Wait it out
It had been three weeks since the last knock on the door... It was hard to tell how many days had passed since no light shone through the boarded up windows, but it had to have been close to three weeks.
His phone, the only accurate means of telling time he possessed, had been smashed to bits some time ago when the damn thing wouldn't stop ringing.
But it had to have been about three weeks since that last, forceful knock.
He had slept 21 separate times at least, though none of that sleep came easy.
He would run out of food soon, he knew, and after that?
He didn't like to think about it.
The girl at the IGA had looked at him oddly when he approached the checkout with three shopping carts full of nothing but Heinz Deep-Browned and a crazy, determined look in his eye.
But she didn't question him — just gave a condescending little smirk as she rang his beans through.
She was probably gone now.
Gone like all the others.
"Who's laughing now?" He thought to himself, forcing another spoonful of beans into his mouth and heaving the empty can into the growing pile in the corner.
But laughter wasn't easy to come by these days.
All told, he had been isolated from the terrors outside for close to three months. His beard grew thick and stained with the remnants of bean juice; his breath an awful mixture of lard and molasses.
He still had running water, but with no one around to impress or socialize with, he had long since given up bathing and brushing his teeth.
He would look at his new self in the mirror and smile.
He would think of his resourcefulness, and the family he hoped to one day see again.
He would think of his former coworkers.
He hoped they made it out before it began.
In the weeks leading up to his isolation he had heard hushed whispers and hurried conversations about what was to come.
Everyone seemed to know what was ahead but him.
The worry in their voices made him too afraid to ask for details, but whatever it was did not sound good.
He wouldn't let himself be caught off guard.
Not this time.
"You should have offered help, or a place to stay. You could have shared some of your beans," he would say aloud to himself from time to time.
"You fool! You did the right thing... they would only get in the way," he reassured himself.
And besides, the longer he could make his beans last, the better.
He often thought back to how it all started, and wondered if there was more he could have done.
Maybe he should have left Whistler altogether.
But he couldn't bring himself to do it.
"Just wait it out," he told himself, shaking cross-legged on the floor.
"It will all pass soon, and everything will go back to normal."
He spent a lot of time shaking cross-legged on the floor these days.
Thinking back to it now, he supposed that it all started with the bears.
The proud and vibrant species native to the Whistler valley had been everywhere that summer, picking through the trees and wandering through the village or the bike park on the hill.
Pictures of them exploring and frolicking had filled social media sites, and stories of their encounters were on everybody's lips.
And then, they were gone.
He should have known then.
Before long, the bustling activity of the village had been reduced to a quiet buzz.
Word of "empty beds" in the village's many hotels sent shivers down his spine, and the implications of what that meant assured him that he must act.
As the sunshine turned to rain and the leaves fell from the trees, he piled his beans into his apartment and set to work ensuring he would live to see another summer.
He would not let himself be taken, like those happy, smiling faces he had seen in the village every day.
When he moved to Whistler for work that spring he was excited, and full of hope for a new beginning.
The cost of living was high, sure, but he would make it work, somehow.
The thump at the boarded-up doorway forced him from his reminiscing.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Again and again and again.
Something was out there, and it was about to come in.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
Shaking now more than ever, he pulled himself to his feet.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
He could feel the insides of his stomach turning; three months of Heinz-Deep Browned threatened to come bubbling back up.
BOOM. BOOM. CRACK!
A ray of light broke through the newly exposed hole in the multi-sheeted plywood barricade he had erected, hitting him in the face and blinding him.
He clenched his fist tight around the handle of the butcher knife he kept close by night and day.
It seemed it had finally come for him, and one way or another this was all about to end.
He heard someone cry out in surprise and revulsion as he rushed the doorway, bearded and disgusting, knife raised high overhead.
He would not let himself be another victim of Dead Season.
INto the Blue
I still don't know who or what that first tap came from. Just that it was singular. A decisive rap on the top of my shoulder, out of nowhere.
I'd been at the office, trying to stay focused on the video promo we almost had in the can. I remember taking what I like to call a mini staycation, a breath of fresh air to recharge the batteries. I popped onto Facebook and read a few inane posts: Wendy informing us that she had a beautiful concoction of non-dairy yogurt (whatever that is), and wild blueberries with a drizzle of manuka honey for breakfast. Now off for a trail run; Tom reported his latest epiphany that peace is actually within us, right here, right now. Only our fears keep us from realizing this and living it every second.
I was honoured to be one of the first to know that Tom had reached a state of enlightenment so early in the week.
Having discovered that the virtual world was no more interesting than my contract, I got back to work for the final push. The last edits on the video took me less than an hour. I wrapped up my end-of-day emails while it was rendering, and fired it off to the client right at 4:30 p.m. I threw on my jacket and walked triumphantly to the elevators, pleased to get out of there at actual quitting time for a change.
