I had killed the engine, filed my nails, organized my wallet, and done a sketch of my left hand. Since we still hadn’t moved, not even a few feet, I started on a detailed drawing of Thomas Jefferson riding a dragon through a peach orchard. Next, I drew the goddess Sekhmet (woman’s body, lion’s head) riding a bicycle down a city street. Every half hour I ran the AC for a few minutes and listened to NPR for the traffic report. At seven p.m. I heard the announcement:
If you are in the back-ups on I-95 and 1-66 heading towards Washington, turn off your engine to avoid running out of gas. Please stay near your car. Announcements will be made every half hour. In the interim, turn off your radio to conserve your car’s battery.
“What? Why are they saying that?” Matthew asked from the back seat.
“They don’t want us to run out of gas while we’re waiting to start driving again. The traffic jam goes all the way to DC. I don’t think we’re going anywhere for a while.”
“Does that mean I can take off my seat belt?”
I stepped out of the car and the heat thrust its damp, heavy body against mine. I breathed in the exhaust-saturated air, stretched my arms overhead and felt the blood tingling gloriously back into my limbs. As far ahead as I could see, countless cars glittered in the evening sunlight, a sparkling stream going nowhere.
All right—we were stuck. It wasn’t the end of the world. We’d surely be back at my brother’s house, where we were staying for the week, by what—midnight? Still, I did a quick mental inventory of all the things we had in the car: a picnic dinner in a quilted cooler bag, a blanket, two bottles of water, two Captain Underpants books, A Suitable Boy, and a flash fiction anthology. And I had one last syringe for my injection, with the necessary alcohol wipes and Band-Aids.
I sent up a sort of thank-you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe. It was left over from our weekend visit to Rachel and Fernando. I always take a back-up syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection, and I had never taken it out of my bag. Now I might be needing it.
Word to the wise: always, always carry an extra syringe with you, and two wouldn’t hurt.
All around us, doors were popping open. I dropped one sandaled foot behind me, let the knee of the other leg bend, arms in the air again: Warrior One. When I shifted to Warrior Two, I saw the green glow-in-the-dark soles of Matthew’s sneakers pressed to the inside of the car window, his body easily slung the length of the backseat as his dark eyes darted across the pages he held overhead.
I tapped on his window until he opened the door.
“Let’s call Baba so he won’t worry about us.” I ducked into the car for my phone.
Tariq’s deep, rumbly voice was comfort distilled into sound.
“Where are you?” he said.
“My guess is fifty miles away.”
“Are there any exits in sight?”
“Nope.” Scraggly pines lined the highway as far north and south as we could see. There wasn’t even a speed limit sign. “Matthew wants to talk to you. I’m going to walk around a bit.”
I handed over my scratched-up Motorola and heard Matthew say, “Yeah, Monticello was cool! They had this small elevator just for their food, and do you know what they used to write with back then? They actually—listen Baba!—they actually took a feather off of a bird—”
I followed the dashed white line, a thread stitching its way through the back-up. On either side of me, the bleeping of video games leaked from the cracked windows of SUVs.
The phone, the phone! The venerable, aging flip phone that I’d clung to for four and a half years, my gesture of protest against the tech race, had a relic of a battery that went out as fast as a shooting star. I sprinted to the car and took the thing from Matthew.
“I’m hanging up so the battery doesn’t run out, Habibi. We’ll probably be home in a few—” but already I could hear that particular silence that meant I was talking to no one. The battery had died. I slipped the phone into my pocket.
“What are we going to do now?” Matthew asked.
“You have two books, don’t you?”
“Well, read the other.”
For dinner, Matthew and I split one of our sandwiches (chicken on whole-wheat, everything organic, cage-free, local, scrutinized down to the last ingredient in the mustard) and drank sparingly from a bottle of water. I turned on the car radio for the nine p.m. announcement—it hadn’t changed.
Ideally, I would have done my injection as night fell, but I needed someone to give it to me, and Matthew was out of the question. It had occurred to me to walk among the cars and tap on windows, asking for help, but I didn’t like the idea of a complete stranger plunging an inch-and-a-half needle into my butt. Better to wait, see if the cars started up, which might happen at any minute. I read A Suitable Boy by the pale orange light of the nearby highway lamp, not knowing the time. After forty pages, I contemplated truly spending the night, or part of it, on the highway, in which case it was probably wiser to save the syringe for the morning.
