This novel excerpt was written by Eileen Church in Catapult’s first 12-Month Novel Generator graduating class
’d last checked. If all went well, her sons would be home in a little over six hours. She had wanted to pick up them from the airport, but her husband, Alistair, had said that he had a meeting downtown and it made more sense for him to get them. She had conceded, but it left her with even more time to fill. It was barely past noon and she had already vacuumed, dusted, made the beds, put out towels, and checked to make sure her sons’ favorite ice cream was in the freezer. The last things on her list were laundry and making cookies.
She went into the laundry room and emptied the laundry baskets on to the floor. As she sorted the pile at her feet into lights and darks, delicates and regular, she came across a black t-shirt with Johnny & Willie & Waylon & Kris stacked in bold white letters down the front. Her friend, Veronica, had given her the shirt just after Penny and her family had moved to western New York twelve years ago. Their youngest sons had been in the same eighth grade cohort, and the two women had quickly bonded over their mutual love of country music, their Democratic leanings in a heavily Republican town, and their stay-at-home mom status. They had talked to each other almost every day, and went out to lunch at least once a week. Then less than a month ago, an aneurysm deep in Veronica’s brain had burst, and she’d died without regaining consciousness. Penny thought that was the probably one of the main reasons why Alistair had arranged for Ian and Kyle to fly out that weekend. They were all pretending it was for her 54th birthday, but her husband seemed to know how much, in the face of Veronica’s death, Penny needed to see her sons.
She picked up a pair of Alistair’s work khakis and put her hand into the front pocket. It was allergy season for him, and he seemed to keep an endless supply of tissues there. He never remembered to check his pockets before putting his pants in the laundry, and the tissues made a terrible mess if she didn’t take them out. Instead of a crumpled tissue, she found a small, flat packet with sharp edges. The shiny blue and silver square was instantly recognizable. It was the kind of condom her oldest son, Ian, preferred. For a while, when he was in high school, they were spread across his bedroom desk like he was begging her to ask him about his sex life. The closest she came was to tell him that she hoped he was using them for their intended purpose and not to just harass his mother. The next day, they disappeared, but whenever he was home, she’d find them in odd spots. She’d hand them back to him and he’d grin at her. Ian, however, hadn’t been home since April, and he wouldn’t be home again for, Penny checked her watch, at least five hours and forty-five minutes.
She looked again at the pants and at the condom, then she threw them both into the washing machine. She paused for a moment, then she reached down and grabbed whatever articles of Alistair’s clothing she could find—white button-down shirts, black socks, blue jeans, white undershirts, multi-colored boxers—and threw them in as well. She selected the heavy duty cycle, extra heavy soil, extra hot temperature, maximum spin, and pushed start. If it was all an innocent mistake, she would regret ruining his clothes, but if it wasn’t, then it would teach him a lesson about carelessness.
Penny had once thought that all marriages were, with minor variations, pretty much the same, but after thirty years of marriage, she’d come to believe that the successful ones created their own rules and that, sometimes, it was best if those rules were left unspoken. One of their unspoken rules was that if he was going to have affairs, he was supposed to be clever enough, and considerate enough, to hide them from her and everyone they knew. Leaving a condom in his pants’ pocket was unacceptable.
She closed the door to the laundry room and went into the kitchen. On the counter was two sticks of butter and a bag of Kyle’s favorite chocolate chips. Sitting around the kitchen table eating warm cookies and drinking fresh milk from the local dairy was one of the first things they did whenever the boys came home. It was too early to start making them, but, in that moment, she didn’t care.
She turned on the radio to the local NPR station and gathered the rest of the ingredients. A woman was being interviewed about the unusual and rather severe flu that had recently shown up in Boston. Nineteen people had already died, hundreds of people were severely ill, and emergency rooms throughout the area were overflowing. Some hospitals had set up triage tents in their parking lots. This wasn’t unheard of, the woman said, but it was something that usually happened in the middle of the flu season, not at the beginning.
Ian had been accepted into graduate programs in both Boston and in the San Francisco Bay Area. When he had been deciding where to go, she’d hoped that he would choose Boston as then he’d be closer to home, a quick hour and a half flight rather than a seven or eight hour journey. More importantly, Boston wasn’t in earthquake country. Right around that time, there had been an earthquake in Southern California. Twelve apartment buildings and three elevated highways had collapsed. Four hospitals were heavily damaged, which made it difficult for the 8700 people who were injured to get care. Close to a hundred people had died. At the time, she hadn’t wanted him to live near a fault line. Now, she was glad that neither he nor Kyle were anywhere near the flu outbreak that was going on in Boston.
She beat the butter and the sugar and the vanilla together, then she beat in the eggs, the flour, and the chips. The mixer created enough noise that she couldn’t hear the radio or her own thoughts. She was surprised that by the time she was ready to drop the dough on to cookie sheets,they hadn’t moved on to another story. Rather a man was explaining why he thought what was happening in Boston was caused by some sort of biological agent that had been created by terrorists to mimic the flu. Otherwise, he asked, why wasn’t it showing up in any other place? Boston, he said, was the testing ground. Once the terrorists saw how effective it was, it would start to appear in other places. It was evidence, he said, that as a nation we needed to do more to secure our borders. Do you know, he asked, how easy it would be for someone from a hostile nation to fly into Boston and release something like that? And if they could do it in Boston, they could do it in every major city in the United States.
Penny shut the radio off. Her sons would be home soon and that was all that mattered. Whatever was going on in Boston, whatever Alistair was up to could wait until after she saw her sons.
Eileen Church was raised on a ranch in Western Canada. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Medical Ethics) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as an editorial assistant for The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, as a staff writer for The World of Beef and Livestock Management, and as a ghostwriter. She currently lives in New York City.