A World of Abundance

Ryan Alan Boyle | Fiction

I’d successfully dodged it for years, hiding in my apartment, avoiding social anything, but sometime around the third or the fifth or the seventh wave, at some point deep into the Greek alphabet, I got word: I’d been exposed.

“hey, i have really bad news,” Kay texted me. “yesterday’s test was negative for me but today’s is positive. i’m so sorry.”

I’d gone home with Kay two nights before, had sex, and, instead of leaving like normal, stayed over. For the first time. I’d hung around for a breakfast of tea and packaged protein bars, bedhead and morning breath. I’d lingered. It was nice.

Now I was panicking, palms sweating on a frigid afternoon, walking from one clinic to another because, if I wasn’t sick already, each overcrowded site seemed a sure exposure point. Lines for testing centers, even ad-hoc ones in tents and buses, snaked around entire blocks, overwhelmed. Breath from under my mask fogged my glasses as I found a place I’d never seen before, a block from my house—PathologyPro+.

Kay’d been seeing other people, I knew, but so had I. This now seemed worse than stupid. She’d been reckless, maybe, dangerous. Or I had—my mouth had been all over her.

PathologyPro+ was in a new building I hadn’t noticed, with no line. A BMW parked outside. The space inside was cavernous, empty, unfinished; a double row of chairs laid out for waiting, like a DMV, with no one in them. A cloth-masked woman before me seemed upset, stiff with suppressed anger at a surgical-masked nurse in pink scrubs behind a folding table.

“I never got the email,” the woman said, voice echoing in the huge concrete room. She gave her name, annoyed, to the nurse, who clicked a single computer key and didn’t look at the monitor.

“You’re negative,” the nurse said. “Congratulations.”

“Okay, but . . .” The woman stammered, turned, and stormed out.

“What was that about?” I asked the nurse.

“Crazy people wander in a lot,” she said.

There was one other man there, a flimsy bandana tied over his mouth, and he headed for the empty chairs, sat in one right in the middle, while I filled my information on a form. Shivering, I sat as far from him as possible. After a few minutes, he went into a room, then quickly walked out, footsteps echoing as he left.

I heard my name repeating coldly from a corridor with a long row of doors, all closed except the farthest. Inside was the same nurse in pink scrubs. She was, it appeared, the only person working and seemed in a hurry, though no one else was waiting.

I pulled down my mask so she could shove her long q-tips deep up my nose—it felt strangely intimate, an act of vulnerability—and she dropped the swabs into a blue plastic bin that looked like a garbage can. Her name tag read TONYA.

“We’ll email you,” she said, turning away.

I never got an email.

That’s not true. I did get an email, around midnight, as I was in bed tabbing through various pornographic websites on my laptop—but the message didn’t have test results.

It was extorting me. For bitcoin.

How many times per day u may please ur cock? You are like Olympic champion). Yo, buddy, u just kill me with ur affection for masturbation. When practicing something like this, I recommend hiding your webcam. Elsewise situation similar to yours can arise. I am ready give you chance to save ur public standing in sight of relatives and redeem urself. If u ignore my demands in 72h, I’ll share the clip of your hobby I recorded and send with contact list from ur email. A reasonable proposal in this case is, I suppose, bitcoin, $3000 usd.

I bolted upright, breath shallow, ache in my spine. I looked around the room—I’d been watched—and glanced warily at the computer on the mattress next to me, a Judas.

The sender was TONYA KAY. From an archaic @AOL address. The subject was my full name.

I closed all my tabs and taped over the webcam.

I’d thought it odd that the form Tonya the nurse gave me asked for not only my name, phone number, insurance, email, but also my driver’s license and social security numbers.

“Why do you need these?”

“You want to get tested or not,” she said.

Kay was a geology grad student and she’d texted the news from New Orleans, where she’d flown for an academic conference. Now she was quarantined in that distant city, in a hotel room, alone, the staff assiduously avoiding her. She watched talks from colleagues and rivals online, and canceled her own presentation as symptoms emerged: aches, runny nose, cough.

“would you wanna watch a movie at the same time at some point this week?” she texted.

“I’m not sure. I’m a little upset. Still processing it all,” I replied.

