Blydyn Square Review
Summer 2021 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Summer 2021 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Happy summer, and welcome to the very first issue of the Blydyn Square Review! As editor in chief of Blydyn Square Books, I couldn’t be more excited to introduce the “literary magazine that makes you think.”
Here at Blydyn Square, we’ve always been dedicated to bringing you books of the highest quality on thought-provoking topics. And we hope to keep making you think with Blydyn Square Review.
It wasn’t easy getting here. We had hoped to publish this introductory issue early in the New Year, but despite receiving several around a thousand submissions, we had a lot of trouble finding enough pieces that met our exacting standards, and it took us until well into the spring to select the twelve that appear here. (We admit it’s possible we may be just a smidge picky!)
Still, we’re happy to be here now and thrilled to introduce Blydyn Square Review—the only literary magazine (that we could find) using an entirely blind submissions process. And that’s my fault. I’ve always hated query letters. They’re awkward, stilted, pointless, and they make even the most interesting, unique writers sound like they plagiarized their letter directly from a how-to book on crafting the perfect submission. Publishing has turned into an atmosphere where a lot of truly talented writers are afraid to submit their work because they can’t quite get their letter right. It’s past time for my fellow publishing professionals to join me and finally admit it: Query letters suck!
So, when I decided to add a literary magazine to Blydyn Square Books’ offerings, I made a radical decision: No query letters. No names, no identifying information of any kind allowed. (My theory is: Why introduce bias—pro or con—if you can avoid it?) Aspiring authors should just send us the writing and let the work speak for itself.
It sounds like common sense, and it should be: Let the writing stand (or fall) on its own merits. Unfortunately, the publishing industry has always disagreed. Truth is, publishing has long been a “who you know” kind of business, and these days, it’s worse than ever. Having the “right” number of social media followers and a solid query letter has become more important than being able to write well. Here at Blydyn Square, we are determined to turn the traditional model for traditional publishing on its head.
There are only two requirements for your piece to be chosen for publication in Blydyn Square Review: Write well and make us think. We hope you’ll agree that the pieces selected for this inaugural issue of our brand-new literary journal will do just that.
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Angela has written fiction for entire life and also works a day job as an online marketing content director. She can be found on LinkedIn under her “real” name, Angela Chaney.
I miss him. I do.
I’m used to being alone, of course. I’m a writer, after all. My favorite companions have always been my books and my thoughts. But my thoughts lately have begun to turn against me. They are not the enemy—well, most of the time they aren’t. But they’ve become more like an increasingly hostile acquaintance instead of the friend they’ve been my whole life.
When I’m alone, it’s worse. At least when Jeff is here, he can sense when my thoughts are getting out of control and he can usually talk me back to the present. He’s a master at what I’ve always called idle chitchat. I’ve never been a fan of idle chitchat. But for some reason, when my thoughts start running away with me, Jeff’s stupid banter about which baseball team traded what player, the sale he saw at the hardware store, and how he’d like to try out bananas foster someday . . . well, it helps.
It’s not that I can’t talk to him. He’s available at the other end of the phone and we call and text each other a lot when he’s gone on work trips. But it’s not the same.
I’m supposed to be working on the follow-up to my first successful-ish cozy mystery novel while Jeff’s away for ten days. But for some reason, I just can’t focus.
“I think I’ll go to the homeless shelter again today,” I tell Jeff when he calls this morning.
“Again?” he asks. Jeff thinks I spend too much time at the shelter. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s worried for my safety or because he thinks I should be working. He’s got to be tired of paying all the bills. I haven’t made much money since graduating from college with my useless English degree, and the modest proceeds I made from my book all went toward debt. He never says anything, but I can see it on his face when the utility bills come, sense his frustration when he sees his friends buying houses in the suburbs while we still live in this shitty apartment.
“I’m lonely,” I say, knowing this will immediately shut down any objection. “I just want to be around people.”
He pauses for a few seconds. As if deciding how to handle his needy wife this time. “I wish you were here, babe,” he finally says. He’s going for sweet husband. It’s always my favorite of his choices. “London would be so much cooler with you by my side.”
“I wish I was, too. But I know you’re having a great time and impressing all the who’s who of whatever it is you do.” I stop. I know I sound bitchy, and I don’t mean to. If it weren’t for the “whatever it is Jeff does,” we’d be living on the street.
He doesn’t say anything. This has become code for “I don’t like how you just acted, but I know that saying something won’t help matters.”
I clear my throat. “Well, have a great day, okay? Show them how great you are!” My cheer sounds false even to my own ears, but Jeff seems grateful for the effort and tells me how much he loves me before hanging up.
I stare at the phone for a few seconds after it goes dark. I should work on my book. I know I should, but my laptop, sitting across the room on my makeshift desk, holds no appeal for me whatsoever. The thought of booting it up fills me with anxiety. You don’t need anything that causes you anxiety right now, I think. This seems like a friendly thought, but it’s kept me from my writing for weeks. Would a friend do that?
I pull a sweater on over my T-shirt and make sure my jeans, worn since yesterday, have no visible stains. Not that anyone at the homeless shelter would care, but I still have a few scraps of dignity.
The shelter is six blocks away, which tells you something about the neighborhood where we live. Though it’s only ten a.m., I still feel unsure about walking there. Not because of the neighborhood, but because of the man.
“You’re imagining it,” Jeff had said when I first told him I thought I was being followed. I had just come back from the open-air market a half-hour walk away and had felt something wrong. I’d looked back and I’d seen a man, mixed in with the rest of the crowd, yet somehow standing out. He wasn’t looking at me, had done nothing suspicious. But he didn’t feel right to me.
The second time I saw him, Jeff seemed a little more willing to accept it was not all in my head. Or he could have been trying to pacify me. He did that a lot these days.
That’s all it’s been: two times in the past month and a half. Coincidence, right? Maybe not even the same guy. But it was, I think. It was him, and you should be afraid.
As if in defiance of these thoughts, I decide to make the six-block walk instead of calling an Uber. My rationale, of course, is that we can’t afford it, but what does a few bucks really mean in the grand scheme of things? If you can’t afford a few bucks on an Uber, you’re really in trouble. I push this thought aside and start walking.
In ten minutes, I’m inside the shelter and being greeted by the grateful staff, much of it volunteer, and two elderly homeless twins who always insist on calling me “Genevieve.” I spend the morning cleaning up, serving some snacks, and doing general errand-running until one of the actual shelter employees asks me to go through a stack of receipts and match them up with spending categories. It takes me about two seconds to realize I can’t read a damn thing on them.
My eyes are getting so bad, I text Jeff. When LASIK starts fading, it doesn’t mess around. I can’t see shit.
His text is nearly immediate, which makes me wonder how busy he actually is. Did you forget your reading glasses again?
Yes. Why do I always take them out of my purse?
His reply doesn’t come and really, why should it? There’s no reason why I always take the glasses out of my purse and never have them when I need them. That’s just me. No wonder Jeff is always exasperated.
I think about asking around to see if anyone has some, since all I use are the cheapies from the drug store, no prescription. Then it dawns on me. There’s a whole box of glasses in the lobby. We take donations and hope that some of those we help will be able to use them. You’d be amazed at how many homeless people are close to legally blind.
Just as I thought, there is a box overflowing with every type of glasses you can imagine. I send Jeff a quick text about my find and select a cool pair of pink cat’s-eye glasses, put them on, and snap a quick selfie.
Sex-ay! Comes the reply, with a heart emoji. No matter how frustrated he gets with me, it’s times like these that I know he’s still trying.
I look down at a receipt in my hand to make sure the numbers are clear, but I don’t see the receipt. Instead, I see a backyard with a little girl swinging. Though I can’t hear anything, I can see the joy on her face and I know she’s laughing.
I gasp and whip the glasses off, my heart pounding. What the hell was that? I quickly text Jeff against my better judgment.
After a brief back and forth, he texts: Grace, you’re scaring me.
Maybe I just need some water and rest, I text back, but I only do it to pacify him. For some reason, I just know: I was seeing what the owner of the glasses had seen when she’d worn them. It made no sense; it was ridiculous; but I knew.
Instead of getting a glass of water, I reach out for another pair of glasses. I have to see if I’m right. Jeff wouldn’t understand. I select a pair that look like an old professor’s glasses with circular frames. I put them on and instantly see a classroom, and students dressed like they’re in the 1960s. They all have a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on their desks, and one student, a boy with a ducktail haircut and a white T-shirt, is talking, though I can’t hear the words.
I’m so excited, I can barely stand it. Something cool is happening to me! With all the shit that’s been happening lately—mostly in my own head—this is a welcome change, even if it’s really weird.
I see one of my friends who also volunteers at the shelter walking by with an armful of blankets. “Jessie!” I call to her. “Come here, I want you to see something!” I hand her the glasses. “Tell me what you see.”
Jessie gives me a quizzical look, but obediently slips them on. “Ummm, everything is blurry?” She takes them off and hands them to me. “I’ve always had twenty-twenty vision. I think it makes up for the fact that I’m tone deaf and have zero sense of smell.” She gathers up her blankets again and heads toward the common room.
I sit there for a moment. She couldn’t see it. What does that mean? I text Jeff: I put on another pair and saw a different scene. Made Jessie try them on and she saw nothing.
Honey, maybe ur just imagining things.
And there it is. Since I’m a writer, Jeff’s always suggesting that I “invent” things to make life more interesting. It’s the same reasoning he used when I told him about the guy following me. Sometimes I think he really believes I’m on the wobbling edge of crazy and that he leaves town so often just to see if I’ll tip over and really lose it.
Another text comes in from him: I know you’re just lonely and stressed. Go home and get some rest?
Think I’ll stay here for a while more. Don’t want to be alone. The accusation is pretty apparent, and he doesn’t bother to respond.
I know what I have to do. Even though Jessie couldn’t see anything with the glasses, I know I’m not imagining things. I know what I saw. I reach out and pluck another pair from the pile—this time, a trendy pair of aviators. I immediately see snow-covered hills outside of a car window. Whoever is wearing the glasses is pulling up to a house in the country covered with Christmas lights. Before he stops the car, I feel a hand on my shoulder and I whip off the glasses, as if I’ve been caught doing something horribly wrong.
“Lunchtime?” It’s Jessie. “We could use some help on the line?”
I slip the glasses back into the pile and nod. The glasses aren’t going anywhere and I’m sure my brain could use a break. I think about texting Jeff, but then slip my phone back into my purse.
As we start serving lunch, I notice a group of staff gathered around a television in the corner. “Another murder,” Jessie tells me. “That’s four in a month.”
“Woman in her thirties?” I ask. “Throat cut?”
Jessie nods. “Yep, same as before. Thank goodness it’s across town. But promise me you won’t be walking alone? I saw you come in this morning by yourself.”
I nod and realize how silly it was to forgo the Uber this morning. As I help serve lunch, my mind drifts from the murders back to the glasses. The further I get from the incident, the more I think I was just imagining things. Maybe Jeff is right. Maybe I invent things just so my life doesn’t seem so dull.
After the lunch service is cleared, I try to occupy myself around the shelter. I help out with one of the support groups, hang out in the office for a few hours and assist with some grant-writing. I just don’t want to go home, not yet. Before I know it, the sun has gone down and dinner has already been served. I know what I have to do before I go home.
I have to go back. To the glasses. I have to know.
I’m just reaching out for a pair when my phone buzzes. It’s Jeff.
Did u get home ok? I saw there was another murder.
Still here, I reply.
?? It’s almost 9 o’clock!
I know, I reply.
Are u trying on more glasses??
I look at the screen of my phone for a few seconds. Do I lie? If I tell him the truth, he’s going to get frustrated. But if I start lying now, I know I’m on a slippery slope. This is my husband. I finally type: Yes.
Grace . . .
I put the phone in my purse and grab a pair of Buddy Holly–style glasses with thick black frames. I slip them on and I’m immediately transported outside. I’m walking on a sidewalk and I can see my shoes, which are beat-up and large, clearly men’s. It’s dark out, but I can see by the streetlights.
The phone buzzes in my purse again, but I ignore it.
I see a woman in front of me, walking alone. I start walking faster, catching up with her.
My phone buzzes again.
With a jolt, I feel myself hitting the woman in the back of the head. I look down at my hands and see I’m holding a small piece of lead pipe. My heart starts to race as I drag the woman into an alley. I slip the pipe into my jacket pocket and pull out a knife. . . .
Breathing hard, I rip the glasses off my face and throw them onto the ground. What the hell was that? Did I just see through the eyes of the murderer?
I grab my phone and shoot off ten quick texts to Jeff, trying to explain what I just saw. I know that half of them are garbled, but he’ll get the point.
Grace…please get a cab and go home.
You don’t believe me, I reply.
I think you need a good night’s rest.
I shove the phone back into my bag. I have to see what happens next. I know I’m seeing through the eyes of the killer. Somehow, some way, I’m seeing what he’s seen. I can help catch him.
I slip the glasses back on. It’s another dark night, a different woman walking in front of me. Why is she walking so slowly? Doesn’t she realize what’s happening?
My phone starts to ring, and I shove the bag away from me.
I concentrate on the woman. There are people walking beside me on the sidewalk; I can’t get her alone. I walk faster and concentrate on the woman. Her hair, her jacket, they all look eerily familiar. I look around and see I’m in a shopping area where I go all the time to pick up flowers and fresh-baked bread for romantic dinners with Jeff.
I start walking faster; I’m getting closer to her. Her head turns.
Oh my god.
It’s me. The woman is me.
He’s been following me. I look down at the shoes, at the pants, the sleeve of the jacket. It suddenly strikes me that the man I’d seen behind me those two times was wearing glasses, though they were different from these.
My breath is coming in ragged gasps as the scene in front of me changes. Suddenly, I’m seeing the same view I had this morning as I walked from my apartment to the shelter.
He knows. He knows where I live, that I volunteer here. He knows.
The man stops at the windows in front of the shelter. He looks in, sees me talking with a few of the other volunteers in the lobby.
I snatch the glasses off my face and feel like I’m going to throw up. After I steady myself, I look around and see that I’m alone. It’s late; most of the volunteers have gone home by now. I. am. Alone.
As if in a dream, I see the front door to the shelter opening. He walks in, his face frozen in a huge, horrible smile. Instead of the Buddy Holly glasses, which I still hold in my hands, he’s wearing a blue-tinted, frameless pair.
The pair that will capture him walking slowly toward me. The pair that will record him taking the knife out of his jacket pocket. The pair that will witness my death.
Lisa’s essays have been published in the Washington Post, Woman’s World Magazine and Delaware Beach Life Magazine. Her column, Our Senior Yearbook, appears bimonthly in the Cape Gazette. Her second novel, Up in the Sky So Blue, won second place in children’s literature in the Delaware Press Association’s 2020 contest. Visit her on Facebook at Senior Yearbook: Cape Gazette and at lisajgraff.com.
I want to ask her why she took her own life. But I know the answer. My mother never learned how to live without my father or her “two best friends: alcohol and cigarettes,” as she called them in her suicide note. She also never learned how to walk properly with her prosthesis, and she bore a lot of pain.
Fifty years of smoking cigarettes had constricted the arteries in her legs and had made it painful to walk, so Mom consulted a local surgeon who told her she “would be dancing in a week.” He removed a vein from her groin and placed it in her calf on her sixty-fifth birthday, but the surgery never worked. To save the leg, her toes were amputated. Then, half of her foot was removed and more arduous hours were spent in a hyperbaric chamber to promote healing, but she lost the right leg anyway, a week before Christmas, 1993.
Born in 1928, an only child of a court reporter father and a stay-at-home mother, Kathryn M. Pechin was raised on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The pregnancy was scandalous, as her mother was forty-nine years old and had been told she would never have children. For nine months, my grandmother was ashamed to be seen in public. My mother hated being an only child and so she wanted many children—she had three miscarriages in eight years, and then, after summoning the courage to participate in a Johns Hopkins trial, she had twin girls in 1952, followed by four more pregnancies—six girls in all, the youngest born in 1961. She often addressed our birthday cards “Number four, number five.”
I loved being number three.
We grew up in Kensington, Maryland, in a little two-bedroom house. After the fourth child, my parents added another bedroom, and after the sixth child, we moved to a larger split-level in Rockville. I remember thinking we must be rich then, but my mother missed our old home, where she had ironed and starched dresses and shined patent leather shoes and filled Christmas stockings and Easter baskets.
We all felt that our mother loved us deeply. She would say that our father loved us, too, and we took her word for it. He earned money. I always thought that she worked much harder than he ever did, but our father left for work faithfully every day to be an illustrator whose artistic talent was lost on a medical journal at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. He came home to the bourbon she served him before dinner and to the meal she fixed for all eight of us every night. Pork chops were a luxury. Vegetable soup was a staple, along with Hamburger Hamlet.
She was June Lockhart and our father, although as handsome as Robert Young, really didn’t know best, not even close. He knew practically nothing about any of his daughters except what my mother tried to explain to him. He was always working in the yard or completing a crossword puzzle or yelling at one of us to close the door, turn off a light, or for God’s sake put some socks on our feet.
Our mother often donned pearls before our father’s arrival home at five-thirty each day—she wore red lipstick and a Fabergé perfume named Woodhue, and we would surround her green lawn chair and wait for the sight of a ’56 Chevy to pull into the driveway.
Kathyrn Marie Pechin married my father, a twenty-one-year-old paratrooper and World War II vet, when she was just seventeen. She quit high school to escape her unhappy childhood, which was spent moving from apartment to apartment because her dad loved the bottle. She told me that every time he had a drinking binge, she lost her home, her friends, and her toys. Her husband—my father—became an alcoholic, too, and her marriage, though happy at times, brought incredible stress on all of us.
We were too young to understand much about the seduction of love or alcohol, and even in my mid-twenties when my father died, we still said it was because of a “drinking problem.” We never used the word alcoholic or cirrhosis. I was puzzled by the depth of my mother’s grief. She was just fifty-two years old and alone for the first time in her life—all six of us had left the nest. When they amputated her leg nine years after my father’s death, she cursed him for not being there to help her like she had been through his long battle with drinking.
Sadly, it is only now, so many years later, that I can fully appreciate all that my mother did for me. She was there when I came home from school, sighing while she folded laundry, ready to chat over ice coffee or Kool-Aid and ginger snaps. She managed the household finances, grocery-shopped, paid the bills, and cleaned the house. She wrote the dentist a check for five dollars once a month for over twenty years, but all six of us got our cavities filled. (Too many Sugar Daddies eaten during Lassie.)
My mother had many friends from all walks of life, and this was because she took time to communicate with all of them: classmates from junior high, her neighbors and her sewing club, the cashiers at the grocery store. I will never forget the time I saw my mother weep after the death of her best friend to cancer. I was only five years old and when she bent down to kiss me goodnight, her tears spilled onto my nightgown. “What’s wrong, Mama?” I asked. “My best friend just died,” she said. My mother was the one who made her friends laugh when they were sad. She was the one who knew how to live and enjoy life, even when times were tough.
I can’t thank my mother enough for weekly trips to the library and for recommending so many books and authors to me. She was an avid reader herself. Gone with the Wind was her all-time favorite, but she loved John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, Pat Conroy, and James Michener, to name a few. Even though she never graduated from high school, she was one of the most educated women I knew.
She made sure to recommend books for every stage of my existence: Little House on the Prairie, the Boxcar Children books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Clan of the Cave Bear, Prince of Tides. Every holiday, she would give my daughter a classic: Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, A Child’s Garden of Verses. When the pain became unbearable sometimes at the hospital during her treatment, my mother and I would recite poetry to one another: “The Woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
When the youngest of the six girls was twelve, Mom went to work full-time as a secretary and then later was proud to tell everyone that she worked for James Rouse, who designed Columbia, Maryland. Our mother had a signed letter from him, thanking her for her dedicated work, which she framed and hung in the kitchen.
My mother also gave us her love of food—especially anything that contained butter and cheese—and she loved baking during the holidays. There were always Christmas cookies in the freezer beginning the first week in November: walnut crescents, candy canes, mint surprises. Only it was always her surprise when she would go down to the utility room where the freezer was stored to find half a dozen empty Tupperware containers. Fuming, she would rant at the six of us for stealing cookies—cold, frozen cookies that we had to purloin one at a time and surreptitiously fold up into our pajama pants or pockets, but all of us vehemently denied wrongdoing. Well, if six children sneak one cookie each a week for about four weeks—you can imagine how quickly we could empty those containers. Still, she baked more for us.
My mother was always the optimist and often chided her children if we felt sorry for ourselves. Her manner of death was incomprehensible to anyone who knew her. Her one good leg was a sore reminder to quit smoking—every time she looked at her good leg, she felt like she’d lost the other one because she wasn’t strong enough to beat her addiction.
She turned to vodka for solace and to numb the pain. She grew more afraid of falling and began to walk less. The artificial limb never seemed to fit right, she would say. She let the grief and the depression drown her, and she couldn’t see a way out. She made a choice to take Benadryl and an overdose of her blood pressure medicine one balmy spring night in March of 2003.
If anyone would have ever told me that she was capable of such an act, I would have never believed them. I still marvel at the courage of this act more than I judge her for leaving me.
People have told me that her act was selfish, and perhaps they are right, but they weren’t witness to the countless selfless acts that made up her life. I know that she loved us and didn’t want us to blame ourselves. We all knew about the cigarette addiction, but none of us really knew the extent of her drinking because she hid it for years.
I remember one beach vacation about a year before she died. Her biggest regret was that she couldn’t walk barefoot on the Maryland seashore she so loved. She remained in the house in her wheelchair despite our repeated attempts to get her to let us wheel her down to the shore so she could smell the salt air. On the day of checkout, I kneeled down to look under the bed to make sure we left none of our personal belongings and found an empty liquor bottle.
Her six daughters divided up her possessions without arguing. Each of us got a different-color sticker and we entered her condo at private times and placed a sticker on the items we wanted. If there were two or more colored stickers on any item, then we would draw names, just as we drew names to see who got to pick the biggest pile of snacks or the favorite dish of ice cream. There is a row of books now in my antique bookshelf, each proudly displaying a blue sticker: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Best and the Last of Edwin O’Conner, and Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
I think of my mom’s gifts as one stack of overdue library books reaching from Earth to the North Star. What I wouldn’t give to go back for one day like Emily does in the play Our Town. I would choose to be in your blue-and-white kitchen and hold you close and tell you that I love you. Now I understand grief and the pain you felt wishing Dad was there—so do I wish you were here with me still.
I do know that you did have a choice, that we all have choices, even when we think there are none. I only hope that you have found peace—the peace of freedom from addiction, which so eluded you in your lifetime. You gave me the strength to fight for the best life I can have. Thank you for loving me, your number three.
Paul Rousseau (he/him/his) is a semi-retired physician and writer published in sundry literary and medical journals. He was nominated for The Best Small Fictions anthology from Sonder Press in 2020. He is a lover of dogs, and is currently in Charleston, South Carolina. He longs to return home to the west. Follow him on Twitter: @ScribbledCoffee
I am a medical student in a secluded village in the mountains of Central America. The police* linger in the village square speaking to a bone-skinny, slump-shouldered old man in a ramshackle wheelchair. I observe the interaction from the smudged window of a small grocery store. After a brief exchange, the old man positions his cane and attempts to stand. The police push him down and batter his body with the butts of their rifles and the heels of their boots. The old man crumples to the ground, bleeding. My head jerks, my palms dampen. I drop a bottle of Coca-Cola; the glass shatters. The sound resembles a gunshot. People scream and dash for shelter. I scurry to a nearby Catholic church. I enter the vestibule and peer through a slot in the door. The police scoff at the old man and saunter down the road. A priest arrives at my side, makes the sign of the cross, and rushes to the old man.
The villagers emerge from hiding and surround the old man. An old woman arrives and collapses. She thrashes and wails. The priest cradles her shoulders. The old man is her husband. The priest motions; I hurry to the old man. I kneel and touch him. He is lifeless; I can do nothing. There is no ambulance, there is no hospital. There is only life or death in the village. “Está muerto,” I say; he is dead. I glance at the villagers. Their eyes tell of unspoken terror. The men carry the old man to his home.
The police depart as the sun climbs above the mountains. The streets slowly fill with murmured villagers. They gather where the old man died. The priest prays as a wooden cross is hammered into the dry soil. The children laugh and play, unaware.
I will work in the village clinic today. Diarrhea, malnutrition, parasites, machete wounds. During lunch hour, I will stroll to the village square and sit by the blood-stained soil and the wooden cross. I will breathe the air of the old man’s last breath and return to the clinic. Nothing will ever be the same again.
