Blydyn Square Review
Winter 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Winter 2022 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
I know a lot of people hate this time of year. Some even get full-on depressed with seasonal affective disorder when they don’t get enough light during the winter months. Not me. To say I prefer the colder months—fall and winter—to the warm ones would be an understatement.
The cool, crisp air makes my brain feel speedier than a racehorse and makes everything seem clean and fresh and full of possibility. The heat (and humidity), on the other hand, make me feel stupid and slow and sluggish.
But that’s not the point.
The point, for all your writers out there, is that, right now, we’re in a time of change (at least, those of us who live in geographical locations with actual seasons are). And there’s nothing better than change to get the writing juices flowing.
It’s all too easy when we’re working on a piece of writing to get mired down in the slow-moving slog, to lose sight of how much we love the process and simply go through the motions.
I know from experience that sometimes you get so sick of the project, so sick of waiting for inspiration, so sick of being alone with your thoughts, that you need a blast of fresh air to wake you up from your self-induced writing coma.
And that’s what the change of seasons can do—literally, yes, if you get out there in the cold winter air, but figuratively, too.
So, use it. Use the changing seasons to help yourself fall back in love with writing.
Go for a walk. Look around. Record it all and write about it:
The mounds of snow that used to be white but have turned into a sludgy black mess thanks to exhaust from the traffic. The sad-looking Christmas decorations that are STILL hanging out on your neighbor’s lawn. The bright red cardinal searching for seeds under a patch of snow beside an evergreen.
Whatever you find out there, embrace the season, use the images and the scents and the sounds you encounter, and then get back to the writing, this time with a whole new attitude.
And when you’re done, read the winter issue of Blydyn Square Review for a little more inspiration!
Use the links below to jump to the different articles
Jeffrey Hantover is a writer living in New York.
Quiscalus quiscula. The syllables dripped from my tongue like hot fudge. My five-year-old granddaughter thinks they are the funniest words she has ever heard. She giggles trying to get her mouth around the grown-up word ornithologist. She wants to know again how grandpa became a bird scientist.
I was thirteen. One October Saturday, I was raking the leaves by the glassed-in porch that ran along the south side of our house. I saw a dark-colored bird cradled in the dense branches of the shrubs bordering the porch. The bird, nameless to me, must have smashed into the glass. I was sure it was dead. I mimed for my granddaughter my trembling, tentative fingers as I lightly touched it. I was surprised to feel its iridescent chest rising and falling. I picked it up and laid it gently on the ground as if it were a ticking bomb. I sat cross-legged on a pile of leaves and waited, not sure what to expect. I ran a finger lightly down the edge of one of its wings. “Don’t die,” I whispered; “you can make it.” Like a Looney Tunes character, it shook dancing stars from its purplish-black head before crooking its head, gave me a thank-you nod, and took flight. I was sure my words had given the bird life. I finished my raking quickly, got my bike from the garage, and pedaled to the library eight blocks away. How fast did you pedal? My granddaughter wanted to know. Very, very fast, I said. Among the Icterids of the Nearctic region (the name like those of aliens from a distant galaxy), I found drawn with a fine line and color my resurrected grackle, Quiscalus quiscula. I checked out an armful of books and put them in my bike basket. And that was how grandpa became a bird scientist.
A good story. My granddaughter loved it. It was all a lie.
Thirteen in 1958 wasn’t your thirteen today. Lincoln Logs, Archie and Jughead, sock hops, romantic songs by Johnny Mathis, the coolness of Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip. No zombies, no Terminators and Predators, no language on TV that would have kept your mouth tasting soap for a week. We were just normal Midwestern boys growing up in Kansas City, going through phases: crashing basement parties, soaping a few car windows on Halloween, and the more adventurous sneaking off to the burlesque house downtown when your parents thought you were at the Brookside theatre watching a Randolph Scott movie. Good kids, some louder than others, some with short fuses and swelled heads, a few quick to dare you to do something stupid, that when push came to shove, they weaseled out of. We turned out okay—a fair share of lawyers, doctors, businessmen. Everyone but Billy Lanier. He never gave himself a chance.
My father’s parents lived two blocks from the old Armour Hills Golf Club, fated for ranch houses and spindly wind-whipped cul-de-sacs when I was fifteen. At seven, I walked along the sidewalk that bordered the third fairway with my cousin Mitch, a skinny, gangly nine-year-old. We were looking for stray balls that bounced through the link fence into the thick shrubs running the length of the block. All we ever found were practice balls, daubed with red paint, slashed and puckered. Mitch spied through the shrubs a hole beneath the fence that a dog must have dug. He convinced me without much effort that with a bit of scooping, we could sneak onto the course and find ourselves some unscuffed, first-class balls. We dug with sticks and rocks to make the hole bigger and crawled between the bushes. We tugged the fence up for each other and squirmed our way onto the fairway.
Under a gray, overcast sky, the fairway was a rich, emerald-green carpet that seemed to stretch forever. I saw a shining white ball a short sprint away. There were no golfers in sight. I had the ball in my hand and was turning back toward the fence when I heard someone yelling. After all these years I don’t remember the words. What I remember is my fear seeing that bobbing white cap and the screaming, beet-red face coming toward me. I dropped the ball and didn’t look back until I shimmied under the fence and was safe, far down the sidewalk.
Six years later, I crouched next to Billy Lanier behind thick bushes in the out-of-bounds off the fifth fairway. We cradled our fathers’ BB guns, snuck from hall closet and attic, waiting to shoot the tires of a passing golf cart or maybe ping metal and give the driver a hell of a scare. It was Billy’s idea of something fun to do on a lazy Saturday in late April. I went along without much coaxing, thinking it fair payback for being scared silly half a dozen years before.
Billy Lanier lived three houses down from my grandparents. We went to Thomas Nagel Elementary School together and were eighth-graders at Southwest High. Billy lived smack in the middle of the bell curve of adolescence: not first but second or third when choosing up sides for touch football or sandlot baseball, smart enough to be liked but not so brainy to be banished to the cafeteria table with the high-pocket kids with thick glasses and acne who thought the science fair was cool. At the Y dance classes, girls didn’t mince steps or take long strides hoping when the teacher called stop, they would be standing opposite Billy, but they weren’t upset when he ended up as their partner for a three-minute foxtrot.
Billy was your normal thirteen-year-old who, one Saturday afternoon when he didn’t have anything better to do or a friend smart enough to tell him “no,” blinded fifty-seven-year-old William Oester in the left eye as he reached into his bag for a five-iron.
I don’t believe in fate. But if Billy had been a better shot, he’d have hit the side of the cart he was aiming at. If Oester hadn’t hooked his drive, he never would have been near enough to get shot and none of this would have happened. Billy Lanier might have joined Lanier Buick and been president of the Rotary Club just like his dad. Three weeks after he lost his eye, Oester had a stroke and lingered for three years in mute, immobile solitude.
My father said Billy’s father called in some favors from his Rotary Club pals to keep the shooting out of the papers and Billy out of court or reform school or wherever they sent juvenile delinquents in those days. But everyone at school knew. You would have thought Billy was brother to Charlie Starkweather the way everyone that spring gave him the cold shoulder. Eighth-graders didn’t talk to him. Even juniors and seniors gave him wide berth when he walked down the halls those last weeks of school. We would pass in the halls, but Billy said little and always seemed in a hurry to get where he was going. He spoke in class only when called on. He took all his homework to his last class so he didn’t have to go to his locker and could disappear down the stairs while the final bell echoed through the corridor.
The women teachers treated him no different, but the gym teacher and shop teacher believed Billy had shown his true colors and had their eyes on him, waiting for him to screw up again and prove them right. For Craig Greenhaven, the gym teacher with a square jaw and a flattop who had blown out his arm in double-A ball, it was one strike and you were out. The world was divided into screw-ups and good kids. That Saturday afternoon, Billy crossed that line and could never get back. The shop teacher, a white-haired fellow whose name I have long forgotten, had seen enough boys to know better but thought Billy’s character a dark whorl so deep, no planing could remove it.
My uncle said it was an accident. “The boy wasn’t trying to hit him. He couldn’t hit him again in the eye with all the BBs in China if he tried.” My father was less forgiving. Billy was a bad influence and my father forbade me to invite him to the sleep-over poker games popular among us eighth-grade boys.
One Sunday while I was mowing my grandparents’ front lawn, Billy came by on his bike. Heading down the slope toward the sidewalk, I yelled at him without thinking I shouldn’t.
“You okay?” He stopped and nodded. “Once school’s out, things will be better,” I said.
He gave me a half-smile like he knew that I knew they wouldn’t. He started to pedal back home, then stopped and half-turned toward me. “I see Oester every night. Just sitting there, slobber trickling down his chin. One hand curled up like a claw in his lap. The other pointing at me like Uncle Sam . . . every night.”
I went to camp that summer in Minnesota. I heard Billy spent the summer on his uncle’s farm outside Salina, sent there to work hard, stay clear of trouble, and straighten himself out. A week before school started, Billy Lanier hanged himself with his sister’s jump rope from a pipe in his basement. I guess the thought of another year like the spring was too much for him.
Billy didn’t fire first. I did. The cart was on a slight rise. I was aiming for the left rear tire. I was an unpracticed shot. It could have been me who blinded William Oester, but as I pulled the trigger, a bird took flight about fifteen yards from our hiding place. The bird froze in mid-air and dropped like a plumb line in the tall grass behind a narrow sand trap. Oester was standing over his ball, gauging his shot. Billy fired. Oester howled and stumbled against the cart. His yellow gloved hand went to his eye and came back purple. His playing partner jumped out of the cart, looked at Oester, and then in our direction. He couldn’t have seen us hidden behind the bushes. Billy panicked and set off across the fairway, gun in hand. I didn’t know what to do. Things happened so fast, I didn’t have a chance to make a choice. I stayed put. Oester’s partner had the angle on Billy and tackled him before he made it across the fairway. They both lay stunned for a moment. The foursome on the fifth tee, seeing all the commotion, jumped into their carts and sped down to find out what the trouble was. They hustled Billy into a cart and headed toward the clubhouse. I hunkered down among damp leaves and branches for a good two hours. I left the gun behind and ran across the fairway back home.
The policemen I was afraid would be parked outside my house weren’t there. All I got was a warning not to be late for dinner again. After dinner, while it was still light, I biked to the course, camp duffel bag scrunched into the wire basket in front of the handlebars. I clambered over the same low fence Billy and I climbed that afternoon, retrieved the BB gun, and stuffed it in the bag.
I walked behind the sand trap. The bird was still there— a nameless, tiny, delicate creature, no bigger than my hand, with black and white striped feathers. I nudged it with the toe of my sneaker. I can’t tell you why that boy, the one I barely remember being, picked up the bird. In some way that I couldn’t have explained back then, I felt called to do it. I hadn’t paid any attention to birds until then. They were something taken for granted in a boy’s world: targets for small rocks that never seemed to hit home, things that dogs chased. They sat on telephone wires, hopped across lawns, and turned trees into song at summer twilight. They weren’t animals with lives complex and patterned. Birds were just decoration for human pleasure.
I biked back home in the fading twilight along the quiet sidewalks, the bird nestled in the duffle bag. I wrapped it in old newspapers and hid it in a cardboard box under a pile of oily rags beneath the tool board in the garage. Monday after school, I went to the library to find out its name. A black-and-white warbler, Mniotilta varia. Before I buried it in a corner of my mother’s tiny garden in the backyard, I plucked two primaries: one black feather, one white. They lay brittle and dry in a plastic bag in the middle drawer of my desk. A memento mori—a reminder of how few things in life are black and white.
For sixty years I’ve studied birds. Birds are a lot easier to understand than humans. We are quick to think someone is the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life. Intention gets lost in the rush to morally judge someone. Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald had a cold that November morning in Dallas. He begins to cough, and the motorcade—and history—passes him by. Would he have been any less guilty for not taking the shot? He intended to kill the president. If he had taken the cough drops Marina offered that morning, he would have. Billy didn’t intend to blind William Oester. He was just guilty of being a kid and a bad shot.
Mniotilta varia changed my life. So did Billy Lanier. He told the police he was alone. Like I said, Billy was a good kid.
A. V. Griffin is a professional writer, entrepreneur, and artist who resides in Upstate New York. She is the author of two books: a sci-fi novella called The Demon Rolmar and a collection of poems called Ephemeral Thoughts. Griffin holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in library and information science. Contact her at email@example.com, or buy her books online: The Demon Rolmar and Ephemeral Thoughts.
Old Man Winter stalks through the barren trees
Bringing with him Death, who sits upon a frigid breeze
Winter shows no clemency to the forest life
And only offers them a gift of strife
And when the snow begins to fall
It brings a deadly, pristine beauty for them all
And Death, now pleased with the realization of his only dream
Brings forth a horrific scene
Of frost and fallen beings
Bodies strewn everywhere, with eyes unseeing
Dead and finally gone
Their souls have now withdrawn
Death is dressed in his finest
His face beams at its brightest
And Winter, grim and gaunt
Feels mirth for what the two have brought
Time passes by painfully
Spring waiting patiently
For her chance to proceed
And undo their wicked deeds
Their reign can only last for so long
They will be undone by Spring’s gentle song
That brings life within a melody
And restores all of nature’s serenity
D.C. Briley is an author living with his family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He can be contacted via his website at www.dcbriley.com.
It was said that Father O’Malley possessed a divine gift unlike that of other priests. If you ask any clergyman, he will tell you that at some point in his life, he heard the calling to join the priesthood. A calling that, without experiencing it firsthand, could never be understood or rationalized. Father
O’Malley’s call was especially unique: He had already received it before he was even born.
Whether by accident or by celestial intervention, Father O’Malley was destined to become one of the most famous of all of God’s messengers on Earth. There were rumors that at a very young age he was being groomed for the papacy, perhaps to become the first Pope from the United States. Despite his tiny frame, he had a gift for converting even the firmest atheist into a God-fearing person.
Whether those rumors were just that, rumors, or whether he was, in fact, chosen by God to take up the mantle, there was no denying that Father O’Malley was special.
And while you could call Father O’Malley many things, a hypocrite was not one of them. Unlike other men in positions of power, who could be tempted by all sorts of misgivings, Father O’Malley was never one to shy away from the duty of his profession. From a young age, Father O’Malley—“Pops” to his school friends—walked as virtuous a line as could be walked in this day and age. No matter the time of day, or day of the week, Pops was always helping someone.
You could count on Pops to be out there doing something, whether he was shoveling his parents’ elderly neighbors’ driveway after a bad snowstorm, assisting a struggling classmate with their algebra homework, or even helping others free themselves from the torture of their sins and walk out of the shadows and into the light. While never actually pushing Catholicism on any of his friends, until, of course he had received the Rite of Ordination, it was said that once Pops came into your life, within a week you would feel the sunshine on your face, and know that God had welcomed you into His Kingdom.
The sky was the limit for Pops (no pun intended).
That is why all who knew him found it strange that Father O’Malley, of all people, chose to work in such a menial position as prison minister at Browngate Prison, the only prison on Earth with a population consisting of only death-row inmates: 105 inmates; all ready for execution within the coming days, months, and years; all united by their abandonment of God’s love; and all unknowingly about to receive their last chance for that gift.
“I am merely a tool. Only God can judge these men—and all children of God deserve the final chance to repent their sins and beg for forgiveness so that they may spend the afterlife in the arms of the Almighty.”
That was the only answer Father O’Malley ever gave to those who asked why he chose to serve in this setting.
And so, with one week left before their executions, the inmates would have the chance to receive their Last Rites from Father O’Malley (now only known as Pops to a select few). Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu—the inmate’s faith did not matter; everyone had the opportunity to be saved.
Father O’Malley’s process was always the same: Two days before the execution, he would meet with the prisoner alone. What they discussed was never known, as this meeting was not part of the official Last Rite.
However, no matter how stubborn they were in their beliefs, one by one all of the inmates returned to Father O’Malley’s office the next day.
On the eve of their executions, Father O’Malley would have a second conversation with the prisoners and would administer Last Rites to those who asked for it, which was usually only a select few.
The prison guards had come to respect Father O’Malley, and carefully listened to any suggestions that he may have. Though it was rare, Father O’Malley was thrice able to convince the guards that a prisoner was mentally ill and ought to have been committed instead of sent to death row.
Saving a soul doesn’t always have to be in the eyes of the Lord.
It went like that, day by day, year by year, without much fanfare.
This week, however, a clerical error resulted in three executions being scheduled for the same day. There was no doubt about it: May 25 was going to be a busy day. Three inmates, all guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, were going to be executed.
And so, as was his custom, Father O’Malley met with all three inmates on May 23.
The first prisoner was Jason Rigsby. A particularly brutal bastard, Rigsby had shamelessly gutted his brother’s three children with an old fishing knife as revenge for his brother accidentally taping over a football game from twenty-eight years ago.
Despite not believing in this God thing, Rigsby had heard the stories about Father O’Malley and decided that he would not be the first prisoner since his arrival to skip a meeting with the old priest.
As he was the first in line to be executed, an event scheduled for precisely 8:15 a.m. on May 25, Rigsby walked into Father O’Malley’s room.
Though it was a small room (it couldn’t have been any larger than a prison cell), Father O’Malley had made it seem like home. A window, situated a bit too high on the wall for much of anything useful, allowed the sun to brighten the space, and the sun’s beams directly shone onto the small coffee table located in the middle of the room and illuminated Father O’Malley’s diminutive figure as he sat waiting for his sheep.
No cameras. No guards. No candles. No crosses. Just a small man sitting in a small leather chair, looking as if he were waiting for a long-lost friend to join him for afternoon tea.
“Good morning, Mr. Rigsby,” Father O’Malley said calmly, gesturing to the empty chair across from him, his warm demeanor quelling any doubts Rigsby had had about the process.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have skinned,” Rigsby responded, simultaneously lowering himself into the comfortable chair, awkwardly trying to regurgitate a saying he had once heard in an old television show.
Father O’Malley couldn’t help but smile at Rigsby’s attempt.
“My son, this is not a confession, but thank you for being such an open-minded individual and speaking with me here today. You’ve probably heard the stories about me, but all I have to say to you this morning is that there is nothing for you to worry about. I have only one question for you: ‘If there was one thing that you could change about your life, what would it be?’”
Rigsby, somewhat taken aback by the casualness of the conversation, began to answer. But before he had a chance, Father O’Malley stopped him.
“No. Just think about it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Before he had time to process Father O’Malley’s request, Rigsby was already back in his cell, contemplating the strange little priest’s message.
By 12:15 p.m., the second prisoner was ready to meet with Father O’Malley. John Burle, a man who was just as short as Father O’Malley but double in weight, had the exact same conversation with Father O’Malley. And then, at 2:30 p.m., Brian Dorman, the final prisoner to be executed on Wednesday, had his time with Father O’Malley, again, almost word for word (though neither Burle nor Dorman attempted Rigsby’s awkward confession).
The next day, the eve of the executions, all three prisoners were ready to meet with Father O’Malley for the second time, eager to tell him what their evening in thought had brought about.
In keeping with the order of the executions, Rigsby went first.
He walked into the same room as before, only this time, things were different.
There was no window, coffee table, or leather chairs. This time, when Rigsby entered, all he saw was a large crucifix, and one of God’s most loyal defenders praying to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Father, I . . .” Rigsby began to say, as excited to share his thoughts as he was perplexed by the sudden reorientation of the room.
Father O’Malley raised a hand to stop Rigsby, and silently directed the prisoner to kneel down next to him before the cross.
“My son, what happened after we spoke yesterday?”
Rigsby knelt down.
“I went back to my cell and thought about what we discussed. I decided that if I could change one thing in my life, it would have been to run away from home when I was fourteen, so that I would never have known my brother’s children, and that they could have lived a long life. When I woke up this morning, I felt at peace. In my dreams, I saw my brother’s children playing in a field.”
Father O’Malley smiled at this answer.
“My son, this was your last test. God loves and cares for you, and has never left your side. He wants all his children to join him in the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who truly repent and seek His forgiveness will ever be allowed to join Him. That is why He has asked me to test you, by making you think about the one thing that you would change. If your heart is pure, your desire to change is unselfish, and you repent your sins, then He will welcome you into His fold. Your dream was proof that your heart is pure, and that tomorrow, you will see Him. Your brother’s children are alive and well, and will live a long and healthy life without ever having known you. That was no dream.”
Rigsby broke down and began to weep. Father O’Malley comforted him and performed the Last Rites. With his eternal soul at peace, Rigsby left the room, comforted in knowing that he was forgiven, and that he would be in the arms of the Almighty within a short period of time.
While Burle was scheduled second for the day of the executions, there was an issue with his meeting with the warden, so instead Dorman was up next.
At six feet, five inches, Dorman towered over anyone who had the misfortune of knowing him. When he entered the room, he did not see any of the same things that Rigsby had seen. Instead, he just saw a tiny man, sitting on a chair in a dark room.
“That was a waste of time, Father. I did what you said, and thought long and hard about what I wanted to change. And I came up with the only thing that made sense: not getting caught! Which was cool, because I had a dream that I escaped that police chase that done killed those kids, but then spun out of control and those kids ended up dead anyhow.”
“My son,” Father O’Malley said. “I will pray for you. God loves you, and wants you to repent your sins for the sake of your eternal soul. But He will only allow you to enter His Kingdom if you truly seek forgiveness. I was asked by Him to test your soul, to give you a chance to see what would have happened if you could change one thing, and yet the end result was never in doubt. I beg of you, please allow me to take your confession so that your immortal soul may enter the Kingdom of Heaven tomorrow.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Dorman responded, and walked away, his soul forever lost.
Father O’Malley could only sit and pray, and he hoped that, before Dorman met with St. Peter tomorrow, he would see the error of his ways, and seek God’s forgiveness. Father O’Malley then sat back down and waited for his final appointment of the day.
Time moves slowly in a prison, but it’s even slower when you’re waiting for someone.
By midnight, Father O’Malley was forced to concede that for whatever reason, Burle was not going to show up.
Ordinarily, Father O’Malley would just return to his cottage on the other side of the grounds, put on a cup of tea, and call it a night. Tonight, though, he felt uneasy knowing that one of his flock had not yet had the opportunity to repent, and more importantly, to take his last test in the eyes of the Lord. Still wounded by Dorman’s refusal, Father O’Malley, with determination in his eyes, adjusted himself in his chair, preparing to wait for as long was necessary.
And so he waited. The silence was deafening, but Father O’Malley kept at it until, finally, at 3:00 a.m., salvation, or what looked like it, approached.
