I open my eyes to a great big bursting blue sky. For a great long time that is all that I am aware of and I don't even know how long that is because I am even less aware of the clock. I feel as though I am suspended in mid air and this is all I care about, all I need to know. Small, fluffy cumulus clouds put in an occasional appearance, marching their way across the sky, all tendrils dancing and teasing until they dissapate into vapour. A mild breeze ruffles my shirt, bringing with it the scent of blueberries and I become aware of the soft bed of moss and lichens that shield me from the hard granite beneath. I look up and scan the meadow in which I lie: it marches down, all Canadian shield and wild flowers, rimmed by birches and maples. Towards the base of the meadow a falcon makes lazy circles in the afternoon sky and in the very far distance below I notice the sparkle of a large lake
I put my head back down but I do not want to sleep, do not want to forget this perfect day. More time passes.
The soft crunch of the grass and lichens heralds the approach of a person or a large animal. Feeling completely content and at ease I do not look up, do not stir from my repose. Soon the stir of air brings me a new scent, one of soap and freshly washed hair and ever so faintly of female sweat. Skirts tickle my cheek as a companion crouches down beside me.
"Babe, I brought you some blueberries," she says, softly touching my hair. As I push myself half-seated, she holds out a paper napkin. I think of blown glass as I admire the dark skins of each tiny and perfect fruit.
Taking three, I kiss her deeply in the mouth and we sit arm in arm as I finish the rest. "Thank you." I kiss her again and look into her eyes. I do not flinch; I feel no discomfort at the depth of this gaze, even though at this moment I do not even know her name. If I thought about it, I could remember how we came to be here, how we met and eventually planned this trip. But I feel no need, this moment--it's depth, it's detail and it's perfection--is all I need. Like I could count the strands of hair on her head, all the while noticing the interplay of colour--raven blackness mixed with deep caramel brown--and the glossiness and little imperfections in each. Spend the whole day tracing the folds and creases in her light summer dress as it drapes her softness. We lie arm in arm, sometimes gazing up at the sky, sometimes cuddling together face to face.
We get up and embrace, holding fast to one another, feeling the strength and warmth of each other's bodies.
She whispers in my ear. "Babe, I don't ever want to let go." From the corner of my eye I see the falcon dive down and I feel a twinge of fear, but quickly dismiss it.
I take her hand in mine and we walk down the gentle slope, crossing the mounds of granite. We follow a little trail through the trees listening to the birds. There is a crispness in the air as autumn creeps in. The hot August days have driven away all the bugs. We walk down and down as the trail steepens. I watch her step across the roots and rocks in her summer sandals but her strong legs handle it with ease.
Terry--bookish and effeminate. A grey, inoffensive man--that is my name. Terry for tough. A strong, volumptuous woman. It is also hers.
We are standing at the waters of a tiny lake set between the stony hills and crowded by the trees.
We sit on the stones and hold hands. Her eyes are blue like the sky and her brow is strangely light. Without self-consciousness, we remove our clothes and gingerly cross the rocks. The water is clear, despite the proximity of the forest. I wonder how I could deserve the intensity of this pleasure. And the thought burgeons into guilt--something unspeakable--is it hidden in the female flesh now stretched out before me? But the coolness of the water brings me back to the present and I gasp as it laps against my bare skin.
I watch as her arms cross rythmically back and forth just beneath the surface, her nipples inscribing small circles in response. She displays her breasts with complete trust, like a small child revelling in her nakedness. I allow my desire to wash over me, but there is no suffering--soon the fuel will be fanned into flame.
We swim the length and breadth of the tiny lake, taking in everything, at times allowing myself to be mesmerized by the gentle quaking of her ripe body, at others by the hypnotic intricacies of the moving water.
Once we leave the water, she ties her dress around her waist and begins to walk back to the meadow, with me close behind. We find a flat rock, cushioned by lichens and warmed by the sun. I stretch her out along this and explore her body head to toe until she comes in long, gasping sighs. Then we walk arm in arm out of the meadow, back through the forest and find our car, parked where we left it in a small field.
"Let's just keep driving and go," she says, straining against the wind noise and crunch of tire against gravel as the vehicle bounces along the rutted way. "Let's just go!" It sounds so cliche, and it is but it has such force in this moment. We'd driven back to the highway but not long after pushing deeper into the hills we passed another tiny road. She'd pointed, "There, that way!" and off we went.