[FOOTNOTE] *The police were federal officers who traveled from village to village, imposing the rule of law in the outreaches of the country.
Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England, and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib, and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com.
Speaking as the boy
who was bullied,
mercilessly, for years,
in the indifferent playground
and the darkened school hallways,
the boy you don’t quite remember,
there are memories
that never leave
there is knowledge, too,
that those who bullied
never give another thought
to the scars they made
in others, and if questioned
might reply with a decisive explanation
of just being kids, children,
not knowing any better,
as though cruelty
must be taught out of the body,
out of the mind.
It doesn’t seem fair,
does it, this distance
they allow themselves,
while we, the ones bullied,
those forgotten yet doomed
to always remember,
can never get far away enough
from what we eventually believe
worthy of ridicule
Andrea Dejean is a writer and translator based in France. Her translation work includes a book on biodiversity and she has published fiction, essays, and poetry both online and in print in more than a dozen different literary journals. Her first novel is forthcoming from an independent press.
Henry sprang from his chair as soon as Aunt Gretchen, who was the slowest eater in the group, crossed her fork and knife over her plate.
“Now, you all just leave everything to me,” Henry said. “I’ll take care of clearing this up.”
“We’re not used to being waited on, Henry,” Uncle Frank protested. He started to get up, but Henry raced to the other side of the dining room table and, placing his hands on both of the man’s shoulders, literally pushed him back into his chair.
“I insist,” Henry said.
He began by hoisting Uncle Frank’s plate, sliding the chicken bones remaining on it into the empty salad bowl and then setting the plate aside. He did the same with Aunt Gretchen’s plate and had a brief moment of tender pride in seeing that, other than the bones, there was nothing left on either plate. His young cousin Samuel’s plate was another matter, and even his wife, Madeleine, had left a little rose blossom of mashed potatoes behind.
“I told you that you gave me too much,” she said under her breath when Henry picked up her plate.
His daughter Margo had recently become a vegan and had only eaten salad, so Henry stacked the silverware and other leftover bits of bread and potatoes on her empty plate.
“Dad’s worried you’ll throw out the bones,” Margo explained to her great-uncle. “He saves them.”
“I don’t know that they’re much good for soup,” Aunt Gretchen offered, “after the bird’s been cooked and all that. Though I guess there’s still some meat on them.”
Henry was reminded of the time several years earlier he had invited a visiting African professor, the professor’s wife, and their two young children to the apartment to share a Sunday dinner. The menu that day was very much like this one: a big, roasted farm-raised chicken; mashed potatoes; a hearty green salad; and homemade apple pie à la mode. He, Madeleine, and Margo all watched, fascinated, while their African guests crunched cartilage, cracked the bones, and slurped the marrow, leaving every bone, no matter how small, completely stripped and sucked clean. They agreed as a family to be more careful and conscious about not wasting food after that and picked the bones as clean as they possibly could. But Aunt Gretchen was right. There was still meat on them.
“What do you do with those bones?” asked Uncle Frank.
“Well, I take them down to the apothecary at the Chinese market. I think the traditional healer there grinds them up into a powder and sells them as a cure for rheumatism,” Henry replied.
Madeleine let her head fall into her hands. Margo heard her mumble, “Where is the man I married?”
“Really?” Uncle Frank asked.
Henry laughed. “Nah, Frank, just pullin’ your chain.”
“What do you do with them, then?” Samuel asked.
Samuel was Frank and Gretchen’s eleven-year-old grandson, Henry’s young cousin on his mother’s side of the family. To Henry, Samuel seemed to be in that half-dog, half-wolf stage: growing into manhood, but still really a boy.
“I put them out in the backyard toward the hedge.”
“And what happens to them?” Samuel asked.
Henry shrugged. “They disappear.”
Samuel’s eyes grew wide. “Wow,” he said.
Madeleine was upset when he first mentioned possibly accepting his current position at the college. She thought it was beneath him; that he was being sent out to a backwater “cow” college; that he was, in fact, being put out to pasture at the end of his career. But Henry relished the idea of moving away from the city and living in this semi-rural area. He’d grown up in the city. He’d spent his whole life in cities. They vacationed in European capitals, staying overnight in major metropolitan hubs. They’d never before lived in a house that wasn’t attached to another house or that had more than just a nominal “backyard.” Their yard here wasn’t huge, either, but it buttressed up to a great expanse of woods and farmland that, as far as Henry could tell, was being left fallow. An access road ran along their side yard but seemed to get very little use. It was unpaved and bumpy, and Henry had made no attempt to drive down it in his aging compact car. He was thinking of getting a dog. If he did, he’d walk the dog down that road someday to see where it went, to see if the nearest neighbor was more than several miles away.
Madeleine and Margo were still living in the apartment in the city and commuting out to stay with Henry on the weekends. At first, it was meant to be a temporary arrangement while Margo finished high school, but she had recently enrolled in the city’s university and announced that she was staying on in the apartment. They owned it after all, she explained. Why incur more expense renting something or moving onto campus? For the time being, Madeleine was keeping mum about her own plans. She told him she would ask if it were possible for her to work from home several days a week, but the Internet connection at the “cottage,” as Madeleine called it, was dicey at best. Henry offered to share his office at the college with her but needed to clear it with his own hierarchy. He’d been told the library in town had a cable connection, which caused Madeleine to roll her eyes.
He knew this house spooked her. It had, quite frankly, spooked him at the beginning. The silence was unsettling. And it had taken him a couple of weeks of crashing into end tables and knocking over knickknacks before he learned to turn the light on in the hallway before turning off the table lamp in the living room or the reading lamp in his study. He guided himself around the darkened house using the feeble light on the screen of his antiquated mobile phone for a while but now mostly left the device at the college since he had virtually no reception out here. Finally, he bought a mini-flashlight that he hooked to a belt loop on his pants with a carabiner he’d picked up at a discount hunting and fishing supply store. Margo laughed so hard when she saw the flashlight attached to his pants that big watery tears leaked from her eyes and ran in rivulets down her cheeks.
“You’re just feeding the raccoons,” Madeleine said to him.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” Uncle Frank cautioned. “Once they start coming around, they’re impossible to get rid of.”
“They are pretty feisty little critters,” Henry agreed.
Madeleine looked stricken. “Did you just say critters? Did my husband, the soon-to-be emeritus professor of English, just say critters? What’s next, ain’t?”
Henry raised a hand in protest. “I’ll have you know that the word has a relatively noble origin. It was even used in Shakespearean times before people started pronouncing the word creature the way we pronounce it today, so it sounded like ‘critter.’ And it doesn’t just refer to animals. It can also refer to a person, even a child.”
“Like criatura in Spanish,” Margo said.
“Exactly,” Henry replied, smiling.
He saw Madeleine turn to look out the bay window. She and Margo were close, but Madeleine somehow always seemed to resent the love for language and words Henry shared with his daughter.
He scurried into the kitchen with the salad bowl of bones and slid them into a plastic basin that he set on the kitchen table. He lowered the now-greasy salad bowl into the sink and filled it with soapy water. When he turned around, young Samuel was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his thin arms straining under the weight of the stacked dinner plates. Henry strode over quickly and took them from the boy.
“Why, thanks, Samuel. You didn’t have to do that.”
He’d never, in fact, seen the boy lift a finger to help despite Aunt Gretchen’s frequent scoldings. Samuel’s parents, Henry’s first cousin Suzanne and her husband, were finally splitting up after a long, tempestuous marriage, and everyone agreed to be more indulgent toward the boy during this difficult time, although Henry thought what Samuel really needed was more rather than less guidance.
“Can I go with you to put the bones out, Henry?”
Madeleine appeared in the doorway. She was scowling.
“I came to get the pie,” she said, staring him down, “and the ice cream.”
“I usually do it a little later in the evening, Samuel. And we’re going to have dessert.”
Madeleine slammed the freezer door shut and shoved the carton of ice cream at Henry. He took it but passed it off to Samuel.
“Why don’t you carry that out to the dining room? I’ll get the dipper and bring the plates and spoons.”
Henry hoped that Samuel would forget about the mysterious disappearing bones after stuffing himself with pie and ice cream, but he didn’t. So Henry reluctantly agreed to walk out toward the back hedge to show the boy where he put the bones but insisted that he wouldn’t actually do it until later. When Samuel asked why, he answered, “It’s just better. That’s all.”
Margo and Madeleine weren’t buying that story.
“Just in case Mister and Missus Raccoon show up,” Margo said.
“And their little ones,” Madeleine added.
“Aren’t you even curious, Henry?” Uncle Frank asked.
“About who’s taking the bones?”
Henry considered the question for a moment. “Not really. Does it matter as long as someone is benefitting from the bounty, so to speak?”
“I know what you should do,” Margo said. “Put the bones out and then wait until it gets really dark. Then go out with your handy little flashlight and shine it to see whose doing the feasting.”
He was stung by the phrase “handy little flashlight,” but tried his best not to show it. Henry shrugged again. The truth was that it didn’t really matter to him who was taking the bones, as long as they didn’t go to waste.
“Are you afraid?” Samuel asked.
“No, I’m not afraid. What’s to be afraid of?”
Henry heard Madeleine snigger.
“Bears,” Samuel answered, quite matter-of-factly.
“Well, I haven’t seen any bears,” Henry said, “although I guess there may be some out there.”
He had seen lots of deer and foxes and weasels and woodchucks, birds of all kinds, and a stray house cat or two. He was often up early to write or prepare lessons and found himself staying up late into the night to read and just enjoy the quiet. And now, as the days were getting cooler and shorter, more often than not, he was inside the house padding around silently. He had left the television for Madeleine and Margo at the apartment and didn’t have anything with which to play music. The only radio he owned was a small, portable transistor with headphones that he listened to on those increasingly frequent nights when he woke at three a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. Some of the animals he had seen had simply wandered past the sliding-glass doors of his study, entirely oblivious that he was sitting a mere ten yards away, watching them. It mesmerized him—and, yes, made him happy.
Henry shook off the others’ offers of help with the dishes, reminding them that they had a fair drive back to the city and what else did he have to do? He almost added that he was going to be staying up late, after all, to see who was coming to take the bones but held his tongue at the last minute so as not to remind Samuel of his evening’s plans. The boy looked sour and irritable, and Henry realized that he didn’t even know to which parent Gretchen and Frank were going to deliver him this evening. He ruffled the boy’s hair as the trio headed for their car, reveling in the guilty knowledge that whatever misery was awaiting Samuel when he returned “home” had made him forget all about the bears.
Madeleine took advantage of the occasion to remind Henry that they needed to buy a dishwasher. There was no way she would live out in the “boondocks” without one. He refrained, out of sheer fatigue, from reminding her that it wasn’t the “boondocks;” it was a small college town that was a little under two hours’ drive from their apartment in the city and located not all that far from the western branch of a major river that was a kayaker’s paradise. The river itself was still used for commercial fishing and shipping. Or at least that’s what the guy at the discount hunting and fishing store where he had bought the carabiner had told him.
“Well, then, give our best to Mister and Missus Rabbit,” Margo said, snorting and scrunching up her nose in her best rabbit imitation.
Henry just shook his head. “I don’t think rabbits eat chicken,” he said.
Then again, what did he know? He’d been meaning to look up the basic dietary habits of some of the animals he had seen in the yard. But he needed to do that at work. Often, he’d get busy and forget and once he got back to the house—well, Madeleine was right about their internet connection. It was useless.
“I did read something once, though, about hedgehogs. I think they’ll eat just about anything. Was it hedgehogs?”
“Oh, just forget it, Henry.” Madeleine gave him a quick peck on the cheek and picked up her overnight bag. “See you next weekend.”
Henry stood in the frame of the front door until he could no longer see the vehicles’ crimson lights snaking through the fir trees that lined their long driveway leading out to the county road. He checked his wristwatch. It was just late afternoon, although the overcast day was slipping quickly into a dusky early evening. It occurred to him that he didn’t necessarily need to wait until nightfall to put the bones out back since he didn’t know which animal or animals were taking them. They may be grabbing them up in broad daylight for all he knew. But he thought of the white lie he had told Samuel and convinced himself to wait until after dark.
So he carefully washed and dried the dishes and put them away, swept up around the dinner table, and even set the little bar in the kitchen with a clean mug, spoon, butter knife, and small plate for his usual breakfast of coffee and toast the next morning. But then he was at loose ends. He always conscientiously prepared his lessons on Friday evening to have Saturday and Sunday free to spend with Madeleine and Margo. He didn’t feel like reading and recognized a certain restlessness that he often felt after the women had left and he had to get used to being alone again. So, he turned on the portable radio, selected a classical music station, stuck the ear buds into his ears and then sunk into what was quickly becoming his favorite armchair.
He woke up, completely disoriented, several hours later. Night had fallen. He hadn’t realized that he was tired enough to fall asleep, but “hazard has a way of making things happen,” as his mother used to say, and he felt rested enough now to stay up at least partway through the night in the hopes of seeing who was coming to eat his leftovers. Better yet, he didn’t teach until mid-afternoon on Mondays, so he could always try to sleep a few hours in the morning before heading to the college.
Henry felt a little sheepish as he prepared a thermos of herbal tea, retrieved a camouflage-canvas folding lawn chair—also from the hunting and fishing supply store—and a well-worn plaid blanket they used at football games and outdoor concerts. What if it was just a family of famished raccoons? Well, he’d know one way or another. He hooked his flashlight to his belt loop and then put the plastic basin containing the bones and the thermos of tea into a small carrier bag that he slipped over his shoulder, leaving one hand free to carry the folding chair and the other, the blanket. At the last minute, he turned back into the house to retrieve a small pair of binoculars he and Madeleine used to take to the opera and put that in the carrier bag as well. On his way out, he wondered, briefly, if he should lock the back door and then decided it was silly. He was only going to be fifteen or so yards away, after all.
As he started walking toward the hedge, he realized that he had been planning the evening in the back of his mind since lunch without ever acknowledging it to himself. He knew exactly where he was going to put the leftovers and where he would place the folding chair so that he had an unobstructed view of the pile of bones but whatever “critter” was coming to take them wouldn’t have a clear view of him. This was because the back hedge didn’t run along a straight line, he’d noticed, but at a slant, and the former owners had taken advantage of a slight chink in it to stack firewood that pressed the hedge back even further. He’d stuck his head through that break in the vegetation when he first moved in, which is how he knew that there was a field behind their yard and a dirt road off to the right. He’d set the bones as far to the left on the wood pile as possible and then position himself next to the hedge just to the right and hope that the animals would come through the break in the hedge without seeing or sensing him. Well, that was his plan for tonight, in any case.
He didn’t even need to use his flashlight since the sky had cleared and the yard was drenched in the soft light of a full moon. He’d once heard that many of the legends about the full moon and wolves and other wild animals could be explained simply enough. Just like people, animals found it easier to move around when there was light from the moon than when there was no moonlight.
Once everything was set up and he was settled in he considered going back into the house to get the radio. Then he admonished himself. He was a true city dweller after all. He always had to be “doing” something—reading, listening to music, writing, or working around the house. When was the last time he just sat and did nothing? He looked up and was disappointed to see fewer stars blanketing the sky than he had hoped, but that, too, was because of the brightness of the moon. And it was probably just as well. He needed to stay focused on the wood pile and not sit there with his nose in the air, hoping to see a shooting star.
He studied the pile of bones. For some reason, he thought back to a recent trip to England with Madeleine and Margo. While visiting a well-known cathedral, they learned that the origin of the word bonfire was really “bone fire” and came from the fact that caretakers would remove the bones of the long dead from crowded graveyards and burn them behind the church to make room for the bodies of the more recently dead. Madeleine was especially horrified. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from France and, until that fateful trip to the United Kingdom, she had always supposed that the bon in bonfire came from the French word for “good”—a good, roaring blaze.
He realized when he checked his wrist that he had left his watch on the counter in the kitchen. He’d taken it off to do the dishes and had forgotten to put it back on. That was unlike him. He’d always worn a wristwatch and felt “naked” without one. He had to keep an eye on the time when he was teaching, and during a brief period, he had even taken up running and timed his training workouts. Henry shook his head. He really was being silly. He’d stay out here until he got tired or cold, and then he’d go inside. It had been a busy weekend and a long day, what with Madeleine and Margo coming out Saturday afternoon and Uncle Frank, Aunt Gretchen, and Samuel joining them for Sunday lunch. If he didn’t solve the mystery of the missing bones tonight, he’d try again tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. Or not at all.
He poured himself a cup of tea and decided that if he didn’t see anything between now and when he finished drinking it, he’d go inside and go to bed. He let his thoughts wander briefly toward the class he had to teach in the afternoon and he was mentally fiddling with the conclusion to an article he was working on when he thought he saw a flickering movement off to his right behind the hedge. His set the cup of tea on the ground and picked up the binoculars. And waited. Was one of the bones missing from the pile? He couldn’t tell. For all that this evening had preoccupied his thoughts all afternoon, he’d taken no precautions when it came to the pile of bones. He had simply dumped the contents of the plastic basin onto the top of the firewood and so had no real idea if one was missing or not.
Henry lowered the binoculars and was reaching for his cup of tea when he saw something pale moving toward the bones. Weren’t some species of opossum pale in color? Were opossums scavengers? He watched the pale form reach the pile of bones and felt his heart thud in his chest. He sat, stunned, while the form retreated. The realization of what he had seen hit him like a blow to the gut, knocking the wind from him. He felt punch-drunk and worried that if he tried to stand, his legs would fail him. So he sat, his muscles the consistence of pudding, in the canvas chair. When the form returned for the third time, Henry somehow summoned the courage to lift the binoculars to his eyes.
He’d seen correctly. It was a human hand.
One of the things Madeleine had always chided Henry about was that he wasn’t a particularly quick thinker. He was intelligent, conscientious, and methodical, but he’d never had split-second reactions. He wasn’t good in a crisis. His brain needed time to sort through situations, especially when they were unexpected, like this one.
Someone was behind the hedge, surviving on their leftovers.
Henry tried to remember when he started putting food scraps onto the wood pile. It was maybe after the second time he had carted a bag of trash to the dump and its soupy contents had leaked onto the rug on the passenger side of his car. The smell of rotten cantaloupe rinds and blackened lettuce hearts remained long after he had scrubbed up the stain and left the car in the sun, the passenger door open, to dry. On a colleague’s suggestion, he had ordered a compost box but he still hadn’t put it together, much less set it up. If he were honest with himself, it was because he feared Madeleine’s reaction.
“Compost?” she would ask, incredulous.
It may have been that guy at the hunting and fishing supply store who told him he should just put edible leftovers in the yard.
“Something will eat ’em up,” he’d said.
Little did Henry imagine that something would be someone. But who? His mind raced but his body remained totally immobile.
And then another form approached the pile of bones. It was smaller and slightly darker than the other form. Henry lifted the binoculars. It was also a hand, feminine and delicate.
“Good God,” Henry mumbled to himself.
He dropped the binoculars into his lap; his chin fell to his chest. He was overcome by such an overwhelming sense of despair that he sobbed silently into the top button of his flannel shirt for several minutes.
When he was finally able to lift his head again, he saw that most of the bones had disappeared. Who were these people groping after a few flinty bones left on a rotting wood pile? Were they neighbors who had fallen upon very hard times? Were they a young couple like so many he had seen in the city, disabused and drifting, living hand to mouth? Was there a frightened family behind that hedge, including children and old folks, hiding under the cover of darkness in a fallow field before attempting to reach a safe haven? Should he approach them, attempt some contact? Would they be frightened and run off?
The only thing he was certain of was that he didn’t need to feel afraid of them but, true to form, he didn’t know what to do.
After several long minutes of staring toward the wood pile, he remembered his response to Uncle Frank’s question about who was taking the bones. “What did it matter?”
What did it matter?
Did it matter more than if it were opossums or bears taking the bones? The obvious truth was that these people were taking the leftovers because they were hungry.
Henry rose from the chair and picked up the carrier bag. While he walked back to his kitchen, he made a mental list of the things left in his refrigerator. There was a large piece of pie, a few apples and a chunk of hard cheese. And there was still some of the bread Madeleine had brought from the French bakery in the city knowing that Henry would only have the “store-bought” slices he used to make toast. But that was about all he had. Henry generally did the week’s grocery shopping on Monday morning when he was free, but because he ate his main meal at the college cafeteria at noon, he never really kept much on hand. He often ate in the evenings the way he did in the mornings—toast and jam, coffee or tea, and possibly a piece of fruit. Well, he’d pick up more supplies the next morning.
Once in the house, he went into the pantry and grabbed a bottle of spring water he kept on hand “just in case” as well as a small bag of dried nuts and berries he’d bought for a hike he had never taken. In the kitchen, he emptied the contents of the refrigerator into the carrier bag and then stood, hands on his hips, trying to figure out what else would be useful.
His wristwatch was lying on the counter next to the sink. He picked it up and placed it onto his wrist, checking the time. Madeleine had probably tried to call him while he was out back. She never bothered to leave a message but knew his habits well enough to know that he was often awake in the middle of the night. They were both poor sleepers, and since he had moved out to the “cottage,” she had been known to call him at two or three in the morning just to hear his voice, knowing that there was little chance she would wake him because he was rarely asleep at that time of night.
In the soap cradle next to the sink was a new bar of soap. He’d slipped it from its package Sunday morning, before their “guests” arrived. He fished through the garbage pail in the kitchen until he found the plastic sleeve, still relatively intact, put the soap into it and dropped it into the carrier bag.
“No offense intended,” he thought. If he were without a place to live, he’d appreciate having the soap to bathe and wash his clothes.
He walked out to the wood pile, put the entire carrier bag down and turned to walk back to the house. He left the thermos and the folding chair and even the binoculars in the yard. They’d be there tomorrow, he was certain, and he’d put them away then.
He was nearly to the house when he heard the phone ring. He was sure it was Madeleine calling to see if he were awake, to ask how he was doing and where he had been when she’d called earlier to tell him that they’d made it home safely. And she would want to know if he had any more news about the “critters” in the backyard.
Maybe he would tell her the truth someday, in the future, once things settled out. For the time being, he didn’t know what was going to happen or what his involvement would or would not be with the people who were coming to take the bones. Madeleine, he knew, didn’t like that kind of uncertainty. So he would just tell her that she was right. He needed to be more careful about using the word critter.
Ellen Steinbaum is the author of four poetry collections and a one-person play. An award-winning journalist and former Boston Globe columnist, she writes a blog, Reading, Writing, and the Occasional Recipe, which can be found at her website, ellensteinbaum.com.
Last week we watched the Audubon volunteers
dig for hatchlings on the edge of salt marsh,
feel out small blobs of sand,
wash them off, reveal the baby turtles—
some with egg shards still attached,
ten twelve eighteen busy siblings
plopped in a box, exploring.
We could not tear ourselves away,
took and sent photos, videos,
lingered to watch more new arrivals
who, sturdy and not noticing us,
set forth into a world of hungry
foxes, herons, crows.
We think about them now,
look at the pictures, hope
against the odds they’ve all
knowing, too, if we’d been
charmed, instead, by
hatching crows or herons,
we’d be rooting
for the eaters
not the eaten.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in The Santa Fe Writer’s Project, The Columbia Journal, The Intima, and elsewhere. Her essays have received the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Gabriele Rico Challenge Award, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She is excited to be included in the inaugural edition of Blydyn Square Review.
Sparrows, cardinals, finches, a red-bellied woodpecker, all come to the old concrete birdbath to splash and drink. The crows come to wash things. They have a nest nearby and are likely softening up the food for their chicks. Whenever a crow lands there’s an Akk ak call, accent on the first Akk, that gets my attention. They come every day around four o’clock. Two of them. I enjoy watching the crows. They provide a welcome distraction during this time of isolation and they don’t seem bothered by my voyeurism.
There’s a small solar-powered fountain in the birdbath. The crows decide they don’t like the fountain in their food-prep area, so they fling it to the ground, vandalizing my little Eden. I find it nearby, covered in our sandy Florida soil. The fountain isn’t fancy or expensive, but it’s functional— a lightweight plastic disk, smaller than a Frisby, bought on Amazon for ten bucks. I’d finally managed to adjust it so the water would just bubble up and stay in the birdbath rather than splash over the edge. The smaller birds, attracted by the movement of the water, seemed to like it, as Amazon promised they would. I clean it up and put it back in the birdbath.