I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK until we reached home. But if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night. Matthew was already asleep in the back seat, the sweet sleep of a nine-year-old worn out from a day of looking at the inventions of a different era and chasing a dog around the lawn of Jefferson’s estate. I could get away from the car while he slept and he wouldn’t have to see the rabbits. Getting up in the morning would be rough, but with the injection I’d be strong enough to drive us home.
I curled uncomfortably across the two front seats, my back against the stick shift, and woke to the sun washing through the passenger side window, heating my legs.
“Finally!” Matthew said. “I thought you would sleep forever!”
“There’s nothing wrong with sleeping so long,” I said.
“Unless I wake you with a gong!” Matthew said.
“A morning gong is like a song.”
“It makes you strong when it goes bong.” He was on a roll.
“So come along, you won’t go wrong!” I managed.
“And join me for some ping-pong!”
For breakfast we split an orange, which I pulled from between ice packs in the cooler bag. It was, miraculously, cool to the touch.
“Can’t we eat the other sandwich?” Matthew asked.
“What if we’re still here at lunchtime? Wouldn’t you rather have it then?”
“Oh,” Matthew said, apprehension flashing across his face.
“Don’t you wish we were back at Monticello, where there was a café, and all those peach trees, and the apples, and the raspberry vines?”
“Yeah!” Matthew said. “If we were there, we could have anything we wanted to eat!”
“We will when we get home,” I said, kissing the top of his head. “You’ve been really patient so far. You haven’t once told me you’re bored.”
“Only one problem,” Matthew said.
“I’m gonna get bored really soon. I’ve read both my books.”
“Can’t you read them again?”
“I already have read them again.”
“What about making a comic book?”
“I’ll see if I can find you some,” I scanned the scene. Car doors were open, windows down. Our fellow travelers lingered outside their vehicles, trying to catch what little breeze there was. “Do you want to come with me?”
“Nah, I’ll wait,” Matthew said, pulling a piece of snarled blue string and a muscled, military-looking action figure from his pocket. “I’m gonna see if the Dominator can beat the Snake Dragon.”
“You want paper?”
“For my stepson,” I told a woman about my age in a blue Prius. As I talked, I scooped the hair from my perspiring neck and fished in my pocket for a ponytail holder. It couldn’t have been much past eight, but already the air was like the hot, panting breath of an animal. “He’s bored. He wants to make a comic book. Look.” I held up the flash fiction anthology. “I can give you this in exchange.”
“Flash fiction? What’s that?”
“Very short short stories, only a page or two long,” I flipped open the book so she could see. “David Foster Wallace, Ha Jin, here’s one by Julio Cortazar, the one about winding the watch—a classic.”
“I’ve actually got plenty of paper,” the Prius driver said. “Do you have any food?”
“Sorry,” I shook my head. Not quite a lie.
“I’ll take the book, then. Or you can just have some paper. It doesn’t have to be a trade.” She got up and opened her trunk, pulled open a Staples bag and extracted a ream of paper. Matthew had popped up by my side.
“Paper!” he cried out.
“This is Matthew,” I told the woman.
“Paper!” he said, jumping up and down. He held the Dominator up in front of his face. “We like paper!” Matthew rasped in his Dominator voice.
“How much do you need?” she asked.
“I need a lot! Twelve pages! I’m going to make three comics! The first is about Thomas Jefferson!”
She slid her finger into the folded end of the wrapping, broke the seal, handed Matthew a generous stack of crisp sheets.
“Paper! Paper! Paper!” Matthew said, bouncing on his toes.
“What do you say, Matthew?”
“Thank you, Paper Lady!” The paper lady and I laughed. Matthew turned and jogged back towards our car.
“My name’s Lucy,” she said, extending a hand.
“I’m Noelle. Nice to meet you.”
“Listen, do you want this book?” She pulled a paperback thriller from her trunk. “It’s pretty awful, but it’s the only thing I have in the car. I finished it last night.”
“Keep it,” I said. “The book I’ve got is long enough.” I asked her what she usually read, already resigning myself to Eat, Pray, Love.
“Oh, you know I just read that one about the two magicians, Dr. So and So and Mr. What’s-his-name—wow, that’s embarrassing!” She gave an easy, alto laugh.
