Eileen didn’t expect to enjoy the bunker, even when she heard she’d been selected as staff. She imagined crates of canned food piled at foot-thick doors, stalactites over itching bunks, corridors reeking of mildew. And Nico hadn’t even applied, so—what did love weigh? This was on the second day, when the fever was still confined to Indonesia.
When she arrived: a bright octagon hollowed from a New Zealand hillside. Solar-powered touchscreens and, even on the staff floor, a jacuzzi. Bedrooms the size of the apartment to which she’d clung through four years as a surgical resident in Williamsburg. Carpets and paintings in the corridors, and a minor van Gogh outside her room.
A park, even. Seven square and pathless miles of stern Matai pines and slim Kahikatea under a translucent dome. Ventilated, somehow. When it was built, in the eight hours of attention Twitter paid to the lifestyle-mag feature—Charles Peal’s Post-Everything Paradise—Eileen had tweeted ice-hearted private equity ghouls eating the heart of our society so they can survive the collapse they’re creating.
Now each dawn she walks to a meadow in the park’s northeast corner, where clover and cranesbill strive up to be drenched in sun. On the east verge there’s a nest of hawks. She found it on the second day, after dinner. A tall, red-breasted bird returning to a bleached treetop. The mate proud on a basket of sticks: black-winged aristocrats. Hooked beaks scorning the Zealand spring. In her purple notebook she drew one. It came out a lump.
Plenty of time to learn. From the stiff bird book in the maroon library, she named them: swamp harriers.
Today she can’t find the nest. Crossing the meadow leaves an apron of dew on her pants. At the tree’s base she finds a strange debris: the nest, fallen from somewhere, filled by a squirming fledgling. It’s featherless. Not quite a bird yet. It wobbles. Works an unsharp jaw. A hot poker of love is quenched in Eileen’s heart.
Birds are viral vectors, was the last thing the scientists managed to learn. Reservoirs.
Not every bird. And Peal closed the dome pretty early—probably not this bird.
Still, she stays six feet away. Finds a long branch and uses it to nudge the nest back together a little and push it toward the base of the tree. Tosses a bit of jerky at the chick, hoping that’ll help. Searches the sky for absent parents.
Eileen walks back to the complex slowly, with one hand on her lower stomach. She’s alive and there isn’t yet a bulge.
When she’s halfway back she hears the alarm. It bores a low E in her temple and then she’s running, pushing through the wet brush onto the lawn, touching her pulse in the airlock.
It’s the same people, the only people, in the Operations Room: Norman and Kennedy, staring at the wall of screens.
They’re watching a scuffed gang of survivors. Eight of them. The genetic elite in scrounged rags. A homemade paint-on-bedsheet banner reads NO INFECTIONS / NEED DYSENTERY MEDS. There’s a little girl, maybe eight, holding a distended stomach and walking towards the huge main gate.
Eileen looks at Norman, who’s technically in charge. Sitting in the big chair flipping the cover on the incinerator button open and shut. Other hand exploring his pec under the green sweatshirt. Boston Celtics. Eileen hates him serenely. A salesman, before.
“You are eight meters away from our cordon,” he says into the microphone. “Stop now.”
Eileen’s job in the Operations Room is to maneuver the cameras. Because apparently in Charles Peal’s billionaire mind the life-and-death decisions could not be given to a doctor but required a goon. Only a goon could be trusted. She’s going for a close-up when a woman comes up right behind the kid, puts a hand on her shoulder. Not an actual mother, Eileen thinks—a mother of choice. She would have liked to choose. Imagine: a goonless apocalypse.
The survivors say something that the outside mics don’t quite pick up.
“Probably amebic dysentery,” Eileen says. “We’ve got, like, a century’s supply of tinidazole down there.”
“Ninety-nine point seven percent lethality,” says Norman, like that was the only important thing.
“They’re not really asking to come in,” says Kennedy, who’s twenty-two. Basically a child. “We could, like, make a big slingshot. And open the door thiiiis much.”
“Ninety-nine point seven,” says Norman. “Drowning in your own organs.”
“That’s not the actual method—” Eileen starts.
“We could send it out in one of the drones,’ Kennedy says.
The woman takes a step forward. The girl follows her.
“Norman, wait—” says Kennedy.
