By early December we huddled at home, speechless. If we spoke it was through faces gripped in early rigor mortis. Our neighborhood had gone blank, killed down by winter. It was too cold even for the remaining children to do much hunting.
I don’t know how else to refer to their work, but sometimes they swarmed the block, flooding houses with speech until the adults were repulsed to the woods.
You’d see a neighbor with a rifle and you’d hear that rifle go off. The trees stood bloodless, barely holding on in the wind. We sat against the window and waited, spying out at the children when they roved through. The children— they should have been called something else—barking toxic vocals through megaphones as they held hands in the street.
I hoped they wouldn’t turn and see us in the window, come to the door. I hoped they wouldn’t walk up the lawn and push their megaphones against the glass. And always I hoped not to see our Esther in these crowds, but too often there she was in the pack, one of the tallest, bouncing in the winter nighttime fog, breathing into her hands to keep warm. She’d finally found a group of kids to run off with.
If there was an escape to engineer we failed to do so, even while some neighbors loaded cars, smuggling from town when they’d had enough. The quarantine hadn’t been declared, but in our area they weren’t letting children through checkpoints, except by bus. Basic containment. If you wanted to leave, you left alone.
Even so, bulky rugs were thrust into trunks. Items that required two people to carry. Usually wrapped in cloth, sometimes squirming of their own accord, a child’s foot poking out. A clumsy game of hide-and-seek, children sprawled out in cargo carriers, children disguised as something else, so parents could spend a few more minutes with what ailed them.
Claire retired as my test subject. She stopped appearing in the kitchen for night treatments, declined the new smoke. When I served infused milk she fastened her mouth shut. If she accepted medicine from me she did so unwittingly, asleep, whimpering when the needle went in.
I couldn’t blame her, falling away like that, embracing the shroud of illness. But I did. I conducted nightly campaigns of blame and accusation, silently, in the monstrous internal speech that is only half sounded out, a kind of cave speech one reserves for private airing. In these broadsides Claire spun on a low podium and absorbed every accusation.
If I prepared a bowl of steamed grain and left it on the table for her, salted as she liked it, pooling in the black syrup, she passed her spoon through it, held up a specimen for study, and could not, just never could, finally slide it in her mouth. For Claire I cut cubes of meat loaf, and at best she tucked one or two in her mouth, where she could suck on them until they shriveled to husks.
Claire no longer slept in her bed and she seemed too listless even to maneuver to the crafts room, to the guest room, to anywhere she might be able to fall unconscious in private.
I was always trying to offer her shield, a modesty curtain, so she could come undone alone and unseen. She shouldn’t have to collapse in hallways. If necessary I helped her along, at least to a corner, where I could erect a temporary blind.
Once I found her asleep in the bathroom, one eye stuck open, leaking a speckled fluid. I crouched down and closed the eye, blotted it with my shirt. It opened again and she whispered at me.
I looked down at her and she blinked, perfectly alert.
Claire must have thought she was smiling, but that was so far from a smile. With my fingers I tried to change the feeling, to reshape her mouth. I couldn’t have her looking at me like that.
Her lips were cold and they would not stay where I arranged them. Her face had the weight of clay.
“Go back to sleep” was all I could think to say, and I draped a bath towel over her, leaving her to rest on the cold tiles.
At home I took charge of what remained of our dwindling domestic project, the blending of food into shakes, the cleaning of all our gray traces. I formed a packing plan, a strategy with regard to the luggage, mapped a route to outskirt lodging. Our pajamas, robes, towels, dishrags, these I washed every day, closing myself in the laundry room where the hot engine of the machine drowned out noise and thought. Against the hum of the washer I was, for a little while, nobody much, and this was how I preferred it.
I left Esther’s warm, folded clothes in her bedroom. Often they went untouched. Or later, after Esther had plowed through the house before returning to her gang, I’d find the pile toppled onto the floor, a heap of black crumbs, like someone’s ashes, dumped over it.
Claire’s robe went mostly unwashed, because she didn’t like to take it off, and if I ever found her half asleep and staring into nowhere from her resting place, she wouldn’t respond when I asked if I could do any laundry for her, she’d just smack her lips to indicate thirst.
“It’d be nice to have fresh clothes, right? I could clean these and have them right back to you.”
I tugged at her robe and she pulled away from me, threw an arm over her face.
“Your robe will be nice and warm out of the dryer. We could get you covered in extra blankets in the meantime. It’ll be nice to be clean. You’ll feel better.”
I spoke to Claire as if she understood me, but she only stared. I spoke to her through a stiff, heavy face that seemed fitted on my head solely to block me from speaking. I sounded like a man underwater.
As our tolerance departed for the speech of children, so, too, did our ability to speak. Language in or out, we heard, produced, or received. A problem any which way.
To keep Claire hydrated I’d have to peel back her hospital mask, prop her upright, and press the sippy cup straw through the gluey seal of her lips.
I lowered the mask when she was done and flowery welts of orange juice soaked through the fabric.
When it was time to clean her, I filled a bowl with warm water, settled it over a towel at her bedside. With a washcloth I soaped her neck and face. She lifted her chin, gathered her hair out of the way. I squeezed little pools of water over her throat. I placed another towel under her feet, then lifted and washed each leg, rubbing as softly as I could, watching the little streaks of redness follow my cloth.
Claire’s legs rose too easily in my hands, as though they’d been relieved of their bones.
With the last of the water I reached into Claire’s robe and washed her stomach, the skin that once held her breasts. I peeled her from the bed so I could wash her back, pushing the washcloth under the robe, feeling each hollow between her ribs, a sponginess I did not want to explore. Then I settled her back down again, pulled up her covers, lifted the mask from her mouth so I could replace it with a clean one.
She forced a smile, but a shadow had spread under her gums, a darkness inside her mouth.
When I brought her soup, warmed the long bread she loved, or offered Claire some of the candies that usually she could never refuse— baby amber globes with a cube of salted caramel inside— at most she would roll over, heave, pull the quilt above her head.
It was only when the front door swung open and Esther came in the house sweating, crazed, in clothing I’d never seen, that Claire sat up, drawing on some last reserve of power. She always wanted to catch sight of Esther, to watch her from a doorway, so she followed her from room to room, keeping her distance, and Esther tolerated the stalking. You could see in her whole body the effort she made to endure this attention she loathed.
Esther had changed. Her face was older, harder. Filthy from her outings, but spectacularly beautiful. Of course I must think this, I’m her father. Fathers do not easily succumb to assessments of ugliness where their children are concerned. Esther had never been a cute child, but she’d grown threateningly stunning in the last few months. She let her mother watch from a safe perimeter and she was considerate enough not to turn on her with speech, to stop and speak until Claire fell. Esther saw her mother in doorways, looked away, said nothing. It was her greatest kindness to us, that silence. I will always appreciate the restraint she showed in those last days.
Excerpted from The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus Copyright © 2012 by Ben Marcus. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.