“Like I can afford a lawyer,” he’d said.
“I’ll lend you the money.”
“With what? You’re unemployed, too.”
Part of her wanted to just tell him, break down and share the news: the hundred-thousand-dollar advance that was currently burning a hole in her bank account, because where was there to go to spend it? But no. She had made a decision not to tell him, or her dad, until the book was done, published, ready for readers. There’d be no turning back at that point.
“You’re right,” she’d said. “But there are lawyers who’ll work pro bono. The ACLU. Call the ACLU. They’ll be all over this.”
“You haven’t heard? The ACLU is supporting these mask mandates, and I heard they’re going to support forcing people to get this new vaccine that’s being rushed out.”
“Crikey,” she said. “The one organization that’s supposed to help protect our freedom and they’re on board with these fascist policies. Scary. Though not as scary as the idea of taking a vaccine rushed to market this quickly. But there has to be someone you can call. Some libertarian think tank?”
“Maybe. I should have asked Bob Sandia before I left the radio station. He knows everybody, and clearly, he’s managing to avoid getting arrested.” Berk paused for a moment. Then he said, “There’s a guard here—burly guy named Jack Hawthorne—and he’s nodding, aren’t you, Jack? He says yes, I should be calling Bob Sandia.”
“I’ll call for you. Just hang in there, okay?”
“You rock, Claudia Carson. You know that, right?”
“I do,” she said. “But it never hurts to be reminded.”
She’d hung up with him and instantly went online to find out how to contact a famous radio personality and find out if there was a chance of getting a lawyer to take on Berk’s case. Somehow it worked. By the next morning, she was in a Zoom meeting with a ridiculously young woman named Janie (not Jane) McGuire, who looked like she hadn’t yet graduated from kindergarten, much less law school.
“Technically,” the girl said, pushing a pair of heavy-looking black glasses up the bridge of her nose, “I’m a third-year law student. But I’m allowed to work on cases.”
“No offense, but this is a big deal. My friend is being held as a terrorist just for speaking the truth—which anybody with an internet connection and a brain could easily verify. Shouldn’t there be, you know, an actual lawyer involved?”
“Trust me, there is. I’m just doing the legwork. I get the facts, they do the litigating. Don’t worry. I’m, like, really good at this stuff.”
The like didn’t exactly fill Claudia with confidence in the poor girl’s maturity level, but it wasn’t as if she or Berk had a lot of easy options.
“Okay,” Claudia said. “We’re in your hands.”
It had taken weeks of fact checking, press conferences, and who knows what else in the background, and all they could get, so far, was assurance that Berk was still alive and safe and in protective custody.
“Protected from what?” Claudia asked.
Janie shrugged over the computer screen. “I guess, like, from mobs or beatings or whatever. Or maybe they mean the virus. That he’s not, like, getting exposed.”
“Neither is anybody else,” Claudia muttered.
“So, okay, good. We’ll be in touch.”
That had been over a week ago, and Claudia hadn’t had anything more than an email from Janie (with way too many exclamation points and emojis for any adult, much less one working with legal matters). Supposedly, the lawyers were working on it.
“What we need,” Claudia said, out loud even though she was alone (Bandit, asleep on her bed, didn’t count), “is the lawyer Nelly Pelucci uses to get around, like, the Constitution.” She heard herself say like and growled. It was time for a drink. No wonder the news kept saying incidents of alcohol-related accidents and violence had been rising since the lockdowns began. When you couldn’t get out and scream at people, there was no way to relieve your frustrations besides drinking.
The phone buzzed with a FaceTime call. Candace. Speaking of drinking . . .
“Hey, Candace, what’s up?”
On screen, Candace held up a glass of wine. “It’s wine o’clock.”
“I’m about to join you,” Claudia said, reaching into the cabinet beside her desk for her box of wine. “What’s going on there?”
“Mom? What’d she do now?”
“You know how Alexis’s school was doing one of those programs where you save the box tops, from cereal and granola bars and what-not?”