The crows left a dead bird. Just the feet really, sticking up like gruesome flags with a few feathers still stuck to the blob of flesh that held them. I screamed when I saw that. Did I imagine it, the Akk ak from the top of the pine? Were they laughing at the trick they’d played? Are they gaslighting me?
I cleaned the birdbath and reset the fountain. Soon the cardinal couple came, then a sparrow, splashing and drinking, giving me no cause to ponder the hidden meaning of their behavior.
Then, one day, the fountain is gone. I look all around the garden and it’s not there. The crows stole the fountain, I’m sure of it. I tell a friend who cautions, “Don’t piss them off.” She tells me they will shit on my car and find other ways to get revenge. We’ve both seen the documentaries about how crows are adept at making and using tools, and we figure they’re up to something. Maybe they’re planning to use the parts to build an incubator so they can have a date night. A few romantic hours free from the monotony of their egg-tending responsibilities.
Another friend, more ornithologically savvy, questions my suspicions. “Are you sure it wasn’t a raccoon that took the fountain? They like to steal things.”
I’ve seen no evidence of raccoons, but I have seen the crows. I gently rebuke my friend for her generalization. Just because some raccoons are thieves, is it fair to convict the entire species? My crow suspicion is circumstantial evidence at best, but compelling. I’m tempted to call it truth. Another birder acquaintance says, “A crow can be a good friend.” I’m charmed by the thought.
More recently, the crows left a fat frog, bloated and floating, its creamy-white belly breaking the surface. I wonder if the crows heard me on the phone talking about them, slandering their good names. Is the dead frog a threat from the mob, like the severed horse’s head in The Godfather?
“You know,” says my world-weary friend, “there’s a reason a group of crows is called a murder.”
The frog is hideous in death and I must deal with the cadaver. If left alone, it would soon become a densely populated Fly Island. There’s a quick burial under the vindictive saw palmetto that stabs my leg as I fill the tiny grave.
Shit. Damn. Shit. That’s a mean-ass plant.
My own blood trickles onto the earth. I wonder if I should use it to write an epitaph. Frog.
Akk Ak, from the sentry in the trees.
Some see crows as harbingers of bad news. Others say they’re good luck, or a sign of magic. I could use some magic. There are many stories of crows befriending people. Bringing gifts. I wonder if the carcasses are tokens of good will, the crow way of saying thank you for the fresh water on these scorching Florida days. Or “We know you’re feeling sad and lonely, so we’ve brought these gifts to cheer you.” Or “Akk, we’ll be your friends.”
Or are the corpses recrimination for something I’ve done? What do the crows know? And what are they saying about me?
Crows recognize faces and remember when they’ve been slighted. Some research indicates that not only do they remember, but they spread the news of your transgressions around crow social circles, so you become the target of scorn from crows you’ve never even met. And they hold a grudge. I get that. I’m good at grudge holding.
Still unsure of the motive behind the birdbath deaths, I plan my next move carefully. I must placate them, but what will it take? I decide not to replace the fountain. I consider wearing my face mask when alone in my own yard, so they won’t recognize me, just in case I get it wrong. They’ve started following me when I walk the dogs, flying along from wire to tree along our route. Akk Ak.
Crows are members of the corvid family, said to be the most intelligent of birds. They can vocalize better than some parrots and have been known to mimic the voices of other animals. The sound of cars. A toilet flushing. Crows raised in captivity hear a lot and don’t hesitate to repeat it. I wouldn’t trust them with a secret unless they swore not to tell. I believe them to be sincere. Birds of their word.
When I typed corvid, the word came out as covid, my finger-memory recognizing the pattern from having heard, read, and typed the letters so many times over the past few months.
And just that short time ago, before the pandemic, I would not have put so much thought into why there are dead things in my birdbath. I would have cleaned it and refilled it. I would not have gone off on a paranoid rant like someone out of a Hitchcock tale. I’d have given the crows, those brilliant corvids, the benefit of the doubt and assumed they wanted to be friends. That all was good between us. The idea of wearing a face mask in my backyard so the crows won’t recognize me would have seemed as absurd as covering my face to go into the grocery store. Now, I don’t leave home without a mask.
I fret about motive and intent and worry the crows might carry a virus. Corvid covid or West Nile. I wear gloves to clean the birdbath.
But suppose the crow is my spirit animal? Here to tell me something magical. Something that will have a profound effect on the rest of my life. If I don’t look at them, if I’m not open to listening, to seeking to understand, I may miss an opportunity. They could have a message. They might tell me secrets. Help me to understand this delightful world in these horrifying times. They may even, when it’s time, guide my soul to the afterlife. As Roald Dahl says, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
My birder friend says, “If you want the crows to like you, you should give them corn.” “Give them grapes,” adds another. “They love grapes.” She adds that they are prolific poopers, and my garden will thrive. Sure, they may also shit on my car, but that seems a small price to pay for corvid goodwill and a bit of their magic.
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press, 2020). More can be found at www.peterjstavros.com. Follow on Twitter @PeterJStavros.
Sadie believes the world is against her again.
“It’s cyclical,” she tells me, matter-of-factly, inserting an N in the word for some reason, the way she always mispronounces it, making her sound like some lush on her fourth Bloody Mary even though she’s sober, as far as I know. “Everything is cyclical,” she follows, still mispronouncing, undaunted, “ups and downs, tops and bottoms—and right now, guess it’s my turn to be at the bottom.” Sadie sighs, and sort of shrugs, and smiles apologetically, though she has no reason to be sorry. “I’m just having a rough go at it is all.”
Sadie’s been having a “rough go at it” for a while, for several months at least, probably longer. She finally summoned the courage to quit her career—later than she had planned, but still—to do the things she needed to do before time ran out for her. She resigned in the middle of her performance review, “which wasn’t going very well by the way,” she liked to say with a snicker, her own inside joke, but she wanted to leave that place anyway, so it made it easier for her to go. We celebrated her last day with pitchers of purplish sangria and a platter of chicken wings at the sad bar down the street—where we were the only ones who happened to be happy—and then Sadie set out to plot the rest of her life.
But life happened, as if often does, in ways no one ever expects, and the world shut down, and chaos and uncertainty ensued. It was as if a fleecy fog had descended to blanket humanity in a choking, opaque haze. Sadie couldn’t sustain her momentum. She got caught up in the news and the images and the commentaries, and the cries and the shrieks and the shouting. When nothing worked out the way she thought it would, she lost track of what it was she was even doing. Then Sadie ground to a halt, too. Getting up at sun-up became dragging out of bed mid-morning became lying around all day in her pajamas. I witnessed this decline with little to offer, although I doubted she would have listened to me anyhow since, according to Sadie, everything is cyclical and it’s her turn right now to be at the bottom.
“It’s just like Saint Peter,” Sadie tells me over dinner: pepperoni pizza on homemade sourdough crust.
“You’re no Saint Peter,” I reply with a wry kind of laugh to lighten the mood, and the mood should be lightened, as I take a bite of pizza and burn the roof of my mouth on the hot melted cheese.
“That story of Saint Peter,” Sadie explains, ignoring my fleeting attempt at levity, “when he tried to walk across the Sea of Galilee toward Christ, then he lost his focus and noticed the waves and the storm, and he started to doubt. He began to sink. That’s how I feel. The world is cruel and it’s out to get me again—it’s out to get everyone—and I feel like I’m sinking.” Then softer, slower, mostly to herself: “I could stand to be saved.”
I wish I could save Sadie. I always wish I could save her. But I am usually left helpless, watching and waiting, as she struggles to right herself from whatever rut she has slipped into. I trust she’ll right herself once more, just hit her reset button, but I’m not so sure anymore. I never really am. I’d pray if I still believed in that sort of thing, but how can I, after all that’s gone on? I worry this might be the time Sadie stays down, and really does sink, and she drowns.
“So what happens?” I ask Sadie that night, capitulating, after contemplating it for most of the evening as we sat in silence and stared blankly at the TV, while we lie in bed and I gaze up at the ceiling fan rotating lazily, my mind racing, since I have trouble sleeping with the anxieties of the world weighing on me, too. “In your story of Saint Peter.”
“Christ ends up saving him,” Sadie answers dreamily, barely able to keep her eyes open, the way she gets with a couple glasses of chardonnay, and her prescription, and with how she’s been of late, sprawled atop the comforter as if she has fallen from above. “He reaches his hand out and leads Saint Peter back into the boat.” She rolls onto her side, away from me, and clutches the pillow between both arms. “Turns out it was all in Saint Peter’s head—he just needed to believe.”
I continue to lie there, wide awake, thinking, about everything, and nothing. I picture myself in the midst of this raging tempest, but it’s calm where I stand. Yet one step in any direction, and I’m overwhelmed by the squall. So I remain motionless, nearly frozen, almost paralyzed, as I wait for this to pass. I glance at Sadie, and she’s sleeping, peaceful, with the countenance of someone without a single care. It makes me both happy and sad. I lean over and caress her back, and I can feel her breathing, her warm body gently rising and falling.
After listening to the smooth whooshing of the fan and the steady ticking of the clock we got as a wedding gift those many years prior precariously perched on the wicker nightstand, with cars gliding by outside, shimmering headlights through the cracked window casting curious shadows across the bedroom wall, and feeling Sadie breathing, I eventually manage to sleep myself, imagining calmer skies for the days ahead.
K. Z. Rochelle lives with her family in Southern California, where she works as a teacher but plays as a writer. She is always a reader. For more, visit www.kzrochelle.com.
Call me a classicist. Group me with Socrates and the ancients who said beauty (the external) and goodness (the internal) were tied to one another.
Only I don’t believe that specifically. If you’re good-looking, I don’t think you’re a great person. Confession: I’m more inclined to think you are not. My belief is this: An internal state should present itself physically—and with as much permanence, or lack thereof as an emotional state.
Actually. Now that I see it in writing, I don’t suppose it’d be all that grand in its extreme. Say, if my whole body turned red in anger (instead of just my face, which already does) or green in envy. That would be too volatile, and I’d end up being an ornament for a Christmas tree. Perhaps I need some parameters of semi-permanence.
If the state lasts longer than three days, it should be evident in some physical fashion or malady. I have plenty of maladies, so take me for a case study.
In my early twenties, I experienced an unusual soccer injury. I shattered my elbow. (Spare me the “I thought you weren’t supposed to use your hands in soccer” line. Please. I’ve heard it.) As a result, I have a lifetime of limitations. No more push-ups, rock-climbing, golfing, or lifting anything of five pounds or more.
I have fantastic scars from the surgery and an elbow that appears to be metal—because it is.
Would you look at that line? It looks like metal because it is. That is a lovely statement of simplicity.
However, my elbow’s metallic nature is only obvious if you look at my elbow, which few people find themselves in a natural position to do throughout the course of a day. If I travel, I need to make people around me aware so that they don’t bump it—as that hurts—and might help me lift my luggage—as I can’t depend on being cute anymore.
I will share my remedy: I wear a sling to go to the airport. And it works every time. People give me extra space or help me to get by because they can tell, at a glance, I’m hurt.
Again: the simple beauty of I am as I seem to be.
As I note this, though, I’m struck with sorrow.
If it is abnormal to be as I seem in our society, then the norm is the facade: I am not what I seem. Whether that is a presentation of self with more positivity or negativity is irrelevant as whatever it is, it’s disingenuous. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should not strive to better ourselves or improve the way we behave, but if it’s a front, if it’s not true to who we are striving to be, then we are deceivers and manipulators.
I recognize the deceiver who wants you to think better of me than I do. And so I say, Wouldn’t it be nice if we were as we seemed? If the devil wore horns and carried a pitchfork?
Last year, my doctor put me in a boot—which I hated. There were a lot of things in my life that were challenging at the time. Namely, my job. I didn’t like it, didn’t want it, felt cornered into it. People at work knew I was facing a challenge when they saw me toddling in a boot.
“Aw, you poor thing,” they’d greet me.
“It’s not so bad,” I’d say.
And it was true. It was a challenge, but it wasn’t horrible—just like my job. And now that we were all on the same page, everything improved. Including my ankle.
Ultimately, if you dig beneath the slings, boots, casts, bandages, and what-not, what I want is the support that comes from a community recognizing my (now-metaphorical) baggage. Establishing community takes honesty, sincerity, and the vulnerability to be forthcoming with what I’m managing internally.
Damn it. I guess it’s on me. I have the power to change, to create community by opening my mouth to disclose my inner state.
It’d be so much easier if I could just wear a sign.
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.
me in your
For in this
R. C. Goodwin’s most recent published book is a novel (psychological thriller) titled Model Child. “Query: Gondelman” was inspired by the roughly 500 emails he has exchanged with prospective literary agents, some of which were written during the Reagan administration.
To: Finuella Rosebud <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Re: Query: GONDELMAN
Dear Ms. Rosebud,
Monroe Gondelman, 79, a semiretired mortician and founder of the Happy Trails Funeral Home, has the standard age-related male tribulations—decreased energy and stamina, poor hearing, excessive flatulence, and a prostate the size of a Bermuda onion. Still, all things considered, he’s in decent shape. No history of heart or lung disease, normal blood pressure, an intact memory. Financially secure, he splits his time between a home in Yonkers and a condo in St. Augustine. He has a viable if lukewarm relationship with his wife of 51 years, few close friends but a number of acquaintances, and no known enemies. Two adult children, two grandchildren. One night he goes to bed, glances through Embalmers’ Monthly, and says goodnight to his wife. He falls asleep, never to wake up. Shocking news: The autopsy reveals that he died from a large ingestion of Quaaludes, powerful sleeping pills, not made in the U.S. since 1985. He had no known history of drug or alcohol abuse, and he had never used a sleep aid stronger than melatonin. No recent signs of depression, no suicide note. His life and death are the focus of my completed novel, GONDELMAN, about 88,000 words.
The book explores his hidden conflicts, his tangled and shadowy financial affairs, and his far from idyllic family life. His wife has a Mahjong addiction, resulting in debts that run to six figures. His son has a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and spends three hours a day brushing his teeth—he once needed a transfusion because of his bleeding gums. His daughter is a wild-eyed ultra-feminist who insists that others refer to her as a Vagino-American and not a woman, which she views as a term of denigration. GONDELMAN is a work of mixed genres: psychological thriller, police procedural, satiric look at the American death industry, family saga, and reflection on mortality.
I’m contacting you because of what you said in an interview at the Death Valley Writers’ Conference in 2013, that you liked genre-bending books and were open to representing your openness to representing hitherto unpublished novelists. Apropos, although GONDELMAN is my first novel, I have had three stories published, one of which won second prize in the Great Dismal Swamp Short Fiction Competition for 2017.
In keeping with your guidelines, I’m including the first two chapters of GONDELMAN and my contact information. I greatly appreciate your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to see your work. Unfortunately, it is not in keeping with our current needs. Please understand that this is a highly subjective business, and we wish you the best of luck in obtaining representation elsewhere. We ask that you forgive our not sending a more personal note, but the volume of inquiries we receive prevents our doing so.
Finuella Rosebud <email@example.com>
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
I notice that your email, in which you passed on GONDELMAN, was dated the same day, THE SAME DAY that you received my query letter. The first two chapters of the book come to 33 pages, and, by your own grandiose account, you receive oodles of inquiries. This suggests to me one of two things. Either you’re an extraordinarily fast reader or (more likely) you didn’t read them at all. As busy as you are, I find it unacceptable that you gave the book such scant attention.
It may interest you, although I doubt it, that the feedback I’ve had to date regarding GONDELMAN has been overwhelmingly positive. Both of the Writers Groups to which I belong have praised it as a unique and captivating oeuvre, a must-read literary treat. My mother offered the unsolicited opinion that it’s the best thing she read since VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. While parents usually have a high regard for their children’s writings, I should add that my mother was an English major at the Dan Quayle University in Chlamydia, Indiana, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude.
I don’t expect you to respond to this, as you’re no doubt too busy trashing the promising works of other budding writers. So, let me simply close by quoting my ex-wife’s teenage daughter: Sit on it and spin!
Gregor V. Puddly
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
Okay, Gregor, you want a personalized email, so here goes. You’re correct, I did not read the two chapters of GONDELMAN in their entirety. I read your query letter and the first three pages of the first chapter. Any more and I would have puked.
Chastened by your email, though, I took an extra Xanax and read the two chapters, every syllable of them. My considered opinion: Your plot is outlandish. Your protagonist, the woeful Gondelman, is neither likeable nor interesting. I frankly don’t give a flying one if he died of Quaaludes or drowned in his bathtub or was eaten by cheetahs.
A few other tiny criticisms: You lump together too many details, most of them irrelevant. Your tone is pompous and preachy. There’s no flow, no continuity between paragraphs. You punctuate at the junior high school level. In sum, if the rest of GONDELMAN is as bad as the first two chapters, it might be among the dozen worst novels ever written in the English language.
Sincerely, Finuella Rosebud
Finuella Rosebud <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
After your repugnant email, Finuella, I took it upon myself to find out a bit about you. Easily done, in view of your insipid posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc., not to mention your pathetic website. So. You live alone in a miniscule apartment with fetching black- and white-dotted wallpaper that brings to mind a sick Dalmatian. You have a Maine coon cat named Frisky (such originality!) who looks like she’s a year overdue for grooming. Using three different search engines I found no evidence that you’ve published a book, story, poem, magazine or newspaper article, letter to an editor, or even a recipe for mac and cheese. In a word, you’ve published nothing. The last time you sold a client’s book was eight months ago, a romance novel called The Abyss of Forbidden Love by Deedee Zygoma, clearly a future Nobel laureate. Your favorite comfort food is shepherd’s pie, and you can’t get enough of the stuff, and you hate beets; talk about banal and irrelevant details! And you dare to have the gall to pass judgement on other people’s creative efforts!
Gregor V. Puddly
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
Using the internet is a two-way street in this Orwellian society of ours, my friend. I note that you move around a lot. Assistant manager of a bowling alley in Hoboken. Worked in the Bronx Zoo Reptile House—I like that, seems sort of fitting, feeding skinks and so forth. Morgue assistant in Bridgeport. I suppose that’s where you picked up background info for your wretched novel. I’ll admit, I was taken aback to learn you were once a Chippendale. Especially since you’re a bit hefty, shall we say?
Listen, Gregor, as exciting as this back-and-forth has been, I really don’t have time for it. I have a part-time job—in fact, two of them. You’re right about one thing: It’s been a slow year for me, book-wise. In addition to what I do at the agency, I teach yoga and tend bar. Kind of an odd combination, I’ll admit, but it pays for shepherd’s pie and cat food. We can’t all get cushy jobs at the Reptile House.
For the record, I have a grudging respect for anyone who writes a novel, however awful. Goes without saying that to do so takes a considerable measure of drive and commitment. Most novelists could earn more, on an hourly basis, making undershirts in Bangladesh. Keep at it, if you must. It’s remotely possible that you get better over time. You did have a few decent paragraphs here and there.
<Finuella Rosebud > email@example.com
Re: Query, GONDELMAN
Well, Finuella, I have to say that it was somewhat nice to hear from you. In particular, it was nice to receive a modicum of favorable feedback for my literary efforts. My guess is, it goes against your grain, and you’d rather criticize than praise.
Let me acknowledge that I’ve never had a correspondence like this with any of the thirty or forty literary agents I’ve contacted to date. Despite your poison pen, you do have—is it possible?—a certain empathy for writers that comes through in spite of yourself. Perhaps a love-hate relationship with them? I’m curious about you, I admit it. How, for God’s sake, did you wind up in this business? I would have had you pegged for a more congenial line of work, like becoming an IRS agent or a correctional officer in a maximum-security prison.
Gregor V. Puddly
Believe it or not, I looked forward to opening your email. Maybe I should go back into therapy? For starters, a few of your insults are rather creative, and I appreciate a person who can dish it out with style. Takes one to know one.
Re my career as an agent, here’s the short version. In college, I became entangled with a very good writer—let’s call him Fenton. He started at least three novels that I know about. He wrote a few fabulous chapters for each one and then he stopped, just like that. I encouraged him, praised him, nagged him, yelled at him, and withheld sex, but nothing worked. He finally gave up. Stopped writing altogether, stopped reading, stopped seeing anyone and doing anything. The last time I saw him was in L.A. He clerked in a hole in a wall called Magical Memories. They sold old comic books and postcards, and vintage issues of gossip magazines with articles like “John Wayne Has Secret Tryst with Pope’s Illegitimate Daughter!” and “Prince Charles Once Worked as a Gay Porn Star!” I don’t think of Fenton often now, but he did instill in me a desire to try to help aspiring writers. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
One impertinent question leads to another. How did you transition from a morgue attendant and an overweight Chippendale into a wannabe novelist?
To use your phrase, Finuella, here’s the short version. Like many unhappy children, I developed a rich inner life. I made up stories from as far back as I can remember, and I told them to my stuffed animals. I loved writing book reports but never let on to my grade school classmates, lest the bullying increase. In my teens I wrote poetry, mainly about unrequited love, the pain of excess testosterone, etc., etc. In college I took creative writing classes, didn’t do well in them but kept at it. Wrote short stories after I graduated. One of them, “A Rabid Bat Has Feelings Too,” won the Dismal Swamp competition I told you about. Second prize was only $250, but it helped to motivate me to attempt a novel. Hence, GONDELMAN.
I look forward to your next volley.
Re: Query, Gondelman
“A Rabid Bat Has Feelings Too”!!! How the HELL did you come up with a title like that? I’ll probably regret this, but please attach the story and send it to me. I know that curiosity killed the cat, but sometimes it gets the better of me anyway. God help me, I’d like to take a look at it.
I’m delighted to send you the rabid bat piece, attached herewith, and can’t wait to find out your take on it. Thanks so much for offering to read it!
To my astonishment, I liked your story. Well done, Gregor! The rabid bat as a metaphor for Wendell after the breakup with Edwina is brilliant. It’s fascinating, too, the way you write about a bat’s blindness but how he navigates anyway, and the way you tie that into how Wendell somehow manages to make his way in the world although “blinded” by his angst and heartache. The rabies comparison is strange but effective. Wendell is aware that he’s “rabid.” He doesn’t want to be, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He wants other women, he pursues them, but he (correctly) fears he’ll “poison” them.
I have a suggestion. Forget about writing novels for a while. Work on short stories; I think you might have a flair for them. It’s very hard for a rookie to have a volume of short stories published—hard for a veteran too, for that matter—but not impossible. It’s more likely (less unlikely) if you get a few of them published beforehand, especially if they win more literary competitions. Should you sent me such a volume, I’d seriously consider representing you.
You mentioned that you had two other stories published. Please send them to me.
Per your most welcome request, I’m attaching my two other published stories, “Trombones and Liverwurst” and “Tomorrow Never Ends Until It Does.” I greatly look forward to hearing back from you!
Will you marry me?
No, but I’ll have a drink with you the next time you’re in the city. I’ll wear a blouse with black and white dots. It will help you to identify me easily, even though it does make me look a bit like a sick Dalmatian.
The following pages are the first installment in a novel that we will be publishing in serial format over the course of the next year.
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.
In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
― George Orwell
She was in the hospital the day they issued the shelter-in-place order. Not with the virus, though. No, it had been a total hysterectomy—a clean sweep, as the mother of a middle school friend had called her own procedure sometime back in the eighties. Apt phrasing, since the surgeon had swept out her uterus, cervix, and fallopian tubes, leaving just the lonely ovaries (and their beard-preventing, PMS-producing estrogen, which . . . well, you take the good with the bad).
She was stiff and sore and her ass was killing her from twenty-four hours straight of sitting in bed—something she never did at home, no matter how lazy she might be feeling. Even as a writer, which was about the most sedentary occupation in the world, she rarely sat still. So, when they (finally) tugged out the catheter and asked if she wanted to stroll the halls a little, stretch her legs, she leaped up like someone twenty years younger—and like someone who didn’t have a huge gash splitting open her belly.
She knew about the virus, of course. Even though she rarely watched the news and limited her social media to the weekly posts her publisher demanded and maybe a daily check-in on Facebook to see if there was anybody worth wishing a happy birthday to, this was the kind of crisis you couldn’t miss even if you were actively trying to stay in the dark (like she was, most of the time).
They (whoever they were) had declared it a pandemic just days before she entered the hospital for her operation. Another person might’ve put it off, but her gynecologist had shaken her head and scoffed at the notion.
“Uh-uh, Claudia,” Dr. Goodman told her. “This mass in your uterus is big. Inordinately large.”
“I always say, go big or go home.”
The doctor cleared her throat. The woman had no sense of humor, as far as Claudia could tell (she couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing when it came to choosing a surgeon).
