Life of the party
As Schubert approached the house, he was, oddly, jarred by its normalcy.
It was smack-dab in the middle of a perfectly quiet street, up a slight hill and around a couple of lazy curves from the highway, painted a modest earthy brown to almost camouflage it in its forested surroundings.
And strange things had been happening there.
As a renowned paranormal investigator, Schubert was shocked to receive a call at his Belgian office beckoning him to Whistler. In his 23 years communicating with disturbed spirits all over the world, the calls to North America typically caused his skin to crawl. He'd travelled to isolated estates in New England to free old mansions of their falsely accused witches, driven for hours down gravel roads on the prairies to cleanse farmhouses, and visited old plantations in the south to sort out the evils.
Yet here he was in an urban resort, only a few decades old. Sure, something untoward could have happened here, he thought, but that wickedness — in all likelihood — hasn't been lingering the way it had been in other locales.
Schubert ran through all of the grisly incidents in his head as he approached the front door. A young woman was snowed under by violent gusts of snow from the roof — she was so deep into the frozen, hardened snowpack it took a week to dig her out — while one young man had been turned inside-out by an overpowering hot-tub drain pump. A couple of others experienced near-misses with flying ski poles. The report he had received said they were still stuck in the wall.
He rang the bell and waited in the dark, quiet doorway for an answer, though it didn't stay that way for long. His silhouette was pressed against the door as light flooded behind him. Schubert spun around, shielding his eyes from radiant beams as an engine revved and gangster rap blared from the speakers. The wheels squealed and turned faster and faster in the icy driveway.
As the seconds stacked up, Schubert realized the car should have moved much more by that point — there was enough horsepower behind it to advance more than just a few inches. Training his gaze through the windshield from the landing, he slowly and cautiously tiptoed down the stairs. The revving got louder and smoke started rising from the engine, reacting to his proximity. With one loud, sharp whine the SUV caught on its front tires and the back end rose into the air, slowing as it reached about a 75-degree angle with the driveway. The front tires continued to spin away as the momentum carried the back end forward and Schubert dove into the stairs and crawled back up to the landing as the truck smashed onto its roof, sending shards of the windshield forward with a mighty smash.
The lights died and the tires rested. As Schubert got to his knees and stepped onto his right foot to stand up, he felt pricks in his feet. Retreating to a kneel, he peered at his soles — a plethora of glass shards protruded from them.
Schubert removed his shoes and cautiously approached the vehicle. As he peered in where the driver's side window used to be, sure enough, the parking brake was still in place.
'We've been expecting you'
"Mr. Schubert?" a voice whispered softly from behind him. "We've been expecting you."
Schubert looked up and saw a trembling woman, probably in her mid-40s. Behind her was a huddled group of a dozen of what he guessed, at least from their attire, must have been teens. Prolific family, must have had a few sets of quadruplets, he thought.
"You should come in," she said, gesturing to the open front door. "It's pretty messed up in there."
The gaggle slunk inside with Schubert leading the way. The woman, who identified herself as Lisa, brought Schubert into the kitchen.
"Thank you for coming," she murmured as if to avoid alerting the spirit to her presence. "We haven't been able to sleep since we moved in. At 2:13, every morning, the same song..."
"Skrillex," one of the younger voices piped up.
"What?" the adults said in unison.
"It's the same Skrillex song every morning," the voice bleated out of the herd, sheepishly.
"OK, fine, cool, that's not really our concern right now," Lisa snapped. "It's just nonsense anyway."
"Probably not, but we'll look into it," Schubert said, unsure of what a Skrillex was.
"OK, it's not just that. If we are able to fall asleep, we wake up with mouths full of beer — and there's always one of us with a ping-pong ball in our mouths, too," one of the crowd supplied.
"Oh, and every morning in our suite, we find empty beer cans with holes in place as though they've been shotgunned and little lines of baking soda on the kitchen counter," another offered. "Oh, and the cans are always Cariboo, and none of us drink anything less than Stella Artois."
"You're old enough to drink?" Schubert was incredulous. "And drink snobbily?"
The crowd nodded.
"We're all young professionals who just rent. Tom's a dental hygienist, Winnie's an interior designer, Jack's a bus driver."
"Fine, but if it's that bad, why don't you move someplace else?" Schubert asked.
"It's $1,500 for a one-bedroom!"
"It's a 10-minute walk to Garfs!"
"It came furnished with a waterbed!"