In the distance, Father O’Malley saw a smallish figure approaching, wearing clothes so large that the man looked like a toddler wearing one of his father’s suits. Beside him were two guards.
“Hiya, Pops,” said the figure, in a hauntingly calm voice.
“My son, I . . .” Father O’Malley was stunned. Although the man in front of him as undoubtedly Burle, he looked as though he had lost a hundred pounds overnight.
“Sorry for the delay, Father,” said one of the guards. “It appears that the prisoner experienced some sort of medical miracle and lost half his body weight in a matter of twenty-four hours. We needed to get him checked out before we let him see you.”
“It’s quite all right, Steven.”
The guards pushed Burle into Father O’Malley’s room, and, at Father O’Malley’s request, shut the door behind him.
“My son, what has happened to you?” Father O’Malley asked Burle, more concerned at the moment about the prisoner’s physical body than his eternal soul.
“You already know, Pops, don’t you? Your little test. Well, at first I thought about all those lives I took, and how much I missed the chase. You remember my story, right? How I would find my prey, stalk them, copy their mannerisms, steal their identities? Only after I would drown them, of course. Well, that was too much fun, so why would I want to change that?
“So, I started thinking, and I decided that the one thing I would change would be to start exercising with you once I got here so that I can live a long and healthy life. I wasn’t always fat. That only happened once I got here, so I figured I wanted to change that. Then I had a dream that I started working out with you, and you told me the story about how everyone used to call you ‘Pops,’ and I woke up like this.” Burle opened his arms wide, gazing down at his own slim figure.
Father O’Malley smiled. “I am happy to hear that, my son. This change in appearance is commendable, and I dare say that we almost look alike now. Tomorrow, as your eternal soul leaves your body, you will be—” Father O’Malley stopped short. “What do you mean by a long and healthy life?”
“Well, I didn’t say that I wanted to live a long healthy life as me.”
In one quick motion, Burle grabbed Father O’Malley and strangled him until he was no longer conscious. Carefully placing the body down, Burle stripped Father O’Malley of his robes, and executed a swift change of clothes. Burle, dressed as a pious man of God, left the room to track down the guards.
“Steven, my son, it appears that Burle is unwell. I think this medical phenomenon has sickened his mind,” Burle said, pointing through the open doorway, to the unconscious body of Father O’Malley on the floor.
“My God! Are you all right, Father?” Steven asked, as he and his partner rushed to the lifeless body to check for vital signs. The priest was alive, but unconscious.
“Quite all right, son. We were in the middle of a silent prayer, when out of nowhere, Burle, convinced that he was the real Father O’Malley, started screaming and then suddenly passed out. Please, protect him, take care of him, and make sure he is not executed tomorrow. I recommend isolation in a medical facility right away. Bless you, my son.”
“I will take care of it, Father. Will you be okay?”
“Oh, yes.” Burle smiled as he headed toward the door. “Though I may be a bit late tomorrow.”
To the outside world, John Burle spent the rest of his life confined to his cell, screaming to whoever would listen to him that he was Father O’Malley. Father O’Malley, the man who would be king, was never heard from again.
Sarah Butkovic is a recent graduate of Dominican University who is currently pursuing her master’s in English at Loyola University in Chicago. As a longtime lover of thrillers and an avid reader of Nancy Drew novels and Stephen King growing up, Sarah intended for this story to be a conglomeration of her two childhood loves. This is her fourth creative publication, and she is looking forward to many more!
Mrs. O’Meara had been ramblin’ on about the same story for the past ten minutes. I listened to her intently the first time, watchin’ her lips flail around like two pink worms shoutin’ the same phrase: My son’s gone missing, my son is gone! I just sat there sippin’ a cup of joe hot enough to take a layer off my tongue and noddin’ my head as the ferocious black liquid eroded my taste buds. Every now and then I slipped in a few words like “Uh-huh” and “Yes, ma’am,” just to make sure Mrs. O’Meara knew I was payin’ attention. The damn woman kept goin’ ’til her lungs deflated.
From what I gathered, her precious little Rodney never came home Friday night after work. He’d been burnin’ the midnight oil every day of the week that ended with a Y (except for the occasional Sunday that was reserved for the Big Man upstairs) but was stayin’ with his momma until he had enough dough to move out.
Understandably, Mrs. O’Meara had a panic attack on Saturday when she woke up to an empty house. She called all Rodney’s friends and coworkers to ascertain his whereabouts and then had an even bigger panic attack when she realized her son hadn’t reached out to anybody durin’ the night. The paranoia only escalated when Monday reared its ugly head and he still hadn’t come home.
She described her son as lanky with a lopsided gait. Pale as prepackaged cookie dough with eyes bluer than the Democratic donkey, always carryin’ an expression shrewd enough to turn even the most innocent onlooker to stone. From that description alone he sounded like a druggie to me, but I bit my coffee-singed tongue. It ain’t my place to make insolent remarks like that to a frantic momma.
“You promise you’ll look for him?” Mrs. O’Meara shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Really? ’Cause I know what you must think. I can tell by that glazed-over look ya got on ya. You’re probably thinkin’, get a load of this one. This nutty woman, whinin’ and cryin’ over her twenty-four-year-old son like he’s a little schoolboy. But I promise that somethin’ here ain’t right. It ain’t like Rodney to go AWOL. His phone was goin’ straight to voicemail and now it don’t even ring. Just promise me you’ll do somethin’.”
I tapped the chintzy metal of my sheriff badge. “With all due respect, I don’t wear this thing for nothin’, ma’am. I’ll sniff around as soon as I get the chance. Scout’s honor.”
“All right,” she said hesitantly. “Ya got all my notes?”
“I got all your notes.”
Mrs. O’Meara seemed content with my flimsy promise and stood up swiftly to leave, the cadence of her movements makin’ her blubber jiggle like water in a plastic bag. I watched her hobble away into the unforgivin’ Nebraskan sun before turnin’ to the jumble of chicken-scratch I scribbled on my notepad.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I wasn’t used to actual detective work. In a small town like Norfolk, the biggest blunder of the year was some poor slob gettin’ their windshield shishkabobbed by an elk or an evangelical cult preachin’ nonsense on a soapbox. Solvin’ crimes may have been part of the job description, but at this point it was out of my wheelhouse.
A weighted sigh escaped me then, my hot breath tricklin’ down the front of my shirt collar.
I sure had a lot of work to do.
First order of business was scopin’ out Rodney’s place of employment. The cops on TV shows always went to the last place their victims were seen alive, so I figured it’d be best to do the same.
Turns out, Mr. O’Meara spent his nine-to-five cooped up in a miserable Wonderbread cubicle workin’ for some hoity-toity lawyer named Wayne Wallburg. Rodney and a bunch of other law-school dropouts were slaves to the company mailroom, constantly typin’ up a bunch of legal gobbledygook and deliverin’ letters to employees higher up on the corporate ladder. If this job was the reason he ran away, I sure as hell couldn’t blame him.
His coworkers—all whiter than a pack of Saltine crackers and dumber than door knobs—were completely useless to the investigation. They either didn’t care enough to remember what Rodney was up to or were too braindead to recall even the slightest detail from Friday afternoon. The biggest break I got was from his desk partner, Corey, who mentioned that Rodney joined a new church last month. Some place called House of Purpose.
Mr. Wallburg, despite his distaste for people snoopin’ around his practice, was kind enough to hand over security footage from Friday night so I could at least get a look at the bugger myself. I sat in the company maintenance room with my eyes fixed on a tiny black-and-white screen for almost an hour, watchin’ the individual particles dance around like monochromatic grains of sand. What I saw almost bored me to tears.
As expected, Rodney milled around the office like it was business as usual and took off in his dingy pickup truck at 5:13. He parked slightly too far away for me to make out his license plate number, but far as I was concerned, catchin’ a glimpse at the beast he drove was just as helpful. I couldn’t recall a single pickup in town that was the same obnoxious lime-green color as Mr. O’Meara’s. A man had to have serious balls to drive a truck like that.
With only one lead and enough caffeine to launch me to the moon, I finally scurried out of Mr. Wallberg’s hair before he kicked me out himself. He looked like the type of guy to glue his toupee to the top of his head cause he’d rather get a skin infection than be caught goin’ bald. And those types of people were scary.
Knowin’ I probably wasn’t welcome back, I piled into my rusted Wrangler and careened onto the freeway.
Second stop of the day was Rodney’s new church. The rickety white steeple looked horrifically out of place next to the lofty Norfolk apartments, its shingled roof crooked like a row of oblong teeth. This place may have been called House of Purpose, but to me the only purpose it seemed to be servin’ was as an eyesore.
My tires screeched against the asphalt and I buried my boots into the unkempt grass of the walkway. Would it really kill ’em to mow the lawn every now and then? Havin’ such an overgrown mess out front made the whole place look like a zombie apocalypse refuge. I avoided the weeds that threatened to tickle my shins and yanked on the weathered front doors.
The door was sealed tight like a virgin. I waited as a series of clicks and locks erupted from inside before revealin’ the gnarled face of a lady too young to be sportin’ so many wrinkles. She placed a spindly hand on one of the deadbolts.
Aren’t churches supposed to be open establishments? I thought to myself. Why the hell does this place have the Da Vinci Code cryptex on its front doors?
“Can I help you, sir?” The woman spoke with a churlish tongue and wrapped her fingers around her pendulum hips. “We’re about to start a mass.”
“Name’s Duke Baxter, Norfolk sheriff.” I tipped my hat courteously. “Real nice place ya got here. Love the gargoyles up at the front. Anyways, I was just wonderin’ if you happened to see this man come by anytime after Friday night. Maybe he stopped by for a Sunday service?” I produced Rodney’s fuzzy mug from my pocket and shoved the flyer in the woman’s face. “His momma said he’s a regular churchgoer here.”
The woman leaned in close to the paper, almost close enough to give Rodney a peck on the lips. I could practically see the smoke billowin’ out of her curlicue head.
“Yeah, that’s Rod O’Meara. Real nice kid. Now that you mention it, I reckon the last time I saw him was on Sunday. Came by for mass, then left straight after. Seemed kinda jumpy, if you ask me.”
A small crowd began to gather behind Little Miss Muffet. There were fifteen of ’em at least, hoverin’ in the background like paper lanterns, wrappin’ their formless bodies in the dark of the church. Ghoulish—only their eyes visible.
“Any other questions or will that be all? Like I said, I have a mass to start.”
I shifted my weight from side to side, suddenly put off by so many peepers lookin’ straight at me. What kinda mass was held in the dark? Everythin’ about this was raisin’ red flags.
“Can you recall if Rodney mentioned leavin’ town?” I asked. “Or did he say anything out of the ordinary? Anything that might strike you as odd?”
“Nope,” the woman snapped back. “Not to my knowledge. He was acting fairly normal.”
“But you just said he seemed jumpy.”
“Well . . . I don’t know!” She was startin’ to stammer. “You can’t just ask me about some random kid I saw two days ago and expect me to recall specific details. I have a whole church to run. I see lots of faces every day.”
I wagged a wary finger with disdain. “Hold on there, ma’am. You just called him a random kid. I thought Rodney was a member here. Shouldn’t you be able to distinguish the members from drifters?”
“Yes, but like I said, there’s a lot of people who come for service. Rodney’s new and I didn’t really know him that well.” There was a long pause while she exhaled, probably tryin’ to pacify her rattled nerves. Eventually, she piped up one more time and said, “The boy came for mass and left right after. That’s all I know. Hand to God.”
I let the words settle in the cracks of my brain. “If you say so,” I replied.
Miss Muffet suddenly reached for the door handles to lock her posse back into the dungeon, but I wasn’t done with my interrogation just yet. I leaned against the wooden entryway to prevent her from slammin’ the door in my face. I knew if it were up to that woman, I’d be kissin’ a set of wizened oak planks and bein’ formally ushered back to my car.
A bulbous vein began to sprout above Miss Muffet’s eyebrow the longer I stood there in the entryway, stiff and still as a dead fish. The splinters of the aged wood jabbed my forearm like porcupine needles but I grinned the pain away.
“I sincerely apologize for keepin’ you from your mass, but I just have one final question to ask.” I felt a wooden thorn draw blood. “From my understandin,’ aren’t churches supposed to be a welcomin’ sort of thing? Jesus walkin’ up to ya with open arms and all that jazz. You know, love thy neighbor and whatnot. If that’s the case, why are you so eager to shut me out? I ain’t posin’ any harm. Just askin’ some simple questions is all.”
The woman glanced back at her entourage, almost like she was lookin’ for guidance. Someone to feed her a script. “It’s nothing personal, sir,” she finally said. “Like I said, we have a private mass starting right about now. You just happened to come at a bad time. Sorry about the lack of hospitality. It’s nothing personal, really.”
The crowd shuffled uneasily. I counted ’em all up as fast as my eyes could manage, scrutinizin’ each one like little amoebas under a microscope. Twenty people in total to occupy fifty empty pews? Things were gettin’ more bizarre by the minute, but I clearly wasn’t gonna get anywhere with this woman’s defensive disposition. This investigation was best left up to another day. Hopefully one with a warrant.
Before I said farewell, my eyes lingered on a strange scar branded into the chest of a man with a beard like powdered steel wool. The open collar of his shirt teased a mess of rouge lines in his otherwise porcelain skin. As much as I wanted to stare, he flashed me a disapprovin’ scowl almost immediately and forced my gaze elsewhere. I could have sworn the man’s frown lines were deep enough to hide quarters.
“All right, then. I guess that’ll be all for now.” I offered the group a candy-apple smile and winked at Miss Muffet through my sunglasses. “Thank you for your time, ma’am. Have a blessed day.”
“I just don’t know,” I told my wife later that night. “The whole vibe of that church didn’t sit right with me. I think they know more about Rodney then they were lettin’ on. All of ’em were congregatin’ at the doors like a high school clique, not even sayin’ a word. Real secretive. Real quiet. One of ’em even had a creepy-lookin’ scar.”
“A scar?” Darlene’s brows raised with curiosity. “What’d it look like?”
I slipped the strap of her nightgown off her shoulder and used my finger to trace along the milky canvas beneath, surfacin’ goosebumps with each tender stroke. I outlined the strange markings of the bearded man’s scar on her chest to the best of my ability.
“Somethin’ like that,” I concluded. Darlene stared at me point-blank. “What is it?” I asked.
“Do that again, Duke. Draw it again.” I did what I was told and repeated the motion. “That looks like the number four to me. In Roman numerals.”
I pondered this for a moment. “Could be. Gettin’ a number tatted in Roman numerals is pretty common these days. Maybe this guy was too poor to afford the ink so he scratched it in himself. You know how broke some Norfolk people are.”
“It makes me think of tarot cards.” Darlene added thoughtfully. “Number four is the Emperor in the Major Arcana.”
“Come on, now.” I laughed to myself. “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch? You’re the only person I know who’d see Roman numbers and automatically jump to something like that.”
Darlene shrugged. “I don’t know, Duke! I’m just spit balling.”
The mention of tarot cards took me back to ’98, back when Darlene was a professional fortune-teller. She gave me what looked like a hexed-up load of crock when I came to her carnival booth askin’ for my future one night. Two of swords this, six of suns that. As much as I thought her way with the cards was nothin’ but highway robbery, I found myself comin’ back the next night to talk to her. And the night after that. God only knows how much cash I threw away at her booth.
Despite connin’ me out of my savings, she drew me in with her warm doe-eyes, rich like cake batter and beggin’ me to go beyond a hello. We flirted all summer that way: me tryin’ to find another vague question to ask about my future and her leanin’ intentionally close to tell me about her findings. I suppose it only made sense for her to place some sorta spiritual meaning to an inscrutable scar on an old man’s body. As much as I loved my wife, sometimes she’d do anything to make connections to her past, no matter how disjointed the clues were.
“What are you going to do next?” Darlene’s mellifluous voice suddenly tore me away from my daydream.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “The whole thing gave me the heebie-jeebies, but without any clues Mrs. O’Meara is gonna start naggin’ me for updates. I think I oughta go back to the church tomorrow. Undercover.”
“Yeah. And it best be me ’cause I don’t trust Trey or Al to do the job right. They haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”
“How would you manage that?” Darlene asked.
“Well, the church didn’t see much of me since I had my hat and sunglasses on. I figure I could shave off the ’stache, wear different clothes, and style my hair real proper. I’ll be a whole new man. I can even drop my voice a few octaves for good measure.”
“Oh, honey.” Darlene reached across the bed and kissed my face gingerly. I felt the ghost of her affection quickly grow cold, the June breeze fixin’ the remnants of her wet smooch as it drifted through the open window. She nestled her face in the crook of my neck and said: “You sure that’ll work?”
“Positive. Those people are dimwits, and like I said, most of ’em didn’t even get a good look at me. It’s only the leader I got to worry about.”
Darlene simply clucked her tongue with discontent. “Just be careful, okay?”
It was reachin’ that point in the year where all the summer days begin to slip into one another seamlessly. The afternoons melt into nebulous nights like a sweaty ice-cream cone cryin’ into your hands and before you know it, the week is over. Friday escaped me quietly and Saturday was just a fleeting blink of the eye. Before I knew it, it was time for Sunday mass at the House of Purpose.
I checked all the mental boxes for my undercover getup. Fresh haircut and dye job? Check. Shaved-off ’stache? Check. My trusty Colt hidden in the back of my belt? Also check. Drivin’ Darlene’s car instead of my own was the finishin’ touch to make myself look as foreign as possible.
Beads of perspiration crowned the nape of my neck as I trudged through the familiar verdant pathway, noddin’ my head to the twin gargoyles guardin’ the front door that was now wide open.
The expired air entered my lungs like poison, layers of dust kicked up from the shuffle of feet amongst the pews. Not knowin’ the proper church protocol, I sheepishly dunked my fingers in the birdbath upfront and signed a waterlogged cross onto my forehead.
The turnout was quaint, maybe forty people at best. There was a sea of unadulterated conversation and benevolent faces that made the cruel steeple from last week feel almost normal. “Jodie, did you hear? Kaden proposed to his girl last night!” a woman in the back exclaimed. “A real nice ring he got, too. You shoulda seen Sierra’s face. Them two are gonna make adorable babies!”
I sidled myself in the back and stayed zip-lipped ’til the priest took the podium.
To my surprise, the mass itself was also suspiciously average. Generic Jesus mumbo-jumbo, butchered Bible quotes, and at the end of the service, a generous distribution of the blandest wafers I’ve ever tasted. I was about ready to spit out the communion when Little Miss Muffet appeared behind me like the Holy Ghost itself.
“Why, hello there!” She greeted me with an artificial candor, blithely unaware of my true identity. “Thank you for showing up to our mass today. I noticed you’re new so I wanted to introduce myself. My name is Mitzy. I’m the orchestrator here.”
I cleared the spit in my throat and channeled a guttural tenor. “Nice to meet you, Mitzy. I just moved into the neighborhood and I was looking to get acquainted with a parish as soon as possible. I tried the other church on South Street but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. This place seems really nice, though. Love the atmosphere.”
“That’s great to hear!” Mitzy exclaimed. It was astoundin’ how starkly different her attitude was compared to my first visit. Either she truly did have somethin’ to hide or she just had a deep-seated hatred for cops.
“Are there any extracurriculars around here?” I probed. “Choir, Bible studies, maybe? I was really involved in my church back home and I’d like to keep that up if you don’t mind. My faith is really important to me.”
Mitzy smiled wide. “Well, I appreciate your interest. Where was your last parish located?”
“Chicago,” I lied. “Wife and I moved down south for a fresh start.”
“Amazing! Would you give me a moment to discuss things with my colleagues?”
“Of course. Take all the time you need.”
Mitzy promptly scuttled away and melded with a cluster of about twenty people hangin’ out by the altar. Her muffled whispers were too far away to discern, but even from a distance I was able to spot that disgruntled old man from last week. His face was concealed by the same raincloud beard and his hollow sockets held the beadiest set of eyes I ever did see. And then there was that scar, those jagged lines embedded in his chest . . .
IV. Number four.
“Well!” All of a sudden Mitzy was trottin’ back over to me with the power of Christ in her step. “You’re in luck because we just so happen to be looking for the twelfth member of our church group! Been looking for a while actually. Any interest, uh . . . ?”
“Max,” I said brusquely. “Name’s Max Smith.”
“Any interest, Max?”
“Oh, absolutely. It sounds fantastic, but . . . there’s already twenty of you here. How could you possibly be looking for member number twelve?”
“Well, we wanted an intimate group of twenty one. Each one of us is designed to have a special role in the church, and we just can’t quite find someone fit for position number twelve.” The damn woman unsheathed her serpentine smile, not even missin’ a beat. “But we all agreed that you have potential to be the perfect fit for our missing slot. I saw you reading from the hymn book during mass. You look like a real go-getter. If you’re not busy, you can come back tomorrow at noon for an interview of sorts. Whaddya say?”
I stuck my hand out for a hefty shake, strugglin’ to maintain my jaunty facade for even a second longer. “I say count me in.”
And then it happened. The split-second still of what I saw next would haunt me for the rest of the day and into the night.
Mitzy, her figure handsomely veiled in a white ruffled blouse made of fabric stiffer than rigor mortis, stepped forward in response to my handshake. As her arm began to creep further away from her shirt sleeve, I spotted an uncanny mark hidden close to her shoulder. There, cradled by the folds of starched polyester was a set of twin Xs carved into her forearm. Faded lines like two treasure markers on the map of her body, not much bigger than the size of a coin. I gulped like a parched man.
XX. Number twenty.
“You were right,” I told to Darlene over dinner. “About that weird scar on the old man. The leader of the church got the same shit on her skin but with a different number. A double X branded right into her arm, plain as day. Twenty.” I paused to stuff my face with mashed potatoes. “You know, they asked me to be a member of their church today. I have to come back tomorrow for some sort of interview.”
“Oh, Duke. The longer you talk, the more I’m starting to think you’re joining a cult instead of a church. What kind of people just invite a random guy to join without getting to know him a little?”
“I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing. I ain’t scarrin’ myself like that. No, sir. I am not an animal. I’d do anything for this job but that’s pushin’ it.”
“This sounds really dangerous, sweetie.” Darlene grabbed for my hand across the dinner table and squeezed tight, her dainty fingers interlockin’ with mine, her perfect knuckles round and smooth as marble. I squeezed back reassuringly and rubbed my thumb in the crook of her wrist in slow, rhythmic motions.
“I’ll be okay.”
“I just don’t like the sound of this woman,” she continued. “And the fact that Rodney went missing after going to mass at that same church last week? I don’t like it one bit. Why don’t you ask for help on the investigation? Having backup could be useful if things go awry.”