“Oh, right, the manufacturers donate money or whatever?”
“Yeah. Well, I had two massive Hefty bags full of box tops—literally thousands of them that I’d been collecting from our own stuff and that other parents have brought over. We’d been saving them up for a year and they were supposed to get sent in to be redeemed next week.”
“And . . . ?”
“Mom thought they were garbage and threw them out.”
“Not just threw them out in the garbage can, where I might have been able to save them. No, no. She took them to the dump. Did you even know there was a dump anymore?”
“Well, there is. Apparently. And that’s where our box tops are. Cheers.”
“Slainte. So, dare I ask? Where’s Mom now? You didn’t kill her or anything, did you?”
“Tempting, but no. She’s down in her room, blasting Law & Order at full volume.”
“Ha! Dad’s upstairs doing the same. I really wish I hadn’t introduced him to the wonders of Hulu and Netflix.”
“It makes you wonder why those two ever got divorced. They’re a perfect pair.” Candace took a long sip of wine. “So, what’s up with you? When’s the book coming out?”
“I’m not sure. It usually takes like a year and a half for a book to go through all the edits and stuff, so I don’t expect it’ll happen anytime soon.”
“Well,” Candace said, setting down her wineglass. “Whenever it happens, I’m really proud of you. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before. Or even thought it. But I am. And that’s not just the wine talking.”
“Wow. I’m stunned.”
“Yeah, me too. Funny how things change when you’re stuck at home, huh?”
It was funny. Somehow, in just the course of one phony pandemic, Claudia had gone from hating her sister with the fire of a thousand suns to thinking of her as the one person (besides Berk) she could really confide in. How had that happened?
“Ah, shit, Mom’s coming up. Gotta go. Can’t let her catch me drinking wine in the afternoon again. Kiss kiss, talk to you soon.”
Just like that, the screen went black and this strange, supportive, kind person who had taken over Candace’s body was gone. When the phone lit up again with a regular call, Claudia thought for a moment that Candace had been wrong, Mom was still tucked away in her Law & Order cocoon, and Candace was calling back, but the screen showed Mirabelle’s number.
“Claudia, thank God, I thought I’d get your voicemail.”
“Why? Where the hell would I be?”
“I work with a lot of writers and not one of them likes phone calls,” Mirabelle said.
“Truth is, I don’t, either. Seriously. Why are you calling when texts and emails exist?”
“It’s important. We have a . . . I don’t want to say crisis, because it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but—”
“Just tell me.”
“We found out this morning that some of the advance review copies of your book have gotten out and the people who’ve read it are starting up these . . . lemme check . . . they’re calling them Committees of Correspondence.”
“Like during the Revolutionary War?”
“Right, exactly. They’re basically starting these groups to organize people and, well, eventually, they’re saying, dismantle the government.”
“Yeah, like that’ll ever really happen.”
“I don’t know, Claud. There are some way influential people involved—actual senators, people in the state department, people who should be fighting the idea with everything they’ve got, but they’re embracing it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Claudia said, trying to ignore the stony chill that was spreading across her back and shoulders.
“I don’t know how it happened, Claud, but your book seems to be starting an actual revolution.”
Claudia swallowed. When she tried to speak, no sound came out. She had to clear her throat and try again. “I don’t understand,” she said. “How is the book even in layout yet, much less advance copies? It must need months of editing.”
“C’mon, Claud, get real. You’re an editor. Or were. This manuscript—even that anarchist rant you emailed when we were already practically at the printer—was immaculate. Besides, we need to move fast on this one. Sales are shit these days, and this book? This thing could save the company. Not to mention the country.”
“I don’t know. I guess maybe part of me assumed this book would never really happen.”
“Girlfriend, it’s happening. Wait’ll you see the preorder sales. It’s nuts, I tell you. And check Twitter. It’s on the trending list.”
Claudia heard herself gulp. Audibly.
“Claud? You there? Did I lose you?”
“No, I’m here, I’m just . . . dumbfounded.”
