Dec 02 ● BY Tyler Wells Lynch
It was just before the award for Best Actor when a flash appeared in the lower left corner of the television screen. From the kitchen, Meredith could see the idle gaze of a silk-clad starlet holding a golden envelope. She looked familiar. The screen shuddered and cut to a color test pattern as a humming sine wave filled the room. Perhaps thinking his brand-new television was defective, Meredith’s husband, Alphonse, sprang to his feet and began shouting. His movement so startled Meredith that she let go of the tray of fudge-scotch dessert squares she was holding. She watched as the platter clunked and sputtered on the kitchen floor, sending a quiver through her perforated eardrum.
“What was that?” Alphonse yelled, as the dog scurried over to lap up the fudge.
“You screamed,” Meredith said, still in the kitchen. “Why’d you scream?”
“Did you drop the fudge squares?”
“I said you screamed.”
“Yeah, but the fudge squares.”
“You screamed ’cause of the fudge squares?”
“No, I asked you about the fudge squares.”
Meredith watched Riley as he continued to lick the floor. The brownies had splattered across the linoleum tile in a starfish pattern of fudge and butterscotch. “Oh right,” she said. She entered the living room to find Alphonse smacking the plastic bezel of the brand-new forty-three-inch TV. The pimply boy from Walmart said it was super hi-def or something, said it had 4,000 squares and could play videos from the internet. “Alphonse, don’t hit it like that, it’s not a punching bag.” She took a moment to take in the sound of the color test pattern; it seemed to harmonize with her tinnitus. “It sounds pretty,” she said.
“It’s driving me bananas!” Alphonse smacked the TV again, and it went black.
“Look what you did! You broke it!”
“I fixed it!” Alphonse looked at his wife and noticed her hands were covered in fudge. “Clean up the kitchen, will you? I wanna know who won Best Actor.”
An eerie silence fell as the feed cut to a Breaking News! bumper. Meredith froze. A poker-faced newscaster named Shep Brannigan appeared, staring blankly into a pile of note cards. His hair was full and silver and precisely combed. As he spoke, Meredith thought he sounded the way dark chocolate tastes: We apologize for the interruption to our regularly scheduled programming, but there’s been an explosion at the Academy Awards.
“Jeez Louise,” Alphonse said.
“So handsome,” Meredith whispered.
It is not clear yet how large the explosion was or how many people were hurt. There are lots of reports but none we’ve been able to confirm. We promise to deliver as many details as we can the moment we can.
Meredith admired how sparsely wrinkled Shep’s face was, how he looked—whether through makeup or graceful aging—like he could be anywhere from forty-six to sixty-four years old. It was a stark contrast to Alphonse’s sixty-two years, which revealed themselves through a hairline in full retreat, a permanently furrowed brow, and a wattle you could hang a tire swing from. She was well aware of her own aging, how the years hadn’t been kind to the bags beneath her eyes or the crow’s feet beside them. But her blessings were spiritual—she traveled a path of righteousness under the light of God, having been summoned to kindness and good will with no expectation of holy witness. For virtue is its own reward. It was Jesus who said that—or had she heard it in a movie? She resolved to look it up later, as Alphonse came to and shouted something about the fudge squares.
“What about them?”
“Will you please go clean them up?” He hung on the word “please” like a teenage girl commanding her little brother to stop flicking boogers at the wall. There was a time, years ago, when the respect Alphonse demanded was well-earned. He had been the man of the house, the one with the gnarled hands who could lift an air conditioner into the window or run a snake through the drain, the one who could hoist their only child, Rachel, into the air and glide her around like an airplane, beaming radio protocols and tickle attacks—or, at times, a warm smile for his wife. Then he would snap open his La-Z-Boy and flick on the old CRT and watch his daughter do handstands against the cabinet, a prepubescent buttress between the man and his telephonic altar. Football games, local news, reruns of This Old House. Rachel cartwheeling across in her purple tutu and plastic tiara. The vague grin on Alphonse’s face.