“No way. I’m lucky I slipped under that woman’s radar to begin with. There were a few times I thought she mighta seen through my disguise. Bringin’ in other people would just raise more suspicion. I gotta do this alone.”
“Fine. But whatever happens tomorrow, just promise me you’ll be safe.”
“I promise, baby. I promise.”
I caught my wife’s eyes to let her know I really meant it—those sober, snow-globe eyes, so pretty and wide with admiration. I kept this image fresh in the back of my mind the next mornin’ as I trudged through the thick brush of the steeple courtyard again, Colt tucked away quietly inside the back of my pants.
I rapped on the warped doors with apprehension. Mitzy emerged moments later with her horrid smile, all neat and plastered like it was some sort of sticker she kept over a petulant frown. The harsh rays of the mornin’ light turned her aquiline nose into a sundial, castin’ an awfully brutal shadow on the left side of her face. She glared with one eye plunged into darkness and beckoned me inside.
“How are you doing today, Max? You ready?”
I laughed briskly. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Everyone here is really excited for this, you know. For our number twelve. We had someone try out the role on Friday, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
“And why’s that?” I dared to ask.
“He just wasn’t the right fit. Kid wasn’t cut out for the job.”
“Kid?” I questioned. “He was a kid?”
“Well, I use that word liberally. Not a real kid. Maybe twenty-two years old, twenty-four, if I’m being generous. Here, take a seat on this pew.”
The rest of the clan circled around me almost immediately. Their eyes were like laser beams—X-rays, even—each one burnin’ through my skin and into my bones with their red-hot stares. I felt the urge to cover up and groped at my flannel to hide my nipples, which weren’t even exposed to begin with.
“Here you go, dear.” Mitzy handed me a plastic cup. “Thought you might want some water before we start. Some people get nervous before initiation.”
“Thank you. Wait a minute, did you say initiation? I thought this was going to be an interview.”
“Truth be told, we did a little digging on you after mass yesterday.” She threw me an impish wink. “Didn’t wanna admit it, but I might as well be frank. I figured it’d be easier to skip the interview process and just look up your records online.”
I chuckled nervously. “And what’d you find?”
“A clean past. Squeaky clean, actually. No criminal record, good credit score. You really are a standout citizen, Mister Max Smith.”
I suddenly felt the walls close in on me and I couldn’t tell if my body was gettin’ bigger or the church was gettin’ smaller. I felt like Alice in the White Rabbit’s house. I hardly knew my left from my right and my feet were smashin’ through the windows and my head was poppin’ through the roof like a jack-in-the-box and I was spinnin’ round and round. Was it Alice in the Rabbit’s house or Alice in the glass bottle? Or was it when she was fallin’ through the tunnel at the start of the movie? I was spinnin’ so fast, I could’ve sworn Mitzy had laced my water but I hadn’t even taken a sip.
How could she possibly research my name if Max Smith wasn’t a real person? Either she had been playin’ along with my ruse this whole time or there was miraculously someone in town who perfectly fit the description of my pseudonym. Guessing by that grin on her face, I figured she had to have known from the very beginning. She had to. The bitch was makin’ a fool out of me and callin’ my bluff to prove she wasn’t as stupid as I thought she was.
“Mind if I hit the poop deck real fast?” I knew I needed to stand up and run but I was afraid I’d be too woozy to take a step.
“Sure thing. Mark will show you where the restrooms are.” A squat man with a rectangular face stepped forward. He awkwardly bumped into my backside and pressed his hand to my shoulder to regain his balance.
“Sorry, I’m a bit clumsy,” he said.
“Quite all right,” I choked out.
Mark waddled off toward the back of the church with my sloppy self in tow. I brushed past the altar, past the pews, and followed him into a comically large door under Jesus’s feet. Peekin’ out from his shirt collar was the engraving of yet another set of Roman numerals.
XXI. Number twenty one.
“Here you go,” he muttered.
“Thank you, sir.”
“We’ll be waiting at the front. Come out when you’re ready.”
As soon as his quadrate head disappeared into the prayer room, I reached for the Colt in my pants but was met with the terrifying squish of my ass. Somehow, some way, that little devil had managed to pluck the gun from my belt when he stumbled into my back.
That was no accident. They’re all in on it, each and every one of ’em…
I was now on a mission to find a makeshift weapon no matter how small, all the while reelin’ at the thought of the church’s dirty secrets. I knew somethin’ was wrong the moment I stepped foot on the property, the moment I was judged by those silent gargoyles. I felt it in my gut, with every cell in my body. I felt it eat away at my insides like a black disease. Malignant like acid, I felt it inside me.
I rummaged through the bathroom cabinets with tremblin’ fingers, shovin’ everythin’ aside in a panicked frenzy. Toilet paper flew to the floor like party streamers, soap pumps crashed below like fireworks.
“Come on, come on, you motherfucker,” I cursed under my breath. I didn’t even know what I was searchin’ for but I knew I was runnin’ out of time. I flew to the storage room with cheeks flushed like a smacked bottom, my whole face searin’ hot with a fever of fright. My body slunk through the city of cardboard boxes piled up to the sky, hopin’ to find a boxcutter or even a pair of scissors. All the while, I felt the fear grab hold of my stomach, twistin’ me up like taffy in a candy factory.
And then I saw his feet. A pair of dingy loafers stickin’ up straight, the body attached to them stashed away under a mountain of cardboard.
Trepidation was a demon in my blood as I tore away the boxes, revealin’ the grim face of a dead man. Inch-thick brows, button nose, matted brown hair curled up on the floor. I gasped. This was Rodney O’Meara, supine and lifeless before my very eyes.
The longer I stared, the more ravenous the thing inside me became. It was a monster, grabbin’ hold of my lungs, pumpin’ em full of molasses fear—thick, dense, and unescapable. I gasped for oxygen all alone in that back room, inhalin’ rancid dust in the dim light. It took all my willpower to get a closer look at Rodney’s pallid body.
Purple blotches painted his fragile neck in what appeared to be a hangin’, the spots of indigo dye seepin’ through the layers of his skin like busted grapes. I just stood there paralyzed, thinkin’ of Darlene and her chocolate-brown eyes. I promised her I’d be safe, I promised her…
“Everything all right?” Mitzy’s voice sent me flyin’ through the roof.
“Fine and dandy, ma’am!” I cried.
“Whatcha doing back here? Got lost on your way to the restroom?”
I nodded, still stupefied. “Yep. You got me.”
“Happens all the time, I’m afraid. Come on, the folks are waiting for you up front.” She led me back to the prayer room and handed me that damned glass of water again. “All right. Here’s your card, Max. Whenever you’re ready, we’ll step into the confession room and get started.”
Mitzy placed a small plastic card in my palms like a priest dishin’ out bread. I twirled it around with my forefinger and thumb, fingers twitchin’ like a kid high on candy. As the card turned over in my hands, I spotted the face of an upside-down man crucified on a tree branch with his hands hangin’ at his sides. I gulped hard. Finally it all made sense.
Tarot card number twelve. The Hanged Man.
Nicki Cavender lives in Austin, TX, where most of her time is spent managing the operation of her household. But in the small and quiet hours of the night, she writes.
I often take Simon to the ocean. It calms him when all else fails. It’s odd because he usually hates loud noises, hates being wet, even hates sand, but he’s always loved the ocean. I’m used to Simon’s sensory oxymorons, but navigating them is still exhausting. Perhaps it’s the predictable push and pull of the waves as they play along the desolate beaches, or maybe it’s the whispered secrets of the wind carried by grumbling storms that always seem to loiter just offshore. Or perhaps those are the things that I love about the ocean, and maybe I’m the one in need of calming.
Preoccupied with this thought, my slow driving grows slower as I meander through the fog escorting me along the oceanside highway. The winding descent from our house toward the coast has always seemed more treacherous than it is, and I am relieved to finally emerge from the clouds and see the first glimpse of town. Of course, like always, I want to immediately turn around and go back home, but I don’t.
Instead, I bring the Jeep to a slow stop at the newly installed traffic light on the corner of Pacific and First Avenue, next to McMahen’s Lumber and the old Episcopal Church. My hands ache, and when I glance down, I realize I’m strangling the steering wheel. My clenched hands look much older than I expect, but I think they probably always have. Slowly releasing the wheel from my tight grasp, I take a deep breath and raise my eyes a few inches to look outside. The heat from the hood is rising in a transparent rainbow of dancing waves up into the fog, which has now coalesced into mist. Feeling the rumble of the aging Jeep beneath me, I look closer at the strange, floating motes of water. I’m transfixed by this mist, these suspended prisms that seem to magically hang in the air, defying gravity and distorting light. But then I realize that the windshield is wet, the mist isn’t floating, and my sense of wonder disappears.
“It’s never going to change,” he says.
“What?” I ask, startled. I glance up at the rearview mirror and into Simon’s dark eyes.
“The light,” he replies. “It’ll never be green. It’s blinking red.” I stare at him, my mind suspended. “Mom, nobody’s here,” he says,“ let’s go.”
“Oh, yeah, okay,” I say, released from my momentary freeze, but feeling a bit rattled. “Thanks, bud.” I smile at him for reassurance, but he has already looked away. I struggle to put the Jeep into gear and eventually persuade it to move. As I drive through town, I notice that the mist is gone.
Anxious, I glance up at the rearview again. Simon’s still there, in the same exact position.
“Hey, we’re almost there,” I tell him, not knowing if he’s listening, or if he is even aware. But I’ve grown accustomed to this uncertainty; I am almost comfortable in this limbo. Before I had Simon, I didn’t know that I could love somebody so fiercely and resent them so completely.
As we reach the ocean, I pull into the parking lot of the Sand Dune Pub, a block away from the nearest beach trail. Simon jumps out of the car, and I quickly grasp his small hand to cross the deserted street. The warmth of his touch is precious, but fleeting. I look down at our intertwined fingers, and I realize I don’t know where Simon begins and I end. I stumble, then stop, I feel the street beneath me swell up and lurch down like the motion of the waves.
“Hey, Mom,” Simon’s voice reaches out to me. “Can you smell the salt in the air?”
I inhale, I am here, I am grounded. I turn to him and nod.
“I can, too,” he says as he gently tugs my hand.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask.
“No,” he replies, and we continue to the trailhead. Before we walk down to the top of the dune, I take out my phone and look at the time, because I am waiting. In twenty minutes, the psychiatrist will call. I am waiting to talk about things like diagnoses and options. I am waiting to talk about Simon.
Simon, whose imaginary Auntie is most likely a hallucination. Simon, who often whispers that reality is a dream, and dreams are reality, and that he is most likely invincible but everybody else is not. Simon who screams. Simon who lies. Simon who apologizes. Simon who is so very hard to love.
At the dune we take off our shoes, leaving them in between patches of beach grass. Barefoot now, we walk through the stages of sand toward the water: hot and loose, warm and soft, cool and hard, cold and wet. When the surf skirts our feet, I turn to him, smile, and say, “You may go now.” Simon throws his head back and howls, and I know that he’ll probably be a wolf for the rest of the day. He runs away from me, his small body getting smaller, jumping and twirling and shouting nonsense at the air.
Left alone on the empty beach, I feel the cold, foamy surf teasing my toes. I watch a piece of slimy seaweed rush up and grab my ankle like a shackle. Panicking, I kick out and it releases, briefly caressing my foot as it slips away, plunging back into the darker water. I look up and see Simon dancing, kicking up sand. His blond curls bounce as he leaps and conducts some strange symphony. Simon doesn’t notice the dark clouds creeping closer, sneaking up, in concert with the rising tide. It is an insidious but inevitable storm.
Restless and weary, I walk back to the warm, soft sand and sit down. The sound of the waves is unrelenting. Farther down the beach, Simon has now dropped to all fours and is howling at something unseen. I push my hands into the sand. It’s still soft, but the impending storm clouds have stolen all the warmth.
The psychiatrist’s call is late. My phone rings and I’m irritated to see my sister Evie’s name on the screen. Anxious about the doctor’s call, I’m tempted to hit decline. But I eventually answer the phone.
“Where are you?” Evie asks.
“I just wondered what you were up to, that’s all,” she says.
I hesitate briefly, then sigh. “I’m at the ocean, waiting for the psychiatrist to call.”
“Oh. Okay.” She pauses. “So, how do you feel?”
“Fine,” I reply. “Wait, what do you mean?”
“I mean, how do you feel about Simon? And the whole Auntie thing?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?” I ask her, the sandy wind starting to pull my hair around my face.
“Um . . . about Simon? Well, I think . . . I think you also had imaginary friends.”
I drag my fingers through the cooling sand and mumble, “Yeah, but I outgrew them.”
“Did you? And anyway, you also have depression,” Evie reminds me.
“Okay, but depression isn’t a real mental illness,” I tell her.
“It’s not?” Wind whips through the silence between us. The clouds are getting darker. The beach is getting colder. I pull my knees up to my chest. “Okay,” Evie says slowly. “You know what? I don’t even know what you’re trying to convince yourself of anymore. I mean, what do you really want?”
What do I want?
A wave crashes on the shore and races up the sand, stalking me, more aggressive than before. I watch it slip back down, shamelessly sucking energy, gaining strength for its next attempt. Maybe I should get up; maybe I should move.
“Hey, Nat,” I hear Evie’s voice say. “What if Simon’s just a weird kid? You could just leave it alone, just let it be.”
A wave races up. I’m suddenly drowning in decisions, overwhelmed with regret.
“Natalie?” Evie’s voice quietly asks. “Hey . . . can you smell the salt in the air?”
I take a deep breath. “Yes,” I reply.
I hear her sigh. “That’s good.”
“Yeah, okay, I get it. Listen, I have to go,” I mumble as I hang up.
I put my phone back in my pocket. The storm has taken advantage of my distraction and crept on shore. The ocean has rescinded its invitation and is howling a warning to me, ripping sand past my face. I search the beach for Simon and find him too far away. I squint into the burning edges of the rain. He is talking to a woman who seems familiar, but in a peculiar way. I yell his name as I run toward him, the unforgiving storm destroying my strength and drowning my voice. I watch Simon hug this strangely familiar stranger, this middle-aged woman who is jogging on a beach, in a storm. Oblivious to the winds raging around them, they both turn to me, smile, and wave. I am unmoored. Then Simon is running to me. The stranger is running away. My body is on fire. I cannot move; I begin to unravel. An eternity later, Simon reaches me. I collapse onto my knees and grab him, rocking and sobbing with the devastation of the waves.
Before Simon, I realize, I never knew true panic.
Eventually, I hear his pleading voice: “Mom, what’s wrong?”
I look at him. Cold rain begins to sting the heat coming off my face. “Wrong?” I whisper desperately. “Simon, who was that woman?”
Simon looks at me incredulously, “Mom, you know her. That was Auntie.”
I feel the sand beneath me swell up and lurch down with the motion of the violent waves. “Mom?” Simon gently cradles my face with his small hands. “Mom, can you smell the salt in the air?” I nod, tears running down my cheeks, settling in between his fingers. “I can, too,” he replies. He reaches down and gently tugs my hand.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
Hand in hand, we start the long walk up the beach in the rain, the ocean churning at our backs. I probably missed the psychiatrist’s call. I think about Evie’s advice, and then look down at my hand intertwined with Simon’s, and realize I am okay with that.
Simon looks at me, looking at our hands, and asks, “Hey, Mom, who were you talking to earlier?”
I glance down at him, smile, and say, “Your aunt Evie.”
He stops, stumbles, looks up at me, and asks, “Who?”
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.
Aphrodite is hitting on the dealer again. You’d think the goddess of love would have a bit higher standards than a fifty-five-year-old nerdy poker dealer with some serious dandruff issues, but to each his own, I guess. Of course, the dealer is trying his best to ignore her because Aphrodite is not Aphrodite the gorgeous creature with flowing hair and rosy skin at the moment. For this tournament, she has chosen to inhabit the form of Chang, a retired Chinese businessman with a receding hairline and double chin. Chang is one of her favorite forms to take when we play poker, mostly because she can pretend to speak no English and ignore us all. Aphrodite can be a real snotty bitch. I can say that because I’m her brother. Kind of.
When it comes to us gods, you just never really know who’s related and how. There have been so many stories and legends and accounts of how we came into existence that even we’ve become a little confused. Pretty sure Aphrodite and I can both call Zeus our dad, which makes us siblings. But then there’s also that story that Aphrodite just rose from the sea on a giant scallop. Which is weird, but is it really any weirder than Athena bursting from Zeus’s forehead?
“Hermes,” Dionysus mutters out of the corner of his mouth. “It’s your turn.”
I shoot him a dirty look for using my real name. Knowing Dionysus, he’s already tanked and has completely forgotten that tonight I’m Garrett, a strapping young bodybuilder from Encino. Not too far from my normal self, but I always try to stay pretty true to form. Unlike good ol’ dad. You just never know how Zeus is going to show up to the games, and it’s often the source of some high-level wagering among the rest of us. I once won control of Australia for a decade just by successfully guessing he’d show up as Blanche, an elderly woman with blue hair and a dirty mouth. Blanche is one of my favorites of Zeus’s disguises. Not only does he look like a grandma when he’s Blanche, but he also seems to take on some grandmotherly characteristics. With Zeus, you take any warmth you can get.
I look at my pocket cards again. I don’t really need to look at them because I know damn well there’s a pair of queens under there. But I try to be consistent about looking at my pocket cards two or three times throughout a hand so as not to give away how strong they are. I look around the table and see that Poseidon, Hades, Ares, and I are the only ones still in before the flop. Ares’s raise of three hundred dollars successfully knocked out the rest of our family and Maurice, the poor bastard who somehow ended up at our table and has no idea he’s wandered into a hornet’s nest of ego, immortality, and straight-up sibling rivalry. Usually, when a mortal slips into the mix somehow, we’re able to intimidate him into leaving within a few hands, but Maurice is diligently hanging on. You’d almost respect him if he didn’t look like he was going to pee his pants at any given moment.
I call Ares’s raise instead of re-raising because you have to be careful when Hades and Ares are in a hand together. Those shitheads love to cheat. No matter which one wins, death and destruction are on the menu so they tend to “assist” each other whenever they get the chance.
The flop comes: king of diamonds, jack of spades, ten of hearts.
Artemis gasps dramatically. It’s anybody’s guess why, since the cards aren’t that startling and she isn’t even in the hand anymore, but that’s Artemis for you. Being the goddess of nothing too interesting (the moon, chastity, shit like that) and the twin sister of Apollo, the biggest do-gooder and perennial parental favorite, Artemis tries to get attention however she can. Which would also explain her disguise as a three-hundred-pound black woman with hot pink hair and a Chihuahua named Chimichanga on her lap.
It’s a decent flop for me as I’ve got an outside straight possibility, but not so good since one of the other dudes could have a king or ace and has flopped a stronger pair than I have. Not surprisingly, Hades bets and Ares raises again. The rest of the family is out, and for good reason. The last time Hades and Ares were in a betting war, the result was the Haiti earthquake of 2010. I’ve got a decent hand, though, and something about my attitude tonight makes me want to challenge them. It’s like that dorky kid who always gets taunted by the brutes in school—sometimes he just gets fed up and fights back, even though he knows it means he’s gonna get his ass handed to him.
I call, and the dealer flips up the turn: queen of spades. Now things are really getting interesting. I’ve got trip queens, but we’re one card shy of a straight on the board. If I was in the hand with any of my sisters or Dionysus, I’d know instantly if they had the straight. Even though we’ve been playing this game for thousands of years, they still haven’t figured out what a “poker face” is. But Hades and Ares are different. They’re so wild with their betting that you never know if they’re betting because they’re bluffing, they honestly have a monster hand, or if they’re just bored and want to spice things up. I remember a stretch of three hours where Ares never once looked at his pocket cards and still raised every blind. It made Apollo so angry that he had to go play the slots to calm down.
Hades bets. Ares raises. Artemis gasps. I can’t throw away trip queens, even with the possible straight on the table. Not with these two loose cannons. I call the bet, knowing damn well that an all-in bet will not deter either of my brothers, even if they don’t have squat.
“Whatcha got, my boy?” Zeus suddenly appears behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder. Tonight he’s decided to confuse the shit out of everyone by appearing as Ricardo Montalban, the actor from Fantasy Island who just happens to have been dead since 2009. He tried to get our mom to disguise herself as Tattoo, but Hera told him to shove it. When you’re out knocking up mortal chicks every chance you get, you usually don’t have much luck convincing your wife to do anything.
“I have a royal flush, Dad,” I say drily.
“Very good, very good,” he replies before careening off again. We’re all starting to worry that Zeus is getting a little dotty. He’s never been the most stable of sorts, of course, with his wild hair and thunderous temper, but recently he’s started to resemble a deranged Santa Claus. He used to love lording over the poker table, watching his progeny in the ultimate showdown. Now he flits in and out, often playing half a hand and throwing all his chips in before he even sees the outcome.
I’ve tried to ask Mom to see if she’s concerned, but she just rolls her eyes. “He’s Zeus, you dumbass,” she said one time when I brought it up. “You think the god of everything is subject to Alzheimer’s? That’s like asking if Dionysus is going to need a liver transplant.” When she put it that way, it did seem a little silly.
The river card is a four of diamonds, which is perfect for me. No pairings on the board, no board straight. All I have to be afraid of now is that one of my brothers had the straight from the flop, which they’ll probably do their best to convince me of. Hades bets half his stack and Ares raises all-in. The moment of truth.
We’re already well into the sixth hour of play and only Hephaestus, Athena, and Poseidon have been eliminated. I, for one, am exhausted. I’m not sure why, since we gods aren’t really subject to things like this. We don’t even have to sleep, though most of us do just to pass the time. If you think being immortal sounds like a lot of fun, trying spending eternity with the most dysfunctional family in the history of the galaxy. It’s not really a barrel of monkeys, especially when Ares or Hades has won control of the Earth.
So, back to why I need to beat them in this hand. The past couple of decades have brought us war, famine, deadly earthquakes, devastating tsunamis, floods, and September 11, and a pandemic, mostly due to the fact that Hades and Ares have won subsequent poker titles. I think we’re all ready for a little peace, love, and understanding, and it looks like it will be up to me to lead the charge.
Confused yet? Most people thought we went obsolete around the ninth century when good ol’ Christianity started kicking in, but that’s all propaganda. We’ve always been the ones pulling the puppet strings, but it took us a good long time to figure out a fair way of splitting up the duties. Zeus couldn’t be trusted to run the whole show anymore, and, frankly, the rest of us were getting pretty bored. When you’re not being openly worshipped and having statues erected in your honor, life can get a little humdrum. Sound a little narcissistic? Hey, I’m Hermes. What did you expect?
