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Read by Emma Galvin
By Edan Lepucki
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Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.
A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and deep-seated resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.
“In her arresting debut novel, Edan Lepucki conjures a lush, intricate, deeply disturbing vision of the future, then masterfully exploits its dramatic possibilities.”-Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
On the map, their destination had been a stretch of green, as if they would be living on a golf course. No freeways nearby, or any roads, really: those had been left to rot years before. Frida had given this place a secret name, the afterlife, and on their journey, when they were forced to hide in abandoned rest stops, or when they’d filled the car with the last of their gasoline, this place had beckoned. In her mind it was a township, and Cal was the mayor. She was the mayor’s wife.
Of course it was nothing like that. The forest had not been expecting them. If anything, it had tried to throw them out, again and again. But they had stayed, perhaps even prospered. Now Frida could only laugh at the memory of herself, over two years ago: dragging a duffel bag behind her with a groan, her nails bitten to shit, her stomach roiling. Grime like she’d never imagined. Even her knees had smelled.
She thought it would be easier once they arrived; she should have known better. The work didn’t end then; if anything, it got worse, and for months the exhaustion and fear tick-ticked in her body like a dealer shuffling cards. At night, the darkness gave her a skinned-alive feeling, and she longed for her old childhood bed. For a bed, period.
She had packed some things to comfort herself: the dead Device, a matchbook from their favorite bar. Cal later called them her artifacts. In a world so disconnected from the past, her attachment to these objects had been her only strategy for remaining sane. It still was.
She tried not to take them out too often, but Cal had left the house to do some digging, and he wouldn’t be back for at least an hour. Even though the sky was gray, the sun weak, he’d worn his plaid button-down and a bandanna around his neck. They still had a bottle of sunscreen, but it had expired and was as watery as skim milk.
“Stay inside for a while,” he’d said before he left.
Frida had linked her arms around his neck. “Where would I go?”
He kissed her goodbye on the mouth, as he still did, and always would. She was thinking, already, of the artifacts tucked away in an old briefcase, shoved under one of the unused twin cots. It had been a rough morning.
Cal had latched the door behind him, and once his footsteps receded, she went right for the briefcase. From the small pile of artifacts, she picked up the abacus. She liked to pull the blue beads back and forth across the wires. She counted, she tapped, she closed her eyes. Frida had played with the abacus as a little girl and even then had depended on its calming effect. Her brother Micah, two years younger, had one as well, red beads instead of blue, but one day, when he was about seven, he cut it apart and strung the beads onto a piece of yarn. He’d presented it to their mother as a necklace.
Frida flicked at the beads. She found herself counting the days yet again. Forty-two.
“I’m late,” she said aloud, and her voice in the one-room house sounded small and plaintive. The walls seemed to breathe in the words; they would keep the secret until she told Cal.
“I’m late,” she repeated, and willed her voice to stay steady. She’d have to tell him soon, and like this. She could not be freaked out. She would have to declare it, as she would any fact.
Frida pulled the last bead across the abacus. It would be pleasurable, she thought, to pluck the wire from the frame and let the beads fall. She would pop one in her mouth and suck on it like a candy. But then she wouldn’t have the abacus.
She put the thing down and sifted through the briefcase for something better. The other artifacts wouldn’t do. Not the Device, nor the matchbook, nor the ripped shower cap she couldn’t stand to part with. Not her mother’s handwritten cake recipes, already memorized and useless out here. Not the box of antique pencils, nor her bottle of perfume, halfway empty.
She knew what she wanted.
Unlike the other objects, the turkey baster had been new. She’d brought it with them precisely because they hadn’t had one in L.A.; it was something different, a simple object to mark a before and an after. She had liked the idea of using it at Thanksgiving, although she hadn’t been sure they’d celebrate that anymore. She didn’t think there would be turkeys here, and she’d been right.
Thanksgiving. That holiday was so quaint in her memory it felt like something from a storybook: Once upon a time, Goldilocks ate herself silly.
Frida couldn’t hold herself back any longer and pulled the baster out of the briefcase. It was stored in old Christmas wrapping paper, printed with gingerbread men and mistletoe, and she unwrapped it slowly. She had last looked at the baster a few weeks ago, and she had taken care to put it back properly. It could not be damaged.