“i’m really sorry, do you want to talk?”

“Not at the moment.”

“ok. i’m worried about you and don’t want to lose you, please tell me how you’re feeling when you’re ready?”

Her birthday was in three days.

I called PathologyPro+ the next day—no one answered.

I’d been scammed.

Or had I? I was wary of this line of thinking, of drawing connections that weren’t there, of spinning grand webs of meaning out of nothingness. Because that’s what my father did. I’d watched over the last six years as he alienated loved ones and descended into a well of conspiratorial thinking that seemed to have no bottom.

He’d called on my birthday, ranting about secret cabals, assassins, globalists; he hadn’t asked me a single question.

“Aliens built the pyramids as landing sites,” he said. “Did you know?”

“The American Revolution was never won, kid,” he said. “Queen of England is still in charge. Very hush-hush.”

When he claimed the pandemic death rates were faked, I cursed and hung up. My ex, Joanie, had lost her father and grandmother in quick succession while being sick herself. She’d had to say goodbye through an iPad.

Hundreds of thousands of people were gone. Doctors and nurses and grocery store workers. People just like him.

“It’s all a big fake. Maybe they didn’t exist at all.”

He’d been a social worker once, a bleeding heart, a caring father. But as he pieced together a warped new reality from the fragments and detritus of the internet, the man I thought I knew disappeared, replaced by this angry stranger. I worried it was a sign of mental decline—but a quarter of the country was the same or worse, which was both heartening and terrifying.

Coincidences, often, are just that. I tried to tell myself.

I woke with a headache, muscles sore, and went to PathologyPro+ immediately. I wanted answers. A Mercedes Benz was parked out front. Again no line, but two elderly people sat together in the chairs. White-haired, holding hands, worried in love.

“Where’s Tonya?” I asked the new pink-scrubbed nurse behind the table.

She was scrolling through her phone, barely paying attention, Netflix on the computer. “Who?”

“The nurse who works here,” I said.

She didn’t look at me, slouching deep in her chair. “Don’t know anyone named that,” she said.

“How long have you worked here?” I asked.

She looked at her watch. “An hour?”

A jar on the table had the label TIPS FOR TONY.

“You have scrubs on,” I said, “but are you a registered nurse?”

She laughed like it was the dumbest thing. “You can buy these, like, anywhere.”

“Who’s in charge of this place . . . Tony?”

“I don’t know.” The blue bin behind her was full to the brim with swabs. It was 9 a.m.

“Okay, well, I never got the email,” I said, “with my results.”

“What’s your name?” She clicked a button on the computer, didn’t look. “Negative. Bye.”

“Oh good.” I lowered my mask, approaching with a frozen smile.

She finally looked at me, put down her phone, sat up straight. The older couple whispered to each other.

“Sir,” she said, “please leave.” Her name tag read LORRAINE.  

The couple suddenly stood, the old man waving his phone. “I got an email saying my test is negative . . . but I haven’t taken it yet!”

“You ok? Any symptoms?” I texted Kay. I hadn’t heard from her at all, but hadn’t reached out either.

“i barely have symptoms but i am pretty miserable.”

“Being stuck in the hotel?”

“yeah and feeling pretty abandoned by my partner at the worst time.”

“Are you talking about me?”


Fifty hours after the first email, another.

Don’t you feel bad for masturbating so heavily, guy? Everybody assume there is no shame until they’re spotted doing this stuff, u agree? Ur moral education is, obviously not my call, but I am really freaked out by you. You are too neglectful about safety, and I managed access to your device and film a clip thru its cam. I have demands u gotta meet in order nobody will ever see.

It came to a different account of mine, a private one, sent by JOANIE LORRAINE from another @AOL address. The subject was my social security number.

“I didn’t think we were partner level yet,” I texted Kay. “I thought you were closer to someone else, honestly.”

It had been nice, after the breakup and isolation of the first pandemic year, to see her, to feel her skin on mine, unmasked—even to get her texts. My pocket buzzing with excitement, with jokes, flirts, geology puns, memes, nudes. The attention intoxicating, the only solid thing to hang on to in the swirl of chaos.

