When the sky turned black, I thought of my father.
But that makes no difference to you now. “Where were you when it happened?” you ask, and I say I was at work, in my cubicle, in the centre of the city. Which is not untrue. Hunched over my keyboard, the computers blinked off with a defeated drone, the lights flickered out, and the silence of a city cut from its power rose up from the ground. A quiet more unnerving than darkness, just like Moonman had whispered.
“How did you get out?” you ask, meaning methods, vehicles, escape routes. You want to hear about the path you assume I took west to the wide roads and stiff stalks of corn, whether I knew about the tunnels in advance, and so on, so you can amend your own plans of now-constant preparedness, mental networks fizzing as they rewire.
I don’t tell you that when the black clouds thundered across the sky I didn’t go anywhere, and my first thought was of the man least capable of protecting me from the end of the world.
I saw him the way he was, with a mug of red wine and a pack of Player’s Light, on the other side of the screen door that led out to our small backyard. He could sit out there for hours on summer evenings, smoke lingering around his head in varying densities like a dirty halo. He sat and smoked, looking out, facing elsewhere, while Mom dried the plates and glasses with a blue dishtowel and went upstairs to put Alice to bed.
I’d sometimes pretend he was out there on the step listening to a Jays’ game on the radio, unwinding after work like most dads did. I imagined that if I opened the squeaky screen door he’d shift over to make a spot for me and tell me that there were two out in the top of the fourth, with runners on first and third. We’d sit just listening for a while and, when the game began to drag he’d talk about stats and trades and the players he watched when he was my age, and near the bottom of the seventh, when the score was 11–2, he’d tell me to grab our gloves from the garage so we could throw the ball around until it was time for bed.
Instead though, on most nights after dinner, I was inside lying on the rug in front of the TV, and he was out there alone sitting quietly on the back step, wishing he were somewhere else.
I was ten when he came home on a Saturday afternoon with a used guitar. He ruffled my hair as he walked across the front porch, where I was colouring with Alice, and let the door bang shut behind him. His fingertips left trails on my scalp like swaths cut through a wheat field. I followed him inside and watched from the living-room doorway as he leaned the banged-up guitar case against the couch. He grabbed a glass from the cabinet in the dining room and whistled on his way into the kitchen, where he rummaged through a high cupboard, clinking bottles together until he found the one he was looking for. I’d never heard him whistle. He returned, the glass half-filled with a nectar like dark honey, and stopped when he saw me, his lips still pursed in melody.
“Hey, Simon” he said. “Wanna hear something, little man?”
I nodded and moved closer as he set his glass down on the coffee table with a clink. He pulled the case onto the couch, clacked open its locks, and lifted the lid to reveal a plush red interior cradling a scratched black guitar. He ran his fingers along its strings before pulling it out and nestling it into his torso. For a couple of minutes he tuned the instrument, his eyes closed, head cocked as though listening for some secret. And when he started to strum, a whole different man took the place of my father.
Something dropped to the floor in the upstairs bathroom, and a second later my mother was there on the stairs, her hair pulled back with a kerchief, yellow latex gloves on her hands glistening with water.
It was just before Christmas when he left his job at his uncle’s car dealership. My mother wore a hood of silence as she peeled carrots and potatoes over the sink, her dark hair hanging forward like a curtain so none of us could see her face.
“Maggie, you’re not even trying to understand,” my father said.
He leaned beside her against the counter, with his arms crossed tight over his broad chest, shaking his head and staring down at the tile he kept poking with his big toe. Mom peeled harder and faster until the carrot in her hand looked more like a weapon than a vegetable.
“Babe,” he said, “come on. You think it was easy for me to make this decision?”
As though he wasn’t there at all, she chopped up the potatoes and carrots, dumped them in a pot of water and set it on the stove. She grabbed plates and cutlery from the shelves and drawers, set the table for three, and opened the oven door to check on the meat.
“It’s pork,” she said, slamming it shut. “Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
She wiped her hands on a dishtowel, tossed it onto the counter, and didn’t say anything to Alice or me on her way through the living room and up the stairs.
“I’m really getting tired of this martyr shit!” my dad yelled to the ceiling on his way out back, the screen door clapping hard against its frame.
Alice and I sat like statues on the living-room floor in front of Wheel of Fortune. I thought that if we didn’t move, if we didn’t say anything, we might blend into the carpeting. I was relieved when Dad came back in a few minutes later and went upstairs.