“Yes, well, as you know, I couldn’t get a viable sample when we tried for the biopsy, so honestly, we have absolutely no idea what precisely this mass is. As I said, based on the ultrasound and MRI images, and my own experience, I’m inclined to believe it’s not cancer—”
“But you can’t be sure until you get it the hell out of me.”
“Precisely. And your uterus along with it,” Dr. Goodman said, like that part wasn’t already obvious. The mass measured seventeen by fifteen centimeters. (Why, oh why, can’t medical people use inches like the rest of the civilized world so everybody knows what they hell they’re talking about?) It stretched from Claudia’s groin all the way up to, as the radiologist had phrased it in his terrifying report, “the umbilicus.”
“That’s just huge, Claudia,” Dr. Goodman had said. “Massive. Your uterus is supposed to be approximately the size of a fist. This is . . . this is if you’re four months pregnant. Perhaps more.”
Claudia had been okay with the idea of the surgery. Mostly. And she wasn’t one of those weepy women who’d regret what would never be—the children who might have been and would never, now, grow in her womb. If anything, she was kind of looking forward to eliminating that little bit of nonsense from her life.
Now, though, this whole virus situation was putting the surgery in a different light. Who wanted to be at the epicenter, the eye of the hurricane, while at your most vulnerable—sliced and diced every way to Sunday?
“Okay,” Claudia said. “I guess we can still go ahead like we planned. But I only have to stay overnight, right?”
“We’ll see. I’ll make you a deal: If you’re eating, urinating on your own without a catheter, and don’t have a fever, then I’ll allow you to go home the day after surgery.”
Claudia nodded. “It’s just—with this whole virus business going on, I’d rather be home sooner than later. If I have to fight germs, post-op, I’d rather it be the ones in my own home. You know, the ones my body already knows.”
“Perfectly understandable. We’ll see what we can do.”
That had been Wednesday, and then the surgery was Thursday, though it happened only after plenty of tears and fruitless protests. Claudia had never thought of herself as a weepy woman, but neither was she the type to enjoy the so-called “good drugs” or the idea of being put under anesthesia with no control over herself or knowledge of what was happening. Whenever people would say, “He was lucky enough to die in his sleep,” a cold shock of terror would run through Claudia. She couldn’t imagine a more horrifying death: to be entirely unaware that the Reaper was coming for you. No, no. It’s always better to look the enemy right in the eye.
Now, Friday, she was sitting in her hospital bed, watching the too-high flatscreen TV bolted almost to the ceiling (like anybody would want to steal that twelve-inch piece of garbage) and struggling to hold down her “clear liquids only” lunch. She’d had plenty of “liquid lunches” before, but in her case, the term had always meant throwing back three hasty glasses of Cabernet, not swallowing down lumps of nausea while sipping a bowl of beef broth and tiny spoonfuls of green Jell-O and lemon-flavored Italian ice.
Nurse Kim (the only member of the hospital staff whose name Claudia could remember—and not just because Kim had written it down in dry-erase marker on the whiteboard underneath the TV) strode in to take her vitals. “You still doing okay?”
Claudia shrugged. “Think so. Did Dr. Goodman say when I can go home?” The clock on the wall said it was just past one in the afternoon. Time seemed to be running out to get sprung from this joint today—and with every minute that ticked past, Claudia could feel the cold fingers of the virus snaking around her throat.
“Not until you hold down a meal—and not these clear liquids. Solid food.”
“Then bring me some solid food.” Even if it took every shred of willpower in her being, she would gladiator her way through that meal.
Kim grinned. “We’ll see. But seriously. Your temp is good, your incision site looks great, you’re peeing plenty. I think there’s every chance you’ll go home tonight or tomorrow.”
Before Claudia could open her mouth to press for tonight, not tomorrow, Kim was breezing out of the room, supposedly on to the next patient, though as far as Claudia could tell from her walk earlier (five laps around the sixth floor, thank you very much!), she was the only patient here. All the other beds she passed had been empty and waiting—presumably, for victims of the virus to arrive. So, what the hell was keeping the staff so damn busy?
The TV answered her question.
“The president has just issued, effective at midnight tonight, a shelter-in-place order for the entire country. In an effort to contain the SARS-642 virus, now reported as infecting approximately 53,000 Americans and even more abroad, all citizens are asked to remain in their homes. Only essential personnel—including medical professionals, pharmacy and grocery workers, first responders, and others noted in detail within the president’s order—will be permitted on the roads.”
Claudia hit the mute button on the remote. Bracing herself on the edge of the bed, she rolled out and made sure her hospital gown was closed in back. She dragged her IV pole along and shuffled to the doorway. Though she was still wearing her neon-yellow “Fall Risk” bracelet, which Nurse Kim had forgotten to cut off after giving her permission to walk the halls, Claudia felt plenty sturdy on her feet. Not that it was a tough hike from the bed to the door, not for somebody who ran at least thirty miles a week (or, rather, had run before this whole health saga began).
She poked her head out into the hallway. Silence. A chill ran through her. Something told her that a quiet hospital—especially during a newly announced pandemic—was about the worst place in the world to be. It felt like the beginning of a zombie movie—you know, the calm before all the brain eating began.
Nurse Kim barreled around the corner, her stethoscope dancing over her ample chest. “You’re up? Great. Let’s get that IV out of your arm and get you some real food for an early dinner. You hold it down, you go home.”
Claudia smiled. What a difference ten minutes—and a national panic—can make. She shuffled back to her bed as fast as her rubber-dotted slipper socks would carry her. Now she just had to eat hospital food and not throw up. It felt vaguely like some sort of reality-show challenge.
And really, what kind of sadist comes up with these menus? When you’re feeding sick people, maybe frozen breaded fish with a side of rock-hard, undercooked rice, studded with spicy peppers, isn’t exactly the ideal choice. Claudia ate anyway, telling herself this was any other evening, not the start of some sort of world health crisis. That’s right, she was just Beaver Cleaver, stuffing down some bland and boring American staples. Her life and safety didn’t depend on how this all went. Not at all.
Nurse Kim was back mere moments after Claudia had finished artfully arranging what was left on her platter to make it look as empty as possible.
“Most of the fish,” Claudia said. “All the rice, just one carrot, but they’re big and I hate carrots. I ate all the chicken noodle soup and that insanely huge dinner roll, and, of course, I ate the apple tart for dessert.”
“Holding it down?”
She glanced at the clock. It had been twenty minutes since her last actual bite. “So far, so good.”
She shook her head.
“Then get packed up. You’re going home.”
“Really. We need the beds clear. This virus . . .” The nurse’s face turned grim.
Claudia nodded. “Happy to help if it means I can get out of here.”
“Call for your ride.”
She had already typed out the text message before Kim left the room: “Dad? Come get me. They say I can come home.”
Okay, so maybe she was too old—at forty-eight—to be living with her father (who was rapidly, if stubbornly, approaching eighty). But after her divorce and her dad’s stroke and the overdose death of his much-younger live-in girlfriend (a story Claudia still refused to hear in any detail—it gave her the heebie-jeebies on so many levels), the arrangement had just made sense. Five years now, she had occupied the finished basement apartment in her father’s home, cooked and cleaned for him, made sure he got enough exercise and didn’t spend too much time playing solitaire on his phone. Now, their roles were about to be reversed. And that? Was almost as terrifying as this pandemic thing.
Kim poked her head back into the room. “Just buzz the nurses’ station when your ride is here and we’ll bring you downstairs in a wheelchair. Door-to-door service.” She was smiling, but only with her lips. Claudia could tell there was something else—fear?—in her eyes. And that scared Claudia, too. But then she reminded herself what the news had said, all those panels of doctors and experts: This is just a strain of flu bug, which kills around fifty thousand people every year and nobody bats an eye. We have to stop freaking out and letting the media (so desperate to find any excuse to get rid of this president they hated—loose-cannon nut-job that he was, even if the economy had never been better) run wild. We just need to think things through and be practical, rational, use some common sense.
Problem is, common sense kind of flies out the window when the president tells you to stay in your home. In America, Claudia liked to think, we don’t take away civil liberties unless the situation is pretty fricking serious. She knew that was probably nothing but a patriotic fantasy, but it was kind of a comfort, nonetheless.
Her phone buzzed. A new text from Dad: “At CVS picking up the pain meds your doc called in. I’m third in line at drive-thru, but have the dog with me. Need to drop him off home before I come get you. Figure about an hour.”
Seriously? What kind of idiot brings a dog to the pharmacy when he knew he was waiting for the word to come and pick up his invalid daughter? Here they were in the middle of a global health crisis—not to mention Claudia’s own personal medical emergency—and Dad decides it’s the right moment to take the dog for a leisurely ride. Brilliant.
She sighed. No matter how old you got, some things never changed, and common sense had never been Dad’s strong suit, clever as he was otherwise. He had built a thriving business out of nothing, but ask him for a simple ride home and he couldn’t quite get his shit together.
“Okay,” she typed. “Get here as soon as you can. I’m fending off MRSA, not to mention this SARS virus. 😊”
It was “only” forty-five minutes before he texted that he was five minutes away. That was one thing she could say about her father: Unlike most people his age, he hadn’t started driving too slowly.
She buzzed Nurse Kim and waited for the wheelchair. People on TV and in movies always complain about having to be pushed out of the hospital instead of walking out on their own two legs. Claudia felt no such compulsion. Despite a day and a half of too much sitting, she had no problem taking a ride for the six flights down and the long walk to the parking lot. She had realized a little while ago that Kim had never given her the afternoon pain shot, what with all the rush to get her fed and discharged. She was hurting more than she expected—but she wasn’t about to hold up her ticket to freedom by asking for meds. Besides, it wasn’t every day that she got to be waited on. And it would be good for her father to see her being wheeled out like an actual crippled person. So far, he didn’t seem to realize that this whole thing—either her surgery or this virus/pandemic situation—was all that big a deal.
Just yesterday, when the news had been reporting food and toilet paper shortages at the grocery stores, she’d called from the hospital and told him to stock up on some staples: pasta sauce, canned soup, the kind of things he could easily prepare for them both while she was off her feet. Six weeks, Dr. Goodman had said. No cooking, no cleaning, no working.
Claudia had scowled. “C’mon. I’ll be fine after two weeks. I’m a writer. I can sit in bed and scribble away. It’s not like I’m heading back to some kind of loading dock.” (Though, she caught herself thinking, whoever was supposed to be keeping the toilet paper stocked had better get their butt back to the loading dock—pronto.)
Dr. Goodman had laughed. “Trust me. You won’t want to do anything but sleep for at least two weeks. You’re vastly overestimating your recovery ability, I assure you.”
The thought had scared Claudia. Maybe she wasn’t the most active person in the world—socially or otherwise; to her, the idea of a great weekend meant reading at least two whole books—but she couldn’t imagine only wanting to sleep. That alone was a nightmare. Throw in being stuck at home during a global health crisis with only her dad, who had bought only a case of ramen noodles as the “staples” she’d requested, and this pretty much felt like the apocalypse.
“Dad’s here?” Nurse Kim said, wheeling around the doorway with the empty chair. “Grab a seat and let’s get you outta here.”
As Kim and Dad helped Claudia into the car (naturally, Dad had brought his too-tall SUV instead of Claudia’s easy-to-get-into Volkswagen, to which he did have a key), she thanked the nurse and felt a tear spring to her eye. She’d never been great at good-byes—even when she barely knew the person she was saying it to. Or maybe this was just hormones.
“Take good care of her, Dad,” Kim told Claudia’s father. Why were people in certain lines of work—nurses, restaurant servers, car salespeople—always just a little too familiar with strangers?
“I will,” Dad said. He slammed the car door closed, not waiting for Claudia to finish buckling the seat belt over the huge, fluffy pillow Dr. Goodman had recommended she get to protect her belly in the car—and in the event of a sneeze, cough, or laugh (not that she expected to be rolling on the floor with laughter in these harrowing times).
“You all good?” Dad asked as he climbed in and pulled away from the curb.
“Yeah, I guess, but I could use one of those pills about now. They never gave me my afternoon dose.”
“Funny thing—Bandit and I got up to the front of the pharmacy line, they said the prescription wasn’t ready yet.”
“Seriously? I called them at 3:30 and they said it was almost done. It takes over three hours to put thirty pills in a jar?”
“All these whack-jobs are calling in their prescriptions, in case the quarantine lasts longer than two weeks. And don’t even ask about toilet paper. There ain’t a roll to be had in the county.”
Ain’t. The word made her shudder a little. She’d been working as an educational writer for twenty years and couldn’t help but think anybody who used such language was, well, kind of a moron. In Dad’s case, though, the verbal misfire was more a product of upbringing and, maybe, laziness than actual stupidity. The guy had gone to Seton Hall—which, okay, wasn’t Harvard, but she was pretty sure they knew ain’t wasn’t an acceptable word there just the same. Wow, did she need one of those pain pills. Only physical agony would have her so sour on slang.
“So what are we going to do?” she asked.
“It’s right on the way home,” Dad said. “I’ll just run in and grab them. Pharmacist promised they’d be ready by the time I got back.”
“Now? We’re going to the CVS now?”
“Yeah. Why? Ya gotta hot date?” He lit a cigar and the car filled instantly with acrid smoke. Choking, Claudia groped for the window button to let in some air.
“Dad, come on. My post-op release form says right on it I can’t smoke. I assume this fog is thick enough to qualify as me smoking.”
“Sorry, sorry.” He rolled down his own window a generous quarter of an inch and kept puffing away. “So, how ya feelin’? Good?”
What were you supposed to say about this particular situation . . . to your father? The truth? Yeah, Dad, it feels like they cut open my abs and yanked out my reproductive organs, and I can’t help but wonder if I might never be able to have an orgasm again because the books I read about hysterectomy all said that was a distinct possibility.
Nope, that wasn’t going to work.
“I feel fine,” she said. “Let’s just get those pain pills and then maybe I can get home and go to bed early.”
“Ya got it.”
Although the CVS was not, by any stretch of the imagination, “on the way home,” the ride wasn’t quite as long or painful as she had feared. The worse part was Dad’s AM radio sports report, which she couldn’t reach to switch even after he had parked the car and gone inside for her meds. At least, that was the worst until she spotted the woman parked next to them.
Frazzled and blond-going-gray, the woman was maybe five or ten years older than Claudia, and she was wearing a surgical mask as she ran—not hurried, but ran—out of the CVS to her car. Haste is never your friend when you’re carrying flimsy plastic bags full of merchandise, so Claudia was not at all surprised when one of the woman’s bags burst open and spewed its contents on the damp pavement of the parking lot. More surgical masks—at least five packages of them. Clearly, this person hadn’t caught the news report that the virus was far too small to be stopped by generic paper or cloth masks and that the heavy-duty, filtered numbers that might work should be reserved for medical professionals. Claudia had to assume the woman also had thirty or cases of Charmin sitting in her basement back home. This was exactly the type of idiot who was ruining things for everyone.
Still, there was something scary about it. This wasn’t China, where kooky folks wore masks on the subway every single day. This was America, where we put do the right thing and take care to put appearances before function. Better to look normal and risk getting sick—that was the proper American attitude to this sort of outbreak. To see a fellow American panicking like a weirdo Chinese commuter was, well, kind of terrifying.
The SUV door opened and Dad tossed the pharmacy package onto Claudia’s lap, where (obviously) it bounced off the huge belly pillow and slid to the darkened floor.
“Oops. I’ll get that for ya when we get to the house and getcha out,” he said. He paused to stare at the woman beside them, who was still frantically shoving loose masks into the broken plastic bag. “Check out that whacko.”
“Yeah,” Claudia said, letting herself enjoy the warm feeling that washed over her. If her daddy wasn’t afraid, then she had no reason to be afraid. Eight years old or forty-eight, some things never changed.
She gave him a smile, but it was dark in the car and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, so she wasn’t sure he noticed. Good thing he was the one driving.
As they headed home, she said, “You don’t think this whole virus thing is really going to be as bad as they say, do you?”
“Nah,” Dad said, with his usual chuckle as he lit another cigar. “It’s only two weeks. How bad can it be?”
She woke up hours before dawn, same as always. Apparently, even two sleepless nights (between the noise of the hospital and the last evening she’d spent at home before surgery, tossing and turning in presurgical terror) plus a generous helping of the drugs her doctor had prescribed weren’t enough to keep her knocked out for more than a few hours. It didn’t help that she’d always been a stomach sleeper (contortion artist, was more like it), and now, thanks to the gash across her belly, she had no choice but to attempt to sleep in more or less a sitting position, propped up by a stack of thick pillows. Oh, and she’d been too scared (of what, she couldn’t have told you) to turn off the light—or the TV—at bedtime, so the room was nearly as bright as it got, even during daylight hours (basement apartments tend to err on the dim side).
She started to stretch, until the screaming pain at her incision site reminded her that those ab muscles—the ones she liked to stretch out in bed every morning—had been sliced and diced. Fabulous, she thought. I’ll feel sleepy all day if I don’t get a good stretch in. Then she laughed at herself. She sounded like one of those yoga weirdoes who really thinks trivial little bodily matters—like stretching and, you know, having surgery—make some kind of difference in what your mind can do. She hated people like that. Mind over matter: It wasn’t just a hokey saying from the 1970s. It was all you had, sometimes.
She dragged herself up by her elbows and squinted at the clock. Four-thirty a.m. Plucking an earplug from just one ear, she listened hard. What was going on upstairs, where her father—and his dog—were sleeping?
Claudia had always been an early riser, which was fine when she was living alone, or even back when she was married, before her douchebag husband dumped her for a (predictably) younger, more bimbo-esque girl (the person in question could not be called a “woman”). Back then, her predawn automatic wakeup call didn’t disturb anybody. Even here, since she’d moved in with her dad, she’d done her best to keep quiet, to avoid waking him up. Unlike every other senior citizen in the world, Dad went to bed late(ish), around eleven, and got up at the obscenely (to Claudia) late hour of seven-thirty in the morning. The U.S. Army always liked to brag that its soldiers did more before seven a.m. than most people do all day. Claudia had them beat, in both hour of the day and accomplishments. By seven a.m., most days, she’d done more than anybody she knew could do in a week.
She was about to roll out of bed when she heard a thud from upstairs. The floor squeaked, and then she heard the unmistakable pitter-patter of tiny dog feet. So much for having a leisurely, back-only shower (she wasn’t allowed to get her surgical dressing wet) before Dad and Bandit were up.
“Quiet down, buddy,” she heard her father say, way too loudly, just outside the door to the basement. “She’s downstairs, I promise ya.”
Claudia groped for a pillow, to use as a shield, just as the door burst open and the little dog—twelve pounds of ferocious love—bounded down the stairs straight toward her incision.
“Jesus, Bandit, off my stomach. You’re going to tear me open. Dad, seriously? A little warning would be nice.” Of course, she had had warning, because her father walked around upstairs like he was wearing lead boots, but he didn’t have to know that. His increasing deafness actually came in handy a lot of the time.
The dog was working to jam his snout under her pillow to sniff her incision as Dad made his slow way down the stairs. Tiny dog, invalid, and man pushing eighty. They made quite a family.
“The dog can tell something is wrong with me,” Claudia said, pressing the pillow harder against herself and wincing from the pain. “If only he understood he should leave me alone and not attack me.”
“You’re up, right?” Dad said. “You need anything?”
She sighed. Sometimes living with her father was like living with a ventriloquist dummy being operated by someone with mild dementia. The conversations didn’t necessarily line up.
“I guess I’m up now,” she said. “Might’ve been nice to sleep until five on the morning after being in the hospital, but this is nice, too. Maybe you can open the window blinds? I don’t think I’ll be able to reach those for a while.”
Dad’s face brightened. He was a man who loved a project, whether it was finding the perfect rundown house to flip or just twisting the handle on a blind. She could relate. Just watching him open the blinds made her ache for something constructive to do. Six weeks of this—sitting on her ass, watching other people work. She would never get through it.
“Blinds look okay?” he asked.
“Perfect. Course, it’s still pitch-black dark out. Not that you can see much from the basement windows even in daylight.”
“Did ya wanna move upstairs, where there’s more light? I could—”
“I’m fine. I wasn’t complaining, just commenting.” She elbowed the dog aside. “I need to take my pain pills.”
“What’d they give you? Vicodin? Percocet?”
She squinted at the bottle. “It says Oxycodone, substituted as generic for Percocet.”
“Sounds like good stuff.”
“It didn’t do much for me last night,” she said, popping one into her mouth and taking a swallow from the water bottle on the bedside table. “But I guess this’ll be the real test.”
“So, ya want some breakfast? Ya like, what? Bagels in the morning?”
If he hadn’t been so hard of hearing, she might have tried to explain: She preferred a bowl of mixed-berry yogurt, blended with fresh raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, and a generous dollop of granola. But that was what she ate when she was feeling good: running daily, doing yoga, taking care of herself all around. Her father wasn’t wrong. Bagels (everything flavor with enough chive and onion cream cheese to destroy your breath for the whole day) were her comfort-food choice: no nutritional value in the least, but they filled you up and made you feel sort of homey.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll take an everything bagel,” she said.
“I’ll head to the bagel shop now,” he told her. “I get coffee there anyways, and I like their asiago rolls.”
“Sounds super healthy.”
“Better than a bagel.”
“About the same, I’d guess. And I’m not the one who’s diabetic.”
He shrugged. “Sugar shmoogar. Coffee?”
“No, thanks. My stomach still isn’t a hundred percent from that anesthesia. Don’t want to put anything too harsh in there yet. Hey, isn’t today the start of the stay-at-home order? Isn’t everything closed?”
“Yeah, yeah, that started at nine last night. But the curfew’s over at five a.m. and I’m good to go. And the restaurants are open. Takeout only, but you can still get stuff. I’ll go right now.”
“Isn’t the whole point of a stay-at-home order to—you know—stay at home?”
“They gotta let us out for essentials.”
She wanted to ask in what universe an everything bagel and a cheese-flavored roll constituted “essentials,” but it wasn’t worth the effort. That pill was already making her feel a little bit loopy.
“Okay,” she said. “Just be careful out there. Don’t get coughed on or anything.”
It took him well over an hour (which Claudia spent, first, painfully creaking open her laptop to check her email—nothing but junk—and then dozing lightly on the bed) to bring back her bagel. Knowing the bagel place was less than a mile away and that he had driven to get there, she was tempted to ask what the hell had taken so long, but sometimes with her father, it was just better not to know.
He tossed the greasy-looking Manhattan Bagel bag on the table in front of her. “Gotcha a juice, too. Fresh squeezed.”
Sure it was—squeezed straight out of the Tropicana carton. But it was a sweet gesture, anyway.
“Thanks, Dad. What’s it like out there?”
“Ghost town. Good thing it’s only two weeks. Any longer than that and the economy’s toast. Dow’s already down like crazy. Lost me over a hundred thousand yesterday alone. That’s just on paper, but still . . .”
The mention of money made her blood run cold. Somehow, in her mind, her father would always have plenty of money to spare. Hell, it was kind of the reason she was living with him. She hadn’t exactly been flush with cash after her husband took off, leaving her with an empty bank account and an unreliable freelance income. Moving in with Dad had been an unspoken (on both of their parts) way for each of them to get a safety net: She’d get a place to live rent-free while she got back on her feet, and he would get the security of knowing there’d be somebody around to call 911 if he ever had another stroke. Win-win. It had never occurred to her, before now, that he could be left with nothing the same way she’d been. What the hell would she do then?
“They should shut it down,” she said, gingerly reaching into the bag to pluck out her bagel.
“Shut what down?”
“The stock market.”
“They can’t do that,” Dad said. More “they,” she caught herself thinking. Who were they?
“Why not? It’s not like any of it is real anyway. Like you just said, it’s all on paper. You just freeze everything, right where it is this minute, and that’s it. No buying or trading or selling or whatever they do until this whole stupid virus thing is over. Then, when we’re good to go, you open it back up and everybody’s exactly where they started. On paper, at least.”
“Huh,” Dad said, staring at her TV screen, which she hadn’t even turned on yet. “That actually makes sense.”
“Trust me, Dad, if they’d just put me in charge, this whole world would be smooth sailing,” she said, hating herself for again invoking the mighty “they.”
“Okay, then, I’ll letcha eat. Ya need anything else? Anything from the grocery store?”
“You know I can’t get toilet paper.”
“Why are people hoarding TP? It makes no sense. This is a respiratory illness. Unless other people have got some kind of crazy lungs, I’m pretty sure there’s no poop involved in this disease, so what’s with the toilet paper? Now I really wish you had let me go food shopping on Monday like I wanted to.”
