Chicken farm on the Eastern Shore, Maryland (Alan Gignoux/Alamy Stock Photo)

Wachapreague

Fiction | Part II

The room next to Langen’s had been his brother-in-law’s man-cave. Langen had helped Liddie clean it out, leaving only books, framed nature photos Jason had taken over the years, and his worktable for making fishing lures—a colorful fly in mid-construction, left the day he died. One afternoon Langen found his sister immersed in Jason’s leather-bound journal. “You know what he was doing?” she said. “Tracking wacko conspiracy theories. Remember Pizzagate? Jason was all over that one.”

Langen had always regarded his brother-in-law as an enigma. A college dropout, he had amassed expertise in subjects from Norse mythology to birding to the history of computers. His politics were muckraking and lefty, and after 2020, Liddie said, he had started doing battle with internet trolls. “I was like, Jason, what if one of these wackos shows up here? He’d say, ‘Let them try to fuck with a U.S. Marine.’”

Her husband had never ceased to amaze her, Liddie said. “Remember the painting trip I took to Glacier National Park? There was a lake, and the water was this amazing turquoise. I showed Jason my photos. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That’s the glacial flour.’ He went on and on about how glaciers grind up the earth, and the silt gets into the water and filters out different light wavelengths.” She closed the journal. “He knew so much beautiful, useless stuff.”

Jason had started out as a photojournalist, but gradually his work had waned, and the stay-at-home aspect of his existence had swollen. Langen had to smile, thinking about it. “He’d be in his element now,” he said.  

“I know, right?” Liddie said. “During Covid I told him, Jason, you are the only person in America who actually likes this.”  

Langen had often felt baffled by the longevity of his sister’s marriage, given Jason’s depression, his surly misanthropy, and his refusal to earn a living. The two had had their share of arguments—Langen would receive a furious email or weepy phone call from his sister—but in the end, her marriage had endured, even as his foundered. He and Miranda had divorced without drama. No betrayal or wrath, no explosion: it was as if a long-running TV show was ending, one they both had basically enjoyed, but that had gone on a season or two too long. The friendliest divorce in history, a friend had remarked. Langen hadn’t known whether to feel relief or chagrin.

He was a bachelor now, with a romantic life of sorts. While he was no movie star, the bar for men was low; plenty of forty-year-old women crossed his path, and occasionally he availed himself. His wife had eventually remarried, but he remained single. Only once had he considered changing that. It centered on a college girlfriend, Casey, with whom he’d maintained sporadic contact over the years. With both of them divorced, he got in touch. A flurry of emails led to an invitation, and he spent a week at her house in Boulder. The visit hadn’t been a success. What he recalled about Casey from Harvard was her ready enthusiasm for all things—sports, beer, sex. In the years since, her exuberance had acquired a focus. Along with being an outdoorswoman (snowshoeing, rock climbing), she was a vegan and an environmental activist. Langen marveled at her brashness. One afternoon they hiked up to a roadside lookout above Boulder. Two guys at the spot had left their car idling in the small parking lot, and Casey admonished them to turn their engine off.  

“If that were Connecticut, they would have told you to go to hell,” Langen had observed after the two complied. 

Casey grinned. “That’s why I live in Colorado.” 

Langen noted how assiduously Casey made the personal political: amassing carbon credits to justify her rare airline flight; volunteering at a produce drop in a Denver food desert; joining Twitter storms against developers. Her manner had acquired a zealous, teacherly aspect he didn’t recall from their college years. Langen stood bewildered before her fridge, crammed with carob, tofu, and agave, and sat dutifully as Casey poured additive-free organic wine and discoursed on zero-energy convection air conditioners. After sex, she subjected him to a relaxation procedure that involved touching strategic pressure points on his neck. You’re all tensed up, she said cheerfully; let’s work on that! All in all, Langen felt vaguely reproached, and was relieved when the stay ended. 

For several years after his divorce, especially after Miranda remarried, his daughters had urged him on, unexpected cheerleaders for matrimony. But gradually they stopped, and he’d been single for a decade by now. He had gotten used to it, almost without noticing. And then came the pandemics. Langen knew that global calamity could incite romance. It was like a perpetual world war, rife with uncertainty and urgency; you stood on a train platform, kissed someone, and never knew if you’d see them again. During Covid Langen had felt a stirring—a susceptibility, in a Brief Encounter kind of way. He was on the platform, the clock striking the hour, but no one came to meet him. The war had ended, the moment passed. Now it was happening all over again, only this time he felt nothing, the stirring was gone. He wasn’t sure why. 

 

He and his sister kept abreast of Petey the kangaroo. “Petey sighting!” his sister would call out, searching online for updates. Petey, spotted outside a 7-Eleven near Sarasota. Petey at a lake, drinking. Petey hiding behind a palm tree in someone’s yard. A painting joined the Noah’s ark in Liddie’s studio—a kangaroo wearing an expression of surprise, a clutch of dandelions sticking out of his mouth. “His head looks squished-in,” Liddie said, doubtfully. “And I gave him person hands.” 

Sure enough, the hands were distinctly human, the fingers folded together in a devotional pose. “He’s praying,” Langen said. “Prayin’ Pete.”

“This kangaroo is my hero,” his sister said. 

The rest of the news didn’t bear watching, but Langen watched anyway; after a lifetime of watching, he could not stop. The nation was out of blood and almost out of food. Riots and protesters, looters, mayhem that had spread from the usual places to the golden zip codes—the clerks and nannies, the cashiers, the car-washers and bathroom-cleaners and meal-deliverers and garden-tenders, all banded together in a motley army of insurrection. SERFDOM UNITE! read a sign someone managed to hang halfway up the Washington Monument. Packs of feral dogs roamed cities, and fantastic graffiti proliferated. Who were they, he wondered, this invisible nation of vandal painters?  How did they decide on the meme du jour? Suddenly you would see it everywhere—the heart pierced by a lightning bolt, or the crying koala bear. Why a koala bear?

Amid it all, underneath and through it all, swirled the disease, pooling and spreading, invisible, viscous, vile. Langen could feel it advancing on them. Infections were spiking in Virginia Beach, an hour from his sister’s house. In the village itself, a group of born-heres had set up a blockade along the entry road, trying to prevent the come-heres from getting to their vacation homes.

Liddie fumed. “Get. Us. A freaking. Vaccine!” She gathered her dogs and went to the shed to paint. 

Out in LA, Chloe and Audrey were holed up with a second new dog, a German shepherd left by a friend who moved away; the pendulum of Langen’s worry had swung to Serena. He hadn’t heard from her in a week. Chloe sought to reassure him. “Dad, it’s Serena, right? You know her and her walkabouts.” His younger daughter over the years had had a history of courting farflung perils, from Africa to Tibet.  

“Well, it’s a little different this time,” Langen said, gruffly. 

“Do you think Serena is becoming a weirdo?” Chloe said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, the whole farmer-hunter-forester-renegade tough-chick thing. She’s like Sarah Connor in those Terminator movies. She and Derrick, they’re like survivalists.”  

“Let’s hope they’re good at it.” 

Derrick was his younger daughter’s boyfriend; the two had met as forestry students in Bozeman. “As for you, Liddie tells me that dogs can be spreaders. She read it somewhere. Are you and Audrey keeping that bulldog puppy inside? And where was that new dog before you got him?” 

