I have probably failed as a father, thinks Marshall, as he pumps gas and watches through the windshield as his daughter sucks on a cigarette while apparently thinking herself out of sight.
How did she get so good at it, so fast, he wonders, and keeps watching her manic hand-to-mouth motion. This formerly carefree and untroubled child whose single joy in life a decade prior was the perfect underdog: to be pushed so high on a tree swing that she’d “gulp her stomach” on the way back down. One time she actually threw up, blanketing Marshall’s left side with tart vomit. Probably to make up for all the spitting-up he’d missed when she was an infant, seeing how Remi didn’t come into his life until she was just shy of three.
He can’t stop staring at this new girl, Remi 2.0, and the fresh gruesomeness—like seeing a heart beating on the outside of the body, Marshall thinks, and can’t look away, as Remi emits another hot plume into the already hot summer miasma around her, then glances over a shoulder and locks eyes with him. In this instant they both realize it is the first time he’s actually seen her in the act, not just in photos with friends.
She steps farther away then, shoulders hunched, and takes another skittish drag as the pump clicks to a stop in Marshall’s gloved hand. $21.18. Gas so cheap now. He squeezes another eighty-two cents in before the pump clicks off again, then holsters the nozzle, locks the cap, and flips the door shut.
“You ready?” he calls over to Remi, like nothing has changed. Because it hasn’t.
Marshall peels the rubber glove off his pumping hand and tosses it, inside-out, into the overflowing trash can centered between pumps. Remi nods, takes another hasty drag, bends to put the half-cigarette out on the pavement, then tucks it back into the pack she keeps in her front left pocket.
Marshall starts the truck, and the A/C blows hot as balls. He checks the gauge to make sure it’s pushing past “F,” then confirms Rocket is still in the back seat, curled into a circle on his blanket, tongue out. When’s the last time he took a piss? He can go another couple hours, Marshall concludes, until Remi asks to stop again for a smoke or a pee or lord knows what at this point.
Remi climbs in then, slamming the door behind her, and he can smell the smoke on her hair, in her sweat. It is not a pleasant scent. He squirts a dime-sized dab of sanitizer into Remi’s palm and then his own, and they sit there rubbing hands together until the phantom moisture evaporates.
Remi reaches back and clicks the seatbelt across her body. Marshall does the same. Safety what, well third? he thinks to himself, but knows not to say.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
“I think I’m going to take another nap,” Remi says, dead-faced, then buries a white pod deep into each ear. Taps and flicks her phone.
Back on the highway the white dashes on the asphalt tick by, faster and faster, until they approximate a solid blurred line. Marshall sets the cruise at seventy-nine, nine over the limit.
“Remi?” he says after about a mile. Then louder, “Remi?”
Nothing. So he turns on the radio.
Infections are up. Deaths are down. Elsewhere, infections are down, and deaths are up. The economy is up, in that it isn’t going down as fast as it was. So, overall, it’s down, but the recent uptick is encouraging to some. Others are less encouraged. It’s mostly old people, but more and more young people too. School is impossible. School is indispensable, but only for the very young. Also for the older young, but only if for fewer days per week. The less young are super-spreaders. The very young are super-spreaders, too, but not as many of them. Except in some environments, more of the very young are super-spreaders than the less young. Something about the geometry of their throats. There are many Black people (and some white people) in masks, without guns, marching toward a carving in a mountainside. There are white people (and no Black people) without masks, with many guns and clad in tactical vests, forming a barricade around the carving in the mountain. The president’s associates are afraid of prison, because infections are going up. Infections are going up more in prisons than anywhere. Anywhere but nursing homes (where numbers are finally going down). And hospitals, where numbers are up again. The president’s child will go to school. It won’t be in-person, but it could be in-person at a later date. There is not enough food for some in the country. For others there is too much food, and a farmer is burying a million pounds of onions underground, while another farmer dumps thousands of gallons of fresh milk into a lagoon as his cows graze nearby. Beard-trimming carries too high of a risk, but the risk inherent in haircuts and root canals is relatively low. In states where numbers are high, that risk can go up, or it can go down, depending on the governor. The number of essential workers is going up, while some people question the limits of “essential,” so the number of essential workers is going back down, as economists await the next report on unemployment.
The night before, at the checkpoint on the state line, the trooper had stabbed his flashlight beam into the car, interrogating every surface. “What’s your business?” the officer asked through doubled masks and a clear face shield.
“Sorry, officer?” Marshall said through his own mask, with both hands visibly gripping the steering wheel.
“Who is this woman to you?” He flicked the beam across Remi’s face, and she startled.
Woman? “She’s my daughter.”
“Is this true,” he said to Remi, who was just waking up.
“What?” she mumbled. “Where are we?”
“Is this your father?” the officer asked louder, lasering his beam across the back seat into Marshall’s duffel bag, Remi’s overflowing backpack, the hard top of the plastic ice chest with two cup holders set into it. The dog’s retinas glowed green in the light.
“Yeah, my stepdad,” Remi said, sliding up in her seat, suddenly respectful.
Silence as the officer stared back and forth between Marshall and Remi, for much longer than was comfortable for either.
Finally: “Okay, well, I can’t let you cross the border until you’ve quarantined for fourteen days,” the officer said, matter of fact.
“But we live there,” Marshall said, pointing through the windshield across the border.
“And you’re licensed in another state,” the officer said. “So, you’re not getting in without a certified quarantine.”
“I have to get back to take care of my other daughter. My wife’s already in quarantine because she was exposed at the hospital where she works.”
“Shouldn’t have left the state, then.”
Marshall sighed, his moist breath tickling his beard beneath the mask.
“You can make a U-turn over there,” the officer said, tracing a little circle on the pavement with his flashlight. He gestured to the car behind to pull forward.
Marshall rolled up the window, pulled down his mask, and began a meticulous U-turn. He wanted to avoid looking at Remi for as long as possible. Like when she used to fall as a toddler, and he’d dodge eye contact, try not to make a big deal unless she started crying on her own. Mostly she wouldn’t.
“What the fuck are we going to do now?” Remi asked, as soon as the cop was in the rearview.
