Author’s Note: The following was left unedited so that means, what you’ll be reading is a very rough first draft. I will edit the entirety of the novel in the coming months and will post that too when it’s completed. Enjoy and thank you for the support!
Bloated. Bile tickling the throat. Trees fly by, and houses are scattered. Each town looked like the last.
He held her hand, and whispered, “We’re almost there.”
She burped, and covered her mouth. Neck was stiff. Fumbling in their backpack, Emiliano grabbed a pack of cookies and shared them with her. She nibbled, and he asked if she was feeling better. She lied.
This happened every time she’d go back. The headache would start in the morning and get worse throughout the day. Despite taking aspirin, once she stepped foot on the train, her brain felt twice its size and desperate to break out of its skull. She meditated and yet, nothing could hold back the avalanche of thoughts. Every time, all the anxieties about school would come through, and this time, she also thought about what would happen once they’d graduate in May. The interview she had the past week was still rattling in her mind. Lauren Olamina, the founder of The Justice Project, a new initiative to help unite Mexican-American, black American and Asian working-class around issue of profiling, discrimination, and dismantling hierarchy, reiterated over Skype that although the organization was new, their mission was grand and perfect for inciting real change. But the problems remained. And her chest tightened.
They made it to Jersey City and once on the platform, she rushed to the nearest trash can and vomited. Emiliano bought her gingerale from a store nearby and some more cookies as they waited below the tracks.
Fortunately, the car arrived on time and inside was Subhash, smiling ear to ear until seeing the look on his daughter’s face. She reassured him that she wasn’t too nauseous anymore but he still insisted that they stay in the apartment until she was completely herself. Emiliano agreed and they sat in the back seat, her head on his shoulder and him doing his best to answer questions from Subhash, who was behind the steering wheel, twisting it left and right through traffic.
They made it to the apartment in one piece and immediately, Tulsi threw up some more in the sink. She went to the couch and slept, still in her clothes and Emiliano and Subhash got plates and food ready for dinner.
. . .
Naima arrived in the evening, wearing layers of sweaters and scarves, and shivering. Tulsi was awake and watching TV, while Emiliano showered and Subhash cooked stew. Naima went to Tulsi, asking why she was watching TV.
“Weren’t you sick? Your father texted me you were throwing up everywhere,” Naima said.
Changing channels, Tulsi rolled her eyes. “That’s an exaggeration,” she said, “I was just dealing with the same ish. Plus, I’m bored now.”
“Bored? What about your school work?”
“It’s spring break.”
“So? You don’t have any assignments coming up?”
Tulsi shrugged, and stopped on the local news. Naima sighed and kissed her on the head before going to the bedroom to change.
“I urge everyone not to go outside this weekend since we’ll be expecting the most severe storm in decades,” the weather woman said while standing in front of an image of the seven day forecast, which showed snow every single day of the week.
“Dinner!” Subhash called moments later and they all sat down at the round dining room table next to the kitchen.
In between bites, Subhash asked about their time at Rutgers and how they felt about their undergrad careers coming to an end.
“Are your parents going to come up from Maryland for the ceremony?” Subhash asked.
Emiliano explained that his dad was still visiting relatives in Mexico and that their grandmother had fallen ill.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Was he able to get more time off from work?”
“He did. But he’s the most experienced engineer they have so I don’t know how much longer he can stay. But my mom will definitely be there.”
“I forget. Is her family from Thailand?”
“No. Her parents are from the Philippines, but my mom grew up in College Park.”
“Have you guys started looking for apartments together?” Subhash said.
The TV in the living room was still on, as voices migrated across the room. Experts on CNN discussed the issue of climate change and how it’s progressed in the past decade. Most were pessimistic, except for one, who believed that there was opportunity to move the dial in favor of addressing the future.
“Yes, we are living with the consequences of our actions, but we still have chances to either do something different and react in the correct way or simply allow this pattern to continue. Nothing is ever perfect to begin with.”