"Let's go that way!" she cries again, this one no more than a track. "Faster!" though the suspension is already complaining, but we feel invincible. Several random turns like this later, the road seems to fade as we enter a clearing, but then a structure comes into view. I pull up beside it and ponder our next move. Have we just driven into someone's private residence? But before I can do or say anything, she jumps out of the car and runs out. I kill the engine and follow her.
"Look at this," she yells at me, for she has already explored the whole rickety thing. It is a simple wooden cabin--completely unoccupied and probably built for campers like us. "Come inside!" she says, her body silouheted by the open doorway. Crossing the threshold, I see an old woodstove, the centrepiece of the single room. Afternoon light streaming in through the paneless windows gives her face a ghostly shading. "Let's stay here tonight!"
I don't object, but make a note to check around the premises to make sure we are not trespassing or disturbing anyone. Stomping through the grounds, I find wood stacked for the stove, and an axe nearby but no signs of very recent activity. By the time I return, my girl has found herself an old chaise lounge, a cat reclining in bikini and shades. She appears extremely content.
As I sit down on the narrow front deck I feel a sudden sense of apprehension. Struggling through a wave of nausea, I choke, "How did you know about this place?"
She looks at me with concern. "Babe, I didn't know about this place at all! We just stumbled on it. I swear!"
I walk over and crouch down beside her. She sits up and kisses me. "And it's wonderful. It couldn't be more perfect!" There is no mistaking the joy on her face.
"Look, if you want to go, just take the car and leave," I say, throwing the keys on the table. She stares back at
me but says nothing, the pain etched deeply on her face.
"I'll expect you to be gone by the time I return." I walk out of the hotel room, my mind empty for the first time since we set out. Down the way there is a gas station where I purchase a pack of cigarettes and a chocolate bar.
Bootheels crunching on the gravel, my step is heavy. As I mount the first step to the door I feel the tension in my chest, my heart pounding heavily by the time my hand reaches the knob. The cheap handle is still unlocked--swinging the door inward, I see her still sitting where I left her. Only now there several articles lying on the beaten up wooden table.
"I rolled us a couple of joints," she states flatly. I pull up another straight-backed wooden chair. Without further comment, she places a blunt to her lips and lights it. Taking a deep draw and holding it, she passes it over. We continue like this in silence, pausing only to light the second one. It is strong stuff, more potent than any I've had in a long time and I know I'm in way over my head but continue anyway. Somewhere along through the second joint I feel something break inside me like the washing away of some megalithic dam.
For what feels like hours I just sit and stare. My thoughts slow. After a time I realize that I am staring at her. After some more time I realize that she is talking, revealing all the innermost workings and secrets of her brain. As knowledge gives rise to comprehension and comprehension to fascination I begin to inhale her words, long to feel as she feels. My own tawdry existence feels soiled and false in contrast to all her tiny, perfect triumphs and heartfelt, honest suffering.
With the new awareness of her soul comes a new awareness of her image. I notice the tiny exagerated curve of her lower lip, on a face so much more striking and expressive than my own regular features. The curve of her lips, the fullness of her hips (or is it the other way around?)--my need is overwhelming. Why had I not noticed before? Our lips meet and bodies touch and there is at once a great sense of need and completeness.
The bicycles rattle down the rutted track. At first I doubted these rusty old machines could carry us along these trails, let alone bear our weight, but Terry has proved me wrong. With her usual joie de vivre she grabbed one of them and for the last half hour we have been speeding through the woods. We ride hand in hand, the warmth of her hand, the scent of pine and
rush of the breeze tingling my senses. I am conscious of the green perfection of each needle on every tree, reaching to touch them with my other hand. When has life been so full?
After two hours of riding, we return spent to the cottage and collapse onto our air mattress. By the time I swim towards consciousness, the sun is low in the sky and she lies on top of me, arms wrapped around bare chest to bare chest, warmth of her breath mingling with my own.
We are driving along an isolated country road. The radio flickers in and out, sometimes we are humming or singing along sometimes just zoning out and watching the passing scenery or lost in our own thoughts. The setting sun swings around us, sometimes on our left, sometimes on our right and only rarely straight ahead, a brilliant pastel rendering.
"We'll have to stop for gas soon, hon." The needle is pointing directly at empty.
