The choices she makes will impact the lives of those around her irrevocably and linger in the reader’s memory in this marvelous first novel, written with authority, grace, and wisdom.
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Peter wedged his jacket into the hall closet beside the girls’ coats, their cheerful colors standing out against the tan of his jacket and the sober maroon of Ann’s coat, the same one she’d had for years. Boots stood on the floor below—Maddie’s mauve leopard print, Ann’s stubby brown ones, and a sleek black pair with designs stitched into the leather with white thread. Kate’s, probably. She’d always loved cowboy boots. He remembered her first pair, a bright cherry color, that she loved so much she insisted on wearing them everywhere, to the store, on playdates, even to bed. After she’d fallen asleep, either he or Ann would tiptoe in and gently ease the boots off her feet. But then, sure enough, the next morning she’d appear in the kitchen doorway, yawning, still in her nightgown and wearing those boots. How old had she been, two? Maybe three. She’d cried so when she finally outgrew them and Ann couldn’t find a pair in a larger size.
In the kitchen, Ann was tearing open a box of pasta and dumping its contents into a pot of bubbling water. She looked up as he approached, and she swept back a strand of hair from her face with the back of her hand. “It’s just sauce from a jar tonight.”
Peter thought of her homemade marinara, rich with chopped onion and garlic and bell peppers. He wondered if this hasty meal was a result of her working full- time or if this was just the way she and the girls ate now. Somehow, he’d thought all three would be frozen in time, doing the same things the same way they always had, just without him. “Smells good.”
“Get out the Parmesan, Maddie,” Ann said. “Kate, please set the table.” She glanced over her shoulder at Peter. “I think there’s a bottle of wine in the basement if you want to hunt it up.”
He found it easily enough, lying in the wine rack above the mini- refrigerator, just where he’d left it. Rubbing away the dust from the smooth glass shoulders of the bottle, he came back into the kitchen. Maddie was pouring cheese into a small bowl while Kate spread place mats across the kitchen table. Shazia stood by the sink, a water glass in her hand.
He winked at her and she smiled.
Ann stirred the pasta. “Do you have a lot of family in Cairo, Shazia?”
“All my family’s there,” Shazia replied. “My brother, my sister, my parents. My father comes from a large family. He’s one of ten children.”
“Ten!” Maddie said. “That’s practically a soccer team.”
Shazia smiled. “I have a lot of cousins.”
“I can imagine,” Ann said. “What does your father do?”
“He’s a medical doctor.”
“And you’re getting your PhD. He must be very proud of you.”
“Shazia went to Oxford.” Peter opened a drawer and began hunting for a corkscrew among the rattle of spoons and spatulas. “And she got her DVM in Cairo.”
“Impressive.” Ann brought out a loaf of bread and began to slice it. “So, you’re making the switch from veterinary medicine to research?” Peter knew what Ann was thinking. He’d made the same career jump. He remembered telling Ann he was entering research. He’d leaned across the table and clasped her hands in his. Later, she’d confided she thought he was about to propose. When that time did come, it was over a table, too, and there was candlelight and wine. He looked down at the bottle in his hands and got busy.
“I read one of Peter’s articles online,” Shazia said. “It was very persuasive. He said the best way to make a real difference in animal health was through research.”
“I like your phone,” Kate said. “It’s such a cool color.”
“Look how tiny the keypad is,” Shazia said, pulling it from her pocket.
“How are you finding Columbus?” Ann asked. “It must be quite a change from Oxford and Cairo.”
Shazia laughed. “In many ways, yes. But it’s actually been an easier adjustment than I expected. People have been very welcoming. There are lots of international students here.”
Peter held up the wine bottle and Shazia shook her head. She set down her water glass. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go lie down. I have a terrible headache.”
“Of course.” Ann wiped her hands on a dishtowel. “Let me show you your room and get you some towels. Peter, would you dish the girls up?”
She said it so casually. Dish the girls up. One of the shorthand expressions they used to use all the time. Surprising how nostalgic he felt hearing it again. Staying here was going to be more difficult than he’d realized. He watched Ann climb the stairs, her voice floating lightly down as she talked to Shazia, showing her around, welcoming her into what would be her home, too, for a little while.
After dinner, peter stood in the doorway of maddie’s room. Dishes clattered from the kitchen below as Ann cleaned up.