“Well, get used to it. You’re gonna be rich. And maybe president of the United States. Except there won’t be any president of the United States if you get your way.”
“Don’t make fun of me, Mir,” Claudia said. “I’m freaking out here.”
“Ugh, I never took you for one of those morons who’s afraid of success, so stop acting like one. Oh, and be on the lookout. Your author copies should be coming by FedEx today or tomorrow.”
Claudia swallowed hard again. There were tears in her eyes and she couldn’t tell what kind they were: Happy? Sad? Terrified?
“Claud, talk to me, girl,” Mirabelle said.
“I’m here, I’m okay. It’s just a lot to take in.”
“I know. And I’m psyched. So you better get psyched, too. Okay, hanging up now. Lots to do. And, hey, Claud?”
“Yeah?” She had never heard her voice sound so small and timid,
“Enjoy this. You deserve it.”
After she set down the phone, Claudia sat there, perched on the edge of her twin-sized bed in her father’s barely finished basement and realized her entire world was about to turn upside-down.
Quarantine Day 205
“We think they’ll release him over the next few days,” Janie the infant lawyer was saying.
“Okay,” Claudia said. “That’s good news, I guess.”
“It’s great news, ’kay? We’re, like, on it.”
Claudia nodded and clicked off Zoom. She wasn’t exactly reassured. It had been weeks since she’d found lawyers to help with Berk’s case and she had yet to speak to a fully fledged adult. Still, it was better than nothing, though she couldn’t help wondering if she should use some of her advance money to pay for a real lawyer, one who charged actual fees (and, presumably, got actual results in return) for Berk. It was a tempting thought, but she felt torn. On the one hand, the lawyers from this libertarian group seemed like the ones Berk would want on the case, and Claudia would feel oddly guilty to kick them out. And on the other, she couldn’t stop the nagging voice in her head reminding her that it was just plain nuts to spend thousands of dollars, or maybe more, to help someone you had yet to meet in the flesh (even if you were starting to feel like maybe he could be your soul mate). For now, she tried to reassure herself that maybe Janie and whatever real lawyers she had supervising her were, like, really on top of things.
“Claudia?” Dad shouted down from the kitchen. “Package for you.”
He came to the top of the stairs, balanced the large cardboard box on the banister, and, to Claudia’s horror, geared up to shove it down, as if a two-inch-wide wooden banister were a sufficient improvisational conveyor belt for a two-foot-wide box.
“Dad, no! I’ll come up and get it.”
“Good, it’s heavy.”
Claudia squared her shoulders and suppressed her rage. Why would anybody think it was a good idea to hurl a heavy box down a flight of stairs?
Dad slid the box into her arms. “Not too heavy for ya?”
“Too late to ask now,” she muttered.
“Nothing, never mind. Thanks for taking the delivery.”
“Yup. C’mon, Bandit, time for your ten o’clock walk.”
The address label on the box contained her publisher’s logo. She knew instantly the box contained copies of her book. She waited until her father and the dog were out the door before she lugged the box down the basement stairs. She wanted to be completely alone before she opened it up and came face to face with the book that was going to change her life.
She had just laid the box on her bed when the doorbell rang. Fighting the twinge of irritation that plucked at her spine, she hurried upstairs to answer.
“Hey there,” said a FedEx guy from behind a thick black face mask as he thrust another huge box into her arms. “I told the old guy I had another box on the truck, but I guess he didn’t hear me.”
“No surprise there,” Claudia said. “He’s practically deaf and refuses to admit it or get a hearing aid.”
“Old people, huh?” said the guy, who looked to be about twenty years old and was probably including Claudia herself in that category.
“Yeah, right. Is this the last one, then?”
“Yeah, all good. You have a nice day.”