"We're in luck, it looks like there's a station up ahead."
About a kilometer-a-half away there is a crossing, the sign for the filling station peeking out behind the hills.
The smell of gasoline seeping into concrete and asphalt. I man the pumps while she walks off and smokes a cigarette. We are both drowsy.
She dumps a magazine, some popping candies onto the counter. I've got my wallet out.
"I'm out of cash," I say, pulling out my credit card.
"I'll get it babe."
The man at the counter takes the card and swipes it.
"No wait!" But it's too late. The receipt crackles through and he hands it for me to sign.
We walk outside. I look over to my companion. "Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost." She puts her arms around me and leans her head against my chest. We stand like this for a long time. I wish it was an eternity.
We are driving. The wind whistles in through the open window, toussling her hair and crinkling her dress. She rolls up the window and closes her eyes. With darkness has come a chill. It has also brought fog and my speed creeps down. I look over again and Terry is fast asleep.
There was a time when I lived on the street. Slept in whatever dive inn or flophouse that was cheap and would take me--when I had the cash.
"So you say you've got a plan?" I asked, trying to cover my amusement.
I looked over at the neighbouring tables. I had chosen a seat near the wall with a panorama. You never know when trouble might rear it's ugly face, if you'll pardon the cliche. There was no sign of the Angels tonight, just a couple of broken down Indians and some over-the-hill street-walkers.
Dill was trying to down his glass of cheap lager as fast as he could manage, but still found time to look over at John. "Yeah, I heard it from a couple of buddies that the security system is being updated. It'll be down for the whole day. We can take 'er easy. Set us up for all the
booze and chicks we'll ever need!" He chortles. It was not a pleasant sound.
"Well I'm game." I reply. This was a time when I would try anything. Dill nods. He wasn't much of a talker.
I'm not sure where I picked up these two guys, they are the sort of mates who just materialize. We continued drinking. I traced the uneven wood beneath my fingertips. I had been been a philosphy Master's student once. Best not to get too deep into it: anyone who's tried graduate school will know why I quit. For those who haven't, it probably isn't worth explaining.
Maybe everything in life is like that, but I began to see my advisors for what they really were: pretensious blowhards who's theories had little or no connection with reality, my department as a collosal waste of the
taxpayers' money. The only thing that philosophy will tell you is that life is meaningless and the more you
try to put words around it, the more meaningless it becomes.
Soon there would be plans to be drawn up, equipment to acquire and egos to be stoked, but for now, we just filled out the rest of the evening.
I walked into the bank, all swagger and false bravado, because thats all I knew. My companions were right behind me. I tried to mark all the clients and staff but John has already blown our cover. "All right everybody,
this is stick-up!"
I take over immediately. "Lets all just take this nice and slow." There was an elderly man in the corner by the slips. Dill and John had both drawn guns.
"Nobody try to be a fucking hero." There was an elderly woman. A young couple were standing by teller. A strong looking buck.
I turn my attention to the tellers, but the screens were already going down. So much for the security upgrade. The young man is walking intently toward us. There was a catch and he slipped, sprawling right beneath me. For a brief time he struggled, trying to regain his centre. I pulled a Glock from my pocket, acquired only two days prior, and placed it on his temple. He froze.
"I told you not to be a fucking hero, sport." I pulled the trigger. One. Two. Three times, then watched as the lifeblood drained through his mouth in a great, spreading stain of crimson.
We are fucked. My two accomplices were agape, looking at me in bewilderment. "OK, I say we take the girl. We can use her as hostage." I motioned her over. She hid her fear well.
"Fuck that," said John. "Look, you just killed a man. Now you're talking about adding kidnapping to the rap."
"Yeah, fuck that." Dill had become talkative. "I'm gettin' outta here. The cops are gonna be here any minute. You can keep the fucking gettaway car. Better to be about on foot." He turned tail and walked out, John at his heel.
"You won't try anything funny?" She nodded. I kept the gun by my side, trying to conceal it. I made her run to the parking garage, accessible through a series of walkways, but well away from the bank. I had planned
the getaway route through sideroads and back alleys and it was all I could do to keep it under control. I floored it every chance I got.
Somehow the cops didn't catch up to me. Hands still tight on the wheel, the gun in my right and driving a twisting country backroad, I asked for her name.