“No need to worry—I’ll figure it out,” Marshall said.
“How are you going to figure it out?” she asked, her pitch climbing proportionally with her desire for a cigarette, Marshall could only assume. “We can’t go forward, we can’t go back. There’s literally nowhere to go.”
He pulled over to the shoulder, put the truck in park, and turned to her, real calm and sensitive but also, like, honest and firm and realistic, like they suggested at the neo-masculinity retreat he went to just before the virus came. You must locate and empower your “inner hero” before you can even think about rescuing anybody else.
“Rem, I know this is scary, and you have every right to your feelings,” he began, enunciating each word. “But I promise, I’ve got this, okay? Lots of people are in the same position we are. We’re going to figure it out, together, as humans, but also individually.” He ended with a sincere hand on her shoulder, for punctuation.
“I think I’m going to pass out,” Remi said, the slick coming across her eyes again, kind of like a shark before it bites something, Marshall realized as it was happening. She reached down to her purse and tapped the cap of the pill bottle in the side pocket.
“Always there if we need it,” Marshall said, “but I don’t think you need one right now.” He stared at her until her breathing steadied.
“Why was that cop being that way?”
“Can’t be too careful about who’s got it, I guess,” Marshall said.
“Asking if you’re my dad.”
“Who knows. Older guy, younger girl. Guess you never can tell—you know, trafficking or whatever,” Marshall said, and trailed off. Remi appeared sufficiently distracted by the concept of women as chattel since, well, caveman times, so he pulled up the map on the phone, threw the truck in gear, and joined the procession of red blips floating in the darkness, away from the border.
The map app keeps goading him toward it, but Marshall doesn’t want to get back on the interstate. He believes they will have more luck crossing the border on a smaller highway to the south. Remi is still asleep. She sleeps a lot, Marshall thinks, and wonders if this is a problem, although immediately decides it can go on the list of things that can be addressed at a later time. He makes a note to mention it to Jamie when all this is over and there are occasions for the customary husband-wife exchanges again.
He has been driving all night since the checkpoint, and he probably could use a break, but they have to keep going, because Jamie is early in her quarantine, and a fourteen-year-old, even their perfect one, can be left alone in a house for only so long before things turn.
“Look at all these wildflowers,” Marshall says, even though he knows Remi can’t hear. So many bright colors pushing up against each other, he had to say it aloud.
Maybe ten miles past the wildflowers, Marshall catches the flicker of a jet passing between two hunks of impossibly white cumulus clouds. He pictures the passengers up there in their masks, torsos jostling and swaying with every bump and skip of their ascent. Together, but separated into rows with seats extracted like so many rotten teeth from a jaw.
At the second checkpoint on the state route, there are not as many cars lined up as the night before, the orange biohazard signs for some reason less ominous in the day. Fewer troopers, too. But there are spike strips placed across the roadway in both directions.
Marshall taps Remi on the shoulder. “Sit up,” he says as they approach the young-looking officer waving them in, this one in a single mask with no face shield. He has U.S. flag patches sewn on both shoulders of his uniform, the one on his right arm facing backwards so that the stars against the blue field don’t look like they are retreating.
“Out-of-state? We’re going to need you to turn around,” the young officer says, before Marshall can get his mask on and the window rolled all the way down.
“We live here,” Marshall says, hooking the elastic around both ears, one of which gets bent in the process. He doesn’t bother fixing it.
“I’m sorry, sir. We need to see in-state plates and ID.”
“We haven’t had a chance to switch registration over yet,” Marshall tries.
“Just the guidelines, sir.”
“But the guidelines change every day. Here, can I show you my utility bill?” Marshall asks, thrusting his phone into the officer’s sight line.
The officer bends slightly at the waist. “Yeah, I can see. But we have to go by state-issued ID and registration. No exceptions.”
It seems to Marshall like the officer might want to relent, like his eyes stay flinty up top for his colleagues’ sakes, while his mouth relaxes into a gentle smile where nobody else can see under the mask.
“Please,” Marshall says, “I have to get back to take care of my daughter—my other daughter. The DMV hasn’t been open in months.”
The officer looks side to side and steps back, as another officer picks up a spike strip and waves through the car in front of them. When that officer looks at this (possibly kind and vacillating) officer, he points his index finger to the sky, tracing a tight circle. The universal sign for “turn it around,” or “keep moving.” Or perhaps, “bug out.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the officer says to Marshall with renewed authority and reaches into the satchel on the side of his body that doesn’t have an assault rifle resting against it. He pulls out a sheet of paper and hands it to Marshall through the window. “Lotsa lodging options nearby, though.”
Marshall takes the sheet with all the words on it, but the only two characters he absorbs are the numbers 1 and 4, as in fourteen fucking days. “Well,” Marshall says.
“Good luck, Miss,” the officer says in Remi’s direction, leaning in and tapping the visor on his helmet. In the usual fog, she scarcely perceives the extra attention. Or maybe she does, and that’s just how she manages, Marshall thinks. What do I know from being pretty and nineteen?
At the third hotel on the approved quarantine list, the masked-up front desk attendant gestures to the hand sanitizer as soon as they walk in from the heat, and Marshall and Remi take a pump each. Rocket plops on the social-distance circle on the floor, panting.
“One room, two weeks?” the clerk asks. He seems like the oldest son of a large family.
“With a dog,” Marshall says, working his hands together.
The clerk peeks over the computer monitor. “That’s going to be fifty extra a night, nonrefundable cleaning fee.”
“Is there no way to waive that?” Marshall asks, his mask swallowing the words.
“Excuse me, sir?” the clerk says, pointing to an ear.
“I said, I was recently furloughed, and obviously, no offense, but this isn’t exactly our dream vacation,” Marshall says, louder now, as two masked teenagers shuffle into the lobby through the sliding doors and head toward the elevators. “Is there no way to waive the pet fee? I mean, it’s the same dog for two weeks.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Not for a dog that big. The fee’s twenty-five for a little one, you know, the kind the people carry in bags?”