But then she was gone. And all Meredith could do was watch as her husband’s sense of purpose withered into a thorny husk.
Riley was on his side now, panting heavily with eyes half-shut. Meredith lifted the dog into her arms as a bolt of pain shot though her spine, forcing her to let go of the old mastiff as he coiled up and began licking lazily at Meredith’s leg. Riley had a tumor on his hind leg the size of a golf ball, which Dr. Spinoza said was just one of many tiny malignancies, some more operable than others, but all very, very expensive. Meredith knew she’d eventually need to put Riley down, and that expense alone would be more than Alphonse could tolerate. “Waste of money,” he’d say, eyes fixed on the new television with the thin bezel and the 4,000 flashing squares. “Animals die alone and afraid every hour of every day. Millions of ‘em. It’s a statistic.”
“Well, what if you were alone and afraid, Alphonse?” she might have said in one of her better moments. “Would you want me to put you down?”
Meredith rubbed Riley’s scruff and thought about what it would take to eat sugar only on weekends. In the living room, Alphonse shouted something about DEFCON 5 as a strange voice, perhaps in another language, echoed from the television. He hurried into the kitchen, picked up the landline, and started dialing. “This is it, Meredith! The big one! Everyone laughed at me but I was right all along!”
Alphonse had always been something of a doomsday prepper. In the years since Rachel left, he’d spent most of his time in the backyard building an underground shelter. He dug the hole himself, poured a concrete foundation, and walled the sides with corrugated aluminum. There was a groundwater pump, internal plumbing, even a ventilated stove— an impressive little project for a man with a club foot. Meredith just wished he’d chosen to stock the shelves with something fancier than rice, beans, and SpaghettiOs. Apparently those three foods could supply all the nutrients the body needs. To Meredith, though, it was missing something sweet.
Alphonse paced the kitchen with the phone glued to his ear. “Jesus hacky sack Christ, I was right!”
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” Meredith said.
“BILL?”—he was talking to his brother Bill now—“Bill you watching the Oscars?”
Meredith sauntered into the TV room expecting to find Shep Brannigan glancing at a file of notes, a pen pressed firmly against his lips, looking handsome. What she saw took a moment to register: In Shep’s place sat a man, his face veiled in a black gas mask, reading from a stack of notecards that appeared to be splattered in tomato sauce. His voice was muffled, coursing with a language Meredith had trouble making out. It sounded nice, if a little harsh. The camera panned and there was Shep Brannigan, this time looking frightened as he read from a notecard handed to him by the man in the gas mask: And in between the statistics of millions and the tragedy of the individual there lies the number commensurate with change, the number that shall lift the masses from their delirium to invoke the power of the lone prophet, before whom all will . . . curtsy?
Shep glanced at his captor, who slapped the newsman across the jaw and shouted something in broken English about Google Translate.
In the kitchen, Alphonse told his brother it was all inevitable. Meredith hadn’t a clue what he meant. Outside the setting sun cast God’s rays over the backyard, fanning across the sage thicket where Alphonse’s doomsday shelter sat waiting. A moth darted through an open window and landed on the television set. Meredith thought it looked pretty.
She heard a scream. Had it come from the thicket?
The camera panned out.
Shep Brannigan’s gaping head was beside the veiled man, stacked on his notes like a paperweight.
All your idols are dead, someone said.
Who said that? Meredith turned to Alphonse. “What was that?” But Alphonse was still in the kitchen yelling at the phone. She heard him knock over a chair and shout something about Bill being a terrible brother, then slam the receiver. The masked man wagged his finger, scolding the audience in a tone that evoked more disappointment than anger. It made Meredith nervous, as if she were a little girl again and her mother had just found her kissing Tommy Welshire in the drainage canal. Meredith, this is not how a Christian behaves! The man clenched Shep Brannigan’s tousled hair and it peeled off like a wet cloth. He shrieked and hoisted the remains by the ear, pinching the flap between thumb and forefinger and shaking it at the camera.