“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell!” I wanted to hug her. “Didn’t you just love it?” Her face broke into an ample smile, and we leaned against the shady side of her car, skipping from Susanna Clark to George Eliot, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman.
“Listen,” I said. “I want to check on Matthew. Do mind if we walk over to our car?”
“Not at all.”
Matthew was making his comic book. I turned on the engine long enough to put down the windows for him, and Lucy and I walked on.
“I have one, too, you know,” she said.
“Really?” I didn’t know any other stepmothers, not my age. “Do you have your own kids, or just the stepdaughter?”
“As if that’s something to say ‘just’ about,” I laughed.
“Oh, I know!” Lucy said.
At last, someone who might understand. My friends had babies and toddlers, which was joyous and difficult, but in a way that didn’t shred your heart. I went on and on to them about the frustrations of sharing a child, sending him back, at the end of a summer of organic food, reading, and drawing, to a house where there were no time limits on TV, and chicken nuggets and Cocoa Puffs were standard meals.
But it was more than that. When he was gone, it was the way it was impossible to help Matthew with his math homework long distance, the way there was no one to play the rhyming game with, no one to read a few pages to before bed, no one to help me pick the last cherry tomatoes of the season. When he was with us, it was the tantrums that set in at day five and lasted to day twelve, and the way he said, “My mom would let me do that!” It was the way the arrival and departure of one forty-pound house guest flipped you instantly, mercilessly, from one universe to another.
“How old is she?” I asked.
“Oh, what a fun age!”
When Matthew was six he was all sweet innocence and Spider Man. Each summer came with a startling update of the person I thought I’d known.
“Do you like it when she’s with you?” I asked.
“Oh, of course! But I also like it when she’s gone, the way everything is so quiet, and we can go out to dinner on the spur of the moment, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said. But I wouldn’t trade it for Matthew, not if I had a choice.
“Still, I’ll probably cave and have one of my own in a year or two,” she said, almost absent-mindedly. Lucy was a good three inches taller than me, with black curls and porcelain skin, broad in the hips, a loping carelessness to the way she carried her body.
“Listen,” I said. “I need help from someone. Do you think you could give me an injection?”
Lucy’s eyes widened.
“I go queasy when I see blood,” she said. “But the guy in the Lexus next to me is a surgeon. I’ll introduce you.”
The doctor, Max, gave me the injection while I leant against the side of his spotless, bottle-green SUV.
“Why don’t you come by and play a round of cards with me,” he said as we chatted afterwards.
“You’ve got cards?” I ran and got Matthew. We stayed for hours, playing Go Fish, War, Hearts, and Blackjack.
“Really, you’re going to drive to Monticello?” My brother had teased me two nights ago, when I asked to borrow his car for a day. We stood on his six-foot-square back porch, nestled in a brick-and-concrete bend of the alley behind his house, slapping mosquitoes while he barbecued enough shrimp skewers for his family and mine. “I thought you wouldn’t go anywhere if it wasn’t on the Metro or your bike.”
“I can stand a car for one day,” I laughed. “You know Matthew’s obsession with seeing everything about the founding fathers while we’re here. When we were at Mount Vernon, this tourist told him about Monticello. He’s been barraging me about it since then, so I uncled. Besides, we need to do something on our own the day Tariq has his interview.”
“Sure, you can take our Honda. We don’t need it Wednesday so it works out fine.”
“Thanks,” I said. “The drive should be easy as long as we can avoid traffic.”
“Did you hear about the traffic jam in Singapore that lasted six days?” my brother asked.
“No, for real. It was in the news.”
“It’s just like that Cortazar short story! This guy’s driving back to Paris. He doesn’t make it home for weeks.”
“It could happen,” he said.
“Trapped on a highway for weeks? You think that’s possible?”
“Not weeks. Six days. Or maybe seven,” he countered.
“Why not eight?”
“Make it eight then. I’d say eight days is the ideal length for a traffic jam.”
Now it was noon, and spending twenty-four hours or more in a traffic jam seemed all too possible. Teenagers came through on bikes, selling bottles of water and peaches out of backpacks. Supply was limited, we were allowed only one of each item.
“Are the peaches from your farm?” Lucy asked as she handed over four dollars.