Marshall gives up, hovers his phone over the keypad, and it beeps, taking money he doesn’t have. Sure, Jamie’s unlikely to lose her job, but the reality of a one-income household is unsettling, to say the least. Untenable, to say the most.
Marshall glances back and notices a line has suddenly formed behind them through the lobby, some parties hewing closely to the marks on the floor, others spilling into the no-man’s land of open space on the newly buffed floor.
“Okay, that’s two adults, one dog,” the clerk says to himself as he pecks on the keyboard. “One king-sized bed, fourteen nights—”
“Two beds,” Marshall says, glancing back at the next guy, who’s in khaki shorts and loafers with no socks, one toddler asleep in his arms, a second kid holding her mom’s hand behind him. Everybody road-weary.
“Two full-sized beds,” the clerk says, stealing a glance at Remi while adding a few more strokes on the keyboard. His nose begins to poke out over his slipping mask. “These are your contactless keys. Will two be enough?”
Marshall nods, pocketing the little envelope.
“Wi-fi password is your last name and room number. And you’ll need to check in with the nurse in room 101 between nine and eleven every morning. They’ll stamp your cards there, if everything looks good.”
Everything looks real good, Marshall thinks, the clerk’s face now obscured by a blinding halogen glare in the clear plastic barrier. Remi shifts her weight onto the opposite hip.
The clerk’s recitation continues. “We can’t serve breakfast, of course, but there will be bags to grab and go in the mornings. Food deliveries are fine, but we ask that you come down to the lobby to retrieve them . . . Oh, of course masks on at all times in common spaces, including the elevators and hallways. And, I think that should be everything. Enjoy your stay.”
On the third floor, they arrive at room 320, home for the next two weeks, located, Marshall notices, adjacent to the groaning elevator shaft. A sash that reads sanitized! sanitized! sanitized! seals the doorjamb, like room 320 thinks it has a chance of winning Miss America. It doesn’t, Marshall realizes as he tears through, holding the heavy door for Remi and Rocket to enter. He hands Remi a bottle of soap and directs her to wash her hands in the bathroom, and then Marshall immediately sets about wiping down every knob, switch, button, and surface with antibacterial wipes.
When she returns from the bathroom (in less than the requisite twenty seconds, Marshall notes, though not aloud), Remi stands helplessly watching as he proceeds to unload the contents of the cooler into the mini-fridge hidden in the cabinet beneath the flat-screen tv. Beads of sweat on his brow. Suddenly he realizes he’s forgotten to sterilize the fridge handle first, so he plucks another wipe and swabs the entire façade of the fridge, and then goes to wash his hands in the bathroom sink while counting to thirty, as if to make up for Remi’s ten-second wash. One of the can lights overhead is burnt out, half the bathroom dim.
When he returns to the main room, Remi is standing stock still, as though awaiting liberation in a game of freeze tag, while Rocket pants audibly at her side. Marshall wipes the thermostat one more time, then clicks the A/C down to sixty-seven, making one last point-by-point visual sweep of the room before stripping comforters off the beds and kicking them under the box springs. The white sheets seem clean, if stiff. Remi is still waiting, and only when he nods at her does she hop onto the bed closest to the bathroom, Rocket following her up.
“Off,” she shouts, out of habit.
“Who cares, I’m paying a seven-hundred-dollar cleaning fee,” Marshall says.
Remi chuckles in that nervous way she does, almost a hiccup.
“I’m going to check in with Mom and then walk him,” he says, throwing open the curtains on the view of the hotel entrance. “You want to come? Stretch your legs a little, see the world outside the car?”
“I’m good,” Remi says, stacking pillows against the headboard.
LOOK OUTSIDE! he screams.
But only in his head. “I’m good” unleashes a torrent inside; he won’t call it “anger” or worse, “disappointment,” of course, because that’s part of the problem. He just wants her to want to do something—anything—that might help her situation. He takes a deep breath, pulls out his phone, rubs it down with another antibacterial wipe, goes and washes his hands again (from handling the phone), then dials his wife.
Jamie answers before a full ring, her lovely face and capable air filling the screen from top to bottom. The sight is fortifying, before he remembers where she is and why. “Hey guys, how’s it going?” she says chirpily, and obviously, for Remi’s sake.
Marshall tilts the phone so that Remi is visible on-screen over his shoulder.
“Hi, pretty girl. How are you feeling?” Jamie asks.
“Fine,” Remi says. “Every time you guys ask me that, though, it makes it worse.”
“Just concerned about you, hon,” Jamie says with nary a tinge of perturbance.
Or, thinks Marshall: Hey mom, how are you doing, I’m worried about you, I hope you’re not sick, please take care of yourself, I love you, I’ll see you soon.
Jamie flips open her laptop, and Marshall swivels the phone back on himself, stares into Jamie’s exhausted eyes. He wants to say things that he cannot with Remi so near.
He settles on: “How’s it going over there?”
“I’m fine,” Jamie says. “Really, it’s fine. Just an abundance of caution.”
He scans the background around Jamie, the particulars of the neighbors’ guesthouse in which she has been isolating. The chestnut bookshelves are empty, except for a stack of edge-worn board games and disconnected stereo speakers. A child’s yellowed painting framed on the wall.
“So, it looks like we’re going to be here two weeks,” he says.
“Are you really okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, just overwhelmed,” she says, flat. “Gwen died.”
“What—I thought she was extubated?”
“She crashed. They had to put it right back in.”
Marshall thinks back to the last time he saw their neighbor Gwen—it’s got to be just a few weeks, beeping from her scooter on the sidewalk, delivering cucumbers from her garden, gloved and masked. She’d hung them in a plastic bag on one of the fence pickets, and motored away with one arm thrust into the air, flashing a peace sign.
Jamie arranges her phone on a counter and begins fixing something in the cramped kitchenette.
“Goddamn, that’s terrible,” Marshall says.
He remembers the first time Jamie came home from a shift with blood-splatter on her shoes—maybe a year or two out of nursing school. It was from a chest tube, rammed between two ribs to save someone’s life. Gunshot victim. Or maybe it was a car accident; he couldn’t recall. She had told him it happened all the time, but that she always tries to get on the patient’s other side when the blood spills to the floor. This one had caught her off guard.