At the store, Frida had so much fun playing with the turkey baster, squeezing its plastic bulb so that the air farted out the glass tip. Frida had wondered if they might use it to try to get pregnant someday: their own ad hoc fertility treatment. It was funny how that had been on her mind even then.
But, no, Frida thought now, she wasn’t pregnant. Couldn’t be. She’d stop thinking about it.
The baster had been on sale. The store, like so many others, was going out of business. When the first of them perished, it had seemed impossible. “A chain like that!” people had said. When she was younger, Frida used to go there with her friends to marvel at all the useless necessities: the soy sauce receptacles, the tiny mother-of-pearl spoons, the glass pitchers. Even then, she didn’t know anyone who could afford such things. When she turned thirteen, she spent all of her birthday money on a single cloth napkin. Her mother would have killed her had she known; things weren’t dire then, not yet, but times were tough, and Frida could imagine her mother decrying such waste. Frida had stored the napkin in the pocket of a coat she never wore.
But on her last visit, at twenty-six, she was no longer that same stupid little girl, or so she told herself. The place had been ransacked. Frida still remembered the starkness of the floodlights; they ran on a generator in the corner, illuminating the remaining coves of products, which were jumbled together in plastic bins. The register was by the entrance, and the girl who worked there accepted gold only, and not jewelry—it had to be melted down already.
Frida couldn’t conjure the girl’s face anymore, but she did remember her eyeliner. How had she gotten her hands on eyeliner? Perhaps it was an old stick of her mother’s, gone to crayon at the back of the medicine cabinet. She could have sold it, if she wanted to, but she hadn’t. The girl was barely eighteen, more likely sixteen. The place shut down a week later, didn’t even make it to Christmas.
By the following spring, Frida was celebrating her twenty-seventh birthday in an empty apartment, their belongings packed and ready by the door. She’d wanted to spend one more in L.A.; she’d been born there, after all. Cal couldn’t argue with that.
Frida held the baster by its plastic bulb, lifting it above her head. She imagined the store had probably gone feral soon after they left, like the rest of the businesses at that stupid outdoor mall. The Grove, it was called. Maybe in these two years it had sprouted some trees, finally earned its name. The famous trolley, rusted, its bell looted. The fountain, which had once lured tourists and toddlers to its edge, was probably dry; that, or sludgy with poison.
But what about the girl? Maybe she had been brave and stupid enough to head for the wilderness with only a bag full of tiny sherry glasses and cloth napkins to keep her company. Maybe a turkey baster, too.
Back in L.A., Frida had kept the baster a secret from Cal because she’d spent gold on it, gold they were saving for their journey. They’d saved for almost a year to get enough money for gas and other supplies. She had purchased something frivolous, and she knew it. She was still that same little girl, hoarding her treasure. She hadn’t changed at all.
Once they were leaving, she kept the baster a secret because she was afraid Cal would say they couldn’t bring it with them. They could only fit so much in the car, and before it ran out of gas, they would have to abandon it, carry their possessions the rest of the way. There was so much to carry, they had ended up making multiple trips with their stuff, and then they drove the car in the opposite direction until it sputtered dead, so they couldn’t be followed. It was a small miracle that they found their possessions again, piled where they’d left them, unharmed.
Frida had smuggled the baster, like she had most of the artifacts. Cal eventually discovered her other things, but she’d still managed to keep the baster hidden.
She’d initially intended on using it in the afterlife, in whatever way it was most needed. And then, one day, she realized she wouldn’t. Occasionally she toyed with the idea of snapping off the tag, which was attached to a string at the base of the bulb. At least it wasn’t one of those plastic threads; she used to hate those, how they would leave holes in clothing and require scissors to remove. Those doodads were probably the whole reason America had gone to hell, the plastic seeping poisons, filling up landfills. What foolishness. But she loved the turkey baster precisely because it still had its tag. She loved its newness: the pure glass of the cylinder, its fragility, and the plastic butter-yellow bulb still chalky to the touch. It inhaled and exhaled air like that first time. She had to keep it hidden. It belonged only to her, and the secret of it had become as precious as the object itself.
Frida was tucking the briefcase under the bed when Cal stepped back into the house, ducking to get through the oddly small door. She liked how tall her husband was, and his narrow shoulders made him look even taller: stretched. Every morning he combed his short reddish hair with his fingers; it was so fine that little knots formed at the back of his head as he slept, and he hated it. Frida loved that, and she loved how every morning he woke with crescent-moon bags under his golden-hazel eyes, no matter how well rested he was.