“You, too.” She pressed the door shut and lugged the box—which felt even heavier than the first—inside. Her surgical scar was aching from all this heavy lifting. So much for thinking she’d been getting back in shape after all these months. Instead of trying to wrestle the new box down the stairs, she rested it on her hip, tugged open the door to the linen closet, which held nothing but a stack of dusty towels her dad hadn’t used in ten years, and shoved the box on the floor, closing the door behind it. There was little to no chance she’d need those extra twenty copies of the damn book today.
Then again, she did want to take a look at it. . . .
She slid the box back out of the closet and tore it open. Tucked beneath layers of wrapping, a stack of shiny black and red books stared up at her. She carefully tugged one out. A surprising surge of pride rushed through her. It was odd: She had written books before, been successful, seen her name in print, but for some reason, this book made her prouder than anything else she’d done—even though her name did not appear on the cover. She traced the words By Anonymous with her finger. Funny how all these years she had felt like a failure, even when her name was out there in the world as a semi-success, and now she felt victorious even though her contribution might never be recognized as her own. Maybe recognition wasn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. After all, didn’t everybody say a silent thank-you whenever they ate lobster to the anonymous brave soul who had first tried one? Or wish they knew the name of who invented the wheel when they hopped in their car? Maybe not, but you knew you should feel those things when you thought about them, and perhaps one day, people would think the same thing about her.
But today wasn’t that day. For now, she tucked the book back in the box, closed the lid, and shoved everything into the closet.
Back in the basement, her phone buzzed with a text message from Luciana. All it contained was a link to a Zoom meeting. Claudia sighed and propped open her laptop to follow the link.
Luciana, Karen, and a few of the other members of the writing group were stacked in boxes on screen like the Brady Bunch waiting for Alice to pop up in the center.
“Claudia! We are hoping for news of Berkeley,” Luciana said.
“I just talked to the lawyer,” Claudia said, keeping that “lawyer’s” age and inexperience to herself; they all looked worried enough. Good thing she hadn’t told them about Berk’s detainment until last week’s group meeting. They would’ve been going crazy for weeks—just like Claudia herself had been.
“And?” Karen said.
“They think he’ll be released today or tomorrow, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
Luciana visibly relaxed on screen and Karen grinned. Ashton said, “Shit, that’s good news. I was getting ready to go down there and bust him out myself.”
“Maybe we could if we knew exactly where they’re keeping him,” Claudia said.
“You don’t even know that?” Karen said.
Claudia shook her head. “They’ve been keeping a pretty tight lock on info. They wouldn’t want us to have the free access to information we’re guaranteed under the law or anything.”
“I’ve heard about these things,” Ashton said. “Committees of Correspondence, they’re calling them.”
Luciana groaned. “These are anarchists. They wish to destroy government.”
“Nah,” Ashton said. “They’re trying to destroy the corrupt, semi-socialist government and create something workable and fair for everyone. I joined the one from Middlesex County last night. It’s all just online so far, thanks to the lockdown, but I think they might be the real deal. Finally make some change.”
Claudia wanted to kiss the kid right through the computer screen, but she restrained herself.
“Is madness,” Luciana said. “We no need crazies ending government. We need more government to protect us.”
“Crazies? What do you call the nuts out there killing people just because they’re Asian or just because they own a business? People who are looting Louis Vuitton stores and acting all self-righteous like they’re stealing bread for starving kids? Those are the real crazies,” Ashton said.
Claudia sat back and watched them argue. It was kind of nice not to be the one having to formulate the arguments. It was also nice to know that, even if Luciana and most of the world were perfectly willing to give up their freedom and be ordered around by a taxpayer-funded Big Brother babysitter, there were still a handful of people—including smart young black men like Ashton—left who knew that serving as a government pawn was not the natural role of a human being.
“The government is a snake and we have to cut off its head before it bites us and the venom kills any chance we have left to live like free and productive human beings,” Ashton was saying.
“Claudia?” Luciana said. “Per favore, talk some sense into this silly boy.”
“Can’t do that,” Claudia said. “He’s dead right.” It felt liberating to finally say what she thought. Funny how writing three-hundred-some pages on the same topic hadn’t felt nearly as good as saying it right out loud to a few friends.
