Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Del Rey (June 2015)
Selected by Barbara Epler
“A startling debut novel, mixing a post-apocalyptic scenario with a coming-of-age story. Often sick-funny and deeply weird, but also moving.” —Barbara Epler
This is Laura van den Berg’s debut novel, completed over six years, after two successful and well-received collections of short stories. Find Me follows Joy, who is living in Boston, working a dead-end job and addicted to cough syrup. When the world is struck by a disease that starts with forgetfulness and ends with death, she is one of the few who are immune. Joy is quickly incarcerated in a hospital, but breaks out to go on a quest to find her birth mother, who may have survived the epidemic.
If there were no shoppers, I would slip into the bathroom and sip a little more Robitussin and when I came out, the light was soft and running down the walls like rainwater.
Things I saw in the homes that made me frightened of real drugs: a boy who collapsed in a field, blue from the neck up; a girl who frothed at the mouth like a wild dog; a girl who got stabbed in the shoulder during a buy; countless zombie shuffles. Still, I envied the empty-headed place they went to, where nothing mattered and nothing hurt. Cough syrup, those hits of dextromethorphan, seemed like a not unreasonable way to manage my life.
I had a case manager, but I kept skipping our appointments. At these appointments, we were supposed to be getting me signed up for emotional wellness classes and college prep at Bridgewater State, even though I did not want to do any of those things.
“How can we be expected to help those who will not help themselves?” I can hear my case manager saying. I was never able to explain that the help I needed was a different kind.
The Stop & Shop was never robbed while I was working there, but it happened one night, at three in the morning, when the cashier who was always trying to put plastic bags over my head was on shift. The robbers wore stockings over their faces and packed the money into black JanSport backpacks, the kind high-school students carry. They were very professional. They were out in under five minutes and it wasn’t until after they had disappeared into the night and the police had been called that the manager found this cashier collapsed in Paper & Plastics, a roll of paper towels clasped to his chest.
After that, people knew the Stop & Shop as the place where a cashier was killed in Paper & Plastics. A heart attack was the official cause of death, but we all knew fear was what got him.
On the way home from the Stop & Shop, the bus passed a construction site where a metal skeleton was rising slowly from the ground. A doctor’s office with a billboard ad for the flu shot: get the flu before it gets you! Laundry World, a laundromat with pool tables, and Beauty Island, which sold hair extensions called the Cinderella and body lotion with glitter inside. In East Somerville, we passed the evangelical church and a check-cashing service and a discount store for maternity clothes.
At my stop, I would see the same man holding a newspaper over his head, even when it wasn’t raining. At my address, I would see the same woman smoking on the fire escape in a Celtics T-shirt and sweatpants, even after the cold began to settle in. I felt both soothed and suffocated by these routines.
In winter, in Harvard Square, nets shaped like gold stars hung between buildings.
Once I got on the wrong bus. I was not awake and not asleep and when I looked out the window, I was in Kendall Square. The bus stopped. I got out. The sky was a bruise. I was unsure of the time. I stood outside the Microsoft building and watched a boy on a skateboard cut through a barren park. For a second, I had crazy ideas about going inside and demanding a job that had to do with computers, but instead I decided to cross the Longfellow Bridge.