“Dad. I honestly don’t think we are going to get infected by our dog. Please. That’s one thing you shouldn’t worry about.” 

“Well, I’m your dad, so it’s my job. It’s more or less my only job.” He squelched a rogue urge to chuckle. “If you talk to your sister, tell her to check in, pronto.”

Antsy, he went out on his bike. At the edge of town he saw where the villagers had mounted their roadblock—a fallen tree and splintered sawhorse pushed to the roadside. He came to the bend of the road and the poultry plant, and beyond it an old farmhouse with two rusted tractors posed out in front. The old farms existed now only as mementoes of themselves. As little girls, Chloe and Serena had frequented a place called Westmoor, the last remaining farm in Langen’s suburb, preserved as an education center, where they had milked cows, fed rabbits and chickens. How’re my two farmer’s daughters? he would call out, pulling up in the car. He recalled how much he had loved being a father of young kids. Now it would be dread and dread only. 

Lost in thought, he didn’t see the squirrel dart out in front of him. The creature feinted one way, then reversed itself, a frenzied lunge that put it back in his path. In disbelief he ran over it, his tire making a gruesome crunch. Langen dismounted. The squirrel lay in the road, unequivocally dead. Always he had been able to count on the nimbleness of squirrels, their sense for survival and escape. Why not now?

Prodding with his sneaker, he managed to push the corpse to the roadside. He looked around. Pine trees, a meadow. Milky sunshine in a sky hazy from yet another massive forest fire out in California. And the squirrel he had killed. To his surprise, Langen experienced a clenched thickness in his throat. He was far from sentimental about squirrels. There was the notorious time when the girls were small, the family returning from Easter sunrise service, and Langen, driving, saw the gray bloody mess of a squirrel flattened on the road. Look, he’d said on an impulse, the Easter bunny, triggering an explosion of tears from his younger daughter and fury from Miranda. 

He took out his phone. Sorry about that whole Easter bunny thing way back when, he texted Serena. Not very nice of Dear Old Dad. Please call. :)

He rode back through town. The place felt comatose. He passed the carnival ground, with its whitewashed vendor shacks. The summer carnival had been canceled three of the past four years, his sister had told him. Sports events, concerts, weddings: no place was safe when people were present. 

After 2020, a market had sprung up in ultra-upper-end strongholds—islands and other remote locations bought up by über-wealthy preppers planning to survive a global holocaust. Langen had been approached by a broker advertising a “secure luxury retreat” in Tasmania, of all places. But the buy-in was above his pay grade. His career, it turned out, had been designed for luxury within the confines of civilization, not as an escape hatch from it. If things came to the worst, he’d be no better off than anyone, and worse than many: a sixty-something guy with no gun, no garden, and no skills.  

He checked his phone. Serena had not answered his text, and he decided to call his ex-wife. No sooner had he typed in her number, however, than his signal evaporated. He rode down the block and held the phone above his head. When the new pandemic hit, Langen had taken the precaution of having his cell service augmented with a satellite backup, via a Texas-based company that deployed a flotilla of small, fractionated satellites. If he couldn’t have a stronghold in Tasmania, at least he could have a pricey handheld to ensure continuous contact with his daughters. It was a state-of-the art personal communications system, it was costly, and it worked fine. 

Until it didn’t.

Amid it all, underneath and through it all, swirled the disease, pooling and spreading, invisible, viscous, vile. Langen could feel it advancing on them.

The air was hot when he came back, and as he mopped his brow his sister studied him.  “Should I worry about you? If you get this, don’t you have, you know—a co-thing?”

He reassured her: his heart was fine, he had a reptile’s blood pressure. “And, technically speaking, to have a comorbidity you already have to be morbid.”

Liddie winced.  “Please do not die on my watch, Trevor. I could not take that.” 

Langen didn’t feel like a dying man. But he hadn’t felt like one two summers ago, either. For several weeks he’d experienced a vague pectoral discomfort; then, mowing the backyard, a surprising weakness, as if the lawnmower weighed two hundred pounds. A cardiologist put him on a treadmill for a stress test. It had hardly started when the man shut it down. 

Minutes later Langen was in an ambulance. 

For years his physician had urged him to deal with his cholesterol, his blood pressure, and he had always stalled. Now here he was. At the hospital, the cardiac interventionist explained what would come next, and remarkably soon, Langen was on the table, prepped and shrouded. He was chagrined to learn he would remain awake. “You’ll be sedated but alert,” the doctor said. “You can watch on the screen if you’d like.”  

“I’ll pass,” Langen replied from beneath the shroud. Whatever disinterested scientific curiosity a person needed in order to observe his own heart catheterization, he lacked it utterly. 

“Bar’s open!” said the jovial anesthesiologist, releasing the sedative into his bloodstream. “Tonight we’re serving a cocktail of midazolam and fentanyl.”  

It began. Through the haze of the drug he could hear the doctor conferring with his assistant, and a hot, animal fear rose in him.  

“Bartender,” he said. “Another round, please.” The cocktail flowed, and with gratifying speed Langen’s fear subsided. He listened—he had no choice—as the procedure continued. It was as in every business interaction, the same intensification, always that push-comes-to-shove moment when the pleasantries have been dispensed with and the thing gets transacted. “Here we are,” murmured the doctor. And: “Pretty tight in here.” It sounded vaguely pornographic. 

“Hit me again,” Langen beseeched the anesthesiologist.  

“Sorry,” he heard the man say. “You’re cut off.”

When he surfaced in his hospital bed, the doctor gave him the news: a 90 percent occlusion of his LAD coronary artery, aka “the widowmaker.” A stent had alleviated the blockage. “Your heart has not been damaged,” the doctor told him. “You’re lucky to have discovered this in time. Your situation can be very nicely managed.” 

Which is what he did. Following orders, he rode his bike, he purged his diet of mayonnaise and other culprits, cut back on meat, added copious infusions of veggies and fruit.  Obediently, he took his daily pills—three in the morning, two at night. For several months he attended Cardiac Rehab class at the hospital, where he and a dozen others were hooked up to monitors to spend an hour exercising while being shown videos on Your Heart Healthy Lifestyle. Heart disease was the great democratic unifier: Langen’s fellow inmates included lawyers like himself; overweight working guys; schoolteachers; lifelong smokers in agonies of withdrawal; the stray woman or two, fallen among thieves. For a while there was a raucous Jamaican named Orville, tattooed and reeking of pot. The class was overseen by a nurse Langen’s age, whose Midwestern earnestness the class took as a challenge. They might launch into group treadmill karaoke, or provoke some new outlandishness from Orville, until finally the nurse had to restrain a grin. It was like being in eighth grade again.

Throughout it all, Langen missed his father. In his hospital bed after his procedure, as he tried not to think about the little balloon now lodged in his artery, Langen imagined the email he would have received from the old man, zinging him with gusto. I’m glad you’re OK, Tiger. However, I can’t help noting that you have zero genetic predisposition to heart disease, which means your situation is entirely the result of your decadent, sybaritic, high-paid-lawyer lifestyle. 

He found it strange to have the private drama of his aging coincide with a global health calamity. Physically he felt fine, but his sense of wellbeing could vanish in an instant. What if it happened now? he thought, riding in the Virginia countryside; what if it happened here? Lying in bed, he’d feel a flutter in his chest and suddenly he was weak and sweaty, waiting for the dagger thrust his brother-in-law had suffered. He imagined it clearly: the tingling, the stabbing pain, his own amazement. 