“Big money! Big money!” Alice called out as she clapped her hands.
I elbowed her in the ribs: “Shh!”
The bedroom door opened and shut above us, and I heard the bass of their voices getting louder and louder until something slammed against the wall, rattling the trinkets in the china cabinet beside me.
Footsteps in the hallway above. Fast but not running, my mother came down the stairs, my father close behind.
“Maggie, wait,” he called to her. But she was already out the front door. Because I didn’t hear the creak of the porch steps, I knew she hadn’t gone far and imagined her leaning over the railing, which, in a way, was just as bad.
That spring I turned eleven and got a bike for my birthday. By then my father was writing music during the day and playing Bowie cover songs in bars a couple nights a week. My mother was working the overnight shift at the radio station, where she was a part-time producer. I’d heard her on the phone with someone not long before she started working nights, saying Alice and I wouldn’t even know she was gone, that she’d be around for bedtime and home in time to take us to school in the morning.
“My aunt is going to stay over the nights that both Chris and I are working,” she said into the receiver. “I don’t know, Fran. It’s going to be tough for a while, but I think it’s only temporary. I mean, my hours and his . . . situation.”
And then she laughed in that conspiratorial way mothers share while talking with one another about their husbands and children. A laugh, it seemed to me, that rarely involved joy.
I couldn’t tell her that she’d been wrong. It didn’t matter that she was home when we went to bed and when we got up for school in the morning—her nighttime absence echoed through the halls. We always knew when she was gone. I lost the feeling that children are supposed to have when they drift off to sleep: that knowledge that their parents, their mother, is in the house somewhere, her protective warmth flowing from room to room in the dark. Without it, I lay awake for hours listening to every creak, every rustle, and every snore that rose up from Great Aunt Audrey, who slipped into an impenetrable slumber on a chair in front of the television minutes after the front door was pulled shut and the key turned in the lock.
In search of a direct line to my mother I brought the old brown clock radio up from the basement one night, plugged it in by my bed, and tuned it to her station. I knew I wouldn’t hear her voice, but it didn’t matter. I could see her in the windowless studio I’d visited on a P.D. day, sitting at the control board pressing buttons, adjusting volumes, directing the show in silence. The studio felt as serious as an operating room and everything in it seemed very important, including my mother, without whom I believed the whole thing would fall apart.
I burrowed deep under the covers with the radio and slowly increased the volume.
“They know more than they’ll ever let on, while they ply us with television and hamburgers and the Super Bowl, pounding our brains into a doughy pulp. You can’t hear them, but they’re laughing. Right now. Laughing at us.”
The voice stopped. A man’s voice, almost whispering. I felt like I’d caught him in the middle of telling a secret. I waited a few seconds before reaching for the tuner, thinking maybe I had the wrong sta—
“Laughing!” he boomed, the radio tumbling from my hands and clunking to the floor. Aunt Audrey’s snore broke into fits before returning to its sinusoidal cadence. I picked up the radio and settled back under the blanket.
The voice was whispering again.
“Laughing. At us. And you can bet your last ounce of gold that they’ll be laughing harder as they watch us try to peeeeeeel our flabby bodies off the couch when it comes time to fight back.”
“To fight the new world order.”
“If, that is, we ever open our eyes to what is happening. To what—really—is happening.”
“I’m Moonman and this is The Age, on the Striker Radio Network.”
I crawled deeper under the covers where it was hardest to breathe and decided that when Moonman came back from commercial I’d focus on the silence between his words. It wasn’t hard to do. And I could swear, if I listened hard enough, that I heard my mother in that silence, that I could hear her breathing. She was always there in the soundlessness. Quiet on the board signalling to Moonman to break, quiet in the kitchen packing our lunches for school, quiet with Alice asleep in her arms through the crack of the bedroom door.
I tuned in to Moonman under my blankets every night she was gone. I listened to him talk about the Illuminati, about life in other galaxies, about Area 51 and what really happened in Roswell, New Mexico. I learned about the symbols of the new world order, the secret histories of world leaders, and the imminent “end of the world as we know it.” Moonman knew more than anyone I’d ever met, and every night I felt like he was sharing secrets of the universe with me alone.
If I wanted to, I could blame him for what happened. I could say he planted seeds of curiosity about the world at night, that he inspired me to explore the dark, that listening to him made me feel brave and independent and old enough to creep down the stairs past sleeping Aunt Audrey, into the garage and out onto the street with my bicycle.