“Ay, Claudia, how you can say that? Is crazy. We need protection,” Luciana argued.
“Yes, we do, but you think we need the government to protect us from some near-harmless virus. What we really need protection from is a government that thinks it’s okay to shut down the entire world because they want to control us.”
“You think they try control us?” Karen said.
“You don’t?” Ashton said.
Karen shrugged. “Never thought about it.”
“That’s the problem,” Claudia said. “Nobody does think about it. Everybody assumes the government works for us, that it would never do anything to hurt us. But it doesn’t work for us. We work to feed it, with our taxes.”
“How else can it run?” Karen asked.
“It shouldn’t run, period,” Ashton said.
“Ay, more crazy!” Luciana said.
“No, it’s not,” Ashton said. “There’s this new book coming out. I haven’t read it yet, but they’ve posted parts online and it’s killer. It outlines a whole new way to run the country—the world—where there’d be no taxes but everybody would be safe—”
“Is nonsense,” Luciana said.
“No,” Claudia said softly. “It would work.”
“Claudia’s right. It’s amazing,” Ashton said. “It’s going to be a whole new world. Just imagine not having to give most of your income to the government every year to fund stuff you never even know about: bridges to nowhere, abortion clinics even if you’re a fundamentalist Christian and don’t believe in abortion, whatever else they throw in. This new way? Nobody pays for anybody but themselves. It’s the fairest thing ever.”
Luciana shook her head. “What of poor people? How they live?”
Ashton opened his mouth, but Claudia said quietly, “Luciana, tell the truth. Do you think it’s fair that a lot of people can’t afford a new car or a vacation because well over a third of the money they make every year goes to government programs they have zero say about?”
“Okay, no,” Luciana said. “Is not democratic if people have no say.”
“Right. And is it fair that someone who works hard, like you and me, has to pay to feed someone who refuses to work and instead takes a welfare debit card and uses it to buy alcohol and cigarettes or trades it for heroin?”
“I see what you say. No. Is not right if this is allowed.”
“Okay, let’s go one step further. Schools are one of the biggest public expenses. Is it fair that someone like me, who doesn’t have children and will never use a public school, has to pay thousands—even tens of thousands, here in New Jersey—in property taxes each year?”
“No, no, not fair.”
“Right. And what about people who rent their homes and pay nothing toward schools, but have two or three or six or ten children? Should I be paying for their kids?”
“No! Is no fair at all. No children, no pay,” Luciana said.
“I think we have a convert,” Ashton said with a grin.
“Logic and reason always win, if people actually stop and try using their brains for a change,” Claudia said.
“I am so confused,” Luciana said. “I no know what to believe.”
“Hey, that’s okay,” Ashton said. “At least now you’re thinking about things and not just taking what you’re handed as fact. Read this book when it comes out—next week, I think they said it’ll be. I’ve got it preordered on Amazon.”
“What’s it called?” Karen said.
“It’s great,” Ashton said. “It’s just called The Truth.”
“And who wrote it?” Laurie asked.
“That’s the thing,” Ashton said. “Nobody knows. It’s by ‘Anonymous.’ Claudia, you’ve heard of it, right? You’re in publishing. You got any idea who wrote it?”
She smiled, just a little. “Yeah, I think I might know. But I’ll never tell.”
Quarantine Day 207
For the past two days, Claudia had received a message telling her that day was definitely the day Berk would be released, yet here it was almost noon on the third day and still not a word from either Janie the infant lawyer or Berk himself. Claudia was starting to lose hope when she heard the doorbell ring upstairs, then heavy footsteps tramping through the house.
“Claud? Ya got a visitor,” Dad called.
She stood up from her desk and crouched to see who was coming down the stairs. Before she could process what she was seeing, Berk was already across the room, his hand on the back of her head and his lips pressed hard against hers.
When he finally released her and stepped back, she smiled and said, “That would’ve been a lot more romantic if you hadn’t been wearing a mask.”