“i got the sense you weren’t really open to discussing feelings,” she sent back.

I’d tried to talk to her once about my dad, his accelerating decline. “We all have daddy issues,” she’d said with a shrug, but sounded angry. Her own father had walked out when she was three. She had no memories of him, no desire to find him—a ghost who’d disappeared completely.

“we should’ve been in this together,” she texted from her sickbed. “it would have meant a lot.”

I found two websites for PathologyPros—plural, no plus—a .com and a .net. The .com said their headquarters was, of all places, Belarus.

.net had no homepage, no company information. The only thing on the site was what appeared to be a negative test, time-stamped with the exact date/hour/minute/second I was looking at it. When I refreshed a minute later, the time-stamp changed to a minute later. I tried six times, the same negative test result appearing.

My phone rang with an unfamiliar number. “Scam likely,” it read.

My dad called, but it was difficult, anxiety-inducing, to think what new fairytale nonsense would spill from his mouth. It had been a relief, since the virus hit, not to see him. I thought, not for the first time, of breaking off contact, of never speaking to him again. But the more alone he was, the worse he got: a doom-loop of alienation.

He used to talk to his brother for hours during weekly phone calls. But it’d been months since the phone rang. “You know, the gold-fringed flags in every courtroom mean you’re secretly under maritime law,” he said when I asked about my uncle.

My stepmom, exhausted by endless conspiracizing, had left after twenty years of marriage. “Mesoamerican civilizations were actually exiles from ancient Egypt,” he said when I asked about his wife. “That’s why they both built pyramids.”

Life rarely has clear motivations, satisfying resolutions, discernible story arcs, pat endings—it just keeps going until it doesn’t. But I guess anything seems plausible when nothing feels entirely real.

I searched the Belarusian address on streetview, but found only an abandoned, overgrown gas station with signage in fading Cyrillic.

I’d turned thirty-nine and my dad hadn’t asked me a single question.

That’s not true. He had asked one question: “How’s Joanie?”

Joanie had dumped me six months before. Most of her family was dead.

I called PathologyPro+ the next day, and got an automated message. “You are caller number 121.” It said the wait was five minutes, then six, then ten. After forty minutes, the automated message said, “The voice mailbox you are trying to reach is full.” The line disconnected.

Incompetence and greed are often the only forces shaping world events.

“Does the front desk have something for you?” I texted Kay in the morning.

“i’ll check outside my door once i hear the vacuum move off.” And then, “awww thank you! <3 cake breakfast.”

“Happy birthday! I wasn’t sure what you liked, so got you a variety of sugar forms.”

“they came in three styrofoam boxes. Extravagant!”

“May your birthday torch the earth, Caligula.”

“that’s me.”

“Let me know which is best.”

“the truth is 2/3 of these will fuck me up really bad.”

“Oh no, why?”


“Shit . . . I forgot,” I texted. “Happy birthday?”

She was silent for a half-hour, then texted: “the chocolate piece is pretty good.”

I walked by PathologyPro+, against a bitter wind, found it locked, lights off, silent. It was noon—the door said they opened at 8 a.m. There was a new sign fixed to the window: “Center for Control is not affiliated with Testing Table LLC.”

A Maserati was parked out front, but so was a dog—a handsome black lab, the poor thing tied next to the entrance with no owner in sight. It was brutally cold, possibly deadly, but the good boy wagged his tail, ducked his head, and I almost untied him, nearly took him home.

But my phone buzzed.

We spotted a new device logged into your account.

What? Android – Amazon KFTRWI

Where? Pompano Beach, FL, US

Who? You: All good, nothing more to do here. Not You: Check the list of devices logged into your account and change your password.

Right there in the cold, shivering, I changed the passwords to everything I could remember, defunct accounts on forgotten websites I hadn’t visited in years, but felt like it was too late.

The dog wagged again, seemed almost to smile like a friend. His name tag read TONY.

Joanie was a photographer and actor trying to write her own plays. We’d met in October before the virus crashed like a wave. She was gorgeous and funny, a talent, and we hit it off immediately, made-out in public in a midtown bar, couldn’t wait to see each other again—both buzzing without a clue what was coming.