I’ve pushed all my chips in and I can tell now that I’ve won. Ares is turning an ugly shade of red and Hades has gotten up to “crack some skulls,” which is a little alarming because Hades doesn’t usually use euphemisms. Sure enough, it turns out Ares was holding a pair of deuces and Hades had bluffed his way to the very end with a three seven off-suit. With the two assholes out of the game, it only takes me and my fat stack another hour to obliterate the rest of the family and claim my title. My brothers and sisters start to fade away, each one returning to Olympus to pout, gloat, or do whatever it is they feel they need to do to prepare for my ten-year reign.
As I prepare to make my own exit, I see Zeus loping toward me, a lucid smile now on his face. “Take ’em down, my boy?” he asks.
“I did indeed, Dad,” I answer, looking around for Hera. “Did ya piss Mom off again?”
He waves a distracted hand. “You know your mother. Probably off trying to seduce a waiter to feel young and relevant again. The real question is, what are you going to do with the world? Doesn’t seem like we’ve done a pile of spit since we freed the slaves. Still can’t believe Athena was able to pull off acting as a president for four years. Got something big up your sleeve?”
A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. Maybe Zeus isn’t as addled as he likes us to think. “I guess you’ll have to wait and see, Dad. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Mike Vreeland writes stories, poems, and songs, mostly for kids and their families. Hear his humorous and educational songs on most online music platforms. You can find him online at www.mikevreeland.com.
We arrive in cars and vans
from Boston, Duluth, Atlanta, New Orleans
to a long-ago home
to mourn our father
and prepare the family property for sale.
Not one of us wanted this,
the inevitable inconvenience of death.
After Mother died last year,
Dad made sure to carry out her wishes;
Sarah got the sewing machine,
Rachel the hope chest,
David a toolbox of her father’s.
I received a notebook of her poems,
a silent bond we shared.
Now, Dad is gone;
he always said
we could take what we want
as long as we are fair.
For the rest,
we call the estate buyers;
one price for all that remains.
Going through each room together,
attic to basement,
a reunion with our forgotten former selves,
we choose keepsakes
it seems for each
our best memories reside
in disparate objects.
The frames and faded photographs
of childhood toothy grins,
of long gone relations,
of reunions for weddings and funerals,
a doll, a yearbook,
a well-worn Monopoly,
a pocket knife, a baseball mitt,
a hurricane lamp with extra oil.
The weekend passes quickly;
pizza boxes, hero wrappers,
and soda cans fill the bins.
Time to get back to life
with our assorted treasures
and renewed memories.
A quick last walk
through each room
brings more sparks of memory,
laughter, sighs, and tears.
So much of life and love
having no room for more.
Together we exit the front door
as we watch the estate truck
rattle up the drive.
On the side panel,
a cold slap of truth,
bold and direct:
WE BUY JUNK!
Marylou Ambrose is a writer of books, plays, and essays; a reader and mystery lover; an actor, and an overthinker. She lives in the Pocono Lake Region of Pennsylvania and recently finished her first novel, Your Number’s Up, a cozy comedy/mystery with a paranormal twist. Check out her author page at www.marylouambrose.com.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I can’t remember when it first started. Maybe about five years ago? Before that, I had the occasional sleepless night, if something was on my mind. Oh, and the hot flash years, of course. But that was ages ago. I honestly don’t know what triggered this later-life insomnia.
I rarely have trouble falling asleep. My problem is staying asleep. Every night, I turn out the light around 10:30 and conk out before 11:00. Then I jolt awake around 12:30. After that, I wake up every two hours for the rest of the night. This is a good night for me.
A bad night is waking up at 2:00ish and not going back to sleep until 5:00ish. A bad night is usually followed by a very bad day.
It’s funny, because I don’t have anything in particular on my mind—except for the fact that I can’t sleep. Otherwise, things are going pretty well for me lately. So, when I wake up, I don’t ruminate over my problems. Instead, I have life review. Pretty soon, I’m remembering first grade and my teacher, Miss Hickey. It’s amazing how your sleepless mind can just keep unraveling memories until you’re practically back in the womb.
When I’m not having life review, I’m remembering the dream I just had. For example, the other night, I dreamed I was arranging furniture on the stage for a play that I’m still writing. After I woke up, the furniture arranging was on my mind on the way to the bathroom, on the way back, and after I settled under the covers again. Uh oh, I thought. Now you’ve done it.
For the next three hours, I moved around furniture in my mind. Should we use the red Victorian couch again? And where should we put it? Center stage or off to the side? Which door should be for the kitchen? And on and on. I think I must have dozed off a few times, because I never did figure out where to put the couch. But it was early morning before I actually fell back to sleep.
One thing I’ve noticed about insomnia is that it breeds more insomnia. If you can’t sleep for a few nights, next you start worrying about not sleeping, then you feel anxious when you get in bed, and finally, you can’t sleep.
This is what’s called a vicious circle. Or vicious cycle, which a lot of people say, and which is not correct. God forbid I should think about this kind of thing in the middle of the night, because next, I’ll remember the essay I wrote about idioms at the request of someone on the internet who was supposedly writing a book and wanted contributions but who never got back to me, leading into all the times in my life I was underpaid for writing, or tricked into thinking I’d get a lot of money for royalties, or asked to rewrite someone else’s book because the original writers made a mess of it, but then they got most of the money and my name was listed third on cover, or the time . . .
You get the picture.
All kidding aside, lack of sleep is bad for your health. From what I’ve read, it can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and dementia, not to mention car accidents. So I’m doing all I can to help myself sleep—short of taking a prescription sleeping pill, which I refuse to do. I seem to suffer very bad side effects with a lot of drugs.
So, here’s what I’ve tried so far:
I’m sleeping better now, thank God. I hope it lasts. I hope this sleep tape keeps on working, but if it doesn’t, I hear weighted blankets are the next big thing.
Karen T. Miller’s stories have been published in The Baltimore Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and other literary journals. Her novel The Promise Claimers has been accepted for publication by Blydyn Square Books. Visit her website at www.karentmiller.com.
Upon awakening, Alma’s first thought was that Miss Prissy had missed her litter box. But as she lay there, willing her muscles and arthritic joints to lift her out of bed, she realized the stench that permeated the air came from the sugar beet plant.
“Nothing like getting up to the smell of sugar beets,” she said, and pulled herself into a sitting position. Miss Prissy jumped onto her lap, purring. It was their morning ritual. Miss Prissy expected to have her ears and head rubbed, which gave Alma’s muscles and joints time to adjust to their new position.
“Well, if this isn’t the last insult,” she said. Not only was the earth under her house cracking, shifting, and sliding down the hillside, but the place stunk to the high heavens and there was no escape from it.
Miss Prissy jumped off Alma’s lap, and Alma lowered her feet to the floor and stood slowly. She shuffled to the end of the bed, stepping over the boards where the floor had buckled. At least those boards were keeping her bed in place. It wasn’t sliding toward the river like the other furniture.
Alma put on a flowered housedress she’d left draped across the footboard and smoothed her hair as best she could. She made her way down the hallway and into the kitchen, using the wall for balance. The kitchen floor now had a downhill slant to it. The refrigerator leaned heavily against the back door, as though it was trying to escape. She pulled back the red-checkered window curtain and watched the river swirl by, eating away the riverbank as it rounded the bend then rushed on through town.
“Humph,” she said. If the river took her, so be it. She wouldn’t live that much longer anyway. No use in making a new start somewhere. She wouldn’t put up with that sort of thing. Her neighbors on both sides had left their houses. Verna Ludtke’s nephew had moved her into the senior housing unit in town. The Tilsons went to live with their daughter in Minneapolis. Alma had watched the moving van pull up to their door, the boys from the college carrying their belongings from the house as George and Rachel, their faces glum and worried, supervised the effort. Before they drove away, Rachel brought over a box of food from her refrigerator. She hugged Alma good-bye, wiping tears.
Up by the highway, a car door slammed. It was starting already. The curiosity seekers would pull their vehicles off the road and step over the yellow police tape that had keep out written across it. They would walk to the edge of what used to be Alma’s driveway and gape at the earth and cement that had cracked and dropped straight down, marveling and exchanging pleasantries with total strangers who had also come to gawk. It was as though someone had declared her driveway a public overlook and the tourists were flocking to the site.
That first morning when Alma looked out her kitchen window and saw what happened had been quite a shock. Her car still sat snugly in the garage, but the garage had slid twenty feet down the hillside and settled at an off-kilter angle. “I guess it’s time I gave up driving, anyway,” Alma said, then closed the kitchen curtains and fixed a cup of coffee.
And then the ruckus started, people banging on her door: the neighbors, the police, the newspaper reporters and TV people. One man came all the way from Minneapolis to write up the story. Everybody wanted to talk to her. They either were there to try to convince her to leave, to take her picture, or to ask why she hadn’t left. “I’ve lived here sixty-odd years, I’m eighty-six years old, and I have a right to die in peace, even if it means the river takes me,” she would say.
Then one day she decided enough was enough and quit answering her door. People could bang on it all they wanted, but stay in her house she would. And today when she stopped and thought about it, the stench of the sugar beet plant was a welcome change from worrying about the earth giving way. That smell meant the whole town would stink like a compost heap until the plant ran out of beets and the processing season ended. It was a consolation to know she wasn’t the only one beset with adversity, that everyone was suffering from the assault the town’s livelihood made on them at this time of the year.
The hardest thing about the landslide was that the city turned off her water and electricity. Alma had rigged up a series of garden hoses that a neighbor down the street let her hook up to his outdoor spigot. They were white and green striped, and painted a pretty picture the way they snaked across her neighbors’ yards and into her kitchen window. A generator she bought during the millennium scare was keeping her in electricity. And really, when she thought about her life in earlier years, she was living in luxury. She didn’t have to draw water from a well and lug it half a mile to her house. She didn’t have to depend on a kerosene lantern for light or use an outdoor toilet. Yes, things could be worse. She knew all about that.
Someone banged on the front door, and Miss Prissy dashed behind the couch.
“Miss Alma, I need to talk to you. This is Sheriff Ferguson. Open your door, please.”
Alma sighed and made her way to the front door. It was a harder thing to do now that the floor headed downhill. She pulled back the embroidered dishcloth she had tacked across the door’s window. It was him, all right. She unlocked the door and opened it. The storm door, she left fastened. She didn’t trust the man, even if he was the sheriff.
“Miss Alma, I hate to do this, but I’m serving you with an eviction notice. All the houses on this block have been condemned. It’s not safe for you to be here anymore.”
“I’m not leaving,” Alma said, her arms crossed, her jaw set.
“I don’t want to forcibly remove you, Miss Alma. You know that’s the last thing I want to do. But I have to carry out the law. And the law is trying to protect you. This house could slide into the river any minute, then where would you be?”
“In the river,” Alma said, “and happier for it than I would be deserting my home of sixty years. I have no intention of leaving. I’m not afraid of dying, if that’s your concern.”
“We’ve got a real nice apartment for you in the senior housing unit here in town. I think you’ll like it. They’ll let you keep your cat, too, if you’re worried about that.”
“Hah,” Alma said. “I want nothing to do with those senior apartments. I’ve got my home and that’s that, Mr. Sheriff. So, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll just close the door.” And she did. Then she stood trembling, her back pressed against the smooth wood.
“Miss Alma,” he hollered. “You’ve got twenty-four hours. Do this voluntarily, please. I’m leaving the eviction notice on the storm door. Twenty-four hours.”
Alma waited until she heard his heavy boots leave the porch, his car motor start. Then she peeked out the window. Sheriff Ferguson suddenly looked toward the house, and she let the curtain fall. Miss Prissy was meowing and rubbing against her legs. “We’ll be okay,” Alma said, and smoothed the fur on Miss Prissy’s back. “We’ll be okay.” But she didn’t feel okay. Not only were her hands trembling, but she could feel a quaking in her chest.
“Is that any way to treat an old woman?” she asked Miss Prissy, and the cat meowed. “You’re right, old girl. It’s not.”
Alma had thought when the millennium scare passed, then the country attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, that they were in the clear. She never figured on the Sheriff’s Department threat. But a threat was a threat.
The closet door in the bedroom was stuck, the floor wedged against its bottom. There’s a solution for everything, she always said. And she always found solutions. She had found a way to abort the baby that resulted from a cousin’s unwanted advances when she was a girl. She found divorce to be a solution for marriage to a man she never loved. She found selling dry goods a way to support herself until she could retire. And she found she could live on the meager amount of Social Security she received each month. None of it was easy, but it could be done.
Alma went into the kitchen and dug a hammer out of a drawer where she kept her tools. It was a heavy one—just what she needed.
“Out of the way, Miss Prissy,” she said, and struck one of the thin panels in the closet door.
It was a solution, but Alma was exhausted by the time the door was smashed enough to get to the contents of the closet. Her shoulders and elbows ached. She took a couple of Advil and rested on the bed. Miss Prissy curled up beside her, purring and kneading the covers.
The bed shifted, and Miss Prissy leapt to the floor and ran from the room. Boards creaked and groaned. Something gave way beneath the house with a thud. Alma grasped the headboard and hung on. Then there was silence, except for a sort of sigh that seemed to emanate from the house.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” Alma said. She felt a strong sympathy for the house. “You’ve been a good home. We’ve had a long life together.” She scooted to the edge of the bed and pulled herself into a seated position, taking in the room that was so much a part of her. Large sheets of pink-flowered wallpaper hung raggedly from the walls where the studs had shifted, the glue given way. The pictures—a grassy meadow foregrounding snow-capped mountains, three cats playing with a ball of yarn, a girl brushing her long hair before a mirror—careened crazily toward the river. The boards of the oak floor, where her feet had worn familiar paths, jutted from their usual resting places, splintered and cracked. Perfume bottles, toiletries, ceramic cats, and doilies clustered in corners and along the walls where they had rolled or slid.
“Yes, it’s time,” she said softly, and felt the anxiety that had been dogging her, nagging her for the past week, slide toward its own destination.
The items Alma had stacked so neatly on shelves in the closet had gravitated in a random manner to the floor. She carefully rummaged through the pile of things she’d accumulated over the years. There were shoes, purses she hadn’t carried in years, her sewing box, an upended container of keepsakes: cards from a sister long gone, a doll she loved as a child, a worn book. She felt the hard cover of her picture album, and her heart picked up its pace. Alma lifted the album out of the closet, sat down on her bed, and opened it. The black corner pieces, carefully placed to hold the pictures, had come unglued, the pictures unmoored. The brown pages crumbled in her hands as she turned them.
There was her mother proudly holding Alma when she was a baby, her brothers and daddy all wearing overalls, standing solemnly behind them. There was Alma at the age of five, wearing a straw hat and sitting on their horse, Jasper; Alma, an awkward-looking teen, posing with her brothers; Alma with her family on her wedding day, the groom cut out of the picture; Miss Prissy, as a kitten, small enough to fit in her hand. Alma closed the album, stood, and shook the remnants of the pages from her skirt. It was a sad showing for a life, these photographs.
Alma got down on her knees and tugged at a suitcase that was wedged under the bed. She hadn’t used it for anything but storage since her divorce fifty years earlier. Most people in town didn’t know she was ever married. She pulled at the suitcase, working it free inch by inch, taking a break now and then. Miss Prissy thought it was a game of some kind. She batted the suitcase each time it gave a little. The suitcase finally came free, and Alma stood slowly and lifted it onto the bed. The latches were rusty and stubborn, but after several tries, they clicked open.
Old bills and newspaper clippings filled the suitcase. She dumped them onto the floor and carefully laid the photo album in the suitcase. On top of that she placed a framed photo of Miss Prissy, the contents of her underwear drawer, three pairs of shoes, some dresses she dug out of the closet, and some toiletries. She latched the suitcase and sat it beside the bed.
There was a roast in the freezer she didn’t want to go to waste. She soaked it in cold water until it was mostly thawed, then she placed it in a pot on the stove. Some carrots and half an onion were in the refrigerator. She cut them up. Two shriveled potatoes remained under the cabinet. She added them. What else? Some rolls would be good. Alma pulled a blue ceramic bowl out of the cabinet and mixed up some yeast dough. She covered it with a damp dishcloth and sat it near the stove to rise. There was plenty of time. Cooking the meat slowly was the key to a tender roast. “Okay, what now?” she said to Miss Prissy. “How about an apple cobbler? That would make a perfect meal.” And she began peeling the apples that had been sitting in the vegetable crisper for the past two months.
The aroma of apple cobbler, onion-flavored roast, and yeast bread filled the house, drowning out the stench of the sugar beet plant, intermingling with her memories of other times when food was being prepared, being shared.
It was midnight before everything was ready. Alma opened a can of fresh cat food for Miss Prissy and filled her bowl to the brim. She stacked some books under two legs of the table and a dining room chair to make them sit level, more or less. Then she sat down at the table and ate until she couldn’t eat any more.
“Come here, old girl,” Alma said, and Miss Prissy jumped onto her lap, purring. “We’ve got a few good days left in us, and we’ve got each other.” She sat, stroking Miss Prissy’s fur, the quiet of the night surrounding them.
“Time for a nap,” she finally said, and Miss Prissy led the way up the hallway.
Alma was exhausted by the time she reached her bed. She lay down, fully clothed, without removing her shoes. Miss Prissy jumped up beside her.
In her dreams, everything was normal again; each piece of furniture stood neatly in its place. The wallpaper clung firmly to the walls. The pictures hung straight, serving as prim reminders that there was a world out there, but not necessarily one that merited too much attention. Their purpose was to inhabit this world, this household.
Outside, the river swirled by, stripping away the earth that had for decades stood firm, exhibiting a stability that warranted no questioning. Soon there would be no sign of the life lived here. The house would be razed and hauled away, the foundation smashed, buried under truckloads of dirt. But in this room, at this hour, as Alma slept with Miss Prissy softly snoring beside her, all was well. Life was good.
The following pages are the third 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.
Quarantine Day 82
Candace was coming over. Again. For someone as concerned about infection enough to go around town in a bandana like Jesse fucking James, Candace didn’t seem all that worried about the “stay-at-home” aspect of the stay-at-home order.
“She won’t be here long,” Dad said, not taking his eyes off the ancient rerun of Law & Order he was watching at ear-splitting volume.
“Ten seconds is too long when it comes to Candace,” Claudia said.
“Nothing.” She leaned down to scratch the dog’s ears, only to be blasted by even louder noise from the TV as the detective show went to commercial.
“Jesus,” she said. “I thought they made it illegal back in the nineties for the commercials to be louder than the show.”
“Turn it down. Crikey.”
Dad reached for the remote and hit the mute button. “Whadja say?”
“I said turn down the TV. Good God, it’s a wonder you can hear at all.”
“I pretty much can’t.”
Shaking her head, Claudia turned to leave, but stopped when she noticed the commercial that had almost destroyed her hearing: a sappy message from a famous software company about how creativity and love keep going strong, even in quarantine. A shock of cold hit her when she realized something: She had first seen this commercial on her birthday, the first day of the stay-at-home order. Not twelve hours into quarantine, and somehow this company had already produced and distributed an elaborate tear-jerker commercial featuring several prominent celebrities. How long had they—the company, the actors, the advertisers, everyone involved—known the quarantine was going to happen before it actually happened? If the decision to lock down America had really only been made the day Claudia left the hospital, there would have been no way to produce such a slick advertisement. Something put together that fast would have looked like a commercial for a family-owned used-car dealership on local cable TV. Which could only mean that Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue had all had weeks, if not months (Jesus, maybe years?), of time to plan. The real question was: Had all these insiders know there’d be a quarantine even before there was a virus? You couldn’t help but wonder.
Dad unmuted the TV as the show resumed, and Claudia left the room, trying to ignore the goose pimples on her arms.
To calm her frazzled nerves, she did the most mind-numbing thing she could think of: calling unemployment for the… what?… three-zillionth business day in a row. As always, she waited through forty-two seconds of recorded message telling her how hard New Jersey was working to bring extended benefits due to SARS-642 “to you.” Then, she heard the same old song and dance: “Unfortunately, due to the high volume of callers waiting, we cannot take your call at this time. If you need to speak to a representative, please call back on the next business day.” Not “later,” not “try again in a few hours”—no, no. Always the next business day. And you got this same message no matter when you called: before the unemployment center opened, midday, dinnertime, even late in the night (Claudia knew, because she had tried calling once at two in the morning, during a trip to the bathroom, just to be sure). It made no sense. There weren’t enough people living in the United States, much less New Jersey, much less in New Jersey and in need of unemployment benefits, for the phone be tied up with callers in the middle of the night. Clearly, there were no employees “working hard to bring benefits to you.” Someone had just created the message and put it on a permanent loop to make it seem like something was being done, to buy time, to assuage citizens’ anger, to… (Claudia shivered) keep people complacent.
So much for calming herself down.
She heard the front door open upstairs. Candace was here. There’d be no escape from the fight-or-flight response now. Claudia steeled herself and climbed back up the stairs.
“I see you’ve got yourself a new bandana,” she said when she saw Candace standing just inside the door on the porch. “That blue color looks fantastic with your paranoia.”
Candace’s lower face was covered, but Claudia could tell she was sneering anyway. The raised middle finger was a dead giveaway.
“Where’s Alexis?” Dad asked. “I thought you’d bring her. It’s bad enough I’m stuck at home. I should at least get to see my granddaughter.”
“The whole point is that you don’t…” Candace started, then stopped and sighed. “Never mind. Alexis is still sleeping anyway. She sleeps past noon these days.”
“Ah, yes, our tax dollars hard at work with those virtual schooling programs,” Claudia said.
“No joke. I better be getting a teacher’s pension when this is all over. I’ve been the one doing the work for three months,” Candace said.
“Tough job?” Claudia asked.
“Getting a preteen out of bed’s always tough. But the teaching part is as easy as you’d expect. The computer does all the work. You’re just a babysitter, making sure the kid doesn’t sneak away or switch over to TikTok instead of finishing the lesson for the day.”
“Course, they’re actually going to declare the high school seniors ‘graduated’ even if they’ve done nothing.” Claudia said. “Scary. They were dumb even when they were in school. Can’t wait to see how stupid these kids are after losing the last semester of senior year.”
Candace nodded. “True. But then again, what do you really do senior year, besides go to keg parties and skip school, maybe have sex under the bleachers? Sorry, Dad.”
“Huh?” Dad looked up from his tablet, where he was engrossed in some video game with a soundtrack of tinny, circus-style music. Whoever said the very young and the very old were similar had been a genius.