They stared at her wordlessly, their faces somewhere between sullen and bewildered.
“We bought them at Food Lion,” one girl said at last. She was skinny, flip-flopped, with a dramatic fringe of mahogany bangs.
“Oh,” Lucy said, disappointed. “Where’s the Food Lion? Where do you live?”
“Thornburg,” the girl scoffed out, as if it scarcely needed to be said.
None of them had news of what was causing the back-up. As they were about to pedal off, Max stopped them, saying he would pay top dollar for a hamburger. A boy with a crew cut promised to come back in a couple hours.
Max was smart, I thought. I wished I had cash.
The peaches were flavorless and watery. We ate them with our hands under our mouths to catch the drops that ran down our chins, licking the anemic sweetness from our fingers. It only left my stomach hurting with hunger.
“It’s time for us to let you be,” I told Max. “Matthew, why don’t you work on your comic book while I take a nap?” We went back to the car and split our last sandwich between us.
From the bottom of the cooler, I pulled a battered Ziploc containing a handful of raisins and almonds. It had been our reserve. I handed it to Matthew.
“I’m still hungry,” he said after he had eaten the last of it.
“I know you are, sweetie. Just try not to think about it. Did you know if you have enough water you can survive for months, even if you’re hungry? Imagine we’re on a survival adventure.”
“I don’t need to imagine it. We are on a survival adventure,” he said.
“And I bet this is all over the news. You can tell all your friends about it when we get back to Seattle.”
At that he cheered up considerably and began a comic about being trapped in a traffic jam. In it, he turned into his secret self, the superhero Independence Boy, and flew over the cars to find the bad guys who had bombed the bridges into the city and all the monuments in Washington.
In the late afternoon, National Guard helicopters flew overhead, raining down bottled water, Power Bars, and plastic-sealed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The Power Bars landed with satisfying thwacks on the car roofs. Matthew ran after the choppers, catching the food as it fell to earth and handing it to whomever was nearby.
There was no longer fear of hunger, although the processed food brought with it other fears for me.
All is well, all is well, all is well, I told myself as I curled up to sleep again with my back to the stick shift. We had food to eat. We had water to drink. Even if the rabbits came, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’d been through it countless times before. I would survive.
We woke to the sun marching through the passenger side windows. We played cards, we read, we made comic books and drew monsters. Night fell. Morning came. The days went by. It was what I imagined a miles-long, minimum security prison might be like.
I longed for news from Tariq. Had he flown back to Seattle without us, so he could go to work? Or was he still at my brother’s in DC, worried, waiting?
After the sun set and Matthew fell asleep in the locked car with the windows gapped a few inches for air, Lucy and I would walk up and down along the dashed white lines, talking. She told me how her first marriage had unraveled, how her ex became obsessed with his status at his law firm, working eighty hours a week. “I ate dinner alone every night for a year. It was awful,” she said. In an attempt to get him out of the office, she signed them up for tango classes. When he didn’t show up, she went by herself and fell in love with a guy in the class, a GAO analyst.
“It wasn’t the most honorable way to end a marriage,” Lucy admitted, “but I didn’t realize just how miserable I’d been until I met Andrew.”
I confessed to her what I’d told no one before, not even Tariq: there were times I secretly wished Matthew’s mother dead, so I wouldn’t have to share Matthew. Teach a kid how to ride a bike and how to make scrambled eggs, and it hurts to let him go.
“You can’t have kids of your own?” Lucy asked. The orange fluorescence of the highway lights gave everything a dim, ghastly glow. Another night stroller threaded among the rows of cars, holding a flashlight that bobbed with every step.
“No,” I said. “It has to do with my medical condition, why I needed the injection.”
“How often do you need it?”
“Twice a day,” I said.
“And you haven’t done it since the first morning? Are you OK?”
“So far I am,” I shrugged and looked away, hoping she would be perceptive enough not to press for details. “Things could go at any moment, but what can I do? I’m getting quite skilled at not thinking about it.”
Lucy looked worried.
“If you need any help that doesn’t involve needles or blood, just ask,” she said.