The fog is very thick and I'm having trouble seeing more than a few metres ahead. The wipers are on and we creep along at forty. A flicker of light in the corner of my eye and a police car materializes, passing me at high speed and cutting me off. There is a single blib of the
I hear a bullhorn, but I'm not sure what it's saying. I start to roll down the window. Several policemen have surrounded the vehicle with weapons drawn. A lone officer approaches, his face a mask of tension, arms braced behind a revolver.
"Get out of the car with your hands up!" he screams. Slowly I undo my belt, but do not move fast enough. He opens the door and hauls me out.
"Terry Townhouse, you are under arrest for armed robbery, kidnapping and first-degree murder."
I cannot make bail. The monotony of the open toileted, rock-hard bunked cell is interrupted by a minor commotion.
"This is quite improper..."
Flanked by two burly guards, with a solicitor and another guard in the background, my one-time lover stands before me.
"Please..." she intones. The guards remove to a respectful distance. She tries to force a smile. It would not matter. She is as radiant as ever.
"I don't really know how to say this," she begins. "Sometimes things just happen. Maybe it doesn't matter why but if they show us a new reality...
"I will always remember the times we had." She puts her hand through the bars, but I do not take it. It was the last we ever spoke.
Judgements are read, sentences passed out, an inexorable, clockwork machine. Sometimes I can force myself to look in Terry's direction. She looks down, never once making eye contact.
My walk on life's razor edge is now over, replaced by one of routine and conformity. But sometimes, when I stare out across the dusty gray of gravel and asphalt, over the razor wire, I think of blue skies and blueberries, crystal lakes and rolling Canadian shield,
Friday, October 24, 2008
The Book of Life
Beautiful words can be traded,
Noble deeds can enhance reputations,
But if people lack them,
Why should they be rejected?
I put my car into gear into gear and manoeuvred it onto the freeway. The sun was a baleful red eye in the middle of the noonday sky. Ordinarily I would take the bus into work, but today I was to be given a special interview which conveniently happened to be on the other end of town. Ten minutes of freeway driving, off the exit, ten more minutes through a suburban wasteland brought me to the required destination--a typical, non-descript government building. Sign in at the front desk, the guard gave me directions: fourth floor, room 427.
I gave my name to the receptionist and took a seat for my turn. What would they grill me on, I wondered. There were no magazines, so I worked on the details of the latest experiment in my head. In short order I was ushered in to a largish office--hmm.. surprisingly efficient. The woman behind the desk in front of me was your typical urban professional: mid-30's, shoulder length hair, conservative skirt suit, reasonable attractive but somewhat overdone. She introduced herself. First she handed me some papers, a fill-in-the blank answer sheet as used in multiple-choice tests in school and an HB pencil.
"I want you to answer the questions as honestly as possible. If you have any questions, please let me know."
It was a typical personality test like the ones employers use to ensure the honesty of potential employees. You know, the ones that look as easy as ever to fix. I tried to answer it as honestly as I could.
I handed the papers back to her. Next, she started to ask me some questions like it was a job interview or something.
"What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?"
I hated questions like that. You've done so many things in your life, how can you sort out the greatest of them at only a few seconds notice? Moreover, greatest by what standard. They also have the tendency to make you feel tremendously inadequate. Others might say, "Oh, I wrote a symphony, won a tennis tournament and published a novel." What did I have to offer?
So I stalled for time. "Umm... errr... I think I'll have to think about this one for a bit," I said.
"That's OK. There's no pressure." But there was. There was.
"Well, I guess I'll have to say finishing school," I managed.
"Yeah, you know, I did my four years and I got my degree. In physics no less. I mean heck, most of my friends couldn't even do physics in high school and here I was I got a whole degree in it. OK, so it was only a second-class degree, but at least I finished."
"So getting your degree was important to you?"
"Well, not really, but I'm glad I finished it."
"I see. So when you were at school, were you involved in any extra-curricular activities, such as athletics, volunteer organizations et cetera?"
"No, not that I can think of. Not unless you count hanging out with my friends at the pub." She gave a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "No, I always just tried to do my best in school, hand in my assignments on time."
There were a few more like these. Again I tried to answer as honestly as possible, but the woman across from me at this point just seemed to be going through the motions. I must confess I wasn’t really into either. The interview was concluded with that excessive politeness which often marks these occasions.