“Never mind,” Candace said. “Can we sit inside or are we digging the vibe on this filthy porch? What, can’t you clean up now and then, Claud?”
“Dad’s a grownup, too,” Claudia replied. “He can sweep up his own cigar ashes and his dog’s hair.”
“Sure he can.” Candace flashed a smile and Claudia felt herself getting sucked in. It was always the same: The two sisters found a point of agreement and Claudia thought, for an instant, maybe this time, they’d become friends at last. And then… the inevitable.
“So,” Candace said, pushing her way past Claudia into the living room and settling on the couch. “Here’s something weird.”
“Yeah?” Claudia sat in Dad’s recliner. Normally, that breach of routine would have caused a paternal freakout, but Dad was too busy playing games on the porch to notice.
“Yesterday, I took Alexis to the hospital.”
“Whoa, is she okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, she’s fine. Her eye doctor has his office in the annex there—you remember, she had that surgery for her lazy eye when she was an infant?”
“It’s no big deal. We still go for checkups, just to make sure the muscles are working right, once or twice a year.”
“Yeah, so I’d made the appointment ages ago, like six or nine months, whatever, long before this SARS business. I figured someone would call to cancel, or maybe give us one of those virtual video appointments—”
“I had one of those.”
“I’m guessing they suck, right? Anyways, nobody ever called, so I figured, what the hell? We better go in.”
“Otherwise you know you’re getting a bill for a missed visit.”
“Exactly.” Candace reached into her purse and squirted a copious supply of antibacterial gel on her hands. As she rubbed it in, all the way to the elbows, she continued: “So, we got there around ten for a ten-fifteen appointment.”
“Alexis got up that early?”
“Wasn’t easy, trust me. Anyways, we get there and the parking lot is empty. Like, three cars total. And you know how big that place is.”
“Like a football stadium lot. You expect to see tailgaters.”
“Right. So, like, three cars, tops. We get out of the car and head for the entrance and go inside—oh, wait, first we tried the annex building, but it was locked, so we went to the main door, where the ER is.”
“We get inside, and there’s nobody. Empty. Not even a nurse at the reception desk. Even the TVs were off—and that’s disturbing when there’s a ton of them hanging from the walls, you know?”
“I didn’t know what to do, so I whipped out my phone, figuring I’d call Dr. Moscovitz and ask what the hell’s going on, when this security guard comes flying around the corner and grabs my phone and yells, ‘No pictures!’”
“Yeah. So I said I was trying to make a call, not take a picture, and he gave me back my phone, but then he said we had to leave, that the facility was closed.”
“Seriously?” Claudia asked.
“Yeah. So, I said, ‘But we have an appointment. Where are all the doctors and nurses?’”
Claudia felt the goose flesh leap back to her forearms. “What did he say?”
“He said—I swear, I’ll never forget the wording he used—‘Lady, there’s things goin’ on you ain’t got a clue about. Just get on home afore ya get hurt. Jus’ keep ya head down and ya mouth shut. Best thing ya can do. This’ll all be over ’n’ done wit’ soon nuff.’”
“Yeah. I mean, sorry for the ‘ethnic’ pronunciation, but I swear, I can still hear every syllable in my head exactly the way he said it. I memorized it like lines from a movie.”
“So then what did you do?”
“What do you think I did? I grabbed Alexis and got the hell out of there.”
Claudia shook her head. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s weird. I saw my doctor the other day for my follow-up and she said some strange stuff, too.”
“Just things about how there aren’t anywhere near as many cases of people being sick as they’re saying on the news, and how doctors are being told to report cases when there aren’t any. And now you’re saying the hospital isn’t even open . . .”
“That’s not the only thing,” Candace said. “On my way here, I swung past Rahway Hospital. Same thing. Empty parking lot. Barren. Reminded me of when they closed that mall, remember? Back in the eighties?”
“So that’s two hospitals in our county alone that aren’t open, and we’re supposed to have the largest number of hospitalizations in the state, at least according to the newspaper.”
Candace smiled. “Dad still gets the paper?”
“Picks it up at Krauszer’s every morning, along with his coffee, extra sugar and cream, and his bagel, extra butter and cream cheese.”
“Diabetes be damned.”
“Speaking of which—if the hospitals are closed, where are people going when they get sick with things other than the virus? If you can’t go to the ER when you break your leg or your appendix bursts, what the hell happens?”
“I guess you die.”
Claudia gasped. “Oh my god. And then they count the death as another victim of the virus, and they’re only sort of lying because if they hadn’t shut the hospitals down ostensibly because of the virus, the people would’ve been just fine. Holy shit. It’s one big circle.”
Candace puckered her lips into a frown. “That can’t be true, can it? I mean, they—whoever they are—could never get away with it.”
“I don’t know. But something weird is going on. And we’re all stuck home, where we can’t see anything but what they choose to show us on the news.”
“Come on,” Candace said. “You’re starting to sound like Dad, all ‘The government is evil’ and stuff. You don’t really believe there’s some kind of conspiracy, do you?”
Claudia did something she rarely did: She looked her sister in the eye. “Don’t you?”
Quarantine Day 85
Claudia rarely slept well, but she had slept not at all since she digested everything Candace had told her, viewed in light of what Dr. Goodman had said. It occurred to her that this really could be some kind of end-of-the-world scenario, or at least the end of civilization as she knew it. Big Brother, Brave New World, totalitarianism, all that stuff. There wouldn’t be zillions of books and movies about those topics if the notion were so far-fetched, would there?
All her life, she’d had these vague nightmarish visions of something big happening: nuclear holocaust, maybe, or some kind of revolution, with neighbor fighting neighbor, nobody really understanding what the politics were all about. She would picture it—hiding in her house, among stockpiled canned goods and bottled water, wishing she’d thought to hoard a few dozen guns along with the baked beans—and she’d shiver. Had she lived somewhere else, somewhere out west or more southern, maybe, she might have turned into one of those crazy-eyed “preppers” staring at the sky, searching for black helicopters. But this was New Jersey, where people didn’t worry about civil war or political upheaval or the end times. Here, the worst thing most people could imagine was the Yankees not making the playoffs. She had to wonder: Did that just make it easier for them—whoever they were—to carry out their plans?
Maybe she was just being paranoid. Or maybe she was one of the only ones seeing reality (it wouldn’t be the first time). She couldn’t bother Dr. Goodman (who would probably refuse to see her anyway). Candace had been no help. Dad would just go off on one of his normal antigovernment rants, and then fall asleep in front of the TV. Aaron would answer her call, but would he actually listen? Unlikely. The only person left to consult was Berk.
She picked up her phone to text him and was startled when it started ringing. It was her mother. For three rings, Claudia debated whether to answer. On the one hand, a conversation with her mother was about the last thing her nerves needed right now. On the other, it might do her some good to get her blood boiling over something insignificant, like why she still hadn’t found a real job yet or why the Mother’s Day flowers she’d sent had been so puny.
“Claudia, you have to help me.”
“I told you before, just turn the computer off and then on again. It works almost every time.”
“It’s not the computer. It’s my life.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you read the news? The nursing home mass graves?”
For once, Mom was making fair point. Claudia had read the story in Dad’s morning paper. She’d even confirmed the details online: A nursing home only a few miles from where her mother lived had had a hundred and seventeen residents—almost half of the place’s total population—die of the virus, but instead of reporting it and risking their assorted licenses and tax exemptions and whatnot, they had chosen to create a Holocaust-style mass grave . . . in the Zen garden, of all places. A hundred-plus rotting corpses was so not Zen.
“Yeah, Mom, I saw it. But that was a nursing home, not a retirement community like yours. Those people were already sick.”
“You think I’m not in a weakened state, eating nothing but hospital-food mush for months and not being allowed out of my apartment for fresh air or sunlight? I am vitamin D deficient, at the very least.”
“They really aren’t even letting you out to take a walk or anything?”
“We’re under lock and key, like criminals. No, scratch that. Criminals have it better. They get yard time.”
“That’s not right,” Claudia said. This was working. She could feel her blood starting to boil just a little. At the very least, her goosebumps were gone. “You’re an adult and an American citizen. You have every right to leave your home if you want to. Have you tried complaining to management?”
“Honestly, Claudia, you can be pretty dimwitted. Do you really think you were my first call? I’ve been trying for weeks to get out of here. They say I can’t leave. I just wish I hadn’t come home so soon after your surgery. If I’d waited just one more day . . .”
“That’s right,” Claudia said. “I forgot. You were up here, visiting Candace.” Claudia chose not to bring up the fact that her mother hadn’t bothered to visit her at the hospital before or after her surgery, though she had been only about two miles away at the time. “You could have stayed with one of us for the quarantine.”
“Precisely. And that’s what I intend to do.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re going to come and get me.”
“If they won’t let you leave—”
“The doors are unlocked,” Mom said. “I tested them last night. I’ll pack a bag and sneak out. I’ll have to use the stairs. They’ll never expect a resident not to use the elevators. Old farts, lazy sons of—”
“Mom, what are you talking about?”
“Leave now, honey. I’ll wait for you on the side road leading that leads in to my building. You know where the bus stop is, in that wooded area? I’ll sit there on the bench and wait for you.”
“Mom, it’s not safe for you to go and sit in the woods all alone.”
“It’s not the woods. It’s a bus stop. A perfectly normal public place. Please, Claudia, I’ve got to get away from here before it’s too late.”
“Mom, I’m not sure it’s a good idea—”
“I’m safer up by you than here in the hot zone. I didn’t work my ass off for fifty-some years just to end up tossed in a hole like some concentration camp Jew.”
“You’re lucky I’m not a member of the political correctness police like Candace or I’d have to put you under arrest for that comment.”
“Quit stalling and get in your car. How long will it take you?”
Claudia glanced at the phone’s clock. It was only ten a.m. Traffic should be light—it always was these days, now that nobody was driving to work anymore. She sighed.
“About an hour,” she said.
Mom huffed, like sixty minutes was an unacceptable wait for Claudia to make a seventy-some-mile drive.
“Fine. I’ll see you soon.” Mom hung up without saying good-bye.
It was just what Claudia needed: a little cloak and dagger on top of her conspiracy theorizing. But what’s done is done. She’d better get moving. Getting in touch with Berk would have to wait until later.
Dad was struggling to get Bandit leashed for a walk as Claudia came upstairs.
“Ya goin’ out?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I’m on a rescue mission.”
“Mom just called and demanded that I come and pick her up.”
“I thought her place was on full lockdown.”
“It is. She’s making a prison break.”
Dad chuckled. “Our own little Andy Dufresne. Ya need some company?”
“Nah, I’ve got it. But where am I supposed to bring her?”
“Bring her back here. It’s fine. I don’t mind havin’ her. It’ll be fun.”
Dad seemed to be forgetting the fact that he and Mom hadn’t found living together all that much fun. They’d gotten divorced, after all.
“She’ll probably be better off at a hotel,” Claudia said. “We’ve only got the two bedrooms and I doubt she’ll be all that keen on using the couch.”
“She can share my bed. It’s plenty big.”
Clearly, Dad really had forgotten all the details of their marriage—including the fact that they weren’t married anymore. Claudia had to assume her persnickety mother would rather sleep in a refrigerator box than share a bed with her ex-husband.
“We’ll see,” Claudia said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Cruising down the Garden State Parkway, Claudia felt her stomach flutter a little. Muscle memory, she figured: Normally, when she made this trip, it was to have a pleasant(ish) booze-soaked meal at a restaurant with her mother on Claudia’s obligatory once-a-month visit. The butterflies in her stomach apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that this was no pleasure trip.
You make good time when the highway is empty and the cops are too afraid of a virus to bother pulling anybody over. It was less than forty-five minutes before Claudia pulled up beside the bus stop where her mother was waiting with a huge floral-print roller bag at her feet.
Claudia opened her car door. “I’ll get your bag.”
“It’s heavy,” Mom said. “I had to pack enough books to read in case I have to stay a while.”
Heavy was an understatement. So much for not lifting more than fifty pounds for a few more weeks, Claudia thought as she wrestled the suitcase into her trunk.
“What happened to that Kindle I bought you last Christmas?” she called, but Mom didn’t answer. Claudia closed the lid of the trunk and saw that her mother was gone. She was about to panic when she noticed Mom’s curly gray head peeking over the passenger-side head rest.
“No tip, I guess,” Claudia muttered as she climbed back into the car.
“Step on it,” Mom said. “They’re bound to notice I’m gone soon. It’s almost lunchtime.”
Claudia hit the gas and pulled onto the empty road. All of New Jersey seemed like a massive ghost town. Was anyone still working? No wonder you couldn’t buy toilet paper. There were no trucks on the road to deliver it from the factories to the stores—assuming the factories were open in the first place.
“Dad says you can stay as long as you want,” Claudia said, after several miles of crushing silence.
Mom made a huffy sound of disgust. “I’m not staying with you. You don’t even have a guest room.”
“Daddy says you can sleep in his bed.”
“I figured as much. Okay. You can take my bed. I’m fine to sleep on the couch.” How bad could it be? Claudia thought. She was (mostly) back to being able to sleep in any position. How much worse could a sofa be than the twin-size mattress her dad had given her when she moved in? She cursed Aaron silently for keeping the king-size bed they’d shared back in PA.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, digging in her purse and finally producing a wilted-looking soft pack of some generic brand of cigarettes. “I’ll stay at your sister’s. She has plenty of room.”
As her mother lit up, Claudia thought about asking her not to smoke inside the car, but decided it wasn’t worth the argument. Instead, she picked a different kind of fight, saying, “If you wanted to stay with Candace, why didn’t you call her to pick you up?”
Mom waved a hand in dismissal. “She’s busy.”
“Busy with what? She’s a housewife.”
“She has a child she has to teach. Or have you missed the news that the schools are closed?”
“I guess Candace hasn’t told you how little teaching she actually has to do.”
“It’s not like you have a job these days,” Mom said. “I thought it would do you good to get out of the house.”
“I have a job,” Claudia said. “I’m a writer. Remember?”
“I thought they fired you.”
“Furloughed, not fired. Because of the virus. But I’m writing a book.”
“Another one?” Mom looked almost disappointed.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Mom?”
“It’s not like you’re Sue Grafton.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“You write silly little books for kids,” Mom said through a cloud of smoke. “You’re not a real writer.”
“I’m writing a real book now. A novel.”
“Pfft. Like anybody’ll buy that.”
“Why wouldn’t they? You just said they buy novels by Sue Grafton.”
“Well, that’s because she’s Sue Grafton. Who are you?”
“I’m your daughter. The one who just broke you out of the retirement prison camp. Don’t be nice to me or anything.”
“It is nice to be out of there. Free at last, free at last—”
“If you finish that quote, I’m bringing you back there.”
“They won’t let us past the gate,” Mom said. “We’re contaminated now.”
“Speaking of contamination, I’m surprised you’re not wearing a mask.”
Mom threw up another dismissive hand—it was a miracle she didn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome with all that condescending wrist flapping she did each day. “What’s the sense? I’m seventy-five years old, still healthy as a horse. If I’m going to die, it’ll be from these . . .” She held up the cigarette. “. . . not from some silly virus.”
“Nice attitude. I applaud your logic and reason. There’s not much of that left going around these days.”
“Don’t start getting all political on me, Claudia. Let’s just drive the car, all right?”
“Fine. But you should know Candace is probably going to make you wear a mask. She goes all over the place in a bandana like she’s getting ready to rob a stagecoach.”
Mom shook her head and made a tutting sound. “How did I ever end up with kids like you girls?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Claudia said for what felt like the thirtieth time that day.
“Your sister is a kneejerk liberal, clinging to every ridiculous notion of ‘social justice’ she hears about on the news, and you . . .”
Claudia waited while her mother finished smoking and tossed the still-burning butt out the window, ignoring the fact that Claudia would be the one cited for littering if a cop actually got brave enough to pull them over. Mom rolled up the window and tucked her hands in her lap, like she was done, both smoking and talking.
Claudia huffed and said, “And me?”
“You said Candace is a dopey liberal and I’m . . .”
“Oh, right. You have a good head on your shoulders. But you don’t have the common sense to do anything with it.”
“Thanks, Ma, that makes me feel awesome.”
“I’ve always told you the truth, you know that.”
“No matter how much it hurts.”
“The truth—like beauty—is painful.”
“Remind me to get that embroidered on a pillow,” Claudia said. “Inspiring.”
“Don’t be such a sore sport. This is a compliment.”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“Did I say your sister was smart?”
“No . . .”
“Well, there you go.”
“How is not saying Candace is smart a compliment to me?”
Mom sighed. “I’m saying you are smart, and that’s a lot in my book.”
“Oh, boy, I’d almost forgotten about your book.”
“Don’t be a wise ass. Nobody likes that attitude of yours.”
Mom might have been right about that, if nothing else. It wasn’t like people were lining up to be Claudia’s friend (or more than a friend). And her ex-husband always used to say her sarcasm and negativity made being with her feel like being cross-examined by an overly gung-ho divorce attorney. And he would know.
“Okay, okay,” Claudia said. “Sorry.”
“That’s better. I’m just trying to help.”
“I’m saying this completely attitude-free, I swear, Mom. But how is telling me I suck supposed to help me?”
“It’s supposed to motivate you,” Mom said.
“I’m plenty motivated. I’ve been writing every day.”
“Pfft. Writing. Who’s paying you for that?”
“Um, hello? Published author over here? Five weeks on the Times bestseller list?”
“That was, what? Ten years ago?”
Claudia frowned. She hated when her mother made a valid point.
“Go ahead,” Mom said. “Answer me.”
“There you go. Who’s paying you for what you’re writing now?”
“Well, nobody yet—”
“Precisely. You should be looking for a real job. Something that pays actual money.”
“I had that, up until a few weeks ago. You do realize the whole world is on lockdown, right? It doesn’t exactly make it easy to go out interviewing for jobs.”
“This from the fancy-pants internet writer,” Mom said.
“I wrote articles for a company that sold to schools, partly over the internet. That doesn’t make me an ‘internet writer,’ whatever that is.”
“All I’m trying to say is you can apply right online. I’ve heard about sites. There’s one about monsters—”
“And chain links—”
“What did I say about being a wise ass?” Mom asked.
“How is my giving you the correct name for the websites you’re butchering being a wise ass?”
Mom huffed. “I’m just saying, you can get another job. Unless you enjoy being a fifty-year-old loser living in your daddy’s basement.”
“First off, I’m forty-eight, not fifty—”
“Mom, seriously. You know I’m there as much to help Dad as for myself.”
“Sure you are.”
“Where should I go? To some crappy apartment, in somebody else’s basement, just to have my own place? I’m not exactly flush with cash these days.”
“That’s precisely what I’m trying to say. You could be doing fine if you just got a real job, like your sister.”
“Mom, Candace doesn’t have a job. She’s a housewife.” And a housewife with a twice-a-week housekeeper and a meal delivery service, at that. Damn. What the hell did Candace do all day?
“Candace works as a librarian at Alexis’s school. You know that.”
“She volunteers once a week to help reshelve books. Volunteer means ‘free.’ No money. Ergo, not a job.”
“At least she leaves home and goes out into the real world.”
Oh, good, this argument again: Like most of her fellow Baby Boomers, Mom couldn’t comprehend that a person could hold a “real” job—and get paid—while working from home.
“In case you missed the news, Mom, nobody’s getting out into the real world right now. Not me, not Candace, not anybody.”
“Except essential workers.”
“Right,” Claudia said. “Is that what you’re suggesting? That I get a job stocking shelves at the grocery store? Or maybe I could drive the truck that delivers toilet paper from the factory to the store? Because, hell, nobody else seems to be doing it.”
“Why not? I hear those people are going to be making fifteen dollars an hour.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If your job can be done more effectively by a trained monkey, you are not essential.”
“What? You really think we should more than double the minimum wage for these people? Even if we ignore the fact that the minimum wage is a gross injustice to all workers in the first place? Nobody deserves a bare minimum just for existing.”
“They are providing a service.”
“Are they? When’s the last time you were able to buy toilet paper? Nothing on the shelves means somebody ‘essential’ isn’t doing their job.”
“Well, it’s not just that,” Mom said. “What about all those people packaging shipments? They say online shopping has exploded.”
“Yeah, it has, and speaking of things exploding, I got a delivery from Walmart a couple of days ago. Hand lotion, a bottle of shampoo, face wash. These so-called ‘essential’ workers put everything in a soft envelope—totally loose, didn’t even tape down the lids of the bottles—and sent it off. Do I need to tell you what the inside of that package looked like when I opened it?”
“It looked like somebody had just given a whale a hand job.”
They rode in silence for a few minutes, and then Mom said, “This is precisely why I’d rather stay with your sister. She doesn’t make off-color remarks about sexual acts with animals.”
“Never mind. Just keep driving. I’ll shut my eyes and try to get some rest until we get there.”
“I assume Candace knows you’re coming.”
“What’s that mean?” Claudia asked.
“I didn’t want to tell her ahead of time in case she said no.”
“Like she’d ever—”
“Your sister can be a lot less gracious than you think.”
“I wasn’t aware she was ever gracious.”
“Claudia, really,” Mom said. “Just drive the car and let’s stop talking before we get into an argument.”
Jesus, Claudia thought. This wasn’t already an argument?
“Maybe you should call Candace,” Claudia said. “Just to let her know. She’s never been big on surprises.”
“Nonsense. What about that surprise birthday we threw for her?”
“She was eight.”
“People don’t change, sweetheart. You can tell yourself whatever you want, but the truth is the truth. People are what they are, and if you liked surprises once, you still like them now.”
“We’ll see how that theory works out when we get to Candace’s.”
“Indeed we will. Now just drive. I need a few minutes’ worth of beauty sleep. You have no idea the conditions I’ve been living in.”
“Weren’t you just hanging out in your own apartment?”
“Yes, of course,” Mom said, with a grumpy sigh. It was clear to Claudia that her mother believed Claudia was the dumbest human being on the planet. “But just you see how much you enjoy being locked in, not allowed to leave.”
“They must not have locked you in all that well or you wouldn’t be here now.”
“I’m a political refugee, darling. You should treat me with a bit more sensitivity.”
“What’re they going to do when they figure out you’re gone?” Claudia asked.
Mom shrugged. “Probably assume I’m dead and add my name to the list of SARS-642 victims.”
In a strange way, it was nice to have someone else suggesting there might be a sinister conspiracy like the one that had Claudia’s wheels spinning out of control these days. She opened her mouth to say something, maybe thank her mother for inadvertently making her feel better (for once), but Mom held up a hand and stopped her before she could make a peep.
