Short Fiction: Megan Howell’s Harper and Marisol

This week, issue 87.1/2 went off to the copy editors meaning that it is well and truly in production! To celebrate this landmark, I thought that I’d share one of my favorite pieces of short fiction from recent issues, Megan Howell’s “Harper and Marisol.”

The story channels the anxiety of the near future with an impeccable sense of place and characters for whom contexts and situations do not overwhelm the complications of every day existence. It’s the kind of story that lingers with you and suddenly comes to mind whenever a grey day brings heavy news.

(If that all seems a bit much on a Thursday, you can always check out her funny piece in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, “Classic Works of Children’s Literature as Described in my English Thesis,” and loop back to this piece at a better time!) 

Remember that NDQ relies on our outstanding contributors, editors, and subscribers to thrive. Please consider submitting to NDQsubscribing, or downloading our previous volume. For some content from NDQ 86.1/2, click here, and for content from our most recent issue, 86.3/4, click here.  


Harper and Marisol

Eric Wren flung himself off the roof of his apartment complex on Christmas morning and, just like that, for the first time, I made breakfast in a universe where the Wrens didn’t have sons. The Health and Safety Advisory Board was about to shut down all the borders. Jails were filling up with people who’d protested during the state of emergency. In the Facebook post where she announced his death, first in English and then again in Vietnamese, his sister wrote that the fall had been painless, that everyone would be okay.

There used to be two Wren boys, but then the fever outbreaks came to the city along with the November cold fronts and only Eric survived. By the time school let out for winter break, I’d turned seventeen and had just learned what to do with the deflated balloons of used condoms (tie up the loose end, swaddle everything in toilet paper before tossing it into the trash—never the toilet). For my birthday, he bought me the Chanel lip palette I’d been talking his ear off about. He also made me a list of Claremont colleges he thought I should apply to in addition to the HBCUs, though most every school we knew of would close around their second or third terms.

Ash from the new crematorium down by the Naval Yard sneaked into the house, mixing in with dust bunnies under furniture and blackening the pads of everyone’s feet. I spent large chunks of free time cleaning holiday knick-knacks out of boredom. The red-and-green Lazy Susan with the busted leg, the army of mini fiberglass reindeer on the mantelpiece.

The first people I knew who’d died of fever had been the widowed Italian woman and her triplets. They’d lived two houses down. I was driving to Union Station to pick up my sister when I saw an ambulance swing around the cul-de-sac to get their bodies. Four painted Xs marked their front door.

On the nice days I’d walked to the library, I’d pass by the identical tween boys drinking expensive Cokes that came in glass bottles and chucking the caps at each other out on their portico. I spent the first half of the car ride trying to remember their names, and when I gave up I switched on the car radio to a talk show about people who swore they’d lived through alien abductions.

Eric later lied and told me that the whole family had had the same autoimmune disorder, something genetic. Since he clerked at one of the city hospitals, he knew more about illness than most, so he was easy to trust. “We have everything under control,” he said each time I called his cellphone to ask how long it would take to find a cure for Harper and the other fever patients at the biocontainment unit where he did his rounds. Only he could say what was best for Harper because he was going to be an infectious disease specialist and also because they were brothers.

Harper never succumbed to the fever. Though he’d tested positive after a doctor with a foreign sounding name had drawn our blood and the rest of the school’s in the gymnasium, he was only a carrier, which meant he’d likely infected many. He tried to escape from the unit two weeks into his stay. A jogger found him shot to death underneath a bench in Meridian Park. I read somewhere that the gunshot wounds cratering his torso had caused her to have flashbacks to her ravaged childhood. The police never arrested anyone for the killing, but I know his murderer must have cared about the junior math team captain, a sooty-eyed boy who’d died from French kissing Harper.

The captain’s older brother started giving me triumphant, purse-lipped smiles whenever we locked eyes during AP chemistry, freezing me in place. My panic attacks became so frequent that Mom wouldn’t let me go to Harper’s funeral. She said my emotions would lower my immune system, then took me to see a documentary about Catholic Yupik people in Siberia she’d been meaning to watch with a couple of girlfriends ever since she found out the tickets were free. The coldness of the theater reduced the hot pain burning in the pit of my stomach. We ate store brand hard pretzels she’d bought with the rebate money our cable provider had given her and Dad. A red-faced boy fishing for trout on screen looked like Harper a little bit in the eyes. That I-know-you’re-checking-me-out wink he gave the camera made me blush, and the hot feeling reignited.