A fine veil of soil covered his shirt and face, and he’d untied the bandanna from his neck so that he could wipe the sweat from his brow. The room filled with the sweet stink of him. Their feet had started to smell—not the vinegary scent that had cursed Frida in L.A., but something fungal and rotting, a bag of dying vegetables. Cal had said they smelled homeless, and she agreed. That’s when they brought out their last Dove bar and their tube of antifungal cream. They didn’t discuss what would happen when they ran out. Their homemade soap, made from Douglas fir and the fat of vermin, smelled great but didn’t actually work.
“How are the traps?” Frida asked.
Cal shrugged and went toward the thermos. They drank coffee once every two months, a treat, and the rest of the time they filled the thermos with water from the well. On the morning after a coffee day, the water absorbed some of the bitterness that still coated the thermos. If the world didn’t end, and they moved back home, she would sell it to the cafés, get rich off coffee-water.
Cal filled his cup and drank it in one gulp, his Adam’s apple sliding up and down his neck. That Adam’s apple. He had once explained to Frida how Plato believed that the soul’s parts—its reason, its passion—were located all over the human body. Frida liked to imagine Cal’s soul, a sliver of it, residing in his slender neck, the jagged cliff that signified he was a man. He could never pull off drag with an Adam’s apple like that.
“I know you think the traps are ridiculous,” he said when he was finished drinking.
“I don’t. You’ve built dozens of snares before, and they’ve worked. Why would I question you on traps?”
“You didn’t have to.”
“It’s not like I rolled my eyes,” she said, approaching him. Cal did stink. She handed him a towel from the shelf of supplies and told him to wipe off.
He gestured to the holes out the open door. “These traps will be bigger than usual, I know. But those gophers are stupid. They’re bound to run in there.”
“But, babe, this isn’t Robinson Crusoe. Do you even know how to build a trap?”
He removed his shirt, so he could clean off his pits. “I did it as a kid,” he said.
Frida sighed. “For fun or for real?”
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
“You’re lucky you’re so clever,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
He’d been working so hard out there. Maybe the holes he was digging would also keep them safe from the bigger beasts: the coyotes, the bears, and the wolves, which they sometimes heard howling at night.
Cal had been designing the traps in his journal for a few days, the physics and all that. He said they had worked on his father’s land when he was a kid, and they would work now. Frida wasn’t sure what gopher meat would taste like, but Cal said, “Protein is protein,” and they couldn’t be picky. They’d eaten a snake once—Bo Miller had cooked it for them—and occasionally they craved that, especially in winter, after days of turnips and potatoes.
Frida took the towel from him. “I know you’re dying for meat,” she said. “I’ve heard gophers taste like steak.”
He sighed. “If I could just stop wanting it...”
“If only,” she said.
He was already on his way out again. Back to work.
“Wait,” she said. Would she tell him now? Forty-two days, she thought.
“What is it?” he asked.
“August’s supposed to come this week. Should we see if he’s got soap?”
“He never has soap.”
That was true. For over a year, August had been a fixture in the afterlife, something to mark the time by. He arrived once a month on his mule-drawn buggy with goods to trade and information to gather. He wanted to know how they were feeling, and he liked to share notes about the weather, too. Once Frida had a cold, and he’d asked her what color her snot was.
“Clear,” she’d told him.
He’d smiled and said, “It’s going to be real cold tonight, so bundle up.”
Frida had once traded August an acorn squash for a dented tin of evaporated milk and, another time, her old cashmere sweater for a knife, recently sharpened. As he handed it to her, blade down, he’d said, “For cooking, or weaponry.” A statement, not a question, for it was understood that all tools in the wilderness needed to be versatile.
August was a thin black guy, probably ten years older than they were, just shy of forty, and he wore the never-quite-faded desperation of a former addict. “A tendency toward the vampiric” was how Cal had once put it. August even called himself a junkie, and he was: he traded junk for other junk. He liked to say he was the last black man on earth, and he might have been; around here, all jokes looped back to sour.
“I want to try planting some garlic,” Cal said. “Maybe he has some.”
“There’s that look again. What is it?”
“It’s nothing. Go digging.”
“Whatever it is you’re worrying about, just don’t.”
She said she’d try not to.
Cal waved at her from the doorway.
“Breathe!” he called out behind him.