Griping about the lack of air conditioning was good etiquette. The unmitigated July heat, which pounded sweat from every pore in our bodies, was taken as an affront, a violation of our inalienable right to be comfortable. The opening gambit of all polite conversation was a complaint—something along the lines of “how they expect us to survive out here without a drop of AC is beyond me,” (as if some form of government could parachute down and create a climate-controlled pavilion out of the median strip). This was a ritual to be upheld before talk moved on to other matters, usually speculation about the cause of the back-up.
Over the first few days, when the luxury of news access was something some of us indulged in—before we all started taking the issue of conserving batteries very, very seriously—there was no explanation for the back-up from the media. We heard only the same message about cutting your engine and staying near your car. (This we did. Although there was always talk of walking to the nearest exit, no one went. We didn’t want to be caught away from our cars when the traffic started, which might be at any moment.) Once the batteries for the iPhones ran out and there was no way to recharge them, not without idling and wasting precious gas, we designated one car out of thirty to tune in to the radio announcement on the half hour, then not at all. If it was time to start our engines, the word would spread like anthrax on the wind.
In the void, rumors circulated: a terrorist attack on the Pentagon, a tractor-trailer containing biological weapons overturned on I-95, all the bridges across the Potomac River blown up at once.
There were lesser rumors as well. Four miles ahead, they said, a woman had given birth to twins (or sometimes triplets) in the back of a minivan; closer to DC there had been a shooting (in one version it was a murder) during a domestic dispute; there was a band of meth dealers who were pedaling their wares at night to teenagers. And so a citizen’s patrol group formed, a curfew was established.
During the day Matthew worked on his comic books or played with the two girls—eight-year-old Sonia and ten-year-old Iris—who were in the silver minivan twelve cars up. Or he found Max, who was teaching him to be an expert at Blackjack and Poker. The water supply was ample enough that from time to time we could use a bottle to douse our necks and armpits. Soap was said to be available for cash fifty cars to the south, but as I walked that way and made enquiries, the fabled soap was always fifty cars away.
I asked Lucy for more paper and drew her portrait. Soon I had requests. I drew family portraits, couples standing in front of cars, kids standing in front of cars, occasionally just the cars themselves. It was a souvenir of the back-up, one that didn’t require batteries to come into existence.
Although I didn’t charge anything, people paid me: cash, PowerBars, toilet paper, a string of blue glass beads—nothing I wanted. What I wanted was one of those helicopters to lower a ladder down and lift me and Matthew out of here. Because I was a special case, because I couldn’t go on eating hydrolyzed soy protein and hydrogenated vegetable oils without it catching up with me, and the effects of the injection couldn’t last forever. But then who would drive our car once the traffic started? And how would I make such a request, to whom, and what would I say that had an ounce of credibility?
On the fifth day, just as the women from the white Ford Focus and the old green Volvo were inviting Lucy and me to join their book group (we would read selections from the flash fiction anthology, which was making the rounds), we heard a wave of human voices, traveling toward us from up the highway.
We quieted, straining toward the sound. It drew closer, resolving into words.
“Run to your cars! Start your engines!”
“Matthew!” I shouted. “Matthew! Where are you? Matthew!” I cranked my voice until it went no louder. I made it back to the car, opened the door and stood on the edge of the doorframe, twisting around, hoping to spot him from that height. An hour ago he’d gone to play with Iris and Sonia. They knew not to go farther than the white service van twenty cars down and the yellow SUV twenty cars up. I couldn’t see them. “Matthew!” I called.
Far, far up the highway there was a ripple—cars were in motion. All around me engines started.
“Get in your car!” someone behind me shouted. “You’re gonna hold us all up!”
“My son!” I screamed. “Where is my son?”
The ripple drew closer. The yellow SUV was moving. Lucy’s blue Prius was moving.
“MATTHEW!” I screamed one last time, then dropped into the car, closed the door and turned the key. I put down the window, yelling as I drove. I didn’t make it out of second gear before the brakes of the black Accord in front of me lit up. I stopped.
We had moved a few hundred feet. An unbroken, double-stranded necklace of red lights burned in the summer haze. Five more minutes and we had all shut off our engines. A figure darted among the cars. Matthew.
“We went to Sonia and Iris’s car for some water,” he panted. “Their mom told me to stay with them.” I kept him near me for the rest of the day, but how do you keep a nine-year-old tethered to a car for more than a few hours? The next morning I had to let him go play again. They’d invented a game of hiding behind cars of a designated color. There were superheroes involved, and the string of blue beads had turned into a magic object at the center of it all. I exchanged addresses and phone numbers with the girls’ mother, told her next time to send Matthew to our car. He knew to wait for me if I wasn’t there yet.
