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by Becky Tuch

 

Fred’s phone was ringing. Her daughter.

“It’s ready,” Lily told her. “You can come anytime now.”

“What’s ready?” One of the few perks of being in your seventies, Fred felt, was that you could pretend, at certain opportune moments, to be losing your memory.

“The room, Mom.”

Fred didn’t say “what room?” There was only so much pretending you could get away with before they genuinely started to worry. Then in no time the kids would be having conference calls with one another and speaking to you in low, grave tones about end-of-life care.

“Lily,” Fred said. “Sweetheart. I don’t need the room.”

Lily sighed in a loud growling way. “You don’t want to be away from your studio. We know. We get it. Dan set up the basement. You can have it all to yourself. Paint your heart out.”

“I don’t want to ‘paint my heart out,’” Fred said. “I need my heart.”

Another growl-sigh. An animal sound, though Fred doubted animals actually sighed the way humans did. Did tiger children get supremely annoyed with their tiger mothers? It was a question she’d contemplate later. Certainly she couldn’t ask Lily. Her daughter had, in the past decade or so, completely lost her sense of humor.

“Everyone’s leaving the city, Mom. Haven’t you noticed? Do you even watch the news?”

“Since when do I care what everyone else does?”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

Fred set a tea kettle on the stove. She watched the blue flame fan its hot breath out like the spokes of a bicycle. A stationary bicycle.

“The pandemic is real. Do you not understand that?” Lily was raising her voice now, speaking faster. “You are in the exact demographic that is high-risk. You are living in the most crowded city in the country. You…”

She went on and on. Soon the kettle began to shriek, while her daughter was also shrieking in her ear, and it seemed to Fred like everyone and everything had suddenly, in just a single instant, gone completely insane.

Lily took a sharp intake of breath, but Fred cut her off before she spoke again. “I’ll be careful,” she assured her daughter.

“I would just feel so much better if you came here.”

“I know. But it’s really not necessary.” She poured hot water into her mug. “I’ll wear a whaddyacall it.”

“A mask? Jesus, Mom.”

Fred dropped a tea bag into the water, then told her daughter she had to get off the phone. Which was true. She had to get to the studio before her skin flew off her bones. Anyway, she could bear this not a second longer. Her sweet and playful child now grown into a wild-eyed, over-caffeinated, manic obsessive news junkie. Fred didn’t like hysteria. What you did, when you encountered it,
was you disengaged and walked away.

It wasn’t that Fred didn’t think this thing was real. Every day at one p.m., she set down her brushes or charcoal, whatever it was she was working with, and went down to her apartment for her lunch of chicken salad (or sometimes tuna) and whole wheat toast. As she prepared her lunch and ate it at her table by the window, or sometimes out on her fire escape, she listened to the news.

She liked Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow! Amy was a woman like Fred, still working past retirement age. She had, like Fred, let her hair go out natural gray, her vocal chords crackling from age and use, with a left eyelid that drooped a little lower with each passing hour. Fred did not agree with all of Amy’s views, but she liked the spunk of the woman, how she still hounded politicians or went to protests or got herself arrested, sprigs of silver hair whisking across her time-worn face.

In the last few weeks, Amy had moved her show headquarters from DC to New York City, “the heart of the pandemic.” She now began her segment each day with case counts and death numbers, the spiky red virus blob practically bouncing around the woman’s head as spoke. And spoke and spoke, about the potential for overrun hospitals, the low supply of ventilators. The need for field hospitals, the coming nightmare for nursing homes. Caskets, piling up all over Europe. Cities, running out of space to bury the dead.

So it wasn’t that Fred was unfamiliar. She hadn’t, actually, forgotten the word for mask.

It was just, a person had to have some perspective. Wherewithal. Now there was a word that came in handy during times like these. Wherewithal.

In her studio now, Fred unwrapped the cellophane she’d laid across her painting tray yesterday to keep her paints from drying up. “Can you believe them? They want me to go live with them.”