“So judgmental,” Meredith whispered.
A voice said, There is but one idol and his name is Death. She tried to listen to what the man was saying but it sounded like barking. She stood up and walked into the kitchen to find Alphonse looking up a number in the yellow pages. Riley was still on the floor, panting, eyes half-shut with crumbles of gooey fudge drooling from his mouth. Meredith arched her back and used all her might to hoist Riley into her arms. “I should probably take him to the vet,” she said, trying to ignore the pain.
Alphonse laughed and muttered something about not having the luxury. “The more you know,” he said. That’s when the lights flickered and went dead. A hum rose from the generator in the basement as a few lights snapped back on. Then the TV clicked, and with it came an emergency alert signal followed by a shrill pulsing sound. The couple scurried back into the living room with Riley still in Meredith’s arms. Garish red and white digitized text blinked across the television screen: KTLA-TV: Civil Emergency Message. A whirring dial tone like an early internet connection. A voice, bit-crushed and commanding: This message is transmitted at the request of the United States Office of Civil Defense. At 8:40 p.m. Pacific standard time, the FBI detected several large explosions in the Los Angeles metropolitan area believed to have dispersed a chemical nerve agent. You are advised to seek immediate shelter.
Meredith looked at Alphonse. He was still standing there with the phone in his hand, a dial tone droning in similar confusion. She wished he would close his mouth. He always looked so senile breathing through his mouth like that.
Alphonse dropped the receiver. “What’d the TV say about cellophane and duct tape? Is it hermetic?”
“I need to take Riley to Dr. Spinoza.”
“Baked beans and SpaghettiOs. Essential amino acids. Is this real?” Alphonse pinched his forearm. “Ouch!”
Riley licked Meredith’s face. “Can you look up Dr. Spinoza’s number?”
“Dr. Spinoza?” Alphonse rubbed his arm. “Meredith, they just gassed the City of Angels.”
“Had to be FEMA, the EPA. Who has the most to gain from it? Forget the dog, he’s a dummy for eating fudge. One less mouth to feed. Just essential amino acids now.”
Meredith shook her head and made for the front door, Riley in her arms. “I need to take him to the vet.”
Alphonse clasped her arm and spun her around so fast the dog fell to the floor and just sort of lay there like a bag of rice. “You need to listen! It’s a war zone out there! They’ll take you away—understand? I can’t lose—I can’t allow that to happen again.”
“What do you mean again?”
Meredith felt her husband’s grip loosen as his gaze softened. His brow unfurled, his shoulders ebbed, and, for a moment, the air between them seemed to vanish, as if there really were no barrier to speak of, and the problems of the outside world were no more pressing than a bad back or a perforated eardrum. But then Riley howled and Alphonse flinched and Meredith was drawn back to the urgency of poison chocolate and dead newsmen and the very heavy gaze of her husband’s wrinkled old mien. “Rachel needs me,” she whispered.
His grip tightened. “I’m sorry for this,” he said, then he wrapped his arms around Meredith and began dragging her toward the back of the house. She kicked and screamed and pleaded for Riley to help, but Riley only stood up and waddled slowly behind. Meredith realized her husband was a lot stronger than she’d thought; his grip was fierce, and all she could do was howl as the man she once probably loved heaved her into the backyard, an anemic Riley trailing a few steps behind. A squad of helicopters careened overhead. For a moment, Meredith thought they were there to rescue her. “Help!” she screamed. “My husband is trying to kidnap me!”
“Christ, you’ve lost it!” Alphonse said. “The deeper we go the safer we’ll be!”
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain!”
By the time they reached the shelter, Meredith had little energy to put up a fight. Alphonse heaved the door open and the two hobbled down the hatchway with one hand locked around Meredith’s bicep. “You’re hurting me,” she said as Alphonse fumbled for the keys. She noticed his hands were trembling, and it occurred to her that her husband could be frightened and angry at the same time. The keys quivered in the lock, fell loose, and dropped to the ground. In a moment of forgetfulness, Alphonse let go of his wife and she rushed up the stairs. He hollered and gave chase, but as he neared the top his club-footed ankle struck the step. He tripped, then fell backwards, and crashed into the bulkhead.