She ended things that summer, just as case numbers dropped for the first time, telling me, “I think we work long-term, but not short-term.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

True to her word, she called a week later, intent on getting back together. I said no.

In the long term, it didn’t seem right she wasn’t in the city anymore. Off teaching the next generation of performers while her own work sat unfinished and unseen. In the short term, I’d met Kay.

I was never sure I’d made the right decision; if, given the opportunity, I’d make it again.

A 1988 law requires that any place conducting tests on human specimens must be certified. I found PathologyPros and PathologyPro+ in the national database. Their parent company was listed as “Center for Control LLC,” its headquarters not in Belarus, but a neighboring state, with no internet presence.

Changing passwords was a mistake—I forgot the new ones immediately and had to reset them again to something simple, something easy, something I could remember with a capital, a number, a symbol: 4rT&7Qx!

Nothing came up on streetview, so I took the train, battling a headache like a pickaxe through my right orbital. Unsure if that was a symptom, I kept my distance from other passengers—but a man sat a few seats away, dark clothes, dark eyes, staring at me.

Strip malls and gas stations and overgrown pastures streamed by like rear-projected backgrounds, until I disembarked in a strange town crossed by railroad tracks—and so did the man. Breath quickening, I stepped faster. There were few buildings, but all three stories, solid brick, as if the place had been dense, prosperous, full, but now they were spaced far apart, like bowling pins awaiting a spare.

I followed the address to the edge of town, where buildings gave way to empty lots, a street grid to nowhere, and found no office, no headquarters. Just an untended field, high with weeds, wet with melting snow, everything lit up like a movie set. I was about to give up in despair when something at the end of the road sparkled in the sun—a steel cube on a short pole, with metal doors. A box of mailboxes, for what appeared to be several different companies:

Testing Table LLC
MedicalMAX Mfg.
Pyramid Labs Corp.
Center for Control LLC
піраміды – гэта пасадачныя пляцоўкі

I took a photo, tested the locked doors. I grabbed an old brick from the field, smashed it into the box once, twice, again and again, heart racing, head throbbing, succeeding only in scraping my palms raw and denting one door.

I dropped the brick and turned, sweating, out of breath, and noticed—on the other side of the road—a security camera nailed to a tree branch, watching the mailbox, watching me.

On the train home, that same man, hours later, was staring. Something about him nagged me, seemed familiar, the landscape streaking by in reverse. Then I realized—almost that chin, virtually that hairline, nearly a striking resemblance.

He looked like my father.

On the way home from the train, I saw a storefront doctor’s office—billed implausibly as OB/GYN/NEURO—locked behind a roll-down gate. A torn cardboard sign was taped to the metal. In shaky handwriting, it read:


“You coming home for the holidays?” my dad texted.

The country broke its single-day virus case record for the second day in a row.

I knew I wasn’t the only one with Kay, but it had felt easy before now, uncomplicated: laughing in bed with no clothes watching bad sci-fi movies while the tangle and tragedy of the world grew ever more bleak and complex; having fun while Joanie’s entire life fell apart.

Joanie had looked dazed in her grief, a torn ribbon on her lapel, a mask over her mouth, sitting on the porch in the cold.

I’d shown up to the shiva to find her friends masked, sitting on chairs and pillows on the front porch, crouching around space heaters in the freezing cold. I handed her a bag of bagels, which she placed on a table overflowing with food from well-wishers, and she walked me to an open chair. We hadn’t seen each other since the breakup.

“Thanks for coming. I wasn’t sure you would,” she said. “I wasn’t sure anyone would.”

The poor girl had lost weight, even in a coat it was obvious; new shocks of gray in her hair. She seemed muted, a colorless version of herself. All the mirrors in the apartment covered.

“A little jarring to look for the mirror and find you’re not there in it,” she said, and shrugged. “But I guess that’s the point. Inner reflection.”

After a yearslong rift with her dad, she’d started making him sit for photo portraits every visit, a project that began mending their fractious relationship. Then her grandmother died. Her father caught the virus flying in for the funeral, which he didn’t attend because, by then, he was in the hospital dying. He’d managed to infect Joanie too. She’d been sick for weeks; she hadn’t worked in months. All she had left were those photos.