But, really, I think it was rage that sparked it. Rage or insomnia, or just the plain white terror of being left alone in the dark. Or some of all three.
I rode off into the starless city night, pedalling hard and fast, weaving through neighbourhood streets, toward the main road. Darkness rustled the leaves high overhead and I was breathless with adrenaline and the metallic taste of the night air that in no way resembled that of the day. I knew where my dad was. He’d pointed it out to me one afternoon when he picked me up from school—the pub where he played his music.
I had to blink against the bright street lights when I turned onto the main road, standing up as I pedalled along the wide sidewalk, zipping past people out for a nighttime stroll or huddled in dark doorways smoking cigarettes.
“Hey—kid!” someone yelled. “Little late for a bike ride!”
I slowed down and rode close to the storefronts as I approached the pub, slipping into the shadows of the awnings that lined the way. I heard music. A man’s voice singing something familiar. “chris coates, tonight 9 p.m.,” written in pink chalk on a sandwich board outside. I hopped off my bike and leaned it against the window of the shop next door. When I was sure no one had seen me, I crouched down beside the planter box in front of the pub and slowly raised my head to peek into the window.
He was right there, sitting on a stool with his back to the street. His feet were perched on the lowest rung, his heels bouncing up and down, keeping time. A column of sweat soaked through his shirt along his spine. On the small stage floor beside him was a bottle of red wine and a half-empty glass, and everything was hued pink and green by the lights cast from the ceiling above him. My father strummed his guitar while he sang hard and loud into the microphone. Even through the glass I could hear that his guitar sounded brighter and more desperate than it ever had in our living room.
I looked past him into the pub where candles flickered like grimy stars on each table. A group of college kids were making their way to the pool table at the back, the girls stirring candy-coloured drinks with tiny straws. Two older men in plaid shirts drank beer and ate nuts at the bar while they watched hockey on televisions that were hung from the ceiling, and three young women sipped white wine and looked around the room instead of talking to each other. One couple sat facing my dad, a blond woman leaning back into the man she was with, a number of shot glasses and beer bottles scattered on the table beside them. The man seemed to be having a hard time keeping his head from bobbing around. The woman was staring at my father. When the man said something in her ear she swatted at his face with long fingers and didn’t take her eyes off the stage. I looked around for others listening the same way but, outside of a few people nodding their heads to the music now and then, no one else seemed to be paying much attention.
When he stopped playing, the blond woman was the first to clap. She sat up straight and pressed her elbows against either side of her chest. A few others turned to applaud as well, but none as vigorously as she did. I heard my dad say something about taking a break and I dropped down again as he slid off his stool.
I peeked one last time and saw him standing in front of the stage pouring more wine into his glass, talking to the woman who smiled with big white teeth and tossed her blond hair over her shoulder when she laughed. The man she’d been sitting with had fallen asleep with his chin on his chest and was being nudged, hard, by a chubby waitress as she cleared the empty bottles left on their table into a black dish tub. Dad walked in the direction of the bar, the woman chatting close beside him. He smiled at her in a way that was moist and young, a smile that bared too many teeth and a hunger I couldn’t recognize.
I rode home. Fast. The wind felt colder, like it was scratching my throat with long frigid fingernails. I was suddenly very tired and I wanted my bed. My radio. My blankets. My mother’s inaudible breaths in Moonman’s pauses. I stood on my pedals and pumped hard, turning from one street to the next in wide arcs. A block from my house, I took a corner too quickly.
I remember headlights. And that is all.
Nauseous in the aluminum lighting.
Thick throbbing in my ears.
Mom and Dad shadows cut out against a white ceiling. Alice’s singsong voice at the end of a long, warbling tunnel.
Can’t talk. Can’t move.
Nurses checking tubes and dials, stroking my forehead when they looked down from far up, into my eyes. In the light, a dull faraway inescapable pain.
Dad somewhere in the room with his guitar once. Or always.
Mom hovering in the quiet spaces between.
I left the hospital near the end of autumn. The surgeon came down to see me on my last day and ruffled my hair and told me to buy a lottery ticket on the way home. When my mother wheeled me through the front door I knew right away the house was not the same—a new emptiness in the hallway, the coat rack gone, the spider plant no longer trickling its spindly leaves from a stand by the stairs. I was lifted (“Careful! Careful, everyone, the scar on his back still hasn’t healed . . .”) to a hospital bed wrapped in Star Wars sheets, in the middle of the living room. The television that had been on a stand against the opposite wall was now perched on a stool by my bed between stacks of comic books and bouquets of helium balloons. The couches and chairs were now clustered in the dining room, the big table itself nowhere to be seen. New drapes had been hung on the window overlooking the porch and the street, silky sheaths that let the sunlight in while hiding me from curious neighbours, my experience of the outside world, in turn, reduced to dreamy, shimmery snatches of ordinary life.