As I walked out into the lobby I glanced at my watch–3:30–damn, the interview was a lot shorter than I had expected. That meant I would have to go back to work. I again slid my car out of the lot and back on the freeway. I glanced up at the sun again. Lower in the sky, it looked even more red and baleful than it had earlier. It was a sign of things to come. This was not a premonition, it was a scientific fact. Researchers had determined through spectroscopic analysis and observations of the surface activity that it was about to go supernova. I had learned all the details at some point in my schooling, but they eluded me at this time. It was estimated that the Earth had all of between five and ten years left.
I worked at a biochemistry laboratory. Since I didn’t have the marks to get into graduate school, I had found work as a lab technician. I wouldn’t describe it as my dream job, but the work was easy and it paid well. Back at my computer I tried to decipher some data from an experiment. The results weren’t coming out quite right. Just then one of the assistant researchers, a fellow by the name of Steve, stopped by.
“How goes the battle, Joey?” he asked. “Do you almost have those results ready yet?”
“No, not yet. The data isn’t coming out. See here...” I grabbed a paper from my desk. “See this equation, I don’t think it’s right,” I said, pointing to it.
“Mmmm...” he said, looking over the notes scattered around my desk and the display on my computer terminal. “Let me see that.” He took the paper from me and perused it.
“Well, listen...” he continued. “You worry about the data analysis. Let the researchers worry about the theory and equations. But I want to see those results on my desk by the Monday after next, OK?”
“Sure, whatever you say,” I replied. “Though I should remind you that you are not my official boss–those result aren’t for you.”
“Hey, I am one of the researchers in this lab. As such I have seniority over you. So I want to see those results as soon as possible.”
“Sure, fine,” I said, a bit irate by this time. “As soon as I’m finished with them, I’ll show them to you.”
“You do that. So have great weekend–I’m calling it a day.” He gave me his best condescending slap and took off.
Yes, the joys of working at a government lab as a techie–the lowest of the low. I took another look at my data and my analysis. It wasn’t coming out: the results didn’t match the theory. I scanned through the work, searching for errors, but I just wasn’t into it, a feeling that was compounded by the fact that Steve had walked off with the paper containing the equations. I glanced at my watch. It was four thirty, Friday afternoon. There was an empty, dead feeling all through the laboratories and offices typical of Friday afternoons in government offices across the country. It was definitely time to go home.
I passed though the lounge and grabbed my coat. Louise, one of the techies from down the hall was cleaning up. We exchanged greetings. I stooped down to change from my lab shoes into my street shoes. As I did so, Louise grabbed one of the newspapers that lined the floor under the coat rack.
“Wait a minute,” I said, noticing one of the headlines. “Let me see that.” I took the paper from her. “Where does this come from?” I asked.
“Dr. Kenderson’s lab. He has a whole stack of old newspapers.”
“Thanks.” I walked out the door and down the hall to one of the other labs. Luckily, the door was still open. Even better, there was no one around. I poked around until I found it–there in the corner was a stack of old newspapers, all from around ten years ago. After scanning the headlines, I stuffed some of them into my bag along with the one I had taken from Louise.
At home, I had just finished washing the dishes after eating dinner. I pulled out the old newspapers and was all set to go through them when the phone rang.
[I had just started to brew some coffee and was sitting down to read the paper when the phone rang.]
"Hello?" I answered. It was my girlfriend, Carla.
"Oh, I'm good, I was wondering if you could come over tonight." Her voice was quiet, almost difficult to make out.
"Is everything alright?" I asked.
"No, I just thought it would be nice if you could come over, that's all." Now almost coyly, with much more spunk.
"See you soon."
I hung up the phone, and got dressed. I pulled out a bottle of wine from the liquor cabinet and drove over. When she answered the door, she was wearing only a white t-shirt which came down just above her waist and pair of tight sweat pants. Her shoulders were thrown back and her hip thrust sideways. She looked positively radiant. "Hey, come on in."
I was inside the door; she tugged her shirt up over her chest, for just the briefest flash of her bare breasts. She took the bottle from me, smiling, and said almost casually, "I'll get some glasses." We walked into the kitchen; she was swaying her hips in an exaggerated motion. She poured us both big glasses and drank hers down very quickly. I sipped mine a little slower. "So what's on your mind tonight?" she asked.
