About the Author

Saleema Nawaz

Saleema Nawaz has published fiction in journals including Prairie Fire, Grain, The New Quarterly, and Prism International and she is an alumnus of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. ”The White Dress,“ the final novella in this book, won the inaugural Robert Kroetsch Award for Best Creative Thesis at the University of Manitoba; another of the stories, ”My Three Girls,“ appeared in the 2008 McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize Anthology.

Books by this Author
Mother Superior

Mother Superior

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also available: Paperback Audiobook (CD)
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Songs for the End of the World
Excerpt

Quarantine Day One
 
Elliot reported himself to the authorities later that morning in a series of phone calls that escalated through a chain of increasingly flustered functionaries. Eventually he was connected to someone at the Department of Health, to whom he managed to portray himself as something more than the average hypochondriac. The woman on the phone wasn’t up-to-date on the latest media coverage, and the restaurant name he kept repeating meant nothing to her, but she believed that he thought he had been exposed.
 
“Okay, Elliot,” she said, after he told her his name and address. He could hear her typing in the background. “What you’re going to do is stay at home.”
 
“How long?”
 
“Twenty-one days,” she said. “Now, do you share a toilet with anyone? Are you married?”
 
“I’m divorced.” Why did he still find it so hard just to answer no? “What’s this about toilets?”
 
“You need to flush two or three times to reduce the risk of contamination for anyone else.”
 
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to see anyone.”
 
“You’re not. I’m just telling you.” The rhythmic clack of typing stopped for a moment. “Most importantly, take your temperature twice a day. If it spikes or if it reaches one hundred and four, call Emergency and explain that you’re on the quarantine list.”
 
“Okay,” he said, already beginning to feel warm.
 
“Someone will call you back tomorrow,” she said. “In the meantime, make a list of everyone you’ve seen, everywhere you’ve gone since the exposure.”
 
“I was supposed to go out tomorrow.” Elliot swallowed against a mounting tightness in his throat. “See my sister and nephew.” If he died, what would happen to Sarah and Noah?
 
“I know it’s hard, but try not to worry too much.” Her voice was saturated with resignation. She sounded like someone who was not used to delivering good news. “If you already have it, there’s nothing you can do.”
 
Elliot asked then about the logistics of eating. “Is it better to order in or go grocery shopping? Or am I not allowed?” What was the exact calculation of risk relative to the need to eat?
 
She quizzed him about the closest places to buy food and how crowded they tended to be. “Okay, try to make do for now. We’ll put you on the delivery list.”
 
A few hours later the doorbell rang while he was taking a nap. He jumped out of bed, heart racing, confused and hopeful until he saw the text message on his phone: Your supplies are at the door.
 
“Here,” said the health care worker. She was masked and gloved and held out two plastic bags at arm’s length.
 
“Would you like to come in?” he asked as he took them from her. He watched as she recoiled and took a step backwards before adding, “Just a joke.”
 
There was a muffled laugh. “Good one.” She was gone before Elliot could thank her. He noticed that she had pasted a quarantine notice on his door. He wondered how long it would be before his neighbours complained to the landlord.
 
He called into work after lunch, and his supervisor’s brisk attitude was a comfort. “I’ll talk to Bryce, but let’s keep it quiet as long as you stay healthy. I’d rather not spread it around, so to speak.”
 
“Just tell the guys I’ve got something sexier, like mono.”
 
“Sexy, ha.” The sergeant barked a laugh. “No wonder you’re still single, Howe.”
 
“Hey, it’s the kissing disease, isn’t it?”
 
 
 
Elliot felt the strong urge to go for a drive, to speed as far away as possible from his present circumstances, but instead he spent the rest of the afternoon watching basketball, football, and even a world bowling championship while eating his way through two days’ worth of food, his tears flowing as freely as water from an open tap. When he stopped bothering to wipe his eyes, his cheeks dried with a salty film that made them feel papery and exposed.
 
He heated up a can of baked beans and called Sarah to cancel, bracing himself for her disappointment.
 
“We were really looking forward to seeing you. Noah especially. You’re always the main attraction around here.” There was a small, plaintive note in her voice that he always found moving. Growing up, his kid sister had been a whirlwind of a girl who shouted down bullies, raced Lasers at sailing camp, and liked to face any fear by tackling it head-on. But ever since Sarah had shown up on his and Dory’s doorstep, wan and fragile and fresh off a plane from Bolivia, she hadn’t coped well with last-minute changes or any implication that Elliot would fail to keep his promises. Eight years after her return, she remained solitary and tentative, leading a life confined by routine and running even minor decisions past him, like which movie to watch or whether she should get a haircut. A watercolour version of who she used to be. Things had been better, though, since she had Noah.
 
“Sorry,” Elliot said, “I’m sick.”
 
“You’re never sick,” she said, worried now. “Do you need anything?”
 
“No, it’s not that bad.” He couldn’t seem to form the words to tell her the truth. “Just a sore throat, but I figured better safe than sorry, these days.” His voice started to catch, but he turned it into a cough. “Have you heard about this virus?”
 
“It’s practically all I can think about,” said Sarah. In the background, Elliot could hear Noah tunelessly singing a song about brushing his teeth. “It reminds me of the stuff we used to talk about at Living Tree. You now, plagues, wars. End times.” Living Tree was what she had left behind in Bolivia, a communal farm run by a quasi-religious group of the same name. Though Living Tree purported to believe in harmony and radical equality, the reality turned out to be closer to an ascetic sort of doomsday cult, run by leaders who didn’t seem to have a problem with personal enrichment. Sarah had mostly looked after the children until she became disillusioned enough to return home. “Actually, I started a new rug last night.”
 
Making rag rugs was her particular outlet for anxiety. They used to make them on the farm—apparently to sell to tourists, though Elliot suspected it was really to keep the unhappy young people distracted with some kind of busywork.
 
“Perfect. I have a tiny strip of bare floor between the red one and the blue one.”
 
Sarah gave a little chuckle: a mere acknowledgement that laughter was called for. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
 
“I hope so,” he said. To let Sarah know about his exposure would be to commit it to the record, to confess his own mortality in a way he feared would destabilize them both. “Can I talk to Noah?”
 
“Yeah, here he is. Can you keep him going for a while? I need to drain this pasta.”
 
Elliot said hi to Noah and listened to his nephew’s meandering monologue about the things that mattered to him—the funny joke that a boy named Deshawn had told at daycare and an account of the goings-on of some cartoon fox on television. And even as he struggled to follow along, it occurred to Elliot that if he had to leave the world, there was nothing he would miss more than this: Noah’s lisped conversation, with Sarah’s loving annotations piping up in the background.

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