At his sister’s house, his phone continued to malfunction, but the internet still intermittently worked. He emailed his ex-wife: No phone here and Serena AWOL. He scanned his newsfeed. The president had not been seen in two days; the stock market was closed down again; power outages were rampant. 

“Why the hell can’t I reach my daughter?” Langen said.

Liddie put a hand on his shoulder. “She’ll be okay. She’s so far from anything.”

“Not far enough.” He closed the laptop—firmly, as if it were a container holding everything that worried him. He felt rattled, seized and shaken, his emotions banging around weirdly inside him. 

“I killed a squirrel before,” he said. “Ran over it with my bike. I felt like I was going to cry. Over a squirrel.”  

“I wouldn’t worry. With squirrels, there’s always an understudy, you know?” His sister took the laptop. “Want some good news? The Petey GoFundMe is way up. They’re gonna build him a habitat with a sound system in it. He likes swing.” 

Langen attempted a grin and failed. “I think I’ll shower,” he said.

He undressed in his room. It was 6:30 p.m.; in former times he would have been arriving home after a long day, and he could still feel a phantom limb of his old work life. It had been three years. Retiring at fifty-nine had never been the plan. But when his father died, something in him had evaporated, some mindless drive to accomplish; he already felt it draining away as he stood with his stepmother in the hospital in Albuquerque. Back in Connecticut and his office, he’d stare out the window at the western hills and imagine hiking in them; in Zoom meetings he would turn off his video and just sit there. His career was slipping away, and he let it go.  

The bathroom had a small, grimy window that he looked out while showering. A berm protected his sister’s yard from the flood plain beyond. It resembled an earthwork fortification, and Langen imagined armed men clambering over the top into the yard. He envisioned how the worst-case scenario would play out. All the safeguards and backup systems, the double and triple redundancies that protected people from harm and need; one by one, these would shut down. Eventually he and his sister would fall ill, or someone would show up at the door with havoc in tow. It would be as with any empire. Sickness from within, barbarians at the gates. It was already underway.

After the shower, he returned to the living room to find Liddie on the couch with her dogs, listening to the Talking Heads. His gloom had not lifted. A quick check of his email showed nothing from Miranda or Serena. 

“I need a drink,” he announced. On the shelf, Jason’s single malt was down to two fingers. Langen held the bottle up.  

“It’s all yours,” his sister said, and he drank off the Scotch in one burning gulp. As he did, the music abruptly stopped. Liddie reached over and flicked a light switch on the wall back and forth.   

“Oh, great,” she said. “Just what we needed.” 

They fired up the generator for Liddie to make dinner. As they ate, Langen couldn’t shake his anxiety about his daughters. He thought about fear, how it waxed and waned like the contagion itself. “There must be a literary term for that,” he remarked. “For something that’s reality and a metaphor for reality at the same time. Miranda would know.”

His sister was gazing at him earnestly. “Can I ask something? I always wondered what happened between you two. We don’t have to get into it if you don’t want to.”  

Langen gestured noncommittally. “The girls were gone, we both had our careers. We didn’t need anything from each other anymore. Separating just kind of happened.” He made a derisive noise. “I sound like a defendant. ‘Your Honor, it just happened.’” 

They opened their last bottle of wine. Miranda had made a mistake in marrying him, Langen reflected. He had been dishonest, had presented himself under false pretenses, as someone avid for ideas. His wife, for her part, had begun by loving literature and languages—always reading, fluent in Italian and French—and had moved into ever-hazier realms of abstraction, places that offered Langen no handholds. He thought about Miranda’s no-longer-new husband, a professor like her, conversant in everything, writing incomprehensible essays about German philosophers.

“She’s better off now,” he said to Liddie. “I honestly believe that.” 

“I really liked Miranda. I always thought she was good for you. And for the record, I think you were good for her. You brought her back to earth.” A wan look crossed his sister’s face. “I think I was good for Jason. He needed me. Is that bad—you know, if what you really miss most about someone is how much they needed you?” 

“I don’t think it’s bad.”

She sighed. “We didn’t have sex anymore. Sorry, TMI. But did that happen with you two? Did you stop?”  

 “No, we didn’t stop,” he said. “But it got very…polite. Sort of like, I don’t know, going to the barber or something.” 

His sister laughed and sniffled. “Jason was always kind of an animal in bed. Just a big happy bear. But then he got depressed and gained all that weight, and we started keeping our bodies to ourselves.” 

Too soon, the wine was done. From her patchwork shoulder bag, his sister fished out a small box and removed two orange lozenges. THC gummies, she told him. “I get them for my fucked-up knee. For my osteoarthritis.”

“Auntie’s little helper,” Langen said. 

“And now, I’m going to medicate and go paint by candlelight. Join me?” 

The gummies were embossed with the image of a marijuana leaf. Langen took the two his sister offered. “Here’s chewing with you, kid,” he said.  

They gathered candles and, with the dogs following, paraded across the yard and into the shed, where Langen lit the candles with a grill lighter. His sister stood before an easel, a photo of her hollyhocks taped to a second easel alongside. On a rectangular tray she squeezed dabs of paint, naming the colors: ultramarine, Prussian blue, Cadmium red. 

Langen sat on a battered director’s chair, the dogs at his feet, as his sister painted in the flickering light. Arm swooping, she traced stems, adorned them with blobs, and smeared the blobs into blooms. “I don’t worry about making it realistic,” she said. “You’re trying to get the essence. The hollyhockness.” She had slipped into teaching mode. “I think of hollyhocks as aliens from outer space. The way the flower comes out of these big seed pods. Okay, let’s do a big, juicy one.” The blooms burst off the canvas and seemed to float toward him, craning their necks, grinning. Langen suspected the THC was kicking in. “Honestly, Trev, coming out here is the one way I can keep my shit together,” his sister said. “I find it incredibly relaxing.”

But Langen felt the opposite. Beneath the booze and the pot, he felt his heart beating through narrowed arteries, heard its thump and wash, insistent but also somehow lagging. From the shadows his sister’s menagerie of cats and cows and birds stared at him.

One of Liddie’s dogs growled, ears perking up. Langen peered in vain through the black void of the window. He felt a surge of paranoia.

“Excuse me,” he said, pushing up from the chair. “I gotta pee.” 

Outside he stood still in the yard. Behind him sat the house, dark and empty, to his left the berm and the marshland beyond, and before him the shed where his sister painted, oblivious, illuminated by candlelight together with her canvas. 

Langen cocked his head. He heard the May breeze, a restlessness in the bushes; something moving, something watching.

 

He bought a gun. 

He’d seen the place out on Route 13, a brick bunker with iron-grated windows and a hand-painted rooftop sign, “GUNS.” Telling his sister he was going in search of liquor, he drove over just before dinnertime.  

 The store was dark, the front door locked, but a pickup truck stood parked alongside, and Langen went around back. A bearded guy, maskless and in camouflage pants and a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, was smashing crates with a sledgehammer.

“I’m closed,” he said, glancing at his watch. “You picking up?”

“I was hoping to buy something. You know, as a walk-in.”

The man put the sledge aside. “So let’s walk in.” 

They went through the back door, and the man slipped behind the counter. “Can you do me a favor?” Langen asked. “Would you be willing to put on a mask?”