“Meredith!” he yelled. “My ankle!”
She turned to see his leg bent awkwardly along the bottom stretch of stairs. He was trying to pull himself into a more comfortable position, but each movement seemed to add to the pain. A fine layer of sweat and moisture beamed from his cheeks. He looked old. “Please don’t leave me,” he cried.
“I’ll come back for you,” Meredith said. And that’s how she left him, with only a faint whimper escaping the hatchway, as she crossed the yard and swooped Riley into her arms, whispering scripture.
* * *
The teenage years hit like a falling piano. It wasn’t long before Rachel began to recognize the privileges her friends enjoyed but her parents refused: the car, the cell phone, the family trips to Disneyland. And then, later: the college education, the apartment in the city, the contact lenses Alphonse balked at. Of course Meredith wanted to provide those things, but her bad back, her bad hearing, her fragile state—it all only allowed for so many hours in the workweek. And Alphonse . . . well, what Meredith expressed as shame Alphonse expressed as spite. He could not allow himself to show sympathy for Rachel’s “things,” because to do so, in his mind, constituted some sort of weakness, as if the poverty they found themselves in was anything but a humble denial of riches. So he loomed over every decision, every transaction—not with regret or accountability, but with scorn for all the frills money could buy. He actually used that word, pouring himself a drink, said a college education was a “frill.”
The day Rachel ran away, Meredith had been watching a documentary about something called colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where all the drones in a beehive mysteriously die off, leaving behind the queen and a few nurses to care for the brood. One expert blamed a neurotoxin used by farmers to kill pests. Another blamed the earth itself, likening it to a form of vengeance against the dominant species. The whole thing fascinated Meredith, so much that she failed to notice the hours as they ticked by. Meanwhile, upstairs, Rachel’s room stood empty and quiet, with only a dry desert breeze flitting through the window.
They filed a missing person report before the sun went down. The police came, and for some reason Meredith couldn’t grasp at the time, they brought an EMT. He asked Alphonse a series of questions, as Meredith looked through old photos of their daughter, tracing a solitary finger around her face, as if to conjure her spirit and ask what she wanted for supper. She could still picture the look on Alphonse’s face, because it was unlike any she’d seen; it seemed to upend all his angry features, turning them soft and pitiful. But it didn’t last long.
Rachel called a week later and said she’d only speak to her mother. As Meredith would tell it, Rachel had found a job in the city working for the movies. She said she still loved her mother but couldn’t come home until “some changes were made.” What those changes were Meredith had spent the last eight years trying to figure out. She never told Alphonse the exact words, because she suspected they had something to do with him. So she kept to herself and allowed Alphonse to crawl inside his fancy television, while she stood in the kitchen baking up some sugary extravagance, always whipping the batter just a tad too long so as to find serenity in the circular motions of a wooden spoon. And still, hanging over all of this, there was Alphonse: no longer drinking but growing more and more bitter by the day, always older, always convinced his authority had been challenged not by the inevitable tide of old age but by internal forces—his overbearing older brother, his amassing debts, his estranged daughter, and his terminally ill, terminally expensive English mastiff—every one of them the focused subjects of Meredith’s prayers.
* * *
The roads were calm, which made Meredith calm. She told herself that nothing was awry, nothing was different, at least not to the extent that it mattered. Was the past not still written in stone? Was there any conceivable power that could unswirl the half-and-half from a cup of coffee, turning it black? What nerve agent had the means to unleaven bread? And if this “thing” existed, could it render an image of Meredith’s daughter—overwhelmed by the success of her movie career—visiting for the weekend with a dozen donuts and a photo of her handsome boyfriend from New England? Could it reverse the image of Alphonse, seared into the nether regions of her memory, shouting after Rachel as she ran, crying, into the sage thicket behind the house, the hot summer sun bearing down amid the hum of bees and cicadas?
