Evolution by Epidemic
By Heather Marie Spitzberg
By day thirty Kat is never without the stemless glass of Malbec. She carries it as she might a cross or a stake to drive through a vampire’s heart: to the bathroom, then the pantry for more toilet paper (they shop at BJ’s), then the front steps.
“Excavating the entire lawn?” she asks her sister, Essie, who kneels, clawed hoe in hand.
Essie drives the spikes into the lawn and uproots a spidery clump of roots, grass, and dirt. “I’m excising this poisoned monocultural water waster. Sowing pollinator plants.”
Kat sips. The yard resembles a tilled corn field in late October. She points with her glass. “Why don’t you—”
“This,” Essie says, “is how I’m doing it.” Her mouth contorts around her tongue like a garter snake or little brown bat. “You shower this week?”
Kat, weary of fifty years of Essie’s impertinent faces, retorts. “You call your editor?”
“You detox from devices?”
Kat stops fidgeting with her phone and wills herself to ignore it. One glimpse, though, would take the edge off. “I’m going back to work.”
# # # #
By night thirty-eight, Essie still dodges the editor and is thankful she’d given in to the gray hair years ago rather than bothering with that mess at home. She sits in the wood-beamed living room lit by caramel light and flips through a Times Union. She’s not a Netflix or Amazon or Hulu binger like Kat or the neighbors across the street who co-quarantine with those other neighbors, prompting old man Carlisle to yell obscenities.
Kat, holding wine bottles, enters from the garage.
Essie flips from the Living to the Business section. “Tell me you didn’t tip the delivery person.”
“He drove from Latham and could lose his job tomorrow.”
“And you paid the cleaners.”
“I paid the cleaners.”
“Even though they didn’t clean.”
“Even though they can’t clean.”
“Socialist.” Essie tosses the paper on the coffee table.
“Write tomorrow. And ring your editor.”
# # # #
By morning forty-three Kat’s alarm wails with a neglected infant’s insistence, but it takes a shaking to wake her.
Essie holds Kat’s phone. “Twelve. You were in twelve Twitter fights. At least four with bots. This profile doesn’t even have a picture.”
Kat massages her temples and stumbles to the dining room. “I’ve got to log in. Coffee made?”
“Yeah. See you at lunch.” Essie descends to the basement.
Kat talks into her microphone, probably too loudly, like everyone else.
Essie returns. When Kat’s meeting ends, Essie says, “You’re formidable. I never knew. Mom would be proud—you managing three hundred people from a dining room table—exactly how she lorded over dinner.”
# # # #
By night fifty Essie, needing to unfurl, lolls on the rear deck. The rippling kill illuminated by the moon draws her ire. “Why did Mom and Dad buy a place on a stream, in a floodplain? On soils subject to slippage. Remember Delmar 2000. Call.” Poker with two is offensive, but at least it’s interaction instead of Tiger King.
Kat drops her full house on the table, cups her hands over the chips, then drags them from Essie. “Let’s sell.”
“And jeopardize some unknowing family, probably with kids?”
Kat shuffles the cards and sips. “Socialist.”
# # # #
On day fifty-two Kat concludes her call and stretches backward. She craves a walk.
Essie spreads heaps of compost.
“Come,” Kat says, “we’re walking.”
“If you must exercise, grab a shovel.”
Kat rotates her shoulder. It cracks. “Getting old for that. If I dig, you write.”
“If I write, you sleep.” Essie moves more dirt.
Kat motions to the shovel. “Give it here.” Essie needs insurance, so needs this editor’s gig, so must write.
# # # #
By night fifty-five Essie places tonight’s takeout — from Bellini’s, or Cuckoo’s Nest, or Umana, or another restaurant needing patronage —on TV tray tables. Essie loses track of Kat’s orders, but leftovers are assured. That mixed with wine and topped with self-medicating chocolate means Kat is up two sizes. Loathe to buy a new wardrobe, she will put herself, and by virtue, Essie, on a calorie-counted plan before unpausing and returning to the office. Essie doesn’t comment because she’d prefer Kat not moonlight with hits of Twitter to assuage her adrenaline and cortisol. Instead she says, “Dinner’s set,” and turns on the television.
They watch a repeat of Ken Jennings winning Jeopardy.
“This is that guy you told me about?” Kat pokes her pointy knife toward the screen.
Kat remembering means something Essie thought false — Kat listens and possibly cares. Essie twirls spaghetti between her fork and spoon. “I submitted the piece.”
Kat, with color in her cheeks that’s been absent for a decade, raises her glass. “Salut.”
# # # #
By day fifty-eight snow approaches. Kat delayed telling Essie the absurd prediction. Now Essie readies to scatter long-awaited (safety limitations) seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Company.
“Stop.” Kat rushes out the door, slips butt-first down the steps, saves her glass, but whacks her tail bone.
Essie runs to her. “Are you okay?”
Kat sits and rubs her lower back, but, to prevent Essie from knowing her pain or smelling her breath, won’t yell out. “I’ll be fine. Don’t spread those asters.”
“Why? They’re not invasive.”
“Snow.” Kat sips.
“If you watched programs other than Jeopardy.”
“Do you need an ambulance?
“Hell. I’m not going to the hospital. Now.” Kat stands to fake that the ache is nothing.
Essie paces. Her feet sink inches into the loam. “Like Passover. And that Charlton Heston movie you make me watch. Plagues of our own making. We can stop it still, right? That’s your work. That’s my work. We’ve seen what’s possible. L.A. had its longest stretch of ‘good’ air in decades.”
A brisk gust tangles Kat’s hair. She shivers. Wind is one of the changes, noticeable since last spring and not just in her graphs and charts.
Kat has more hope for Essie’s work than her own; art can be more convincing than science. “Keep working, Essie.”
Heather Marie Spitzberg is an environmental author, scientist, and lawyer. Her story Moving Sand, Moving Water, Moving People was nomimated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York's Capital Region with her family and unruly rescue dogs, Thor and Schuyler. She has two novels and several short stories in progress.