Jamie folds some lettuce into her mouth, chews.
“You getting enough groceries?” Marshall asks her.
“More than I need. Lorraine’s doing two drop-offs a day, one for me here, and one at the house for Trystan.”
She goes silent.
“I’m sorry,” Marshall says after a moment.
“About what?” Jamie says.
“Just—losing the job, everything,” he says.
Jamie pops some more lettuce in her mouth. “It is what it is.”
“I know it’s been—”
“I’m just grateful one of us could go get her,” she says.
“Got a lot of time to think on the road,” he says then.
“Later,” she says, nodding her head at the corner of the screen.
“I guess I should get this dog out for a walk,” Marshall says.
“Keep me posted on how she’s doing,” Jamie says. “Stay safe. Love you guys.”
“Love you too,” he says, but she disconnects.
Marshall picks up the leash, and Rocket leaps off the bed, runs a circle.
“Wait,” Remi says, and digs in her pocket to produce the pack of cigarettes. She smiles sheepishly and proceeds to shake the carton the way Marshall’s dad used to rattle ice around an empty bourbon glass, the nearest female family member required to replenish within seconds, or risk his wrath.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marshall asks, looking for the room-key card.
“If you’re going to smoke those things, the least you can do is buy them yourself.”
“I can’t,” she says.
He looks at her. She holds the stare.
“I told you, I cut way down,” she says, “but now is not when I should be trying to quit.”
“Now is exactly when you should be trying to quit.”
She (actually) rolls her eyes and sighs. “Please.”
“You have a fake ID, do you not?”
“It only works at certain gas stations by my apartment,” she says, just a flicker of awareness of how this sounds. Her expression dulls. “I just don’t think I can go out there right now. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Fine,” Marshall says, sharp. “But at some point you’re going to need to start doing some things for yourself—”
“I know,” she says, bending back into her screen.
But do you? he thinks, very un-hero-like, and slips the mask loops around his ears, pockets a key card. “Why are you blowing all that money on tuition when she’s just going to end up married?” Marshall’s father had said when Remi got into college. “She’s not even your real kid.”
Marshall lets the door slam behind him, tugs Rocket toward the elevator bank.
After he scoops and tosses two bags of dogshit, Marshall heads in the direction of a convenience store that the map shows just a few blocks away. Might as well get some things for the room, he figures, but the rationalization doesn’t obscure the main event: buying cigarettes for the first time in something like twenty years. For his daughter. Whom he has fathered for almost all of those years.
He turns a corner onto an old commercial block that seems as though it was recently in the process of coming back to life. Now, most of the storefront windows are boarded up, the rest broken, and everything overlain with graffiti: stolen land. decolonize. fuck 12.
eat my dick, mayor b—.
Two men—one older, one middle-aged, neither of whom actually wrote any of these words—scrub the red and black paint on the side of a multinational bank branch. They spray and spray, rub and rub the granite with furry gray squeegees, but the colors merely dribble down the wall. Every letter persisting. Opposite the men, a corner gourmet market announces black-owned on its plywood. Somebody has swept all the broken shards from their windows into a tidy mound beneath the writing.
“What k-kind of dog is that?” one of the cleaners, the middle-aged one, asks through his filtered mask as Marshall passes.
“Pit bull mix,” Marshall says, slowing.
“He b-b—. . . He bite?”
“Nah,” Marshall says. “You want to pet him?”
“No,” the man says. “But he sure is a p-pretty color.”
Marshall smiles. “Stay safe.”
The man waves and goes back to scrubbing a two-foot red letter “S.”
On the next block, a small pack of men and one woman fast-walk on a diagonal across the street, the tell-tale bounce in their steps. Wet, wiry, never still. A blue sedan with shiny rims is parked askew with its two right wheels up on the curb, bass rattling the chassis. A wide man in a backwards baseball cap has a foot propped on the bumper, a blue bandana around his neck. He counts a gargantuan bundle of cash in his fleshy hands, right there in front of Marshall and god and everybody. He casually glances up and raises an eyebrow, but Marshall looks away before anything is communicated, on purpose or inadvertently. As though there are still accidents.
The convenience store is boarded up, so Marshall goes to the pharmacy across the street, all of its doors and windows covered with plywood except one, at which a security guard stands, yelling into a phone through his mask, “I don’t care what your mother thinks it looks like.” He waves Marshall in, pays no mind to the dog.
Marshall picks up a wire basket, cleans the handles with the travel wipes he keeps in his pocket. He grabs some orange juice, tortilla chips, oat cereal, and two bottles of iced coffee for the morning. Just for kicks he cruises by the cleaning aisle, but the shelves are empty. Except a few bottles of the natural stuff, which doesn’t really kill anything.
Remi had the first episode that Marshall witnessed for himself in the cleaning supplies aisle at the grocery around the corner from her apartment. She had called the week before and said to Jamie on the phone, “I’m afraid it’s never going to stop.” Then a text on Marshall’s phone from an unknown number: She hasn’t come out of her room for five days. I don’t know what else to do. It turned out to be Remi’s roommate.
Marshall loaded up the truck, threw Rocket in the back, kissed Trystan goodbye while Jamie was at the hospital on a shift, and then drove fifteen hours straight to Remi’s apartment in the city.
By the third day of Marshall feeding and caring for Remi, and phoning essentially every therapist in town in hopes of securing a remote appointment for her, she finally agreed to leave the building. They went to the grocery so she could pick out a few things she might consider eating. On the short walk over, she stuck close to his side, closer than she had perhaps since she was still in grade school and savagely in love with her stepfather.
Inside the store, Marshall asked Remi three times, “Is it okay if I run to another aisle real quick?”
A final perturbed “It’s fine” convinced Marshall he could momentarily take leave while Remi picked out a detergent so they could clean her linens and clothes, to bring back a semblance of order to her disheveled room. Marshall dashed through the store like he was in a cooking competition, amassing ingredients for his signature omelets that Remi always used to devour.