“Ya had enough to do, getting ready for surgery, and besides, we didn’t need nothin’.”
“We needed toilet paper,” she said. “But you said don’t bother, it’s fine. And now look where we are. I’ve got four rolls to get me through the apocalypse.”
“Better hang onto them Manhattan Bagel napkins, then.”
He was kidding, but she wasn’t. She carefully separated one from the stack to use to clean up after she ate and tucked the rest into a drawer in her bedside table. She wasn’t taking any chances.
She’d been up for a couple of hours, reading a book and trying not to feel guilty about doing a whole lot of nothing, when the text came in.
“Hey, when’s your operation?” it read.
Claudia shook her head. Her boyfriend Aaron had always been a little bit clueless. Though he’d turn fifty next month, he was the kind of guy who reminded you of a chubby Peter Pan: a perpetual child. Sometimes—like when you wanted an excuse to blow off work and do some day-drinking on the patio at the local barbecue place—that was a good thing. But other times—like when you wanted your significant other to hold your hand through major surgery—it wasn’t the best.
She tapped at the phone’s keyboard, then decided she lacked the energy for so much typing. She called him.
When he answered, she just said, “Thursday.”
“The surgery’s next Thursday? Huh. I thought it was sooner than that.”
“It was sooner. It was this past Thursday. Three days ago.”
“Aww, shit. Sorry about that. Meant to—I dunno—send flowers or something. I got busy with a client. All this quarantine stuff? It’s a bonanza for IT. Every company in the country wants to be able to have their employees work from home . . .”
Claudia zoned out like she always did when Aaron started talking about work. Hey, she respected people who, like Aaron, were good at their jobs and passionate about what they did, but hearing him talk about megabytes and bandwidth and the cloud and whatever the hell else he would drone on about (including drones)? After a while, it all just sounded like static. Information technology was like plumbing: You wanted it to operate perfectly, but only really gross people talked a whole lot about it.
She let him ramble for a while, then broke in when he took the tiniest pause to finally take a breath. “So, how’s everything there? You guys have a curfew like we do here?”
“Yeah, yeah. Nobody allowed out after eight p.m. It’s like being in elementary school all over again. I keep expecting to hear the Muppet Show theme at seven-thirty when I close up the house for the night.”
She hated to admit it, but she had thought the same thing. In her childhood, The Muppet Show had been the cutoff point—when it was over, it was up to bed and no excuses.
“So, anyways,” Aaron said. “Happy birthday.”
“What? Did I get the day wrong? I could have sworn—”
“No,” she said. “I just . . . lost track of time, I guess. I knew my birthday was the Sunday after my surgery, but I kind of forgot that was today.”
“I didn’t get you anything.”
“Why break a streak?” They’d been together, more or less, for eight years, and had even lived together for the three she’d spent in Pennsylvania, before moving back to New Jersey to be with her dad. It was a long time to date, especially for divorced people well into middle age, and not make a serious commitment, but Claudia wasn’t complaining. Once, her friend Annemarie had asked, over drinks, how she could handle the infrequent sex that went along with such a long-distance relationship.
“Ah,” Claudia had said, twirling her empty martini glass between her fingers in the vain hope that the bartender might notice and bring her another. “You’re assuming the sex was frequent when the relationship wasn’t long-distance.”
Something about Aaron had always been just a little bit “off.” He loved to hang out with people—men, women, kids, whatever. He even talked to his dog like it was a person (though, really, who didn’t, other than actual psychos and the kind of assholes who think dog fighting is cool?). One of his friends had gone so far as to say that Aaron “collected” people like ceramic figurines in a curio cabinet. Claudia had agreed and muttered, “If only he’d take us down and play with us once in a while.”
And that had been during the first few months after they started dating: the “honeymoon” phase, when most couples have sex nonstop. No, sex had never been a big part of their lives. For a while, Claudia had complained, worried, even read self-help books to figure out what she might be doing wrong—until she moved away and realized that Aaron was just as happy with their relationship whether he saw her every day or twice a year. He was just that kind of person. He just didn’t give a crap what the circumstances were, as long as he had people—any people—to chat with (always about dull IT stuff) and plenty of Bacardi and Coke to drink. The occasional cigar didn’t hurt, either. Jesus, she thought; I’m dating my dad.
Over the phone, Aaron laughed. “That’s something I never expected to witness: Claudia Carson forgetting her own birthday.”
“I know, I know—”
“Is this the same person who made me take her for a birthday outing every year to celebrate? It was like planning a party for a nine-year-old, except with wine. What have we done? The zoo, the aquarium, the insect museum, that helicopter tour of Philadelphia . . . What am I missing?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Bullshit. What am I missing?”
“The antique medical museum, the winery, and the Franklin Institute.”
“I knew you knew. You got one of those memories. Steel trap, right? That’s what they call it?”
“I guess.” She was starting to get that feeling—the one she hadn’t realized she used to have all the time until after she moved out and no longer had to deal with Aaron every single day. It felt like somebody had tied a piece of twine around her kidneys and was slowly twisting, tighter and tighter. Annoyance didn’t quite describe it. Had someone pressed for a descriptive term, she’d have called it “precursor to rage.”
“What’s with you?” he asked.
“I’m tired,” she said. “I had surgery a couple of days ago. Remember?”
“You in a lot of pain?”
“It’s not that. You know me—I can handle pain.” She could practically hear him nodding. He had, after all, been there the time she smashed all her toes under the grill (to be accurate, he had dropped it on her feet as they moved it across the yard). And he’d been there the time she accidentally sliced open her calf lengthwise while shaving, a good seven or eight inches. It would have been nice to have health insurance back then and be able to get the stitches she’d obviously needed to avoid a lifetime with a calf that could double for Frankenstein’s monster’s. As it was, she’d pretty much sprinted to the doctor this past January, as soon as her coverage kicked in—and look how that turned out.
“So?” he asked.
“So, if you’re not in pain, then what’s the matter?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer that, partly because he was right: It was unprecedented for her to blow off—okay, forget—her own birthday.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “I’m just feeling weird, I guess.”
“Being sliced up’ll do that to a person, I bet.”
“So will being trapped at home without any civil liberties,” she said. But now she was smiling. He was the only person she knew who would make fun of the government and all this virus hysteria with her and not end up getting all bleeding heart and bent out of shape.
“You know it,” he said.
There was a long silence and she could hear him tapping away at his computer. As always, he’d been working the whole time he was supposed to be checking in on her. Even on her birthday, she didn’t come first—not even with herself, it would seem.
“Okay, well . . .” she said.
“Just a sec . . . Okay. Finished. Sorry. All these people working from home, it’s great, moneywise, but I’m guessing I won’t have time to, like, breathe for a while.”
“Probably a good thing, what with this virulent respiratory virus going around.”
Silence. More tapping. “What’s that?” he finally asked.
“Nothing. Never mind. You get back to work. I appreciate the call.”
“So, what’re you gonna do for your birthday?” he said. It had never been easy to get Aaron off the phone. He was a like a teenage girl. You’d think that would’ve kept their relationship tighter, even after she moved, but the phone can only do so much. Sometimes the genitals really do need to get involved when you’re trying to maintain a romance.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I forgot it was my birthday, remember? So clearly I don’t have major plans. Besides, there’s not much to do, stuck in the house, just me and my dad.”
Speaking of whom . . . she heard whistling at the top of the stairs, always her father’s signal that he was on his way down to the basement. A normal person might have knocked on the door or called out to say something like “You decent?” but nobody would ever have accused anyone in the Carson family of being normal.
“That your dad?” Even Aaron could hear the whistling, from seventy-five miles away. Of course, his own mother had done the exact same thing—only she had hummed, instead of whistling—so he was used to the concept.
“Tell him hi for me.”
“Aaron says hi, Dad.”
Her father paused on the last step, head cocked to one side just like Bandit’s when he wasn’t sure if you’d said “Treat” or “Vet.”
“Who?” he asked.
“Aaron. You know. Aaron. The person I lived with for years. In Pennsylvania?”
She refused to use the word boyfriend, at least out loud. Not only were they way too old for that stuff, but was it even accurate? Don’t you have to see somebody more often than Christmas and your birthday (though not even that this year) to have him qualify as your boyfriend?
“Oh, sure, right,” Dad said. “Hi, Aaron.”
“What does your dad think about all this virus stuff?” Aaron asked.
“Do you just want to talk to him yourself? Cut out the middleman?” Claudia said.
“Nah, nah, I’m good. But how is he doing with all this? I mean, Emmett Carson isn’t one to stand for government garbage. He was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party.”
“Except for the one in Boston that time,” Claudia said.
It was a good thing they weren’t living together anymore. She would have had to kill him. Not having her around seemed to have turned him even dumber than she remembered.
“Nothing,” she said. “Look, my dad’s here so I’ll let you go. Thanks for checking in.”
“Yeah,” Aaron said, already sounding distracted by something on his computer—probably not even work but one of his silly video games. Grown men playing video games like little boys. Ugh. “Okay, then. Have a great birthday and I’ll talk to you soon.”
She hit the End Call button and tossed the phone beside her on the bed. “What’s going on, Dad?”
He produced a card from behind his back. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you.” She knew, just by the weight and girth of the envelope, that the card (bought at Walmart—because that’s where Dad bought everything) contained precisely five hundred dollars, in hundred-dollar bills. It would be months before she could spend it—because what was she buying and in what store could she easily break a hundred? Most of her purchases consisted of things like a tin of Altoids for around three bucks. Sure, she could whip out a hundred at the corner Mom-and-Pop pharmacy, but she was going to get a nasty look. Besides, these days, with all but “essential” businesses being closed, she wasn’t even going to be able to get and out and buy those Altoids. It could be years before she spent those five hundred dollars.
“Your sister’s gonna come over later on and bring us dinner,” Dad said. “Shrimp and pasta.”
Yum. Nothing like cold shrimp and pasta, toted along in a Tupperware from forty-five minutes away. Claudia could hardly imagine a more festive birthday meal. It was bad enough she had forgotten her own birthday. Now she didn’t even get to choose which kind of takeout they would eat.
“Fine,” she said. It wasn’t worth arguing.
Nor was the food, when it came later that afternoon, worth eating. Two days Claudia had been home from the hospital, relying on her father to keep her fed, and she had yet to consume a single vegetable (unless you counted ketchup): White Castle, Popeyes, stromboli from the local pizzeria, and now—literally, just as Dad as warned—pasta and shrimp. Just pasta and shrimp. Had her sister Candace never heard of broccoli? It’s this weird flowery green thing that really livens up a dull pasta dish and adds, you know, nutrition and stuff.
“Sorry Alexis couldn’t make it,” Candace said. “She had bronchitis and I didn’t think she should risk getting you sick when you’re all cut up and vulnerable.”
She’d been watching the news too much—all that talk about “at-risk” groups and “vulnerable” individuals. Candace Carson would never have used the word vulnerable last week, before this virus became a big thing.
“That’s fine,” Claudia said. “Tell her Aunt Claudia says thanks for the cupcakes.”
“Yeah, I will.” Candace sighed. “She’s going to drive me crazy. Her school is closed as of tomorrow, they say for only fourteen days, but some of the mothers on the parents’ portal are saying they’ve heard it’s through the end of the school year. What am I supposed to do with a twelve-year-old for almost three months?”
Claudia wanted to say, you should’ve thought about that before you “forgot” to take your birth control pills, but it was her birthday and she was determined to be nice. Nobody likes a snarky birthday girl.
“I think you’re supposed to, like, teach her stuff.”
Candace scowled. “I have a job, you know.”
That was technically true, if you considered volunteering at your kid’s middle school twice a week to help the librarian shelve the books no kid had touched since the age of the internet a “job.” Not that Claudia could talk these days. Sure, the royalties from the book series she’d written (a decade ago) still paid (most of) the bills, even now, but the publisher had read the writing on the wall and decided not to produce any new books, either by Claudia or anybody else. These days, her only “job” was to make appearances and read her books to kids at schools and libraries (something that wouldn’t be happening for a long while, it appeared—thanks again, quarantine!). She also did a fair amount of writing—anonymous, dull, dreary articles for various online educational companies—but she didn’t count that as a “job.” Looking at her sister’s indignant face, she wondered if she should.
“The library’s still open even when the school’s closed?” Claudia asked. There: perfectly diplomatic, yet cutting straight to the point.
She saw Candace swallow. “Well, no, but that’s not the issue.”
“So how is Alexis feeling? Bronchitis must suck. But I guess it’s better than this virus.”
Candace sneered. “I suppose. But I’m telling you, this bronchitis she’s got is terrible. You don’t know the agony it is to watch your own child struggle to breathe.”
“It’s that bad?” Claudia asked, careful not to mention that she had seen a live video Alexis posted online just last night, where she was belting out some chirpy teeny-bopper song with all the lung capacity of Whitney Houston (not that Alexis would have any clue who Whitney Houston was).
“You know Alexis has asthma, and that complicates things,” Candace said, plucking at a nonexistent thread on the knee of her jeans. “You’ll never understand how traumatizing it can be to have a child with breathing issues.”
You’d think the kid was growing up in an iron lung, not that she had to suck on one of those puffers once a month or so. Claudia forced herself not to roll her eyes. What was it about having kids that turned people into drama queens? She had to say a silent thank-you to the universe for taking away her uterus. At least now she could be sure the transformation into a melodramatic nut would never happen to her.
“I bet,” Claudia finally said. She reached down and picked up the heavy gift bag on the floor. “Hey, is this for me?”
“Yeah, yeah, happy birthday,” Candace said. She had lost any interest in this family experience and was already scrolling on her phone—perhaps searching for a support group for the devastated parents of children with “breathing issues.”
“Do you want me to open it now?” Claudia asked.
Candace sighed. “It’s only some of those chocolates you like and a pack of bookmarks. Don’t bother dragging that stuff out.”
“Way to Carson the gift,” Claudia said.
Dad chuckled. It was something everyone on their family had always done: downplay the value of whatever gift they were presenting, just so they wouldn’t feel bad if the person didn’t seem overly thrilled about receiving it. They called it “Carsoning the gift.” It was a good thing he’d only had daughters, Dad used to say; they would’ve made terrible men, telling their soon-to-be fiancées how shitty the engagement rings they were about to open were.
“I need a cigarette,” Candace said, ignoring both Claudia and their father.
“I thought you quit,” Claudia said. She would have liked to expand, saying something along the lines of “How can you complain about your poor, tragic child with a breathing problem and also be filling your home with smoke for her to choke on?” But she kept her mouth shut and just flipped through the thick layers of tissue paper in the gift bag to locate the box of chocolates.
“I think, when the world is in upheaval, when my only sister had to have life-threatening surgery, when my child is struggling to breathe, when my job is on the line—I’m entitled to a little bit of a vice.”
“Course you are,” Claudia said, popping a chocolate into her mouth as Candace lit up. Everyone was entitled to a vice or two in a time of crisis.
For once, Candace was right.
It hadn’t been much of a birthday. In a way, she was glad she had forgotten about it. She didn’t mind getting older (much). Truth was, she liked herself better the older she got. Time seemed to be sanding down some of her rougher edges, making her more able to look past the small stuff and focus on the big things—like how grateful she was to have survived the surgery, something she’d been convinced would never happen. For the six weeks leading up to the operation, she had spent her days pretending to get ready for the anticipated six-week recovery period, but in fact, she’d been tying up loose ends, preparing for death. She wasn’t sure why she’d been so sure she would die, but the feeling had dropped over her shoulders like a cloak the moment Dr. Goodman had mentioned the words hysterectomy and general anesthesia. For whatever reason, they had merged in Claudia’s mind into one simple declaration: You are going to die.
It was something she’d never quite believed before. For other people, sure. Other people were (and should be) mortal. But Claudia Carson? Uh-uh. She was something special, always had been. She was smarter than anybody she’d ever met, nicer (if you could get past the snarkiness that always crept in when she was around her sister), harder working. No matter where she was—school, college, any of the jobs she’d held since—she was the go-to person, the problem solver, the one who could come up with something new and innovative to save the dance, save the semester, save the whole damn world, if need be. She was a doer, while most people were just talkers. Surely, someone like that couldn’t just disappear from the face of the Earth. Everybody always talks about how the world will go on once they’ve died, but in Claudia’s case, she truly couldn’t imagine it. She was always the one who fixed everything, the one who did all the work. The world would have no option but to grind to a halt (and an ugly one) if she weren’t around anymore.
As convinced as she was of her own immortality, though, something about the doctor’s pronouncement had changed everything. Suddenly, the immortal Claudia Carson was . . . just like everybody else. Helpless. Weak. Subject to the same biological whims and chances as the chatty idiot working the cashier stand at the grocery store or the guys wolf-whistling while they rode on the back of the garbage truck.
She was nobody special. And that was the most terrifying thought of all—way more terrifying than mere, simple death.
Luckily, she never got enough alone time to dwell too much on any of it. As aloof as her father had been pre-quarantine, he seemed to have become as needy as a preschooler since she’d returned from the hospital. Maybe, she thought, he was only being helpful, thinking she was the needy preschooler, in light of her invalid status. But no. Helpful people bring food and drink, ask if you need anything else. They don’t set up camp in front of your TV, asking questions about the show you’re streaming (in season six, so there’s exactly zero hope of helping them catch up with a brief summary of the plot). They don’t read the newspaper to you, when they know you read your news online. They don’t sit in awkward silence, solely to have the company. No, her dad wasn’t (just) taking care of her. He was using her as a replacement for his breakfast buddies at the diner, his bowling crew from the lanes, his baseball-card-collecting pals who used to hang out for hours every afternoon, poring over their latest finds.
Dad’s presence had nothing to do with her hysterectomy. He was just lonely, trapped (mostly) in the house under quarantine. She, on the other hand, had never felt happier—almost. For the first time in twenty years, she had time off from freelance work, no responsibilities, no guilt (and enough money in the bank to see her through it all—or so she hoped). Plus, also for the first time in many years, she could rest assured that her health was good. Years without health insurance had left her with a persistent, nagging doubt. No matter how she might feel at any given moment, there was always the underlying worry: Maybe I’ve got cancer. Or lupus. Or whatever the hell else might be hiding beneath the surface, waiting to pounce. Now she could actually say she was fully evaluated and healthy (if uterus-less). It was a feeling beyond relief.
“Hey,” Dad said, placing a full water bottle on the table in front of her. His vigilance at cleaning and refilling her reusable water bottles had become almost extreme. (She wondered vaguely if he might be developing OCD.) She had at least two bottles, thirty-two ounces a piece, in front of her at any given time. It was almost like he was trying to drown her—very, very slowly. Part of her wished he would knock it off already. Just having the water around gave her a bizarre compulsion to drink it, and she wasn’t overly keen on going to the bathroom these days. It didn’t hurt—not exactly. It just felt a little raw and empty, kind of like someone had taken an ice-cream scoop (or something) and scraped out her insides. (And hadn’t they?)
Dad sat down on the ottoman in front of the squishy leather chair she’d dragged down the basement steps back when she first moved in. It formed the cornerstone of the perfect reading nook: comfortable chair with the world’s softest throw blanket draped artfully across the back, a small stained-glass table just the right size for a steaming mug of tea or a glass of red wine to enjoy while reading, a floor lamp craned at exactly the right angle behind the chair for maximum reading light, and, of course, a low bookcase packed with all the books she’d been meaning to read in her “spare” time but hadn’t quite gotten around to yet.
She’d never used any of it.
“Ya heard the latest?” Dad asked, reaching down to scratch the dog’s ears. No matter how deeply asleep Bandit was, he always managed to drag himself off his nest of pillows on Claudia’s bed to greet his Pop-Pop. Sometimes Claudia wondered why her father considered himself his own dog’s “grandfather” and Claudia (who was involved with dog care only under protest) the dog’s “mama.”
“The latest about what?”
“The—ya know, this thing—the pandemic.”
“No, what’s the latest?”
“No more sports.”
“What, you mean forever?”
He shrugged. “Nah, I doubt it, but this season anyways. They say a fan at a basketball game caught the virus from one of the pro players.”
“That seems pretty unlikely,” Claudia replied. “Unless they’ve started using those T-shirt guns to spray pathogens on the crowd.”
“I thought it sounded strange.”
“That’s the problem, right there. The news just reports whatever sounds scariest and people believe it, without thinking first. The freakiest part is that FOX News seems the closest to being rational. What kind of world are we living in?”
Dad shrugged. “All I know is, everything’s been canceled. Baseball, basketball, hockey, the NCAA—”
“College basketball. You really don’t share any DNA with your sister, do ya? Anyways, all pro sports, canceled. No gatherings of fifty or more people.”
“Is that the federal government making the rules or states or what? I find it hard to believe this president would go in for that kind of thing. Wanting to promote business and capitalism, that’s what’s got all the bleeding hearts up in arms trying to get rid of him.”
“Speaking of which, that lady in Congress with the eyes—”
“The speaker of the house. Yeah, she’s obviously batshit crazy. Go on.”
“She was on the news this morning, saying she’s going to put in another one of those impeachment things.”
“Just what the country needs in the midst of a pandemic,” Claudia said. “Let’s ignore this deadly virus that’s going around and try to get the president out of office—which will happen on its own in six months without impeachment. You gotta hand it to these morons. They really know where the priorities lie.”
“At least some of the things I tried to teach ya got in your head,” Dad said. “Anyways, this fifty-person thing. That means no parties, no concerts, no movies, no nothing in public. No funerals, even.”
“Yikes. That’s going to destroy the economy. I mean, more than it already is.”
“I heard some of the big movie people, producers, whatever, are gonna be putting out new movies online, so they can still release ’em at the right time. Ya just won’t hafta go to the theater to see ’em.”
“Wow, maybe I’ll actually see a movie, then. It’s the theater experience—those sticky floors and the imbeciles who find it necessary to sit right next to or in front of you, even when the room is otherwise empty—that turns me off to the process. I haven’t seen a movie in . . . I think it’s almost ten years.”
“It’s probably been that long since I seen a movie, too,” Dad said.
“You went to that superhero movie last summer,” Claudia reminded him. It was little things like that—forgotten tidbits, times when he’d act like he never heard about plans—that made her wonder if maybe the “minor” stroke he’d had a few years back had been a little more “major” than the doctors, or even Dad himself, realized.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, but the look on his face told her he didn’t actually remember what she was talking about. And this, Claudia thought, was the person who was supposed to be taking care of her—her only line to the outside world during a pandemic. Yikes again.
“I bet the sports nuts are going crazy,” she finally said, just to fill the silence when it became clear Dad wasn’t going to do it.
“Really wish that guy’d bought my Jets season tickets last year,” Dad said. “If this thing ain’t over by the end of the summer, I’ll be out even more cash.”
The mention of money made her wonder exactly how much cash (as Dad always put it—and he did, in fact, always pay for things in cash, long after the rest of the world had switched to plastic or even swiping a phone app) there was. Growing up, a kid always had to assume there’s plenty of money (at least, the privileged ones in the suburbs did, and Claudia would never deny being among that fortunate group). As you got older, though, and knew more about what things cost and how hard it was to save, you had to ask: Was there really an inheritance coming your way someday, or was there just barely enough to keep your parents in adult diapers through their golden years (and maybe not even that)?
“Good lord,” she said. “It has to be over by football season. Doesn’t it?”
Dad shrugged. “Dunno. I’m startin’ to wonder if the Democrats’ll just ride this thing out straight through the elections, give that fossil they’ve got runnin’ a fightin’ chance.”
She had to love her father. Other than Aaron, she couldn’t imagine too many people automatically seeing a liberal conspiracy in a pandemic. Then again, there weren’t too many smart people left in the world in general.
Dad slapped his hands on his knees. “Ya want the usual? Everything bagel with cream cheese?”
Only three days in, and already the food choices were beginning to nauseate her—and it wasn’t like she could fend for herself, not for another four to six weeks.
This was going to be a long quarantine.
Having a basement apartment was lame enough for a forty-eight-year-old woman. Claudia sure as hell didn’t recommend it for one who’d just had a hysterectomy. Every time you had to go anywhere—to get a glass of water, or throw away a piece of trash—you had to traverse the dreaded stairs, which was nothing under normal circumstances, but could make you feel downright ancient (or way too young) when you had to take the steps one by one—one foot, one step; next foot, same step—like a toddler just learning how staircases work. Nothing could make you feel more like an invalid than taking twice as long to climb stairs as everybody else. She could almost see the appeal of those chair-lift things the elderly used in those old commercials. Almost.
