FICTION December 2, 2022

While We Can

When Abigail stretched out her arms and chirped in her sweet, piping voice, "We're all going to die!" we couldn't help but laugh because Abigail was a nine-year-old child and, in the afternoon glow of the playground, with the sparrows playing accompaniment, her words sounded so implausible, so absurd, as if they weren't true at all.

In February, our parents grew gills in front of their ears and went to coughing and hiccupping. It was the same year we put the dog down—poor thing. She took the injection and melted into my lap, limp and lifeless as a mink stole. But her eyes were still open, still glistening at me with that old trust. I closed them with my fingertips, like I'd seen in the movies. A sob escaped my throat, involuntary as laughter.

At the onset of the thing, when everyone stopped kissing and embracing and the boomers began to grapple their chests and spar for air, we wondered if maybe it wasn't their karmic reward. Burying the earth in trash heaps, shearing off all the old growth, murking the waters in the rime of chemicals and plastics. Such a careless reign. Consumers, boomers, tumors. White, insatiable, swollen, growing more spiteful by the season.

But when the lights among them—those who'd shown bravery and finesse—began to flicker out, we repented our evil thoughts, and our anger dissolved like sugar into coffee.

The schools closed, and we stocked up on canned beans and fever-reducers and slow-cooked chicken soup until the house was redolent with onions and schmaltz, like my Bubbe's old apartment in Hallandale Beach. I read Tolkien aloud to the children, and they ate everything and thickened with muscle and seemed impervious. My wife and I made love every night, and we fell asleep watching song-and-dance numbers from the 1950s. Summer came, and nothing changed. The sun hung out back like a ripe gold peach. 

The word pandemic, we learned, derived from the Greek word pan, which meant “all,” and demos, for “people.”

I promised the children I'd look for a new dog, and in June I drove a couple of hours out of town and came home with a brindle puppy that could pass for the brood of our recently departed, only with a corkscrew tail and confused, bulbous eyes. We huddled on the couch and caressed the creature and scrolled through luminous images of our past selves. The children giggled at their baby-faced miniatures, which seemed to them surreal approximations of reality.

Two years prior, on the stony grasslands of Crowheart, Wyoming, our heads tilted to the sky, we stared through eclipse binoculars at the fiery nimbus encircling the sun. Our bodies stood slack, in shock or submission, as if our mother star had been extinguished and here was her remnant smoke. We watched the corona uncoil in wisps of irradiant energy, and then the sun flared out from its hiding place, the darkness rushed east, and the hills awakened from the false night.

Now, in a conclave of a different sort, we wait as the corona dances and unravels around us. The distance between our present and past selves expands like an impassable sea. We had been reluctant, then, to accept the idea that the sun and the moon could be exactly the same size. It seemed a ruse, an unthinkable coincidence.

But we learn to ask such questions. To live while we can. And after a few glasses of wine, we can still bring ourselves to laugh at the thing Abigail had said. So naive, so sensible, in the end.

Dan Reiter's experiments with the short form have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. Recent works are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Paris Review slush piles.