Shazia was in the guest room down the hall. He heard the soft murmur of her voice and guessed she was on the phone.
He put his hands on his hips. “You’re sure you brushed your teeth, Maddie?”
She giggled from where she lay in bed. “Yes, Daddy.”
“Because I’m not coming in if you haven’t.”
“I have. I swear.”
“All right then.” He reached down to turn on the nightlight, then straightened and switched off the overhead light. The room was bathed in a soft glow. He made his way to her bed and sat down beside her.
Maddie lay back against her pillow and looked up at him seriously. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and now he could see her features, the rounded curves of her cheeks, the sleepy slants of her eyes so like Ann’s. He’d noticed that she’d lost another tooth, a bottom one along the side. What was the Tooth Fairy bringing these days? The going rate used to be five bucks. Once they couldn’t rummage up enough bills between them to slide under seven- year- old Kate’s pillow. In triumph, he had produced a Lowe’s gift card. So much laughter. They should have saved some of it for the years to come.
Maddie said, “My teacher told us that birds are making people sick.”
“ Uh- huh.”
She frowned. “You’re around birds all the time.”
“Well, that’s true. But I wear a special suit. Did you know that?”
“No. It has a mask and goggles to keep infection from getting through and gloves to protect my hands. Sometimes I put on white overalls so I don’t spread the infection around.”
“And you wear that all the time?”
“Oh, yes. Whenever I go in the field. I keep all that stuff in my truck.”
“Do we need suits? Kate, Mommy, and me?”
“No. I don’t think so.” He brushed the hair back from her forehead.
“Now I lay me down to sleep.”
“I pray the Lord my soul to keep. May God’s love be with me through the night and wake me with the morning light.” She yawned and smiled up at him.
He kissed her cheek, so soft and warm. He’d missed this. “Good night, Maddie girl.”
He was at her doorway when she spoke up again.
“Are you and Mom still having a divorce?”
Poor Maddie. This turn of events must be so confusing for her. “Yes, sweetheart,” he said gently. “We are.”
Kate was a mound of blankets in the deep gloom of her bedroom, leaning up against her headboard, waiting for him. “Hey,” she said as he sat heavily on her bed.
He leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. “Hey. You ever clean this place?”
“Only when Mom threatens to take away my phone.”
She’d been dabbing on perfume again, its sweetness mingling with the fruity aroma of her shampoo and the mint of her toothpaste. He remembered the days when they had to plead with Kate to take a bath. When she was six, they had to stand over her to get her to brush her teeth.
“How long are you staying?” she asked.
“Maybe a few days. We’ll see.”
She bit her lower lip. “This is really serious, isn’t it?”
“People are dying, right?”
“Do you know anyone who’s died?”
He thought about that, then shook his head. “No one I know of, honey. Certainly no one here.”
“Are we going to die?”
He picked up her stuffed owl, limp with age, its beak hanging on by a few stitches. Where had this come from? He hadn’t seen it in years. She leaned forward, and he settled it behind her head. How his daughter could sleep without a pillow was beyond him, but she never complained of a sore neck. “I know things seem to have happened awfully fast. But scientists and governments have been working on this problem for a long time. We knew this was coming. We just didn’t know when. There are all sorts of plans and procedures in place to protect us.”
“Like closing school?”
“Exactly. Which is a very smart thing to do. If we can keep people from catching it from one another, we can give scientists time to work on a vaccine.”
She made a face. “That means a shot.”
If only it were that simple.
“Just think,” he said, rising. “No school tomorrow. You can IM to your heart’s content.”
“No one IMs anymore, Dad.”
“Ah.” These were the things he missed so painfully: the lost tooth, the backpack exchanged for a floppy bag, no more chocolate syrup stirred into milk. These next few days would be an unexpected gift, a chance to reconnect with his daughters. “Well, then you can text to your heart’s content.”
“Right. Tell Mom that.” She yawned and turned over. “Good night, Dad.”
That was another thing: Dad instead of Daddy. Maybe that was the thing he missed the most.
Ann was up when peter came into the kitchen early the next morning. She stood by the coffeemaker, her hand on the pot handle, waiting for the water to stop dripping. She wore her old blue terry robe with the sagging pockets, and her hair was mussed. She wasn’t one for predawn conversation, so he was surprised when she spoke. “Coffee?”