She spoke to her work. Was this typical of artists? She had no idea. Though she suspected it was not atypical, particularly when you got to a certain age.

Usually, it was Albert she imagined she was speaking to. Albert whose cool levelheadedness could be summoned with a particular shade of gray. Or sometimes with a certain hue of pinkish tan. On some humid days, Fred could smell that particular Albert smell from when he first woke up in the mornings, by blending white lines into a deep, saturated umber.

It was not his death that led to her speaking to him in her studio, but it was when Albert died that Fred had stripped her palette down to only white, black, and shades and tints of red. These were the colors that made her feel closest to him. In a dab of shaded gray she recalled the deep rumble of his voice; in a flash of pink she could feel in her very flesh the sweet creep of his half-smile whenever she made him unexpectedly laugh.

Fred dabbed her brush into the painting tray, whirling it around
deep into the red. She felt Albert’s hand on hers. A steadying hand, a loving hand.

“You’ve always been stubborn.” She swiped the brush at the edge of the painting tray, swishing off
excess paint. “It’s not stubbornness,” she told him. “It’s common sense.”

Outside the studio window a siren blared. In its wake, the studio rang with a pointed kind of quiet. She painted for a while, hearing nothing. Only the scrape of her palette knife, the clank of her paintbrush against the rim of a tin can, the thick slosh of turpentine. Albert was giving her the silent treatment.

“Oh come on,” Fred said after a bit. “Don’t you remember The Summer of the Sharks?”

It almost made her laugh, though there was something so sad in it. The summer of 2001, Lily a few years out of college, looking for jobs, home with them, and it was so very hot that summer, up in the hundreds of degrees, and suddenly, everyone was talking about sharks.

The Summer of the Sharks, they were calling it. Sharks were everywhere. A surge of shark attacks on both coasts. Children, getting their limbs gnawed off. Grandmothers, devoured down in the Florida bay. A babysitter, who took her charges to the Pacific Ocean, and now the whole lot of them, dead. Fred might not have even known this was going on. But for Lily, who had refused, positively refused, to go with her to Brighton Beach all summer long.

You’re afraid of sharks??

Fred felt like she was in a movie, or a dream, something so dumb she couldn’t believe the reality of it.

Mom, Lily said, and waved a newspaper at her. A mother was on the cover, screaming, holding a bloody child in her arms, out by the Mediterranean.

So Fred and Albert went to the beach by themselves. And did not get eaten by a shark, let alone even see the prowling pointy fins. But it wasn’t restorative and wonderful, the way saltwater was meant to be, because all the while Fred’s heart felt heavy, sodden with glumness. Lily. Their beautiful long-legged daughter. In the prime of her life. Gorgeous from head to foot.

And Fred wasn’t just being biased. The child was beautiful, had always had a swarm of admirers and packs of friends, had once thought of modeling as a career until she went to college and discovered The Patriarchy, deciding then she would be a legal aid instead. Still, she had Albert’s thick dark hair, his deep olive complexion, strong straight shoulders, tall and lean with long, powerful feet.

This healthy and magnificent creature, this goddess, refused all summer long to go to the beach, because she was afraid of sharks. And why shouldn’t she be? The way the news was carrying on, once Fred began paying attention to it, you’d think any minute a shark was going to rise out of the sewer grate and tear your face off.

It was absurd, all of it. And then, one day, it came to a sudden end.

How? Fred wondered. She made a streak across her canvas, twisting the brush, winding thickness into thin so the line wove like a rope.

Oh, yes, of course. That was 2001. At the end of that summer came the fall, and in the fall the towers were hit. And suddenly, it wasn’t sharks everyone was afraid of but Muslim terrorists.

“A person catches on, Albert.” She dipped her brush into a wet puddle of red, soaked it, and pressed brush to canvas. “A person loses the ability to keep panicking. One crisis after another and it starts to feel a little hollow after awhile.”