“Thank you so much for that insight, Congresswoman Alicia Williams,” said the host, before heading off into a commercial, and while Emiliano traded glances with Tulsi before murmuring, “We’re thinking about it,” and went back to eating his stew.
Subhash looked at Tulsi, who quickly did the same. Pipes in the wall shook, as someone above flushed. Naima ate the naan and went to the bedroom to answer a call from a source. After washing the plates, Subhash also went to the bedroom as Tulsi and Emiliano lay on the pull out couch.
Moonlight covered the ceiling, the silhouette of factories painted the walls.
“So, you haven’t told them yet?”
“I didn’t see a reason to.”
“I think it’s best if you did.”
“But you’re acting as if I came to a decision.”
Tulsi didn’t reply, as they were side by side and looking up at the ceiling.
Emiliano turned over as Tulsi watched the moonlight.
. . .
The next day, Naima went to finish interviews while Subhash, Tulsi, and Emiliano went to the Costco in another suburb right outside the city. The lines extended into the parking lot, as people rushed to horde enough canned food and water for the rest of the week. Aisles emptied at an alarming rate, as Subhash maneuvered the shopping cart in avoiding others and also being able to get to where they needed to be.
After filling their cart with perishables and more milk, Subhash stopped at the center of the store where the discount pants and shirts were. He told them to grab whatever they could find, especially sweaters.
“Excuse me? I saw that first,” a man yelled at another behind them.
Subhash told Tulsi and Emiliano to keep looking for clothes and to ignore everyone else. “Sooner we’re done, sooner we get out of here,” he said, as he fit pants between the boxes of canned food.
“Asshole! That’s mine!” Suddenly, there was screaming and the tables of jeans and clothes tumbled over.
Two men wrestled on the floor, as others wanted to get around them. A woman tripped and others fell on top. She begged for everyone to get off while more pushed and more fell. Others continued to trample and try and get out of the way. Emiliano tried to move to the side but he too was dragged down by his collar like being sucked in by a cyclone. Subhash and Tulsi ran over and pulled him out and along the floor. Tulsi led Emiliano to the section for appliances and had him lean against the shelf. She looked over him for any bruising. Subhash emerged soon after, informing them that their cart was also knocked down.
“We have to try and get what’s left,” he explained.
Tulsi brushed back the dirt from Emiliano’s hair and held his arm as they followed behind Subhash. Like astronauts on a forgotten planet, they carefully scanned the area, picking up the remaining cans and clothes.
Back at the apartment, Naima was on her laptop on the dining room table. She saw them stagger inside, carrying whatever they could salvage. She asked what happened and helped them with taking the things onto the living room carpet and couch. Subhash collapsed onto a chair and Tulsi grabbed a pack of ice, pressing it into Emiliano’s shoulder. Naima unpacked and pulled Tulsi to the side to tell her she’d be home late.
“Where are you going?” Tulsi asked, stunned.
“Work,” Naima replied and kissed her before putting on her coat and heading out the front door.
Tulsi remained speechless as Subhash and Emiliano dozed, their heads hanging and the snow outside starting to fall.
. . .
The snowfall intensified in the night, as streets were paved with white in a matter of minutes. Subhash kept calling Naima but she wasn’t picking up her cell, and he began pacing the living room.
“We should go and find her,” Emiliano whispered.
“How? She took the car,” Tulsi replied while they watched from the corner of the room.
It was midnight when Naima returned, rushing inside, covered in snow. Subhash, who was in the process of calling her again, turned around and ran to her, asking where she’d been and what happened and why she wasn’t responding earlier.
“We talked about this,” he said.
Naima took her scarves, and gloves, and began heating the kettle on the stove. Subhash followed her from one spot to the next.
“You could’ve at least texted,” he said.
“I know what I’m doing,” she finally answered, and looked over at Tulsi and Emiliano on the couch. “Do you guys want tea?” she asked.