Then eight fat stalks of flame bloom under the woman’s left foot. She’s ashed in an instant: pollen of cinders bearing south-southeast in the spring breeze. Further back, the girl’s ignited by the heat. Red leaves furling on her old clothes. Blind and backwards she runs.
“Wow,” says Norman.
“I think we could maybe have found a way to innovate, there,” says Kennedy.
The girl’s skin boils as she runs. Eileen suffers an obscure collapse. Here with a goon and a child, killing. For three breaths she feels an enormous pressure to die. When she doesn’t, it’s like every single rule—everything from 10th-grade Cotillion to Charles Peal’s 400-page Bunker Guidance Manual—has boiled out of her.
“Let’s watch The One Where Nana Dies Twice tonight,” says Norman, who’s a fiend for Friends.
“That was monstrous,” Eileen says. She needs to throw up, she thinks. Or maybe kill Norman.
“Fuck, Eileen. There’s work to do!”
Eileen looks away.
“We never know what day they might arrive,” says Norman. “So we have to be ready.”
Eileen does throw up: in the staff toilet on the way to the freezer room. But after lunch she goes back to the meadow, where the little bird’s still screeching and struggling. Maybe a ten percent chance it’s a carrier. Maybe twenty. She wraps it in her sweatshirt and brings it back through the dark wood to the bunker. It’ll kill her, or she’ll save its stupid little fuzzy life.
Kennedy Peaks filled out the bunker application form at an improv troupe party sophomore year, through the haze of three lime-a-ritas and two hours of yes-and flirting with a junior named Catlin, who he’d thought to impress by wittily filling out the questionnaire:
I am an extremely talented panicker…I will ensure the entire bunker is filled with nostalgic clutter.
Catlin’d rewarded him with four minutes of weirdly rigid kissing, then a year and a half of standoffishness. When he learned he’d been picked, and had ninety minutes to reach a private airport outside Madison for a drone flight to New Zealand, he thought of Catlin. On the second sleepless night in the bunker he found her Instagram account, where Bloody Mary brunches had, over the last two weeks, transitioned first to jokes about hemorrhagic Marys, and then to a couple days of optimistic thumbs-up-in-the-hospital posts, and then the pure wretched farewells and I-love-my-mother and please-can-someone-break-into-my-apartment-and-feed-my-dog posts to which Kennedy had, weirdly, begun to lose sensitivity, because by then they were a genre, the only genre.
Which is because everyone is dead.
His mother, in particular, is dead. She’d called while she was driving his father to the ER in Waukesha. Kennedy tried to reach her twenty-three times after that. She was too busy dying, he guesses. Not much comfort. The first week in the bunker he spent regretting his survival, crying and masturbating, building little shrines. Kennedy’d been at a loss before, about stuff like whether vodka or gin made for a better post-show party, or what seminars to sign up for at the Peal Freedom Leadership Institute he’d won a fellowship to between junior and senior years. Which was weird: he mostly remembers people trying to hook up with each other by trading Ronald Reagan quotes.
But he’s never been at a loss about just how? How to live? That first week, the chore list—8:30 am check solar batteries, 9:15 am inspect south comms array—was the only thing that kept him alive.
It had come, of course, from Charles Peal. And sometime in that second week he’d had this breakthrough, this moment of clarity: while Kennedy was trying out for improv Charles Peal figured out how to survive the actual end of the world. He does remember hearing Charles Peal speak at the Institute, talking about the can-do spirit and the zone of influence, and thinking: hey, this is a lot like yes-and. And now he thinks: this whole hemorrhagic fever has proved Charles Peal right about a whole lot of things. And: it was a great idea to build a bunker, and to become a billionaire. And then: what if I handle the apocalypse like Charles Peal? What if I try to yes-and this motherfucker?
He’s not quite up to that, not every day. But he thinks he can hold it together until Charles arrives, and that Charles will have some kind of a plan—some way to get things back together. To start over. For the last eight days Kennedy’s been improvising. Engaging Eileen and Norman in rounds of One-Word-at-A-Time, doing new characters for every chore, trying to help everyone get through it. Just until Charles comes.
And so Kennedy Peaks is trying to meet this morning’s incineration fight with his very best yes-and: yes, that was harrowing, and they all just need to really come together in this difficult time, with some good improv games. Usually they all gather in the Entertainment Grotto after evening chores, and Kennedy’s even written up little cards with the rules and some good prompts, Foreign Film Dubbing and Story or Die and Sit-Stand-Lie, and he just knows it’ll get things back on track.