Frida exhaled. How could he tell?
He’d been saying that for as long as she could remember. He’d said it a lot during those first few months out here. He had kept her calm. Occasionally, his own nervousness about their survival spiked, and the air around him tightened, but most of the time, he seemed almost peaceful. It was as if he’d just returned from a monastery, his eyes gentle and open to the world, its good and its evil, the fair and unfair. Meanwhile, she could not even remember to breathe. It had taken everything to keep herself from saying, We’ll die out here, won’t we?
Back then, she and Cal were living in the shed, and they thought they might be there for good. Neither knew that they’d eventually have a house to move into.
They’d stumbled upon the shed, searching for a good spot to settle, and its presence had saved them. The truth was, they had been clueless, some might even say reckless, about their plan. They were headed for open space, and that was all. “I just want to go away,” Cal had first said to her. “I can’t stand how awful everything is here.”
Because she understood, Frida hadn’t asked him to elaborate. He could have meant L.A.’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and its sagging houses. All those dead lawns. Or maybe he meant the closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime; the murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying, and Cal had been right, it was awful.
The shed had been a sound-enough structure: the walls, floor, and ceiling made of wooden planks, a roof covered by six tires, held together with baling wire. Cal had said, “Let’s move in,” to which Frida had replied, “Yeah, sure, nice outhouse.” But she knew this shed was better than anything the two of them would be able to build on their own. Cal had done construction on his father’s farm and, a little later on, in college, but he’d never built a home.
“I can do it,” he’d told her as they moved their stuff into the shed. He said they could sleep there as they built an expansion. “I can do it with your help.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Frida answered. “You and me, alone.”
At first, that’s how it had been. August hadn’t found them yet, nor had the Millers, their closest and only neighbors, a few miles to the east. They later learned that Bo Miller had built the shed, years before. Their first four months out here, Cal and Frida had spoken only to each other, and sometimes that was the hardest thing, more trying than the planting or irrigating or the labor it took to build the rudimentary outdoor kitchen. Though she’d tried to prepare herself, Frida couldn’t believe that they were really alone. Just the two of them.
One afternoon, at the end of their first summer, Cal had just called her over to the shower, a plastic receptacle heated by the sun that they’d secured to a tree branch. They had done this back home, when the gas bills got too high, although they’d hung the warmed water in the shower stall. Now they were outside. Everything was outside; it was like they were on an eternal camping trip.
That day the air was still warm, but with a sharpness to it that hinted at the chill to come. Frida looked forward to autumn; she actually liked collecting wood and making a fire as Cal had taught her to do. It seemed almost romantic. But Cal had warned her that she didn’t really know what cold felt like. And he was right; she didn’t.
“Go ahead,” Cal had said, his hand on the plastic. He was confirming its temperature, and all she had to do was turn the plastic spigot.
Frida thanked him and pulled her dress over her head. She no longer bothered with underwear or a bra. She liked being naked outside. Right then she tried to catch her husband’s eyes, maybe shimmy her shoulders and bite her lower lip. Remind him how nice the line of her hips was. She might even say, Hey there, and smile.
But Cal had already turned away. He had the next task on his mind—the first one, perhaps, being his wife. In their four months out here, Frida had become a problem to solve, and once solved, she was invisible to him.
At the time, Frida imagined herself describing the moment. Maybe to an old friend or to her mother. Or online, as she used to do until their last year in L.A., before electricity became too expensive, before the Internet became a privilege for the very few. She had once kept a diligent online record of her life; she’d had a blog since she’d been able to write. Her brain couldn’t just let that habit go, and in her head she said, There I was, naked, my hair falling over my shoulders. But he didn’t care! He had become immune to my nakedness. The phrase was so silly, so melodramatic. Immune to my nakedness. But it was true. Cal wasn’t looking.
And all at once she understood: no one was looking.
That day, Frida stood under the weak stream of water, never as hot as she wanted. It was the end of summer, and the only thing this world could promise them was that it would get colder, which would certainly crush their morale further. The finality of their situation sat on her chest like a brick and pushed. No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away, the ones keeping her safe with their concern, keeping her okay, keeping her the same as before, and she was spit out as if from a Wizard of Oz tornado. She felt like she and Cal were really alone.