Like the Hanukkah oil that lasted nine nights instead of one, the one injection Max gave me lasted longer than I could have possibly hoped. But it didn’t feel like a miracle—more like one serving of uneasiness divided among too many meals. There wasn’t too much of it, but it was always there.
On the afternoon of the sixth day, as I was sketching the couple from the green Volvo, I felt the first wave of nausea. No, it wasn’t even that—just a little lurch, a wiggle of queasiness, easy enough to ignore if you shimmy your shoulders for a moment and stretch your arms, then concentrate on getting the swoop of the woman’s hair and conveying the exact, reassuring knuckliness of her boyfriend’s hand on her shoulder. But by the time I’d finished and handed them the portrait, the rabbits were undeniably on their way. The queasiness was mounting, soon it would be true nausea, and there was nothing I could do.
My skull cramped in on itself like an angry fist, my heart shoved up against my lungs. I drew my breath through a narrow straw. The heat beat upward from the asphalt, clanging off the metallic painted surfaces, battering at my ears, face, arms, and legs. The air was crammed with more heat than it was designed to hold. And I wasn’t meant for this, not for this Teflon world, these highways it had taken countless human generations to achieve. I wanted nothing more of this habitat of steel and tar and concrete, even if it had—undeniably—nourished me, raised me to be who I was.
Matthew, thank god, was sitting in the car, reading the Percy Jackson book Iris had lent him.
“Matthew,” I said. The nausea was now an immense pressure, bullying its way out of my body. “I have to tell you something. You know the injection Baba usually gives me? Well, I haven’t had it for days, and now I’m about to get sick.”
Matthew looked frightened. I should have phrased it differently, but the words were out, I couldn’t reel them back.
“Do you want me to get Max?” he said.
“No, no, it’s not something he can help with. And it’s only a little sick, actually. But the thing is, it lasts a while. So I need you to help me.” The scratching had started in my stomach. My words were choked. “Find Lucy. Tell her I’m going to be in the woods. Then come back here and stay at the car until I’m back.”
Matthew’s eyes were wide, but I knew his eyes like that meant he would do what I told him. He usually did, regardless. He was a good kid.
“It’s really important,” I said. “Sonia and Iris can play with you here, OK? Don’t go farther than three cars from ours in any direction. Wait for me to come back.”
He nodded again.
“Now GO!” I crept to the right, bent over with the discomfort, almost stopping to lean on a searing metallic black hood, thinking better of it, forcing myself on across the pallid, scrubby grass at the edge of the shoulder, into the no man’s land of unattractive pine trees.
It was cooler beneath the trees, and I felt a little relief and even wondered why no one had thought to come in here any sooner. Then another wave of nausea hit. I coerced my legs forward—twenty, forty more feet—until I guessed I was out of sight of the cars. I let my body drop to the ground, which was packed and pebbly, but ultimately hospitable in that it was horizontal, in that it held me up.
Thanks to this illness, I will never have my own child, but I can well imagine the horror of childbirth. We are designed for it, our bodies a vector pointed toward reproduction, and yet the birth canal tears apart.
And for me, when the rabbits come, the nausea crests and then crests again, until it feels as if my body might rip from it, and then the scratching starts. The frightened creature claws in my stomach, feeling for a way out. My belly swells and contracts, and I am sweating, clammy, shaking with how desperately I want this beast out of my body. I heave and heave, until the scratching finds a direction: up and out. The thing feels like it’s taking my insides with it, but for a wild, bargaining moment, that’s OK—anything, dear god, dear god in whom I’ve never believed—anything to get this thing outside me.
My esophagus stretches beyond its accustomed capacity and the world goes black for an instant as my throat and mouth rupture for the slick-haired and clawed beast. The thing uses every millimeter of my widened jaw to make its way into the world. And then it’s over—for an instant at least. The first one is out. The first one is always the worst.
It was at that moment, as I lay spent, panting into the golden, slowly blinking eye of the first rabbit that I felt Lucy’s hand on my shoulder.
“Oh dear, Noelle, oh dear,” she said.
