Authors: Douglas Coupland
The Super-Valu was her empire. Today is the twenty-eighth - the day her daughter had foolishly predicted some kind of end. Karen.
Who is this child of mine? What did I ever do to deserve her? What did I ever do that led us to this, this collapse of the world?
Lois rifled through her memories of Karen's youth, but found no particular incident that might lead her to believe Karen was special - marked for a strange destiny.
Lois thought of Karen and the children who grew up so wild inside the forest. She remembered what the realtor had said when they bought the Rabbit Lane house in 1966. George had asked him if there were any community centers for the kids to go to. The Realtorlaughed and pointed to the forest. "That's all you need." Lois has no doubt that the children did filthy, vile things in there. Drugging. Fucking. Drinking.
She yawns and looks down at the frozen meat section. So cool and comforting. Her upper skull is tingly, and she remembers photographs of Elizabeth Taylor with a bald, scarred head after brain surgery. I
think I've had just about as much of this world as I'm able to take. I'm pooped. I'm sleepy. I just want to go home.
She lifts her legs and climbs up onto the meat. She breathes deeply; the plastic-wrapped beef cool on her cheeks. She closes her eyes and goes home.
Linus and Pam are filming on location a few miles up the mountain in a vast, stuccoed bunker resembling a cross between a medical/dental center and the compound of a South American drug lord. It is a neighborhood of houses built in the early nineties designed solely to maximize floor space and ignore the outer world save for a postcard city view out the front windows. The view dictated that the neighborhood be free of trees. Even at the best of times, a drive through its unpeopled streets lined with blank white boxes was spooky; on a glum day charged with blood, it is outright haunting.
The job of the day is a cop-and-buddy film involving guns and betrayal with just about all the actors turning into what Linus calls "lawn sprinklers" at the end. The shoot is going slowly, and the star, hung over from a holiday binge, is forgetting his lines, walking into walls, ad-libbing dumb sight gags, and causing continuity issues that take an hour apiece to clean up while Linus and Pam refit the star with blood charges, makeup, hair, and fresh shirts and pants. As the day wears on and the number of takes multiplies, the minds of workers on the set begin to wander and look out at the view of the city.
Pam walks around the living room, touching up the shooting victims who will spend most of their day lying in strange contortions on
the furniture and floor, pretending to be dead. She smiles and is a
good sport, but in the back of her mind she's thinking of Karen's broadcast last night. She came across as so . . . sugary gooey. NotKaren at all. Megan came across as an averageseeming teenager. Oh, if the audience knew the truth! And Lois came across as Belinda Q. Housewife.
Well, that's TV - that's what TV does.
After lunch, the crew and actors are all in better moods. While setting the mock-dead actors back into place, Linus says, "Pam - look out at the city, the fire." Pam looks out, and rising from somewhere in the city is a smoke plume, pointy at the bottom and rising into a slippery triangle like a mar/ipan tornado.
"Office building fire?"
The scene continues. The star, mistakenly thinking his enemies have been killed by the CIA, opens his front door calmly for perhaps the first time in his life, only to be assailed with machine-gun fire from which he escapes (of course). After this, he turns around to see blacksweatered armed thugs whom he promptly shoots dead in a series of quick takes. Only the star survives.
"You know, Linus, I wish movies could be filmed in sequence."
"Body number three needs spritzing."
Pam heads to body number three to freshen up the blood. "Wakey wakey, drug lord," Pam says, but the actor plays dead. Pam says, "Smart-ass," and returns to the edge of the scene and through a side window notes that there are now several plumes over the city. She nudges Linus: "Look."
The scenes requiring the bodies are finished. Pam helps them up and out of their mucky togs. "Hey smart-ass - the scene's over." Smart-ass doesn't move. "Oh God, you actors - do you
get enough attention? C'mon, Gareth, you have to prep for the next scene."
Gareth still doesn't move. Hands on hips, Pam looks out the window of the city now covered with a score of plumes - columns, holding up the sky. She shivers and gets on her knees. In her bones, she feels the truth: "Gareth? Gareth? Oh, shit. Dorrie? Get Dorrie!" Dorrie, the production assistant, comes over. "He's dead."