Six days into the quarantine, Claudia was determined to get up the stairs like a normal person: one foot, one step; other foot, next step. This nonsense had gone on long enough. Internal stitches be damned. She was going to climb those stairs.
Okay, so maybe she relied too much on the handrail (way too much), but she did it. Now, if she could just strengthen her spine and ab muscles enough to stop waddling like a penguin, she’d really be on the road to recovery.
She found her father sitting on the front porch—still closed up with glass for the winter, even though it was technically a few days past the start of spring—smoking his cigar and idly picking up and then tossing aside pieces for a puzzle that looked pretty much impossible: intricate layers of flowers, all in a near-identical shade of pink. It was not the manliest puzzle she’d ever seen him do.
“Nice out,” he said, not bothering to actually look up and out the window to be sure he was speaking the truth.
“I see people are taking this shelter-in-place order seriously,” Claudia said. Leaning against the wall, she fought back a snarky smile as she watched the commotion on the running track around the football field across the street. Normally, at this time of year, the only action the track might see would be high school cross-country practice for precisely one hour after school let out in the afternoon. But today, in the midmorning sun, there had to be a few dozen people—thrilled with their status as “nonessential workers,” which meant they didn’t have to work anymore (they’d be rethinking their joy when they missed their first paycheck, she assumed)—walking or jogging around the track, all in clusters of at least three. At one end of the field, a bunch of people swung kettlebells, led by a half-naked woman in Spandex and a too-high ponytail. Even from here, well across the street and behind two panes of storm windows, you could hear them laughing. Claudia almost wished she could get out there and join them. Almost.
“Huh?” Dad said, finally looking up.
“The people,” she said, waving a hand toward the window. “On the track. Look. Over there. That’s a personal trainer leading a kettlebell class. I’m all for capitalism, but when they close the gyms for health reasons, my guess is you’re not supposed to start a new one outdoors. People are supposed to be staying at home to avoid spreading the virus, but instead they’re outside having a party.”
“Looks like they’re exercising.”
“Well, yeah, but—” She stopped herself. It wasn’t worth trying to explain. People who never worked out (like her father and, before today, all those people out there on the track) couldn’t comprehend that real exercise was a solitary activity. If you were doing it with other people—hell, she thought, if you were doing it in daylight—you were only in it for show. God, she missed her usual predawn run. You really didn’t get how much your body needed endorphins to stay sane until you were forced to sit on your ass most of the day, every day. It hadn’t even been a full week, and already she could feel her body drifting toward morbid obesity and her mind drifting toward the looney bin.
“What’s your plan for the day?” she asked, letting all the rest of it go.
“Gonna go over to Walmart and see if they’ve got any new puzzles,” Dad said. “This one’s a bitch.”
“Looks like it.”
“What about you?” he asked.
“Seriously? What can I do?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. What do ya normally do?”
“I work, Dad. I work on weekdays.” And weekends, she thought. And holidays. Come to think of it, before this little bout of possible uterine cancer, she couldn’t remember the last time she took a full day off. April, she thought it was. Yeah, it had been Aaron’s birthday—six, no, seven years ago. Wow. That was sad. There was a distinct possibility she was a bit of a workaholic. But good thing: If she hadn’t spent all those years working too much, she’d never have been able to finally get health insurance and get this uterine mass thing taken care of. Small blessings.
Speaking of which . . .
“You know, the doctor never came to see me in the hospital,” she said.
“In the hospital? After my surgery. Doesn’t the doctor usually come and see you the next day, to go over everything with you, let you know how it went?”
“I thought she said it went okay when you first woke up,” Dad said.
“She did. But I was just out of anesthesia, still groggy. I thought she’d come the next day, or at least send some nurse or somebody, to go over the details with me before I went home. Back when I had my appendix out, the surgeon came to see me the next day and told me all about it. And that was twenty years ago. You’d think communication would be even better these days. I mean, at least I’d get an update email or something. Like, I still haven’t heard if they got the pathology report back. I mean, what the hell was this thing?”
“She said it probably wasn’t cancer.”
“Probably isn’t definitely,” she said, hating how the mere act of saying it out loud sent a shiver up her spine. “I’d like to know for sure. Of course, I’m hoping this is one of those ‘no news is good news’ type of situations.”
“I’m sure it is. If it was cancer, they’d tell ya right away. They’d wanna get ya started on chemo or whatever.”
“Yeah, but . . .” She sighed. This was not the kind of world where you could deal in “normal” and “usually.” “What if the hospital’s just been so busy with all these virus cases that they forgot to run my pathology? What if I do have cancer and they just threw it out with the day’s medical waste and now I won’t know until it’s too late?”
“That doesn’t sound like a real thing,” Dad said.
But what did he know? He’d never even been in the hospital, except to visit someone else. Back when she and Candace were born, their mother had told her once, he didn’t even wait to hear how things went. In those days, expectant fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room (man, she was feeling even older now), but most men—the ones who gave a crap, you figured—hung around the waiting room to make sure mother and baby were doing all right. Their dad? Had waited for the good news at the local bar. At least, that’s what their mom had always said, and there was no reason to doubt her. Except for the whole bitter divorce thing . . .
“I’m gonna call Mom, see how she’s doing with this quarantine stuff,” Claudia said.
“Tell her I say hi.”
Sure I will, Dad, she thought, though she had exactly zero intention of doing so. Why get her mother started on a rampage? It was bad enough she’d refused to come up to see Claudia through surgery, just because it would mean seeing Dad. Claudia didn’t need to hear the bitching and moaning over the phone. Even as a kid, she had felt like the adult in the family, at least when it came to relations between her mom and dad. Some hurts, she guessed, just never went away. She’d tell them to grow up, but she could understand it. After all, she’d never get past what her own ex had done, not even if he showed up at her door one day with an apology and the quarter million dollars he’d stolen from her bank account. Plus interest.
Getting back down the stairs was easier (a little) than getting up them. She settled onto her bed with her belly pillow on top of her and pulled up her mother’s number on the phone.
“How’re you feeling?”
That was Mom for you—no hello, no small talk, just dive right in.
“I’m fine,” Claudia said.
“You sure? When I had my gallbladder out, I could barely stand upright for weeks.”
“I’m definitely waddling, but it’s not so bad. How are you?”
“Rumor has it we’re going on lockdown tomorrow,” Mom said.
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“Just what it sounds like: nobody in, nobody out.”
“How will you get things, like food and whatnot?” Claudia asked.
“Supposedly, they’re going to bring us meals—three times a day. That can’t be good. I know this is technically just an adult retirement community, but let’s be real. They’ve got a hospital here, for when you can’t stay in your apartment anymore. And if they’ve got a hospital, they’ve got hospital food. And something tells me they know how to use it.”
“You make it sound like a weapon.”
They sat in silence for an uncomfortably long time, making Claudia remember why she so rarely called her mother. The woman was just not a phone person. Not that Claudia was, either. Claudia wouldn’t consider herself a social person in any respect. She kept catching herself thinking that if it hadn’t been for the surgery, if she could’ve gotten around as easily as usual, she would be loving this quarantine time—free time to read and write and relax, maybe catch a few movies she’d missed, all while eating too much chocolate and maybe drinking some wine. Hey, why wasn’t she drinking wine? She hadn’t bothered to buy any before surgery, figuring the doctors would load her up with months’ worth of antibiotics, but nope. Other than the Oxy (which she’d stopped taking on day three), they hadn’t given her any meds at all. There was no real reason she couldn’t drink—except, of course, for the inherent clumsiness that came with booze. And there was the rub—Claudia would probably have one glass of Cab and fall down, tearing herself to pieces.
“So,” Claudia said. “Um. Been going to any of those clubs and activities they’ve got there?”
“Maybe I would be, if they were having anything.”
“Don’t tell me—everything’s canceled because of this virus.”
“You got it,” she said. “I guess you can’t blame them. I’m seventy-seven and seem to be the youngest person here by about twenty-five years. You know I’m no great walker, but I’m the only one here who can get around without some kind of help, whether it’s a wheelchair or a cane.”
“Are you regretting moving there?” Claudia hated herself for asking—her mom had only been living at the retirement village since the fall, and here we were, barely mid-March, and she was already sounding like she wanted to bail.
Her mother sighed. “I can’t say, I guess. I’m certainly not enjoying it, and I doubt it’s about to get a whole lot better, once this lockdown starts. The food isn’t great to begin with.”
“Don’t they have three restaurants?”
Mom chuckled. “Sure, that’s what they tell you when you’re looking at the place. And I guess it’s technically true. There’s the fast-food place, where they have what’s basically gas-station-style soups and sandwiches. I’ve had better at Wawa.”
“Yikes. Wawa’s the worst.”
“Second worst. Then, there’s the ‘casual-dining’ place, where they serve the same menu as the fast-food section, but a waitress—some kid from the local high school—brings your food to your table so you don’t have to stand in line.”
“It’s literally in the same room as the fast food?”
“No, no, that would be dishonest,” Mom said. “It’s next door. Same kitchen, though.”
“Dare I ask about the third restaurant?”
“Oh, absolutely. That’s the ‘fine-dining’ place. It’s basically a big cafeteria, where you sit and get served a menu of wedding-style entrees—things like chicken piccata and shrimp scampi, always cold, for some reason. The servers are the same surly kids who work at the casual dining room, but there are more of them and they’re much slower. Oh, and everything comes on paper plates. And the wine—they have a liquor license, if you can believe it—comes in those miniature plastic Dixie cups, so you get, maybe, two ounces.”
“If the fine-dining food comes on paper plates, what the hell do they serve the casual fare on?”
“Nothing. You just eat it from the paper wrapper or Styrofoam container, whatever it comes in.”
“Yowza, I’m sorry. It’s like they think older people don’t give a crap about food.”
“That’s the thing: I don’t think most of them do. Everybody else here raves about the dining rooms, and they can’t stop saying, ‘Can you believe it’s all free?’ They don’t seem to realize that the fifteen hundred bucks we all pay each month for our food plan means the food isn’t free.”
Wrap it up, Claudia told herself. Staying on the phone any longer with Mom will only make you even more bitter and irritated than you already are. Get off the phone and go upstairs and sit on the porch and watch the people on the track. Even if you can’t be out there, enjoying the fresh air and the sunlight and the exercise, you can pretend to, you can live vicariously through all those silly fools who don’t understand what “stay at home” means.
And so she did. She told her mother she’d call again in a few days to check in, accepted a scolding for forgetting to play her turn in the Words with Friends game they had going, and then she went upstairs and sat on the porch with a cup of tea and watched her fellow Americans frolic in the early spring.
The next day, a maintenance guy from the high school went around and padlocked all the gates, closing off access to the track, the playground, the basketball courts.
“Nothing like taking away the taxpayers’ access to the fields they pay for,” she muttered.
“Fucking government grinches,” Dad said.
And he was kind of right.
She probably should have taken a painkiller. But she was too proud for that. Even in the hospital, both this time and back when she had her appendectomy, years and years ago, she had refused the morphine. In her mind, morphine was something you gave to Civil War soldiers about to get a limb amputated. Somebody with a perfectly clean, neatly sewn line of a wound in her belly didn’t need anything stronger than an aspirin. Not that they’d give you and aspirin, of course—all that paranoia about bleeding. But really, when it came down to it, aspirin was the only thing that ever even kind of worked. All the other OTC garbage—ibuprofen, acetaminophen, whatever else they had—might as well have been Chiclets.
Anybody else in her situation would have taken something. But was she in pain? Not really. Discomfort, sure. It was inherently uncomfortable to have a chunk taken out of your midsection. But could she say it hurt? Nope. Pain was something else, and she felt like nobody seemed to comprehend that. Like, in the hospital—they’d asked her, fresh out of surgery, as soon as she got to her room, before the spinal they’d given her had even come close to wearing off, when she was barely out of general anesthesia, to rate her pain on a scale of one to ten.
“I’m not having any pain,” she’d replied. And it was the truth. People who still can’t move their legs because they had an epidural generally aren’t feeling a whole lot of agony in the lower body, where her pain would have been located.
“Excellent,” Nurse Kim had said, heading straight to the whiteboard in front of Claudia’s bed and circling the “2” on the pain scale illustrated there.
“Two means some pain,” Claudia argued. “I’m at a zero.”
“Nobody’s at zero. Ever. Just living life is a one,” Kim said.
Kim was dead wrong. Pain did have a sliding scale, but it wasn’t the low end that was off. It was the high end.
The way Claudia saw it, a ten on the pain scale was intolerable pain. Literally. It was the sort of pain that just killed you outright because your body and brain had no way of processing its severity. Not many people ever reached a ten, and for that, we should all be grateful.
A nine on the scale was the kind of pain so intense, the doctors had to put you in a medically induced coma for weeks or months or years—otherwise, you’d quickly ramp up to a ten and drop dead.
An eight was the kind of pain where you passed out on your own. Maybe there were no narcotics involved, but your body knew the pain was bad and took over, causing long-lasting (and, yeah, sometimes permanent) unconsciousness or coma.
A seven was the kind of pain that caused incessant screaming. You can’t feel such a pain and not scream. It’s that bad. And the longer you scream, the more the pain amps up (perhaps even to a nine, where the medically induced coma comes into play—because nobody wants to listen to some freak screaming in pain).
A six was the kind of pain you could tolerate with only intermittent screams and groans. So, something like childbirth (that is, childbirth with some complications—breech presentation or some such) might reach a six. But not regular childbirth. That comes in at a four, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A five on the pain scale is the kind of pain that makes you cry. You just can’t control the tears because you’re hurting too much.
A four, as we’ve established, is pain like ordinary, complication-free childbirth, or perhaps a severely broken bone. It hurts, sure, but you can handle it without disassociating from your body or passing out. You almost never see a woman crying in the maternity ward—cursing out her boyfriend, maybe, but no tears. With level four pain, you’re still perfectly aware of what’s going on around you and can hold a conversation with only a few pain-inspired interruptions.
A three is something like a through-and-through gunshot wound—painful in the moment, but it fades pretty quickly.
A two is long-term pain, things like arthritis or migraines that come and go. They suck briefly but you can deal with them (if you’re not a giant baby like most people).
And a one is something minor, like a stubbed toe or a papercut—“pains” that would more accurately be described as “discomforts.”
Claudia, right there in the hospital, an hour after surgery, was firmly at a zero, and she hated the way the hospital—staffed by medical professionals who should know better and should be even more familiar with the proper pain scale than she was—was encouraging her to be a wuss.
“I’ll see about getting you a late lunch tray,” Kim said, and breezed out of the room.
Now, over a week later, she was no longer at a zero, but (unlike what all the books and websites about hysterectomy had warned) she wasn’t at anything above a one or a two, either. Mostly, she just felt a little tired, and her head was stuffy. Somehow, she noticed as she stared out at the now-empty playing fields and track across the street, spring had arrived this past week while she was stuck in the house. The trees were flowering and the grass turning emerald green. The world was prettier than it had been the last time she’d taken the time to pay attention to it, but with the beauty came the pollen—or whatever the hell else was out there, sneaking in through the poorly sealed basement windows and clogging up Claudia’s sinuses. Allergy season was kicking off, hard, and here she was, not allowed to take anything for them. It said right in her hospital discharge instructions: “Discontinue Benadryl and multivitamins until further notice.” Yeah, that sounded logical. Let’s force the invalid to fight to breathe—but give her all the opioids she could ever ask for. And these idiot doctors wondered why there was a heroin epidemic in this country.
Her phone pinged, distracting her. Text message from Luciana, one of the women in her writing group. She’d joined last fall as a lark—and because she realized she was going to die alone in this basement if she didn’t get out and meet some people besides her father and Aaron the Absent. Mostly, the group was made up of bored housewives: the kind of women who’d never really had a job outside of raising kids and were looking to fill their empty nests with hobbies and long-put-off dreams. Claudia was the only one of the twenty-some members (only a handful of whom ever bothered to show up for a meeting) who had ever published a book. Sometimes, she suspected that she might be the only one of them who had ever actually read a book. But they were sweet. They’d taken her for a “good luck on your hysterectomy” lunch the weekend before her surgery and chipped in to buy her a plush stuffed uterus (you really could buy anything on Amazon these days). As little as she had in common with the women in the group (outside of their shared hour writing in the library once a week), she was grateful to have them.
Luciana was the group’s leader, though last month, she’d asked Claudia to be her substitute in case she ever had to miss a meeting.
“Sit in silence and write for an hour, then let everybody know when the time is up?” Claudia had asked. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can handle that.”
Now, she swiped over to the text message to see what Luciana had to say.
“I know you are still recover from surgery, but we do meeting on video today. Library closed indefinitely. 2:00, same as always, if you feel like join us. Two new people sign up. Bravo!”
Claudia sighed. Sit at the computer and write for an hour? It sounded like the opposite of getting some rest, which is what she was supposed to be doing. And write what? She didn’t have any assignment for work, and it wasn’t like she was a “real” writer—the kind who always had a novel or short story on the back burner. Just for a comparative metaphor: If the novelists she loved to read were highly paid French-sword-bearing executioners (like the one who’d beheaded Anne Boleyn), then Claudia was the heavyset, cannoli-eating hitman hired by the mob to send somebody off to sleep with the fishes. Both got the job done, but they were in decidedly different classes.
But still. This quarantine could last a while, and it might be nice to see a face other than her father’s, even if it was just over the computer. Besides, just this morning, she’d read a news report that said the governor was already threatening to extend the fourteen-day shelter-in-place order to thirty days, despite the fact that the infection rate had already dropped like a hot rock. Unlike the twenty percent death rate all the media talking heads had predicted just two weeks ago, the numbers were showing the mortality rate at under three percent and falling fast—and so far, they’d only been testing people who were showing symptoms of the virus. One study she read declared universal testing would likely reveal a mere 0.02 percent death rate—less than what you’d expect to see with the common cold. Not that these facts and figures did much of anything to quell the hysteria. Then again, as far as Claudia could tell, most of the news stations weren’t letting people see the real numbers. Only people (like her) with a science background even knew where to find the truth, buried in the fine print of scientific journals. Everybody else was forced to accept what the networks were telling them, no matter how outlandish or obviously misconstrued just to up the ratings. Just a little while ago, she’d seen CNN hyping a fifty percent mortality rate forecast. That’s right: According to them, this virus (which so far had only killed the very elderly and people with severe immune conditions) was going to be worse than the Black Death. You had to hand it to these assholes in the media (and politics): They didn’t mind being totally immoral if it meant they could create a sensation.
Huh, she thought. Maybe she did have something to write about: some kind of dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future, showing what happens when a radical segment of government—not even the party in power—gets out of hand and uses terror to exert authoritarian control over a supposedly free and democratic people. You couldn’t deny that, right now, as they closed the economy and forced people to restrict their movement, the Democrats pretty much had the Nazis beat by a mile (as her dad would say).
Wow, she realized with a shiver of excitement, she could show it all (and, thanks to her professional credentials, she’d also have the science and history to back it up). Was this what it felt like to be a real writer and feel a flash of inspiration? She had to admit, she kind of liked it.
For a second, though, she stopped. She realized with a shock that she’d never (at least since college) written anything meant to be read by an adult. But then again, did it matter? She was used to dumbing down complicated ideas to appeal to children. She supposed she could dumb things down even further to appeal to those kids’ parents.
“Sounds good,” she typed back to Luciana. “See you online at two. You’ll send me the link?”
Three fluttering dots and then: “Si, certo. 😊”
It wasn’t much, but it was the first time since the operation that Claudia had felt motivated to engage in anything more strenuous than a Netflix binge. But there was a downside: Now she was going to have to take a shower.
At quarter to two, she logged on to the virtual meeting website. Luciana was already there, Mom-like as ever: cropped salt-and-pepper hair, long-sleeved T-shirt and mismatched cardigan, glasses, no makeup. It killed Claudia the way so many straight women complained that they couldn’t find a man after their divorce, yet they went into social situations looking like they just rolled out of bed. Or, more accurately, like a homeless person who just rolled out of a refrigerator box. Even Luciana’s drop-dead-sexy Italian accent couldn’t compensate for the nouveau-bag-lady look. It was a bitter, nasty thought to have about your friend, Claudia knew, but she couldn’t help it. After all, she was a week and a half past major abdominal surgery and yet she’d managed to slip on a pretty navy-blue polka-dot dress, tame her wild curls, and put on at least a little foundation, concealer, blush, eyeliner and mascara, brow definer, and lipstick—you know, the bare essentials. And technically, Claudia had a boyfriend. She had nobody to impress.
“Hey there!” Luciana said. “Come stai? You look fantastic!”
“For the walking dead, you mean.”
“How you feel? Lots of pain?”
“Not at all. Whoever said you need six weeks to recover from abdominal hysterectomy must’ve been a big wimp.”
“Don’t say it when Gladys come.”
“That old lady who came to group in February? She’s back?”
“Supposedly.” Technically, Luciana said “Supposably,” and Claudia did her best to keep smiling and not cringe. At least Luciana had the “English as a second language” thing as an excuse; most regular old Americans pronounced it (and lots of other things) wrong and couldn’t say the same. “We see if she actually show up. But she tell me she have hysterectomy twenty year ago—laparoscopic, you know—and she take twelve weeks get back to normal.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you got some crazy strong abs.”
“You’d never know it to see me naked, I promise you. And I weighed myself. For as big as the doctor said this mass was going to be, I’ve only lost five pounds.”
“That seem like a lot to me.”
“Yeah, but I was kind of hoping this uterine mass was the only thing making me fat. Turns out, all those cupcakes I’ve been eating may have also played a role.”
“Hello!” Karen burst in, her video feed trembling as she came into focus. “Oh, my goodness, this is so much fun!”
“We do this every week,” Claudia said.
“Not on video,” Karen replied. “Wow, how cool! I can see you both. We’re in boxes just like on The Brady Bunch.”
Claudia had to smile at that. She would’ve thought Karen would be too old to have been a Brady Bunch fan.
One by one, the regulars—including Gladys, who couldn’t figure out the video aspect of the virtual meeting room, despite Luciana’s best efforts at offering heavily accented IT support—arrived. And then the two new people popped up. They were both men—and not terrible-looking, either.
Not that Claudia was on the market. Or was she?
Aaron hadn’t called or even texted since her birthday—and sure, that was less than a week ago, but she had just had major surgery, not to mention these weren’t ordinary times. Shouldn’t your boyfriend of almost ten years be checking in every day during a pandemic, just to make sure you were, you know, still alive and all?
The thing was, she didn’t even know if she wanted to talk to Aaron. Sometimes, just seeing his name pop up on her phone or tablet sucked all the energy out of her. It was exhausting to listen to him drone on and on about IT work—especially when she took into account the way he treated her work, like he couldn’t imagine anything duller. And that brought her to the gist of things: This summer would mark three years since the day Aaron chose to accept a last-minute invitation to his buddy’s backyard barbecue instead of going with Claudia to a big science writing conference he’d known about for six months, where she was the keynote speaker. She’d been more terrified than honored when the organizer contacted her and offered the slot. Writers, in general, aren’t the most extroverted people (and, in Claudia’s experience, those who were outgoing couldn’t write for shit), and she was probably even more hermit-like than average. But who would turn down such an invitation? With her publisher not putting out new titles, Claudia could use whatever exposure she could still get—and, for a regional science writing conference, this one had been a pretty big deal.
Aaron had sounded excited when she first told him about it.
“We’ll get a hotel,” he said. “Spend the night away, get a fancy dinner and some drinks. It’ll be great. It’s not like we get a lot of alone time since we’ve been living in different states. We could use some . . . quiet time, if you know what I mean.”
A normal guy would have been “meant” sex, but she knew Aaron was more likely talking about a bubble bath, a nap, and maybe a visit to a cigar bar. Still, she couldn’t argue: It would be nice to get out of her dad’s basement for a day. Which was why she was so disappointed when Aaron canceled on her the night before the conference, leaving her to face the keynote crowd all on her own, and with a nonrefundable deluxe hotel suite with spa tub and private courtyard, where (after the conference was over) she sobbed quietly while sucking down half a box of wine and coming to terms with the fact that Aaron couldn’t be her boyfriend anymore. You don’t stay with a man who bails out on your biggest career moment in a decade to chow down on a rack of ribs with his grade-school pal, someone he saw at least every week.
Of course, she hadn’t ever told Aaron that. She saw him so rarely, and it was the kind of conversation you had to have in person. And what was the sense in dumping him if there wasn’t a viable contender already waiting for her affections? The truth was, Aaron had pretty much become Claudia’s only long-term friend (funny how your pals seemed to disappear as the years flew by). There just didn’t seem to be any reason to burn a bridge without good cause. Plus, there was the fact that Aaron maintained her author website for free. She didn’t relish the idea of having to find a new IT guy. Or, worse, having to pay one.