“He bought this book for my grandma,” she said, holding a volume with Hebrew lettering in gold-leaf on the cover. “To know how to do the funeral rites for her. And now I have to use it for him.” The Hebrew read Everlasting Life.

“I’m sorry,” her friends said.

“He wrote his own eulogy,” Joanie said. Her face had the sallow, collapsing look of someone about to cry. “He was in the hospital and wrote his own eulogy for us to read. And he sort of sheepishly asked me, he had no energy, just kind of mumbled, if I’d read something he wrote, when the time came. And he ended it with ‘That’s all, folks.’”

We started laughing. Slowly at first, unsure if it was okay, all of us laughing as long as she was.

She wiped away tears, though it was hard to know if they were from mirth or grief or both. I patted her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Joanie.” I wanted to take her in my arms, take her home, tell her everything would be okay, even though it wouldn’t be.

“Every day is supposed to bring me closer to healing, but it doesn’t feel like that,” she said. “It feels like every day is taking me further from him.”

I wondered what my dad would say if my test results were positive.

If I died of it.

Fifty hours after the last email, I was contacted on an encrypted messaging app from a mysterious phone number with the wrong amount of digits. The message had my address, a photo of me I’d never seen—overhead like security footage, slouching in a coat, like a stranger with my face. Pictures of my friends list, various aunts’ and cousins’ profiles. Then screenshots messaging that photo to them. The language in the screenshots wasn’t English, wasn’t Cyrillic—it seemed to be . . . French? Then more messages and, against my better judgment, I responded:

Hey mr. you can block me but can’t stop me because I have all video of you and more surprises !
Listen man we make solution for finish this story man to man and in secret so choose ?
I’m talking to you !

So talk

If you don’t pay I ll do my best for destroy yr life

I don’t have a lot of money

Put it in yr ass man

I’m broke.
How much do you want?

$2370 bitcoin

I don’t have that kind of
money. 500 is all I got

I swear man I don’t wanna ruin ur life
but u ll make me be bad
send 900 now and 900 tomorrow in the agency

Are you in Belarus or

Algerie but receiver in Morocco
I’ll delete videos when you finish
transfer of 700.
They are v nastyy shame

How do I know you even
have them?

He sent me screenshots of his camera roll, including numerous pictures of me, some freely available on social media, some not. My hands clammy, breath catching—except the last picture in the scroll, a full frontal nude man looking uncomfortable in his skin, pale and hairy, slightly overweight, vulnerable and limp. Similar, but some other person, some poor fool.

Who is that last one??

Someone who payed

You didn’t delete his! How
can i trust you? Who are all
these people, man??

I’m not kidding with you! If you wanna finish
in peace send 500 now!

What’s your connection to

Ask your family about your videos after 3
min. I have no time to fuck now.

How do you know Kay?

Tomorrow search in all sites of porn
Write yr name and family’s name
they will stay for life in social media

How do you know Joanie?

I ll fuck yr life.

You could see patterns in anything. But sometimes coincidences really do prove to be more than just coincidences: Cointelpro. The assassination of Fred Hampton. Watergate. The lies of the Iraq War.

The last time I saw Joanie was a few weeks after the shiva: her apartment in disarray, boxes everywhere, clothes on the floor, dust in the air, her poor cat nearly dead.

“The cancer,” she said sadly, “is in his stomach and eyes now.”

With little family left, Joanie was packing, leaving the city she’d lived in for fifteen years, taking a professorship in Tennessee. But her plays remained unperformed, and euthanizing her cat would be her last act in the city. Six months before, the creature had been a terror, leaping from windowsills in the night, climbing curtains, knocking over dishes, biting Joanie till she fed him—but now he was so thin his ribs were visible through fur.

“It’s a mercy,” I said, “putting him down.” He was fragile when I stroked him, like I could crush him with one hand.

“Why don’t we do that for people then?” Joanie said. “It breaks my heart.”

“Because people are always trying to fit their pain to some narrative, to figure out what it all means,” I said and thought of the shiva, of her face that day. “To an animal, pain is just pain.”