An oncoming car honked, and Meredith realized she’d forgotten to turn the headlights on. Another squad of helicopters passed overhead, a rotary thunder that swirled and passed into the night. She turned on the radio. There was static, then an alert signal, then a computerized voice: Do not leave home. Do not seek loved ones. Do not inquire after the smell of sulfur. Do not seek emergency supplies or medical attention. Civil authorities will provide all this in due time. This is not a drill. This is the second death.
She thought of Alphonse, the way he looked sprawled across the bottom of the hatchway, and thought maybe he’d been right. Maybe Riley was doomed, and there really was nothing out here for them. Maybe they were better off underground. She had done her best to show a feat of strength for the man who only wanted to protect her, in his own possessive sort of way. But maybe it was just an act. There was no greater glory, in her mind, than that of the actor, the artist, the magician who could transform herself in a spell of deception with only the tacit approval of the deceived. There was a comfort in that idea, to be a party to the beguiled. She remembered something Rachel once told her, how films are never shot in chronological order, and that actors need to be able to grow into their characters at any stage in their journey. That, she thought, just before a honeybee buzzed across her face and forced her to veer into a drainage ditch, is the only real superpower.
* * *
A lonely voice in the midst of prayer whispered from the radio: And they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw into the lake of fire. Meredith craned her aching back and wondered what kind of God would throw away perfectly good fish. She grabbed Riley by the collar and pulled him from the wreckage and took note of the damage: a shattered windshield, a few bumps and bruises, a sprained ankle, a tiny gash on her forehead—something Dr. Martinez would shrug off: a “cosmetic wound.”
She was about a half mile from the vet so she figured she could walk the rest of the way. She ladled Riley into her arms and started down the road. A bright orange haze blossomed over the crest of a caliche hilltop, which was odd, as it was not yet ten o’clock. A gust of wind rolled in off the crest and set a pack of tumbleweeds in motion. She heard the wind and, in the distant hum of the city, a low rumbling like that of a train. Up ahead, the fluorescent light of the Valley Plaza Shopping Center stood vacant in a swath of darkness. She turned to look in the other direction and noticed all the streetlights were out. Further on, thinly visible through a wash of black, she could make out the commotion of something rolling across the plains, something like a herd. It swept over the hill and surged through a plot of dead grass, then crossed the road in a furious rush that nearly shook the earth. She turned back to the shopping center and saw the flicker of the animal hospital further out—bright and white, shining like manna from heaven—and headed toward it. Her back rang with a dreading pain. Her perforated eardrum pulsed, her tinnitus sang, and her ankle throbbed with each step. Even the gash on her forehead, which at first she had thought was only a scratch, throbbed with sharp heat. Riley, swaddled in her arms like a baby, was dutiful and elegant.
Meredith reached the parking lot as Dr. Spinoza was locking up for the night. She approached slowly so not to frighten him, but when she said his name, he jumped and spun around and pressed his back to the glass door.
“Oh, I’m so sorry doctor,” Meredith said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just . . . Riley. He’s sick. He got into some fudge, the naughty boy. Can you take a look at him?”
The veterinarian looked Meredith up and down, hardly glancing at Riley. He loosened his grip on the door, and Meredith could see now that he, too, was a bit frightened. Like Alphonse, his hands were trembling, and his lips were quivering as if he’d seen a ghost. The doctor made a motion to his left, then turned to see if any cars were coming. But everything was silent like a nightmare without sound.
“Good luck,” Dr. Spinoza said, then sprinted down the road in the direction of the passing herd. Meredith thought that was about the rudest thing she’d ever seen. All these men, scoffing at her right to grieve, her right to make things right. She would tally their transgressions for Judgment Day and bear witness to St. Peter. Or was that too vindictive?
She carried Riley back to the road and took a seat on a bench and felt a tear roll down her wrinkled cheek. She offered the poor mutt a wave of apologies and held him close and worried about what would come next. She could think of nothing better than to sit there and wait.