But Albert was still quiet in his particular Albert way: judging a situation but choosing not to say anything about it.

“Wherewithal,” Fred said. “That’s all I’m saying. Just a bit of it.”

She had felt sure he would agree. Sensible Albert, rational Albert. Of the two of them, it had always been he who had urged calm. Even in their sixties, Albert still handed her books to read to continue her learning on a particular subject, for which she was always grateful. Albert in his reading glasses; Albert with his shirtsleeves rolled up, thick veins running through his forearms.

Yet his voice was nowhere to be found.

Fred felt herself get agitated, standing back from the painting to look at it, crossing her arms, cocking her head, squinting. She thought there might be too much black, or too much heavy line, or not enough pink, or too much empty space. She blinked and realized that she was missing something entirely, that the painting was throwing out threads to her and she wasn’t catching them. Or else it was she who was throwing the threads, and the long canvas itself was like glass, all her ideas sliding down its surface, nothing sticking.

“Dammit,” she hissed.

She flung her palette knife into a corner, where it clattered and splashed onto the wall.

What she needed, she thought, was a different kind of contrast. She needed more red.

At her table of oil paints, she ran her fingers across the small plastic tubes. But something else was missing now. The red was not here.

Dammit,” this time with more emphasis, because she now remembered something she had genuinely forgotten, which was that this morning, before Lily called, she was going to go to the art supply store and get red paint. She looked into the trash bin, seeing the tube she had positively squeezed the life out of yesterday. She had gotten dressed, was ready to go, then that phone call had turned her all around.

“I suppose I’m not even supposed to go outside now,” she said.

Albert still wasn’t answering her, wasn’t saying a word.

“For god’s sake, Albert. Don’t tell me you think they’re right. If you were here, you would never agree to stay with them. Not in a million years.”

She looked toward the window, the unwelcoming patch of cold, blue sky. “If you were here,” she added. “We’d all be having a much better time.”

 

Outside, she listened to the dull patter of her feet along the sidewalk cement. In just a few days, more of the city had shut down, each little corner closing in on itself like an eyelid. She had never seen anything like this. On Broadway now, total darkness. The shop where she bought her Dansko clogs, which her doctor recommended for her chronic plantar fasciitis, was just dark glass with no one inside. A sign hung over the door: Order online! All items available! Full inventory!

Restaurants, one after another, closed and dark. Takeout only, said the signs on their windows. Fred saw a hostess leaning against a podium, her cheek slouched into her palm, the blue glow of her phone giving her face an ethereal alien look.

Fred suspected she ought to feel anxious. And yet, there was something rather nice about the city now. It was almost like walking around on Christmas Day. Except, of course, there were no families jaunting off to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. There was no sound of distant laughter from half-drunk couples staggering through the streets. There wasn’t much of anything.

On the corner, Fred passed the diner where she sometimes had lunch. The lights were off, the chairs inside all stacked upside-down on the tables. A sign hung on the door: STAY HOME, SAVE LIVES!
Only, someone had taken a black sharpie and drawn a line through the V and an extra L, so it read: STAY HOME, SLAVE LIES.

Fred grunted in amusement. Though Lily immediately sigh-groaned in her ear. Mom. It’s not funny.

What she actually wanted to know was, what happened to her daughter to make the girl so afraid?

A bearded young man in bright white sneakers and a hugely puffy black coat came toward her on the sidewalk. He made fleeting eye contact, then walked all the way off the curb and around a lamppost to keep his distance. He kept his head down, his body stiff with what looked like a blend of certitude and shame. As if he knew stepping around to avoid her was the right thing to do, and yet he was embarrassed to do it.

Not just Lily, she thought. All the young people. What happened to them to make them so afraid?

Inside the cotton lining of her coat, she clenched her hands. She felt aches in her body she hadn’t noticed all morning. The tight, sore tendons of her feet. The stiff back. Plus a strayness to her thoughts she didn’t like. This, of course, was what happened when she couldn’t do her painting. Albert slipped away and clouds set in. The wind blew and her eyes watered and her hips sparked with long-standing twinges of pain.