There were photographs of me with Harper that dated all the way back to pre-k scattered throughout both of our houses: on walls, in picture frames, tucked into junk drawers, scrapbooks, hatboxes. I loved him even though he was only into guys when he was honest and red-haired white girls in British Vogue when he pretended he was straight, and still had dreams of him kissing me square on the mouth long after his brother took my virginity.

~

Eric first started taking me to his place on the last day of first semester. It was snowing and Harper had just died. I was lying on the school lawn in a coat from Goodwill, waiting for it to be 3:45pm when he waved at me. He’d come from clearing out Harper’s locker for their parents, and stood in the front archway looking sad as he smoked a cigarette. He’d parked his Volkswagen in the empty drop-off lane. Taking up both backseats were the few possessions of his brother’s that the clerks at the front desk hadn’t had incinerated.

Dad worked long hours doing repairs at a boat dealership. Mom was home mopping the kitchen floor with bleach, unaware that today was a half-day. My sister was home too, though she didn’t want to be. The dentist’s office where she’d handled payroll had shut down to prevent a pandemic. It was in one of those poor rustbelt towns where everything was always worse, fever being no exception.

The only tasks my sister did now were online window-shopping and job applications with the laptop her boyfriend had bought her, and always while wearing pajamas. The last time she’d come home, he’d died of fever. A lifelong heart condition had sped up his decline. She’d gotten his name tattooed on the small of her back after the biohazard technicians had burned down his modular home but before healthy people got sick and way before our parents lost the energy to flip out over tragic tramp stamps.

I called home too many times to count, but kept getting a busy signal. I had no one left. My other friends had told me Harper’s death had hardened me, then made an inadvertent game of pretending I didn’t exist, fast walking away from me with their eyes downcast as if we were first graders playing make-believe again and I was the malevolent apparition who had to make them laugh so I could be their Queen of Everything. My feet had blisters from the ballet flats I’d chosen to wear, throbbing at the thought of walking three miles to the metro. The school was empty. Even the janitors had gone. I asked Eric if he had room for me.

“Sure,” he said. “Where do you want me to drop you off?”

I shrugged. “Anywhere.”

It was easy to see how Eric was Harper’s older brother. They looked so similar. Same whittled noses, high cheekbones and tadpole shaped eyes.

Eric let me touch him more and more the older I got with greater amounts of my body. Last summer, I’d kissed his left cheek for five whole seconds before he’d shooed me away. I’d counted. Harper made mean faces whenever I mentioned Eric because deep down inside of him he knew, he could smell the thoughts of his brother and himself all over me.

It took only fifteen minutes for him to drive us to his apartment. I started spending weekend nights there with him. I would periodically call a girl I knew from church who was stuck up but also loyal so she knew what to say when Mom asked her about all the imaginary sleepovers I’d lied about us having.

My sister realized what I was doing when she fished a Trojan wrapper out of her barely used lambskin purse, which I borrowed religiously. I begged her not to tell.

“I wouldn’t dream of snitching. You’re an adult,” she said. “And personally, I think it’s beautiful that you’ve found someone so early.” She claimed that sisters could feel each other’s emotions, which was why she’d always known I was obsessed with the Wren boys. It took everything in my power not to roll my eyes.

I never liked to involve my family in things that dealt with love. When it was just us, we existed only to protect one another, but when I was with Eric I made love and little else. Even after the fever died down and my sister ran away with a new man, it felt strange saying I loved her at first, almost incestuous. I thought of romantic intimacy as the only kind in existence.

~

The end of Eric’s and my relationship had swept us up like the fever had. In his bedroom, as the last bit of watery December light dwindled down to nothing, I told him for the first time how afraid I was of forgetting what Harper had looked like in person. I didn’t want my memories to become like the staged pictures of his brother, all the invisible details the camera hadn’t picked up—the birthmark on his stomach and the scar underneath his bangs—forgotten. Eric was still in bed. I hadn’t said anything to him about Harper’s death before. I never had to; he thought I wore tragedy on my face.