There were pictures missing from the hallway. For days I stared at an edge of wallpaper that was lifting near the railing, trying to remember which one had been there.
A steady stream of assistants paraded through the door for a long time, nurses and therapists checking scars, lifting arms, bending legs, taking measurements. (“He’s progressing well, Mrs. Coates. Kids have a tendency to bounce back.”) I asked for a radio. Mom was always home now, but on wide-awake nights, when everyone was sleeping, I still listened to Moonman in the dark.
Since he was usually somewhere in the stream of nurses and therapists and caregivers, it took a while before I realized that my father didn’t live with us anymore. Huddled under a blanket on the porch one afternoon, still feeling achy and watery from an infection, I watched my parents standing by my dad’s car parked across the road. Mom stood with her arms crossed, looking past him far down the street. Dad fiddled with his keys. Mom said something and nodded a few times before walking back up to the house.
He opened the car door and was about to get in when he looked up at me. I pretended I couldn’t see him. Drugged, groggy, it wasn’t hard to stare out at nothing in the distance. My mother came up the steps and with the back of her soft hand touched my forehead, then my cheek, and kissed me before going inside, the door banging shut behind her.
“See ya in a bit, soldier,” my father called out.
“Oh,” I said, acting like I just realized he was there. I lifted my arm, held up my hand. “O.K.”
He slid into the driver’s seat, started the car, and unrolled his window. The radio was blaring. He flicked it off and lit a cigarette. For a moment he sat there in the puffs of grey, before driving off with his hand holding the door.
My mother married Stephen when I was fourteen. Their ceremony quiet, silvery, cozy with night. He was a gentle but faraway man, a serious look in his pale eyes behind the small round glasses he was always adjusting. His long thin black hair was tied in a ponytail that curled down his back, grey wisps framing his bony equine face. When he moved in, he brought heavy boxes filled with books, two lamps, a pair of jeans, and three black T-shirts. He bought a globe at a garage sale to show me how countries were drawn in the decades before the First World War. He touched my mother whenever he could.
One evening on the porch when he was writing notes, I asked him if what he talked about on the radio was true. Without looking up, he said he didn’t know what truth meant anymore. Sometimes I liked when he responded that way.
“I mean, are those things really happening?” I asked.
“Some of them already have,” he said, consulting one of the open books on the table beside him.
“But I mean, the really bad things, like the end-of-the-world kind of stuff.”
“It’s cyclical, Simon,” he said, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. His voice bent in the direction of his on-air delivery. “And it’s relative. There’s a rhythm and a plan. Most is beyond our control.”
“But I mean—”
“Simon,” he said, lowering his pencil and looking straight at me. “Are you asking if I believe there will be change, even significant change, in our lifetime?”
He held his breath and my gaze as though expecting some deeper understanding to reveal itself in my eyes, some realization I would come to that would prevent him from having to say what he really thought. But I was long accustomed to his pauses by now and thrilled to be his private audience for what felt like a particularly omniscient insight. I leaned forward, blinking.
After a moment, he released a lung full of sour air.
“Yes,” he said, returning to his books and jotting down a note. “I do.”
You call and tell me how you remember the salespeople and middle managers and secretaries and vice-vice-presidents chatting about weekend plans as they descended the windowless concrete silos of office building stairwells, cellphones in leather holsters, name tags swinging from lanyards around their necks. “All the sheep,” you say, but not without pity. You gave them a quick smile of reassurance because that’s all you could do as you and everyone else poured out to the sidewalk. The grid of city streets locked with idling cars, drivers leaning out of their windows, squinting at the horizon, nearly decapitated by cackling bicyclists whizzing past. Everyone with phones to their ears, looking east, then south, then west, then north, then at the useless phone in their hand as one network went down, then the next, then the next, and then all we had left were the people in front of us, people slowly being covered in ash and soot that fell from the sky like black snow.
It was so much like how Moonman said it would be. He’d warned us. He hoped we’d fight back in time enough to prevent it from happening, that we’d “wake up and see through the lies,” the attempts to tranquillize us. But his was only a voice in the night. And half the time, when you were tuned in, listening under the covers, it was impossible to tell if you were just dreaming.