It was shortly after Albert’s death, Fred’s first Thanksgiving without him, when Lily announced that she and Dan had decided not to have children.

“What?” Fred said. Early morning sunlight pierced through her window like an assault. “Why?”

Then Lily told her. Because of the climate.

“The climate?” The coffee Fred drank rose up in her throat, sour and acidic and searing.

“We just feel,” Dan explained, as he and Lily exchanged glances, “the way things are going, that it would be irresponsible to bring children into this world.”

“My God, you don’t have children to be responsible,” Fred protested. “You have children because it feels good.”

“Right,” Dan said. “That’s definitely the attitude of a certain generation. And maybe if that generation had thought a little more about how—”

Lily placed her hand on his. She then went on to explain. How they knew that one of the drivers of the climate crisis was overpopulation. How they wanted to do their part, not contribute to the problem. How if you thought about it, really, the amount of consumption a family of three or four, well, consumed, especially plastic, not to mention all the toys manufactured in factories that had terrible safety standards and…

Fred’s jaw had fallen open and hung there. She had no godly idea what to say. Except that this was the Summer of the Sharks all over again. Only worse, because it wasn’t just a swim in the ocean her daughter would be missing but life itself. A baby. A family. The experience of motherhood. An entire state of being defined by a love that was itself indefinite, boundless, the very point of being.

To give that all up…because of climate change?

In Fred’s day, there had been bomb scares. There was a Korean War. Missile crises. War in Vietnam. There had been assassinations, riots, demonstrations. There had been AIDS. But no one ever said, Let’s not have kids.

When Fred was first studying drawing, back when everyone in the studio was smoking cigarettes and everyone in her classes was a man, they touched and inhaled all kinds of toxic garbage. Aerosols that burned your nose hairs and paint thinners that tore off the skin of your fingers. Someone lost his arm in a gallery elevator shaft, and they all used hot glue that destroyed brain cells and left their heads light and spinning. And no one ever said, Let’s not make art!

Danger existed. Death existed. It was risky to love and it was risky to live. Fred had lost her father to a car accident when she was four and lost more friends than she cared to count from disease and drugs and plain old age. And she’d lost Albert. If anyone knew, she did: Life hurt. Often in scary ways. Yet you couldn’t spritz the pain away with hand sanitizer or scrub the uncomfortableness away with bleach. You couldn’t put a mask over all that you feared. You lived head-on or you didn’t live at all.

Which was a philosophy about life that Fred did not even know she had, until now. Until Lily, her worried child, and Albert, her dead and maddeningly quiet husband, both conspired to wrench it out of her.

No matter, it was the truth. You lived and you lived. Until one day you stopped. And being fearful of the world, hiding from its sharks and its human beings and its climate and its viruses, simply would not change that fact.

The point was to live and love and love and live, so long as you were here. To Fred this just seemed so damn obvious.

The art store was closed. Fred approached the glass, peered in with her hands cupped around her face. Maybe one of the employees she knew, the young sculptor with tattoos all over his hands, or the aspiring video maker who had once explained to her more than she ever wanted to know about non-fungible tokens, maybe one of these feisty and passionate creatures would appear from the darkness to fetch her cadmium red paint like contraband through a prison wall.

No one, though, was there. A sign on the door encouraged patrons to support small businesses and order from them online. There was a code you were supposed to take a photograph of on your phone, and then their array of art supplies would appear.

Fred had neither a camera nor internet on her phone. She thought of returning home, trying to make the best of the remaining hours without her red paint, and started to walk but at the feel of the wind against her neck had a sudden change of mind. She would go visit Misty Hinkel.

She had not seen a single one of her friends since the mayor shut the city down. And of course, Misty Hinkel wasn’t just a friend but one of Fred’s favorite artists. They’d met during one of Misty Hinkel’s retrospectives, and Fred had all but blubbered out a rambling stream of admiration and praise.