And then she saw it. The convoy. A long snake of light rolling over the hilltop, growing louder as it neared. They were military vehicles: beige, camouflaged troop carriers and jeeps and Humvees. One jeep veered to the side of the road and came to a stop in front of her. The headlights flooded Meredith’s eyes and reminded her she had a headache. “State your purpose,” a loudspeaker said, poking her perforated eardrum. The rest of the convoy continued to pass by. Some of the trucks were filled with soldiers wearing gas masks, their eyes veiled by dead black orbs.
“It’s Riley . . . he’s . . .”
“No, he ate some chocolate.”
There was a moment of silence. Meredith thought she heard a curse word and some whispering. “And you?”
“Have you experienced any nausea, fatigue, or explosive diarrhea?”
“Nothing like that,” Meredith said. “Nothing I can see, at least.”
“How about nerve damage? Have you suffered any fluid discharge, epileptic seizures, or spasms of the lumbar region?
“You know, it’s funny you say that. A few weeks ago I bent over to pick up a nickel—”
“Why are you here? Why haven’t you sought shelter?”
“It’s Riley . . . he’s sick.”
“He looks dead.”
Meredith looked down at Riley and agreed that, yes, he did look a bit . . . dead. But words are cheap, and death is one of those things that’s too mysterious to associate with words like is and looks. Death is a delusion, or an illusion, depending on your politics—a period of transition between a burial and a poorly monitored tomb. Death, she thought, is merely the viewpoint of the lonely and bereaved, the perspective of those still “with it” enough to notice the difference. Jesus teaches that, somewhere. “My husband, Alphonse—he hasn’t been the same since . . .”
“Since our daughter Rachel ran away. She moved to the city to become a movie star and hasn’t visited since . . . well . . . That was eight years ago.”
“What kind of daughter would do such a thing?” the intercom asked. A helicopter roared overhead—or was it a bird?
“It’s like she thinks she’s better than us.”
“Most daughters do.”
“Surely there must be a reason for it.”
“A reason for everything.”
“I mean, I’m her mother!” For some reason the sky was completely orange now. She didn’t notice the sun had come up—was that the sun? “If anyone deserves an answer . . .”
“You’re her mother!” the intercom agreed. “Why doesn’t she visit?”
“It’s Alphonse—he . . . It’s his fault!”
“What did Alphonse do?”
She thought about it, searched for some scripture that might give her comfort in saying the words, but all she found was a fragment of her former self buried deep in a heap of hallucinations and mismatched memories. As if rising from the sea in a gasp for air, that fragmented self was like a smack to her senses. “He hit her,” she said.
Meredith saw now that the intercom was a person, a silhouette veiled in white halogen light. She no longer knew if she was sitting at a bus stop, waiting in line at the vet, or recounting her sins to St. Peter. And she supposed it was all the same anyway. “And . . . she ran. She ran crying into the brush behind the house. And I heard buzzing, like the sound of insects . . . ”
An air raid siren echoed in the distance—or was it a telephone? A cloying smell like sulfur filled her nostrils. The hills were now almost completely veiled in orange fog. Meredith thought it looked pretty. She coughed and thought she’d be more comfortable on her side. “Blame . . . fault . . .” the silhouette said as it lifted her into its arms. “These are just words, tossed around like grass seed, everyone expecting to reap corn.”
“I don’t expect much, just Alphonse to listen from time to time.”
“He would if he could.”
“Why can’t he? He’s the man of the house.”
“Only because you worship him.”
“Baloney! I don’t worship him.”
Meredith looked down at Riley, who was alive again, lapping at Meredith’s arms as if they were made of gooey fudge and butterscotch crumbles. She dug deeper into her memory and unearthed another image—that of a body bag. It was too much. She shut the lid and shook her head and focused her attention on the hills scrolling by. She was in a truck now, wearing a mask, all of life staged between two egg-shaped windows. It was quiet. Or maybe her hearing had finally given up. Above her, through the vinyl flaps of the troop truck, she could see a sliver of moon light shining indifferently upon grief, bad backs, dead honeybees, and memories of Oscar night. The hills shook with stampeding animals, and somewhere within that scene there was a siren, rising quietly like a flight overhead—at first soft and forgettable, then blisteringly loud consuming her senses. Something hurt, and she noticed for the first time that she was lying down in a large white room.
