Ling Ma is author of the novel Severance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), which received the Kirkus Prize and the Young Lions Fiction Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018. Her work has appeared in Granta, Playboy, Vice, Ninth Letter, Chicago Reader, and other publications. She holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University and an A.B. from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago.
An excerpt from Severance:
Todd opened the Gowers’ front door. Okay, ready! he yelled.
We put on our face masks and rubber gloves. We went inside, carrying empty boxes and garbage bags.
The door opened up to a large foyer. The walls of the staircase were hung with family photos. The Gower clan included a mother and father, a son and an older daughter. The father balding and portly, the mother, a bleached blonde, tightly trim with a wan smile, her hands crossed in her lap, displaying a pert French manicure, the manicure of choice among porn actresses and Midwestern housewives.
How tragic, Genevieve pronounced.
Let’s go, ladies, Todd said. He loved to prod us and make us work.
The men hunted, and the women gathered. Each of us was assigned a division of sorts.
Janelle and Ashley worked Craft Services, gathering cooking supplies and shelf-stable products that the moths and pantry rodents hadn’t touched. Rachel worked Heath, accumulating prescription meds, bandages, aspirins, and skin care products. Genevieve worked Apparel, rifling through the closets for jackets and coats, but more often for quality linen tunics and silk blouses. I worked Entertainment, a broad category that included DVDs, books, magazines, board games, video games, and consoles.
Room by room, we amassed boxes. The boxes were placed out in the hallways for Bob to inspect, taking out or adding items as he saw fit. As the rooms emptied and the boxes filled, Adam and Todd and the other guys would take the inspected boxes outside to the supply vans.
For some reason, this process took hours.
Every time we stalked, this feeling would come over me, imperceptible at first. It is hard to describe because it is close to nothing. Gradually, the din of other people’s conversations or Todd’s heavy footsteps, his ugly, flat gait on the floorboards, would fall away. I would forget where I was or why I was there. I would get lost in the taking of inventory, with the categorizing and gathering, the packing of everything into space-efficient arrangements in the same boxes. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Vertigo. Halo 2. Seinfeld: The Complete Series. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Scrooged. Tales from the Hood. Blow-Up. Apocalypse Now. Waiting to Exhale. The Conversation. Sex and the City: The Complete Series. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Back to the Future. It was a trance. It was like burrowing underground, and the deeper I burrowed the warmer it became, and the more the nothing feeling subsumed me, snuffing out any worries and anxieties. It is the feeling I like best about working.
The only sound that would cut through this ebb and flow was Bob. In every house, he would take the muzzle of his firearm, a vintage M1 carbine semi-rifle, and run it along the walls as he walked. We would hear that scraping everywhere, in the floors above us, below us, and know where he had been. It left a mark, a black jagged line across fleur-de-lis wallpaper, sponge-painted designs, bare white walls. The scent of French vanilla drifted through the rooms. Occasionally, the scraping stopped, and we braced ourselves for the shot that would ring out. We never knew what he was shooting at: a bat trapped in an attic, a squirrel chasing leaves through the rain gutters, or nothing, nothing at all.
Finishing up in the entertainment room, I found my way upstairs to the study.
The shelves were almost all filled with children’s books. Only the top shelf held adult titles, vanity set pieces that gestured toward the cultured minds of the homeowners. In this case, it was a Shakespeare anthology, a Jane Austen anthology, the complete collected poems of Walt Whitman, and so on. They looked stiff, dusty, and barely opened. All except for the Bible, at the very end of the shelf.
Opening up the book, I saw, on the inside front cover, written in frilly teen cursive script, the name of its owner. Property of Paige Marie Gower.
My eyes closed, I opened the Daily Grace Bible to a random page and placed my finger on the text. I’d read whatever verse I touched.
And David said unto God, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.
It was then that I heard it, a quiet sound, like paper rustling. I put the book down. I stood up, slowly, and approached the windows, where the sound was coming from. As I approached, I spotted something beneath the curtains. A pair of socked feet, red polka dots on orange.
I drew the curtains back.