He didn’t speak at first. I yawned and asked him what he thought the world would run out of first: sidewalk space at the Hollywood Walk of Fame or burial plots in the cemetery across the road. Without budging from his place on the bed, he shushed me, his hands covering his eyes. A silence grew between us for what felt like forever until he yelled at me for sitting on the window ledge when the window was open. The raggedness of his voice scared me so badly that, for a split second, I lost my balance, and the fear crashing through the screen and onto the asphalt ten stories below became real.

I readjusted my glasses. The temple tips were marred with bite marks from where I’d been chewing on the plastic.

“Do you want me to spend the night?” I asked.

Silence.

“Eric?”

“When I was in high school, I used to drive you and Harper to Saint Bart’s in the old Pinto my dad gave me—the one you said smelled like potato chips, remember?” He smiled. “I would drop you off at the lower school in the mornings and you’d always get upset when I told you I had to go upstairs, where the ‘big kids’ were. You liked to braid Harper’s hair in with yours when we were sitting in traffic. But yours was too curly and his was pin straight and always cut really short, so it never worked. But I never wanted to tell you—even thinking it felt mean.”

I nodded.

“Remember when my car broke down in the rain when I was supposed to take you guys to the park and we wound up walking to my house? It was you, me and Harper. Your sister was there too, I think.”

“She’d gotten into a really big argument with the girl she carpooled with,” I said.

My sister used to get mean when she was angry. She wouldn’t let anyone share her umbrella and, that night, she struck me across the face for no reason.

I later read in her diary that she’d skipped soccer practice to avoid the girl. Inspired by a library book on acupuncture they’d read together in her bed, the girl, slipping on a pair of winter gloves, had forced her to strip naked and lie face down on the floor so that she could skewer her body with sewing needles. I told our parents, but when they confronted my sister about her, she said she’d made the abuse up. They believed her, and so did I until I saw her dabbing eggplant colored bruises on the backs of her legs with Mom’s concealer.

I almost told Eric this, about how I still sometimes had dreams of transforming into a big muscled man and beating a girl he probably didn’t remember for another he barely knew, forcing her to drink acid until her mouth dissolved into nothing.

“You two took these pennies you’d found and placed them in that space between the curb and the street,” he was saying. “The rainwater started carrying them towards a storm drain and you cheered because you thought they were racing each other.”

I felt hot tears trying to form in my eyes. “I do remember, Eric. That’s why I love you. I love Harper.”

“This was a mistake. You were my little brother’s friend. You were almost a sister.”

“I’m still Harper’s friend. His best friend.”

“You can’t be friends with a dead person. You can’t love something that doesn’t exist.”

“Just let me stay with you, Eric. Please.”

“I think you should go.”

I didn’t want to beg, because that would make me seem babyish, and then Eric would physically carry me out of his room. I couldn’t remember where I’d left my sister’s purse, the most expensive thing any woman in my family had ever carried old drugstore receipts in. It wasn’t sitting on top of the laundry basket like it had been just a few hours earlier.

The clanging of pans being moved rang out from the kitchen. Spilling through the open slit underneath the door was the smell of something sweet burning away on the stovetop.

Thoughts of his roommates came to mind. All the other times I’d come to visit, Eric had been careful to make sure they wouldn’t see me. There were two of them. The first one I met, James, who just a few hours earlier had shot me knowing looks as we watched Seinfeld reruns with Eric and pretended to be oblivious to Eric’s palm trailing further up the space between my thighs. The soft glow of the television screen had highlighted his face, casting shadows underneath his impish eyes.

The bespeckled one was more introverted. His name was Paul. He’d come in during an ad for child-sized hazmat suits and, after seeing me for the first time, mouthed something to James I couldn’t understand. He removed the clear surgical mask covering his face slowly, as if peeling away a sore scab.

He was wearing a trench coat I’d seen on a boy I’d met at a house party who went to one of the big public schools. When I asked where he’d found it, he mentioned his mother’s love of clothing.

“She likes to dress me up like her celebrity crushes. I’m Paul, by the way, and you’re? That’s an interesting name. Oh, well, it’s nice to meet you too.”

~

Right before the fever had really taken off, Dr. Wren had given a talk at the indie bookstore in DuPont on how miniscule things like the microbeads big companies put in facewash were poisoning watersheds. Harper was still alive.