“Please.” He’d missed her coffee. Every pot he brewed was either bitter sludge or tasteless brown water.
“Really.” She handed him a mug, the one Kate had painted at a long- ago birthday party, the orange happy face faded now from so many washings. “Beth says that sofa’s a medieval torture device.” Ann’s sister had known what she was talking about. There was a certain pernicious spring that dug into his ribs whenever he turned over. “It’s like the Four Seasons compared to the one in my apartment. Speaking of which, I’m going to head in and grab some clothes.”
She nodded toward the television set playing quietly in the family room. “They’re reporting a few cases in Mexico now.”
Already? He lifted his mug so she couldn’t see his expression. Mexico was close. There were all sorts of migrations between Mexico and the United States, human and otherwise. So the latest modeling studies had been correct: restricting air travel had had little effect on containing the spread of the virus.
She poured coffee into a second mug and pushed the pot back onto the burner. “Nothing in Egypt, though. Did Shazia reach her parents?”
“Not that I know of.” He drank some coffee. No cream, of course, but he could make do with some milk.
“They must be so worried. Well, maybe they’ll talk today.” She sipped her coffee. “Hamburgers sound okay for dinner?”
“Sure.” He’d forgotten this, the way- too- early decision- making about what to have for dinner. He didn’t care what they ate. He never had, but Ann had always needed to regiment her day into segments. Errand time, laundry time, mealtime. It was how she’d coped as a stay- at- home mother. He wondered if things were different now that she’d gone back to work.
He reached into the refrigerator for the milk. “How are you for cash?”
“The ATMs were cleaned out by the time we got to the bank.”
“They should be up and running now. I’ll get water, too.”
“It was horrible last night.”
“Sounds like it.” At least she’d come away with only a bruised shin. It could have been worse.
“That shooting at Kroger?” She shook her head. “They said on the news that it was over a parking space.”
He couldn’t believe it, either. “Well, things should have calmed down.” He was here now. If anyone would be going to the store, it would be him. “Ann?”
She looked over.
“You know we can’t let the girls play with their friends.”
“For the whole three months, do you think?”
“We’ll have to take it a day at a time.”
“It’s going to be so hard on them. Especially Kate.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
She looked at him over the rim of her cup and nodded. traffic was fairly light until he neared the airport.
Then the highway jittered with cars, brake lights flashing irritably, no doubt filled with students trying desperately to get home. An airplane thundered across the sky, its lights twinkling red and white in the darkness. Peter broke free of the backup and headed for the side streets. Here, the neighborhoods were still half- asleep, just a few cars working their way down the road. People yawned at bus stops and slumped against walls, waiting for rides.
Up ahead, Tower West rose against the lavender sky, dark except for the bright band of light that glowed through the glass of the first- floor lobby windows. Cars packed the lot and overflowed onto the grassy spaces between the buildings. A uniformed man was just coming out of the building. The guard from last night. Peter recognized the weary set of his shoulders. He slowed and rolled down his window.
“We’re full up,” the man said in response to Peter’s question.
“We had to turn away a lot of kids. They just kept coming.” He shook his head, his gaze distant. “You plan for the worst. And then when the worst happens, you find out just how useless your planning was.”
Ten blocks away, a brick apartment building held down the corner, squat and square. The lobby doors stood open. The building manager was a stickler for keeping them locked. Peter stepped inside and listened. A television muttered in the apartment to his left.
Bikes leaned against the wall. Normal. He shrugged and closed the door behind him. Taking the stairs to the second floor, he unlocked the far door on the right. Here, too, everything appeared the same. The narrow bed in the corner, its covers pulled taut. The battered table that served as both nightstand and kitchen table, holding a gooseneck lamp, coffeepot, and alarm clock. The folding chair in the opposite corner beside the small bookcase. The framed photographs of the girls, Maddie’s duck painting taped to the wall. He’d left the drapes half- open. Pale sun streamed across the worn carpet. He filled his suitcase and slung some things into a duffel bag. He unplugged the television and DVD player, and drew the curtains shut. He stood and stared around at the small space, his home for more than a year.