She’d been wrong, of course: they’d met Sandy and Bo soon after. But maybe that was why Frida didn’t like to think about that moment, because the Millers, who had seemed to be watching over them those first few months, weren’t here anymore. Now she and Cal really were alone, and her old fears were too dangerous to revisit. Some feelings were hard to recover from.
She needed Cal. Her darling husband. She would call him in from his digging, tell him she was late, and he would remind her to breathe, and smile at her with his gentle, beautiful eyes.
She grabbed her hat and pushed open the door. Though it was overcast, there was still a glare, and she wished, yet again, for sunglasses. A breeze rustled the woods, and a far-off twig split from a branch.
Across the yard, Cal was pushing the shovel into the ground, his back to her. Behind him, the garden looked crowded and lush; the squash had come in, and once it was harvested they’d plant the lettuce and peas. The land had not given up on them, thank goodness. They had both been relieved when the rains came—and the house hadn’t flooded. They had already lived through two winters here, and their third would be upon them soon. Frida would help Cal plant the garlic, if they could get it. If nature continued to cooperate, they would be okay.
Frida watched Cal push the shovel into the dirt and scoop it out. There were piles of dirt all around him, and the latest one was still small, the size of a science project volcano. Cal was muttering to himself, which meant he was worrying about something, unknotting some problem. She smiled and crouched behind the outdoor stove. She put her hands to her lips and whistled.
Cal lifted his head immediately. He looked past the crops to the line of trees there. Most were still green and lush, but some were starting to turn. Fall.
Frida whistled again, and Cal dropped the shovel. He was looking for a bird. She had fooled him. She saw him smile.
“Hello?” he called out.
Frida waited, her heart beating faster.
“Hello?” he said again.
Frida whistled back, Hello, darling, and this time Cal started. He slowly reached out his hand. Was it meant as an invitation? Did he think he was Saint Francis, that a bird would come to him?
She laughed and stood up.
“Fuck,” he said when he saw her, and shook his head.
“I can’t believe you fell for that.” As she approached, she put her lips together and made the sound again.
“You got me. Good one.”
She could tell she’d shaken him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Can I help?”
He shook his head. “No, but keep me company.”
Frida nodded and sat down right on the dirt; it was cold, and she moved quickly to a kneeling position. She’d finally given in and worn one of Sandy’s long dresses. It was made of denim and looked vaguely cultish, but it was comfortable and, with leggings beneath, warm.
She kept her eyes on the shovel.
“How deep do you need to go?”
He shrugged. “Deep enough.”
She rolled her eyes. She hated when he offered vague, poetic answers to her questions.
“I didn’t get my period,” she said. Why had she just blurted it out like that?
He looked at her carefully for a moment, as if willing himself to recognize her. “How late?”
“Too late. Thirteen days. You know I’m always on time.”
On one wall of their home, Frida kept track of her cycle. She wrote with a chalky stone, sharpened to a point with the paring knife. She’d learned the system from Sandy Miller, who said she’d served as her own midwife for her two children. Frida liked the tallies and the circles, the order of it, how the body adhered to some invisible system. She sometimes called herself a hippie, told Cal she had an intimate relationship with the moon, but they both knew she took the record very seriously.
“Pregnant?” he said. He could barely get the word out.
“Maybe.” She paused. “Or there’s something wrong with me.”
After they’d met the Millers, she and Cal had thought perhaps having children would be all right. Jane and Garrett breathed easily in this world and didn’t want for anything, had no idea there was anything more to want. Maybe it was Frida and Cal’s destiny to be parents. They even joked with Bo and Sandy about their families joining, as creepy as that sounded. Their children would mark the beginning of a new and better species, start the world over.
But Frida kept getting her period. And they made love all the time. Sometimes their lust was unquenchable, and sometimes they were just bored. Sex was the only fun, the only way to waste time. It replaced the Internet, reading, going out to dinner, shopping. The universe had righted itself, maybe. Still, no children. Now that the Millers were no longer around, Frida had begun to think it was for the best.
“So that’s what’s been bothering you,” Cal said now.
She nodded. “Maybe it’s just a nutrient I’m missing.”
“Meat,” he said, and nodded to his half-dug hole.
“I feel okay. I’m fine.”
“You think August has a test?” he asked.
She laughed. “I doubt it. Eventually, I’ll know one way or the other.” She brought her hands to her stomach; it was still flat. “But maybe he knows a witch doctor. He could bring her over here.”
- On Sale
- Jul 8, 2014
- Hachette Audio