"But mainly, there's nowhere else to go. Well, except home. But the pow is better here than Blue Mountain."
"It's, ugh, summer in Brisbane."
"What's happening here is bad, but my kid sister is a real ghoul."
"Fine, fine!" Schubert interjected. "I'll see if I can communicate with it."
He raised his voice.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The cupboards began to shake and glasses and mugs rattled as dance music once again began to play.
"It's that song! That horrible song!" Lisa yelled.
On the countertop, some of the straight baking soda began to shift.
J-A-K-X-O-N, it read.
"Just random letters. I wish I could play that in Scrabble," Schubert muttered. "It's messing with us."
Lisa continued to stare at the white powder.
"Oh my God!" she exclaimed. "We bought the Swift house!"
"Jakxon Swift died here," she sighed. "We had heard it happened but no one knew exactly which house it was. That must be why it was such a deal. We couldn't go any higher than two million."
"And how did he die?"
"Alcohol poisoning, I believe."
"Oh. So there wasn't any violence? He wouldn't want revenge on anyone?"
"I wouldn't think so."
Schubert held his chin in his hand, the blaring music distracting him until it didn't. He looked around the kitchen, spotting some garish gold shapes.
"These tacky decorations aren't yours, are they?" he asked Lisa.
"No, they came with the place. We hadn't had the energy to take them down."
"I think I know what this was and what his unfinished business was. And it'll be good business for you, too."
He looked to the group of alleged non-teenagers.
"She'll make enough to buy you out of your leases and you'll probably have enough to rent other places. That'll be fine. Now, Lisa, just list your house on a short-term rental website. It looks nice. Charge $3,000 a night. Just call it a killer party house."
Just then, the music went wild.
"I think the bass just dropped," the bus driver said. "I think that means he's happy to party forever."
Haunted housing crisis
Braden Dupuis and Brandon Barrett
Trenton's piercing shout echoed into the small, overcrowded room, rousing four bodies from various states of unconsciousness.
"You boys ready to party or what?"
Noah rolled over on his top-bunk, squinting first at his alarm clock — 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. Beautiful — and then into Trenton's bloodshot eyes.
"You know some of us have to work in the morning, right?" he sputtered.
Trenton was unfazed — he cursed in that charming way of his and laughed, taking a fat swallow from his ever-present mickey of Fireball.
"You don't wanna make me drink with the flies, do you?"
Even completely sober, Noah felt sick. He had been living in Whistler for four years before he was evicted two months back. The owner of his long-time rental suite decided to rent the house on Airbnb, and that was it — Noah and four others were on the street.
Four years of working hard, contributing to the community, and now he might be forced to leave due to an embarrassingly tight housing market.
But in a stroke of luck — if you could even call it that — Noah eventually landed one half of a bunk bed in a room shared by five dudes.
All it cost him was $700 a month, his dignity, privacy and sanity.
His four previous roommates weren't so lucky, leaving town one by one until Noah was the only one left.
"Can't you take a night off?" Noah asked Trenton, already fearing the answer that awaited him.
"I would if your mom wasn't such a piece of piss!" Trenton replied, before clumsily scaling the bunk bed to engage Noah directly.
"Every night," Noah thought to himself, as the two wrestled stupidly on the top bunk.
The commotion was cut off by a sound from the closet.
Not terribly loud, but enough to make all five roommates pause — almost like a heavy sigh piercing the air of a deep winter's night.
"What in the bloody hell was that?" Noah asked, pushing Trenton to the floor with a thud.
"Too easy," Trenton answered, before ambling to his feet and stumbling to the closet doors to wrest them open.
But inside there was nothing — just some yet-to-be-recycled empties and a lonely calendar pinned to the wall.
"See?" Trenton laughed. "What are you pussies so afraid of?"
Noah could only close his eyes, wondering what he'd done to deserve all of this.
Alexander looked at the calendar and gave a heavy sigh.
Halloween was fast approaching — a time of year he used to cherish.
But this year was different. He just couldn't get up for it.
He looked around his tiny closet in despair. "Is this all I'm worth?" he asked himself, listening to the drunken louts arguing on the other side of his door.
It had been five decades since Alexander died. An ill-fated run on a makeshift Saskatchewan ski hill ended his earthly life (a fact he took much ribbing for from the "true" Whistler locals), and some decades later he made the move out west.