I was pretending to be interested because Dr. Wren was Harper’s favorite parent, smarter than all the men Harper had ever loved. He was thinner, sadder. It was a terrible time to be an environmental scientist who cried the most out of anyone in his family, even if glaciers the size of Manhattan continued to turn to ice water up in the arctic. Everything was about the virologists and politicians who’d monopolized the airwaves with arguments over whether the fever was the next plague, a treatable superbug or an exaggeration fueling a conspiratorial agenda.

Having nowhere to sit, I had to lean against a bookshelf with Eric for an hour-and-a-half as Dr. Wren explained the chemical bonds of hydrofluorocarbons. Harper was supposed to have come. We’d planned on getting taro ice cream from the Chinese grocer’s next door, but then the state quarantined him.

The Wren children used to be known at school for having an eighty-year-old dad from London and a Vietnamese-American mom somewhere in her forties. At my first all-school end of the year barbeque, one girl’s mom mentioned to mine how Mrs. Wren used to work for Dr. Wren as his teaching assistant before they were married. I was five and pigtailed at the time, and could safely eavesdrop on Mom’s lap because everyone knew I was too young to understand what things like gold diggers were supposed to be.

“You should ignore the gossip,” my sister said after most of the food and her friends had gone. “Eric’s cool.” We were sitting in the gazebo, watching upper school guys she thought were cute. I’d reported what I’d heard to her like a good little spy. In turn, she’d informed me that we were scholarship kids, and that our parents would never take us to the beaches where our friends had vacation homes—we were too poor.

“Everyone has secrets, so it’s not that weird. Like mom. Or like that old lady over there.” Her eyes wandered over to a greying black woman sprouting a floral sundress. “Don’t tell anyone about this, but my friend told me she has another daughter who modeled nude for this French soap company. No, nude means naked. Actually, never mind. You’re too little to get it. You don’t even know where France is, do you?”

Though she was only thirteen-years-old then, she liked to pretend she was more of a woman than even Mom, let alone our classmates’ overindulged mothers—lowercase m moms, Dad called them, because they were women who relied on nannies for everything. She did her spying from a distance, from behind trees and while pretending to look for imaginary lost contacts—everyone knew she wore trifocals everyday—and took that as being a sign of maturity.

My school-issued pinafore made me stand out in the audience of mostly university students. I’d covered up the gaudy Sacred Heart on the breast pocket as best I could with winter apparel. I wore a long, robe-like coat in spite of standing directly underneath a heating vent. My messenger bag was a huge weight slung across my body, bloated with school supplies: glittery spiral notebooks as pink as the inside of a vagina, greasy Tupperware, antiseptic, surgical masks too ugly to wear, rubber gloves.

Eric passed the time picking pills of fuzz off his mohair sweater. His eyes were zoned out. When the lecture had ended, as we looked through new release paperbacks sitting atop high wooden tables, he complimented the Brazilian blowout my Mom’s beautician friend had given me for one hundred bucks and a jar of Mumbo sauce. It sounds cliché to say, but my heart raced. I’d gone numb from all of Dr. Wren’s dense, scientific words, my own standing weight and now Eric’s Listerine commercial smile.

~

James was making homemade French toast. I sat in the living room and imagined going back in time to the bookstore and starting over again, acting more mature, poking out my chest more. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed since Eric had kicked me out. He was still somewhere in his room. I’d promised myself I’d stay on the couch all night if I had to, waiting for him to see me.

The electric heater made the air in the apartment sticky. Cluttering the coffee table were lit candles whose labels boasted of scents that ranged from candy corn to abstractions like joy. Eric came and dipped his fingers into one of their glass containers. He raised his hands, balling them into fists and sending bits of dried wax pirouetting to the floor. Draped around one of his shoulders was the Kipling backpack he always took with him to work and med school, before that, Harvey Mudd and, before even that, Saint Bart’s.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Store.”

“I’ll go with you then.”

I trailed behind him, donning my sister’s jacket, which had been draped across his easy chair. He didn’t say anything. I had to hurry to keep up.

“Bye, Marisol,” James’ voice called out.

Three times I’d informed him that wasn’t my name.