"What's that?" The director, Don, comes over.
"Call an ambulance.""Dead? Nobody
during a shoot."
"Don, how can you be a prick at a time like this?"
There's a ruckus out by the catering truck; one of the servers, a plump fortyish woman, has
been found dead at the feet of the lunch buffet table. Someone rushes in to say, "Sandra's dead. Call 911. Quick - who ate lunch here?"
A buzz passes through the workers:
"No. It can't be. Gareth's girlfriend made him a macrobiotic lunch. He never eats the catered stuff."
"You mean - well if it's
food poisoning . . . "
"Nine-one-one's gone dead. I can't get through to the States, either."
"Phones are all dead, Don."
Already actors and crew are evaporating from the set. Pam and Linus wipe the makeup and fake blood from Gareth. Outside, they can already see the city on fire, too many fires to count. They walk out onto the balcony. "Karen," Linus says.
"We should go home."
Inside the house, the director is screaming at those people still remaining. Don comes out onto the deck, glowers at Pam and Linus, looks at the city, and then screams at nobody in particular.
"Let's wash up," Pam says.
Yet in the end, Pam and Linus stay longer than the others. Duty. Linus says, "My parents are visiting family out in the Fraser Valley, an hour away at the best of times. Pam, take a look through these binoculars - there's no traffic moving anywhere."
Pam looks. "My parents," she says, gently lowering the binoculars. "They're down in Bellingham with Richard's parents - after-Christmas sales."
"At home. Wendy?"
"She's on double-shift at the hospital." They turn around and their eyes catch: fear.Gareth's body still rests on the floor as the sky darkens. A few of the crew members, unable to get anywhere in nightmare traffic and unable to think of anywhere else to go, return to the house. As a group, they wrap Gareth in a canvas tarpaulin and place him in a cool, animal-proof garden shed. And a few minutes later, as Linus and Pam pull out of the driveway in their car, the neighborhood's electricity fails and they drive down the hill under a soot gray sky.
passed the twenty-six-hour mark when her first sleeper arrived dead at the hospital just shortly into the lunch hour - a North Van housewife a neighbor had found sleeping on the steps outside her house, her Collie's leash in her hand, the dog whimpering. Wendy was examining this body when two more sleepers were brought through the door - an eight-year-old girl who had fallen asleep on a swing set and an elderly woman's husband who had fallen asleep on the passenger side of her car while driving to the pet food store. She thought he might have had a stroke.
And then the cord of normalcy snapped. Over the next several hours, Wendy helped catalog perhaps a hundred more sleepers, most of whom had been driven to the hospital by friends or family, owing to overtaxed ambulances. And for every body taken to the hospital there were hundreds if not thousands out there who didn't make it.
Later in the day, the radio broadcasted a plea saying that the hospitals were unable to process any further patients. Nothing was known about this new sickness, nor was any treatment available.
And now the hospital staff are confused and frightened beyond words, but they work on. Wendy reaches the thirty-four-hour mark and is dead on her feet and needs to sleep, yet at the same time she needs to go home - to check on Linus
- as well as to ... as well as to ...
Phones are out, cell phones, too.
What is happening is what
knows about. This also has something to do with Pam's and Hamilton's stereo dreams. The answer isn't at the hospital. The answer is back at Rabbit Lane.
Stepping over log booms of the dead, she is feeling almost as tired as the day's sleepers. She understands the sleepers and their completelack of fear as they go groggy and lie down wherever the need hits them. Wendy feels the same way, but she knows it's only sleep she needs at the moment, not death.
Linus had dropped her off at work yesterday, her own car being in the shop. She finds that the only transportation alternative available now is walking:
Taxis gone; don't know how to steal a car.
Walking will take a few hours, but she refuses to hitchhike - even out on Lonsdale all civil decency seems to have evaporated. In the dark, she walks up to the TransCanada highway, where cars are traveling at speeds she thought unimaginable. She spots two accidents - either sleepers or leadfoots - but no emergency vehicles attend the scene. Nobody seems to be slowing up, even for a juicy rubberneck, which strikes Wendy as most unusual human behavior. She considers this when, without warning, the Esso station by the Westview overpass explodes like a jet at an air show - bodies like ventriloquist dolls puked into the sky as though in a cartoon or an action-adventure film.