Lots of good places to haunt back then, he recalled — room enough for ghosts of all translucent forms: families, singles, hell, even the transients were haunting comfortably back then.
But something changed. The market got tight. People got greedy. Nobody wanted to commit to a long-term ghost anymore. It just didn't make sense.
The arrival of Scarebnb didn't help. A good haunting was now just a few clicks away, and much more economical than having a traditional, live-in ghost.
Why buy the dead cow when you get its silky ghost milk for free?
Everyone was feeling the pinch: Bloody William and Ol' Naked Frank were currently haunting someone's truck; Headless Bob was terrorizing the local hostel.
Last Alexander had heard, Morbid Mandy was building a squat outside of municipal boundaries so she could haunt in peace.
Alexander was depressed. Deep in his hollow heart he knew he should be haunting the little shits outside his closet — flickering the lights, making the walls bleed, giving them inexplicable diarrhea — but he just couldn't find the energy these days.
He wanted to haunt a nice family with a dog, or maybe a cozy, affordable one-bedroom suite with a nice young couple.
But those days were gone.
Alexander knew (from conversations overheard through his ghostly privileges) that the still-alive owner of his current home would be cashing out in a matter of days, taking advantage of the red-hot real estate market and, in turn, putting an entire house full of tenants out on the street.
Alex looked at the calendar again, noting the dwindling boxes leading up to Halloween.
For the first time in his ghostly life, Alexander would not have a home to haunt on the most sacred of ghostly days.
Homeless and haunted
Alexander had been haunting Whistler homes for more than 20 years.
His was the typical Whistler ghost story — come for a season, stay for several lifetimes.
But now, for the first time in two decades, Alexander was forced to consider leaving Whistler altogether — maybe head to the Interior, where he'd heard good things about haunting availability.
"But do I really want to haunt Fernie?" Alexander asked himself. "Who is there to scare in Nelson?"
Alexander was officially a homeless ghost.
No streetlights to light the way, the neighbourhood streets were dark as ever.
But the darkness was most notable for all the empty homes, Alexander realized.
"How many homeless ghosts could haunt that mansion?" He thought to himself as he floated by a particularly extravagant home. He pictured Headless Bob rising slowly out of the mist of the in-ground pool, head tucked neatly under his arm, and laughed to himself at the imagined screams of pampered weekend warriors.
He pictured Bloody William doing his knife-tossing routine, which always gave the effect that the knives were floating rather than being juggled, and Ol' Naked Frank doing his trademark helicopter from hell.
He smiled sadly to himself.
"It's all gone now," he thought. "It's over. The Christians have won."
The housing talk had dominated discussion on Ghostbook for weeks. Every ghost and their dead dog was looking for a place to haunt to no avail.
It made Alexander sick to his transparent stomach, or at least it would have, if he still kept and maintained human organs.
The Council of Whistler Ghosts promised action; said they had it all under control.
"Housing ghosts is a key priority," they promised. "Haunting is a deceased human's right."
Alexander wanted to believe them, to trust that the problem would be fixed before it was too late.
The council promised solutions within a few months, but fat lot of ghostly good that did Alexander. By the time the council studied the problem, made its recommendations and eventually solved the damn thing, Alex's ghost bones would be frozen stiff and he'd be buried under 15 feet of snow.
Well, not really. Ghosts can't freeze, or be buried. But you get the point.
All at once, Alex decided he had had enough.
After two decades investing his hate and fear into Whistler, after thousands of nights spent scaring the living shit out of the people who needed it the most, he would walk away.
"If this town doesn't want me, then to heaven with it," he spat.
"Let them sort out their own method of soiling everyone's pants."
And with that, he was gone — just another used-up Whistler ghost, off to haunt another town.
While on an abortive attempt to buy a $16 loaf of rye bread, Mary discovered the grocery store had finally run out of almost everything because of the hoarding. She came home with three boxes of macaroni that she bought on the street, bewildered by the speed of this new normal.
She sank into a chair as Stan got started on dinner. She pondered.
Firstly, the meadows disappeared.
With the loss of flower-rich habitats, you'd have thought people would be upset.
But it had happened so slowly that only your granny and a few progressives were talking about it.
And if the rest of humanity could not actively get behind the necessary action to save grasslands and non-industrial fields, they could hardly be expected to understand the significance of billions of dying honeybees.
In the beginning, Mary could be filed under "the rest of humanity."