Paul was already gone. He’d panicked over the emergency report about the fever wiping out whole entire floors of an apartment complex in Palo Alto. It was all going so fast with so many dying, not even officials had had enough time to react. He’d told us he would pay a pilot he knew to take him to his aunt’s hamlet in Alaska where he could wait things out for a month or two. He thought the low population density and sterile cold would make life safer—not safe, only safer.

“Later, James,” I said.

There was no point trying to correct people you probably weren’t ever going to see again. I almost liked the sound of Marisol. It was a sweet name only plucky teenaged girls from YA novels would have—the secretly beautiful nerdy ones who would stay Marisols forever, never growing up into Maries or Maras.

~

What Eric and I both had in common were bad dreams.

Right before the fever took off, I’d dreamed that the world had ended. I don’t remember most of what had happened after I woke. The only thing that rested with me was the dread.

Harper believed anything subconscious to be a metaphor for something important. “I think your mind’s trying to tell us that we have to be hedonists,” he said to me after I’d told him. We were sitting on his living room’s divan and trying tiny bits of his mother’s vegan bologna. The Late Show played on the flat screen with the sound set to 0. He’d recently taken to using SAT prep words ironically, pronouncing them in a convincing English accent he’d picked from his dad.

“Whatever. It was just a nightmare.”

“No. I think you’re onto something. I mean, considering all that stuff in the news about people dying. I’m sure the world’s going to end by the time we’re like thirty, and then it’ll be too late. We have to grow up quicker now. Find our soulmates.”

I blushed. When Harper had gone to the bathroom, Eric, who was visiting for the weekend, had appeared with a juice glass that contained a deep red liquid. He reeked of alcohol and strawberry Kool Aid powder. “Wanna sip?” he asked. I drank from the wet part of the cup where his lips had been. A bitter taste filled my mouth.

I think Harper made the papers for being a carrier, but I was too afraid to check. A local b-list celebrity mentioned his name on a hip-hop radio show I was listening to in the bathtub, and Mom yelled at me from all the way in her bedroom for listening to trash. But it was too late; I’d already heard the DJ announce that Harper and this one infected man who’d spat on passersby from the balcony garden of a New York City hotel were going straight to hell. I started to hyperventilate.

The celebrity thought the new lazaretto, which would replace the fever ward part of every biocontainment unit, was the only solution for protecting his newborn daughter from people like Harper and the spitter. “They need to be as far away from us as possible,” his voice crackled from inside the boom box speakers. “Straight up.”

When some guys from the soccer team slashed Dr. Wren’s car tires, the police chief brought two in for questioning. People from school protested outside the fourth district precinct when word broke out. They wanted each culprit set free. I watched a gaggle of girls on campus ministry make picket signs in the cafeteria but felt nothing.

Waking up each morning became like flipping on a television to a show I’d never seen before despite it taking place in my school, my house, my mind. At morning assembly, there was a moment of silence for the dead math team captain but nothing for Harper. The upper school director made no mention of the kiss at all when he read his eulogy from off his iPhone.

Hom-o-phobe,” someone in the audience coughed.

I think the other cases kept Harper’s name from getting too big, mainly the New York spit attack. But also the case of that one seemingly healthy human rights lawyer who’d turned up dead on the lazaretto.

It took more deaths to remind everyone that witnesses could easily be victims. A teacher in the lower school died of a temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The fever had lay dormant in her body before coming out all at once in the middle of a social studies class. She’d vomited blood in front of her second graders, then collapsed, striking her head against a sandbox and water table. Others at school died soon after, some slowly, others as quick as flies. Petty anger turned to real fear. More fell ill as the fever grew more contagious. The Wrens disconnected their phone. Half the senior class left town—for where, I don’t know. Though I’d never been as religious as Mom, I prayed Harper’s sickness wasn’t burrowed somewhere deep inside of me from the time I’d borrowed his ChapStick. I always felt stupid the morning after, when I got dressed and heard children running in the snow outside and saw that my reflection in my vanity mirror looked unchanged from the day before.

I used to get up at dawn to make breakfast for the whole house and watch landscapers shovel driveways from the kitchen garden window. Once the turkey bacon finished cooking, I would brew Japanese white tea that was supposed to rinse away body toxins. The world moved on. The kettle whined, and sunlight escaped through the opened slats of the plantation shutters.