So, no. She wasn’t looking. But as she watched the interesting new faces on the video screen, she realized she could be.
There was an email waiting for her when she got up the next morning at five, same as always. Even under quarantine, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, she couldn’t get her body to stay in bed until dawn.
The message was from one of the two new guys on her writers’ meetup. It read simply (and awkwardly): “It was tremendous meeting you yesterday.”
She would have ignored it, maybe even deleted it (because, really, tremendous? Who said that?), but she caught the time stamp on the email: 4:47 a.m. That meant this guy wasn’t some night-owl loser dashing off drunk-dial-style emails to chicks before crashing into bed sometime after midnight. Nope—this guy was, like Claudia herself, a predawn, early bird–style loser, and that sort of made all the difference.
She hit reply and immediately hated herself for not rereading her message before hitting send: “Back at you.”
It was awful, but then again, a guy who told a stranger it was “tremendous” to meet her didn’t have a whole lot of scoffing room. For now, she’d just let it go. And if this guy—Berk, his name was (short for Berkeley, he’d said: another red flag warning her away)—had any sense, he’d let it go, too. They could try again at next week’s meeting and maybe not be complete dorks.
What did she really know about this guy anyway? They’d only “met” once, and that was online, both of them in tiny squares on a screen (Karen was right; it did look like The Brady Bunch). As far as she knew for sure, he had only a head and shoulders. There was no reason not to suspect that his body ended at the lower torso (which, she suddenly realized, would make it easier to get out of dating him).
He had mentioned in passing that he was a traditionally published novelist and a libertarian—which was better than any of the other political possibilities, she had to admit. But it didn’t mean anything, really. Lots of people said they were libertarians. There were plenty of people who said it just because they liked drugs. And there was a big difference between believing in being allowed to exercise your freedom and just being a pothead.
She needed to stop thinking about this.
It was Sunday morning, and that always left Claudia feeling restless. On a normal weekend, back in the long, long ago, she would have used a lazy Sunday morning to take her time nursing a pot of tea, scrolling through the news and the latest science updates, looking halfheartedly for article ideas. She’d curl up and pore through her datebook (a real, hardcopy one bound in soft teal leather—she liked to kick her scheduling old school), planning out her projects for the week, and then paging through her favorite recipe books (also hard copy; some things just don’t work digitally, no matter what the millennials, who didn’t ever cook, tried to tell you), coming up with possibilities for the week’s dinners, so she could make a grocery list (and be sure her dad didn’t order in pizza every single night). It was ritualistic, nearly OCD, but it was a routine that had worked for her for years. Unfortunately, this virus had swept her comforting routine away. What was there to write in a datebook when you couldn’t work (okay, so maybe in this case, the hysterectomy was at least partly to blame)? And how could you plan a grocery list when you weren’t allowed to shop?
She was just starting to let herself feel a little depressed at the state of affairs when her email pinged. Berk was back.
“Sorry if I seem like a pest, but I had a great time talking to you yesterday. It’s a nice group and all, but I feel like you and I were the only ones speaking the same language, if that makes any sense.”
It did make sense. Unlike the rest of the group (including the other new guy—a burly and too-sexy twenty-something black guy named Ashton), Berk was a published writer. For the first time since joining the group six months ago, Claudia wasn’t the only one whose eyes didn’t go all deer in the headlights when terms like pub date or advance review copies came up. Everybody else pretty much got lost in the mire trying to figure out whether to use first- or third-person point of view—they hadn’t come anywhere close to mastering the basic craft of writing, much less reaching the stage of getting published (and trying to figure out how the hell to survive afterward). Claudia had to admit, it had been nice yesterday to have someone who got it, the whole publishing shit show, on a deeper level. It didn’t exactly make her and Berk soul mates, but it was a start—and these days, she could use whatever inkling toward friendship (real or virtual) she could come by.
Then again, she wasn’t sure she wanted to encourage him. She’d known the guy less than twenty-four hours and already she could see the usual pattern unfolding: He’d pretend to be interested in friendship, acting like they had so much in common, and then little by little, he’d try to increase the intimacy until his text messages were full of innuendo or even turned outright gross. (The last guy she met, through a local hiking group, had gone from friendly to talking about sucking her toes in under five days—a new record.) Sooner rather than later, he’d cross the line, get too aggressive, and annoy her enough to shut the whole thing down. And then she’d never be able to go back to the writing group, for fear of running into him.
It happened every time.
Still, she had to admit that she liked him, as much as she ever liked any person right off the bat, but she realized suddenly that she was assuming one thing she shouldn’t, couldn’t, assume: She was assuming that, because he’d been published, he was a good writer. It was a dangerous assumption these days—probably always had been. After all, somebody had thought Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison were good enough writers to publish, and that was clearly not true. If Berk couldn’t write, if he was just another talentless loser cranking out formulaic drivel for one of the Big Five publishers or some obscure small press (okay, yeah, kind of like the one that published her books), how was she supposed to respect him enough to be friendly? It was sad how many obstacles there were when it came to getting close to a person.
The only way to know whether he was a friend worth pursuing (beyond the hour of chat at writing group meetings each week) was to read one of his books. The thought filled her with dread. But, like a visit to the dentist at least once every decade, it was something that needed to be done. She was just clicking over to Amazon to see if she could order a cheap(ish) copy of one of his titles when her phone pinged again.
“No pressure, I swear to the nonexistent gods, but it you want to read my latest book, I’d love your feedback. Here’s an ebook copy. I can send you a paperback, if you’d rather have that.”
She smiled. It wasn’t often that the universe—or God (unlike Berk, she wasn’t arrogant enough to be an outright atheist)—answered your requests so quickly.
She typed back: “Happy to, thanks. Just be warned, it might take me a while.”
He replied: “No rush. I’m sure you’re busy. And did you say you just had surgery?”
Ugh. How did you deal with this sort of thing? Claudia prided herself on never lying (at least not outright—when you were a writer, there was always a way to craft your words to avoid a lie, while also avoiding the total truth, when necessary). Even if she wasn’t looking for romance. she’d prefer not to come out and tell a virtual stranger about her missing uterus and fallopian tubes. Who wanted somebody you barely knew picturing your girly bits (even if they were the internal bits, which weren’t exactly sexy, even when they were working)? Unfortunately, the operation had left her more easily fatigued than usual, and she just didn’t have the energy to come up with a fancy falsehood.
“Yeah,” she wrote, “just had a hysterectomy. Not a big deal.”
God, she could be such an idiot.
“Sorry,” he wrote. “Hope you feel better soon.”
“So what’s the book about?” she typed back, hoping she didn’t come across too needy, like she didn’t want the conversation to end on the logical note of his last message (even though that was precisely what was going on). “What kind of stuff do you write?”
She watched the flickering dots on her screen, dreading the answer, which (she realized now) could, for all she knew, be “graphic porn depicting human versus animal rape.” Or, worse, sci-fi/fantasy.
The answer came back: “I write horror. But progressive horror.”
“Dare I ask what the hell that is?” She’d been working in publishing over twenty years and had never heard of any such thing. Of course, she tried to stick to “real” writing, not genre stuff, which tended to be (for lack of a better word) garbage-y.
“It’s horror without the usual tropes, like vampires, zombies, and ghosts. So you’re left with the truly scary things, like the stuff that could really happen.”
It wasn’t a terrible answer (though she bristled at the word trope), but still, he was a genre writer. Okay, so technically, she was, too, as a children’s writer and a science writer, but she always liked to think she’d be able to write something better, more timeless—something important enough not to be confined to one narrow category (and, therefore, one narrow audience of closed-minded, inflexible readers). In her opinion, anybody writing strictly within a genre—any genre—was limiting him- or herself, and bringing down the level of literature in general. After all, wasn’t the whole point of writing not to entertain a handful of weirdos for a few minutes but to produce a great work (à la Jane Austen or Herman Melville) that people would still be dying to read hundreds or even thousands of years from now?
Then again, Berk was giving her a free book, and when you were stuck at home sheltering in place, unable to browse the local bookstore, you took whatever reading material you could get. For now, though, she wasn’t going to start reading. She wanted to at least pretend for a little while that this was a normal Sunday and curl up with her tablet and a cup of tea and catch up on what was going on in the world—if anything was going on, besides all this virus bullshit.
It didn’t take long before she realized her mistake. As close as she got to re-creating her Sunday routine—PJs, cozy blanket draped over her legs, steaming mug of green tea—she had forgotten one thing: You just couldn’t account for the effects of a pseudo-plague. Where, once, she’d be scrolling through photos of “hottest vacation spots” or “best books of the season,” now there wasn’t any news—not even the ads (all for surgical masks in whimsical patterns)—not related to the virus. The more she looked, the more irritated she became. Yes, this was a serious situation, and she understood the need to educate the public, but these little catchphrases the media were coming up with were borderline nauseating. “Stay home, stay safe.” “Be a hygiene hero.” The longwinded “thank-yous” to everyone, from doctors and nurses to the truck drivers bringing toilet paper to stores. Worst of all was the ubiquitous phrase “flatten the curve.” The idea was that, by keeping people from coming into contact, the standard bell curve that governs most things (including pandemic infection) would flatten out and spare the hospitals, keeping the medical professionals from being overwhelmed or running out of resources like ventilators. It was a reasonable enough concept, but the constant repetition of the phrase was beginning to wear on Claudia’s nerves. She had reached the point where she was pretty sure she’d be forced to flatten the curves of the next person who spoke the phrase—with a baseball bat.
She sighed. It didn’t bode well that she was already experiencing homicidal fantasies less than two weeks into quarantine.
Upstairs, the TV popped on with a roar. Clear as day, she could tell it was the Sunday morning news program her dad preferred. One thing about living with an elderly person: You could always tell what they were watching on television from any room in the house, since they kept the volume so ludicrously high. Had this been a real apartment and her father a random upstairs neighbor—and had Claudia been physically capable, just over a week after surgery—she’d be reaching for a broom right about now to pound against the ceiling. Instead, she reached for her remote and clicked up the volume on her own TV a few notches. She wondered if this was all part of some master plan of her dad’s, to make his daughter as deaf as he was, as if time and age wouldn’t work that magic all on their own. They’d certainly done the trick for Dad.
She kept scrolling, reading more about how the high school dropouts and ex-cons who worked stocking shelves at the local grocery store were being hailed as heroes. There were calls to raise their pay. In fact, the speaker of the house was quoted as saying, “Fifty dollars an hour is only fair for these brave souls risking their lives to keep us supplied.”
It was insanity—and not even true. If you couldn’t purchase toilet paper (and Dad has assured her that the shelves were, indeed, empty), then these so-called “heroes” weren’t actually doing the job. What was the world coming to when a science writer like Claudia with a master’s degree and over two decades of experience wasn’t considered as valuable as the acne-ridden teenager who deigned to put a few boxes on shelves between his regularly scheduled weed breaks?
She hit the sleep button on the tablet and tossed it aside. Enough “news” for one day. If she kept this up, she’d have no choice but to head over to the local Stop and Shop to start changing people’s minds about what and who was valuable. And she’d have to do it with an Uzi.
Wow, she thought. That’s an ugly idea, even for me. Suddenly, something occurred to her and she reached for her datebook. Sure enough, today would have marked the beginning of her irritable, tension-filled PMS days—if, of course, she still had a menstrual cycle. Fun fact: PMS lives in the ovaries. She had kind of hoped she’d lose the P and S once the M was out of the picture. Still, it was good to know she wasn’t just becoming a bitter old crone.
She leaned back against her stack of pillows, thinking maybe she could get in a short nap. As if. Less than a minute later, she could already feel her limbs twitching for something to do. She had never been one for “leisure time.” A few years back, Aaron had surprised her with a deluxe, all-day trip to a local spa/salon, with a whole range of prepaid (tips included) services: a facial, some sort of coffee-based body scrub (huh?), a special steam shower (on which she severely burned her finger), mani/pedi, and, of course, haircut and color. He had dropped her off at nine a.m. when the salon opened and come back to retrieve her eight hours later, only to find her scowling and murderous. She had hated every minute of the enforced “do-nothing-ness.” The spa employees had confiscated (that was the only appropriate word) the trashy novel Claudia had brought along, hoping to use the long, boring hours of being poked and buffed and scrubbed to get some guilty-pleasure reading done. At the very first treatment, the facialist had plucked the book out of Claudia’s hand, thrust it at the receptionist, and said, “Make sure she gets this back when she leaves, but not before.” She’d turned to Claudia and said, “This spa isn’t for studying; you’re supposed to relax.” As if she’d been planning to “study” anything more complex than the abs of the hunky pirate on the book’s cover.
It seemed to be a symptom of ever-encroaching socialism when people felt entitled to tell you what you found relaxing. And for Claudia, eight hours of listening to the gossip of vapid, former high school cheerleaders whose grandest ambition had been to do fancy nails was in no sense relaxing.
“I appreciate the thought,” she’d told Aaron as she waddled to the car with duck-feet-like foam pedicure flip-flops on her feet. “But never make me do that again.”
Now, sitting on her bed, Claudia wondered how she’d even survive her surgical recovery if she didn’t have plenty to keep her neurons firing.
She reached for her tablet again and, with a lump of dread denser than a matzoh ball in her gut, swiped over to Berk’s book. Maybe it was silly genre nonsense, but at least it would give her something to do.
An hour later, she had to admit she was pleasantly surprised. Berk’s prose was clear and serviceable, technically proficient. His plot (though farfetched, like pretty much all genre fiction) was well enough thought out, and the dialogue smooth, if not overly realistic. She got the impression that he was modeling his characters’ conversations more on what he’d seen in movies than on real-life experience—but then, she had to assume a guy writing “progressive horror” didn’t exactly have a whole lot of real-life friends. Not that she could talk these days.
Whoever had edited his book at the small horror and sci-fi press needed to be fired for missing all the punctuation errors and misspellings (Claudia had shuddered when the text referred to a character’s discrete, not discreet, mention of a sexual matter). Still, overall, she wasn’t embarrassed for Berk as a writer—and that was saying something. Sure, maybe his characters were sort of wooden and his prose lacking what Claudia could only describe as “soul,” but in her vast experience, few male writers ever managed—or even attempted—to inject that level of intimate reality, that “soul,” into their work. Berk was actually a bit ahead of his peers.
She wasn’t sure how that made her feel.
Happy, maybe—because it meant she could keep going to writing group and not have to worry about how to avoid lying when she talked to him about his work.
Relieved—because she hadn’t realized just how much she’d needed to know there were other people out there, like her, who were working hard and doing (reasonably) good work.
And (though she hated to admit it, even just to herself), resentful—because despite the fact that she had more experience, more creativity, more natural talent (she hoped), right now he was the one with a book contract, while all she could seem to conjure up were assignments for pissant articles that didn’t even give her a byline.
Not that she was sure she deserved any better. It’d been ages since she had sat down and just written (other than her hour a week at writing group, where she mostly tinkered around with her articles). When was the last time she had done any writing that she could actually call “creative”? She wasn’t sure she could remember.
Even yesterday, before the video meetup, when she got the idea for a novel about the virus and quarantine, she hadn’t done anything about it. The initial surge of creative mania had been followed not by copious note-making or a flurry of research but by . . . a nap.
Still, it was a good idea—at least, she thought so. It had been a while since she’d been inspired, and she wasn’t sure she could trust her muse anymore. But maybe if she got off her butt (metaphorically; she had to sit, for now, after surgery) and dashed off a few ideas, maybe then she could let go of some of the jealous rage she could already feel building toward Berk. Petty, yes, but you couldn’t argue with your subconscious emotions.
It made sense to try writing a “real” book now. What the hell else was she doing with her time these days (other than healing, and that was just plain boring)?
With a grimace and a grunt, she dragged herself off the bed, ignoring the protest in her torn and battered abdominal muscles, and looked for a notebook she could use to jot down her thoughts. Normally, she would have opened a new Word file on her laptop, but she was afraid of scaring away her muse with that kind of modern confidence. No, no. This was a project that needed to be breathed into life the old-school way.
Pen and pad in hand, she climbed back up on her bed and let herself imagine, not just the circumstances of the fictional world she’d soon be creating, but also what it might be like to be a real, live novelist.
When Claudia’s phone buzzed with a text that morning, she almost didn’t bother to check. On Mondays, the only texts she ever got were wrong numbers—disappointed booty-call hopefuls following up after their missed opportunities or one-night stands over the weekend. Apparently, whoever had had Claudia’s cell-phone number before her had been a real Casanova. (She didn’t even want to think about how many T&A shots she’d received since she got the number, but if she only had a nickel for every one . . .)
But this morning, she checked the phone. Steeling herself for the likelihood of being faced with a saggy pair of breasts (had she mentioned that Casanova’s women all appeared to be on the senior-citizen circuit?), she clicked on the phone. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw it was only a message from Karen: “Been thinking, we should all write something about this virus stuff. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what everybody comes up with?”
Huh. It wasn’t a terrible idea. Claudia had been berating herself for not working on the book she’d planned to write. Lately, she’d gotten so lazy, she hadn’t ever written in her journal, much less worked on anything publishable. Maybe writing with the group would snap her out of her funk and get her motivated again.
She typed back: “Love that idea. I think I want to write something about how our reactions are similar in this quarantine to how people dealt with the Black Death in the fourteenth century.”
Karen replied: “I have no idea what that means, but sounds good. Maybe we can make a whole book out of the pieces. And you can edit it!”
Oh goody, some extra work—and unpaid, to boot. But what could she do? She had always been too nice. Okay, that wasn’t true. Not many people—especially her sister—would accuse Claudia of being “nice.” But she had always been a sucker, a doormat, unable to say no. And so she didn’t: “Great. I’ll try to get you a draft by Saturday when we have our meeting.”
Oh, well. At least maybe she’d do a little writing. You had to find a way to look at the bright side. Besides, what else did she have to do, aside from, you know, heal and stuff?
It didn’t take her until Saturday to write a first draft. Truth be told, it didn’t take her until nightfall. The topic was almost too easy:
A Plague of Our Own
by Claudia Carson
I’ve always been a bit of a nerdy history buff (despite being a science writer). I admit, there have been plenty of times when I wished for the chance to live through some great historical epoch and see how things unfolded with my own eyes. Some people claim the universe hears our thoughts and provides what we wish for, but if that’s the case, I guess I wasn’t clear enough. I was thinking I’d like to witness the art of the Renaissance being created or maybe cheer on a jousting knight firsthand, but instead of Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa, the universe seems to have chosen to give me a ringside seat for the Black Death.
But you work with what you’ve got, and in SARS-642, we’ve certainly got “a plague of our own.” (Too cute? Screw you. When you’re under quarantine, you take the laughs where you can get ’em.)
Of course, we can’t literally equate SARS and the Black Death. Although the death tolls from SARS are tragic, to date, they’ve come nowhere near the destruction wrought by the plague, or even the twenty percent mortality rate predicted at the start of the U.S. quarantine. In fact, at the time of this writing, SARS-642’s mortality rate is holding steady at one-quarter the average death rate found with ordinary influenza. Still, we can’t deny that SARS-642 has presented a crisis unlike anything most of us have faced before.
In a strange coincidence, last year, right around this time, I was eagerly studying everything I could about the Black Death. (Huh—it suddenly occurs to me that maybe there is something to all this universe-granting-wishes stuff and somebody wanted me to be prepared, but that’s a topic for another time.) Honestly, I’m not sure what fascinates me so much about black plague, that mother of all pandemics—except maybe how one little bacterial bug could wipe out a third, maybe even half, of the European population. (That bug, BTW? It’s called Yersinia pestis, in case you want to be nerdy like me.) Or maybe I’m intrigued by how the pandemic reshaped the world economy, transforming a feudal system into the capitalist market as we know it today (well, sort of).
But no. I think what I find most interesting is how people responded to the Black Death—how ordinary folks like you and me, when faced with the possibility of near-certain, grim death, reacted.
Did they fly into a panic (like our beloved contemporaries, the toilet-paper hoarders)? Did they become more deeply spiritual (like our Facebook friends posting all those memes of Jesus hugging the Earth, which—I’m sorry—just feel wrong)? Did they search for a scientific explanation and a cure (even though the scientific method didn’t quite exist back then) like the pharma companies rushing to create a SARS vaccine now? Or did they just carry on like nothing was happening?
What were the most common popular responses to the Black Death, and what can we, as an increasingly integrated world society, learn from them as we deal with this plague of our own?
Truth is, there are a lot of parallels between the Black Death and our very own SARS-642. Both (at least, according to most sources) originated in Asia (thanks, China—nice job!) and then spread rapidly along trade routes (or, now, what we in the modern world call “airplanes”) to the rest of the world, starting with a particularly heavy stop in Italy.
Both caused upheaval in the medical community and forced those in the healing professions to move quickly to try to figure out ways to stop the infection—with varying degrees of success. I mean, when I see people driving alone in their cars wearing paper masks, I can’t help but think they’re protecting themselves about as effectively as those living during the Black Death who believed plague was the result of “bad air” and hung out next to latrines, believing that kind of bad air would keep them safe. Yikes.
Both the black plague and SARS-642 dramatically changed the way the world economy worked, with the Black Death opening up new opportunities for all those lucky folks left alive after it passed, and SARS-642 . . . well, pretty much transforming us from small businesspeople and executives into hunter-gatherers obsessed with locating toilet paper and sanitizing wipes.
And both pandemics, of course, produced fear. As historian John Kelly put it in The Great Mortality:
In plague, fear acts as a solvent on human relationships; it makes everyone an enemy and everyone an isolate. In plague every man becomes an island—a small, haunted island of suspicion, fear and despair.
Social distancing, anyone? Just like Europeans trying to survive during the Black Death, those of us dealing with SARS-642 have created our own human islands—and, in our case, those islands are precisely six feet apart.
But that’s just geography. What’s more interesting (to me, at least) are the similarities in psychosocial responses to both pandemics. As historian Dorsey Armstrong explains, the Black Death witnessed three primary reactions: Some people became flagellants, some became hedonists, and some acted like modern-day teenagers absorbed in their phones—that is, they showed no discernible reaction to what was going on around them at all.
SARS-642 has provoked almost identical responses—that is, if you know where to look.
First, let’s talk flagellants (no, not flatulence; that’s a topic for another time and another plague—something to do with dysentery, perhaps?).
In case you’re not familiar with the term, flagellants are people who voluntarily subject themselves to flogging, generally in an attempt to atone for sin (though there are some who do it for sexual gratification—but, sorry to disappoint, we won’t be talking about those folks here).
Before the Black Death, flagellants pretty much did their suffering in silence. If you were one of them, you’d sport a discreet hair shirt under your regular clothes or beat yourself silly in the privacy of your own home (you know, like a normal penitent person). The Black Death changed that. It sparked a wave of flagellants who took their self-punishment show to the streets. No longer was flagellation about feeling sorry for sins and restoring one’s personal relationship with God. Instead, these show-offs made their self-abuse public, performing in parades of self-whipping zombies.
In the wake of SARS-642, we have these kinds of idiots, too. You know who they are. No, they’re not out on the roads lashing themselves with a cat o’ nine tails (unfortunately). Instead, our flagellants are those crazy-eyed weirdos decked out in improvised masks and bandanas. Don’t get me wrong: A protective mask is a great thing for medical professionals heading into surgery and not wanting to get blood in their mouths if they accidentally nick an artery. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the ones who are wearing masks all for show—and far too many people are doing precisely that. The studies show that masks do little to nothing to prevent transmission of something as tiny as a virus. So the truth is, you’re protecting nobody by wearing one. And let’s face it: There’s no reason to be out on the streets and sidewalks if you’re so worried about getting sick that you have to wear a filthy piece of cloth over your mouth (ever think maybe that’s where the real germ risk is coming from?). A sane person would just stay home, stay safe, and keep others safe. But these people? They’re our flagellants, letting the whole world know just how uncomfortable they are in the face of this crisis. It’s all about show—and it’s all about them.
But not everybody facing a pandemic turns to flagellation—not during the Black Death and certainly not now. Hedonists had a very different reaction. These folks take a “Fuck it!” approach (pardon the French). Back during the black plague, the logic went something like, “We’re all gonna die, so let’s squeeze out every last drop of living while we can.” Writer Giovanni Bocaccio talked about hedonists in his immortal Decameron. In case you missed that one back in school, the Decameron tells the tale of a group of people self-isolating, trying to avoid infection during the Black Death (the book was first published in 1353, soon after the first wave of plague hit Europe—so, yeah, we’re not the first generation to be required to shelter in place). Bocaccio wrote that the hedonists:
maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil [the plague] was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.