“Hard day,” says Norman, “We’d better watch something funny, to take our minds off it.” Everyone knows this means Friends, because Norman has this thing about Friends, and because he’s literally already gotten out the commemorative DVD case, which, the walk-in DVD room initially felt antique to Kennedy but now that the internet’s winking off seems like another smart move by Charles Peal.
“How about a zombie movie,” says Eileen. “Where they all die.”
“That might be too on-the-nose,” says Kennedy. “Listen—”
“We have to take our minds off it,” says Norman.
“Norman, I actually had a different idea for tonight,” says Kennedy.
“Or some nice porn,” Eileen says.
“Are we even sure that they have porn?” asks Kennedy.
“How could you plan to survive the apocalypse without porn?”
Kennedy tries to point out that it might be embarrassing to know what kind of porn the Peals had picked out, while serving as live-in staff, and to argue they should be doing something together and not just watching something together.
“Who cares what they think,” Eileen says. “We’re here. We survived.”
‘We should still be considerate,” Norman says, “just in case.”
“In case fucking what?” asks Eileen.
Kennedy tries to explain the rules for Story or Die.
“That’s morbid as shit,” Eileen says, without missing a beat. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter if we impress them,” she continues. “You’re both just living in the past. Like it fucking matters. We’re all just animals going around incinerating each other until we die, anyway.”
“Eileen, we’re watching Friends. That is an order. I’m ordering you to watch Friends with us.”
Eileen glares at Norman.
“Do you want to pick an episode?” Norman asks.
Eileen looks at him. “Yes, Norman, that is what I want today. I want to pick an episode of Friends.”
Norman looks really pleased as he hands her the DVD case. And then Eileen shoves the entire thing in the slot in the wall marked INCINERATOR, and flips Norman off with both hands, and stomps off toward the staff quarters. Norman curses after her, and then runs into the DVD room to look for another copy, and Kennedy Peaks—who is, after all, twenty-one years old, and who was a pretty good ultimate frisbee player and moderated a couple of subreddits and was really looking forward to graduating from college in just two months—thinks to himself: how would Charles Peal handle this?
Norman makes a point of carrying the new incinerator cartridges down himself: leadership. Heaviest shit in the bunker, a searing half-mile rep. There’s a handcart, and there’s already two years’ supply in the incinerator bay anyway, but he loves the thought of the muscles, splitting and knitting and holding. And the pain’s better, by about infinity, than the million nevers that the bunker hits him with, whenever he’s idle for a moment: never the meetings in Parsippany, never the rounds of shots in test tubes, never the desk guard printing a picture of his smile on a curling paper badge. Never the Celts, the Pats, never the drop of the bass or Sweet Caroline, or—never, never, never.
If Norman got to choose, he’d want to be quarantined with Phoebe and Rachel, easy. Easy. But if he couldn’t just choose the chicks? Still Phoebe, also Joey. Even though Rachel’s hotter, to him. Because those are the two who just love it the most. Love it: the way Norman does, or did. Being alive. He’s memorized every episode. Except for season nine, out of protest. At quiet bars it’s how he used to hit on girls: says that he thinks Friends is like the actual Bible. Everything you need to know to live.
On the day he left, Boston hadn’t gotten its first case yet. He looked down at Fenway and Gillette from the drone and thought: what am I doing? Everything’s fine. And then he’d thought: this will be like Friends. We’ll live in two apartments, and we’ll have jokes and play weird games and somebody will have a guitar. And eventually Norman was going to marry somebody, one of the other bunker people. Because Norman’s like Chandler. But also like Ross. And also like Joey, because he’s hot. So he was going to get married.
Instead there’s Eileen. Who’s cute, but is like the sentimental parts of Phoebe without the fun parts. The kind of person who thinks more about who’s getting incinerated than about who’s reducing their exposure. The kind of person who probably had a lot of complaints, who probably listened to NPR, even back then when things were great.
Kennedy’s just from the moon.
Last night Norman had thought he wanted to watch The One Where Nana Dies Twice, even though it’s not his favorite, because it had the death, that wasn’t death, but was, and this whole we-can-continue message, which he thought Eileen needed to hear, but it was like she didn’t even give a fuck what he was trying to do for her.
And then she incinerated the DVDs.