"Well, you know, football, just like always, " I answered. I hate football.
"I don't know about you," she began, "But I'm going to take a shower." She started quickly towards the bathroom. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this: it didn't seem very much in character. She stopped in the door and mooned me. This time I hurried to follow her. Now I was having trouble containing my excitement. By the time I got there, she was on the other side, with the door open just a crack. "I told you, I'm going to have a shower. You'll just have to wait 'til I come out."
"Well, um, maybe I could come in too?"
"Oh, well, OK." She pulled me in and started to unbuckle my pants.
OK, we'd had some good sex before, but never like this! It was twice more before we were done. Once in the shower and then again, all over the apartment! I wasn't sure I could keep up.
It was a Wednesday, a week and a half later, when I received an unusual call at work. It was Dr. Coleman, an old colleague of mine that I hadn't spoken to in a long time. He was now working at the Department of the Interior as an economist. We exchanged pleasantries for a bit, but he didn't seem to be into it.
"Listen, I think we should meet sometime, I have something important to discuss with you," he said gravely.
"Well, OK, maybe we could go for a beer this Friday?" It was just a thought.
"No, I don't want to socialize, not now." Thanks a lot, I thought. "You have a pass to the Library of Scientific Defense, don't you?"
"Yes, my work requires me to go there from time to time," I replied. What was he getting at? "But it's only for special projects. I don't think I could go in there just anytime."
"Can you meet with me in about a week’s time? Can you do that?" he asked.
"I suppose so. Where? What time?"
"I’ll call you back with the time and place." He hung up.
For one o’clock in the afternoon, the pub was crowded, the air thick with the cigarette smoke and chatter of early revelers. Six of us were sitting in a booth in a local bar enjoying our last beer of the longer than usual lunch. Carla was there sitting in the middle beside me even though she worked for a different department. Steve was sitting on the outside of the booth directly across from me while on the inside on my side was one of the summer students, a slight unassuming young man followed by Chandra, one of the secretaries and then our boss as we came around the table.
Carla was showing us an official-looking government letter she had recently received. “Yeah, they changed my number,” she was saying.
“So what’s your number now?” asked Steve. She rattled off a string of digits, which of course prompted the usual banal stream of conversation: “Oh, my number is…” or “What’s yours?”
Before it came to my turn, Carla piped up, “So what do the numbers mean?”
“The last four numbers is the date of your launch,” said Chandra.
“The date of launch determines which Ark you’re going on,” added Steve. “It should say somewhere in the letter.”
Now we went around figuring out which Ark each of us would be on. Chandra and the summer student were each going on the third one. Steve and Terry, our boss, were on the first. Carla would now also be on the first, which disappointed me, as I remember her telling me once that she was on the fourth, same as me.
The conversation moved on while I drifted off, lost in my own thoughts. At this point I was on my third beer, a new record for me on our semi-weekly lunch outings. I looked over at Carla. We started talking about inconsequential things and I put my arm around her. At some point Steve started getting in a heated discussion across the table with the summer student about some minor technical issue.
“Relax, Steve,” I piped in. “Jesus, sometimes your so full of yourself!”
“What did you just say?” He whipped around, glaring at me.
“You know, chill out. He’s still a student—he doesn’t have your knowledge or experience.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from creeping into my tone.
“He’s got at least as much experience as a lowly techie like you!”
“Oh cool it Steve,” said Terry, in his normally easy-going manner. “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” Uncharacteristicly this didn’t appease him at all. He began to shout:
“You think you know something? I’ll tell you something! Everybody on the second to fourth Arks are going exactly nowhere! Only the people who mean something—the people with special skills and accomplishments, the ones with PhD’s, are going on the first Ark.
“You want to know something else? They give you these drugs that give you incredible endurance. I’ve been fucking Carla every second day and let me tell something, it’s incredible. So don’t think you’re something special, whispering sweet nothings in her ear!
“So why don’t you take your fucking arm off her and acknowledge that you’re going exactly nowhere with her?”
There was an awkward silence. I sat dumbfounded, avoiding eye-contact.
“You heard me!” He stood up from the bench. Like an idiot I stood also.
“C’mon guys, relax.” I barely heard Terry’s words. “I know you’ve both had a bit to drink…”
I stared dumbly at the floor. “Jesus Steve, why are you such an asshole?”
