Veronica admits there was a moment when she thought this was going to be glamorous. Everything was only just beginning to go to hell: walls and checkpoints going up, a scattershot of environmental disasters, self-declared militias on patrol. It seemed like a good plan they had, to be on a boat for a while. It was the kind of idea people had early on, when it still seemed possible that it would end soon enough and well enough, when the present seemed like an opportunity to make history. The kind of story a plucky filmmaker would love twenty years from now: mild mannered booksellers become pirate librarians! A thing they could tell their grandkids.
The pirate business was mostly theoretical. Performance art as much as anything. They raised the money for the boat on gofundme and bought it cheap from a photographer with dual citizenship who had decided to wait things out in Europe. It was a boat and not a ship, even after they painted it and gave it a handmade flag. They were going to sail the great loop, hang out doing banned book readings from port to port, then go home and fundraise for part two, a more elaborate trip involving cutting through Panama and sailing up the west coast. At one of the early read-ins they wore pirate costumes, but only because the local community theatre had donated them at their launch party.
Now, she and Grace are always in leggings and worn out tees, the kind of shirts her husband would have mocked her for wearing even to bed, if she still had a husband, which she did when this started. It has never been as heroic an endeavor as she hoped. They wanted to promote reading and storytelling and art and truth and for three months that was considered safely theatrical because mostly it was, and in the fourth month a border patrol boat shot at them when they tried to pull in to the national harbor. So, no more storytimes. Now they actually traffic in illicit text. Medical texts to the hospital and women’s health boats, banned books to people who promise to safely spirit them to other countries, notes and encryptions from one underground group to another. Veronica has learned to shoot, though she has not yet shot at anything discernable. Guns are easier to get now than ibuprofen. Grace has learned to homebrew beer on deck, which is worth more than money in certain circles. By the end of the first year they were on the terrorist watch list, which means there are no more safe ports, not officially. Their passports got them in anywhere once, but now most countries assumed that a U.S citizen at their borders is on the run from something.
Veronica has been on the boat or hiding out on isolated beaches long enough that the sun has darkened her skin to a color she’d never know it was capable of in the Midwest. She is itchy all the time and feels off balance on solid ground. In the first years the coasts had been riskiest, but now that it was not so much a country people tried to get into, inland was the bigger problem. There are zones she can’t legally go into anymore as a black woman, and even in the safe zones she could be asked any time for a passport or travel pass. When they must go into the interior for something, Grace does it and Veronica waits. She misses highway. She misses rest stops and artificial color and tasteless deep fried food and her body before it went skinny and feral, misses especially her formerly magnificent breasts.
She misses her daughter.
Lyla couldn’t be on a boat during the school year, Adam said, and it was only going to be for a little while, Veronica said. Which was a way of leaving, which was a way of not talking about the state of the country or their marriage. They’d spent the year before the election screwing away their anxiety, mostly not each other. The barista and Lyla’s swim coach and the woman who’d been in charge of the losing campaign’s local office (him). The visiting journalist and the bartender and the philosophy professor (her). Hard to say who’d been wronged first but clear they each believed it to be themselves. He thought she was being paranoid about what would happen next. She thought he was spoiled and stupid for not taking her seriously. He could have slept with an entire coffee shop’s worth of baristas if he’d plan for the worst with her, was her view, though he did not seem to reciprocate it. The year they met she got a tattoo of a poem he recited to her on their second date. Their second date was in the cafeteria of a hospital where each of them had a parent dying. It was also the location of their first date and the place where they met. A tattoo is not a scar it is a wound that never heals. A mild state of permanent infection.
They saw each other a few times. In Florida she had put on a cap and a fanny pack and gone to Disneyworld to meet them. Lyla lit up seeing her, lit up the park with her excitement about being in a place where you could still call the fear and shifting ground magic. Lyla was sunlight and laughter and Veronica’s beating heart, but also her face, her spitting image except Adam-colored, except pale and blonde and happy. Still, it felt wrong. She and Adam whispered in the fear of their hotel room that the trip had been a bad idea. The next time they were on their way back up north and Veronica could still cross borders, so they met in Canada. He looked at her like he did when they met; looked at her like she was oxygen and clean water.
The tech companies took sides and wireless signals were spotty for months. When she finally got through they were off the keys somewhere and Adam was all bad news. The city was out of clean water again and bottled was limited. There was some kind of new drug and it was bad. The teachers had been fired from Lyla’s school, which would reopen next week with new, properly vetted teachers.
“We’re going home,” he said.
That he was cryptic meant he must have thought someone else was listening, but he also knew what she would hear. Adam’s mother is dead, his father remarried and living in a safe zone, a zone that voted for all of this, a zone that even on a pass Veronica can’t enter now.
“You can’t take Lyla there,” she said. It was a statement of fact or it was a plea.
“I can,” he said.
He could. She knew that. She knows that. Her daughter is white until more months of summer sun than she will see on land, until someone sees her with her mother, until someone asks the right question and she forgets to lie. Even in what used to be her normal life, something in Veronica had suspected it would come to this, that even in the country she grew up in, no one who didn’t have to would in their right mind choose to claim her forever. Every time Grace comes back from the inside it is a small miracle. Veronica is on a boat. Somewhere in what used to be her country, her daughter is a white girl. Somewhere in who used to be her daughter, she is a ticking bomb. ●
Note: This piece was originally written for and performed at Symphony Space's Selected Shorts: Flash Fiction event in partnership with BuzzFeed Books.
Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN American Robert W. Bingham prize, the Hurston-Wright award, the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, New Stories From the South, and The Best American Short Stories. She teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To learn more about Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, click here.
Contact Danielle Evans at email@example.com.
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