Which Norman was initially calm about, both because he was in control and because he was sure that there’d be a backup copy of anything as important as Friends, but then there wasn’t. And he’d been sitting there in the DVD room, which has this really nice carpet and an actual chandelier, and he’d realized he was never going to see Friends again.
Which. Was more difficult, somehow, than it’d been leaving Boston. Because now it’s like: where is he going to get that melt from? That feeling of everything’s okay, and all the problems are little, and everything will go on forever, and it’ll just be whatever we can solve in thirty minutes, with our friends. In the ten minutes he spent looking for another copy of the DVDs he felt like his face was going to melt, because never-never-never.
Norman sat down in the DVD room. He was in control, so he didn’t let himself cry. He set a timer and he let himself make really big sad faces, and he let himself tremble, for exactly 150 seconds. Then he counted to ten, and did twenty pushups, and used his commander code to go into the medical storeroom and take two xanax, and then he went to sleep.
It isn’t till he stacks the new cartridges on top of the old, in the big square pile, that he thinks of it. What he needs is a project. A really big chore. And what Eileen needs is Friends. To get that it isn’t that serious. And that they’re all Friends. And also he, Norman, needs Friends. And he has it memorized anyways.
So he uses his commander code to go up to the Peal residence floors, where technically he’s not supposed to go. And he feels a little weird about this, but not too weird. Because if Charles Peal wanted it to be more like Friends, he’d have gotten better people. Norman has some things to tell Charles Peal, about some of Charles Peal’s decisions. But right now Norman is going to make it more like Friends. Charles turns out to have a lot of great Ross and Chandler clothes, and Naomi Peal has everything you need for the girls, but he has to scrounge a little for the Joey outfits. With the colors.
But by dinnertime? By the time he’s usually sitting down to watch Friends? Instead he’s in the Peal’s living room, with two cameras pointed at him, doing all the Chandler lines from The One with the Embryos. He’ll do Joey next, and then Ross, and then he’ll see if he can pull off the girls. That’s what’s going to fix this.
The best thing Eileen could find for the bird was the second-smallest dollhouse. A Tudor. The facade hinged out so the Peals’ future child could look into all the rooms. Eileen smashed the little settees and four-poster beds and used the debris to make a nest in the dining room. Laid the little bird in there—wearing gloves, and bandages underneath—under a tiny oil replica of Starry Night. Has been trying to arrange some kind of warming system: a hot plate glued to the Grand Foyer, just beneath.
She refuses categorically to name it.
Imprinting, she keeps thinking. She has to be screwing it up. Even if it survives it’ll wander the world not knowing it’s a hawk, thinking it’s an Eileen. What a fate, she thinks. But each evening she slides the house closed, and each morning finds it lying on its downy face, like a victim in a film, and every time it isn’t dead she feels like, okay, I can go on.
Still, she’s taking her temperature every hour. An ominous 98.9, this morning—still within the range.
She’d found the hawks on her first walk, the day she’d skyped Nico the single time, when he’d tried to cough “Someone Like You” as a joke and then shown her the blood on the Kleenex, and they’d bickered about how dark the sputum, whether he was in stage two or three of the virus, whether the color balance on her screen was off, and she’d also asked how he was doing.
“Bad. You know,” he’d said, and then they’d separately realized that she didn’t know: the only way to know was by dying.
When she called the next day it rang for hours.
And the job had turned out to be: keeping the lie, the imprint of that life alive. A dollhouse: polishing mahogany and defrosting vacuum-sealed pork cutlets, so that exactly two people plus whatever progeny could live exactly as they had. At the impossible gilded apex of human history. Wherever they were, anyway—“concluding business, taking extraordinary precautions.” Squeezing a last billion from the broken world, she’s sure.
But these birds. Building a home from spring’s rubble, the jetsam of last winter’s dying. Life in a knuckled whorl of dead things.
Partly she can’t name the bird because she’d talked about names with Nico, on that last call. Eileen had liked “Nico,” but Nico couldn’t bear it. Said it sounded like an epitaph.
Norman with his Celtics sweaters. With his Friends. She went into the DVD room at 3am last night. Mausoleum. Incinerated every Jennifer Aniston title she could find. Consoled by their unanimous badness, as films. Just to prove there was nothing. No friends, no Celtics, no neighborhood—no rules. Only the life you could make. What she’d really wanted to do was run out into the infected world, shaking her hands and pressing wet, live things onto her face. But the doors were literally locked, so: this bird.