Pow! I found myself sprawled across the tiles, before realizing he had struck me with his fist. We all remained motionless for a time while the reality of the past events sunk in. No one made a move to restrain him.
“Listen Joey, why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off?” Terry offered lamely.
I looked over at Carla. “Is that true?”
I was to meet my old colleague at the cafeteria in a government building midway between our two buildings. I shifted uncomfortably in the hard plastic bench as I waited for my old colleague. The business on Friday had been glossed over, as these things often are. Steve tried to stammer an apology but that was about it. I had not spoken to Carla since and was putting off calling her.
“Hi,” said someone, interrupting my reverie. It was Dr. Coleman looking very nervous and distracted. He had aged more than his years and lost a considerably amount of weight since I’d last seen him.
“Sit down,” I offered. “Long time no see.” But he seemed to have no time for pleasantries. His gaunt eyes stared directly into my own.
“I need you to research the Ark project,” he began.
“What’s there to research? It’s T-minus 1 378 432 seconds…” I said, citing the last figure I had heard on the radio this morning. He ignored me.
“I want you to find out as much as you can about the Ark project. I have a bunch of government white papers. I need you to check all of the back-references.” He passed me a thin stack of computer print-outs. “If you can, try to keep this to yourself.”
I stared back at him. He took a deep breath. “I hope you don’t mind doing this for me. I really appreciate your collaboration on this.”
“Yeah…” I concurred slowly. “No problem, I guess.”
“So we’ll meet again in two weeks? Same time, same place?”
The very next morning I complied with his request. I could tell anyone at work that I was just going to the library to photocopy some journal articles, which I was. For several hours I wondered through the deserted, musty-smelling stacks, pulling out and photo-copying huge tomes. But first I had had to get past security. My heart had been in my throat, thudding so violently I was sure it registered visibly. But my paranoia turned out to be unfounded when the guard barely glanced at my I.D. and then waved me on through. It didn’t take long to get what Dr. Coleman was driving at. I thought back to the newspaper article I had absconded at work, over a week ago now. “Two choices for Ark project,” the headline had read, over forty-five years ago. But I had set it aside and not looked at it since.
From the beginning there had been two projects considered. A single Ark could take approximately twenty-five percent of the population with a projected ninety-nine percent probability of survival. Or three more Arks could be built but with a projected probability of only eighty percent per Ark. These two options were not even kept all that secret, at least not initially. It now became brutally apparent which option had been chosen. I thought back to Steve’s comments back in the pub. Did he know?
I fidgeted on the edge of my living-room couch like a nervous school boy. There was no one else in the room save for the lifeless apparition of the television screen flickering before me. On the news tonight was an interview relating to the Ark project. The confident newsman with his slicked-back hair towered over the small man before him in the drab brown suit.
“Mr. Nowhit,” began the newsman. “Is it my understanding that according to you, the whole Ark project is a fabrication and that the government has been lying to the people?”
“Not the whole Ark project,” replied the man in his barely audible voice. “There is an Ark project, but instead of four Arks, the government has built only one. The fabrication is that everyone has a place in an Ark. In reality only about twenty percent of the population is going.”
“Can you explain why this might be?”
“I imagine it’s to prevent panic. But the question we should really be asking is why there is only one Ark to begin with.” He struggled to put his words together.
“Can you elaborate on that?” Ask an open question. Isn’t that what they teach you in journalism school?
“Initially there were two plans considered:” he began slowly, “all of the population could be taken in four arks, a project which would take almost 100% of the existing work force and was estimated to have an 80 percent probability of survival per ark. Or less than one quarter of the population could be taken in one ark, which would consume only 40% of the existing work force…”
“Don’t you think that makes sense?” interrupted the newsman. “This thing obviously wasn’t easy to build: better to make sure it’s done right, even if we have to leave some of the population behind.”
To this the man had no answer.
“So who gets to go on this alleged single ark?”
“There seem to be a number of different criteria. Primarily it seems to be an issue of merit: an advanced degree almost guaranties you a place. Also, some kind of accomplishment deemed to be of some significance such as an invention or starting up a business. Civic activity and other activities not related to work or academics also helps.”
“Again, this seems to be perfectly reasonable. Do we want take some bum off the street and put him into space, while accomplished statesmen and other leaders get left behind? These people have the task of re-starting our race. They’re like Adam and Eve!”