But when he turned the corner onto the aisle where he’d left her, Remi was flat on the linoleum, mask pulled down, cheek pressed to the cold floor, hugging herself. “Something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong,” she kept saying.
Marshall dropped what he was carrying—half a dozen eggs breaking—and bolted to her, gathering all of Remi’s frailness onto his lap and holding her. He knew she was correct about something being wrong, because she let him do this. A couple peeked over their bandanas from the end of the aisle, but nobody wanted to get close enough to help.
“It’s okay, I’ve got you,” Marshall murmured quietly and calmly and very much like the hero—while inside it was wall-to-wall What the fuck do I do now? He petted her damp hair as she shook and hyperventilated.
“Something’s wrong,” she howled again.
And then somebody, probably a stock-boy—a masked angel among newly winged angels now walking among us—came down the aisle toward them, all respect and compassion: “Would you like me to call an ambulance?”
“Remi?” Marshall said.
“Something’s wrong,” she said again, two fingers probing deep into her neck to check for a pulse. “It feels like I’m dying.”
Marshall points to a gold hard-pack on the top row of the cigarette display behind the counter, and it takes the clerk, swathed in plastic and precariously perched on a stepladder, three tries before bringing down the right kind. Marshall wants to tell the woman they’re not for him, they’re for his daughter. But, why.
The clerk rings up the cigarettes and pushes them through a slit in the plastic. Marshall drops them into the paper sack with the rest of his items and peruses the rack beneath the counter.
“Can he have a biscuit?” the clerks asks, chewing gum, her mask bobbing gently.
“Thanks,” Marshall says, “that’s kind of you.”
She pushes two bone-shaped treats through the hole, and Marshall feeds one to Rocket and pockets the other.
“These, too,” he says, holding up a newspaper and a tabloid before shoving them into the bag. He thinks Remi likes the actor on the cover of the magazine. Or used to.
He holds his phone up to the scanner, and it beeps. He wonders when it’ll stop approving the things he buys. He also wonders if the university will refund Remi’s tuition next semester, and whether his boss’s finances will endure so he can go back. He wonders how long one needs to stay on medication, or if she’ll always be on it. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to have sex with his wife again, or at least jerk off in peace. He wonders how long a center can hold, if this is even holding—he’s not sure.
He spots Remi outside the hotel well before she sees him. She’s standing in the stuccoed smoking alcove to the left of the entrance, sucking down her very last white nub. Marshall lets go of the leash when he gets closer, and Rocket races up to Remi, wiggling, like he hasn’t seen her in weeks. Such a nice quality, he thinks, and remembers how he felt essentially the same about Jamie after they first met, no matter how long or briefly they were apart.
Remi exhales a plume of smoke that quickly dissipates, then bends to pet Rocket as he threads himself between her legs and back again. She smiles, and Marshall thinks it might be the first time he’s seen her smile since he came to rescue her. He digs into the crinkly bag and tosses her the pack.
“Thank you,” she says, and seems to mean it.
“See you upstairs,” he says, picking up the leash.
By day five they are sick of warm pizza, and they are sick of cold pizza. They are sick of what’s in the mini-fridge, and they are sick of what’s not in it, depending on the results of Marshall’s daily trips to whatever store is open and stocked. They are sick of the sound of the elevator hauling its burden of other quarantined travelers on the other side of the wall on which they lay their heads each night and much of each day. They are sick of the news on the tv and they are stick of the news in Marshall’s newspaper, and they are sick of fifteen- and thirty-second political commercials and the occasional one-minute animal abuse and food bank ones, too. They are sick of the nurse in room 101 who checks their temperature and hands them the pharmaceutical clipboard with the symptom questionnaire each morning. They are sick of the cup with clean pens, and they are sick of the cup with dirty pens. And they are sick of each other.
But they are not sick, as the five stamps on each of their official quarantine cards attests. Nine more stamps, and then they will be free to go. If not actually free.
On the seventh day, unlike god, who supposedly opted to rest, Remi spontaneously joins Marshall on his evening dog walk. He had given up on inviting her, but here she is, sliding into her grubby high-tops and cinching the frayed laces twice around each ankle. It is her first time out of the hotel (not counting the smoking alcove), and she wants Marshall to know beforehand that she is afraid she might have an attack, but she is determined to leave the premises, because she is also afraid it means she’s “crazy” if she cannot leave. He promises they’ll turn back immediately if her heart starts up, if her vision contracts, if it feels like she can’t breathe. He says he has her.
When they turn the corner onto the boarded-up commercial block, Remi is doing fine. Most of the graffiti is still visible, despite a week of scrubbing. The day prior, Marshall noticed, the cleaning guys had just stopped bothering, and they are absent today as well. The dealer with the blue sedan is not hovering around either, but two of his regulars are huddled together on the church steps, one lighting a glass pipe and rolling it between his fingers before passing it to the other. Back and forth like this, each guy pulling down his mask to spin the glass between his lips and inhale, while the other guy pulls up his mask and waits—and vice versa. While in between hits, the guy on the left looks up and waves as Marshall and Remi pass, and Marshall nods back.
“Safety second,” he says to Remi, and chuckles under his own mask as they cross the street to avoid the melted plastic funk that Marshall so vividly remembers issuing from beneath his brother’s bedroom door. “Get it? Safety second . . . masks after meth?”
“Shhh, stop it,” Remi says.
“How you doing?” he asks as soon as they reach the other side of the street. Because it seems like a good time.
“I feel like it could happen at any second,” she says, on high alert.
“But it’s not, right?”
“No. But it could.”
“Okay, well, you’re doing great. I’m proud of you,” he says. “Hang in there a few more minutes, and we’ll head back.”
As they enter the next block, Marshall looks up and notices the sky is his favorite shade of blue, the periwinkle kind before dusk. He allows himself to feel a little hopeful about what comes next. He gets Remi home, Jamie tests negative and out of isolation, the four of them together like it was before Remi left for school. Maybe there’s a job he could do from home, win some bread again.