When it happened the first time, while I was watching TV in my solitary apartment one night years ago, I thought, naturally, that I was going insane. When I woke the next day and the rabbits were still there, and I saw little turds dropped on my rug, I considered I might not have imagined it after all. But if I’d imagined vomiting up rabbits, why wouldn’t I imagine they had crapped and were still there the next day as well?
I panicked silently for hours. My mind skidded in and out of netherworlds as I paced and stood paralyzed, then shook myself into motion, towards the phone or door, only to stop before I could dial or make it through the threshold.
At last I gathered the creatures in a laundry bag and took them to the animal shelter. With my heart exploding ninety times a minute, I carried the bag through the front door and showed it to the receptionist. Could they take these rabbits? I opened the sack. The woman nodded, gave me paperwork to fill out, another staff member arrived and the rabbits were instantly elsewhere, on the other side of a very ordinary, very beautiful door.
As I made my way home, it occurred to me that this, too, I had imagined; but with the rabbits gone, it was easy to go on. Things were normal again, and I’d gained a reverent appreciation for normalcy. I pleaded laryngitis at work, made up the missing day and a half over the weekend.
When a week later I felt the nausea and scratching while I was at the office, I knew it would not be so simple. For three months I rushed home at all hours of the workday, ignoring the doubtful looks of co-workers. I preferred to vomit up my insanity in the privacy of my apartment. I made up for lost hours on evenings and weekends. I set my alarm for four a.m. and released laundry bags of rabbits into the dark, dewy garden of the large apartment complex at the end of the block.
When I’d used up all my sick leave and half my vacation, I took the train to my parents’ and I told my mother that in all likelihood I had gone insane. When she witnessed the first rabbit come out of my mouth, she gasped, then pulled my sweaty hair back from my face, dampened a washcloth and wiped my forehead. She would fix this, she said, she would drive me to the doctor the next time it was about to happen.
Three days later, I was at the family doctor’s, vomiting rabbits in his examining room while he moaned a very particular moan—of not knowing what to make of reality, and I knew then the rules truly had changed.
Or, if I had gone insane, it was a seamless, complete insanity that encompassed the far corners of my mind’s universe. Perhaps I had imagined my mother’s reaction and the doctor’s, too—just as I had imagined the rabbits; perhaps everything was taking place in my own head, and I was now living in a dream world from start to finish. But if so, why worry? Dream had traded places with reality. I might wake up, I might not. For now, I could only operate inside these new laws of biology. At least I wasn’t being checked into an imaginary psych ward.
Dr. Turnbull ran test after test, found I had an overactive thyroid and adrenal glands, my thymus was not functioning correctly and most significantly, he thought, I had a genetic liver disorder. My liver did not clear synthetic chemicals from my body the way it should. So he blamed the confluence of toxic chemicals I was exposed to in daily life—the traces of pesticides, steroids, and artificial estrogens in the water supply, the unregulated chemicals in laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo, dish-washing liquid, the slightly more regulated chemicals in our food.
“How this results in the rabbits—your guess is as good as mine,” he said, extending his hands in a weary gesture. “But there are things we can do to help your liver and with any luck control this symptom.” I was to eliminate anything artificial to the extent possible, buying everything at the organic co-op. And there was the injection, twice a day for the rest of my life.
Lucy and I stared at that first rabbit as it sat quietly blinking in the light of the world. It was large and gray-brown, each nostril and hair so real, so complete that Dürer could have drawn it. I hated the thing.
That made four, I thought numbly: my mother, Dr. Turnbull, Tariq, and now Lucy.
I closed my eyes and gave myself over to my few moments of relief. The absence of suffering is a pleasure in itself, the sweetest pleasure imaginable when it arrives. I sank down into that heavenly, blank feeling, knowing it would last about two more minutes.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “What should I do?”
“Find Matthew. Keep an eye on him. I’ll be here a while. Three or four more come after the first one,” I rasped. There were twiggy, pebbly bumps mashed against the cheek I was resting on the ground. I didn’t care, felt only the beauty of my body’s weight released into the ground, the bliss of the earth holding up my heavy head.
“Do you want me to bring you something, water?” Lucy asked.
The word “water” and my stomach lurched.