The elevator was packed, and as I found a column of space to stand in, I noted that everybody was staring down at their smart phones. I followed suit. It's like a herd thing, a flocking instinct. You see people on their devices and suddenly you need to tap into that world. I'd recently heard a radio interview in which Douglas Coupland suggested that the Internet would almost certainly become sentient in the near future. It seemed a bit of a stretch, but as we plunged those 28 floors, I couldn't help wondering if our collective consciousness wasn't all out in some cloud rather than right here in this metal box.
As we passed the 15th floor, I raised my eyes from my device to come up for air. The bright red lights of the newsfeed scrolled across the black screen above the doors. Then, as the number 14 rolled over to 12, it hit me. A sharp blow to the top of my shoulder where it meets my neck. I glanced around, fight-or-flight adrenaline surging to unleash my inner wild animal.
But there was nothing. No reaction. Everyone was still staring at their phones. I rubbed my neck and looked around again. There was zero acknowledgment of the act. As I stepped out of the elevator, I shifted my computer bag to the opposite shoulder and walked, in a fog, to the transit station.
When I got home, I pulled my shirt off and there it was, a slight bruise forming on the top of my shoulder. Shelly asked me about it when we crawled into bed, and I said nonchalantly, "Oh, I don't know, I hadn't noticed it." It made me appear kind of tough, I thought. Meanwhile I was scouring my brain as to whether I knew anyone in that elevator.
The next day at work, my neck getting progressively stiffer, I went online and found an interesting little article about the latest psychology on social media. The desire to get those messages, it turns out, is wired into us. We get a shot of dopamine every time we connect with someone. The psychologist described it as a remnant of the hunter gatherer's proverbial tap on the shoulder, a signal either of danger, food or sex. So my constant desire to log in was totally natural. It had an evolutionary biological basis.
I wondered if I'd somehow internalized that psychology and imagined the whole thing. I reached back and touched my aching shoulder, then went to the office bathroom and pulled my shirt back to see if things had improved. The blue had spread all the way down my shoulder blade and was encroaching on my upper rib cage. Metaphors don't leave bruises, I told myself. I held on to the stall and took a few deep breaths before I made it back to my desk and booked out early.
The second knock was even stranger, a little embarrassing to tell you the truth. Shelly and I were in bed, just finished having sex, and were lazily sprawling, limbs intersecting here and there. I was just thinking how this was the time people used to light up a cigarette — no longer even an option in our non-smoking condo.
Shelly reached over and picked up her smart phone. I hated that she had to bring it into the bedroom. Then I remember thinking that they should have an app that shows a cigarette burning on your screen for just these post-coital moments — like the lighter flame app for rock concert ballads. I rolled over, propped myself up on one elbow and reached for a book. Then it happened, even harder than the first one. It felt like a swift karate shop to my left shoulder. The opposite one. I let out a yelp, losing whatever tough-guy stature I'd recently gained, and looked over at Shelly. She was deep inside her phone, scrolling through some nonsense or other. And even stranger, she hadn't noticed my cry of pain.
Shelley and I stayed home on Saturday night. That afternoon, the doctor had looked at me askance when I'd told him the source of my bruises was something of a mystery. I think he suspected I was a victim of spousal abuse. He gave me some high-octane cortisone healing cream that came with two paragraphs of warnings, and told me to take it easy, to seek help if I needed it.
I gingerly sat on the couch next to Shelly and we watched that Werner Herzog film, From One Second to the Next, about a young guy who texts while driving on an icy road and kills two rocket scientists. I kid you not. Such a tragedy. It felt like maybe there was some kind of message in it for me. Some sort of weird synchronicity.
I lay on my chest on the bed while Shelly gently rubbed the cream on. The way she didn't say anything, and the fact that she worked from my neck down my upper arms and all the way down to my lower back, I knew it was spreading. "It's blue like the sky," she finally said as she popped the lid back on the jar.
I had a weird animal dream that night. I was sitting on a park bench surrounded by all these urban wild animals: raccoons, skunks, squirrels, crows, even a bear in the distance. I'd turned completely blue except for my head and one hand that held my smart phone. The animals were all holding large letters, like they'd taken over the alphabet from us humans, and we would now communicate with these devices instead. They looked right through me as though I were a window on the sky.
Shelly helped me out of bed in the morning and into my clothes. I told her I'd be back shortly; there was something I needed to do. I left the condo and walked down Georgia Street toward the park. I knew that park bench from my dream, and I felt a deep urge to go to it, that I might figure something out there.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I sat on the bench and looked out over the water. There were a few ducks on the lagoon, a squirrel nipping out from the bushes, two crows inspecting the grass. None of them were holding letters from the alphabet, and I laughed at my crazy dream, at this whole ridiculous scenario. So I got a bruise that was spreading a little on my back. It would all be cleared up soon enough.
There was a lightness in my step as I headed back to Georgia to catch the bus home. I was about to step onto the crosswalk when some guy in a suit placed his hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked at him. Gotcha, I thought. He opened his mouth, about to speak, but then his phone rang with that pleasant jangle of guitar chords. He pulled it out of his pocket and held up his hand as if to say, just wait.
Yeah right. I laughed, still feeling that wonderful lightness as I stepped off the curb into a sudden field of blue.