“You’re a painter?” Misty Hinkel asked her.

Fred nodded.

“My advice to you: get a better name.”
It was that night that Fred had returned home and announced she would no longer be Frederika Louise Klugman, only Fred. They’d since been each other’s closest friends and most trusted critics, though Fred still always thought of her with her full name—Misty Hinkel—in both fondness and reverence.

Fred quickened her stride, turning away from the wind and up Misty Hinkel’s side street, the broad silent avenue at her back. Misty Hinkel wouldn’t be a lunatic about all this. Remember the Cold War? they might say to one another. How in school we used to hide under our desks because any minute the Russians were going tonuke us all to pieces?

Crises, Misty Hinkel would say. And every generation thinks they’re the first.

She pressed Misty Hinkel’s buzzer, then rubbed her palms together to warm them.

A screechy crackle, then her voice. “Ye-es?” Misty Hinkel spread the word out, sounding tentative, in the way you would answer the door if you were expecting bad news.

“A painter, a sculptor, and a lion tamer walk into a bar,” Fred replied.

There was no response.

“Ehhh,” Fred said, going nasal and sharp. “Someone order a pizza?” She slathered her voice with the Queens accent of her youth. “Eh, ah, extra peppa-roni?” Into the silence of the intercom, she pressed on. “Was it you, lady?” She dropped her voice, turning to a man. “Hey, are you the one they call Misty Finkel? Or wait, it says here, Fisty Hinkel? Hey, you up there, Feisty Nickel?”

“Why are you outside right now?”

Fred stepped back from the intercom. She looked up toward Misty’s fire escape, then spoke into the cold gray slats again. “Because there are trees? And sun?”

“They’re saying only for emergencies.”

“I’m seeing you, Fisty Misty. Isn’t that an emergency?”

“You’re wearing a mask, right?”

In fact Fred had lowered it to speak into the intercom. She raised it now, over her mouth and nose. “Yes.”

“And gloves?”

Fred looked at her raw red fingertips. “Thick ones, yes,” she said. “And I’ve eaten nothing all day except for peroxide and hand sanitizer.”

In the silence of the intercom, Fred heard a heavy, muffled emptiness. She looked up and down the empty street. There was still snow on the ground, crested with black streaks of grease, yellowed from the
rare dog. Just one week ago Misty Hinkel’s street was so dense with people she could barely hear her friend’s voice through the intercom.

“I wish I could let you up.” Her words were crisp now, ringing out into the cold air.

“I wish you could too,” Fred said.

“We really just need to err on the side of.”

“I know,” Fred said.

“Until we flatten the.”

“Yeah,” Fred said.

“I wish I could see you, honey.”

Fred began chewing on her lip, a feeling she couldn’t name fluttering up inside her chest. A sad kind of panic. A panicky kind of sadness. Like standing on an ice cap, watching the world beneath you melt away.

“Thing is,” Fred said, “I was just wondering if I might be able to borrow something from you? Some cadmium red oil paint. I’m completely out.”

There was another pause then. A door creaked open in some distant building, then closed with a dull thud. “Fred, honey, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. Me lending you paint.”

“I’ll bring you more,” Fred said. “I won’t even bring it here. I’ll put it in the mail.”

“Yes but.”

A delivery boy rode his bicycle slowly past, the spokes creaking.

“I don’t want to get you sick,” Misty Hinkel said.

“With paint?

“With something I touch.” She was speaking close to the intercom, her voice sounding nasal and flat. “They’re saying the virus can live on surfaces for three days. Maybe more.”

“Then wear rubber gloves. Don’t touch the tube.”

“I know. But my hands will have to touch the gloves. And if I touch the gloves with my hands, and then the gloves touch the tube, and then you touch it with your hands, and who knows how many more people you’ll even pass on your way back home.” Fred stared into the metal slats of the intercom. Her hips hurt.