Out in the hallway, a man and a woman trooped up the stairs toward him. He recognized them as his next- door neighbors, both college students. Peter had learned to work late on weekend nights to avoid the inevitable parties and to close his ears to their earlymorning lovemaking. They pressed themselves against the wall to let Peter and his bags squeeze past.
“Take care,” the woman said.
First time she’d ever spoken to him. It sounded so final. Peter nodded. “You too.”
She continued up the stairs, the man’s arm around her shoulders. The streets had perked up during his brief absence. The coffee shop on the corner was doing a brisk business. People thronged the patio and overflowed onto the sidewalk, chatting as they waited for their morning brew. People swooped past on bikes. Others walked hand in hand down the sidewalks. Downtown was beginning to have a carnival air about it, everyone hanging out, enjoying the unexpected day off from school and work.
Peter shook his head and loaded his bags into the back of the pickup.
He drove by playgrounds that an hour before had been empty. Kids ran everywhere, calling out to one another. Their parents stood in idle clusters, rocking strollers and no doubt negotiating how to manage this day and all the suddenly school- free days to follow. Movie theaters would be swamped. So would the mall, fastfood restaurants, the library, and rec center, anyplace that welcomed kids. A mistake.
This wasn’t the time for celebration. These people shouldn’t be standing out here, laughing, gossiping. He considered stopping, rolling down his window, and telling them to go home. But of course he didn’t. They wouldn’t listen. They’d think he was a madman. “listen to this.” shazia sat on the floor in the corner of the den, laptop balanced on her knees, her hair loose about her shoulders. She was playing with her barrette, snapping and unsnapping it. “RNL is working on a vaccine.”
“Who isn’t?” Peter looked back to his computer screen and typed a few commands. He had to download his lectures for the week and then post the exam. It was all master’s- level work. At that point, students could be expected to follow the honor system. “But it looks like they may have something. They’ve already moved on to Phase Two of clinical trials.”
Peter swiveled in his chair to look at her. “Really?”
She nodded. “A Dr. Liederman’s leading it.”
“You know him?”
“My old doctoral advisor. I haven’t talked to him in months.” Which had been a worry. Over the course of the past year, Liederman had stopped attending conferences and returning phone calls. Peter had thought the old fellow was slowing down, but now it seemed he had simply diverted his energies elsewhere. “I’ve been after him for years to write a memoir about the ’78 influenza outbreak. We came that close to a full- blown pandemic.” He held up his thumb and forefinger pinched together.
She had probably never even heard about it. Few people had. “You should hear him talk about it. That guy could send shivers down your spine.”
But talk was all Liederman would do. How many times had he grumbled, “I can’t write a book, Brooks. That’s your job.” Peter leaned back in his chair. “He gave me his notes a while ago. Told me to take a crack at putting together a book. Maybe you could help me organize the material.”
“I’d like that.”
He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, and he looked over to see Ann standing in the doorway of the den. “Want to light the grill?”
Shazia set down her laptop. “I’ll help.”
“Stay put.” Peter waved his hand. “Tonight I’m cooking.” Shazia looked at him. “That’ll be nice.”
He knew what she was thinking. What kind of dish could she expect from a guy who ate from vending machines and take-out restaurants?
Peter walked beside Ann down the hall. “I might have found Shazia a place. The school’s going to open up Baldwin Hall. I persuaded them to take her even if she’s not on the official list.”
“It’s too bad she won’t be with her roommate.”
“There’ll be other international students there. She’ll know someone.”
Maddie sprawled on her belly in front of the television set. He had no idea what shows were her favorites these days. He’d never seen this particular one before, something involving preteen girls arguing with a man in a hotel uniform. He stopped beside the couch where Kate sat, laptop propped before her. His old computer, outdated but powerful enough for her to play around on. “Who are you talking to?”
She answered without looking up. “Michele. Claire. John. Andrea. Scooter.”
He looked over at Ann. “John? Scooter?” These weren’t names he’d heard before. What kind of name was Scooter? He couldn’t even tell what gender it belonged to.
“John is Michele’s boyfriend.” Ann handed him a platter of hamburger patties. “And Scooter’s a boy in one of Kate’s classes.”
Peter looked down at Kate. Pink blossomed across her cheekbones as she stared at her computer screen. He glanced back at Ann. She was frowning slightly. Then she shook her head. Don’t say anything, she was telegraphing, and he nodded.