“Just find Matthew,” I said. “Tell him I’m OK, he can play with the girls, or cards with Max, but be sure you know where he is.”
“OK, I’ll go,” she said, running a soothing hand across my back for an instant. “Don’t worry. I’ll watch him.”
There were five of them altogether, and they had the nerve to stick around, licking their already wet fur and letting it dry in the sluggish air. Didn’t they have somewhere to hop off to, I wanted to know. Wanted to shout at them to go away instead of sitting there, observing me as I suffered through vomiting up another of them. But I could spare no energy for speech, wouldn’t have attempted it with my throat as raw as it was.
After the fifth, I lay panting on the earth, pine needles and dirt covering my tank top and shorts, bare arms and legs. Was I done? Two minutes passed, five, then ten. It was over. Let my limbs crush themselves into the earth. Let me rest, let me sleep. And just as I felt secure in that absence of suffering, just as I thought I might let sleep cradle me under the shady trees, I heard a wave of voices, shouts from the highway.
I jolted up, stumbled on trembling legs back to the road. When I stepped into the dazzling sunlight, everything wobbled. I blinked, reaching out my arms to find something that would steady me. My hand landed on a car’s scalding hood.
“Hey, lady! Get back to your vehicle. We’re gonna be moving soon!”
Where was my car? I pushed my weak legs forward. It was in the far lane, a few cars back. I staggered towards it. Engines were starting all around me, but no one was moving yet.
I was at my brother’s Honda. It was locked. Matthew was away with Lucy. I pulled the key from my pocket. A swelter of air burst from the door as I opened it. The two of them would be here any second, or Matthew would come on his own.
I craned my head. Where were they? Lucy’s car was six up from mine, one lane over. My clawed throat stood no chance of calling to them. Matthew must be in the Prius, or he was in the van with the girls. I had their mother’s number. I had no phone.
The cars up the highway were moving now, the ripple drawing towards us.
“Matthew!” I rasped into the muggy air.
“Hey, Honda! Don’t hold everyone up! Get in your car!”
I slumped into the seat, closed the door, lowered the windows. Matthew, Matthew, Matthew! I should have made a plan with Lucy, I should have gone to her car first. The Accord in front of me was moving. I eased off the clutch, pushed the gas pedal. I didn’t have Lucy’s phone number. Everyone’s phone had been off after the first day. We’d existed in a world without contact lists or even hand-written notes, simply walking from car to car to find each other.
The speedometer was up to twenty. I shifted to second, to third. I caught sight of the blue Prius up ahead, one lane over. Matthew must be with her. I would follow her into the city.
Did Matthew have any way to contact us? Of course not. No one memorized phone numbers anymore. We were just names in his mother’s phone and on Skype. I realized that after all this time, he didn’t even know my last name, would have no way to look up my family in DC information. He was nine after all. I was just “Noelle,” or sometimes, “Tante Noelle,” my brother and sister-in-law simply “Uncle Peter” and “Aunt Melissa.”
With a feeling of endless plummet, I thought how if we’d been in Seattle, things would be different. He could rattle off our address, or give Tariq’s name. But I hadn’t thought to give him contact information during vacation, and I should have.
If I could just get a little closer I might be able to see Lucy’s license plate number. Now we were up to thirty, forty miles per hour. Lucy’s lane was moving faster. She was pulling too far ahead. I needed to catch up, signal to her. I flashed my lights. She should drop back, get over to my lane. Did she see me in her rearview? Was it deliberate? Was she stealing Matthew?
No, those things didn’t happen. I was just nervous, exhausted—my imagination running wild. She had been my friend, my temporary friend. Did that mean I could trust her? She had been good company, but what did I really know about her? She was a stepmother. And she had cheated on her first husband.
The Prius was just barely in sight. In an hour and a half I would pull up to my brother’s block with the back seat empty save for a hand-written comic book. I put on my blinker, shifted to fourth, but the cars to my right were moving faster and faster, while my lane stayed at forty. I couldn’t get over.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Noelle Catharine Allen has worked as a newspaper reporter in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and now lives in Seattle. Her fiction has appeared in Phoebe, JMWW, and other publications. She was a finalist in the Bosque and Bellingham Review fiction prizes in 2014, and won the Editor’s Choice award in Best New Writing 2012. She is working on a novel, and is represented by Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Noelle Catharine Allen