It happened the first time the night of the tornado warning. Huddled on the floor of the pantry, Clare looked at the linoleum floor and breathed carefully—this was not social-distancing distance. A few minutes earlier, Clare had started to panic thinking about the tornado and how the cans would fall off the shelves onto them. So Jeff went to the garage and found a big piece of cardboard, and together, Clare and Jeff held it as a little roof over the family, making the small space even smaller, even more stuffy. She was the only one worried about the cans; she could sense the impatience of all three of them, and she could see it in Sadie and Trent’s faces. But there were too many cans, so many cans, because now she was shopping for two weeks at a time instead of a few days or a week at most, and stocking up when she could. Pooky-cat was mellow, curled up in Sadie’s lap under the cardboard roof, but the other one, Bartholomew, was losing his mind, yowling and scratching at the door to get out. Trent smelled like baseball practice and teenage boy sweat, even though all he had done was to practice alone in the back yard before the storm blew in.
Clare had grown up in Kansas and spent her anxious childhood terrified of tornadoes, among other things. Clare sat, too close to Trent’s armpits (everywhere was too close), and remembered the fears that had never come to pass: her house had never burned down, a dog had never bitten through her cheek, her house had never been ripped apart by a tornado, her parents had never gotten divorced. An eight-year-old who understood the difference between a tornado watch and a warning, she would go to the basement before anyone else in her family was worried, before the sirens, up and down the stairs several times so she could save everything she needed to before the wailing of the sirens began. Then firefighters came to her fifth-grade classroom and scared her about fires. At least with tornadoes you had warning—and there was a season for tornadoes. So then every night it became necessary to lay out a curated set of Important Things by her bed: her diary, her charm bracelet, a stuffed animal that used to sleep in bed with her but had to stop for fear of being unfindable in the event of a midnight fire. The collection changed over the years of the ritual, but it had to happen every night. Thinking all the time about tornadoes and fires and how a balcony could collapse onto your head if you happened to be sitting underneath it at the wrong moment didn’t feel weird at the time. She didn’t know the word anxiety.
The anxiety mostly went away for a while and then reemerged, transformed, when she became a mother. It was now the Worst-Case Scenario Generator™ (WCSG), a mental simulation application that allowed her to see a straight line of events connecting whatever her children were doing in the present to disaster in the future. She collected worries, here and there, from books and newspapers and friends of friends. She had read A Prayer for Owen Meany and had John Irving to thank for the awareness that it is within the realm of possibility for a baseball to go astray and kill someone instantly. Of course her son had to love baseball—whom did she have to thank for that? Trent and Jeff believed that the WCSG wasn’t real, but poor Sadie had inherited her own that managed to generate new and unique fears—powerful magic. Clare knew that other people had them, too.
And then a strange thing happened—after a lifetime of telling herself that the WCSG was overactive, was false, was really just her anxiety; after a lifetime of houses not burning down, not blowing away, never a balcony crushing her in a mountain of rubble at the theater, never raped and murdered in a dark alley or anywhere else or her face ripped to shreds by an angry dog—suddenly everything went to shit, and here she was in April 2020 breathing in the carbon dioxide and aerosolized spit particles of these people that she was already sharing too much space with.
“This sucks,” Trent announced, scooting out from under the cardboard to sit slouched against the pantry shelves. Clare darted a look at him and took a breath to speak, but he cut her off. “No! I’m not going to hunch under there for the next hour because you think the cans are going to fall off the shelves. That’s stupid and I’m not going to do it. If the storm gets worse or if the house starts to blow away, I’ll get back under there and we’ll die together with the cardboard over our heads!”
Not going to fight not going to fight not going to fight. Clare put her forehead against her knees and wrapped her arms around her ankles. Jeff and Sadie said nothing, and then Sadie tried to lighten the mood by talking to Pooky-cat. “Tell your brother to calm down, Pooky-cat. Tell him to stop scratching!”
“I don’t need you to tell me to calm down, Sadie,” Trent snarled.
Sadie started to cry. “I’m talking about the cats. I’m not talking about you!” she wailed.
A can of tomato paste fell off a shelf, glanced off the side of Trent’s head, and bounced in the direction of Bartholomew. The cat startled dramatically—six inches straight up into the air and then down again—and then bolted for the back corner of the pantry, digging his rear claws into Clare’s thigh as he scrambled past. Trent gave his mother a dark look and then moved back under the cardboard. After a few minutes, the cat scratch began to sting. This would be a terrible time to get a blood infection, Clare fretted silently. The house didn’t blow away that night, but the WCSG had never seemed so powerful.
By the next morning, the skin around the scratch was puffy and red, even though Clare had washed the scratch thoroughly before bed. She thought about the bacteria that had had a chance to get a foothold there in her skin while she had waited and waited in the pantry.
Her trip to the grocery store was an unexpected success—she found yeast! And everything else on the list, too. But as the trip progressed, as the cart became fuller, Clare grew anxious about how much the total would be. She knew they were spending less money overall—nothing to do, nowhere to go—but spending more than she was used to on any given purchase always made her nervous. By the end of each grocery trip, after an hour or more wearing the mask that made breathing difficult and fogged up her glasses, the astonishing total at the checkout stand compounded with the anxiety of leaving the house at all, a double-whammy of fear of viral shedding and queasiness at the thought of all that money leaving their bank account. It didn’t matter that they could afford it. Could they? Either one of them could lose their jobs, get furloughed. She thought about it all the way home, whether it would help to refinance the house, whether other accounting firms whose clients were less affected by the pandemic might be hiring.
The trip was exhausting, and by the time she got home, Clare was running a low fever, and the cat scratch looked worse: oozing stuff already. If she went to the hospital to be treated for a septic wound, she would catch the virus. She washed it again, dabbed some antibiotic ointment on it, and covered it with two bandaids. She was an hour later getting to her desk than she had planned to be, and just as she was booting up the computer to start working, she got a text from her coworker Moira that read simply, “Fuck.”
She replied, “???”
“Check your email.” Clare’s heart started pounding.
A five-minute video from the company’s owner was embedded in an email. She was sorry she couldn’t tell them face to face, she said, so a video seemed better than a written message. Business was down, way down, as they all knew from having less work to do for the past month since they had started working remotely. She kept her voice upbeat, her mouth in a smile as she ran through the plans for the new normal. When the owner was done, she pressed a button to stop recording, but there was a delay: her face sagged into nothingness, and she closed her eyes. Then the video ended.
Some time later, on a break, Jeff walked past the room Clare was working in. The sight of her stopped him. She looked up from her desk and met his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Carefully. Neutrally.
She stared at him, eyes wide open. “I can’t think. I can’t think.”
“What’s wrong?” he repeated.
“Furloughed. Half time. Half pay. Starting Monday.” She started to cry, a low, keening moan Jeff hadn’t heard before.
“It’s OK. You don’t have to think now. We can take a walk or have lunch and you can think about it later.”
“NO!” she yelled, glaring at him, before catching herself and regaining her composure. “Don’t you see it?” she implored. “I’m making it happen. It’s me. I have to stop thinking.” She slid out of her work chair and onto the floor.
Jeff watched his wife slowly rocking back and forth, forehead pressed to her knees, whispering, “I can’t think I can’t think I can’t think.” Slowly, somewhere deep inside him, his own WCSG, which had lain dormant since he was a teenager, hummed to life again.