The traffic slows down and freezes, never to start again. 7s
everybody going home? Will home be safe? Or perhaps home is only familiar. What do they expect at the other end that will make them feel safe? What will make them strong?
Wendy walks over to the gas station, where seared bodies lie in the grass embankment just below: all six thoroughly dead, no survivors. Shards of a VW bus remain where the gas pumps once stood amid the husks of shotguns and rifles. What can Wendy do? She's so tired she can barely think, let alone act.
From the grass below the station, Wendy picks up a twenty-four-pack of M&Ms and decides to walk onward; nobody can be saved here. And what other choices does she have? Only the electricity, perversely, seems to be intact: streetlights and the storefronts light the looted Westview Mall. Sleeping and dead bodies lie crash-dummied across the asphalt, sprinkled with broken liquor bottles and shop-front glass. How many people are dead? How many people will die?
Why is this happening? Am I infected? Is Linus okay? Where was everybody and will they reach home safely?Wendy looks onto the Trans-Canada, where many people like her, stranded without cars, are walking dronishly down the freeway's margin, shuffling inside the glare of the headlights stalled behind them. A middle-aged man in a yellow raincoat is asleep under the overpass. A multicar pileup has plowed off the Mosquito Creek bridge and down into the ravine.
Wendy decides to walk overground, through quiet suburban streets, around the small commercial strip at Edgemont Village where the armed forces are guarding a Super-Valu. Even there she can see a dead soldier asleep in a Starbucks alcove.
In one of the smaller streets, she finds a ten-speed bike lying on its side for no discernible reason.
She looks around - nobody near - then takes it and pedals toward the dam, where she crosses
over and reaches home through the dark forest she knows by heart.
24 THE PAST
A BAD IDEA
Megan is keeled over a flower bed vomiting up the eel that writhes within her stomach; camouflaging her pregnancy is becoming increasingly difficult. In the flower bed's soil, she sees beer bottle caps and cigarette butts.
Skitter is no dream neighbor: shitty, oily car wrecks rust inside the garage; the lawn is a crab-grassed junkyard.
She feels her stomach giggle, as though the eel has left and a small bird is now fluttering inside her - this new piece of life. She wonders what personality her new child will have. Will it be condemned to loserdom with Skitter's DNA? Megan hasn't told Skitter about her pregnancy, nor does she feel likely to. Once she tells him, the child is
no longer just her own; she'll have to share it. She doesn't want this.
She was tempted to mention her pregnancy last week when the Americans were up taping the TV show, but pulled back.
The TV show: Megan can't believe how sucky she looked in it, but she thinks it was more good than bad. She's happy that she and Karen came across as pals rather than as a motherdaughter unit. And Megan's also happy that they only gave Lois a small amount of air-time.
Walking in through Skitter's basement door, she catches a reflection of herself in a scrap of mirror leaning against the wall. Last night her head looked fat, but Karen, so emaciated in real life, looked almost fashionably thin. So what they say about cameras adding ten pounds is true. More like twenty.
Back inside the kitchen, Megan finds a clean mug and makes instant coffee and turns on the radio to a local rock station, at which point she notices sirens in the background obscuring the music. She looks down at her arms in the watery midday light: She is stronger now. She eats only good food. She exercises. She no longer does drugs, and she feels ridiculous being in Skitter's house - as though she's been forced back into the seventh grade. Stupid of her to end up here. She can faintly hear Skitter and Jenny making it in the bedroom.
The first sip of coffee burns her tongue, and she idly kills time melting a few undissolved coffee nodules on top of the coffee. She reads biker magazines for a while and time vanishes. She needs to vomit and again heads out into the flower bed. There, after a dry wretch, she lifts her head and sees a pair of plaid-trousered legs protruding from behind a corner of the neighbor's house. She walks over to investigate. It is an older man - sixty? He seems to have had a heart attack. She rings the man's doorbell, but nobody answers, so she returns to Skitter's to phone an ambulance. The phone is dead.