“I understand,” she said. “Stay safe. I love you, honey.”

Misty Hinkel told her she loved her back, told her, too, to stay safe. They would see each other soon.

Fred’s phone was ringing. Her dealer.

“Some bad news, dear.”

“Don’t tell me.”

“We thought we might be able to stay open a little longer. Do the social distancing. But everything is shutting down. Even if we continued with the show, darling, no one would show up.”

Fred sat at her kitchen table, pressing the point of a knife into one of the deep knots in the wood.

“So what does this mean, exactly?”

“What I was thinking, we could put a large portion of the work up online. And then when things open up again, hopefully soon, we can combine several artists into one show.”

“It wouldn’t be a solo show then,” Fred said.

“No. It wouldn’t be.”

She began to scrape the small flecks of wood with the tip of the knife.

“It’s not a choice, really. I mean, if it was up to me.”

Fred was silent.

“You’ve been watching the numbers, I assume?”

“No,” Fred said.

“Well did you read the report?”

“No.”

“Regardless. Things are not looking good.”

“Sharks,” Fred said.

“What?”

Fred was silent, her eyes locked into the knot of black branches in the tree outside her window.

“Look. The show is not canceled. It’s all just temporary, Fred.”

Fred studied the tree. The wind must be blowing outside. She could hear it against the window. But the branch barely seemed to move. Only a leaf, green, maple, was fluttering, unsure whether to keep hanging on or to fall.

The museum was closed too. This was what did it. Finally, punching her right in the face. They closed the damn museum. Fred didn’t even love the Met all that much. She preferred the downtown and outer boroughs galleries. But she loved the Met’s presence, its weight and history, the aspirational heft of it. She loved living in the same building she’d lived in for fifty years, just blocks from the museum, one of the world’s best. It meant something.

And now, to see the lights off, to see it so bare and empty, she felt hollowed out. It was the last thing, and it was gone.
She entered the park and thought about Lily. She would go there after all. What choice did she have? She would stay with her daughter, and she would go back to that feeling she’d thought she’d finally shaken free of, the feeling of being enmeshed with family, one’s life—one’s own life—suspended.

She would turn to mush, what had taken years to erect inside herself, crumbling to dust. Weak and flaccid. Needy, dependent, old. A little troll, painting in her daughter’s basement. Dan would follow
her around the house, reminding her to sort her papers and plastics.

Lily answered the phone halfway into the first ring.

“I’ll need at least two hours,” Fred said. “Alone in the basement studio every day.”

“Oh!” said Lily. “Okay.” Then, “Of course. You can have more than that. I’ll talk to Dan. But I’m sure you can have much more than that.”

“And I’ll do vegetarian. But not vegan. That’s my limit.”

Lily laughed. “No problem.”

Her chest begun to feel tight, her breath coming in rapid short jolts. Might she have contracted it after all? The thing everyone feared? But no, she told herself. She’d barely seen a soul. The wind was blowing hard, carrying whatever there was far and away.

It was something else, a different problem that made her throat feel tight and sore, each time she swallowed.

“I was a good mother.”

“What?” Lily sounded surprised, maybe a little afraid.

“Was there anything you wanted that you never had?”

“Mom, what are you talking about?”

“I put you first. You never felt second to my art.”

“Never,” Lily said.

“You knew I was an artist. You knew that painting was the most important thing to me. But you also knew that I would drop it all to be your mother. You are everything.”

“Are you okay, Mom?”

Was she? She didn’t know. She thought she was okay. She thought she had a clear sense of things, that she could see the full picture.

But then with the curbside this and the flattening that, the numbers and the predictions and the online everything, she did not know what to think.

“The reason you and Dan decided not to have children,” Fred said, and it felt like when she was painting, a thing clawing up out of her body, lurching burningly for escape from within her. “It wasn’t because of me?”

“Mom?”