Stephen Vogler is the author of Only in Whistler: Tales of a Mountain Town. He has written for CBC Radio's DNTO and Ideas programs. Stephen keeps his smart phone on a limited plan.
"Eat your greens," said the mother. "You've had nothing but junk all day." The girl frowned and pushed the vegetables around on her plate.
They made creamy pathways in the cheese sauce. "You are not leaving this table until they're gone, young lady." The girl put down her fork and crossed her arms. "I will die if I eat this broccoli." The boy sat, swinging his legs, smiling with his mouth shut, watching the match. He'd eaten his. And he liked it when his sister got in trouble. "Quit being overdramatic. You won't die, honey. No one's ever died from eating broccoli."
"Oh, yeah?" The girl shut her eyes and ate the broccoli, piece by piece, lips pulled back so they touched neither food nor fork. Her face twisted in pain and dropped her ear to one shoulder as she chewed. She swallowed every piece, gagging slightly on the last one.
"See?" said the mother. "I told you. That wasn't so bad now, was it?"
The girl didn't answer. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, went quietly to the couch, curled up under the afghan, and died.
From that day on, the boy knew he could get anything he wanted. "If I have to do my homework, I'll die," he'd tell his mother, and she'd write a note to his teacher. "I'll die if I can't have an ice cream cone," he'd say and she'd get him a large tiger-tiger in a waffle cone. "I will die right now if I can't ride in that fire truck," he'd say and she would have a chat with the fire chief and next thing you know the boy would be sitting in the passenger seat, looking out from under a red plastic fireman's hat, grinning and waving at all his envious friends.
For a long time, the mother gave the boy everything he wanted. She wasn't willing to take any chances. Not after losing the girl.
But like mourning and passion, the novelty of the boy's threats eventually wore off, and the mother could not bear how spoiled he'd become.
"Hey Mum! Mum! I'll die unless I can have my birthday party in Disneyland," he said one day. "With all the kids in my class. Plus a few from soccer."
Enough was enough.
"Quit using that 'I will die' stuff with me," she said. "You will not die. You're just manipulating me."
Neither one of them knew if this was true or not, but deep down the boy was scared that she would test it, so he gradually returned to his obedient ways, and she returned to not being such a pushover.
A few years later, the boy met a red-headed girl at art camp. It seemed like destiny. Their birthdays were two days apart and they had the same initials. They sat beside each other in Fabric Arts. They made paper mache flying pigs together. They sketched each other looking like Japanese manga characters.
On the second-last day of art camp, behind the pottery barn and 45 minutes past curfew, he told her she was the prettiest girl in the world, and she let him kiss her (mouth open, no tongue) and put his hand inside her shirt (on the outside of her training bra). They exchanged contact info and vowed to stay in touch — they swore they'd rendezvous before winter, even though they lived a three-hour bus ride apart.
"I feel like we can totally read each other's minds," said the boy. "It's like we have this connection."
"Oh my god, I know! It's like if I don't see you again, I'll die," said the girl.
The boy immediately raised his hand to her mouth and held it there, hard. Her head was pressed against the worn wooden slats of the pottery barn. "Don't you ever, ever, ever say that." Her eyes were wide with terror, her braces dug into the inside of her upper lip and her breath came in quick wet snorts through her nose. "Because you never know," he whispered. "And it's not worth the risk."
She tried to speak, but her voice felt like a warm vibration against his palm and he could not understand what she was trying to say. When he finally let go, the redhead ran back to her bunk and cried herself to sleep.
At breakfast and clean-up next morning he was like a puppy dog, not willing to leave the redhead's side. "I'm seeing you again, right? See? This is us seeing each other. So, you'll call me, right? Or should I call you first?"
"Freak," said the girl, then crumpled up the watercolour painting he'd given her and threw it into the lake.
The mother arrived just before noon to pick him up. Without saying goodbye to anyone, the boy threw his sleeping bag, backpack, art folder, a set of wind chimes and a raku-fired ceramic vase into the hatchback. The vase broke into three pieces when his easel landed on top of it.
"Who cares?" he said. "Let's just get out of here." Those were his last words for the entire drive.
When they got home, the mother made the boy a mug of hot chocolate and a grilled-cheese sandwich. He slumped on the table without touching either one. But he couldn't keep it inside for long, and eventually the boy raised his head off his forearms and told his mother all about the redhead, minus a few of the physical details about the part behind the pottery barn.
"But I think I blew it." "What do you mean?" That's when he started crying. And the tears fell like rain. "I was over-dramatic, Mum.
"And now she's gone. Forever."
"Hey, hey," said the mother, thinking back to her junior high school crush. She scratched the boy's back over his T-shirt to cheer him up. "It's puppy love. But listen. You'll get over her. No one's ever died of a broken heart."
She gasped and covered her mouth.
The boy sat up straight, wiped his tears on his sleeve, went quietly to the couch and curled up under the afghan.
Katherine Fawcett is a Pemberton-based writer whose book The Little Washer of Sorrows and Other Stories will be published this spring by Thistledown Press.