“How ya feeling?” I texted Kay.

“just another day in paradise. can’t tell if there’s a dog in the next room or just someone yapping.”

“Fun update.”

“todays the last day of the conference too so there won’t be anyone left to bring me stuff. i may actually try going outside tomorrow.”

I thought of her splayed in my bed, her warm body—then of the pathogen feverishly coursing through it, riddled with mutating disease.

I typed “I miss you” but deleted it.

All real, easily verifiable: Iran–Contra. The Business Plot. The Pat Tillman coverup. The Tuskegee experiment.

Joanie felt chased out of her home: she’d lost her job in the pandemic, her roommate had fled and never returned, her savings were depleted just paying rent, there was perpetual construction in the building lobby behind her bedroom wall—jackhammering at 7 a.m., plaster dust blowing under her door, a chorus of ambulance sirens racing by her building several times an hour carrying the newly infected—and then we’d split up, and her family was gone, and now her cat was dying and it was all too much. She was, she said, losing her mind.

“Your dad is going through a tough time,” she said when I told her the truth about pyramids. “His own life might not make sense to him anymore.” She waved her arms around the trashed apartment, indicating her expertise.

It was true, the plot of his existence had wandered. He’d gone searching for narratives anywhere he could find them, even in the absurd and the ridiculous. “I guess it’s his coping mechanism,” I said, petting the dying cat in my lap, bones like paper mâché.

“You need to treat him with sympathy for that. Because he won’t be here forever.” She blinked back rapidly, lips quivering a little, but looked away.

She’d been picking up the apartment the whole time I was there, not just packing, but straightening, dusting, putting stuff in the closet to make it look less like a chaos of clutter—for me. She dropped a folder and a dozen portraits of her father spilled across the floor: striking a silly pose, smiling softly in his garden at dusk, giving a thumbs up at her graduation. She bent to scoop up the pictures without looking directly at them.

She’d needed someone and I hadn’t been there.

“I should get going, it’s late.” I stood and the cat leaped away to his fate.

“Aw, don’t go,” Joanie said and took a step toward me, squeezing her hands together, cheeks a bit flushed. We stood there awkwardly for a moment, standing too close, not speaking.

But then I left, and then she left, and I never saw her again.

Psychiatry’s top diagnostic manual declared that prolonged grief was a mental health disorder.

MKUltra. The climate denial industry. Room 641A at AT&T. The Nazi origins of Fanta.

“Please answer,” my dad texted.

“Did you get messages from someone in Algeria?” I asked. “Has anyone?”

“What in the world?” he replied. “Should I expect you for the holidays or not?”

Life expectancy in the United States had plummeted by two and a half years, the largest decline in eighty years.

“did you ever consider that he thinks he’s sharing his knowledge with you,” Kay texted, “because he loves you?”

“My dad?”

“anyways, first time leaving the hotel room in ten days. excited for actual sunlight!”

We’d only talked about him the once, months ago. “How’s the blinding outer world?” I replied, baffled.

“weird way to see six blocks of nola. flight’s in a few hours, so i want to walk around and have a nice coffee outside and then, with my natural immunity, i’ll be the least anxious person on the plane.”

“You’ll be competing with some virus-deniers for that title.” I didn’t know why she’d brought it up.

Then an hour later: “i’d have killed for a dad like that.”

The next day a strange man stood on the corner outside my building for hours, alone. Hard to tell, but he resembled the man from the train. I was certain. Maybe.

I got a text: “Your card was charged $1659.00 for MacBook Pro 14-inches order-id TYH270122QMV. Please call us If Y0U N0T.”

I received an email titled THE TRUTH BEHIND CAULIFLOWER and almost opened it.

“i am generally pretty good with letting relationships evolve on their own time,” Kay texted, “but i didn’t realize i needed more from you until this all happened. with men especially i like to present as ultra independent and without emotional needs, but that’s definitely a defense mechanism. i know you need time to figure us out but i hope you’ll do some of that out loud with me. i’d rather overcommunicate than have to wonder where you’re at.”

“Yeah, I get that,” I replied, “but let’s talk when you’re home.”

She typed something but never sent it.