The man looked at him closely. “I suppose I would be,” he said, and produced one from his pocket. “Now,” he said after he had pulled it on. “Are you a Virginia resident?” 

“Connecticut,” Langen said. “But my sister lives here.”

“Connecticut,” he said. “Funny state. You know you all have open carry in that little true-blue state of yours?”

“I do know that,” Langen said. “I’m a lawyer. A retired lawyer.” 

“But the thing is, you don’t have a culture of open carry.” The man told about a friend of his who had gone into a Starbucks in Connecticut while carrying and had been chased out of the place. “People went off on him, hysterical. They didn’t even know their own law.” He made a scoffing sound. “What good is a right if no one exercises it?” 

“I don’t disagree,” Langen said. 

The man looked at him, sizing him up. “Have you used a firearm?” 

Langen’s experience with guns consisted of riflery in summer camp half a century ago and trap shooting with his daughters at a dude ranch in Wyoming. 

“Minimally,” he said.  

“And I’m assuming that right now we are prioritizing personal protection and defense of your home and loved ones?” 

Langen nodded. Around him were display cases filled with rifles, ammunition magazines, brass knuckles, hunting knives, and designer handguns—pistols etched with American flags, with Confederate flags, with coiled snakes, with the face of Donald Trump. On the countertop stood a stack of booklets titled Ready for Anything. His eyes traveled to a small gun sporting an ornate, blue stone handle.

“Tiffany turquoise,” said the man. “For the ladies.” He chuckled darkly. “As for you, the Commonwealth of Virginia says that legally, since you are a non-resident, I am only allowed to sell you a long gun. For a handgun, assuming your sister is a resident, the simplest way would be for her to come and transact the purchase.”

Langen pondered. “I’d rather not do that,” he said. 

“I said it was the simplest way, not the only way.” The man’s eyes narrowed, and Langen saw that beneath his mask he was grinning. From the case he removed a squarish, black handgun. “This is your Glock 17. Nine millimeter. Full-sized barrel, nice grip. Minimal recoil. No safety.”

“No safety?” 

“In a self-defense situation you might forget to disengage. You want to keep things simple.” He removed the cartridge. “Double-stack magazine, seventeen rounds. Now, some people might consider this firearm boring, but to me it’s ultra-reliable. This gun will never not work. Lowest out-of-service rate in my whole fleet.” 

The gun felt light in Langen’s hand. “It doesn’t feel like steel,” he said.

“Polymer frame. Glock was a plastics guy. He made field knives for the Austrian army. Used an injection-molding machine for the handles and started experimenting.” He took the gun back. “In the nineties, Glock’s accountant hired a hitman to take him out. He was embezzling and wanted to cover it up. The hitman figured he’d bludgeon Glock with a hammer. But Glock, who’s seventy, takes the hammer and beats the guy senseless. The hitman was a French mercenary named Jacques Pecheur—that’s French for Jack the Sinner. You cannot make this shit up!” He placed the gun on the counter with a box of bullets. “Sticker price on this firearm is $694, but I will give it to you for the special Virginia visitor price of $900, cash. The bullets are on the house.” 

Langen took an envelope from his pocket and removed ten crisp hundreds, placing them on the counter. He asked about a background check. 

“We can do that.” The man counted the bills and pushed one back. “Have you ever been convicted of, or are you currently under indictment for, a felony offense of any class, or a misdemeanor involving a domestic-violence incident, or been the object of a restraining order or substantial-risk order of any kind?”

“No,” Langen said. 

“Are you an unlawful user of any controlled substance, or have you ever been adjudicated legally incompetent, medically incapacitated or been discharged from the Armed Forces dishonorably?”

Langen shook his head. 

“Congratulations. You are now part of the worldwide Glock family.” 

“Is that it?” Langen asked. 

“Well, that’s all you and I are gonna do, under the circumstances. What would you call that—a truncated version?” The man seemed pleased with himself. “Now normally you would be headed to a shooting range to familiarize yourself with the firearm. But I wouldn’t worry too much. If I had to teach my grandmother to fire a weapon, this would be it.” He grinned again. “No offense.” 

“That’s okay,” Langen said. “None taken.” He looked at the gun, squared-off and angular, its grip featuring molded indentations where his fingers would go. The box of bullets, he saw now, was labeled “CRITICAL DEFENSE.”

The man was studying him. “Let me tell you something. You see this room? This is a room full of ‘what if?’ ‘What if?’ is the only reason my business even exists. Now, this right here”—he patted the Glock—“this is your fallback, right? This is your answer to what-if.”  He gave Langen an earnest look. “Someone starts hurting people in your vicinity, you need to be able to hurt back. Now, sir, you have yourself a nice evening.” 

Outside, Langen put the gun and bullets in the glove compartment of his Audi, locked it, and drove onto Route 13. Next to the gun shop stood a café, long closed, a small frame house whose owners had adorned it with gingerbread trim in pink and lime, and a sign that read “Muffins ‘n Stuff.” Weeds had shot up, engulfing the handicapped ramp; the big front window was boarded up. Whole stretches of the roadway were cluttered with abandoned businesses, mom-and-pop operations that had barely made it through 2020, survived on life support in the interregnum, then quickly perished in the new emergency. Hair salons, dog groomers, restaurants, a fishmonger, a Christian bookstore, a financial advisor, the Little Ones daycare center, the Amigos Taqueria, and on and on. Langen shuddered to think of the ruined dreams he was passing, the ruined lives. He drove through a ghost town, empty and forlorn.

With his gun. His Glock. 

He glanced at the glove box. It disturbed him to contemplate the weapon inside, all the harm coiled within it, ready to be sprung with the merest motion of his finger. He felt not only criminal, but radioactive. In his years practicing law, the closest he had gotten to a case involving weapons had been defending the insurer of a gun club where an accidental shooting had maimed a boy. Guns, gun people, gun crimes—it had never been his world. He thought about a criminal lawyer he knew in Hartford, a roguish character who’d been a cop before putting himself through law school, and whose days were spent at jail and court, his nights carousing with his friend the bondsman, his friend the parole officer, going to boxing matches at the casinos, hanging out in low-rent bars. 

Now Langen remembered: alcohol. It was the reason he’d given his sister for heading out in the first place. He did a U-turn and drove back toward a place he had seen before, a combo gas station and liquor store, set in a roadside cul-de-sac. “NO GAS,” a sign read, but the liquor store was open. A mammoth generator stood outside, humming away, and no fewer than seven cars and pickup trucks were in the lot. Langen put on his mask and went in to spend the hundred dollars left over from his shopping excursion. It daunted him to contemplate what businesses still thrived, amid all the ruin, and what essentials they purveyed. The booze to help you not think about what was coming. The gun, for when it finally arrived.

 

Driving back to his sister’s house, he approached the edge of town, the site of the roadblock days earlier. It was back. Orange barriers, vehicles, men in the road. One stepped forward, waving. He wore a holstered pistol. Two others cradled shotguns. 

Langen slowed to a stop, put on his mask and cracked the window. The lead man approached, taking a long look at the Audi’s license plate. He wore a black mask with a circle of stars around the Roman numeral III. A roll of flesh bulged out beneath. 

“Evening,” he said. “Our county has authorized a citizens’ militia under the oversight of the Accomac Community Watch. May I ask where you’re coming from?”

