It's probably no coincidence that peak fascination with apocalyptic epidemic hit alongside a period of peak superficiality—our obsession with appearance and celebrity, our narcissism, is maybe one reason we all sort of feel like we deserve to get wiped out by zombies or a massive plague. Thankfully Emily Schultz is here to take on both at once, along with stereotypes, patriarchy, and the media, in her Stephen King-approved new novel The Blondes—which we have the pleasure of being the first to excerpt. Like, enjoy. -the Ed
On the way to Moira's show I remember we walked past a big, sleek chain clothing store that had substituted the word wearing for troubling. Its display proclaimed: MAKE THE MOST OF WEARING TIMES. Every bank of pay phones seemed to have a row of posters for a TV special, its title simply Emergency. Men and women in uniforms, holding up cellphones and walkie-talkies, their mouths open, ran toward or sometimes away from explosions. Bodies littered the backgrounds. Flame fluffed like candy floss across the paper sky.
"Were these planned months ahead of time?" I asked. "I know they're not a response to the outbreak, but …"
Moira was matter-of-fact. "It's fall." She shrugged. "Everything's new."
I remember she was wearing heels and tight jeans, and with each step she clicked. The day was clear, the late afternoon sun turned bright.
She was right, of course. The television shows were making their debuts, and the ads were for fall and winter fashions though it was still sixty-five degrees outside. As we headed through Washington Square, we dodged a group of students who looked very much like they had just climbed off a bus from some small town, they were all so fresh-faced and starched. The girls wore knee-length plaid shorts and jean skirts, T-shirts that didn't look as though they'd been washed yet, tiny cardigans it wasn't cold enough for. They moved slowly, like tourists, then paused, deciding which way to go. A couple of them were wearing wigs. We passed someone in a jaunty hat like TV's Blossom would have worn, and another girl had a silk turban with a brooch. Hats and scarves seemed to be everywhere. I saw a girl wearing a flamingo-pink T-shirt that said, in black lettering, Blondes still have more fun.
Then I felt Moira's fingers wrapping my wrist.
Across the circle was a baby in a posh-kid mini-adult outfit. She was climbing on the rim of Washington Square fountain. A few feet away, near an overturned stroller, the mother stood with arms stretched out, not as if she were reaching for her child, but as if she were keeping the blonde toddler away. Two tourists loaded with backpacks had stopped nearby. Stupid and happy, the woman fed the man blue liquid from a water bottle. At the edge of the fountain, the pale toddler began to screech.
Moira was pulling me away, hard.
"She has it," Moira snapped. She jumped up and then over a concrete bench in spite of her high heels. I felt my stiff, injured knee jerk as she pulled me over it.
At a safe distance, we looked back. There was another high-pitched screech. The small blonde child had turned and run at the man with the backpack. We watched as little fingers clutched at his knees and teeth dug into the muscled white thigh below the hem of his shorts. The toddler's dress exposed a pull-up diaper. The man stumbled about, exclaiming in another language, attempting to grasp and dislodge her. His girlfriend dropped her sports drink; as the man bent and thrashed, the camera that had been around his neck smashed to the concrete.
"Nein, kinder, nein!" he yelled.
We both turned and ran out of the park, me galloping on my bad knee and Moira sprinting in her heels, her glockenspiel case clutched firmly across her chest.
When we slowed a block or so later, I begged for a rest, my chest heaving. But Moira said, "Let's just get to the club." She let the music case fall to her side, one fist wrapped around its handle. She brought her other hand up and used her delicate scarf to mop her brow.
"Your leg," she said then, pointing.
There was blood on my jeans. I must have torn a stitch.
I asked Moira if she'd seen attacks before, but she didn't answer. A cop car zoomed down the narrow side street past us, siren warbling, toward the park. It paused at the light, then surged on.
Moira acquiesced to my demand for rest, and then we continued on, but slowly.
"This is it," Moira said finally. We were standing at the base of a flight of stone steps outside what looked like a house. It had the sign we were looking for. "It's too early," Moira said. "I always arrive for shows too early. It's part of my process." She sank down on one of the steps. There were other people sitting on the stairs as well, two guys, one a few steps up from her and one a few steps down. One was smoking, the other reading a book. Moira asked the reader if he knew what time the bar opened. He shook his head. I thought it was funny, that she had asked the one who was engrossed in something rather than the one who was just sitting there. Then I realized the guy she'd asked was probably better looking.
We waited for half an hour. Moira pulled a compact from her purse and retouched her cover-up with a sponge. She closed the compact and said, "Damn." She was staring at the building across the street, but when I looked over at it, I couldn't see anything remarkable. It was a red-brick tenement. I looked back at her.
"Now I don't want to play," she said.
I asked her again if the attack in the park was the first she'd seen.
She shook her head.
I thought about the backpack man, his gnawed knee, and whether men could be asymptomatic carriers. One of the reports I'd read had seemed ambiguous on that point. I asked Moira what she thought.
She pushed her hair back. "The women. I saw a whole ward of them down south. They have them all in one room and they strap them down."
"I'm not. The sounds they make. They can tranquilize them, but—" She shuddered visibly, and the cords in her neck popped out. "My dad's an administrator at a private hospital. It's been pretty harrowing for him. That's why I was down there."
A group of politicians had walked through the hospital, legislators who wanted to see "the real face" of the disease, she said, an acid note in her usually calm voice.
She described a big room, with beds on either side, a post in the middle, and wicker chairs grouped around it, aiming toward the beds. "Like you're going to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with someone in that situation," she said. "Seriously, there was this grouping of chairs like you might find in a hotel lobby, and then there were these women tied down. These raging animal noises on the one hand," she said, "and then these chairs … I went only once, but I thought of those chairs when my dad told me about the politicians. I could just see them in their suits, sitting down and quietly observing, someone taking notes, some photographer snapping pictures."
The smoker on the stair below us gave us a look. He had long ago butted out, and now he got up and loped off.
The victims were mostly women of privilege, old-money wives and trust-fund students, Moira said. Their husbands or fathers cried in the hallways and signed forms for any test the doctors asked for.
"Didn't you worry about catching it?"
Moira tilted her curly head and threw her arms out as if daring me to look at her. "It isn't airborne," she said, staring unseeing at the building across the street again. "It's spread through saliva and blood. That's why they turn psychotic, like animals with rabies. If they go into a frenzy they're more likely to bite or scratch someone and the infection can jump to a new host. A lot of them self-destruct before they can spread it because they're just raging out, don't know what they're doing. A part of me thinks that's a good thing … and that makes me feel sick."
She said there was a code of secrecy among the rich. They called it "gone to the spa," rather than telling people their wives or daughters were in danger. I said I couldn't believe that. Moira just raised an eyebrow.
I said I didn't know a lot of wealthy people—that academics are just good at faking it. I asked her what happened to the women. Was it true that they eventually died?
"I don't know," she said, and she crossed her arms and put her head down on them in a way that told me not to ask any more about it.
Excerpted from The Blondes, by Emily Schultz. Published by St. Martin's Press in 2015 and now available in paperback.