The whole time, at the subdivided beaux arts townhouse whose stairs Harper and I used to leap down, skipping five or more at a time: Eric suffering all alone in sweat-soaked pajamas after any of the lonely weekday nights at his parents’ apartment. A conscription letter had cursed him with nightmares in which he was drowning. They would always end with him sinking to the bottom of a nameless sea. His lungs would be on fire, shriveling in size as saltwater seeped inside of them. He would wake up wet, sweat shellacking his face. The details of the galley kitchen took over: the broken highchair his father refused to throw away, the Felix the Cat clock hanging cockeyed on one of the poorly papered walls, a wool blanket resting at his feet. The coldness of the linoleum easing the searing feeling eating through his body.

He was always too restless for his too-small childhood bed and too afraid to be alone in his own apartment when his roommates were away at their girlfriends’ places. The only thing that ever changed was time. One night, he’d had a month and two days left; another five weeks; the night of his twenty-sixth birthday, two weeks. Eventually, there were only days left to separate him from what was certainly a death sentence.

A letter—a piece of paper—had determined his fate. Soon he would have to serve the country treating hordes of fever patients on the lazaretto, which sat on an island far off from the rest of the world. Not going would be a felony.

Eric’s pillow talk was often morbid factoids about putrefaction. He couldn’t stop envisioning himself catching a disease he was to combat with useless drug cocktails. He would speak in questions whenever his diatribes gave way to the philosophical. “People get conscripted for wars all the time. So for me, it’s for a good cause, but no, it’s still wrong, I’m being sent to die.”

He’d told me that his mother, a twice-divorced First Day Adventist whose faith had only grown stronger since Harper’s death, thought angels were sending him telepathic messages. They’d spent all of one Saturday at the kitchen table trying to figure out how to smuggle him out of the country. His sister paced around them wearing nothing but an oversized Lakers hoodie that went down past her knees. She would lock herself in her room when I’d come over to visit. Harper used to call her an aggressive introvert to describe how she was a shy girl who wanted everyone to know it when she slammed her door shut. She’d read stories of the island online, horror stories about barebones medical supplies and thousands of untreated sick people who could all kill a person just by coughing. His chances of dying were greater there than they had been in the better-run hospital units.

Their father was crying softly in the piano room. The all-Asian half-cousin from California who’d shown me his penis when we were little and nudes of his ex last summer watched CNN in the family room. He was staying with them for break, having spent four days taking a series of buses into DC after all the area airports closed. He liked to call me a black sheep because he was too literal to use idioms right, and I was black and had wooly hair he was always wanting to run his fingers through.

~

“Have you heard about that widow in the news?” Eric said. He meant my old neighbor, the Italian woman. “I think I remember you telling me about them.”

We were at Waterfront Park, watching small waves lap against rocks that separated the walkway from the Potomac River. We’d bought nothing. I’d almost cried over the realization that my sister would never see her purse again. My hands felt purposeless without the feel of the genuine lambskin, the slippery coolness of the rose-gold clasp, all of it worth seven hundred dollars at Macy’s.

He claimed water cleared the mind. We’d taken a taxi after he’d failed to get me to go home with vague threats. I wound up having to pay for my half of the ride with most all of the emergency money I kept lodged in my left sock.

“Have you?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “They were already sick before the outbreak.”

“Not true. Don’t listen to gossip.”

“But you said,” I heard myself say. Then I bit the insides of my cheeks.

Without using their names, he told me about the Italian woman and her family. Her story had come out recently, after the world had unraveled. After Harper’s body burned in an incinerator and twenty anarchists all received dubious prognoses of suspiciously high temperatures before disappearing. After the compulsory health checks at every school and workplace in the nation and the wicked colored dust of the crematoriums and the lazaretto’s construction and the tales of neighbors reporting neighbors to health officials for small things like sneezing twice in a row.

At dinner, my sister couldn’t stop talking about her. A letter from the government sent by first-class mail had accused one of the woman’s sons of being sick despite him testing negative, demanding that she have him quarantined at the lazaretto.