She asked a man with a mask over his face if he could perhaps turn the volume down—she has this perforated eardrum, you see, and it sounds like Riley stomping over a poorly tuned piano. But before he could respond, she found she was somewhere else—a stadium?—and a mask had been placed over her face. It was poorly applied and dark and reminded her of a sort of tunnel vision she once had, one of those episodes where the edges of your vision spiral into themselves like the shards of a kaleidoscope, and at the center of it all you see an old television airing a documentary about honeybees. There’s a disease spreading through the colony. A worker bee gets sick and knows, by instinct, to fly off to a remote area where he will die alone and afraid, because this is what you do to prevent the rest of the hive from getting sick. And you find this to be about the politest thing you’ve ever seen.
But then you hear shouting, and you turn around to find Alphonse sitting in his favorite chair with a scowl on his face and a bottle of gin in his hand, mumbling something about interest rates. Yesterday was the anniversary of his mother’s death—you forgot—and the funeral debts are still overdue. How could you have forgotten? Stupid—you don’t need Alphonse to remind you. Bill called last night to talk finances and the call ended as usual, with a bartering of grief and how to best allocate the burden. Alphonse cursed his brother for being so stingy as a voice rang through the receiver like a muffled tin can shouting this and that about his loss taking precedent—all this death, and no one to pay for it. You want to hug your husband and comfort him and tell him everything will be okay, but you know that would only make him angrier. So for now you can only watch as Rachel complains to him about not being able to borrow the car since he’s too drunk to drive anyway. And it happens in a flash. Rachel clutches her jaw as Alphonse grips the shape of his wedding band. Before you know what you’ve seen Rachel is out the backdoor, sprinting into the hot, buzzing thicket behind the house and leaping over the dugout Alphonse planned to one day turn into a wine cellar. And now you are forced to relive it all, to gaze into the frozen tunnel vision of your memory, through the distorted fun house mirror of a shock that refuses to recede, dangling over your waking state like the foreground to the farsighted. And you only ever hear the scream—whose you are not sure. Alphonse carries her out of the brush, lays her on the ground and delivers the CPR. You didn’t know Alphonse knew CPR. You didn’t know bees could be so loud. And you don’t know what’s happening until you see Rachel’s cheeks puff up like gooey marshmallow and the mottle of red dots tracing her neck and shoulders, and there’s the memory of the doctor’s recommendation, an allergist in Bakersfield, the high premiums, the out-of-pocket expense deemed a “frill” by your husband, and the very desperate way he is pressing on his daughter’s sternum, the heavy drop of water that lands on her forehead, only it’s not raining. The sky is blue, and you never see them take the body.
* * *
Meredith wretched and let loose a tide of half-digested peas and carrots and overcooked steak. Alphonse always overcooked the steak. Vomit filled her mask and instinct ripped it off. Fluorescent white light washed over her. She coughed, gasped for air, felt her head pulse. A man in a white beekeeping suit looked up from his clipboard. People were crying. Some were coughing. One person was laughing—a mad, uncontrollable sort of cackle . She had so many questions, and in a vague sense she felt grateful for the privilege of being able to form such questions. Not knowing where to begin, she blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Who won Best Actor?”
The man in the white beekeeping suit grinned and said, “Some dead guy,” and returned to his clipboard.
She was in a field hospital now: a white dome-like tent overhead, white cots arrayed in every direction, white sheets filled with shriveled heaps of tattered human—some moving, most not. Doctors meandered between them in loose shells of hermetic plastic. Screams echoed, indistinguishable from heart monitors and sirens and squeaky brakes and the whir of yet another passing helicopter. She thought of Riley. She thought of Alphonse and Rachel, the blurring lines between life and death from the cell of her perspective, and the ever-nagging question: Why did the bees stop killing themselves? She’d like to go home now. She tried to lift herself from the cot but her spine seethed. “Please, Mr. Beekeeper,” she muttered, “My dog . . . Riley.”
