SHORT STORY

The Plagues

The Plagues by Steph Cha
DAVID PALUMBO
In this short story from author Steph Cha, a pregnant woman and her husband struggle to feel safe with riots outside and a gun in the house.

It had been going for almost 10 minutes now, the furious wingbeat of a helicopter, somewhere above the house. Yuna—arms crossed, barefoot, 15 weeks pregnant—stepped outside and stared up.

She hadn’t left the house in days, even to sit in the yard. They had a nice setup—teak furniture, a propane grill—but it was like she’d forgotten that was something she could do, open the door and breathe the raw air. She’d grown used to confinement, her sphere of movement shrinking to the square footage of the house, its still, quiet rooms. The rest of the world had dimmed. Her memory, her need of it, fading with disuse.

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The sky was a cheerful, mocking blue, empty but for the helicopter, which hovered a few blocks west, its long black feet like the talons of a giant bird of prey. It bore the logo of a local news station. Yuna’s hand flitted instinctively to her stomach, the little life within. She hurried back inside and closed the door.

Arthur was in the den, on the couch where he’d spent most of his waking hours day-trading and watching Netflix since he’d lost his job the week oil prices dove into the negatives. He wore a monogrammed bathrobe, his half of a wedding gift from Yuna’s aunt, who said it was the same kind of robe they had at the Ritz. It had sat, untouched, in the linen closet for two years, until the first morning of Arthur’s unemployment, when he put it on with a pungently cheerful smile, saying it made him feel like Tony Soprano. It became a running joke. Though it wasn’t particularly funny anymore, only long-running.

He looked up. “Police?”

“News,” she said, sitting next to him. “Channel 7. Can we turn it on?”

She stared at the TV and felt an instinctive alarm before she knew what she was seeing. A crowd of people—bodies on bodies, hundreds of them packed together, close enough to touch. They spilled onto the street from the park where they had gathered. Most wore masks, but as a whole, they struck her as thoroughly exposed, their assembly orgiastic.

“Jesus, look at them,” said Arthur.

It was a protest. In a different state, police had killed another unarmed Black man. Yuna shook her head. Such a tragic waste of life. But she couldn’t help wondering—why were there so many people protesting in this city, less than a mile from her house, in the middle of a pandemic?

She recognized the street on the screen. Until a couple of months ago, she’d driven through it almost every day. She knew the park, the signs, the shops, even the trees that lined the sidewalk. But there was something alien about this scenery now that she was seeing it on TV. And all these people, writhing in a cluster, like an invasion. It seemed improbable that this was happening in her neighborhood. If it weren’t for the noise of the helicopter, she might not have believed it.

Arthur sat up straight and gestured at the TV. “This is just a fucking riot.”

The news coverage had shifted away from the protest to show a line of parked police cars, all of them demolished—windows broken, burned-out, spray-painted with slogans and obscenities. Yuna was trying to figure out where the cars were when they were replaced by another set of images: a column of smoke, a row of storefronts, a horde of masked men streaming in and out of one in the middle, its glass window glittering waste on the sidewalk.

She knew this place. “Angela’s,” she murmured.

“What?”

“That’s where I get my nails done.”

"The Plagues" by Steph ChaDAVID PALUMBO

She watched the men. What could they possibly want with Angela’s? Nail polish? Massage chairs? Before the virus, she’d been a regular, with monthly appointments for manicures and pedicures, the occasional eyelash extensions. The owner was a warm, overbearing woman from the same region of Korea as Yuna’s mother. The salon was always busy—no walk-ins allowed—and Angela had six or seven employees working on any given day, all Korean women in their 20s, fresh off the boat. Yuna hadn’t spared a thought for any of them—she’d had Arthur to worry about, and her own feeling of drowsy malaise—but her heart hurt for them now. The salon had been closed for months. Angela had to be suffering, and there was no way those women still had jobs.

“Angela’s Nails? That’s right here,” said Arthur, looking at his phone. “They’re coming our way.”

He was right. Yuna always felt silly driving to Angela’s—it was only two blocks from the house, and she would walk if she weren’t worried about ruining her toenails. The park was a half mile farther west. If the masked men had split from the protest, they were heading toward the house.

Yuna kept watching as the men dragged something heavy out of Angela’s salon. She recognized it before the newscaster. It was the ATM—Angela’s was cash only. The men banged at it with crowbars, baseball bats, booted feet, every blow a killing blow.

And they weren’t the only ones. Looters swarmed thickly, a plague of locusts, merciless scavengers consuming the city, block by block. They descended and plundered, sucked away whatever had value and left the husks on ruined ground. When they finished with one place, they went on to the next—or they scattered, jumping into cars and fleeing on foot. Here and there, police gave chase, but there were too many of them. They disappeared down alleys and side streets, into the neighborhood. Overhead, the helicopter roared, sounding closer and closer.

She thought she could hear her blood pumping in her ears. It was exciting, in a way, her body plugged into this wider chaos, electricity surging through her. But the thrill gave way to real fear. They lived on a residential block, but they were only two houses from a busy street—the same street where the men had ransacked Angela’s.

“What if they start targeting homes?” asked Yuna.

It sounded paranoid now that she had said it out loud. She waited for Arthur to reassure her—to say she was being silly, that a bunch of opportunistic looters weren’t about to graduate to break-ins when people were likely to be home. She wanted him to tell her she had nothing to fear. Instead, he stood up, tightening the belt of his robe.

Without a word, he disappeared down the hallway that led to their bedroom. Yuna sat on the couch, smothering her own flare of anger and wondering if she had said or done something to upset him. She couldn’t think of anything, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t found a reason. She was gearing up to apologize, debating whether to go after him, when he came back with a gun in his hand.