A girl at my school had mounted the auditorium stage near the end of morning assembly that fall, snatching the mic from the upper school president to announce that the woman was a political martyr. I think she mentioned something about her writing a think piece on some boring senator taking bribes. I couldn’t hear everything; the row of lax bros seated by the orchestra pit started catcalling as loudly as their vocal chords could bear.

“It’s like 1954!” she’d yelled.

“1984, idiot,” I’d yelled back. My eyes rolled when half the room actually applauded her. I was a part of the other, stronger, troublemaking half that booed. Harper had just died, and I was pissed at the naive idea of justice that had somehow evaded him.

The woman had rubbed herself and each kid with infected hand towels she’d stolen from a poorly managed hazardous waste landfill. Experts on TV claimed that her political martyrdom and a maternal aversion to gory death was what stopped her from using the hunting rifle she kept in her wardrobe.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked. “Do you think you’ll go?”

“Hell no. I’m running away. I’ve seen what the fever does to you. That’s why they’re always censoring pictures of the bodies, trying to erase them online and everything.”

“You’re going to get caught. And then you’ll look like a coward.”

“Then what? Will they send me to the lazaretto as punishment?” He laughed.

“If you run away, you’ll never get your medical license. And I’d kill myself.”

He rolled his eyes. “What problems do you have that would make you want suicide?”

“My best friend died, Eric. He’s gone.”

“That sort of thing happens every day. Car accidents, cancer. That weird fever. It’s a boring sort of pain everyone goes through.”

“I’ll never see James and Paul again either.”

“You barely knew them.”

“Well, it makes it hurt more knowing that I lost something I could’ve had if I weren’t living through the second fucking plague.” I closed my eyes and imagined myself watching sitcoms with the three of them again as the warmth of being part of something new but also familiar made even their unwashed floors glow. “I hate how everyone is leaving.”

“Sorry, but that’s just life.”

My eyes opened. “I think we should at least go somewhere fun before you disappear. Everyone knows you have to enjoy yourself before you abandon something important.”

“Who told you that?”

“My sister.”

“Who told her?”

“Our mom probably. She used to cook last meals for death row inmates at Jessup before she met Dad, so she’s constantly giving that type of advice.”

“What was it like for her?”

“It was interesting. Some of the guys would throw up when the guards came to take them to the electric chair. And they’d always pee their pants after they died. Like she told me about this one—”

“Okay, okay, you don’t have to go into detail. Let’s do something fun. What place did you have in mind?”

 

There used to be a toy store on Wisconsin Avenue that family magazines compared to the FAO Schwartz in New York because it was just that expensive. My sister used to work in the stockroom when she was my age so she could buy clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. In store lobby, giant mobiles balancing electric blue plastic snowmen hung from the ceiling.

I’d almost forgotten that today was Christmas Eve. It was easy to see where the fever had left its mark: on under-stocked shelves, across the frightened faces of employees as they tried to smile from behind surgical masks shaped like reindeer snouts. Eric and I had used the metro this time. I was still hopped up on adrenaline from jumping the turnstiles.

It started raining so hard that it sounded like mortar shells were exploding against the skylight. Eric flatly reported to me everything he knew about Paul and James as we wandered through the store aisles. Paul liked running, French philosophers, video games. James liked to cook when he was sad. Both had been studying to be lawyers. On the metro ride, James had told Eric over text that he wanted to break the lease on their apartment. 

“Let’s get fresh air,” I said, practically dragging him towards the exit.

“Why?”

“For old time’s sake.”

“This isn’t a teen movie. We’re not going outside to get drenched.”

Outside, I stepped into the crosswalk and opened my mouth to taste the rainwater. My hair churned all around my head with the wind, making it hard to see. Eric stood directly under the front edge of the entrance’s awning.

An ambulance almost clipped me. I had to lunge towards the curb to avoid it. My foot got caught in a pothole as I fell. I felt my ankle break and heard myself scream. When I looked back at the storefront, Eric had already disappeared into a growing crowd that watched wide-eyed as another ambulance approached and then narrowly missed my curled up body. Even if I’d known I wouldn’t ever see him again, I was in too much pain to think about anything but the sickening feeling of seeing my foot bent at an unnatural angle. My screams grew more distant. A man in a purple fleece raced up to me and lifted me up. The world went black.

~

Megan Howell is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Maryland in College Park. She has work that has appeared in The Establishment and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

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