Which may kill her. Or kill Norman. Even trade, maybe. All of them, and then the Peals when they arrive in their drone?
Eileen finds a bird-shaped hand puppet in a toy box with a blue star. Better for imprinting. But she’s not sure she wants to, now. She feels something can happen: what’s coming can be different. A new creature all together. Can be a hawk that thinks of itself as an Eileen, or an Eileen who thinks of herself as a hawk. Or as a virus.
Kennedy makes it halfway through his morning chores before he decides he’s got to get the other two to apologize to each other. He’s in the Operations Room sitting in the commander chair, playing with the INCINERATE button, checking the overnight comms dump: nothing on every channel, including from the Peals. Eileen’s in the nursery doing something she won’t explain. The Operations Room terminal says Norman’s in the residence for some reason. Norman’s not supposed to be in the residence unless it’s a Thursday, and it isn’t a Thursday.
Somebody other than Kennedy has to do some chores. So Kennedy tries to write a little speech on his way to the Residence, but when he climbs the eighteen steps he finds Norman sitting on the couch, looking toward a tripod set up in the center of the room, and before Kennedy can even open his mouth Norman says.
“Wow, Kennedy, right on time. Can you look into the camera and say, ‘This is a girl’s apartment’ for me?”
“What?” says Kennedy.
Norman takes a throw pillow out from under his baggy shirt. “Actually, it’s best if you come in again and then say it.”
“Say what?” Kennedy asks. Kennedy’s feeling more confident that Norman is wearing some of Charles Peal’s clothes, but he decides to focus on his priorities.
“Say, ‘this is a girls’ apartment,’” Norman says, “but you have to act like you’re furious and scared, and also like you’re Jennifer Aniston.”
“Norman,” says Kennedy, “you’re not supposed to be in the residence! They’ll find out!”
“This is a good project,” says Norman. “This is important. It’s for Eileen. Look, you’re a little girly, so you can do all the chick roles, and I’ll just do Chandler and Ross and Joey. And it’ll be a surprise. Like an apology.”
“What if you just do a regular apology?” Kennedy asks. This seems like it’ll take a long time.”
“Say the line,” says Norman, and it’s the first time Kennedy’s been afraid of Norman since arriving. “You have to just say the stupid fucking line.”
Kennedy goes down the stairs and leans against the wall and thinks.
Charles Peal’s talk at the Peal Freedom Leadership Institute two summers ago had lasted twenty minutes. Make yourself indispensable, he said, and then flew away in a helicopter.
Yes, and Kennedy has this dream lately where Charles Peal arrives. And, when he does, something’s wrong. Charles discovers brown guacamole in the fridge, or wipes his finger across a chair and finds a layer of dust. It’s not always something that’s Kennedy’s responsibility, technically, but Charles always blames him. Always decides he’s dispensable. And then dispenses of him: sometimes sliding down into the incinerator, other times hiking out with a backpack of cans.
Kennedy feels like, if Charles blames him, even if it isn’t fair, Charles will be right. Because Charles is the billionaire. The one who knows how to survive.
Kennedy just really needs the bunker to be in totally perfect shape, the kind of place that makes Charles Peal say, yes, everyone here is indispensable.
So he does a couple rounds of Small Face, Big Face, and then he goes back upstairs, and he says, “This is a girls’ apartment! And I really think you and Eileen need to talk to each other.”
“That’s not the line,” says Norman. “Can you say the fucking line?”
“She blacked out all the cameras and I don’t know what she’s doing,” says Kennedy. “Can you just come look?”
Norman looks around in a heavy way, like it’s taking him a lot of work to just hold his eyes up.
“You’re the commander,” Kennedy says. Then Norman gets up and follows Kennedy down the stairs and towards the nursery.
Kennedy feels like it’s a little weird that Norman didn’t turn the camera off, or change out of Charles Peal’s clothes, which don’t really fit him that well.
Eileen’s still in the nursery. She’s wearing this sort of weird sling. Norman looks around and makes this really good I’m Angry face, and then he sort of looks determined, which is a face Kennedy hasn’t seen him make yet today.
“Eileen,” Norman calls, “I’m apologizing. I want to apologize.”
“Fuck off,” says Eileen. Kennedy clambers over a stuffed pink zebra and notices she’s carrying something, in the sling. Is it an animal?