On spring and summer weekends, Stephen rose early and drew a map of the garage sales in the neighbourhood that had been advertised by handmade signs taped to lampposts, charting the most efficient course from one to the next and home again. He rarely came home with anything. He said to me once that buried treasure was hard to find.
On winter weekends he sat in the worn wingback chair he had pushed to the living room window, flicking the newspaper from page to page, raging under his breath at our collective blindness in the hazy, dusty light.
Now he’s on an island with my mother. I think. I like to think. Somewhere where an evening sun glistens orange and gold off the sea as they sit watching it on a mat she wove from palms, her head on his shoulder. Alice in a tree house nearby yelling “Big money! Big money!” at an old TV set that washed up on shore.
My father went back to the car dealership to pay for the portions of my treatment the government wouldn’t cover, and moved into an apartment above a drugstore. He set up a bench press by the living room couch, his guitar in its case in the bedroom corner where it remained partially hidden by an Ikea wardrobe. When I went to visit him he’d chain my wheelchair to the bike post out front and carry me up the two long flights to his door, holding my chest close to his. He took each step slowly. We didn’t speak as he ascended, so the journey felt long. I once broke the silence by telling him he didn’t have to be so careful, that I wasn’t made of glass, but still he went slowly. Another time, during my Grade 12 exams, I was exhausted and let my head drop on his shoulder, nearly drifting off as we went up and up and up. I heard his heart beating faster, and sounds of broken breathing. When he sat me down on the plaid chair he said he was going to order a deluxe pizza and went over to the phone on the wall with tears in his eyes.
I’d like to think he’s on an island somewhere too, playing Bowie songs to a ragtag commune of tanned and shaggy octogenarians who listen and bob their heads as they sip hooch out of coconuts. But I can’t picture it, as much as I want to. He was the first person I thought about when the ash clouds rolled over and I realized what was happening, but I’m still not sure if it was because I wanted him to save me or if it was the other way around.
My producer Cal says the lines are already lit up. He says we’re on in two. I glance up at the old digital clock counting down on the wall of the studio then return to highlighting my notes and stacking them in three piles. Hour 1, Hour 2, Hour 3. All twelve lines on the phone are blinking in front of me.
Cal stands at the control board with his left hand on the fader, the fingers of his right hand counting down in silence.
Five. Four. Three.
The theme song comes up. It’s a song my father wrote a long time ago. It’s not even that good, but it’s been shared millions of times since I started playing it off the top of the show. I let it play for a while then click on my mic.
“It’s Wednesday,” I say, pausing as the music comes up again. “We’re all still here. For now.”
You tune in from all over to find out how to survive. You think I’ve got the answer. You say I’m the only voice you can really trust now, and you whisper it over the line as if I’m the only one who can hear you, as if the quiet dark around you isn’t rustling with perked-up ears. You think I’m genetically predisposed to outlive everything, so you buy my duplicate genes by the ounce and inject them into your veins, not even waiting for the zone nurse to come around and help. You press your radio to your ear to hear what I will say next and panic when the signal is lost. You know but do not care that as we rebuild our cities, our countries, our continent, I’ve built an empire on you.
You do not know that when the sky went black I went nowhere. That the elevators stopped working and I watched everyone cluster to the windows and then file toward the red exit sign leading to the stairwell, looking at me sympathetically as they passed. Someone will be up soon, they said, squeezing my shoulder. You do not know that I was alone in the dark when my phone rang, and it was my mother telling me in a low, quivering voice to go into the washroom and lock the door. She said she had Alice. She said don’t worry, just go. Then the network went down and that was that.
I don’t tell you that I didn’t make it out that day. I don’t say that I rolled my chair into the washroom and breathed in recycled air and drank toilet water in the dark for what felt like weeks. I don’t tell you that I was rescued by a man in a makeshift haz-mat suit who was pulling the office building apart for wires and copper and wood. I don’t tell you I was nearly dead. You don’t even know that I can’t walk. That is no way for a hero to be.
I’ve told you elaborately concocted tales that even I believe half the time. I run through them again in my mind before I say, “Let’s go to the phones.”
Cal says, “Chris is on Line 1.”
“Chris,” I say, “Welcome to The Seed.”
“Simon,” he says.
I don’t say anything. No one knows my real name.
“Simon,” he says. “It’s me.”
My finger hovers over the Drop button on the phone. I push it.