Berk’s hands flew to his face and he flushed as he tore off the surgical mask. “Sorry. You get kinda used to the damn things.”
“Well,” she said, “the good news is, the mask means you didn’t use too much tongue. Like most guys.”
“All I can say is I hope I’ll get a second chance at that first impression. But no time now. They let me out, but I can’t just sit around waiting for some court case that might never happen. There’s work to be done. It’s a revolution happening.”
“I know,” she said. “I heard.”
“I’ve gotta get home. And connect with some of the other people. We need guns, weapons, whatever we can find—”
“Whoa, whoa, I think you might be taking this whole ‘revolution’ thing a little too literally.”
“You haven’t been out there, babe. It’s crazy.”
From the top of the stairs, Dad called down, “Ya gonna introduce me to your friend?”
“Yeah, yeah, Dad, come down. Dad, this is Berk. Berk, my dad, Emmett Carson.”
They shook hands. “Heard a lot about you, sir,” Berk said.
“Can’t say the same,” Dad said.
“Sorry,” Claudia said. “I’ve been kind of busy. Didn’t think you needed to know every detail about my social life. Or lack thereof.”
“What’s all this ’bout revolution?” Dad asked.
“Don’t know if you’ve seen the news, but people are organizing,” Berk said. “They’re taking over town halls and I heard even the state house in Wyoming. I’ve gotta get out there, help out.”
“I don’t think you need to arm yourself to do that,” Claudia said. “Here.” She tugged open her closet and dug out a copy of the book, pressing it into his hands.
“You’ve got a copy? Wow. I knew you were one of us,” Berk said.
“Wazzat? A book?” Dad said.
Berk handed it to Claudia’s father. “Yeah. A really important book. I haven’t read it yet—it’s impossible to get a hold of—but I know all about it. I’m on the Committee of Correspondence for Monmouth County. You should join, babe. We’re really going to change things.”
“You think?” Claudia asked.
“Yeah,” Berk said, taking the book back from Claudia’s father. “Have you read it yet? I’ve only read pieces online. It’s supposed to be all about the government taking power with the fake pandemic—it does in print what I’ve been trying to do with photos. But people actually care, since this book is already on the bestseller list.” He titled his head. “How’d you even get a copy? From one of your friends in publishing?”
“Sort of—” she began.
“Son, if you’re lookin’ for weapons for a revolution,” Dad interrupted, “look no further.” He stepped to the furnace room, opened the door, and unlocked a storage cabinet that Claudia had always assumed held spare light bulbs and extra screwdrivers. Instead, it was full of guns. Rifles, pistols, things that looked like they should be slung over the shoulder of an Israeli commando.
“Crikey, Dad,” she whispered. “Close that up. You’re going to kill somebody—one of us, probably.” She took the book out of Berk’s hands. “This is my way of making a revolution. It might be slower than the little Battle of Lexington you two seem to have in mind here, but I’m guessing it’ll be less bloody, too.”
“That’s all well and good, but unless you’re one of the leaders on the Committees of Correspondence—”
“Berk. You’re not understanding me. I didn’t just get an early copy of the book. I wrote the book.”
He blinked. “You? You’re Anonymous?”
“But . . .”
He shook his head. “I guess I thought you were all talk.”
“I guess I am. But . . .” She held up the book. “My talk has gotten out there and seems to be getting some people to do stuff.”
“Shit,” Berk said as a grin spread across his face. “My girlfriend is Anonymous.”
“Girlfriend? Huh?” Dad said.
“Dad, shh. Never mind. And Berk? It sounds really insane when you put it like that.”
He shook his head. “You’re like the George Washington of the new and improved America. Shit, even better. You’re the John Galt.”
“You really know how to flatter a girl.”
“Claudia, you don’t understand. You’ve started something that’ll change the world.”
She smiled. “I always wanted to change the world.”
“So, what do we do know?” he asked.
“Screw shelter in place,” she said. “Let the revolution begin.”