“Honestly, Claudia, do you ever shut up?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were about to.”
“Maybe I was going to say something nice,” Claudia said.
“Unlikely.” Her mother was as American as they come, had never been out of the States (Mom said Canada didn’t count—either for travel or as a “real” country), but still, in her head, Claudia couldn’t help hearing the comment with British intonation: “Un-bloody-likely.”
“Thanks, Mom, that’s nice.”
“Like I said, people don’t change, and I’ve rarely heard a pleasant word come out of your mouth.”
“Here’s a tip, Ma: Don’t criticize the person driving the car. That’s a good way to end up hitchhiking along the side of the Garden State Parkway.”
“You don’t have the guts to leave me on the road.”
As much as the dare got Claudia’s hackles up (and tempted her almost to the point of compulsion), she knew her mother was right. Maybe if she did have her own place and didn’t have to listen to Dad, and Candace, whine, she’d try it and give Mom a taste of her own medicine for a change. But instead, she just swallowed her fury (which transformed into an instant ball of heartburn) and kept driving. They were almost to Candace’s anyway. How much worse could the day get?
Candace was sprawled on a chaise-longue right in the driveway when Claudia pulled in. Two acres of immaculately manicured property and Candace had decided the driveway was the best spot for sunbathing.
Mom tutted. “Women like your sister, who have had children, should not be wearing a bikini. Would you look at that? Shameful.” Mom was shaking her head. “At least you don’t have to worry about that anymore, right, Claudia?”
The ball of heartburn let off a flare and Claudia wished she had a bottle of Maalox tucked in the glove compartment. Instead, she just took a deep breath and tried to pretend that her mother wasn’t the devil.
It wasn’t until Claudia had shut off the car engine and she and Mom climbed out that Candace even lifted her head. Candace always had been a good napper—though Claudia guessed the jug of red wine sitting on the blacktop beside the lounge chair was lending a helping hand this time.
Candace struggled to her feet and wrapped her trademark long brown sweater around her. “What are you guys doing here?” she asked.
“I’m here to stay, darling. Claudia, get my bag out of the trunk.”
Claudia moved obediently to open the trunk and tugged out the huge suitcase, ignoring the searing flash of pain across her surgical scar. It was worth risking a hernia to get rid of the suitcase—and Mom along with it.
“Here to stay?” Candace said. “I thought you were on lockdown.”
“There’s been a jailbreak,” Claudia said. “And the escaped con wants to stay with you. Congratulations.”
“I’d hardly want to stay with my ex-husband,” Mom said. “Besides, Candace has plenty of room. Unlike some people.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Candace said (ever the kiss-ass). “The maid just cleaned the guest suite yesterday, so you’re more than welcome.”
Mom flashed Claudia an “I told you so” look and dragged her rolling suitcase toward the house.
Candace rushed to Claudia’s side and hissed, “What the fuck?”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Leave her at home? Talk some sense into her?”
“Like she’s ever listened to me before. Besides, she’s got a good argument for wanting to get out of there. Did you see the news about the mass grave at the nursing home?”
Candace shuddered. “And you called me Hitler for wearing a face mask.”
“Speaking of which . . .”
Candace’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh, crap. I took it off to drink some wine—”
“At . . .” Claudia checked her watch. “. . . eleven-thirty a.m. Nothing like getting an early start.”
“You’d be getting drunk, too, if you had to deal with a surly preteen all day.”
What was this, rag on Claudia’s reproductive failures day?
Candace crossed her arms over her chest. “Good thing the liquor stores are still open. I’m going to need a lot more wine if Mom’s going to be here more than five minutes. You need a glass?”
“I do, after that ride, but I think I’d rather leave her to you and head home. I can drink there, if I still need something to bring down my stress level.”
“What are you whining about? You’re the one she can’t get enough of.”
“As if! The whole way up here, she explained what a giant loser I am and how awesome you are.”
“You’ve always been such a liar,” Candace said. “Always rewriting history to make me out to be the bad guy in your life.”
In a way, it might have been true—except for the “rewriting” part. There was no need to rewrite anything. Any way you looked at it, Candace had always been the villain in Claudia’s life. Then again, any writer knows that every villain is the hero of their own story, so maybe, in Candace’s view, Claudia had been the bad guy. Maybe it didn’t matter now. When you had real villains—deadly diseases, corrupt politicians, nursing homes trying to hide mass graves—you needed every ally you could get, even if some of those allies happened to be villains, too.
“Let’s not argue, okay?” Claudia said.
“Whatever,” Candace said, moving to grab the bottle of wine from beside her lounger. “I’ll take it from here and deal with Mom. Like I always do.”
Claudia wanted to argue, maybe slap her sister back to reality, but she was already worn out and it didn’t seem worth the expenditure of energy. She had bigger battles—constitutional, legal, maybe even geopolitical ones—to fight.
“See ya,” she said, hopping into her car before Candace could start arguing again. All Claudia wanted now was a long nap—and after that, if she still had her wits about her, to get in touch with Berk.
Quarantine Day 90
Instead of texting Berk when she got home from the Mom rescue mission, Claudia had curled up in bed with a book and the Roku remote. Saving American democracy was going to have to wait until she finished her Netflix binge. Being with her mother and sister had sapped what little energy she still had—and it wasn’t much, these days. Sure, Dr. Goodman had cleared her for exercise, but other than a few walks, she hadn’t actually done anything. She was terrified to find out just how out of shape she really was by attempting one of her once-standard early-morning runs. That revelation, too, could wait until tomorrow.
But now tomorrow was here (actually, several tomorrows had come and gone). And before she could deal with Berk, she knew she needed to take control of herself. So, she dragged herself out of bed, pulled a pair of leggings over her increasingly dimpled ass, and slid into her running shoes. The view in the mirror told her this wasn’t going to be pretty: Somehow, a whole new roll of fat seemed to have taken up residence above her surgery scar. She’d expected having five pounds of fatty tumor removed, along with her uterus and fallopian tubes, would have made her lose a little weight. Wishful thinking, apparently.
She thought about going out there, all cool and casual-like, just a girl and her sneakers out for a nice run, but she strapped on her GPS watch anyway so she’d know how far she went. She’d always been the kind of person who thought it was better to know, even if the news was terrible, than to live in denial.
The news was even worse than she expected.
She barely made two miles running, and had to stop and walk twice, her lungs on fire and thigh muscles quivering. Walking home, panting, she sent some advice out to the universe: Exercise every day, kiddos. Even if you do everything right, you never know when life is going to pluck your health right from between your fingertips. Enjoy it while you can.
Before hopping in the shower to rinse the crust of sweat from her limbs, she paused and texted Berk while her nerves were still steady and strong from the (albeit limited) endorphins her run had sent coursing through her bloodstream:
“I’ve got to talk to you. Not about THAT, us, whatever. It’s about the virus. Text me when you’re up.”
She figured she had an hour, maybe two or three, before he even saw the message, much less replied, but just as she was stepping into the shower, her phone buzzed. When you’re naked and sweaty, it’s a tough call: Do you pick up the phone, knowing you need to talk to the caller, or do you surrender to the shower spray, knowing you’ll be good for nothing until you feel clean again?
She chose feeling clean. It was better that way. No man ever seemed to believe you when you said you didn’t want to talk about having a sexual relationship, so it wasn’t likely Berk would be all that eager to engage on her topic of choice.
Or maybe she was wrong. Because when she got out of the shower, dressed and fresh, and sat down at her computer, phone in hand, she found not only a voicemail but—count ’em—five email messages from Berk:
“Please tell me you’ve run the numbers.”
“I know you’re the only smart person in my life—thank god (not) we can talk about this.”
“The media’s lying to us. Check the CDC website. Or the WHO. There are hardly any cases.”
“I’m starting to think these nutjob conspiracy guys might be right and this whole thing really is a scheme orchestrated by Nelly Pelucci and her Democratic cronies.”
“Shit. I really hope you don’t have SARS-642. If you do, please disregard all previous messages.”
She almost laughed out loud at that last one—and it made her realize that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed. All the books on hysterectomy had warned that laughing and coughing would be agony on her surgical site, but she’d done neither the whole time she was recovering. And that? Was kind of sad.
She hit “Call Back” on Berk’s phone number.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You’re up early.”
“Nah, I’m still up from last night.”
“No, of course not. What am I, a teenager?”
“Okay, good,” she said. “I can’t be friends with a night owl.”
“I am, and so are all nonpsychotic human beings. In case you missed it in biology class, the human body is designed to be active during daylight and asleep in the dark. Anyone who does otherwise is going against nature. And they suck.”
“You gonna slap my bottom if I stay up past sundown?”
“Let’s not go there,” Claudia said. “We have more important things to talk about.”
“Yeah. You’ve seen the numbers?”
“The real ones? Yeah. How’d you figure it out?” he asked.
“My doctor tipped me off. You?”
“I’m a horror guy,” he said. “I always expect the cloud to have a black lining.”
“Ha-ha,” she said. “You know, the more I look at this, the more embarrassed I am about that piece I wrote for the group, comparing the virus to the Black Death.”
“Nah, don’t be. Your thesis still holds: The reactions are identical, whether people have any reason to be having those reactions or not.”
“I guess,” she said.
“Not that it matters,” he told her. “Who’s seeing those pieces outside of our writing group? And they’re nice people and all, but they’re not exactly qualified literary critics.”
“We shouldn’t make fun of them,” Claudia said.
“I know. I know. And we have bigger things to discuss. So, what did your doctor tell you?”
She gave him the rundown: everything Dr. Goodman had said, Candace’s revelations about the empty hospitals, the statistics she’d found online and in the science literature that showed the media reports were dramatically overstating the virus’s effects.
“Right,” he said. “God, is it a relief to have someone in the boat with me.”
“I’m not sure what boat I’m in. I just know something fucked-up is happening. Dr. Goodman says it’s a Democratic plot, orchestrated by Nelly Pelucci.”
“I suspect Pelucci’s the figurehead, not the mastermind. That idiot couldn’t orchestrate her way out of a brown paper bag.”
“Yeah, you have to question the intelligence of anyone who goes to a plastic surgeon that awful.”
“Have you seen before and after shots? No joke, her left eye used to be in line with the right, and now . . .”
“That eye is jacked up. Gotta be two inches higher than the other.”
“All that corruption money as the country’s biggest political party boss and she can’t afford a decent eye lift? Come on, now.”
“I think we’ve veered off topic again,” Claudia said.
“We tend to do that, don’t we?”
“So, back to the virus. How did you figure it out?”
“I’ll admit, I get some libertarian newsletters and they gave me a hint,” he said. “But I’ve done all the legwork myself. You can’t trust a radical, regardless of which direction they lean.”
“I’m guessing we’d be dubbed radicals just for having this conversation.”
“Good,” he said. “I need a good label. Clearly, ‘writer’ hasn’t been working out all that well for me.”
“Ha-ha. I can say the same. But the question is: We know we’re being lied to, but what do we do about it?”
“I’m assuming you’d prefer not to end up in jail,” he said. “Or Guantanamo?”
“Then my recommendation would be for you to do a chronicle.”
“How’s that?” she said.
“Ever read Defoe? Journal of the Plague Year?”
“Nope. Heard of it, of course, but I never exactly had the urge to read plague death stats from 1660s London. Call me crazy.”
“Well, read it, and then do it. Keep track of the numbers—the real ones and the ones the media are making up—”
“I love that you know the word media is plural,” she said.
“I know, I know. Most people are idiots. Anyway. Write it all down and keep a record of the regulations they pass and the restrictions they put in place.”
“I’ve already got most of that on file,” she said. “I thought I’d need it for the novel I’m writing—”
“It’s not a novel anymore. It’s a memoir. . . . No. It’s an exposé.”
“Okay, sure, whatever you say. I’ll be Defoe.” It was a relief, really. The novel hadn’t exactly been coming along easily, and writing a fact-based science chronicle was way more Claudia’s speed than trying to develop convincing characters for a fictional tale. “What’re you going to do?”
“I’m going to get the evidence.”
“Okay, Oliver Twist. I’m going out in the field to get photos: the empty hospitals, the unused ventilators, the lies.”
“You’ll get arrested.”
“Not if I’m careful.”
“Just remember: You’re a writer, not a spy. It could be dangerous.”
“So could letting this thing keep going on without people realizing what’s happening,” he said.
A chill ran through Claudia. If everything hadn’t been so shitty, she might have fallen in love with Berk. She’d never been able to resist a renegade—and this was her first time encountering one who wasn’t fictional.
“Okay, I’m headed out now,” Berk said. “It’s still early yet. I should be able to hit a few hospitals before lunch.”
“You might be crazy,” Claudia said.
“Yeah. Crazy people are more fun. I’ll call you later.”
That had gone well. An entire conversation about something important and not a single word about marriage or crushes or anything uncomfortable—except, of course, the decline of American democracy. She almost had to smile.
She sat down at her writing desk and pulled out her notebook. It was time to get to work.
Quarantine Day 100
Cases: 399,346 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
297,223 (as reported by FOX)
297,225 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 75,198 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
22,314 (as reported by FOX)
9 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: 0.003%
The murmur of her father’s television woke Claudia that morning.
“What the . . .” she mumbled, dragging herself up and peering at the clock. 4:47 in the morning was too damn early to be catching up on your DVR cache of Law & Order: SVU.
She was about to roll over and try to go back to sleep for a while when the door upstairs that led down to the basement opened.
“Claud? Ya awake?” Dad shouted.
“Even if I weren’t already, I would be now. What the hell?”
He flipped on the overhead lights, blinding her, and made his way down the creaky basement stairs, just behind Bandit, who leaped onto the bed and started licking Claudia’s neck.
“Thought ya might wanna know: Governor declared another extension of the quarantine overnight.”
“Oh, crap. Another six weeks?”
Dad sat down on her leather reading chair and shook his head. “Not six weeks. Six months.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Nope. No joke. FOX is saying most of the governors—the Democrats, anyways, big surprise there—made the same declaration. They waited ’til after midnight, so’s it’d be a done deal, nobody bitchin’ and moanin’ like they would be during business hours.”
Claudia swung her legs out of bed and stretched. “I’d never be called an advocate of big government, but where the hell is the president? How’s he just letting them do whatever they want?”
“They say he’s gonna try to fight them, but he did say the federal government wouldn’t dictate policy for the states—”
“As any good Republican would say, at least back in the day when there were differences between the political parties.”
“Yeah, so, now the states’re takin’ advantage of him.”
“This is one of those times it would be nice not to have a president who’s a complete moron.”
“Hey, I voted for the guy. He’s doin’ a good job.”
“For what he’s dealing with? Yeah. He actually is doing a halfway decent job. But that doesn’t mean he’s not also batshit crazy. And anybody with a brain would’ve had the foresight to see this one coming. I’m guessing this guy doesn’t play a whole lot of chess.”
“Well, whatever,” Dad said. “It’s six months now.”
Claudia felt a fist clamp down around the base of her spine, twisting, twisting. “Has everybody seriously gone insane?”
“I’ve been doing some research, checking the numbers. What the networks are reporting for the case numbers is way inflated. Even your favorite, FOX, is off by thousands. The real deaths are in the single digits, as far as I can tell. The media networks are deliberately lying to us. I’ve checked the CDC, the WHO, and I’ve read reports from science journals and organizations. I’ve seen videos put together by doctors actually working with virus patients, and the people who have the facts all saying the same thing.”
“Which is what?”
“The SARS-642 virus is less deadly than the average flu.”
“So, why all these quarantine and masks and laws?”
“It’s about political and social control, not health. They’re inflating the numbers to make people afraid. Then they use that fear to take extra power—power we’d never let them have in normal times.”
“But for what?”
“If we let the government tell us we have to stay home and wear a mask because there’s a public-health crisis, we’ve set a precedent: Now they can use extraordinary—and illegal, unconstitutional—power anytime they want. Because we’ve said it’s okay.”
Dad was quiet for a moment, then he said, “Look, I’m no fan of big government, but don’t we need to keep people safe?”
“I don’t have the numbers in front of me now, obviously, since I’m not even out of bed yet—but they show that the regular old flu, which hits every year, has killed more people this year than SARS-642. The flu killed something like a hundred and change. SARS has killed nine. That’s it. Nine people.”
“But how can that be? They’re sayin’ SARS has killed—”
“They’re counting the flu deaths as SARS deaths. They’re counting everything as SARS deaths. But they’re lying. You can see it in black and white, right on the CDC website. They itemize respiratory deaths by category, and there have been tons more flu deaths—not to mention lung cancer, COPD, asthma, whatever else—as SARS.”
Dad frowned. “But what should we do? Just let people go out and act like normal and risk gettin’ sick?”
“Exactly. We don’t isolate ourselves for the flu, and we don’t freak out when it kills fifty or sixty thousand people most years.”
“But people would get sick . . .”
“People would get sick anyway,” she said. “And with a disease like SARS-642—with only a tiny fatality rate—it makes more sense to let most people catch it, get better, and be immune to any future outbreaks.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Yes, you do. It’s basic herd immunity, Dad. If we let healthy, strong, regular people who don’t have other illnesses get a little bit sick—and recover—we protect all the weaker people later, because the virus won’t be able to find hosts and will die out before it can take hold.”
“So, what? We only isolate old people?”
“Exactly. Old people, people with immune disorders, the people who might actually die if they catch SARS-642. We protect them, but we do our best to let everybody else—in America and worldwide—get the stupid thing and get over it. Then it can never be a danger again.”
“Why ain’t anybody suggestin’ that?” Dad asked. “I mean, it sounds smart and all, honey, but you’re a writer, not a scientist.”
“I didn’t make this up myself, Dad. Herd immunity is a real thing, and unless—until—there’s a vaccine against this virus, it’s the best way to keep people healthy in the long run.”
“I just feel like somebody would be sayin’ this on the news if it made sense.”
“The CDC has said it; so has the WHO. The media aren’t reporting it, though, because it doesn’t fit their agenda.”
“Agenda? Ya sound like one of them conspiracy nuts. What agenda?”
“To make us, as a population, complacent. Don’t you see? We think we’re a democracy, that we control the government, but a little virus comes along and we fall into line like slaves on a chain gang. We’re a bunch of sheep.”
“Well,” he said, “that about sums it up. I’m goin’ to the store. Ya need anything?”
That was just like Dad, Claudia realized: always getting up in arms about little things, like the local school putting up signs saying no dogs allowed (thereby infringing upon his right to take Bandit on a shortcut home from their walks), but acting like it was no big deal when something actually world-changing was going on.
“No,” she said. “I’m fine. I don’t need anything.” Other than for some semblance of sanity to return to the world, of course.
She sat perched, still in her pajamas, on the edge of the bed and watched him go. She’d better get up. Maybe Berk had emailed overnight. She hoped so. Right now, she could use a solid dose of co-conspiracy. Who knew it would take outright paranoia for her to finally find some reason and logic among her fellow humans?
Sure enough, there was an email waiting from Berk. Actually, several emails. One, two . . . crikey. Twelve separate messages, all sent between nine last night and four-thirty this morning. Did this guy ever sleep? His lack of sleep made her insomnia look positively bush league.
She was going to email him back, making fun of him for sending so many messages, until she paused long enough to look at one. It was simply a series of photographs—all of empty, shut-up-tight hospitals—and the subject line: “Proof Positive.”
She stopped and counted. Altogether, Berk had visited and photographed nineteen hospitals. No wonder he’d been up all night. Hell, she could only think of two hospitals anywhere near here, without crossing the Hudson into New York.
She pulled up the last email, with its photos of Philadelphia-area hospitals, and typed a reply: “This isn’t a joke?”
She got up and gathered her things for a shower, figuring it would be hours before Berk answered. After all, he was probably finally asleep after his night of multistate recon. But before she could close the bathroom door, she heard her phone chirp with a new message.
“I’m still on the road,” Berk wrote. “Six more closed hospitals and counting. I’m almost afraid to keep going. What if I got in a car wreck? There’s no place in two hundred miles to get fixed up if you’re injured or sick right now.”
Claudia considered forwarding the message, and all the photographic evidence, to her father, with a snarky subject line like “I told you so,” but once a person chose to close his eyes, he was pretty much beyond reach.
Instead, she wrote back, “What are you going to do with all this info?”
The reply: “I’ve already posted it all to Twitter and Instagram and a few message boards.”
Yowza. She pulled up Twitter and flipped to Berk’s page, where the only recent posts had been replaced with the ever-sinister message: “This post has been removed due to inappropriate content.”
So much for free speech. You couldn’t scroll half a page down your Twitter feed without encountering at least three naked women, but empty hospitals were “inappropriate content.” The SARS Taliban—whoever they were—had officially taken over social media. Sure, Twitter was a private company with the right to choose its own content, but in reality, they and their ilk more or less owned online communication. It wasn’t like you could just put up your own global social network overnight and reach the same audience. In essence, social media had become a utility, like the electric company. Was the electric company allowed to refuse service to customers based on people’s political opinions? She didn’t think so.
As she typed back to let Berk know his posts had been removed, she wondered if it was time to ditch America and relocate to Italy. Sure, their government was laughably corrupt, run by socialist (but wholly ineffective) playboys and bimbos in bikinis, but at least you had the Tuscan sun, the pasta, and the most melodious language on Earth, which Claudia spoke almost fluently (unlike most Americans—particularly, and oddly, those of the Italian-American variety).
But before she booked a flight, she had to tell Berk. She typed: “Dude, bad news. They took down your posts. Controversial content. Big Brother strikes again.”
Mere seconds passed before he replied: “Motherfuckers. So much for free speech. It’s only the vanilla sites, though—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I just checked and my shots are still up on the message boards.”
“You mean the libertarians and right-wing nut jobs don’t mind your evidence corroborating their conspiracy theories? Fancy that. 😊”
“Don’t be a wise ass. This is bullshit.”
“I know. I’m moving to Italy.”
“They’ve got higher rates of SARS there than we do.”
“Again, fancy that. They’ve also got a mostly elderly population and a people who, as a culture, chain-smoke. Not surprising a respiratory illness has taken hold. I’m good.”
“I’d miss you if you left.”
“Gotta call BS on that. We’d still be able to do this, have video chats, whatever, if I were in Tuscany. You seem to have forgotten one thing: We? Have never met.”
“Now I call bullshit. We may have never been in the same physical space, but we have absolutely fucking met.”
She sighed. How do you argue semantics in this kind of situation? And what’s the point?
“Whatever,” she typed back. “I’m going to have breakfast. What’s your plan for the day? More photos? Or maybe some sleep, after your whirlwind tour of the tristate area’s medical centers.”