“The liquor store.” Langen nodded toward the box on the passenger seat.

The man gave a cursory glance. “Sir, I see you have Connecticut tags. We’re restricting entry to full-time residents only, so I’m going to ask you to turn around.”  

“I’m staying here, at my sister’s. Where should I go?” 

“Back where you came from, would be my suggestion.”

He checked his phone. No signal. “I’ve been here almost two weeks,” he said through the window slot. “I’m not sick and I have zero contact with the outside world. I think you guys should just let me get back to my sister’s house.”

“I’m not authorized to do that.” The man shifted, settling into his position. Langen glanced over at his glove compartment, pictured the gun inside. Insanely, he imagined himself reaching for it, a shootout, flying glass and blood, mayhem, escape.

“Can I talk to your sheriff or one of his deputies?” he asked. 

The man laughed beneath his mask and turned to his group. “Tyler! Come on over!” One of the shotgun-toting men approached. “This gentleman wants a deputy.” 

“I’m visiting my sister,” Langen said to the second man. “Her husband was Jason Beddowes. He died, and I came down to help out.” He gestured vaguely. “Look, I drove out an hour ago, and you guys weren’t here. I’m just trying to get back.”

“Well, that ain’t happening,” said the second man. “This is a lawful action by the citizens of this town.”

“My sister is a citizen of this town.” Langen felt his anger rising. “Whatever statute or decree you think you’re operating under, there’s no way it legally bars me from getting to my sister’s house. I’m just telling you that. As an officer of the court.” 

“Now what court would that be, exactly?”

Langen restrained himself; he could only imagine the judge he’d have to deal with out here, if things came to that. “I really need to get through to my sister,” he said. 

The two men stepped back and conferred, as Langen made a forlorn backup plan. He would drive back along the main road and park. Take his gun and whisky, traipse through the woods, and hope no one shot him before he got to his sister’s.  

The first man returned to his window. “Was your brother-in-law Jason on Bay Street?” he asked. “Jason the U.S. Marine?”

Langen nodded, and the man signaled to the crew to move the barrier. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, leaning down. He patted the roof of the Audi. “Nice vehicle. But use your sister’s next time.”

Back at home, carrying the box of booze into the living room, he found Liddie in tears. It was Helga, she said; Helga was sick. “I went over, and she wouldn’t come out. She told me through the window. Last week she stopped at Claire’s”—a Liars Club friend, bedridden with cancer—“and she and Claire’s caretaker talked. But they stayed outside. With masks.” His sister looked at him. “Will we get sick?” 

He counted six days since their Helga dinner. “I feel okay,” he said. “You?”

She made a futile gesture. “I feel like tearing my own head off. And Helga, what, does she just take her pills now and end it?” 

“Hold on, hold on. She hasn’t even been tested yet, right? One thing at a time.” Langen needed to think. “Let me stash this liquor and go check the generator.” 

In his room he extracted the gun from the box, placed the bullets in the bedside table drawer, and stuffed the Glock beneath the mattress—the prince and the pea, he thought, grimly. Outside, in the yard, he checked the generator and the gas can. Both were low. Only a few service stations still had fuel; if necessary, they could drain their cars. He studied the vehicles in the drive, calculating the power stored up in them. Then he refueled the generator and turned it on. 

Back in the living room he told his sister the plan to siphon gas. He wouldn’t be using the Audi anyway, he said, and filled her in on the encounter at the roadblock and the connection to Jason. “Seems I got the guest patriot pass.” 

Liddie managed a tiny smile. “He hated those guys. They were always trying to get him to join in on their first-responder crap. He went once. ‘Never again,’ he said.” 

With the power running, Langen turned on his sister’s laptop. The internet was back up, but not his email; nothing from Miranda or the girls. He took stock of his and his sister’s current situation. Their resources were dwindling. Liddie’s freezer food was only good for as long as they kept the generator going. As for himself, he had three weeks of heart meds; after that, he was on his own. 

“I got a gun,” he said to his sister. 

“You did? Where? When?”

“A place on Route 13. When I went out for the booze. I walked in and paid $900.”  

“And where is it now?”

“It’s under my mattress. The bullets are in the nightstand.” 

She gaped at him. 

“I don’t intend to use it,” he said. “But what if there’s some kind of situation? We need to deal with ‘what if’.” He laughed, a strange, loose, skidding cackle. “Jesus. I just repeated verbatim the pep talk of some cracker in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt.” 

The haggard intensity on Liddie’s face was new to him. “You know what I’m going to do, Trevor? I’m going to hug my dogs and miss my dead husband and drink my wine and eat my gummies until I’m unconscious. That’s how I’m going to deal with ‘what if’.” She brandished the gummy pillbox. “Now could you please go into your little arsenal back there and get us some liquor?”

 

Drinking for courage—he had done it once before, back when Chloe was a toddler and began suffering seizures and other ominous symptoms. The culprit turned out to be a rare enzyme deficiency and was easily treatable, but Langen and his wife endured three agonizing weeks as their child went through endless rounds of diagnostics, with terrifying outcomes in play. Langen was stunned at how ill-prepared he was to face his daughter’s vulnerability; none of the tools he’d acquired in his life proved remotely useful. Every day at 5 p.m. he began funneling whiskey into himself, trying to rescue himself from a dark dungeon in his psyche. “This is all I can do right now,” he had said when Miranda raised an eyebrow. His drinking seemed like weakness, even to him. 

And now here he was again. This time, at least, he had company. He sat back as Liddie readied their chemical helpmates on the coffee table. They chewed and sluiced, and soon Langen felt the onset of a merciful fuzziness. 

“I keep thinking about the girls,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.” 

“I know you were always the Shield,” his sister said. “But they have their own shields now, Trev. You don’t have to do anything. You already did it.” 

He poured more Scotch and studied Liddie’s face. He remembered her at thirteen, at fifteen, his older sister—Big Red, the tallest kid in the class, dreamy and awkward, always less strategic than he, ingenuous even, prone to displays of daughterly fealty, writing fulsome notes to their parents on their birthdays, Mom, you are the GREATEST MOM EVER :) :)!! How strange to see her transmogrified into someone supposedly elderly, like those bad makeup jobs in low-budget movies. 

“Monday’s Memorial Day,” she said. “Jason died nine months ago this week.” 

“I know,” Langen said. “I remember.”

“I was like a zombie. And then this thing came and made it even worse. There’s this period in December and early January, after the solstice, when sunset is already coming a little later every day, but sunrise is still coming later too. It’s sort of meteorologically, you know—”

“Lopsided,” Langen offered. “Asymmetrical.”

“Yes. And every year I wait for the day when the sunrise finally starts coming earlier. But this year I was like, ‘Don’t.’ I’d look out that east window and I’d think, ‘No more light!’” Her breath caught. “I miss him so much, Trev. He was like you. He had a way of making everything make sense. I can’t make anything make sense.”

She produced a tissue and blew her nose loudly. “Do you remember Jason back in Boston, when he was driving that cab? He was so skinny then. And that hair.”  

Langen did remember: an impressive figure, in denim and John Lennon glasses, a ponytail halfway down his back; a Marine who had somehow become a hippie. “Didn’t you meet him in his cab?” he asked. “Weren’t you a fare?” 

“I was. And how did you meet Miranda? I know it was in a café somewhere.”  