As they get closer Eileen steps away from the window, keeping an enormous rocking-unicorn between them. It’s sort of a lunchbox-sized object, and she’s holding a baby bottle?
“I’m trying to apologize,” Norman yells, but by this point he’s basically chasing Eileen counterclockwise around the rocking-unicorn. “You have to let me apologize!”
“Fuck off!” says Eileen again, but now Norman reverses direction and they basically crash into each other underneath the butt of the unicorn.
“A fucking bird?” Norman says. “Is that a bird?”
“It’s a bird,” Eileen says. Norman snatches for it but Eileen’s surprisingly quick to get away. “It’s a bird.”
“Guys, guys, seriously,” Kennedy says, “Charles would hate this, can we—”
“It’s a fucking vector,” Norman says. “We’re all—how long—Kennedy, get the, the fucking bleach!”
“Kennedy, don’t,” says Eileen. “It doesn’t make a difference now. I’ve been feeding him since yesterday. So if he’s got I, I’ve got it.”
Then she spits in Norman’s face. Right in his eye.
“And now you’ve got it,” says Eileen, “or else we’re all fine, so there’s no point.”
Kennedy’s first thought is, Charles is really going to be disappointed in us. His second is, I had better stay a minimum of six feet away from both of them, for at least a while.
Sometime after midnight Norman stops bothering to go to the bathroom to change clothes between shots. Between Chandler, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Monica—he’s given up on doing the Phoebe parts, none of the shots came out. He’s got 40% of the Peals’ closet in a glittery midden just out of the shot. The bathroom’s a cave anyway—about an acre of marble, and so far away. He just gets naked, right there in the Peals’ end-of-the-world living room, and looks at himself in the matte glare of the TV, and then climbs into whatever pair of fucking khakis he found in the closet.
Norman’s decided something about the hemorrhagic fever: it was a judgment. On people and places, all of which were weak. Norman is strong, instead.
Around 3am, frustrated by the takes he’s doing of Chandler’s shooting line, he decides to piss on the fireplace. Right under the TV. It’s got these big marble corners like some kind of fucking greek temple. He pees all over it. Afterwards he feels a little fiercer. A little—toothier. And does he nail the take? Of course he does. Success has him feeling a little frantic. Thoughts popping in his head before he’s had the chance to name them as thoughts. One’s of camping in here. In the living room. Or setting up a green canvas tent, right on the Peal’s bed. Driving little iron stakes right into the gel mattress. He imagines blood coming out.
He’s not sure what it means. He’s edited together the 16 minutes of male dialogue from the episode, but he needs someone to do the girl parts. He’s going back and forth on the question of whether it’s possible for him, Norman, to actually physically die. It would just be really great if he could watch some more Friends while he was dying. One way or the other. That one always escapes before he knows what it means. He’s been filming a lot of this on the couch and now there’s a flat metal urine smell and he’s ready to do something else.
Norman feels unusually warm. He’s not sure if that’s a symptom or not. He doesn’t feel like symptoms have a point. Symptoms aren’t goal-oriented.
It’s after eight, full-ass morning, when Norman realizes what’s wrong with the girl shots. It’s the lighting. He’s got to get the lighting so he can make his point. What is his point? It’s gotten awfully late, here in Norman’s brain. His point has something to do with solving problems. With, like, what you’re supposed to do or be, as a human being. There’s something about that topic that he knows and she doesn’t, even if he can’t remember it right now. It has to do with love, too.
It’s a lighting problem. All the Phoebe shots are so dim. The Rachel shots too. He takes the elevator down four floors to Storage, and uses the handcart to wheel every Christmas and Halloween decoration back to the elevator. When he gets back he puts everything up. He piles light-up pumpkins against the fireplace. He makes a nest of white christmas lights in front of the fireplace. He decides he needs to hang some on top of the TV, too, so he kind of climbs up the stonework on the side of the fireplace. The lights in his teeth.. He gets them hung up, and he decides to go for one more coil, and in order to do that he has to kind of lean—
When he falls his head misses the marble corner of the fireplace by about three inches. That’s when Norman’s own death pops, right up there in his skull with the camping trip and the time he went with the Mass General gang to Sovereign and they did the shots from between the waitress’ tits. That stuff’s always gone in a flash, but this Norman’s-death-thing doesn’t go away, and instead everything else does: he’s lying, crawling maybe, and he’s coughing, and probably he’s got one last plan to stay alive, to fight for another second of this lovely stale bunker air and of Eileen and Kennedy who he hates, just one more breath with them, and maybe—but no, he’s dead. That’s when he knows why it was so easy to leave Boston, why he never wondered about the bunker: he thought he’d get to be something better, here. Something tougher or harder or righter. But he didn’t. He thinks of everyone that died, and everyone that didn’t get a chance to come here, and he wonders if they’d be doing better than he was, right here in this exact moment, and he thinks, okay, if this is a judgment on everyone, I guess it’s a judgment on me too.