One common activity among the Black Death’s hedonists was choreomania: uncontrolled dance parties. Back in those days, lots of people viewed dancing as licentious (sort of like the uptight minister dad in Footloose did), so organizing massive dance parties, often for entire towns, represented the height of pleasure-seeking in the midst of plague-related hardship. And people weren’t just dancing. They were also eating too much, gambling, getting drunk, and (of course) having sex.
We have our own hedonists in the wake of SARS-642. Just check out all those beer commercials promoting “at-home happy hours,” or the cabin-fever sufferers littering social media with silly dances and song parodies. Those kinds of hedonists may be annoying, but when you get down to it, they’re okay, because they’re not hurting anybody (after all, you can click away from their painfully bad videos). And let’s not even get into the other kind of modern hedonists—the ones who will inevitably be creating a new baby boom about nine months from now because they don’t know how to keep their junk in their pants. Other than the future drain on our social resources that they’re setting up, these people are (more or less) harmless.
So, let’s move on to the third and final reaction to the Black Death, which was the “non-reaction” reaction, especially common among the poor and working classes who didn’t really have much choice but to carry on, as much as possible, as if nothing had changed. It wasn’t like most people could employ the Decameron strategy and hide out in some fancy Italian villa, away from the diseased masses, drinking wine and telling stories until the plague had passed. For most folks—then and now—the only real choice in the face of crisis is simple:
Just. Keep. Going.
And that’s the approach I’m advocating as we move forward and continue dealing with SARS-642, not just because it’s the only truly sensible one but because, well, it worked during the Black Death.
I think we can all agree that the flagellants’ approach didn’t do much of anything to stave off infection or end the plague for good. Based on the many plague outbreaks that hit Europe (and elsewhere) for hundreds of years after the initial epidemic in the fourteenth century, we can pretty much rest assured that the flagellants’ God wasn’t super impressed with their show.
Nor did hedonism help the situation. Sure, maybe those dancing, drunken dummies had more fun than everybody else (especially the ones suffering and dying on their sickbeds while these giddy geniuses learned the latest steps). But hedonism—living for the moment without any regard to the future—has never solved any problem.
The only real solution, in any situation, is to keep going, keep living, keep pushing forward, as we face the problem and act. Because what else can we do?
Yes, we can take precautions (like washing our hands and staying home if we’re actually sick), but we have to carry on and live our lives. We have to keep going, not just to stay healthy but to stay sane. We have to stick to a routine, even if we have to create entirely new daily habits for a decidedly un-habitual time.
We have to get up on time and go to bed on time, just like we would do if we were living in the “normal” world. We need to not spend this time in a haze of alcohol or drugs or sex (please, especially not sex—like I said before, the last thing we need is a fresh generation of idiots running around just because their parents couldn’t find anything better to do).
We need to be grateful that we have the luxury of holing up in our homes with plenty of food and clean water and free time, and we need to use that time wisely. After all, Isaac Newton basically invented calculus while “social distancing” at home, away from his usual studies at Cambridge University, during an outbreak of plague in the 1660s. (See? I told you I was a nerd.) If Newton could do that with his time sheltering in place, who are we to do anything less?
Claudia emailed the draft off to Karen that night. And then she pulled out her notebook and jotted down some more ideas for her novel. If there was one thing Claudia knew about writing, it was that the more you did, the more you wanted to do. If only you could be sure that your talent matched your drive. . . .
“I’m going for a walk,” she told her father as she zipped her coat over her voluminous dress—still the only sort of thing she felt safe wearing, for fear of having pants rub against her tender wound. The surgeon hadn’t even given her stitches, just those paper steri-strips to hold her skin closed, and she couldn’t help but feel like one false move, or the errant snap of an elastic waistband, would split her open like a gutted fish. She hated having her legs bare, but what choice was there? Too bad Bandit didn’t get the memo that bare legs hurt when you scratch them. He leapt over to her and pawed at her pale white calves.
“No, no, boy,” Dad said. “Your mama needs to go for a walk on her own. You’re too strong. You’ll hurt her belly.”
Claudia couldn’t help but feel grateful her dad had realized that. Much as she loved him, she wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d suggested that she take the rambunctious dog with her on her slow waddle (she didn’t dare call it a “walk” in her own mind, only when she spoke to her father, who, like most senior citizens, was somewhat prone to waddling himself).
“I won’t be long,” she said.
“Too bad ya can’t just go on the track. That’d be the safest way, and easier to figure out how far you’re goin’.”
She’d thought the same thing, looking longingly at the padlocked gate to the football field and track across the street.
“Yeah, I guess that won’t be happening,” she said. “The books say I’m supposed to do ten minutes a day for the second week after surgery, but I’m going to try to get once around the block, the long way. I figure that’s about fifteen minutes, as slow as I am these days, so if I can manage that, I’ll be ahead of the game.”
“The books. Ya always did like to read up on things more’n actually doin’ ’em, didn’t ya?”
Was that a jab? It felt like a jab, but when she looked at her dad, he was leaning over, smiling and stroking the dog’s head—hardly the posture of a man looking for a fight. She was being too sensitive. Some things never changed.
“Yup,” she said. “I love me some book learnin’. Okay. See you in a few.”
“Gotcha. Oh—and didja hear?”
She paused, her hand already on the front door’s knob. “Hear what? I’m guessing it can’t be good news.”
Dad shook his head. “Quarantine’s been extended from fourteen days to thirty, through the month of April, and they’ll reassess May first.”
“Good lord,” she said. “Course, it could be worse. I guess I should be glad I’m basically stuck in the house anyway. I’d be about ready to kill somebody, Jack Nicholson–style, if I’d been healthy and cooped up all this time.”
“Yeah, I know how that feels.”
“Bullshit you do. I know perfectly well you’ve been sneaking out every afternoon to go to your baseball card store.”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t want Anthony to go out of business.”
“That’s the whole point, Dad. He’s not supposed to be in business for the length of the quarantine.”
“I know, I know. And that’s what they say’s the problem.”
“The reason we gotta have a longer stay-at-home order. Because people’ve been ignorin’ it and havin’ parties and stuff anyways.”
She couldn’t deny it was true. The examples were everywhere. Just this past weekend, she’d read reports of some redneck Southern preacher flouting the regulations and holding a Sunday service in his football-stadium-sized church (only in Texas . . .). She’d read a blog that claimed five people had died of the virus as a direct result, but she wasn’t sure she believed it. The numbers still weren’t adding up—and it had only been two days. If those people were somehow already hospitalized and dead, they had to have been heading toward the light even before their supposed exposure to the virus at church.
That was another thing. A science writer she knew and respected had reported that many places, especially in Italy, but here in the U.S., too, were attributing any death to someone with the virus to the virus. So, if a drunk who had no symptoms of illness at all ran his car off the road on his way home from a bender and turned out to test positive for the virus, the death was being declared a result of the virus, not drunk driving, even though the guy had actually died not of SARS but of having his head cracked open on the windshield.
It seemed almost like somebody was doing their best to artificially inflate the mortality numbers. Almost. A lot, actually. And that simply wasn’t good science—not to mention it wasn’t good politics. But then, how did you justify keeping people penned up like prisoners in their own homes when there really wasn’t much danger? You had to fake it.
Claudia shook her head. She couldn’t think about this now. Right now, she needed to walk around the block. The books (ugh, the mere thought made her want to smack her father) said she should aim to walk a full mile by the end of week three post-surgery. When she’d first read that a few weeks ago, before surgery, after having run eight miles that morning like she usually did a few times a week, she’d scoffed. She was in decent shape. She figured she’d be ready to walk a mile the day after surgery, not three weeks. Turned out, she had vastly overestimated her body’s healing powers. Her first trips out, she’d barely made it the two hundred feet or so to the end of the block. She had never felt so betrayed by her own body. Other than with the whole matter of her body growing a weird mass in her uterus—which the doctor still hadn’t called to tell her about.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m going. Back in a few. And just for the record, you should be staying home. I’m a capitalist as much as you can get, but I think you’re asking for trouble. I support the idea of keeping a business going, but you never know what the whack-job socialist governor will do to punish people who violate his precious ‘order.’ The guy’s one notch above Stalin. Maybe. Why risk it? You can shop for your baseball cards online.”
“Not with my guy, I can’t,” Dad said. “Ya think my eighty-year-old card dealer’s got a website? It’s surprising enough he’s got him a cell phone.”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “But I’m on record as saying I don’t approve.”
“I’m the parent, Ain’t I the one who’s s’posed to be telling you to stay in your room and get your butt home by curfew?”
“Guess the shoe’s on the other foot now. See you in a little while.”
She pulled the door closed behind her. Instantly, Bandit was there, scratching away, as if she were abandoning him. Less than two weeks and already he couldn’t remember that she used to go out to exercise, leaving him behind, all the time. He also seemed to have missed the memo that he was Dad’s dog, not hers.
She stood at the foot of the driveway and stared down the street toward the end of the block. What a difference two weeks can make. In her previous life, the distance wouldn’t even have been enough to register on her GPS running watch. Now, it loomed as treacherous as the Oregon Trail.
She glanced at her phone. 9:14 a.m. Just days ago, also in her previous life, the streets would have been humming with traffic at this hour: tardy students darting to class, late commuters heading to work, landscaper trucks packed with undocumented day laborers, delivery vans rushing to their first stops of the day. But now? The world was almost silent.
Claudia loved it.
She caught herself thinking it would be nice if this virus lasted forever—keeping the schools closed and the loud kids off the sidewalks. She couldn’t help but relish the sight of her usually rowdy, grimy town all shut up tight, the gutters clean for a change. And what was so wrong about that? Who really needed fourteen nail salons for a population of three thousand anyway?
You could practically taste the quiet, and it was delicious.
As she stutter-stepped her way down the street, wary of the uneven and cracked pavement, she glimpsed motion in a neighbor’s window. The grumpy old lady who lived there gave Claudia a scowl and slammed down the blinds. Claudia had read about this phenomenon online, but hadn’t yet witnessed it: people getting all self-righteous when they saw others outside, as if taking a walk, for exercise, as everyone was encouraged to do by no less a personage than the state’s self-declared socialist governor, represented a violation of the shelter-in-place order. The reality was that these people hated being made aware of their own laziness. If Claudia was out here walking, days after major surgery, then what was the grumpy lady’s excuse for refusing to move her body? Sometimes Claudia could understand why foreigners held Americans in such disdain. On the whole, we can be a useless lot.
At the stop sign on the corner, Claudia paused for a breath and checked her phone: 9:20. Jesus. Six minutes to make it less than three hundred feet. She was about to beat herself up a little when she spotted someone much more in need of a beat-down. Up ahead on the sidewalk, just across the street, was a woman in her mid-thirties, decked out in a green puffer coat despite the mild(ish) weather and holding both arms tightly over her face. She looked like a Cold War–era child taking part in a duck-and-cover drill.
At first, Claudia assumed the woman had just been stifling a sneeze, but as the two of them continued to walk toward each other, the woman kept her arms firmly in place. Finally, Claudia figured it out: Rather than donning a surgical mask like one of the paranoid weirdos all over the news, this woman had decided that her own limbs would be just as effective at keeping away pathogens (and they were, since all the studies showed masks weren’t effective against viruses, either).
As she passed the woman, Claudia couldn’t keep herself from muttering, “Batshit crazy,” knowing there was no danger of being heard. Anyone with her arms in that position, covering both face and ears, was as good as deaf. Please, SARS, Claudia thought, get this lady. And do it before she has a chance to reproduce. There was precaution, self-protection, and then there was . . . whatever mental-health condition this woman needed to be locked up for.
Claudia smiled to herself and kept walking. On the lawn in front of the school, a robin redbreast stood, head tilted, listening to the vibrations of the earth, hoping to catch a worm. “Aren’t you pretty?” Claudia asked, leaning down closer to the bird, which startled and flew off, leaving a loose tail feather behind. In the old world, before the virus and all this disease paranoia, she might have plucked it up and taken the feather home. But not today. When you have a hole in your belly, the last thing you need to introduce to your body is some weird strain of bird flu.
It was funny, though, she thought as she kept walking toward the next corner. The animals were already beginning to forget that humans existed. A month ago, that robin would’ve been long gone before Claudia could get anywhere near enough to scare it. She’d read reports online of animals taking over towns in other countries, like Italy, where the quarantines had already been going on for several weeks. In one place—Scotland, she thought it might’ve been—hundreds of goats had turned an abandoned downtown shopping district into their new home. The videos were hilarious. Few things were cuter than a tiny goat frolicking somewhere unexpected, like in front of a closed pub. But at the same time, you couldn’t help but feel just a tingle of fear at how quickly the planet could and would move on without us.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she debated whether to answer. Embarrassing as it was, she was close to winded, less than a quarter of a mile into her walk. She checked the screen. Aaron. There was a surprise. Two calls in just over a week? He hadn’t been this attentive since their first month dating, over ten years ago.
“Hey,” she answered.
“You sound disappointed.”
“Nah. I was, uh, just gonna leave a message.”
“Then why call? Why not just email or text?”
“Good point. So, what’s up?”
“You tell me,” she said. “You’re the one who called.”
“Just checking in, I guess.”
“You hit my number by accident, didn’t you?”
“You got me. I was trying to call my cousin Claudette and I guess I, like, fat-fingered the screen.”
“Claudette? Haven’t seen her in years.”
“Me neither,” he said. “But her brother Tony called me this morning begging for money, so I’m pawning him off on her.”
“Gotta love family.” She spotted a bench on the corner and hurried (as best she could) to it, sinking down onto the cool wooden slats.
“Yeah. Hey, you seen the eight squares guy?”
“Guy did a video, maybe a week ago, on Facebook, about how these people are hoarding toilet paper they don’t really need.”
“Oh, I did see it. Eight squares per shit, is that it?”
“Yeah, he does the math to show how nobody needs a hundred and twenty rolls of TP to get through a two-week quarantine, but his numbers are skewed.”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, check it out. You’re a woman.”
“Yeah . . .” She supposed she should be glad he’d noticed. It had been a while since he’d had definitive proof.
“Okay, so you need TP every time you go, even to pee, right? Not like a guy, since we just shake and tuck.”
“Lovely image, thanks. But yeah. I use TP even when I pee. I’m fancy like that.”
“Right, so okay. Like, how many sheets do you use to wipe?”
She had to admit she’d never counted, nor even thought about counting, but she’d have to guess it was more than eight squares, even for a pee, especially if the TP in question was the thin, bargain-brand kind she normally used.
“I don’t know for sure, but let’s guess. Ten per pee?”
“Is that thick or thin?”
“You know I only buy the cheap stuff.”
“Right, right, I forgot. The thick kind flakes off into your girly bits.”
“Don’t make fun,” she said. “It’s a potentially serious health issue. How would you like having pieces of damp, urine-soaked or shit-crusted paper tucked away in the folds of your most intimate body part?”
“Wouldn’t like it at all. So, ten thin sheets?”
“And more for a poo?”
“This conversation is deteriorating fast. I don’t know. Of course. More.”
“Right,” he said. “A lot more. Especially if it’s one of those fudgy poos. Like, I think I’ve had to use a whole roll sometimes to clean up after one of those bad boys. And how often do you get one of those perfect, clean poos where you didn’t even really need to wipe at all?”
She sighed. This was not the topic you were supposed to talk about with the person who was (in theory) your romantic partner. If anything, this was brother–sister chat—which explained a whole lot about her relationship with Aaron.
“Rarely,” she said. “Those poos are rare.”
“So, figure like ten sheets per wipe, at least two wipes per shit, and we’re already up to twenty squares. This eight squares guy is way off.”
“Maybe he only gets the clean poos,” she suggested.
“Doubt it. He looked like a pizza and beer kind of dude, and you know those guys aren’t making clean poos.”
“How’s work?” she asked, if only to get him talking about something other than fecal matter.
“Crazy,” he said. She heard a rustling sound. “In fact, I gotta go. Client conference call in a few minutes. Sorry to cut you off.”
“’kay. Bye, Claud. Talk to you soon.”
He was gone before she could even press the End Call button, leaving her wondering why she had bothered to pick up in the first place.
The clock on the screen read 9:41. This “walk” was taking forever. Then again, she hadn’t expected a bench break or a conversation about how much toilet paper was appropriate. The eight squares guy did have his numbers wrong; there was no doubt on that front. But he still had a point, just as she’d wondered herself from the beginning: Why were people hoarding toilet paper? If the virus caused explosive diarrhea, it would all make sense, but this was a respiratory illness, and in what universe did extra TP aid a nagging dry cough? Then again, you couldn’t expect common sense, not when there were people like the crazy arms lady out there, leading the advance guard in reacting to this crisis.
Claudia dragged herself off the bench, her ab muscles screaming. It was time to shuffle back home.
Video chat? Was no substitute for actual human contact. She’d been hating it for writing group, and she suspected she was going to hate it even more when she had to do her three-week surgical follow-up visit with Dr. Goodman in, oh, two minutes. Actually, Claudia noted with a glance at the laptop’s clock, Dr. Goodman was already two minutes late. Typical. Doctors seemed to be incapable of being on time, but at least here Claudia was waiting in her own cozy home, with a cup of tea beside her, instead of shivering in an exam gown with her feet up in the stirrups. Small blessings.
To Claudia’s surprise, a fresh video box popped up on screen, and there was Dr. Goodman, looking almost as unwashed and disheveled as Claudia herself.
“Claudia, hello,” Dr. Goodman said. “You look great.”
“Quit lying now,” Claudia replied. “I look like hell. But I feel fine.”
“Not really. I take a little Motrin if I get achy, but I haven’t taken any of the prescription you gave me since the first couple of days home.”
“That’s indeed impressive. Most people tend to overindulge with the opioids post-surgery.”
“I know,” Claudia said. “I figured I’d hold onto my stash, maybe trade it on the street for some toilet paper if things get really bad.”
The doctor laughed but she was already ruffling through her paperwork. The time for small talk was over. Just as well—Claudia was on this call to find out if she had cancer, not to try out her stand-up act on a gynecologist.
“So . . .” Claudia said when Dr. Goodman remained silent.
“Oh, pardon me, I was distracted for a moment. This whole work-from-home situation has thrown me for a loop. I suppose you know how that goes.”
“Not really. I’ve been working from home for ten years.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I simply do not have the discipline to stay off the internet when I’m supposed to be charting.” Dr. Goodman slid off her glasses. “All right, then. You had a lipoleiomyoma. Basically, it’s a rare fatty tumor, entirely benign. Ordinarily, I see them on flabby parts of the body—under the arms, inner thighs, that sort of thing. I have to say, I have never encountered one in a uterus before, though I’ve read about them in medical journals.”
“Fabulous,” Claudia said, hoping her sarcasm would mask the overwhelming relief that had swept over her at the word benign. Who knew such a dumpy, ugly little word could sound so beautiful?
“Yes, it’s rather unusual. I think I may have to write it up for a medical journal myself, particularly since it was so large, and these tumors ordinarily occur in postmenopausal women, which you are not.”
“How big was it?”
“Well . . .” Dr. Goodman paused, moving her fingers like a child doing math. “Just a moment. I’ll need to convert from metric. It was seventeen centimeters long—that’s close to seven inches, and fifteen centimeters wide, so almost six inches. And it weighed . . .” More fingers. “Just over five pounds.”
Claudia felt herself deflate just a little. “That’s it?”
“That’s massive. I assure you, it was gigantic. It was as if you were seven months pregnant.”
“I guess I was just hoping for more of an instant weight loss. Five pounds seems like nothing. I guess I really am just fat.”
“Don’t forget, you’ll still be swollen from surgery for a few more weeks. Your pants will be fitting a lot better when you get back to normal.”
“Okay,” Claudia said. “I’ll believe you. And I want to see the journal article when it’s out. But why did I get this thing?”
“That, I simply can’t tell you. We rarely have much understanding of why these things happen. It’s just one of those freak medical occurrences.”
“That’s not exactly reassuring. If it could happen once, what’s to stop it from happening again?” What she didn’t add, but couldn’t help thinking, was: And what if the next time it’s cancer?
Dr. Goodman shrugged. “Technically, I suppose, nothing. But it’s highly unlikely, seeing as you no longer have a uterus. Or a cervix or fallopian tubes, for that matter.”
“But I do still have my ovaries.”
“Correct. Do you remember talking to me right after you came out of anesthesia? When I debriefed you on the procedure?”
“Vaguely. Mostly, I figured I must still have ovaries because I had PMS something fierce a little while back.”
“Yes, you’ll have that sort of thing. At your age—”
“No need to say what it is,” Claudia said. “I’m all too familiar.”
Dr. Goodman smiled. “All right, then. Well, you were only a few years shy of menopause even prior to surgery. Although it’ll be more difficult to tell when it happens, without the yardstick of increasingly erratic monthly menstrual cycles, you’ll eventually experience the usual symptoms of menopause: hot flashes, vaginal dryness—”
“I get it. But it’s probably a couple of years away?”
“Most likely, yes. And in the meantime, you may continue to experience symptoms associated with menstruation—mild pain during ovulation perhaps, and, as you mentioned, PMS.”
“So, my ovaries are just shooting out eggs into my belly, all willy-nilly?”
“Well, belly wouldn’t be the proper term for it, but . . . essentially, yes.”
Doctors always like to think they’re smarter than other people. They were worse than editors when it came to using the right word. But Claudia decided to let Goodman have her little moment of feeling superior and just said, “Eeww.”
Dr. Goodman shrugged. “It won’t be happening for long. So, your pain has been minimal. Have you experienced any bleeding or discharge?”
“Fever, swelling, pus, anything like that?”
“How’s your wound site? You’ve removed the dressing?”
“Yeah, I took off that cottony stuff the Sunday after the surgery like they told me at the hospital, but a few of those other thingees are still there.”
“They’re steri-strips, used in place of stitches or staples. This is, what? Three weeks post-op? At this point, they’re not actually doing anything to keep the wound closed—you’re already healed enough for your skin to do that on its own—so you can peel the strips off anytime.”
Claudia cringed. “I’m not too keen on that. Anything with adhesive hurts like hell to pull off.”
Dr. Goodman laughed. “You’re certainly an enigma. You were up and walking laps of the hospital mere hours after surgery, but you’re afraid to pull off a paper bandage.”
“True story.” And it was precisely why Claudia had been so angry when the doctor’s office had scheduled this video appointment instead of letting Claudia come in as originally planned. Had she been in the stirrups right now, it would be Dr. Goodman’s job to get those steri-strips off—and to see how the gross and bloody the wound beneath them looked. For someone who relished a good, gory medical drama on TV, Claudia was curiously squeamish about seeing her own body harmed or mutilated in any way. Go figure.
“It’s not as frightening as you think,” the doctor said. “Do it under the running water in the shower. Let the strips get saturated and they’ll simply flake right off. You won’t feel a thing.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“All right, then, we should make a follow-up date for the six-week mark, at which point I should be able to clear you for exercise and—wait. Are you sexually active?”
Claudia couldn’t hold back a bark of laughter.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Dr. Goodman said. “Keep it that way for now. I’ll let you know after six weeks if you’re cleared for sex and exercise.”
“Who am I gonna find to have sex with while we’re on lockdown? But okay, thanks. So . . . are you strictly working from home now?”
“Pretty much. Except if I have a baby to deliver. We’ve postponed all nonemergent surgeries indefinitely, so be grateful you made it into surgery when you did, or you’d be waiting . . . who knows how long.”
“The hospitals are really that overrun with virus patients?”
“Ha! Hardly. The hospitals are practically empty. My best friend runs the ER at St. Mary’s and their entire department has been furloughed—” She stopped talking suddenly and Claudia could see her stiffen on screen. “Oh. Pardon me. You didn’t hear any of this from me.”
“Are you kidding, though? There really aren’t any virus cases? What’s going on?”
Dr. Goodman shook her head, and Claudia could swear there was a look of guilt and maybe a little anger on her face. “I can’t say any more. I’m sorry. I’ll switch you over to Jenny, my assistant, and she’ll get you set up for your six-week appointment. Contact me if you have any problems or questions. I’m glad to see you doing so well, Claudia. Stay healthy and safe.”
And with a flash of the screen, the doctor was gone, leaving Claudia waiting for Jenny—and wondering what the hell was really happening with this “pandemic.”