“It’s not an indictment, is what I’m saying. You don’t feel you were…” She searched the clouds for a phrase. “Badly mothered,” she said. Then, more tenderly, voice slightly quivering: “Do you?”

“I don’t even know what you’re asking,” Lily said.

“The only question. The one.”

“Which is?”
She crossed the bike path and stepped into the soggy meadow. Did I do it all wrong? That was the question.

You got to a point where there was more of what was behind you than ahead. And it was worth asking. Because if you were wrong about one thing, wasn’t it possible you could be wrong about all of it?

Maybe Lily had been right to be afraid of the sharks that summer. Who was Fred to say? Who was anyone to say? Maybe if Lily had listened to Fred, Lily would be at the bottom of the ocean at this very moment, decades’ worth of dinner for some bottom-feeding fish.

Quite likely she was wrong to resist her daughter now, wrong to put up a fight. All the signs were pointing to her going. Even if leaving her home and her studio and her city made her feel completely demolished. Fred pictured a bulldozer striking, bricks tumbling down, a bang and a clatter, heaps of dust floating into the air. Windows smashed to shiny bits of sand.

“We can drive to get you.”

“Fine,” Fred said, feeling distant from her own self, a floating voice with hovering eyes that watched the body of someone else.

“We can come this weekend.”

“Very good,” said the floating voice.

“You’ll like painting in the basement, Mom. Really. We won’t bother you at all. All we will ask is that you lay out newspaper on the floor. Dan’s a bit fussy about the wood down there. Oh, and also, he has a thing about drilling nails into the wall. But you won’t be drilling anything, will you?”

“I will drill nothing,” Fred said.

“Dan also has meetings, so he might need to use the space sometimes for that. But you guys can share. Or work out a schedule.”

Fred nodded her head, feeling herself shrinking against the phone. Sure, she could share the painting space. She would not drill. She would sanitize her hands. Maybe she wouldn’t even paint at all. She could just stop for awhile. And perhaps it was all for the best. Flatten the curve of her own life, until she was a nice straight line.

Lily was talking still, about mealtimes now and whether Fred would be okay with only eating vegetarian while she’s there, like, preferably not even buying meat or storing it in the kitchen at all, and it will be fun, Lily said, won’t it, Mom, for them to all be together like this?

But something now caught Fred’s eye. Down along the slate gray walkway of the park, across the bicycle path, and in the field ahead. A flash. Fred saw it, against the dark, brittle grass and against the black bark of the thick trees, and underneath the roaming clouds of the icy March day. There. Floating through the air.

A scrap of kite. Fabric, torn and ownerless. Wavering in the wind.

It was a perfect, clear, undiluted red. Cadmium.

A color that was so rich she felt her body heat suddenly with the fullness of it. Hot teary globs stung the corners of her eyes. The kite spun in the wind, twisted. Against the dust-colored sky, it appeared to glow. A perfect bullet of red.

“Wait,” she told her daughter. “Just wait.”

“What?”

“Wait for me.”

“What do you mean, ‘wait for me.’ We can come get you. You can wait for us.

“No,” Fred said. “Actually, I can’t. I can’t wait for anyone anymore.”

“Mom, you literally just said—”

“It’s okay,” Fred told her daughter. “I know what I said. But forget it. I’ve changed my mind.”

She heard Lily groan, and then her daughter’s voice went up in pitch as she began talking about all the usual things. Everyone was leaving the city, Mom, and they needed to work together, Mom, and god, did she know how completely unreasonable she was being, what a huge risk she was taking, and what just happened, anyway, literally like two seconds ago, she was ready and now, what, what was it, Mom, just what is going on?

Mom? Are you there, Mom? Are you still there?

Fred walked back along the streets, half-listening to her panicked child, but half holding it inside her mind, not letting it fade, this radiant red flag of life, flapping defiantly upward, sailing, unencumbered, red, such a perfect red, gliding unhesitatingly toward its future.

Yes, she told her daughter. Yes, she was still here.