So soon. He slid open the screen door and stepped out onto the patio. Too soon. Kate had just turned thirteen. He looked back through the glass at his daughter cross- legged on the sofa, coltish, long brown hair falling forward. She tapped gracefully at the keyboard, her hands all smooth motion, sitting back and laughing. The sight of it made his heart twist.
He turned the dial and was glad to see the answering flame. He hadn’t thought to check the propane level. He shoveled the burgers onto the grill and set down the empty platter.
It was a crisp evening, cold enough to cloud his breath into soft puffs. Streetlights burned up and down the dark sidewalks. He’d missed the sunset.
A dark SUV glided past. The driver lifted his hand in greeting. It was that doctor who lived beside the Guarnieris, what was his name? Singh. That was it. He’d moved into the neighborhood a few months before Peter moved out. They used to nod politely at each other as they crisscrossed their lawns with mowers. The vehicle slowed in front of the driveway and Peter saw a figure step in front of the headlights, followed by a smaller, shaggier shape.
Walter Finn and his dog. The animal was genial enough, but you couldn’t say the same about the man. Finn was forever circulating petitions against one thing or another: too many weeds in a neighbor’s yard, bikes left scattered across sidewalks, snow going unshoveled, all the petty grievances that sprang up in a suburban community, which most people ignored but onto which Finn fastened greedy claws.
Peter stabbed at the burgers and flipped them over.
The dog tugged at his leash, wanting to come over and investigate the meat he was cooking. Finn lifted his head and spotted Peter standing conspicuously against the bright light shining from the kitchen behind him. Peter braced himself for another round of what’s- this- neighborhood- coming- to, but Finn jerked the leash instead and tugged the dog away.
“Heel, Barney,” he ordered, and the dog shambled over to check out who’d been visiting the tree on the far corner.
Peter had been afforded a reprieve. Finn must have figured out he wasn’t the go- to guy of the house any longer. Turning back to the grill, he saw Smith standing at his own grill just across the yard. “Dude,” Smith said. “Good to see you.”
“Been a while.”
“Crazy times, huh? Libby sent me out for water today, but all I could find was that fizzy designer stuff.”
“I got lucky at a gas station on Franz. A delivery truck was just unloading when I pulled up. We’ve got extra you can have.”
“I’ll take you up on that. Libby’s been a wreck about it.”
They talked back and forth across their patios. Would the NFL adjust to a few missed games? How much farther would the Dow Jones skid before recovering? Was there any end in sight to the price of gas? Libby came out, the baby in her arms, and handed Smith a platter.
“Hey,” Peter said.
“Hello,” she said coolly.
Well, at least she wasn’t pretending he was invisible. This was progress. Peter pushed his luck. “Jacob’s gotten big.” Last time he’d seen the baby, he’d been cradled easily in one arm. Now the kid straddled Libby’s hip, reaching forward with one plump hand for the piece of bun Smith held out.
Smith said, “Gonna grow up to be a linebacker, just like his old man.”
The coals glowed softly. The smell of cooked meat rose. Peter pressed the spatula beneath the hamburgers and lifted them onto a plate. Picking up the platter, he dialed off the heat.
“Hey,” Smith said. “I got an idea. Why don’t you guys come over?”
An old tradition, combining their cookouts onto one patio or dining room.
“Smith,” Libby said.
“Jeez, Libby. Come on. If Ann’s cool with it—”
“Actually,” Peter said, “Libby’s right. We should probably be keeping our distance.”
“Christ.” Smith’s voice came to him out of the darkness. “Right. I guess I saw something about that on the news. You really think it’ll do any good?”
“It’s all we can do.”
The clatter of a grill lid lowered into place. “Well, good to see you, Peter.”
Peter looked around at all the houses, large, dark squares rising out of the ground, windows glowing bright, islands separated by lawns and closed doors. The empty patios, the tables with the chairs stacked and the umbrellas furled. No one else was out enjoying the spate of clear weather.
He looked back at his own house. Through the glass he saw into the kitchen—Ann reaching down a stack of plates from the cabinet, Maddie collecting her drawing materials, Kate pouring a glass of milk. It all appeared normal, but it wasn’t. Everything had changed.