Maybe the corner of the fireplace would be best, actually. Like, if you love life, how can you accept that you will drown in your own organs? But it was kind of challenging climbing all the way up there.
What seals it for Norman is that if he dies of the fever, Eileen will also die of the fever, and then it won’t look like he knew anything she didn’t.
So he climbs back up the fireplace, and he’s measuring the jump, looking down and trying to figure out what angle to take to put his head right on the corner, but then all the lights in the room turn on, very bright and red, which he’s never seen before, and an extremely loud voice, a voice they’ve never heard before, says, NEW TRANSMISSION FROM PEAL-ALPHA, which is the callsign for the Peal’s private skystation, and Norman gets down from the fireplace and puts some clothes on inside-out and starts walking to the Operations Room. He can hear his heart beating in both ears.
Eileen concludes that there is nowhere for a bird in the Operations Room. Just the square metals, the million screens. She takes off her sweatshirt and tries to make a nest on one of the tension-fabric office chairs. Sets the little thing in the center. It looks sad. She doesn’t feel vitalized. Kennedy does: sprinted from breakfast at the name Charles Peal, and is now flipping on the comms terminals with shaky dreams-coming-true fingers. She remembers when she felt that way: two mornings ago, in the stillness, looking for the nest in the tall sky.
Now she feels untied: all the danger that attachment had held. Her promise to this bird is not to depend on it. To let it mean nothing bigger than the chance to care for something.
Kennedy has the comms screen all the way loaded by the time Norman mopes into the doorframe and leans. Yesterday she thought he was going to kill her. That she’d be some kind of blood sacrifice to the importance of Friends. Now he looks like a dirty sock: some rigor of anger suddenly gone. She guesses Friends was his birds. Or, birds are her Friends. The whole fever, that way: everything anyone had thought was real or had depended on. They’d been composed of people. People and their habits, their loves, their needs. All stacked up on top of each other until they felt as certain and solid as life. Then everyone started dying and it turned out there was nothing. Nothing existed. It had only been people, people all along.
The comms terminal’s a bright blue timeless color, a color you’d want to look at all night in the suburbs, if the world was intact around you.
It says, Transmission received 4:13:52.06 PM, Peal-Alpha to Peal-Omega
ARRIVING EIGHT MINUTES LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU ALL EXCELSIOR! —CP
It’s now 4:19, which means they’re arriving—Kennedy crab-scrambles to the radar terminal, which is right up there at the controls Norman won’t occupy. Mushes the radar signature up to the main screen. A green dot in an empty sky. Just north of Karamea, arriving soon.
“Eileen! Landing lights!” says Kennedy. She remembers she has a job to do: flips a switch, and the flat landing field out front studs with ruby and sapphire guides. Kennedy’s typing out a welcome message. Eileen tries to work the cameras.
Norman’s lumbered over to the big orange commander chair by now. He wipes his eyes and says, Okay, okay, okay. Doesn’t sit down.
Then it blorps down into the frame of the main monitor: a soft shape clinging to its four rotors. A white drop about to fall from the sky. Eileen thinks of Nico. Wonders how he died. Whether anyone was trying to care for him, whether he tried to care for anyone. They’d have failed. That was half the reason she’d really left: the thought of being the healthy one, the one who brought soup and changed bedclothes until the other was a puddle of red salt, and then lay down beside to die as well. Having proved that love wasn’t enough either. The baby was the other half. Now she thinks: what a horror, what a shame, what a horror. We were just getting started. We were all just getting started.
A smooth ramp drops from the copter and—there they are. The Peals. Tall and bronze as insects. Eileen zooms in on them. Waving. His starched white shirt and black blazer. Her golden gown. Like they were coming home late from a ball. She stumbles on the lawn and Eileen thinks: really? Heels? Eileen can feel Kennedy swoon. She feels she needs to pick up the bird. Kennedy’s yelling at Norman to open the gate, do you want them to think we’re not welcoming?