He told her the story: the crowded café in Porter Square, where they sat down together at the same table; a first date at the Gardner Museum; his sense of having met someone of consequence. “There’s a Childe Hassam painting at the Gardner, ‘New York Blizzard,’ that has a figure with a big, black umbrella. We talked about it. I was just bloviating, you know, some totally disposable comment. And she very quietly said something about how black was a forbidden color to the Impressionists, and Hassam smuggled it in from an illustrator’s toolkit, and this was his special transgressive genius. I remember that phrase, ‘special transgressive genius.’ I felt like a horse’s ass. Here I am, with these three showoffy opinions of mine, and she’s practically an art historian.” After the date Langen had taken her back to her apartment, in a beat-up three-family just off Porter Square, rented almost entirely to lesbians. He described the place for his sister. “Miranda was literally the only straight person there. You should have seen Dad’s face when he and Mom stopped by.”  

He made a scoffing sound. “What good is a right if no one exercises it?”

“They would have been, what, about sixty? Was Mom already sick?”

“Not yet. She got her diagnosis in 1989. Just after Miranda and I got married.” He recalled their mother’s battle, five years of reprieves and setbacks, her last months playing out while Chloe was a toddler and Miranda pregnant again, a grim race between death and birth—his mother dying in early December, and Serena born three weeks later, on New Year’s Day.

“I miss them,” Liddie said. “I miss everyone.” She sighed. “It’s all so long ago. You know when I started high school? Six weeks after the moon landing. Nineteen sixty-nine, Trevor!” 

We’re history, Langen thought, we’re all history. He shook his head. He was way too high, his thoughts spilling every which way, like quicksilver. He considered his daughters, poised at the start of adulthood, and himself at their age, the glimmering vista that had stretched before him. He had understood so very little of what he was looking at. 

“What is it?” his sister said. “What are you thinking?”

“About being a lawyer my whole life. About how you get used to seeing people purely in terms of what they want—what they want, and how they’re trying to get it. You know, the ulterior, the quo animo. ‘With what intent.’ It’s pretty appalling.”

She gave him a caring, flustered look. “Wanting things is important, isn’t it?” 

Langen nodded. “But then there’s the person, you know, apart from any…strategy. The person who just is. I lost track of that person.” 

“Do you mean Miranda?”

“Yes. Miranda and everyone else. I just…lost track somehow.” Trying to explain was like moving heavy trunks in a dark attic, and he stopped. His sister sat with an arm around either dog. The sun was long down, the window a rectangle of onyx. Langen felt floaty and disconnected, as if his mind was being operated by someone logged into his brain remotely. He thought about his gun, hidden beneath his mattress, waiting. 

“A guy whose molestation lawsuit I got dismissed killed himself,” he said. “He blew his head off on his front lawn.”

“When? Recently?”  

“Twenty years ago. The case was ten years before that.” 

“He molested somebody? And you got him off?”

“No, he was a boy at the time. The victim.” As best he could, in his discombobulation, Langen laid out the lawsuit and his success in minimizing the award. 

“You did your job,” his sister said when he was through. “And this guy, he was on his own course. He had his own life story.”

 “You mean, I wasn’t responsible. Not my problem. Let the master answer.”  

His sister gave him a quizzical look, and Langen again attempted to explain himself. “The attorney I beat in that case—the plaintiffs’ lawyer. He’s a guy my age, very flashy, quick on his feet. The media loves him, he’s smart, he’s quotable. I always loathed the guy. Honestly, I thought he was a travesty. But I don’t know.” He sighed. 

“What is it?” his sister asked.

“These personal-injury guys, in their cowboy boots, doing their commercials, their whole phony I’m-on-your-side shtick. Well, they’re actually pretty much all that people have. Normal people. Like your guy who skidded on the poultry effluvium and crashed. I wouldn’t have been taking his case. The other guy would.” He snorted. “Honestly, they’re fucking heroes. I was a well-paid goon. The shield.”  

“You’re being way too hard on yourself,” said Liddie. “You thought you were doing the right thing.” 

“Yeah.” Langen nodded. “That’s it in a nutshell.” He pictured the man who had killed himself, heading to the basement for his shotgun. “The guy who was molested, he had two daughters, Chloe and Serena’s age. The daughters found him. It was a winter day and the lawn was covered with snow. Blank canvas. Talk about painting.” 

“Can we change the subject? You’re twisting everything. You’re just beating up on yourself.” His sister reached for the laptop. “I’m going to check in with our favorite… oh no!” Her face contorted in alarm. “No no no! He’s dead!” 

Who, Langen thought, the president? But when his sister pushed the laptop aside, what he saw was a blurry photo of police cars under a black banner with the words PETEY RIP. He scanned the story. A truck driving at night on the Tamiami Trail; a rainstorm and limited visibility; a sudden impact. 

On the couch his sister visibly shook. “It’s like the world is ending,” she said. “We’re sitting here pretending it isn’t, but it is.”

“It’s a kangaroo,” Langen said.

“Every day I tell myself, ‘Cheer up, Lydia, it could be worse.’ But what could be fucking worse than this? We’re just sitting here waiting.” She stood. “I have to go to bed. I’m sorry.” Dogs in tow, she disappeared into her room. 

Alone, Langen slumped on the loveseat, letting his head loll back. He hadn’t been this high in decades. He could feel the vessel of his body and feel the assorted substances coursing through it, the ones assigned by his physicians plus the ones he had tossed in himself, a volatile churn of chemicals, and in the middle of it all the antique organ of his heart, with its degraded pipes—the phantom of the opera, he thought, a damaged maniac hiding within him, banging out crazed melodies. 

The room spun, and he secured it by anchoring his gaze on the far wall, crowded with works by artists his sister had traded with over the years. His thoughts tracked again to Boston, and to Miranda when he first met her, Miranda the soulful, Miranda the ethereal and pale. Subsequent years had made her browner and hardier, transforming her bit by bit into a slim outdoorsy woman, a walker. They had hiked and rambled together in beautiful places—Scotland, Big Sur, the Andes—and still he retained the view of her calves, seen from behind, surprisingly muscular, flexing metronomically in her slender legs. Even now, there remained physical things about her that he knew so well, they seemed more than mere attributes. Her chapped, strong gardener’s hands. Her raised eyebrow as she brooded over a crossword puzzle. The supple way her lips molded themselves to foreign words, so that in speaking French she magically became French. Her shyness about her body. The first time they made love, she turned off the light and in the darkness next to him palpably trembled: I’m not scared, she said, annoyed with herself, this just happens, there in the tiny apartment near Porter Square with the bay window open and the unseen neighbor afflicted with what they didn’t yet know to call Tourette’s syndrome, his bellowing rant of “Larry? FUCK YOU, Larry!” waking Langen at 2 a.m. (Oh, Miranda said the next morning, that’s just the fuck-you guy.) He flashed to a dozen years later, the last night of the century, the world about to disappear into a massive, global computer glitch, staff at his firm laboriously backing up everything in a last-minute frenzy, and he and Miranda set to head to a black-tie event in Manhattan until the panic rolling over the city canceled the event. The two of them had gone to a neighborhood party instead, in their fancy clothes, and danced and drank. 

He took out his phone. It seemed to be functioning; the caprices bedeviling the system had relented, for the moment anyway. He keyed in his ex-wife’s number and got the serene intonation of her voicemail, always that faint, ambiguous accent, burnished by years spent speaking other languages, her lone affectation. 