In the meantime, he’d settle for Rocket to take a shit on this boarded-up block, so they can get back to the hotel while Remi’s ahead of the count. But even the dog seems to be growing sick of the five-block radius of their existence, seems to be holding out for somewhere else to go, somewhere better.
After coaching Remi on the way back to the hotel (“You’re doing great,” “I’m right here,” “You got this”), they step into the air-suck of the building, and the usual conditioned surge is so bracing that Marshall doesn’t immediately take note of the commotion playing out in the neutral zone between the two sets of sliding doors. Where a very large man without a mask is poking his index finger into the face of a much shorter, fit man in a mask, with some sort of gold badge on his shirt—although he does not seem to be a police officer per se.
“Sir, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to leave the—” Marshall hears the smaller man saying, placidly, before the second set of glass doors slide shut.
Inside the lobby, there is a distanced line of weary travelers, teetering on the precipice of their fourteen-day sojourns. A few people in line throw nervous looks over their shoulders toward the sounds of escalation emanating from the vestibule every time the doors slide open. Because the large man is standing on the sensor.
“. . . care because it’s my right to—” and then the doors slide shut again, as Remi beelines for the elevator and Marshall follows.
Back in the room, Remi washes her hands, tosses her mask on the end table, and climbs into bed, yanking the covers up so just her eyes and nose peek out. The mask flutters to the carpet in the gust from the flick of the comforter.
“Are you okay?” Marshall doesn’t ask, because he knows the answer. He bends and picks up the mask from the floor.
Marshall counts then recounts: twenty-four stamps total, twelve stamps each, the last of which reads today’s date and is still drying on the two cards in Marshall’s hands. He had fudged (lied?) when reporting to the nurse exactly how he was feeling this morning, because he’s not about to go back to Start and Not Pass Go. They have come too far. He knows the chills and drumming in his head are from take-out the night before. The pork didn’t look right, but man it tasted good, so he gobbled it anyway. Remi had opted for the chicken, and she seems fine after their latest visit to room 101, climbing back into bed (again to bed? She just got out an hour ago), and flipping open her laptop.
Marshall realizes he’s starting to perspire, too, as he tucks their quarantine cards safely into the top dresser drawer. This is getting to be an emergency, he senses, as the drawer soft-slides shut. No, this is an emergency, he realizes, as Marshall bolts to the bathroom and throws the lock behind him, rips down his sweats and scarcely makes it to the toilet in time for the jettisoning.
After three flushes and a false alarm that the offending occupiers of his guts might come out the front, too, Marshall swivels to check himself in the mirror, half of his face dark because of the burned-out bulb. He’s still there, and his color looks a tad improved, he thinks, if a little pink. He feels a bit better, too, but immediately second-guesses the assessment, and twists around to grab the newspaper from the day before—or maybe it was the day before the day before—which is folded haphazardly on the toilet tank behind him.
He snaps the paper into shape, refolding so he can simulate perusing it for the first time. There are three stories on the front page that he hasn’t read. First, the one about the ER doctor who committed suicide, because, it seems from the first paragraph, she couldn’t stop all her patients from dying. Her photo reminds Marshall of Jamie’s hospital ID card.
That’s probably enough of that.
Then there’s a photograph of a seven-year-old boy with a dirty mask covering his mouth but not his nose, holding the hand of his invisible mother, who, the caption indicates, is trying desperately to get them from one South American country back to another they fled a year earlier on account of a 90-percent-and-climbing poverty rate. They have walked 250 miles, and the boy’s eyes are turned up toward who knows what is lying just outside the frame, and it is then Marshall remembers distinctly making the decision to skip the story when he’d seen the photo a couple of days before.
Finally, at the very bottom of the page, an article is teased from the Staying at Home section: “Couples Tested by Changing Roles and Stress: Strategies for Getting Through It Together.” Marshall decides he will read the story, perhaps with pen in hand, later, when he’s feeling better and can focus. There’s a whole list of actionable items he already knows he will begin implementing as soon as he gets back and has the opportunity. Invisible work, Jamie says. Things he will do for her and the family and the house, now that he has the time and she doesn’t. Things he’ll promise to do even after that, when they’re both back to having no time again. He can’t wait to have no time again.
He can both hear and feel another painful gurgle low and left in his abdomen, so it’s back to the article accompanying the photograph of the boy in the mask, in which Marshall reads about a single mom who used to clean houses in the capital. She had recently, finally, amassed enough cash to afford an apartment for her and her four kids, but since the pandemic, the well-off no longer want strangers in their homes, and she was evicted, twice, with no option but to move into a corrugated tin shed on a hillside high above the city. After a week and a day, the police came and knocked her shed down, citing the illegality of the settlement—and the precariousness of the structure itself.
On the next page the woman is pictured standing in the middle of her shack in a ripped blue paper mask, while demolition workers wearing hazmat suits yank down the walls around her using long wooden poles embedded with metal hooks.
Marshall keeps reading the story as his bowels continue to sort it out: there’s the fifty-one-year-old grandmother who has not eaten in five days; ten- and twelve-year-old brothers selling drugs on the corner to feed their siblings; a sixteen-year-old girl working as a prostitute because her parents can’t find work. Too dangerous for a stranger to clean and touch things in your house—yet not quite dangerous enough not to have an anonymous stranger suck on your dick, Marshall thinks, then flushes the toilet yet again, tossing the disheveled newspaper onto the vanity.
A few minutes later, or it might as well be two hours for how weak his legs feel beneath him, Marshall emerges from the bathroom holding an empty toilet paper roll. Rocket starts and jumps off the bed like he thinks it’s time for another walk, but Remi scarcely takes notice of Marshall standing there between her and the flat-screen. She is laughing at something on her laptop.
“Hey,” he says. But she does not move. “Hey, Remi?” he says, much louder.
She pulls a headphone out of an ear. “What?”
“I’m not doing too good right now,” he says, pointing a thumb back toward the bathroom. “Can you maybe go down and ask the front desk for some toilet paper? We’re out.”
“It’s just, I’m kind of having a bad day,” she says.
“I don’t think I can do it,” she says.
“Sorry,” she says, like it’s settled.
“You went down to smoke an hour ago,” he says.