Then Greenpeace leaked secret research by pharmaceutical companies that showed their neonicotinoid insecticides were not just killing aphids and potato bugs. Bees were also insects, apparently. Regional governments started imposing restrictions and bans.
She chose to trust that they'd fix the situation.
Scientists then belatedly discovered that invasive plants and carnivorous insects piled on the weakened bee colonies, too, perfectly in keeping with the general predatory mood of the era. Not even northward-bound killer bees were immune.
Mary thought that was interesting and a little scary.
The past tense was coming.
Full colony collapse
Seven types of bees native to Hawaii were for the first time added to the U.S. federal list of endangered and threatened species by the end of September 2016.
Mary woke up. She googled current extinction predictions, learned what anthropocene meant, and began to think things were getting less interesting and scarier all the time.
In the spring of 2017, a disease hit the remaining bees on a worldwide scale, just in time for flowering plants.
Bees. Had. Been.
The past tense had arrived.
Full colony collapse.
The alternative press was on it immediately; social media said drought in the States and Canada would not be the only source of massive famine in North America. Grandmothers wrung their hands metaphorically on Facebook. Plants remained unpollinated. Flowers did not bud.
Protests grew and food became scarce.
About five minutes after he'd sent in the army, President Donald J. Trump called the protestors "communist bastards". Casualties could have been higher, he said. Fox called the co-ordinated operation a success. CNN sent in Anderson Cooper. The New York Times came out against the action and was taken to court.
After the president had made his infamous inauguration speech, Mexico refused to sell to America any more produce. And Canada could not; there was hardly any produce to be had.
Meanwhile, Mary and Stan ate ham and a handful of cooked pasta, improvising was also the new normal. As she flicked from channel to channel, Mary absentmindedly swatted at a fly that had landed on her forearm, she flicked it off and thought no more about it.
Trump was on every network, talking about Harvard's robo bees — a plan that had been initiated by an Obama taskforce before the former president was thrown into Terre Haute Prison to await execution.
'Knock your socks off'
Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences had been hard at it, creating thousands upon thousands of tiny flying nano-robots. The scientists showed pictures, they looked like they came out of a Happy Meal or Kinder Egg, with metal, lights, little sticky legs. Mary thought of drones, the kind you take photos with, kill terrorists with.
"They are the best bees. Better bees than the nature bees before," the president told the press conference.
And as his communications chief Ann Coulter winced, he continued.
"This artificial intelligence stuff will knock your socks off, believe me."
A White House hack finally piped up: "Mr. President, you're putting AI in small, flying robots? Are tests being run as to their potential impact on the eco-system?"
Trump looked up from his smart phone.
"For sure. The auto-mouse swarm was sent out on Tuesday."
Trump looked at Coulter and, covering the mic with his hand, said: "Right, I wasn't supposed to say that."
Coulter smiled without showing her teeth.
Uncovering the mic, the president added: "But it's OK, folks! Along with pollinating our food plants, the bees have these extra applications, including search-and-rescue operations, environmental monitoring stuff, distributing sensors to trace things. Great value. It's all the best stuff. Believe me!"
He left the stage, taking no questions.
"What the hell is an auto-mouse swarm?" Mary asked Stan.
He didn't respond, his brows furrowed.
Back in the studio, Wolf Blitzer was wondering the same thing. The pundits were a-flutter and Mary turned off the TV.
She was tired. She'd taken on extra shifts in order to cover the price of food. It was lucky they'd never had kids.
"What are we going to do?" she asked.
There was a movement in her peripheral vision, and she turned as Stan slumped to the floor.
"Baby!" Mary cried as she rushed to him, but Stan was unresponsive, eyes glazed and drool oozing from the side of his mouth.
She checked him over, loosening his collar, his forehead was clammy and his hands were cold.
"Stan!" Mary threw herself over him and wept.
Moments passed and, sickened, she lifted her head to see if there was a man to be rescued. There was not.
As she looked into Stan's dead face, a flash on his neckline caught her attention. The bee was still moving, no, not a bee — it was rubbing together its metal legs. In place of where the pollen would normally be carried was the tiniest sac filled with God knows what.
Mary swatted it hard and jumped back, another one was on the back of her hand.
She waved it around but it wouldn't budge, and when its venom entered her bloodstream she hardly felt it.
But her heart rate started to gallop. She stood then fell, just like Stan.
Oh, autonomous swarm, they can think for themselves, Mary thought, as her eyes closed for good.