“No rest for the wicked. I’m heading up to New York—not Manhattan, but the outer boroughs and a little bit upstate. If New York is the supposed U.S. epicenter for SARS, then the hospitals had better be open.”
She felt a pang and realized what it was: She wished she could go with him. Of course, at that moment, she was pretty sure she would have longed to go with him if he’d told her he was heading to the dentist for a good gum scraping. Anything to get out of the house and not have to deal with her mother or sister.
“Be careful,” she typed. “And keep me posted.”
“Will do,” he replied.
She glanced at the clock. Not even six a.m. and already she could use a nap. It was going to be one of those days. Hell, she thought. It was turning out to be one of those lives.
Quarantine Day 115
Cases: 405,653 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
299,772 (as reported by FOX)
298,054 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 81,068 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
24,532 (as reported by FOX)
10 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: 0.003%
Claudia was on her way out for her second walk of the day when her phone rang and stopped her. Sure, two walks was more than a normal person needed, but these weren’t normal times by any stretch, and besides—she did have twenty-five pounds to lose and could hardly manage to run two miles without stopping. She needed whatever calorie burn she could get. Something about being stuck in quarantine seemed to have made Oreos irresistible. And Chips Ahoy.
The number that was calling wasn’t familiar, but she could tell it was a Manhattan exchange. Probably a telemarketer (do-not-call list—yeah, like that worked!), but what the hell? It wasn’t like she got all that many chances to yell at people these days.
“Claudia, hi! So glad to catch you in. It’s Markie.”
Markie—her editor at the publishing house that had put out her science books a decade ago, and then abruptly canceled all her upcoming contracts not too long back, citing lack of interest in an increasingly social media/YouTube–dominated world.
“Hey, Markie,” Claudia said. “How’ve you been?”
“I’d say ‘same old,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Are you sitting down?”
“Why? Did somebody die? I mean, besides my writing career.”
“That’s just it. It’s your books. They’re selling.”
Claudia shooed the dog off her dad’s padded metal folding chair and sat down there on the front porch. “Well, they always sell a little. I get my sad couple hundred dollars each quarter.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. They’re selling. Like hotcakes, excuse the cliché. We just arranged for a new reprint edition of the first five titles in the series—twenty-five thousand copies each.”
Now, if you’re somebody like Jodi Picoult or James Patterson, twenty-five thousand copies might sound like an insultingly small number of books for your publisher to print. But for a normal writer—like most writers are, not really eking out a living with their craft—twenty-five thousand copies was . . . well, a shit ton.
“Holy crap,” Claudia said.
“I know. It’s great. I knew you’d be pleased.”
“But why? Why are they suddenly selling again?”
“Best we can tell, it’s the virus.”
“What the hell would that have to do with it?”
“Hard to be sure. We think what’s happening is, parents are stuck at home, trying to help teach their kids, with no training, mind you. And they’re looking for materials to teach science that are accurate yet accessible to laypeople. And your books are the perfect solution.”
“Wow. Who knew?”
“So, here’s the thing: We were hoping you’d be willing to write a bunch more books. Fast.”
Claudia felt her heart stop for just a second. Or maybe it was just residual gas from all those Oreos.
“New books?” she said. “About what?”
“Well.” Claudia could hear Markie shuffling papers and felt oddly reassured: There was something stable and steady about an editor who still preferred to work on real paper instead of tapping at a screen. “I’ve got those ten contracts we canceled for books on . . . let’s see . . . the Periodic Table, constellations, superfoods—”
“They want me to write all ten?”
“You bet. Oh, and ten others—first—on various infectious diseases and topics like antibiotic resistance. The kind of things people are crazy to know more about in light of SARS-642.”
“Is that a yes?”
“It’s a hell yeah,” Claudia said. “It’s funny. I never expected the collapse of modern civilization to actually work out in my favor.”
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Markie said.
“Painful, Markie. That line has mold on it. But I’m teasing. Definitely send me contracts, a list of topics, whatever you need. I’ll get to work immediately. Hey, how soon do they want drafts?”
“Um, how about yesterday?”
“No problem, I’ll just crank up my time machine. But seriously, I can probably get you rough drafts of the first few books in a couple of weeks.”
“You always were fast,” Markie said.
“Yeah, well, I’m even faster now that I have absolutely nothing to do but sit and wait for a virus to supposedly come and get me.”
“Funny you should say that,” Markie said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the other day, they said on the news that one in a hundred Americans has SARS-642. I know I’m just a lowly editor and not a scientist or mathematician or anything, but I did some calculations. I figure I should know at least fifty sick people.”
“How many do you know?”
“None,” Markie replied. “Not even a friend of a friend or that sort of thing. And my parents live in an old folks’ home, where this thing is supposed to be running rampant. How many sick people do you know, Claudia?”
“Same as you: a big fat zero,” Claudia said. “Unless you count my friend Luciana, who was convinced she had this deadly respiratory illness, but never coughed once and went for a ten-mile run on the second day of feeling lousy.”
“I’m going to guess she didn’t actually have it.”
“Oh, she was sick, all right, but not with SARS. Like most of the world, she was infected with hypochondria, idiocy, and mass hysteria. If you ask me, that’s the more dangerous pandemic.”
“Something about this whole thing scares me a little,” Markie said quietly.
Claudia felt a rush, a pressure, move through her—the urge to share what she’d learned, everything from Dr. Goodman’s revelations to Berk’s photos of shut-up-tight hospitals. It would feel good, freeing, to bring another intelligent human being (there were so few of them around these days) into the fold. But why drag anyone else into the danger zone? Berk was already out there, getting his posts banned, getting harassed by security guards. Just yesterday, he’d called from a holding cell somewhere in Maryland after being picked up for trespassing.
“How can you trespass at a hospital?” he had asked her. “What if I really needed some kind of medical help?”
No, there was no reason to make Markie, who’d always been a gentle, nervous kind of person, worry any more than she was already doing.
“Yeah,” Claudia finally said. “It scares me a little, too.”
“Well, enough of that,” Markie said, her voice suddenly bright and cheery again. “Let’s focus on turning you into a bestselling author, how about that?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Claudia hung up the phone, went back to her room, and checked the email Markie had sent while they were talking. She immediately started bookmarking scholarly journal articles and other reference materials for research, realizing only after she checked the time that two hours had passed and she’d forgotten about her walk. Better than that, she’d forgotten (at least for a little while) about SARS-642, Berk and his crusade, and the spine-tingling terror that had become her closest companion over the past few weeks. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had been right: The flow state of creativity was a goddamn miracle. Still, Claudia supposed it couldn’t last all day, and there wasn’t a whole lot of day left anyhow. In fact . . .
“Yo, Claud?” Dad shouted from the top of the stairs. Why do the elderly, in their deafness, assume that no one else can hear, either?
“Yeah, Dad. What’s up?”
“I want to order food from that Mexican place, or Tex-Mex, whatever. You know. The one with the funny burritos?”
He meant Moe’s Southwest Grill.
“It’s the names that are funny, Dad, not the burritos themselves,” Claudia said, leaving her desk and looking up at him, on the landing, from the bottom of the stairs.
“Ya know what I’m talkin’ about. Can you pull up their website on your computer so I can order?”
She might have just checked the time on her laptop moments ago, but the mention of dinner kicked her OCD instincts into high gear and she glanced at her watch. 4:12 p.m. Dad wanted dinner five minutes earlier every day. At this rate, they’d be finishing dessert at noon by Christmas. But who was she to fight it? When you lived with an older person, your own stomach quickly grew accustomed to the Early Bird Special, and the mere thought of a burrito made her stomach growl.
“Sure,” she said. “You wanna come down and pick all your toppings?”
“Nah, you go ’head. I trust ya.”
“I call bullshit on that,” she told him. “Remember last time? You said no onion, no guacamole, but everything else, then you flipped out when your burrito had black olives in it.”
“Olives are Italian,” Dad said. “They don’t belong on Mexican food.”
“I can practically hear a peninsula’s worth of Greeks crying out, ‘What about our olives, eh?’”
“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll find the menu on the computer.”
It wasn’t her imagination: As Claudia got healthier and stronger after surgery, her father had gotten lazier, less inclined to lift a finger around the house. Whereas he’d patiently waited on her hand and foot for the first two months post-op, now the only chores he seemed willing to handle were walking the dog (his dog, but still) and doing the grocery shopping. Even that was a struggle. Dad had become categorically opposed to purchasing any vegetable that was either unfrozen or unsauced, so although they had a freezer full of Bird’s-Eye’s best (Dad was under the mistaken impression that buttered corn was a vegetable), Claudia couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen (much less consumed) a fresh vegetable, or anything from the, you know, healthy portion of the food pyramid. Another reason to jump on this Moe’s idea: She could order a burrito bowl loaded with tomatoes, olives, onions, the works. Hopefully, balanced nutrition was a long-term thing—maybe if she stocked up during this one meal, she’d be good for the rest of the month.
She was feeling almost buoyant and could hardly believe her good luck. A new series of books to write and fresh vegetables with actual nutrients, both in the same day. She felt a tingle of almost-happiness in her gut and wished these were normal times, maybe even that it was ten years ago and she was back living in PA with Aaron, where she had real, live friends (not just online chat buddies). If this had been a different world, different times, she would have organized a big dinner out with twenty people—maybe hibachi, because who didn’t enjoy getting a little drunk on sake while trying to catch pieces of zucchini tossed at your face by a semi-sadistic Japanese chef? But these weren’t those times, so her only person to share her joy with was… Dad.
She pulled up the local Moe’s takeout menu on her laptop. “Dad, come on,” she called. “I’ve got the menu up. Tell me what you want.”
Dad creaked his way down the stairs. When he reached her desk chair, he waved her out of it. As he scrolled through the menu, squinting at the burrito options like he was trying to read hieroglyphs on an Egyptian tomb wall, Claudia said, “So, hey, I got a call from my old editor, at the publishing house that did my books.”
“Yeah,” Dad said, his voice so flat, it carried approximately zero interest.
“Yeah, well. They’re reprinting all my old books and say they’re selling really well again.”
Don’t jump for joy all at once, Dad. “Yeah, and not only that, but they want me to write a whole new series of books.”
He nodded, not lifting his eyes from the screen. “Order me this here Joey Bag o’ Donuts.”
They say women tend to choose men who remind them of their fathers, and for the first time, Claudia saw the similarity between Aaron and Dad: Neither one of them showed even the slightest hint of interest in anything she did. Talk about a letdown from the heights of almost-ecstasy she’d been experiencing since getting off the phone with Markie.
“Okay, Dad,” she said.
“Great.” He clapped his hands once and stood up. As he started back up the stairs, he paused and looked over his shoulder. “Good for you, Claud. On them books, I mean. I’m proud of ya.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. Maybe Aaron and Dad weren’t so similar after all.
Quarantine Day 120
Cases: 412,087 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
300,154 (as reported by FOX)
299,217 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 88,361 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
25,099 (as reported by FOX)
11 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
Berk had been even more profuse in his praise than Dad when Claudia told him about the new book deal (not that it was ever hard to exceed Dad’s usual level of excitement—short of a miraculous Jets trip to the Super Bowl, Claudia couldn’t really imagine anything getting him worked up).
“You’re gonna be famous,” Berk had said.
“Probably not,” she replied. “But I will have some money coming in again. Crazy, huh? I finally start making some money, just when the world’s shut down so there’s nothing to spend it on.”
“There’s always your own personal stockpile of toilet paper,” Berk said. “You can order it from Amazon at two hundred bucks for a twelve-pack.”
“Seriously, what the hell is going on with the toilet paper? Over three months in quarantine and Dad says the shelves are still empty. I’ve been reduced to using tissues and even those are basically black-market items.”
“Oh, the shelves are empty, all right,” Berk said. “What gets me most is the Charmin commercials on TV. You seen ’em?”
“Oh, yeah. ‘We’re working around the clock to get the product to you—so you can focus on staying safe.’ Um, yeah. I call bullshit on that.”
“If anything, the TP companies must have decreased production. There’s no way, with all the buying limits in place, the shelves could still be empty if they were doing even a standard production quota.”
“You know they’re doing it to drive up demand—and the price—by bringing down the supply.”
“How will you defeat price gouging in your utopian state of no government?”
“I told you: Harming anyone or anything is a crime in my world. And not having enough toilet paper to wipe my ass? That’s harm. So . . .”
“Gotcha. Three strikes, death penalty.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“I would never do that,” he said.
Of course, that conversation had happened almost a week ago. Berk had been less jovial in the days since. You’ll have this with multiple rounds of questioning by the police—not just local and state but even Homeland Security. Because apparently, to the Democrats, protecting the American republic and citizens’ constitutional rights was a form of domestic terrorism.
Claudia pulled up his number. She hadn’t heard from him since early yesterday. It might be time to check in and make sure he wasn’t in jail. Again. But he beat her to it. Before she could touch the Call button, her phone sprang to life with an incoming video call. She couldn’t stop herself from glancing in the mirror. No makeup, but she had showered, and that was more than most people could say these days. Funny how quickly people begin to equate “quarantine” with “camping” and abandon all pretense at hygiene. Even funnier was the fact that the easiest way to avoid getting the virus was to . . . wash your hands.
“Hey, there,” she said. “I see you got sprung from the hoosegow.”
“They can’t legally hold me for more than a few hours. I’m not doing anything illegal, as much as they’d like us all to think otherwise.”
“I don’t think the government and the police care too much about the technicalities of legal versus illegal these days,” she said.
“Nope, not at all. But as long as they keep letting me go, I’ll keep it up.”
“You’re just a tad batshit crazy. You get that, right?”
“Come on,” he said. “You love it. I’m like some kind of outlaw. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to being sexy in my whole life. Speaking of which . . .”
He bit his lip and got a look on his face—one she’d come to know well as the “let’s talk about our relationship” look. Ugh. They had diligently avoided the topic of “them” for ages now. But he was probably right. It was time to talk.
“Okay, tell me,” she said.
“I have news.”
“Stop avoiding. Lay it on me.”
“I’m divorced,” he said. “Just waiting on the final paperwork.”
“Holy shit.” Truth was, she hadn’t seen that coming. All this time, Berk hadn’t once mentioned his wife—or, soon-to-be ex-wife, now, Claudia guessed—even when he made subtle references to wanting to be with Claudia and how great that would be.
“I thought you’d be impressed,” he said.
“I’m more than impressed. I’m stunned.”
“Fantastic,” he said. “I was hoping for wild surprise, so I’m glad to know I can still exceed my own expectations.”
“Congratulations. So, what happened?”
“You remember the whole thing I told you? How my ex wouldn’t agree to the divorce unless I gave her the house?”
“Yeah . . .”
“You asked what she had on me.”
“Well, she didn’t have anything on me, so to speak, but she did think she had a weapon,” he said.
“Are you going to spit it out or do I have to drive over there and wring your neck?”
“I didn’t think you’d want our first real-life meeting to include physical violence.”
“Holy mother of—”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ll stop torturing you. So, thing is, I wrote my first book back when my ex and I were still married and we were sharing one ancient desktop computer.”
“So, that book is far and away my most successful,” he said. “I make more money in royalties for it every year than from the other two combined.”
“Are you stalling again?”
“No,” he said. “Sorry. Here goes. My ex had the original file from the book, still timestamped and obviously the first draft from way back then, and she was threatening to go to my publisher and tell them I was a fraud, that she wrote the book, and the others.”
Claudia scoffed. “Is she even a writer? It’s not like it’s crazy hard to tell if something is written by one author or an entirely different person. There are even computer programs—”
“I know that. Now. I’ve done the research. Plus, I talked to my editor, who worked with me, not her, on all the revisions and can testify to just how hard I worked on the book. But back when she first made the threat, I was scared. Maybe I’m just a no-name horror writer, but I felt like she could take it all away from me.”
“Wow,” Claudia said. “You’re kind of a dummy, you know that?”
“So, I’ve gotta ask: What made you finally figure this stuff out after all these years?”
“You really have to ask? It was you.”
She felt a little thrill in her gut, like that drop when you ride a roller coaster. No matter how much you thought of yourself as tough and independent, you couldn’t help feeling a little flutter when somebody told you how much they cared.
“Claudia?” he said. “What are you thinking?”
She sighed. “I’m thinking how stupid it would be for me to agree to go out with you when I don’t even know if you’re a halfway decent kisser.”
“Most guys aren’t, you know.”
“Done a lot of fieldwork to figure that out?”
“More than I care to admit.”
“So,” Berk said. “What do you think?”
Her brain was racing too fast for a good answer. Finally, she said, “I think I need to have a conversation with my boyfriend. I mean, my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
He smiled. “I may have to reconsider my position.”
She called Aaron the next day. “I think we need to talk.”
Even over the phone, she could tell Aaron wasn’t listening. What else was new?
“One sec,” he said. “Just gotta click send… and… okay. What’s up?”
“Um,” she said. In that moment, trying to come up with a gentle yet effective breakup speech (something a diehard planner like Claudia really should have done before making the call), she realized something: She had never broken up with anyone before. No, she wasn’t still dating her first boyfriend from back in sixth grade. But somehow, over the years, things had just worked out in such a way that she’d never been forced to do the dirty deed herself. She’d been dumped plenty (that divorce, where her ex cleared out her bank account and disappeared had been particularly rough), but her lifelong dread of confrontation had ensured that she was never the one to pull the plug. Huh, she thought. Good thing Dad had made Candace his medical proxy on that living will he signed a while back. If Claudia was ever in charge, the poor man might end up both in a vegetative state and immortal. When it came to endings—whether medical or romantic—it was easier to let someone else be the asshole.
“Claud, I’m kinda busy. We got this new client—”
“No, no,” she said. “I’ll be quick. I’ve been thinking…”
She heard clicking in the background. He was typing. Even while she was actively breaking up with him, the guy was ignoring her.
“Yeah?” he said.
“I was thinking maybe this isn’t working anymore,” she said, trying to force down the hot lump of bile she could feel creeping up the back of her esophagus. How did men dump women all the time without accidentally becoming bulimic?
“What do you mean? What’s not working?” he asked. More clicking. That did it.
“Us,” she said, with as firm a voice as she could muster. “Our relationship. I think we should break up.”
There! It was done. She had (almost) never felt prouder in her life.
The clicking on Aaron’s end of the line stopped. Shit. He was finally paying attention, just when she had no choice but to crush his hopes and dreams.
“Break up?” he finally said. “Were we still going out?’
“I thought we broke up, what? Five years ago. When you moved.”
“What are you talking about? We never broke up.”
He laughed. “Well, we never had any kinda fight or dramatic good-bye, maybe, but, I mean, c’mon, Claud. You live in a different state and we see each other, what? Like once or twice a year?”
She had never felt so stupid. Did he think he had broken up with her? Somehow, she had drifted into the Twilight Zone. “Well, yeah,” she said. “We don’t see each other a lot, but you always come for Christmas.”
“Yeah, I do, but I’m Jewish. What the hell else have I got going on? And it seemed to mean so much to you.”
It all made sense now. Aaron hadn’t (just) been acting like a cold, distant asshole when she’d told him about having to have the hysterectomy. He’d probably been wondering why a woman who was not his girlfriend was giving him so much information about her lady bits.
“Jesus, I feel like an idiot,” she said.
“Aw, don’t be silly, it’s no big deal. But, like, we haven’t had sex in, what? Years. Didn’t that kinda make you think maybe it wasn’t the best relationship ever? Holy shit. Were you, like, telling people all this time what a crappy boyfriend I am?” He was laughing so hard, he snorted.
“No,” she said. “And just for the record, we didn’t have sex all that much even when we lived in the same house, so it’s not like I’m crazy for not thinking it was all that big a difference.”
“Fair enough, fair enough,” he said, still chuckling to himself. “Sorry, Claud. I really thought you knew. Hey, why now? You meet somebody?”
She swallowed. “Sort of, I guess. Well, not meet, since we’re in quarantine. But there’s a guy in my writing group…”
“Good for you. That’s great. I’m happy for you. And I guess I’m off the hook for Christmas.”
“Douchebag,” she said, but she was smiling. Too bad she hadn’t realized they weren’t together years ago. She could’ve saved herself a shit ton of resentment.
“Okay, then,” Aaron said. “You hang in there, Claud, okay? And if they ever let us out of the house again in, what? A few decades? Let’s meet up for lunch, okay? I love you, you dumb broad.”
“Back at you,” she said. “Talk to you soon.”
She was smiling as she put down the phone. For her first time dumping a guy, it had gone much better than she’d expected. Relief rushed through her like a drug. She hadn’t realized just how much her unresolved status with Aaron had been weighing on her. Having the relationship officially be over felt even better than getting that nasty five-pound mass taken out of her body. Almost.
She was free.
Quarantine Day 123
Cases: 414,650 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
301,087 (as reported by FOX)
299,762 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 90,521 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
26,415 (as reported by FOX)
13 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
She told her father she wasn’t feeling great. “Allergies, I think, not the virus,” she assured him (as if she really needed to; they still didn’t know a single person who was sick). She told him she’d skip dinner, and she shut the door to her basement apartment earlier than usual.
She wasn’t skipping dinner. Not exactly. She was having her first date with Berk.
It had been his idea, something he came up with when she texted to tell him it was over with Aaron (she’d left out the part about Aaron already thinking they’d been split up; no sense dwelling on the humiliation of it all).
“Candles, wine, some kind of fancy food—let’s say truffles,” Berk had said when he called to suggest a “date.”
“Where am I supposed to get truffles when I can’t even leave the house?” she asked.
“Okay, so what do you have?”
She had brought the phone with her into the furnace room, where she kept a miniature fridge—the kind you had in your dorm at college; actually, she thought it might be the one she’d had back in college (and if so, it was a wonder of Japanese engineering to still be going strong after all these years). Peering into the tiny freezer section, she said, “I’ve got Lean Cuisine mushroom and asparagus ravioli.”
So here she was, heating up her frozen dinner and pouring a glass of boxed cabernet while waiting for Berk to get online. He was late, and she couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he’d been arrested again. Technically, they weren’t “arrests.” The police never officially charged him with anything, probably because the jails were already overloaded with more dangerous people. Last week, the inner cities had risen up with a protest over the shooting death of a man who’d been holding a knife to the throat of a liquor store clerk. When the man (who happened to be black) refused to put down the knife, a police officer (who was white and a woman) shot and killed him. Sure, Claudia acknowledged, maybe they could have worked things out and just arrested the guy, but you kind of had to put yourself in the store clerk’s shoes. If you were that twenty-year-old (black) kid, you’d be beyond grateful that someone had acted, whether it meant the guy holding the knife to your carotid was dead or not.