“That’s different. I didn’t have to talk to anybody.”
He knows he should count 1, 2, 3, and take a deep breath before opening his mouth, but before he can get to 1, Marshall can’t help himself: “Are you kidding me?”
Remi sits up, plucks the second headphone out of her ear. “What?”
“You aren’t going to go down and get toilet paper for us.”
Her mouth is slightly ajar.
“We ask literally nothing of you.” He is yelling now. “College, paid for. Books, paid for. Rent? Food, partying, coffee dates . . . fucking cigarettes? Won’t get a job, can’t put a single fucking dish in the dishwasher.”
She is silent.
“You aren’t required to do anything.” He is on a roll, and it feels sort of good in the moment, like the pork last night, even if he had an inkling it would turn into a massacre later. “We ruined you, didn’t we?”
Rocket skitters around the other side of the bed, hiding, and Marshall notices Remi’s eyes welling up.
“I’m sorry, but Jesus fuck,” he says, still neglecting to count to one. “We have to be able to speak the truth, you know? Do you think you could just once, one time ever, say ‘YES, let me help out’?”
A fat tear rolls, but he pretends not to see it.
He points back to the bathroom. “I was just reading about this sixteen-year-old girl. You want to know from having a bad day? You know what she’s doing now because her father lost his job and there’s five starving kids in the family, plus a sick mom? Having sex in a park with strange men for six dollars. Six fucking dollars, for whatever the guys want. Same price. Six bucks.”
“What are you saying?” she screams. “You want me to be a fucking prostitute?”
“What? No!” he says. “That’s not what I’m saying at all.”
“Then what?” she asks, genuinely confounded.
This is the part from the retreat where the beast stands at the mouth of the cave and roars at his own shadow. If that were Remi or Trystan, Marshall wonders, and he had lost his job—well he has lost his job, but just assuming neither Jamie nor he could find work—and there was no money for food and the landlord was moving to evict them, would he accept the $18—or maybe $24 or $36 on a good night—in crumpled, damp bills when one or the other of their daughters came home from the park each evening?
“What else is going on with you?”
“What—like, besides the obvious?”
“Are there other substances we don’t know about?” he asks. “Seriously, no judgment, I just need to know so I can help. Are you in some sort of trouble—is it that boy, did he rape you? Because I swear I’ll fucking find him and kill him where he—”
“No!” she screams. “And he’s not a boy.”
“Did he hurt you?” he asks, trying to sound calmer than he is. Trying to understand why.
“No!” she screams again. “It’s nothing. There’s nothing. It is what it is. I can’t tell you anything more, because I don’t know. This thing just, comes over me . . . and it just happens, there’s no one reason.”
He wants to go back to the part where he was sitting in the bathroom and spewing his grotesquery behind closed doors. “I feel like I don’t have all the facts,” he adds by way of explanation, like anybody would ask if they were in his shoes.
After a few seconds: “I think my dad had something like this,” she says, then begins to hiccup-cry quietly. “I mean, my other dad.”
He closes his eyes at this decency—even now—and when he opens them, he sees Remi’s mouth is distorted into a large black puzzle piece in the center of the otherwise normal picture of her face, but instead of a wail it’s just a hiss that comes out. He wants to hug her, but he has scarcely touched her since she allowed him to cradle her on the floor of that grocery store, and then once at the hospital when she was released.
This is way past going to her.
“Look. I’m—I’m sorry.”
She shakes her head.
“Let’s just, let’s just forget this,” he says, wanting out.
“How am I supposed to forget it?”
“We can talk later,” he says, “or never, honestly, whatever you want. I’m sorry, I love you, I’m a monster.”
She is quiet, blinking.
“I don’t want you to be a prostitute.”
He grabs a mask, a key. “I’ll be right back,” and leaves.
At the front desk the clerk who originally checked them in is working hard to maintain his professional demeanor and kindness with every guest. He could be home safe with an ailing mother, or perhaps a newborn baby. But he is here in this lobby, double-masked and gloved and standing on his feet behind plastic shields, giving everybody what they want. Marshall is embarrassed to ask him for something else. Nevertheless.
While he waits for the guest in front of him to finish with the clerk (“You’re welcome to order take-out, but we ask that you meet the delivery person in the lobby”), Marshall can sense pissed-off energy from the guy in line behind him. He feels the air around him shift, and knows immediately the dude is nowhere near six feet away, and when Marshall turns around, he recognizes the man from the vestibule a couple days before, the one arguing with the security guard about wearing a mask. Which he is not doing now, at least not where a mask is supposed to go, not over his nose and mouth. Instead it is on his forehead, elastic stretched thin and digging into the thick skin on his bald, red head.
“Do you mind?” Marshall says to the guy.
“Do I mind what?” the big man says. He is wearing walnut performance sandals, with thick black soles that curl up to protect his toes.
“Can I get some space?” Marshall asks, thinking only of the stamps on his quarantine card and being permitted by a state trooper to drive across the border in a mere two days. He steps forward, closer than he wants to the guest in front of him, who is wrapping up her transaction (“password is your last name and room number”) before she takes the envelope and walks a wide circle around Marshall and the angry man behind him.
Marshall steps up to the desk. The man behind follows.
“Come on, man,” Marshall says, sighing and turning around again. The guy is right on him.
“Sir?” the clerk says to the big man, gesturing with an upturned palm and bowing slightly, “Could you please put on your mask and give the gentleman in front of you some space?”
“I am wearing a mask,” the man says and chuckles, swiveling his head around the lobby in search of his audience. But nobody joins him, because he is loud and unpredictable, and everybody wants their keys and towels and stamps and to get the fuck out of here—and this guy seems like he could maybe cock all that up. “The sign says everybody has to wear a mask, and I’m wearing a mask,” he repeats, pointing to his forehead.
“Can you just step the fuck back, please?” Marshall says.
But the man doesn’t budge, and it is precisely then—before he can decide what to do about the caveman that is also quickening in him—that Marshall feels another stirring in his gut, air darting around. Goddammit.
“Can I get another roll of toilet paper?” he says to the clerk, side-stepping around the plastic barrier and away from the man with the mask on his forehead.