They shook their heads no and Subhash glared at the back of Naima’s head before taking out some tea bags from the top drawer and also grabbing some cups for them to use. The snow continued to pile over the parked cars and streets, until nearly everything became hidden. They all went to sleep, wrapped in blankets, and doing their best to avoid the news on social media and refusing to turn on the TV. However, Tulsi would toss and turn while Emiliano grumbled, telling her he’d stay on the floor, which he did, taking his own blanket and resting on the carpet by the coffee table. Tulsi insisted he didn’t have to and she’d stop but he wouldn’t reply and closed his eyes.
For the next couple of days, they stayed in their apartment, in their separate corners. Emiliano would spend all day working on his resume and cover letters. Subhash updated his book. Tulsi mostly read, although she also emailed Olamina, who was asking for a response to their offer soon, while Naima was answering phone calls in the bedroom, her voice bouncing off the walls.
The news repeated how exceptional the storm had been, causing deaths and neighborhoods to lose power. By middle of the week, the heat in their own building ceased working.
Subhash complained to the management and so did others but the storm was just getting worse and whoever was in charge of fixing it kept promising them it’d be on although it would take more than a few days. Emiliano grumbled while lying on the carpet that he should’ve been in Maryland instead. Tulsi told him that the entire east coast and mid-Atlantic was under siege by Mother Nature and he responded that at least he would be with his parents.
Subhash told everyone to wear layers and to not try and do much. Naima continued to answer calls although the morning after they stopped having heat, she was sneezing and coughing. Subhash placed a hand on her head and sensed her body burning up. He told her to also take it easy. She took medicine and kept waking up earlier than anyone, turning on her laptop the first thing.
. . .
The water stopped working and Subhash rationed what they had left in the water bottles they bought from Costco. After counting what they had, Subhash and Tulsi talked in the dining room table while the others slept.
“Is everything alright with you and Emiliano?” Subhash asked.
Tulsi admitted that there were some “differences” between them brewing, but wouldn’t elaborate further. She didn’t want to tell him about the fact that the new job was on the West Coast and that if she went, Emiliano would find something else in D.C. and that they would probably have to end it. Emiliano said they could go on but she knew better. She too wondered if ever there could a combination of both worlds. She didn’t tell Subhash about the fact that even though the Justice Initiative was redemptive and powerful, that it was still on shaky ground financially and who knows what could happen to it over the coming year. She didn’t tell him many things because all she wanted was to be in the apartment and to feel whole like times before when she was younger.
“What do you mean you won’t publish it?” Naima’s voice suddenly echoed, as she balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder while rushing into the room and placing the laptop on the dining room table.
Subhash rolled his eyes and took his plate to the sink, while Tulsi listened to the conversation with whoever was on the other side of the line. Naima argued for the next fifteen minutes, debating about edits, until hanging up and going back to typing on her laptop. Naima asked while typing if Tulsi drank any milk. “It’ll help you go to sleep,” she said, and Tulsi said she did and added nothing else.
All night, Naima was up on her laptop, wiping her nose and working. The glow of the screen on her face. Tulsi watched while also lying down on the couch. The next day, Tulsi decided to help Subhash cook a meal for everyone. She knew how to make grilled salmon and butter naan, and fortunately, they had the ingredients in the kitchen. She took most of the day to make sure everything was perfect and served dinner when it was time to do so. But, Naima answered phone calls between bites.
“I told you this story is important,” Naima said over the phone, “This is not something you can ignore.”
She got up from the table and went to the bedroom to finish the conversation. Soon, Subhash also got up and washed his plate. Emiliano simply ate in silence.
. . .
The snow was finally letting up but Naima’s fever was growing worse. Suffering from headaches, she took medicine every morning before going to her laptop and writing. Tulsi continued to try and make them all sit down for dinner but every time she did, there would be another phone call or a neighbor knocking on their door, complaining about the lack of heat and water.