The man sighed, lowered his clipboard, and approached Meredith’s cot. He lifted another clipboard that was hanging from a pole beside her head, flipped a page and skimmed the passage. “D.O.A.” he said.
“D.O.G.,” Meredith corrected.
“Dead, my dear. Your dog is dead.” The man returned the clipboard and walked toward the fuss of cries blaring from every direction. Meredith allowed herself a few quiet tears but dared not yell, not when those around her were suffering with such greater urgency—this being the polite thing to do.
She noticed the fuzzy television set standing in the aisle between her and the other patients. It was propped up and jury-rigged to an I.V. pole, broadcasting what appeared to be CCTV images of the outside world: a thick orange cloud in downtown Los Angeles, empty streets, abandoned cars on the Santa Monica Freeway, and then: the very field hospital Meredith now found herself in. She waved her hand and could see, there in the upper right corner of the screen, the shape of a woman waving her arm. She looked old.
Meredith threw her legs off the cot and drew herself to her feet. She looked down and noticed she was standing on a patch of grass and realized the field hospital, which was larger than she had originally thought, had been constructed over a football field. She walked aimlessly among the details of dead and dying and just plain under-the-weather, feeling the soft grass beneath her naked feet. Scores of vacant eyes stared up at her, some pleading for help, others so deep in shock they might have been dreaming with their eyes open. Meredith thought she herself might be dreaming, so she pinched her forearm and realized that, no, she was not dreaming. She apologized to those she made eye contact with and, upon reaching the end of one aisle, turned and began walking down another. It wasn’t long before she recognized a face in the crowd, a man with an oxygen mask veiling most of his face. His breathing was forced and shallow. His pupils bulged from their sockets and looked as if he’d been swimming without goggles. Dried blood caked in streaks from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and his wrists were curled like puny talons against his chest. Meredith lifted the clipboard dangling over his head and skimmed the passage: ESI Level 2; est. exposure: 5 milligrams; severe asphyxiation; catatonic; broken ankle; possible brain damage. She knelt beside the man and placed a tender hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
He hardly seemed to register her presence. A faint rattling could be heard in the back of his throat like muffled coins in a coffee can.
“But I think you should know . . . I understand.”
Alphonse’s eyes moved to meet Meredith’s.
“I don’t know about forgiveness—I don’t know what that is—but I understand. We needed your help, me and Riley. He was sick, and you abandoned him. But I understand.”
He coughed. Spittle rocketed from his mouth and decorated the oxygen mask.
“You were afraid, just like Riley and Dr. Spinoza. I wanted you to be tough. I wanted you to be the man you once were, at another time, before Rachel.” Their eyes met, and Meredith was suddenly aware how awake her husband truly was. “I know that was too much to ask. It’s not in your nature—not at your age, not with all you’ve been through.” She sighed and looked around. “And look what came of it. For what? All these people, so many separate tragedies, so much sadness and death—and no one to feel the immensity of it all. No one to pay for it. Not one soul.” She pursed her lips and gave Alphonse a loving squeeze. “Like you said, a statistic.”
Again, Alphonse winced and cried out, but the mask muffled his howling. Meredith was tempted to remove it, but she knew that would only make him angrier. She didn’t need Alphonse to remind her. Looking down at her frail husband, it suddenly came to her that it was not Jesus who said the thing about virtue being its own reward. It was an ancient philosopher named Epic . . . Epiccutus . . . Epic Titus? She couldn’t remember his name, but she told herself she would look it up later, because it was a nice idea and seemed sort of obvious to her.
“I hope you feel better,” she continued. “I just wanted you to know that I understand.” She smiled at her husband and caressed his dimpled cheek. He looked old.