Station Eleven (Page 5)
“Take Laura and your brother,” Hua said, “and leave the city tonight.”
“I can’t leave the city tonight, not with my brother. I can’t rent a wheelchair van at this hour.”
In response there was only a muffled sound. Hua was coughing.
“Are you sick?” Jeevan was pushing the cart toward the door.
“Good night, Jeevan.” Hua disconnected and Jeevan was alone in the snow. He felt possessed. The next cart was all toilet paper. The cart after that was more canned goods, also frozen meat and aspirin, garbage bags, bleach, duct tape.
“I work for a charity,” he said to the girl behind the cash register, his third or fourth time through, but she wasn’t paying much attention to him. She kept glancing up at the small television above the film development counter, ringing his items through on autopilot. Jeevan called Laura on his sixth trip through the store, but his call went to voice mail.
“Laura,” he began. “Laura.” He thought it better to speak to her directly and it was already almost eleven fifty, there wasn’t time for this. Filling another cart with food, moving quickly through this bread-and-flower-scented world, this almost-gone place, thinking of Frank in his twenty-second-floor apartment, high up in the snowstorm with his insomnia and his book project, his day-old New York Times and his Beethoven. Jeevan wanted desperately to reach him. He decided to call Laura later, changed his mind, and called the home line while he was standing by the checkout counter, trying to avoid making eye contact with the clerk.
“Jeevan, where are you?” Laura sounded slightly accusatory. He handed over his credit card.
“Are you watching the news?”
“Should I be?”
“There’s a flu epidemic, Laura. It’s serious.”
“That thing in Russia or wherever? I knew about that.”
“It’s here now. It’s worse than anyone thought. I’ve just been talking to Hua. You have to leave the city.” He glanced up in time to see the look the checkout girl gave him.
“Have to? What? Where are you, Jeevan?” He was signing his name on the slip, struggling with the cart toward the exit, where the order of the store ended and the frenzy of the storm began. It was difficult to steer the cart with one hand. There were already five carts parked haphazardly between benches and planters, dusted now with snow.
“Just turn on the news, Laura.”
“You know I don’t like to watch the news before bed. Are you having a panic attack?”
“What? No. I’m going to my brother’s place to make sure he’s okay.”
“Why wouldn’t he be?”
“You’re not even listening. You never listen to me.” Jeevan knew this was a petty thing to say in the face of a probable flu pandemic, but couldn’t resist. He plowed the cart into the others and dashed back into the store. “I can’t believe you left me at the theater,” he said. “You just left me at the theater performing CPR on a dead actor.”
“Jeevan, tell me where you are.”
“I’m in a grocery store.” It was eleven fifty-five. This last cart was all grace items: vegetables, fruit, bags of oranges and lemons, tea, coffee, crackers, salt, preserved cakes. “Look, Laura, I don’t want to argue. This flu’s serious, and it’s fast.”
“This flu, Laura. It’s really fast. Hua told me. It’s spreading so quickly. I think you should get out of the city.” At the last moment, he added a bouquet of daffodils.
“You’re healthy enough to get on an airplane,” he said, “and then you’re dead a day later. I’m going to stay with my brother. I think you should pack up now and go to your mother’s place before everyone finds out and the roads get clogged up.”
“Jeevan, I’m concerned. This sounds paranoid to me. I’m sorry I left you at the theater, I just really had a headache and I—”
“Please turn on the news,” he said. “Or go read it online or something.”
“Jeevan, please tell me where you are, and I’ll—”
“Just do it, Laura, please,” he said, and then he hung up, because he was at the checkout counter for the last time now and the moment to talk to Laura had passed. He was trying so hard not to think about Hua.
“We’re about to close,” the clerk said.
“This is my last time through,” he told her. “You must think I’m a nut.”
“I’ve seen worse.” He’d scared her, he realized. She’d heard some of his phone calls, and there was the television with its unsettling news.
“Well, just trying to prepare.”
“You never know when something disastrous might happen,” Jeevan said.
“That?” She gestured toward the television. “It’ll be like SARS,” she said. “They made such a big deal about it, then it blew over so fast.” She didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“This isn’t like SARS. You should get out of the city.” He’d only wanted to be truthful, perhaps to help her in some way, but he saw immediately that he’d made a mistake. She was scared, but also she thought he was insane. She stared flatly at him as she rang up the final few items and a moment later he was outside in the snow again, a goateed young man from the produce department locking the doors behind him. Standing outside with seven enormous shopping carts to transport through the snow to his brother’s apartment, soaked in sweat and also freezing, feeling foolish and afraid and a little crazy, Hua at the edge of every thought.
It took the better part of an hour to push the shopping carts one at a time through the snow and across his brother’s lobby and then maneuver them into the freight elevator, for unscheduled use of which Jeevan had to bribe the night doorman, and to move them in shifts up to the twenty-second floor. “I’m a survivalist,” Jeevan explained.
“We don’t get too many of those here,” the doorman said.
“That’s what makes it such a good place for this,” Jeevan said, a little wildly.
“A good place for what?”
“I see,” the doorman said.
Sixty dollars later Jeevan was alone outside his brother’s apartment door, the carts lined up down the corridor. Perhaps, he thought, he should have called ahead from the grocery store. It was one a.m. on a Thursday night, the corridor all closed doors and silence.
“Jeevan,” Frank said, when he came to the door. “An unexpected pleasure.”
“I …” Jeevan didn’t know how to explain himself, so he stepped back and gestured weakly at the carts instead of speaking. Frank maneuvered his wheelchair forward and peered down the hall.
“I see you went shopping,” Frank said.
THE ELGIN THEATRE was empty by then, except for a security guard playing Tetris on his phone in the lower lobby and the executive producer, who’d decided to make the dreaded phone call from an office upstairs. He was surprised when Arthur’s lawyer answered the phone, since after all it was one a.m., although of course the lawyer was in Los Angeles. Did entertainment lawyers normally work until ten p.m. Pacific? The producer supposed their corner of the legal profession must be unusually competitive. He relayed the message of Arthur’s death and left for the night.
The lawyer, who had been a workaholic all his life and had trained himself to subsist on twenty-minute power naps, spent two hours reviewing Arthur Leander’s will and then all of Arthur Leander’s emails. He had some questions. There were a number of loose ends. He called Arthur’s closest friend, whom he’d once met at an awkward dinner party in Hollywood. In the morning, after a number of increasingly irritable telephone exchanges, Arthur’s closest friend began calling Arthur’s ex-wives.
MIRANDA WAS ON the south coast of Malaysia when the call came through. She was an executive at a shipping company and had been sent here for a week to observe conditions on the ground, her boss’s words.
“On the ground?” she’d asked.
Leon had smiled. His office was next to hers and had an identical view of Central Park. They’d been working together for a long time by then, over ten years, and together they’d survived two corporate reorganizations and a relocation from Toronto to New York. They weren’t friends exactly, at least not in the sense of seeing one another outside of the office, but she thought of Leon as her friendliest ally. “You’re right, that was an odd choice of words,” he’d said. “Conditions on the sea, then.”
That was the year when 12 percent of the world’s shipping fleet lay at anchor off the coast of Malaysia, container ships laid dormant by an economic collapse. By day, the massive boats were gray-brown shapes along the edge of the sky, indistinct in the haze. Two to six men to a vessel, a skeleton crew walking the empty rooms and corridors, their footsteps echoing.
“It’s lonely,” one of them told Miranda when she landed on a deck in a company helicopter, along with an interpreter and a local crew chief. The company had a dozen ships at anchor here.