It was nearing the end of spring break when Tulsi woke up to see Naima still at her laptop at the table. The screen illuminated in the mostly dark room. Tulsi went to get some water and on her way back to the couch, she heard Naima ask if she woke her up.
“I was trying to type slow, but I had some more edits to do,” Naima explained, and Tulsi told her it wasn’t anyone’s fault and after taking a sip and standing, decided to sit down beside her mother.
Tulsi asked if she was updating her website, which was started right after what happened at The Jersey Tribune. To this day, Tulsi wasn’t quite sure of how her mother was able to fund a news website and how she was able to get that many up and coming local reporters and writers to contribute. She assumed it came from funds from the speeches she did and the other articles she published as a freelancer. That would explain the long hours working and the days when she was practically missing from Tulsi’s world.
“Do you remember the stabbings and attacks that were taking place when you were a little girl?” Naima said, as she deleted and punched keys.
Tulsi vaguely did. All she knew was that the person responsible was never found.
“Did you figure out who did it…?” Tulsi asked.
“Not exactly,” Naima replied, “but there were some stabbings again this past year that I think was similar to what happened then. I’ve been trying to write something about the victims and why the police have been dragging their feet.”
“Have you been writing it since then?”
“Yea. But, only this past month, it’s all come together. I hoped some of the bigger publications would want it. They’re saying that no one will read it, which is ridiculous. So, I’m trying not to dumb it down but making sure that it gets included on the front page somehow.”
“Ma, aren’t you tired?”
“Of course, I am,” Naima replied, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” Naima clicked the mouse. “Finally, people outside our neighborhood will know about this awful stuff that’sbeen going on,” she added, and clicked on the mouse and Tulsi observed quietly.
Naima looked skinnier than before, and was still coughing. Her eyes were also red and she asked Tulsi for some more blankets. After Tulsi brought them to her, Naima told Tulsi to go to bed and get some rest. Tulsi understood it was best to do so instead of hover around like some bug.
Emiliano too got sick. He still shoveled the sidewalk and helped in removing snow from their car. Afterwards, Tulsi asked him if he wanted to see his mom in Maryland.
“I think the trains are working again,” she said.
He narrowed his eyebrows at her as they warmed up by the stove.
“Why now?” he said.
“Cause she probably misses you…”
Emiliano glared. “I don’t get it,” he said, “And I don’t want to.”
He went to the couch and flipped on his IPAD. Tulsi continued to warm her hands and wait for her parents to come back from outside too.
. . .
On the final weekend of spring break, while Tulsi was done washing her hair from the bottled water they had left, she went to the couch to get ready for bed. Again, Naima was on her laptop, covered in blankets on the dining room table. Tulsi laid down and closed her eyes. Suddenly, Naima yelled, and everyone jumped up, asking what was wrong.
“It’s published!” Naima said, stretching her arms in the air, “It’s getting published!” she kept repeating until Subhash shook his head and chuckled. Even for a moment, Emiliano smiled at seeing Naima smiling and laughing. Soon, Naima began to cough and shake and Subhash helped her to their room. The rest of the night was quiet. The next morning, Naima was the first to wake up, typing on her laptop and Subhash prepared pancakes. Tulsi emailed Olamina her decision to join the company and showed Emiliano the message. Emiliano got off the floor and went to take a shower, he said.
“You’re going to get even more sick,” Subhash said to Naima while he placed the stack of pancake at the center of the table with the plates arranged. Subhash even asked Tulsi to come but she had to go and see if Emiliano was ready first. She knocked on the bathroom door and Emiliano replied he wasn’t ready yet. The more she asked, the more he told her to leave him alone for a minute until finally, he stopped responding. Tulsi’s shoulders sagged but she returned to the dining room where Naima was at the table, slowly cutting and eating and Subhash doing the same and asking her if she took her medicine. She said she did and commented that the pancakes were good, and he nodded. Suddenly, the phone rang and Naima got up and answered, and Subhash continued eating.
Tulsi smiled. For a moment.