“It’s me,” he said. “I’m still at Liddie’s. I haven’t been able to reach Serena.” He groped for what else to say. “I was thinking about Y2K and how we ended up at that New Year’s Eve party.” Details tumbled back, the two of them dancing to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and raising a glass to Serena at the stroke of midnight—her sixth birthday, January 1, 2000. He tried to focus his memory of that night, all the apocalyptic angst stirred up over a mere coding anomaly. Had they really thought the world was ending over that? “Listen, I’m sorry, Andy. I’m sorry I wasn’t…up to it. You know, to everything. To us. To you.” He felt that sudden reflux of grief rising again. “I killed a squirrel the other day. On my bike. Please don’t tell the girls about that. I don’t want them to be—upset.” 

Hanging up, he called Serena. “Hey honey,” he said after the beep. “I was just now remembering where your mother and I were the night you turned six. We were partying like it was 1999, you know?” He was trying to sound cheerful and failing badly. “Liddie and I have been clearing away Uncle Jason’s stuff. I know Jason was kind of eccentric, but he lived a good life in his own way. He was honorable. It’s crazy how you live your life and then there’s just all these artifacts left over. We haul it to the convenience station and chuck it all in. There’s a compactor. You press a red button.…” His voice trailed off. He pictured his brother-in-law’s belongings in the bin, the ram head of the compactor, inexorably mashing. “That’s what they call the dump down here, a ‘convenience station.’ I guess it’s supposed to be a convenience, unloading all your possessions. I never really thought about that until now. I’ve had a couple of Scotches. Anyway.” He paused, attempting to reboot his thoughts. But he couldn’t cope. He felt it rising again, the sadness; there was nothing he could think of telling her that wouldn’t make him choke up. 

“Call me,” he said, and clicked off. 

Putting his phone aside, he went out into the yard to turn off the generator, then lurched back to his room and sprawled on the bed. He had the sensation of watching himself from above, peering down on his own inert form, corpse-like in the dark, a gap in the curtains laying a thin shaft of moonlight across him, like a silver feather. Then he was back in himself, flailing among memories piled around him like leaves: a restaurant in a gilded mansion in Lisbon, where tuxedoed servers brought him and Miranda steak on a silver platter; his mother’s lively, errant piano playing, hands fluttering across the keyboard; a red-and-white bumper sticker that was plastered for years on their fridge, a relic of a birthday party, Lordy Lordy, Terry Langen is 40! A black-painted house in a neighboring town where he had told his girls that a werewolf lived, the Werewolf of Wethersfield. He and Liddie as kids, breakfasting at the hospital cafeteria, their father lifting Langen up to flick the switch on the doctor’s board to activate his name, and the thrill of hearing him paged on the PA system, “Dr. Langen, Dr. Edward Langen.” His mother on her hospice deathbed, delirious and rambling, The plane was taking off, she insisted, But where are we going?

Waiting for sleep, he thought again of his daughters. Let them be safe, he thought, Let them get through this and be all right. His heart pounded. He had neglected to take his nighttime pills. The lump in the mattress pressed against his hip. Delving, he retrieved the gun and placed it on the quilt beside him, bulky and featureless in the gray light.  

“I’m sorry,” he said aloud. “I’m sorry.” His voice rising like smoke, rising and dwindling, dissipating until it was nothing.

 

He woke just after dawn, still fully clothed, and rolled over, a crown of pain on his head. Next to him, not ten inches from his face, sat the Glock. To his relief, he discovered that he had not inserted the bullet cartridge. He stuffed the gun back under the mattress. The world had not ended. 

In the bathroom he emptied his bladder in a halting trickle, then scooped out his morning trio of pills and swallowed them, along with the two he hadn’t taken six hours ago. Somehow he had survived the night without his blood being thinned or his cholesterol restrained. A peek into his sister’s doorway disclosed a snoring, blanketed mound. One of her dogs looked up, glanced at Langen, and went back to sleep. 

Back in his room, he found his phone overflowing with texts and voicemails: the dam broken, pent-up communications spilling forth. He listened to a message from Miranda. “Trevor, are you alright? Serena is right here with me.” Hey there, Dad! his daughter shouted in the background, How’s your hangover? “We’re okay, and Chloe and Audrey are, too,” his ex-wife resumed, sounding unusually cheerful. “It’s shortly before midnight on Saturday, and you are almost certainly unconscious by now. Take care of yourself, please, and enjoy tomorrow. It sounds like it might be a good day.”  

Did it? He consulted his newsfeed and discovered that things had happened during the hours of his oblivion. The president was not dead, after all. Indeed, a newsclip showed him at sunrise outside the White House, standing at a dais in the Rose Garden. SWISS-AMERICAN CONSORTIUM ANNOUNCES H5N11 VACCINE, read the chyron. WORLD BREATHES SIGH OF RELIEF.

In the village, a bell was ringing.

 

Leaving his sister asleep, he changed into his biking gear and went for a ride. The night’s spree had left him feeling pallid and wormlike; he needed to undo the damage. 

Following each health setback over the past decade, Langen had managed to reconstitute himself. It was getting harder. After his heart episode, he had redoubled his fitness effort, but the bike-riding together with the statin medication triggered leg cramps in the night, and the weightlifting caused chronic elbow tendonitis. Physically he had reached that point where solving one problem meant causing others. We need to manage expectations, he used to counsel clients when a case headed south. He hadn’t expected, at his age, to be this far along in the managing-expectations phase of life.

The bells continued to clang. Langen rode down the stately bedraggled streets, golden-green sunlight pouring in from farmland beyond. The day would be warm. The hunkered-down somnolence in the village had given way to a stirring, and people were out in their yards. A teenage girl standing on a porch yelled Woo-hooo! as Langen rolled by. An elderly man sticking miniature American flags in his lawn waved to him.

He cycled out of the village and through woods and farmlands, fields of wheat fringed with purple wildflowers. Lines of a poem came to him, memorized in some long-ago English class, The river’s edge where I abide / With yellow jonquils by its side / And somewhere in its broad meander / Run roses wild and oleander. Jonquil, oleander: Langen knew flowers but not their names, and names but not their flowers. How had he managed to make it to sixty-two in that manner? He had never paid attention.

He passed the poultry plant and its red barns, links in a vast global supply chain that had been falling apart for months. He was reminded again of Casey, in Boulder, and her zeal for sustainable and local agriculture. Langen himself had never gotten on board. Yes, he could afford to spend $24 per pound for beef raised a half-hour from his house. But the rest of the world would keep needing the cheap chickens slaughtered in places like the one he was looking at now. Basic math dictated that if 98 percent of humanity was going to do something other than raise food, the 2 percent had to produce it on a stupefying scale. That machine had been created long ago, and Langen was a part of it, no matter the beef he bought. He had thrown his lot in with industrialization and diversification, with leisure time, surplus labor value, global travel, the NASDAQ, $200-million-dollar movies, wine flown in from France or Chile. And the giant red barns. Civilization was what it was. There was no going back.