Again the man had no answer. The newsman changed the line of questioning. “Can you tell me what proof you have that this is true? That the government is lying to us?”
“Its very simple. All you need is a telescope. Any amateur astronomer with a powerful enough telescope or access to an observatory can see for themselves. The arks are in a geo-stationary orbit and are visible during daylight hours. If it’s a clear day and your telescope is good enough, you can clearly see that three of the arks are inflatable mock-ups.”
With that, the interview was cut short.
“That was Joseph Nowhit talking about the Ark project,” said the anchor-woman. “Mr. Nowhit is a…” she continued but I had already shut it off. Better not to hear her list my meager credentials. Dr. Coleman had both got me the interview spot on the local network and then with some persuading convinced me to actually attend.
I am sitting on a two-lane highway. Traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see in my direction of travel. I have long since grown impatient, and seeing that there is no traffic in the opposite direction (and likely to stay that way) I pull into the other lane and floor it. The engine wheezes as I coax the old clunker up to 140. I am almost at the launch site and rather than search for a place in the parking lot, I pull off the road doing sixty. The car slides sideways on the wet grass and I shut off the engine as it comes to a stop. I scramble from the vehicle and jog over to the terminal.
I’m not really sure what I hope to accomplish here. I join the line of pilgrims waiting to receive their seat on the shuttle. Perhaps I can sneak in. I look for a gap in the security. Do I even want to go? At the head of the line a woman is checking ID’s. After an eternity, my turn comes so much sooner than I had expected. “May I see your card?” asks the woman, who seems to recognize me. Lamely I pull it out and show it to her, hoping she won’t notice. She barely has to glance at it: she knows it’s not right. But she calls my bluff anyway and picks up her clip-board.
“I’m sorry sir. If you could just step over to the side here.” She motions with her hand. I notice several others fighting with security guards: a young mother with three children, a large, aggressive man in an ill-fitting suit. “I’ve got to get on there…” she cries. I slip away from this congested scene. “Sir, sir…” calls the woman checking ID’s, but I ignore her.
I walk swiftly through the terminal, dodging the myriad people milling about, lost, confused, wondering what to do. There is a large, open lobby, overhead of which a concourse passes. There are people waving, from both above and below, some smiling, some with tears in their eyes.
“Carla!” I call trying to be heard over the clamour.
I walk further down the lobby, trying to follow the concourse, hoping to resolve its ultimate termination at the doors of the shuttle that will ferry these people to their new home on the Ark.
“Carla!” I cry again and keep repeating until I am hoarse with the effort.
I search out the opposite concourse and repeat the same foolish exercise. Finally I leave the terminal and begin to pace about the tarmac. The crowds have dispersed—either back to where they have come or crowded into the shuttle—and the crews are now making the final preparations for launch. I walk around the terminal and somehow find myself standing right on the launch pad. The count-down has already begun. “T-minus 120 seconds,” blare the loudspeakers. “Please make your way onto the shuttle and clear the launch pad.” I stare dumbly up at the hulking mass that will accelerate 300 passengers over 1000 kilometers above the earth. For a time I just stand there, my mind frozen.
The final announcement shocks me out of my reverie. “Twenty seconds until launch! Starting ignition.” Only then do I realize the danger I am in. I run back towards the terminal and see there a figure. “Carla!” We run towards each other then head for some equipment near the wall and there crouch down, clutching each other, crying as the rocket exhaust whips up the wind around us, showering us with a fine mist.
As the roaring subsides, we emerge from our hiding place and stare up at the craft rapidly disappearing overhead. The chosen few, departed to find their new home in the stars. While we are still stuck here on this doomed planet. Walking back across the tarmac, past the terminal, across the parking lot with its abandoned vehicles now useless to their owners, it is a ghost town. The silence is enhanced by a dry wind blowing across the hills carrying with it the chill of autumn. It is not until we are both in the car and driving that one of us has the courage to break the silence.
“Why did you stay?”
“I met the head of the project. He took us on a tour of one of the shuttles and the prototype of the Ark. The guy thought he was Jesus!”
The hills are bathed in blood, city lights just beginning to wink at us in the distance. We have five more years, maybe ten at most. It is a Saturday evening and the pubs should still be open. It’s time to discover what the rest of this life has to offer.