Somehow, though, this unfortunate incident had become not just a racial thing but also an antipolice thing. Across America, from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., to (surprise, surprise!) Los Angeles, mobs had been erupting for days, breaking into shops, stealing merchandise, and beating up or killing the store owners (white, black, Asian, or otherwise; apparently, all capitalists deserved to die, regardless of race). They carried sheets inscribed with Black Lives Matter, so they could declare themselves peaceful protesters, but Claudia couldn’t help thinking there was a fairly obvious line between protesting and looting—and that line was somewhere around the flatscreen TV aisle in Best Buy.
Berk had put it best, she thought, when he said, “Well, I’m pretty sure stealing the new iPhone will make me feel a lot better about the death of a man I’ve never even met.”
You had to wonder what these people really were thinking. Or if they were thinking at all. In a way, Claudia understood it. The whole world, all walks of life, had been cooped up for months now. Some days, she thought she’d scream if she couldn’t just stride into a restaurant and grab a table near the window. She could only imagine how she’d feel in the shoes of these “protesters”—stuck at home, same as she was, but also uneducated, uncultured, lacking interests (other than drugs and sex) or options. These people, clearly, weren’t curling up with a good book to pass the time in quarantine, and you could only have so much sex before even that got dull. It had been only a matter of time before they’d turn to violence to keep life spicy. And that time had come.
Berk’s video box popped up on screen. “Hey, there,” he said.
“You’re late. I was thinking maybe I’d have to dial up the local holding cell to find you. I’m glad you’re not in jail tonight.”
“Me too. Hey, where’s your candles?”
“I thought you were kidding about candlelight.”
“Hell no,” he said. “I demand good food, good wine, and real candles—none of that LED fake-flicker nonsense.”
“Wow, you’re strict. You’re going to have to settle for Lean Cuisine, boxed wine, and . . . okay, well, my candles are real but they’re knockoff Yankee Candles I got at the dollar store in . . . let’s see . . . Autumn Apple scent.”
“This is kind of cheesy,” she said.
“I thought girls liked cheesy.”
“Maybe girls do. Believe it or not, I’m a full-grown woman.”
“You sure fucking are.”
“Don’t be a weirdo,” she said.
“You’re right. Let’s do this thing.”
She lit her candles and tugged the cellophane off the top of her lukewarm ravioli. “It ain’t exactly the Ritz,” she said.
“I know, I’m sorry. We’ll have a real meal, out in the real world, someday.”
“You think? Am I crazy, or are there days when you forget what it’s like to just go out, walk into a restaurant, ask for a table? Course, sometimes it feels like there never was a real world at all.”
“Maybe it’s different for me because I’ve been getting out—”
“I didn’t realize getting locked up in jail every other day qualified as ‘getting out.’”
“Now who’s being a weirdo?” he asked.
“Fair enough. So, what fancy food are you enjoying for our first date?”
He looked down. “Well, what we have here is what culinary insiders would refer to as ‘reheated Dinty Moore stew.’ Now, don’t go getting all jealous. I’m not sure your palate could handle the wonders of Dinty Moore.”
“Wow. And I thought my ravioli looked bad. At least you can tell they’re actually food. Yours looks like what you vomit up after a bad meal.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You’re really whetting my appetite.”
“I do what I can.”
“So, I don’t want to stick my nose in, but I’m dying to ask, how did your boyfriend take it when you broke up?”
Claudia had never before wished more than now that she had been born a dishonest person (like pretty much everybody else she’d ever met). Liars were able to avoid humiliation so much more often than truth-tellers. She sighed.
“That bad?” Berk asked.
She shook her head. “No, no. It wasn’t bad at all. For him, anyway. Just for me. He thought we were already broken up.”
“Really? For how long?”
“Um . . . well, like, five years.”
Berk laughed. “Sorry. But that is crazy funny. You didn’t know he broke up with you?”
“He didn’t break up with me,” she said. “That’s why I was confused.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess you haven’t had too many breakups in your day.”
“You make me sound like a seventh-grader.”
“Not at all. I just mean you stay. You stick around. For the long haul. You’re not breaking up with a new guy every couple of months. I meant it as a compliment, sweetheart.”
“This is not the Victorian era. Don’t call me sweetheart. If you need to use a term of endearment, make it one from this century.”
“A smidge ethnic, if I’m being honest.”
“But Black Lives Matter,” he said.
“Damn right, they do. Too bad the only people who seem to be expressing that sentiment don’t give a crap about what color your skin is—only whether you have a diamond necklace they can steal to get one up on ‘Whitey.’”
“Ugh, okay, I see what you’re doing. And you’re right. I’m an idiot. Tonight shouldn’t be about politics or semantics or other bullshit.”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
“So what should we talk about?”
“Ugh,” she said. “That’ll get dull quick.”
“Not for me.”
“Don’t be a kiss-ass,” she said. “It’s not attractive.”
“Aha! So I am attractive when I’m not being a kiss-ass. Good to know.”
“You’re pushing the limits and heading toward ugliness right now.”
“Sorry. There’s a fine line between charming and cheesy.”
“There really isn’t,” she said.
“Come on, now. I know this is cheesy, but it’s sweet, too, right?”
She shrugged. “I can’t help but wonder what the point is.”
“The point of…”
“This,” she said, waving her arms. “We’re calling it a date, but it’s not a date. We’re not a couple. We’re strangers who’ve never even met.”
His face clouded over. “Is that really what you think?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know. It just seems crazy. I broke up with Aaron. You got an actual divorce. And for what?”
“So we can be together.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “But we can’t. See? We removed all the obstacles and we’re still stuck right where we started, in a friendship that exists only on video chat.”
“It won’t be forever—”
“No, that’s true,” she said. “One of these days, the cops are going to actually charge you with something and then you’ll spend the next ten years in prison.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I was actually looking forward to this. I don’t know what I’m suddenly such a bitter old hag.”
“I’d be a typical man and blame it on your time of the month, but . . .”
“Ah, but you’re right. That’s the beauty of a hysterectomy: You lose the menstrual part but keep the hormones, at least until menopause.”
“Or maybe you’re frustrated being stuck in a brand-new relationship and not able to enjoy it.” Berk grinned. “Do I get to tell everybody at the writers group meeting Saturday that you’re my girlfriend?”
“Luciana will be devastated. She’ll probably kick us both to the curb.”
“Oh well. It would be worth it if I got to meet you.”
“Ugh,” she said. “We’ve ventured back down the cheesy path.”
“You, my dear, are the kind of woman who deserves every cheesy play I can pull out of my bag of romantic tricks.”
“See here? I’m not even vomiting. And I should be.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Let’s eat and drink and then maybe you can read me some poetry.”
“Unless it starts with a line about a man from Nantucket, I have no interest in poetry.”
“I knew there was a reason I loved you.”
So there it was. He’d thrown out the L word (and not the one all those LGBTQ etc. folks thought). How was she going to deal with that?
“Can we agree not to talk about that? Not tonight?” she said. That’s right, she told herself. Take the Scarlett O’Hara route: avoid.
They sat there quietly for a while. Finally, Claudia said, “This is too weird.”
“Eating in front of you like this.”
“You’d be eating in front of me in a restaurant.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t also be watching myself do it in a little box on screen. Call me crazy, but I’m not a fan of watching myself chew.”
She stuffed the last bite of ravioli into her mouth, wishing she had another Lean Cuisine to heat up. She’d missed lunch, between trying to crank out the final draft of her latest book (on Ebola) and trying to save some extra calories to offset her anticipated excess wine consumption tonight.
“What’s the matter?” Berk asked.
“Huh? Nothing. Just thinking.”
“If I covered the hemorrhagic aspects of Ebola fever in enough detail in the manuscript I turned in to my publisher this afternoon.”
“And I think I’m done with the Dinty Moore,” he said, pushing away his plate.
“Sorry. You asked.”
“True enough. I should be used to it by now.”
“That’s the thing. Should you? It’s all so bizarre. We’re talking like we’re this old married couple and we’ve never even met. I have no idea if you exist below the shoulders.”
“Um…” He bit his lip. “Are you asking for a cock shot?”
“Course not! What is it with men, always thinking women want to see their junk?”
“You mean you don’t want to see our junk?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I am completely surprised by that,” he said. “Shocked. Floored. I mean, wow. I’ve been sending dick pics to chicks for years. Who knew they didn’t like it?”
Maybe it was just the wine she’d been guzzling, but Claudia felt a rush of warmth flow through her shoulders. “You know what?” she said. “I love you, too.”
She was even (reasonably) sure she wouldn’t regret the statement tomorrow.
Quarantine Day 151
Cases: 465,116 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
310,242 (as reported by FOX)
301,751 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Deaths: 96,389 (as reported by NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS)
28,631 (as reported by FOX)
14 (as reported by CDC and WHO)
Fatality rate: <0.003%
Claudia was paging through the digital edition of Publishers Weekly that morning, bored as usual with the inane descriptions of who was switching jobs and which new authors (all of whom looked about nine years old and like they hadn’t showered in months) had “hot” books coming out. She was still a subscriber, though she couldn’t have told you why. It wasn’t like they did a ton of stories on obscure children’s science writers. Plus, the magazine was expensive and rarely, if ever, featured anything relevant to her life. Until that day. When she turned the page, she saw a full-color head shot of an old friend from back when she was fresh out of college and working as an editorial assistant at a small educational publisher. The caption read: “Mirabelle Kozinski named head of acquisitions at . . .” and then listed the name of one of the biggest publishing houses in the world. Wow, Claudia thought. Mirabelle had come a long way from making copies and crying over her shitty boyfriend in the bathroom.
Claudia flicked away from the magazine and pulled up her email app. She hadn’t heard from Mirabelle since they exchanged their mutual, dull cards at Christmas like they did every year, but this was worth a note. The mere idea of having someone to talk to besides her father and Berk and the members of her writing group filled her with helium like a little kid who just found out she’s getting a surprise trip to the zoo.
“Yo, bitch,” she typed. “Saw your write-up in PW. Congrats! You deserve it. Hope you’re staying healthy and safe in these crazy-ass times. Drop me a line when you get a chance. XOXO.”
Good enough. Just the right blend of profanity and old-fashioned well-wishes, all of which Claudia needed to include if she wanted Mirabelle to know the email was really from her and not some aspiring writer–slash–internet hacker. Being head of acquisitions at such a big house was bound to bring in a lot of unwanted email. Claudia would have felt kind of bad for her old friend, if she hadn’t been so envious. It was pathetic, she realized, that even at the best of times—newly in love, signed for a lucrative multibook publishing contract, and (despite all the extra work) still cranking out her chronicle about the virus—she could find a way to feel crappy about herself in the face of someone else’s success. It took the worst kind of narcissist to pull that sort of thing off.
Her phone buzzed with a message from Mirabelle:
“Yo, yo, GF. How the hell are you? Heard about your new science series through the grapevine. Way to go! What else you up to? I know you’re the great kiddie science writer, but come on. You got anything for ME to publish?”
Claudia’s hands were literally shaking—was Mirabelle just being nice, or might she be serious?—as she typed back: “Don’t tease a writer who’s been unpublished for years about something like that.”
The phone lit up with a FaceTime call and Claudia clicked it on. “Hey, Mir.”
“I would never tease you,” Mirabelle said. “At least not about writing. That hairdo you’ve got going is another story.”
“I haven’t showered yet.”
“Who has? These here are quarantine times. It’s a camping mentality. No hygiene required.”
“Except for the OCD-style handwashing.”
“Don’t forget the dousing of your hands and every object you touch in sanitizer. But enough about that. Tell me what’s up. You writing a novel?”
Claudia made a face. “It started out that way, but I pretty quickly figured out I’m not much of a fiction writer.”
“But you do have a book? Something I could look at?”
“I don’t know. It’s nowhere near finished.”
“What is it?” Mirabelle asked.
“It was going to be a novel about a woman stuck home like I’ve been, after surgery, during a pandemic. But along the way it turned into more of a chronicle of the virus itself. You ever read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?”
“Not myself,” Mirabelle said. “You know how little real reading we ever get to do once we start editing for a living. But I know what it is. Fictionalized but a general chronicle, right?”
“Yeah,” Claudia said. “Defoe wrote it years after the fact. He was only a little kid when the plague really swept through London. But he wrote it as if he were living it right in the moment.”
“Send me what you’ve got. I’m intrigued.”
“I’m no Defoe.”
“Of course not, girlfriend. You’re better. Just let me take a look. No promises, but I would love to have something about this whole…”
“Bullshit fake pandemic?” Claudia offered.
“Your words, not mine, but yeah. You hit the nail on the head. Email it to me. You’ve got my address?”
“Still the same email even now that you’re the boss?”
“Some things never change. Send it today. It’ll give me something to do besides review the new memoir by that reality-show star—you know, the one who used to be known for his six-pack abs and then went trans last year?”
“No shit? I missed that.”
“He’s still got a few operations left to go, so it’s not a huge story. Yet. But it will be when the book comes out. Trouble is, the guy can’t write.”
“Can anybody these days?”
“No, no, Claud. I mean, he can’t even write his name. The guy’s illiterate. No joke. He practically signed the damn contract with an X like back in the olden days. I had to hire a ghostwriter and now this abs-slash-tran guy questions everything she writes. Even though he can’t actually read it.”
“Guess I should be glad I’m a small-time failed writer and not a bigwig like you. And here I was, feeling all jealous of your success.”
“From what I hear, your spot on the bestseller list is pretty much guaranteed with those new infectious disease books. Who’d have thought a kids’ book about disease could be a thing?”
“Certainly not me,” Claudia said. “But I’ll take what I can get.”
“Me too. So send me your manuscript. Maybe we can work together again. Wouldn’t that bring back some shitty-ass memories?”
“They’re already floating through my head now,” Claudia said. “Those were the bad old days for sure. But okay, I’ll send you what I’ve got. Be gentle. I haven’t even glanced at it myself yet, much less tried to edit anything. Use your words, not your slashy red pen, got me?”
“Gotcha. Thanks, Claud. So good to hear from you.”
Claudia swiped off the phone and sank back onto her pillows. This? Could be a real disaster. But at the same time, she couldn’t help being exhilarated. After so much time feeling like some forgotten orphan nobody wanted, it was kind of a rush to be in demand. If only she’d known it would take the world falling apart to bring her a little success, she’d have unleashed some smallpox or something years ago and ridden the wave of death and disfigurement straight to the top.
Sometimes clicking send on an email feels more terrifying than the prospect of being attacked by an ax murderer. She did it anyway. These days, when the government was lying, holding people hostage in their homes, erasing civil liberties to create a new feudal state where only radical socialists were allowed to have power, nothing was all that scary.
She was too shaky after sending off the email to sit around and wait for (read: dread) a response, so she wandered upstairs, where she found her father and the dog curled up in the recliner watching golf on the TV. She didn’t think anything of the boring golf program until she noted the closed captions identifying the players and realized they were a pair of recently retired NFL quarterbacks, not professional golfers.
“Football players? Golfing?” she said.
“Turn down the volume, Dad,” she said. “I’m talking about what you’re watching. Are they seriously showing football players golfing?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”
“Golf is boring enough when it’s being played by people who know how.”
“There ain’t been any sports to watch for months now. Even golf’s better’n nothin’. Besides, I figure this’ll be lots better than regular golf. Tons of crappy shots and balls lost in the water hazards. A real shit show.”
“And that’s good?”
Dad shrugged. “Sure as hell more exciting than just watchin’ a guy hit a ball in a hole.”
“Well, have fun,” she said.
“Yup. Definitely gonna. Oh, hey, forgot to tell ya. They popped in with a news break sayin’ there’s a vaccine about to come out.”
Claudia shook her head. “You must’ve misheard them. That’s impossible. Even with this ridiculous Warp Speed process they claim they’re doing, it would take at least a year.”
“Nope, they say November.”
Claudia’s legs turned to Jell-O and she had to let herself sink down onto the couch, where Bandit instantly leaped onto her lap. “For the election,” she said.
“They’re going to use it as a way to sell the Democrats in the election—” She stopped herself because suddenly she knew in her gut that this wasn’t just good timing. This was the culmination of a plan that had been in place for months, if not years. None of this had anything to do with some disease that was little more than a heavy cold. It was a way to take over the world without most people even realizing they had fallen under an authoritarian regime. And to think, until a few minutes ago, her biggest worry had been having Mirabelle tell her the book sucked.
“I’m going for a walk,” she said. She needed to clear her head and try to get the chill out of her spine.
“Huh?” Dad asked again.
Jesus H. Christ, did this man need a hearing aid. “I said I’m going for a walk.”
“Take Bandit. He needs to shit.”
“Fantastic. Nothing I like better than cleaning up the bowel movements of animals that don’t belong to me. And before you said ‘Huh?’, never mind. Let’s go, Bandit.”
She clipped on the dog’s leash and stuffed a wad of plastic poo-poo bags into her pocket. As much as she pretended to complain, this was perfect. Glancing at her watch, she saw it was after three already, and there was no way Mirabelle would work past four on a Friday. Claudia loved the girl, but Mirabelle liked her wine, and from what the commercials were showing, people in quarantine started drinking way before five p.m. Gone were the days of “It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Quarantine meant you were being good if you held out past breakfast before you dove face-first into the booze.
They headed toward the park. Yeah, it was closed (what wasn’t?), but they could still walk the paths around the perimeter, she figured. And even if not, it was a good mile and a half up to the entrance and another mile and a half back. With Bandit’s every-ten-seconds stop to sniff each fascinating tree or signpost, three miles could easily take two hours, not just one.
In the distance she could hear a sound, like someone making a bag of microwave popcorn. But the chill that ran up her spine told her it was actually the sound of automatic gunfire: the local police practicing their shooting. Why in the world would they need such massive automatic weapons? This was suburban New Jersey, not Beirut circa 1982, or even the sections of LA currently being overrun by Black Lives Matter rioters. Um, sorry. Protesters. This town was virtually crime-free (if you overlooked the occasional litterbug). No, no, it wasn’t criminals the police were practicing to shoot. It was . . . us. Ordinary citizens. That, Claudia figured, is what happened when you let the government trick you into giving away your rights. She wished she’d thought ahead and gone out to get a gun instead of new contact lenses the week before her surgery. A pistol would be a lot handier right about now than a year’s worth of Acuvue Oasys.
The dog stopped to sniff a fire hydrant and nearly yanked her arm out of the socket. “Come on, Bandit,” she said. “Don’t be a stereotype.”
Ahead on the sidewalk a woman was approaching, decked out in a heavy-duty black face mask and… yes, those were blue plastic gloves. Yowza.
Claudia startled when she recognized the person coming toward her. It was the nutty lady—the one Claudia had seen a few months back, the one who’d been covering her face with her arms. Well, at least she’d improved her protective gear. You could say that much for her. You could also say: Bat. Shit. Crazy.
The woman was barreling toward them now, and Claudia (ever polite, especially when she was around the insane) stepped off the sidewalk and into the unmowed grass to give the lunatic the requisite six feet worth of “social distance.” Instead of taking the gift of space and moving on quickly, the woman screeched to a halt and demanded, “Where’s your mask?”
Fantastic. It was one of those people she’d heard about online: mask Nazis. Though she was rarely one to resort to confrontation, Claudia felt her blood boil. All these months without actual human contact was making other people crazy, and making Claudia bold.
“My mask,” she said, “is on the face of a medical professional who actually needs it.”
“You’re supposed to wear a mask in public places,” the woman said, leaning in (so much for social distancing). “The CDC says so.”
That did it.
“Actually, the CDC did not say so. According to the CDC, and I’m quoting, ‘Masks are an ineffective defense against the SARS-642 virus, predominantly because the virus is so small as to be able to easily penetrate even the tightest-woven fibers.’ End quote. The CDC says people should go ahead and wear masks if it provides them with emotional succor and stress relief, but in medical terms, masks are entirely ineffective at containing or preventing viral contagion.”
The woman blinked, then opened and closed her mouth. Like a fish. If only Claudia could throw this one back…
“You’re supposed to wear a mask in public,” the woman repeated, her voice softer this time. Intelligence tends to have a dulling effect on those who lack it.
“The governor’s unconstitutional executive order requires face masks in enclosed public spaces—that is, indoors. But, as you may not be aware, we are currently outdoors. Therefore, we do not need and are merely hampering our breathing by wearing masks. Good day to you.”
Claudia tugged Bandit’s leash and stepped back onto the sidewalk, striding away from the woman.
“It’s people like you who are spreading this virus,” the woman called.
Claudia stopped and turned. “How, if I do not have the virus, can I possibly be spreading it? It’s that kind of idiocy that has brought us to this state of affairs, where people like you are giving themselves breathing issues because they’re so afraid of a virus that’s not even a quarter as deadly as the flu. Check your facts before you preach.”
“You should be shot,” the woman said. “And when the governor takes control for real, you will be.”
“Oh, yes, the governor. The socialist idiot dictator. If you’re a fan, I suppose your IQ hovers somewhere around the low teens.”
“I’m smart enough to know this is a public health crisis.”
“No, you’ve been told this is a public health crisis, and without bothering to find out the truth, you’ve gone around spreading lies. It’s you who should be shot, if only to keep you from reproducing.”
In the distance came the rat-tat-tat of more automatic gunfire at the police training range. The crazy woman smiled. “Hear that? The police are practicing to be ready when they have to get rid of bitches like you.”
“Good thing I have my own gun at home to get rid of bitches like you. Once again, good day, you insane motherfucker.”
Claudia turned on her heel and stomped off, dragging Bandit behind her and studiously not listening to the woman’s belligerent muttering. Heart pounding, Claudia pondered the incident. She was proud of herself for not allowing some random weirdo to intimidate her (as she certainly would have done just a few months ago). Still, she hated the fact that not all of what she’d said—that is, the part about having her own gun at home—was true. More and more, it was starting to look like revolution was coming and that, contrary to what all the intelligentsia always wanted to believe, this one might actually end up being fought by morons with weapons and not intellectuals with logic and reason on their side.
Claudia sighed. She needed to go home. For a brief moment, she caught herself wondering if by “home” she meant the house she shared with her dad or something more primeval. These days, you couldn’t really envision wanting to live forever (as she’d often fantasized in her youth), or even for another couple of years. People were just too horrible. You knew things had come to a head with humanity when you were rooting for a fake virus to wipe out the assholes.
“Come on, Bandit,” she said, swallowing a sob. “Let’s go.”
End of Part 3. Check out the Spring 2022 issue of Blydyn Square Review for the conclusion of Shelter in Place.