“My pleasure. Sorry, sir,” the clerk says, apologizing for something that’s not his fault. He offers a coveted roll around the side of the barrier, and Marshall takes it.
“Thanks,” Marshall says over a shoulder, quick-walking to the bathroom past the elevators.
But it is a false alarm, Marshall realizes, after a couple of minutes sitting in the stall and trying to figure out which disco song from his childhood was being covered in the lite instrumental version echoing through the empty bathroom. Is it the one that’s so much sadder than it sounds, the one about being abandoned that his dad belittled him for crying at the first time Marshall actually listened to the lyrics?
He wonders whether Remi is okay upstairs. How the fuck he’s going to clean this one up. Because it’s a giant steaming pile he left in the middle of room 320.
The restroom door squeaks open then, and someone with a leaden gait plods in. Marshall stands to pull up his pants. As he works the zipper, he recognizes the walnut sandals that stop in front of his stall, and before he can button up, one of the sandals disappears, and there is a splintering CRACK, the stall door colliding with Marshall’s face before he can get his hands off his fly to protect himself.
And then he is on the tile floor, an elbow on the toilet, the other arm twisted beneath him, and, he notices, the stall door swinging from one hinge. The man with the mask on his forehead spits, and Marshall thinks it lands on him, as the man says casually, “Nobody tells me where I can stand,” and leaves.
Marshall’s whole face pulsates, particularly his nose. His mask is ripped and there is a lot of blood, blood on the floor, blood down his shirt, and after however long, Marshall pulls himself up to the mirror, where blood drips onto the sink beneath him.
In the mirror it turns out his nose is not the worst part, the slash across his forehead is, which gapes dark red when Marshall leans forward and stuffs a balled wad of paper towels against it, before zig-zagging back through the bathroom door.
“Oh my gosh. Sir!” the clerk cries out when Marshall emerges from the rear of the lobby. “Sir, what happened?”
“Looks worse than it is,” Marshall says, but thinks his words must be slurred on account of the taste of blood.
Just then a puffy-eyed Remi blows into the lobby, pulling her mask up and tucking the box of cigarettes into her front pocket.
“Oh my god,” she says, and runs over, touches Marshall’s shoulder hesitantly. “What happened?”
Marshall shakes his head, looks up at the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling and pushes the toilet paper roll he was apparently still clutching against a nostril to catch a rush of new blood.
Back in their room, Marshall lies on the bed, Rocket curled at his feet. He balances a bag of ice on his nose with one hand, and holds a towel to the wound on his forehead with the other. Nothing seems to want to stop bleeding.
“I think that nurse was right,” Remi says. “You need stitches.”
“No hospitals,” Marshall says, for maybe the tenth time since the lobby, where the clerk and nurse and hotel manager all fretted beneath their masks. The towel is warm and damp under his head. He can’t remember anything but the sandals and the stall door twisting on a single hinge.
“I’m going to get some more ice,” Remi says, heading for the door. “Are you going to be okay for a sec?”
“I had it coming,” Marshall says, head thumping its sad, slow beat.
Remi stops, turns around. “That’s stupid.”
“No, I did.”
She sits on the bed. “Want the tv on?” she asks.
“Sure. Not the news,” he says.
She picks up the remote, presses a button and waits, staring into the tv while it cycles through photos of the hotel bar that’s closed. And the gym that’s closed. The indoor pool, also closed.
“Are you and Mom okay?” Remi says, and a cable channel blinks on.
He thinks. “I wasn’t sure, so I went to this thing—just like, yelling in the woods, and wrestling a bunch of shirtless guys in the dirt, and talking about our pain, for like, seventy-two hours straight.”
Marshall shifts the ice slightly so he can see the back of Remi’s head while she continues to stare into the screen and flick through channels. She doesn’t know he can see her. A frigid line of water drips from the bag and traces his left laugh line down through his beard. “But that was before the world, you know, got like it is now, and my job went away, and I don’t know. I’m thinking I probably need to focus a little less on what kind of man I am, and more on what kind of woman your mom is. And you and your sister are. So.”
Remi stops on the nature channel, tosses the remote on the bed. The narrator is talking about a baby rhino that was rescued after its mother was killed by poachers. For her horn.
“Does Mom know all of that?” Remi asks.
Marshall mouths, “I’m going to tell her,” but it comes out more like humming the round melody of words, not the hard edges of the letters themselves.
Remi stands, as the baby rhino runs circles around a pen, feet big as snowshoes. “I’ll go get that ice.”
The door slams hard behind her, and Marshall closes his eyes.
When he wakes up, the blackout shades are drawn and the room is dark, but Marshall can tell it’s still daytime on account of the light leaking from the cleft in the curtains. It could be the next day, or the next, but it’s probably neither. He tries to lift his head and winces, remembers the bathroom stall, and lowers his head back onto the pillow. He reaches up to touch his nose, his forehead—and feels something that wasn’t there before.
“Remi,” he calls out, and turns toward her bed. But it is empty, and he is at once worried.
On the nightstand, he notices then, are all manner of first aid supplies. Gauze, sterile pads, tape, bandages, a bottle of hickory-brown antiseptic. Proper ice packs, ointment, two kinds of painkillers.
“Hey, boy,” he says into the quiet, swinging his legs to the carpet. No Rocket either.
Marshall steadies himself and wobbles toward the window. On the way, he catches his face in a shaft of light that darts across the mirror, and leans in. Three white butterfly bandages hold the gash on his forehead together, another two on the bridge of his nose. Rolled cotton is lodged in a nostril, scarlet and brown steeping the portion that sticks out.
He tugs the curtains open, and the sudden spikes of light blind, his pupils quickly compensating as the hotel entrance comes into focus. He watches a lanky masked man with a suitcase swinging from each shoulder extract a child’s car-seat from the rear of a maroon SUV and then slam the door.
Marshall glances across the street then—and there she is, going someplace, the dog trotting happily behind. People are always going someplace. He keeps watching, as a ghostly swirl of smoke twists in Remi’s wake.
She looks alive.