Then Charles stumbles. He’s not wearing heels. Sneakers. Stumbles again. Eileen catches something dark in his right hand. Not stumbling—coughing.
She thinks: maybe we can start again.
We are excited to welcome you to your bunker, is the first message Kennedy typed into the communications console. Felt that wasn’t welcoming enough. Felt he should have made a plan: to make a good first impression. Something to show how indispensable he was. Maybe he’d thought Norman would do it.
We are enthused to welcome you to your bunker, and eager to implement beginning your survival.
That one’s not quite right. Grammar’s weird. Enthused is probably wrong. At this point Kennedy’s definitely not the dispensable one. It is clear now that he is the least dispensable person in the bunker, the real leader, the problem-solver. He thinks Charles will definitely, totally notice that. He’ll be—it’s like he’ll be Vice President of the whole World, if he can be Charles’ right-hand man.
We are delighted to welcome you to your bunker, and to work to implement your vision for the recovery!
That one gets it. He presses send, and then looks up. There they are coming down out of the ship. They look like the future. Well, like the past. Which is also the future, which is the way Kennedy wants it. They look the people who were right, and whose rightness has let Kennedy survive. He really can’t imagine being in better hands than theirs. Charles’ll want to get to work right away. Kennedy’ll be the best worker. That’s the promise he’s making. That’s what’s within his power. That’s the difference he can make.
Norman’s in some sort of idiot coma state and not doing anything, so Kennedy has to go over to the commander chair to open the gate. He doesn’t sit. That’d be presumptive. In case Charles looks at the tape. Kennedy is going to show Charles all kinds of tape. He wants to look like someone who’s doing his best, but who still understands roles. Hierarchies. His place.
“Hey, Kennedy?” Eileen asks.
It takes Kennedy a minute to figure out how to work Norman’s commander controls, but in a second he feels the quiver of the building as the huge entry gate grinds open. It would have been good to decorate, down there. Red carpet, maybe confetti. A banner on one of the rovers. They should have given more warning, he thinks. Why didn’t they? Maybe it’s, like, a surprise inspection. To decide who’s dispensable.
“Kennedy? Hey, look.”
Kennedy finally gets a second to look up. Notices that Mrs. Peal’s tripped on something. Charles is helping her up. Of course he is. This compassion, in a billionaire. Kennedy is going to learn so much from this man. Charles covers his mouth to say something to her. Then she gets back on her feet. Leans on him a little. A sprained ankle? Kennedy’ll be the one to put the splint on, he just knows. He’ll volunteer. They’re coming closer. Kennedy remembers to turn on the lights through the whole facility. Eileen’s got the camera tracking smoothly on the Peals, and they’re close now. Fifty meters.
Charles Peal’s face goes tight, loose, tight, like he’s doing Big Face Small Face, and then a dividend of crimson spills from his mouth, down onto the front of his bright white shirt. He fingers the stain and then looks at the fingers.
“Ken, is that—” Norman asks. It’s the first thing he’s said in minutes. “Whatever. Actually.”
“What the fuck,” says Eileen. “Do they have it?”
“It’s Charles Peal,” says Kennedy. “It’s Charles Peal.” This thought seems to be the only one he’s capable of having. It’s Charles Peal, 30 meters from the garage.
Kennedy would have really considered dying for Charles Peal. If there was some kind of a swap he could do.
He’s not super-convinced by dying with Charles Peal, as a prompt.
What Charles Peal would do, Kennedy thinks, is cut your losses. Don’t try to save a failing business sector out of sentimentality.
What Charles Peal would do, Kennedy thinks, is keep in mind it’s not personal. Business isn’t personal.
Kennedy doesn’t play with the incinerator switch. He just flips the cover up and presses the button with his whole palm, hard, for a whole thirty seconds. All that’s left is one of Charles’s shoes.
Eileen puts her bird back in the sling. Walks toward the monitors with her arms out wide. Says something soft to the bird. Walks really slowly. Like she’s going into a river.
Kennedy thinks: that was the right decision. Yes, and, now we are really going to have to figure something out. Looks around at Eileen and Norman. They need leadership, and he can do it. If Eileen can save a baby bird. If Norman can film Friends on his own.
Yes, and he wishes Charles could see how decisive he was. How indispensable. What kind of leadership he’s showing.