And going forward? For years scientists had warned of mass extinctions. Whole species were vanishing; the past century’s die-off equaled that of the hundred before. A domino effect spread from every loss. Decades ago, passenger pigeons had died off—and when they did, certain seeds became abundant, causing other populations to explode, like the mice that carried Lyme disease. So it was with the viruses springing up from bats and birds and monkeys, from pangolins and snakes and other obscure hosts brought to food markets or thrust into human contact via the destruction of forests and the encroachment of cities. Everything was connected; the world had the complexity of a million chess games. You didn’t need a conspiracy in a weapons lab to account for mass calamities. Human heedlessness sufficed.

Each beautiful landscape Langen passed hid a panorama of abandonment and ruin. Empty stores and houses, boats rotting in the marsh; plantation landings, tidal creek gristmills and windmills, all gone; African American burial grounds, Confederate coastal sniper stands, the old hotels with their parties of drunken duck hunters, the fishing industry with its brawling surfmen and watermen, the ghosts of slaves who had worked tobacco and cotton plantations, and of the original Americans before them, the Accohannock and Machipongo who had given the town its name—all vanished, those who had brazenly done evil along with those who had mutely done good: the exploitation of land and of people, all the violence of the past plowed under, until all that remained was its poisonous residue, the Paris Green in the soil, the decay in the water, the migrant worker hounded and harassed. Langen cocked an ear, as if he might hear it, howling on the wind, the screams of the beaten and the dispossessed. 

Back in town he rode past the carnival grounds and playground. During the first pandemic, governments had merely closed the playgrounds, but this time they had dismantled them: Langen saw metal stubs where a climbing platform had been, and basketball backboards shorn of hoops. Swings on a swing set had been wrapped around the overhead stanchion, each seat jammed against the post in a bulky wad of chain. They looked as if they had been strangled. A child’s purple jacket was draped over the top of a nearby fence. Had it been there all these months, waiting?  

He took out his phone. Hangover being mitigated, he texted his girls and Miranda. Glad you are all safe and seeing some light at the end of our tunnel.

 

He thought about all that had happened in the past five years, the damage inflicted on so many lives. The schools and colleges that had closed, the malls and movie houses overgrown with weeds. The refrigerated trucks parked permanently outside hospitals, morgues on wheels. All the formerly routine events that had become obsolete, concerts and marathons, dinners out, baseball games. Everything that everyone had gotten used to. 

Back on his bike, he pedaled toward his sister’s, watching swaths of gray tarmac disappear beneath his front tire. He remembered a hillside street in his childhood in Framingham, a mile from his family’s house, which the town had experimentally paved with asphalt containing bits of recycled glass. At ten, headed home from Little League on his blue Schwinn ten-speed, Langen would detour four blocks out of his way just to take it, coasting down, mesmerized by the emeralds and garnets and diamonds glittering below—laughing for sheer exhilaration, as if he were headed for Oz.

Where had he gone wrong, he wondered now. Where had they all gone wrong?

 

He returned to find his sister waiting in the yard. “Did you hear the news?” she called as he rode in. Behind her, Langen saw champagne flutes on the picnic table. “And guess what?—Helga tested negative. It’s the middle of a plague, and all she had was a cold! Let’s drink to the common cold!” 

They sat down to enjoy mimosas and a coffee cake still warm from the oven. “I’m sorry about abandoning you last night,” his sister said. “You got to bed okay?” 

Langen nodded. “I don’t remember all of it. It was…strange.”

“You’re telling me. Strange was the least of it,” his sister said. Last year was beyond strange. But soon they would be able to start living again, start planning again. She had spent the last hour plotting her first painting trip to Crater Lake. “There are two islands there, Phantom Ship and Wizard. I’m going to drive out, take a boat to Phantom Ship, and sit and paint for one whole day. And you can finally go home. You can stop having to think about, you know, shooting people.” She laughed. “This is the first time since Jason died that I actually feel alive.” 

Langen pushed a facsimile of a smile onto his face. Taking out his phone, he checked his security cameras back home. It was raining in Connecticut. There was his patio with the stone wall he had built, the firepit and shed, everything in its place as he had left it. Life continued, in Connecticut and elsewhere; society would bury its dead and collect itself and soldier on. Until the next time. Because it would happen again. The collapse was already baked in, and what remained was a long dwindling. Dry faucets, no power to plug into: twice now they had had a taste of it. The next taste would be worse. Bones in a parched riverbed. A ring of fire in the sky. Whatever could be done to prevent it—to save them all—needed to have been done a long time ago.

Liddie looked at him. “You okay?” 

“I’m played out.” Langen put his phone down. “Maybe you can give me something to do. I need to be useful.” 

His sister gave him a look. “There’s always the Caribbean House.” 

It was the one project she had put off: cleaning out the moldy, rickety shack behind the garage, its name residual from a long-ago paint job now visible only in chipped and peeling remnants of sunshine-yellow clapboards and turquoise trim. Peeking in, Langen had seen a jumble of boxes and equipment. “There’s a gas grill back in there that Jason couldn’t figure out how to put together,” Liddie said. “I remember him swearing and swearing.”

The Caribbean House had been Jason’s dumping ground, but when Langen ventured in after breakfast, the first box he brought out contained more of their parents’ mementos. Rooting through, his sister opened a wedding album to a photo of the newlyweds, climbing into an MG amid a shower of thrown rice. Something fell out of the book—a tattered cloth napkin, embroidered with a symbol, (TL)2:. Ted Langen and Terry Lyle. The napkins had been a witty wedding present from their mother’s older brother Rick, a math teacher.  His sister chuckled. “Remember these? Can’t you just hear Dad? ‘The one funny thing in a life otherwise devoted to humorlessness.’”

Too Late, squared, Langen thought, and put the napkin aside; he wasn’t up for another trip down memory lane. “I’m gonna keep unloading,” he said. “Maybe I’ll set up that grill for later.” 

He ducked beneath the low doorway into the dimness of the shed. A thick odor swirled around him, earthy and dank, crypt-like. Death, he knew, would not exactly be an end. Action did not cease when your heart stopped. You continued to oxidize and decay, ripening like a banana. The energy animating your body got rerouted, your genes living on eventually in grass and trees and insects and worms. The temporary arrangement of atoms that is you—that was you—dispersed and given a new order. A reorganization, nothing more.  

If there was consolation in these thoughts, he couldn’t find it. In the cluttered dimness he spied a croquet set, perched on a rusted dog crate, and just past it the pieces of the grill that had defeated his brother-in-law, along with a propane canister. “I’m bringing out the barbecue!” he shouted. Bending, he retrieved the canister, then stood.  

It came out of nowhere, its force all the more stunning for its invisibility, a smiting whomp from above; he heard the noise—his own head, evidently—and his legs buckled and he staggered backward and plopped down on his ass, dropping the propane. 

His sister rushed in. “Oh, Trev, ouch! Are you okay? That sounded bad.”

Langen took stock. The canister sat next to him on its side, rocking idly on dusty floorboards. High above, he saw the low eave he had collided with.

 “Can you get up?” His sister pulled a lawn chair over and led him to it like an invalid. “I’ll get some ice for your head,” she said, and hurried off.  

Langen sat there, enveloped in a gauzy, wobbly sensation. In the shed he had blanked for a moment, yet he had also been outside himself, watching himself go down like a prizefighter. He squinted toward the trees at the end of the yard, swaying in the bright sun, gently, as if breathing. It was not unpleasant, this surge of weakness, his volition receding from him like water swirling down a drain. It felt, he thought, like letting go. 

 

Part I of this story appeared in our March 2022 issue.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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