It was Arthur’s prized revolver, the jewel of his small collection. She hadn’t seen it since last year, when she’d invited a new coworker and her husband over for dinner. Yuna had hit it off with Jane, who was warm and sociable and a little bit nosy in a way that drew Yuna out. Jane was the first person she’d met in this town she thought she could be friends with—not because other people were so terrible, but she didn’t meet very many of them, and the ones she did seemed so settled in their lives, and probably had enough friends. Yuna had friends too, back home, even if they didn’t talk much anymore. Except when she was at work, Yuna didn’t talk to anyone much other than Arthur.

She had been relieved when Jane had accepted her dinner invitation and she had spent the whole day preparing, cooking from complicated recipes in a beautiful cookbook. The evening had started wonderfully. Food and drink and laughter, and Arthur at his most charming, with that vicious sparkle he got sometimes that had made her fall in love with him.

But then the night had gone too long, Arthur opening a bottle of wine that no one else wanted to drink. Before Yuna knew what was happening, he’d disappeared into their bedroom and come back with the revolver, dangling from one finger stuck lazily in the trigger guard. He told their guests to hold it, almost pushing the weapon into their hands. When they showed no interest, he took it back and gave them a stupid performance. He made a point—this, Yuna definitely remembered—of showing them the empty cylinder, then demonstrated how he would take down an intruder, pretending to aim and fire the gun. It was a silly, drunken cowboy stunt, and it would have embarrassed her if Jane hadn’t freaked out. But Jane had screamed at Arthur, accusing him of pointing the gun at her husband—ridiculous, thought Yuna—and then they’d left, not even bothering to make excuses. It hurt Yuna when she saw the way people treated Arthur; it made her want to protect him. When she saw Jane at work the following Monday, Yuna refused to speak to her.

Arthur plonked back down on the couch, slouched low with the revolver resting on his stomach in his right hand. “You don’t have to worry about some dopey looter,” he said. “Not in this house.”

She felt a surge of love for him, and with it, a jangling of nerves. This wasn’t a bad thing, not always—it was just how she loved her husband, the warmth and affection disturbed and heightened by sharper, harder feelings. She looked at the revolver and her skin tingled. It wasn’t pointed at her, but if it went off, the bullet would hit her in the thigh. “You loaded it?” she asked.

“Of course.” He stroked the hammer with his thumb. “What’s the use of an unloaded gun?”

There was pride in his voice, and she thought of the way he’d preened when he’d found out she was pregnant, how he’d told anyone who would listen that he had sniper sperm. He wasn’t wrong—it happened so fast that it shocked her, almost as soon as they started trying. She’d assumed it would take months, that they would have more time to grasp the seriousness of what they were doing, and she slipped into a daze—not of denial, exactly, but disbelief and a low rumble of fear. Even as she celebrated with Arthur and let him share the good news, she neglected to tell anyone for weeks.

"The Plagues" by Steph ChaDAVID PALUMBO

When she finally called her mother, she was already starting to show. She tried to ignore the hesitation, the catch in her mom’s voice that colored her congratulations. It didn’t surprise her, after all. Yuna’s parents had tipped their hand the week before the wedding, telling her tearfully that she didn’t have to go through with it, that everyone would understand.

The helicopter had to be right above them. Its chopping rhythm resonated in her bones as it echoed from the television, where she could see it follow a car speeding through the neighborhood. Arthur watched with an eager gleam in his eye. She could tell he was fantasizing, and now, so was she—a crash and a tinkle as their window was broken, a strange man’s leg crossing the barrier between outside and in. Arthur ablaze, leaping from her side to protect her. Her and their son.

She thought she felt the baby move. It was early for that—he was only the size of an apple—but there was a fluttering in her belly, and she wondered if he sensed the helicopter, the thrum in her blood. For a moment, she pictured him next to her. A baby, red and crying, outside her body, the safety of her womb.

“We can’t keep a loaded gun in the house when the baby comes,” said Yuna.

Arthur blinked at her, and she found herself hoping he hadn’t heard over the sound of the helicopter. “Why not?” he asked.

She smiled and shrugged. “Kids get into everything.”

“ ‘Kids’—he isn’t even born yet. Kids getting into things, that’s a long ways off. Why would you bring it up now?”

“I don’t know, I just thought of it.” She hoped he would let it go.

He slid closer to her, so she could hear him as he lowered his voice. “You’re afraid he’s gonna find it and shoot his face off?”

“Arthur.”

“You’ll be cooking or taking a shower and you’ll hear it go off.” He leaned forward and shouted in her ear: “BANG!”

She jumped to her feet. Her ears rang and tears came to her eyes. Yuna wasn’t stupid. She knew why people didn’t like Arthur, why her friends had stopped calling, even her family maintaining a watchful distance. If she let herself think about it, she missed them all, though their absence no longer pained her. One by one, one conversation, one missed lunch, one failed apology at a time, she had let them all go, to quarantine here with Arthur. It was too late to choose differently now.

She looked down at her husband, making sure he could see that he’d hurt her. “That’s not funny,” she said.

His expression softened. He set the gun down on the coffee table and opened his arms. “Come here.”

She sat again and let him enfold her, placing his hands on her belly. He kissed her head and she said, “I thought I felt him kick.”

He nuzzled her hair. “And one day”—a grin in his voice—“you’ll find him in the nursery, diaper dirty and no face.”

He laughed and held her tight while she thrashed against him, until she was done crying, done fighting. She noticed then that the helicopter was gone. The silence was crisp and lovely. It told her they were safe.

Steph Cha is the author of  Your House Will Pay, which won the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller, and the Juniper Song crime trilogy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section

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