I woke and my throat felt scratchy, eyes itchy. I felt sure I had it. Wearing yesterday’s clothes, I left my apartment—the man outside watching, pulling out his phone—and waited in line for a testing site, the shortest I could find. Only a full city block instead of two: nurses in a white van parked on the street like strangers with candy. It didn’t seem more reputable, but at least they didn’t ask for my social security number.

It was beautiful out, sunny, not too cold, and I left my coat open—everyone in line around me coughing behind masks, sniffling under masks, sneezing into masks. An hour later, another q-tip up my nose, rapid and PCR.

“We’ll email the results,” the nurse said.

Walking home, I saw the most alarming thing I’d seen all week: Joanie, on her birthday, posting photos online. “My happy place: cozy Airbnb in a new city with no plans. Loving New Orleans!” One photo was posed in front of the same hotel where Kay’d been locked up sick.

But the odds seemed unimaginable, staggering. She looked like she was having a great time.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident. The Bay of Pigs. The Boston Tea Party.

I decided to pass by PathologyPro+ again, to get some answers—to warn people inside, smash the windows, give hell to Tonya or Lorraine or Tony the dog or whoever, to blow up the whole scammy affair.

But first I passed the cemetery, hoping to throw off anyone following. Headstones laid in neat lines to the horizon, flowers drying in the sun.

At the wrought-iron gates stood an Amazon driver in his little blue vest, no coat, shivering with a package under his arm, staring at his phone, impatient.

“Deliveries for the dead?” I asked. My throat fiery, swollen, hard to swallow past a lump.

He held the phone to his ear and sighed. “Nobody’s answering,” he said, trying to shove the package through the bars and failing. I looked but couldn’t find his delivery van, as he stared through the locked gate at the rows of graves in bafflement, disjunction.

Someone passed by who I recognized, but we’d never spoken. I’d read her writing online, followed her accounts, swiped her on dating apps. I almost said hello as if we knew each other. But I watched her pass, said nothing; there was no connection.

Graffiti on the cemetery wall read IMAGINE A WORLD OF ABUNDANCE.

. . . extraordinary rendition. Stellar Wind. MUSCULAR. US sponsorship of bin Laden. The Greenwood massacre. The Rosewood massacre. The doxxing of Valerie Plame. PRISM. The MOVE bombing. The Manhattan Project. The Pentagon Papers. The Panama Papers. The Paradise Papers. Operation Northwoods. Operation Menu. Operation Mongoose. Operation Paperclip. Operation . . .

I almost called Joanie as I walked. To ask why she was in New Orleans, to ask how she was, to say happy birthday, to ask why I couldn’t shake her. I held the phone too tight, tape still over the camera.

I wondered if she’d walk right by Kay—strolling, oblivious—the two of them not acknowledging each other, not making eye contact, not even noticing, strangers passing silently, linked only by me.

And then I decided, an hour later. I finally hit send: “I miss you.”

Kay sent back a heart.

When I finally arrived, the storefront was empty, signage removed—it looked like brand-new construction, like nothing had been there at all. PathologyPro+ was gone. A busted Dodge parked out front.

Head pounding, nose running, throat swelling. I checked my phone again, waiting for the results email, and messaged my dad to say I’d be home for the holidays. One day he would die; one day I would.

Another masked man stepped silent and close, dressed dark like the stranger outside my building—I nearly ran, nearly slugged him, nearly grabbed his lapels and demanded answers. But he reached for the door, found it locked, cupped his hands and peered through the windows into emptiness.

“They’re gone?” he said, turning to me, stepping closer.

“You didn’t see a dog here, did you?” I asked, keeping my distance. “Tony?”

He shook his head, pointed at the door. “They never emailed me.” He sounded angry, took another step.

“Yeah,” I said, inching away. “Me neither.”

“But what if I have it?” he said, coming closer—eyes bloodshot, mask skewed. “What if I bring it home to my family, for Christmas?”

I stepped back and turned quickly—joints brittle, sweating uncontrollably—but only got halfway down the block before my pocket started vibrating. A pair of pink scrubs balled up in the bushes. This was it: I pulled out my phone to find a new email.

And another.

And another.

And another.

And another.